F. Scott Fitzgerald famously stated that there were no second acts in American life. He was wrong about that, of course. Just look at Steve Jobs or Ben Affleck. Two of our more celebrated fictional characters of the moment, Don Draper and Walter White, are all about new beginnings and taking on a new identity. Elsewhere on TV, so-called reality shows give us hyped-up versions of supposedly actual people. Our comic book heroes almost always have a secret identity. Hell, identity theft is a huge concern in modern law enforcement circles. Everybody wants to be somebody else, and, as a resident of Los Angeles County, I can vouch for the city as a natural habitat for deluded people wanting a change of identity garments. American culture itself is largely based on the idea that you can be anybody you want in this country, regardless of whether or not that conforms with reality.
I wish Ben Stiller directed more.
I’m a big fan of his last effort, the great Hollywood satire Tropic Thunder. You don’t grow up with the comedy genes Stiller possesses (His mom is Anne Meara, and his dad is Frank Costanza.) without learning a thing or two, and Tropic Thunder is a masterpiece of comic tone. Think about it, that movie has three (Three!) elements that, in lesser hands, could have been horribly offensive. You’ve got Robert Downey Jr. slathered in blackface. You’ve got Stiller himself playing the mother of all mentally challenged characters, Simple Jack. And, you’ve got a villain in the form of a small child who is also a ruthless drug lord. Could you imagine the horror of Michael Bay’s Tropic Thunder?
The great comedian Jim Gaffigan has a word for adults like myself who are still fondly enamored with Disneyland; he calls us weirdos. As much as I respect Mr. Gaffigan’s work as a comic, I don’t think he could be more off-base on this one. He’s working from the faulty assumption that Walt Disney’s creative work was only aimed at children. (To be sure, I do read an awful lot of people who seem to think that animation in general is exclusively kid stuff. They’ve obviously never seen Heavy Metal.) The genius of Disney, both as a businessman and as an artist, was that he was creating a body of work that can be enjoyed by all ages. He wanted Disneyland to be a place families could enjoy together. With the noted exceptions of the truly awful live-action sitcoms on the Disney Channel (ghastly shows like Dog with a Blog or Hannah Montana come to mind) that could only appeal to 9 year olds, the classic Disney brand has always been about all-ages entertainment.
A recurring theme I hear in conversation and read with regularity online is that fans would love to see a comic book movie that isn’t aimed at the broadest possible audience. If you’re going to spend $200 million to make a Spider-Man movie, you have to make something that everybody is going to like. The Blade and Punisher films, however, were smaller-budget affairs that carried R ratings, and, best of all, they weren’t intended to be wholesome fun for the entire family. I still think Blade 2 is one of the most unnecessarily violent movies I’ve ever seen, and I say that as somebody who really likes Blade 2. Fans want a comic book movie made specifically for grown-ups, or at least for people 17 and over. And, it seems that fans want something more mainstream, like a live-action, R-rated version of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
Have you ever seen a movie where a lead performance was out of synch with the rest of the film? Let me tell you what I mean.
I am clearly not the target audience for the whole Disney Princess thing, but I did happen to gain a clearer understanding of the whole phenomenon during a recent trip to Disneyland. Little girls below a certain age are allowed to come to the park dressed to the nines in their best Princess swag, resulting in a Pre-K sea of ruffles and magic wands. On this particular day, I noticed a guy who looked very much like he might have been an MMA fighter. He had muscles on top of muscles and tattoos on top of tattoos. He looked to be about mid-20s and the sort of guy you definitely wanted on your side if fisticuffs were in order. I noticed that he was kneeling down in front of a little girl who must have been his daughter or his niece. Very gently, he adjusted her tiara and made sure her hair was just right, and then smoothed out the ruffles in her dress. It was a moment as beautiful as it was unexpected, this extremely intimidating dude showing overwhelming, almost feminine, parental care. If it weren’t a violation of boundaries (and a little bit creepy), I would have snapped a photo of them.
Reporting from AFI Fest 2013, presented by Audi
It happens every year around the anniversary of September 11. A bunch of officials who worked in the George W. Bush administration are rounded up and trotted out on national television to recount that dreadful day and to talk about the still (Still!) ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s fascinating to behold, because 12 years of history have passed under the bridge. We have a great deal of hindsight now. History has largely been contextualized. Unless, that is, you worked in the George W. Bush administration. As is often the case in partisan politics, history seems to morph into an entirely other thing for people who were likely too close to actual events. The delusions on display are often breathtaking. No matter the body count (Over 100,000 Iraqis have been killed.) or the staggering amount of money thrown away ($1 trillion and counting), they still (Still!) believe they did the right thing. At least Bush himself has the good taste to stay out of the public eye.
Okay, for starters, the new Marvel Studios logo is pretty nifty. It’s essentially the old one we’ve come to know, with the flipping comic book pages, but it’s been given a shiny, new, multi-dimensional coat of paint. It’s a very nice touch.
I hate romantic comedies. It’s not that I hate the idea of romance in general or haven’t responded to various love stories in the past. Last year, I really liked Silver Linings Playbook, which was, for the most part, a rom-com with a generous side dish of mental health issues. The story is largely driven by Bradley Cooper’s delusions about his relationship with his ex-wife. As an overall genre, however, I find romantic comedies to generally be insipid, stupid, and, even more damaging, I think they give their audience a false sense of how relationship and real life tend to work. Call me crazy, but I really believe a significant reason the American divorce rate is so high is largely due to the way romance and relationships are depicted in media. There is no “happily ever after;” reality tells us there’s “we worked really hard to sustain our relationship,” and these movies leave people disillusioned. Ben Affleck said it best when he was accepting his Oscar last year. When thanking his wife Jennifer Garner, Affleck said maintaining their marriage was work, “ . . . but it’s the best kind of work.” I was a big fan of Mark Webb’s film (500) Days of Summer largely because of the way that film savaged the way our culture gives a completely false sense of romance, that there is this mythical perfect person out there for each and every one of us.
I’m not that old, but we are living in an era of American political polarization the likes of which I’ve never seen before. As I write this, we are well into the second week of a government shutdown, and the nation is coming precariously close to defaulting on its obligations, which would hurtle the world economy into a fiscal abyss. We live in a time when we can’t just have a simple difference of opinion and then sit down and solve a common problem. We live in a time in which differing opinions are seen as pure evil, and we certainly can’t be expected to negotiate a solution with pure evil, can we? Heels are dug in, because both sides feel they must win these so-called culture wars or the country is doomed.