Location: Highland Park
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Location: Highland Park
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What kind of blog would this be if I didn’t do an end of year “here are the movies I enjoyed” entry? Certainly not a blog I’ve ever heard of. And while there’s something to be said for scarcity increasing value, nobody has ever read a website because it refused to put up content.
While it would be a fun challenge to list and rank the ten very best movies I saw, I don’t find that tremendously interesting. What can I say about a movie like Darkest Hour that hasn’t been said by any critic? Well, actually: “The 1990s are back, and they brought middlebrow ‘prestige’ Oscar Bait®-brand acting showcases with them!”
So these may not be the twelve best movies released this year. In fact, my placing Bright at the end (SPOILER!) tells you all you need to know about my agenda going into writing this list. But these are the ones that I most enjoyed watching, and that I still think about from time to time.
One more note: I have friends who made or starred in movies this year, and for the most part I’ve avoided listing them here. That’s because a movie like The Big Sick is great, and I highly recommend checking it out, but at the end of the day I’m less a movie critic and more of an asshole comedy professional who don’t enjoy watching his friends succeed.
(PS: Speaking of me and comedy, if you’re in Los Angeles January 11th, come check out my show.)
I consider myself lucky that I was able to go into watching Colossal completely blind, having read no reviews or having seen no trailers. My buddy Tim and I were hanging out one afternoon, and we went to a movie theatre to see what was playing.
I don’t tend to see Anne Hathaway movies because, quite frankly, until I watched this movie; I figured her for a lightweight who’s pleasant enough, and stars as the romantic lead in movies like “Bride Wars” and “Rachel Getting Married.” But between this film and Interstellar (I know, I know, she won an Oscar brand® film award for Les Miserables, but this is a musical that does not exist in my world), I’m starting to think that maybe I need to admit that I’m wrong and pay better attention.
And believe me… I hate admitting I’m wrong.
In any event, Colossal is a great movie-going experience, a film that takes the convention of classic Japanese rubber monster movies like Godzilla and Gamera, and interpolates them into a film that starts as a typical Anne Hathaway romantic comedy, and halfway through turns into a dark meditation on alcoholism and addiction, and how they foster and encourage destructive relationships.
We may not all literally possess a spiritual link to a six-story monster, the movie says, but there is a tendency for people give in to their worst impulses. Not because we’re bad people, but because it’s the easiest thing to do.
Jason Sudeikis gives a scene-stealing performance as the typical rom-com “secretly great guy in a cocky asshole’s body” pulled inside out, exposing the toxic guts of those kinds of characters.
If Colossal is a genre exploration of the cycle of spiritual decay and addiction, Birdboy: The Forgotten Children is about metaphoric demons of addiction and mental illness made literal, and how they can tear apart even the best of us. In a post-apocalyptic animated fairy tale land, where society has been destroyed and rebuilt, Dinki is a mouse, and a teenage girl, who lives with her parents who barely tolerate her, and her stepbrother, a dog in a luchador mask.
Dinki and her friend, a multi-species group of teens, decide that they are going to skip school and find a way to buy their way off of the island on which they live, on which they feel trapped. And from which, we find over and over, there seems no escape. In fact, the only proof there is even life beyond the island ate are the constantly-refilling mountains of garbage, in which hordes of nomad junkie rats forage for copper.
Birdboy of the title is an elusive figure on the island, seen as a mence to society, and a fugitive from a trigger-happy police force. He’s a tragic figure, though, a drug addict self-medicating over childhood trauma, and who we come to learn through a late religious experience, has possibly the most important job on the island.
This is a feature-length animated picture, but it’s relentlessly dark in a way that those more used to brightly-lit American cartoons will find off-putting, depressing, and possibly even unwatchably sad. I recommend giving it a fair viewing; what it has to say about what the realities of adulthood can be are fairly upsetting but rewarding. And the animation style (adapted directly from the director’s comic series Psiconautus) can be heartrendingly beautiful in its simplicity.
If Birdboy is scary and sad in its unpredictability and unrelentingly grim view of humanity, Coco somehow pulls off the balancing trick of being dark (and it is a dark story, make no mistake), scary, sad, and upbeat, sometimes all in the same shot. And that’s the genius of Pixar.
Toy Story 3, a movie from which I expected very little in terms of emotional engagement, had one of the saddest, scariest moments I’ve ever seen in a studio film. As these toys you’ve grown to root for over the course of the three movies are riding into an incinerator and, holding hands and bravely facing forward, come to silent terms with the reality of imminent death, that it’s real and inevitable and comes for everyone.
For a movie set in the Land of the Dead, the filmmakers manage to keep the tone light and the skeletons that populate the film friendly and not really scary. But all of that gets set aside for a couple of plot twists that would be, in lesser hands, shocking. And that’s always the upshot with Pixar; somehow, with all that could go wrong, this film somehow has turned out to be a masterpiece.
This year saw the release of a sequel to a science fiction blockbuster that managed to surpass the first film in scope, plotting, emotional engagement, and the ability of the writer/director to satisfactorily resolve plot points carried over from the first film while not distracting from the main story he’s telling. And that movie was not Star Wars.
Guardians of the Galaxy is about family, and what it means to belong to one, while Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a movie about telling the story of Star Wars. Way back when the first Guardians of the Galaxy was announced, I followed the news with surprise and interest. Partly because that’s a big investment, in a film based on a comic title that doesn’t exactly have the popular cachet of an X-Men or Spiderman.
Also my experience with writer/director James Gunn’s work didn’t exactly scream “light-hearted romp for all ages.” His filmography including the screenplay to the Lemmy Kilmeister/Jane Jensen vehicle Tromeo & Juliet (a movie with its own rewards. In the mid-90s I went through a phase of being a big fan of the music of Jane Jensen. There are very few of us out there and so I have a degree of affection for this movie that may outweigh its charms) as well as the movie Super, a take on the superhero genre that equally made me laugh and bummed me out. I would have expected him to follow a creative path like that of Todd Solondz, turning out quirky, well-received studies of characters on the fringe.
I liked the first Guardians movie okay. But Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II managed to strike a balance between what’s required of a blockbuster film delivery system like Marvel Studios, and great filmmaking. The movie starts with a battle royale with a space beast from another galaxy, and immediately places it in the background so we can watch a baby tree named Groot happily dance to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.”
As a way to reestablish your characters, universe, and overall tone with its audience, it succeeds perfectly, telling you everything you need to know about the movie you’re about to watch in a shade over four minutes. It uses CGI and special effects to create the illusion of a long, unbroken shot that dips in and out of the action, reintroducing us to the main cast one-by-one, while the camera constantly dances with the music. I would even say that this opening titles sequence is better filmmaking than most of the prestige pictures that will win Academy Award™-brand artist validation trophies.
Writer/director Gunn roots his film in something that many of the summer blockbusters I watched this year could not seem to figure out: relatable human stakes. I mean, sure, we can all understand the need to race against time to keep a bad guy from destroying the Universe as we know it. That’s the easy part.
But where Guardians takes a step beyond is to place that, again, in the background to goals we can relate to. Chris Pratt’s Starlord is running from the only father he’s ever known to chase a mythical biological father who never cared about him. Rocket Raccoon is a fellow orphan, a science experiment who has found a real family, and can’t stop himself from pushing them away. Gamora is forced to face the fact that she really owes her sister, who happens to be a notorious super-villain, an apology for the way she participated in her childhood abuse at the hands of their father, Thanos the Dark Lord.
Yes it’s all a bit silly. Superhero movies are by their inherent design. But the film engages us emotionally all the way through, and ends on an earned bittersweet moment that doubles as the greatest advertisement for the sublime Cat Stevens album Tea for the Tillerman.
At its heart, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.II is a simple redemption story staked into the ground of a blockbuster franchise tentpole. And while Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t necessarily as well-realized, it features an appealing pair of lead performances.
Make no mistake; Sam Raimi’s first two Spider Man movies remain the definitive Spider Man movie-going experiences, and Tobey Maguire is great in it. But there’s something much younger, much more vulnerable, about Tom Holland’s performance as Peter Parker, who is much more believable as the outcast high school genius who is burdened with powers he never wanted. And the great Michael Keaton as his nemesis, the Vulture.
Unfortunately, Spider-Man suffers from the same problem a lot of even the best comic book movies (including Michael Keaton’s own Batman), which is that once you get past the fun of establishing the characters, their relationships, their various crises, and the early-going light heroics, there’s still the required Gigantic Crisis That Must Be Averted To Save The Day that takes up the last third of the film, and that brings the actual forward momentum of the story to a halt. But with Holland and Keaton, there’s enough charm and chemistry to make it easy going.
This might be the best bad movie I’ve enjoyed in a long, long time. If Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. II digs deep into character and situation, Fate of the Furious, the eighth entry in the Fast and Furious car chase franchise, practically opens with Vin Diesel looking at the camera and saying, “This is a dumb movie. In fact, this isn’t even a movie. It’s an exploding car delivery system. Sit back, turn your brain to ‘silent,’ and just take this in.”
Not only is this not a movie, it’s actually two movies starring two huge action stars who not only clearly do not like each other, but in the seven minutes of time that The Rock and Vin Diesel actually spend in frame together, they literally can’t make eye contact with each other. These are two movies that have been edited together and whose stories dovetail at the very end. One is about Cool Car Driving Guy Vin Diesel who has a Cool Car Driving Chick and a Cool Car Driving Baby who is kidnapped by a Bad No Good Lady.
The other stars Jason Statham and The Rock, the two most charismatic action stars working today. Jason Statham and The Rock are in prison for some reason, and they are broken out despite the fact that THE ROCK DOES NOT BELIEVE IT’S RIGHT TO BE BROKEN OUT OF PRISON SO HE IS ALMOST LITERALLY DRAGGED OUT AGAINST HIS WILL.
The movie ends with cars being chased over an arctic tundra by a radio controlled nuclear submarine that fires a torpedo at them AND THE ROCK PHYSICALLY PUSHES IT AWAY WITH HIS BARE HAND WHILE DRIVING A JEEP. Jason Statham engages in a gunfight ON A FUCKING AIRPLANE THAT I THINK NOBODY IS ACTUALLY FLYING while using A BABY IN A BULLETPROOF CARRIER AS A FUCKING SHIELD.
No other action movie I’ve been to this year had the audience cheering as much as we did when Vin Diesel made his hero’s entrance at the end to save the day. Not Star Wars, not Thor: Ragnarok, not even my beloved Guardians of the Galaxy. Is this a great movie? No. Is it even, technically, classifiable as a motion picture? Quite possibly not. Is it completely kickass and the most fun watch of the year? You bet your sweet ass.
Look. If I say, “King Kong, but he was the star of Apocalypse Now,” and your reaction is anything other than, “Holy shit, I have to see this movie RIGHT NOW,” I get it. You can skip the rest of this entry, because I’m going to keep this quick. I know that I’m not going to make any converts, because anyone who was excited by that premise saw it in the theatre same as me.
Other King Kong movies have focused on removing the monster from his natural habitat into the wicked world of science and man, and how this destroys him. Kong: Skull Island prefers to take the traditional first third of the King Kong story—scientists and businessmen invade Skull Island and, unheeding to the warnings of natives, find and subjugate Kong—and blows it out into a two-and-a-half hour Vietnam-era war film.
As an allegory of man’s destruction of the Earth’s natural environment, Kong is heavy-handed but doesn’t beat us over the head too badly with its point. An ensemble cast of great modern heavyweight character actors, including Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, and Tom Hiddleston, anchor a film that, in the hands of lesser thespic talents, could come off as a bit silly. But the cast delivers the goods, especially Jackson who provides a surprising amount of shading to a character that seems to be written as a cardboard Vietnam Vet Gone Rogue accidental villain in search of last-minute redemption.
As with the best of the Kong movies, the monkey remains the most sympathetic character, a pure and innocent creature who only turned into a killer when confronted with man. If Kong’s love story with Brie Larson seems a bit more contrived than his lust for Fay Wray, our King Giant Murder Monkey is still enough of a tragic hero that we want to watch him anchor a Giant Monster “shared cinematic universe” (a phrase that should strike a note of concern for anyone who, as I did, sat through The Mummy this year).
I think this movie could have been called “Frances McDormand’s Next Oscar®-brand Award Show Reward” and called it a day. About a woman who rents the titular billboards outside her town to chastise her local police force for failing to solve her teenage daughter’s rape/murder, this is a film that’s unafraid to constantly shift the emotional weight under your feet.
McDormand’s character is in a sympathetic position, but is an unsympathetic personality. Woody Harrelson’s backwater police chief is in an impossible position, and he finds ways to win that hurt everyone whose life he’s touched. Even as we pull back to get a better look at the full tapestry of life in this town, pulling each character’s thread causes their lives to unravel.
But while it continues to find new ways to confound our expectations for where the story will go next, the film itself seems uncertain of its own tone. Is it a slice of life character piece? Is the film’s point of view that life is messy, without resolution or pat endings? That there’s ultimately no justice, at least not in the sense that we like to think of justice, with guilty parties getting punished? Perhaps, and it’s a powerful and daring trick to pull in a wide release film with major stars. And yet the director, as if not quite trusting himself, reverses himself in the film’s final 15 minutes, promising resolution and justice and redemption.
It’s a messy movie, and by no means a perfect one. Three Billboards tries to walk a tightrope, balancing dark humor and drama, but it stumbles and falls a few times. And like a great many movies being made, it feels about twenty minutes too long, with a couple of subplots being given particular attention with no real attempt to, if not resolve them, then at least fold them into the overarching theme of the film.
Sam Rockwell’s character, in particular, is made irredeemable; he is guilty of terrible acts for which he receives no punishment. Late in the film, he’s destroyed professionally, physically, and personally, and after we learn that there’s one thing he’s not guilty of, we’re asked to reconsider some of what we think we know about him. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t feel like a strong enough shift be asked to change how we feel about a character after having seen the things we’ve seen him do.
But just because this movie isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it isn’t worthwhile. You will see it nominated for, and probably win, a whole bunch of awards of the next few months. And deservedly so. Sam Rockwell does the near-impossible: create a character so fully-rounded and three-dimensional, you will forget he is a racist Southern officer named “Jason Dixon.” A name so on-the-nose it might as well “Colonel Foghorn Sanders.”
I think it’s an indicator of how far the American horror film has fallen, that people got excited that Jordan Peele’s Get Out is actually about something relevant. Horror as a genre is always supposed to be about something. Halloween isn’t just a movie about a dude who stabs people in the woods. It’s about free-floating anxiety and the sense that no matter how orderly our lives may feel, there’s always the sense that there’s something just out of sight waiting for us. Made in 1978, it’s about post-Vietnam, post-Watergate America, and the country’s collective realization that everything we had learned was a lie.
The Shining is less about a man trapped in a haunted hotel, and more about what it means to be a family trapped in an unpredictably violent relationship with an alcoholic. Psycho is a movie about the dysfunction lurking under the sense of self during the boomtime economic recovery that America experienced after World War II. Whether these were intentional choices by the filmmakers or not, they capitalized on a collective sense of unease that we as a society feel, even if we can’t articulate what it is or why.
Get Out audaciously makes the subtext plain on the page, so that the viewer has no chance to escape the message amid the tension and suspense: In post-Obama America, Peele tells us, even “tolerant” white Americans who would consider themselves progressive because they like rap music and black culture, are, in their own way, blind to their own racism and their destruction of black culture even as they consume it.
Which is ironic, given that Jordan Peele’s previous project was the great, and greatly successful, Key and Peele sketch show on Comedy Central. A tremendous accomplishment, Peele and his sketch partner, Keegan Michael-Key (maybe the greatest comedy actor of his generation) brought an African American sensibility into the living rooms, iPads, and iTunes movie player windows of young white Americans across the country. As Dave Chappelle discovered in his own massively-popular Comedy Central sketch comedy show, you can have 100% control over the product, and you still can’t control how it will be consumed, enjoyed, or interpreted.
I may be putting words into Peele’s mouth here, but a movie like Get Out seems to be a reaction to that. Asking the question, “Who am I speaking for if not myself? Who, in this country will protect us not just from the cartoonishly evil people we already know to look out for, but those who come as friends, as fans, as family?”
And this strikes a chord in this country, which feels more polarized than ever. Where news of black men being gunned down by police have dominated the news, and in response it feels like the entire system has turned a blind eye to systemic racial murder. Because when it comes to creating popular culture, the personal is always political. And nobody knows this better than Stephen King, who has created some of the seminal works of late-20th Century horror fiction. His book, It, is a classic look at what it means to be an American child, interpreting a world full of very human horrors through the lens of willful naivete and fairy tale.
There’s a point, as you pass through the beginnings of adolescence, when you begin to see things as they truly are. That the adults you had assumed are monolithically strong and smart and good are actually just human beings, sometimes too bent to do the right things, sometimes too scared. It’s on this point that the world that Stephen King creates teeters, as the kids find the sum of their childhood fears and real world abuses embodied in one evil clown that lives in the sewers beneath. The second half of the book is actually a very smart look at Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder, and how we deal as adults with the fallout of a childhood full of things we can’t remember, or don’t care to.
Stephen King’s It, the film, focuses on the first half of this story. In deference to not releasing an unwatchable seven hour movie, a lot of the fat in the plot is trimmed away. And if the fat is where the flavor is, then so be it. Because Andy Muschietti, like Jordan Peele did with Get Out, creates a horror film that delivers the scares while remembering that it’s also supposed to be about something. If It owes as much to Steven Spielberg as it does to Stephen King, that’s no great sin. In an age of indie films that paint from a palette of handheld yellows and browns, it’s nice to see a brightly-lit film that embraces the Steadicam greens and blues.
This is an American Western, filmed on actual Kodak film with the sweepingly beautiful backdrop of Montana scrubland as its setting. It pulls off a narrative move in the first ten minutes so ballsy I wouldn’t dare to spoil it here. And you won’t enjoy it, because you’re going to watch it on Netflix on your TV in bed while scrolling Facebook and answering texts.
Which is fine. But if you get the chance to watch this in a dark theatre, I strongly recommend you go, as it rewards the effort it takes to allow yourself to submerge yourself into its world.
Taking its cue from the great oaters of the 1950s, the John Ford and John Wayne films, with their sense of what is right and what is just, Ballad reaches an ending that feels a bit pat and forced. Is it bad that I can no longer feel good about a happy ending anymore unless it unfolds organically? Perhaps, and I suspect I may be in the minority in that view. Bill Pullman is an American treasure of the cinema, who pulls off the common actor’s trick of being both underrated and consistently working. Also a special mention here to Kathy Baker, who takes what could have been a thankless role and dominates every scene she’s in. When you’re in scenes with actors like Pullman and Peter Fonda, that’s no easy trick to pull off.
Man, I liked this movie an awful lot. It starts as the kind of film that usually gets under my skin; highly stylized, with purposefully whimsical elements that are beautiful and as airless as a Faberge egg. As we stay wit hthe story, it becomes apparent that this is a deliberate choice.
Sally Hawkins is a mute cleaning girl at a government lab whose purpose and provenance are kept deliberately vague. She lives in an artist’s garret above a second-run movie theatre, and her closest neighbor and friend is a gay commercial artist who is obsessed with old films, and has recently aged out of a career in advertising, an industry that’s always looking forward.
Color is an important part of Del Toro’s storytelling Shape of Water, and the pallet he works with is almost another main character. The first two-thirds of the film are greens and blues, and we see that this is because the people in his world are underwater in their\ own lives, unable to communicate, barely able to communicate because they’re drowning in their own loneliness.
A swamp creature from South America is dragged in chains to the lab, and Sally Hawkins’ working girl very quickly senses a kindred spirit lurking in the muddy depths of his tank. As she falls in love, as the outside world tries to contain the creature, slowly the clockwork design that dominates the first half of the film falls apart. In fact, every time a character is about to be upended, another splash of red is added to the canvas.
And all through the film, intimacy and communication are the agents of chaos that takes this world apart piece by piece. Whether it’s Michael Shannon’s wound-up government agent putting his hand over his wife’s mouth during an act of love-making, because he “can’t” when she’s talking, or Richard Jenkins’ artist bravely making a move on a counter boy he’s been afraid to open himself up to, it’s communication that makes the colors run in this meticulously-painted masterpiece. It’s a neat trick when a filmmaker creates a fully-realized world that you never want to leave, and yet still has you fully rooting for its destruction when it happens.
I enjoyed the shit out of Bright. It is not a good movie. It’s a lot of banter and explosions and ridiculously wasted special effects.
The first thing you need to know is that I am a David Ayer fan. In 2001, two screenplays he wrote, Training Day and The Fast and The Furious, premiered becoming massive, genre-defining successes. End of Watch, a movie he wrote and directed, a minor classic. Even if he had never directed a movie before Bright, there is a lot of evidence out there that he knows a thing or two about crafting story. And believe me, there’s very little in Bright.
The second thing you need to know is that I am HUGE fan of the buddy cop action/comedy genre. I love the best of it: Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop. I love the worst of it: Beverly Hills Cop III, Running Scared (where tiny middle-aged Long Islander Billy Crystal plays a tough-as-nails Chicago cop who can dunk on a bunch of teenagers in a game of street ball), Red Heat, and Dead Heat, a movie that pairs Joe Piscopo with Treat Williams as a zombie cop named Roger Mortis. I love these movies, and in a perfect world, Shane Black would have as many Oscar® brand entertainment industry-strength suppositories as the great William Goldman.
And it’s not as if Bright doesn’t have a killer hook; transposing a fairy tale world onto a modern-day noir is about has hooky as a premise gets. However, in Bright, we’re given stakes that are way too big to be relatable. As I said in the entry for Guardians of the Galaxy above, if your movie can’t find a way to get big while also being small and relatable, it doesn’t matter that you have human charm machine Will Smith in the lead role, your viewer just is not going to give a shit by the end.
Will Smith, by the way, deserves an MVP award from Hollywood for carrying this movie, as well as Ayer’s previous, Suicide Squad, like a champ. For the record, Suicide Squad was another movie that I enjoyed unironicallyas a pure moviegoing experience. If you’re going to make a bad comic book movie, don’t make it so boring that people mistake your film for art (Logan, which is basically The Piano with mutants). And for god’s sakes, don’t let your actors in on the fact that you’re making garbage. By the time they got around to filming Justice League, the stars had been so lambasted for Batman v. Superman, they walked through Justice League depressed. Like they know they’re going to get beaten up for appearing in this movie, no matter how it turns out. Like the group of cool kids who go to their high school reunion and realize that middle age has transformed them into losers somehow.
Suicide Squad was all forward motion and optimism, and Margot Robbie is a standout because it feels like she’s decided that she’s in her own amazing action movie where she’s the protagonist. It looks great, and moves at fast clip for a movie that’s easily an hour too long, and everybody, from Ayer to the actors to the set designers to makeup to costumes, all conspire to help the audience forget that what they’re watching makes no goddamn sense.
Justice League is the aftermath of a trainwreck, a public hearing with Amtrak officials to determine what went wrong. Suicide Squad is a neon spaceship with its controls set to find the heart of the sun.
By contrast, Bright is an Edsel with four screaming passengers that’s been pushed off a cliff. At times you can convince yourself you’re flying along, but when the ride ends it ain’t going to end pretty. Will Smith is great as always, but for the first time he seems genuinely tired. Like he’s he made a wish with an evil genie and got stuck in the cycle of starring in big budget action movies and promoting big budget action movies, and hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since Bad Boys II (a GREAT movie, by the way).
There’s a great many things wrong with this movie that wants to be a parable about racism, but unlike Get Out, was written and directed by two men who never experienced it first-hand. See, it’s set in a world where, essentially, Lord of the Rings is actual history, and Will Smith’s partner is an Orc. Orcs have been discriminated against for 2,000 years after siding with The Dark One in a massive battle. The problem is the film also seems to embrace shades of actual racism (Latino gangbangers straight out of a 1990s LAPD recruitment film) and anti-Semitism (elves are all rich, and live in their own separate section of Beverly Hills, and not-so-secretly control the government).
But the biggest problem is the lack of give-a-shit stakes. See, the most powerful weapons in this film are magic wands, which can only be handled by supernatural beings called Brights. It’s supposed to be a major plot twist that Will Smith, an ordinary street cop and regular human being, is a “Bright.” But we know this already for two reasons:
So the movie tries to throw us a curve ball by withholding fifty percent of the information we would need to enjoy the story until the very end. See, there’s an Orcish prophecy about the end of the world, and the twist is that Will Smith is a central figure in their doomsday fable. But we don’t learn there’s even a prophecy until the final half hour. And in the end, Will Smith learns he’s a Bright by grabbing the magic wand.
Now, this could have been a movie about Will Smith knowing he’s got special powers but not wanting to acknowledge or use them for reasons. Or it could have been a movie where Will Smith slowly learns he has powers and in the final scene he decides to risk trusting his gut that he’s a “Bright” by grabbing the wand in what would otherwise be a scene of tremendous self-sacrifice.
But instead he just blindly grabs the wand and trusts that he’s awesome enough to survive. It’s as if Star Wars decided not to tell us anything about the Force and Luke Skywalker’s connection to it until the very end of the final trench run sequence.
I hold none of this against the movie. This is a list of films I enjoyed this year, and Bright closes it out with no sense of irony or sarcasm. Because in this movie, you get to root against everybody. Everybody, every character, turns out to be a dick to one degree or another. If it seems one guy is unjustly accused of something, you find out that no, he really did the wrong thing and got lucky it worked out. And so you really just get to dig in and enjoy two solid hours of CGI-enhanced mayhem. And in this case, it failed in a way I find more interesting than many of the “good” movies of 2017 succeeded.
It seems odd that I have lived long enough that a sentence like, “The Star Trek nerds of the Internet are become outraged,” should seem like news. Because I remember a time, back in the long ago, in the before times, when the Internet was much smaller, and it seemed that fifty percent of the bandwidth used on the Internet Super Highway was engaged in an endless war of Picard v. Kirk.
But we do, we live in a world where your most elderly relatives can, with a click of a mouse, keep tabs on your entire life through Facebook. And as the popular culture spreads through the Internet, just like a deadly virus spreads through a bad B-thriller about the Congo or something, and as Internet nerd culture has engulfed the mainstream, a sentence like this becomes a novelty.
And, so: The Star Trek nerds of the Internet are become outraged. A story broke that, in addition to the upcoming film that he’s announced about the Manson Family murders, Quentin Tarantino has come up with an idea he likes for a next Star Trek movie, and will, in all likelihood, move on to supervise the writing of it, and direct it as well.
Let’s forget for the moment that Quentin Tarantino is notorious for conceiving, enthusiastically announcing, and discarding movies (the joint Reservoir Dogs/Pulp Fiction sequel about the Vega brothers, or the real-time 15-years-later follow up to Kill Bill being the first two that spring immediately to mind).
And let’s forget for a moment that Tarantino seems to be hip-deep in production of this Manson film, which should probably take the focus of his energies for at least the next year. And there’s no knowing what Tarantino, of the famously fleeting attention span, will feel about his Star Trek movie when he actually gets the time to sit down and make it a reality. Or not.
But that’s no fun. So let’s talk about what has this fandom up in arms, which is Quentin Tarantino and Star Trek.
As an aside: The Manson movie is a no-brainer. And not just in the broad, general sense that Tarantino is the ultra-violence and pitch-black humor, Larry Cohen-as-artiste, Grindhouse-on-the-Riviera guy. But because his trademark is switching from moments of dark comedy to acts of brutal violence, often on the whisper-blink of a dropped dime.
Who else could do justice to the story of a failed singer/songwriter, of a burnout who swung into Dennis Wilson’s orbit long enough to have the Beach Boy steal the tune from one of his songs. The tragicomic American success story who finds family, love, and fame as a hippie philosopher king as the head of a sex and murder cult, who found his celebrity as a murderer/criminal in the murder of the wife of a celebrity director (and soon-to-be criminal himself?).
If Oliver Stone’s final draft of Natural Born Killers turns a story of a cross-country thrill-kill spree into a heavy-handed satire of the media’s tendency to make heroes of outlaws, then Charles Manson was Tarantino’s proto-draft, making the same point but in real life. It would make sense that eventually he would circle all the way back in his career.
And so. Tarantino’s characters scurry and scutter like cockroaches in the shadow that pools like blood beneath the green trees and white picket fences world of that dream. In the projectionist/revolutionary-cum-revenge killer of Inglorious Basterds, in the unseen and shadowy mastermind Bill of Kill Bill, in the seedy drifters and petty criminals of Jackie Brown, the late Charlie Manson would have found plenty of happy company in Tarantino’s movies.
All of which makes Tarantino The Auteur of the Bottom of the Double Feature a hell of an odd fit for Star Trek, the JFK Era’s “In ten years’ time we will land a man on the moon” credo made flesh. A director, whose gritty bottom-dwelling characters live in a world governed by the Bob Dylan lyric, “To live outside the law you must be honest,” tackling a TV series star-bound ideals of the Mid-Century Man , whose moral code lies in the refrain repeated throughout its films: “The good of the many outweighs the good of the one.”
Tarantino the filmmaker about compulsion and expulsion, about blood and lust, often spontaneously so. Taking the reins of Star Trek, a series whose hallmark is restraint and, most importantly, the enforcement of the codified rule of laws, both of man and of nature.
Star Trek’s characters may be men and women of action—or in the case of The Next Generation, men and women prone to endlessly debating and discussing, like a Jewish family at the Olive Garden for the first time, examining the menu—but their actions are grounded in sharply-drawn laws, directives, and codes of conduct. By the laws of the Federation of Planets, the directives of Starfleet that govern everything from dress code to protocol on encountering new species and traveling through time. Some of Captain James Kirk’s biggest struggles are the moral ones between what’s “right” for the crew that his captaincy makes him responsible for, and what’s “right” for the beings he encounters, and what’s “right” as defined by the iron-clad laws of the world in which he lives.
Which isn’t to say that Tarantino’s characters are lawless. They live by the outlaw’s code, and it’s only when they step outside that code, when they go back on their word or sin against their fellow bottom-dwellers, for lust or money, that they meet their fate. In Pulp Fiction, Ving Rhames’ mob boss Marcellus Wallace explains at great length the moral and philosophical underpinnings of why Bruce Willis’ boxer Butch must throw his fight. Instead, Butch wins his fight, killing the other boxer in the process, and finds himself facing death and sexual assault in the basement of a redneck pawn shop.
In fact, it’s only after his decision to stop, when he’s on the verge of freedom, to go back and save the mob boss who has marked him for immediate murder because it is the right thing to do by the lights of the world he lives in, that he finally gains everything he lost by going back on his word; freedom to travel, freedom to collect the money he won betting on himself, freedom to be with the woman he loves (and he gets to trade in his crappy old car on rapist Zed’s dope chopper in the bargain).
And yet, at the end of the day, is Captain Kirk and crew so different? Look at Star Trek III: The Search for Spock where Kirk and crew risk everything to save their friend Spock, whose dying body was separated from his mind saving his friends in the previous Star Trek film. They steal a starship, they turn outlaw, they land on the Genesis planet – a place of Godlike power to create life that has been forbidden to man, they destroy a Klingon warship in an act of war that is contrary to every law of Starfleet, all to save their friend who had just recently saved their lives. And then in the subsequent film, they find redemption and restoration to their status quo only after saving the planet Earth from a shadowy alien threat.
In Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino breaks every narrative rule concerning depicting historical events, destroying the entire Nazi High Command in one act of bloody, explosive revenge, ending World War II years early. Cristoph Waltz’s SS colonel Hans Landa could have saved the lives of his superiors, but instead chose to use his knowledge of the forthcoming event to strike his own deal with the United States high command to flee the soon-to-topple Fatherland and land in comfort. Of course, this being a Tarantino movie, and Landa having broken the outlaw’s code, a bloody and permanent punishment is practiced on him in the woods before he can escape.
Whereas, in the classic Trek episode, City on the Edge of Forever, Kirk and Spock end up back in the New York City of the Great Depression, having made a leap of faith through alien time travel technology to rescue his friend Dr. McCoy. Back in the past, he meets, and falls in love with, a woman, Edith Keeler, whom Spock discovers in her alternate timeline founds a pacifist movement that ends up delaying the United States’ entry into WWII, thus allowing the Nazi government to triumph. Deciding that the good of the many outweighs the good of the one, and realizing that he can’t allow his love for this woman to destroy history as we know it, Kirk must stop himself from allowing Dr. McCoy to save Keeler from being killed by a truck.
Breaking this moral code is depicted as an almost impossible choice in the Star Trek universe. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, the crew is back in 1986 San Francisco. They have rescued the whales that will talk down the alien satellite that is destroying the Earth. They have their stolen Klingon Bird of Prey ship powered up. And they have a crewman, and friend, being held prisoner by the 20th century military. Mr. Spock, the reliable logical moral arbiter, says that they must go back and rescue him, at the risk of their own mission. Kirk asks if it’s the logical thing to do. Spock says, “It’s the human thing to do.” And the theater I watched this movie in erupted in applause, because goddamn it, he’s right.
In Inglourious Basterds, we have Melanie Laurent’s Jewish projectionist who has seen her family destroyed in the Holocaust, and in City on the Edge of Forever, we have William Shatner’s Captain Kirk who must let his girlfriend die, and they are both given a chance to personal satisfaction at the expense of history’s delicate tapestry. Tarantino is willing to destroy history as a way of creating a helluva twist, while the Star Trek universe is about maintaining the status quo. About personal sacrifice in the service of the common good.
For all of Kirk’s reputation as an intergalactic ladies’ man, his swinging is mostly confined to the bloodless clinch and kiss. Whereas Tarantino is about the twin flames of murder and desire. And yet, for the surface differences, this is where the two come together.
Another classic Star Trek episode: Theodore Sturgeon’s Amok Time. In the Trek universe, First officer Mr. Spock comes from an alien race, the Vulcans, whose entire civilization is built on the suppression of emotion in favor of cold, logical behavior. But once every seven years, they undergo pon farr, a savage blood lust and inevitable death, and once every seven years, unless they are able to mate (been there!) with someone with whom they are in a relationship, they will die.
And here, we find a Tarantino-esque moral dilemma. Spock, who faces an arranged marriage that has been set by his parents since birth, arrives at the planet Vulcan to find that his promised, T’Pau, is in love with another. And if a Vulcan woman does not wish to wed, she may demand a kal-if-fee, a duel between her two loves, to the death. In order to protect the man she truly loves, she demands Spock fight his best friend Kirk in the kal-if-fee. This story is the bloody stuff of the best western murder ballads, and certainly a plotline that could fight into a Tarantino-esque film. And Spock does it. He murders Kirk in the heat of pon farr. Only to find later that Kirk was only heavily-sedated, because nobody was that committed to serial storytelling in the 1960s.
After all, in Pulp Fiction, it’s only after John Travolta’s hitman clearly decides that he is going to sleep with his boss, Marcellus Wallace’s wife, and after she decides to sleep with him, that she accidentally overdoses on heroin and Travolta’s Vincent Vega must save her life or surely be murdered by Wallace in return.
It’s this horror of upending the status quo of the world that the characters live in that many of Tarantino’s films share with the best of Star Trek.
In fact, the famous “Spock with a goatee” evil alternate universe is one that the director would find himself quite at home in. A world where murder is dispensed liberally (if, again, bloodlessly, through the use of a machine) as a means of gaining and keeping command. Where Kirk gives in fully to his animal, sexual passions, keeping mistresses among his crew. It’s telling that the closest this universe has to a “good guy” is dependable Spock-in-a-goatee, who remains logical and intelligent, displaying restraint and a relative respect for the chain of command. In a world where Starfleet acts less as an exploratory and military force and more as a loose-knit aggregation of pirate ships, Spock stands against the horrors of lack of respect for the rule of law.
In other words, it’s a cautionary tale about what happens if society in that universe behaved in the way it does in Quentin Tarantino movies. And if he wanted to set his Star Trek movie in that evil mirror universe, I would be the first in line to buy a ticket.
But as I said, nerds on the Internet are furious about this. And I say, if the Trekkies are going to freak out, then by all means, let them freak out. This is the nature of the passionate fan. Because Star Trek has been around for a long time, because it’s never been a blockbuster in the nature of the Star Wars phenomenon. Not only has that never been Trek’s strength, when Roddenberry and Paramount tried to fit Star Trek into that mold with The Motion(less) Picture, it failed miserably.
Star Wars is a film series that values spectacle over all, with much less concern for interpersonal relationships except in the grandest terms; it’s a world of gigantic oedipal stories told with gigantic mythic archetypes. It’s telling that of all the characters, the most consistently relatable is Han Solo, the cocky pilot who gets in over his head constantly, who fails consistently, and whose heroism lies in overcoming his own limitations.
And the first three movies were set in worlds painted with such broad brushstrokes, that much of the detail and shading happened offscreen. As a young child, how did I know that the lead Ewok’s name was Wikket? It’s never mentioned in The Return of the Jedi, and I certainly was not sitting still studying the closing credits. No, it’s through the tie-in books and toys and spin-off specials and Burger King giveaways that you learn more about this world, names of species and back stories and characters who popped up in the background. If you are of a certain age, and I say the word “Lobot,” you know exactly who I am talking about, even though he spends almost no time on-screen and has no lines.
But Star Trek is all shading and detail, all about character development and relationships. Even the starship Enterprise becomes a leading character, and her heroic death and self-sacrifice in The Search for Spock is shocking and tragic. Kirk and Spock and McCoy are three mid-century manly men in the John Ford western mold. All surface bravado and machismo, under whose cover strong emotions simmer. There’s a bond of brotherly love that dares never show itself except in times of extreme distress and danger, or in the afterglow of a near-death experience, when they can relax and let their guards down. No wonder so much fan-fiction surrounds a hypothetical romantic and sexual relationship between the three, when there is a love that clearly does not speak its name. Even if that love is nothing more risqué than the fraternal bond between the members of a college football team.
The strength of Star Trek lies in its relationships, and not just between the characters, but even more importantly, between the show itself and the fans. Before the Internet broke down the walls between popular and outsider art, there were many examples of music, TV, movies, that were initially designed for mass-market consumption, but was such a product of personal vision that it found itself the object of a niche, or “cult,” audience. A group of fans for whom part of the joy of watching a show, or reading a book, or following a band that wasn’t constantly on the Billboard charts and in rotation on MTV, lay in knowing that it wasn’t popular.
I used to have a joke that the Internet made moot, about how nerds who are nerdy for a thing, enjoy maintaining the status of a “true fan.” That I’d found not only a Star Trek slash fic (gay-themed fan-fiction) site, but one that was written entirely in Klingon, with the only English being, “I do not provide translations. If you cannot read Klingon, you are at the wrong site.” That this kind of nerd was nerdy about the thing that they loved that it turned them into snobs.
Because before the Comic-Cons became so huge that they were an important part of launching film franchises, before “geek culture” and “popular culture” became entwined, the official mass-media popular posture on shows, especially science fiction shows like Star Trek or Doctor Who, would be that this was fringe-dwelling weirdo stuff appreciated only by foul-smelling losers who live in their parents’ basements.
Not like “real” entertainment, TV shows like Miami Vice or The Dukes of Hazzard which ran for years on major networks in prime-time slots, and weren’t cast off onto fuzzy UHF stations from far-flung states in late-night syndication, or even more suspect to population at large, on PBS.
And so you would have to hunt for the shows you liked, which, even if they did play in first-run prime-time, often jumped around the schedule sometimes with no notice. And you would seek out books, and fan clubs, and little fan conventions in run-down hotels. And you would build a community.
When I was a lad of twelve, my dad taped a marathon showing of the British pre-apocalyptic show The Prisoner. I watched the whole thing, enthralled with its clever plotting, smart scripts, and groovy English Mod style. One day at Barnes & Noble bookstore, and it’s funny to think that Barnes & Noble, which was once considered poison for mom and pop bookstores, was choked out of business by Amazon. But one day, I found and paid my own birthday money for a guide book to The Prisoner, entitled The Prisoner Official Companion. It was there that I learned about entire alternate versions of episodes that were shot and never aired, and I learned why there were weird fantasy episodes that were completely out of tune with the rest of the series (long story short: ITV contract with more episodes than series creator/star Patrick McGoohan had good ideas for).
I carried The Official Prisoner Companion around my junior high school for three months, hoping a cute girl would notice and tell me that she thought I was super cool. Shocking twist ending: Never happened. But in the back was a guide to all of the various Prisoner fan groups you could belong to, and so as a 12th birthday present, my parents subscribed me to the cheapest one (six bucks for six months, I think). Every month or so I would receive a hand-Xeroxed, hand-stapled fanzine, with stories and baffling comics written by fellow fans. It was a thrilling peek into a world where people obsessed over all the same things I did.
I owned The Doctor Who Programme Guide, a listing of all of the episodes of the first 20-something years that was already five years out of date by the time I picked it up. And I read it cover to cover many times. I was a lonely kid, yes, but I also got a huge kick out of the paragraph-length breakdowns of the show’s episodes. I would read them over and over, noting which episodes I hadn’t seen, wondering about the episodes that hadn’t been produced, and trying to imagine the episodes that had been lost forever.
And so, when you feel as if you are alone in the dark, loving something as your own, wondering who else could even be paying attention, feeling isolated, it’s as if the show has been made for you personally. And you develop a specific personal emotional attachment to it. You love it, yes, and you also feel an ownership over it.
And then came the Internet.
I’m a native New Yorker. If you’re ever in New York City and you want to find out who grew up there, just talk to them for more than thirty seconds, and they will tell you. I am that guy, and frankly, I make no apologies. And so here’s a story, called Once Upon A Time, Here’s The Way It Would Go:
A little place would open up in your neighborhood. A café, say, or a restaurant. And maybe a local paper would give you a little blurb about what was opening there, and you would decide to give it a chance. And if it was good, the décor charming, the food tasty, the price reasonable, you would spread the word. And maybe it would get to the point where you would have to wait ten, fifteen minutes for a table on the weekend, which is only fair because you like to see a local business that you like stay open.
Then word of mouth would spread to a writer for a travel guide, Fodor’s Guide to New York, or maybe Zagat’s would catch wind and drop in on a good night. Or a friend knows a guy at the New York Times and their reviewer comes by. And there would be a major write up, and then the place would be mobbed and the owners would maybe expand into the next three storefronts to handle the overflow business, and then open a second location in midtown.
And this process would take years, and even though you had lost a neighborhood spot, you had gained the ability to tell everyone you know, “Oh yeah, that place? I used to go there, before it became a tourist trap.” And while it was always sad to let go, it’s the natural cycle with everything that’s beloved, whether it be a bar, or a restaurant, or an entire neighborhood. And so it goes with popular culture.
Only the Internet accelerated this to a destructive pace. Suddenly there were a million New York blogs, and suddenly there were a million local experts touting any and every new thing under the sun. And there came the scenesters, like locusts they came. From all across the country, from all around the world. Young people, the offspring of an affluent generation who told their children that they could be anything they wanted to be, without adding the important addendum, unless you don’t have a natural talent for it, in which case it’s okay to stay closer to home and live an ordinary life. And being a generation that only dared to move to NYC after a decade of sitcoms promising it was tame and bland enough for safe living, and fearful of anything that didn’t come pre-approved, they built their Gaps and their Starbuckses and they swarmed over any and everything that these blogs promised were cool. Venues and bands and entire neighborhoods they consumed.
And look, this isn’t to say that I don’t want the things I love to be appreciated by a wider audience. Because Paramount believed there was a wider audience for Star Trek than NBC was giving it credit for, we have all the movies, and novels, and comic books, and other ancillary media I consumed as a child.
As I said, when I was young I would go to science fiction conventions. At their best, these would be a floor of conference rooms in a somewhat disreputable hotel. The actors would come to speak, to meet their fans, the authors would come to drink and mingle, the vendors would sell their merchandise. For twenty dollars, I got my hot pudgy hands on a second-generation bootleg dub of Heavy Metal, which was at the time unavailable on home video due to music rights. Grainy Star Trek blooper reels would be played. I once met, and shook the hand of Isaac Asimov, who was the keynote speaker at one of the bigger cons.
I’ve stopped going to conventions. They give me panic attacks. The convention floors is packed with packed with young people in costume, having found a way to keep the Halloween party going beyond the full week out of the year it’s allotted in most cities now. The sounds and the music and the lights and the overwhelming melancholy I feel knowing that the world I once knew is gone.
And so, of course, as a Star Trek nerd, I’m going to have mixed feelings about Tarantino taking the reins on the franchise. But he could be good for Trek. He understands, in a way that the best producers and directors of the original franchise films did, the need for action to propel story, for humor to leaven the operatically-tragic moments of tragedy.
And yes, Tarantino is a grindhouse director, but he’s also shown himself to be the master of what Star Trek is at its absolute best – the granite and stone elements of B-movie garbage, chipped and chiseled and shaped into a work of art. Popular, yes, and in its own ways trashy, but still art. Of all the living Great American Directors, he’s the one I would most trust to take something as basic as a show pitched as “Wagon Train to the Stars,” and turn it into something great. Roddenberry did it almost by accident. Maybe Tarantino could do it on purpose.
But that leaves the real question: Why? Why do we keep bringing Star Trek back? Why do we keep making every Star Wars movie a record-breaking blockbuster? Why are the biggest money-making films based on comic books like The Avengers? Not to say that these aren’t great franchises that don’t speak to every new generation.
It’s just that the first Star Wars movie came out forty years ago. The first Avengers comic came out fifty-four years ago. The original TV series that Star Trek is based on went off the air almost fifty years ago now. Doctor Who still follows almost exactly a template that was established almost fifty-five years ago.
So why do we keep circling around these things over and over? Why is our culture incapable of creating new beloved myths? Is it because they still speak to us, or is it because they made us a feel a certain way once upon a time, and we as a people are trying to recapture the magic of that first fandom? When I watch, when I support, these things, am I holding on to something I love, or am I having trouble letting go of who I once was?
Western civilization, as defined by American-style democratic institutions both political and cultural, is facing a crisis point. A significant chunk of the population, scared by a chaotic-seeming present, cling to a certain cultural recidivism. Won’t let go of a mythical past where everything was better, and so a President was elected on the slogan “Make America Great Again.” The idea was to bring back, not so much a better time, but the feeling that believing that such a time had existed gives you.
And while I am certainly not going to sit here and compare Quentin Tarantino to Donald Trump, the question becomes: In order to move forward in our culture, is it necessary to bring everything with us? Luggage filled with nuggets of gold mixed in with blocks of lead? These things are the movies and television and boks I have loved, but sometimes it is time to let the dead bury their own dead, in the words of the prophet, and remember that part of the thrill of popular culture was the thrill of discovering something new. Nurturing it, following it, loving it, and letting it speak to you in the aloneness of the dark.
A fear of the new, of the unknown, of change and trying something new, will eventually lead to a culture like all the formerly hip neighborhoods of New York City, nothing but chain stores and culture that is neither surprising nor scary.