Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Immaculate Imperfection of Mr. J.J. Abrams; or, Zac's Big Star Wars Post

Resist, I could not. Upon reading the recent hoopla regarding J.J. Abrams’ appointment to the directorial throne of Star Wars and noticing the (blasphemous) lack of related posts amongst my peers, I decided to bite.

So here is why J.J. Abrams might well be the best thing for the Star Wars franchise we all know and love.....And it’s those same things that make him the worst person for the Star Wars franchise we all know and love.

Let’s make things clear: when the term “Star Wars we all know and love” pops up, it strikes the heartstrings of many different groups of audiences.

There are those that have only seen the original three (Episodes IV, V, and VI); the new trilogy (Episodes I, II, and II); all six; and others who have seen none, instead growing up on the new series of television shows produced on cable television (Star Wars: The Clone Wars). And all have opinions about which iterations are acceptable, which adhere to the legacy, and what combination of the whole slew qualifies as“Star Wars.”

That is an exasperating list of individuals who claim the title “Star Wars Fan,” to all of whom it means radically different things. And that isn’t even including the consumer that is inundated with the dozens, if not hundreds, of Star Wars related video games or other visceral, graphic media with the Lucas seal of approval.

Then who exactly is J.J. Abrams talking about when he says “I want to do the fans proud” ?

The above J.J. quote was snatched from AP Movie Critic Christy Lemire, who humbly titled her article “J.J. Abrams good fit for ‘Star Wars.’” Her rhetoric, summed up quickly, is that Abrams’ “sci-fi bona fides were already beyond reproach, and he solidified them with his reimagining of the 'Star Trek' franchise in 2009.” She also references his indulgent homage to Steven Spielberg “Super 8,” as “full of childhood innocence and excitement of storytelling.”

What worked for Abrams’ ‘Star Trek’ was its nod to the older series while intentionally (forcingly, really) altering the timeline in order for the series to start-up again. It satisfied audiences that were familiar to the series, without creating a new television show, and introduced the series to a new audience. Kirk was young, lively, and sexually charged (played by the hot-it thing Chris Pine, in the midst of building a big-name reputation). Abram’s almost infamous lens flare worked as a harkening to the space opera epics the original franchise had both spawned and spawned out of. The reverence paid to the old-school vibe was returned two-fold by viewers.

But then it was the same thing that kept it from being a great movie. In trying to become its own film, ST, made a valiant effort of sheddings the reigns of the past with a fresh new cast, iconic in their own right (‘Heroes’’ Zachary Quinto, ‘Avatar’’s Zoe Saldana, ‘Shawn of the Dead’’s Simon Pegg, and John Cho of ‘Harold and Kumar’ fame) but floundered by plopping Leonard Nimoy in half-way through for a wonky-time-space plot shift that allowed everything to be back to abnormal. Not that Mr. Nimoy is a bad actor, and acknowledging the fact that the multiplicitous focus of the film is about Kirk “living up to his father’s legacy,” but it seemed like the cast was robbed of their independence in favor of recognizing die-hards and satisfying commercial ties.

Back to Star Wars. Imagine if Abrams dragged some old footage of Alec Guinness to create a hologram showed up halfway through Episode VII, after a whole new set of characters needs to be established to found a new trilogy, and gives Luke’s son (or whoever has been effectively built up in their own right) a big ole plot device that more or less says “hey, you can never live up to me.”


While that is probably taking a step too far, it would be absurd if the films were chained to their predecessors. It ends up in  the same trap that what made I, II, and III hollow (to make my opinion’s clear) the fact that they were destined to end with IV. There was limited space to create a new trilogy with a legacy looming in front of it.

This isn’t even acknowledging the problem with the conglomerate fanbase.

Or more importantly, the demographic of that fan-base.

Star Wars has evolved passed the heyday of Spielberg and Lucas’ classic films. It isn’t a commercial cow to be milked up to fill the bucket up with cash, if I may be so bold to say, but a full-blown media hub in its own right. It reaches out to groups besides old-school purists and children eager to gobble up space toys.

Mary Hamilton’s well-thought article “Star Wars: The Old Republic, the gay planet and the problem of the straight male gaze” posted in The Guardian focuses on a the issue of how same-sex relationships were ‘tacked-on’ in a high-profile, Star Wars Massively Multiplayer Game (MMO). In the most basic of descriptions, it describes how the developers of the game assumed the sexual orientation of their audience, assumed the anything of their audience, and tried to fix it later in the game by providing premium content for pay-to-play gamers. Some said that it was treating gays with irrelevance. Other gamers even went so far as to say the developers had “ruined Star Wars” by adding the same-sex content.

What all this exposition is trying to achieve is that the times have changed since the 70’s and 80’s when Lucas peered back to a galaxy far, far, away and provided a generation with a host of new imaginative inspirations, technologically and culturally. One of the earliest things that comes back to mind in ‘Star Trek’ is how Kirk bombastically flirts with every women he sees, be they alien or whathaveyou. He ogles them, be they green, black, or white. Abrams’ “Super 8” plodded along traditional lines by having the boys fight over the affection of one girl, who ended up pairing up with one of them.

This isn’t to say Abrams is ignorant to the times, or these demographics ,but he certainly isn’t paying much screen time to them.

Star Wars is a cultural phenomena that has reached multiple generation of people. Of races. Of sexualaties. And while Abrams can bring the ‘Old-School,’ or ‘Golden-Age’ sci-fi feel back into our hearts--bring back the Star Wars as we know and love-- he hasn’t shown much ability, or desire rather, to do much more than that.

Abrams doesn’t look like the guy who is going to bring Star Wars--the mythos, the culture, the possibility-- to the 21st century.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Almost Like A Riches to Rags Story--Almost; ‘Queen of Versailles’ tells Two Tales

“Why are you in a bad mood?” Jackie Siegel, mother of seven, the titular subject of Lauren Greenfield’s 2011 film “Queen Of Versailles,” asks her husband David.

We peek through a crack in the door, every word quiet, yet altogether the only thing heard.

“Maybe this month I won’t pay the electricity bill,” David Siegel, 74, quietly contemplates. He is unmoving on his throne of leather and paper bills. Jackie is hidden behind the door frame. “When they shut off the lights you’ll appreciate the electricity,” he growls.

Loud and audacious, but frighteningly calm, Greenfield’s documentary focuses on the family that built--or almost built--the largest house in the United States, the 90,00 square foot “Versailles” in Orlando, Florida. A film that inadvertently turned introspective on the immense financial collapse of Westgate Resorts owner and billionaire, “Kingmaker” David Siegel.

Moments like the ones above are where “Queen” becomes frightening, but endearing. I remember when my grandfather would roar through my dad for leaving the lights on--something childishly frivolous to me at the time. While Jackie doesn’t react the same way, the weight of financial security weighs heavy on this once-opulent family. It's Greenfield portraying a family losing its glue.

That’s something that throbs the heart and sticks in the head regardless of the Siegel's financial fortune.

But while that remains quietly unnerving, the bombastic nature of the “Queen,” and her family, reign in tandem with their financial woes. “Queen” is loud because even though the film is set before and during the 2007--2011 financial crisis--a startling, upsetting time for many--Greenfield follows the Siegals from pinnacle to crash in the way a reality television show producer would: close-ups of gold-framed, personalized family portraits featuring David as a French king in his own imagined Versaille; interviews with the nannies separated from children for over 17 years and forced to don Rudolph costumes during a Christmas party.

Bouncing from one Siegal to the next, another dramatic scene to another, filming feels like a cinematic episode of “The Real Housewives of Orlando.” Greenfield films plain faced, not obscuring with lense flares or rack focuses, choosing not to overlay a narration that would combat with the eccentricity of the Siegels’ own voices. So much so, that when David Siegal says the family has “hit a rough patch” that only the wow-factor of the Siegel-family lifestyle,
both before and after their crash, can speak on his behalf.  

Sunday, January 20, 2013

What Are You Looking At? "Zero Dark Thirty" Strips the Viewer Bare

A gloss over of Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark-Thirty” resembles war movies of past, but underneath it is a well-constructed, re-education of the American Action Flick viewer.  Such as near the climax, where silhouettes of Pakistani citizens encroach on two Navy S.E.A.L.’s. One orders the second to “tell them to get back,” while the other, notably ‘not-white’ S.E.A.L. translates through a megaphone.

“Tell them to get back--or I’ll handle it,” the first repeats. The camera pans across the numerous, darkened crowds of Pakistanis, who could be wielding anything from pipes to 2x4s. A shaky, amateur-esque close-up of the second S.E.A.L.’s darting eyes and sweated brows. The early hours of the morning yield no light until we gaze through the night-vision of the first SEAL, assessing the “unknowns” gathering around the complex they themselves had just infiltrated.

Finally, dropping the megaphone, the second soldier shouts, in English “go back, or they will kill you.”

The crowds stop.

No swarms of Pakistanis like Somalis rush downed helicopter pilots, with stones and sticks. Instead, they are citizens gathered, concerned about the gunshots heard in their neighborhood. No gunning down of barbarous brown people by a single righteous white soldier.

Mark Boal’s screenplay is full of moments like these, deftly defying traditional action axioms at the moment we expect things to play out differently. Controversially so, remaining neutral on the topic of torture. When a detained Ammar (Reda Kateb), shoulders spread, arms tied to the ceiling, forced to expose himself in front of newly introduced, up-and-coming intelligence agent, Maya (Jessica Chastain), begs for help, she responds with “only you can help yourself by telling the truth” and a stare.

Boal and Bigelow both torture an audience in a manner not far from the dog-collaring, waterboarding, noise bombardment, and shaming inflicted upon Ammar by Dan (Jason Clark) and Maya for the first 20 minutes of the film.

There isn’t an honorific nature to Maya, the female lead played calmly by Chastain who avoids becoming the Strong Female Lead. In a male-dominated cast, Chastain stands out as the “motherfucker that found him” and the one “left alive for a purpose” without being preachy, but dedicated; not anxious, but addicted to the hunt she started “right out of high school.”

And Maya never quits the habit, instead asking if the viewer can in this invasive, cinematic lesson any film-goer should be shamed into seeing.

Anyone Up For Some Nonsense #1: Video Games As Art

I often make it known that Roger Ebert been a huge influence upon me and my writing. Before writing a review of film, or even if I want to get some semblance of a notion of a movie, I often try to seek out the words of wisdom of this Chicago-based critic. When my father decided he wanted to go see a movie he insisted, from my drooling childhood to my bearded semi-adulthood, that we never hear a word from critics or a gather a glimpse of a preview. Except when it came to the words of Roger Ebert.

So when Mr. Ebert posted his now infamous article "Video Game Can Never Be Art" back in 2010, I was more than a little confused, mixed-up, amd didn't know what to think of this intellectual idol of mine. Even after Roger was inundated with responses of my fellow gamers (as that the contigent I identified with) and posted follow up apology/exasperation  "Alright, Kids, Play On My Lawn," I wasn't quite satisfied by the results. 

Scrapping much of the argument posted by Ebert it aims at the most basic question of review and respect: is it art or entertainment? 

That also leads into the problem of qualifying when something that entertains participators "transcends" or "evolves" into being art.

Can a medium be both?  

The New York Times includes video-games in its prestigous "The Arts" section,  as shown by Seth Schiesel's review of Grand Theft Auto IV here in full, but the BBC divides its coverage into "Entertainment and Arts," leaving ponderers in a bit of a confuzzled state. 

Then again, there are writer's on the website Kotaku, dedicated to the video-game industry, who are criticized for being too academic or lofty for their reviews of the medium, like Patricia Hernandez's article on Call of Duty: Black Ops II, where commentors railed the article for "waxing lyrical on war in the modern age" and being "a bunch of brainy college nonsense garbage about war." Should we leave the medium alone in our methods of review? Should a game review be assessed first and foremost by it's technical components: graphics, controls, sound quality, etc.? Does that then reflect upon how other pieces of art are reviewed?

To avoid being wishy-washy, I generally claim the stance of "games as art" and I also am guilty of filling up my articles with "college nonsense," or at least when I try to write I believe that every piece of media goes beyond its technical components, leading to an effect on our culture.

I'd love the ability to mimic, or at least assess, writing on video-games the way that Ebert spoke about film throughout my life--but there is more pushback by the consumer and by the intellectual community than it seems helping the industry along for legitimization. 

And internet cats. 

Monday, January 14, 2013

An Irrelevant Look to the Golden Globes

Welcome to the Golden Globes, where everything is made-up and the awards don't matter.

Ha! You thought we were going to talk about the Golden Globe?
No one cares about the Golden Globes. 
Onto our real article.

Ben Brantley’s theatre review of “Picnic” by William Inge oozes style and panache.

But that’s really all that he oozes. Giving the reader a five-paragraph long description of a walking, hairless torso, perfectly chiseled as if it were a mobile “marble statue” is sure to tickle jollies, though we wanted something more than just the waist up.

Mr. Brantley wrote his biography backwards, if that says anything. Oh, and he is also single.

Brantley admits that “objectification is a major theme of ‘Picnic,’” which excuses his own ogling (he also pays dues to lead actress Maggie Grace’s “exquisitely shaped pair of legs” and her “not-so-bad face” if we are to be fair), however his analysis is only skin-deep.

Though dropping to slightly more serious tone to address the sexual themes of the play in the latter half of the article, highlighting “the role of prettiness as both a burden and an aspiration” as a major undertone to the play, it seems that his own ‘but’ only addresses the chemistry of the actors in the play.

Who is just ogling now, Brantley?

Co-written by Jon Husar and Zac Clark

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Worth Seeing? Yes. But Why Are You Watching "Zero-Dark-Thirty" ?

A sub-line claiming “Zero-Dark Thirty” as “The Greatest Manhunt in History” might lead action-lovers astray.

The war-time, high-octane violence in Kathryn Bigelow’s newest film “Zero-Dark Thirty” is kept to a minimum. In it’s place are the meticulous applications of torture in a modern world and the obsessive, technological age of the military intelligence complex. “More West Wing than Black Hawk Down,” said another audience member a few seats over. Almost with a tone of disappointment.

“Zero-Dark Thirty” places audience members in the globe-trekking hunt by “straight-out of highschool” intelligence agent Maya (Jessica Chastain). The film follows Maya’s progression from newbie torture assistant to the lead--oftentimes lone--crusader in the manhunt for UBL, or as most know him, Osama Bin Laden.

Bigelow guides the audience through a tour of psychological trauma and tension by giving a retelling of every major terrorist attack on the ‘Western World’ since September 11, 2001. Viewers are allowed to linger in the dark for a minute, only hearing phone calls and transmissions of the people edified into public history as some of this country’s most innocent victims--then mixes real-news footage with cinematic recreation that leads to an unsettling review of the past decade of global politics.

All of this is through the ever-aging, ever-tiring, ever-obsessed eyes of Maya, whom the camera rarely leaves. It isn’t hard to draw comparisons from her transformation and the audience which had been hurt, confused, then whipped into a frenzy over two land wars. Maya voluntarily witnesses almost every form of torture used in modern-day interrogation within first 20 minutes of the film, graphically--though it only serves to steel her resolve.

That isn’t to say Bigelow was attempting a rail against torture, or it’s  effectiveness. In an article for the New Yorker, screenplay writer Mark Boal and Bigelow simply stated “it’s a movie, not a documentary” and “the film doesn’t have an agenda, it doesn’t judge.”

While eschewing a stance on torture might be necessary for a film that depicts the hunt for one of the U.S’s greatest villians, the theme of the country’s addiction to war has carried from “The Hurt Locker,” shown by Maya’s progressively more embedded appearance and vigor; the willingness and determination to “finish the job.”

Thematically, it was also awkwardly affirmed by the guys in the back row that whispered “oh fuck yes” whenever one of the Navy SEALS fondled a high-tech murder-gadget or shot someone in the face.

gifs because of the internet
Or maybe I am missing the point and America is just full of bad-ass mother-fuckers like Jessica Chantai.