Feminist Friday: Feminist Disney Movies?

Since last week’s post was a little heavy, I decided to lighten it up a little bit with today’s post. Remember a few weeks back when I mentioned that I absolutely love Buzzfeed? Well, I really do, and when they post articles like this, that love just grows stronger.

I grew up on Disney Channel Original Movies, so when a friend sent me a link to a post that Priya Krishna and Kate Taylor at Buzzfeed wrote entitled, “50 Disney Channel Original Movies, Ranked By Feminism” I knew I would love it. I think my favorite one in the list is probably “Kim Possible: So The Drama”, because Kim is a bad*** and, well, Ron is adorable. Which movie on the list was your favorite?

We Are Actually Living In “The Age of Ultron” (SPOILERS)

I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron last night, because that’s what we do now, as a species. All hail the Marvel Overlords, they will forever entertain us.

The series, so far, manages to incubate a cohesive, believable world full of interesting characters and exciting sci-fi action, yet it is increasingly difficult to form an opinion about the Avengers films. That’s because they are increasingly good at avoiding anything substantive enough for discussion. We are drawn to the films because they are maddening spectacles of achievement in entertainment, but after subjecting us to nearly three hours of heroic deeds and Hulk-smashing previously unimagined by humanity, the films give us very little to think about.

This is by design. Not the filmmakers’, or studio executives’, or writers’ design. This is by design of the franchise itself, the ethereal intelligence that has the next decade of our summer movie spending planned for us. This weekend, the Marvel Universe becomes self-aware.

In the film, Ultron comes into existence and takes over the world and follows a protocol of needless self-destruction with seemingly no motivation whatsoever. He becomes self-aware out of a necessity to drive the plot. Much like the franchise itself, which is moving along simply because it has nothing else to do, and we couldn’t stop it if we tried.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you have as much understanding of Ultron himself as you do by the end of the film. He is an evil robot who likes to sing Disney songs, much like Wall-E. Sure, there are hints of an internal struggle or a plotted vengeance against his ‘creator,’ Tony Stark, but it manifests as a cartoonish plot to create a meteor and crash it back down to Earth. The character exhibits no depth apart from his Spaderisms.

I half suspect James Spader didn’t even read the script, they just put him in a motion-capture jumpsuit and filmed him complaining about it.

Wikipedia tells me the comic book version of Ultron suffered a homicidal oedipus complex, and focused in on destroying his creator while also developing an obsession with his lover. But, since the cost of hiring Gwyneth Paltrow went to blowing up half a dozen CGI robots, that opportunity for complexity is vacant.

They couldn’t even incorporate the Pinnochio mythos–you know, the source of the “There Are No Strings On Me” song that Ultron sings throughout the whole film–by developing Ultron’s maniacal evil out of a desire to please his creator only for Tony to express disappointment, rather than an instantaneous need to kill him outright. Did nobody working on this film bother to think about subtext?

The Avengers films are so formulaic and expensive they simply cannot defy expectations and truly deliver the storytelling necessary to elevate the series. It desperately needs it, but cannot deliver. The film’s best moments (Vision, the Black Widow/Hulk romance) are smothered by its incessant need to cutaway to the Avenger’s World Destruction Tour. Ultron lives up to the established pattern of exposition/action/tension/action/resolution/action, and grows increasingly tiresome for it. Mostly because the character development is merely an inversion of “we can’t seem to get along” that brought the ensemble together in the last film, but without a clearcut goal and focus. The intersecting plots in Ultron just turn it into a mess. Nothing builds on anything else, and every promising moment of character arc is left irksomely unresolved, with one or two exceptions.

It’s a shame, since the film centers on a sequence where Scarlet Witch exposes the team to their darkest fears. But rather than explore what those fears mean to each of them, they just move on and try to punch more bad guys. Well, we do find out that Black Widow can’t have babies. And Thor’s vision-quest leads him to a magic pool that gives him the secret of… actually, I’m not quite sure how his bath revealed that he was supposed to electrocute Vision to life, probably because there was just no other way to incorporate the larger gem-mythology. But that’s it. Scarlet Witch makes Thor hallucinate, which leads him to take a bath, and then he does some lightning trick and now we have Vision. That’s Thor’s entire story in Age of Ultron. 

The decision to introduce the Maximoff Wonder Twins as mere plot points, and in the end to kill off Quicksilver (who Marvel fans are quite happy to pretend never existed in the first place, since Days of Future Past already established the gold standard for that character) proves that the Marvel film franchise has very little fear of death, and much like Ultron sees it as just a method of purging real emotion from a soulless reality. Why not kill off someone who matters? Because the franchise sees itself as indestructible. Despite knowing that it must raise the stakes to get anywhere interesting, Avengers has to play it safe and keep them all in the game, endlessly dodging bullets and lightning bolts and energy beams and boulders and Hulk smashes because that’s essentially what these films are built on. Great-looking people doing poses and not getting killed by the millions of things that should be killing them.

Which means there are just no more stakes to raise. The problems with Age of Ultron begin literally in the first moment, an overlong single shot of the team in action picking off Secret-Nazis in the snowy fortress level from Inception: The Video Game, utilizing some of the laziest CGI  the Star Wars: Special Editions and more witty banter. By the way, this film’s dialogue is nothing but witty banter. Wittier and wittier, and banterier and banterier. 

The imagery of the opening sequence is meant to remind us of the final battle from the last film, where we follow a tracking shot through the skyline of New York City to focus on each Avenger slaughtering interstellar henchmen. The thing is, that film–not particularly keen on subtlety itself–spent the majority of its runtime building up to that moment of harmonious violence. Age of Ultron shoves it out of the way, clunkily, in the first five minutes. Where do you go from there?

Nowhere. Just change the scenery.

The Avengers franchise is running on its own momentum, and will take no prisoners in its train wreck of a serial. Plots are increasingly dependent on a myriad of sources, inevitably giving rise to contradictions, confusion, and watered-down ideas. Heroes that once inspired us are reduced to a soulless existence, living out an endless battle with forces unnamed and irrelevant. We are subjected to overblown violence to prove the reaches of our arrested imaginations. We are living in the Age of Ultron. The biggest film franchise in the world is an unstoppable algorithm of crowd-pleasing factors. It is infected with its own self-importance, feeding us the exact amount of visual and aural stimuli to null our minds to the existence of a massive entertainment conspiracy that will inevitably lead us down a path of self-destruction, as we worship the hero-gods of our own creation and neglect the dreams and hopes that we need to sustain us for another generation. The end of the world will come, and we’ll be comfortably snacking on popcorn in the air-condition tomb of the cinema.

Vision was pretty damn cool, though.

Journey Through Twin Peaks

One of the most engrossing films I’ve seen in recent years is Room 237,  a film essay exploring the depths of critical analysis on Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. The Shining is one of my all-time favorite films, because it carries an atmosphere that is almost intangible, but careful viewers have pieced together the various tricks that Kubrick used to create that atmosphere. A lot of people focus on the moon-landing theory behind The Shining, but that’s only one interpretation of the film among many, and it’s the least plausible. It doesn’t fit in with the some of the other more plausible analyses, but leaving it in certainly helped spread the word about Room 237. 

Mostly, I just love the idea of film criticism as entertainment. So much so that I immediately planned on a similar treatment of another work I find as equally open to interpretation, Twin Peaks. If you couldn’t tell, since this is not the first blog I’ve written about the TV show, and until JJ does another layout change you’re looking at some heavy Peaks imagery directly to the left, I’m a little more than obsessed with the franchise and will needlessly fit it into unrelated conversations. “Oh, you love the new Batman vs. Superman trailer? You know what else is dark and brooding? Twin Peaks. Go home and watch it. Yes, it is on Netflix.”

If I couldn’t make the film essay myself, I at least wanted to present my interpretation of Laura Palmer’s struggle as a powerful symbol of ending a cycle of physical and sexual abuse. Laura is the hero of Twin Peaks because she refused to let the horror that tormented her continue, whether it was by some demonic presence or something closer to home.

Joel Bocko beat me to it. His series, “Journey Through Twin Peaks,” presents a thorough and beautiful analysis I could never pull off on my own. Unlike Room 237, however, he did it all himself and threw it up on YouTube, instead of submitting it to Sundance. But I think that’s fitting, because it turns out there is quite a bit more to Twin Peaks than the feature-documentary format offers.

I’ve watched Twin Peaks in its entirety about four times since 2010, and Bocko highlights points in the series that I never noticed. It’s the loving criticism the series deserves. He presents a coherent thesis, that the magic formula of Twin Peaks is a child of the tension between David Lynch and Mark Frost, and backs it up with specific examples of the different ways they treat characters and situations. I wouldn’t recommend doing so, but someone could easily watch his series without any knowledge of Twin Peaks and have a clear understanding of what makes the show work.

But there’s no good excuse for not watching Twin Peaks. I particularly like the analysis of the end of Fire Walk With Me, though he credits it to someone else (spoiler, obviously) that the flashing light on Laura’s face as she sits in the Red Room with Dale Cooper is actually Laura watching the entire series and reacting to the impact her life had on the town, both good and bad. Seeing it through that lens completely decimated me emotionally. It could easily be one of David Lynch’s most beautiful moments. (Update: Joel provided the source of this theory in the comments below.)

Bocko also suggests that everything Lynch has done since is not only influenced by Twin Peaks, but actually about the experience of making Twin Peaks. That’s a powerful realization, especially since I was also under the assumption that Lynch never lingered on projects, and for years seemed too willing to put the series behind him.

However, I think he and I would disagree about whether the series should continue without Lynch. I think Frost’s vision of the series is underrated, as does Bocko, but I also think it’s only fair that he gets a crack at developing his ideas on his own, since Lynch had a chance to go back and explore Laura Palmer’s character. I stand by it. Twin Peaks without David Lynch would still entice me.

Anyway, the whole series is on YouTube, in 28 different videos, divided into four parts. He covers the entire series with surprising depth, explains some background on the mystical influences on the mythology, and defends Fire Walk With Me as a crucial masterpiece to Lynch’s entire career. I’ve been waiting for a satisfying treatment of Twin Peaks like this, and if I couldn’t do it myself, I’m at least glad it’s done so well.

Top Eleven Things, February 10th Edition

Welcome to the first installment of Sleeping on the Roof’s latest ongoing series, Top Eleven Things, where I list an arbitrary list of things I’m doing or listening to or reading or watching and recommend them. Why eleven? I think you know why.

1. Sleater Kinney – No Cities To Love. 

Just when I thought asskicking rock and roll was dead, here come Sleater Kinney and suddenly I want to plug in my Gibson SG again. My only exposure to them previously was The Woods, which I totally didn’t get, but this makes me want to go back and check out their back catalogue.

2. Björk – Vulnicura

On the other end of the girl-power pop music spectrum is Björk. This album haunts me. Check out my full review here.

3. Pond – Man It Feels Like Space Again

For some reason Tame Impala is really two bands, but this one is more whimsical? Whatever, it’s cool.

4. SimCity

Uh, I wasted at least sixty hours of my life this week on this. Not an endorsement so much as a cry for help.

5. Hannibal

The third season doesn’t start until summer, but I just rewatched the first two and not enough people watch this show so I’ll continue to spread the cannibal gospel until I have someone to talk about it with. Seriously, this show is so good. It’s dark, it’s gory, it stars a neurotic Hugh Jackman (Hugh Dancy) as Will Graham, with Laurence Fishburn as Crawford and Mad Mikkelson as a very charming Dr. Lecter. Also Gillian Anderson as Hannibal’s therapist. Also Eddie Izzard, who showed up in my dream last night, but that’s irrelevant.

6. James & Mike Mondays

This is my favorite video gaming series. It’s from the guys behind Angry Video Game Nerd. They just hang out and play old video games, but it’s seriously one of the best parts of my Monday mornings.

7. Frank

Frank might actually be my favorite film of the year.

8. Galway

Seriously, I love it here. You should come visit.

9. Better Call Saul

Hey, turns out this is pretty good. It’s on Netflix.

10. This Pavement album. 

11. Beck.

Kanye West merely proved that he’s the only one who actually cares about the Grammys. He’s right about all that artistry nonsense, only he’s behind by a few decades. That’s how most musicians have felt about the Grammys for just about ever. As long as decent albums are nominated, I don’t care who wins, because they all deserve it.

But Beck did this, which is amazing:

Slave to the Source

Doug Liman’s “The Edge of Tomorrow” is probably the most most fun I’ve had at a movie in a long time.

Using a not-too-original high-concept that mirrors (as many many many  many writers have already noted) Harold Ramis’ “Groundhog Day,” Liman — and Tom Cruise, who really is irreplaceable in this movie — has created a big, noisy blockbuster thing that is actually worth everyone’s time. That isn’t easy to do, and it isn’t the first time Liman’s done it.

In the film, Tom Cruise’s character, Lt. Col. Bill Cage, is unexpectedly gifted with the power to relive the same day every time he dies. He gets this power by something to do with alien blood, but it really isn’t important. After finding out that Cage is, as Bill Murray’s character put it in “Groundhog Day” “an immortal,” Emily Blunt’s character, the big shot Rita Vrataski, decides to use his power to the military’s advantage. They train and learn the tactics of the alien invaders, known as “mimics” and of course dabble in a love side plot.

All of this is fair and good, but the film would not have worked had the filmmakers not embraced the potential for lightheartedness that the plot brings. Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt have great chemistry and there are some A-grade sight gags (watching Tom Cruise try to waddle away from the conflict in on of those clunky battle suits may be my favorite moment of the film).

Another aspect of the film that struck me, like it did Jon Stewart and probably many other reviewers, is how much this film reminded me of a video game. Not just because of the aesthetics, which really do look like they came straight out of the mind of an Activision developer, but because the premise forces Cage to live like a video game character. Every time he screws up, he just starts the level over until he learns how to get past the next obstacle. There’s even a final boss they are working toward (the “Omega,” which is basically like a hive queen.)

So they’ve finally done it. They’ve finally done a good job turning a video game into a movie. Only the source material isn’t a game, but a novel. It’s the approach, the feel that is influenced by the gaming world. Not the story.

I’ve noticed a similar trend among another genre of films. Having recently watched both “The Amazing Spider-Man 2”  and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” I’m beginning to believe that studios — likely influenced by the new wave of Marvel Studios productions — are becoming less interesting in adapting comics into movies, and more keen to the idea of turning movies into comics.

You see, the thing about comic books is that there are a lot of them, and most of them really aren’t that great. Comics are serial stories, meaning their ultimate goal is to convince the reader to buy another issue, and then never stop having issues for the reader to buy. Because of this, most comic threads morph into confusing stories with too many characters and more than enough false melodrama. To combat this, standard practice in the comic book industry is to periodically hit the restart button, which hey often do by using other dimensions/planets etc. They just wipe everything clean. Also because of this, the best stories in comics typically (but not always) come out of shorter self-contained story arcs that serve as special issues. While the true definition of a graphic novel is actually just that, a novel that uses the storytelling techniques of a comic book, many of these special runs in comics get compiled and sold as, essentially, graphic novels.

For most of the history of comic book movies, the idea has been to replicate the graphic novel idea. Tell gripping self-contained stories, largely focused on character development and resolving whatever conflict is at hand. Depending on the film, maybe even tease toward the next movie. It was an approach that worked well: Essentially taking the best of what comics had to offer and then try and translate it to the medium of film.

In fact, graphic novels, or the shorter story arcs that typically packed more narrative power, were often inspired by film to begin with. Take Jeph Loeb’s “The Long Halloween.” TLH was a 13-issue series that served as a major influence to Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” but it itself was inspired by, among other things, “The Godfather.” By focusing on the cinematic aspects of what comics had to offer, comic book film adaptations were always playing principally by the rules of cinema, just as TLH took story elements from film and adapted them to comic panels.

Now, flash forward to 2014, and it seams every film based on a comic is almost nothing more than a big expensive set up for the nex movie. Kind of like a comic. The truth is, as far as Marvel Studios and Sony and 20th Century Fox are concerned, there will never be an end to X-Men movies, or Spider-Man movies. There certainly will not be an end to Avengers tie-ins.

Why are they doing it this way? Because even if the films are kind of lousy, by providing major tie-ins and cliff-hanger endings (and after credits sequences) there will always be enough people who want to see the next one. It’s the same basic strategy of monthly comics: It doesn’t have to be great, just give them a reason to keep reading.

To be fair, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was actually quite good. In fact, it was possibly one of the best X-Men movies up to this point. But that is only the case for two reasons: Bryan Singer is a great director who understands how to make a great X-Men movie (but not a great Superman movie) and the X-Men franchise already had a built-in storyline that would allow 20th Century fox to play with the franchise and basically ruin it, only to be virtually rebooted with little difficulty.

But even though Singer managed to pull the whole thing off, the idea that they will continue on with “X-Men: Apocalypse” only feeds into my suspicion that these studios are taking their strategy points from the comics industry. With DOFP, the X-Men timeline has been mangled and plot-holes abound (actually, some of the biggest continuity holes came about because of “First Class,” but DOFP only deepens them) so the trick here is how Singer and company will be able to dig themselves out of some these problems.

I’m far less optimistic, however, of the future of Spider-Man on film than the X-Men. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” was not just a terrible film, it was a terrible setup to whatever atrocities Sony has planned for the future, which from the looks of it will be a Sinister Six film (or, more likely, films). ASM2 seemed to embody the notion that quality doesn’t matter when you know quantity is on your side.

So even though “The Edge of Tomorrow” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” made good by adapting to the techniques of their source material (or, in the case of EOT, more like source inspiration) I’d be willing to bet they will prove to be the exception to the rule. The best films are those that know what the strengths and weaknesses of cinema are, and play to those. “The Godfather” isn’t great because it reminds you of reading a novel. It’s great because the filmmaker knows how to make movies, and he did it well.