May 18, 2016
I want to talk about both because this is such an interesting example of how an adaptation can go horribly, horribly wrong.
The Big Year by Mark Obmascik is a great read, an example of what makes the general nonfiction category so interesting: he tells a story that reveals and illuminates a subculture that many people may not know about, and makes the topic and its players fascinating. This is the story of the 1998 Big Year, when three birders competed to ID the most bird species in North America in a year when El Nino and odd weather patterns brought an unusual number of odd migrants to the continent, pushing the possible number of sightings to record highs. The competition is entirely unofficial, and deeply obsessive, requiring tens of thousands of miles of travel. The three players here are interesting and quirky in their own rights, and the story is all about the intersection of their lives and shared obsession.
If you’re at all interested in birds and birding it’s a must-read. If you just like good stories about weird things that actually happened to interesting people, I recommend this one.
And then in 2011 they turned the book into a movie, starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black. The movie is. . .frustrating.
The first sign we know that something has gone sideways is that even though the three characters in the movie correspond specifically to the real people from the book, the movie has changed their names and some important details about them, enough so that it’s no longer anything resembling biography.
This is because it turns out the movie is not really interested in birding at all. Which isn’t to say it doesn’t have birds — it actually has a handful of sequences that illuminate exactly why birding is so cool, and how endlessly fascinating birds are. Like when they find a pair of bald eagles in the middle of their mating dance. They’ve all seen plenty of bald eagles, but they’ll watch this because it’s just cool.
But what the movie really wants to do is shoe-horn these characters and this situation into a really disgustingly bog-standard Hollywood story about “what’s really important in life.” The Wilson character’s wife is going through fertility treatments so they can have a kid but the marriage ends when he picks birding over her. Note: this isn’t in the book at all. Not even a little. The Martin character decides he’d rather spend more time with his new grandbaby than with birding. Also a plotline not in the book at all. The Black character finds romance on his Big Year and decides he likes her better than birds. ALSO NOT IN THE BOOK. Are we sensing a pattern here? The end of the movie: Wilson’s character “wins” the year, but is left feeling unfulfilled as he stares at a young family with a baby across a pond. Meanwhile, our other characters are the real “winners” because they’ve learned what’s really “important” in life. i.e. Not birding.
Basically, the message of the book is: Birding can get really obsessive but it’s also really awesome and attracts all kinds of interesting, driven people.
The message of the movie: Everything else is more important than birding.
What really frustrated me is the original story of The Big Year already has plenty of plot and obstacles that make for great drama without inventing all this “true meaning of life” bullshit. The person the Jack Black character is based on? Gets sick halfway through the year and is eventually diagnosed with cancer. (He lives. I guess Hollywood couldn’t figure out how to tell a story about someone with cancer who lives.)
The movie uses birding as a crutch to tell this really boring story. But it never explains why birding in the first place. What turned these people onto birding? How did they all get started and why have they all become so passionate about it? The movie never tells us. It could just as easily have been about golf or stamp collecting or curling. But I really wanted to know why birding, because then it would mean so much more when the characters start questioning their obsessions with birding.
I wish I had liked this movie better because the actors were actually pretty good — especially Black, who gets across the drive and exhaustion of someone financially struggling to make his Year happen (that is in the book) — and I enjoyed watching them interact and play out the story. But the story was just so weak. I wish the movie had trusted its subject and source material more.
May 10, 2016
The Short Review: I thought the shaky cam was gonna kill me.
You know what a good use of shaky cam would be? Shake the camera once when someone hits the ground, to get a sense of jarring. But that’s it. Shaking it the rest of the time to convey the idea that it’s being held by a person-on-the-scene found footage documentarian? When that’s not the kind of movie you’re making? That’s stupid. Stop it stop it stop it. Just stop. STOP.
A-hem. But what about the movie? All right. With spoilers.
First act was a little rough, I gotta tell you. MCU movies usually win me over in the first scene, but I was so angry at the shaky cam that I wasn’t there. And then we got a lot of contrived explanation that I’m not sure I buy. So wait, is Ross saying that we all would have been better off if the Avengers hadn’t been at the Battle of New York? If they hadn’t downed the Hydra-controlled helicarriers? Or hadn’t stopped Ultron? Is that what he’s saying? Because I don’t think that’s right, you know?
And let’s break it down: This is all about Tony Stark’s guilt. He became Iron Man because he’s guilty over arms dealing. He created Ultron because he’s guilty about New York. The Accords are about being guilty over Sokovia. And really, ultimately, he’s super-guilty about how he handled his parents before their death. Tony’s enough of a narcissist that he doesn’t want to be guilty alone — he’s going to spread it around. It can’t be his fault because it’s everyone’s fault, right? On the one hand, I’m totally happy psychoanalyzing characters in superhero movies, especially when the movies give me enough to psychoanalyze with. These movies are so good with character.
On the other hand, Steve is totally right and Secretary Ross is using Tony’s guilt to manipulate the entire team into a politically expedient situation, because it’s always a good idea to target the guy writing the checks. There, I’m calling it. (And yes, there’s something to be said about the existence of superheroes somehow creating a commensurate level of disaster — but generally we call that plot.)
So yeah, a little awkward getting the plot spun up. But it turns out it’s all a red herring anyway. Once the plates all got spinning, the film was great. Lots of good moments, good banter, great action (GIANT MAN OMG), strong emotional arcs. A+.
It’s really hard not comparing this to Batman v. Superman, especially when both films have this core issue of collateral damage and oversight of superpowered heroes. And when both films have a good guy v. good guy smackdown. Civil War has a 12 character battle that is interesting, full of banter and weight, and wasn’t set in motion by a contrived plot-hammer. This is how you do it.
I’m not going to break the whole movie down or I’ll be here all day. I liked it. I’ll see it again like I see all the MCU movies again and maybe the shaky cam and stumbling first act won’t bother me so much. It did what it had to do well. Black Panther was great — a hero who stops to examine evidence and can change his mind? Nice. I loved Peter Parker. I’m a fan of the Raimi/Tobey McGuire Spider-Man and I actually like this character better. I hope this means we can have a Spider-Man movie without the origin story, since the origin was subtly handled in about two sentences here. (Tony: “Does anyone else know?” Peter: “No. Nobody.” *HEART BREAKS*) I really liked that the villain wasn’t an alien or a monster or technology gone wrong or anything. Just an angry guy with a plan.
And Peggy. That text message destroyed me. My wonderful Peggy. I knew it was coming, and yet….and yet…. The film did a fantastic job handling that whole situation. And I love that the film gave Captain America’s famous “No, you move” speech from the comic to Peggy, via the eulogy. Love it. (I remember Jarvis’s line from the TV show: “It’s my understanding Captain Rogers had you.” Oh yes he did.) (And I’d like to point out that we lose Peggy and Howard Stark in the same film. Symmetry.)
And now I have to go cry again.
April 8, 2016
I had a bunch of things I was going to blog about, and wouldn’t you know it, I can’t remember them now. . . Well, I’ll come up with something!
Next month, May 6-8, I’m the author guest of honor at the Creative Ink Festival in Vancouver. It promises to be an excellent time full of writing and art and fun!
The April issue of Lightspeed Magazine is available to purchase and has a new story by me: “Origin Story.” Yes, it’s a superhero story — actually it’s a supervillain story. And yes, it takes place in Commerce City. It’s the backstory of a character in the third Golden Age book. The story goes live next week, but if you want to read it early, here’s your chance.
So, how about that Rogue One trailer? I’ve only seen it twice because, I confess, it reduced me to messy tears the first time, and the second wasn’t much better. Why am I having such an emotional to reaction to it? Well, I think it’s because it feels exactly like the year-long Star Wars RPG campaign I was part of back in college. We were a band of secret agents and rogues running missions for the Alliance, and it was fun and serious and gritty and everything Star Wars should be, and way back in 1993 thought we would never get in movie form ever again. And here we are with what looks like pretty much exactly the movie that would have happened if they’d pulled it straight out of my twenty-year old brain.
It’s a little overwhelming, when pop culture caters to one’s id so directly. Whew.
April 4, 2016
The short review: That totally didn’t suck as much as everyone said it did!
Let me explain. By the time I got around to seeing this, I was actually eager to find out what had raised so much vitriol among so many people. I avoided all reviews and spoilers — but really, the headlines were enough. What was this unholy trainwreck people were describing? Let’s find out!
To put this in perspective: Batman v. Superman is a better superhero movie than Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3, Green Lantern, Daredevil, all the Fantastic Four movies, the Shumacher Batman movies, and that Captain America movie from the early 90’s that was so terrible it was never released.
In the end, my only real criteria for the movie was “It’d better not screw up Wonder Woman.” And — it did not! Wonder Woman was great! I’m so happy that my prediction from a couple of years ago was totally wrong.
The breakdown, with SPOILERS!
- Wonder Woman. Just great. During the big beatdown, she’s lost her sword, her shield, she’s losing, and she gets this wicked little grin on her face before diving back into the battle. Yeah, that’ll do.
- Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne. I’ve been an Affleck fangirl for years, and he didn’t disappoint.
- Jeremy Irons as techie Alfred.
- All the superhero meetings. i.e. First time Superman confronts Batman, first time Bruce sees Diana. Delightful.
- The post-apocalyptic dream sequence that turns into another dream sequence that was possibly the John Stewart Green Lantern from the future spouting stuff and then Bruce wakes up? Goofy as hell but I loved it.
- Seeing Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman together on the big screen. Been waiting for this my whole life.
- I actually cried a little at the end.
- If someone told you you had to gracefully set up an MCU-style continuity for the Justice League and you had exactly one movie to do it in — this would actually be a pretty good way to do it. Cyborg! Aquaman! Dear Reader, I squeed.
- It’s too long, with too much stuff that just isn’t important. Like blowing up the Capitol, which never really got mentioned again. Wut?
- It’s too preachy, and suffers from the same ponderous self-importance as Man of Steel. It needs fewer scenes of Clark looking worriedly at the TV while talking heads discuss whether Superman is a good guy or not. If you cut out all the dialog of people discussing Superman’s moral standing in the world, the underlying themes would still be there and it would be a shorter, more interesting movie.
- I think Clark/Superman wore exactly the same mildly worried expression through the entire movie. What are you so worried about, Clark? Did you leave the stove on? Is that it?
- At least a couple of plot threads could be removed entirely and not really affect the story. Then maybe we’d have more time for that whole Clark and Lois in a relationship thing? Because I guess they are? Wut?
- Cut the stupid prologue already, how many times do I have to say it.
- While we got the Holy Trinity of superheroes beating down on a baddie, it was muddy and hard to follow, and I wish it hadn’t been.
- The actual Batman and Superman smackdown wasn’t fun and wasn’t interesting. I imagine the dudebros were all supposed to be like “Yeah awesome woohoooo!” But I just thought it was sad. It also didn’t need to happen, and only happened because of dumb plotting. More about that in a sec.
- Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, played as Heath Ledger’s Joker. Who apparently is doing all this because he’s just crazy or something. Painfully dumb. Just no.
More Commentary, Because this is Me
So I rewrote the start of that Batman Superman fight, which didn’t need to happen, because A) I don’t believe this Lex is smart enough to outwit both Bruce and Clark, and B) stupidest dialog imaginable. “Wait!” Superman yells and marches into Batman’s face, because that’s totally what you do to an armored psychopath, right? No. Here’s what should have actually happened:
Superman (keeping his distance): “I need your help!”
Batman (confused): “What?”
Superman: “Lex Luthor has played us both, manipulated this whole thing to get rid of us, he kidnapped my mother to force me to fight you–”
Batman: “You have a mother?”
Superman (blinking): “Yes. I grew up in Kansas for goodness sakes. So will you help me get Luthor? Please?”
Batman: “Right. Let’s go.”
Which gives us a movie called Batman v. Superman in which they don’t actually fight, which I think is beautiful and hilarious. And doesn’t have an entire part of the plot hinge on Bruce’s and Clark’s mothers both having the same name, which I also thought was kinda dumb.
So, let’s talk about Superman, and violence, and heroism, and all that. This whole question about whether Superman is too powerful to be a hero, is he a god, he could totally use his powers to take over the world, etc. etc. — this isn’t a new theme for Superman. It’s been constant story fodder since the introduction of “gritty realism” to superheroes in the 80’s. I’ll never forget the episode of the animated Justice League, where there’s an alternate Earth where Superman really does take over, and we see Arkham Asylum, and all the familiar villains have been lobotomized, and we realize the two little pinprick scars on their foreheads are the same distance apart as Superman’s laser vision — holy crap, y’all. That was a kick in the teeth. The “Superman is a god on alternate Earth” storyline is a staple. I read it most recently in the graphic novel Red Son (which I was disappointed with, but I won’t get into that here).
This movie is obviously interested in those questions, but not in any depth. It just keeps asking the questions over and over, offering no answers or conclusions apart from: well, Superman must be a hero because he’s dead, right? Whatever, we’re all thinking.
I was careful to judge this as its own thing, and not compare it to some external measure of what I want a Superman movie to be. I think that’s where so much ire about this movie is coming from — there’s a powerful external measure of what Superman should be, and this movie is something else. Like the episode of Justice League with the laser-eye lobotomies. The difference being that was purposefully set up as an alternate world, and this movie is meant to be canon. Which is disappointing, right? Well, I still got my superhero Holy Trinity on the big screen teaming up against a big bad, and that made me very happy. I walked out of the movie satisfied.
To paraphrase the line from Alan Moore — Superman isn’t ruined. This movie hasn’t destroyed anything. The character is still there. The Christopher Reeve Superman is still there, the comics are still there, and at any rate the whole shebang will get rebooted again in another ten years anyway.
Seriously, Zach Snyder isn’t good enough to ruin Superman.
March 21, 2016
Okay, this was kind of adorable.
In the first place, it did that same thing that Ratatouille did, where the main character announces a great big dream that not only goes against his family’s wishes but also seems to work against his basic nature. I’m a sucker for that kind of story. (I should probably go see Eddie the Eagle, yeah?) Judy Hopps wants to be a cop. But there has never been a rabbit cop. But she has a dream, dammit, and she works really hard, and everyone’s against her, and. . . sorry, got something in my eye there.
As for the rest, the way I put it: it’s just as heavy handed as it needed to be, which is to say that this is also a movie about bigotry and racial profiling, and there’s really no subtle way to handle those topics. But I think it did okay. We all had a good time.
Whatever else I could say about the film, the scenes with Mr. Big were worth the price of admission.
March 14, 2016
I’m falling behind on movie watching and I can’t say I even really care. I’m on spoiler lockdown for Captain America: Civil War. Not going to watch any more trailers and I don’t want to know anything else until it comes out. That’s not until May, and I think I may even be out of town that weekend. Can’t even figure it out right now.
But I do have my long review of Deadpool up at Lightspeed. I don’t think I linked to it yet so there you go.
I’ll have a review of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny out next month. Yes, it’s a sequel to the 2000 Chinese martial arts movie, released on Netflix only. It’s a strange new world of distribution, and I’m getting closer and closer to cancelling cable and picking up a few online subscriptions instead. TV ala carte. I can hardly remember the days when we had to read the TV schedule and wait for things to come on and make sure we were in the right place and the right time to see them. Remember when you watched a movie with the realization that you might never get a chance to see that movie ever again? Me neither.
What I did watch this weekend: The Sting was on TCM. This is one of my favorite, favorite movies. The classic grifter movie, with so much style and charisma and Newman and Redford and oh my gosh the music. Scott Joplin would be virtually unknown today if not for the score to this movie. The thing I learned this time: the actor playing Luther is Robert Earl Jones. James Earl Jones’ father. I did not know that. Thank you, internet search!
March 5, 2016
The March 2016 issue of Lightspeed is now available to buy — this has my long review of Deadpool. And I do mean long. This thing where I get a couple of thousand words to talk about movies and culture and context and everything is pretty sweet.
I didn’t watch the Oscars this year. It’s gotten hard for me to watch when they cut off the speeches of people for whom this may be their only time on stage at a venue like this and they’re clearly nervous and trying to say a lot that’s really important to them. But the A-listers all seem to get as much time as they need. It makes me anxious.
That said, I did watch my Facebook feed fill up with people smack-talking Mad Max: Fury Road for winning as much as it did. I’ve watched the movie a couple more times since it was in theaters and I stand by everything I said about how brilliant and beautiful it is. Every frame is well-planned, well thought out, and artistically framed. The sound — Max’s point of view is expressed in the sound, if you’re paying attention. And the message is surprisingly hopeful and uplifting, given the setting. Because of the setting.
Seriously, a genre movie taking home more Oscars than any other film? I’m going to celebrate that. And it couldn’t happen to a nicer movie.
And over on the TV side of things with The Flash, my friends and I are collecting Jay Garrick conspiracy theories. Love that actor, and I hope it all gets crazier before it gets cleared up. My second favorite show after Agent Carter.
Oh, and I’ve finally delved into Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries. And yes, it’s just as lovely as everyone said it was. Those clothes. That music. Hmmmm…
And now it is the weekend. Have a lovely time, everyone!