Saturday, March 02, 2013

Pulp Fiction

The other night, Becca and I sat down and watched Pulp Fiction on, I think, one of the HBO channels. Neither of us had really seen it in a decade or more. We had just watched both volumes of Kill Bill last weekend (I still think cutting that film into two separate films was Tarantino's biggest mistake), and I wanted to go back to this one. Luckily, it just happened to be on.

Do you remember just how big Pulp Fiction was? It was a game-changer in American filmmaking, the kind that only comes along once every decade or more. That was back when theaters would still hold movies over if they did well; I think it came out in September 1994, and I remember still going to see it in theaters--first-run--as late as January or February. People just kept going and going. I went to see it a dozen times. I went to see it with two different girlfriends; it was in the theaters long enough for my relationship with Christy to end and my relationship with Becca to begin. (I told Christy, by the way, that Samuel L. Jackson was going to be a household name. She told me I was crazy. Never forgot that.)

And after that, I remember seeing it a few times in the second-run theaters into the summer of '95. It had such a huge impact. After that movie came out, filmmakers wanted that characteristic dialogue. Studios were more willing to take chances with non-linear structures. A lot of indie filmmakers became rock stars, and a lot of indie actors were being put in mainstream pictures to add something different to routine blockbusters. Pulp Fiction changed how films were made and what was expected from them. And yes, it was also the film that killed indie cinema and made it a business. Like Star Wars before it--and yes, I maintain that Star Wars was driven by the same outsider auteur aesthetic that the '70s "Golden Age" traded in--it overtook and basically killed the movement it was created by.

What I forget in all of the talk about how historically important Pulp Fiction is in film history is that it's really just a damn great movie. It's a masterpiece. It's Quentin Tarantino at his most confident. (I love his films, but I might argue that much of what he's made in the past 15 years is Tarantino at his most over-confident.) He does what he does best: takes everything he loves about storytelling, every type of film he digs, every song he's ever liked, throws it into a blender, and manages to pull out something bold. It's not the material that's fresh and original, it's his approach and the genuine affection he has for what he's doing. And it's fun to watch. When we were watching it the other night, I was once again in awe of how much fun Pulp Fiction is, how well-made, how confidently put together, and how well it all comes together in the end. It is great filmmaking. It's a masterpiece. And it comes from a time before Tarantino was weighted down with all of these expectations and all of this critical bullshit that castigates him for making homages and exploitation flicks, as if it's some kind of surprise that that's what he does.

And for me, the heart of the film is Samuel L. Jackson's performance. It blew me away then, and it still does. Jackson is an interesting actor, one of my favorites. I think, like a lot of people, he has a tendency to coast, but I put some of that down to people just wanting him to play the same presence over and over again and him getting a little tired of it. Watching him in Pulp Fiction still today is electric.

It also took me back to an earlier time in my life, when I was 18 years old and I thought I was going to do more with my life. That was a great, scary, joyful time in my life. It doesn't color my perception of the film, but it is a nice added bonus. It's that great moment of seeing something you loved when you were younger and haven't revisited for a very long time and finding it holds up even better than you thought.

I fucking love it.

Anyway, Vanity Fair has a piece up about the making of the movie from the new issue that's pretty interesting. I know Tarantino can be weirdly polarizing, but I thought I'd point that out.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Speaking of Reboots...

This is, I guess, the English teacher in me coming out, but I read this article about how Will Smith and Jay-Z are going to produce a reboot of Annie starring Quvenzhane Wallis, and it really annoyed me. Not that it's happening or the casting or who's involved, but the fact that it was referred to as a reboot.

A reboot?

Modern day update, sure. Remake, definitely. But it's not a reboot. What franchise did you think you were rebooting? It's just a remake.

I'm sure it'll be a nice movie and make some money, but I still stand by what I've said before: no pirates, no hidden gold, it's not Little Orphan Annie. If you feature some of that action, then I'll accept it as a reboot no matter how many times the little girl sings "Tomorrow." But let's stop using the word "reboot" as a stand-in for the word "remake" and try to keep in mind what words actually mean.

/pointless nerd rant

Marvel Now Update

I'm actually still reading some of those Marvel Now titles I checked out. Feels nice to be reading Marvel Comics again, especially ones that don't entirely suck, but I see the company is gearing up for yet another "event," so who knows how long it will last. I wonder if this whole thing has been a test-run for a New 52-style reboot, or what.

Anyway, Thor: God of Thunder and Journey Into Mystery have been wonderful. Although I don't immediately understand all the changes that seem to have been made to it, Fantastic Four is pretty cool so far; I absolutely love it when they treat it like a science fiction comic instead of a superhero book. It's spin-off title, Matt Fraction and Mike Allred's FF, is even better. Avengers Assemble is cute--the characters are recognizably the same, but the execution is very much rooted in the Joss Whedon flick. Not a great comic, maybe not one I'll stick with, but then I've never been a huge, huge fan of the Avengers titles. Deadpool is silly fun, which is the first time I've ever said that. I liked the first issue of Savage Wolverine.

I also read the first issue of Young Avengers, and even though for some reason the Hulkling looks like Justin Bieber...

...I enjoyed the issue. Except for Loki, I don't actually know who any of the characters are, but it's kind of nice to come into a book and not have any expectations for the characters. It reminds me a bit of a book like New Warriors, designed to pull together a lot of young characters that no one's really using.

Also, I have no idea why Loki is a child, but I like it. I recently read a couple collections of Matt Fraction's run on The Mighty Thor, and Loki was a kid. I don't know how it happened, but I like this better than when they made him a woman, because instead of just changing the outside, they've made his mind more childlike, also. It's an interesting direction for a character I sometimes have found tired.

Since I'm now reading only one DC book (Batman: Li'l Gotham), it's interesting to suddenly be back in the Marvel camp. DC was fouled up beyond recognition. Marvel... well, it's not the place I left 15 years ago, but some of it is recognizable and a lot of it is fun. And fun is what I want in a superhero book.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

My Only Comments on This Seth MacFarlane Oscar Controversy

I didn't watch the Oscars this year. I don't care much about them anymore, and even if I did, I wouldn't be interested in watching four hours of Seth MacFarlane's tired lounge singer shtick. Based on the commentary I'm seeing, I'm glad I didn't.

Less than a week later, and I'm still seeing commentary after commentary on MacFarlane's (and the show's) apparently misogynistic tone and the various reactions to it. Lots of people are disgusted, some of them to the point of incoherence. A lot of the disgusted people have had a lot of very good points to make. Some people have mounted a defense of MacFarlane (and the show), but they've all been pretty lame.

Like I said, I didn't watch it, so I can't really comment on his performance. But I do have some thoughts on what the reaction has been, and I want to do what everyone else has been doing and share them.

If you've ever watched any of MacFarlane's TV shows, you pretty much knew what to expect. Some singing, some pop culture references, and lots of sexism. Family Guy is one of the most misogynistic shows I've ever seen; look at the way Meg is featured: the one younger female character he's got, and since he and his writers can't imagine anything with real humor value happening to a woman that doesn't involve getting punched in the mouth, he instead makes her an object of scorn. Her one defining trait is that everyone hates her and refuses to treat her like an actual person. MacFarlane honestly comes across, through his program, as a guy who fears women and strikes back at them by pretending his humor is supposed to be satirical. He's one of those "equal opportunity offender" types, who's supposed to be edgy and free from serious criticism because he supposedly doesn't have a specific target. You see this bullshit a lot on the internet, where people think they're being smart and ruggedly individual by pointing out that everything's as bad as everything else and everyone's position is equally whatever.

I honestly tend to hate those people. It's a shrug; an abdication of the responsibility of having an opinion, a point of view, a political position, or an ideology. The people who deal in this have a tendency to act like it's a bold stance to take, but it's not. It's not sophisticated; it's cowardly. Having an opinion and stating it is risky; taking the moral low ground is lazy.

And the idea that MacFarlane is neutral is a bullshit lie designed to shame anyone who criticizes Family Guy's blatant misogyny, its weird racism directed most often at Asians, and its predilection for making fun of the handicapped. Seth MacFarlane is an able-bodied white man and he's disseminating an able-bodied white man's point of view, and by offending "everybody" because everyone's as bad as everyone else, he's basically just reinforcing the status quo. How can you be an edgy comedian when all you're doing is reinforcing the status quo by showing the bros who watch your show how right they are to be woman-fearing racists?

So, honestly, with MacFarlane you know what you're getting: a toothless lounge act too afraid to shake anything up and clinging to a misogyny that isn't just repellent, it's childish and outdated.

(Again, I didn't watch the Oscars, but I want to say that as far as misogyny on the show goes, the producers share a lot of the blame. Don't let them off the hook by focusing on MacFarlane exclusively. He was probably given a lot of that material, and at no point did anyone say "Maybe doing a song about boobs isn't the classiest thing we could open our show with, and it might be a little creepy to boil down the harrowing, dramatic rape scene in Boys Don't Cry to 'Hey, Hilary Swank has nice tits!'")

What I'm seeing a lot of in the defense commentary are these: "Hey, it was supposed to be offensive, it's Seth MacFarlane!" "It's satire!" "Well, the ratings were up and Seth MacFarlane makes a lot of money, so someone likes it!" Those are all just... just so fucking lame. They're so fucking stupid. Those are stupid, stupid things to say.

First, on the subject of offensive humor: we don't all have to be cool with it. I don't care if it's "supposed" to be offensive or not. If something offends someone, it offends someone, and they're allowed to say it without having to endure accusations of humorlessness. Misogynistic humor undermines women, and I really hate how as a society we've somehow made women feel that if they don't laugh at misogyny or rape jokes ("Hey, it's just a joke.") they're being humorless or uncool or not in on it. Who wants to be in on shitty jokes they're offended or feel undermined by? Do you know how many fat jokes I've heard in my life? ALL OF THEM. Am I supposed to laugh at fat jokes I find mean-spirited just so people will think I don't mind being made fun of? Fuck you; I do mind it. And I get to say so. If that makes me uncool, I'll live with being uncool.

Second, on the whole satire thing... satire makes a point. MacFarlane has no points to make. He never has. To the extent that Family Guy was ever a satire, no one really got it, and now--like most shows that are on this long--it just plays up to the stereotypes that the audience likes and reinforces their prejudices. It's not artful and it's not satirical. It's another lame dodge, as if MacFarlane knowing a joke is offensive when he makes it somehow excuses him from making an offensive joke, as though he thinks he's doing a parody of offensive humor. Look, just because you're ironic and self-aware and know something is offensive, that doesn't automatically make what you say funny. It's cowardly; you get to make the joke, but not own the joke. And promising to insult "everyone" doesn't make it okay to indulge your stereotypes and disguise them under the word "joke."

Sorry, but I don't think jokes about domestic abuse are hilarious. Seth MacFarlane knowing it's offensive, or saying it's meant to be offensive, doesn't make it any less offensive. Or any more funny than it already isn't.

There is far too much of this specific thing online. Just this morning, I read what was apparently meant to be a satirical piece on about how Shailene Woodley isn't hot enough to play Mary Jane Watson in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. I was disgusted by it; I ended up reading the article twice trying to figure out if it was meant to be satire or not; the tone was too exact and didn't really engage in any biting satire. Just look at the comments: almost no one seems to get that it's supposed to be a satire, because the whole thing simply mimics the entitled sexism that many fanboys engage in without any irony. It's not satire, it's just reinforcing prejudices that, while incredibly fucking stupid, are very real. The author, at best, completely miscommunicated his intent. But that doesn't make it less offensive.

And also on the "it's just a joke" front, what does making a joke that undermines the accomplishments and achievements of women say about the person that makes it?

Third, the whole "he's popular so you're wrong" thing... so the fuck what? Who cares if he's popular? Justin Bieber is popular, that doesn't make him "good" on a completely objective level. And Seth MacFarlane's securing of the lowest common bro-denominator doesn't make him objectively "funny." Pointing to someone's popularity as proof of quality is ridiculously meaningless. It's more accurate to say that he's lazily writing lazy jokes about racism and sexism that lazily pretend to deconstruct racism and sexism in a way that's hilarious and non-threatening to racists and sexists. He knows his audience. He's smart about who he plays to.

And you know what? I'll admit that at times he's genuinely funny. I've laughed at his shows before. It's not 100% garbage. That's what makes him such a disappointment: he's not totally untalented, he just has shitty taste and confuses prejudice with edge and the ability to offend with satire. He can be funny (even if he'll never be personable), but he's just so goddamn LAZY about it. Writing the umpteenth joke about how Asians are bad drivers and deaf people talk weird is just easier than actually challenging anyone.

So, if you like Seth MacFarlane, fine. I don't assume that you're a racist or a misogynist if you do. Humor is subjective. Being offended is subjective. But Seth MacFarlane's shtick while hosting the Oscars isn't automatically unoffensive just because he's smart enough to know better or doesn't really mean it. Anyone offended by it doesn't deserve to be invalidated because they can't take a joke.

The only thing subtle about making sexist jokes is how subtly they reinforce gender-based stereotypes. And they don't do that any less just because they're jokes.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

This one, about a man in an iron lung who wants to lose his virginity and hires a sex surrogate, took me by surprise. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it was nice that they left the cliches out, focused on the characters, and proved that someone could still make a movie about relationships and what sex means in our lives that was an hour and a half long. ***1/2

WAR WITCH (2012)
Riveting, powerful film about a teenage girl forcibly recruited by guerrilla fighters in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her ability (possibly) to see ghosts makes her valuable as a "war witch," though that won't do anything to stave off the death that surrounds her, threatens her, and briefly becomes an unavoidable part of her daily existence. Hard to look away from, but very rewarding. ****

NO (2012)
Interesting film about the 1988 vote in Chile on whether or not to continue the Pinochet dictatorship. Gael Garcia Bernal plays the man who looked at the "vote no" campaign and steered in the direction of modern advertising. It's very interesting to see how politics can be packaged and sold as marketing. I like the look of the film; it's shot in the 4:3 aspect ratio and a grade of film that looks like watching the news or home video in 1988. It took me right back to the time period. ****

In reference to what I said about the way No looks, one of my favorite things about The Master is the way it looks, sounds and feels like a film from 1950 (if 1950 had had the modern ratings system). It's a film that envelops its 1950 setting by replicating how the films from that period have shaped our relation to the period. The film is not the expose about the "church" of scientology that a lot of people hoped for (it never mentions the "church" by name), but it's a character piece about a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who is lost and becomes fascinated with the Master (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a very persuasive man who is involved with something called the Cause. The parallels are obvious. What the film doesn't focus on is whether or not the Master is a charlatan, but what exactly Phoenix's character sees in him and the things he says. I think that's a very interesting film to make, and I find this one has really stayed in my memory and given me more and more to think about. It's impossible to dismiss. ****

This is where the basic formula settles in. After Paranormal Activity 3, which was surprisingly good, this one tries for a fresh viewpoint (teenagers instead of some skinny white dude obsessed with his camera equipment), but the tension isn't quite there. It's not as scary and doesn't work that same weird spell the others do. It's not bad, there's just nothing really interesting about it. ***

RZA had a chance to make a kung fu/Western/exploitation/wuxia mash-up, so he went all in and threw everything he could think of into the damn thing, and why the fuck not? This flick is fun as hell. I feel like the golden age for these kinds of modern grindhouse flicks has either already come to a close or is rapidly getting there, so it's nice to get one that feels like it's by someone who loves those kinds of movies. ***1/2

SKYFALL (2012)
I've been loving the direction of the reboot-era James Bond, but as much as I really dig the first two, this one really takes it to a whole other level of greatness. I'm really going to just direct you to Jaquandor's post from November, because I would just be reiterating what he says there. ****

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Four Years Ago Today...

Becca and I were married.

Monday, February 25, 2013

On the Set of The Muppets...Again

I'd like to take this as a sign the Pepe will get some real screen time in The Muppets...Again. But either way, cute video. So looking forward to this.

Kristen Bell Mondays

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Song of the Week: "My Sharona"

It just got stuck in my head recently. This is the time period of music I'm listening to right now. The Knack, 1979.