The Chainsmokers: Memories

To call The Chainsmokers: Memories a ‘documentary’ is a stretch. Though the opening titles bill it as “a film by John Sands,” there is little about the form and the content of Memories to differentiate it from a web series. Initially, it was indeed released as a series of twenty four chapters, with each chapter ranging between one and five minutes in length, following The Chainsmokers as they embarked on a nationwide arena tour in 2017. While Memories mostly sticks to this central premise, there are few attempts to build continuity between the chapters or to draw out any larger, more interesting story from the events depicted, and while the whole project is well shot and sharply edited, in the end it mostly resembles the sort of behind-the-scenes bonus feature often found on special edition DVDs.

For example: one entire episode is devoted entirely to footage of a guest appearance by Florida Georgia Line, who join the Chainsmokers onstage to perform “Last Day Alive.” During the course of this episode, the only thing we learn is that Drew Taggart considers the members of Florida Georgia Line to be “fun-loving guys” who make great music and are “always down to just rock out.” The episode before that is a mere fifty-three seconds and features the group’s videographer Rory Kramer recounting the thoroughly unimpressive story of how he met Taggart and Pall. Another episode documents a bizarre moment on tour wherein the Chainsmokers crash a high school prom, which is about as awkward as it sounds but only half as fascinating.

Some chapters feature interviews with friends and family of Taggart and Pall, which ostensibly offer a new perspective on the group and their origins but mostly exist as an excuse to share pictures of teenage Drew with a mohawk and coax adulatory quotes out of industry titans such as Chris Martin and Zedd. The most insightful of these quotes comes from Mr. Coldplay himself, concerning those who would challenge the legitimacy of what the Chainsmokers have accomplished:

“To say that DJs who make music aren’t musicians is to assume that all instruments had finished being invented in the 19th century. When the harpsichord was overtaken by the piano, no one said “oh everyone who writes music on the piano is an idiot.” So, in the same way, you get people like Drew, who they… they play the computer, like an instrument.”

“Insightful” here being a relative term. Thanks, Chris.

The closest that The Chainsmokers: Memories comes to any sort of arc is the slow physical and mental disintegration of Taggart and Pall over the course of their grueling sixty-day tour, and the differences in how the two of them are affected goes a long way towards demonstrating their unique personalities and roles within the band.

Apart from general exhaustion, the greatest setback Pall suffers is a broken rib, which he receives during a drunken wrestling match that breaks out on his birthday. The fact that Pall’s birthday party results in the formation of a ersatz fight club, along with the fact that this event is viewed as an inevitability by everyone who witnesses it, is perhaps the single strongest evidence provided by Memories in support of the widely-accepted idea that the Chainsmokers are a couple of empty-headed aggro frat boys. If the goal of Memories is to humanize Taggart and Pall, then this moment is its greatest failure, making the two of them seem unpleasant and almost obnoxious to be around.

On the other hand, what we see of Taggart’s struggles with self-esteem and depression are humanizing, and they come close to being full-on endearing. Taggart has made no secret of the fact that he’s not a singer by trade, and Memories is likewise transparent about this, showing Taggart struggling during multiple lessons with his vocal coach. As the tour wears on and Taggart’s voice begins to suffer, we see his confidence falter and self-doubt begin to creep in — the latter made literal in an agonizing scene wherein a doctor inserts a long tube-shaped camera through Taggart’s nasal passages in order to examine his vocal chords. This, in turn, leads to genuinely sweet moment where Taggart reveals his intense fear of needles and the camera operator offers to hold his hand — an offer that Taggart accepts with none of the self-consciousness you might expect.

The most interesting stuff in Memories involves Taggart and Pall reacting to their critics, occasionally in real time: in one sequence, someone behind the camera hands Taggart a cell phone so he can read a negative review. He gets a few lines in before chuckling and exclaiming, “damn, dude, this guy’s pissed.”

But it’s not all laughter: when Taggart concedes that there are some criticisms he agrees with, a look of real disappointment crosses his face, a rare vulnerable moment demonstrating that no matter how you may feel about the Chainsmokers, they do see themselves as artists, and as such, they feel the same frustration that any creative person feels when they don’t reach their own standards. When Taggart calls their first album “rushed” and reveals that he considers it unfinished, it’s a bracing moment of honesty from one half of a duo that is often painted as tragically egotistical.

Not all such moments are quite as refreshing, though; some are downright uncomfortable. Both Taggart and Pall complain about being treated unfairly by critics, specifically by the author of the famous Billboard cover story that solidified the duo’s public image in most people’s minds. Staring dead-eyed into the camera, Pall ominously claims that the this particular journalist “stole” a moment from them during what should have been the peak of their career, repeatedly insisting that everything they said in that interview was taken out of context and used against them.

Aside from a few stray comments, the Chainsmokers seem less bitter about their critics than honestly perplexed. At one point, Taggart describes the surreal feeling of having people criticize your entire body of work while you have the number one song in the country. While that sentiment may come off as a humble-brag in any other context, when Taggart says it, he seems to genuinely be grappling with what he sees as a major contradiction. Anyone who has ever experienced self-doubt should be able to empathize with his crestfallen realization that no amount of financial success will be enough to quiet his critics, both external and internal.

It’s not a new issue — performers, even successful ones, have been subject to harsh criticism for at least as long as music and language have existed — but Taggart and Pall face a unique challenge in having achieved fame in an era where all criticism is easily accessible, from thoughtful, printed journalism to anonymous Twitter comments. The amount of criticism they receive is probably no different than it would have been in a different era, but it’s all so much more immediate now. It would take them less than a minute of googling to find a slew of people passionately arguing against not only their continued relevance but their very existence.

In what is by far the most affecting moment in the entire series, Taggart opens up on his struggles with depression, and how it intersected with his seemingly perfect existence:

“We fucking lied. We never show how hard we’ve worked to get to where we are now. We just post about us DJing in front of huge crowds and having fun with our friends, which we do a lot, but there is a really hard dark side to this that you just don’t see. I was depressed for the first time in my life during the most exciting part of our career… and I didn’t really realize I was depressed until I wasn’t.”

Taggart’s comment may seem to fly in the face of some widely-accepted ideas about depression, but it’s maybe one of the most insightful comments on the subject I’ve ever heard from a non-professional. Even if it seems clear in hindsight, it can be difficult to recognize depression in the moment, particularly if you have a limited understanding of how it manifests. Being cushioned, as Taggart was in this time, from the more menial and unpleasant aspects of day-to-day living, would only make it harder to comprehend whatever symptoms he experienced; if you spend every day of your life living your dreams, what does it mean if you’re still not happy? What does it mean if you actually feel worse than you did before?

If you live a normal life wherein you are fully vulnerable to the million little pains and disappointments of everyday existence, at least you have some sort of context to understand your darker thoughts. What’s more, you don’t have anyone in your life whose entire job is to keep you in a perpetual state of anesthetized satisfaction. While you or I might lack the privileges that come with a life like Taggart’s, this is one situation where, strange as it may seem, we actually have an advantage.

But in spite of some minor revelations and the occasional moment of honesty, there’s a constant feeling of artifice hanging over the entirety of Memories. This isn’t surprising or even necessarily damning; this entire project is basically the video version of a puff piece, meant to give the illusion of a look into the lives of Taggart and Pall. The fact that it doesn’t offer any earth-shattering insight is part of the design, and it would be dishonest to criticize the work based on a standard to which it clearly does not aspire.

The unfortunate truth, however, is that that same sense of artificiality begins to seep into the band as well, mostly due to a single anecdote from early on in the series, related by Pall and his longtime manager Adam Alpert. While you would be forgiven for believing that the Chainsmokers came into existence as a collaboration between Pall and Taggart, the truth is that Pall was DJing with another person (Rhett Bixler) under that name for at least three years. It was only after Alpert began to represent Pall that Bixler left the band and Taggart came onboard to fill the vacancy. In the group’s own words, this led to an arrangement wherein Pall began teaching Taggart how to DJ while Taggart taught Pall how to produce.

This story is not some closely-guarded secret. To paraphrase John Darnielle, it happened in 2012; it’s on their wikipedia page. Yet, hearing it in Memories was the first time I had cause to consider it in the larger context of the Chainsmokers’ entire existence. This is not an artistic pairing that bore the fruit of creative collaboration — I mean, it is that, in the sense that the duo’s entire existing discography is a result of their partnership. But the brand of the Chainsmokers existed long before Taggart began producing songs under that name. Indeed, the mildly successful status of their extant brand is the only reason Apert and Pall even reached out to Taggart at all. To put it bluntly, Taggart was, originally, a mere second body, summoned forth to fill a pre-assigned role because, hey, if you booked the Chainsmokers, you expect two guys to show up.

It shouldn’t be a problem that Pall worked with someone else before he met Taggart; hell, even the Beatles cycled through two extraneous members before finalizing their ranks. It also shouldn’t be a problem that Pall wanted to capitalize on the success he had found under the Chainsmokers moniker, rather than start an entirely new group. Building a fanbase is difficult, and it’s hard to begrudge him holding onto the relatively benign advantage of name recognition. None of this should be a problem.

But there’s something about the cumulative effect of all twenty-four chapters of The Chainsmokers: Memories that makes it a problem. The glossy frivolousness of the entire project combined with the impression it gives of Pall as a shrewd and somewhat boorish businessman contrasted with the relatively tender spirit and still-evolving artistry of Taggart makes the group’s entire career seem suspect. Was “#SELFIE” really a joke song that went viral as a fluke, or was it a carefully executed attempt to capture the success of similar hits like “Harlem Shake?” Is Taggart’s expanded role as singer and frontman a genuine example of artistic growth and risk-taking, or a calculated move to solidify the group’s artistic identity without relying on guest performers? Are the lyrics about self-doubt and identity in the group’s new songs an honest examination of their personal struggles, or simply a crass way of expanding their audience by playing off of our universal anxieties? And does knowing the answer to any of these questions change anything if you still enjoy their music?

The problem with The Chainsmokers: Memories isn’t that you can’t tell what’s real and what’s fake; it’s the fact that, in the end, it doesn’t even matter.


The Unofficial Jason Edwards Oscar-Palooza, Part 2

oscars part 2

The Oscars: still meaningless, and now they’re over! Let’s get back to what’s really important: me, ranking movies in a seemingly arbitrary manner.

5. The Act of Killing

This movie is crazy. It’s also socially relevant and historically important, so much so that it deserves a deeper analysis than a slack-jawed sort of awe, but I’m afraid that’s the only way I know to describe it. This. Movie. Is. Crazy.

Indonesian gangster Anwar Congo leads us through the killings he perpetrated on behalf of the Indonesian government in 1965 and 1966, and right from the beginning it is unbearably surreal, surreal on a level you couldn’t reach with a one-hundred percent pure blast of Lynchian filmmaking. As we watch Anwar walking around, talking and laughing with the people of Indonesia, he performs a series of mental gymnastics to justify his crimes and two things become apparent. One: Anwar has been performing these ethical tricks for so long that, while it leaves us with a feeling of cognitive dissonance that is physically overwhelming, it doesn’t affect him in the slightest. It’s not even second nature to him, it’s just reality.

Two: the Indonesia government also believes in this reality.

Director Joshua Oppenheimer lays it out best in an interview that accompanies the film’s DVD release: most of the time, when you examine a situation in which a crime has been committed, the criminal has been punished, or at the very least, the world around him realizes he has done something wrong. Because the people who backed Anwar are still in power, he’s never been punished, never even had to admit to himself that what he did was wrong.

I don’t want to give anything away–it’s a great documentary and a truly unique experience and you ought to watch it–but towards the end of the film, we do get a brief look at the physical toll it takes on the human body to live in evil for so long and call it good. And it is not pretty.

Craziest Documentary Runner-Up: Tim’s Vermeer

Once again, this movie so thoroughly blew my mind that the only response I had was “that’s crazy. that is crazy! this is crazy.” Unlike The Act of Killing, Tim’s Vermeer didn’t leave me feeling horrified and empty inside, so I feel better about not having more to say. Once you see this movie, you’ll understand why I was so impressed. It’s not a crazy ride, so don’t expect too many twists and turns, but I’ll just tell you this: this movie is about a guy named Tim who believes that Johannes Vermeer may have used some form of a camera obscura to assist him with his paintings. Tim, filmed by his close friends Penn & Teller (who are currently on a nice streak of not promoting any libertarian nonsense), decides to pursue this theory by developing his own version of the device. In the process, he makes a subtle point about the relationship between technology and art, but man, the real draw here is seeing what he does with the device. Because let me tell you: it’s crazy.

4. The World’s End

The third entry in Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy lacks the indie scruffiness of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, which isn’t surprising since Wright is now a big-boy director working a gig for Marvel. The World’s End also lacks the rapid-fire joke count of his early works, which is a bit more jarring. Even though Wright has always preferred character moments or stylistic homages over blatant punchlines, the more subdued tone of The World’s End threw me for a loop at first. But as the movie settled in my mind, I realized that Wright had set his sights a little higher this time. Or is it lower? Anyway, it was the heart. He was aiming for the heart.

Shaun of the Dead had some pretty serious pathos, but Wright and co. were riffing off of zombie movies, a genre that comes with tragic deaths and tearful goodbyes built right in. Hot Fuzz had just enough of a real connection between Angel and Danny to hold the movie together, but a lot of the emotional content had quotation marks around it. This isn’t to say that Edgar Wright doesn’t know storytelling, or to minimize the accomplishment of his earlier work, only to emphasize the deftness with which he integrated the prominent and somewhat complex emotional content of The World’s End.

Consider the first thirty minutes of the movie, where Wright tells a story about five old friends getting back together, while slowly dropping hints that things are not quite right and building up a mood of slight discomfort. It’s not until the story of the five friends reaches a breaking point that this atmosphere explodes into pure science fiction. Once the “genre” plot kicks in, it’s easy to overlook how Wright keeps the original story moving inside of it, matching every sci-fi beat (the mistaken identity, the final confrontation) with a character beat.

And let’s also take a moment to appreciate Simon Pegg’s fantastic and layered performance, because it’s easy to undervalue comedic acting and Gary King is probably the most interesting character of last year.

Why Did You Make This Movie?: Dallas Buyers Club

I don’t even know where to start with this stupid thing. I guess I’ll just ask, why? Why, when telling the story of a community in crisis, a community and a time period that is criminally under-represented in popular culture, would you make the main character someone who isn’t a member of that community? Why, in other words, did the filmmakers decide to make a movie about a Straight Savior coming to heal the gay community? More than that, it’s a guy who doesn’t even like gay people. Of all the stories to come out of the AIDs crisis, why in the world would you choose the story of how it affected a bigoted straight man?

And guess what! It’s very likely that Ron Woodruff wasn’t even straight! I have a hard time deciding if this makes the whole thing more or less offensive, but I’m going to err on the side of ‘more’.

And ANOTHER thing: the movie’s not even good! It fails as drama, since none of the characters, not even Rod Woodruff himself, get enough development for us to really care for them, and Woodruff’s journey from homophobe to defender of the gay community is either too underplayed or completely nonexistent, I can’t decide. It also fails as a non-fiction story, since the most potentially interesting aspects of Woodruff setting up the titular club are glossed over in a couple of montages.

Sure, McConaughey does a fine job, but there’s only so much to  be done with the script, and ‘Lost The Most Weight’ doesn’t equal ‘Best Actor’ Sorry, this whole thing is turning out pretty negative. Let’s move on to more stuff that I liked.

inside llewyn davis

I feel ya, buddy.

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

Here’s something I haven’t talked about on this website: my life! More specifically, the fact that I moved to New York City last October. I also had the foresight to move here during one of the top-ten worst New York winters of all time. On top of all that, if you couldn’t tell by the fact that I am writing this for free, I am something of a struggling artist. You see where I’m going with.

I have not reached depths of despair and displacement that poor, awful Llewyn faces during Inside Llewyn Davis, and I hope that I never will, but seeing him trudge around in an ever-ending snowstorm while muttering a lot of grand statements about artistic purity does strike a chord with me. Even though the movie ends on a note of perpetual failure and defeat, Llewyn’s defiant spirit makes the whole thing into a cosmic joke, one that he might finally be in on. I don’t know how rousing it’s meant to be, but it filled me with hope. A weird amount of hope.

I’m probably reading too much of my own life into Llewyn’s, and I’m definitely ignoring the way that the Coen Brothers expand their legacy as all-time greats with every movie, but you’ll have to forgive me if I get a little distracted. It’s really, really cold up here.

Movie Of Questionable Quality With Most Lingering Effect

The Place Beyond The Pines may be a deeply flawed movie with some serious plotting problems, but it’s insanely ambitious for what first seems to be a simple crime movie and the last few minutes have stuck with me like nothing else I’ve seen this year.

I don’t want to get too spoiler-y, in case the one guy who wants to see it but hasn’t yet is reading this, but in the ending hammers home the movie’s theme of how fathers are affected by their sons. Viewed in totality, the movie argues this: no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, if you are a father, you will fail your son in some way. This failure is inevitable AND it’s going to mess up your son’s life like crazy. Plus, your mistakes are going to ripple down through time, so your son is going to take your mistakes and put them onto HIS son.

It’s a pretty pessimistic view of parent-child relationships, but I love the way it doesn’t tip fully into nature-over-nurture genetic-determinism-style nonsense. It’s an honest attempt to grapple with the legacies that parents leave for their children filtered through a melodramatic crime epic. Of course, you could say the same thing about The Godfather, a comparison that does Pines no favors, but hey, how many movies can stand up to The Godfather? This I ask you.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

Wolf of Wall Street is such an overstuffed movie of wild excess that it’s hard to narrow in on the best thing about it. There’s a lot to like: the looseness of the cast, the bright, clean cinematography just barely holding back a world of filth, the funny, unorthodox Terrence Winter screenplay (what up, T-Dubs), the way it pushes past glamorization into much dirtier, uncomfortable territory while using that same gorgeously-shot hedonism to indict American society. There’s also one thing not to like about it: the very uncomfortable fact that  Jordan Belfort made money off of this movie. At the very least, that dude should probably not still be earning any more income. BUT I think everyone’s probably tired of debating the morality of this movie, so let’s just accept that without Belfort’s book we wouldn’t be able to have this conversation and we’d get caught in a paradox and possibly cease to exist.

Here’s my favorite thing about Wolf Of Wall Street: it finally got me to like Leonard DiCaprio.

The internet’s favorite overlooked actor has been on an upward trajectory for the last ten years, with a run of stellar role choices that is really incredible when you remember what a flash-in-the-pan heartthrob he seemed like in the 90’s. But this run of “serious roles” came with the downside that all the roles were really, really serious. DiCaprio specialized in playing a violence-prone man on a mission in over his head with a wife who was either dead or just about to die. He spent so much time furrowing his brow that it seemed like his forehead might get permanently creased, and as someone with a weird vertical dent in his forehead, let me tell you that it’s no fun. I haven’t even been nominated for an Oscar!

Everyone who wanted to see Leo have a little fun got their wish in Django Unchained, but even Calvin Candie was a sadistic slave-owner who smashed skulls with a hammer. In Wolf Of Wall Street, Leo took that same energy and poured into a vicious, free-wheeling performance in a full-on comedy. Yeah, it’s a dark comedy, and yeah, Jordan Belfort is still pretty much evil. But Leo deserves some kind of award, if solely for his dancing in the wedding scene.

… just maybe not an Oscar. Hi-yo!

1. Her

Ugh. I know. What a cliche, right? The sensitive white-guy writer chooses a Spike Jonze joint as his favorite movie of they year. Trust me, I feel it, too. It’s so inevitable that it’s kind of gross.

I didn’t want it to be this way! When I first heard about this movie, my first concern wasn’t the ridiculous plot, but the fact that Jonze was holding down directing AND writing duty, solo. All his best work had been done with certified genius Charlie Kaufman, and even his lesser films (a category consisting solely of Where The Wild Things Are) had a co-writer to lend a helping hand. I just didn’t think Jonze had the talent as a writer to create a compelling film to back up what sounded like a silly, lightweight sci-fi story.

Fortunately, I was wrong on all counts.

First of all, the love story of Her isn’t nearly as stupid as it seems at first blush, and people still referring to it as “a guy falling in love with his phone” either haven’t seen it or just can’t get past their original impression. It seems like a movie that’s going to require a lot of concessions from the audience, but the buy-in is pretty low: if you can accept a world where Artificial Intelligence exists, you’re already on board. Beyond that, Jonze does all the work for you (with a lot of help from Joaquin).

This is an obvious irony, but here it goes: for a story that has been touted by myopic social critics as an example of how disconnected we are from one another, Her is deeply, deeply humane. Every action, every character beat, every moment comes directly from a recognizable, understandable human emotion. Everyone in this movie, even the minor characters like Amelia and Catherine, is aching with hurt, need, confusion, love… you know, human-being stuff. And every facet of the film is so soaked-through with that emotional truth that it washes right over you.

Plus the whole thing is just gorgeous. Every shot is soaked through with warm, bright colors; the set and costume design both evoke a world similar to ours but just different enough to be unfamiliar; the score is unique enough to notice but not to a distracting degree, even if the people who composed it (Win Butler and Owen Pallet) do contribute to the so-indie-I-want-to-puke vibe. Or is that just something that I’m imagining? Does anyone actually care? I’m not some sort of self-loathing hipster caricature, am I? Oh, I hope not. I would hate that.

Anyway, what was I saying? I kind of lost track there. Maybe Her hits me in such a deep, emotional place that I have trouble expressing why I like it so much. I mean, people much smarter than me have said that the secret truth of all criticism is that art just hits you a certain way, and you try to justify your opinion after the fact.

But let’s not get into all that. Let’s focus on the positives, like the scientifically proven fact that gratitude reciprocates. Or the way all our fathers are looking down on us from heaven, eating gumbo and lemon meringue pie. And don’t forget, when you’ve got God, you’ve got a friend… and that friend is YOU.

Wait, so... if God is my friend, then I'm ALSO my friend? Or is God the 'you' in that sentence? Or... is this... are you talking to the you of ten years in the future? I... I'm not... I don't think I understand.

Wait, so… if God is my friend, then I’m ALSO my friend? Or is God the ‘you’ in that sentence? Or… is this… are you talking to the you of ten years in the future? I… I’m not… I don’t think I understand.

The Unofficial Jason Edwards Oscar-Palooza, Part 1

oscars part 1

Like all award shows, the Oscars are essentially meaningless. Not as much as the Golden Globes (which are actually kind of a scam, given the shady submission guidelines), the SAG (the most obviously self-congratulatory entry in a high self-congratulatory genre)  or the Emmys (which are just obviously a huge joke, I mean come on), but still, the Academy Awards are mostly a big, empty ceremony.

Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t honor films! Far from it. I just think it’s important to keep things in perspective, and remember that while the medium of film is important, the way we make up meaningless awards and write up stupid little top-ten lists can sometimes be a distraction from the power of the art form and from life in general.

So, that being said, here are my top ten movies of 2013, alongside some awards that will go completely unrecognized by the public at large but in every other way are just as meaningful as the Oscars.

10. The Counselor

Sure, let’s start right off with the one that will make you not take me seriously.

A lot has been written about this shiny, cold, bloody and nihilistic film: Salon called it “the worst movie ever made”–reason enough to check it out, in my book–while Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci wrote an intelligent defense of it that is more persuasive than anything I could write. It isn’t a perfect movie by any means, but I don’t want to call it a failure, either, because it’s successful at what it’s trying to do… the problem is, part of “what it’s trying to do” is make you feel gross about the movie and disconnected from its characters. But if you love impenetrable, over-written crime thrillers with fatalistic, film noir plotting, The Counselor is right up your alley. If you’re not interested in watching Cameron Diaz have sex with a car, well, I get it, but you should probably stay away from this movie.

The best way I can think to explain this movie, aside from just showing you a picture of Javier Bardem’s hair, is to suggest that you think of it as spiritual successor to Cormac McCarthy’s earlier cinematic adaptation, No Country For Old Men. The plot of both movies follows the same general shape: the main character is a guy who makes a lot of bad decisions, but when he does one vaguely positive act, the whole universe collapses around him and a lot of very evil men hunt him to the ends of the earth. The only difference is, the wise old cop from Old Men is dead now and that dark future he foresaw is bearing down on us fast. At the end of the film, after we’ve seen an innocent woman’s decapitated body dumped into a landfill, one character implies that all the horrific violence we’ve just witnessed is only the beginning and that “the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining.” Yeeesh.

Or, put it like this: at one point in The Counselor, Bardem describes a nasty cartel murder-device called the “bolito”, basically a unstoppable mechanized noose made of impenetrable metal. Once someone loops it around your neck, cord draws tighter and tighter, drawing in on itself and severing your head in the process. McCarthy paints a picture of society that is not unlike the bolito: an entropic circle of violence that is forever in the process of destroying itself and everything inside it.

Why Did You Make This Movie? (Runner-Up)

Y’know, I hesitate to raise the subject again, because everyone is tired of it and I’m not qualified to add anything to the discussion, but in the wake of the ongoing Woody Allen scandal, it’s easy to see The Hunt for what it really is: a paranoid fantasy written and directed by a man who seems to be completely detached from reality. A well-respected white man is accused of sexual abuse by a young girl, and his life falls apart? Boy, someone let me know when we live in that world.

The quality of the film isn’t just irrelevant to its offensiveness, it’s actually part of the problem. The Hunt is a well-made movie that gets under your skin, but at the end of the story, the viewer is left with the lesson, “think twice before you believe the testimony of an abuse victim.” And so I have to ask the director: why is this the movie you wanted to make? Wouldn’t it have been more productive to focus on the reality of unreported and un-prosecuted sexual abuse, rather than the extremely small percentage of rape allegations that turn out to be false?

The funny thing is, Thomas Vinterberg already made a movie that captures the way our society actually responds to abuse, with all the denial and mockery that the abused have to face: it’s called The Celebration, and it’s actually quite good.

9. Iron Man 3

How awful are nerds? I say this as someone who identified as a nerd for most of his life: they are the worst. I tried to never take the label too seriously, but I stopped taking any pride in it when I realized that the internet has turned nerd culture into this insular world where angry white guys can tape up the shutters and just stew in their own bitterness, spewing venom at anyone who dares to touch their precious toys. It’s getting a little better–in the last year, we’ve made some progress in dismantling the ‘fake geek girl’ ideology, which is minor in terms of world-wide problems but is emblematic of a lot of societal issues–but even if we get rid of the sexism and the racism, we’ll still have a lot of insufferable people who can’t deal with any change to their beloved property.

If you’ve kept track of the response to Iron Man 3, you probably know where I’m going with this. The Mandarin is an old-school Iron Man who is such a racist Fu-Manchu-style caricature that his name is basically The Chinaman. I mean, for God’s sake, just look at this guy. One of the cleverest things about Iron Man 3, all in all an extremely quick-witted and funny movie, is the way it turned The Mandarin into a giant gag. It was one of the movie’s best jokes, and it doubled as a fantastic twist.

… but of course, a bunch of nerds went crazy because it wasn’t the REAL Mandarin. People started claiming that The Mandarin was Iron Man’s arch-nemesis, which might technically be true in the comics, but only because Iron Man was a C-Lister for so long that they didn’t bother to give him an nemesis that wasn’t completely embarrassing. The one-shot follow-up, “All Hail The King,” only makes matters worse by doubling back and assuring fans that no, no, their precious racism is still well intact in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I’m sorry, I know that didn’t have much to do with the actual movie, but this thing with The Mandarin has been bothering me for a while. Two quick reasons why Iron Man 3 is awesome: the plot is so well-constructed, particularly in terms of how the villain’s plan develops, that the whole story clicks into place with a single, wordless shot of a disabled little girl. Also, that kid that Tony hangs out with in Tennessee is the most likable child sidekick I’ve seen in a movie probably since forever.

8. Before Midnight

Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ series has turned from one of the most unthinkable franchises in film history to one of our greatest cinematic trilogies. When Before Sunrise first came out, the ending was a wonderfully ambiguous move, a rorschach test for whether you were a cynic (Jesse and Celine never see each other again) or a romantic (they meet up fall in love and have lots of babies). After such an iconic ending, Before Sunset almost seemed like a novelty movie–the tagline, “what if you had a second chance with the one that got away,” pretty much covers it–but it had the benefit of being fantastic, filled with the same romance and wit as the first one but deepened by the regret of the main characters and the urgency of their second meeting; Before Sunset had a depth that the first movie lacked, and it turned out to be the most suspenseful “real time” movie ever made.

But Before Midnight proves the talents of Linklater and his fellow screenwriters, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. With this entry in the ongoing saga of Jesse and Celine, the creative team has taken an idea that seemed as delicate as a dream or a floating bubble of soap and stretched it into a trilogy with growing thematic depth. The mere fact that the sequels aren’t terrible is kind of amazing, but Before Midnight might actually be the best yet. The focus is still squarely on Jesse and Celine, but by introducing a strong supporting cast (a first for the series), the filmmakers are able to expand their scope and subtly examine the way different relationships function and change.

Instead of ruining the unique nature of the first entry, the second and third films add perspective. Looking back on Before Sunrise reminds us how much history these two characters have together, while looking forward to Before Midnight makes Jesse and Celine’s infatuation in the first film even more endearing: as John Lennon might say, it’s real love — it’s re-e-e-e-e-eal.

Never forget that this was a thing that happened.

Never forget that this was a thing that happened.

Most Infuriating Conversation Overheard In A Coffee Shop

A note to the man decrying the unfairness of “Alone Yet Not Alone” being removed from the list of nominees for Best Original Song: first of all, while I take issue with your description of a racist Christian film with shady connections as “super, super indie,” technically, you are not incorrect. While the aesthetics and spirit of independent film are, even in their most self-indulgent, amateurish manifestations, of much greater artistic merit than the chintzy, moralizing, somehow-always-anti-abortion-no-matter-what spirit that most “Christian” films possess, Alone Yet Not Alone was about one-hundred light-years from a studio system. So, I’ll give you that one.

But your repeated complaints that Bruce Broughton was stripped of his nomination “just because he let people know about this movie he worked on” simply cannot pass. You are, again, technically correct, but Broughton’s seemingly-innocent message was not, as you seem to characterize it, an attempt to make up for the lack of an advertising budget. It was, in fact, a flagrant defiance of the Academy protocol, addressed to a group of members whose names Broughton would not have known if not for his long tenure as Academy governor. You see, “letting people know” that he worked on the movie goes against the way that Best Original Song voting is set up, a fact that Broughton would have known. This makes his email campaign less “grassroots” and more “slimy and underhanded.”

So, to the man sitting on the couch fifteen feet to my right and complaining loudly to his friend about this nonexistent case of anti-Christian persecution, please consider yourself hastily corrected. I only wish I could have gotten this message to you while we were both in the coffee shop. Instead, I will have to be satisfied with battling an imaginary version of you inside my head for the rest of my life.

7. The Wind Rises

I probably shouldn’t say much about this one, since my knowledge of Hayao Miyazaki is limited to Spirited Away (which I saw when I was too young to appreciate it) and one other Studio Ghibli movie directed by his son (From Up On Poppy Hill, a gorgeously animated snooze-fest with a lovely score). Still, I hope my status as a Miyazaki novice won’t diminish the impact when I say that this movie is masterful. The director integrates his skill for dream-like imagery into the real-life story of Jiro Horikoshi, avoiding the constrictions of a biopic by integrating elements of fiction that turn the movie into a true epic.

Much has been made of the movie’s view of the main characters actions, and while I have to admit that I have some concerns of my own, I think The Wind Rises is complex enough to recognize the hero’s complicity in the horrors of World War II and how his own narrow-minded view of his dreams lead to that place (after all, one of the first things we learn about him is that he’s near-sighted), while still recognizing the beauty of what he accomplished.

Also: I ended up seeing the English dubbed version as opposed to the subtitled version. I was prepared for some awful voice work, and while it’s occasionally awkward, everyone involved does a pretty good job. And Werner Herzog is in it! Which is nice.

Best Suits

The best part about watching The Wolf Of Wall Street on the big screen (besides the fact you get to experience the debauchery in all of its widescreen glory and the accusatory final shot in all of its uncomfortable directness — boy, that movie really is vicious) is the suits. All those double-breasted, pinstriped suits, with awful Italian silk neckties worn right up on the collar. Not to mention everything about Jonah Hill’s character, from that pastel shirt and high-waisted jeans combo to his unnaturally white teeth. The fashion in this movie is hideous, but like everything else about Wolf, it’s hideous to an end. And for fans of that unconsciously gaudy era when 80’s fashion was warping 90’s fashion, it is a thing of beauty.

6. Short Term 12

Fun fact: Destin Daniel Cretton, director of Short Term 12, worked in a group home for at-risk teenagers, much like the one featured in the film!

Fun fact #2: If you have seen Short Term 12, you don’t need me to tell you that, because the reality of Cretton’s experience shows in every frame of the movie.

Short Term 12 walks the fine line between giving a realistic, detailed, lived-in portrait of live in a group home and delivering a satisfying narrative, and it does it with finesse. I’ve never spent any time in a group home, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of Cretton’s portrayal, but I do know a lot about movies, and I know the dangers of basing a work of art off of a real-life experience, and Cretton does it right. He’s clearly a talented filmmaker, and by letting his real life fuel his storytelling, he gave life to characters that, in less assured hands, might come off as two-dimensional “issues” rather than real people.

Despite the movie’s heart-shredding qualities, it does have an arc of healing and redemption, and man, you sure do feel it. I get emotional just running through all the fantastic moments in Short Term 12. The story that Mason tells at the beginning, contrasted with the story he tells at the end. Marcus’s rap. When Grace finally breaks down to Jayden. Oh, and Mason’s birthday party–a two-minute scene that gives you the character’s entire life story through detail.

If you need any more proof that the Oscars are irrelevant, consider the fact that this movie received no attention. Or, consider the fact that Academy members weren’t even sent screeners of this movie. I mean, seriously.

Review: Kick Ass 1 & 2

kick ass 2

Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Chloë Grace Moretz in ‘Kick Ass 2’.

It’s hard to number all the ways that the Kick Ass movies don’t work, but let’s start with the basics: they don’t follow through on their own concept. That concept–what if someone in the real world tried to be a supehero?—offers a world of possibilities that go unexplored in these movies. Some lip service is paid to the idea, but mostly it just boils down to the main character being an ineffectual wimp who gets beat up a lot. But the movies themselves follow a lot of the same beats as a typical superhero narrative, only with sarcastic air quotes around everything, so what you end up with is a b-grade superhero movie with no stakes, no reason to get invested, and a main character who doesn’t really accomplish anything.

It’s not just Kick Ass, though. Neither movie has any idea what it wants to do with any of the characters. The concept behind Big Daddy and Hit Girl—a traumatized police officer drafting his prepubescent daughter into a war on crime—promises a subversive look at Batman, but once the filmmakers realized they could get laughs out of a little girl cussing and murdering people, the hope of even an undergrad level of deconstruction vanished. Hit-Girl’s paper-thin characterization is especially painful when you realize she’s the most well drawn character in the franchise. Everyone else’s pain and motivation is treated like a joke, flipped around between scenes or ignored. Kick Ass’s mom dies in the opening minutes of the first movie and is never mentioned again. One harmless dumb character that provided comic relief in the first movie becomes villainously stupid in the second, causing a major tragedy he never seems to comprehend. He gets a moment of redemption at the end, but boy, who could possibly care?

Pacing is another major issue: both movies were based off six-issue comic-book miniseries, and it shows. Both movies cut between three different groups of characters. In the first movie, this eliminates any chance for suspense, as we know ahead of time all the forces that are moving around and against the main character. In the second movie, where the chance of suspense is never even on the table, it just underlines how much time is being wasted. Hit-Girl spends half of Kick Ass 2 in her own sub-par version of Mean Girls (the term “Queen Bee” even gets tossed around) and by the time she’s out of it, the characters have learned nothing and the audience has gained nothing, save for a vomit/diarrhea joke that will make any viewer over the age of 11 uncomfortable and embarrassed.

Not only does the audience never get a sense of the story’s shape, we’re never sure how we should feel about the story itself. In a smarter movie, this kind of moral ambiguity would be welcome, but in a series where every plot point is underlined by the main character’s inane, sub-Dexter narration, any moment where something manages to be unclear is a failure. The first Kick Ass is at least consistent in its own warped morality; consistent and far too impressed with itself, but still, consistent. In the sequel, both the titular hero and Hit-Girl make solemn vows to end hang up their capes, but when they inevitably back down from these oaths (Kick Ass changes his mind a mere three scenes later), it’s not clear if we’re supposed to applaud them for sticking to their beliefs or sympathize with them because they have to betray their parents to get vengeance. In Hit-Girl’s case, the movie can’t even be bothered to give a decent explanation for her abandoning her cause, meaning that the one thing people reliably enjoyed about the first movie—a little girl cussing and murdering people—gets put on hold for no good reason.

Even though they were in development at roughly the same time, Kick Ass feels like the training-wheels version of James Gunn’s Super. Kick Ass is a high school junior doodling in his notebook; Super is bipolar grad student who just finished writing a thesis on superheroes. Super brings out all the twisted elements of the “normal-guy-becomes-a-superhero” story that Kick Ass can only snicker at. The hero of Super is pathetic and delusional in a much deeper and sadder way than Kick Ass, but the movie lets us root for him and even lets him succeed in the end. Ellen Page joins in as the sidekick and in just a few scenes she shows just what kind of lunatic would be attracted to costumed heroics, and she does it in a much more effective manner than anything the Kick Ass films ever attempted.

Kick Ass 2’s confused sense of self extends into the final two shots, which dismiss the need for real-life superheroes and then immediately promise a beefed-up sequel. If the filmmakers make good on this promise—though current box office data indicates they probably won’t—let’s hope they can give us the zany, all-out superhero story they’re clearly longing to give us without any of the false aspirations to “realism”, which, by the way, is a word Mark Millar wouldn’t understand if it knocked him out of a skyscraper window and blew up.

Review: The Conjuring

Vera Farmiga as real-life paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren.

Judging from his past work, you wouldn’t think James Wan was capable of a movie like The Conjuring. The first Saw film—the only one for which Wan can be held responsible—didn’t foresee the grim assembly-line product that the series would become, but it was still smothered with contrast, color-correction and fast-forward effects disguised as ‘style’. Insidious is Wan’s previous film and the one that most resembles The Conjuring, but even it was saddled with the assumption that blue filters are cool and people in Victorian clothing are inherently creepy, to say nothing of a third act that went completely off the rails.

Even if some of the plot turns mirror those of Insidious, The Conjuring is an improvement in every way: it’s a movie of earth tones, grounded scares and directorial restraint. Its pleasures don’t come from gleefully deployed, over-the-top buckets of gore, but from slow-burn scares. Wan takes his time to set things up, and when it clicks, it yields beautiful results, like the ongoing “hide-and-clap” routine. Wan’s continuing fascination with ghost-hunters is well-integrated into the plot, where as the ghost-hunters in Insidious provided some brief amusement but felt dropped in from another movie entirely.

The scares in the The Conjuring take the form of set-pieces so cleverly constructed that genre fans—or really, anyone who’s seen a horror movie—are as likely to smile as they are to shudder, such as the scene where Lili Taylor wanders into her daughter’s room blindfolded. It’s a feeling somewhat akin to seeing a long-anticipated bit of plot machinery click into place on a long-running television show, and it wouldn’t be possible if Wan didn’t take his time.

There are only two moments that qualify as “jump-scares,” which are typically derided as cheap shock. This sort of “come-close-to-the-camera-and-screen” trick is obnoxious if a movie offers you nothing else, but there’s something to be said for shock when it’s used properly and The Conjuring utilizes it in an unusual way. In most jump-scares, the audience is off the hook after the killer (or what have you) makes his jolt-inducing reveal. Most of the time, a jump-scare ends and the protagonist snaps awake from a dream. The first instance jump-scare in The Conjuring—which, like so many of the movie’s best moments, involves the old wardrobe in the bedroom—cuts away at the height of terror. The result is like an unresolved musical note played at high volume: we’re startled, yes, but we also fear for the character’s safety.

The film–apparently based on a true story–is set in 1971, and Wan flirts with Ti West-esque late-70’s pastiche, but it only amounts to a nifty title-card and a few old-school zooms. CGI is used sparingly: an exploding chair that shows up late in the film stands out, but only because it’s one of the few times that modern film-making rears its head. Of course, if the movie was actually made in the era in which it’s set—

Oh, big spoiler coming up.

–then the filmmakers might have gone for a darker ending, instead of letting everyone live and, less forgivably, indulging in the cliché that has sapped the power of many a haunted house story: the “You’re not strong!” ending, where the haunting spirit is defeated by “the indomitable will of the human spirit” or some other such malarkey. This time, a demon that has claimed numerous lives is done in by the memory of a pleasant day in the beach. Like everything else in the movie, it’s properly set up, but boy, what a waste.

Still, The Conjuring packs enough creepy visuals into the rote exorcism finale to make it worthwhile, right up until the power of love wins out. If the ending lets the wind out of the movie’s sails a little bit, well, it’s a rare modern horror movie that can hold itself together so well for so long.

Movies Made Better: Pacific Rim

pacific rim 1

Dimensional Rift Discovered in Pacific Ocean


Scientists are shocked to report that a “portal between worlds” has opened up somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. A research team first became aware of the rift due to the strange sonic readings from the area, but it was quickly discovered that objects, seemingly extra-dimensional in origin, are emerging from the portal.

In a twist that officials some have called “highly ironic” and others “just a regular old coincidence, thank you very much,” the only objects discovered thus far are copies of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim on DVD. The alien nature of these DVDs was first hypothesized based on the professional-style packaging.

“In our world, Pacific Rim was just released in theatres,” said one unnamed expert, “But all these DVDs are too good-looking to be pirated… our immediate conclusion was that they came from a universe where the movie was released roughly four to six months earlier.”

The release date isn’t the only thing that’s different about these alternate Pacific Rims: out of the four that have so far been discovered, none of them follows the same plot as the one from our universe (hereafter referred to as PR Prime).

A crack squad of film critics was called in to analyze the movies, and what they have reported back is shocking. Each of the alternate movies is unique, though there are some broad similarities. None of the alternate Pacific Rims include the five-year jump that follows the prologue in our version, and none of them make any mention of “the wall”, a plot point so nonsensical and inconsequential that readers would be forgiven for forgetting that it ever happened at all.

Pacific Rim Alternate Version #1:

The first alternate Pacific Rim (PR) focuses on the opening years of the Human-Kaiju war, instead of breezing through it in a prologue. The very first scene is from the point of view of a young Asian girl (later revealed to be Mako), visiting San Francisco with her parents at the time of the first attack. We see the monster from her point of view, immediately establishing the sense of scale and giving us a personal investment in the devastation.

Some critics derided this plot as “obvious,” tossing around the term “destruction porn” without care. Still, few can deny that the spectacle is enthralling. With each subsequent attack, the death toll grows, and the governments of the world get more desperate, leading to the development of the Jaeger program. It’s thrilling and even a little uplifting to see so the people of the world put aside petty differences in race and creed and band together to save the planet. In this version of the film, the first Jaeger/Kaiju fight is built up to for nearly an hour, but when it comes, it is satisfying and exciting. The movie treats it as a spectacular event, from a technological standpoint and a humanistic one, as opposed to the “just another day at the office” tone of the first battle from PR Prime.

While the first alternate PR ends after a climactic victory that turns the tide for the humans, it ends before the war is actually won; a blatant sequel hook, according to critics, and widely regarded as this version’s biggest flaw.

Pacific Rim Alternate Version #2:

The second version focuses on humanity’s last-ditch effort to defeat the Kaiju. In many ways, this version is the most similar to ours: the prologue explaining the opening years of the war is still intact, though it omits the confusing and unexplained details about how the humans “got good at winning” and turned the Kaiju into some sort of joke.

In the second alternate PR, Raleigh is still a washed-up pilot, agonizing over the death of his brother years earlier. Instead of leaving the Jaeger program, he continues to work within it as a technician. Mako works alongside Raleigh as a test pilot in this version, but Raleigh gives her little notice until he discovers that she lost her family in a Kaiju attack.

In PR #2, non-familial drifts are considered impossible; Dr. Geiszler is the only person to propose that two unrelated pilots could work together. Raleigh senses that his and Mako’s shared tragedy might give them the bond they need to drift successfully, and he gets a chance to put his plan into action when a surprise attack leaves Chuck Hansen and his father in critical condition.

In the beginning, Raleigh and Mako are terrible partners. Their first drift re-opens old wounds and leaves them both crippled with guilt and fear over their lost family, and they nearly trigger a nuclear meltdown because of it. Only when they accept each other’s companionship and trust are they able to work as a team; their victory over depression is tied directly to their victory over the Kaiju. Critics note that this plot point, while overly sentimental, does create emotional stakes for the characters not present in PR Prime, and allows the audience to better connect with their struggle.

Also in this version, the plan to drop the Jaeger’s core into the rift is a last-minute improvisation by Dr. Geiszler, who returns from his movie-long mission just as the final battle reaches its peak. Up until this point, no one has figured out a way to destroy the rift, thus adding suspense to the climax and not rendering Geiszler’s mission essentially pointless, as it was in PR Prime.

Pacific Rim Alternate Version #3:

The third and final version to be discovered thus far has the most radically different plot from any other PR. Instead of focusing on a single man’s fall and redemption, the plot concerns a group of people that come together from different backgrounds to join the Jaeger program and defend the Earth. Raleigh’s character is completely removed, as is Chuck Hansen’s father. Greater development is given to Sasha and Alexis Kaidanovsky from Russia and the Wei Tang triplets from China.

Chuck takes on most of Raleigh’s role, though he receives less screen time. As in PR Prime, he is presented as arrogant and unlikeable, though the death of his father in the prologue lends him a degree of humanity. He is paired with Mako (a competent if untested pilot in this version, as opposed to the bumbling, simpering character from the original film) for the first half of the movie, but when two Kaiju attack at once, his inability to works with the others leads to his own death and the destruction of much of the base.

In the end, Stacker Pentecost partners with Mako for the final battle, their father/daughter relationship providing emotional depth that isn’t present in PR Rime’s under-developed love story. Stacker sacrifices himself to destroy the rift and protect Mako, while the Russians and the Chinese fight off the Class-5 Kaiju with their Jeagers instead of setting off a bomb.

When the rift-destroying explosion does come, both remaining Jaegers and the Kaiju are caught in the blast. The Kaiju is destroyed, but it’s not clear at first if any of the pilots made it out in time.

Mako’s escape-pod/life-boat surfaces and she looks around. For a moment, she is completely alone in the middle of the ocean. Almost on the verge of tears, she sees an escape pod surface, followed by another… then another… then three more in rapid succession. Mako is thrilled that her fellow pilots survived, but she’s obviously disappointed that Stacker didn’t make it. However, as Tendo Choi reveals, Stacker’s escape pod entered the rift moments before the explosion, leaving his survival doubtful but ultimately ambiguous.

Sociologists have been particularly fascinated by this version of the film, coming as it does from a society so different from ours, one in which the default point of view in popular culture is not that of the heterosexual white man.

Movies Made Better: Oz, The Great & Powerful


Glinda the Good Witch was in a lot of trouble.

Her father was dead. That was bad enough by itself—Glinda’s father was a good man and she loved him dearly—but it was especially traumatic because he was murdered. Worse still, the citizens of the Emerald City believed that Glinda was his killer.

Glinda’s father had been the King of Oz, so his death was more than a crime: it was a political upheaval. In the chaos following his death, a cruel and manipulative witch named Evanora took control of the city. Evanora had enough power and cunning to not only murder the King and get away with it, but to pin the blame on his daughter.

But Evanora’s deceptions were constrained to the elite of the Emerald City, a vicious group of people, many of whom were already under Evanora’s sway before her act of regicide. Throughout the rest of Oz, Glinda’s guilt was a subject of much debate, and among a group of her most passionate followers, her innocence was never in doubt. So when Glinda fled from the city to a distant, rural area in the southern realm of Oz, she found a welcoming home.

If her father had been someone else, Glinda would have left it at that. He was an understanding man who wouldn’t have wanted her to risk her life just for the sake of clearing her name in the eyes of a foolish few. But he was the King, and he had no heir–for Glinda had always found the attentions of men less important than the betterment of the kingdom. In a less dramatic scenario, she would have been given temporary, semi-official control of Oz… but Evanora had fixed it so that she and her sister Theodra now ruled over the land. For her part, Theodora was naïve enough to believe that Glinda was guilty and she followed her sister’s lead reluctantly.

It wasn’t right and the people of Oz knew it wasn’t right. Evanora was as cruel of a ruler as anyone would have guessed and then some. The rest of the kingdom withered and died while those inside the Emerald City grew fat and rich. Unrest spread throughout the lands. Those who had been undecided about Glinda’s guilt now had all the proof they needed of Evanora’s treachery. The people began to speak of a revolution.

Glinda would have loved more than anything to lead the people—her people—in battle against Evanora. But she knew this could never be. Her reputation was too tainted by Evanora’s accusations: a revolution lead by her might look like an act of bloodthirsty revenge. Besides, the citizens of Oz would never accept a witch as a general.

Then the rumors began to spread of a prophecy. It had been foretold that a great Wizard would come to the land of Oz and free the people from their tyrannical ruler.

At first, Glinda rolled her eyes at this talk: if such a prophecy did exist, she had never heard it before now. And wasn’t it convenient that it was a man destined to free the kingdom?

But she changed her tune after Finley arrived. Finley, a flying monkey, was a rogue member of Evanora’s army. Sickened by her wicked ways, he had risked life and limb to bring Glinda a single message: the Wizard was real, and he had arrived in the Emerald City just days before.

Glinda was shocked, but she didn’t waste a moment. Accompanied only by Finley, she disguised herself and set off on a dangerous journey through the Dark Forest and across the occupied plains of Oz, where she met the China Girl, a victim of Evanora’s armies. Against all odds, the group of three made it into the Emerald City and attained an audience with the Wizard.

Glinda saw right away that the Wizard was a fraud, his magic nothing more than smoke-and-mirrors illusion that Evanora would gladly exploit to keep her people in line. The Wizard wasn’t without his flashes of intellect—he had already constructed a makeshift projector out of discarded materials—but he was hopelessly out of his element in the world of Oz, swept away by Evanora’s promises of power and riches. He was more than satisfied to spend his days lounging around the palace, being adored by the people and flirting with sweet Theodora.

But the people needed an icon, someone to rally behind. The Wizard was Glinda’s only hope to unite her followers and lead the revolution. Unfortunately, that meant kidnapping him and stealing him away from Evanora. It was a narrow escape, followed by an exciting chase full of near-misses and the threat of death… but they made it.

Once she had the “Wizard”–who was actually a con-man from Kansas named Oscar Diggs–back at her hideout, everything clicked into place. It took a little work to convince him that Glinda wasn’t the evil witch Evanora had made her out to be, but he eventually came around and agreed to help the cause.

Harder trials still lay before them: Theodora had fallen in love with the amorous wizard, and Evanora would manipulate her sister’s sorrow into rage and turn her into a stronger ally. The battle for the Emerald City would be a struggle for the ages, but with strength of her people and some trickery from the Wizard, Glinda would finally confront her adversary, avenging her father’s murder and deposing the usurper from the throne.

Of course, in the end, the Wizard would rule over Oz. He would gladly take Glinda’s council, but his pride wouldn’t allow him to share credit for the people’s salvation.

Glinda wouldn’t mind. While the Wizard grew older and more isolated, hidden behind the walls of the Emerald City, Glinda, accompanied by new friends Finley and the China Girl, could continue her work of helping the people. She was a Good Witch, after all, and she would take real magic over power any day.

I Went To The Late-Night Premiere Of Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 And All I Got Was This Lousy Blog Entry

Thursday, November 15, 2012. Outside, it was a cold and windless night, but inside the theater lobby it was bright, noisy and full of life. People were standing in line for snacks, milling around tables, waiting for friends… some of them were already in line for the movie, tickets in hand.

The crowd was made up mostly of women, from young teenagers to the upper-middle-aged. They were predominately white, but to be fair, I live in a predominately white area, and there were pockets of diversity here and there. But it was almost all women, multiple generations of women and the men they had brought with them. Loving husbands, disinterested boyfriends, I’d wager that nearly every man in that crowd came there at the behest of a woman.

Everyone was talking, laughing, checking their phones, all of them brought together by their love for the tale of a girl and the vampire who loved her.

And then there was me.

I was there alone, at the late-night premiere of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2, not part of any group and certainly not accompanying my girlfriend, who wouldn’t be caught dead at something like that. I wasn’t there because I liked the movies (which I had seen) or even the books (which I hadn’t read). I was there for the experience.

I don’t like throwing out broad stereotypes, but it’s fair to say that the Twilight fandom is famous for being full of shrieking girls. In most situations, being in a room full of noisy teens (and the teen-at-heart) is not something I would actively seek out, but this was the premiere of the final Twilight movie. I’ll probably never get another chance to observe the Twilight fandom in real life on this kind of scale. I doubted I would learn anything new, but the novelty of it was too much to pass up.

In a situation like that, it doesn’t matter to me if the thing people are celebrating is objectively bad or, as some have claimed, actively harmful to the impressionable young girls reading it. The joy of people all brought together by their enjoyment of a piece of pop culture is just terrific. The opening night of a popular film is a rare expression of communal excitement. I intended to  be a part of this one, even if it meant going alone.

After a trip to the men’s room (totally empty, by the way), I took my place in line and immediately a question came to mind, a question I have asked many time in my short life: “How much of a weirdo do I look like right now?”

I knew I would stick out. In a crowd of women and devoted men, I was a lone twenty-three-year old male with a shaved head wearing a bulky jacket he wouldn’t take off (I had nowhere to put it!). I’m uncomfortable in any crowd, and if there’s a chance I might attract attention to myself, that discomfort increases exponentially.

But I was prepared for this. I knew that it was unlikely that anyone would actually pull me aside and question my presence, but I still kept a smile on my face and repeatedly checked my phone, as if I was looking for word from a girl who was going to join me… or something like that. I just tried to look busy, to keep a low profile. I had even ordered my tickets online, so I didn’t have to actually say the words, “I would like one adult ticket for Twilight.”

Of course, once I was inside the actual theater, everything was fine, except for the moment when three girls approached my row and asked if anyone was sitting in the seats next to me. I was forced to say “no” and reveal myself for the loser I was.

But I didn’t care. I knew that once the movie started, these girls would be too enraptured by the events onscreen to think about the guy next to them… although, I have to say, I was disappointed with how reserved these fans were. Don’t get me wrong; a chorus of cheers went up during a scene where Taylor Lautner stripped down to his underwear. But I was hoping for a boisterous, obnoxious crowd, squealing whenever anyone kissed and shouting things out at the screen.

And isn’t that always the way? When you want a crowd to shut up—like, say, during the midnight screening of Paranormal Activity 2—they seem intent on ruining your experience, but when you want them to be loud, they can’t be bothered. Gosh, people, am I right?

Despite the obnoxious and uncalled-for maturity displayed by the crowd, I still got a unique perspective on the film (and not just because the girl next to me repeated a mantra of “hot stuff” whenever an attractive male came on-screen). For one thing: did you know there are jokes in those movies? I would never have realized it, if it weren’t for the laughter that sounded whenever Edward cracked one of his signature low-energy, stone-faced wisecracks. There were also a few unintentional laughs, mostly at the hammier aspects of Michael Sheen’s performance. Sheen, by the way, is the only person on-screen during the entire franchise that seems to be enjoying himself.

We also had a good laugh at the underwhelming shot of a battlefield towards the movie’s end…. which brings me to the most interesting part of my experience. See, at the film’s climax, Edward and Bella have brought together a group of allies to stand against the Volturi, and–

Oh, I’m about to spoil the end of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2, so if you care about that, then… um, stop reading, I guess.

All right: in the books, the set-up for an awesome final battle between our heroes and the evil vampire lords is ditched in favor of everyone talking out their problems and going home. In the film, however, it explodes into a lengthy and fun action sequence, with character deaths all around. Some were tragic, some cathartic: the entire theater gasped when vampire dad Carlisle was beheaded in the early moments of the brawl, and one woman threw up her arms in shock when several other vampires and werewolves were dispatched. A rousing applause swept through the audience when two prominent Volturi were disposed of. It was exciting, it was tense, it raised the stakes for the entire series and had life-changing consequences for everyone involved…

So, of course, it wasn’t real.

After ten minutes of the coolest stuff to happen in the entire franchise, the film cuts back to reveal that the whole sequence was a vision of the future, shown to the Volturi’s leader in hopes of getting him to cool his jets on the whole “killing a child” thing (it works, of course, and Sheen’s understated change of demeanor is actually pretty funny).

Response to this was conflicted, from the moment of the reveal all the way into the post-movie conversation in the parking lot. In the theater, the noisy reaction was audibly split between relief and frustration. People felt a little cheated, which is fair, because they were cheated. But the fans were glad that their beloved characters had not actually died. Several people said that they had wanted to cry during the sequence; some seemed shaken by it even after the credits.

I, for one, loved it—but I knew ahead of time what was about to happen. It was nice to watch the fans react, but it was also neat to see a glimpse of what the Twilight series would be like if it had moved away from the dull romance at its center and explored the more interesting aspects of the mythology… if it had characters take a stand against evil and knowingly face the consequences. You know, like that other big multi-media sensation, the one with the wizards that everyone actually likes.

But my biggest problem with the series has never been the unconvincing, uncomfortable romance between Edward and Bella, or even the whole “sparkly vampire” thing. Plenty of films ask us to find behavior charming that would be terrifying in real life, and if you’re really that upset about the tweaks that the author made to vampire lore, I’m guessing you haven’t enjoyed any horror fiction made in the last hundred years. Just to be clear: vampires aren’t real and any writer can do anything they want with them.

No, my problem is with something that goes mostly unaddressed in the movies, except for a few off-handed comments and a weak series of arguments from both Edward and Jacob. Pretty much from the point she meets Edward, all Bella wants is for him to make her a vampire so they can live together forever in vampiric bliss.

It’s clear that once this happens, Bella can never see her family again, lest they discover that she doesn’t age, and she’ll pretty much have to hide from normal society for the rest of her life. Like the Cullens, she’ll have to move from town to town, never making any real friends outside of the small vampire clan. Oh, not to mention the relentless thirst for blood and the feud she’ll inherit with the family of her friend, Jacob. The series never gives us a convincing reason to look past the inherent horrors of transforming into a vampire. True love is great, but you know what else is great? Not being a monster.

But it’s a little late for complaints like that. The books have all been read, the movies have all been released, and despite some rumblings about the franchise “continuing on” in some form, for the time being, Twilight is over. And all things said, I had a pretty good time watching the last movie… except for this one guy who was sitting towards the front. He had a shaved head, he was wearing this big, bulky jacket, and there was no one around him. I kept waiting for someone to join him, a girlfriend or something, but no one ever showed up. It honestly freaked me out a little and I spent most of the movie side-eying him.

It was just creepy, you know? I mean, what kind of weirdo shows up to these things alone?