Predicting Rian Johnson’s Legacy

Being a week behind the fall movie season, I finally got a chance to catch up with Looper this past weekend. I enjoyed it quite a bit, particularly some of the time travel-related questions it raised as well as alternate timeline theory that was explained so perfectly in last year’s “Community” episode, “Remedial Chaos Theory.” While my friend and I covered these topics as well as the film’s many others in our post film discussion I began thinking about the future timeline of director Rian Johnson who’s first three movies followed a specific timeline that festival hopefuls dream of. As a quick recap, Johnson’s first three films include:

Brick (2005) – A High School/Film Noir hybrid that centers on loner Brendan, also played by Levitt, follows the trail left by the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. At this particular high school all the students speak like they’re in a Dashiell Hammett novel. This is the “Out of nowhere first film,” film.

The Brothers Bloom (2008) – Light-hearted heist caper about a team of two brothers, the stow-a-way, that the central brother develops an early crush on and a nearly silent demolitions expert that all rings of strong Wes Anderson influences. The film was by all accounts a box office failure, making just more than a quarter of it’s budget. This is the “Bigger budget indie that only fans of the first movie knew about.”

Looper (2012) – Sci-fi/crime movie about a hitman looking for meaning in a life that is pre-determined by his own profession. The “Bigger Budget, Bigger Star wide release.” Looper has already made back its budget and will likely more than double it.

Coming out of the release of Johnson’s third film, more specifically his third decent to great one, now is the time when critics and writers feel obligated to analyze his odds of becoming the next great blockbuster filmmaker a la Ridley Scott, early George Lucas or Steven Spielberg. Before you call me a Johnson fanboy who is over reacting to a genre movie that catered to his own bias towards time travel movies, remember we did the same for M. Night Shyamalan after his third movie.

Out of fear of being wrong in eight years, I’m not going to predict that Rian Johnson will become either the next Spielberg or the next Shyamalan but it isn’t out of the question that he become either. All three have made variations on genre pictures, which at their core, about men coming to terms with a very personal issue.  Brody becomes a better father by killing a shark and Rev. Hess becomes a better father and a better Christian just as Brendan is able to find his role in clique-driven suburban high school.

Through their early career, all three filmmakers are also very much in control of the worlds they set up in their films. As more elements are introduced in something like Looper or Unbreakable (Shyamalan’s best upon repeated viewing) they never become convoluted.

The one contemporary I’m leaving out is J.J. Abrahms who, like any filmmaker born in the last 40 years, is also influenced by Spielberg to the point where he imitated his idol. The one difference between the two, it’s clear from the beginning that Abrahms is more interested in being a mogul rather than solely a director which based on all the interviews I’ve heard/read seems to be Johnsons’ chosen path.

Johnson also sticks out for personal reasons. Namely, his filmography spans from my senior year of high school through my mid 20s. Also, the comparisons between Spielberg and Shyamalan weren’t unfounded because his first three films allowed me to escape my adolesence to the feelings I had when I watched Spielberg and Lucas on video. Johnson’s films, to varying extents, do the same despite my growing cyncism and awareness of film and story elements which make escapism much more difficult.

Hopefully, that’s a sign Johnson won’t swing away and start staring in his own movies.

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Sittin’ at the Edge of Tomorrow: The Show That Could Have Been

As a kid there were a handful of shows that prepared me for my future, one of the most prominent was “Saved by the Bell.” I know I’m not alone in this as countless t-shirts and Jimmy Fallon’s quest to reunite the cast drew public attention. When the show came to Netflix this past summer, I enjoyed a joyful trip down memory lane. At the end however, I felt an itch to marathon through the lone season of the college years, more specifically the pilot.

The pilot set the tone for a different series from its predecessor and much more interesting than what the show became.  It focused strictly on the franchises’ male core. This is clear from beginning as the intro of the pilot was extremely male-centric and set the series up the same way since it only used the clips of the guys goofing off. Click the photo below to see what I mean.

The original Bayside years were very similar in that the female character’s purpose was mainly to serve as the guys’ foil. They make them better boyfriends, offer a female perspective or some other way to move their original trajectory off their usually selfish motives. With all the lessons those guys learned, it’s amazing everything stays the same once they are in college which, along with Las Vegas, is one of the few atmospheres that allows for this behavior. Therein lies one of the bigger reasons why the show failed, college shenanigans are larger than in high school, as is also the difference between shows on Saturday mornings and those on prime time.

This is why College is inherently more fun than high school and this show should have reflected that. However, viewers are much more nostalgic for the high school years which are better for all the characters, except for one Samuel Powers. Screech, who could only date the likes of Violet Beauregard in high school, has no trouble meeting an attractive computer science major at his first college party and a few days later, go out with two attractive suite mates.

Post-pilot, Screech goes from Zach’s latchkey friend in high school to joining the most popular fraternity on campus, winning the fancies of a professional tennis player and has the opportunity to study abroad on a cruise ship. I can’t help but wonder if this influenced Judd Apatow when he worked on “Undeclared.” College is the last chance for genuine change in a contained ecosystem and its that opportunity that gives Screech has the most compelling character trajectory across the “Bell” franchise. These interesting developments were all put on hold as the show became “Zach Loves Kelly,” that was marked when Theissen joined the cast and replaced “Smart Guy” alum, Essence Atkins.

For the sake of the show, the change was probably for the best. Atkins’ character wasn’t interesting by any means, and she didn’t have a hook like Leslie (Zack’s original love interest) or Alex (the crazy theater major) and the show wasn’t built for female characters to thrive. The problem with the focus on Zack and Kelly’s relationship was that it caused him to become the most boring guy in any dorm, the one who is still hung up on their high school girlfriend. In the meantime, the other guys had extremely interesting freshman year whether they joined the aforementioned fraternity or dated a theater girl.

With hindsight being 20/20, it’s a shame this show didn’t last longer than it’s first season, but it’s not surprising. Along with Kelly’s inclusion, Mike Rodgers never proved a foil for Zack’s shenanigans in the same way as Mr. Belding and the addition of the Dean McMann was too little too late. However the pilot promised a show that was far more honest and interesting than it had any right to be.