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A Boring Resurrection

Some resurrections are worth caring about more than others. This is the story of one of the less interesting ones.

Lent, 2004.

The Passion of the Christ began the season, dominating the box office over forty days and forty nights. On Easter weekend of that year — at the end of Lent — The Passion felt a nice surge in attendance, bumping it over Hellboy and back into the number-one position. Hellboy’s familiar shade of blood-hardened red would surely make it back into movieplexes someday, we thought, perhaps even in the form of another superhero.

And it did: this year’s Lent began with Deadpool, recalling The Passion’s shocking February numbers with a $132-million opening-weekend record. As the weeks grew and fasted, Deadpool ran a course similar to The Passion’s, displaying healthy legs for a blockbuster of its size and making us wonder if it would eventually overtake The Passion’s $370-million total haul. It’s out there somewhere, right now, paused at around $345 million, unsure of the right path through its final days. It might need more than itself to reach the light it seeks.

We just picked palms from the basket at Sunday mass, anticipating the free posters of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice that we grabbed from the movie theater’s red Formica countertops that same afternoon. We hadn’t stopped home after church, so we carried them there together, the palms and the mini-posters. We wished the gospel had been shorter, just like we wished the Dawn of Justice posters were actually for Captain America: Civil War. In our minds they changed form and revealed themselves to us, curtained with fuzzy white light, like a transformation of water into white wine.

When Zootopia was over, we took the palms but carelessly left the posters beneath our seats. They were already maps of our disinterest, left there to gather gummies and piss from future moviegoers. With box-office miracles like Deadpool and Zootopia falling straight from Heaven into our MoviePass viewing histories, we knew we had to sacrifice something. After all, this was Lent. The sacrifice didn’t end there.

Another Sunday: the morning is cold and bright. The cold, at least, cannot last. The winds are springlike and carry the sands of summer on them, each individual grain belonging to Deadpool’s province, yet lifted and dispersed in joyful shapes that want to test and pry at its boundaries. In these winds, Miracles from Heaven and Heaven Is for Real make their way up the hill, carrying spices, following the narrow path to the grave site. Occasionally one or the other trips, seeing that the path is worn; they take comfort in knowing of the deaths that have come before them and those to come, with mourners of their own. They have never felt more self-possessed, but their mission demands selflessness. Today is the third day since Allegiant was placed in the tomb, and they are here to ensure its proper burial.

Miracles from Heaven was released on March 16th, getting a two-day head start on the weekend’s more notable wide release: Allegiant, the third installment in the Divergent franchise. With a $100-million-plus budget and franchise maintenance in mind, Allegiant bore a considerable weight of expectation. Its studio, Lionsgate, had sent the once-lucrative Hunger Games franchise back to Heaven last fall, and we felt that Allegiant’s opening weekend would now prove whether the genre of young-adult sci-fi was financially and culturally stable.

Miracles from Heaven faced a lesser burden, produced modestly and branded in line with God’s Not Dead and Heaven Is for Real, two Christian-themed hits from Easters past. What could it do but walk into the modest light that had been cast for it? It banked $14.8 million of God’s money in its first weekend, compared against a $13-million budget. Hands clasped, it watched in silent prayer while Allegiant crumbled with an opening of $29 million, down from the first Divergent film’s $54.6 million. Allegiant had entered the province of Deadpool and Zootopia, and it was clear to all that it had been dragged into some mysterious court and found guilty. But how long would its sentence be?

Pacing closer to the tomb, Miracles from Heaven remembers Friday’s crucifixion: Allegiant, of course, along with Knight of Cups and Gods of Egypt. Each had its vocal defenders. Each might have been a Believer, a box-office smash, in another time and place. As it reaches the familiar crest of the hill, it blinks, its body and spirit splitting for one single moment, and gasps. The rock covering the entrance to Allegiant’s tomb has been moved! — an impossible task for three strong movies, let alone three or four. It looks over to Heaven Is for Real, each of them with a tear in their eye, knowing, their hair dancing in the wind. A light is breaking over them.

Allegiant has died. Allegiant has risen

The next Divergent movie is titled Ascendant for this very reason. Just like God’s Not Dead 2, or miracles, we might never see a single Divergent movie. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Like many things, the only way for us to know them is for them to continue along their path beside ours, quiet and parallel.

by Mike Spreter & Keaton Ventura (Film Fun)

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A Revenant’s Story

We still think about American Sniper. But there is another, and it still thinks about Titanic.
The Revenant plunges blindly through the forest of January, in pursuit of a moving target it can sense but not see, nor define. The places between the pines are all quiet, but it fills the silences with the sound of its own breathing, haggard and out of sync, choked with stale blood.

Dead fish are bound to its legs for warmth, and later for eating. In spite of its many injuries, the singularity of its purpose lends it strength. Sometimes it pauses with something close to appreciation for the severe beauty that cradles it, Birdman’s circling above in great flocks, distinguishing the Earth’s limitable sky from the box office heavens. “What a lovely day,” it thinks. “I’ve heard that before somewhere.”

The winter before, American Sniper broke the January weekend record with an astonishing $89.2 million, far above the former record holder and a fighting whisper away from the Real 90s of the previous summer. Then Star Wars: The Force Awakens did that one better during the first weekend of 2016, squeezing past with $90.2 million in its third weekend, dissolving the season’s records while the East Coast of America still waited for any sign of snow to catch on its tongue. But neither of those box office tales can slow the hunter, because this is a revenant’s story.

Beyond American Sniper and Star Wars, there are other kings of January on The Revenant’s kill list: Liam Neeson and his Taken franchise; Kevin Hart and Ride Along, Coach Carter and Paul Blart aren’t safe either. January chills and hardens, just like a good revenant; even its victors are just ice cubes waiting to be dropped from a great height onto a hard floor. One of the slowest months of the box office calendar to gentrify, it’s also notoriously inhospitable to women: Katniss’s arrows have never held their flame past the New Year’s holiday.

A revenant’s mission is to kill, but just because you only make one decision doesn’t mean you’re never confused. It reaches a clearing where it finds two tracks extending in opposite directions through the deep snow: one freshly left by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and another, faded but trackable in patches, cut by the Star Wars special-edition reissue in January 1997.

It chooses the fresh blood, which proves slightly more daunting, more uphill. It passes a snow­covered helicopter and a patch of sign posts: “Cloverfield Lane,” etc. It pulls loose a thick piece of carpet from the rubble and tosses it over its back. Continuing on, The Revenant unsticks a lone Gummi from the carpet with its bloody fingers and devours it. Sustenance for a week, or at least a four-day holiday weekend.

The Revenant meets James Cameron at the river, where James appears freshly defeated, nude but for a cyan loincloth and tattered purple leggings. Perhaps they’ve both reached their end, the last place they’d expect to find it: together. “Revenge is in God’s hands,” The Revenant manages to choke through its open neck wound. But James Cameron doesn’t believe this. He never did and never will.

“I made the same journey as you are making, but years ago,” he tells The Revenant. “In fact, I spent fifteen years hunting down the same blue eyes you seek, eyes as blue as the ocean.”

The Revenant wheezes, staring blackly. “I traveled to Pandora and back,” James continues. “But all you have to do is kneel by that riverbed over there and find your own reflection.”

The Revenant scuttles toward the water; we only hear the snow crunch below and see the trees spin above until we’re at its rushing edge. The current is fast but it quickly slows, even begins to run backward. The Revenant snarls at the glassy surface: first it sees Birdman circling directly above, blocking out the sun, and then its own reflection comes into view.

In that image, it appears younger, thinner, shaved. Its wounds are gone. There is no vengeance in its eyes, just love. But what James said is true: they share the same blue eyes. The Revenant notices one last similarity in the otherwise distinguished reflection: they are both frozen, their long hair iced and matted. At this, the reflection slips away into darkness, sinking.

“Jack…” a female voice echos from behind, betraying a ripple where The Revenant’s reflection once was. Clouds pass overhead, the sky opens up, and some box office peeks through from the heavens, its rays alighting upon the river in strobe flashes. The Revenant curses and falls over, shielding its eyes. A light never so distant, bound to the Earth. Maybe that wasn’t a reflection. Maybe the box office heavens come from below.

The Revenant gasps for breath in new darkness and finds itself on a boat, but not the Best Production Design type. It’s a normal boat and he’s standing at the bow, facing out at the ocean. His hand grips something cold, but it’s not the railing. It’s an Oscar. He holds his hand out and gazes at it. After a moment, he loosens his grip and lets the statue fall into the water.

“Ah,” he gasps.

“When I was a boy, the box office heavens were here,” The Revenant recounts as it raises a leveled hand to pinpoint God’s location. “And America,” it continues, lowering its hand, “America was here. I used to want God’s money, but now I can steal Star Wars’ instead. In the nineteen Januaries since Star Wars’ special-edition reissue, the box office heavens haven’t put any more distance between us. But this is a revenant’s story, and The Revenant can’t find America.

by Keaton Ventura & Mike Spreter (Film Fun)

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The Hunger

The hunger came and went. Twilight was released on November 21, 2008. At the time,
The Dark Knight was still lingering down the charts in 345 theaters; we hadn’t seen Harry Potter around since the summer before; The Lord of the Rings moved on but left a few hobbits behind.

Narnia couldn’t take the heat. Shrek, Spider­Man and Pirates of the Caribbean each faded in their third outings the previous May. We could sense a new phenomenon, and come November 2008, we got two in one month. Twilight might even have been the first movie you saw in theaters following Barack Obama’s election; after all, there were two more words to mispronounce in Quantum of Solace’s title.

By the time of Twilight’s third and final sequel, Breaking Dawn – Part 2, Obama had been decisively re­elected, and we were ready to say goodbye to Edward and Bella. You couldn’t remember much of the intervening years beyond a feeling of love that now receded warmly, a mother dimming the light from her child’s door as she slips into the hallway. That March we had gotten our first taste of Katniss Everdeen, wooded and breathless, born immaculate into $400 million as our hero for the second term. Commands we mouthed in darkness: unstill your quiver, Katniss, and let vampires sleep.

Typically, as with Twilight, a franchise starts off slowly before igniting a broader fan base. But The Hunger Games learned a lot from Potter and Twilight — of healthy midnights and $70-­million­-dollar opening days. We knew what it was doing from the start. To the public, its hype might have felt quieter than its YA counterparts, but come March 2012 you could hear it as loudly as “YOLO” echoing down a middle school hallway: echoing into classrooms, one nation clearly divisible as each student displayed their softcover of choice at the top corner of their desk. To whom to do you pledge allegiance: Bella or Katniss?

In November 2013, Catching Fire made good on The Hunger Games’ promise, carrying us further still into the known unknown, further past $400 million. We were excited when the competition opened with water, the tributes arranged in formation of a wicked star; the weekend before Thanksgiving still belonged to Scorpio. But a chill began a year later, in the November of 2014. Looking down at the same wool coat your wore to Twilight, now six years old, you noticed a tear along the elbow’s inseam, elsewhere the lining frayed.

In the arena, a single tear can mean the difference between life and death, and last year’s Mockingjay – Part 1 performed at a surprising decline from the previous two installments, down 21% from Catching Fire’s record haul. The franchise was less interesting without the games, we found, games that felt vital because we had always wanted to play them. Now we were cast out in the shapeless, imitative poverty of the Districts.

Between Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the Hunger Games franchise started to run for office. But for which office, and on what platform? It used to call us up to say “YOLO,” but now it sent us chilly form emails, twice a day at least. “Are you with me?” she would ask in the subject line. There were six months to go before Hillary Clinton announced her presidential bid, but everyone had heard the rumors.

Whatever happens to Mockingjay – Part 2 shouldn’t be regarded as a box office disappointment. Some will call its $114 million opening weekend tragic, falling one million shy of Minions’ opening in July, but others might say, “Remember when the first Spider­Man brought home that number thirteen years ago?” We remember. We were thrilled. Be proud of movies, regardless of their performance; be proud of your stake in them. Whether you’re going to bid Mockingjay a fond farewell or piss on its grave, be proud.

Because letting go of the Hunger Games is more than a game. It’s letting go of a thought lineage around YA properties that really began in 2001, with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. New Divergent and Maze Runner movies will appear for the next several years, dutifully collecting their respective $120 and $70 million payouts, but now they’re ghosts in a hallway gone quiet. A young stranger rushes past, an indistinct hardcover clutched to her chest; it’s her first day of school, and as much as she’d like to stop and listen to those ghost stories, she’s really gotta get to class. Do you even go here?

You’ll be there for Mockingjay, though maybe not for opening weekend. The lights will go down in the theater. Somewhere in the night, Caitlyn Jenner’s limo rolls through Panem. Katniss can’t be your hero for the next presidential term, to whomever it belongs, but you know she wouldn’t have it any other way; she points her arrow true to Thanksgiving 2016, where Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is waiting for Hillary, or Bernie, or Ben. Or Harry.

I have died a thousand years waiting for you…

The final seeds for Mockingjay Part 2 are sown in Century Gothic, the familiar font where everything began. Minutes to go before that last shot, you feel it, and the credits will begin. If you have any tears to cry, now is the time: here where they can be seen, and tasted.

Darling, don’t be afraid, I have loved you for a thousand years…

Text scrolls, the purity of white against black. You reach for your quiver and find it empty — you thought you had one arrow remaining, but it’s all right, Ma, just as well invisible. Instead you raise your three fingers back at Katniss, one last time. Your fingertips graze the projector’s beam of light, intersecting the children on screen. The dancing girl with the dark hair and blue eyes. The boy with blond curls and gray eyes, struggling to keep up with her on his chubby toddler legs. The children remind us that it’s never goodbye. Your wool coat hangs over the empty seat next to you. In a few minutes you’ll get up to leave without it, with and without tears.

I’ll love you for a thousand more…

by Keaton Ventura & Mike Spreter (Film Fun)

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Best Foreign Language Film

Look at the stars
Look how they shine for you…

Sometime on the morning of Monday, July 13, 2015, manager Olaf Ihlefeldt was doing his usual rounds at the Stahnsdorf Southwestern Cemetery outside Berlin, Germany. Night still watched over America, where tickets were being tallied for the opening weekend of an animated blockbuster film about yellow things called Minions. That morning at Stahnsdorf, the knitted geometry of the headstones were unveiled to Olaf as far as he could see, the names he could remember and those he never could. The sun shone in a light beyond color, beyond yellow. Olaf himself was named for his great-grandfather, but his grandchildren would be named for Frozen.

Something was wrong in the cemetery. He could feel it as he crested the hill and set his gaze on the familiar tomb. The resting place of film director F.W. Murnau, master of Nosferatu and Faust, had been disturbed. What he discovered there was shocking: the skull of Murnau’s skeleton had been stolen from its iron coffin, separated from its sister bones. And this wasn’t the first time.

And everything you do
Yeah they were all yellow

Minions is and isn’t a “movie,” more so than any other movie — or any other thing for that matter. Minions is a happening. The movie itself grossed around half the amount that Jurassic World did on its opening weekend, but twice as many people were talking about it. (It did score the highest opening ever for a foreign-language film, dismantling The Passion of the Christ from its eleven-year stay at the top.) Even in Los Angeles, people were likely to spot the cast of Minions more frequently than they saw the sun. No one confuses the sun with anything else that’s bright in the sky, but we might’ve seen a crumbled-up piece of yellow trash and walked away believing we had encountered a Minion, not someone’s McDonald’s breakfast. The Minions’ supersaturated ad campaign seemed to pivot on this kind of perceptual seep. The brand is a division of light itself.

When you google “yellow things,” the first row of image results includes a rubber duck, a lemon, two photos of bananas, and Minions. Pikachu, Spongebob, and all of the Simpsons are absent from this Google image result, no matter how far down you scroll. That’s because Pikachu is Pikachu, Spongebob is Spongebob and the Simpsons live in Springfield. But we’re far away from all of them now, driving down the highway of Things — things we may or may not ever notice until we seek them out as such.

Your skin
Oh yeah your skin and bones
Turn into something beautiful

The gay sex-via-geolocation app Grindr was launched on March 25, 2009, the same weekend that Dreamworks Animation’s Monsters vs. Aliens ruled the box office, but it truly arrived in late 2010. That’s shortly after the release of the first Despicable Me on July 9, 2010, the foreign language film in which the Minions made their first appearance. And they have a lot more in common with Grindr than its citrus glow.

Like Minions, Grindr is raw data waiting to be parsed, a wall of yellow squares each containing discrete information. You might call it horny, but the better word is “frisky,” since that horniness rarely leads anywhere you want to go. Grindr’s interface suggests that some kind of order exists in sexual geography, just like how we assume Minions can tell themselves apart even when the audience can’t. The Minions are explicitly beta —they’ve been roaming the earth in search of a villainous master since amoeba times, kind of like gay men in New York City — but their shrillness and sheer volume makes them feel anything but. They also call themselves a “tribe,” a word that’s important on Grindr for a user to denote which gay subculture they think they belong to (“bear,” “twink,” etc.).

Minions especially don’t hide. They’re not faerie companions or animal familiars. If anything, they’re conspicuous in how obvious they are. All you have to do is look. But looking closer isn’t always looking better. The further you get along in your user experience of the Minions of Grindr, the less you can distinguish between them. The more that one square demands individual attention, the more inhuman the nature of their whole arrangement seems.

For you we bleed ourselves dry…

Minions have proven that finding a master is easy. Keeping one is the difficult part. Because even when they find their dom, they fumble the act of being dominated. #SQUADGOALS

In one flashback from Minions, we find the Minions surrounding the tomb of Count Dracula. When he arises, they surprise him with a birthday cake and gleefully swing the windows open, the sunlight blasting their master and evaporating him. If you add the “357” seen as candles on the birthday cake to Vlad the Impaler’s 1431 birthdate, we can assume the year of the flashback is 1788. The Minions wouldn’t see the Count again until 1922, when F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu was first released in Germany.

Following the recent theft of Murnau’s head, police reports¹ indicated that wax drippings were found around the gravesite. Many speculated that it was the debris from some satanic ritual held in deference to Murnau’s filmography, but maybe there’s a simpler explanation, a yellow explanation. Maybe the Minions looked into Grindr’s yellowish glow and finally got just what they needed to get off: themselves. Or maybe they kept that birthday cake around all these years, ready to lay it at their master’s feet, cooing things we still don’t understand, not a Lost Language but the language of the lost. The candles on the cake still burning bright, still dripping. Oh, forget about the wax. The head is ours.

by Keaton Ventura & Mike Spreter (Film Fun)

¹ Film Fun was the first to be questioned, but not the last.

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Doll Parts and Road Works

The long arm of casual auteurism begins somewhere in the fall semester at film school and strains outward, just far enough for an index finger to poke right into the summer movie season.

We hear it every year: a whiff of dialogue regarding which of the Hollywood blockbusters has real personality or uniqueness; a “specificity” or “vision.” The chosen one exists to the exclusion of the marketplace as a whole, as with Godzilla in 2014, or Star Trek in whatever year that came out. It becomes a seasonal receptacle for vague ideas about what represents an authentic moviegoing experience. Its existence alone, they say, exemplifies what’s fraudulent about the rest of the movie experiences people are having that summer, no matter how ecstatic. Doors shut, and hypothetical friendships — at the box office and elsewhere — recede.

That dialogue in 2015 has largely centered on Mad Max: Fury Road, a reboot of the 1980s franchise, whose first trailers shrilly touted, “From the visionary mind of George Miller.” By its opening weekend, other summer releases like Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron were excommunicated from art-world watercooler conversation. And by the end of the summer, it’s true: we might remember more crap from Mad Max: Fury Road than we do from any other movie. What we remember of Mad Max are the lurid, Russian Novel details: the stitches on the head of a doll, sewn into the back of someone’s hair; an eyeball or skull emblem glistening on one of the gear shifts; the specific angle of the flames shooting out from the metalhead’s guitar. (You can’t really make a meme out of an angle.) It’s virtually the same trash that got shoveled around in Wall-E. When Mad Max finally ended, there was piss on the floors, popcorn crushed in every crack. Pepsi on seats. Gummis on carpets. In the aisles, still more unseen clutter.

Mad Max begs a pretty big question: How much do we want to remember from our favorite movies? How much detritus do we carry on our backs as we trip toward the white light? Is remembering more necessarily better? Details are details, and facts are facts: if you watch The City of Lost Children at twice its speed, you’re still only halfway through Mad Max.

“I don’t mind peddling a little further,” the bicyclist from The Triplets of Belleville mutters.

In Belleville, Champion (the bicyclist) is kidnapped by the French mafia during the Tour de France and eventually rescued by the triplets. Puffed up calf muscles just barely wobbling him out of harm’s way, there is no finish line for Champion, but there is a critical consensus for his movie on RottenTomatoes.com: “Richly detailed and loaded with surreal touches.” People might’ve said the same of Amelie, but we wonder if either of them saved enough money from garage sales to buy a $19.00 IMAX 3D ticket to Mad Max: Fury Road.

“I liked how much Mad Max felt like that overstuffed musical sequence in Moulin Rouge,” a friend told us, but the difference is that Moulin Rouge is about love. In all its preening, shambolic detail, Mad Max practically honors the idea of apocalypse and the first-world liberal shrug that goes along with it. “I know that you know all about global warming,” it seems to say, “but more importantly: I know you wouldn’t have it any other way.” Imagine if Titanic took place entirely in the engine room, and was directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet. Or if the shot of the smokestack falling on third-class passengers looped over and over, and the tragic violinists were replaced by KISS. And that’s when there was still enough water left on Earth for some of it to be frozen into icebergs.

Looking at the domestic box office numbers, more people saw Jurassic World during its first two days than during Mad Max’s entire theatrical run, but you’d never know it. The richer my friends get, the more they like Mad Max. So why don’t they want to tell me about Jurassic World, one of the highest grossing movies of all time? Maybe everything that needs to be said about Jurassic World lives and dies as vapor in the theater itself. The air conditioning was fixed in time for that June weekend, hidden machines pumping cool enough for you to see your breath forming as mist against the screen, running with the dinosaurs. We might remember the split second when we see the guy carrying a blended margarita in each hand, fleeing from the pterodactyl attack, but that’s because we like margaritas too, not simply because its director Colin Trevorrow likes them. We certainly don’t have to remember that that guy is actually played by Jimmy Buffett.

But the Sunday afternoon after Mad Max’s release in May, the AC was still broken, the multiplex doors open to the dusty street and begging for a pale breeze. Beads of sweat pooled on your forehead. Your legs hurt from running; but what were you running from? Only Champion, now safe in the Belleville triplets’ arms, could hope to tell you.

In the locked room of your mind reserved for long-spent fireworks and a faded copy of An Inconvenient Truth scorched by backseat California sun, Mad Max is ending, again and again. The piss isn’t ours. The Pepsi is.

by Keaton Ventura & Mike Spreter (Film Fun)

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