Stan Lee: A Marvelous Legacy

©2016, Rubin Safaya and Cirqus Media.

The Man of the Hour at THE ROAST OF STAN LEE. Image ©2016, Rubin Safaya & Cirqus Media

Since Shel Dorf and others founded the San Diego Comic Con in 1970, the popularity of science fiction, comic book, and special interest conventions (commonly “Cons”) has grown immensely.  This past weekend, the Sheraton Dallas became host to the MARVELOUS NERD YEAR’S EVE convention.  Included among the myriad discussion panels, photo ops and meet & greets was  the celebration of Marvel Comics’ founder Stan Lee’s 94th birthday and several New Year’s Eve parties.

At a press conference on Dec. 29th, Lee opened, “What can I tell you that you don’t already know?”

The son of Romanian Jewish immigrants, Stanley Martin Lieber was born in New York City in 1922.   Not by coincidence, some of his beloved characters, ranging from Spider-Man to Captain America, call New York home.   Among his personal heroes, Lee counts Errol Flynn, who rose to stardom with Warner Bros. 1938 picture, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD.  Apropos, Warners’ Robin Hood was perhaps the first cinematic franchise.  The following year, Lee toiled as an assistant at Timely Comics which would by 1960 become Marvel Comics.  In addition to rejecting the Comics Code Authority, Lee took a page from Campbell and, in stark contrast to Action/DC’s Superman, introduced us to relatable characters with a flawed humanity.

Whereas Lee and his creative partners at Marvel once held sway at the bleeding edge of the counterculture revolution in a manner not unlike the works of Melville, Godard, Truffaut, Cocteau and others of the French New Wave, the evolution of the Marvel Cinematic Universe today, wholly owned by Walt Disney Studios, seems to have succumbed to what Kael called “The Numbers”.   In terms of box office alone, Marvel Cinematic Universe has pulled in $10.7 billion in a decade, compared to the $35 billion STAR WARS franchise that now spans 40 years.  One can feel the pressure… none of which is heaped upon Lee who casually dismisses the Cinematic Universe as a responsibility/property from which he is far removed.

Fandom in the twenty-first century has moved beyond examining the struggles of the white, Jewish immigrant in Protestant America.  As Washington Post contributor Michael Cavna noted in 2015, social media has shifted the dynamics of fandom to a point of gender parity, partly because nerd culture is pop culture.  Whatever the reason or catalyst, here we are and yet I find myself loathing the fifteen minutes or so of CLERKS star Brian O’Halloran’s misogynistic jokes at Stan Lee’s Birthday Roast.  Did he look out into the crowd to see the diverse audience to whom he’s playing?

Full disclosure: I’m the kind of nerd who had the Star Fleet Technical Manual schematics of every starship designed for the original series.  However, I never understood the individuals who failed to see the forest through the trees.  Gene Roddenberry’s STAR TREK was always about the human story.   Science fiction and comics, especially Marvel comics, were always a vehicle for getting social commentary past media and government censors in times of social oppression.

The ongoing backslide of social discourse has led us to this moment:  A narcissistic egomaniac whose own biographer deems a sociopath is now our President Elect.  He wants to roll back every bit of progress women and minorities have made.  Not so much out of any long-term vision for this country as bullet points to boast to his already-captive audience of intellectually bankrupt devotees.  As I chatted casually with STAR TREK screenwriter David Gerrold, I wondered, what role will conventions play in the twilight of the Republic and the dawn of new fascism?

When asked what his greatest wish at 94 was, Stan Lee replied, “To have a 95th!”  That’s something to fight for.  So is inclusiveness.  So are the values that elevated Marvel to prominence.  The arts and entertainment have always been vessels of social commentary, and to abrogate that responsibility is to resign ourselves to the belief that we, as humans, as fans of fiction, cannot live up to the ideals of our heroes… be they Captain America or Errol Flynn.

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

@2016, Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

(L-R) Riz Ahmed as Bodhi Rook, Diego Luna as Cassian Andor, Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, Wen Jiang as Baze Malbus, and Donnie Yen as Chirrut Îmwe in Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures’ ROGUE ONE.

When embarking upon a dangerous mission, blind Martial arts master Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) repeats his mantra, “The Force is with me, I am one with the Force.”  In a nutshell, this is how we feel as fans of the 39 year old STAR WARS franchise, plodding through this inspired yet lopsided jaunt through Lucasian lore.  After the eighth go around, it’s a difficult task to isolate the accumulated knowledge and think objectively about how a newcomer would receive Gareth Edwards’ ROGUE ONE.

Disney’s first attempt at expanding the sci-fantasy saga’s cinematic universe a-la Marvel proffers the story of the group of rebel spies/combatants who steal schematics of the super-weapon in George Lucas’ 1977 feature film.  Instead of a discrete prequel, this film’s appeal and its handicaps stem from writing prologue backwards from the familiar harrowing chase which effectively updated Kubrick’s USS Discovery sequence with lasers and explosions.

On the lush planet Lah’Mu, Imperial architect Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) takes refuge to protect his wife and daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), whose care he entrusts to rebel leader Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker).  Galen contributed to the design of the super-weapon, dubbed the Death Star, under the supervision of Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelssohn).  Jyn’s father, it turns out, betrayed the Galactic Empire by sending a messenger to reveal a structural weakness for the Rebellion to exploit.  Like a Biblical parable, we jump past the intervening years to the moment of Jyn’s liberation.

Edwards’ approach introducing locales and characters is refreshing; establishing shots have a moment or two to breathe.  Our fondness grows for the acerbic wit of a reprogrammed robot, K2sO (Alan Tudyk) and the bond between Chirrut and his protector, Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang).  The first act is well-conceived and well-executed if a little rushed.  But to set the bar at J.J. Abrams’ STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS is an exercise in self-deprecation.  To not admit to one’s self, fan or not, that the second and third act aren’t exercises in circuitousness, is self-flagellation.

I debated showing my cards.  As a critic, you’re generally damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  So here goes: I know who Nien Nunb is.  I’m aware that gold medalist fencer Bob Anderson stood in for Dave Prowse for the better part of RETURN OF THE JEDI.  I know Salacious Crumb’s middle initial (“B”).  I know that Crix Madine’s hairpiece is a subject of much discussion.  My ears perk up when the dissolute Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) mentions the Whills, the mythical race of historians/chroniclers in George Lucas’ rough outlines for The Adventures of Deak Starkiller out of which STAR WARS was adapted.  I understand what the inscription on Darth Vader’s chest plate means.

If all that were required to make a movie meaningful were the coattails of a multi-billion dollar franchise, then this film handily delivers all the beats and gags (look for the disfigured fellow who’s got the death sentence on twelve systems) to amuse even the most learned of STAR WARS fans.  That too, is where inconsistencies begin to infuriate both the dedicated and the uninitiated.

When Darth Vader (voiced once again for the screen by James Earl Jones) makes his appearance, we finally see him at his most vulnerable.  But it’s a visual tease.  Nothing more is made of it, unlike our first glimpse at his scarred cranium in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK prefacing the conflicted character within, whose forthcoming redemption lay squarely in the hands of his son, Luke Skywalker.  Seeing Vader abandon his usual economy of words feels so off-balance it disrupts the feel of the second act.  What was set up to be an endearing struggle against tyranny suddenly becomes a hodgepodge of in-jokes occasionally offset by well-staged action scenes.

ROGUE ONE succeeds in many places that other STAR WARS outings failed.  Space battles follow action logically in contrast to the cacophonous “more is more” philosophy embraced in the STAR WARS prequels.  Also, the film serves as testament to the diversity of ideas:  Asians, Hispanics, Brits (including Riz Ahmed of Pakistani descent) lend uniqueness to the character performances.

Conceived by Lucasfilm/ILM visual effects supervisor John Knoll, shot by Greig Fraser (ZERO DARK THIRTY, FOXCATCHER), produced by Kathleen Kennedy, the film is a kind of collaborative effort previously impossible to execute under the weight of George Lucas’ money/status.  You can sense the input of experienced actors like Yen, Luna and Mendelssohn, conducive toward natural line deliveries:  Mendelssohn’s Krennic suggests an eroded friendship with Galen; Yen’s Chirrut and Jiang’s Baze, a huggable bear of a fellow, may be more than friends.

But just as these virtues whet our appetites, appendicitis sets in.  The story becomes circuitous.  We miss the formative years of Jyn’s life—one moment Saw Gerrera abandons, then rescues her.  The Death Star plans are transmitted to Group One of the rebel fleet who departed from Base HQ at Yavin 4 only to send them on a ship back to… Yavin 4.   The film establishes faster-than-light communication; why didn’t they just radio HQ?   Learn to hate this word: retcon.

Then, the nods become the point, culminating in four or five cameos that go a few beats past whimsy toward groan-inducing.  Disney/Lucasfilm strongly emphasized the standalone nature of these anthology films, noting especially the departure from the Skywalker family saga and the absence of Jedi from ROGUE ONE.  It may have begun with an earnest desire to tell a unique story that departs from formula (you already know it’s a suicide mission, more or less), hobbled by built-in expectations of something STAR WARS.

The split-personality disorder is multiplied by Michael Giacchino’s (characteristically) anemic score, standing in for the superlative Alexandre Desplat who bowed out due to scheduling conflicts.  While John Williams is no Nino Rota, indiscriminately stealing from Holst, he does understand the importance of strong themes.  James Newton Howard and John Ottman easily crafted scores immediately identifiable with their key protagonists in UNBREAKABLE and THE USUAL SUSPECTS, following Rota’s and Elmer Bernstein’s emphasis on leitmotif.

Fraser’s cinematography is functional where it needs to be, yet falls apart where visual style is paramount.  While battles are choreographed with care, there’s no visual storytelling.  The coordination between production artist Ralph McQuarrie and DP Gilbert Taylor on A NEW HOPE produced callbacks to Westerns, sci-fi serials and jidaigeki just as Williams’ score cleverly referenced Elgar in the Throne Room ceremony.

In ROGUE ONE, the filmmakers’ consciously summon Darth Vader, ranked on AFI’s 100 Years list as the third greatest cinematic villain of all time, from a demonic lair more angular and a good eighty stories taller than Barad-Dûr.   Then, sucking all the wind out of that scene, they use wide shots.

Many great cinematographers hail from Poland, and EMPIRE STRIKES BACK’s Peter Suschitzky is no exception.  The difference between the hero shot and, let’s call it, the villain shot, is that the hero looks down his nose at his opposition.  The villain, and especially Darth Vader, stares directly down into his enemy’s soul.  ROGUE ONE begins as an inspired concept, only to conclude with a soulless stare.

From the Editor: A Letter to Senator John Cornyn

Dear Senator Cornyn,

 

Your recent comments trivializing the potential interference in our democratic process by a foreign nation concern me deeply because you seem to be more preoccupied with party than country.  Why, if Benghazi was a priority for you, are you not pushing for all the facts to come to light?   Why do the American people not deserve to know whether or not our democracy is threatened by outside influence.  Senate Majority Leader McConnell has joined the call to continue a bipartisan investigation of the matter, and your social media people have tweeted as such.

 

You were the one who called for a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton’s emails.  But you characterize this as “not news”.  How do you think that builds confidence in your constituents that you are in fact looking out for America? You are the Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution.  As it stands, there are numerous questions arising about Donald Trump’s allegiance to the United States and his ability to carry out the Oath he will be administered on January 20th unless Electors deem he is unfit for office.  And they may. Two days after the election, I spoke with my elector Chris Suprun who I’m sure you know has decided not to cast a vote for Trump due to grave concerns about his fitness for office. That was before the CIA report. Mr. Suprun, like myself and other constituents of yours has in fact stated that he supports a deeper investigation.  Today, at least ten electors want to be briefed by the Director of National Intelligence prior to their vote on the 19th.

 

As Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, you have no more important task than preserving the integrity of our election. Abortions can wait.  Obamacare can wait.  If you do not put this matter forward first, then what does that tell us about you? What legacy does that leave?  As I told Mr. Suprun before he made his choice: You have a choice.  You choose how you want to be remembered.

 

Thank you.

Arrival

© Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

(L-R) Forest Whitaker, Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner in Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL.

Adapted for the screen from Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, the first shot of Denis Villeneuve’s ARRIVAL telegraphs the outcome in a way that’s visually stunning, even emotionally grabbing, yet narratively third rate.

University linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is brought onto a team to decipher the language of an alien race that has positioned 12 spacecraft in various locations around the world.  I commend the screenwriter, Eric Heisserer, for not placing the spaceships in direct proximity to tourist attractions.

The story centers around the team of scientists, including Dr. Banks and theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), attempting to establish communications with the aliens.  She discovers that writing, rather than speech, may crack the cipher.  The reasoning makes sense in the moment: they can demonstrate actions and show the writing, and probably reproduce the writing easier than they can the speech.  But this begins a series of gaps that undermine the narrative.

Bradford Young’s (SELMA) cinematography tells part of the story before we know it.  Shallow depth of field is reversed, focusing on backdrops instead of subjects.  It foretells in two ways I won’t spoil, only to say that the lens through which we see others is just as important as the lens through which we see ourselves.

The aliens are gargantuan heptapods whose speech sounds like the amplified bellow of iron pipes in an antique house.  They’re surrounded by a gaseous mist, thought to be their atmosphere though it likely is much more.  Dr. Banks makes significant progress communicating with the heptapods, discovering that time is absent from their syntax.  They perceive time all at once, rather than a linear series of events.  Their aperception affects also how certain words come across to Dr. Banks and Dr. Donnelly, as well as the  11 other teams studying them.

This leads to the film’s central conflict.  Chinese General Shang (Tzi Ma) announces that they want to exchange weapons technology, and this leads to a serious misunderstanding of the aliens intent.  To illustrate why, think of the idiomatic meaning of the word “weapon” when we describe knowledge.  The phrase “death process” may mean “killing”, or it could mean “dying”.

But it’s at the edge of this intensely fascinating intellectual problem that the film errs.  We sense that the aliens need to know that humans can work together; perhaps this is all a test?  But Villeneuve and his writer leave a number of loose ends without explanation.  Why, if the point is about cooperation, does the story take place exclusively from one team’s point of view (as usual, the Americans)?  How does miming with symbols work faster than miming with words?  If a computer can be taught to reproduce the nuances of their complex script, can’t it learn to reproduce their speech as well?  Don’t the humans understand that if the aliens actually wanted to destroy them they’d have done so?  Why attempt to destroy the contact between the aliens and the one team that seems to be making headway?  How can humans possibly comprehend anything about fifth-dimensional beings?

These all seem like elementary problems easily resolved for a film that aspires as highly as ARRIVAL does. Adding insult to injury, Forest Whitaker’s talents are wasted as the curt Colonel Weber.  He’s the Black Movie Colonel who doesn’t trust the very experts whose aid his mission is entirely dependent upon.  The Chinese are potrayed yet again in film as militaristic blowhards; contrast this with the Asian scientists in THE MARTIAN.  And finally, for a highly intellectual film it concludes on both a preposterous deus ex as well as a depressingly sentimental coda worthy of a Ron Howard picture, asking us to empathize with barely an outline of a character.  I understand the source material, but here’s one case where cinematically there’s a more interesting human story in the working relationship between Renner and Adams, who both acted beautifully.  It’s not a bad flick.  However, for a film about resolving communication gaps, ARRIVAL creates too many of them.

Moonlight

©2016, A24.

Photo: David Bornfriend.

 

There’s a scene in the first act of Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT in which the young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) asks his surrogate father, Juan (Mahershala Ali), two questions:  Is his mother on drugs and does Juan sell them to her.   In that moment, Chiron looks to Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), to keep him honest.  After Juan cops to it, the fragile, taciturn boy whose detractors have nicknamed “Little”, leaves.  Juan breaks down into tears of guilt; he failed Little.

Adapted from Tarell McRaney’s semi-autobiographical play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, we are gifted a unique look into the life of a youth grappling with his burgeoning sexual identity.  “What’s a faggot?” he asks Juan.  Juan replies that it’s a word used to slander gay people.

MOONLIGHT is structured classically as a three act play:  Little. Chiron. Black.  Chiron by birth, his friend Kevin nicknames him Black—the significance is never revealed but it does fit the internalization 0f Chiron’s emotions.  Between the bullies at school and the bully of a crack-addicted mother at home, Paula (Naomie Harris), Little avoids conversation, except with Kevin and Teresa.

In the second act, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) continues to struggle with concentrating in class while others bully him, particularly a much larger boy, Terrel (Patrick Decile).  Without spoiling this pivotal middle chapter, I call your attention to the next morning.  Chiron, incensed, enters the school.  Note his clenched left fist and deliberate pace.

When we meet the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) in the third act, he’s embraced Black by name, but not yet in mind and body.  It’s not a journey without an implied destination, but it’s how Jenkins gets us there that is of import.  Notice the crown atop his car’s dashboard.  He is his surrogate father’s son.

Representation has been at the center of the discussion for the past year since #OscarsSoWhite trended.  Earlier this week, DOCTOR STRANGE director Scott Derrickson made the rounds whitesplaining the tough choices (!) between typecasting an Asian “dragon lady” versus whitewashing the Asian character, as if it’s impossible to write an Asian character well and cast appropriately.  On Twitter I expressed curiosity why Derrickson never once thought to consult Asian filmmakers and resolve the situation, rather than screw it up and take the slap on the wrist.  At the other end of the artistic spectrum, Jenkins does the impossible: He informs the viewer about the impoverished black experience in America whilst representing the broader experience of the adolescent trying to become secure in his or her identity.

Jenkins accomplishes a feat of narrative genius.  The three stories of Little, Chiron, and Black, could exist separately as shorts.   As Rhodes informed us at the Q&A, the three principals never met on set and never discussed each others performances.  Their interpretations of the character come entirely from the script and directorial guidance.  Still, we see them as one person in different stages.

Still, we draw comparisons, none more apt than when Black finds himself alone with Kevin after a reunion dinner made with such care you’ll cry the next time you look at a plate of Cuban garlic chicken.  In that solemn moment, Black accepts himself.  To be a gay man is one thing.  To be gay and black is a lifetime of rejection from your community.  Admitting his love for Kevin, we witness Black transform before our eyes into Chiron, into Little.  He always knew who he was, but now he isn’t ashamed of it.

A coworker nearing retirement once told me, “You have to start making decisions for your life, brefore your life starts making decisions for you.”  Two years later he passed away.  Inevitably, Black’s arc takes him from Atlanta back to Miami, to Kevin, now a cook after a stint in prison.  It’s a nine hour drive, my wife points out.  Black would’ve driven a week to be with Kevin.

“I look at love on a scale of one to ten, and I feel like we settle for sixes and sevens, which is why we have divorce.  But I feel like Chiron found his “ten” in Kevin when he was seven years old.” – Trevante Rhodes

Doctor Strange

©2016 Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One and Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange in Marvel Studios’ DOCTOR STRANGE.

Like all comic book interpretations of gainful employment, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) isn’t merely a neurosurgeon but the most perceptive neurosurgeon in the universe.  That is, before he even develops any superpowers.  Following a car accident that causes extensive damage to Strange’s hands (but oddly not his legs, his arms, or his spine), he reaches out to various colleagues for a medical solution.  Then, he turns to mystics in Nepal, including The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who believes that Dr. Strange can help them defeat a fallen sorcerer named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) who plots to destroy the universe.  There go my lunch plans.

A quick study, Strange masters the art of sorcery inside of what feels like a week due to the director’s roughshod pacing.   Protecting the Earth from extradimensional evil are three temples located in major cities, one of which comes under siege by Kaecilius and his associates.  This incident thrusts Strange into the Role He Doesn’t Want To Play.

Sorcerers can cross dimensions, instantaneously travel great distances and make the world topsy-turvy in a literal sense.  Consequently, while director Scott Derrickson attempts to rationalize whitewashed casting (the aforementioned Swinton in a role obviously fit for Michelle Yeoh, an actual Asian martial artist), that’s merely a symptom of his bigger problem: a complete lack of imagination.  Marvel and DC’s comic book films invariably fall into an action/comic genre.  Comics are a medium, not a genre.  They’ve spanned many different genres in print.  One of the few standouts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is THE WINTER SOLDIER.  It was designed as a political thriller, inspired in part by 3 DAYS OF THE CONDOR and THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD.

Just as quickly as they branched, they returned to formula in subsequent offerings.  Some will argue this was due to economics but with international box office, video on demand, and other channels of distribution, every Marvel movie has been an overwhelming success.  They’re the biggest game in town, yet they refuse to take risks and drive better tastes.  I don’t believe for one second that Marvel couldn’t explore comedy, horror, drama, or any subgenre and turn a profit on it.  If grabbing the most cash possible is their only worry, they need only adjust production budgets accordingly.

If nothing else, the picture has a sense of humor.  Otherwise, DOCTOR STRANGE would be a dull walk down short-term memory lane, recycling their origin story formula: Affluent white guy gets knocked down a peg or two, gets rebuked by his girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) when he needs her support the most, has an epiphany at the hands of an (inexplicably white) eastern master, and re-emerges as a superhero: Doctor Peculiar.

The Blue Pill: LGBT Romance in the Anti-Matrix

Black Mirror, ©2016, Netflix.

(L-R) Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Kelly and Mackenzie Davis as Yorkie in the Season 3 episode, “San Junipero” of BLACK MIRROR.

BLACK MIRROR may be the series that breaks the idiotic fad of multi-episodic arcs concocted purely to fabricate vacuous suspense for an entire season while nothing of import actually occurs. This trend reached its zenith with six seasons of J.J. Abrams’ LOST, the last four of which appallingly exploited one’s patience. We aren’t completely rid of the habit. MR. ROBOT thrives in spite of its ongoing arc, but that’s in part because its characters are each fascinatingly layered and complex.

Created for Channel 4 and migrated to Netflix, this anthology’s episodes each run a full sixty minutes in which not every question is resolved. However, we are meant to ponder the ones that aren’t rather than waiting like dupes for an answer promised that never comes, perhaps until after death. Does that make network television a religion?

Writer/Producer Charlie Brooker’s BLACK MIRROR is part Twilight Zone, part Amazing Stories… Both series explored how the modern world, culture, and technology, affected our lives by turning one or another element on its side. In BLACK MIRROR, the result is often a sobering social commentary on our sociocultural trajectory, given how technology enables our narcissism and distances us just enough to obliterate our empathy. “San Junipero” tries the obverse route, a world that steers away from Orwell and Bradbury’s dystopias… or does it?

SPOILERS AHEAD: If you haven’t already seen the episode, drop everything you’re doing and watch it now.

In 1987 a bespectacled, diffident Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) finds herself in a bar/arcade called Tucker’s.  An awkward teen, Davis (Billy Griffin Jr.), chums up to her by explaining that the coin-op she’s playing has multiple endings.  Davis strikes out through no fault of his own. A good kid who means well, he might write parodies of 80s pop music some day. Yorkie looks and feels out of place even in a time to which she’s perfectly suited.  We don’t yet make anything else of learning that her eyeglasses are purely for effect. Enter Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the fiery club kid in a sequined denim jacket–riffing off Appollonia in PURPLE RAIN. She and Yorkie hit it off immediately, by which point you think you see where this is all going, but you don’t. What follows will take you through an emotional and temporal journey on par with the series finale of Six Feet Under.

As the episode progresses, clues drop that all is not as it seems.  Yorkie observes that the fashions look like they were copied from a movie, as if Tucker’s were a carefully crafted facsimile of the 1980’s.  We might dismiss this as evidence of the pop culture echo chamber the 80’s really were–fashions copied from MTV, Miami Vice, Pretty in Pink… But the seams in the curtain start to rip: Repeated references to time limits and the differences between seeming and being alive.  San Junipero, it turns out, is a virtual space where the elderly and the terminally ill go to die.

As the veil lifts on San Junipero’s inner workings, we discover that Yorkie fell into a coma at 21 following her attempt at vehicular suicide, and Kelly’s health is failing but they’re both roughly the same age.  A romance ignites, but what could these two have in common?

The episode’s leitmotif dwells in Kelly and Yorkie’s separate but constant gaze westward to the ocean.  Symbolically, it fits that Yorkie’s youth was spent on the open coast with an uncharted future ahead of her, whereas Kelly had planted her roots firmly in the landlocked soil of the Nevada desert. Kelly had a husband, Richard, for more than forty years, and a daughter, Alison.  In San Junipero, named for the Franciscan priest Junipero Serra y Ferrer who founded 21 missions along the California coast, she shows Yorkie the house that reminds her of her younger days.  It’s not her childhood home.  It’s where she raised Alison (that’s her in the photograph, not Kelly’s mother) who died at 39.

While Yorkie is scheduled to “pass over”, to become a permanent resident of the nostalgia-laden cybersociety, Kelly refuses.  She cannot bear the guilt of having the second chance her daughter never did.  There are allusions to religious faith (or the lack thereof) which poke around the edges of the question burning at the center of the episode: In what sense does our existence matter?

Let’s ignore the fact that cosmically we’re all pretty irrelevant in a universe that has, it turns out, ten times as many galaxies as previously thought (2 trillion for those counting).  For Yorkie’s ultra-religious family, passing over is out of the question.   The workaround presents a moral dilemma for Kelly who could spend her remaining days mourning her daughter, or she could spare Yorkie an eternity of the same loneliness she suffered in a life likewise cut too short.

Is there a meaning, a purpose to that virtual existence?  Is there a meaning to this one?  If our identity is the product of our collection of memories and experiences, then aren’t the digital copies of Yorkie’s and Kelly’s memories and experiences also them?  Perhaps not in the sense of biological continuity, but a transcendent “them”, breaking off from the continuity of space and time that their physical bodies experience–a virtual alternate universe.  Will they find it difficult to relate, separated by fifty years of experiences?   Will they get bored in this universe?  Then again, what kind of a life was Yorkie really living as a closeted young adult trapped in the body of a comatose quadriplegic -or- Kelly waiting to die to, ironically, seek relief from harsh realities–abandoning rather than confronting her fear of attachment, twice?  If we were talking about two people in the living world, my answer would be: Is it any of our god damned business?

And perhaps that’s the point that “San Junipero” drives home more cleverly than any LGBT romance I’ve seen to date.  Mainstream attempts to tackle LGBT issues over-sexualize the story, particularly with regard to women’s same sex relationships as if they exist solely in service to the male gaze.  On the other hand, within the community, story after story emphasizes victimization at the hands of our homophobic culture.  We never see Yorkie’s parents and we never once are presented with a version of Kelly and Yorkie made to satisfy the egos of male broadcast network executives.  This is Yorkie and Kelly’s slow dance; naught else matters.

There’s a scene at the Quagmire, another bar in San Junipero where full-timers go to mosh, to fight, to push extremes in a feeble attempt to try to feel anything.  When Yorkie’s searching in vain for Kelly who seems to have fallen off the face of the server, one of Kelly’s exes suggests trying other time periods.  If I had to guess, I’d say Kelly’s daughter was born in the 00’s.  Why did he help Yorkie?  It’s not clearly established, but it hints that Wes (Gavin Stenhouse) realizes what all the Red Pillers, MRA and PUA types don’t.  It’s not about you.

Then why, my wife wondered, is there an overwhelming response from men shipping Yorkie and Kelly’s romance as it’s presented?  The space-and-time-crossed lovers aren’t even heavily fleshed out as characters.  We know nothing about them outside of this story.  SIX FEET UNDER took six seasons to build our relationship with the characters to a point that made the series finale so devastating.  How the hell does Brooker manage this in a single episode?  That’s where the 80’s comes in.

Albeit anecdotal, I’d surmise that a survey of male Gen X’ers and Millennials would single out the 80’s as the decade for which we feel the greatest degree of nostalgia.  Fans of BLACK MIRROR have commented on how fantastic the soundtrack is, how many nods and winks there are.  But there’s something deeply philosophical at work underneath the retro trivia:  some are too young to know that the upbeat tone of new wave and pop was our form of escapism from the realities of the Cold War, de-industrialization and mounting national debt–hurdles no child wants to have to deal with.  It’s hard enough finding your identity and learning to be comfortable with it.

And here we are.  Millennials are searching for that same escape, as the first generation to be poorer and less educated than their predecessors.  One by one our heroes fell over the course of the two decades hence: Freddie, MJ, Bowie, Prince whose party anthem was, presciently, a polemic about nuclear armageddon.  The punchline: Donald Trump is running for president.

Through these brief interactions of our story’s heroes, we’re transported back to childhood (a recurring device in film; poignantly revisited in FIELD OF DREAMS during James Earl Jones’ baseball monologue that isn’t really about baseball).  In youth, our senses are more raw: Crushes hit us intensely; one song can save or destroy you.  Adolescence is the place where our memories pop, where colors and sounds play the loudest. It’s the place we all go to when we long to feel again.

That’s why we get Kelly and Yorkie.  If the mundane cynicism of adulthood is a Quagmire, Tucker’s (Flynn’s?) is the escape.  Fuck the apocalypse.  Down the blue pill, throw on your Vans or slouch boots and party like it’s 1999.  Y2K forever…

 

Suicide Squad

© 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC

(L-R) WILL SMITH as Deadshot and MARGOT ROBBIE as Harley Quinn in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “SUICIDE SQUAD,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

SUICIDE SQUAD, written and directed by David Ayer, isn’t even a mess.  It aspires to be at least that organized.  It doesn’t fall apart, because it was never together.  In the disjointed narrative, Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) recruits Task Force X, a group of wanton, irredeemable criminals, to combat the menace of Batman and Superman—seen as vigilantes by a distrustful (and blindingly ignorant) public.  The premise makes little sense regardless of one’s familiarity with the DC Comics paper or celluloid franchises, not because one can’t conceive of a world in which the actions of an individual can be spun any which way by media conglomerates (you know, like Time Warner, which owns both Warner Bros. and Rottentomatoes).  Neither BATMAN V. SUPERMAN nor this film walk us there, logically.  We, as the audience, still like Superman and Batman, in spite of Zack Snyder’s relentless attempts to repackage them as really bad dudes.

This is the sort of movie where the writer/director gathers a bunch of stereotypes, throws them in a blender and has somebody say “I guess we’re some kind of…” and quote the title.  Yes, really.  Will Smith is the someone.  As Deadshot he’s the black-father-who-does-bad-things-for-a-living and has a daughter whom he placates with empty promises.  Jai Courtney, whom Nick Schager tweeted was only the tenth worst thing about this film, is a rowdy Australian with a boomerang (the first zero-dimensional character I’ve ever seen).  Katana (Karen Fukuhara) recycles Lady Vengeance and every other violence porn flick to come out of Asia, a character written with idiotic solemnity unlike Tarantino’s pastiches of the genre.  Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is Killer Croc, walking with a swagger in a hoodie, he talks in a hodgepodge of Cajun accent and urban slang—visual code-within-code for “thug”.  Shouldn’t he be Killer Gator? Never mind.  The flame-shooting Diablo (Jay Hernandez), covered head to toe in gang tattoos, is how I think Donald Trump’s supporters picture every member of La Raza.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

What presence Jared Leto’s unctuous Joker barely has is a shabby riff off Heath Ledger’s iconic performance punctuated by a sort of Vaudevillian gangster cross between Jimmy Durante and James Cagney.  He’s not terrifying or comical, maybe a little sexually confused. But I can’t really tell, because he’s out-acted by gratuitous shots of former psychologist Harley Quinn’s (Margot Robbie) ass in a costume that Debbie Harry wore better.  In Ayer’s film, Quinn’s love for Joker is a case of Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s carried with the kind of tone-deafness that Stephenie Meyer has for psychologically abusive relationships.

The only moderately interesting character is Enchantress, a centuries-old deity that inhabits the body of June Moone (Cara Delevingne), an early hire into Task Force X.  Waller argues each of these “metahumans” is controllable but for that ever-present possibility of misplacing the kryptonite.  As with many infinitely-powerful, multi-dimensional beings who can span the chasm of space, time and reality, instead of doing something truly fascinating, Enchantress chooses to create a garbage vortex to destroy humanity for locking her up—Gozer the Gozarian much?  Apropos, Enchantress’ appearance shifts from grungy goddess of the underworld to Miss Teen USA with the vaseline scowl.  Revenge has seldom tasted so boring.

All of this is punctuated by such a dearth of visual style, haphazard editing and visual cacophony even Michael Bay must be wondering how cinema sunk so low.  Probably every rock ballad of the 1960s is played, back to back, to distract us from the pictorial spatter buoyed only by the performances of Robbie and Smith.   Even so, how can you call them a suicide squad when, like every other “save the world” action bluff, nothing of consequence is sacrificed?  The Batmobile, seen briefly chasing after Joker and Harley, didn’t even lose so much as a wheel…

Star Trek Beyond

© 2015 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved. STAR TREK and all related marks and logos are trademarks of CBS Studios, Inc.

Left to right: Chris Pine plays Captain James T. Kirk, Sofia Boutella plays Jaylah and Anton Yelchin plays Chekov in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment
Photo Credit: Kimberly French

 

STAR TREK BEYOND did everything right.  The story focused on interpersonal relationships of the principals, disrupted with an unexpected crisis which sets a plot in motion involving a villain motivated by the belief that he’s doing the right thing, necessitating the aid of a resourceful escapee (Jayla, a spirited homage to Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly in WINTER’S BONE, played by Sofia Boutella).  Everything it does right is also everything STAR TREK BEYOND does wrong.

Directed by Justin Lin, written by Simon Pegg (who plays Cmdr. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott) and Don Jung, the third chapter in the Star Trek reboot opens with a distress call from a stranded vessel lures the crew of the USS Enterprise into a familiar no-win scenario (see Kobayashi Maru): a marooned villain, Krall (Idris Elba), seeks vengeance against Captain Kirk and the United Federation of Planets toward whom he directs his misguided wrath.

At its best, STAR TREK BEYOND adopts the spartan qualities of the 1966 serial which inspired the franchise, balancing between action, tension and character dynamics that produce situational humor naturally leading into catharsis.  At worst, Lin’s first foray into science fiction de-orbits into the baneful territory of fast edits and nauseating camera movements. Poignant moments are set up, but never given a chance to breathe as if the studio’s financiers were constantly pointing at their wristwatches reminding the creative team that time is money.

This is most evident in the film’s climactic confrontation which, aside from being punctuated by the wrong rap song, zigs when it should have zagged.  That is, and without spoiling it, Trek’s strength rested in its life lessons.  It’s been said that Gene Roddenberry was at odds with the militaristic direction in which Nick Meyer took the franchise as he set about depicting, by self-admission, “Horatio Hornblower in space”, i.e. THE WRATH OF KHAN.  This was a reaction to the excessive criticism leveled at STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, mocked for Robert Wise’s pacing (sometimes derided as THE MOTIONLESS PICTURE).

Some readers may feel that TREK’s mottled cinematic history (save for THE VOYAGE HOME) grants clemency to this effort, but that’s perhaps too generous.  Paramount never learned from its mistakes and continued to speculate on “franchise fatigue” when the problem was really narrative weakness.  At the exact moment you think fifty years of experience has finally paid off and the studio that passed on STAR WARS might finally believe in the appeal of redemptive stories, the old “dispatch the villain out the airlock” denouement happens.

Sure, TREK BEYOND is an entertaining ride… But that, and not Cmdr. Sulu’s (John Cho) sexual orientation, is at the center of why the J.J. Abrams-produced reboot runs afoul of the spirit of what STAR TREK was always about: Tackling complex social issues with inventive and diplomatic workarounds.  Relying on violence to captivate audiences has always been the franchise’s Achilles’ heel–before Abrams, and well before Braga and Berman.


Footnote: Some will recall in my INTO DARKNESS review an observation, seemingly prescient in hindsight, comparing the action-obsessive reboot to THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise, the fifth and sixth installments of which were helmed by Justin Lin.  In all fairness to Lin, the film feels distinctively like Pegg and Lin worked very hard to undo the Bob Orci clusterfuck, both on and off-screen.  Studios are notorious for sending “notes” to the creative team… basically edicts from the financial backers that demand changes since they are, after all, footing the bill.  Among those changes, I suspect, is the pivotal ending.  You can even see, in slow motion, the exact moment at which the studio likely forced Lin to change course in favor of playing it safe.  Granted, this is just speculation (or not; Cho revealed they did in fact cut out a kiss between Sulu and his husband) but I encourage Trek fans and newcomers to see it and decide for yourself if I’m on to something. Not for nothing, but Bob Orci, while removed as director, remained on as producer… you know, one of those assholes who sends notes.