Captain Marvel, In Review

captain marvel

Women are too emotional to be good leaders.

Surely you’ve heard this statement before—or, more likely, you’ve heard other statements or seen other behavior that is less blatant but still stupidly sexist. It’s a misconception that’s played with in the latest installation of the Marvel Universe saga—Captain Marvel, staring Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jude Law, and a cat (four cats, actually) named Goose.

From a classic film studies/film critiquing perspective, Captain Marvel is mediocre. Uneven or lacking characterization, visuals that rely too much on CGI to be compelling, a storyline chocked full of plot holes and vague themes. But to be honest, these critiques could be applied to most of the Marvel Universe films. In fact, it has almost become a staple ingredient of their formula—an in-joke of what the strong of MU movies are. They revel in their seeming flaws. They allow themselves space to have fun, to be for the present rather than worrying about posterity.

And, the quality of a MU movie can’t be decided by an individual film alone. Rather, more important than individual characterization or plot arc is taking into consideration the system of films as a whole. Each MU film is judged by how it fits with the other films in the network of MU films, and how it fits with (or complicates) its current cultural context. It relies on references, cultural symbols the target audience will understand. These films are Events, first and foremost. They can’t be judged in quite the same way as an indie film that premiers at Sundance.

Under these qualifications, Captain Marvel soars. You can’t separate it from its context as an event—it is a teaser for what we’re all waiting for, Avengers: Endgame, the afterword to Thanos’s gut-wrenching upset victory. We’re waiting for the good guys to win again. We’re waiting for reasons to root for the good in the face of so much chaos and hate.

Captain Marvel gives us the crumb that whets our appetite. Like the serials of yore that used to play in movie theaters in weekly installments—Flash Gordon, Tarzan the Fearless, Dick Tracy, etc.—Captain Marvel is the next link in the chain, establishing a context for the next installment of the series.

Plus, it plays with the erroneous, but culturally invasive, idea that women are too emotional to be good leaders.

Jude Law’s character Yon-Rogg and the being known as the Supreme Intelligence continually admonish Carol, Captain Marvel, to control her emotions. Emotions are discounted as weaknesses, ways for your opponent to take advantage of you. In the context of nostalgia that MC and Disney movies foster, of course such suppression of emotions isn’t encouraged by the film itself. By the end (spoiler alert, though you could probably see this coming from the moment the issue is raised), Carol learns to use her emotions rather than suppress them. They become her greatest source of power.

The movie is overly self-aware of its feminist themes, and at times seems apologetic for having the first female lead in a MU movie. Still, I think such self-awareness is better than the alternative—framing Captain Marvel through the pesky lens of “the male gaze.” Captain Marvel does its job. It links the gap between Ant-Man and the Wasp and Avengers: Endgame. It builds suspense for the coming Event. It apologizes for sexism in MU superhero culture and offers a new alternative. Plus, the movie is fun. Scenes of Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and the cat Goose offer good comic relief, and Carol’s origin story fits into a clear origin-story plot formula—so we know what’s going on. Instead of focusing on tangled but intellectually engaging plot structures or deep characterization with philosophical dialogue, with Captain Marvel we can simply let our emotions engage with the film.

If you dabble with writing poems, one thing you’d learn is that the form of the poem will teach you how to read it. The same idea is basically true with movies. The first ten minutes or so will teach you how to watch the rest of the film. Captain Marvel is a film, like so many stories of this era, dripping with nostalgia, extremely self-aware, and unable to be completely judged or understood without its networked context.

Watch Captain Marvel to get amped for the next Avengers movie, or to see a kick-butt woman superhero, or just to see Goose the cat. It’s a fun film that fits right into its storytelling era. A fun film with a great soundtrack to match.

Happy screening!



The End of the Tour (2015)

end of the tour

For me, author David Foster Wallace was a revelation, a fresh new voice and style both hyper-intelligent and down-to-earth, an almost-parody of the academic-speak I suddenly became surrounded by in my first year or so of college. I could relate to his anxieties, his drive for distraction and escape, the ever-pressing need to succeed in this quick-paced and commercialized modern world—yet this need matched with a burning desire for peace instead. I know now that lately his legacy has been mildly under attack. He is cast off as the writer for pseudo-intellectual upper middle class, heterosexual, white males. At times, he acted in a way contrary to our #metoo sensibilities. Like many whose identity comes with privilege, he gave too little notice to minorities and underrepresented voices in his work. Rarely does his work contain a thought to racism, sexism, or homophobia—and occasionally even dark, cruel jokes about these matters.

But yet, when I was a freshman in college and first picked up his work, his voice left me laughing, pondering the universe and humanity, thinking deeply about the pressures of modern life. In other words, despite any glaring flaws I now see in his writing concerns and personal life, at the time his work made me feel less alone.

A few days ago I watched the film The End of the Tour, about writer David Lipsky shadowing David Foster Wallace for a Rolling Stones profile at the very end of the book tour for Infinite Jest. I appreciated the lens through which this film viewed the writing life. So often, movies about writers follow the same pattern—the writer is down on their luck but hopeful, then something happens and they seem bound never to write a solitary word again, but finally they find their muse and succeed in the form of publication, fame, money, the entire world on a string. It’s the literary form of a boxing movie plot—except you can practically see the ego-maniacal film writer behind the scenes, living out their dreams vicariously. Don’t get me wrong—I like these movies. They’re inspiring. They center around the question: why do you write? An important question to ask any writer, sappy possible answers regardless.

The End of the Tour is not exactly that movie. Yes, it touches on many of the same themes, even brushing the Why You Write question. But its focus is on a different end—after publication, after the tour, after the hype. The silence after the storm.

Because to tell you the truth, you get a very different answer to the question of why one writes depending on when you ask it in a person’s career and life.

You also get wildly different answers when you ask someone why they read.

What The End of the Tour grapples with in a compelling and self-reflective way is our biggest literary/artistic world myth. The Legend of the Tortured Artist. Unlike other films tackling this theme—Birdman (2014) and Whiplash (2014), for instance—The End of the Tour is less onscreen-intense. It doesn’t have to be. Unlike these other tortured artist films, this film just existing carries an extremely somber weight. David Foster Wallace passed away by suicide in 2008. He was still a young man, still with plenty to say and give to the world as an author but also as a human being. When watching the scene in The End of the Tour, when he goes to watch a movie in the theater, as he stares entranced at the fiery explosions and macho violence onscreen, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge, a pang. 2008 was only eleven years ago now, only seven when the film came out. Mostly likely, I thought illogically, Wallace could and should be alive to watch this movie about himself right now.

The End of the Tour made me feel guilty. It made me feel how I’d feel watching a hologram concert of Amy Winehouse or Prince. The film made me confront these feelings within myself—so I’m not hating on the movie. Not exactly.

What does trouble me is the way we build up and cling to our illusions of people. The way we can’t as consumers just consume the art. The way we crave presence and performance. We need drama—something to talk about, or whisper about, or shout about, depending on our level of perceived morality. Since this is history, I don’t feel too bad about giving you a spoiler from the film. The film ends with the end of the tour—Wallace’s tour, on multiple levels—but the beginning of a new one. David Lipsky, the author who profiled Wallace for Rolling Stone, writes a wildly successful book about Wallace. Whereas in the beginning of the film, Lipsky’s fiction book reading was sparsely attended, in the end at his reading event for the Wallace book the reading is packed. People are cheering.

Lipsky had been down on his luck, but hopeful. His career seemed stalled, and he seemed bound to never write a solitary word again—or at least to be widely read. Then, he found his muse.

He wrote a book about the Tortured Artist, then got a movie for it.

I felt sick, finishing this movie. I think I was supposed to. The End of the Tour is about American exploitation at its most insular. The film itself is not bad or wrong—the culture around it is. Or perhaps what I think of as “wrong” is simply natural. Writers and artists create to heal their wounds, or at least to show them to the world. All of us, on some level, are hurt. And all of us, on some level, long for success, however we define it—forced to be okay, at the end of the tour, with exploiting that hurt for our own and others’ gain. Perhaps celebrity worship culture is simply a by-product of that—a world where sacrifices must be made for art.

But the truth is that I don’t really believe that. Not at all. Because the truth is that for every David Foster Wallace and even every David Lipsky, whose stories are told in widely read books and widely seen movies, there are hundreds and thousands and hundreds of thousands whose stories are never told, or never heard. The End of the Tour makes you think about this, too. It makes you wonder—why these guys? Obviously, they’re straight white males. Educated and talented. Those qualities gave them a leg up. Though not every straight white male with education and talent gets lucky. Or, “lucky.”

Most of all, though, The End of the Tour made me ask—what went wrong? How did our culture get such toxic definitions of success, the idea that success can only happen if someone is celebrated to the point of worship, then torn down to be talked about and dissected? I don’t have an answer for that—just vague musings I came up with while trying to sort through the somber sense of destruction I felt after finishing The End of the Tour.

I feel now like these toxic definitions haven’t changed and aren’t changing. And that disappoints and frustrates me.

And it disappoints and frustrates me because I think they can be changed. I just don’t think it starts with pointing fingers, tearing down institutions, or even telling stories of destructive and self-destructive people. I think the real change starts when we look at ourselves. When we reflect on ourselves deeply and critically. When we ask ourselves why. Why do we write? Create? Explore? Work? Fight? Live the way we do?

Change begins when we ask ourselves those questions, but, more importantly, when we begin to change the way we answer them.


The Manifesto is the Message


It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the media you consume shapes and reshapes your worldview. As Marshall McLuhan famously stated, “The medium is the message,” and as sung in Sunday school, “Be careful little eyes what you see.” It’s obvious that someone immersing themselves in The West Wing is going to have a very different view of government and societal institutions than somebody obsessed with Blue Bloods, or House of Cards, or Law and Order, or even Veep. Unfortunately, in this day and age of the world (seemingly) at our fingertips, its easy—at least for me—to forget to act as one’s own editor/censor of content.

I’m sure when you were a kid you heard someone say, “You are what you eat.” Well, it’s also true that you are what you think, and what you think is directly related to the media, the stories and curated information that you consume.

In the book Media Control: News as an Institution of Power and Social Control, media scholar Robert E. Gutsche, Jr. defines information as “expressed knowledge shaped by cultural and social forces.” When I first read this definition, I had to go back and read it again several times, I was so stunned. I’d always thought of information as the brass-tacks facts. The stuff of nonfiction that leads to sound decisions. The basic building blocks of a well-rounded, well-informed citizen. But now that I’ve mused about this revelation for awhile, the more I think it’s important to think about—and extremely relevant in our current information-overloaded world.

Information is not unbiased facts. Rather, it is knowledge that media spins according to the whims of the age, its social and cultural context.

All this reminds me of the 2015 art film by Julian Rosefeldt Manifesto, starring Cate Blanchett playing thirteen different roles. The visuals of this film are stunning, and the acting is amazingly versatile, and by the end of the film you’ll be mind-blown but musing for months about what the heck that was all supposed to mean. Each character’s story is a separate vignette in which the character quotes famous manifestos throughout history, touching on subjects such as politics and psychology, art and beauty, and others. There are probably several interpretations for the film, but maybe because I’ve been reading about media theory, and have been looking around at the way people get stirred up by social media, Manifesto could be about the interlocking manifestos, systems of belief, that we inherit from other thinkers and then act on in our own lives. Everyone has their own code of living, and everyone gets that code from the manifestos they consume.

I don’t know if this is the “right” interpretation of the film. But afterward watching it, I couldn’t stop seeing manifestos in my daily life—the opinions and beliefs of others shouted at me through the lines of news stories and social media posts and TV shows and movies and books. I began wondering if there even was a way to get information without getting an agenda. Is there a way to access knowledge without being force-fed somebody else’s beliefs? Is there a way, in this day and age of hypertextuality and hyperlinked lives, to be your own person, an individual with your own identity and code of living?

The answer is no, and yes. There has never been a world without social and cultural forces shaping our information—even language itself has its political connotations. Pictures are framed, videos are edited, songs are composed, video games are coded. There is no way to escape the inheritance of ideas.

But, there is a way to reclaim that inheritance. Thinking further on the movie Manifesto, as I read Gutsche’s definition of information, I realized that each of the characters in the movie were not the original writers of those manifestos—they were not even in the original context of the work they were quoting. Rather, they were punk rockers and mothers, scientists and homeless men, choreographers and school teachers. They might be quoting borrowed words, but they were placing those words in a new context—their own, unique context in their own, unique life.

It’s hard deciding what to believe in, when the world feels like its at your fingertips and is constantly screaming at you to choose sides. But I think there is a lot to learn from the characters of Manifesto, proclaiming their inherited beliefs to the heavens, not just letting their lives be guided by others’ beliefs but also letting their lives guide those beliefs.

After all, the most important thing isn’t whether or not you accept the information and worldview you’re given—it’s what you do with it once you have it.


The Mule, in Review

the mule

A few years back there was a flurry of rumors flying around my smallish Texas hometown. According to the ever-anonymous “they,” Clint Eastwood himself had stayed the night at our Holiday Inn while scouting filming locations for his upcoming movie.

Was The Mule the movie he was searching our pastures for? Or had he not been there at all—and his much-whispered-about sighting had been nothing more than typical Waxahachie, Texas star-struck fantasy?

Either way, The Mule was made. On the surface it’s a typical old guy fantasy narrative right up there with the neo-Western TV show Breaking Bad, in which the gritty old crabby guy manages to become a politically incorrect but lovable Robin Hood. In between the lines, the film’s about Clint himself, a guy who believes in beauty and doing things his way despite the updated culture and wide-ranging world-views very different from his own. And like in Breaking Bad, The Mule ends tragically or at least semi-tragically, but without the inevitability of consequences that some overly-serious so-called tragedies exude. No—in The Mule, Earl always drives his fate. He decides to face his consequences. He decides not to use his age or desperation as an excuse, and he refuses to ever be labeled a victim.

The Mule is definitely an old man’s fantasy and an old man’s movie. Especially cringeworthy in our current political climate were the scenes of Earl at the cartel leader’s party, dancing (and too much more) with women about the age of his granddaughter.

At the same time—as a woman about the age of Earl’s granddaughter—I found myself identifying with Earl. Or, rather, not identifying with him so much as identifying, maybe, with the target audience—I found myself playing along with this masculine last hurrah fantasy even as I acknowledged the ridiculousness of it. In the movie, Earl is some sort of botanist. He says the flowers he cares for are beautiful and worth his attention because they only bloom once. Of all the interesting themes and threads The Mule raises but never completely ties together (and the ones it raises and then beats like a dead horse), this one about the flowers blooming only once, so being worth it, was the thread that stuck with me the most.

What the heck is that statement supposed to mean, both to the world of The Mule and to my world, our world? Was it an idea similar to the great fish rotting, un-applauded, at the end of Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea? As a writer, I of course thought first of my own work—my fiction and poetry I’ve spent countless hours on only to have it barely glanced at when published, as if it only blooms once, and that once makes it worth it whether people applaud it or not. I wondered if that was the message Earl (and Clint) was trying to get across—that your accomplishments are your own.

Only, that doesn’t fit completely with the other themes of The Mule—especially the theme of family.

When Earl finally isn’t a distant jerk and shows up to help during a family crisis, he tells his long-estranged daughter that he regrets not being there through the years. To show her forgiveness for this, she says he’s just, “a late bloomer.” That one time showing up, being caring, makes up for Earl’s lifetime of distance and hurt. Maybe this is an old, white man’s fantasy—he can be an ass and then later ride in, regretful, claim to have changed, and be accepted back into the fold. Or maybe it’s simply a human’s fantasy, hoping in the lonely, lost moments for one last shot at redemption.

The Mule is all about redemption, all about change and changing for good. It’s not a masterpiece by a long shot, but I found its earnestness and even its old-fashioned integrity interesting and refreshing. Is it possible to redeem yourself with one right turn? As someone hurt by people, I certainly don’t think so. And as someone who has hurt people, I certainly hope so with all my heart.

The message of The Mule—or the central speculation of it—is that, despite all, people are worth your patience. If you keep caring for them and waiting on them, one day they just might bloom into something beautiful.


The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and the Wild West of Streamable Content

I’m going to be honest—it’s been a few weeks since I watched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, so this isn’t exactly a hot-off-the-press reflection on the film. This is more a musing on new Netflix original films in general, and how technology can radically and irreversibly change the way we watch, make, and talk about movies—if we let it.

Do we want to let it? In a lot of ways, streamable content has been good for the movie industry, giving it the kick in the pants competition and drive toward inclusivity and narrative risk-taking that only happens when the risk-averse big corporations that control most of our movies have someone questioning them. At the same time, as a younger person who still loves movie theaters, I’m worried about the convenience of viewing new movies at home. Are my beloved movie palaces and multiplexes—that mean so much to the large-scale spectacle aspect of movies—being threatened?

Really, I don’t think movie theaters are going anywhere. Will there be less one day? Maybe. But I doubt an activity still relatively cheap that has become an American institution—a tradition in dating and family life—is just going to go away.

Not as long as we hold onto it. Stream all we want, but still prioritize those special trips to the theater, seeing the latest acclaimed film up on the big screen. Call me an optimist, but I think we can have our cake and eat it too. We can roll with the best of what streamable content has to offer, while not losing the tradition and great memories that brick and mortar (so to speak) movie theaters offer.

Streamable content allows for different types of movies and narratives that can take risks because they don’t have to single-handedly rake in blockbuster-level money every weekend. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is one such movie. Risky postmodern techniques such as direct address and a lack of a main character or narrative would, on the big screen, be a bit of a chore to sit through. But on the level of a personal screen—a laptop or home TV—this film sings. It breathes along with its time and place, speaking, as the best Westerns do, about American past, present, and future. It’s a new type of narrative—one that resembles a TV show with its episodic structure, but ambitiously follows no main character(s) except the mythical West itself. In my opinion, it’s a film that could only thrive on a streamable platform like Netflix.

It shows that the best artistic works in our digital age don’t only consider the craft itself, but also the type of media through which it will be presented.

People like to spout reactionary doomsday prophecies every time there’s a big change in an established industry, but rarely does such change actually lead to ruin. Art has survived every change society and developing technology has thrown at it. Streamable film sites are no different.

So, on that note, happy screening (and streaming)!


Systems-Based-Thinking and the Franchise Film

So, I’ve been swamped with schoolwork lately, on top of irritating but necessary day-to-day life things that everyone has to deal with, and haven’t had a chance to post here about the movies I’ve been watching. I’ve recently re-watched Baby Driver, saw and loved Bohemian Rhapsody at the theater, managed to finally see Call Me By Your Name (one of the most well-written films out there, in my opinion, as well as beautifully shot—each frame a story), and watched the Netflix Coen Brother’s film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (post—after more pondering—forthcoming). I’ve been busy, but not too busy to watch movies. Just too busy to tell you about them.

But I have been thinking. It might have even been the business that got me thinking—this day-and-age’s (or maybe this country’s) rapid pace of life, made more hurried and fractured by our constant attachment to networks, to systems. Recently I read a book called Menus for Movieland about films and newspapers in the 1910s. It was almost impossible for me to imagine a world as spread out as that one—where local newspapers had to shapeshift along with their region—where films talked about, despised or loved, in one place may be accepted differently, or ignored entirely, in another.

Yet, reading the book I also saw the beginnings of our culture today—the drive for connectivity. Many newspapers were syndicated, their contents handed to them for them to then cut and paste and slightly alter to match the paper’s local readers. And how stars such as Mary Pickford would write columns in the papers to have a direct line of communication to her fans—so much like social media, especially Twitter, today.

And I’ve been reading about—and playing a lot of—video games. One book I read was The Video Game Theory Reader 2. One of the articles in this book talks about how video games foster systems-based-thinking, in which (unlike linear thinking) what is prioritized about something is its relation to other things in the system. This kind of thinking lends itself to good problem-solving skills, and the article talks about how this kind of thinking is important for the hyperconnected world of the twenty-first century.

Systems-based-thinking got me wondering about the explosion and popularity of franchise movies. Star Wars, the DC superhero movies, Jurassic Park/World, The Lord of the Rings, and—most sprawling—the films and TV shows of the Marvel Universe. These franchises are often dismissed as just a way Hollywood is trying to cash in, no longer dedicated to making movies that are good enough to stand on their own. But I’ve started to wonder—what if these franchises trying to build sprawling worlds, worlds that can’t be contained in a single movie, are really a new (or updated) way for us systems-based-thinkers to tell and consume stories in and about our modern world?

Movies reflect their makers and their viewers. If, in this networked world, we are becoming more systems-based-thinkers than linear-thinkers, our narratives no doubt would reflect that. What’s going to be interesting to see is if stories and storytellers of the future can couple the two narrative and thinking types—making movies that manage to be a part of a larger system of a sprawling world while still going deep enough with theme and character to be as well-written and beautiful as linear films like Call Me By Your Name. So far, I feel like films like Blade Runner 2049 are the first step in this potential direction.

Really though, I guess only time—and storytellers—will tell.

In the meantime, happing screening!


A Star is Born (2018), In Review

a star is born

I saw the new A Star is Born on a stormy day in my Texas hometown while there was a tornado warning and rain pounding on the roof. So I didn’t get to disappear into this story like I wanted to. After all—it’s a musical, so it should be watched with a certain suspension of reality, a drive to escape. Like the rainstorm, though, particular moments in the film itself keep slapping you back into reality. Not enough to be annoying, and not enough to make you care any less about the characters—but enough to make you think and think deeply about the modern world, the past, and the magical realm where music and art of all forms is made.

I adored A Star is Born, but to be honest I can’t be trusted on this matter. I’m a musical fanatic, and this is a well-made musical. The songs are stellar. The acting is good but, like all great musicals really, relies just as much on star persona as it does on acting talent. What would Singin’ in the Rain be without the Gene Kelly character? Top Hat without Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? Meet Me in St. Louis without Judy Garland? Or the 1954 A Star is Born, for that matter? Lady Gaga in this most recent incarnation of A Star is Born is sublime in her role, not because she completely disappears into it (she doesn’t) but because you can see her star charisma shining through the character. Her performance is good not just because it shows acting chops and is believable. It’s good—and constructive for the movie as a whole—because you can’t help but think about the real-life stars at the center and the real-life stars in general. Gaga’s Ally makes you think about real fame and real lives devoted to creativity, not just the magical world of the musical where Bradley Cooper’s band can come up with an entire rehearsed-to-perfection arrangement to a song he half-heard drunk from Ally the night before.

But again, I’m biased. I’ve been a Lady Gaga fan since the Tony Bennett duets. And, I mean, the woman jumped off the top of a football stadium during the Super Bowl.

Gaga’s superstar charisma is nicely balanced by Bradley Cooper’s roughness as actor, singer, director. His performance as Jackson Maine is rough around the edges—not quite as rough as Russell Crowe in Les Miserables, but still—which works not only to illuminate his own character but also the themes of the movie and the context of this remake. How bold, yet apt, to have this weatherworn character in this weatherworn story sing, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” Just like how you can never quite forget that’s Lady Gaga up onscreen, while watching this A Star is Born you can never quite forget that it’s been made multiple times before. But instead of running from comparisons to the past, this version positions itself in a context of both nostalgia and moving on. This in so many ways is the same old story we’ve heard time and time again—self-destructive artist meets aspiring star, themes on the dangers of fame, themes on the dangers of a wavering, flickering-out purpose.

Because purpose is what this film is about—the finding and losing of one, and the worthwhileness of one, even if it’s a purpose that’s been pursued time and time again.

“Are you happy in this modern world?” asks another of the film’s songs. “Aren’t you tired of trying to fill that void?” With pop songs like “Applause,” Gaga has already played with the hollow pursuits of pop music and pop culture—and, to a larger extent—the emptiness of many of our current self-serving pursuits, such as our “me culture” inflamed by social media and cliched yet often preached saying like “follow your heart.” A Star is Born deconstructs such pursuits. This movie will rip your heart out, make you feel hollow just enough to make you think about hollowness in real life. This is not a feel-good musical. It isn’t Mama Mia Here We Go Again, and it isn’t even a more cynical musical like Chicago or Moulin Rouge. A Star is Born is commentary on the loss that goes along with stardom and the creation of art—and the commercialization of art. In the end, the lovers are reunited visually, just like in any self-respecting musical. But that final scene separates the singing so that the duet sounds suddenly like two separate songs, so that final scene—where in most musicals there is a big bang of swinging music, even if afterwards comes emptiness and tragedy—in A Star is Born rings false. There’s a loneliness to it. A feeling like one has been separated from the past and can never return. There’s a permeating, hollow feeling of loss.

A Star is Born, in short, is a downer. But it’s also a spectacular artistic statement and an imaginative and meaningful new remake of an age-old and timeless story that, like the best art, will let you give in to fantasy just long enough to get you thinking about reality.


Bad Times at the El Royale, in Review

Bad Times at the El Royale is a throwback to the film noir style/genre and to Hitchcock sensibility— a savvy tongue-in-cheek reflection on the voyeurism of filmmakers and film viewers (voyeurism, as defined by Merriam Webster, the practice of taking pleasure in observing something private, sordid, or scandalous). Bad Times at the El Royale is also, even without mentioning its homages and subtext, a well-crafted thriller that handles its limited setting and several complex characters with aplomb.

I know everybody’s distracted by the “event” movies out there right now—the reboot of A Star is Born (mostly positive post forthcoming), the current superhero fare Venom, and the latest sequel to Halloween—but if you’re looking for a good all-around story, with a vision that balances innovation with nostalgia, don’t overlook Bad Times at the El Royale.

Similar to The Hateful Eight, Bad Times builds suspense and unravels characterization by limiting the setting to one place— in this case, the El Royale, a hotel on the state line of California and Nevada, with half of the hotel in each state. This is a place filled with nostalgia. Laramie (Jon Hamm) tells its history at the beginning of the film— a history filled with flashy and glamours— and, as we later learn, scandalous— Hollywood stars of the fifties. Other than Laramie, the cast of characters includes dubious priest Father Daniel (Jeff Daniels), aspiring singer Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), hot-shot but keep-to-herself Emily and her sister Rose, young but darkly damaged hotel employee Miles, and cult leader Billy Lee (played with charm by Chris Hemsworth).

What all these characters have in common is a transience. These are people in between—caught in the threshold of the past and a new, or at least a different, beginning. But true to noir form, this beginning comes at sudden and unavoidable times, and despite it, these folks can’t quite escape the past. Instead, ultimately their only choice in the matter is to choose how to face it, how to navigate it.

Bad Times at the El Royale is Rear Window, North by Northwest, Vertigo. Like in these classic Hitchcock thrillers, the story pivots around someone who’s basically your average Joe— aspiring singer Darlene, not a criminal or a lawman or someone with a particularly gruesome past, but just someone trying to make their way in the world.

Also like Hitchcock classics, Bad Times analyzes while succumbing to voyeurism— the way people like looking in on things, visually eavesdropping on other people’s stories and lives. In a hidden back hallway at the El Royale, windows are set up so that each room can be peered into through one-way mirrors. The opening shot aligns us with the voyeuristic viewpoint by the camera angle being at the exact same angle of a room’s one-way mirror. At least for me, this alignment with the past and a statement on the attraction of voyeuristic film viewing heightened the tension throughout the movie. The film is layered with such tidbits of subtext, knowledge of film’s unique medium, and nostalgia for film’s past.

Music and sound editing is used creatively in the film too. For instance, jarring cuts of songs left unfinished also heighten the foreboding and uneasiness between these strangers at the El Royale. A few times, music is used for effective jump-scares that make the film’s depicted violence, although not especially gory or sensationalized, emotionally powerful and jarring.

Plotwise, the film is chocked full of coincidences and loose ends. This could be seen as a criticism, but I rather enjoyed such plot holes. Usually, plot holes pull you out of the story or linger like a bad taste long after the final credits have rolled. But in this case, they work less as flaws and more as yet more harkening back to the B movie film noir past. They are a statement on film noir’s seedy, dark and dangerous world filled with deeply flawed characters caught up in forces much too large to understand or control.

I doubt this film, with its bleak worldview (despite its relatively things-worked-out ending) is going to do well in our current bleak political and personal culture. We want escape right now— complicated escape, but escape nonetheless. Give us superheroes and musicals, not film noir suspense. But I loved Bad Times at the El Royale, and I feel like this is one of those movies that is going to get rewatched and celebrated more after its left theaters and is streaming online, hopefully analyzed for years after its initial release. I think its worthy of such analysis, both craftwise and as cultural critique.

Bad Times is not a box-office event because it wasn’t meant to be. It’s simply a good movie, a well-told story, and a film with plenty to say about life and society.


Searching, In Review


Okay, Searching honestly blew my mind. It probably won’t win any awards because it’s not pretty enough and there aren’t enough philosophical dialogue scenes, but this movie is innovative in both form and content. When I first saw the commercial for it in the theater this summer, I thought, “Wow, that movie is going to be stupid and awful.” I thought it’d try too hard to artificially stay constrained to the computer screen, or at least it’d get preachy about some statement about our addiction to technology, or at the very least there’d be too much reading text and not enough action.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. First and foremost, Searching is an on-the-edge-of-your-seat white-knuckled thriller. Several times during the movie I heard the girl next to me say, “No way, no way no way, holy cow, no way.” At one point she even declared angrily, “She’s not dead!” Searching is a wonderful movie that blends its story into its form—all the action confined to computer screens—so well that by the end of it I couldn’t separate the two in my head.

Searching convinced me that the movie couldn’t tell its story any other way than through computer screens. It never felt arbitrary or like a gimmick. In fact, by the end, the computer and technological aspects of the film felt as human and illuminating to the humanity of the characters as the form of any typically-shot short film.

The plot of the movie follows the very human (and potentially overdone—I’m thinking of Taken and the eight thousand Taken sequels and spin-offs) story of a father trying to find out what happened to his missing daughter. The innovative thing about the movie is that such a hackneyed story is made fresh by the fact that all the action, backstory, dialogue, everything, is revealed in a natural way through the computer screens. We jump from the original old Windows-running family computer to the father’s newer computer to the daughter’s computer. Through design choices and search history and the way each character interacts with technology (though almost everything we see is controlled by the father) we find out everyone’s personality. We find out with a few clicks of the mouse all about the family dynamics of this particular family. We live in the moment as the father discovers clues to his daughter’s disappearance. The suspense is powerful in this film, and the immediacy and emotional involvement—at least for me—was so great that it felt physically draining.

There have been movies before that tried to do new stuff with digital technology and screens, and it makes sense that our narratives draw towards those themes and forms considering how much of our lives we now spend in front of a computer (or at least in front of a screen). But I think Searching did a better job than any of them at framing its story on a real-world-grounded scenario and the very human (however hackneyed) struggle of a dad trying to protect his daughter.

And Searching also does a good job of having depth and deep messages without being over-the-top preachy. It never turns into a doomsday prophet, warning about the evils of too much screentime. Yet by the end, the message is clear—spend more actual time with the person and people you love. Because although sometimes it feels like you can find out everything about a person through the internet, no amount of Google searches will let you truly get to know a person.

Please, please go watch this movie. It’s fascinating and innovative, and I don’t know how well it’s going to age—but in its immediate context, it’s extremely powerful.

Happy screening! (But, according to the message of this movie, not too much.)