Here’s a Story About the Least Interesting Character

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This contains major spoilers for this week’s Sons of Anarchy. Avoid if you haven’t seen it yet. 

I have something of an irrational, yet unabashed love for Sons of Anarchy. I don’t question it; it just is. It’s a truly awful show that I can’t really defend, yet I love it. As a kid, I had a thing about bikers. I bought into the romantic open road thing. See, I thought bikers were lovable goofballs of the open road who solved their disputes with law enforcement with truckloads of fireworks because of movies like Masters of Menace. It was always so exciting seeing a bunch of bikers on Harleys, feeling that rumble as they pass by on road trips. Especially to a kid stuck in the back of his mom’s minivan, it looked like freedom.

It wasn’t until later that I found out about the virulent racism, sexism and drug running. The personality type of a biker is the type that leads to things like Orlando area shootouts and to a man being beaten nearly to death in front of his family on the Upper West Side while undercover cops looked on.

Like mobsters though, it’s interesting on film. It says something about our society.

As show creator Kurt Sutter likes to endlessly tell us in every interview he does, Sons of Anarchy is basically Hamlet with bikes, guns and porn stars. Jax is Hamlet, Clay is Claudius, John Teller’s writing is the Ghost. Gemma seems to have more of a Lady Macbeth thing going on, but it still fits.

But now there is this: they’ve killed off the character who I think was the most interesting on the show.

On Tuesday night’s episode, in a convoluted prison break ruse, Jax informs Clay that the club has unanimously voted that he meet Mr. Mayhem and shoots him in the neck. It was one of those moments. “Wait, what? Did that just Happen?” The show has a lot of them. But as the episodes ends with medical examiners leaning over Clay’s corpse in a pool of its own blood, there can be no mix up. Clay is dead and there will be no Ray, Clay’s long lost evil twin. Ron Perlman is not in the cast any longer. Confirmed.

Jax, though, is intensely boring, just as any character whose defining trait is a control of his own rage is. He is a chess player in a checkers world, one who makes few mistakes and one who seemingly never miss a beat or an opening, which puts him so far ahead of everyone that it becomes incredibly dull. His smug face in the preview for next week’s episode teases that it doesn’t get any better.

Clay, for all of his many and extreme flaws, was the show’s most interesting character. He was a master checkers player, which put him just far enough ahead of the others to be a good leader, but not that far.  He made mistakes, and plenty of them. His mistakes got people wronged, hurt and even killed. In his most horrifying moment, like Tony Soprano and Michael Corleone before him, he almost kills Gemma during a fight. His removed ease with violence and bravado were often scary, but it was his inability to control his rage that made him compelling. It is, in fact, what eventually gets him killed.

As the Claudius character, it’s not a surprise he’s gone, just that he’s gone this soon before the end of the show, which still has at least another season to run. From here on out, we just have Jax, alone on his throne with no competitor, no underworld mirror to measure against.

Sons of Anarchy is a show about the least interesting character on it.

And it’s not alone.

Continue reading…

Ender’s Aftermath: “Ender’s Game” Comes Out to Little Fanfare

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So the Ender’s Game opening weekend came and went with little fanfare or trouble from the Orson Scott Card boycott. It also came and went with little money for the prospective franchise opener, bringing in less than $30m in North America.

The boycott had been proposed on social media earlier this summer as fans became aware of the Mormon author’s staunch and vocal opposition to gay marriage.

Boycotts never seem to work at anything but calling more attention to the thing you wish people would ignore. But with Ender’s Game, it was always going to be a hard sell even before Card’s words got them into trouble.

It’s a boycott I have plenty of sympathy for because Card’s anti-gay stance is repellent and harmful, but it’s not one I followed through on. I plunked my $14 down, but I did it for writer-director Gavin Hood and for Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford and Hailee Steinfeld (and, by the way, for the bit-part actor who had the fortune to be named Han Soto in a Harrison Ford movie).

(After writing this post, I finally saw this piece on The Wrap that claims Card only earned the $1.5m option fee with no box office backend, meaning the boycott was pointless — but no one said anything until the day before it opened for some incredibly dumb reason.)

A while back in Vision Thing, Steve made this point:

…the commercial success or failure of Ender’s Game will still be a verdict on the viability of [Orson Scott Card’s] name as a brand. If the film tanks, Hollywood will learn the lesson that anti-gay rhetoric has passed into the realm of box-office poison. If the picture does OK-to-strong business, the moral will be that the general public really doesn’t mind a little beating up on the sissies – meaning that Card (and other content providers who share his noxious ideology) will continue to be considered for future paydays.

So now that we have part of the verdict — the film was not John Carter-level box-office poison but was not strong either — we may be even farther away from an answer than we were before we began. This is an unknowable middle: was this a repudiation of Orson Scott Card, or was it just lousy word of mouth for a big budget film with little-to-no direct action set pieces? How many casual movie goers even know Card’s name, let alone his stance? (And the more awful question: how many people still agree with him?) Continue reading…

Book: The Wes Anderson Collection – Matt Zoller Seitz (2013)

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The first time I saw Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, I experienced what I’d been told it would feel like to read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time: a personal revelation, like someone was inside my head scooping everything out. I’d read Catcher by then, but Holden had already been ruined for me by old phonies and the Board of Ed who went and made it schoolwork. He was a character who already belonged wholly to people I wanted nothing to do with. At 18, I thought I’d missed the window to find my character – but then I sawRushmore. Max Fischer was not an exact personality match for me, but he made up for it by being a dead-on fantasy-world match. In my head I could solve MIT-level math problems, win over the beautiful teacher and direct a hit play. In my head I could save Latin. But only in my head. Just like Max.

Reading The Wes Anderson Collection (which comes out Tuesday, Oct. 8), you find that growing up, that was true for Wes Anderson as well. The slender, unassuming Texan has made a strong career out of sharing his rich fantasy life. His childhood crushes became the adventure-romance Moonrise Kingdom; his high-school awkwardness became Rushmore; his parents’ divorce became The Royal Tenenbaums; his father’s death, The Darjeeling Limited.

Author Matt Zoller Seitz takes his cue from books like François Truffaut’s Hitchcock/Truffaut and Cameron Crowe’s Conversations With Wilder, giving the reader a pure submersion in the dream world Anderson has created. He connects the bridges and underground networks of trauma, pathos and charm that link each of Anderson’s seven films together, whether obvious or coded. This book lacks the outright charm of Crowe and Wilder’s conversations, and there isn’t nearly as much actual work to consider as in Hitchcock and Truffaut’s, but these old friends cover significant ground in 300-plus pages. The discussions that anchor the book are occasionally awkward, with Seitz doing much of the talking for long periods, and sometimes the human behind the art goes missing. But for fans of the films, it is a fantastic work, stuffed with hundreds of full-color stills from the movies, storyboards and layouts designed under the sharp eye of Martin Venezky, and original artwork by Max Dalton.

“Mr. Baseball” plays out for real in the Japanese Central League

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Over the last few weeks in Japanese Professional Baseball (NPB), a fringe MLB player from Curaçao named Wladimir Balentien of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows became the single season home run king in Japan, breaking the three-way tie between Sadaharu Oh (who is also the overall home run king in Japan with 868 homeruns), Tuffy Rhodes and Alex Cabrera, who all had 55.

As Balentien, who saw limited action with the Mariners and Reds, got closer to Oh’s magic number (and we’ll call it Oh’s number because that’s how the Japanese thought of it until last Sunday), there was fear that managers of other teams would not let their pitchers throw strikes to him, as happened both to Rhodes and Cabrera as they got closer to breaking Oh’s number.

As Rhodes and Cabrera got close to number 56 though, they both faced teams managed by Ohhimself, who, of course, did not pitch to either man. Randy Bass, another player chasing the record, could only get to 54 home runs before he was frozen out by opposing pitching (again meeting up with Oh’s Tokyo Giants). Continue reading…

Processing Great Art Made by Contemptible Artists

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I’ve been reading the Ender’s Game Saga on and off for about eight years, since a friend thrust the first book into my hands and demanded I read it. I read it and liked it, and read more.

Unlike other series I’ve read though, I haven’t been able to blow through them one after another. They’re different. They’re paced different. They’re not really that concerned with plot as much as the people stuck in the plot. There is an awful lot of thought, research and intelligence that goes into each book. There is empathy. A lot of empathy, for humans, bugs and piggies alike. A level of empathy that makes Orson Scott Card’s continuing series of bigoted rants all the more confusing and hard to reconcile with a book like Speaker for the Dead, which is entirely about understanding the complexities and differences of all life forms.

How could someone who advocates for the buggers and pequeninos not advocate for gays and lesbians?

How, as the most recent rant goes, could he spend so much time on the nuance of a character(SPOILER) who is so internally splintered after committing a genocide and then compare Obama to Hitler and the Ayatollah(END SPOILER)

But I knew about the rants before. They’re getting more play now because the movie is coming out soon, but they’ve always existed with extreme unease alongside the novels. I’ve been recommending them for years, but always with the caveat that Orson Scott Card is kind of a Mormon nut job. I’ve always recommended that to buy the books used (as to not put any money into his pockets, and thus the Mormons’ pockets, as is their obligation) is the best way to go about it, to at least free yourself of some of the guilt that comes along with enjoying the art of someone you will probably end up despising.

But when the movie promotion machine began, they forgot that all too important caveat, hoping to sweep the nonsense under the rug. Look at the mess it’s caused. Calls for boycotts and intense social media angst as people discover what a shitty person Card is now and has been one certain issues, following with a deep wish that the writer could be removed from his work.

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Dear Film Critic: SeaWorld vs. “Blackfish”, a documentary about Tilikum the whale and the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau

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Though it doesn’t open in Orlando until sometime in August (stay tuned for more coverage when the film comes out), the initial NY/LA release of Magnolia Pictures and CNN films’ Blackfish is coming this Friday, and buzz is beginning to build about the film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, which seeks to shed light on the problems of long term orca captivity.

The film — and the promotion of the film — is highly critical of SeaWorld in particular, and of the practice of sea mammal captivity for the purpose of entertainment in general, featuring interviews with more than a half-dozen former trainers from SeaWorld’s three parks in Orlando, San Diego and San Antonio.

The film’s main focus is on Tilikum, the largest orca currently in captivity, who has been responsible — at least in part — for three deaths since being captured in the wild in the early 1980s. The latest came in 2010 (shortly after another trainer’s death in Loro Parque in Spain in 2009), when head trainer Dawn Brancheau was reportedly pulled underwater by her ponytail after a routine performance at Dine with Shamu in the Orlando park. (The real Shamu died in 1971, which is sort of like finding out that there is no Santa Claus.)


(This video cuts well before anything goes wrong.)

Due to the controversial nature of the film, SeaWorld Entertainment sent out an email to film critics over the weekend that alleges that the allegations made against them in the film are allegedly bogus. You can scroll to the bottom to read the email in its entirety, but in summary, the email warns to take the film as a “powerful, emotionally-moving” direct appeal in advocacy of orca rights but that the film shouldn’t be taken as fact, calling the film “shamefully dishonest”.

The email claims that claims in the film about SeaWorld’s practices — removing orcas from the wild, removing them from their family structure, bullying amongst captive orcas and whether or not the lifespan of a wild orca is significantly longer than a captive orca — are “deliberately misleading” and that what the film “presents as unvarnished reality is anything but.”

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Harold Lloyd: The Other, Other Guy

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Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd. Or, if you prefer: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd.

The order changes depending on the person you ask1. Some prefer the graceful stunts of Chaplin’s sweet-natured Tramp, a self-sacrificing vagabond who buys his way into your heart with a squint of doe eyes. Some prefer the stone-faced earnestness of Keaton, whose grand, sweeping stunts were as dangerous as they were brilliant. The one thing no one ever argues about is third place. It’s Harold Lloyd.

Even Lloyd fans have a difficult time arguing the point, but there is degree: is it a close third or third by a longshot? Again, it depends who you ask.

That part of the conversation is likely to ramp up in the coming weeks, as Turner Classic Movies airs a 10 hour Lloyd retrospective marathon tonight, and the Criterion Collection releases Safety Last! (aka the one where he hangs from the clock) on DVD and Bluray on June 18th. The marathon features 16 short subjects and four features, and kicks off with Safety Last! at 8pm.

That scene of Lloyd hanging from the clock, dangling over 1920s Los Angeles is one of the most enduring images in film history, and was paid homage in later films like Back to the Future and Hugo. Like the image of Justus D. Barnes firing blanks directly into the camera in the The Great Train Robbery (which itself was paid homage to in Goodfellas), the image of Lloyd hanging from the clock face is more famous than Lloyd himself, and the only thing many people know about him.

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  1. It’s Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd for me 

Danny Boyle’s Needless Worry

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In an interview with Vodkaster last week, Trainspotting and Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle lamented the “family-friendly Pixarification” of the mainstream cinema, foreseeing a future cinema that that features less violence, less sex and less brainpower — films so very unlike the hardnosed British films of his punk rock youth.

In the interview, he specifically cites the films of Nicolas Roeg, a British director who lit the 70s up with four exceptionally strong films in PerformanceWalkabout, Don’t Look Now and The Man Who Fell to Earth, but one would also imagine he meant films like Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Ken Loach’s Kes and Lindsay Anderson’s if…., amongst others.

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It’s a provocative quote when taken out of context, especially as we wade into the summer blockbuster season by throwing money freely to Disney for Iron Man 3, but I wonder, too, if Boyle isn’t cherry picking the past a little bit? Like a lot of people, he pinpoints the divergence at Star Wars, even though he’s come to enjoy the films as he’s gotten older — and actually watched them. Weren’t there bad films pre-Star Wars? There were tons, of course, even during the 70s. They just weren’t memorable, so the frame of reference shrinks thinking back on the time. It’s a natural tendency, and I do it all the time with the late 80s/early 90s of my youth, and then I randomly remember Cool as Ice and think, “Oh. Right.”

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Alex Cox Repo Man Q&A – 4/12/13 – Alamo Drafthouse, Denver

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There was a full house on Friday night at the Alamo Drafthouse in Denver for a screening of Alex Cox’s cult classic Repo Man, the first 35mm screening at the Denver Drafthouse since its opening.

The film is a sort of low life gutter punk approximation of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, that mingles a story of disaffected youth, disaffected middle age and stolen alien bodies together for a test drive and rides it right off the edge of the cliff in magnificent glory.

It’s an interesting Q&A, going into the backstory of Tracy Walter and Sy Richardson’s characters, the generic products, a little about the soundtrack, and Cox learns about the death of The Plasmatics’ Wendy O. Williams (they showed this video before the film), and Cox’s own life as a repo man for GMAC. I edited out the questions because you couldn’t really hear them, and he sort of repeats the question as he answers it.

For a first trip to the Drafthouse, it’s hard to ask for a better experience. Seeing a great print of a really fun film like Repo Man in 35mm with the director there for a post-screening Q&A made it, aside from Cox’s completely wrongheaded opinion on Black Flag aside (you can hear me booing for a second), a pretty special night.

Check out the Kickstarter that Cox talks about for Bill the Galactic Hero.

In Your Queue: Gimme the Loot, Fat Kid Rules the World

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Holy Motors – Leos Carax 

Nothing makes a bit of sense in Carax’s surrealist-absurdist masterpiece, but if it did, it would almost be a crime against cinema, so brilliant is its outcome. Set almost as a fluid series of short films that all feature the same morphing lead, played by Denis Levant, his French film works better the less you know going into it, but rest assured: You’ll either love it for its left-field inventiveness, or hate it for its strange, reckless meandering. For those of you who have seen Tokyo!, keep an eye out for the return of Mr. Merde, as well as a little number by Kylie Miogue. Available to stream on Netflix.

Gimme the Loot – Adam Leon

This recommendation unfortunately comes sight unseen, which I do feel very uncomfortable about, but as of this writing the film hadn’t filtered through to the various streaming platforms that it’s supposed to be available on (Amazon, YouTube, Playstation, Xbox). It’s an exciting film prospect nonetheless, or maybe it just seems that way to me because it’s a story so close to my wayward youth when I would have liked nothing better than to be the biggest writer in New York, as the films stars, Malcolm and Sofia (Ty Hickson and Tashiana Washington), aim to accomplish by tagging the Mets’ homerun apple at Citifield. In a time when subway cars have all become graffiti resistant and derelict buildings all inhabited by young white people in fedoras, it’s a daring and novel — and kind of charming — way to go about it. The apple is both a mythic legend and a joke in New York, and perfectly encapsulates the Mets’ lovable losers syndrome, which appears to parallel Malcolm and Sofia extremely well, even though they’re from enemy territory — the Bronx. I hope the film succeeds, but it seems worth a few bucks to stream even if it doesn’t.

Fat Kid Rules the World – Matthew Lillard

It’s strange to be recommending something — anything — that Matthew Lillard is involved in, but he’s got a strange winner of a film here in his adaptation of a YA novel about a fat kid who tries to step in front of a bus to end his daily dose of torment but is saved just as the bus is screeching to a halt by a ragamuffin street kid, who shakes the fat kid down for a few bucks immediately after. It’s Lillard’s first film as director and it shows a little bit in the structure and execution of the film, especially in the first act, but it’s not hard to get past when you look straight at the Angus-like story that ends up avoiding most of the pitfalls of the awkward coming-of-age story. Jacob Wysocki and Matt O’Leary work well enough in tandem as the nervous, overweight Troy and the druggie friend you hope your kid doesn’t make, Marcus, and the story fits so well in its Seattle backdrop, that it lands firmly outside of the realm of first time film. It’s not an Earth shattering film by any means, and stories about weight are hard to look at sometimes, but it’s a fitting and endearing movie for the times, that’s for sure. The film is available to stream on Netflix.