Sunday, July 23, 2017

Crazy about Dunkirk

Dunkirk is a typical Christopher Nolan movie, very well-made and engrossing but with glaring faults. For me the faults have been too many and too severe in the last two movies he's made. Interstellar was marred by confusing character motivations and an absurd "twist" ending. Dunkirk sinks by virtue of its terrible sound design and editing.

Why in the world is this story not told linearly? We have three storylines running at different paces converging on the same scene. Why? It was natural for Inception, when you had a dream within a dream within a dream. What purpose does it serve here, other than to rationalize introducing Tom Hardy's character an hour earlier? We see one character in one storyline appear in the next scene on another storyline the day before. This is not an "aha!" moment but a contrivance of the editing, which as far as I can tell has no justification other than the self-serving one of fooling the audience into thinking they found a missing tile to a puzzle. They only found it because the filmmakers hid it from them in the first place.

Why can I only understand one-fourth of the words the characters are saying to each other? The bass in the soundtrack is so loud it drowns out the dialogue. This issue has gotten progressively worse with each Nolan film dating back to The Dark Knight Rises.

It kills the tension when the characters do things that make no sense. Why did the group of trained soldiers get in an abandoned boat and not post a topside watch? Why do they assume the British will pick them up as they drift out to sea and not the Germans? The scene where they argued about throwing one of the soldiers off the boat to lighten the weight so the boat wouldn't sink was a shockingly bald attempt to concoct suspense and create a moral dilemma for the protagonist to distinguish himself. It's made worse by the fact that this argument occurs as hundreds of gallons of seawater come in through bulletholes in the hull. Was there not a single person involved in the production who told Nolan throwing one man off a bullet-ridden boat won't stop it from sinking? And it was weird that Harry Styles was gung-ho about murdering a fellow soldier, but he was chums with the protagonist a few scenes later. All's well that ends well, I guess, except for Styles' would-be victim who was left behind in the boat and drowned.

I can't overstate the failure of this scene. It defaces the whole movie. It's like when you're interviewing someone for a job, and they're pontificating about their field and sound competent, but then they say something so nonsensical that you wonder if everything they've done to impress you was staged or faked. That's what the kill-one-to-save-all scene does to an otherwise decent thriller. It was such a forced and dumb scene that it took me right out of the movie. I couldn't wait for it to end after that.

The threat of the Germans was not sustained during the beach scenes. One or two German planes do at most four runs at the beach during the movie, scattering little bombs in the sand. Many soldiers, including ones lying right next to the protagonist, don't get up. What killed them, falling sand? There's no gore, no screams, no close calls to justify the soldiers' fear or desperation. An R rating would have helped the movie in this regard, but it would have hurt the box office.

Kenneth Branagh's character is wasted staring grimly across the English Channel and delivering expository dialogue. He watches a ship sink literally yards away and stands still as a statue as his countrymen drown. Later a German plane dives straight for him and he doesn't move a muscle. Dude, take cover! Branagh's contract must have stated he couldn't break a sweat during filming.

Tom Hardy's plane glides without fuel for what seems like 15 minutes, then he lands down the beach from his compatriots and lets himself be captured by the Germans while the evacuation is underway. No reason is given for this.

Finally, the scale of the evacuation is underserved. It seems like there were only a few thousand soldiers on the beach. There were no more than 50 or so civilian boats visible during the rescue. The "miracle" of the evacuation is more told by Branagh than actually shown. Nolan's stubborn aversion to digital effects hurt the movie noticeably in this regard. This is a shame, since the civilian boats coming into Dunkirk was the sweetest moment in the movie's 107-minute runtime.

I wouldn't be writing this unless I thought Dunkirk was getting way more praise than it deserves. It doesn't hold a candle to other modern war movies like Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, or even Hacksaw Ridge. It's probably Christopher Nolan's worst movie, at best a tie with the silly and overlong Interstellar. We know he's capable of making great movies, but he's in a serious slump that the critics are abetting by unwaveringly singing his praises as each successive movie diminishes in quality.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Monuments madness

Liberals overreached trying to leverage Dylan Rooff's mass murder at a black church into a license to tear down historical monuments across the country. They make even the reviled KKK look reasonable. The white nationalists are right on this, and amazingly the New York Times can't help but portray them favorably to the violent counterprotestors in Charlottesville, whose totalitarian iconoclasm I fear much more than the Klan, from whom virtually nothing has been heard in 30 years.

The history cleansers first go after Robert E. Lee, defender of the Confederacy. Racist! Then they go after George Washington, slave owner. Very bad! They portray the Constitution as inherently evil by virtue of its association with the flawed past, as if the past at any point in time will not be inherently flawed by inherently flawed men. The order they seek to impose is completely free of sin, of course, because they, the culmination of centuries of progress, are sinless.

Will the iconoclasts eradicate the years before their ascendance and set their calendars to year 0 like the French Revolutionaries? We all know how that turned out for the French.

An element of liberal society seems unsatisfied with getting everything it has asked for, so now they are demanding more. The answer must be no, and any authorities who say yes need to be removed from their positions of influence and power. They will by their cowardice permit another civil war.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Force Awakens still sucks

Now that people have seen what a decent Star Wars movie looks like in Rogue One, maybe they will be more accepting of the flaws in the mediocre at best The Force Awakens. Here’s a recap of TFA’s worst transgressions, none of which mired Rogue One:

  1. Galactic stupidity. The First Order are chumps. The comic relief, Finn, outwits them. They’re easily defeated and are not menacing at all. But they’re smart enough to obliterate the even stupider New Republic in one strike.
  2. Ma-Rey Sue. She’s too perfect and not interesting as a character. She’s better at everything than everyone else. For no reason, other characters like and trust her immediately.
  3. Copied and pasted plot beats from the original trilogy. Read more here.
  4. The cheapening of the Force. Rey becomes an elite Force user with only a passing acquaintance of it. The light saber, an inanimate object, ”talks“ to her through the Force.
  5. Wide disconnect from Return of the Jedi. The Empire was defeated, but now they’re back. The Rebels were victorious, but they’re still rebelling. Luke is a hero, now he’s a coward who goes into hiding as the galaxy goes to pot again. Han and Leia are together, now they’re back to doing the same thing they were doing before A New Hope.
Related: ”Rogue One: The Second Failure At A Believable Female Lead,” Katie Frates

Thursday, August 11, 2016

How to not write a Star Wars movie

Relevant criticism of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by IMDb user lindewell:

Have you noticed that the script was so poor, the only way JJ Abrams found to move forward the story is to call for an airstrike. The intro sequence, we don’t get to know Lor San Tekka, why he got the map, etc., the First Order burns the village to the ground so we can’t expect any answer. When Rey meets Finn, they don’t have a minute to talk, the market gets bombed immediately and they have to flee in the Falcon. When they go to Maz castle, she doesn’t explain how she got the lightsaber, why does she know the Force, why she seems to know everything about Rey, boom, the first order bombs the castle so they can move on to the next sequence.

It’s like JJ and Kasdan would sit and wonder what will be happening next, and boom, let’s call an airstrike, some stormtroopers blasting shot and voila, next scene!

Jjlando adds:

I brought that up as an example of how Abrams uses action (and well-placed nostalgia fuel) in a scene to cover up the complete stupidity of the plot and characters.

Naturally the whole plot is going to feel contrived (and thus stupid) because the people behind the movie are primarily focused on rehashing ANH’s plot beats to play upon people’s nostalgia. Of course, this new plot has to be different enough so people don’t get the impression they’re watching a remake. A la we got a soft reboot masquerading as a sequel with a stupid plot. The entire premise being stupid, you get a trickle down effect of stupidity that shows up in every scene.

Kylo Ren kills Lor San Tekka immediately not because it is logical to the movie’s plot, but because they needed to emulate that scene from ANH where Vader chokes the Rebel captain to death on the Tantive IV. Poe jumps out and gets captured not because it is logical to the plot, but to emulate Leia getting captured, etc.

I’ll add to this. When Finn breaks Poe out of custody on the battle cruiser, a trusting relationship is struck up on the fly and they escape the First Order together. The scene tries to mirror A New Hope, where Luke, Han, and Chewbacca rescue Leia on the Death Star. Aesthetically, it’s the same scene, a wink at knowing fans. But in terms of the plot it doesn’t work. Luke name-drops Obi-Wan Kenobi and Leia trusts him. But she doesn’t trust him at first. “Aren’t you a little short to be a stormtrooper?” she says. For the scene to work in The Force Awakens, Finn basically tells Poe he’s defecting from the First Order and he’s saving Poe “because it’s the right thing to do,” and Poe is suddenly on his side. I can see Poe working with Finn until he’s safe from the First Order, then dumping him, but to entrust Finn with vital information about BB-8 as they’re making their getaway is a bit much.

Dig deeper and it gets worse. Why does Finn break Poe out of custody? Because he needs a pilot to escape the First Order. The logical place to look for a pilot would be among the First Order pilots whom he already knows, one that won’t be shot at the second he’s spotted. Finn could either find a First Order pilot who doesn’t like the First Order, like him, or he could lie to the pilot, baiting him with talk that he needs help on a secret mission. But Finn chooses someone who should be inclined to mistrust him and who will be impeded every step of the way by the First Order. In A New Hope, Luke, Han, and Chewbacca rescue Leia because she’s the one who sent the droids, which brought them together. There’s no such narrative justification in The Force Awakens for rescuing Poe, only meta-narrative rationalizations.

The problems with this sequence encapsulate many of The Force Awakens’s plot problems. Certain scenarios and character interactions intended to evoke original trilogy nostalgia are shoehorned into tight narrative corners where they don’t fit. The filmmakers try to compensate for the awkwardness with narrative speed. This just widens the disconnect between the story and the audience.

Another example of this is when Starkiller Base annihilates the Hosnian system, another narrative wink to A New Hope that makes no sense. Tarkin threatens to destroy Alderaan to get Leia to reveal the whereabouts of the rebel base. He knows her emotional connection to her defenseless home planet is strong. She tries to deceive him, but he sees through her lies and destroys Alderaan. In The Force Awakens, there’s no reason given for destroying the Hosnian system, or for having not destroyed it already. It’s simply “time” to do it, as if it’s some sort of Plan B in case Plan A, finding Luke Skywalker, fails, which it did, for about 10 minutes. Why don’t they just wait for the Resistance to lead them to Luke, then blow up the planet he’s on? Actually, why not blow up the planet that the map is on, preventing anyone from ever getting in touch with Luke? More fundamentally, why is finding Luke a priority at all, if you can wipe away a whole system in one broad stroke? In A New Hope, finding the Death Star plans had a mortal bearing on the bad guys’ chief motivations and interests. Why the bad guys’ search for Luke in The Force Awakens? Just because. That they realize this halfway through the movie is sloppy screenwriting.

There are more plot artifices to justify this turn in The Force Awakens’s second act to focus on Starkiller Base. R2-D2 is said to have the rest of the map that makes sense of the map that BB-8 carries, but it can’t be accessed because R2-D2 has been dormant or something since Luke disappeared. How R2-D2’s galactic map remains inaccessible is beyond explanation. As is R2-D2’s “waking up” after the main battle to provide the whole map that enables them to track down Luke. Great timing, R2!

Back to Starkiller Base. Past experience shows that your superweapon is good for, at best, one calamitous shot before it’s attacked. At least in Return of the Jedi, the emperor uses subterfuge to lure the rebels into a risky two-pronged attack against a Death Star that is—surprise!—operational after all, and can turn its fire on spacecraft. Indeed, you could argue the second Death Star, anchored to its force field generator on Endor, is intentionally built to bait the rebels. The First Order show no such ingenuity. They incompetently alert the whole galaxy to Starkiller Base’s existence while giving the entity best equipped to hurt them—the Resistance—time to muster an attack. (There’s also no explanation for why the New Republic was unprepared for the attack, given their enemy’s track record with superweapons and their superior defenses, compared to Alderaan.)

The heavy hand of the filmmakers’ nostalgia binge weighs constantly on the characters actions, often contradicting their motivations. What’s worse is the overbearing nods to the original trilogy fail beyond a superficial level. The filmmakers copied and pasted specific plot elements into a new story with new characters, rejiggered the sequence and character motivations, and hoped it would make sense. It doesn’t.

Years ago I wrote a book called Murder On Mars. It took me 2 years to finish. However, the book I finished writing wasn’t the book I set out to write. Conceptually the end was completely different from the beginning. I had to redesign the setting, the characters, and their relationships. Whole scenes would have to be rewritten if not cut altogether. Problem was I loved those scenes I wrote earlier in the book and I wanted to find a way to leave them in. So I started adding layers to the plot, exceptions to the rules and exceptions to exceptions to the rules. Eventually I found myself juggling four different narratives in the course of one conversation between two people, just to preserve certain lines of dialogue and feelings they felt as they talked. I rewrote some scenes five times before they made sense—never mind whether they were enjoyable—then I would remember the whole setup of one such scene or sequence of scenes was an artifact from the plot I was supposed to have abandoned. It was terrible! I spent 4 years trying to make it work before giving up. Now I know: Don’t write a scene until you know how it fits in the story. If you do, it feels artificial and disjointed. A scene’s place in the story dictates how it should be written. The makers of The Force Awakens violated that rule over and over again.

(Not to mention the badly designed characters, bad dialogue, bad acting, and plot contrivances that marred this movie.)

Friday, August 5, 2016

“Pro-lifers” for Hillary

I have issues with Rachel Held Evans’s doctrineless brand of Christianity, which I think is a result of her unwillingness to present the hard parts of faith for fear she’ll be rejected, and of a fear of the truth that the Way is narrow (Matthew 7:14), meaning many will not have eternal life. So, she fashions a less “judgy” faith that doesn’t alienate the liberal zeitgeist. At her blog she argues that a pro-life person should vote for Hillary Clinton, pro-choice candidate for president, for “pragmatic” reasons. Here’s the crux of her argument:

In the eight years since we’ve had a pro-choice president, the abortion rate in the U.S. has dropped to its lowest since 1973. I believe the best way to keep this trend going is not to simply make it harder for women to terminate unwanted pregnancies but to create a culture with fewer unwanted pregnancies to begin with. Data suggests progressive social policies that make healthcare and childcare more affordable, make contraception more accessible, alleviate poverty, and support a living wage do the most to create such a culture, while countries where abortion is simply illegal see no change in the abortion rate.

First, the good. Evans is right that there should be more to being pro-life than outlawing abortion. I pointed this out to Ezra Klein years ago. The pro-life movement is grounded in an overarching ethos that honors conservative sexual ethics and family life, views that sync with man’s fundamental nature. Extolling any means of reducing abortions without recognizing man’s fundamental nature, or that doesn’t address man’s fallenness, misses the point.

Now the bad. Evans’s use of the term “unwanted pregnancies” is telling. This is a term of our promiscuous culture that takes for granted that people will have sex heedless of the reproductive consequences. It’s hypocritical to call a pregnancy “unwanted” when the sex act that foreseeably led to it was very much wanted. The most direct cure for pregnancy is to not have sex. But the cool kids laugh at you when you say this, and Evans wants to be one of the cool kids.

Evans presents “progressive social policies” that the data presumably show practically reduces abortions. The problem is big government policies like Obamacare have made healthcare more costly, not less. Poverty-fighting programs like the Great Society wasted trillions of dollars and cultured a permanent disaffected, dislocated underclass. Minimum wage laws kill jobs. Big government makes families weaker, not stronger.

The worst part of her policy prescription is “making contraception more accessible.” Disregarding for a moment that contraceptives are cheap, how is incentivizing licentiousness a legitimate venture of government, especially in a society shared with abstinent people. Contraceptives proliferation furthers the fantasy of heedless sex, while at the same time leading to suicidally low reproductive rates. Evans’s pro-life views are unmoored from a procreative model couched in chastity and marriage. If she finds that model unrealistic, fine. But Jesus’ punishment for our sins is an enormous power that transforms lives. It would be a shame to undervalue it.

All of this ignores the fact that there were far fewer abortions before 1973, the year the Supreme Court struck down state abortion bans. If Evans was really interested in reducing the number of abortions, she’d call for less availability to abortion, like in the ’50s. But to the cool kids, the ’50s are irredeemable.

Finally, if you’re genuinely pro-life, how can you reconcile with a candidate whose philosophy enshrines the pregnant woman as the arbiter of life? This has always been the two movements’ irreconcilable difference. One believes in the universality and sanctity of life, the other in the universality and sanctity of choice. To one side, choice is illegitimate; to the other, it is primary. If abortions spiked to 3 million per year, pro-choicers like Clinton who believe their own arguments wouldn’t bat an eye.

Evans believes in “sacred personhood” but it doesn’t translate into a coherent argument about why choice is illegitimate. Evans is saying abortion is a choice dictated by the mother’s circumstances, so let’s improve the circumstances. But, if a woman, no matter her circumstances, wants to kill her unborn child, what will Evans say? Rather, what will her vote for pro-choice candidates say?

Related: “Christian writer Rachel Held Evans falsely claims Christians should vote for Hillary Clinton,” Michael New.