Trilogy of Trilogies: The Star Wars Prequels (for Alternate Ending)

I’m writing a three-part series for ‘Alternate Ending‘ exploring blockbuster movies of the 2000s. It’s a trilogy about trilogies! This is the last entry in the series, which previously covered The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix.

It’s hard to think of a movie (or series of movies) that has been analyzed, criticized, and reconsidered more widely and thoroughly in recent years than the Star Wars prequels (with the exception, perhaps, of The Last Jedi.) The degree to which the internet has dedicated itself to discuss George Lucas’s prequel trilogy since The Phantom Menace came out in 1999 is, frankly, ridiculous; but it’s also catnip for a series about the great movie trilogies of the 2000s. So far, we’ve looked at The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix movies, and in both cases I’ve approached them both as important historical artifacts and as examples of great, idiosyncratic blockbuster filmmaking. All of this gets a little trickier when talking about the prequels. As far as the filmmaking is concerned, I can hardly make a coherent case – not because there’s no art to be found in them (they are, at the very least, very “idiosyncratic” movies), but because the conversation about the artistic quality of the movies has reached a point in which everything has been said from every angle and ad nauseam. The historical case is easier to make. The prequels mark an incredibly influential step in the development of both computer generated effects and the use of digital cameras, both of which are cornerstones of Hollywood filmmaking in the 2020s. Even more remarkable, though, is the historical importance of the way in which the movies were received by movie-goers, fans, and the culture at large. The response to these movies may very well be the most important shift in film culture form the 20th to the 21st Century. The story of how George Lucas went from being perceived as a creative genius to an out-of-touch eccentric, a story that ended with Lucas willingly selling his creation to one of the biggest media conglomerates, encapsulates the trajectory of American blockbuster filmmaking almost too perfectly.

A recapitulation of events is probably unnecessary, but for formality’s sake, let me do a brief synopsis of the history of one George Walton Lucas Jr. As an up-and-coming filmmaker in the early seventies, Lucas tried to leverage the goodwill he had amassed for directing the very successful American Graffiti to finance a science fiction movie that was meant to be an homage to the space opera serials of his youth. The result was a little movie called Star Warswhich not only became a huge hit, but the highest grossing movie of all time. Though the movie was distributed by 20th Century Fox, Lucas retained the rights to the film, which allowed him to become extremely rich by making two sequels (and thus cementing the idea of the “trilogy” as an ideal form for epic cinematic storytelling), and more importantly, by selling lots and lots of merchandise. By the mid-nineties, the centrality of Star Wars in the cultural discourse had subsided, but a visionary Lucas, encouraged by the development of computer generated visual effects, decided to write and direct a “prequel” trilogy, depicting the backstory that leads into his original trilogy. These movies were huge commercial successes, but critical disappointments… to say the least.

CONTINUE READING AT ‘ALTERNATE ENDING’

Trilogy of Trilogies: The Matrix (for Alternate Ending)

I’m writing a three-part series for ‘Alternate Ending‘ exploring blockbuster movies of the 2000s. It’s a trilogy about trilogies! A new entry comes out the first Thursday of the month from now until June.

“To be concluded.” These are the words that close out The Matrix Reloaded, and for this series – in which I argue for the 2000s as the peak of blockbuster cinema – they are invaluable. That the Wachowki sisters chose “concluded” instead of the more traditional “continued” is proof they saw trilogies as a distinct form of storytelling: one that allowed for larger ambition than a single movie, but was still designed to tell a finite story. A form of storytelling that was designed to end. This common denominator among the trilogies of this time period is also one of their greatest strengths. Compared to the franchise blockbusters of the 2010s, which are designed to continue on endlessly, these self-contained trilogies feel like the height of idiosyncratic, auteurist filmmaking. With that in mind, the case of the Matrix movies is particularly interesting as it stands alone among its peers for not being based on pre-existing material. In theory, this should have given the Wachowkis the freedom to steer their ship according to their own interests and expectations. In reality, the Matrix sequels were not only received with deep disappointment, but their infamous reception played a key role in ushering away the golden age of blockbuster trilogies.

When The Matrix hit hard and became an instant phenomenon in early 1999. The story of a computer hacker who leads a rebellion after discovering he’s been living in a simulation run by oppressive machines couldn’t have come out at a better point in time. Coming amidst the first internet boom, and on the eve of Y2K, the only thing that was more exciting than The Matrix‘s prescience was its incredible action sequences. Borrowing heavily from hong kong action cinema of the previous decades, it was a mix of martial arts brawls, maximalist shoot-outs, and “bullet time” set pieces that turned The Matrix into one of the most influential action movies in Hollywood history. Sequels were a no-brainer, but when The Matrix Reloaded arrived in Spring 2003, it was met with dubious disappointment. David Edelstein of Salon said the movie was “as messy and flat-footed as its predecessor is nimble and shapely.” Nathan Rabin of the A. V. Club lamented the Wachowskis were “so enthralled by the convoluted mythology of their own private universe that they’ve lost touch with its human core.”* Some reviewers held up hope for the third installment, but by the time The Matrix Revolutions concluded the trilogy that Fall, all hope had been lost. If Reloaded was too convoluted, Revolutions was an outright failure. Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Manohla Dargis wondered: “How did something that started out so cool get so dorky?”

CONTINUE READING AT ‘ALTERNATE ENDING’

Innocent Bystanders

About Endlessness
dir. Roy Andersson

Bad Trip
dir. Kitao Sakurai

There’s a scene in Roy Andersson’s new movie About Endlessness set at a fish market in which a man – who we infer must be a husband, an ex lover, or in some way connected – slaps a woman across the face. The people who surround them, both buyers and sellers, are paralyzed by this shocking event. They don’t understand what is happening, and more importantly, they don’t know what to do about it. Their inability to react allows the man to keep slapping the woman repeatedly. What seems like an eternity goes by until someone finally steps up and restrains the attacker. It’s a disturbing scene that captures the latent despair of everyday life.

Roy Andersson has always been very good at using duration in his movies. Ever since his 2000 movie Songs from the Second Floor he has been working within a very particular style. His movies are made up of seemingly unrelated vignettes that play out like a droll, deadpan, and sad version of sketch comedy. His characters are all covered in pale white makeup, looking more like corpses than living humans, and they move through a drab, monochromatic version of Sweden where life is engulfed by a thick cloud of existential dread. These movies are usually funny. Or at least, I found them funny. The scene in his 2007 movie You the Living n which a man announces then fails to perform the trick of pulling a tablecloth without breaking any of the cups and plates sitting on it remains one of the hardest I’ve laughed during a movie. This vignette represents Andersson’s work perfectly, not only because it’s a brilliant use of comedic timing (proof of Andersson’s preoccupation with duration) but because the laughter is tinged with the depressive melancholy that underlines Andersson’s work and worldview: not only does the man fail to perform the trick, but he will be judged and sentenced for it.

His latest movie, About Endlessness, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival back in 2019 and is finally being released in the U. S., struck me as the most depressive yet. It is the only one of his movies that I would not describe as a comedy. Not even a black comedy. There are plenty of scenes that poke at the norms of society, but even these scenes come across as even more pathetic and tragic than usual. One of the funnier scenes in the movie sees a man who goes to the dentist but refuses to get local anesthesia because of his fear of needles, then when the doctor tries to perform the operation the man wails in pain at the slightest touch of the drill. It is funny, but the visceral dread is too real to laugh. In previous movies, Andersson has included the odd scene that introduces a certain tenderness and warmth within the drabness. The closest we have to such a scene in About Endlessness comes when we see a trio of young women dance to an upbeat song hoping to impress some young men sitting at a table nearby. It’s a fun moment, but the song ends and the boys remain there, sitting. The moment passes. Nobody moves. Never before had I felt so unable to laugh during an Andersson movie, not even at the funniest parts.

In terms of duration, the length and the amount of incident in each of Andersson’s vignettes really stood out to me with this new movie. It’s not that his previous vignettes were particularly complex (they’re usually made up of one joke and play with duration, repetition, and extension of the joke in order to be more or less funny), but in this one the amount of things that happen in each vignette is minimal, almost non-existent. Throughout the movie a narrator tells us about things that she has seen: “I saw a man who lost his way”, for example, then we get a glimpse of the man and the situation. A lot of the time that glimpse is minimal. The shot can last for two or three minutes with nothing really happening in it. What’s more, all these events are all presented equally regardless of the degree of tragedy on display: being ignored by an old friend, feeling pain at the doctor’s office, or witnessing the murder of your own child are all flattened into sameness. Not only does the narrator act as an omniscient witness and recounter of these events, but almost all vignettes feature witnesses within – people standing to the sides who watch all of the injustices play out. From the trivial to the catastrophic, the presence of witnesses seems to be as tragic, if not more, than the events themselves.

As soon as I noticed this, my mind went to another recently released movie: the comedy Bad Trip, which seems to have been a hit for Netflix and stars the offbeat comedian Eric Andre. What I had seen of Andre’s adult swim show and stand-up special was the kind of boisterous, random, and surreal comedy that isn’t usually my thing, so I was both surprised and delighted by how much I loved Bad Trip. The conceit of the movie is that it was filmed as a hidden camera exercise. Andre plays a loser who teams up with his best friend (played by the always delightful Lil Rel Howery) to go on a cross-country trip from Florida to New York and reconnect with his childhood crush. Unknowingly, they are being followed by Howery’s vengeful sister, an ex-con played by Tiffany Haddish. This very simple conceit serves as the spine that allows the movie to detour into a series of hidden camera pranks that make up the real substance of the movie.

Getting drunk and projectile vomiting at a rodeo bar, getting your penis stuck in a finger trap, and being attacked by a gorilla at the zoo are some of the very gross, very funny pranks the movie forces unsuspecting real life people to witness. What is interesting is that throughout all the crassness, the people interacting with Andre and co. do not behave in the way that Andersson’s zombified by-standers do. A lot of the time, they go along with the characters’ ridiculous needs, and no matter how grotesque the prank, there’s always at least one person who steps up to help, take control, de-escalate the situation, and make sure everyone is alright. It is an unexpectedly heart-warming element to what is essentially a gross-out comedy, and I wonder if the filmmakers – Andre who co-wrote and produced and director Kitao Sakurai – were expecting this kind of behavior when they set out to film the project. The fact that the simple every day humanity on display comes naturally, unrehearsed, and seemingly at random lifts the spirit in a way that purposely heartwarming movies like the garbage that gets nominated for Oscars year after year simply cannot achieve. That it comes in such a tasteless, hilarious package makes the whole thing even more effective.

So how do we reconcile these two movies – both of which i think are very good? If Andersson’s vision of the world is a reflection of personal depression, it would be deeply ungenerous to invalidate it. I am not personally a depressive – at least not in a diagnosed clinical sense – but I have looked at the state of the world and felt a lot of despair lately. It is hard to see all the horrible things going on, let alone how little effort is being put by the powers that be to solve anything, and not feel like even darker days lie ahead. Still, in my personal day to day life I am able to wake up every day. I have the opportunity to be with people I love, to do things that make me feel happy, and to embark in projects that – no matter how trivial – I find rewarding. The contradiction in my life causes me much more distress and dissonance than the contradiction between the two movies, but they are related. And while I can’t fully reconcile all of these thoughts, I think the bystanders are essential to understanding them.

Let me go back to the first scene I described in this essay. After such a disturbing experience watching this man slap the woman again and again, the tension is finally released when someone steps up and takes action. In Bad Trip, the cringe comedy inherent to a prank that being pulled without people’s knowledge is also deflated by the real people who decide to act with conviction and warmth. This goes a step further when the credits roll and we see footage of the real life people learning that they had been on a hidden camera all along. The relief, the smiles, the laughter are immense. It is the elated feeling of control, of being able to take action, of feeling that things are possible. That’s the feeling that is absent in About Endlessness and that feels absent in so much of contemporary life. Whether Bad Trip is a mere exercise in manufacturing this feeling or proof that action and wellness are possible in our world, I’m afraid, won’t be answered any time soon.

Foreign Invader: John Woo

Today on Foreign Invader we are talking about maybe THE greatest action director of all time. John Woo started his career in Hong Kong where he became a pioneer of both the “heroic bloodshed” and “gun fu” genre with movies like A Better Tomorrow, The Killer and Hard Boiled. Then, he made a move to America, where he directed such action extravaganzas as Broken Arrow, Face/Off and Mission Impossible II. To talk about him i have a very special guest. Justin Decloux is a filmmaker, a film writer, a distributor, the host of FOUR different movie podcasts, and one of my favorite people on the internet. He is also a huge fan of action movies, and of John Woo in particular. It was a pleasure having him on the show, and I hope you enjoy the episode! 

Gangster Movies

I watched Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way for the first time last night. Long story short, I absolutely loved it, and it made me think of my hot-and-cold relationship to gangster movies as a whole. The gangster genre occupies an interesting place in cinephilia since it seems to be the only genre other than “superhero” that young male viewers care about. It’s partially this association with “film bro” culture that, for a while, kept me away from mobster movies. It wasn’t just that there are a lot of bad movies in this genre (especially the ones made recently), but that I fail to fully connect with even the grand masterpieces like The Godfather and Goodfellas (I respect them, of course, I just don’t love them.) That’s why the first things I did after watching Carlito’s Way was wonder why I loved it so much. What made this movie the exception in a genre I’m usually ambivalent about?

The moment I started to think about this, I remembered another unusual gangster movie I love: recent Criterion Project subject Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. When taken together, one similarity between the movies becomes obvious: style. It’s not, obviously, that The Godfather (with its beautiful chiaroscuro cinematography) and Goodfellas (with its bravura tracking shots) are lacking in the style department, but rather that while those movies defined the style we’ve come to expect from gangster movies, Carlito and Ghost Dog come at us with something unconventional.

Let’s start with Ghost Dog, which is directed by indie hipster Jim Jarmusch, and stars Forest Whitaker as an solitary hitman who lives in a shack on a rooftop, raises pigeons, and lives a strict live dictated by the ancient code of samurai warriors. When he comes out to society, it’s to “do jobs” for Louie, a past-his-prime Italian mobster who once upon a time saved Ghost Dog’s life. While quite violent, Ghost Dog follows in the deadpan, somewhat detached style that’s characteristic of a Jim Jarmusch movie. The movie is funny, whimsical, and quirky – even during the most violent scenes. It’s this refusal to differenciate between what’s funny and what’s serious – between comedy and tragedy – that attracts me so deeply to Jarmusch and his work. What makes Ghost Dog my favorite of his movies is seeing him apply this ethos to a genre that, ever since The Godfather, has preferred epic self-seriousness. (Incidentally, the blending of the tragic and the pathetic is also one of the reasons I love The Sopranos, which my friend Janno aptly describes as “a relatable show about lying to your therapist.”)

Carlito is a slightly different story. Brian De Palma is so stylish as a director that he’s often been accused of being nothing but. He is also, famously, a disciple of Alfred Hitchcock, meaning he’s obsessed with squeezing the maximum amount of suspense as he can out of every scene. He is also – like Hitchcock – a voyeur. He is obsessed with images, with gazes, and with observing people when they don’t know they’re being watched. All of this makes him a deeply sensational filmmaker, one whose mastery of what the French call mise en scene, intensifies all aspect of his filmmaking and makes for particularly thrilling sequences. Carlito’s Way has many tense, suspenseful scenes that build up to unexpected (or dreadfully expected) violence, but the last thirty minutes, in which the protagonist races to catch a train to freedom while being chased by murderous mobsters is some of the most heart-pounding filmmaking I have ever seen. So, while Carlito‘s is a grand, tragic story, De Palma’s knack for suspense make it stand out from the average gangster movie.

Style, however, isn’t enough to explain my love for this movie, given that De Palma himself has made gangster movies that I haven’t liked nearly as much. The Untouchables, about the operation to capture Al Capone, features many memorable set pieces, but it’s better described as a cop movie – it is told from the perspective of the FBI agents and is pretty much unambiguously on their side. The much more adequate comparison is to Scarface (pointedly, the reason I didn’t watch Carlito’s Way until last night is because it was so often described to me as a spiritual sequel to Scarface.) In Scarface, an unhinged Al Pacino plays a Cuban drug lord who climbs his way toward success and then, inevitable doom. I haven’t seen it in a long time, but I remember it being your average (if perhaps particularly violent) “rise and fall” story. In Carlito’s Way, however, a relatively restrained Al Pacino plays a Puerto Rican gangster who’s just been released from prison and is determined to clean up his life. His goal throughout the movie is to find an escape from the drug life – and he really tires to stay clean – but of course, there’s no escape form that life when that life is all you know. I wasn’t only thrilled by the final act of Carlito’s Way, but also deeply moved – I cared for Carlito in a way I hadn’t cared for almost any gangster protagonist. I even teared up a bit.

There’s both a stylistic and a thematic connection between my love for Carlito and Ghost Dog. They are stories about people who are trying to find goodness and meaning in their life. Ghost Dog, who seems deeply traumatized by a near-death experience has hardened his exterior and found survival in the strict Bushido code. When he’s not out killing people, we see him caring for his pigeons, reading with small children, and hanging out with a charismatic ice cream seller. There’s a tender side to him that hasn’t been to able to flourish in a dilapidated town where no industry exists other than mob violence. Carlito is on the other end of this equation, a man who is trying to escape the dark elements of his life. He, too, is trapped in a deeply corrupt and violent world. He is forced to play the game, even if all he wants is to escape, because there’s no other option. Why do I identify with these characters? Look at the world around us and tell me we don’t live in a deeply corrupt society that won’t allow an alternative other than to succumb to its morally bankrupt corporate exploitation?

What I see in these movies are characters who have been beaten and bruised by a tough world and who are desperate to find alternatives. The unstoppable power through which the system they live in ends up crushing them is as relatable as their quest for meaning. Is it a fatalistic view of the world? Probably, but I find more solace in clear-eyed fatalism than in cynical posturing that things are all right. That these two movies are masterpieces is not a question for me. The real question is why, if I love them, do I not also love Abel Ferrara’s deeply stylish and thematically similar King of New York? I guess that’s a question for another time.

Foreign Invader: Priyanka Chopra

Priyanka Chopra Jonas is most well known in America for being the wife of the Jonas brother Nick. What some people might not know, is that she is one of the biggest movie stars back in her home country of India. So, I wanted to take the opportunity to use this podcast to get a little more familiarized with the big stars of Bollywood, and what better way to do it than through the biggest crossover star we know in America. My guest to talk about this is someone who knows much more about Bollywood than I do. He is a writer and podcaster whose shows include Queer & Now (a podcast about queer cinema) and It Pod to Be You (a podcast about romantic comedies): it’s Manish Mathur!

Learn More about Bollywood through Manish’s writing:
https://talkfilmsociety.com/articles/10-essential-films-from-indian-cinema
https://talkfilmsociety.com/articles/10-essential-films-from-hindi-cinema-part-2
https://talkfilmsociety.com/articles/10-essential-films-from-hindi-cinema-part-3
https://jumpcutonline.co.uk/2020/06/12/an-introduction-to-eight-bollywood-auteurs/?fbclid=IwAR215dHN3FlzmW_bdKscuAxyWIXaIdzZpOiMK5fb1_C6uQpaZ0WDlYWKcHo

Criterion Project: Pierrot Le Fou

Season three of The Criterion Project begins with a momentous occasion! The wonderful Esther Ko joins us to witness the match of the century: Rachel Wagner vs. Jean-Luc Godard! Listeners of the show will know that not only is Godard’s Film Socialisme the gold standard for a “10” in the pretentiousness scale, but that said standard was defined by Rachel’s opinion that it is perhaps the worst movie she’s ever seen. We’ve been flirting with making Rachel watched some Godard for a while, so we take a look at one of the “early ones,” which are definitely far more accessible than his later stuff. I personally have very limited experience with Godard, and while I wasn’t crazy about Pierrot le Fou, it made me curious to look more into his career. Love him or hate him, his influence in the history of cinema is both undeniable and gigantic.