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Coming through in waves

Last weekend, I saw Eighth Grade at the AMC in La Jolla. I’m happy to report my concerns that Bo Burnham’s directorial debut would be little more than another coming-of-age story were dispelled. Burnham completely understands how cinema can tap into other perspectives and emotions, namely anxiety. For Elsie Fisher’s Kayla, overwhelming feelings are front-and-center, something that Burnham says he identifies with as a director right now. That empathy is a big reason why Eighth Grade never taps into selfie-shaming its generational subjects. As Burnham elaborated to Consequence of Sound:

There’s such a big difference. MySpace and Facebook are like make your own website, so it’s still kinda kitschy. But Instagram and Twitter, which kids have now, is literally what you look like and what you think. The media engages with them in primal ways now. They’re watching the national conversation play out on these mediums.

There’s a conscious effort to understand, an effort that’s guided by the music of Anna Meredith, who has assembled in Eighth Grade one of the year’s best scores.

I say “assembled” because not everything on her debut score is entirely original. “Nautilus” was Meredith’s 2012 single, and “Honeyed Words” is from her 2016 album Varmints. 

It’s also worth mentioning the ancillary cuts because they’re so seamless to Eighth Grade‘s story. The aforementioned “Nautilus” announces the presence of Kayla’s classroom crush in hilarious, overwrought fashion. The whole world seems to stop when Aiden opens his eyes — and for the record, they were voted “best” in the entire class.

Other cues splash cannonballs into pools of happy (“Being Yourself”) or indulge in hiccuped stupors (“How to Be Confident”). “Stay Calm” seems to dance along a jagged, dangerous path. Like the film itself, Meredith’s music is complex and in totality, contradictory. It is both dreadful and playful, an exhausting sine wave that crests and dips at a moment’s notice.

I was initially surprised that Burnham didn’t take songwriting duties himself, because directing a movie isn’t enough of a job already. Meredith is a fitting choice. By way of surface level choices, the dominance of keyboards is a fitting synergy with Burnham’s early DIY songwriting. Meredith also possessed both a traditional pedigree and a penchant for disrupting convention, serving as Composer in Residence with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra while writing “HandsFree,” which winks at concert hall formalism with produced effects and rhythms.

There were moments watching Eighth Grade where I felt like I was suffocating, trapped with Kayla in awkward conversation and cringing embarrassment. Other times, middle school didn’t seem like such a bad place. Whatever the emotions, the music was right there, often overwhelmingly so, and I was never quite sure if I was meant to bolt in the opposite direction or stick around and dance.


‘The Dark Knight’ at 10

10 years ago, when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still a twinkle in Nick Fury’s eye, the greatest superhero movie of all time took pop culture by storm. For the summer of 2008, The Dark Knight was a full-fledged phenomenon.

It’s a highly unscientific metric, but the barometer I use to measure phenomena is whether or not my parents were aware of it. I recall their protestations at Forrest Gump‘s absurdity and their “concerns” about nudity content when Titanic was suggested as a sleepover movie.

My parents saw The Dark Knight by themselves. That’s saying a lot when the last time they paid money to see a superhero movie it was because I was six.

The reasons for this are manifold. That twinkle in Mr. Fury’s eye matters especially here. Box office receipts be damned, the concept of Superhero Fatigue was not in the moviegoing lexicon in 2008. Audiences had trilogies in X-Men and Spider-man, and a handful of one-offs and failed franchises.

It had morbid curiosity. That’s never a good thing, and obviously Heath Ledger’s tragic passing was never part of any plan, but it’s hard to deny the pall that hung over this thing. Here was a man seemingly resurrected on screen, via some playful zombie incantation of a DC comic book villain, presenting a ghastly, magnetic figure that tapped into our anxieties perfectly. Ledger’s Joker in many ways is this movie, the horrifying embodiment of the “escalation” a younger Jim Gordon warned about in Batman Begins. The League of Shadows and fear gas have given way to execution videos, carbombs, and copycat Batmen (CopyBats?). Even the Shepard Tone of the Joker’s two-note theme, a motif that haunts the picture even in his absence, hints that the volume is about to get cranked way up. And yet, he’s about nothing at the same time, equally brutal and elegant in his simplicity. With a deliberately masked origin, The Joker’s only known motivation is to laugh at us. Pain is funny, and money is paper. He is the antithesis of banality, holding a knife to the throat of our collective consciousness.

Most importantly, it was a film. Nothing that had come before looked quite like this Michael Mann-inspired vision of Gotham. The Dark Knight looked adult, with the Paul Greengrass-styled editing masking the proverbial money sequences of action. The Dark Knight felt adult, and as much as it’s easy to rag on Nolan’s self-serious take on the Caped Crusader, that matters. District Attorneys and mob stooges alike soliloquize about their motivations in spite of their actions. Because this is still a world in which they’re defined not by who they are underneath but by what they do. Superhero movies are a dime a dozen these days, but very few actually deign to tell a story.

The Dark Knight is a story. In a discussion with Bret Easton Ellis, Owen Gleiberman deemed most comic book movies as, in so many words, expensive vehicles for fan service. Citing Dark Knight as the outlier, the MCU has become fixated with expanding its heroes’ Wikipedia entries rather than telling a story, with ending the world over and over and over again. The Dark Knight goes smaller, its stakes are human. In a post-9/11 world, it’s hard to read the questions of suicide bombs and surveillance ethics as anything else. Gotham may have been terrified by some face paint and a couple of bullets, but the killing of an idea is the greater threat. In taking its aim at its titular hero, The Dark Knight gets at the heart of why heroes appealed to us in the first place.

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Stop letting pitchers hit

Last weekend, the New York Yankees placed Masahiro Tanaka on the disabled list after he strained both hamstrings running the bases at Citi Field. He’s expected to miss about a month.

Thanks, in part, to Ben Lindbergh’s editorial, introducing the Designated Hitter to National League baseball has the attention of the baseball commentariat right now. It’s 2018’s “pace of play” canard, if you will. Lindbergh’s argument is great if not novel. On the heels of such a silly injury, it does feel necessary. Forcing pitchers to flail like blind tennis players a few times per game is not entertaining unless you’re a sadist.

As his piece points out, the best people in the world at baseball play in the MLB, and fans watch the product, in part, because of that. But a 10% success rate is not the same as success outright. There is no other corollary for this in sports. Nobody is as bad at anything in professional sports like pitchers are bad at hitting. On a subsequent podcast episode, Lindbergh mentions a common comparison he hears is that of free-throws in basketball, which is a terrible one. Bartolo Colon whiffing himself into a cold sweat is not the same as a brick from Shaquille O’Neal. It’s closer to asking the place kicker to take four snaps every quarter.

In fairness, I’ve heard other counterarguments defending the practice. It adds strategy to the game! This is true, in the sense that each manager is forced to work around a veritable blackhole in his lineup for at least eight innings. The double switch is essentially a roundabout admission that pitchers stink at hitting. The skipper will pinch hit for his outgoing starter with a benched position player and then replace said hitter for a reliever to take the mound. Sure, substitutions are more compelling in the playoffs, when a single hit off a fatigued pitcher can change the course of the entire postseason. In the aggregate though, the strategy amounts to little more than matching lefties against righties and doing simple math. But hey, if more ad breaks are your thing.

The DH isn’t a position. Well, neither is the reliever. Joe Sheehan, equal parts snark and insight, is my favorite sportswriter and in a recent newsletter, he argues: If you accept one-inning relievers, you should accept the DH. “They’re two sides of the same coin.” Relievers rarely, if ever, see at-bats. Even in the National League. If your criticism is to count the DH as too niche of a skillset, you’d better have some thoughts on the LOOGY, too.

By far, my favorite argument for this sports travesty is pitchers should hit Because that’s the way it’s always been. Hey, baseball has been around for almost two centuries in some way, shape or form. Forcing pitchers to bat is the how the game should be played, right? Baseball has changed in its tenacity, in its rules, in its ethical mores since Abner Doubleday. Designated Hitters have been a part of that fabric for 45 years and counting. They’ve given Mariners fans this and Red Sox fans this.

Perhaps this will forever be an issue of aesthetics, and that’s fair. Many of my closest baseball friends grew up listening to Bob Uecker and Harry Caray ingraining this as the norm. I know they’d probably scoff at most of the points here. What I also know is that Masahiro Tanaka is not being paid millions to take a few at-bats against the Mets in June.

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‘Solo’: A Star Wars Score?

(Spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story follow)

As precedent-setting as Rogue One felt in 2016 — no titular “Episode,” few recognizable faces, fewer recognizable names — the absence of John Williams didn’t really register with me. In some ways it still doesn’t, perhaps because Williams has now agreed to score all three films in this “Sequel Trilogy.” His replacement if you will, Michael Giacchino, is as accomplished as modern composers come, and the fact that he is not The Maestro should not be held against him.

And yet, Williams is as essential as any actor, writer, or director to the eight films he’s provided music for thus far. Solo: A Star Wars Story is less a ninth than it is an “8.5.” The composer did get first crack at tackling the film’s primary themes for a younger version of the smuggler, with the film’s primary composer John Powell writing both alongside and around him. By all accounts, Williams and Powell’s partnership was harmonious but its Frankenstein nature also mirrors the tumultuous production history behind the director’s chair, with career journeyman Ron Howard taking over for former co-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller. Not to mention that even on its face, the idea of John Williams writing music for a character we’ve known for over four decades feels like a retcon.

The results sound much better, and Williams’ influence on Solo‘s music is both a credit to their collaborative approach. With a twinkle in its eye, an instantly hummable fanfare lends any sequence in which it’s quoted a feeling of a lost legacy rediscovered. “The Adventures of Han” combines this with a second motive from Williams, a cluttered and rollicking cue that (unintentionally) highlights the film’s mess of formalism and fun.

And Powell is more than game at both weaving these themes throughout and aping Williams’ inclinations. For an energizing, head-scratching train heist, a handful of string passages recall A New Hope‘s classical romanticism. Other moments are wholesale repetitions. “Reminiscence Therapy” plays under a an unexpected rendering of the fabled Kessel Run. Its outright recall of “Ben’s Death/TIE Fighter Attack” and “The Asteroid Field” have fueled criticisms of nostalgic shamelessness — because this is the first time this franchise has been guilty of manipulating childhood memories. It’s also a reductive jab, as Powell bridges the familiar with new, uncertain chaos. That’s the case when Han first sees the Millenium Falcon, fittingly impounded, as Powell layers the introduction with a drawn-out callback to Williams’ Rebel Fanfare. Surprisingly, it’s an indelible, moving touch in a film filled with perfunctory ones. For decades, audiences have imagined these seminal Star Wars moments in their imaginations. If we’re forced to see them played out, a little of the old and a little of the new marks the safest passage.

Powell gets his chance to shine, too. There’s the intrepid pep that drives “Break Out” and the snarling drive of “Into the Maw,” the latter of which propels Solo‘s best action sequence. “Flying with Chewie” shares DNA with How to Train Your Dragon, both Powell’s strongest work and among this century’s essential scores. Apart from the pennywhistle, that’s not a knock on a new musical voice in this story world. On their own terms, “Good Thing You Were Listening” and “Testing Allegiance” would be tremendous additions to another story. Their results in Solo are complicated by the script’s identity crisis, playing the film’s ending, a head fake on Han Solo’s moral corruption, too big.

While both Powell and Williams share presence here, Solo‘s music has a third category that’s harder to sort out. Part of that is texture. “Chicken and the Pot,” with its goofy duet could have ended up another “Jedi Rocks.” Instead, its breezy deliveries, re-dubbed with a lower-registered froggy counterpart in the film, succeeds as a modern spin on “Cantina Band.” “Savareen Standoff” punches up desert-strewn woodwinds in signaling the most exciting part of this particular Star Wars Story: Enfys Nest. The leader of a gang of proto-Rebels, the teenaged lead marauder works better as a reflection of Han Solo’s troubled upbringing. Her music, decorated with a wailing children’s choir, jumps out whenever the space thieves appear on screen, committing to an exoticism that Williams has only played with in films past. For nearly two and a half hours of familiar, it’s what feels the most novel.

This is what’s most fascinating about Solo. Not the production what-ifs or Donald Glover’s screentime. The music and its many shapes. Or perhaps lack thereof. It’s smirking and nostalgic. It’s unfamiliar. It’s even a little sloppy. With Episode IX seemingly marking John Williams’ curtain call, the musical landscape of Star Wars is about to be wide open. This is a fact that Star Wars fans and film music aficionados alike will have to reconcile, Avatar fixations and all. Afterthought or not, Michael Giacchino’s work in Rogue One is the mynock in the coal mine. The house style is no style.


What are we doing here?

IndieWire reported on this very gross story concerning Kelly Marie Tran and online harassment:

The mind boggles to think that a small subsection of “fans” feel compelled to hurl insults and nasty comments to anyone — let alone someone they (incorrectly) claim “ruined” their childhood.

But motivation is beside the point here. It is beyond ridiculous to think that self-proclaimed crusaders feel compelled to champion exclusivity, chauvinism, and nastiness. Never mind the staggering hypocrisy when you consider the broader ideals beyond those stories and their creators. George Lucas ain’t down with this.

You can read the whole story at IndieWire here.

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Idiot’s array

“If there’s a bright center to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.”

-Luke Skywalker, liar

Name one good prequel.

I get hung up on The Good the Bad and the Ugly, which is both a stretch and a little more than 50 years ago. This is a long-belabored point in 2018, but it bears repeating after crossing the Harrison Ford Rubicon: When a story goes out of its way to show where something came from, fiction becomes a word jumble, imaginations shrink.

With Solo: A Star Wars Story‘s underwhelming box office returns, there’s uncertainty about the Star Wars franchise right now. For the record, Disney’s last three releases each made over $1 billion dollars, so let’s pump the brakes on the financial apocalypse. Star Wars will be fine.

But the deflated returns do make for an inflection point. With The Last Jedi, many Star Wars fans decided to try out their best Potter Stewart impression. Fittingly enough, I don’t think Disney quite knows Star Wars when it sees it. The irony with Episode VIII‘s non-troversy is that despite how much Rian Johnson upset a small subsection of fanboys, he did something Solo doesn’t. He told a cohesive story. Objectively, The Last Jedi is about something. It has consequences. Characters change and grow and yes, die.

Solo is the forgotten middle child, the product of two directors who didn’t really want him and a third who doesn’t really know him. The end result is a muddled, bipolar project that never commits to whatever screenwriters Lawrence and Jon Kasdan first committed to paper. You want a rebellion? Here’s a reference. A love story? Sure, but you won’t buy it. Lightsabers? We’ll throw one in. It’s subterfuge, an “emotion salad” that tries to do so much that it ends up with so little. On the plus side, we now know where Lando got that skiff guard disguise.

Solo has the contours of what could have been a great shaggy dog story. We could have met an unrefined version of one of the most iconic movie characters of all time in the midst of some ill-planned heist. Maybe he has a troubled past. Maybe he once enlisted in the Empire. Maybe he’s even got an old flame. But like the Prequels, that’s all perfunctory. We know how this ends and therefore however it begins will never be that compelling. This is a heist movie anyway, dammit.

If more Boba Fett and more Obi-Wan Kenobi and more Lando Calrissian are in the not-so-distant future, where does that leave Disney? Lucasfilm can start with acceptance. There’s a narrative freedom that comes from admitting that Star Wars hasn’t really been Star Wars since November 1978. Embracing that idea opens up the Phil Lords and the Chris Millers to new, small things. Suddenly this story space opens up again. Maybe this galaxy far, far away doesn’t revolve around some dusty rock in the Outer Rim after all.

The Watch on ‘Solo’

Ever since seeing Solo on Thursday night like the sucker that I am, I’ve spent the last few days absorbing as much as I can about the film. That includes a number of podcast reviews and thus far, The Watch has proven to be essential listening.

Co-hosts Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald find concise, insightful ways to talk about the latest “Star Wars Story” throughout the episode, but I found Greenwald’s opening salvo especially noteworthy.

Of all the things that we — and I just don’t mean you and I, I mean people of our age group, people who love Star Wars, people who fell in love with this type of storytelling through the prism of the Original Trilogy — of all the things we would want from a movie about Han Solo, the original cool guy, funny guy, space smuggler… to make a movie which is just another earnest, earnest dude who has daddy issues and ‘just wants to fly, man’ and maybe help out… Origin stories are boring. Finding out this guy is actually good-hearted is boring, especially when we already start with him as being good-hearted. Especially when the whole point of A New Hope is that he has a good heart. We’ve already turned that card.

You can listen to the entire episode at TheRinger.com