October 11, 2015

Friday afternoon I went to see Black Mass.

The preview trailers made me ambivalent because it evoked a “been there, done that” feeling in me after having seen the recent, conventional documentary Whitey: The United States of America v. James J. Bulger.

But, I ended up at the movie anyway because one of my students didn’t follow directions while writing an assigned movie review.

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Guest Post — Jack McKinney

October 4, 2015

I love it when former students take the time to reply thoughtfully to my posts. I think Jack makes some excellent points and — with his permission — I am including his comments here on my blog in the form of a guest post.

Fair warning, some spoilers may follow but I’ll contain them as best I can. Watney’s lack of family (as well as the clear decision not to focus on emotional entanglements between ANY of the characters) was a welcome change from the norm for us as well. I think something like, say, a forced romantic undercurrent would have distracted from what the movie was really trying to do and I would likely have spent the whole running time thinking “Ridley, your manipulations are showing”. As for our lack of character knowledge for Watney, I think that was a very intentional creative choice and here is why: Watney is not a stand-in for each audience member in the usual sense. He is a representative of our country as a whole first and as a personal stand-in second and the filmmakers didn’t want anything in there that might prevent an audience member from projecting themselves into Watney’s shoes. Thus he has no overt political or religious leanings. As soon as we walked out, I commented on how nice it was to see a movie that celebrated intelligence, science, and working peacefully and openly with other countries. This thing is like a liberal utopia of what the future could be (consider that Mars where “nothing grows” makes a pretty nice symbolic stand-in for a future earth that has been ravaged by climate change). From there you can jump straight to the closing statements of the film as a thesis for what the filmmakers were trying to say. Overwhelmed by climate change? Ignore the big picture and just work on the problem right in front of you. String enough problem-solving together and you can save humanit…er….a single astronaut. Even if you don’t buy into my larger symbolism, I do think that those final words really are a justification for Watney’s lack of character depth. In the context of this story, they’re saying that it simply doesn’t matter. The choices he has to make personally and the decisions make by NASA are exactly the same no matter what we know or don’t know about Watney. That may be frustrating on some level but ultimately it really is thematically consistent. Watney can’t allow himself to be distracted by anything other than triage so neither can the audience. All that said, I loved it. I don’t know about transcendent but it was by far the smartest, most complete mainstream film I’ve seen in quite a while. While I agree that the end felt slightly off somehow (I think there are some correctable editing issues–most of them deal with the pacing of the communication between Watney and the rest of the team as well as how long it takes to implement plans once a decision is made), I can’t tell you how relieved I was that science and problem-solving wasn’t thrown out the window in favor of some giant FX spectacle. In fact, another great relief for me was that despite a film full of them, not a single effect rang fake for me. The CGI was seamless, appropriate and in service to the story. Definitely the best thing Ridley Scott has made in some time and in many ways it is the kind of film that I often lament that they don’t really make any more. It reminded me of some of the better late 20th century action-adventure films like Hunt for Red October (which the film lifts a beat from in one of the only parts of the movie that I actively disliked–it involves a map and a magic marker). Ok, must sleep. More tomorrow after somebody shreds my analysis.

A Few New Sitcoms…

October 3, 2015

Okay, I know I said I wasn’t going to watch any of the new shows because there are too many of them and I have several writing projects in progress.

Then, I watched Life in Pieces and was underwhelmed.

And, then, people like Laura Linder (co-editor with me of The Sitcom Reader – new edition coming out in 2016!) guilted me into taking another a peek here and there.

After all, this is a teaching and research area for me…

Here are a few short takes:

Grandfathered: I like this one the best of the lot and may watch some more episodes. John Stamos is a good actor! Who knew? A womanizing restaurateur discovers he is a father and a grandfather, which leads to complications. Successful sitcoms have been mounted on less of a premise. (Note to Laura: You’re right about the ending of the pilot – Stamos is great.)

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October 3, 2015

By now, most people know the tragic and triumphant story of Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani school girl who survived a brutal attack by the Taliban in 2012 for standing up for the rights of girls to be educated.

There is not much in this film that will seem new or revelatory except for some slice of life domestic moments and insights into just how remarkable and crucial Malala’s father, Ziauddin Yousafzai, is to her heroic story.

As for the film itself, it is fair to say at once that I wanted less and I wanted more – less running time and more insights into who Malala is aside from the courageous daughter and silly sister we see on screen.

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October 3, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice has everything going for it: director Edward Zwick knows how to tell a cinematic narrative; the real life story of Bobby Fischer is filled with personal and political drama; and, the cast includes such talented performers as Tobey Maguire (as Fischer), Live Schreiber (as Boris Spassky), and Peter Sarsgaard (as Father Bill Lombardy).

Despite the talent oozing from every frame (in front of and behind the camera), the film verges on the humdrum for me. This may be because I know a bit about the story so that there is nothing new to me unfolding onscreen. Not just in terms of the plot, but this is also true regarding some details about Fischer’s life. I was looking for fresh insights and an original approach and, instead, found an accomplished but conventional film.

Pawn Sacrifice


October 3, 2015

My favorite Ridley Scott movie is still Thelma & Louise.

I have not read Andy Weir’s novel (originally self-published), upon which the film The Martian is based, but this is not Scott’s first foray into space.

Remember Alien and Prometheus? The Martian is similarly well-crafted (if less viscerally engaging than Alien).

The story is simple: a botanist is left behind on a mission to Mars when a storm hits and the other astronauts believe he is dead. NASA officials don’t know the scientist is alive at first, but once they do, there is a mad scramble to try to rescue him.

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