Sunday, March 12, 2023

Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play (2012).

To tell you the truth, it's been a while since I've given any real thought to the subject.  There was a time when I would have considered myself a fan of The Simpsons.  These days, however?  Well, maybe not all that much.  Perhaps not at all is the more correct way of how things stand, with me, at least.  The funny thing is I can still recall how and where I first saw them, though there's a bit of a trick in the telling, and it goes like this.  I almost started to talk about the first ever episode of the show that I watched from start to finish.  Then I had to stop myself because I realized that wasn't quite correct.  That's not how I ran across the (former) First Family of Comedy at all, really.  It was through a tie-in arcade game the series once had.  It came in one of those big boxes that you find tucked away in old malls back in a long vanished analog age.  Does anybody here still remember those old arcade areas?  

It was a result of the first great video game boom during the 80s.  It's how we got stuff like Pac Man, Space Invaders,  or Super Mario Bros.  As the games got more sophisticated, so did the graphics, and pretty soon there were arcade boxes that offered games functioning as tie-in materials for favorite shows on TV, like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Hell, even Michael Jackson once had an arcade game dedicated to him, that's just how crazy and interesting things used to be back in the day.  Sure enough, Springfield's favorite family also got in on the action at one point.  It was this beat-em-up brawler were you got to choose between any of the four members of Che Simpsons as you battled your way through town in order to rescue the baby, Maggie.

I'm not sure the of exact place where I first saw that particular bit of shameless merchandising.  I think it could have been in the lobby of a long defunct theater chain, or maybe a local pizzeria type place.  My clearest memory, however, is of catching a brief glimpse of the game's setup, and finding it kind of intriguing, I guess you could say.  As far as first encounters go, that probably sounds simple enough.  Except there's just one problem.  My mind has played a further trick on me.  That's not the real first time I ran across The Simpsons at all.  Before that it all must have started off as a sporadic series of passing chance encounters.  Here's where the history begins to get sketchy.  Beyond a few crucial snapshot remembrances, I don't think I paid enough attention to all the times I was ever alerted to the presence of America's Favorite Dysfunctional Family on the airwaves.  It's possible the first time was catching a casual glimpse of a quickie promo on the TV at one point.  This, in turn, might have been followed by the first spate of toy commercials.  I know at some point I wound up the owner of a rubber-plastic Bart figurine.  Though it's been so long that I no longer recall how I got hold of it, or what's even become of it today.  It might even count as a lost collector's item these days, for all I know.

After that, things begin to come into a bit better focus.  Not a lot, though better than where it all started.  I can claim with certainty to have caught the tail-end of the episode known as Bart Gets Hit by a Car.  It's the one that ends with Homer and Marge commiserating with each other over a pint at Moe's, remember?  Marge just blew the family's chance on winning a hefty wad of money from Mr. Burns in court.  There was this shady ambulance chaser named Lionel Hutz who'd finagled it so they could all hit the jackpot in terms of a monetary settlement for the "damages" done to Bart at the episode's start.  All they needed to make it work is ensure that everyone was on the same page, and give the same false testimony.  Bart and Homer are onboard with this scheme.  Lisa and Marge, however, are not.  And it's Marjorie's decision to tell the truth which causes the court to turn against them.  The show then ends with Man and Wife apologizing and patching things up together at Springfield's best watering hole.

This is all stuff I found out about later on.  I first came in at the end, like I said.  Right at the point where Homer looks Marge right in the eye, and realizes that he still loves her with all his heart.  He tells her as much in front of all his drinking buddies, and everyone cheers, and decides to celebrate with a round of Duff Beer.  Hard to believe that's how it used to be, isn't it?  This was all in the future (once upon a past) for me, at the time.  Back then, all I saw was another snippet of a burgeoning pop culture phenomenon, and I still didn't have a clue what it was about.  The funny thing is I probably would have remained clueless of all this if I hadn't left a video cassette recording long enough to capture a rerun of the episode where Marge decides to get a job at the Nuclear Power Plant, and winds up catching the eye of Homer's boss.  I forget the name of the episode after all these years, yet I can still remember a lot of the shenanigans that went on in it.  It included a subplot riff on the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, involving Bart.  It's the one that ends with the couple being serenaded by Tom Jones, only he's being held captive by Mr. Burns as the result of one of his attempts to win her over to his side.

I don't think there's much of anything new about the patchwork story I've just told.  Odds are even the world is full reminiscences just like mine.  All of them, when placed together side by each other, would amount to little more than an anecdotal history of how America first came to know what used to be considered the funniest, and most clever sitcom satire in history.  At least that's how it all started out.  The key thing to note about that little bit of shared history written above lies in the way it was told.  I was having to work from memory the whole time just to get the facts straight, which is telling.  I also had to stop every now and again when I realized I hadn't told the whole story.  There were gaps in my history with The Simpsons that needed shoring up in order to give an accurate picture, and this is something that's even more significant.  All I was trying to do was recount how I came to know about a very famous (once popular) TV show, and yet it took effort because of how much time had lapsed between when it all happened, where I am now, and how much energy I gave to remembering it all.

The whole process teaches a sort of unintentional (yet very real) lesson on the sometimes perilous nature of human memory.  It's a natural enough aspect of life, and something that we all have along with other mental faculties, such as the Imagination (if there even is anything natural about make believe, or remembrance for that matter), and yet it's something you sort of have to work at if you want it to function properly.  If I had to give a good description of what a memory does, or is supposed to be, then I guess a good way to describe it is to call it a way to capture all the important moments of things that go to make up a life.  How much any of us is able to recall important events from our past probably says a lot about what we value, or hold to be important.  The intertwined subject of the persistence of memory, or the remembrance of things past is a topic of great concern to a writer like Anne Washburn.  It forms part of the core of a play she wrote not too long ago.  It concerns, of all things, nothing less than The Simpsons, the show's legacy, and they way we recall it in our collective memory.  It's an intriguing fable of remembrance, persistence, and the way we tell stories to each other, and how the best tales manage to survive through the passage of time.  It's called Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play.

Sunday, February 26, 2023

Nope (2022)

Jordan Peele has turned out to be one the major breakout directors in Hollywood over the past few years.  Seeing as how he got his start way back in 2012, as part of the comedy series Key and Peele, perhaps its a mistake to call him anything like a "new voice".  However, all of his important cinematic accomplishments have arrived within the span of seven years.  So that makes him a recent addition by the uncertain standards of pop cultural awareness.  From that perspective, Peele got his first big break with his directorial debut with 2017's Get Out.  That's a film which does everything that a good Horror movie should do.  It sneaks up on its audience from out of left field, and when it comes time to go for the jugular is where Peele demonstrates his skills at crafting a well told tale of terror.  

Rather than just one big jump scare, or resorting minor and unimpressive gore tactics, Peele plays his hand like an architect who is well aware of the genre he is working in, and hence knows a thing or two on how to elevate this type of narrative to the level of genuine art.  His entire story is a multi-layered trap lined with multiple springs and trip wires primed to go off at just the right movement of the plot.  The way Peele builds up his house of horrors in that movie rests upon the strengths the director has gleaned from past entries in the field, while utilizing them all to express his own individual talent.  In doing so, I think what Peele has done there is to give us the modern incarnation of the Body Snatcher Invasion trope.

Get Out proved to be the film that got the attention of a mass audience, and put Peele on the map.  A powerhouse breakout performance like that is sure to raise a lot expectations in viewers, though.  This is true especially for those who now consider themselves the directors fans.  To say that a lot weight was being placed on Peele's next effort is a bit like saying that a stock broker has to hope that the market goes in his favor.  In think the fan created site known as TV Tropes gives a better summary of the result of Peele's next film better than I can.  

"While critics and audiences almost unanimously loved Get Out (2017), Us is proving to have a greater divide between audience and critical reception.  Audiences seem to be more mixed on the film than critics, who see it as good as Get Out if not better.  Case in point, Get Out had a CinemaScore of "A-" (a rarity for horror films, many of which get "B+" rankings if they're adored by audiences) and Us had a less enthusiastic "B".  A big component of this seems to be that the film's slow-burn approach to horror is completely different than Get Out, along with the movie's central allegory being a lot more esoteric compared to the unsubtle but important moral presented in Jordan Peele's previous film.  Another common complaint is the movie's explanation of what the (film's horrors, sic) actually are, in that the movie puts too much effort into trying to provide a "logical" explanation that still makes distractingly little sense, and the (villains) were more interesting when they were left creepily unclear (web)".  Let me just state here, for the record, that I've got no problems at all with any Horror story that needs a slow burn in order to achieve its effect.  Some of the best work I've ever read or watched in the genre has come from narratives where a slow release of information was just the right ingredient necessary to curdle the blood.  So I don't think that's the most valid criticism for why this movie doesn't work.

I think the real reason why Us wasn't such as big a hit as the director's previous effort is explained once more by the same TV Tropes page, when it gives us an enlightening bit of backstage trivia.  "Jordan Peele has stated that one of the things that inspired the film was The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "Mirror Image", about a woman encountering her evil doppelganger (ibid)".  If we assume this is the truth, then everything about Us begins to fall into place, including why it never quite works like the director intended it should.  What Peele has done here is to commit a tactical error, of sorts.  He's a taken a very simple idea and complicated it to a level of epic proportions.  His problem is this is a storytelling weight that the initial concept just isn't able to bear.  The notion of a creepy run-in with an evil double, or duplicate, is one of those creative ideas that is best served in smaller doses, like that of either a short story, or half hour television episode.  This is a vital aspect of the concept that Rod Serling appeared to be very much aware of, so he was smart enough to make sure this fantasy didn't wear itself out by over-staying its welcome.  Instead, where Peele tries to make the idea fit into a mold it can't accommodate, Serling pairs it down to its very essence, delivering a lean, mean, and frightening exercise in paranoia and existential dread.  It's a good way of comparing and contrasting the two creator's strengths and weaknesses.  The latter waters the concept down, the former makes it iconic.

With this hindsight in mind, it's no wonder if Peele's Get Out follow-up didn't exactly live up to expectations.  In fact, I'm starting to wonder if a lot of the fallout from that film's release might have bled into the inspiration for his next project, the movie up for review and discussion here today.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (2017)

Stephen King doesn't need much in the way of an introduction as of this writing.  There's bound to come a time when that may change.  When it does, it will be necessary for proper introductions, if anyone ever decides to get reacquainted with the author and his writings.  For the moment, however, we live in a time lucky enough when a goodish enough majority of the audience not only has a workable a familiarity with King, it's also still possible to agree upon a number of facts about the kind of work he does.  His life itself reads like the 20th century equivalent of an American Dickensian novel.  He was born the proverbial poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks.  His dad left him and his mom one night to "go get a pack of smokes" and never came back.  King doesn't dwell too much on it in real life, and yet it reverberates through his fiction, especially in the writer's treatment of fathers and father figures.  

His major literary influences could also be described as regional.  He grew up in the Northernmost half of the eastern United States.  His home was and remains the sate of Maine, to be exact.  It's one of those factoids that's destined to pop up from now until eternity in every literary dictionary.  It's just one of the things most people are aware of, and yet only a handful will ever understand the true meaning of.  The crucial thing about it is that being raised as a Northern Yankee has given King a very important, and specific set of literary influences.

It turns out he wound up coming of age in a very storied part of the Country.  If he's a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, then it makes sense to claim that authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne were (in a sense) some of his closest neighbors.  What I mean is that one of King's most vital influences were the impressions left on his mind by his local surroundings.  He was there to witness a lot of the same kind of phenomena as that observed by the writer of such books as The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables.  Much like King's work, Hawthorne's writings concern the sometimes insular natures of small, New England towns.  Also like his more famous literary descendant, Hawthorne's writings reveals all the ways in which his neck of the literal woods can be described as haunted.  Sometimes these ghosts of the past prove to be quite literal.  And just as in works like The Shining or Salem's Lot, it turns out that sometimes ghosts can have teeth, and they bite.  What brought about this train of creative thoughts turns out to be the same one's as King's.  Each writer grew up in the same New England milieu.  This means that both King Hawthorne spent their formative years observing, learning about, and later on, rebelling against the kind of ingrained trace remains of their shared Puritan heritage.

This aspect of their lives, in particular, seems to be more or less the heart and origin of their equal artistic abilities to deliver the good frights.  I think all American Gothic fiction keeps circling back to its birth place in some way or another.  In this case, it was all down to the crimes and atrocities committed by the Plymouth settlers in the early years of this Nation's history.  Their acts of violence, first against Native, then African Americans, and finally themselves are what helped to create what might be termed America's original sin.  This is the matrix, or historical frame of reference which helped determine the face of the modern Horror story.  It's what helps explain the constant lingering presence of some dangerous past fault exerting an often deadly influence on the present action of the ghostly tale.  It might be considered the genre's grand motif, and it's something King still appears to be very good at.  And it all came about, not just for him but for all of the best writer's in the scare business because once upon a time, the "Pilgrims" forged for this Nation it's collective sense of guilt and fear.  These are the notes that Stephen King has been most famous for playing on during the course of his entire career.

To this day it remains his greatest strength as a writer, and it's what's brought him the fame he enjoys now.  The Horror genre has become the norm which King has established for himself.  He's so synonymous with the genre, in fact, that it's noticeable whenever he deviates from it in any way.  It's not something he does often.  If that were the case, he would never get lumped in with all the things that go bump in the night.  Instead, it's more like a side hobby he's tried to indulge in on occasion.  The most notable example of these occasional detours is a series known simply as The Dark Tower.  I'll at least try and explain what this idea is in a minute.  Perhaps the best way to go about that is by asking where the writer even got the idea for such a concept in the first place?  This is the way King describes how he got his inspiration for what has to be one of the most obtuse notions in the history of literary fiction.

"Hobbits were big when I was nineteen...There were probably half a dozen Merrys and Pippins slogging through the mud at Max Yasgur’s farm during the Great Woodstock Music Festival, twice as many Frodos, and hippie Gandalfs without number. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings was madly popular in those days, and while I never made it to Woodstock (say sorry), I suppose I was at least a halfling-hippie. Enough of one, at any rate, to have read the books and fallen in love with them. The Dark Tower books, like most long fantasy tales written by men and women of my generation (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, by Stephen Donaldson, and The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks, are just two of many), were born out of Tolkien’s.

"But although I read the books in 1966 and 1967, I held off writing. I responded (and with rather touching wholeheartedness) to the sweep of Tolkien’s imagination—to the ambition of his story—but I wanted to write my own kind of story, and had I started then, I would have written his. That, as the late Tricky Dick Nixon was fond of saying, would have been wrong. Thanks to Mr. Tolkien, the twentieth century had all the elves and wizards it needed. In 1967, I didn’t have any idea what my kind of story might be, but that didn’t matter; I felt positive I’d know it when it passed me on the street...

"I think novelists come in two types, and that includes the sort of fledgling novelist I was by 1970. Those who are bound for the more literary or “serious” side of the job examine every possible subject in light of this question: What would writing this sort of story mean to me? Those whose destiny (or ka, if you like) is to include the writing of popular novels are apt to ask a very different one: What would writing this sort of story mean to others? The “serious” novelist is looking for answers and keys to the self; the “popular” novelist is looking for an audience. Both kinds of writer are equally selfish. I’ve known a good many, and will set my watch and warrant upon it.

"Anyway, I believe that even at the age of nineteen, I recognized the story of Frodo and his efforts to rid himself of the One Great Ring as one belonging to the second group. They were the adventures of an essentially British band of pilgrims set against a backdrop of vaguely Norse mythology. I liked the idea of the quest—loved it, in fact—but I had no interest in either Tolkien’s sturdy peasant characters (that’s not to say I didn’t like them, because I did) or his bosky Scandinavian settings. If I tried going in that direction, I’d get it all wrong.

"So I waited. By 1970 I was twenty-two, the first strands of gray had showed up in my beard (I think smoking two and a half packs of Pall Malls a day probably had something to do with that), but even at twenty-two, one can afford to wait. At twenty-two, time is still on one’s side, although even then that bad old Patrol Boy’s in the neighborhood and asking questions.

"Then, in an almost completely empty movie theater (the Bijou, in Bangor, Maine, if it matters), I saw a film directed by Sergio Leone. It was called The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and before the film was even half over, I realized that what I wanted to write was a novel that contained Tolkien’s sense of quest and magic, but set against Leone’s almost absurdly majestic Western backdrop. If you’ve only seen this gonzo Western on your television screen, you don’t understand what I’m talking about—cry your pardon, but it’s true. On a movie screen, projected through the correct Panavision lenses, TG, TB, & TU is an epic to rival Ben-Hur. Clint Eastwood appears roughly eighteen feet tall, with each wiry jut of stubble on his cheeks looking roughly the size of a young redwood tree. The grooves bracketing Lee Van Cleef’s mouth are as deep as canyons, and there could be a thinny (see Wizard and Glass) at the bottom of each one. The desert settings appear to stretch at least out as far as the orbit of the planet Neptune. And the barrel of each gun looks to be roughly as large as the Holland Tunnel.

"What I wanted even more than the setting was that feeling of epic, apocalyptic size. The fact that Leone knew jack shit about American geography (according to one of the characters, Chicago is somewhere in the vicinity of Phoenix, Arizona) added to the film’s sense of magnificent dislocation. And in my enthusiasm—the sort only a young person can muster, I think—I wanted to write not just a long book, but the longest popular novel in history. I did not succeed in doing that, but I feel I had a decent rip; The Dark Tower, Volumes One through Seven, really comprise a single tale, and the first four volumes run to just over two thousand pages in paperback. The final three volumes run another twenty-five hundred in manuscript. I’m not trying to imply here that length has anything whatsoever to do with quality; I’m just saying that I wanted to write an epic, and in some ways, I succeeded. If you were to ask me why I wanted to do that, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe it’s a part of growing up American: build the tallest, dig the deepest, write the longest. And that head-scratching puzzlement when the question of motivation comes up? Seems to me that that is also part of being an American. In the end we are reduced to saying It seemed like a good idea at the time (web)".

There's the actual truth of where he got this particular idea from, for better or worse, and I don't know how much or little that helps matters.  The very ironic truth of the matter appears to be very much as King says.  Perhaps this explains why it's so difficult to describe in any coherent way.  It might also be an explanation of why it both took so long for Hollywood to try and adapt the author's concept to the big screen, and why the final results turned out to be such a shambles.  Let's take a closer look.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Delta Space Mission (1984).

Can we all just admit that the 1980s was the last great decade for art?  I know I've painted a target on my head for saying that.  Anyone who wants to can accuse me of bias in this regard.  However, I don't think that's something I have to worry about all that much.  From what I've been seeing and hearing lately, all I've done is spoken a near unanimous opinion.  The best about saying something like this that it isn't an idea confined to just the 80s kids like me who lived through it.  It's easy to got on the Net and find countless testimonials by Millennials and Zoomers who are willing to share in the sentiment.  I think the best tribute to the decade I've heard is from someone who said: "I didn't live it, but I do miss it (web)".  I guess that makes me kind of lucky, in a sense.  I got to enjoy as much of it as I could before the curtain was wrung down on that entire aesthetic period.  I was born in the year that Orwell made famous, which means I was sort of ideally situated in the middle of that decade.  So it meant I was just in time to enjoy all the best that era had to offer.  In that sense, there both isn't all that much to talk about, and yet there's a lot of everything worth talking about, if that even makes sense. 

My own experiences of the 80s matches up pretty well with those of others.  I saw a lot of the same shows and movies growing up back then.  Two of my first childhood memories involved being introduced to a music composer with the curious name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and then finding out a funny yet cool looking car known as a Delorean that could travel through time.  The ones that really stuck, however, was being introduced to a Galaxy Far, Far Away, and following along as a young immigrant mouse tried to relocate and reunite with his missing family.  Bare in mind, I must have been like four or five when I was allowed to watch all this, so I guess you could say I had some pretty cool parents in that regard.  I think all of those films, when taken together can serve as a useful barometer for what helps that decade stand out from all that's come after it, at least.  It really does seem that it represents one of the last great flowerings of creativity on a grand cultural scale, one with enough talent and inspiration to it that it makes sense to declare it as the last great period of Romanticism in the field of the Arts.  It's a mindset that I think we should try and recapture a lot more often when we can.











For me, one of the great things about having an 80s childhood is that in addition to the the usual standbys of that decade, there was also plenty of room for experimentation and risk taking in the arts that just doesn't exist in the current artistic climate, no matter what anyone else may try and tell you.  I'm talking now about artistic products that were and are well out of the mainstream, yet still somehow manage to carry this quirky sense of genuine, popular appeal.  This is the area of the 80s where you run into your cult classic offerings like Brazil, Time Bandits, and The Dark Crystal.  I've known, and have been able to get some kind of enjoyment out of all of these films.  However, I'm also sort of talking about stuff that's further on and sometimes more far out than the usual standbys.  I'm starting to think I may have been more lucky than most 80s kids.  Yes, it's true I got to experience stuff like Garfield and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  However, for whatever reason, I was also able to find entertainment in films and shows that were a lot more out of the mainstream, even to this very day.  I'm talking now about the types of films that remain obscure even by the standards of the 80s, and yet they remain just as defined by that whole period as any of its most famous products.  This was my childhood years.

Most everybody knows about Transformers or G.I. Joe.  How many out there are familiar with The Mysterious Cities of Gold?  Yes there were The Smurfs and Fraggle Rock.  Now who here has ever heard of shows like Count Duckula, Belle and Sebastian, or Spartacus and the Sun Beneath the Sea? Here's where I think I got a really lucky 80s childhood looking back on it all now.  I was given a chance to wade further out into obscure waters of entertainment that remain relatively uncharted to this very day.  I'm talking about shows and movies now that are so obscure they have no choice except to be labeled as under the radar type gems.  In other words, no matter how objectively good their quality may be, it's almost like they will always have the deck stacked against them because they never got enough attention from the pop-culture of their time.  We're talking the kind of material that no one in the mainstream will ever hear about in any great quantities.  We've entered the realm of obscure animated specials like Dot and the Kangaroo, Twice Upon a Time, or maybe even the film up for discussion.

I came across Delta Space Mission by pure accident.  It was just there one day on the 366 Weird Movies website.  Perhaps the fact that I was even there in the first place should be the real clue to some of the more "out there" aspects of my cinema going tastes.  I'm not as die-hard about it as the folks who run that website are.  I'm afraid I'm a bit too comfortable with the mainstream of entertainment.  However, that interest in the quirky and the off-beat is still there, and sometimes, if you're lucky, you'll stumble across something from your childhood, or else just the past in general, that satisfies the desire for both the artistic and the creatively tripped out.  Those kind of films, in other words, where everything seems to be going along as normal, and then it all takes a left-field turn into Surrealsville, or else it's just one of those efforts that manage to generate their own trippy yet endearing atmosphere.  What I read about this film at the 366 website made it sound like one of those movies.  The type of obscure piece of outsider animation with far out visuals and a crazy plot to match the film's deliberately weird style.  The review was able to accomplish what any work of that kind should do.  It got me interested in wanting to get a look at this overlooked example of surrealist Science Fiction for myself.  So, after saving up enough to buy a copy, I had a look for myself.  Here is what I'm able to tell you about the movie.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Hidden Figures (2016).

There's a line that's been floating around out there for a while now.  It's often attributed to Winston Churchill, and it goes something like this.  "History will be kind to me, for I shall write it".  Whether or not the former prime minister of Great Britain actually said those words, they do speak to an irony at the heart of all history.  The maxim itself is a play on yet an even older saying, this one totally anonymous.  "History is written by the winners".  There are plenty of cases in which this is true enough.  If George Washington hadn't been such a good combat strategist, would his face have ever wound up on the dollar bill?  If it comes to it, would this country even exist if he'd been a failure?  Since he was the winner in the American Revolution, however, he got a chance to help write the next chapter in the story.  That's a relatively straightforward case, however.  Has there ever been any time in history when things weren't so cut and dried?  Well, there's another irony layered on top of the one observed by Churchill.  The trick is that guys like him and Washington are almost special cases.  The only reason they were winners at all was because they were the ones who are remembered for finding workable solutions to extreme situations.

The catch there, however, is that none of them were facing what might be called everyday, normal circumstances.  Every child in America is taught about who Washington was in relation to the creation of a Country.  Very few of us are ever informed about what an average day for the Father of Our Nation was like, when his back wasn't against the wall.  That's because very little of it seems to matter as far as most of us are concerned.  If it were otherwise, whole college curriculums would be dedicated to every facet of his personality and life experiences.  As things exist, such aspects are relegated to specialist studies.  The final irony is this.  Winners are history's exception, not its norms.  And even here, the punchline is that while we glorify the names of those who go on to make great achievements, this can sometimes come at the cost of all the anonymous background faces that were there to help him along the way.  The figures that director Billy Wilder once referred to as "All the Little People out there in the dark".  People like Washington seem to have avoided this kind of irony, as he's always shown as part of a larger tapestry made up of all the American Founders.  I'm not so sure that Churchill, or even Martin Luther King, has it so well.  We know of King, for the most part, as the face of the Civil Rights Movement, or Churchill has the British face of World War 2.  To be fair, there's a lot of accuracy in both claims.  What it obscures, however, are the faces and voices of those who contributed to a good cause.

This is something that a lot of history's anonymous contributors did not so much in silence.  It's just that the microphone never really got turned in their direction.  As a result, it's fair to say there are a lot of major accomplishments out their that will probably never get quite as much recognition as they will ever deserve.  Sometimes a lucky few have their day in the spotlight, however.  That's what's turned out to be the case for the story of Kathy Johnson, and two of her friends, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson.  If you've never heard of them, that's both a shame and understandable.  They aren't the sort of titles that jump out of history books at you.  Then again, when's the last time any of us picked up a history book the minute we left the hallowed halls of academe in our rear-view mirrors?  I rest my case.

The point here is that sometimes a handful of the forgotten history makers strike it lucky, and find some measure of remembrance for themselves.  That seems to be the case with a lot of famous events in history.  Even Churchill had Lord Montgomery and FDR by his side.  MLK, meanwhile, had the likes of Rosa Parks and John Lewis joining him in the fight for equality.  It's also true enough that workers like Johnson, Vaughan, and Parker belong to the Civil Rights Movement, too.  They went on living their lives under the radar for the longest time.  Then, one day, after the dust had cleared (and yet while the battle still rages on) they all found the microphone turned in their direction.  The result is that they each got to tell their shared story at last.  Hidden Figures is the dramatization of their struggle.

Sunday, January 1, 2023

The Lost City (2022)

Not long ago I ran across a surprising, and rather quirky film project.  It's name was Guns Akimbo, and the greatest eyebrow raiser was that it starred Harry Potter as this photo negative muggle version of himself getting forced to participate in a feature-length Hunger Games parody, complete with a nightmare version of Katniss Everdeen.  It's one of those screwball ideas that have at least the potential to be as great on screen as it sounds on paper, provided you do it right.  The unfortunate truth is that the film's director, Jason Lei Howden, was unable to deliver on a full and complete vision that could have been promised by the idea.  The reason that's the case is because of the ironic disconnect between the goal's the director set out for himself, and the final product he wound up with.  The story itself was meant as a satire of, perhaps even a flat out attack on the writings of J.K. Rowling, and their overarching meaning.  What keeps the finished product from working either as a satirical jab, or even just a plain movie, is because in trying to criticize Rowling, Howden makes one, crucial mistake.  If the director truly believes there is nothing admirable about Rowling and her stories, then he shouldn't have capitulated to the very narrative structure and themes that go to make up the story scaffolding that he claims to dislike.  Instead of coming up with a fitting denouement that works as a proper denunciation, he winds up throwing in the towel near the end.

It's kind of a mistake in terms of the movie's overall narrative strategy.  What it says to me is that the director couldn't come up with as complete of a critique as he might have wished.  Either that or he got cold feet at the last minute and pulled his punches.  The final result is a film that degenerates into a confused muddle, with a middling action packed ending that sees the character tread through the same type of narrative arc that can be found in the Potter books.  The difference here is that everything just comes off as hollow, and unmeaning, leaving the viewer with an unfulfilled sense of dissatisfaction.  One gets the sense that the filmmaker wasted all that effort over nothing.  The curious thing is that he even got Daniel Radcliffe to agree to be a part of it.  At the time, it came off as little more than an amusing anecdote.  The kind of thing that might become a punchline afterthought for a brief span of time, and then is quickly forgotten about.  For a while there, I even thought I was just looking at a one-off.  Just a case of an actor made famous by a book having a bit of a lark poking fun at himself, and there was an end of it.  Instead, here we are now, watching another movie with a similar premise. 

Once again, Radcliffe is taking part in a film that seems to be acting as a running commentary on the role, story, and above all, the author that made him famous.  I'll admit this is not something I was counting on to happen.  Then I realized it's perhaps the sort of thing I should have expected, when you think about it.  When you become a target, after all, you'd better learn how to suffer what Shakespeare referred to as "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".  It's no secret that J.K. Rowling is now one of the biggest targets in the public square.  I guess I just didn't expect Radcliffe, of all people, to take such a concerted effort in pursuing something like an actual, ongoing critique of the writer and the meanings in her stories.  That was another left field surprise, however for the sake of argument, I think I'll roll with it.  Let's assume, for the moment, that the film under discussion today is meant by Radcliffe as a further satire of Rowling and her books.  What does this say about a film like The Lost City?

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Walt Before Mickey (2015).

This one is sort of interesting in the sense that I knew about its source material, before I ever knew someone had turned it into a movie.  At least I think that's the way the deal went down.  What I know for sure is that the first time I ever heard of this film, it wasn't a movie.  Instead, it was just this unobtrusive, yet eye-catching book tucked away comfortably on a shelf, in among the biography section of a local Barnes and Noble.  That's how I first found out about Timothy S. Susanin's Walt Before Mickey: Disney's Early Years: 1919-1928.  I picked it up off the shelf in a brief moment of impulse curiosity, and began to page through the thing.  One point of potential interest that caught my eye about Susanin's text was that it featured a personal forward by Diane Disney Miller.  She was Walt's very own daughter, and here she was willing to sing the praises of a book about her dad.  It was enough to make the book stand out in my own mind, and yet, for whatever reason, I just put it back on the shelf and moved on.  Still, while I might not have bought the book, those few brief moments of reading were enough for the text to leave an impact on my mind.  It's the sort of reaction any author wants their work to have if they wish to make it in the writing gig, no matter whether you're penning fiction or, in this case, a clear-cut work of real life biography.

In this case, Susanin appears to have scored a quiet, slow-burn bull's eye.  The memory of that book stuck around long enough for me to one day give a bit of an inward shrug, then try and see if I could pull any information about the book up online.  That's how I found out about the movie adaptation of the book.  I'd no sooner typed in the basic title of the biography before the Net informed me that they'd gone and made a movie out of it.  I can remember thinking, "Well that was fast".  Or at least I thought it was.  Turns out the book had been around since 2011.  It took about four to five more years before anyone showed an interest in bringing this small, unassuming work to any kind of screen.  Still, it looks like Susanin's book has one the cinema lottery, for lack of any better terms.  The result is the film under discussion here today.  Right now I have this kind of working theory about why the film even exists.  What it boils down to is that something tells me it's all an outcome of Diane Miller wanting to get at least something like this off the ground, and into any general release that would take it.  In other words, I think there's something the viewer should probably keep in mind as they head into this flick.  The entire thing could very well have been a labor of love before it was ever anything else.  Perhaps it's just something to remember along the way to finding out if Walt Before Mickey is any good or not.