On Decoding

Monty Python had a skit in which Graham Chapman was a guest on a talk show, and when he was introduced as “Raymond Luxury Yacht,” Chapman gently corrected, “It’s spelt ‘Luxury Yacht’ but it’s pronounced ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove’.” It’s a funny punchline not only because the names are so ridiculous but because it’s seemingly out of nowhere; who reads ‘Luxury Yacht’ as ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove’? Those letters don’t make those sounds, not even in a liberal interpretation. Right?

I promise I’m not changing subjects when I mention that, in getting a degree in cultural media studies, we talked a lot about encoding and decoding texts (“texts” being our word for any film or television, whether a scene, an episode, or an entire series). It’s simple, if narrow-minded, to say there’s only one correct way to interpret something. It’s facile, however, to say there’s no wrong way to do so. You can’t [reasonably] look at ‘Luxury Yacht’ and decide it really means ‘Throatwobbler Mangrove.’

Almost anyone who went to school has a story of a lit teacher who had very fixed ideas about the symbolism or imagery in a book or poem. Something they’d been taught, or something they especially felt invested in for whatever reason… Maybe they’d read a biography of the author and had drawn a conclusion based on information about the writer’s life. Whatever. Film and television fans can be just as aggressively rigid about how they see and interpret what they watch. And the more they love a show or movie, the more they dig in. At least in my experience. If and when another viewer, or even a writer or actor or producer on the show or movie, contradicts them, these fans double down. They insist that their reading of the text is valid. (Sometimes they insist that theirs is the only valid interpretation.)

The wonderful thing about books and films and television programs is that they are open to a variety of insights, and once they leave the authors’ hands, the writers (and actors, and directors, and producers) no longer truly own them. What’s encoded is one thing, but what’s decoded is truly personal and therefore necessarily biased. This is why fans fight so hard—because validation of their reading is a kind of validation of self.

BUT. As with Luxury Yacht vs. Throatwobbler Mangrove, not all interpretations are reasonable. In this day and age, when people readily consider their personal opinions to be as valid as hard facts, this statement can be difficult to swallow. Yes, you are allowed to see whatever patterns you like in the wallpaper, but sometimes the patterns really aren’t there, no matter how much you insist they are. You’re desperate for the wallpaper to be yellow stripes—you love yellow stripes—but if it’s pink flowers… Trying to convince others it’s really yellow stripes is a waste of time and energy. You’re only going to end up frustrated and angry because you’re trying to turn what’s there into something that it isn’t.

This is, one supposes, where the joy of fan fiction comes in. When writing fanfic, one can change the wallpaper and make it whatever one wants it to be because there really are no rules. If you want to pronounce Luxury Yacht as Throatwobbler Mangrove, in fanfic you can. You might even find other fans who will nod and say, “That’s a neat way to read it.”

As for the primary text, the source text, whatever you want to call it… There are rules. They’re pretty flexible, but they do have limits. In sketch comedy, you can turn Luxury Yacht into Throatwobbler Mangrove. But if you were watching an actual news program and someone said that? It wouldn’t fly.

Movies: Hereditary

I don’t particularly like horror movies; I have a very low tolerance for gore. But I’d heard this one was good and not too bloody, so…

It still had some pretty gross moments, let me tell you. But it was interesting, and fairly intense if you like that kind of thing.

Toni Collette plays Annie, whose mother has passed away. Then her daughter also dies in an accident. As Annie grapples with these tragedies, she meets a woman named Joan (Ann Dowd, somewhat typecast) in her grief group. Joan shows Annie how to contact the dead, and things go from there.

Annie is also an artist who creates disturbing dioramas. The movie hints at her mother having been crazy, and so maybe Annie has inherited (get it?) whatever genetic disposition made her mother a nutjob.

Then the question becomes how much of what is happening is actually supernatural, and how much of it is Annie.

Which would have been great if the movie had left it there. But it insists on going a bit further and answering these questions. And while I can appreciate the final result, I think a bit more ambiguity would have actually made the whole thing more compelling.

As it was, however… Yeah. Pretty damn creepy.

Movies: Spider-Man: Far From Home

Starring: Tom Holland, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya
Directed by: Jon Watts
Screenplay by: Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers
Sony/Marvel, 2019
PG-13; 129 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

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I’ve mentioned many times that I suffer from superhero movie fatigue. I’m at the point where I’m not really sure why I’m still going to these movies, except that my family loves them… And then I start to think I’ll somehow miss out if I don’t go too. Truth is, some of them are pretty good. And of all of them, I think I enjoy the Spider-Man ones the most.

In this movie, Peter Parker (Holland) just wants to enjoy his school trip to Europe. He’s hoping to use the science trip as a backdrop for a declaration of love to MJ (Zendaya). All that gets screwed up when Nick Fury turns up and needs an assist with some “Elementals” that have been attacking various places across the globe.

It’s a deceptively simple setup, which is probably why it works so well. So many of these films are convoluted to the point of ridiculousness. And in this one, the after-credit sequences almost trip over that line as well. Ugh. Can’t they leave well enough alone? But no, everything needs to be a little tweak, something to launch the next movie(s). It’s one of the reasons I’ve come to dislike this series of films.

But overall, this is a fun movie. A popcorn flick, as we used to call them. I know so many people who invest real time and effort into analyzing and deconstructing and whatever with these, and hey, whatever makes you happy. That’s the point of entertainment, after all. Get as involved (or not) as you like. For me, comic book movies are more like watch, enjoy, and then pretty much forget them… until I’m told I need to remember a million things for the next installment. Again, ugh. These movies should not be so much work.

Well, whatever. I had fun.

Movies: Always Be My Maybe

On the one hand, I have to give Netflix credit for reviving the romantic comedy. Studios don’t seem interested in them these days, and yes, I understand all the reasons why, but there are still people in the world who enjoy these kinds of movies. (I co-wrote one that was briefly optioned, and I wish Netflix would pick it up, too. But that’s beside the point.)

On the other hand, there are those reasons romantic comedies have withered. Namely that they are often rote and predictable. Which is more or less how I felt about this one.

The conceit: Sasha and Marcus have known each other since childhood. Sasha’s parents were never around, so she spent a lot of time at Marcus’s house, to the point that his mother Judy taught her to cook. But after an awkward night at age eighteen, in which Sasha and Marcus have clumsy sex in his car, they fight and go their separate ways. Sasha becomes a celebrity chef/restauranteur. Marcus works with his dad while harboring dreams of his band becoming more than local.

Then a bunch of pretty typical things happen. Some of it is cute, and some downright funny (like Sasha dating Keanu Reeves and… well, I won’t spoil it for you), but none of it really sparked me. I did tear up a tiny bit at the very end, but other than that…

Don’t get me wrong, this is a perfectly nice little movie. I’m not damning with faint praise; I realize that not every movie is for every person, and this one isn’t 100% for me. I’d say it’s 70-80%. That’s still a passing grade, and I know plenty of people who like this movie more than I did. So if you like rom-coms, try it for yourself.

Movies: Isn’t It Romantic

So… this is a thing. A rom-com that pretends to be something more or better by making fun of its very genre. I’m not saying it’s a bad movie, not at all. But it’s not the superior piece it makes itself out to be, either.

Rebel Wilson, probably best known for the Pitch Perfect movies, plays Natalie, an architect often taken advantage of by her officemates. One such coworker is Josh, played by Pitch Perfect fellow Adam Devine. I suppose someone saw those movies and felt like they needed more of those two. (Not entirely untrue, though the third Pitch Perfect movie leaned way too hard on Wilson for a story that just didn’t work.)

When Natalie is mugged in the subway, her concussion results in her entering a romantic comedy world that hangs a lampshade on every trope, even as it utilizes said tropes. Natalie’s perfect life, perfect apartment, perfect gay best friend/neighbor (Brandon Scott Jones), and perfect love interest (Liam Hemsworth)… etc. etc. It’s cute but predictable fare with nothing explored in any true depth, though the movie seems to think it’s making a statement. Loving yourself, not needing a man to complete you, and so on.

I will say that I enjoy a good rom-com and so I’m glad someone will still make them now and then. (Co-wrote one that got optioned then didn’t go anywhere, so if you’re a producer looking for some content…) This one is pretty typical for its genre, despite its protestations otherwise. It’s cute, but the plot never drills very deep. If it had, this would have been far more interesting. As it stands, it’s fine, but nothing special.

Movies: Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Starring: [the voice of] Ryan Reynolds, Justice Smith, Kathryn Newton, Bill Nighy, Ken Watanabe
Directed by: Rob Letterman
Screenplay by: Dan Hernandez, Benji Samit, Rob Letterman, Derek Connolly
Legendary, 2019
PG; 144 minutes
4.5 stars (out of 5)

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I was stupid excited for this movie because the previews looked so cute. And it is a cute movie. Also very predictable, but I guess when the chief audience is little kids, I can’t really complain about that.

Justice Smith plays Tim Goodman, estranged son of Ryme City police detective Harry Goodman. When Harry dies in a tragic accident, Tim goes to Ryme City to wrap up his dad’s affairs, only to fall in with Harry’s Pokémon partner, a Pikachu with amnesia and a coffee habit (voice by Ryan Reynolds).

Ryme City has been built by a magnate (Bill Nighy) who has a dream of people and Pokémon living in harmony, which means Pokémon battles are outlawed. Harry seemed to have been tracking the source of a drug given to Pokémon in underground fighting venues to make them aggressive and wild. Tim and Pikachu pick up the thread of the mystery, along with an ambitious news intern named Lucy (Newton) and her Psyduck.

The beats are pretty basic, the jokes are not very sophisticated, and all the plot twists are easy to spot early on, but it’s still a cute little film. My kids loved it; my husband fell asleep through part of it. Justice Smith looks like his daddy, and one can very much imagine that the role of Tim would have gone to Will Smith if he’d been young enough. I only wish Ken Watanabe had been given more to do as Ryme City PD’s Lieutenant Yoshida, Harry’s boss. But it’s always good to see him on screen.

By no means a perfect movie, but not a bad way to pass the time.

Movies: Avengers: Endgame

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd
Directed by: Anthony & Joe Russo
Screenplay by: Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Marvel/Disney, 2019
PG-13; 181 minutes
4 stars (out of 5)

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Last time on The Avengers: Thanos did, in fact, get all the Infinity Stones, put on the gauntlet, snapped his fingers, and reduced the population of the universe by 50%.

In today’s episode, the remaining Avengers seek a way to undo it all.

Mild plot spoilers follow, though I will NOT reveal any major deaths in this review.

First they hunt down Thanos himself because, hey, he has the Stones and maybe they can get them back and use them to fix everything. But Thanos used the Stones to, er, get rid of the Stones? So that’s a no-go.

But then Scott Lang comes back from the quantum whatever and gives them a new idea: time travel! So for a chunk of the movie, we’re on a caper to retrieve the Stones from places they were known to be in the past.

Yada yada yada, past Thanos finds out about it, big battle, the end.

Okay, so I enjoyed the first, oh, two thirds of this movie? All of the character moments are on point, and since I’m a character writer, that makes me super happy. I will say that I was able to predict lines of dialogue a good 65% of the time, which either tells me it’s become rote or that I should be writing these movies. Probably both.

There’s a good amount of humor in this movie, too, which I also enjoy. Some of it felt forced or shoehorned in, however—very conscious of its job as a mood lightener. Which makes it a little clumsy and less funny.

The action scenes suffer from the rapid cuts that most of these movies have come to rely on. They make me a little nauseous, actually, and give me a bit of a headache. I mean, film is a visual medium, and if you can’t actually see what’s going on, what’s the point?

In particular, the final battle is a blender concoction of Marvel’s Greatest Moments + the Super Bowl. It’s not terrible, but it is gratuitous, and it’s very obvious they’re striving to give every character a slice of screen time.

Then we get the Return-of-the-King ending, where we need to see where everyone ends up so we can set up the next cycle of films, I guess. Well, and write off anyone whose cycle is finished.

All that said, on the whole I did enjoy it. And there are upcoming Marvel films I’m actually anticipating: the next Spider-Man, the next Guardians of the Galaxy… Maybe they’ll do another Ant-Man? I guess I lean toward the franchises that have the most humor and don’t take themselves too seriously. For me, that’s entertainment.

Avengers: Endgame ticks most of my boxes. I liked it more than Infinity War anyway. That’s gotta be worth something.

Movies: Vice

Honestly, I didn’t know half of what this movie told me. I mean, I knew Dick Cheney was, well, a dick. Unapologetic and shady. But the way he laid the groundwork for our nation to nosedive the way it has? I had no idea.

Not that I’m surprised either.

I won’t say I’m any big fan of Adam McKay films. I like them okay—Moneyball, The Big Short—but they usually feel like lessons. Which I think is kind of the point. McKay wants to teach us things, and he’s looking for interesting ways to do that… I think? And I don’t mind that aspect at all. So I have to wonder why his movies are just okay for me. Is it because I don’t find the actual subjects that interesting? Is it because his sense of humor doesn’t entirely align with mine? Or that I feel like I’m being talked down to a bit?

So… yeah. This is a good movie, and informative. I can definitely see why it won makeup awards, and why Bale took home an Academy Award. But as with other McKay movies, I still walked away with a bit of a shrug.

And yet… Maybe because I do pay attention to politics now (and baseball and mortgages don’t particularly interest me), I was also quite amazed by how much damage and undermining Cheney managed to do and get away with. How many loopholes he sniffed out and exploited that, to this day, are being stretched to fit as many of these assholes through as possible. If nothing else, Vice is a call for major political reform.

It’s a little long and jumps around a bit; I found myself skimming Wikipedia partway through to get an understanding of the timeline. But also I’d been drinking wine, so maybe my issues were not universal.

Do I recommend it? Sure, to people with interest in politics and/or a hatred of Republicans. In case you needed fuel for that fire. I mean, Vice is entertaining in its own right, but… I wouldn’t say it’s entertaining enough for just the average, indifferent viewer to sit through and enjoy.

Movies: Captain Marvel

Starring: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Annette Bening, four cats
Directed by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck
Screenplay by: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Marvel/Disney, 2019
PG-13; 124 minutes
4.75 stars (out of 5)

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First, a little housekeeping: sorry I’ve been absent. I had abdominal surgery last Thursday and am only now to the point where I can sit up for any length of time.

Okay, now this movie. I really didn’t care for the first, oh, twenty minutes or so, though I understand why they were necessary. But I sat through those minutes thinking I’d made a terrible mistake. For me, it really wasn’t until Vers/Carol/Captain Marvel reached Earth that things got interesting.

An overview (no spoilers): During a mission, Kree warrior Vers is captured by the Skrull and ends up on Earth. So do the Skrull, so now she must save the world from them and find a way home. Things get complicated when Nick Fury arrives at the site of Vers’ crash landing.

All this is set in… 1995(?) btw.

I loved, loved, loved seeing Nick Fury get some real screen time, and Jackson and Larson work well together. I also really liked Ben Mendelsohn in this, and I felt the comedy in this movie was well done and balanced the action nicely. Plus, great soundtrack.

One thing that’s really just a personal issue: to me Brie Larson looked a bit like Pam from The Office (Jenna Fischer)? I found that weirdly distracting.

I also didn’t find any of the twists to be very surprising. That + the somewhat dull start to the movie is the reason I shaved a little starlight off my rating. But not much because the rest of the film more than makes up for its shortcomings. That is to say, even with the minor problems, this is better than pretty much every other Marvel movie I’ve seen.

Should Streaming Movies be Oscar Eligible?

When I saw Steven Spielberg was a streaming topic on Twitter, I worried. I’m at that age, after all, when my idols are aging and dying off. But as it turns out, the chatter is just about how Spielberg plans to push an anti-Netflix agenda at the next Academy board meeting.

The question on the table: What should be the basic minimum requirements for a film to be eligible for an Oscar?

To be fair, the rules were originally made when the world of film could not conceive of streaming, and when the distribution channel was one clear tunnel of release in cinemas, then release on video (once video was a thing), then show some edited version on television (until movie channels came along and did not require ADR to mask the curse words). Now movies can be released in cinemas and on streaming simultaneously.

So maybe the deeper question is: What makes a movie a movie?

That may sound weird, but bear with me. We’ve long had a division between film and television. Movies that show on television are called television movies, just to differentiate. And television movies can win Emmys but not Oscars.

So is a movie a movie because it shows in a cinema? What if it only shows once? What if it shows in a cinema and on television at the same time? These are the questions the Academy needs to address.

And a large portion of the argument comes down to politics. Campaign finance to be precise. In this instance, it’s the fact that Netflix has a ton of money to throw into campaigning for films like Roma. Netflix can buy a few cinema screens outside of the usual distribution channels and therefore meet a bare minimum requirement that allows its films to qualify for an Oscar. So… should there be a cap on what can be spent on campaigning?

Another bone of contention is that Roma only spent three weeks in cinemas before moving to Netflix streaming. Should the Academy demand a longer period between theatrical and streaming?

It’s all a matter of opinion and perspective. I haven’t seen Roma, though I’m sure, based on all the enthusiastic feedback, that it is a lovely film. However, I’m inclined to agree that there should be more definitive guidelines regarding what is Oscar eligible. I don’t think of Netflix as a film studio. I don’t think of Amazon as one either. Or Hulu. And maybe I’m old-fashioned in that. I honestly don’t know.

On the other hand, it’s refreshing that Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu are bringing out content very different from all the superheroes the studios keep churning out. They’re making quality products. But… Are they movies? Or television movies?

Used to be, movies were either made to be shown in cinemas or made to be shown on television. The processes themselves were different. The quality of the film, the aspect ratios—different. Now people have televisions that are almost as large as movie screens. Now the quality of what’s being made for television is as good or better than what’s being made for cinemas. Everything is blurred.

There’s a certain amount of snobbery involved, too, of course. We can accept that FOX studios decided to have a television channel. We have a harder time thinking of Netflix, or Amazon, or Hulu—all of which started out showing second-hand content on television—as a legitimate film studio. I mean, if HBO produced a movie and sent it to cinemas for a couple weeks then aired it on their own channel… Would it be up for Oscars or Emmys? Both?

It’s a knotty problem and one I don’t have an answer to. While I’m inclined to agree with Steven Spielberg, the bottom line is the Academy has to lay out some very clear criteria. A lot of it will look and feel arbitrary because it pretty much is. But without lines and guardrails on these roads, the situation is headed for a crash.