Thursday, July 9, 2015
I was recently having a conversation with a friend of mine who has been considering the facts of John Green in relation to a push, in her community, to teach realist young adult fiction in high school instead of, say, classics. At one point, when I asked her if she'd rather have people reading the schlocky, terrible writing of Nicholas Sparks or the significantly more well-crafted narratives of John Green, she hit me with the observation that she doesn't assume their audience to be the same: "Sparks is for people who have already given up, so I don't worry about them. Green is aimed straight at kids, and it feels like a trap." I get what she's saying. There's something troubling about the subcategory of literature that asks you feel safe in your lot by exploiting the worst of tragedies, and John Green feels like a snarky preparatory course to put readers on a lifetime of Chardonnay fiction - the type of books you read with a book club and discuss as an excuse to down drink after drink from the ensconced safety of your suburban home.
Maybe that's a bit harsh, but my most recent foray into young adult fiction has revealed a troubling fact: the John Green effect is real, everyone is clamoring for the next big bummer, and after the success of The Fault in Our Stars we've only seen the tip of a new category of teen flicks riddled with cancer, dead siblings, dead best friends, accidental death, repressed abuse, missing people, and every downer of a topic in between. The worst part, though, is that these texts frequently are not able to situate the tragedies they're writing about comfortably within the narrative or justify their being present. They feel like piecemeal aggregates of concepts: the quirky protagonist the author really wanted to write clashing with, perhaps, the fringe tragedy their agent has assured will sell more copies. The result is that the dead-or-dying protagonist has become the new, gender neutral version of the manic pixie dream girl: they are a catalyst to bring about a change, a journey, a revelation. They are there to make normal teenage kids into "better people." Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is nothing if not that story, already too familiar in its motions. And while it uses the leukemia-stricken character of the title more effectively than most of its ilk, as I watched the film I had one repeating thought: why the hell is there a dying girl in this movie at all?
Wednesday, July 8, 2015
Have we reached the point where we can all agree that Jurassic World is - at best - mediocre? It's reigned over the box office for weeks, now, and shows no sign of slowing down in spite of the fact that most conversations about it seem to be exactly the same:
Person A: "I saw Jurassic World."
Person B: "Yeah? I liked the raptors..."
A: "The raptors were good. They should have just called it Raptor Squad."
B: "Why was Bryce Dallas-Howard in heels the entire time?"
A: "Because whoever made this movie isn't familiar that the frigid, immaculately-dressed, lady control freak is an archetype that should be as extinct as the dinosaurs..."
B: "I mean, they also used Chris Pratt all wrong, so that's not surprising. Why would you hire Chris Pratt to be the straight man?"
A: "I have no idea, but did you see Inside Out? That shit was great..."
End scene. That about sums it up.
Monday, July 6, 2015
Maybe Spy works because Paul Feig knows how to showcase Melissa McCarthy's comedic chops best. Maybe it works because it's been a damn long time since we've seen a send-up of the spy genre. Maybe it works because it has an undercurrent of respect for its leading lady, or because the supporting stars are brilliantly used, or because it doesn't skirt away from real violence, smart action sequences, and a torrential downpour of expletive-heavy insults. Whatever the case may be, one thing is for certain: Spy harnesses McCarthy's aggressive energy and aligns it with the facts of her personhood. It's a funny movie with the added benefit of being a little smarter than it appears.
As a director, Feig has always succeeded in allowing McCarthy to directly address the misconceptions that come with her physical appearance. As much as it may suck, she's not what we're used to seeing at the top of the Hollywood heap, and more often than not she is cast in roles that seem to inspire pity or exploit a character's self-loathing. Films like Tammy and Identity Thief misuse McCarthy largely because they ask her to assume the role of a self-hating loser when she is precisely the opposite. McCarthy is a movie star, she has presence, she steals scenes. When she steps up, any culturally ingrained expectations are completely subverted, and this is something Spy understands.
Tomorrowland is a film of big ideas and bigger ideals, an imaginatively gift-wrapped note to humanity to asking us to shape up, keep dreaming, and - if we please - to not allow ourselves to feel the oppressive weight of the cycle of destruction we've locked ourselves into. It's an ambitious project that bounces between timelines and worlds, and for a few moments it's really quite refreshing to watch a kid-oriented adventure film work to demand that its audience engages actively with its strange politics. The film is, after all, the product of Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille) and Damon Lindelof (Lost), two dudes who can't seem to get away from the notion that their cinematic outings should - at least- attempt to impart something to the audience or work towards an expression of something outsized and complicated. If you're optimistic enough to follow them for a while, Tomorrowland has its merits. It puts in the work. It's an original idea. It wants to do something good. It gives us a strong, YA-style female protagonist. It establishes a world very quickly.