Logan transcends the “superhero movie”

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Much has been said about Logan. Many have praised it, discussed its R-rating, and noted that it’s Hugh Jackman’s last turn as a character he’s played for the past seventeen years. The trailers for this film raised my hopes high and the end product more than delivered. But those expecting just another entry in the X-Men franchise will no doubt be disappointed with this unusual film.

Logan a departure from the tried-and-true superhero movie formula, with its pared-down cast, simplified plot, and exploration of some essential questions that have eternally plagued humanity. If this doesn’t sound like X-Men: Days of Future Past, that’s because it’s not. It’s a contemporary western. It’s a character study. And I’d even go so far to say that it’s art.

At their core, westerns are about good versus evil, which is why the classic westerns like High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953) still hold up today. Later westerns still explored this theme but moved away from black-and-white morality and served up morally ambiguous leads like Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. Jackman follows Eastwood’s lead beautifully, presenting us with a man weighing what he’s done against what he must do. Previous X-Men films reveal Logan’s tragic, violent origins and follow his journey to come to terms with his identity. He is gifted with extraordinary destructive power, but chooses to use it for good, as best he can.

Screen Shot 2017-03-18 at 11.46.56 PM.pngFast-forward to Logan, to the year 2029, where the makeshift family Wolverine built over the years is gone, and the hope that he could change the future for the better has dried up. Gone is the higher calling and the noble causes that Charles Xavier instilled in him. His existence is now about day-to-day survival and dulling the ever-present physical pain that signals his nearing end.

If this sounds unbearably bleak, think of the countless Westerns that begin the same way. The washed-up, once-legendary hero is a mainstay of the genre, as is the introduction of a youth who forces the hero out of his rut and into action again. Enter X-23 (a stellar Dafne Keen), who evokes memories of True Grit‘s Mattie Ross in her ability to keep a grizzled old man in line. While the film (unsurprisingly) doesn’t much indulge in sappy or lighthearted sentimentality, rest assured that it does have its share of laughs and heartwarming moments. Remember another Western mainstay: passing the torch on to the next generation as the old hero rides off into the sunset.

The X-Men films have to date been characterized by an expansive cast of characters and at times convoluted plot-lines (characteristics of stories told across hundreds of comic issues penned by dozens of authors). In Logan, there are big things going on in the background, sinister machinations that threaten the lives of many, but they’re ancillary to the real focus of the film, which is Logan the man. In Logan, we have a flawed individual, extraordinary but fallible, irascible but ultimately caring. We see him at the end of his life, struggling with his mistakes and shortcomings, and seeing his flaws reflected back at him in the form of a young girl. Logan ultimately concerns itself with the fate of this man and this child, which, I think, is what most notably separates it most from the run-of-the-mill “superhero” flick.

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Typically, in the Marvel and DC movies we know, the fate of the world is at stake (or at least the fates of hundreds or thousands of lives) and the final act of the film is a big city-destroying showdown that averts the massive crisis du jour. In Logan, we don’t cap things off with a scene of large-scale destruction, nor do we get to know the ultimate fate of the scorched, bleak America of 2029. This is a film set on a much smaller scale, a character study wrapped in a simple narrative. The simplicity of the story (deliver person from Point A to Point B and outrun bad guys) allows the film room to breathe and to ponder some Big Questions.

Humans have always and will always be preoccupied with thoughts of how and when their lives will end. As such, a film about an aging legend facing death is nothing new, but, thanks to the added element of mutant powers, Logan explores this concept through an interesting lens. What happens when a person who is effectively immortal finally starts to succumb to old age and decay? And in the case of Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), what does the loss of one’s mind mean to the owner of the most extraordinary mind on the planet?

Fantastical elements aside, Logan tackles age-old questions familiar to anyone with a beating heart. Who are we when we lose what we think defines us? What legacy do our choices leave behind? Will we do the right thing, even if it means sacrificing everything we have? This is why I call this movie artful and even poetic. It raises these difficult questions and explores them, but doesn’t presume to have all the answers. We are left to turn over these questions in our minds after the credits roll, and, really, isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Challenge us, make us think? The ability to get at the heart of human existence is what elevates a piece of media and makes it endure throughout the ages.

Logan is no mere “superhero movie.” It’s so much more.

 

-Alyssa

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Hunt for the Wilderpeople and Taika Waititi’s signature style

Taika Waititi has rapidly become one of those directors whose work I will go see simply because his name is attached to it. His 2014 indie horror comedy What We Do In the Shadows and his work with Flight of the Conchords has cemented him in my mind as a brilliant writer who knows how to highlight the mundane hilarity in the absolutely absurd.

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Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016), based on the book by Barry Crump, follows the exploits of a delinquent, wannabe gangster (Julian Dennison) who is placed in the care of a couple (Sam Neill and Rima Te Wiata) living out on the edge of the New Zealand bush. Through a series of losses and misunderstandings, the boy, Ricky, and his “Uncle” Hec become stranded in the wilds and accidentally spark a national manhunt.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is Secondhand Lions meets Up meets Moonrise Kingdom. It’s got Wes Anderson-esque elements: an excellent soundtrack, quirky characters, and chapter titles appearing onscreen. But it manages to stay more grounded and avoid the dollhouse artifice that defines Anderson’s style. Instead, Waititi’s all about little moments between his small cast of characters, which makes it feel more like the first two movies than the third.

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Director Taika Waititi on the set of Hunt for the Wilderpeople

The film definitely has moments of deep melancholy, but they are balanced by genuinely heartwarming and hilarious moments. The whole “two lost souls filling a gap in each others’ lives” trope should be clichéd, but Waititi plays it well, never letting it slide too far into saccharine territory. Also, the side characters that pepper the film inject moments of pure side-splitting glee into the story. The best ones include Rachel House as a Child Services agent with Terminator-like determination, Rhys Darby as a tinfoil hat-wearing recluse, and Waititi himself as an awkward minister spouting baffling analogies about Jesus.

Waititi started small, but soon, we’ll see his handiwork play out on one of the biggest cinematic stages to date: the Marvel Universe. He’s the director of Thor: Ragnarok, which comes out this November. The news that he was helming this flick ratcheted my anticipation levels from “Meh” (following the forgettable Thor: The Dark World) to an enthusiastic “Sign-Me-The-Heck-Up.”

The “Team Thor” short that aired while Captain America: Civil War was in theaters encapsulates that Taika-esque tone that pervaded Shadows and hopefully gives us a taste of what we can expect from Ragnarok.

When asked in an interview what elements of his distinctive directorial style will make their way into Ragnarok, Waititi replied, “what I want the audience to leave the cinema carrying with them is a sense of joy, really.”

That sums up his work pretty darn well, I’d say. And I’m all about it.

 

-Alyssa

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PAC is back!

Back in 2014, I announced that I had joined a publishing group called Paper Animals Collective. We published a collection of short stories around Valentine’s Day called Perspectives on Love.

Now, we’ve added a fourth member to our crew and are back in the publishing saddle. Our latest effort, called Sunsets, is a collection of poems accompanied by some fantastic artwork done by the very talented Theresa Hultberg. The best part? It’s all free to download! Get it here, and enjoy some talented writers’ sunset-inspired poems.

We’ve also started a blog here on WordPress, where the four of us will be taking turns sharing our thoughts on whatever strikes our fancy. I wrote a post recently about making Spotify playlists and how the process of compiling songs relates to the writing process.

That was a very link-heavy post, but there’s a lotta cool stuff going on that I had to share! In other news, it’s almost Halloween, and there’s a new Homestar Runner Halloween toon, so all is well.

-Alyssa

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Stranger Things: Nostalgia Done Right

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Before I sat down to watch the new Netflix-exclusive series Stranger Things, I asked my friend—who was already a few episodes in—what the show was about.

He answered my question with a question. “What do you think makes a good nostalgia piece?” he asked.

I had to stop and think. The first thing to come to mind was not well-done nostalgia, but its opposite. I thought of the 2011 novel Ready Player One, or as I think of it, “Hey, Remember That?: The Book.”

Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One is set in 2044, and follows the exploits of characters completely immersed in a virtual reality world à la Second Life. The creator of this virtual world was obsessed with the decade of his youth, the 1980s, and injected his geeky obsessions into his world. He creates a Dungeons & Dragons-style quest for the denizens of his virtual world to complete, and this quest requires an encyclopedic knowledge of all the bits of nostalgia he himself adored. And so, the teen protagonists of the novel think, speak, and breathe John Hughes and Atari references.

As a kid, I remember struggling away at the Atari game Adventure and teaming up with my brother and cousins to beat Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the SNES. I jammed out to 80s synth pop and laughed at Monty Python until my sides hurt. Ready Player One seemed tailor-made for me. So why didn’t I love it?

Because, frankly, it made me feel like Terry Jones in this famous Monty Python sketch:

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Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more!

As an audience member, I hate being winked at. It’s a cheap, quick way for the author or director to attempt to forge a connection with his or her audience. To me, it always feels lazy, and it never feels earned. So even when Cline inserts a reference to Oingo Boingo, one of my all-time favorite bands, it’s not enough to get me on board. Yes, I got the reference. Annnnd….?

So, what makes a good nostalgia piece?

“It’s… subtle,” I finally said. “It’s more than broad references to pop culture. It’s in the details in the background—the patterns on the couch, the color of the walls.”

At this, my friend silently leveled a finger at me. Bingo.

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Promotional art for Stranger Things

Stranger Things, the brainchild of twin brothers Matt and Ross Duffer, is the epitome of nostalgia done right. The show begins in the small town of Hawkins, Indiana in 1983 and with a group of boys, maybe ten or twelve years old, immersed in a game of Dungeons & Dragons. The campaign ends and the boys all return home—all except one. Will, the smallest and most sensitive of the group, has a run-in with a mysterious horror on the road and vanishes into the night. As Will’s friends, his family, and the town’s police chief dig deeper into his disappearance, they uncover a government conspiracy, a strange girl with stranger powers, and a threat from beyond their plane of existence.

As the supernatural horror tale unfolds, its influences become clear. E.T. The Goonies. Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Firestarter. Aliens. Shades of each of these pieces inform the sensibilities of the show, but never overshadow the show’s unique flavor.

Matt Duffer sums it up simply in an interview: “It was like, ‘We love Stephen King and we love Spielberg and John Carpenter and we love Silent Hill’ and so we were trying to infuse [Stranger Things] with all the things that we love.”

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Winona Ryder in Stranger Things

“Infuse” is the key word here. The Duffer brothers’ love of these pieces of media is clear, and they’re right to draw inspiration from the things they love. But instead of just referencing a litany of movies or musicians from the 80s, they infuse these things into the world to flesh it out and make it feel lived-in and real.

Yes, I had many moments of gleeful geekery when I caught references sprinkled throughout the show. At one point, Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” softly emanates from a character’s car radio. And at another, the iconic movie poster for The Thing leans against a basement wall. But that’s the thing—these little nuggets are in the background. They don’t comprise the meat of the show, but rather exist to enhance it.

And that subtlety I mentioned earlier? It’s there in spades. One look at any of the characters’ living rooms, and you’re instantly transported to this suburban neighborhood circa 1983. The patterns, the color schemes are all on-point. And all this detail, inexorably tied to time and place, heightens the story’s authenticity. Cold War paranoia pervades the small Indiana town where everyone knows everyone. Kids communicate via walkie-talkies. Teens sneak over to their friend’s house and shotgun cans of Schlitz when their parents aren’t home.

The strength of Stranger Things is in its tight storytelling, its fascinating world, and its complex, charming characters. The Duffer brothers understand that reference without substance, without synthesis into something new, is as empty and unsatisfying as [insert 80s reference here].

 

-Alyssa

 

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Horror Cinema Over the Years

I’ll be the first to brand myself a weenie when it comes to spooky stuff, but relatively recently, I’ve become more fascinated with the horror genre. I think it’s the psychological aspect of it that intrigues me. Why do we fear what we fear? What part of what scares us is rooted in primal, evolutionary mechanisms, and how much is learned? How do different cultures manifest their anxieties?

One thing’s for sure: horror has been around as long as we’ve been telling stories. This much becomes evident in the mesmerizing video by Diego Carrera called “A History of Horror,” which chronicles some of cinema’s most iconic scares from the advent of film to present day. It’s fascinating to watch the progression of frights from pure spectacle to more sophisticated psychological horror.

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We use art and pop culture as a means of discussing and understanding the questions and fears that plague us. And although entries in the horror genre are often placed on a lower rung of the proverbial pop culture ladder, we can use these works as a means to explore the recesses of our cultural consciousness. Recent flicks like It Follows and The Witch have deftly subverted and redefined genre conventions, proving that there is still much to explore within this familiar realm.

Plus, it’s just fun to be spooked sometimes.

-Alyssa

 

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Hamilton: A Masterful Musical

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Yes, I’m most definitely late to the party, but I intentionally put off listening to this musical until after I had wrapped up my master’s degree. You see, once I heard that Hamilton’s main components were musical, hip-hop, and history, I knew I would be hooked, and would need ample time to obsess over it.

Turns out I know myself well. When I finally got around to checking it out, I listened to it three times in as many days.

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The musical, penned by and starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, hit Broadway in August of 2015 and tells the story of Alexander Hamilton, a man who fought for and helped form America into the nation we know today. It sports dazzlingly deft lyrics, plenty of powerful moments, and a skillful repetition of motifs that merit repeat listenings to get the full effect. Much has already been said about the musical, and really, it speaks for itself, so I’ll just offer up a few moments that I particularly enjoyed:

  • The three songs sung by King George III to the colonies, taking place during the revolution, immediately after the revolution, and after George Washington’s presidency. They’re written to sound like break-up songs and they’re just tons of fun. Jonathan Groff plays the most delightfully simpering king this side of Jesus Christ Superstar’s King Herod.
    Oceans rise, empires fall. We have seen each other through it all. And when push comes to shove, I will send a fully-armed battalion to remind you of my love!”
  • “Dear Theodosia,” a song for two characters who just became fathers. I’ve never been a parent, but I feel that this song captures the overwhelming love, wonder, and devotion a new parent must experience.
    “When you smile, you knock me out, I fall apart and I thought I was so smart.
    We’ll give the world to you and you’ll blow us all away.”
  • Portraying cabinet meetings as rap battles. Tensions are high in the afterbirth of a new nation. Heads butt and tempers flare as individuals clash and try to determine what kind of country America will be. (That’s another thing this musical does well: it reminds us how personal and messy politics are, thus transforming the idealized versions of the Founding Fathers we knew into real people with flaws, emotions, and agendas.)
    If we assume the debts, the union gets a new line of credit, a financial diuretic. How do you not get it? If we’re aggressive and competitive, the union gets a boost. You’d rather give it a sedative?”
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  • “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” the final song of the musical, a heart-wrenching, cathartic testament to legacy, to wonderings of what makes a life well-lived, to the impact we can make on the world in the short time we’re given.
    And when my time is up, have I done enough? Will they tell my story?”

Hamilton is not only an achievement of musical theater, but also of American history and storytelling. It draws cultural attention to an important figure in our nation’s history who, until now, was known mainly for the duel that claimed his life. Were it not for Miranda’s transformative work, I would never have known that Alexander Hamilton’s story is the quintessential immigrant story—a rags-to-riches tale with the pathos of a Greek tragedy.

-Alyssa

Bonus: A really cool Wall Street Journal article that breaks down the rhyme structure used throughout Hamilton with vibrant graphics and an algorithm

Bonus, Part II: Lin-Manuel Miranda and I share the same favorite podcast (My Brother, My Brother and Me) and slipped one of the brothers’ catchphrases into Hamilton as a subtle send-up. MBMBaM fans can listen for it in the track “We Know.”

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Zootopia: A return to greatness for Disney

zootopia-movie-posterI’ll be the first to admit that I had little to no interest in seeing Zootopia after the first and even the second trailer came debuted (a DMV run by sloths is a funny gag, but not enough to sustain a two-and-a-half minute trailer). Quite simply, it looked like a concept that had been done a million times before: anthropomorphic characters living in a human-less society. However, to my genuine delight and surprise, the trailers simply didn’t do the film justice. There’s a lot to love about Zootopia.

Zootopia is one of those rare films that equally enjoyable for kids and adults. It was clever enough to keep me laughing throughout (no gross-out humor or mean-spirited snark to be found), and had enough pathos to bring a tear to your eye. The world (particularly the sub-biomes within the city itself) is lush and vibrant. Basically, Zootopia knocks visual and emotional appeal straight out of the park.

The basic plot is thus: two main characters, Judy Hopps, a rookie bunny cop, and Nick Wilde, a con-artist fox, find themselves embroiled in a Chandlerian mystery involving missing mammals. They must delve into the seedier sides of the supposedly idyllic Zootopia and confront not only nefarious critters, but also the prejudices that come along with living in such a diverse society. Surprise, surprise: in a world where wolves and sheep live side-by-side, there’s some friction.

What impressed me most was how deftly the film uses its subject matter to drive discussions about race, prejudice, and stereotyping. Judy has to overcome the hurdle of being the first bunny cop, and all the roadblocks that come along with it: being underestimated, being talked down to, and dealing with those who see her as a “token bunny” hire.

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Judy isn’t the only character facing negative stereotypes. As a predator, Nick has had to deal with comments like, “He’s just naturally aggressive. It’s in his DNA,” his whole life. After a traumatizing childhood incident, Nick becomes cynical about the idea of peaceful co-existence, deciding that if the world will only ever see him as predatory and untrustworthy, then there’s no point in trying to change anybody’s mind.

One of my favorite parts of the movie is that the writers didn’t make Judy a perfect beacon of tolerance and acceptance just because she’s fighting against prejudice herself. Despite how open-minded she tries to be, she still carries negative stereotypes about foxes (note: much of her prejudice is passed down to her by her parents) and, when she first sees Nick, she automatically assumes he’s up to no good (which he is, but that’s not the point). And, after her first interaction with Nick, she even slips into a bit of condescension herself, complimenting him on how “well-spoken” he is. The film drives home the point that racism and prejudice is something we all learn, and all have to work to unlearn.

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Zootopia deserves praise for refusing to slap an easy ending onto a complex story question. The film could have ended as so many other Disney films have, with a nice but simplistic message such as, “Follow your dreams and everything will work out.” In fact, the film cheekily derides that easy sentiment by having characters spout off lines like, “Life isn’t some cartoon musical where you sing a little song and all your insipid dreams magically come true.” The movie drives home the point that yes, you can step out of traditional roles and break down stereotypes, but it is a process, both difficult and extremely worthwhile.

On top of being a funny, gorgeous, highly entertaining movie, Zootopia has a great message and a lot of heart. I’m gonna close with the film’s concluding monologue and let you decide if this movie is worth your time. It was absolutely worth mine.

I thought this city would be a perfect place where everyone got along and anyone could be anything. Turns out, life’s a little bit more complicated than a slogan on a bumper sticker. Real life is messy. We all have limitations. We all make mistakes. Which means, hey, glass half full, we all have a lot in common. And the more we try to understand one another, the more exceptional each of us will be. But we have to try. So no matter what kind of person you are, I implore you: Try. Try to make the world a better place. Look inside yourself and recognize that change starts with you.

 

-Alyssa

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