On Black Widow and Marvel’s Gaps (or, Why We Need a Black Widow Movie)

On the recent Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) episode of The Skiffy and Fanty Show, I argued that part of what bothered me about the Black Widow scene wherein she reveals having been sterilized in the Red Room is that it clarified what was an obvious gap in Marvel's Cinematic Universe.  We need a Black Widow movie, I said -- more so now than ever.  This is a somewhat complicated position, and I'd like to explore that in-depth here. For those that don't know, I'll spoil the bit everyone is talking about: Read More

On Agency: Strong Female Characters, the Myth of Non-Action, and Jupiter Ascending

By now you'll have heard the "Jupiter Jones doesn't have agency" criticism of Jupiter Ascending (dirs. the Wachowskis; 2015).[1]  The gist of the argument, as far as I can tell, is that Jupiter doesn't have agency (or enough agency) because she does not become a "strong female character" until the last possible second.  Andrew O'Hehir, for example, wrote in his Salon.com review that
Jupiter has less female agency than any character ever played by Doris Day. Compared to this movie, the Disneyfied feminism of “Frozen” and “Brave” and “Maleficent” feels like Valerie Solanas’ "SCUM Manifesto."
Peter Debruge wrote in Variety that
[although] clearly conceived as an empowered female heroine, poor Jupiter spends most of the movie being kidnapped and shuffled from one unpleasant situation to another, whether that’s being nearly assassinated during an egg-donating operation or pushed into a marriage with a two-faced Abraxas prince.
Sam Maggs wrote in The Mary Sue:
When I hear “Mila Kunis black leather space princess,” I want to see her bulked the hell up, Emily Blunt style, kicking ass and taking names. We don’t get to see Kunis looking really cool until the very end of the film, at which point I wanted way more of that. Which, I guess, means I would pay for a sequel.
The most damning claim about Jupiter's agency, however, comes from Tim Martain's review for The Mercury:
There’s a little test I like to apply, where you try to describe a character without reference to their physical appearance or occupation. If you can come up with three clear character traits, then you may have a well-crafted character. If not, well, you have a cardboard cutout. 
Jupiter is a big ol’ flat piece of nothing. 
She is a name and a device, nothing more. Her character is not developed in any way beyond “special girl who everyone is fighting over”. She is Cinderella with even less motivation or personality.
In other words, Jupiter isn't even a person.  She's a thing.  Because she is passive.  Because she doesn't fight (until the very end).  Because she is manipulated by others.  Because she is a toilet cleaner.  Because she is everything other than a "strong female character."  One must ask:  why does Jupiter need to take names?  Why can't she just be a space princess?  Why can't she simply get sucked into a world where space princesses are real and people like her (like us) have to learn to navigate the absurd bureaucracy of space royalty?  Why can't she be a confused, naive person like, well, a real person might be?  Why isn't that enough for her to have agency or for her to escape the charge that her agency is nearly absent?  Why can't this also be a story about someone discovering or developing a different kind of agency?  Isn't that enough?

Frankly, I'm not sure these individuals understand what "agency" means.  At its most basic, "agency" refers to one's ability to take action to affect their own lives; as such, agency exists on a continuum that is affected by social status, culture, upbringing, economics, and so on and so forth.  The degree to which we all have agency, in other words, depends on how well equipped we are to affect our daily lives.  Agency can be individual, collective, immersed within or isolated from a specific dominant culture, and so on.  In other words:  agency is pretty damn complicated, as is clear when you start to look into the sociological, psychological, and feminist struggles to adequately define the concept in a way that incorporates the full range of social interactions.  For women, agency has been a key component of the feminist fight for equality.  Since the world has historically (and still is to a large degree) favored men in nearly every avenue, women's access to "choice" in its broadest conception has always been curtailed.  Worldbank notes that "across all countries women and men differ in their ability to make effective choices in a range of spheres, with women typically at a disadvantage" in the avenues of control over resources, free movement, decisions about family formation, freedom from violence, and freedom to have a voice in society and politics.

Oppression does not necessarily mean that one loses all agency, though.  Indeed, how one exerts influence can take myriad forms, including subversive actions within an oppressive situation.  Women in violent, patriarchal societies do not lose agency simply by being oppressed; their abilities to affect their own lives, however, do change, limiting the degree of agency they might have, or, in some cases, simply changing how agency is perceived.  Lest you think only overt oppression can steal one's agency, remember that we are all to varying degrees limited by social, economic, and other factors.  Some of us, such as myself, just have more advantages -- in my case because I am white, male, American, and educated.[2]

But in a world where pop criticism often stands in for professional criticism, the buzzword definitions are replicated ad naseum.  Women who punch bad guys or take direct action against oppression or in some way "act" in a manner that makes them visibly opposed to a system or individual or in a position to "make things happen" are women who have "agency."  Every other woman?  Well, she might have "agency," but not enough that her agency is worth talking about, except to note that she doesn't have any (or very little).  If she subverts the system, her agency is only valued if her subversion is aggressive.  Passive subversion won't make her "strong."  If anything, "passive" is just another word for "worthless" or "oppressed."

These limitations on "agency" are so pervasive that they affect how we even talk about female characters, particularly when the term "strong female character" crops up.  Sophia McDougall's essay in the New Statesman ("I Hate Strong Female Characters") points out that the phenomenon of the "strong female character" seems particular to women:
No one ever asks if a male character is “strong”. Nor if he’s “feisty,” or “kick-ass” come to that. 
The obvious thing to say here is that this is because he’s assumed to be “strong” by default. Part of the patronising promise of the Strong Female Character is that she’s anomalous. “Don’t worry!” that puff piece or interview is saying when it boasts the hero’s love interest is an SFC. “Of course, normal women are weak and boring and can’t do anything worthwhile. But this one is different. She is strong! See, she roundhouses people in the face.” 
Women, in other words, are the only ones who can be erased by a stereotype of strength.  Whereas men can be kung-fu masters, brilliant scientists, sensitive piano players, or chess players without losing their status as "strong characters," women who do not fit the mold assigned to "strong female characters" are rejected -- if not outright, then by implication.  Since "strong female character" is often synonymous with "woman with agency," it's no wonder that female characters who do not fall into that rigid definition of either term are also erased as women who do things.

This is part of the problem with the way critics (and even some proponents) have discussed Jupiter Ascending.  Because Jupiter does not "take action" (i.e., punch someone) until the end of the movie, she is a passive character, one with little to no agency because of her position as a member of the servant class and then as someone who has all the power in the universe but appears to do almost nothing with it for much of the movie.  She just doesn't move the plot.  Alternatively, as some fans have argued, Jupiter has agency only because she stops being a servant and eventually becomes a princess.  Power, in other words, is agency.
All of this is absolutely wrong.  Jupiter always had agency.  Jupiter's mother always had agency.  Being a servant does not mean you sacrifice your agency.  Becoming a princess doesn't mean an agency fairy drops out of the sky and anoints you with agency oils, as the film inconsistently demonstrates.  Agency is a complicated monstrosity because it is a reflection of an individual's interactions with a given culture.  How Jupiter interacts with her culture(s) is certainly passive for most of the movie, but that does not make her absent of agency.  In fact, quite the opposite.  From the moment Jupiter discovers she is a space princess, she must rely on the knowledge of others to help her through the process.  If, as one definition would hold, we define agency by the ability for one to take actions which are in their own interests, then it is certainly true that Jupiter's reliance, while passive, is a choice that is made for herself.  Because she does choose.  Her actions may not involve flying mecha spacejets or running away on hovering rollerblades, but they are actions -- and like normal people, her actions sometimes come with negative consequences.  Even her reluctance about the degree to which she wants to participate in the interstellar culture of the film indicates a character who has agency, since she not only struggles with this decision but also has the ability to make that decision.  And the film's progression, however inconsistent, is entirely about the process of shifting degrees of agency:  Jupiter begins the film with limited but apparent agency and ends the film with as much agency as the villains.  That she chooses to make limited use of her new-found power should be the real discussion point here, not the question of Jupiter's agency.
The erasure of the complexity of agency isn't isolated to Jupiter Ascending; it is just such a strong component of the criticism of the film that it's hard to ignore.  This erasure, however, occurs in other sf/f franchises, too.  In the case of The Hunger Games (the first two films/books, at least), the focus on Katniss as a "strong female character" often means that we forget Prim or her mother, who are not-quite-passive in the film, but certainly more passive than Katniss.  Unlike Katniss, however, Prim and their mother are healers, and, as far as we can tell, by choice.  They may all live in an oppressive society, but Prim, Katniss, and their mother each make their own choices within it, the consequences for which are varied.  We hail Katniss because she sacrifices in an overt manner, but we don't talk about Prim's sacrifices and struggles as a young girl learning to heal the wounds of an oppressed people.  The narrative does enough erasing by necessity, since it cannot cover everything, but the rigid definitions of "agency" and "strong female character" mean that we do a fair bit of erasing, too.
Another example of this can be found in the figure of Peggy Carter from Agent Carter.  As a character, Carter is on the surface a stereotypical "strong female character."  Despite living in the sexist culture of the 1940s (a complex one, we should note), Carter almost always acts of her own accord, often by fighting against the system in which she exists through feats of strength or intelligence.  She punches bad guys.  She tells people off.  She holds her own or plays up her "female-ness" when it serves her agenda.  She is, in other words, an active agent in almost every sense.  However, using Carter as the definition of a "strong female character" means that the agency of other women around her is effectively erased.  Angie, Carter's delightful neighbor, is unlike Carter because her actions are either that of conformity or subversion.  We should remember here, too, that the reason Angie is so different from Carter has to do with their relative power:  Carter is just in a better position to exercise her agency in active ways.  If we talk about Angie's difference as being a negative rather than a particular cultural position within a male-dominant society, then we are effectively making it possible to erase Angie's agency.  Carter's actions are the right actions; Angie's are not.  This comparison model, one which equally affects Jupiter since she is by default compared to female characters that "got it right," does a disservice to the women whose day-to-day lives may be infinitely more complex than films can ever show.

All of these women represent the myriad ways in which agency manifests.  Trying to compare them to one another as if some forms of agency are better than others is at best absurd and at worst downright unethical.  Unethical because it is a fantasy which erases, intentionally or otherwise, the gritty work of women around the globe who aren't bow-toting superheroines.  Women who are like Jupiter.  Women who are servants, prostitutes, soldiers, cooks, mothers, doctors, poker players, yoga instructors, fishers, housekeepers, CEOs, etc.  Women of all types.  Women living in all manner of social conditions.  By saying only some of them are really "strong" or "have agency (enough that it is worth noting)," we erase all those who exert their agency and strength in other ways.  Personally, I think women have been erased enough...

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[1]:  This post is obviously a defense of Jupiter Ascending.  However, I hope it's clear that I am defending the film in a specific way.  The quality of the film as a whole is a separate issue.

[2]:  This is obviously a rough definition so I can get to my point.

P.S.:  There are also other issues with the criticisms of Jupiter Ascending.  One that particularly irritates me is the attack on the film's representation of servant-class labor.  Setting aside the mass exploitation of immigrants, the attack on Jupiter's job as a toilet cleaner is part of a wider American (and probably elsewhere) assault on the value of labor in general.  While working at McDonald's or as a housekeeper has never been a particularly glamorous job, it has only become synonymous with "the garbage of society" over the course of decades of wage deflation, whereby minimum wage jobs are increasingly less valued because they are increasingly less able to facilitate the basics of American life.  As far as I'm concerned, the continued peddling of this narrative does a disservice to those who work in those less-valued industries, as it makes it far more difficult for them to lobby for better working conditions, etc.  But I digress...

P.S.S.:  Olivia Waite has a similar take on all of this in her post entitled "Die Hard, Jupiter Jones, Cinderella, and Character Agency."  I recommend reading it.

On Ridley Scott’s Exodus and Bannings

The Washington Post reports that Egypt has banned Ridley Scott's controversial Bible film, Exodus (starring Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, and Ben Kingsley), due to "alleged historical inaccuracies and a 'Zionist' agenda."  You can read the article for more detail, though I would suggest extra care here given the region under discussion and the inevitable spin that will come out of U.S. news sources.  For the record:  the BBC has reported the same thing, more or less.

I should also note that I'm not going to defend Exodus from the charges that it is inaccurate in any direct sense.  Honestly, I don't think the movie should have been made.  Its white-washing of history and clear manipulation of Biblical narrative for "sensationalist imagery" -- not to mention Ridley Scott's absurd defense of the former -- have not endeared the film to me.  In fact, I'm perfectly content with never seeing Exodus, and I sincerely hope it does so poorly that Hollywood thinks again before letting Ridley Scott ruin anything else.  But none of this is a reason to ban the film.  They made it, and if theaters want to play it, then so be it.

Now, to my thoughts:

As a general rule, I am against censorship, allowing for exceptions that might arise in which censorship might be necessary (no, I haven't a clue what those exceptions might look like).  Of course, when I say "censorship," I mean "from the government or its subsidiaries."  While I might be bothered by a theater refusing to play a film, my objections would be personal, not ethical or legal. Censorship from the government, however, moves beyond a personal level.  
One business entity making a quality judgement has little bearing on the public's perception of a work of art.  After all, there are theaters devoted entirely to independent films, and so they intentionally leave out all sorts of films that do not fit their criteria, in part because so many of those theaters are small and cannot play every indie film that gets released.  The Hippodrome Theater in Gainesville (where I live) does this.  They probably play 10% of the "significant" independent films released in a year because they do not have the space -- nor the funds -- of a company like Regal Cinemas, which receives, I imagine, 100 times the attendance of the Hipp.  And so the Hipp must make judgments on what it wants to play and for how long.  Those judgments might involve content, the assessment of the local audience, money, and so on and so forth.  All fair in the economics game.

But the government doesn't have the luxury of reflecting the voice of one entity, let alone a small collection of people working within that entity.  It is meant to reflect the voice of a nation.  In the case of the U.S., that voice is a protected voice, not just by our Constitution, but also by the individual laws we have put in place to protect artistic and everyday expression.  We have a history of that protection lapsing, and we still struggle with a culture of book banning.  Ever more the reason to discuss these rights and to continue fighting for them.

Egypt, however, is not the U.S. and is not bound by our rules and legal structures (as should be obvious).  Here, I think the principle of expression is paramount, and that's something that I find difficult to support beyond the confines of the U.S.  After all, it's not every day that I am asked to defend my perspective of human rights with someone who does not share my nation's history.  How do I justify a position which says that Egypt's banning of Exodus is wrong -- even somewhat fascistic -- when that position arrives from a growing up in a nation where such values are mostly upheld?  Even if I suggest that expression is a fundamental right, can I defend that without resorting to a Western view?

As it turns out, I can.  Sorta.  Egypt has been part of the United Nations since 1945 (Oct. 24).  In 1948, they adopted the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, which contains a handy little section on expression:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
In short, Egypt agreed to the same principles which protect artistic and everyday expression in the U.S. (though, I must admit that the U.N.'s language is a tad clearer on the implementation).  Egypt's decision to ban Exodus, in other words, is a clear violation of this right/principle.

We could certainly get into arguments about whether the U.N. has any authority or whether its Declaration is anything other than symbolic.  Regardless, that Egypt adopted the Declaration suggests that they agreed with the principles written within it -- or, rather, that a previous government did and no government afterwards saw fit to contradict that adoption.  A banning, in short, is fundamentally unethical, and it sets a precedent that allows for other moralistic decisions about art.  After all, that's what Egypt's banning is.  Exodus was not banned because it is obscene or can be shown to have any real impact on Egypt's population; it was banned because it does not represent history as Egypt's government would want it.
While it is probably true that Exodus is disgustingly wrong about its history (it certainly failed on the racial front), there is a suspiciously religious-moralistic flavor to this particular banning.  If it were not so marked, then one could look back through Egypt's history and find instances of other blatantly inaccurate films being banned.  But Egypt released Gladiator, 300, 300:  Rise of an Empire, The Patriot, and 10,000 B.C.  One might argue that some of these simply take creative license with historical periods, but you can't say that they are accurate films; given that at least two of these intended to be accurate, they have the same potential effect on a certain segment of the population as a historically-inaccurate Bible flick (huge emphasis on certain segment of the population).

A simple rejection of historical inaccuracy, while still violating the principles under discussion here, would seem less disturbing than what Egypt has actually presented.  Here, state-sponsored notions of morality, religiosity, and history have now determined which art is accessible to the Egyptian public.  Nothing good ever comes from such practices.  Unfortunately, given the turmoil in Egypt over the past few years, I'm not sure they'll notice.  That's unfortunate, but understandable.  But it goes to an underlying issue with so many governments:  so many of them, including my own, have deemed it fit to dictate the terms of expression to the rest of us, sometimes under the guise of "protecting us from harmful ideas."

Me:  I'd rather we lived in a world where we all have to parse through the good and the bad instead of having some entity serving as the ultimate parent.  Art, as I've mentioned before, must be controversial to force us to think about the world in which we live.  Sometimes, even shitty and/or inaccurate art can serve the same purpose.  After all, Exodus has got us thinking about ethnic identity in ancient Egypt.  Just 10 years ago, I'm almost certain we wouldn't be having this conversation at all -- at least, not in any very public way.  That, at least, is a good thing.

Movie Review Rant: Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)

I've only recently decided to watch the new iterations of the (in)famous web-crawler.  Originally, I had no intention of ever doing so, in part because of a misplaced loyalty to the Raimi renditions (2002, 2004, and 2007).  The real kicker, for me, was the fact that these films came hot off the heels of a preceding adaptation, and they were not a continuation of the original story, but a reboot.  Something about that rubbed me the wrong way.  But then I broke down and watched Amazing Spider-Man (2012; I'll talk about this movie another time) and liked it well enough that I wanted to see how the character would progress.  And so here I am -- reviewing Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014)(ASM2 from now on).

(There will be some spoilers in this review.  I have, however, refrained from spoiling major plot elements that you wouldn't have learned about from the trailers.  I will discuss some of these elements in the footnotes, though, as they need to be discussed in the context of my rant.)

ASM2 is about a lot of things.  Peter Parker's relationship with Gwen Stacy and his conflict with her now-dead father's last request (stay away from her).  The truth behind Peter's parents' deaths -- what they were doing when they disappeared, etc.  Harry Osborn's desperation to live.  Spider-Man.  Angst.  Honestly, the more I think about this movie, the less coherent its plot seems.  There are so many things going on here that it is actually hard to determine what actually matters for the overarching narrative.  Is this about Peter Parker and his parents?  The film wants us to think so...for a while.  Is it about Peter and Gwen?  Ditto.  Is it about Harry and his daddy issues?  Apparently.  Max Dillon (a.k.a. Electro)?  Yup.  There are at least two new origin stories in this film, most of which draw attention away from the more interesting personal elements -- Peter's parents and Gwen.  In fact, if this had been a film about one villain, one parental issue, and one romance, with each tied together into a cohesive whole, this might have been on par with Captain American:  the Winter Soldier (2014).  Alas, it was not to be.

If it's not clear, I'm going to tear this film a new one.  But to make you feel better, I'll start with some things that I liked about the film.

First, though I know there are some problematic gender-related issues with regards to Peter and Gwen's relationship, I can't help but admire the dedication to the complexity of their relationship.  There's a sense here that their relationship is real, based on a mutual interest in what one another is feeling or desires (in life or a relationship).  This contrast with the Spider-Man elements is needed to humanize the character and remind us that, yes, Peter Parker really is just a young dude.  One of the things I loved about ASM2 was its brief focus on Gwen's career and the decisions she makes (a reminder that Gwen is actually a young professional on her way to bigger things than just "graduating high school" -- this film, in a way, is as much about her as it is Spider-Man, or at least feels that way).  This is not a movie where the woman is asked to give everything up for the guy; instead, Gwen and Peter both understand that Gwen's opportunities abroad are one-of-a-kind, and that it would be unfair for him to ask her to stay simply for a high school romance.  In the end, it's Peter who offers a solution that involves neither of them giving anything up at all:  he'll move with her.  I don't know how often we see compromise of this sort in film; regardless, it was an element that gave the film a bit of life.
There's a lot more I could say about Gwen, too.  For a film that essentially sidelines the female characters for the male hero (it's Spider-Man, after all), it does at least give Gwen something to do other than play the damsel in distress.  True, she's rather limited in that she's got the brains to out-think Spider-Man's superpowered opponents but not the physical prowess.  But she does help Spider-Man by giving him information for his tech and by participating as an active agent in the climactic fight scene.  In fact, probably the strongest bit of characterization in the entire movie takes place in that fight scene.  This scene condenses the overarching narrative that defines Peter and Gwen's relationship into two important thematic components.  First, Peter's attempts to stop Gwen from participating -- to control her -- when he webs her to a car so she won't follow him on his way to face Electro.  Second, Gwen's assertion of her own agency, and Peter's relinquishment to the reality that his powers do not give him the right to control her decisions.  This is shown when Gwen frees herself and reappears on the scene (I won't ruin this whole scene; just know that her involvement is important), accusing Peter of being "a caveman," to which Peter responds:  "You can't be here right now.  I'm not messing around."  Gwen's response puts Peter's perhaps unintentional patriarchal paternalism in its place:  "OK, guess what.  Nobody makes my decisions for me. OK?  Nobody.  This is my choice.  K?  My choice.  This is mine."  The contrast is almost beautiful.  If there's something to be said about the character development here, it's that Peter is actually pushed into becoming more feminist by the conclusion -- a man who listens to his significant other, who takes her choices seriously and respects them.  This is, unfortunately, undercut by the concluding moments of the film.[1]

Visually, the film is quite beautiful.  I particularly liked the look of Electro and the incorporation of sounds (like a giant, walking tesla coil) into his lightning-style powers.[2]  His final fight with Spider-Man perfectly captures the flexibility and dexterity of Spider-Man and the raw, emotional fury of Electro.  This is obviously a CG-heavy film, but I think they kept the CG at a minimum, allowing for enough of the real to shine through when it was needed.  This is not something that happens often in CG-heavy blockbusters (the Hobbit movies are a prime example).  You'll still need to suspend your disbelief more than normal, but ASM2 at least makes it (mostly) easy.
I likewise mostly enjoyed the film's pacing.  Some folks have complained about the heavy attention on Peter and Gwen's relationship -- their somewhat melodramatic breakup and return, their cutesy romance and banter, their conflicts, etc. (I've talked about some of this above).  Personally, I though these greatly humanized Peter and gave substance to their relationship that might have been forgotten.  Even the Raimi films didn't have nearly this much depth in the relationship between Peter and Mary Jane, so I couldn't help but appreciate the shift back and forth between the Spidey/Parents stuff and the Peter/Gwen stuff.  The film also doesn't drag as much as I thought it would, despite the fact that there are three villains and a lot of subplots.  That's not to say that it doesn't drag; rather, the film's pacing is more on par with a drama that merges for heavy stints into action spectacles than a straight action movie, where the personal is often subdued in favor of the larger conflict.  For the most part, the film is on point when it is focused on those heavy action sequences and the Peter/Gwen narrative.

That said, this is a film that suffers from a lot of structural problems, most notably in the fact that it has so many bloody things going on.  For example, there's almost no need to fulfill the "what happened to Peter's parents" narrative here, as it serves as a distraction more than anything else.  The resolution isn't so much a resolution as a relinquishment to the necessity of an ending.  We just get to the end and...eh, we're done with this now.  Sorta.  Add onto that Harry's narrative, which I'll discuss in more depth later, the relationship between Peter and Gwen, what happens to Aunt May, the Peter/Gwen's dead daddy conflict, and Electro's origin story and you have almost as many subplots as the first Hobbit movie in a space no less than 27 minutes smaller.  It's a bit much, and it certainly feels overbearing here, as if the audience is supposed to keep everything cohesive in their mind as the film jumps us about between conflicts.
While I'm on the subject of all these bloody characters, there are a few things I should say about the interpretation of the Spider-Man characters.  First, I actually like Andrew Garfield's take on the smart-mouthed character in these films, even more so than Toby McGuire's version in the Raimi films.  This is the Spider-Man I've come to expect (for reasons I can't quite explain).  He cracks jokes.  He uses his powers to humiliate villains while defeating them (see the opening fight sequence with Alexsei Sytsevich (the Rhino), wherein Spider-Man ties Alexsei by the arms and drops the man's trousers -- you've all seen this scene in the trailers); he also uses his words as a manipulation tool, either to drive villains to irrational anger or to disarm them by saying what they want to hear.  This is a definitively better Spider-Man.  A smarter Spider-Man.  Garfield's performance as Parker/Spider-Man is also much stronger in this particular film, as if he feels more comfortable in the character's shoes and isn't afraid to enunciate and speak.  Perhaps this is intentional on the filmmaker's part -- to convey the growth of Parker through an apparent confidence in presence.

Second, though many have had problems with Jamie Foxx's take on Electro/Max Dillon, I personally found the character a perfect villain for Spider-Man -- he also happens to be the only sympathetic villain in this movie.[3]  The challenge he presents is psychological (an unhinged, maligned man who terrorizes the city out of fear), physical (electric shocks hurt, after all), and intellectual (electric shocks also damage Spider-Man's tech, which requires him to adapt -- see above about Gwen Stacy refusing to be a damsel in distress).  If we were to leave it at these two main characters, I think the film would be better for it.  Alas, that is not so.
ASM2 has too many bloody villains.  Three, in fact:  Electro, Green Goblin, and the Rhino.  Well, two-and-a-half, since one of the villains only appears in the film for ten minutes.  This might not be such a problem if the film didn't also try to give origin stories to the first two of those villains or if one of those origin stories actually made sense.  Green Goblin (Harry Osborn)(played by Dane DeHaan) basically appears out of nowhere.  If Harry is mentioned in the first film, it's so subdued as to be irrelevant.  Here, we're to believe that Peter Parker and Harry were best buds when they were kids, and now they've reconnected and are best buds again.  Sure, if by "best buds" you mean "really awkward creepy friendship with a spoiled rich brat."  Harry's magical appearance in ASM2 means we're to accept that there is a character arc that leads one to sympathize, but aside from the fact that Harry, like his father (Chris Cooper), is dying of a genetic disease, there's really nothing for us to work with.  Harry is an asshole.  An unsympathetic asshole.  But we're supposed to feel sorry for him.  That's clear.  He's not a villain until the end, when he reacts out of absolute desperation, but I couldn't find a compelling reason to feel bad for him, to understand why he went down that dark path.  If anything, it made me think that he was never really friends with Peter all -- that he used Peter in a moment of weakness.  This might make Harry somewhat sociopathic (or whatever is the correct term).  Add to this the fact that DeHaan's interpretation of the Green Goblin character is sort of like a drug addict who hasn't brushed his hair in a while (why this comes and goes, I'll never know, but it apparently does) and you end up with a character who really doesn't belong here.  This should have been a "Harry and Peter become best friends" movie, not a "Peter betrays Harry" movie.

Additionally, we have the Rhino (Paul Giamatti), who may be the worst thing about this entire film.  This feels like a moment when Giamatti needed money and decided "eh, I don't need to actually act."  For most of his lines, I had no idea what he meant to say.  I think he might have said "spider" once.  Maybe.  Giamatti blurts and yells these lines in a horrendously bad Russian "accent," providing nice bookends of absolute trash to an otherwise OK film.  We begin and end with Giamatti giving up on his acting career (or at least doing what may be the most brilliant piece of meta acting, in which he pretends to be an actor named Paul Giamatti who has given up on his career and accepted the Rhino role only to blurt things out like a raging drunk turd; if this is the case, I say he needs an Oscar nomination).  I also have no idea what we're supposed to think about the Rhino.  Is he a serious villain?  Is he a caricature?  Is this a new way to represent the comic book format, where a film refuses to conclude by simply throwing random villains into the mix to keep Spider-Man busy?  Whatever is going on, it's not unlike getting clawed in the eye by a cat.
This is the pre-CG look.  Imagine this is what the Rhino actually
looked like in the movie and you'll have a sense of how ridiculous
Paul Giamatti is in ASM2.
There's just too much going on in this damned movie.  If I recall, one of the things people hated about Raimi's Spider Man 3 (2007) was the fact that it had too many villains.  The writers for ASM2 clearly didn't listen.

I really wanted to like this film.  It's certainly better in places than the first film, but it is ultimately a mess that tarnishes all of its good with horrendous cinematic sins.  But it made a lot of money, so don't expect the writers to do much to correct these errors in the next movie...As a thematic "ride," it is quite fun.  As a film, it is subpar.

Directing:  2.5/5
Cast:  3/5 (on the basis that Giamatti's performance is so utterly horrendous that he drags everyone else down with him, even though he's not on the same screen with most anyone else; also:  the Green Goblin mostly gives me the heebee-jeebees instead of a "threatening" or "truly villainous" vibe)
Writing:  2.5/5
Visuals:  4/5
Adaptation:  2.5/5
Overall:  2.9/5 (58%)
Inflated Grade:  C- (for a bloated plot, poor direction, and terrible performances)

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[1]:  The film, sadly, shoots itself in the foot by killing off Gwen Stacy, presumably as a form of fridging.  Instead of having her leave Peter for a special program in England, they opt to kill her off as motivation for Peter to, well, I guess do more of what he's already been doing.  Wouldn't it have made more sense to have had her leave the relationship to pursue her own path?  Wouldn't it have been a better message to remind us that sometimes relationships end?  Nope.  The film says "Gwen must die because she had to die."  Derp derp.  It basically nerfs everything Gwen did in this film, however little; she's rendered into a corpse, because corpses are less dramatic than a fully-realized woman who makes her own decisions which sometimes hurt the hero and doesn't die because of them.  In effect, the message the film relates about young men learning to respect women's choices, as Peter does, is undercut by the realization that letting women do that will apparently get them killed (I'm not kidding; the film reinforces this message, probably by accident).

[2]:  Electro actually plays a version of "Itsy Bitsy Spider."  I don't know how many people caught that in the theater.  I certainly didn't, but upon watching an online clip from the finale, it became crystal clear.

[3]:  We learn throughout the film that Max Dillon, a socially awkward fellow who wishes he were liked, has been systematically abused by basically everyone, such that his fragile trust in Spider-Man is so easily shattered along with everything else.

Film Remakes and the Necessity for Critical Distance

Hollywood is hopelessly obsessed with remakes.  We all know this.  And if we don't, it's really not that difficult to figure out how obsessed Hollywood really is.  But I'll make it easy for you here:  here's a list of 57 remakes which were marked as "in development" as of July 2013.  Some of those may have been dropped, but the fact of the matter is that there were 57 remakes in various stages of development last year.

There's nothing inherently wrong with remakes, of course.  After all, many remakes tackles films that are now 30+ years old, which means the primary viewing audience -- let's say 15 to 40 -- probably hasn't seen them anyway.  Some remakes are attempts to update concepts which haven't aged well, or which really are pretty darn cool and would benefit from newer film technologies and bigger budgets (technically, this year's Robocop fits into this category, but that film is terrible).  It makes sense, too, why Hollywood studios would choose to remake a film:  it's safer to reboot something that was already a success -- or which has a following or concept that would work well in today's market -- since the discussion surrounding the remake will naturally include buzz about the previous version; obviously, this can sometimes backfire, as in the case of Total Recall or Robocop (or perhaps it's more often than not), as it's difficult to find remakes which are absolutely better than their predecessors.  There's almost always something "missing."

I tend to think of remakes in two ways:

  1. They are indicative of Hollywood's inability to imagine new things and, in a sense, its refusal to take chances; and
  2. They are only a good idea if there is sufficient critical distance from the original source material.
It's the latter of these two modes that I want to discuss here.

Part of the problem with remakes and reboots, as I see it, is the obsession with doing so before the original material has time to breathe.  Amazing Spider-Man may be a decent superhero film, but it comes on the heels of an existing "canon" of Spider-Man films -- the Sam Raimi lot.  Setting aside what we think about Raimi's take on Spidey, the films were financially successful and were generally well-received.  The latest batch is half a decade removed from the original; rather than continue the story with a new cast, this new Spidey flick completely re-tells Spidey's origins.  If the intended audience for remakes are a "new" batch of viewers, which is, admittedly, my argument, then it makes little sense to re-tell an existing narrative when the audience is hardly "new."  One can point to many other examples of this, such as the Battlestar Galactica movie-reboot-remake-monstrosity that will hit theaters at some point in the next year or so.  Would it not make more sense to continue an existing narrative?

What I want to suggest about all this is a kind of "too soon"-ness.  It's not that these reboots and remakes of 30-years-or-less-old flicks are bad in and of themselves; in fact, many of them might be perfectly fine movies on their own or improvements over their predecessors (given the absence of emo-hipster jazz dances in the new Spidey films, I suspect this is a point most of you will understand).  Rather, the problem these films pose is two-fold:
  1. Their "too soon"-ness courts comparison, largely unfavorable, and creates the conditions for viewer fatigue, and
  2. They remind us that Hollywood is largely a business, and so any means by which they can procure profit from licensed properties will be taken, including rebooting and remaking things well before they've fallen away from public consciousness, perhaps under the false assumption that doing so will naturally draw new and old fans alike.
To the first, I think comparison is both beneficial and detrimental.  If a film succeeds in remaking something that wasn't all that great to begin with, but is fondly remembered in a kind of "cult" sense (i.e., Red Dawn), then the comparison to the original is largely positive.  If Red Dawn (the remake) were actually better than Red Dawn (the 1980s cult classic), our conversation surrounding it would be about what it does right, how it succeeds where its predecessor did not and where it succeeds on its own merits.  But Red Dawn did not have that reception.  It is right for us to compare it to the original and laugh at the fact that the remake is an obviously lesser film, suffering from poor pacing, bad acting, and so on.  It is also right for us to recognize the absurdity of its altered premise.  The original Red Dawn took place right at the tail end of the Cold War, nestling itself right into pre-existing American fears and cultural narratives.  In 1984, the Soviet Union was a real threat in America's public discourse.  But North Korea, the primary villain of the remake, is only a threat in the most limited sense.  While the U.S. currently considers NK a dangerous nation, it is not one which we actively discuss as having the capacity to invade the United States -- if anything, we should recognize that North Korea's only staying power is a nuclear deterrent.  The remake's politics, as such, are conspicuously nonsensical in comparison to its predecessor and remind us of the specificity of the cultural context in which the original Red Dawn arose:  it is simply untranslatable to the cultural context of 2012.[1]

Much of the problem with Red Dawn rests in the fact that its conceptual origins are a) not detached from the present era due to chronological proximity, and b) coupled with a narrative which always reminds us that this is a remake.  In other words, it is difficult for the studios, let alone the public at large -- except, perhaps, a limited portion of the present viewership (teens) -- to disentangle the narrative of Red Dawn (2012) from the history and narrative of Red Dawn (1984).  And that disentanglement is necessary, I would argue, to avoid the fatigue of remake/reboot fever.  I'm calling it critical distance, though you're free to use a different term.  In sociology, critical distance refers to the tenuous balance between literal distance from the subject and the necessity for some degree of nearness.  Here, I want to suggest that critical distance refers to the necessity of disentanglement from the narrative of the remake and the narrative of origins as well as a degree of conceptual rigor which demonstrates a kind of filmic "ownership."  Red Dawn fails on all fronts precisely because it could not be disentangled from its remake/origins narratives and because its concept was never a departure from those narratives -- it was always just a lesser Red Dawn (1982).

For a positive example, one might look at Ron Moore's re-make of the 1970s classic, Battlestar Galactica.  Setting aside the endless arguments about the ending or its various internal issues, the series took the original concept and twisted it just enough to give it both a sense of contemporaneity and ownership.  Moore's BSG always felt like its own thing to me.  It certainly borrowed from the original canon, but it seemed fearless in its desire to find its own path instead of remaining fixed.  Though comparisons are inevitable, the narrative surrounding Moore's BSG never seemed dominated by concerns that it would be "like the original" or that it would fail where its predecessor had succeeded.  In truth, classic BSG hasn't aged well anyway, and so Moore's BSG could easily be disentangled from concerns about fidelity and adaptation (of origination).  Rather, the focus for BSG always seemed to be on its successful departures, drawing attention to its character development, its manipulation of the robot revenge plot through flesh-based Cylons, and so on.

Similar things could be said of John Carpenter's remake of Howard Hawks' 1951 film, The Thing from Another World.[2]  Carpenter's 1982 film -- The Thing -- hardly deserves comparison, given its grotesque imagery (for the 80s), brilliant handling of horrific suspense, and its influence on scifi horror thereafter.[3]  This is not to suggest that contemporary audiences of the film loved it (Roger Ebert apparently gave it 2.5 stars out of 4).  But it has since been revered for its special effects and ability to evoke terror -- a product, if you will, of the public's critical distance from Carpenter's creation (I think it's also fair to say that 1980s audiences were mostly unaware of the 1951 precursor).  Indeed, Ebert's review makes no mention of the original, while Vincent Canby's NYT review makes a superficial comparison and pans the film for being emotionally lifeless; in fact, when the film is compared to its predecessor, it is usually to mark its differences in style and tone.  This is a markedly different kind of comparative discussion to that surrounding Red Dawn.  The Thing (1982) may invite comparison, but only superficially or in a setting where comparison is a necessary component (academia, for example).  In many respects, the film is taken on its own merits, revered or hated for its grotesquery or tone or style -- now more favorably than in the past.  In truth, Carpenter's The Thing is utterly terrifying -- it scared me when I was a kid in the 90s, and it still scares the crap out of me to this day.

If I had seen the 2011 prequel of the same name (literally, The Thing is its title), I might be able to comment on its relevance to this post.  Alas, I have not done so, which means I leave you to decide if that film managed to exist in a kind of critical distance vacuum, or if it is confused not just in title, but also by its placement within the existing filmic frame.

In any case, I hope the point I'm making is clear.  It is nice to think that we should treat films entirely on their own merits, but it is also realistic to expect that remakes and reboots always court comparison, and that the nature of that comparison will depend equally as much on the film's adaptation of whatever precedes it.  I'd argue that the closer a remake is to its original material, the less we are able to disentangle it from the narratives of origins and remakes.  New-ness or "too soon"-ness reduces a film's potential to rigorously re-define the perimeters of the source, since it is always already compromised by proximity.  We will compare Spider-Man (2002) to The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) so long as both are part of our cinematic conversation of the character.  We will do the same to Red Dawn (1982 / 2012) and the sea of other remakes that pollute the industry.  My hope is that we'll end up with more examples of The Thing or Battlestar Galactica or The Fly (1986) or The Little Shop of Horrors (1986) or The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).

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[1]:  This is even more true when one takes into account the fact that the only real perceived "threat" to the United States also happens to be one of the largest foreign film markets in terms of size.  Granted, China doesn't exactly translate well to the situation either, since it is only a threat in an abstract, group-specific sense.  Unlike the U.S.S.R. (in America's mind), China is not currently the ultimate bogeyman to U.S. foreign policy.

[2]:  It is also a re-adaptation of John W. Campbell's "Who Goes There?"

[3]:  In much the same way as Alien just three years earlier.

Movie Review Rant : Catching Fire (2013)

As I write this sentence, Catching Fire (2013), the sequel to The Hunger Games (2012), is encroaching upon the $700mil box office mark.  It's a huge film, and there are a lot of things to love about it.

Before I get to my rant/review, here are a couple quick notes:

  1. I hadn't read the book when I saw the movie, so the reactions below will jump back and forth between placing the film in relation to the book and treating the film on its own terms.
  2. There are spoilers.
  3. Nothing is in any sort of order here.  Like my post on Riddick (2013), I'll cover everything I feel like talking about as they come to me.
  4. I've discussed some of these things in the Shoot the WISB episode on Catching Fire over at The Skiffy and Fanty Show.
The World and POV Shifts
In the first film, there were a handful of cuts away from the central action to the characters involved behind the scenes:  the gamekeepers, the president, Haymitch, the folks at home, etc.  These served to give us a sense of the world in which these games are a centerpiece.  The problem with The Hunger Games was its inability to rationalize the system of oppression that made the games possible.  There were certainly attempts, but in the end you either had to accept the status quo or give up any possibility of immersion.

Catching Fire does a decent job rectifying this problem.  For one, it centralizes President Snow as the actual and real villain.  In the first film, the Capitol and the other players in the game were all potential villains, but here, Snow is never anything but.  From his first interactions with Katniss to the cut scenes showing him planning her torture and eventual defeat, Snow is the adversary the film has always needed:  he's the face of all that is wrong with the Capitol.  For me, Snow provided the rationalization for the world that I needed.  His interest in oppression is partly about power, but it is also about his own myths about what revolution entails, such that preserving those myths and power structures becomes more important than considering the implications of one's actions.  Snow, as such, continues to exert his authority -- a largely dictatorial and malignant one -- to preserve the system and to make sure nobody has the means or the will to challenge it.  The Hunger Games are simply a means to an end:  they're a reminder of the past and a reminder of the power Snow/the Capitol wields.

A lot of the scenes that best express Snow's justifications for his brutality are in his interactions with his granddaughter, who appears to become entranced by the symbolic rebellion of Katniss.  Presumably, she doesn't understand what is happening in Panem, but the threat is there for Snow nonetheless:  if his own family can be turned against him, his ability to maintain order will be permanently compromised.  It's a nice touch, as it would be too easy just to make Snow a vile, disgusting bag of skin, as he appears to be in the books.  Here, there are little hints of humanity in play, and so he becomes even more horrifying as a villain the more we realize how human he really is.
Likewise, the POV shifts are generally a good thing.  They give us an impression of the world, its logic, etc.  They also show us things we otherwise don't get to see in the book, which helps the film avoid the problem of having no viable method to display Katniss' internal struggles.  The problem with these shifts, however, is in their unnecessary ability to trick us as viewers, which I'll get into in the next section.

WANTED:  Clues That Logically Lead to X
There are two main issues with the structure of the film.  The second of these I'll discuss in the section below on endings; the first I'll cover here.

One of the new central characters is gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  At the end of Catching Fire, it is revealed to us that he, Haymitch, and several of the tributes have been conspiring to extricate Katniss from the games so she can remain the symbol for the upcoming revolution.  But unlike the book, which leaves a great number of clues as to Plutarch's true allegiances, the film simply discards most of those clues for a shocking reveal.  This works in the book for one reason:  we're in Katniss' head the whole time.  But the book gives us plenty of clues.  It makes it clear that there's something fishy going on, even if Katniss hasn't quite figured it out yet.  The shock in the book, as such, is measured by revelation:  so that's what all those clues are about.

In the film, most of those clues are gone.  For all intents and purposes, we're supposed to believe Plutarch is just like everyone else in the Capitol, albeit perhaps more macabre than the average flashy Capitol-ite.  But almost every scene involving Plutarch doesn't give us the impression that he's actually one of the good guys, as he spends most of his time trying to convince President Snow that X method is the best way to destroy Katniss as person and revolutionary image.  His ideas are, in retrospect, not terribly good, but they are, in the moment, convincing in their brutality.  The shocking reveal, however, doesn't have the benefit of proper foreshadowing or retrospective revelation, despite a good chunk of the film taking place outside of Katniss' perspective.  And without that benefit, Plutarch's apparent heroism is incomprehensible as a consequence of the plot, and, thus, neutered.  Were we supposed to hate Plutarch in the end as Katniss does, or find something redeemable in him?

Thankfully, this issue doesn't affect the allied tributes.  There are enough moments where Finnick and Johanna hint that something else is going on, giving Katniss and the audience a moment to consider what that something might be.  If only the same had been true of Plutarch.

Jennifer Lawrence Rocks
To say that Lawrence delivers a superb performance in this film is really just an attempt to say something we already know.  She's an exceptional actress, and she brings a great deal of emotional diversity to her reprised role.  That's no small feat when you consider that she doesn't have the benefit of internal monologue, which means we never get a clear sense of what is going on in the character's head (something the book gives us in droves); she has to show us.
Though I obviously have opinions on the ending, I also think the final shot (a closeup of Lawrence's face) is one of the more sure examples of the toll this world has had on the character of Katniss.  You can see the different emotions rolling through her face; she begins as visibly saddened, weaving swiftly through the stages of grief, until finally her sadness morphs into contempt and anger.  Then the film cuts out.  If the ending itself were actually about Katniss' emotional shift, it could have ended on this scene without issue.  This is what we've been waiting for, after all:  Katniss is going to war.

But I'll get to a discussion of the ending later.  Here, I'm concerned with Lawrence.  And she's exceptional.  Frankly, Lawrence really carries this movie, which makes the nearly $700mil box office tag all the more exciting.  Perhaps we'll see more films with female action leads in the near future.  Big films with lots of attitude.

Women
If you've seen The Hunger Games, then you have a good sense of the main characters here.  Regardless, I think it is worth noting that, unlike other female protagonists or sidekicks in so many films of any genre, the female characters here are fascinating, even if they are only on screen for a short period of time.  Some of those characters are also quite complex, revealing their layers over time.
From the aggressive, "don't give two shits" Johanna to the deceptively mindless and emotionally removed Effie to the reluctant but capable hero in Katniss, this film gives us a lot to work with when it comes to its female characters.  There's also the rather motherly Mags, who doesn't actually get to say anything in this film; yet, her bravery and kindness in action define her in ways that I think are quite significant in relation to the other characters.  Her relationship with the rude and lecherous Finnick, for example, provides a human dimension to her fellow male tribute, such that we're able to put trust in someone we previously thought would seek to harm our original heroes.  Though I wish we could have received more from Mags, I still loved her as one of many quite different women in this film.

(And, yes, it passes the Bechdel test, too, as female characters frequently discuss things that don't have anything to do with a boy; when they do talk about boys, it is frequently not about romantic entanglements, but salvation and violence.)
All of this led me to remark the some nights ago that it would be awesome if someone would make an Expendables-style film with an almost exclusive female action star cast.  That film is coming.

The point is this:  whatever flaws the film may have, it is a film where women are prominent players in a good portion of the action.  This is not to suggest that it is a perfect portrayal, but success shouldn't be judged by the absurd standard of perfection anyway.

PTSD Lite
I didn't honestly expect the creators of this film to actually address what seemed quite obvious to me after the first film:  these kids are going to be fucked up.  But they did.  Personally, I think they might have done more with the PTSD subplot, as a few bad dreams really doesn't cover it, but it was clear after twenty minutes of film that this was never going to be about the ramifications of the Hunger Games in the personal lives of the victors.  I think that's unfortunate, as actually addressing this issue with some emotional depth would lend credibility to the world.

Still, for a film meant, oddly enough, for younger crowds, it is rather poignant to address the consequences of violent confrontation, especially since we live in a time of sort-of-not-really-over-war.  If it had done so with greater focus, such as was done in Iron Man 3 (differently, of course), it might have added depth to Katniss' character and provided a more cogent rational for her initial refusal to get involved in the ensuing rebellion.  This is something that the book handles well due to the strict focus on Katniss' POV.  One scene in particular involves Peeta's post-games "talent," which all victors are basically required to share with the Capitol.  In Peeta's case, he paints, but his paintings are all from his nightmares of the games, which Katniss initially finds horrifying; soon, however, she recognizes their value:  they are a cathartic release for Peeta.  His greater sensitivity to the pressures of violence are partly responsible for leading Katniss and Haymitch to the conclusion that they must save Peeta -- granted, they also want to save him because he possesses a particular charm that might be useful later (Katniss recognizes that revolution is coming and that she will be a part of it quite early in the novel) and because, well, he's just "good."  Such a scene could have given the characters a moment to discuss their troubles, and it would likely have helped solidify the friendship that begins to develop in this film.
Endings
This film lacks an ending.  It just...ends.  While I appreciated the idea of Katniss destroying the arena and even the idea that this final act of rebellion within the terms of the capital would lead inexorably to an actual revolution, I still could not help finding the cliffhanger "look, the revolution has come" ending ineffective.  For one, it comes out of nowhere.  Katniss wakes up in a hovercraft to find that Plutarch, Haymitch, and Finnick have been conspiring to start a rebellion using her as a figurehead; she flips out, wakes up in a room with Gale looking over her, and we're told "hey, the revolution has come, District 12 ain't there no more, and...yeah...good times."  That's where it ends.

For me, all middle films have to leave some questions unanswered, but not the questions most pertinent to the film in question.  The conclusion to The Empire Strikes Back is anything but complete in the larger scheme:  Han has been kidnapped; Luke has failed to defeat Darth Vader; the rebels have gotten their asses handed to them; and there's a lot left to be done.  Empire, however, is complete in terms of its self-contained plot:  all of those things I just mentioned were conclusions to events specific to this film.  But unlike Empire, Catching Fire never defines the terms of the next engagement, nor does it conclude all of its self-contained plot elements.  It drops us in a moment which is decontextualized and abstract.  Revolution has come, but we don't really know what that means, particularly if we're to accept the fact that District 12 has been wiped off the map in a matter of days (at most).  There is no explanation for the absence of many of the characters -- presumably, most of them are dead, but it's never an issue that gets discussed in any depth.  All we're told is:  the revolution has started.
It's that absence of a denouement which makes this a weaker film than the first.  Like Matrix Reloaded, we're thrust into an entirely different world, but not one which has a basis or development out of something else.  Part of the problem, I think, is the structure of the other parts of the film; if the end result is the beginning of a revolution, it seems to me that the film needs to more accurately foreshadow this moment so the shocking revelation for Katniss need not be so shocking for us.  Shock is cheap.  It works once, but after you've seen it a few times, it loses its value.   But being able to piece together the clues in a concrete fashion adds something to the game.  We don't have that here.  There are breadcrumbs, sure, but their meaning doesn't naturally end with "revolution."

Conclusions
Overall, I enjoyed the film.  I thought it was stronger than the first until the end, and I appreciated the clearer villains and attempts to rationalize the world, even if this whole system still doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  The biggest flaw for me, obviously, was the ending.  I particularly despise middle films that end on cliffhangers, which might explain why I initially despised the second Matrix film.  All films must end in some capacity, even if their unanswered questions will be continued elsewhere.  Still, if you haven't seen it, you should do so before it leaves theaters for good.  Doing so supports an otherwise solid franchise and the possibility of more strong female leads like Katniss Everdeen -- plus, it's a glowing endorsement of Jennifer Lawrence, who I adore.

So that's what I have to say on that.  For now...

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Directing: 4/5
Cast:  4.5/5
Writing:  3/5
Visuals:  4/5
Adaptation: 3.5/5
Overall:  3.8/5 (76%)
Inflated Grade:  B (for solid acting, a stronger narrative thrust than the previous film, solid visuals, and suspense)
Value:  $9.00 (based on $10.50 max)

My Hopes and Anticipations for Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2014

2014 is almost upon us, and I'm already thinking about what is to come.  What will 2014 be like?  Will it be awesome?  Will someone release a stunning science fiction novel or an exciting YA fantasy or an *epic* epic fantasy?  The only way to find out is to live long enough to see it, I suppose (that's my early New Year's resolution).  But I do have my hopes for next year.  Big, juicy hopes.  And they are as follows:

A World SF Sorta Year
If you don't already know, my SF/F podcast, The Skiffy and Fanty Show, is hosting a massive World SF Tour throughout 2014.  We've already lined up a lot of great folks from all over the world, and that's just for the first couple months.  This thing has barely begun.

Since the World SF blog has ended, I'm hoping this special season of the show will help fill the gap a bit.  More importantly, I really hope we'll open further dialogue between (and within) the western SF/F spheres and the equally valuable spheres from elsewhere.  We should be talking to each other, and this whole Internet thing is a great way to make that possible.  So I really hope we'll spark a bit of a discussion in the community.  That would be a great thing indeed.

No Kerfluffles
I know this dream will never come true, but I'm putting it here anyway.  I would really like to see a year in the SF/F world that doesn't include fiascos and people saying racist, sexist, or downright douchey things.  Just for one year.  Please.

Please?
The Author List
Here are all the authors whose work I'm looking forward to in 2014 (assuming they're releasing anything)
  • Myke Cole (Breach Zone comes out in a month, and I get to interview him with my bestie.  So, basically, my life is awesome right now.)
  • Stina Leicht (I don't think she'll have anything out next year, but I hear she's working on something that's super cool beans -- I may have the inside scoop.)
  • China Mieville (It better be clever.  Oh, hell, who am I kidding?  Of course it will be clever!)
  • Lauren Beukes (Will she ever stop writing awesome books?  No.  Never.  EVER!)
  • Ann Leckie (I quite liked Ancillary Justice and am eagerly anticipating the sequel.  I'm told it'll be an even stronger book.)
  • Nick Mamatas writing noir crime fiction (because that should be very interesting indeed)
  • Nalo Hopkinson (Sister Mine was fantastic, so if she releases anything next year, I'll be happy)
  • Tobias S. Buckell (more Xenowealth stuff, please!)
  • Yoon Ha Lee (I have dreams that she'll release a novel and that it will be the most amazing thing since the invention of air.)
  • Christopher Barzak (two things:  1) I demand more writing in any form imaginable, and 2) I cannot wait to see the film adaptation of One For Sorrow)
  • Karen Lord (she could release a story on a restaurant napkin and I'd probably still read it enthusiastically)
  • Brian Francis Slattery (Lost Everything was genius, so another novel would be amazing)
That's not an exhaustive list, obviously.  They're names that came up when I started thinking about this whole thing.  I'd also love to see something new from Alden Bell, Jane Rogers, and even some translated works from China and the surrounding nations (Vietnam, Thailand, South Korea, etc.).

I'd also love to see some groundbreaking SF/F next year.  I haven't the foggiest what that would look like, but I do think we're overdue for a year that really throws us SF/F folks for a loop.

Dialogue Reboot
This is somewhat related to the kerfluffle thing above.  Basically, I think it would be lovely if we could actually have a dialogue about things like sexual harassment at cons, sexism in SF/F, racism in SF/F, and so on.  A discussion.  A talk.  Not two groups screaming at each other or self-segregating out of convenience.  I realize this is a tall order, in part because disparate groups simply don't agree about things, but I think we could get a lot more done if these issues were discussed more openly without the need to simply reject every claim.

This is also a completely absurd request.
Movies
I anticipate that the following will be true in 2014:

  • Marvel will continue to dominate in film.  With X-Men:  Days of Future Past, Captain America:  the Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy coming our way, it's hard to imagine Marvel won't be king for another year.
  • Science fiction will dominate.  With Edge of Tomorrow, Interstellar, the Marvel films, Hunger Games 3, The Giver, and Jupiter Ascending expected to hit theaters next year, I strongly suspect SF will be all the rage (as it was this year, really).  Robocop will probably be a lot of fun, but I expect it to bomb.  I couldn't care less about Transformers 1132424 or The Maze Runner (it will bomb).  But I expect those other films to do quite well.
  • Science fiction will not receive any major award nominations in categories people remember (namely, best director, actor/actress (lead or supporting), or best picture), and at least one of the films released this year will have deserved to have been on those lists.
  • Hunger Games 3 will be the knockout of the year.  If Hunger Games 2 is any indicator of this franchise's success, you can expect the (supposedly two part) finale to rock the box office.
  • Fantasy will mostly suck in 2014.  There are a couple of decent movies coming, and I have no doubt the genre will make a pretty penny, but I really don't think there will be anything of serious note from the fantasy genre next year.
The Hugos (and Other Awards)
When the awards season rolls around, I suspect a lot of people will be annoyed and pissed off again.  I look forward to a thoughtful discussion about the merits of these awards that leads to something worthwhile (like changes or new, viable awards).  Or we'll just have another pissing match.  I'm getting quite good at pissing...

A Happy Year
If things go my way, the following things will have happened by Dec. 31st, 2014:
  • Attend a convention with all (or most) of the Skiffy and Fanty crew (Convergence, anyone?)
  • Have most of my dissertation written
  • Finish a research trip through the UK and elsewhere for my PhD
  • Record some of the best interviews and discussions EVER
  • Finish writing a novel and submit it
  • Get a pro-rate publication in short fiction
  • Publish an academic article that isn't a review (possible the one on steampunk OR the one on Cloud Atlas OR the one on Edgar Mittelholzer's A Morning at the Office OR the one on Tobias S. Buckell's Xenowealth Saga OR the one on Makoto Shinkai's The Place Promises in Our Early Days...you get the picture)
  • Read a lot of great books
  • Watch a lot of great movies
And I think that's a good place to stop.

What are you looking forward to in 2014?

Top 10 Science Fiction and Fantasy Movies Since 2010 (Thus Far)

This is just the beginning.  I'm going to make an announcement about this very topic after I pass my PhD candidacy exams in September.  For now, however, I'd like to offer a list of films I consider to be "the best" in the SF/F category for the years 2010-2013 (thus far).  By "the best," I mean "films I think are good movies as movies."  A lot of these films were quite popular when they were in theaters, but I'm not concerned by popularity here.  I'm only concerned with what I think are well-written and/or well-produced films.  A film with a thin plot can still be great if it does something more than just throw lots of action at the audience to hide its flaws (this is why you will see no Michael Bay films on the list).

And on that note, I will shut up.

The following are the top 10 SF/F movies released since 2010...for now (this list will change as I start to watch things I missed):
10.  Chronicle (2012)
While I'm not a huge fan of the found-footage film form, occasionally they are done right.  Chronicle is one of those times.  The semi-diary-format superhero story coupled with a narrative about the psychological impact of parental abuse and death stuck with me after I saw it in theaters.  I connected with the main character almost immediately, in part because I've had similar experiences (minus the super powers).  The director also does a pretty damn good job cobbling together the fictive pieces of the main character's film diary, gaps and all.  That earns it a spot on this list.

9.  John Dies at the End (2012)
This movie is weird.  Really weird.  But it's also the kind of brilliant mix of camp and horror that one expects from Don Coscarelli, Jr.  If you haven't seen the film (and like Coscarelli's work), I recommend watching it on Netflix.  I can't describe it to you.  It's, as I said, really freaking weird, and relentless in its descent into insanity.  It's sort of what I'd expect someone who just saw Cthulu to dream as they slowly fall to pieces.  Only John Dies at the End is hilarious, surreal, and dark.

8.  Pacific Rim (2013)
You can learn all about my love for this film here.

7.  Pumzi (released in the U.S. in 2010)
The only short film of this list, Wanuri Kahiu's incredible dystopian film Pumzi took academic circles by storm in 2010.  For such a short work, it manages to bring a lot to the table:  a thoroughly African setting (I suspect there are cultural clues specific to Kahiu's native Kenya, but I know too little about that nation to say for sure); a fascinating post-apocalyptic "green utopian" society; and some interesting uses of technology.  I'd say the film is cliche, but the semi-mystic undertones and the ambiguous final vertical panning shot over a seemingly threatening climate on the other side of the mountains make this one of the best films released in the last three years, if only because I've had some intense discussions about that ending.

6.  Another Earth (2011)
While action and straightforward SF films are wonderful when done right, sometimes a character drama in an SFnal universe can make for exceptional cinematic experiences.  Brit Marling and Mike Cahill's Another Earth uses its SF premise (a planet that looks suspiciously like our own earth appears suddenly in the sky) to provide an extended metaphor about second chances.  The interaction between Rhoda (Marling) and John (William Mapother) as they both come to terms with the horrors of their connected pasts (unbeknownst to John, whose family was killed in a car accident caused by Rhoda) had me captivated all the way through.  And like all good character dramas, the ending provides an ambiguous solution to the primary conflict in the narrative.  It's just a damned good film.

5.  Elysium (2013)
You can find out what I think about this movie here.  I'm likely to write several blog posts about the film, though.  I think it's actually quite an intelligent film, despite all the critics who call it propaganda, stupid, pointlessly utopian, and so on (it is neither of these things).

4.  Hugo (2011)
The only children's film on this list, Hugo's charming story about family and French cinema deserved a lot more love than it got when the awards season came around.  Asa Butterfield's exceptional performance as the title character, along with equally strong performances by Ben Kingsley and Chloe Moretz, added depth to an already exceptional and brilliantly-imagined film.  It most certainly belongs on a top ten list for children's films from the last decade!  For now, I've stuck it here.

3.  Never Let Me Go (2010)
I'm a sucker for Carey Mulligan films, I guess.  This low-key dystopia centralizes the personal growth and development of a trio of clones who will one day have their organs harvested by the British state.  I saw this film for the first time with my sister, and I recall the feeling of dread and horror that arises in the final moments -- feelings that just wouldn't exist without the direct focus on these three characters as characters.  It's not a film for everyone, but I think it's easily one of the best SF/F films ever made.

2.  Cloud Atlas (2012)
This one shouldn't surprise anyone.  The Wachowski sibling's adaptation of David Mitchell's epic novel of the same name didn't get a lot of love from the traditional SF crowd, but I wasn't surprised by that in the slightest.  More critics and viewers loved Prometheus than Cloud Atlas; I think it's fair to say that the former is a steaming pile of glittering shit stained with oils made from petrified dinosaur crap (here's what I really think about that movie...).  Cloud Atlas, however, is an incredible journey into the interconnected lives of individuals existing across various time periods.  Every time I see the film, I make new connections between characters, discover new ambiguities and symbols, and get lost in the lives of its various characters.  I don't know how else to say this, so I'll just be blunt:  Cloud Atlas is the best film of 2012, rivaled by nothing else whatsoever.

1.  Inception (2010)
What?  He picked Inception for his #1?  How typical!

Yes.  Yes I did.  Why?  There are a lot of reasons, really:

  1. It's actually quite an amazing work of SF.  The multiple layers (literal and figurative) of the narrative and the almost haunting examination of the human subconscious are part of why this film got the attention it otherwise deserved.
  2. It seemed like people couldn't shut up about this film.  Sometimes, the mark of a great film is found in its influence on the conversation surrounding film in general.  Blog posts and articles were consantly being written about the meaning of the symbols (such as the top at the end) in Inception.  Academics were up in arms about all the layers.  For a solid three or four months, this film was all people could talk about.  And rightly so, because...
  3. The film is amazing on almost every level (see #1).  Even the music was incredible!
If you want to see more extended thoughts on this film, you can see my posts about it here, here, here and here.

And that's it.  What do you think I'm missing from this list?  Do you disagree with a selection?  Leave a comment!

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Note:  It's entirely possible that some films have been left off this list because I haven't been able to see them yet.  And how could I?  There have been something like 200 SF/F movies released in the U.S. alone.  Imagine all the Japanese, Chinese, Indian, etc. films we've all completely missed out on!

Flavorwire “SF/F Films Everyone Should See” Meme: How many have you seen?

The fine folks at Flavorwire recently released a list of 50 SF/F films they think everyone should watch (technically, there are 63 titles on the list, since they counted series as one).  I figured it would be fun to turn it into a meme.  So here you go:


BOLD = You've seen it!

  1. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  2. Pan's Labyrinth
  3. Moon
  4. The Fellowship of the Ring
  5. The Two Towers
  6. The Return of the King
  7. The Princess Bride
  8. Labyrinth
  9. Men in Black
  10. Edward Scissorhands
  11. Mad Max
  12. Princess Mononoke
  13. Spirited Away
  14. Gattaca
  15. Primer
  16. Blade Runner
  17. Fantastic Planet
  18. The Wizard of Oz
  19. The Secret of Roan Inish
  20. Dark City
  21. The Matrix
  22. Time Bandits
  23. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
  24. La Jetée
  25. Brazil
  26. Metropolis
  27. Big Fish
  28. Solaris (original)
  29. Jurassic Park
  30. Alien
  31. Aliens
  32. Orpheus
  33. Dark Star
  34. 2001:  A Space Odyssey
  35. Avatar
  36. Back to the Future
  37. Star Wars IV:  A New Hope
  38. Star Wars V:  The Empire Strikes Back
  39. Star Wars VI:  The Return of the Jedi
  40. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  41. A Clockwork Orange
  42. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
  43. The Fountain
  44. Sleeper
  45. City of Lost Children
  46. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
  47. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  48. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  49. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  50. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  51. Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince
  52. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt.1
  53. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt.2
  54. The Day the Earth Stood Still (original)
  55. Donnie Darko
  56. Invasion of the Body Snathers (original)
  57. Ghostbusters
  58. Being John Malkovich
  59. Akira
  60. The Terminator
  61. Terminator 2
  62. Strange Days
  63. Serenity

I count 49.  That's not bad, methinks...  How did you do?

Star Trek Movies and TV Shows: Ranked by Me

On August 11th, Badass Digest released a Trekkie-voted ranked list of all the Star Trek movies to date (plus Galaxy Quest, for some reason).  It's a strange list, to say the least.  Why is Galaxy Quest on there?  Other than the fact that it's a mostly-direct parody of Star Trek, it isn't actually a Star Trek movie.  And why did they stick Star Trek Into Darkness at the end, when it's obviously not the worst film on the list?

OK, so I have a good answer for that last question.  We talked about this a little in a recent Shoot the WISB episode.  Basically, the reversal of the Khan narrative probably came off as a slap in the face to Trekkies.  I even think it smelled disgusting, even though I kind of like the idea of switching things around.  After all, Spock isn't supposed to be an emotional man, so the idea that he'd break down after the supposed death of Kirk adds some weight to the moment.  But...it wasn't handled well.  There wasn't enough character development; the death of Kirk was handled in the way you'd expect a comic book to handle it:  he's dead...wait, no, not really, here's some magic *poof.*  At least in Wrath of Khan, Spock died.  He was dead dead dead.  The film never says "hey, we'll magic him into existence...right at the end."  If you've never seen Search for Spock, you really do think the guy has friggin died.  And that's a big deal.  The audience sometimes needs that slap in the face.

But I digress.  Prepare to be pissed off.  The following is my ranked list of Star Trek movies, minus Galaxy Quest:

12.  Star Trek (you can see why I still hate the film here and here)
11.  Star Trek:  Insurrection (the villains just didn't do it for me; it felt too much like an unnecessarily extended episode of the regular show, and the absurdity of the plot never seemed to gel or follow through for me, despite some nifty action sequences in the end)
10.  Star Trek V:  The Final Frontier (I want to like this film, but too much of this film's central elements are ridiculously underdeveloped; for example, both Sybok and the "god" thing at the end are given almost the same amount of characterization, despite the fact that the latter is only in the film for maybe seven minutes -- we never really know who Sybok is, except that he's kinda nuts)
9.  Star Trek:  Nemesis (there are certainly a lot of problems with this film, most notably in the convoluted plot; however, Tom Hardy does a fantastic job as Shinzon, and Captain Kirk really does almost get sucked dry like a character in a vampire movie, which seemed pretty cool to me)
8.  Star Trek Into Darkness (though I quite enjoy this sequel to Abrams' first ST film, it certainly suffers from reboot-idis; case in point, the fact that the writers could not include Khan in this version of the universe without making annoying and poorly conceived references to the original Wrath of Khan.  More on my thoughts, along with some others, here)
7.  Star Trek:  Generations (I think if I watched this movie again, I'd like it a lot less than I do in my memory; that said, I love the continued development of Data as a character, let alone the fact that this film really does give a lot of closure to the original TNG series -- plus, saucer separation = awesome)
6.  Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock (the one thing the original ST movies did well was comedic development between the principle cast; having Spock's katra, or soul, trapped in McCoy's body pretty much makes for comedic gold.  Add in Christopher Lloyd as the villain and you've got a pretty decent ST film)
5.  Star Trek VI:  The Undiscovered Country (while the villain doesn't have quite the prowess of Khan, his obsession with Shakespeare adds a certain creep factor to this otherwise straightforward political assassination thriller -- overall, I thought it did pretty damn well for itself, particularly considering the political implications of an alliance between the Federation and the Klingon Empire)
4.  Star Trek:  First Contact (the Borg are probably my favorite villain species in the entire ST franchise; the best part of this film, however, involves seeing humanity make that first stretch to the stars and all that comes with it)
3.  Star Trek:  The Motion Picture (I know a lot of people hate this movie, but I've always found it infinitely fascinating; it kept with the original narrative of exploration at the heart of the show, and the discovery itself was so cool)
2.  Star Trek II:  The Wrath of Khan (you all know why this is in the top two slots; everyone loves this movie)
1.  Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home (my grandma loved this movie, and so she made me watch it...a lot.  Obviously, it still has a special place in my heart, and it played a crucial role in my childhood love of whales and the ocean.  Also:  the movie still makes me laugh)

And here's my ranked list of Star Trek TV shows:
6.  Star Trek:  the Animated Series (it exists, and that's good enough for me)
5.  Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine (there are aspects of this show I really like, but the fact that it takes until season two for anything interesting to happen and that some of the actors are just horrible makes me unable to move this higher on the list)
4.  Star Trek:  the Original Series (it's classic, I know, but I didn't grow up on the original series, so I can only put it in the #4 slot because of its classic nature -- don't kill me)
3.  Star Trek:  Enterprise (everyone hates this one for some reason; I liked the attempt to have a single narrative riding through everything and the focus on humanity as the new kid on the proverbial block.  I'm also in agreement with one of my professors, who suggested that what makes this series so interest is the fact that humanity basically gets its ass handed to it...a lot.  That makes for a lot of interesting narratives)
2.  Star Trek:  Voyager (Captain Janeway is my favorite starship captain in the entire ST franchise; I also love the use of the Borg later in the series...and Neelix makes me happy.  There are certainly some plot issues here or there, but there are some fascinating explorations of the consequences of war and other social issues in this series.  I loved it when it was on the air in my younger years)
1.  Star Trek:  the Next Generation (the series introduced us to the Borg, who may be the greatest ST villain ever, and it was a damn good anthology-style series, with some cool stories and characters; it was also the first ST series to give us a genuinely non-humanoid character who had to grow piece by piece from start to finish -- oh, and there's a great episode where Geordi basically falls in love with a computer simulation...without brain manipulation)

And that's my list.  You're free to threaten death in the comments.