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The Last Time Until It’s Not

A timely review? That’s new. As the kids say though, I have feels. I went to go see The Last Exorcism part II, and found it ultimately disappointing. Most of you will be saying I shouldn’t be shocked by this, and I will return that I really wasn’t particularly, save that it was almost better than I expected. In fact I would say that the first two thirds or so of the film ‘were’ better than I expected, to the point of being legitimately good. The last third… well we’ll come around to that.

exorcism

Spoiler warnings up front. There’s really not much ‘to’ spoil, but regardless I will give you a fair shot.

The first thing that’s going to get brought up is that this is a straightforward horror movie rather than being “found footage” like the original. Honestly, that’s fine. That style worked well for the story of the first film but wouldn’t have translated well to this one. In fact the early parts of the sequel do most of the same things well that the first did, that being pacing and tension. It has more lame jump scares and even lamer fake-outs, but by and large it turns up the temperature very slowly until by the time you’re boiling you never noticed it getting hot. The absence of Patrick Fabian leaves a yawning hole in the cast, but Ashley Bell does a more than admirable job of just about carrying the film on her shoulders. It has some pretty creative eeriness to it at points (even if most of the best scenes were already shown in the trailer) and tugs on a few threads of a fairly compelling theme. It’s really a pity the last section of the movie had to happen.

In the span of a scene Exorcism turns into a completely different film. Writing, acting, and direction all seem to visibly deflate as characters come in from nowhere to deadpan convoluted exposition. The remaining scary bits all seem to be lifted from other movies and are executed so half-heartedly that they lose what little impact they might have had. Even the obligatory jump scares stopped getting me the closer we got to the end, as all the tension had been pretty much let slack. The actual exorcism scene in the climax is almost hilarious to watch. At no level do the three “exorcists” demonstrate even the barest pretense of competency. In addition to lacking the charisma of Cotton Marcus from the initial outing, no one in the group seems to possess the kind of authority and moral agency that this role honestly requires (speaking as a connoisseur of many bad exorcism movies). This would be alright except that they’re set up to be these white knights from some occult religious order and absolutely fail to deliver the goods. At the first sign of trouble they pretty much fold up and immediately go for a desperate last resort that provokes exactly the worst case scenario any sane person watching this movie would predict. At that point though we still have an overlong, over the top denouement that totally undermines the tone of the rest of the movie.

While I was definitely a fan of the first film, I honestly wasn’t thinking this one would be any good. What disappointed me then was that it brushed so close to defying even my own expectations and breaking out as a very worthy sequel before somehow inexplicably driving itself off a cliff. That said, even more than the original movie this was a showcase for Ashley Bell, who may actually be one of my new favorite actresses. It’s unfortunate that all the praise I can conjure for the first part of the movie gets overwhelmed by the laundry list of complaints that pile up in the film’s tail end. If you chose to leave the theater around the sixty minute mark and content yourself with no ending being better than a bad ending, you’ll probably have a few good things to talk about.

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Holiday Historiography

Two months is entirely too long to go without an update. I acknowledge that. I’m a bad person and I should feel bad. Combination of work, family obligations, and illness have just killed my motivation over the last few weeks. As of now though I’m going to do my best to return you faithful to your regularly scheduled programming.

So, good holidays for everyone? See any heartwarming Christmas movies? I did. Specifically the one starring Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz called Django Unchained.

django

Discussing this movie in the same sentence as controversy isn’t exactly breaking news (my own fault for letting this go so long), but I think its worth looking at it in a slightly larger context. Django is actually the third major film released this year to deal with the Civil War and Antebellum time period. The others have ranged in tone from the rather serious, to the rather less-so. I’d say Django falls somewhere in between the two poles, but all three are bound together by a peculiar common thread. All three movies, Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and Django Unchained are staunchly and stridently anti-revisionist. This is not to say that they don’t engage in a degree of their own revisionism, but rather that their version of events makes a statement about the dilution of history. Specifically, each constitutes and attack on the “Lost Cause” of Civil War cinema.

The “Lost Cause” broadly constitutes the school of pop history in literature and film which portrays the Civil War primarily as a contest for the preservation of Southern culture. The antebellum South and the Confederate States are treated as a kind of golden age of chivalry, gentility, and agrarian values destroyed after a valiant struggle by the aggressive industrial power of the North. This will sometimes co-opt related but distinct themes like national tragedy and reconciliation into its narrative, but always conspicuous in its absence or subdual is the question of slavery. The inherent racism of these narratives, invested as they are in the historical rehabilitation of racist institutions, is sometimes comparatively benign (though no less insidious), such as in Gone With the Wind or the more recent Gods and Generals. At other times though it has been startlingly overt, as in the prototype of Lost Cause film, D. W. Griffith’s (in)famous Birth of a Nation. Now in recent years there has been some progress against this strain of thought, Glory and Confederate States of America being excellent examples, but they are fighting against over a century of ingrained Lost Cause mythology in our culture.

To say that even today discussion can be complicated when it comes to the Civil War would be a titanic understatement. It is difficult to reconcile bravery with an unjust movement, and given the strong ties of place and ancestry we still attach to the War no one wants to have been “in the wrong.” At the end of the day though ignoring painful truths does a greater disservice to memory than acknowledging and engaging with them. Lincoln, ALVH, and Django all attack the underpinnings of Lost Cause revisionism, whether it be through satire, the forced discussion of uncomfortable facts, or a combination of both. Their refusal to buy into our accepted legends is what lends these films uncommon merit as works of entertainment.

In Django Unchained this attack is probably the most self-conscious, due to director Quentin Tarrantino’s particularly cinematic sensibility. The plantation scenes use the soft focus and saturated color palette of “classic” filmmaking to evoke Gone With the Wind‘s idyllic presentation of the antebellum. It then brings that silver lens to bear on the sickening foundations of that vision and splatters the screen with the technicolor blood of its perpetrators. The hooded outlaws who attempt to lynch the protagonists parallel the “heroic” Klansmen in Birth of a Nation, and are portrayed in this as ruffian morons. The character of the genteel southern aristocrat is here the film’s moral nadir, a walking ethical vacuum and distillation of everything loathsome about Lost Cause mythology. By contrast the black protagonist, so often a passive role in Civil War narratives, is here a participatory agent of rare energy and complexity.

vampire hunter

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is less self-aware in its mission, but it gets the job done. It’s preferred method of subversion is satire. Here the heroes of Lost Cause culture are cast as literal parasites, sucking the blood from the their black slaves to sustain their decadent old world lifestyles. Its a pretty blunt metaphor, but it drives the point home. Such a stark reflection in the form of insensate, supernatural evil calls into the question the supposed righteousness of the Lost Cause, albeit perhaps not as effectively as Django, which lets the horror of slavery stand on its own mortal basis. Turning Abraham Lincoln into an axe-wielding avenger of inhuman injustice is an appropriate call for our greatest president, though it does flirt with the aforementioned trap of making black characters passive agents in a story that is really about them.

Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln on the other hand takes the most down to earth approach to deconstructing and defeating the Lost Cause. While the least “action packed” of the three, it is probably the most heartfelt. The film’s title is appropriate in that Lincoln is the central protagonist, but its not really the biopic you might expect. Rather than act as a filmic telling of Lincoln’s life or a war film, it chooses to center on the constitutional elimination of slavery. This brings the story back around to the singularly important issue that the Lost Cause is determined to ignore: the abolition of human bondage and the removal of its stain from the American promise. This is not to say the issue is portrayed without nuance or complexity, but its moral casting is unambiguous and sets itself up to take on all challengers.

lincoln

As I mentioned previously, this is not to say that these films don’t have a form of revisionism in their narrative. Rather, they serve as a counter point against a school of revisionism which has steadily infiltrated and co-opted our understanding of this moment in American history. Chances are that if you really think on it, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The iconography of the Lost Cause is so pervasive that its almost invisible if you aren’t actively looking for it. This is important because most Americans are exposed to history through its expression in our popular culture. If one takes a hard look at the way that history has been written, it isn’t difficult to say that the South has already long since “risen again.” This isn’t accusing anyone personally of being racist if they happen to enjoy the films of the Lost Cause canon (except for Birth of a Nation, with it’s blackface and Klansman and all that, ’cause that’s pretty racist).  As a people we are loathe to part with the comforting fallacies of myth and memory, conflating them all too easily with truth, but the challenging of myths and memory is essential to the discovery of history. The myths of the Lost Cause are particularly poisonous in this respect, and are overdue indeed for a sweeping from our consciousness. That each of these movies should have been released so close to one another and done as well as they have may give one some glimmer of hope for the future. What has been must not necessarily always be, and the American desire for pop history may not be mutually exclusive with history that is both true and just.

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Coming Soon to a Galaxy Far Far Away

So the Star Wars thing happened. Even if you aren’t a nerd you know what I’m talking about, and chances are you know it’s a big deal. How are fans reacting? Well… it’s complicated. It would be pointless to try and survey the full spectrum of of responses, as improbably vast as the mythology it’s attached to, so instead I’m going to try and articulate my own reaction and put it in context with what others have said.

First off, the acquisition itself. Like it or not, merchandising has always been the powerhouse strength of the franchise. The Kenner action figures of your misspent childhood and the ironic Cafepress t-shirt of your misspent adulthood are linked together in supporting art through the forces of capitalism. Merchandising ‘made’ Star Wars, and nobody merchandises like Disney.

What will this terrible  convergence wright though? Thing is, Disney is increasingly a diverse entertainment company looking to appeal to demographics from the cradle to the grave, so fears of “cheapening” or “kid-ifying” Star Wars are largely unfounded (in so much as Star Wars was ever a “mature” franchise in the first place). Moreover, Disney seems to have realized that franchises are most profitable when they appeal equally to general audiences and hardcore fans. There was much hand wringing a few years ago when Disney acquired Marvel in a similar fashion. You know what they gave us though? The Avengers. Let me repeat that for emphasis. The Avengers. The most ambitious fanboy dream project ever, something no one would have even believed feasible a decade ago, let alone the highest grossing film of all time, came equal parts from the House of Ideas and the House of Mouse. Then there’s Wreck-It Ralph. A movie aimed at kids way too young to get all the references, cameos, and shout outs to old video games in it, but still possessed of enough narrative gravity to keep older audiences engaged.

This brings us around to the thing itself though. Episode VII. Which is happening. Just saying the words seems heavy and portentous. What will it contain? Fans will be quick to point out that there is a wealth of material in the “Expanded Universe” dealing with the time period post-Return of the Jedi. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t really hold out hope for these works to be used or even really referenced. For one, the time frame for the ages of the central characters doesn’t really fit with the ages of the actors who played them (presuming the original cast would even return). Moreover, the actual quality of the material in question is honestly kind of variable. Some is great, for certain. Some would make you long for The Phantom Menace though. Finally, at the end of the day they’re just not canon. Not really. Star Wars has always been pretty cavalier with it’s own legitimate catechisms, let alone the glut of what could at best be called apocrypha.

Many fans will be turned off by this. Fans who are projecting the same unfulfillable expectations onto these films they did onto the prequels a decade ago. Relax though, guys. Like it or not retcons are a part of fandom, and believe it or not they aren’t always bad. Anybody here a Star Trek fan? Of course you are. Anybody like the Klingons? Sure you do. What you probably like about the Klingons is their portrayal from the Next Generation onward, with the whole space-viking-samurai thing going on. Did you know they weren’t always written that way though? Although not discussed much onscreen in the original series, the background culture of Klingons as written in magazines and official guides was almost totally different from what fans are today familiar with. That’s okay too, because honestly the “new” background is better. Star Trek is a really good example of our discussion in general. Prior to three years ago Trek was almost an ex-franchise. Being strangled to death by its own bloated continuity without room to grow and lacking in a real sense of currency. The new film was a radical departure and a serious gamble, but one which has effectively resurrected the brand. All these things are today true of Star Wars as well. It desperately needs something new, truly new, and sometimes the only to do that is by clearing away the old.

At this point I’m pretty much over this whole argument of artistic purity. Reboots, remakes, and sequels are not inherently bad. Would you say of a broadway stage revival “Why bother when the original was so good?”

Throughout our history art has been in a perpetual state of reinterpretation and reinvention. Everything old is new again and enriches us all the more for it. To even the staunchest naysayer I ask: aren’t you the least bit excited? In your blackest fan-heart aren’t you the teensiest bit stoked? Did you even think a feeling like that was possible five years ago? we are not so jaded that we don’t ‘want’ this to be good, and honestly I think we are more likely than not to get exactly that.

Until next time, the force will be with you… Always…

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The Discerning Gentleman’s Guide to Chick Flicks – Episode 1

In honor of Election Day +1… I give you something totally apolitical! This has been on the back burner for a while scribbled out in my notebook. I’m just really bad about sitting down and transcribing. Enjoy!

Ignoring for a moment the needlessly gendered language of the term “chick flick,” namely the implication that only humans with a double X chromosome can enjoy a good romance, let’s talk about the genre.

Let’s face it, they’re mostly shit. Written by the out of touch, produced and directed by the clueless, then acted by the plastic and consumed by masses hungry for reaffirmation of safe mores. This is true of most cinema regardless, but for some reason film romance always seems particularly hackneyed. I’ll be upfront, this isn’t some “best of” romance list. There are plenty of good romance movies that still just don’t do it for me (The Notebook may be objectively good, but I also objectively hate it). Rather, this is a convenient reference for those cozy movie nights when you feel like being thoughtful ‘and’ brilliant. These are movies to scratch that romantic itch (not an STD I swear) without needing to tune out or turn off. This is also a far cry from an exhaustive list. If there’s something you think should be on here, let me know! I’ll check it out. Similarly, if you didn’t like one of my movies on the list, let me know and I’ll punch you in the sacral chakra offer a mostly sincere apology. Now, follow me if you would…

Casablanca

The granddaddy of them all. Don’t roll your eyes at me young man! Casablanca is probably the most famous movie you’ve never watched. It’s considered one of the great romantic movies of all time, and it deserves the praise. There’s nothing gushy or saccharine about it. If anything, it’s tragic. A love story about hardened, adult decisions. It’s also got shooting, gangsters, spies, dudes in fezzes, and best of all, Nazis. This movie was made before Pearl Harbor, and it’s pretty much about how we needed to kick Hitler’s ass at a time when that wasn’t a winning proposition. By the time it’s over, you’ll want to kick his dead ass too. This scene alone…

Besides that, it’s also got that rapid fire acerbic dialog that you only seem to find in period pictures. Humphrey Bogart and Claude Raines spar with old fashioned machismo that’s really just a treat to watch. Something else you might notice with keen observation, Casablanca is pretty much the source of every pop culture reference ever. You will hear so many lines that have been quoted over and over without ever knowing where they came from and watch so many scenes that have been parodied, homaged, or referenced in a hundred other works. There is nothing about this movie that is bad, and as a “chick flick” goes you can’t really do better.

The Decoy Bride

At its heart this is the well-worn story of the small town girl and the city boy. What’s different about this one? Well first off it’s in Scotland…

That’s a bigger sell than it sounds like at first. An American actress and her Scottish writer fiance are desperately attempting to marry away from the prying eyes of the paparazzi, escaping to the rural Isle of Hegg. When the paparazzi track them down though the bride to be goes AWOL, leading her desperate entourage to stage a fake wedding to draw off the reporters. A local girl with her own share of relationship baggage is recruited to stand in for missing bride, and things really only spiral downhill from there. The subjects of our star-crossed shenanigans are played by David Tennant (better known most from Doctor Who) and Kelly Macdonald (of recent success as the heroine of Pixar’s Brave). They have great chemistry and it’s just a lot of fun to see two cult favorites hamming it up in an indy jaunt. Really the whole cast are standouts though. Supporting performances by Alice Eve, Federico Castelluccio, and Dylan Moran really make the whole thing stand out as a joyful and uncommonly heartwarming experience. If either you or your significant have a thing for humor from across the pond (and what American doesn’t?), this is a “chick flick” for you.

Saving Face

This is probably the most off beat entry on this list, but it’s not just one of my favorite romantic movies, it’s one of my favorite movies period. Describing the pitch is always difficult, but here’s my best attempt. Michelle Krusiec plays Wilhemina, a young, successful Chinese-American woman constantly fending off the attempts of her widowed mother, portrayed by storied actress Joan Chen, to set her up with men. This is because she is a lesbian, still a complicated subject in the conservative community she comes from. Her efforts at dodging this minefield are complicated by a new love interest Vivian, played by Lynn Chen and who also happens to be her boss’s daughter. Still more wrinkles are introduced when Wil’s mother shows up on her doorstep, having been ostracized by the community for becoming mysteriously pregnant! Her mother refuses to talk about the baby or its father, leaving Wil to deal with her mercurial and increasingly hormonal mother while concealing her relationship with Vivian. As if it even needed to be said, hijinks ensue.

The characters are very much trapped between worlds, and the dialog alternates rapidly between English and subtitled Mandarin. I might be biased in that I can actually understand some of the Chinese being spoken, which makes it that much funnier, but everyone I’ve introduced to it has loved it so I can’t imagine the language barrier is that significant.

I don’t know if it really conforms to all the traditional definitions of a “chick flick,” but it’s definitely a great romantic comedy. It’s hilarious, sweet, and even a little insightful. Order some Asian food this Friday and curl up on the couch for this one.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

We’re going to round this out with a good tear-jerker. There will be tissues needed, so I’d suggest having them handy. Don’t give me that stoic crap. Those saline ducts work just as well as every other homo sapiens’.

The thing that really separates it from the pack is… well it’s in the title. Time travel. Eric Bana’s protagonist is unstuck in time, prone to unpredictable temporal shifts, leading to him effectively living the events of his life out of order. It’s an interesting concept to watch play out, particularly as they take care to make sure that all events pretty much line up. As the title might suggest though, this isn’t really his story. The real pathos comes from Rachel McAdams as his titular soul mate who has to ‘deal’ with his constant entrances into and exits from her life. It’s easy to empathize with their conflicts and struggles, the seemingly fantastical impetus thinly disguising cues familiar to anyone who has ever failed at a relationship. Also, it’s sad. Like, really really sad. In a way though it still comes across as strangely cathartic after the credits have rolled and you’ve written off your stock of kleenex. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed, either by the drama or by the fascinating plot devices.

So concludes this our first expedition into the harrowing realm of “cinema you and your Y chromosome aren’t supposed to enjoy.” Hopefully it’s been an informative little detour. Feel free to respond in the comment section with your own suggestions and recommendations.

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The Id, The Ego, And The Superhero

So with news of Iron Man 3 swirling about the vast series of tubes, as well as the growing number of spinoffs and sequels the franchise has spawned, it seems like as good a time as any to get out some stuff that’s been rolling around my braincase. I want to take us back in time to the halcyon summer of 2008. The idea of comic book blockbusters this big was still something ephemeral and fanciful. While it was The Dark Knight that shattered all the records and became the movie everyone remembers from that year I’m going to focus instead on the frontrunner of the also-rans. Iron Man was pretty hot on Batman’s heels, and I would argue that over the last few years it is Iron Man that has had the greater cultural penetration. Some of this is due to Iron Man having having an additional sequel over Batman and several spinoffs bearing its imprint, but I don’t think that accounts for all of it. The Dark Knight was a sequel to the successful Batman Begins, and the sixth Batman film adaptation in twenty years. I’m not saying The Dark Knight wasn’t good, just that it wasn’t starting from square one either. Iron Man was a freshman effort with a protagonist not all that well known outside the comics readership, in contrast to Batman’s longstanding icon status. This in mind, Iron Man‘s own towering success is not only more impressive but also raises the question of how it managed to get its hooks in the popular culture the way it did. Well, I think I can tell you.

Heroes resonate with people in times of crisis. Superman was two Jewish boys’ vision of the tzadik-hador amidst the Great Depression, the transformative New Deal, and the approaching Second World War. Four years ago things may not have been as apocalyptic, but with an imploding economy brought on by decades of excess and foreign wars in need of clarity and direction Americans were ready for a hero. I don’t think its a coincidence at all that later that same year Americans decisively acclaimed Barrack Obama to the White House.

Still, why though? Why Iron Man? Why Tony Stark? Well, as presented in the film Tony Stark in many ways an avatar for the American sense of self. In the first part of the movie Stark is narcissistic, insensitive, greedy, hedonistic, and revels in the callous calculus of war. In essence, Tony Stark is what America at some level fears it has become. We fear we have squandered our moral mandate from the promise of the post-war years, just as Stark has squandered his father’s legacy. We secretly fear we are the fatted, self-absorbed sybarites that anti-American propaganda portrays us to be, just as Stark flagrantly disregards the needs of others for his own comfort and gratification. We fear that we have become trapped as Stark has by the blowback of our own excess, and like Stark we have to wonder if we deserve it.

It’s not all dark though. Tony isn’t an indictment of American identity, he’s a redemption of it. He realizes how he got where he is and understands not just that he needs to change, but that he ‘wants’ to change. This is only part of it though. Important also is ‘how’ Tony Stark changes. He doesn’t simply renounce his works and become a hermit. Rather, he accepts what he is and chooses to use that to do the right thing. He isn’t ashamed of his wealth and success, but he opts to channel it into something worthwhile. He doesn’t destroy the weapons he’s made, but he takes responsibility for them. He doesn’t become a pacifist, but attempts to become a more conscientious warrior. As Iron Man he returns a moral agency to war that had too easily become lost in the haze. He fights the way we want to fight; with the strength of an army, the precision of a laser, and the clarity of a single righteous conscience. Iron Man is our idealized America, the other side of the coin to Tony’s (and our own) flaws.

In Iron Man Americans saw a cross section of where we’ve been, where we are, and where we could be. It spoke to something we didn’t even know we were searching for. People like to pigeonhole Iron Man into either a conservative or a liberal label, but the truth is it’s not either. It neither condones nor condemns the American self image, merely articulating it with warts, aspirations, and all.

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Ouraboros

We’re going to talk about Looper. As you might expect with a film like this it is very difficult to discuss the things I want to without some pretty egregious spoilers. So, you’ve been warned. This is a spoiler warning. A warning of spoilers. Go see the movie before reading this, because despite everything I’m about to say I still recommend the movie and want you to form your own opinion of it. That all being established, let’s tuck in.

I want to like Looper. I want to like Looper more than I do. I’m ‘trying’ to like Looper. I can’t reconcile it though. Looper doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. The pieces that construct it are all very interesting and dynamic, but the fact is they don’t fit together to make a total picture. The math doesn’t work.

Here’s my problem. When a movie uses time travel as a central plot device it has to have rules. Continuity only becomes more important the less linear your plot becomes. It’s like synchronized swimming; the components can all be chaotic as long as at that crucial moment everything lines up just so. Looper doesn’t really have that. It tries to, but in so doing it only succeeds in tripping over itself.The moment I’m talking about is when Young Joe has has his epiphany before sacrificing himself. The implication of this scene is that Old Joe’s attempt to kill the boy Sid, to prevent him from becoming the Rainmaker, is precisely the event that sets in motion Sid’ eventual transformation. A paradox. A loop that Joe can only undo by removing himself from it. This is all fine… except earlier we see that original timeline where Old Joe was killed and Young Joe’s journey back to that moment. In that timeline the Rainmaker still exists, despite Old Joe being dead in the past and unable to initiate the events of the film. This can’t really be reconciled. There is a token effort to do so, but its flimsy at best. Certainly one can come up with any number of fan theories that make the script work (I’ve come up with three just since last night) but that fact is nobody should ‘have’ to. I’m not saying movies shouldn’t make people think. Far from it. What movies shouldn’t do though is make the audience cover for their lazy storytelling. That’s the heart of it. Looper is kind of lazy. For having such a clutch premise Looper seems content to sleepwalk through it. Really the problem keeps coming back to those two scenes I mentioned. They cannot coexist in the same film. Remove one, either one, and the gears stop grinding (or at least don’t grind nearly as loud).

The thing that frustrates me so much about Looper is that its so close to being great. I wanted it to be as good as it could have been, and its painful to see it shoot itself in the foot with such lackadaisical and easily correctable stumbles. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected more of it. I’ve been told that I’m overthinking it. Regardless, I did and I am. I need Looper to show its work on the exam, and for that I’m docking points.

All that said and done though, you should still go see Looper if you didn’t heed my warning and haven’t already. I’m extending to Looper the same consideration I gave to Prometheus. If a movie gets you talking about it after the lights come up, then at some level it was successful. It wasn’t All You Zombies, or La Jetée, or even Brick, but I can’t say with any conviction that Looper is “bad.” You might love it, you might hate it, but I don’t think you’ll want your money back.

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King of Monsters

Today’s topic of discussion is the mean, green icon himself. Everybody say it together now. Gojira!!!!!

It was either this or transitional regime politics of the Arab Spring. Don’t act like you aren’t relieved. This occurs to me today owing to a trend I’ve noticed lately of making “realistic” versions of traditionally fanciful genre films. This down-to-earth deconstructionism has been applied to several niches lately; Chronicle for superheroes, Cloverfield for monster movies, etc. The conceit implicit here is that these films are subversive for portraying events in all their gritty, destructive dimensions, without varnished fantasy. I’m not trying to say that Cloverfield doesn’t do some innovative things. I’m a fan, and frankly I hope they do more of them. The notion of an ants-eye-view of apocalyptic events in the monster movie genre is hardly new though. In fact, it harkens back to the origins of the entire kaiju mythos. The granddaddy of them all. Godzilla, King of Monsters.

While its true that the U.S. has the claim to the original giant monster movies, 1933’s King Kong and 1953’s Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, it was Toho Pictures’ Godzilla in 1954 that made kaiju (怪獣, literally “strange beast”) into a genre and an institution. In contrast to the later films it spawned though, Toho’s first foray into reptilian urban rezoning was focused less on the fantastical creature of the title and more on its immediate impact. The meticulously constructed “scenery gorn” was striking for the time period, especially for a film on its budget. In this way the film presaged both the disaster films popular two decades later and the revisionist guerrilla style of monster movies we see today in works like Cloverfield and Troll Hunter. Unlike in the latter films which by and large seemed to glorify Godzilla’s appearances, in keeping with his later heroic portrayal, the original manages to infuse his presence with palpable menace. Forty years before Jurassic Park, Godzilla made thunderous footsteps into a terrifying omen. The attempts to create a blackout scene in Tokyo while working in the confines of 50’s studio lighting creates an otherworldly, almost dream-like atmosphere for Godzilla’s surreal rampages.

In many ways the film represents a distillation of Japan’s apocalyptic nightmares, and it speaks to the universality of this nightmare that Godzilla has retained such broad and iconic popularity. Godzilla is a living breathing atomic weapon laying waste to Japan not even ten years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The full extent of the cultural shockwaves surrounding these events may never be fully recorded, but discussing Japanese culture in the twentieth century is another essay. Moreover, in this film Godzilla may only be stopped by a weapon potentially even more terrible than the atomic bomb; the so-called “Oxygen Destroyer.” The accidental discovery of Daisuke Serizawa, pacifist scientist, it has the ability to completely annihilate all life in a body of water. The scientist reluctantly agrees to use the weapon to destroy Godzilla but not without burning his notes and ultimately sacrificing himself to ensure the weapon is never duplicated. The shot of Godzilla’s skeleton floating to the murky ocean floor is an eerie conclusion to the story.

The Serizawa character is interesting in that he is the hero of the narrative, a pacifist who makes the ultimate personal sacrifice to make the world safe from both Godzilla and his own creation. Contrast this with the handsome young army officer in the film. He has heroic qualities, and ultimately gets the girl, but he is completely powerless against Godzilla and lacks the chivalric nobility of the pacifist scientist. Consider again that this film was made not even a decade after the end of World War Two.  In a way Godzilla is not just an allegory for nuclear holocaust, but also a repudiation of Japan’s militarist past. Serizawa’s martyrdom is symbolic of Japan’s embrace of the Yoshida Consensus, which continues to inform Japanese politics and culture to the present day.

I’ve actually been prodding at this particular piece for a couple weeks now. Things have been on the hectic side lately and it’s been tough to make the gears turn. In recompense though I promise over the next week to deliver not one, not two, not three, but four updates! I do it all for you, gentle readers! Appropriately enough, the topic of the first entry in this blogging tour-de-force is the start of an ongoing review series for the newly published comic series Godzilla: Half Century War by James Stokoe.

Kaiju and alternate history you say? You know me too well you dog…

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