Star Wars: The Franchise Awakens

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This blog entry is likely to get desperately lost amid the scores of reviews and videos coming out this week as The Force Awakens rages across the planet, so to separate it a bit from the pack I have decided not to make this a review of the film but rather a reflection on having seen it and what I hope this will mean for the future of the most powerful franchise in the history of show business.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first; I really enjoyed the film despite seeing it in 3D IMAX, the novelty of which has evaporated for me some time ago. I like the technology in principle but the cumbersome glasses and the uneven way 3D effects pop up in films is distracting to me and often pull me out of the experience rather than enhancing it.

The Force Awakens, as a film, is riddled with problems and inconsistencies, ones that have already set fire to Reddit and other platforms with fanatics and journalists alike crossing proverbial swords over the various unanswered questions, but the consensus still seems to be that Star Wars is “back in business” and I think this is perhaps its most important feature; it has brought Star Wars out of the muck.

We have to consider a few things when talking about this film; most of us are walking into the theatre with a huge amount of anxiety and trauma. The Prequels were a nightmare for most fans (including this one), a torrid mess of gimmicks and George Lucas oddities that left us furious and facepalming. Like most fans I sat down in the theatre practically praying that The Force Awakens will not be another misfire. This nervousness accompanied me through every scene, every line of dialogue and I think it made me more aware/sensitive to anything out of the ordinary. Because of this, a second/third viewing will be necessary before I can really process the film. Overall my assessment is that the first and third acts were the strongest, with a bit of a shaky middle.

What really stuck with me was Daisy Ridley’s soulful performance and strong portrayal of Rey, and Adam Driver’s poignant delivery as Kylo Ren. I think their chemistry is amazing and will be the foundation upon which this new generation of SW films will be built. Naturally, seeing Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker did all sorts of things to my heart, and while I don’t mind too much if we don’t see any more of the old gang in the future, I hope Luke sticks around for a while longer.

As a filmmaker I cannot but admire JJ Abrams’ (a director I don’t particularly like) courage in putting his career and reputation on the line by tackling Star Wars. This was a bigger risk for him than people realize. Screwing the proverbial the pooch on Force Awakens could have cost him a lifetime of harassment and infamy. All things considered I think he can rest easy now. Abrams has minimum delivered the kind of Star Wars film that the fans can chew on and appreciate while also wisely extracting himself from the franchise now that it’s under way.

The future of Star Wars is looking bright again, and I for one am curious to see where Disney takes it. I feel like the best is yet to come; that with a little luck we may get another young director, crew and cast that may come in and really raise the bar. My only concern is that there might be too much Star Wars coming down the road now that tFA has cracked open the vault. I pray they mind their surroundings and never underestimate the power of the dark side of overexposure (Marvel, I’m looking at you!).

 

 

 

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Fire In the Hole

Those of you that tune in to the Reverseangle may have noticed that I have been relatively absent as of late. Busy, busy, busy, as they say, but I’m not abandoning the blog as much as checking in less often. If you miss me terribly I can be found these days on a shiny new podcast called Fire in the Hole which I run with my best friend, Richard. Check it out, maybe you’ll dig it.HOUSE

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The Punisher Lives

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No doubt you’ve heard the news, Netflix’s Daredevil series is promising to come back with a figurative and literal vengeance in 2016 by finally bringing back the most popular “underground” character in the entire Marvel Comics Universe, The Punisher. This is tremendous news for the character’s fans who have for years been desperately clamouring for an authentic cinematic adaptation of Frank Castle, even before the arrival of the superhero tent-pole phenomenon.

There was the ultra low-budget 1989 Dolph Lundgren romp that arrived the same year as Tim Burton’s wildly successful Batman (but shared none of its success), 2004’s shameful display starring Thomas Jane (and to our chagrin, John Travolta), and worst of all, the 2008 travesty called Warzone (Ray Stevenson) that offended fans on basically every conceivable level.

Strangely, all three films seemed to get the casting down for Punisher pretty well; Dolph’s admittedly limited acting range actually helped in the portrayal of Frank Castle by giving him a really hollow, numb characterization that worked great. He was shocked, barely talkative, brutal, physically impressive. Doplh Lundgren’s Punisher may be the stuff of parody today but a closer look at his rendition is surprisingly on-the-money, even capturing Frank’s black sense of humour when he finds himself in grim situations. Louis Gosset Jr. was a great supporting actor too and brought genuine humanity to the proceedings. Some part of me believes that this version may have actually been the closest to the mark and might have even been a hit today with its 80’s B-movie feel.

Thomas Jane, many will say, has so far been the most successful casting choice for Frank Castle, and his actual portrayal was heartfelt and researched. This of course just made it worse when we had to listen to him recite nauseating dialogue and engage in awkward sitcom-type comedy sequences in the hopelessly tone-deaf 2008 film. Set in Florida (WTF!), this Punisher was barely recognizable as far as the grit and darkness of the comic book are concerned. Then there was the ridiculous plot, the lack of any interesting action or violence (in this case, a capital offense), and the scene chewing stylings of John Travolta. Punisher fans were left confused, frustrated, but most of all, severely disappointed.

A few years later we would get Warzone, a reboot of sorts that promised to set things right. It cast a more mature Ray Stevenson (who dazzled in HBO’s Rome), Dominic West (from The Wire) as Jigsaw, and gave the impression in its pre-release hype that it would finally give the fans the goods. Garth Ennis was involved, Tim Bradstreet was consulted, all the elements were in place for that R-rated Punisher fans had been praying for. What we got instead is a (somehow) even lower-budget piece of garbage that almost murdered the character itself. In a way it actually did; Punisher remained a sceptic topic of discussion in Hollywood with almost no chance of being ever given another big run until last week.

It now appears that Netflix has come to the rescue of Frank Castle in an absolutely unexpected and spectacular way. Daredevil, (the other similarly fouled comic book property) has made it to the big screen to resounding acclaim and opened up an entirely new chapter in comic-to-film adaptation. This humbly produced and intelligently executed marvel (of you’ll pardon the pun) has changed the game by opening up a parallel dimension where we can finally glance into the darker side of Marvel Comics, a side that may now get a fair shake and that has so far surpassed big-ticket properties like Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of sheer storytelling, substance and maturity.

The new Punisher will come by way of Jon Bernthal, a casting choice that is likely to cause a bit of controversy (when doesn’t it?), but one that could be absolutely perfect. We’ve established however that the casting has never really been the problem with The Punisher franchise, so what’s it going to really take to make it work this time?

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Why Mad Max Made Me Furious(a)

*This review may contain very light spoilers

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Mad Max: Fury Road is currently the king at the box office (except for being hilariously trounced by Pitch Perfect 2 at its opening) and it seems like there isn’t a media outlet or moviegoer out there that didn’t absolutely love the crap out George Miller’s epic post-apocalyptic comeback. Ok, so there are a few contrarians and bloggers servicing the minority of viewers that hated the movie, but as a whole , your ears are probably falling off from the praise that Fury Road gets from virtually everyone you talk to. Truth be told, I didn’t write this piece to join the haters or to add very unnecessary fuel to the fires of adulation; the fact is that I had a good time and got to see the movie in wonderful and intelligent company. My problem is that this film pissed me off and I needed a platform to really get to the bottom of that feeling.

Fury Road is a visual masterpiece, from its gorgeous art direction, to its intricate costume design, to perhaps its most awe-inspiring feature, those ridiculously badass vehicles (and vehicle battles). The film actually starts off on a high note story-wise. The tension is there, the strangeness, the maniacal rush of imagery and sound; I was probably under its spell for a good 10-20 minutes until Max started to actually speak, and then it seemed to go everywhere and nowhere for the next hour-and-a-half in deafening, confusing, and frustrating fashion.

I guess this is where you have to choose a camp as an audience-member. Are you a seasoned Mad Max enthusiast that’s seen the entire series and recognizes Road Warrior as a quasi-masterpiece? Are you a casual viewer who’s definitely heard of the franchise but otherwise came into Fury Road with a clean slate and an appetite for some Tom Hardy/Charlize Theron? For myself, being part of the former and a little bit the latter, the Mad Max saga is simply iconic. It’s not a Star Wars or Lotr type thing, Mad Max is more of a cultural staple, a series of films that changed the game in cinema and fashion and pretty much gave birth to the post-apocalyptic genre as whole, while also plunging North America into a wonderfully strange obsession with Australians that would culminate with Crocodile Dundee and that freaky Energizer guy. For the record, I love Aussies.

So if you’ve seen at least one of the original Mad Max films, even the saxophone-infused Beyond the Thunderdome, you might have noticed while watching Fury Road that this film seems to take an almost complete departure from the universe set down in the first three films. Max’s wasteland was a strange and enigmatic frontier of killers, survivors, and weirdos, but in Fury Road we seem to have left this planet and landed somewhere between John Carter’s of Mars and Tatooine. George Miller’s dark post-cataclysmic universe may have always been filled with outlandish things, but they had always made sense up until this point, at least they were based in the realm of the plausible.

Sure, Lord Humongous (the baddie from Road Warrior) was absolutely bizarre. This well-spoken tyrant trapped in the body of hockey-masked WWE wrestler who liked to preach through a loudspeaker while his indian-punk wasteland biker gang roasted their victims alive, but the whole thing was still possible in an extreme setting. Everything technological was cobbled together, ugly, barely functioning. Fury Road seems to be vaguely exist in this space, but then there’s a guy with steampunk respirator, an impossibly sophisticated water pumping system, dieselpunk stock cars, super speed bikes, and wasteland gangs that all seem to employ the services of very talented costume stylists. These same gangs like to attack in waves using an assortment of Cirque du Soleil acrobatic stunts that end up costing the lives of their soldiers more than giving them any kind of edge.

The film is also impossibly loud an obnoxious-sounding with a score that is neither memorable or fun. I hoped that Miller of all people, having mostly stayed true to his films at in the special effects department, would opt for a more subtle score, or something that meshes with the previously established bleakness of Mad Max. Instead we got ear-shredding tent pole noise the likes of which made me want to vomit during the last 20 minutes of Man of Steel and The Dark Knight Rises.

I could pick out several other problems I had with Fury Road, but I think there was one detail above all that deflated this film for me; they screwed up Max. The character development was nearly absent from the film entirely (Charlize Theron in particular is to be lauded for breathing any life into her character), but nothing stung me as much as George Miller’s apparent amnesic treatment of Max. Mel Gibson’s Max was a deeply burnt soul, a total PTSD case who had to make a concentrated effort to form words and eye-contact when he was forced to socialize. He was a lone wolf with a broken spirit that just wanted to drive on into the unknown and never feel again. This portrayal is what made Max so compelling when he would be forced into the role of a saviour and protector. He was the quintessential reluctant hero who would never fall in love again, never become your friend because he knew that eventually he would be the only one to survive the NWO. He didn’t have music video flashbacks or supernatural ghost apparitions telling him which way to go. He didn’t smirk and do physical comedy.

This Max, as little as we get to experience him in Fury Road, is a bad pastiche of the original. One minute he’s a silent madman, then a mumbling lunatic, then a bumbling hijacker, and suddenly a touchy-feely hero that warns Furiosa, “I’m so sorry about this” as he performs a completely ridiculous blood transfusion in the back seat of a truck. I think I could deal with all the other inconsistencies that Fury Road threw at me during its exhausting two-hour romp, but how can I get behind a film that couldn’t even get its protagonist right?

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The First and Last Frame

Blinded by the Light

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I recently watched the retrospective video of Paul Miller’s (The Verge) 12-month experiment where he unplugged completely from the internet to see if he could “find himself again” as a human being. Beyond its fascinating insight into the life of an individual whose whole world revolves around online activity, Miller’s journey immediately got me thinking about the impacts of the omnipresent internet on traditional filmmaking.

Much has been written and said (with just cause) about the incredible power of the web for artists from all walks of life, be they studio moguls or basement content creators. It has breathed new life into the independent scene and, coupled with emerging low-cost digital technology, given a voice to legions of creators everywhere to express and share their works across distances never before imagined in their wildest dreams.

What is naturally less discussed is the detrimental effect that this mass information tool has had on the quality of the material being created in the first place. Instant access to data at all times has also created a feeding frenzy for content that is reaching 1980’s nuclear arms race proportions.

The net has given people from all walks of life the instant ability to harness the knowledge of the greatest thinkers, plunder archives and boundless resource databases, and educate themselves on virtually any topic imaginable. It has also given rise to unprecedented plagiarism and imitation and broken the sanctity of privacy and intimacy in a way that we will never be able to come back from.

For someone of my generation (born at the end of the 70’s), the net has had a mostly double-edged effect on our social and creative lives. On one hand it has opened horizons that existed only in our imaginations (and science fiction) and empowered us with tools for almost any endeavor, but it has also deafened many of us with a tidal wave of information that we were not prepared for.

We are old enough to remember a life without internet, smartphones, laptops, and 24-hour media, and while a great number of us have fully embraced the digital revolution, some part of us is reeling from the noise, short-circuiting. We are in many ways the first generation of cyborg experiments that periodically suffer critical failures and physically reject new technology.

The greater question I have is how all this is affecting my ability to be creative. What is all this technology doing to my brain? Am I writing better, more relevant material? Have I fallen victim to the pressures of an all-knowing-ever-present technological regime where every thought and sensation I experience is measured and edited for maximum appeal for the masses? What is becoming of the private me, the part of me that sees and hears and tastes in such-and-such a way as to give me the ability to speak with a fresh and original voice?

Maybe I should also unplug to find out.

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What’s my Motivation?

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I have wanted to tell stories for as long as I can remember, and while I dabbled in drawing, sculpting, or short-story writing, nothing ever made as much sense to me as filmmaking. It is the complete storytelling art from, the ultimate audio-visual communication instrument.

The unparalleled control and magnitude of expression that filmmaking affords a storyteller does not come without a hefty (and quite literal) price; it is a collaborative art and requires a serious investment in time, energy, and industry.

Even if you are one of the lucky ones that got his/her foot into the big leagues and make films that actually turn a profit, there is nevertheless a cost to pay spiritually and physically for every film you create.

For these reasons alone a filmmaker (and any artist, really) should always take the time to not only fully consider their true motivations behind their work, but also continually reassess them to make sure that you stay true, if not honest with your art. That is not to say that all your work must flow directly from your soul and serve the unique purpose of expressing your art, but when engaged in any material that is yours, try to ask yourself, “Why am I making this? Who am I making it for?”.

This questioning is important for many reasons, but mainly it is a surefire way to adapt to the changes that you go through as an artist as you become older, more seasoned, and your outlook on life, art, and society shift with the phases of time.

You may discover that becoming a Hollywood success is no longer your goal as a filmmaker, or maybe it never was. Maybe you realize that your tastes have changed and want to pursue other genres and styles that are completely incongruent with your past work. Maybe you want to experiment or even deconstruct the themes you have stuck to so far and look underneath the surface of that work to get to the tenderest meat.

Whatever the case, the point is to never stop searching your feelings and asking yourself these types of questions. It may not lead to financial or industry success, but you’ll do work that you will be fond of many years from now, if for no other reason that it will be representative of your art in that given time and context.

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Every Runner Has A Reason

Ronnie Goodman may well be San Francisco’s most unexpected half-marathoner. This is the story of why he runs.

If you are inspired, please consider contributing to Ronnie’s cause. He recently ran The Second Half of The SF Marathon to give back to the organization that helped him when he needed it most. hospitalityhouse.org/runronnierun.html

Ronnie is also a painter, and his art can be seen at ronniegoodman.com.

The End of the World as We Want It

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There seems to be something profoundly off about what we all consider entertainment these days. Don’t get me wrong, we are living in exciting times when comes to cinema, television, and content in general, but the popular themes of the day are cause for a bit of concern when one takes the time to look under the surface. If you don’t believe me just take a moment and consider the kind of programs that are currently dominating our imaginations:

Game of Thrones: A riveting, character-driven swords & sorcery epic drowned in death, intrigue and sex as various clans brutally compete for supremacy while they await a great cataclysm.

Dexter: A charming serial killer that conveniently directs his murderous impulses at “bad people” while the audience cheers on his profoundly problematic system of justice and morality (or lack thereof).

Mad Men: The depressing life and times of a handsome womanizing sociopathic charlatan and the spiritually bankrupt society that’s collapsing around him.

Breaking Bad: The rise and fall of a mundanely detestable everyday man whose dishonesty and desperation take him to the top of the criminal world, cruelly destroying everything and everyone in his path.

House of Cards: The story of reprehensibly charming manipulator and his machiavellian ascent to the highest seat of power in the free world as he routinely breaks the 4th wall to make us his unwitting conspirators.

The Walking Dead: Post-apocalyptic zombie survival porn designed to celebrate the inherent greatness but also the abject horror festering inside every human being’s psyche.

These are all brilliantly written, directed, and acted shows with lavish production values that showcase the very best storytelling in the business today, but what also binds these hit shows together is a kind of stark portrait of our modern-day preoccupations as a society. Vigilantes, antiheroes, and lovable criminals are obviously not a recent invention, but it’s hard to deny that they are more popular than ever and that their current supremacy speaks volumes about our collective state of mind.

Are we making these shows and watching them religiously because we are subconsciously praying for the world to end? Maybe we just want an end to the way things are at the present with mass corruption, war, staggering economic disparity, disease, hunger, apathy, environmental catastrophe everywhere. Storytelling has always been a kind of social therapy where we could, as a people, debate and dissect our hopes and fears. Maybe all this dark subject matter is healthy in the end, maybe we just are exorcising our social demons.

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The Empty Can

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In some ways the internet has made instant scholars and industry “insiders” of us all. Rare is the public conversation nowadays where the smartphones don’t come out for fact-checking or the eventual “have you seen this youtube video/meme”. It has had a staggering impact on show business coverage with a mess of editorials, blogs, vlogs, tweets, etc., popping up on a seemingly daily basis to cover every inch and every angle of the industry. Film studios have in no way ignored the marketing potential of this living connection with their demographics and continue to run successful viral campaigns and social media schemes that build tremendous anticipation for upcoming projects, but as anyone in the business would testify, this exposure has a darker side for film production, even a potentially damaging one.

It used to be that rumors would surface here-and-there of a book being optioned or popular classic being adapted to the silver screen with such-and-such famous actor slated to star. The trailer would arrive some time after that, maybe a few months before the release of the motion picture and then another couple of months before we could watch it at home. Rumors and announcements were still largely the domain of speciality magazines and studio websites that would work in tandem with the artist to progressively wet viewer appetites. There existed a brief period of “silence” where the imagination and anticipation of the public could organically grow into excitment.

Today film industry news has become a rampaging monster, and insatiable beast, part-investigative journalism, part-obscenely-speculative TMZ fodder. The rumor mill has become a 24/7 media guargantuan with CNN muscles, beating every shred of film news into a messy pulp before any of the actual involved parties can even draw breath. The recent debacles at Marvel are a great example of the feeding frenzy that can issue from a single internal business decision. What used to be natural fluctuations in the studio system, be it staff changes, casting changes, release date re-scheduling, or logistical alterations, have now become critical updates and “breaking” stories that are reported with the emergency of a 3rd World catastrophe.

The tabloid/paparazzi fever that is usually reserved for drunk-driving starlets and philandering rock stars has turned its Sauron-like eye on the film production industry with a zeal that borders on the ludicrous. Audience participation has further amplified these stories by another factor of ten leading into completely innocuous debates over who was wronged in Hollywood contract disputes (that no one has any actual direct link to), or generated entire news cycles of highly speculative hearsay that lack even the most basic foothold in factual data.

Blurry leaked production pics are investigated like UFO sightings, bloggers write entire opinion columns denouncing studios, slagging off actors/directors, or defending them against injustices without having the slightest clue. Meanwhile filmmakers who want to stay connected to the audience and incorporate social media realities into their craft are forced into ridiculous Twitter standoffs with the various purveyors of these rumors or they might get cornered trying to justify some random artistic decision that has been inflated into full-blown online controversy (see Ben Affleck casting as Batman). This noise cannot be positive for the filmmakers.

Maybe all this senseless reporting is a good thing, creating a kind of biosphere for cinema that somehow renders it more democratic and opens avenues for the audience to make its voice heard regarding what is produced and how it is produced. It gets people thinking and breathing cinema and that should be a plus, right? One can’t help but wonder however if the patients are taking over the proverbial ward.

Filmmaking is a delicate and time-consuming endeavor that is hard enough to carry out without the deafening drone of the media breathing down your neck the entire time. There must be a way of preserving some shred of calm to let the artists build their projects before we dissect them at an atomic level. This new obsession of spoiling scripts and exposing sets/costumes ten months before the fact is deflating films before they can even come into existence and will not contribute to better films. Studios should also strongly reconsider over-exposing their projects with never-ending trailers and tv spots.

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