Thursday, March 14, 2013

Question for the Week of Mar 11-17: How'd it get past me?

What's something that often bothers you in film, but you gave a notable pass to? Why?
Nice one! I've talked about issues with film trends often before - misuse of minorities/overuse of Caucasian males as leads, women usually getting fewer and more limited (or confined) roles than are given to men... One particular peeve is that I don't like the attitude studios express in order to appeal to youths. I'm referring to a shallow, s---ty attitude - think Fox Network's treatment of sex, or the shallow garbage MTV shows its audience.

Or let's go with a quick survey of primetime TV, which tells that the US is obsessed with (a) talent competitions and (b) police procedurals wherein the population declines at a freakish rate.

In this case, though, I'm talking about a different nuisance: the portrayal of young people as being apathetic, bordering on lazy, and as not really having any morals or beliefs beyond "everything sucks."

Although I did not expound on my point when this post first went up, the trend that usually relies on those elements - at least some of them; other signs include (a) a jaded mentality whose apparent cause is either extreme (jump montage of child slavery!) or banal (dad skipped out, man!), (b) the sort of supreme self-centeredness common to one's teen years (justified by the film, of course), and/or (c) non-specific distrust of generally, people/life, or government - in a hollow attempt at saying "damn the man!" or "down with the system" way.

All this disaffected, malcontent mentality is not a bad thing all the time - only when the sentiment hasn't been earned by the film/actor, or it feels like the audience is being short-changed from a good story or decent characterization. It's a lousy (and mistaken) shorthand for stating that someone is "cool."

Example A: JJ Abram's Star Trek reboot. I didn't give it a full review, but I wrote a few paragraphs about it in an end-of-year post. The picture gives us shots of Kirk at the Starfleet Academy, but we don't really see him learning or working - at all; he stares at girls' asses, nearly gets some, and he relives that scene they talked about in Wrath of Khan.

This one did not get a complete pass from me. It was annoying to show that Kirk is just some rash loudmouth who is never to be seen working hard or taking anything seriously. Since I was ready for Abrams to screw the whole damn thing up in a moment anyway, I simply accepted its high school mentality. As I correctly guessed, there were many more reasons to criticize ST than this...

Example B: Tron 2.0's protagonist. He's wealthy, rides and repairs motorcycles, and is a CalTech dropout who stages annual pranks on his company to flip the bird to the man. And these pranks might involve social media, hacking software, and... BASE-jumping; and since that last sentence pretty much sums up his introduction to the story, as well as 85% of what we're shown about his character, it's pretty hard to argue that he's an attempt at appealing to youths.

This effort was a pathetic failure. As I wrote in my review, The Spawn of Flynn was jaded and bruised, but in a really generic way; at no point did he seem remotely interesting, nor remotely interested in anything. The plots in Tron 2 were abysmal to begin with, but the fake-deep bull---- in his dialogue was a real killer.

Example C: Iron Man. Wow, his character is pretty much straight out of the same page as Tron 2's Sam, the Flynn-Child.

Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark has agency, charm, and is actively engaged in doing things. He's not shoved into situations through which he reluctantly moves from one set to another. Then again, Iron Man also has a fine script, even while making its protagonist a conglomeration of every cliche of every jerk ever.

I was very much ready to despise the way that his character is not just on top, but constantly has his opulence flashed in front of the audience. It's like one of those celebrities who just can't be bothered to put on underwear. Or those MTV shows about kids who spend $250k on their Sweet Sixteen.

While I watched this picture, I was simultaneously dazzled as well as feeling thoroughly amazed that I was even responding to such a s---ty, one-note character. And though he's just a stereotype at the start, what happens to Stark at the beginning invests you in the character. Also, as mentioned before, he actually develops something like an ethos, and actively tries to do something.

Actually, I'm pretty sure that all of these were both reasons that I gave IM a pass, as well as reasons that I didn't give one to Iron Man 2. I haven't reviewed the first pic (yet), but my coverage of the sequel did discuss the lead's character in both films.

The first movie showed Stark's transition from spoiled teenager to spoiled-but-responsible adult (or maybe, quasi-adult). However, IM2 kept all the bling, while also resetting Tony's narcissism and emotional problems back to those of the first picture - sure, it allowed them to keep all the shiny stuff that shallow idiots are interested in, but it seriously undermined that whole "emotion and character arc" garbage that actually made the original Iron Man very touching...

In any case, this stupid mentality - which I'm dead-certain is largely about appealing to the youth demographic - is something that bothers me quite often. I've given you two examples of when it failed miserably for me, as well as one example where I just took it in stride. And now I have to re-read this whole thing a few times, just to make sure that I'm making some sort of sense...


  1. One of these things is really not like the others. Stark isn't lazy or apathetic: he's irresponsible and self-absorbed, but he has a job, he invents all of Stark Industries' technology, and he even makes sales trips. One of the coolest elements of the character is the mad scientist reverie he goes into when he's working through a scientific problem. He's gifted, and his talent is portrayed as natural "prodigy" genius, but it doesn't come without work. You don't see him studying, but you do see him tinkering, experimenting, even smithing.

    Also, I think you have a bad read on Iron Man II. While the movie's a shitshow for many of the other reasons you mention, Stark's central plot line is solid: far from regressing back to the irresponsible guy he was in the first movie, he's taken the responsibility of being Iron Man so seriously that it's killing him. Confronting his imminent death leads to some douchebag behavior (which admittedly could've been handled much better in the film) but it's an understandable extension of the character. If they'd kept the focus on that storyline, instead of jamming the film to the gills with more characters and plots, it could've been a poor man's Spider-Man II (this is actually high praise). Instead, it wound up being a less-bad Spider-Man III.

    The problem with the other two is that they didn't go far enough beyond the shorthand. In Tron: Legacy, Flynn Jr. was a complete cypher, the shorthand and some daddy issues was all there was to the character. In Star Trek, Abrams and his writers counted too much on our familiarity with the character: we're supposed to believe that this goofball is a great captain, despite everything we see on screen, because his name is James T. Kirk, and we remember that that guy was awesome.

    That made the whole development of going from "You're so suspended, we won't even call on you if there's a huge, galactic emergency!" to "I guess you're here now, so I'll make you third in command, ahead of all these other people who weren't facing expulsion," too hard to swallow. It'd be a hard sell if he was established as being a workaholic at the top of his class, instead the movie makes it look like Pike puts him in a position of authority based on intuition alone.

    If I had to choose a problem that gets a pass from me too often, I'd have to go with sexism. I've enjoyed a good number of movies despite female characters who are there just for show, who don't pass the Bechdel test, and/or are hackneyed tropes, just because the characters weren't central enough to the story to destroy my enjoyment. Olivia Wilde is practically a McGuffin in Tron: Legacy, but there are so many other things wrong with that movie that the fact that she could've been replaced with a glowing key card (or any other inanimate object) didn't really register. The only thing that did is that she looked nice in her skin-tight getup, and that yes, her action scenes were very insubstantial.

    1. You misread me, but just a little: for one, I'm not talking about issues that I consistently give a pass to, I'm talking about issues that almost always bug the hell out of me, and I happened to give them a break once.

      Also, while the lead character in Iron Man 1 is shown actually doing things, the blinged-out life and general playboyness and his "f the man" brashness - it's all incredibly immature, and I'm damned sure that it's used the way that it is in the picture to give Tony Stark a strong appeal to MTV-watching kids. Both pics *are* PG-13...

      You might be right in your read of IM2, but the way that it played out was that they simply reset the character to the pre-injury immaturity shown in the first pic. It could be because they packed too many things into the film, or it could just be because the writing of Stark's scenes wasn't strong enough to sell it to me. The movie had some possibilities, but it was an especial disappointment in the wake of how good Iron Man was...

      As to the others, Flynn the Younger isn't a cypher - he's a character with barely any character at all. The New James T. Kirk might be different because he would've grown up without at least one parent or something, but you're right to point out that they simply rely on us knowing things like "Kirk did well at Starfleet School" and "Kirk passed a test by cheating."

      And that's as much as I want to say about Star Trek, as Abrams thinks the audience is so f--king stupid that they'd believe a half-emotionless creature is asked to design a test that is supposed to make people feel fear; ugh!

    2. I'm still not sure the analysis of Iron Man works. Tony's immaturity comes from the comic, at least a decade before MTV was a twinkle in anyone's eye--he's Batman, but he doesn't fake a playboy lifestyle to maintain his secret identity, he actually lives it. In the first film, Tony's vices are decidedly old-school, virtually Rat Pack era: he drinks, he drives fast cars, he gets with dames, he shoots craps in a casino (contrast that with Flynn Jr.'s X-games style thrill seeking, the base jumping scene in Star Trek, and the James Bond series, which at various times featured such trendy bits as snowboarding, bungee jumping, and parkour as everyday secret agent activities). The immaturity in the second film reflects a bit of various Iron Man storylines, dating back to the 80s, where Tony's revealed to be an alcoholic--it's a completely different animal from the immaturity he had in the origin story.

      I could write a whole post on the absurdity of that Kirk/Spock Kobayashi Maru sequence. I probably should. The funny thing is despite that, this is still a film I like...


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