Monday, November 24, 2014

#778. How is there a better film this year than Interstellar?

Interstellar is the best movie of the year.

There's no way there can be serious competition.  This is a filmmaker at the height of his powers, the culmination of everything Christopher Nolan has done so far in his career.  How does he top it?  That's the only question here.

Interstellar is Nolan challenging an entire generation, asking all the biggest questions mankind has ever had, and coming up with conclusions.  Time and time again, he's challenged audiences and then left them to come to their own conclusions.  Interstellar is different because this time, he presents his.  He wants to know whatever happened to the idea of human ingenuity, human ambition.  In some ways, only Darren Aronosky's The Fountain, a film that didn't offer answers, has ever even approached the scope of Nolan's achievement.  You've no doubt heard a parade of critics present 2001: A Space Odyssey as Interstellar's natural predecessor and obvious better, but that's exactly the idea Nolan is completely rebuffing in his film.

2001 came at the height of the era Nolan is addressing in the movie.  It was originally released in 1968, a year before the moon landing (a crucial plot point in Nolan's vision), and represented not only the high point in writer Arthur C. Clarke's career, but also, arguably, director Stanley Kubrick's, an experience that completely redefined "scope" in storytelling in any medium.  Its conclusions, though, were muddled, "cosmic" if you want to be generous.  Interstellar is littered with echoes, and so that certainly made the job of those critics easier, and their conclusions were easiest of all: critics always prove conservative.  They went with the older model.  They're exactly who Nolan is looking to refute.  In 2001 a mysterious monolith appears and leads to a journey into the unknown, and the unknown remains the unknown, which is certainly a message in itself, but has no real scientific impetus behind it.  It is instead a symbol of all the hope of its era, when everything seemed possible.

We know, however, that all that hope led only to one disaster after another.  The Cold war continued.  The Vietnam War continued.  Nixon resigned the presidency.  Race relations remained unresolved.  Politics only became messier.  The Middle East exploded.  You name it.  And science has been reduced to the toys you play with instead of interacting with other people.  We've become increasingly self-centered.  And we have no ambition.

The next time films had an epic vision, it was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another film that left the ending somewhere in the viewer's imagination.  Which is fine.  Spielberg returned to aliens with E.T., and then his grandest ambitions in A.I., a movie that was dismissed as his poor imitation of Kubrick, who'd initially conceived the project.  I never agreed with that assessment, but it does acknowledge how Spielberg failed to nail his ending.

Terrence Malick, in The Tree of Life, and Duncan Jones, with Source Code, delivered a pair of game-changers, mind-widening wonders that were generally overlooked.  J.J. Abrams is the next filmmaker ready to take a crack, but so far his greatest projects have been on television, Lost and Fringe, the latter of which was something like an answer to its predecessor, the one disgruntled fans were looking for but failed to follow.  Super 8 was called a Spielberg film.  After Star Wars, what else can Abrams do?

Nolan, meanwhile, has been tackling one epic vision after another, starting small and always branching outward.  From Memento to The Prestige to Inception, and his deepening of superheroes in the Dark Knight trilogy, he sought to challenge himself and his audiences, help each other grow.  With Interstellar he's finally delivered his thesis.

Interstellar is about ambition and love, about science and about progress, about the past and the future, and certainly the present.  It's a human adventure most of all.  He wants to know why we stopped being explorers, started letting setbacks get in our way, and why we no longer embrace big stories.  Gravity was the last time we went into space at the movies, but it wasn't about the possibilities of space at all, but about its tragedies, like Apollo 13.  Ridley Scott turned the Alien franchise back to its origins with Prometheus, but was scoffed at when he left the story unfinished, another Matrix where humanity is left to fight yet another battle, look to settle another score just when it seems victory was already attained, that happy ending found.  "They" in Interstellar is "us."  This is what M. Night Shyamalan has been trying to say for years but never found the words.  Nolan did find them.

Interstellar does what Source Code only did if you figured out what really happened.  Nolan has done away with riddles.  And he does it with gusto.  Great acting.  Great visuals.  Great storytelling.  Great music.  And a conclusion.  Not an implication.  A statement.

Any serious observer, any real movie fan, will admit that Interstellar has done the impossible.  Sometimes the best films are intimate journeys.  This time it's truly epic, in every sense, what filmmakers have been trying to do from the very start.  Give us a truly magical experience.  Many have tried.  Nolan succeeded.

It's the best movie of the year.

Friday, November 14, 2014

#777. Mock Squid Soup: Space Battleship Yamato

via Star Advertiser
The Mock Squid Soup society is meeting again to discuss Space Battleship Yamato, a 2010 Japanese movie based on a 1970s anime.  As always, Mock Squid Soup is, astoundingly, presented by a couple of people named Mock and Squid, but not by a mock squid.  That would just be silly.

This is the first selection of theirs that I had not previously seen.  I scrambled for a few weeks attempting to find a copy, and when all else failed I did what people have done for thousands of years: bummed it off the Internet for free.

A large swath of Space Battleship Yamato is right up my wheelhouse, which is to say it features significant portions of spaceships going boom! boom! boom!  I have an incurable knack this kind of movie, and an even worse impulse to like the result regardless of its overall critical merits, which include things like what everyone else says about it.

But Space Battleship Yamato has a secret weapon in that regard, in that it's not generally known among American audiences, who tend to hate even the things they like.  So I was pretty safe this time.

The thing about this movie, however, is that it owes more to fan films than to Hollywood.  That's okay.  I've watched my share of foreign productions.  In my first year of college there was a standing date when a new one would be screened every week (or whatever the interval was), movies like Earth (1998), The King of Masks (watch for the teapot!), and Dancing at Lughnasa (in which Meryl Streep convincingly plays Irish!).  

I've watched plenty of Japanese movies, too, including a bunch of anime, far too little Kurosawa, and probably the most similar experience to Space Battleship Yamato, the trippy Versus.  But I would probably call the most relevant experience Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, the movie that made its predecessor Flags of Our Fathers instantly irrelevant in comparison.

If you've never seen Letters, you should correct that as soon as possible.  Outside of Tora! Tora! Tora! it's probably the only movie a classroom should screen regarding the Pacific Theater during WWII.  Ken Watanabe leads a cast that explores the face of the enemy in such a way that you can't help wondering...these guys were the enemy?  WWII wasn't exactly known as that kind of war (but then, what war is?), and no matter what Quentin Tarantino did with Inglourious Basterds no one will ever manage that with the Nazis (except, Christoph Waltz!), so that's a heck of an accomplishment.

Space Battleship Yamato is sort of that kind of experience, in that it relates the Japanese perspective of WWII via allegory via aliens and spaceships.  Watching it, you probably don't even realize the bad guys are essentially those dastardly Americans.  Although you have to admit, it's probably wrong to say "those dastardly Americans" so flippantly when you think that the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare on record was in fact by Americans on the Japanese.  Twice.

This is a grim movie in a lot of respects.  The actors talk almost uniformly in solemn tones, which makes for tough listening after a while (if you're looking for something other than one-note performances, this is not the movie you're looking for).  Putting the story in its proper context (the historic Yamato was Japan's last best hope for glorious victory, so to make a futuristic one carry the same role and to actually accomplish it is not just science fiction but wish fulfillment in a way you probably hadn't thought of before; it's not all Godzilla over there in terms of the national post-nuclear psyche) takes a lot of the wind out of its escapist sails.

I think I would have to watch it again to quit worrying so much about its implications and just lose myself in the experience.  But in all seriousness, that goofy captain's hat has got to go.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

#776. The 24th annual PWI 500

Okay, so my readers can ignore this one.  It's time once again for me to pretend anyone actually cares when I blog about wrestling!

And it's time, once again, to talk about the PWI 500.  This is the annual list Pro Wrestling Illustrated compiles of the best wrestlers in the world.  For as long as I've been blogging here, I've been commenting on this list, now hitting its twenty-fourth year.  I value this effort a great deal, but I'm always hoping the magazine will take its responsibility more seriously.  This year is no exception.

Before I get into my reaction, I want to repost comments I made to PWI's blog when it issued its own statement on the difficulty of putting the list together (here).  They said that the PWI 500 is as difficult a thing to do as ranking the year's best actors.  This is what I said in response:

As far as actors go, evaluating/ranking them would probably look something like this: Tabulate the numerous awards and nominations they've received for the year. Tabulate the box office/ratings. That second tabulation alone gives actors who haven't gotten awards and/or nominations a shot. By that point, you've already got a good sampling. Then go deeper. Look at what people have been saying that isn't necessarily reflected in awards/nominations/box office/ratings (a good recent example of that would be Tatiana Maslany from Orphan Black, whose name always comes up from disappointed fans because she's been overlooked by the awards/nominations again). Then look at how much work the actor has done in the past year (popularity within the industry itself), how much they have lined up for next year.
It seems like sometimes some of these considerations aren't taken into account in the higher slots for the PWI 500. Some years you've blatantly determined no big name fits your criteria for a whole grading year, so you've gone with someone you like (here I'd single out RVD, but there have been other cases). Some of it has to do with the kayfabe nature of PWI. We all get that PWI still wants to maintain the illusion of what we watch is basically real, but in doing so you end up shortchanging a lot of excellent work, rely more heavily on some of your criteria than other indicators. That's my evaluation, why I sometimes get upset at your choices.
Overall, we all appreciate the undertaking. It's incredible, it really is, the best single thing the whole wrestling industry gets done for it year after year. 
It's just, it would have more credibility if it were also the one time of the year you...break kayfabe. Recognize the talent all the way around. Just a thought.
The blog editorial was published in the PWI 500 issue itself, along with a different one looking at the lack of Japanese talent reaching the top of the list.  Never mind that a clear bias has always been given to WWE even before WCW and ECW closed shop in 2001.  Other than the extremely suspect top ranking of Dean Malenko in 1997, Sting's win in 1992 was the only instance until A.J. Styles in 2010 where someone other than a WWE won the honor.  In fact, nearly every top pick has been the guy who had the WrestleMania push, and whenever that's been within WWE itself, the PWI 500 has had to look for someone else to top the list, hence why in 1997 when Shawn Michaels threw everyone's plans out of whack PWI scrambled to find an acceptable alternative, eliminated all the likely candidates, and ended up with Malenko, who never even came close to main event status, let alone in 1997.  To keep the acting analogy in play, it would be like calling Adam Sandler the best actor of any given year, even in 2002, when his best-received role in Punch Drunk Love nonetheless completely failed to alter the course of his career in the perception of critics.

Speaking of 1997, the editorial about Japanese wrestlers, which uncomfortably and unexplicably suggested a possible bias has something to do with the lingering effects of WWII (to borrow the Miz's line, Really?), no matter how Stanley Weston might have felt, that idea just doesn't wash.  It explains how Bret Hart, Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels, Dallas Page, and Steve Austin were all eliminated from consideration "due to injuries or key losses."  Again, really?  Keep in mind the list is published in the fall and so generally covers the period from one summer to the next, meaning that the 1997 PWI 500 covered mid-1996 to mid-1997.  Here's what the years of those wrestlers actually looked like in very broad strokes:

  • Bret Hart - Had been away for much of 1996 following the loss to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XII.  Came back for November's Survivor Series with a win over Steve Austin...Lost in a title match against champion Sid at the next PPV...Was one of four competitors at the Royal Rumble involved in the finals that were later contested...Won the WWE championship in February...Quickly lost it...Defeated Austin again at WrestleMania XIII in what was instantly considered a classic match...Formed the new Hart Foundation...Bottom line for Hart's year is that it really wasn't worthy of consideration for the top honor.  He had better years before and after this particular grading period, including an extended championship run just after its conclusion.
  • Undertaker - Lost to Mankind (Mick Foley) at Summer Slam 1996...Defeated Goldust at the following PPV...Defeated Mankind in a "Buried Alive" match...Defeated Mankind again at Survivor Series 1996...Defeated the Executioner...Lost to Vader at Royal Rumble 1997...Was one of the final competitors at the same event in the finals that were later contested...Defeated champion Sid at WrestleMania XIII for the title...Successfully defended it against Mankind, Steve Austin, Faarooq (Ron Simmons), and Vader...Bottom line for Undertaker's year is that arguably he was the most worthy, even by PWI's own standards, of being ranked first that year.  Instead he ended up sixth.
  • Hulk Hogan - Formed the New World Order...Defeated the Giant (Big Show) to become WCW champion...Defeated Randy Savage to retain...Lost to Roddy Piper in a nontitle match...Defeated the Giant to retain...Defeated Piper...Lost the title to Lex Luger...Bottom line for Hogan's year is that it was downright criminal for PWI to have significantly downplayed everything he accomplished.  He was ranked 55th that year.  Really!  It's insane.  That's what leads people to question the credibility of the list, impressive as it is.
  • Shawn Michaels - Defeated Vader at Summer Slam 1996 to retain the WWE title...Defeated Mankind to retain...Defeated Goldust...Lost the title to Sid at Survivor Series 1997...Defeated Mankind...Reclaimed the title from Sid at Royal Rumble 1997..."Lost his smile"...Battled Steve Austin to a draw...Bottom line for Michaels' year was that it clearly continued the success of the previous one, in which he'd topped the list.  Clearly a few bumps, but any grading period with two separate championship reigns should be taken seriously, even if there were shenanigans that followed.  He dropped to 18th instead.
  • Dallas Page - Defeated Chavo Guerrero...Defeated Eddie Guerrero...Lost to Eddie at Starrcade 1996 in the finals of a tournament to declare a new U.S. champion...Lost to Scott Norton...Defeated Buff Bagwell...Defeated Randy Savage...Lost to Savage...Bottom line for Diamond Dallas Page this year was that it was clearly his breakthrough campaign as he helped WCW fight the NWO.  But this could not have been a serious name to toss out in contention for the top spot.  His career improved thereafter, but there's nothing here that would remotely warrant consideration.  Except for the fact that he ranked 4th on the list that year.  For some reason.
  • Steve Austin - Defeated Triple H...Lost to Bret Hart at Survivor Series 1996...Defeated Goldust...Technically won the 1997 Royal Rumble...Lost to Hart at WrestleMania XIII...Defeated Hart...Lost to Undertaker in a WWE title match...Had a draw with Shawn Michaels...Bottom line for Stone Cold this year was that this was what his career looked like right after his King of the Ring breakthrough and before the 1998 explosion.  PWI had always been hot on him, even in the WCW years when WCW clearly wasn't (a rare instance of PWI recognizing talent despite how it's used), so it's no surprise that it leaped on the bandwagon before the bandwagon actually arrived.  But there's no way he warranted serious consideration.
I don't follow Japanese wrestling closely, so I don't know how Mitsuharu Misawa's year compared, but that was the guy the editorial talked about as being the closest shot yet at having someone from that country top the list.  PWI is always giving a token high placing for a Japanese star but rarely has adequate coverage in the magazine itself to justify it, except in the wrap-up reports from several back-of-the-issue columns.  The magazine can be considerably sloppy in acknowledging even its own enthusiasm.  A TNA wrestler known as Gunner today was once identified, when he was known as Phil Shatter, as a potential star by PWI itself, but can't catch a break in the magazine now that he has an actual opportunity.

Which leads me to what I really wanted to talk about concerning this year's list.  After some consideration I decided PWI was right to give Mr. Anderson a relatively low ranking, but its explanation as to why was baffling: "Renewed his TNA contract last year, but it must have included a secret clause prohibiting him from being relevant in 2014."

Really?  In the first half of the grading period Anderson helped end the Aces & Eights arc by defeating Bully Ray in a feud.  2014 has seen him feud with Samuel Shaw, an up-and-coming prospect whose feud with Anderson has so far helped shape his career, and has since gone on to feud with...Gunner.  Not only was Anderson crucial in the formative development of someone's career, but he's helped open the door to giving Gunner something distinctive to do, which presumably is what everyone's been waiting for, especially PWI.  I just don't get it.  If Anderson himself, back when he was known as Mr. Kennedy in WWE, had gotten similar treatment, instead of a slapdash beating-numerous-former-world-champions push and then extended feuds with Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, his career would probably look a lot different today.  I'll always champion the guy.  Main event personality with an in-ring talent that was never given a chance to be taken seriously.

The opposite, basically, is true of Bray Wyatt, the would-be successor to Jake "The Snake" Roberts who without the benefit of the massive push he's received for the past year would be a nobody, and certainly would have been laughed out of PWI's own offices if suggested for a top ten finish in this year's list.  A great gimmick, but he's nowhere near that great a talent.  Daniel Bryan claimed the top spot.  I'm more than okay with that.  Good, obvious choice.  But PWI's twisted logic left CM Punk off the list.  Left Brock Lesnar off the list.  Nonsense.  Only Roman Reigns of the former Shield faction cracked the top ten, when all three of them (including Seth Rollins and especially Dean Ambrose) should have warranted it.

I appreciate that PWI puts this thing together every year, but it just seems like it drops the ball in too many ways to have the credibility it ought to have.  Wrestling has a hard enough time being taken seriously.  Having what's now the only publication taking its own responsibility so flippantly is unacceptable in 2014.  This is a list that has been compiled for nearly a quarter century now.  There should be no question about how to do it, and do it right.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

#775. Rolling Stone 1217

Last month I read Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, etc.), which among other things got me thinking about investigative journalism.  At work recently I saw a copy of Rolling Stone with Robin Williams on the cover, referencing of course his death last August, and so I had a look at the magazine, a complete issue, for the first time in ages.  Back in high school (would this have been the last time Rolling Stone was actually cool, or just the last time I myself was paying attention?) I read it all the time.  Rolling Stone, in case you've never read much less heard of it, is a rock 'n' roll magazine that's also known for Peter Travers' movie reviews, music reviews, and yes, investigative journalism.  Mostly, it's a magazine that took rock pretty seriously about taking an alternative approach to life, not so much what we consider alternative today (because the thing the '80s did to alternative music and alternative everything else was, apparently, irrevocably split it so that it's increasingly uncommon for any one person to experience all or most of what there is out there; sucks culturally to be so splintered and isolated, but at least there's a lot of diversity!).

The Williams story is itself pretty interesting, since his own history in Rolling Stone is probably indicative of the arc his life took.  There's reference to the three other cover stories he merited, and they came from 1979 (circa Mork & Mindy), 1988 (Good Morning, Vietnam), and 1991 (Awakenings).  Post-1991, you could say, Williams went a little too mainstream, which is that odd period of public life after you've become famous (Mork & Mindy) and you somehow stay there institutionally for a little too long (the '90s seemed to be unforgivable success for Williams, including the sonic id of Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, and even Good Will Hunting; it seems strange, since given his track record with the magazine and how The Birdcage was ahead of the road-to-LGBT-community-culturally-accepted era, you might actually have expected that to have rated a cover, too; although even his early '00s stretch of dark roles, including One Hour Photo but for me, more significantly, Insomnia with Al Pacino and Christopher Nolan, didn't merit much more than an oh-that's-interesting reaction).

Williams was undoubtedly uniquely talented, but he definitely fell victim to our increasingly fragmented society, which is also why most of the movies that are wildly popular these days are event movies and movie stars are the people who manage to be cast in lots of them (which is actually good news for Tom Hardy but also a major reason Samuel L. Jackson is among the top-earning stars despite pretty much never starring in his own movies).  Used to be, movie stars were defined by their ability to make any of their releases the latest event movie.  Williams was one of the early victims, critics suddenly finding it very easy to completely overlook whatever he was doing.  I remember Man of the Year in particular, in which he basically plays Jon Stewart running for president, and the only thing anyone said about that was how Williams was far too mainstream to pull off Jon Stewart.  That would have been an absurd statement at the height of the Rolling Stone covers era (which was ironically right before Rolling Stone stopped caring).

The rest of the issue has compelling material, too, which is why I decided to write about it here, getting back to Larsson's ideas in his trilogy  Larsson himself was Swedish, so everything he had to say about investigative journalism should be understood to reflect Sweden directly, but crusading journalists were huge news in the United States at one time, thanks to Watergate.  I still don't quite understand the Watergate scandal.  I mean, I get that Nixon was officially exposed as, I don't know, incredibly paranoid.  I guess he was also exposed, I don't know, as a politician working on getting reelected?  (Oh no!  They stole campaign secrets!  It reminds me of the "scandal" I keep hearing on sports radio about the Patriots being "exposed" for stealing play calls during their incredible championship run in the early '00s.  I mean, who doesn't?  All this is really about is trying to bring down a team or a president you don't like.  Well, congratulations.)

The last time there was serious investigative journalism in the US was during the Clinton presidency.  I don't know if you remember, but that wasn't just a time where we joked about inhaling or what the dude was doing with personal assistants and getting impeached for it or even Primary Colors, but there was huge paranoid right wing talk about all the people the administration was eliminating behind the scenes.  That was the whole reason the Democrats officially declared war on the Republicans, why they hated Bush even before he officially became president (when is it ever acceptable to make fun of someone because they have a penchant for misspeaking? but that's all you heard for years about the guy, until people made it official to declare Iraq the new Vietnam, which is to say even before the war began), and how Obama (it's true) became president (because he declared most smoothly that, basically, he wasn't Bush, something he began uttering, and if you click the "politics" label you'll see I even remarked on that at the time, in 2004).

But you don't hear anything of that concerning Clinton's legacy these days.  The latest smear journalism we've gotten was the Chris Christie Crisis.  I don't mean to turn this whole blog into a political quagmire (which is why I don't generally talk politics), or declare one party to be better than the other (the truth is, they're pretty much equal, except on the issues they zealously defend without really thinking about them, and are as such convenient smokescreens for their constituents more than anything).  No, instead we're headed toward Hillary officially being president (it kind of seems inevitable at this point, although I guess we'll see in two years), right after the last time anyone heard from her was how she probably wouldn't run because, you know, health scare.

The irony of all that is that one of the stories I want to talk about is exactly about the ridiculousness of US politics, and how the platform you're reading from is bound to try and gear its perspective, come hell or high water (but enough about Chris Christie!) based on its political bent.  It's Tim Dickinson's feature entitled "Biggest Tax Scam Ever," which if you can believe it exposes big corporations of being incredibly greedy.  Shocking, I know!  I'm of the mind where we're basically at the point where we need a modern equivalent of the trust-busting, monopoly (but not the game Monopoly) era that saw the end of the big businessmen of a different age (Rockefeller, names like that).  You'd think the Great Recession and everything everyone knows that led to it would have already led to this, but I guess not.  The problem is, except for a few names, most of the big businessmen of this era are completely anonymous.  You know geeky Bill Gates, but there are so many others you just don't.  Anyway, Dickinson explains how corporations exploit tax loopholes that allow them to hide the vast sums of their fortunes on foreign land.  He even goes so far as to detail how these practices began (in the Clinton era), but goes on to blame Bush for the bulk of it (because, Republicans!), and tries to paint Obama in a sympathetic light ("we're working on that!") even though the problem has only gotten worse under him.

Nice work, Dickinson.  But I don't think Sweden will sweat your work.  I don't think anyone will.  Maybe things really do work differently in Sweden, but I think Woodward and Bernstein were the last time anyone worried about journalists in the US.  I find that to be a problem.  Where's the worth of public accountability if everyone who works so hard to screw everyone else (oh wait, I think I just identified the problem...) can so consistently get away with it?

There's also an article about LGBT teens who end up homeless because their parents threw them out.  This is a legitimately sad one and perhaps the only real piece of journalism in the magazine.  Curiously, as I noted early, we're in an era where society has acknowledged more than ever before (at least in modern times; curiously the whole reason Oliver Stone's brilliant Alexander landed to such popular opposition was because it featured the title Great one in a time when people were openly bisexual) that LGBTs exist, so I don't know why there isn't greater support for these outcasts.  I mean, why are they even outcasts at all?  You would think a country that successfully (although it seems less and less so sometimes, after public outcries over Trayvon Martin and Ferguson) learned from the Civil Rights era would be more culturally accepting, but then, we still have a huge problem with immigration even though we're a whole country of immigrants.  (Seriously, my hometown newspaper, the Sun Journal, for some reason had a whole article about immigrants who for one reason or another chose not to apply for citizenship; I understand that newspapers, like magazines, face greater opposition than physical books and therefore will try anything to try and reclaim readers, which Sun Journal has clearly been trying to do in recent months, but they need to make a little more sense than that article did, considering it chose for examples people other than anyone who was actually relevant to these particular immigration times, which for instance in Maine in particular is Somali-heavy.)

...I didn't really mean to deviate greatly from what this blog is usually about (although I think I've done enough of this kind of talk where it isn't completely unusual), but.  Larsson.  Blame Stieg Larsson.  Which is okay, although also hugely unfortunate, because he's dead.

To lighten the post up a little, the issue also has a ridiculous interview with Ariana Grande, who apparently has seen demons  Or something.  When I first heard "Problem," I thought it was kind of dumb.  But it's not so bad.  So, "Problem":

There's also a really positive review for the latest Maroon 5 album, plus recommendations for fall movie releases, plus my favorite article, detailing the imminent release of Bob Dylan and the Band's complete Basement Tapes sessions from 1967, an apparently fruitful, mythic, and nearly lost slice of Dylanalia.

I don't if any of this makes you want to read Rolling Stone (also, Almost Famous and the career of Cameron Crowe, which is oddly reflected in a tribute to Charles M. Young), but I figured it was worth writing about.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

#774. Standing on the shoulders of Giants


Anyone who's familiar with my baseball interests knows none of my favorite teams made it to the World Series this year, but I was still more than pleased with the outcome.  I'd been rooting for the post-season sensations Kansas City Royals up until they reached the World Series.  Baseball is a game of momentum, and they blew away all their competition to that point.  But I quickly realized the edge belonged to the San Francisco Giants, who last night won their third championship in five years.

Thanks to a guy named Madison Bumgarner.

This was an ace who powered through three games of the World Series, starting two and finishing out the last four innings in the final game, and he became a whole story unto himself, and that's the sort of thing you relish.  By that point, who but Royals die hards wanted a different outcome?  How was anything less than victory possible?

Watching something like this is a reminder of what makes baseball special.  It's a game of determination, but it's also a game of patience.  These days, what was once celebrated as America's Pastime is more often dismissed as something about as exciting to watch as bowling or golf.  But who will argue that watching Bumgarner making history was anything less than thrilling?

Baseball is what happens when everything goes right.  It's a chance for things that are normally screwed up elsewhere to actually work.  Things like teamwork.  Things like believing in each other.  things like faith in the face of despair.

Watching World Series in the new millennium has been a consistent display of this.  As a member of Red Sox Nation, the so-called "curse" that lasted eighty-six years ended and then we got three championships in ten years, and each of those teams matched the model the Giants exhibited last night, and I think the same is true of just about every team that has won since 2001, starting with the Arizona Diamondbacks.  I think of the "rally monkey" Angels of '02, or the Cinderella Cardinals in Tony La Russa's final season as manager in '11.

It's hard not to be happy for Bumgarner and the Giants, winking Pablo Sandoval and everyone else.  Better luck next time Royals.

And hopefully one of my teams will win next year!

Friday, October 10, 2014

#773. Mock Squid Soup: Unbreakable


Mock Squid Soup is a film appreciation society brought to you by people actually named (on the Internet) Mock and Squid.  They are both deeply disturbed.

No, actually, all the characters in Unbreakable are.  As is director M. Night Shyamalan.  As are the fairweather film fans who quickly thought he was completely untalented the moment he was no longer flavor of the month.

Let's start our discussion with Shyamalan!  His popular career began with the surprise late-summer 1999 blockbuster The Sixth Sense, which famously had a twist ending.  Apparently if you have something like a twist ending with all your films (or, you know, have something like personal style) this is a sign of creative bankruptcy.  If I sound flippant about it, it's because I never understood that.  As far as I'm concerned, the man's a genius, easily easily one of the best filmmakers of the past fifteen years at least.  I think part of the reason people cooled on him so quickly was because of Christopher Nolan's rise at around the same time.  Shyamalan seemed to come out of nowhere (he didn't; actually, his first movie, Wide Awake, is a charming family movie) whereas Nolan's career had a chance to build in increments, from the widely respected but cult-sized Memento (although again, there was an earlier film: Following) to blockbusters like The Dark Knight and Inception.  Both are craftsmen who tend to focus on journeys where the intensity can be about emotion instead of bluster.  But while Nolan's audience had a chance to build up, Shyamalan's only had the expectation of eventual disappointment.

A slight simplification, but that's my view.

His third major release, The Village, may have been the movie where everyone took their later impression of him from, a movie that changes everything you thought you knew about the story without any real clues to prepare you.  Strangely, he rebounded popularly with Signs, but was never able to recover after that.  Lady in the Water is a terrific fable.  The Happening was never even given a chance, dismissed instantly as just more of his nonsense.  I liked The Last Airbender.  I still have yet to see After Earth.

Anyway, it isn't all Shyamalan worth considering about Unbreakable.  There's also Bruce Willis, who was also the star of Sixth Sense.  This was a period of career renaissance for Willis, where he could break away from his action persona for a change and find real success.  His two collaborations with Shyamalan were the peak of this period, and for me personally his career highlights (others still swear by Die Hard, although that's a franchise that has finally died.  hard) aside from the inspired lunacy of The Fifth Element.

There's also Samuel L. Jackson, who like Willis was turning a popular corner, and who unlike Willis has continued to parlay this period to great success, possibly because he figured out how to keep it going.  (Seriously, would anyone mind seeing a solo Nick Fury movie at this point, or does Captain America: The Winter Soldier technically count?)

Both of them were in Pulp Fiction, by the way.  I think people tend to forget Willis was in that, but of course everyone remembers Jackson's scripture-quoting hitman. They should work together more often.  (It didn't work out so well when Jackson reteamed with John Travolta in Basic, although there's at least one scene totally worth watching for having them together again in it.)

Remember the kid from Gladiator?  He's in here, too.  I think it was an odd choice for Shyamalan, because the kid kind of looks like Haley Joel Osment.  Same general hairstyle.  May have been an unconscious thing people held against the director.

Robin Wright!  Who doesn't love Robin Wright?  Her career is probably one of the least needy ones in Hollywood.  It's always a pleasure to find her in a movie you're watching.  You might consider giving The Conspirator a shot if you're looking for something new.

Besides all that, Unbreakable is also a superhero movie, and as a 2000 release (same year as X-Men) just on the cusp of that actually being a very good thing.  It's probably one of the reasons the public started liking them so easily.  It's part of a holy trinity for me, along with Hancock and The Dark Knight, as the best superhero experiences yet featured on the big screen.  Like Hancock, it's a rare modern original effort, rather than an adaptation from comic books.  Like Dark Knight, it's a movie that takes superheroes completely seriously.

It's an absolute favorite of mine, featuring a number of absolute favorites behind and in front of the camera.  For me, there's nothing but plenty to love.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

#772. The Next Generation cast recasts themselves

At the Destination 3 Star Trek con in London, the cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation reunited.  (Read about some of that here.)

The bit I'm focusing on centers on some of the cast's ideas about who could step into their roles.  Some of them I like and others are off-kilter.  Here're the results:
via Trek Core
Jean-Luc Picard
originally portrayed by Patrick Stewart, who chose:
via The Guardian
Tom Hardy

Right off the bat we have a compelling situation here.  Hardy, of course, had his breakout role in Star Trek Nemesis as Shinzon, a clone of Picard.  It was the role that made me a fan of Hardy, but fans tend to hate the film and for everyone else it was the start of a long delay in Hardy's popular film career.  In 2014, Hardy's name means something completely different than it did in 2002.  Does that change anyone's mind about this casting?  Or was Stewart merely bucking what was even a trend among his castmates at the con in continuing to knock Nemesis more than a decade later?

via Bardfilm
Q,
originally portrayed by John De Lancie, who chose:
via Deadline
Sacha Baron Cohen

Truly inspired.  While better known for provoking audiences than starship captains, Cohen has become a reliable comedic presence in films as a costar, whether in Talladega Nights or Les Miserables.  Chances are Borat would prove a challenge even to Picard, though.

via Trek Core
Data,
originally portrayed by Brent Spiner, who chose:
via Daily Inspiration
Tilda Swinton

Leave it to Spiner to go with the most off-beat choice.  Swinton would redefine the role any number of ways (in some ways the Borg Queen's dream come true from First Contact!), and that's not a bad thing.
via the Geek Twins
Deanna Troi,
originally portrayed by Marina Sirtis, who chose:
via Marie Claire UK
Mila Kunis

Another one that would redefine the role, certainly, although Troi has often been targeted for criticism that Next Generation's original approach might be seen as increasingly dated.
via Trek Core
Beverly Crusher,
originally portrayed by Gates McFadden, who chose:
via Breitbart
Michelle Obama

and
via Technology Tell
Jessica Chastain

These are some interesting choices from McFadden.  The first could be interpreted any number of ways, the second casting about for a famous redheaded actress.  Chastain happens to be one of the finest actors working today.  Either way this would be bound to elevate Crusher's routinely low stature in the cast.
via Star Trek
Tasha Yar,
originally portrayed by Denise Crosby, who chose:
via Huffington Post
Charlize Theron

Another choice that seems to have been made for reasons that aren't necessarily reflected for anything but appearance.  But Theron would undoubtedly, like Obama or Chastain, greatly elevate an anemic character.
via Krypton Radio
Miles O'Brien,
originally portrayed by Colm Meaney, who chose:
via ABC News
Colin Farrell

Good man, Colm.  This would be awesome.









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