La La Land is about contrasts and choices. The film starts with lots of light, a bright color palate, and an energetic, upbeat a song and dance…hopes and dreams. The film ends in a dimly lit club, with bluesy jazz…regret and acceptance. The film communicates a contrast between the pure joy of developing a talent and engaging in art and the self-aggrandizing, greedy, prideful world that promotes and monetizes art. It juxtaposes homages to mid-20th century musicals with modern-day challenges of pursuing an artistic career in L.A. The story centers around relationship of an actress and a musician who meet and fall in love in L.A. and on the tension created as they try to balance their relationship with pursuing their separate career dreams. La La Land considers the difference between the romance of dreams pursued with the reality the dreams realized. Continue reading
Feelings can seem like big, uncontrollable monsters. Especially for chlidren who have less experience and context with which to deal with traumatic events. In A Monster Calls a boy processes his mother’s fight with cancer and the changes that means to his life with the help of a large tree-like monster.
Conor is described as “not quite a boy and not quite a man.” He clings desperately to the hope that his mother will recover. He’s afraid of his distant and perfectionist grandmother. He’s afraid of being disappointed again by his father who has a new family in a new country. He’s afraid of the relentless bullies who make his life at school miserable. He’s afraid that his own conflicted feelings about his mom’s illness make him a bad person. No wonder he needs the strength of a monster to face everything he’s experiencing.
The cinematography creates a dreamlike, dark, and beautiful backdrop for Conor’s agony. There is this fantastic talking Yew tree creature in the middle of Conor’s brutal reality. Movies like this are a hard sell. It’s sad. The main character is younger than the maturity level it takes to really embrace the difficult themes. I compare the monster, and the film itself, to The Iron Giant. It’s visually appealing with a compelling story and a unique perspective that will probably draw a limited audience. Though it’s much more serious, I also see it as a sort of companion to Inside Out in that within it’s fantastical premise is an analysis of raw, authentic human emotion.
For me, the film is full of truth. Life is messy. Every character is flawed and hurt and angry and disappointed and loving all at once. These flawed people love each other and hurt each other at the same time. These are not perfect, selfless kind of heroes, but human and authentic, aching, vulnerable, selfish and miserable. There is no hero or villain. There is no moment of victory. There is simply acceptance of the reality that is and realization that even in loss, love remains.
Arrival is one of those movies I can’t stop thinking about. It offers a complex, intriguing, enjoyable entertainment experience. It’s well paced, very well acted, especially Amy Adams. To call it a time-travel sci-fi would do it an injustice. Based on The Story of Your Life, a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival is emotionally, intellectually, and ethically challenging. The film explores the theory of linguistic relativity, time as a linear concept, precognition, cooperation among nations, and romantic and parental love and responsibility. Rather than merely juxtapose the subtleties of linguistics against the pragmatism of military might or pit the emotional/spiritual aspects of human existence against the rational/scientific, the message of Arrival seems to be that everything matters and the fusion of all these things is what makes humans, or cognizant beings from anywhere in any galaxy, self-aware.
When twelve spaceships land at various locations all over the world linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is tapped to interpret the language of the aliens for the American government. She and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) interact with the the aliens they call Hepatoids to help the military try to determine whether the aliens’ intentions are hostile. This is happening all over the world as other countries are attempting communication as well, some coming to different conclusions due to their interpretation of alien language. The problem is that the alien language is ambiguous. Typically, world forces refuse to share data. It is division among humans and refusal to communicate that ultimately endangers the world.
SPOILER ALERT – See Arrival before you read further. Continue reading
I don’t usually recommend tear-jerkers because there is enough tragedy to deal with in real life, but Manchester By the Sea is so honest, so real, and so captivating that I think it’s worth the vicarious pain. The performances alone are worth seeing. It’s depiction of grief is profoundly genuine. And it considers three really important questions: Is there a timetable for getting over devastating life experiences? Is not moving on from our heartbreaks selfish? Are there wounds that just won’t heal?
Lee Chandler must confront all his ghosts when he returns home to deal with his older brother’s death and make provisions for his nephew. Lee is a withdrawn janitor with painful past while his nephew Patrick is a self-centered teen hockey player with two girlfriends and a terrible rock band. The back and forth between Lee and his nephew offers moments of dark humor that pain frequently creates. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges give fantastic, truthful performances. Really, everyone playing the main characters gave spot on performances that made the film feel so real.
Lee’s story unfolds in a series of flashbacks and conversations with people from his small Massachusetts hometown. Most of them either can’t understand how he hasn’t moved on from the past or can’t stop judging him for what happened in the past. We’ve all known people who seem to take a long time to recover from grief and/or guilt, and some that never seem to. I don’t want to give this movie away, so, even with the spoiler alert, that’s all I’m going to say about that.
Manchester By the Sea is full of real people muddling through life’s hard experiences. The story builds to that expected character arc and abruptly ends mid-muddle. Because that’s the way real-life stories are. We don’t all resolve at the same time. Not every experience comes with closure. This story isn’t about closure, it’s about love. In spite of their imperfect processing of devastating events, these characters love each other.
Back to the questions. Is there a timetable for getting over devastating life experiences? I was personally affected by this movie because I think I rush this process. This movie made me pause and ask whether people like Lee hide from people like me. I realized that I can’t possible know what it takes to get over something I haven’t experienced. Nor can I know what it’s like to be someone other than myself getting over something I have experienced. So, thanks, author and director Kenneth Lonergan, for the instructive parable. I might never tell anyone to “get over it” again. At least about anything important.
Is refusing to move on selfish? Lee’s pain isolates him from people who care about him. Lee’s pain prevents him from having the relationship with his nephew that his nephew needs from him. Lee knows this but, I think for him, moving on feels selfish. For Lee to move on minimizes the loss he’s experienced and the guilt he feels he owes. Holding onto it makes it remain important. Lee doesn’t know how to process the importance of what happened in the past without allowing it to define him in the present and future.
Are there wounds that just won’t heal? Well, Frodo had to leave Middle Earth to get relief. Maybe Lee can’t survive in Manchester, at least as he is now. The film seems to build a false expectation that all this misery might be be miraculously lifted by letting go, opening up, changing attitudes, or doing something else. But the ending suggests that resolution is not that simple.
One would hope that our relationships with God define us more than the core memories and climactic experiences in our life stories. Nevertheless we all walk around with unresolved pieces of our stories. Faith is not an instant cure for heartbreak or recovery. Forgiveness does not always result in an instant lifting of guilt feelings. God applies His healing balm to our open wounds, over time, often through relationships with others, and later, to our scars. But sometimes our wounds close very slowly, and trying to put a timeline on closure only pours salt on the wound. Manchester By the Sea reminded me that love is patient and kind. We contribute to healing not by trying to “fix” each other or to rush whatever we are processing to resolution, but by loving each other in the unresolved middle of our muddles.
We live our lives. We make phone calls, we take pictures, we text. We write emails. How much of all this information about is collected and categorized? Who sees it? What do they do with it? Does any of this make us vulnerable? Is it possible to have any secrets anymore? If we don’t have privacy, do we care?
Citizenfour and Snowden provide different perspectives on an ongoing event. Both films focus on Edward Snowden and his discovery and revelations to the press regarding the National Security Administrations program which indiscriminately gathered data through cyberspying. Both raise the issue of Snowden’s exile in Moscow and the governments’ continuing desire to prosecute him. Both infer the same basic question: How much does our government know about each of us and what might they do with the information? Is security worth privacy? Is privacy a right? Should privacy be sacrificed for the sake of security? Should Snowden be prosecuted for whistle blowing?Does knowledge of our secrets make us more vulnerable than the threat of terrorism does?
Citizenfour is a documentary directed by Laura Poitras, one of the journalists to whom Snowden leaked the documents. In it Snowden explains what led up to his decision, consequences of that decision and his motives. Poitras recorded many of the events while they occurred. While working for the NSA as a computer contractor Edward Snowden discovered that the government is gathering data about private American citizens. After much soul searching Snowden felt the American people had a right to know so he became a whistleblower. This film primarily takes place in a hotel in Hong Kong where Snowden turns over documents to American journalist Glenn Greenwald, who wrote for The Guardian, a British newspaper, and Laura Poitras.
Snowden is a more personal, fictionalized reenactment of the events directed by Oliver Stone This film tells the story of Snowden’s career with the CIA and later as a contractor to the NSA as well as focusing much more on his relationship with his girlfriend Lindsay Mills. Snowden is the hero in both films, though he comes across as deflecting fame and focused on what he considers serious breaches of faith with the American people by its government. The scenes in the hotel room in this film were the most riveting.
The government’s position on this is that the Espionage Act makes Snowden a spy, not a whistleblower, and should be prosecuted. Snowden is currently hiding out in Russia. The Obama administration has prosecuted a lot of whistleblowers and Snowden knew that before he talked. Hillary Clinton has indicated she would prosecute and Trump called Snowden a “bad guy” and hinted that execution was on the table. Third party candidates Johnson and Stein seem amenable to pardoning Snowden. I doubt whether privacy is even a minor campaign issue. In fact polls conducted in 2015 show a majority of Americans agree with the government. Polls conducted in other parts of the world show that a majority of the world support Snowden. Support among Millennials (at least those who know who Snowden is) both here and abroad, is much higher. Perhaps this is because they are digital natives who conduct much more of their affairs online and do not like the idea of the government invading their privacy.
We all do many things to feel safe. We sometimes sacrifice freedom for security. We sometimes make choices for those around us without ever telling them what dangers we’ve avoided on their behalf. Think of all the safeguards we place on our children. Consider the conflict that occurs when our children reach a certain level of personal autonomy and yet we are still intercepting and filtering their communication. Up until a certain point we are within our rights to do so but this does not necessarily translate into consent.
When we are ones making a safety decision for someone else it makes perfect sense to us. We don’t see such actions as violations, but as protection. But when we are ones that decisions like this are being made for, without our knowledge or consent, we feel violated. Is security worth liberty? Does motivation to protect change the fact that what we’ve written in private could someday be made public? Could the day come when this information is used for purposes beyond the scope of national security?
Honestly CitizenFour raised my concerns for my privacy more, as a documentary, that’s what it was supposed to do. Snowden helped me understand the sacrifices Edward Snowden made trying to do what he considered the right thing and to feel empathy for him, and that’s what a fictional story is supposed to do. Of the two films, I liked Citizenfour more. I have been meaning to write about these two films for awhile but I procrastinated. Now, as I think about the election and the many issues facing our country, I wonder if liberty and privacy should be among them. They are for me.
Swiss Army Man is weird the way a dream is weird. Things happen and they are tied together but not necessarily in the traditional story-telling sense. It makes sense that since Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, credited as “The Daniels,” direct music videos the storytelling feels like a series of visual impressions that express the sound, whether the sound is music or dialog. The cinematography is really good.
Psychological angst is juxtaposed against scatological humor. Amidst the running fart joke and awkward explanations of sexual attraction and masturbation is a profound examination of despair and isolation. The theme goes beyond the average person stuck on an island. Dano’s Hank is no Chuck Noland (Castaway). Hank is marooned on an island in the Pacific having spent most of his life marooned in his own awkward loneliness.
Often in a story the protagonist in need is provided with a mentor who teaches wisdom and skills, and who provides equipment. Hank is sent Manny, a corpse who washes up on shore. Manny’s body proves useful for Hank’s survival in so many ways, including handy-dandy survival flatulence, Hank compares him to a Swiss army knife. Hank is the one who has to figure out how to use Manny, though. He also has to explain life to Manny who remembers nothing. Manny’s questions and Hank’s responses reveal Hank’s issues.
The odd friendship between Hank and Manny works not because one is a great mentor but because they are both confused and fragile yet become connected and interdependent. Manny helps Hank escape his island, physically and psychologically. The characters are well drawn and well acted. The character development is strong. The psychological and psychic healing that takes place in the story doesn’t play out as expected.
The story’s resolution is unpredictable and not left open to interpretation. In that sense Manny is no Richard Parker (Life of Pi). I felt like the movie was leading up to a more ambiguous ending, but it was kind of refreshing for a film to simply commit to something that everyone won’t necessarily like or even get and say “this is our movie and this is how it ends. Deal. Smile.” It’s not the sort of movie everyone will like, but I was entertained and engaged watching it and that might be the thing that tips the scales it its favor.
It’s taken me awhile to process Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I walked out of the theater satisfied. It was just what I wanted from the new Star Wars movie. As far as I’m concerned the mantle passes to this one from A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, and Empire Strikes Back. The stars of these previous films were even brought back to signal this.
Now that Disney owns Star Wars I don’t expect too many surprises, or mistakes. J.J. Abrams did a great job with this one but won’t direct the next. Disney’s hired Rian Johnson (Looper) to take the helm as director and writer. We will be delivered competent, satisfying, risk-free, well-told stories in subsequent films. Disney serves up a carefully developed formula for successful storytelling and I will drink it. Hopefully at Maz Kanata’s Takodana bar, which needs to be the next thing Disney puts in one of their theme park.
Maz Kanata is my favorite new character by far. Maz is an enigma. She’s a space pirate who runs a bar and is an arms dealer but philosophizes like Yoda who she physically resembles. The force is strong in her but so is practicality and humor. More, please.
The new crew of young characters, Rey, Finn, and Poe are fresh takes on the archetypes represented in previous films rather simple remixes of successors. Rey bears some similarities to A New Hope Luke. She is an orphan in need of a mentor on a desert planet. It is obvious she is the next great hope for the Resistance and we expect that with the proper mentor she will learn to use the force and face down the Dark Side.
Neither Finn nor Poe imitate Han, but both exhibit some of his sensibilities. Finn is definitely the skeptic while Poe is the cocky, talented pilot. We don’t get backstories on these two yet, but their abilities tell us there is more to them. Finn is definitely force sensitive. Nobody picks up a lightsaber and goes at it with a Darth Vader wannabe the way Finn does without being pretty strong in the Force. Will we be treated to scene in an upcoming film in which Mace Windu delivers the lines “Finn, I am your father?”
In this film Poe also fulfills Leia’s function in New Hope as he explains and interprets the mission of the Resistance for newcomers Rey and Finn. One thing I’m wondering about is whether Poe has the force or is just a fantastic pilot. Luke didn’t become the best X-wing pilot in the galaxy without using the force, but Han was amazing without it. I’d like to see some sort of buddy sub-plot involving these two. Like Luke and Han, neither of them is mere sidekick material.
My response to the Dark Side is a little conflicted. I want to be fair to this generation of villains but Darth Vader is a tough act to follow. Through A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, and most of Empire Strikes Back Vader is a mysterious, helmeted figure who can speak into people’s minds. The mask, the breathing and James Earl Jones’ deep rattly voice contributed to the terror for me. Unlike the creepy, calculating Palpatine, Vader is reactive and emotional which makes him more terrifying. Supreme Leader Snoke struck me as another Palpatine and Kylo Ren comes off as more unbalanced than menancing. Vader was both.
There are three whole films explaining how Darth Vader became Darth Vader and a few lines of exposition about how the son of Hans Solo and Princess Leia could wind up taking Vader lessons. Then he’s unmasked and seemingly dispensed with in the first movie. That might be the only really surprising part of the movie. I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him but I’m not sure Kylo has enough Force in him to “come back more powerful than you can imagine.” I guess I’ll find out because I will definitely be one of the millions in line for the next one.
Here are a few messed up Christmas scenes because when you try too hard to have a perfect Christmas or when you lose sight of the point of Christmas, it’s easy to feel…
overscheduled…How the Grinch Stole Christmas The Grinch’s Schedule
technically challenged…National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – Installing Christmas lights.
disillusioned…A Christmas Story. Ralphie visits Santa.
disappointed…Elf Department store Santa.
impatient…Love Actually Store gift wrap.
cynical…The Ref General family dysfunction.
crazy…Home Alone 2 Merry Christmas, ya filthy animal.
imperfect…The Best Christmas Pageant Ever Church play gone wrong…or right
But at the heart of Christmas is this beautiful message of hope and redemption, peace and love…A Charlie Brown Christmas. Linus Christmas Speech.
Have a joyful, crazy, glorious Christmas!
I was doing some research for the Film and Lit class that I teach and discovered that one of the earliest recordings is a cat video, or cat film to be more precise. Recorded at Thomas Edison’s Black Maria Studio with Edison’s strip kinetograph camera, Boxing Cats, made in 1894, is the first cat video. This made me extremely happy. I will admit it. Cat videos make me smile. I’ve been thinking about why.
One researcher suggests that people watch cat videos for emotional uplift, in other words, pet therapy with out the litter box. Another researcher suggests that because cats don’t care or acknowledge that they are being recorded but people who watch them feel that they are constantly being observed, the observers enjoy the experience of watching something unencumbered by scrutiny. The researchers inference is that we don’t like the idea being watched ourselves but we like the idea of watching something or someone who doesn’t know they are being watched. Maybe people post candid video and watch reality tv, because, as Hitchcock suggested with Rear Window we are voyeurs at heart with cinema satisfying that need to watch other people’s lives. Years after Hitchcock, but at the very beginning of reality television, The Truman Show suggests that audiences have grown tired of the neatness of contrived stories and want to observe someone who doesn’t know he is being watched. Maybe someone should try shooting some scenes from Rear Window or Truman Show with cats. I would watch that.
I’m a little bit obsessed with the observer effect, not only as a theory in quantum physics but also in philosophy and psychology. The idea is that the act of observing a behavior changes the behavior. In physics this generally applies to measurement and the effect of the instruments used to measure on particles, but in psychology it has to do with the expectations of the observer and with the awareness of the subject that he or she is being observed. Does knowing you are being watched changes what you do?
With some training a dog’s behavior is predictable, at least when humans are watching. The observer has a definite effect on the subject. Not so much with cats. Unlike dogs, cats normally won’t perform on cue. In the Boxing Cats film the cats wear shoulder harnesses to hold on the gloves and there’s a human ref there to keep them in the ring. The cats themselves seem pretty intent on their little sparring match. I suspect this is something they did for sport without the gloves. The fact the the film is only 22 seconds long may have to do with resources and technology. All the films were very short. But it keeping the cats in the ring might have been a factor.
So why do I like cat videos? After spending years with cats, I think they are aware of being observed but they just don’t care whether anyone is watching or not. In fact, if cats engage affectionately with humans it’s because they choose to engage. Dogs either can be trained to respond as expected or love the attention so much they can’t help themselves. This difference in response makes cats endearing to some people and infuriating to others. Cats give off the vibe that they have autonomy and can exercise control over their environment rather than letting their environment control them. Cat videos either portray cats winning at life in this way or portray what happens when the environment betrays them and mayhem occurs. Observing that mayhem is somehow satisfying and funny and endearing to me. It’s like discovering someone unapproachable is actually a real human being underneath the facade of pride and control.
CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS. Some of my friends who saw The Martian voiced the complaint that there was not enough emotional connection between characters in the film. Mark Watney is single. His parents are never shown. There are no flashbacks scenes to Mark’s life on earth, no love interest, nothing to help the audience see what Mark is missing back home and who is missing him. When the action moves from Mark on Mars it is focused on his crew mates and what is happening among NASA personnel scrambling to work the problem back on earth. Gravity already came at the “lost in space” scenario from the emotional/spiritual perspective, so I found this practical approach a refreshing counterweight. For me, The Martian is a work movie about decision-making and problem-solving.
The Martian is basically about a guy at work. Stuff goes wrong. He figures out how to fix it. The guy happens to work on Mars. I think part of the reason I liked The Martian is that it vindicates those of us who talk to ourselves while we work. It wouldn’t have been much of a movie if Mark didn’t talk to himself and have a good sense of humor. The Martian is no Office Space in space, though. As a movie that explores a professional work environment it offers a more generous perspective.
Matt Damon’s Mark is mostly concerned with problem-solving and remaining calm, patient, and focused. He looks at his situation and states “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this.” The science is explained clearly but is not insultingly dumbed down. “If I want water I’ll have to make it from scratch. Fortunately I know the recipe: Take hydrogen. Add oxygen. Burn.” This article is a good framework for understanding some of the real NASA technologies that appear in the film. Mark uses the technology available to him to survive. He also uses duct tape. Lots and lots of duct tape. Mark’s innovative use of the technology available and his attitude are what make him a great film hero.
Mark’s co-workers leave Mars quickly due to a storm, but there’s some disagreement as to whether this is the best course of action. Commander Lewis calls it. When Mark goes down they don’t have a chance to physically confirm his death but trust the monitor readings and take off. This is one of many executive decisions the film explores. I suspect people in charge second-guess themselves more than most of us non-executive types know. Certainly Commander Lewis struggles with her decision once she discovers Mark is alive. When the crew discovers that they may be Mark’s only hope, they respond quickly and unanimously.
The conflict among the NASA bosses is more complicated. Nick, played by Sean Bean, and Vincent, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, are each concerned with specific aspects of the mission that is within his charge. Nick, who is in charge of the mission and supervises the astronauts, advocates for making the attempt to save Mark. Vincent, who is a scientist, is concerned about the probabilities of success and the possible effect failure might have on future missions, and thinks that the risk of rescue is too high. Teddy, played by Jeff Daniels, as final decision maker has to consider what is best for the organization in terms of politics, costs and publicity. Disagreement does not require a villain. Vincent and Teddy are not cast as true villains although neither comes off as particularly compassionate. They do care what happens to Mark. They are torn by their responsibilities and loyalties to NASA as a program and to Mark as a human being. Nick is clear in his position to place human life over other concerns and is willing to stick his professional neck out to see Mark rescued. What nobody knows is whether Nick would feel the same way were he in Teddy’s position or what Teddy might do if he had Nick’s job. This conflict provides the relationship drama, but in a professional setting the emotions are more subtly expressed.
We all have to depend on other people. Mark would not have been rescued had Nick not made his decision and the crew not made theirs. Sometimes those decisions cost something, Mark expresses the belief that human beings who will help when there is trouble outnumber the ones who don’t care. His trust in this idea motivates him to keep working each problem instead of giving up and letting himself die. Mark expressed understanding about why his crew left. Objectively, he even recognized what the guys at NASA had to consider in making decisions and understood his rescue in the grand scheme of the organization. Under extreme circumstances Mark retained optimism and trust.
The music was fine but I did keep hearing Elton John’s “Rocket Man” in my head the whole time and really think it should have been the credits song. I also sort of wish Richard Dean Anderson (MacGyver) had been somewhere in the cast because how many characters have names that become adjectives synonymous with on-the-fly innovation. Mark and company MacGyvered that mission.
Mr. Robot offers about as unreliable a narrator as you can find. Early in the season Elliot seems part Robin Hood hero, part tech wizard on a mission to take down EvilCorp as a member of F Society. His occasional departures from reality seem attributable to his drug habit. But as the season progresses it becomes clear that Elliot is suffering from some sort of mental disorder. Dissociative identity disorder, aka multiple personalities, according to the show’s creator, Sam Esmail.
Late in the season the audience discovers that Mr. Robot isn’t real. Whatever happened in Elliot’s childhood to trigger this disorder, he doesn’t feel like himself and can’t fulfill his role as avenging hero, the purpose that defines him, unless he is able to interact with this other ego.
Throughout the course of the season Elliot alternately rejects and searches for Mr. Robot. Mr. Robot tells him “You’re losing it kid. I’m only supposed to be your prophet. You’re supposed to be my god.” Elliot is too confused and damaged to be able to assume control of his own identity all the time.
Early in he season Elliot argues with Mr. Robot when Elliot refuses to participate in something that will result in deaths, and Mr. Robot tells him that “This is war. People will die.” There are some things Elliot can’t see himself doing but believes need to be done, so Elliot needs Mr. Robot in order to carry them out. Elliot doesn’t want to be god of his own identity. When he awakens to street celebrations after three days in Tyrell’s SUV Elliot is unable to remember “saving the world” from Evil Corp. And so he finds them. Not only Mr. Robot, but his mother, and his younger self who tells him that he will never be free of them, and at this point Elliot seems resigned to that.
Most of the story takes place from Elliot’s perspective, and the audience eventually realizes that his perspective is not reality. At about this point some story lines diverge so that we see Angela’s viewpoint, and the point of view here does not seem clouded by the unreliable narrator, but in a more traditional sense Angela seems uncertain of who she is as well. She waffles a lot. She doesn’t seem to be able to fully commit to a course of action or position. Initially Angela struggles between her desire for EvilCorp to pay for her mother’s death and her own climb up the corporate ladder at AllSafe. Her resolve against EvilCorp grows until she understands the effect going after EvilCorp will have on AllSafe. Then she decides to confront EvilCorp exec Colby, who she holds responsible for her mother’s death. He ends up hiring her to work in the very corporation she tried to take down.
After Colby’s suicide and F Society’s hack, Price’s blatant hubris seems to appall Angela, but then she does exactly what Price tells her to do. Angela needs money so she may simply be accepting the defeated view that personal survival is steeped in moral compromise and necessary alliances with evil. But there is a suggestion at the end of the last show that another Angela is emerging. Perhaps she is experiencing something akin to a spiritual or moral rather than a mental break. At the very least she seems to feel the temptation to draw her identity from this more aggressive, hard-edged Angela.
The people who seem to know who they are and what they are about are Elliot’s sister Darlene and Phillip Price, the head of EvilCorp. While F Society’s attack wreaks havoc on the average technology-dependent business and its own executive commits suicide, EvilCorp’s head honcho Phillip Price throws a party and declares EvilCorp untouchable. He is utterly convinced of his own power. He seems to interpret the reluctance in others to take charge or declare certainty as his right to dominate them. And on top of all that, we discover that Whiterose, leader of the Dark Army, who seemed to be an F Society ally, and Price are collaborators, implying that the same people who always make the rules are still making them in spite of F Society’s attempted financial revolution.
Darlene knows what she wants to do and why. She has a plan and a goal. The hack takes down the financial conglomerate. After using an animal shelter incinerator to burn evidence, F Society releases the dogs scheduled to be destroyed and turns them out in to the street to fend for themselves. What will those dancing in the street do tomorrow? With her goal realized Darlene seems to feel anticlimactic emptiness. A big question this season leaves hanging is what will people do with freedom, and who is really free?
Mr. Holmes isn’t your typical summer movie. It’s a unique take on the character of Sherlock Holmes. Ian McKellen owned this role and was a joy to watch. In 1947 Sherlock Holmes is in his nineties, tended by a prickly cook (Laura Linney) and her perceptive young son. Holmes’ memory is fading and he’s trying to remember the particulars of a long ago mystery involving a glass harmonium. It was his last case. The case that caused him to retire. And now we cannot remember why.
Watson has died. Everyone associated with the case is gone. As Holmes tries to recount the case to the boy, it comes back in bits and pieces. Holmes has just returned from Japan where he’s gone to obtain some alternative herbs to help with the memory loss. His herbalist, another player whose part is uncertain.
Holmes’ medical doctor tries to get him to accept his condition and make care arrangements for himself. For someone for whom old age is a scant few decades away, parts of this film hurt to watch. In one scene Holmes’ doctor has him make a mark in his notebook every time he forgets something. Some pages are full. It’s devastating. Everyone who faces old age dreads this possibility.
Director Bill Condon keeps the pace slow and deliberate, yet the film moves as it switches between flashbacks to the younger Holmes working the 30-year-old case and the old recluse relating the tale to his young protégé Roger. When he feels up to it Holmes instructs Roger in his hobby, beekeeping, and in his trade, deductive reasoning. Roger helps Holmes sift through his letters and regrets.
The film made me think about the concept of the unreliable narrator. Holmes’ famed logic and attention to detail is now a jumbled mix of images and ideas. He is uncertain whether what he remembers is what actually happened. Filling in the gaps requires more induction than deduction. It turns out that Watson’s recounting of the tale takes extensive literary license, written for entertainment rather than accuracy. So Watson is also an unreliable narrator to Holmes’ life. Yet, given Holmes state of mind, we cannot be sure whether of Watson’s version is entirely wrong just because Holmes dismisses it.
All stories come down to the perceptions of those who tell them. Two people can witness the same event and tell very different stories. Perhaps we are all unreliable narrators relaying our stories as we remember the details, informed by our own perceptions and infused with the emotional tones we experienced at the time and how we feel about it now in retrospect. In the end it is the intentions of the storytellers and the need for reconciliation that reframes Holmes’ last case to help him find peace in the final chapter of his life.
God is the only one who knows our whole stories from beginning to end and what they mean. We live the stories we perceive, the ones others interpret based on their perceptions of the evidence, and the one that really is. It may only be on the other side that he know our own real stories and we may not even recognize some of the stories we’ve lived.
Short Term 12 is about a “short term” care facility for teens who can’t be at home but who, for whatever reasons, don’t fit into any long-term care models. Two twenty-something counselors, Grace and Mason, both former at-risk teens themselves, work through their own relationship challenges as they try to make unconscionable situations bearable for the teens in their care, some who have been in “short term” limbo for years. Brie Larson’s Grace is a wounded healer in every sense. Unresolved issues in her past come rushing to the surface as she herself in Jayden troubled girl she tries to help. It’s the little moments with each of the kids that makes the film so good. The film’s humor and honest emotional responses keep it from being the typical maudlin “inspirational” drama. Writer-director Destin Daniel Crettion shows, instead of preaches, compassion, empathy, and restoration. While the film reveals something so broken in our society, rather than focusing on all the issues associated with the problem, it offers a glimpse of a few starfish thrown back into the sea.
The Babadook‘s brand of horror is psychological deconstruction rather than a gory dismemberment. Single mother Amelia (Essie Davis) was widowed by a car accident on the way to the maternity ward. Six years later her child, Sam, is a scary little kid she can’t understand or seem to help. Sam knows it’s there, that monster in the closet or under the bed, creeping out from the dark cracks in the house. It’s real and it has a firm hold on his perceptions. Amelia’s torment over her inability to rescue her son grips her as tightly as her growing realization that the Babadook is real. Writer-director Jennifer Kent uses image upon fractured image – a bizarre picture book, a series of strange film clips on the television, murky flashbacks to the accident- to lead the audience into questioning the reliability of Amelia’s point of view, and thus what we’ve seen through her eyes. Just as I felt after watching Pan’s Labyrinth, The Babadook left me questioning whether I’d just seen a horror movie, a psychological thriller, or some combination of reality and metaphor.
In a World centers around the voice-over industry. Lake Bell wrote, directed, and stars in this funny, satirical look at competition and self-worth. Carol (Bell) is a voice coach whose competitive, egotistical father is a top dog in the voice-over world. Carol is a little uncomfortable with herself. She doesn’t want to be defined by family and colleagues who are considered more talented and successful but in many ways she’s let them define her. Though Carol wants more in her career she’s seen what unbridled hubris does to relationships so she is deliberately non-competitive and also a little naive. When Carol wins a coveted gig her relationships suffer. This is a thoughtful film about how professionals respond to one other’s success in a competitive marketplace.
From Time to Time, directed by Jullian Fellowes (Downton Abbey), is ghost story, murder mystery, and period piece set in two different time periods. I watched it because Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville are in it and because it’s based on one of the books in the Lucy M. Boston “Green Knowe” series I read and loved in elementary school. Near the end of World War 2 13-year old Tolly, played by Alex Etel (Millions), is sent to live with his father’s mother, Mrs. Oldknow (Maggie Smith) while his own mother desperately tries to get information about his father who is missing in action. Mrs. Oldknow is peculiar and a little distant, but believes him when he tells her he’s seen ghosts. Alex becomes involved in a 17th century mystery with the help of ghosts of children who lived and died at Green Knowe, the name of the house. More than anything else From Time to Time is about relationships.
In director Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, an independent cameraman who films gruesome crime and accident scenes and sells them to local news producer Nina (Rene Russo), who operates with the philosophy of “if it bleed, it leads.” Bloom gleefully applies everything he’s learned from internet self-help success videos, he’s obsessed with them, to nightcrawling. Is Bloom devoid of moral reasoning or simply willing to cross any moral boundary to achieve his goals? Nina comes across at first as merely ambitious, but it seems that the boundaries she’s already crossed makes it easier for her make the compromises Bloom demands of her if he going to keep feeding her ratings-boosting gore. Rather than playing Lou as a easily-to-peg sociopath, Nightcrawler lets the audience observe and decide. He’s so bizarre and creepy that, like the scenes he films and sells, it’s hard to look away. In a strange way this makes the audience is complicit in the very practices the film seems to indict. It’s worth watching for Gyllenhaal’s performance alone.
CONTAINS SPOILERS: Pixar’s Inside Out is about what goes on in our heads when we respond emotionally to experiences. Writer/directors Pete Docter and Ronnie del Carmen tell a familiar story to which anyone can relate in a way that offers insights and causes personal introspection beyond anything we might expect from an animated “kid’s” movie. I’ve never seen a story told in exactly this way. It’s refreshing.
Mostly set inside 11-year old Riley’s brain, the animated film deals with the stress brought on by change and the conflict we experience when we try to respond the way we think we are supposed to respond rather than expressing our authentic emotions. Five emotions, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust, are characters in Inside Out who help her process the experience of moving.
Inside Out suggests that we not categorize our emotions as “good” and “bad.” The story is told from the point of view of Joy, voiced by Amy Poehler, who understands that Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader) can help us avoid danger, and Anger (Lewis Black) can inspire positive change but cannot see that Sadness, voiced by Phyllis Smith (The Office) has a purpose. Joy believed there was something wrong if Riley’s dominant emotion was not always joy.
The crisis in Inside Out is that Riley’s perspectives and identity are threatened by the toll taken both by stressing over this big change in her life and by hiding her true feelings about it because she does not want to disappoint her parents. Action in the film switches between scenes depicting the effects of Riley’s crisis on her emotions, her memories, and her identity, and scenes of Riley interacting in her new environment. The animation inside Riley’s brain is richly colored and complex while the scenes outside are simpler, with more muted tones.
While the way the brain works in the film doesn’t jive completely with brain research and psychology, it does a good job of showing the connections between emotions, identity, and memory. The different ways in which Riley gains identity: family, friends, sports, goofball, and honesty are represented as her Islands of Personality, while her memories are represented by balls colored by different emotions. The memories that define her perspective and outlook are represented as “core memories.”
Memory science indicates the way we process and retain memories is somewhat messier, but the idea that we reframe memories is borne out by research. Turns out the observer effect applies to our memories. Every time we remember something we change the memory a bit. As we mature our brains develop the ability to engage in abstract thinking, which allows us to process our experiences in a more nuanced way. We come to recognize and acknowledge the mixed emotions that come with the complexities of human experiences.
Sadness is the heroine of the film. She displays empathy and authenticity. Her healing message is that grieving loss is a valid emotional response. Listening and validating another’s feelings, and “mourning with those who mourn” is powerful and helpful. Because Riley does not give herself permission to say “I am sad, I am hurting. I need comfort,” her Islands of Personality begin to collapse under the tension of trying to feel what she thinks her parents want her to feel and the need to express her authentic feelings about her struggle with moving. Riley acts out until she is able to acknowledge her sadness.
Self-awareness and truthful, authentic responses that come out of that self-awareness are important to emotional health and maturity, and to spiritual maturity. If our identities are rooted and grounded in the love of Christ, we know that the “islands” of grace and hope cannot collapse. This understanding allows joy to mix into the other emotions we experience, but many of us Christians feel we must put on a happy face all the time because we think it’s what God expects, or that this mask of happiness will attract others to faith. Jesus would never have promised and provided a Comforter if we weren’t going to need one. He would never have let himself be called “Man of Sorrows” if God expected unfettered joy. Honest emotional responses help us to develop empathy for others because we, like our High Priest, are able to be touched with “the feelings of infirmities” that we all experience. To everything there is a season and when it’s time to weep, we will be emotionally and spiritually healthier if we let sadness take the lead.
This week on Netflix I watched Chef, Drinking Buddies, Detachment, and The Judge. Though very different in plot, character, and tone, they shared a couple of common themes: 1. relationships are hard and 2. forgiveness is essential.
Chef is a comedy about a divorced chef played by writer/director Jon Favreau, who is trying to rediscover his creative mojo with support from his son played by Emjay Anthony, friendly ex-wife Sofia Vergara and faithful sou chef John Leguizamo. Chef Carl Casper seeks personal satisfaction and creative expression through his career at the expense of time with his son. Events conspire to change that and he rediscovers who he is as a chef as he reconnects with his family and re-prioritizes relationships. Carl even get’s a second chance in some of the most adversarial relationships in his life.
My takeaways: Forgiveness is a reset. When both parties are amenable, forgiveness can move any relationship into mutually beneficial, mutually transformational experience. Flow, self-actualization, personal fulfillment – whatever you want to call that sense of completeness and happiness we all hope to find in life – involves satisfying relationships not just professional success.
Drinking Buddies is a comedy that explores the line between friendship and romantic involvement, fear of commitment, and honesty in relationships. All of these themes play out as an undercurrent to the action and the dialog, which, in a refreshingly naturalistic approach taken by director/writer Joe Swanberg, was all improvised by the cast who were given the general story arc. Kate (Olivia Wilde) and Luke (Jake M. Johnson) are co-workers in a Chicago craft brewery. Each is in a relationship with someone else. Luke has been in a relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick) for six years and considers Kate a buddy. Kate is in a less serious relationship with Chris (Ron Livingston). A weekend at a lake cottage confirm that Luke and Kate have much more in common while Jill finds herself attracted to Kate. The four individually grapple with serious questions: What do I owe someone in a relationship? What do I owe myself? What constitutes cheating? Do like-minded people necessarily make the best partners?
My takeaways: Part of the work in any relationships is accepting that everyone and every relationship is complex, fluid, and flawed. Alcohol definitely enables the flawed aspects. Part of the work in a romantic relationship is being willing to commit not only physically but emotionally to that one other person.
Detachment is a drama starring Adrien Brody as Henry Barthes, a substitute teacher who is a perceptive and gifted communicator but instead chooses to stay aloof and uninvolved. As much as Henry’s personal baggage compels him to remain detached, his compassion and passion for troubled young people wins out. Detachment is set in a big-city school populated by frustrated teachers and administrators (played by a really great cast including Marcia Gay Harden, James Caan, Christina Hendricks, Lucy Liu, Blythe Danner) caught in big-city education bureaucracy and politics. Many care but can’t understand the apathy and animosity of their students. My one problem with this film, perhaps the one that earned it that green splat on Rotten Tomatoes, is that it takes the opposite approach from Drinking Buddies and is heavy on telling rather than showing. That said, teachers sometimes have to tell because students don’t always see the subtext. Besides some of Henry’s rants are incredibly perceptive and well expressed. Detachment is sad and dark and offers no easy answers.
My takeaway: Baggage is unavoidable and no excuse to withdraw. Sometimes the relationships that are the most trouble are the ones that carry the most opportunity for personal growth and tangible grace. Open up.
The Judge is a courtroom drama starring Robert Downey Jr. as Hank Palmer and Robert Duvall as his estranged father Judge Joseph Palmer. Hank is a successful lawyer in Chicago who doesn’t believe he can ever atone for his past failures or earn his father’s approval. Now he must defend his father in court. Directed by David Dobkin, this film is packed with relationship dysfunction and difficulties: How do grown children deal with a parent who might be losing mental function? How do families explain complex situations to a mentally challenged member? How does forgiveness keep working when the consequences are life-changing and on-going?
My takeaway: Stop trying to atone, ask for forgiveness when needed and forgive when asked. Accept where the relationship is right now, even when it’s tense, without burning bridges or laying down ultimatums. Give relationships space to heal and grow. Keep showing up.
I’ve got a few musings on Game of Thrones. I noticed a couple of parallel themes concerning religious zealots and freedom. I have no idea whether this was intentional by the show’s creators or simply a projection of themes I’ve been pondering personally, but here are my thoughts:
Cersei possesses some of the qualities I find most reprehensible. She grasps for power, wealth and position. She manipulates, lies, and betrays to get her way and cover herself. Trying to use the Faith Militants to get at the Tyrells backfired. Now she’s locked in her own dungeon by the Sparrows, religious zealots who worship the Seven, until she confesses her sins. I’m not sure Game of Thrones could have done anything that would make me root for Cersei Lannister, but I find religious enforcers just as reprehensible as everything Cersei represents. Cersei is resisting and I’m pulling for her.
Forced confession and repentance is not confession and repentance at all. Making people comply to religious rules and bow to religious authority is not redemptive.
Melisandre takes compliance a step further. She serves the Lord of Light that her religion teaches is the one true god. She uses sex as conversion therapy, has visions at the most convenient times, and, when those coercions fail, sacrifices those who won’t convert in a big bonfire. She’s convinced Stannis that he is the reincarnation of one of her religion’s legendary heroes and that her religious practices are responsible for his victories. She is now trying to convince Stannis that offering his daughter as the next human sacrifice is the only way to assure his next victory. I don’t know whether Melisandre is scarier as a true believer or a master manipulator. Is Stannis finally going to wake up?
The message “convert or die” is a sure sign that dark forces are at work no matter what the messenger calls the god.
Arya Stark goes to sleep whispering the names of heinous people who have hurt her and her family. The litany of names reinforces her hatred for the people on her list and her determination to see them pay. We pull for her. We want her to get revenge. But now she’s come to the House of Black and White, this strange cult that worships the many-faced god, a conglomeration of all the other gods worshipped in the GofT universe. They focus on the god of death in each of these other religions. They seem to believe that assassination is an act of mercy carried out as dispassionate religious ritual. Part of Arya’s training is that she deny her identity so she can learn to change her face and lie. Not all in, Arya hid her sword Needle in the rocks instead of disposing of it as she was told. Are the names fading? Is Arya the acolyte actually going to drink the kool-aid? I hope not.
If you are going to make a litany of the names of your enemies, maybe it’s more constructive to make it a prayer of goodwill for them. Forgiveness is freedom.
Tyrion and Daenerys had a heart-to-heart about compromise. Daenerys has been conflicted about how to implement her ideals as ruler. She’s rightly uncomfortable with the idea that she might be endorsing violence by allowing it. She’s already compromised and resorted to killing to establish her power. Now she’s got an advisor in Tyrion who is telling her she’s wise to continue on this course “for the greater good.” The alternative is to become the High Sparrow. This is an alliance that has some legs. Can’t wait to see what comes next for Tyrion and Daenerys.
Sometimes the cost of leading free people is to leave room for them to choose evil with the hope of leading them to choose good. It’s a tough and messy course.
Jon Snow, now leader of the Night’s Watch, allies with the Wildings to fight the White Walker invasion. He’s not out for power or to change their way of life. He’s offering a mutually beneficial alternative to all of them becoming wights, the GofT version of zombie servants of the Walkers. Could the head Walker, aka The Night King, be the long lost Benjen Stark from Season 1? Is Jon Snow’s demise going to the Ned Stark shocker for Season 5? I hope not. My theory is that Jon’s mother is a Targaryen and that Jon and Daenerys are the match that can win the game. If that doesn’t pan out my money’s on the Direwolves.
“Give me liberty of give me death” takes on a whole new meaning when being free means living on the other side of the wall.
Ask the Maester is great source of explanation for all things Gof T. Check it out.
Memorial Day is a great day for a good war flick. What makes a good war movie?
1. A sacrificial hero. On Memorial Day we remember soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. A good war flick communicates the loyalty and loss that going to war requires. A good war flick takes the hero on a journey that involves loss of innocence, growth of character, acquisitions of skills, and development of trusting relationships with other soldiers. Capt. John Miller, a 30-year old married English teacher from Pennsylvania leads his company through Omaha Beach and into France in search on one man he’s been ordered to find. Miller is the picture of intelligent integrity and responsibility as he leads men he’s grown to care about into harm’s way on a mission he’s not completely behind.
Real soldiers say the Omaha Beach sequence in Saving Private Ryan is an accurate picture of the chaos and horror of a real battle. Directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Tom Hanks, Saving Private Ryan has all the elements of a great war flick, a great sacrificial hero, a worthy cause on both an epic and personal scale, a great ensemble cast, and carefully crafted and researched battle scenes.
2. Research. It may sound nerdy but a well-researched war movie brings history alive. Authentic replicas of costumes and weapons, settings that mimic the real thing, re-enactments of specific details, dialog that voices that particular time period go a long way toward giving the audience a glimpse into what it was like to be there. There are times when keeping the story on track or developing a strong character arc requires altering or leaving out historical details, but those decisions should be deliberate choices that serve the story rather than the result of sloppy research.
Black Hawk Down depicts the Battle of Mogadishu on October 3, 1993 which occurred during the American intervention in Somalia. In polls of soldiers who actually fought and military historians, Black Hawk Down is frequently chosen as a film that is historically accurate. According to Dan Ryan, a soldier who served there “the uniforms were right, the way the soldiers talked and acted was right, the weapons were right.” A realistic portrayal of war often relies on realistic depictions of the responses and interactions of the soldiers involved.
3. A group of soldiers. The bonding and loss that takes place between fellow warriors creates unique relationships. The obvious representative film for this is Band of of Brothers, a collaboration production between Stephen Spielberg and Tom Hanks. This HBO series premiered in 2001 and follows two lieutenants from training camp in Georgia to the end of the war in the European theater.
The series not only depicts the war effort but some of the simple practical aggravations that war brings involving everything from supplies and communication to strained relationships and military .
A highlight of the 10-part series are brief interviews with actual veterans of Easy Company. It’s worth a Memorial Day marathon.
Brotherhood, courage, loyalty, and overcoming prejudice are big themes that inspire in Glory, a 1989 Civil War film directed by Edward Zwick. Matthew Broderick plays Col. Robert Shaw, an idealistic white Union commander of a newly-formed black regiment who must learn to lead. Denzel Washington’s Private Trip has a powerful character arc as he overcomes his own anger and prejudice. Ideas like heroism and nobility can come off as corny, but Glory avoids corniness this by simply telling the stories of strong characters who grow as human beings through the experience of fighting together.
When the audience can get behind the reasons for the war being fought on screen it’s much easier to focus on the heroic and noble aspects of war. Glory doesn’t glorify war but it does glorify the heroic and noble character that serving in war sometimes inspires in imperfect people.
5. Battle scenes. Most war movies involve at least one epic battle. Soldiers protect one another. They fight. They lose friends on the battlefield. They kill. The sometimes they get to use cool equipment. Sometimes they have to get innovative with the equipment they have. Stuff blows up.
The helicopter battle scene in Apocalypse Now is one of the most epic in film. Target after target is destroyed. Machines, trees, and soldiers flash in confused cacophony to a score of Wagner’s Ride the Valkyries. The audience can practically smell the Napalm and it doesn’t smell glorious.
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 film about Vietnam isn’t an “inspiring” war film about a noble cause. The psychological toll of this controversial war unfolds in the development and degradation of the main characters, Willard, Kurtz, and Kilgore, played by Martin Sheen, Marlon Brando, and Robert Duvall.
In a film in which there is conflict over whether that war should have been fought at all, the tone is often dark, cynical, or fatalistic. Films about wars like Vietnam often focus on the horrific aspects of war. Sometimes the worthy cause a war film communicates is avoiding war altogether.
Birdman leaves a lot open to individual interpretation and its ending has spawned multiple theories. SPOILERS in the link! It may require multiple viewings to solidify those theories. I think I need to see it again to decide.
Riggin, the aging star of superhero films is trying to make a comeback with a stage play by his personal muse Raymond Carver. He wants to create something great and is willing to sacrifice everything to make this play work. His relationship with his family is strained and his professional colleagues question his artistic decisions. Throughout the film he interacts with his superhero persona, Birdman who props up his sagging ego. Shot as one continuous take to reflect Riggin’s stream of consciousness throughout the story, Birdman takes the point of view of an unreliable narrator who may be delusional or may be possessed of supernatural powers. The film may or may not offer visual cues to help the audience distinguish reality from fantasy, if any of it is fantasy.
How it begins provides a more definitive perspective. Raymond Carver’s quote begins the film:
“And did you get what you wanted from this life?”
“I did.” “And what did you want?”
“To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”
This film raises some questions about the nature of creativity, ego, and recognition. What do human beings hope to get out of creativity? While creativity is a means of expression it is also a means of communication, how others respond to what we’ve created matters, even when we pretend it doesn’t. Do we interpret how others receive and accept what we communicate through our creations as how they receive and accept us. Do we evaluate the worth of our creations by the responses of others, especially our creative peers and educated critics of our arts? How is the creation itself affected when the creator’s motives for making something becomes approval and adulation?
Birdman explores these questions but offers no definitive answers. Riggins struggles with what playing Birdman has made him in his own mind and in the eyes of the public. While it hasn’t gained him the respect or acclaim he craves, it did make him popular and beloved among audiences. Audience response is especially critical for performance artists. Without an audience there is no performance. And yet what is popular with an audience may not be popular with critics. Riggin wants so much to be respected for his art by his peers but being Birdman places him on a lower tier in the eyes of peers and critics.
Interestingly much of the critical commentary garnered by the film itself reflects this theme. The film is up for best picture, director, actor, supporting actor, best supporting actress, screenplay, cinematography, sound editing and sound mixing. It’s already won awards in some of these categories. Director/Screenwriter Iñárritu is getting lots of well-deserved attention. Lubezki’s unique and challenging cinematography is mentioned in just about every review. The acclaim former Batman star Michael Keaton has received for his performance is exactly what his character Riggin wants. It will be interesting to see what the Academy does with Birdman. Though his isn’t the only Oscar-worthy performance, I do think Michael Keaton deserves the Oscar for this.
Does this strange parallel make Birdman a meta-meta-narrative? Films like Birdman, Inception, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Memento and quite a few more, mostly produced in this century, represent a shift in film narrative. Stories are deliberately complex and non-linear.
Works and artists that represent innovation or transcendence, or those that mark transition from one era to the next, Beethoven and Impressionist art for example are the ones students study for generations to come. The rest are merely representative of a period or genre, albeit, some very good representations. These works are popular because they satisfy audience expectations and meet their aesthetic needs. Innovative works require more work from the audience and may even challenge existing aesthetics.
The audience must make a greater mental investment and may need multiple viewings to get what’s happening. The audience must not only suspend disbelief but also to surrender modern certainties for post-modern conceptualizations. And yet viewers of these films understand that they are watching a very deliberately crafted film that contains breadcrumbs from the creators of the film intended to lead both to discovering meaning but also to individual interpretation and theorizing.
There’s no shame in going to the movie and enjoy a simple, emotionally satisfying narrative or just watch stuff blow up. There’s no shame in producing, directing, or acting in such a film. Perhaps the end of Birdman has something to do with embracing being part of creating higher art and being part of offering an audience a simple satisfying story or an inspiring hero even when it’s not considered high art.
Trying to make a trilogy out of The Hobbit felt stretched “like butter scraped over too much bread.” While I really enjoyed the first two Hobbit movies, those two movies represented about 300 pages of the book while Desolation of Smaug covers the last 50. The dragon scenes were the best part. The Battle of the Five Armies took up most of the story and felt like they had been done – and better – in Lord of the Rings. It also could be that I am just too much of a Tolkien nerd for Desolation of Smaug to work for me. Continue reading
Gone Girl reminded me of the Johari window. The idea is that there are four panes in every relationship that adjust in size through the course of the relationship. As we get to know someone the open pane grows. The hidden pane shrinks as that person chooses to disclose things about himself. Over time spent together we gain insights into that person and earn the right to speak share our insights about him so that through knowing us his hidden pane gets smaller. One would expect that the open pane would grow very large in a marriage relationship.
Applying this model to Nick and Amy Dunne’s relationship is disturbing because Amy’s hidden and unknown panes are so large. Everything Amy thinks she knows about herself is informed by something in her hidden window. According to most psychologists sociopaths know that they are sociopaths. They are very good at hiding this from other people and often come off as charming. They are also great manipulators. Amy carefully controls what Nick thinks is her open self. She also uses her relationship with him to manipulate him both through what he’s revealed to her through the open pane in his relationship with her and through what she knows about him that he doesn’t know about himself. Rather than using that information to enhance and heal their relationship, Amy uses it to manipulate Nick into taking the fall for her murder.
Nick illustrates that we don’t have to be sociopaths to seek to manipulate others’ views of who we want them to think we are. Nick tries to control his open and hidden windows with Amy because of his affair, but next to Amy, Nick is a rank amateur at manipulation. He’s not really built for it anyway. Giving him a twin sister is an interesting choice because twins tend to have an empathetic connection that lets them into one another’s blind and hidden selves. Margo may not know the details but she senses when Nick is not open and honest with her, and the more open Nick is with her the greater clarity he seems to have. To a great extent this empathy is the key to successfully tracking Amy’s moves. Continue reading
“I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floatin’ around accidental-like on a breeze. But I, I think maybe it’s both,” Forrest tells Jenny as he stands over her grave. Forrest Gump begins and ends with the feather caught on the breeze. Yet this seemingly random feather lands at Forrest’s feet and he picks it up.
It lands there as he waits for the bus that will reunite him with Jenny twenty-something years after their first meeting. He picks it up and puts it in his Curious George book, the book his mother read to him when he was little. Later it falls out of the book at another bus stop and is carried away by another breeze. (Notice how many films begin and end with bookend scenes like this.)
A motif is a repeated image, symbol, object, or word in a film that points to a theme. When something is repeated several times in a film it usually is important. Forrest Gump has a number of motifs including the feather and the chocolates that point to the themes of destiny, chance, and choice. Continue reading
Forrest Gump says “I’m not a smart man but I know what love is.” And he does. He loves his Momma, Bubba, Lt. Dan, and, most of all, Jenny.
Forrest shows his love for his mother by remembering and respecting what she teaches him. Mrs. Gump equips Forrest with an outlook that marks the way he processes the things that happen to him throughout his life. It is Forrest’s acceptance of whatever comes out of the “box of chocolates” that allows him to become a participant in historic events without questioning whether he belongs there. He accepts himself and believes he has something to offer because His mother instilled worth and confidence in him. He values other people in the way Mrs. Gump teaches him to value himself.
Forrest rushes into the Vietnam jungle to save his friend Bubba and ends up saving four other men. Forrest honors Bubba by following through with the plans they made to go into the shrimping business even though Bubba is dead. So deep is Forrest’s connection to his friend that he shares his fortune with Bubba’s family even though he doesn’t know them well and they think he’s stupid. Continue reading
Watching Boyhood is a reminder that all our lives are a series of seemingly insignificant vignettes that both reveal and shape who we are. Boyhood follows an episodic narrative style. It is driven by character and theme rather than plot. Shot over a 12-year period, scenes play out like a series of snapshots that communicate the mood and tone of what is happening each year.
It’s no accident that photography plays an important role in the film. Boyhood is like watching time-lapse photography. The audience sees Patricia Arquette’s hairstyles and weight fluctuate as she ages 12 years in a little under three hours. Ethan Hawke’s face develops lines. Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater grow up before our very eyes. Continue reading
R.I.P. James Garner. I loved him as Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford, but he won my heart as Duke in The Notebook. Duke is the epitome of the faithful husband. Garner’s nuanced performance makes profound lines that could have come across as maudlin or trite completely relatable.
The film begins at a nursing home as the elderly Duke reads a story from a notebook to an elderly woman patient. Suffering from Alzheimer’s, Allie doesn’t know Duke is her husband and has no memory of their life together. The love story that Duke reads sometimes seems vaguely familiar to her. As Duke reads the film flashes back to the action in the story.
SPOIILER ALERT: (Do yourself a favor and see The Notebook. Even if you are a guy. Not only the acting really fine, the directing and cinematography is amazing. The repetitive use of water and birds as motifs is masterful. And the romance is far deeper than your average Rom Com. It’s about the stuff that happens after happily ever after that defines real love.) Continue reading
President Whitmore – Bill Pullman – Independence Day “Right to Live”
Stacker Pentecost – Idris Elba – Pacific Rim “United”
William Wallace – Mel Gibson – Braveheart – “Freedom”
Coach Boone – Denzel Washington Remember the Titans “Gettysburg”
V – Hugo Weaving – V for Vendetta “Revolutionary Speech”
X-Men: Days of Future Past has some continuity problems, but I enjoyed it. Good fight scenes. Good character development. Great casting. The X-Men saga deals with themes like good and evil, control and power, and intentions and consequences. Days of Future Past provides a 20/20 hindsight on how these themes have played out in earlier X-Men movies. There was a lot going on in the plot that may be lost on those who haven’t seen at least some of the previous X-Men movies.
Time travel movies like this usually hinge on the idea that certain events drive change in history. A perfect storm of creativity, innovation, discovery, and technology bring about leaps in learning, communication, and industry such as the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, and the Information Age. Perfect storms of ambition, animosity, and greed, along with natural disasters, have historically pushed nations, and at times the entire world, into war or economic depression. Days of Future Past brings us to that culminating moment in X-world when the government, reacting to the perceived threat they present, build big robots and send them out to kill all the mutants. Continue reading
Searching for Sugarman is a story about one unique man, Rodriguez, but it is an encouragement for the rest of the observers and interpreters among us, the writers with a thousand posts and sixty followers, the musicians posting amazing songs with a couple of likes on Soundcloud, the artists whose gallery wall is Facebook, the creatives who work day jobs and create because they need to and want to even if they never get a check or an audience. Poets and philosophers write because they have something to say. not because they have something to gain. They have already gained, or they are in the process of gaining, some elusive but personally important thing that is the impetus for creating. When we cast our bread upon the water we have no idea when and how it might return. For Rodriguez it comes floating back nearly thirty years later. Continue reading
I guess I like my monsters served with a little cheese and humor.
First the good stuff. Five cities were wrecked in fine style by well-imagined, well-executed prehistoric beasts. Lots of things blew up. There were some awesome clash of the scaly titans scenes near the end. Godzilla had wonderful sound effects, good graphics, and an exciting 3-D visual experience that made this a fun monster movie.
When I voiced my disappointment with the characters and plot the outcry from my family was, “What did you expect!?” Ok, ok, I get it. I know what Godzilla is supposed to be, but most world-threatened-by-____________(aliens, monsters, nature-gone-wild, military-experiments-gone bad, etc.) films include some sort of clear, on-going conflict between major human players.
Godzilla was sort of the anti-Pacific Rim, last summer’s soap-meets-monsters blockbuster. Where Pacific Rim went too far, Godzilla didn’t give me enough. Nice round characters with clear goals and motives perform their roles earnestly and seriously. This is probably what you’d want in real life, but I felt like the film needed some human antagonists.
Even when the main antagonist is a monster it helps to have characters dealing with fear or guilt or displaying some hubris or ambition. The closest to conflict Godzilla came was a difference of opinion as to the best way to eradicate the monsters. Admiral Stenz was way too reasonable and professional. Dr. Serizawa (who, by-the-way, should have been close to 70 years old if his father was at Hiroshima) and Vivienne Graham made their recommendations and didn’t put up much of a fight. The young Brody family were all loving, brave and supportive.
The most interesting conflict played mostly off camera with backstory on Joe Brody. Introducing a conspiracy theory then killing off the theorist took away a lot of opportunities for entertainment and conflict. It might have been cheesier, but it would have been more entertaining for me to keep him around. Godzilla rushes through the coverup without giving the conspirators faces, except for Serizawa and Graham who are way too nice; a conspiracy theory needs a General Donald McClintock (Outbreak) or Albert Nimziki (Independence Day).
Godzilla focuses almost exclusively on military response to the monster problem, which helped its length and focus, but I missed the disaster management piece that is usually part this type of movie. No Theirry Umutoni (World War Z) or Mike Roark (Volcano) to coordinate the response, no President Morgan Freeman agonizing over necessary sacrifices (Deep Impact). Last year’s World War Z used specific characters and scenarios to represent the conflicting complexities federal and local governments, the military, the press, hospitals, etc. might face in dealing with a mega-monstrous disaster. Godzilla included rushed scenes of nameless, faceless players. The best scene related to this was the baller bus driver on the Golden Gate.
The Mutos/Godzilla conflict reminded me of Jurassic Park. The part of the Velociraptors was played by the Mutos while Godzilla performed the T-Rex’s exterminator function. I did love the scene with the Mutos’ egg sac but, I didn’t find the Mutos as interesting as the Velociraptors. Godzilla himself was lots more fun but didn’t get as much screen time as the Mutos. I would have enjoyed seeing more of him.
Finally, having Godzilla tromping through San Francisco’s Chinatown made me long to have Hank Hill pop up and ask “Are you Chinese or Japanese?” Godzilla was originally imagined in Japan as a symbol of nuclear weapons and a metaphor for the United States so there was a certain irony in assigning the nuclear role to the Mutos. Whatever the thinking there, it didn’t matter much. It was still a bitching monster fight.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is a lovely, funny tale told as meta-narrative, a story about a story being told. It takes place in an almost real land in an almost historical setting. I’m always tempted to wear pajamas to Wes Anderson movies because he makes me feel like a kid who is about to hear a story. Even though his themes and tone are definitely for grown-ups, his story telling style demands the suspension of disbelief that makes hearing a yarn as a child so delightful. It’s not realistic but the story is consistent to it’s own set of rules and the themes are accessible and universal. It was an enchanting hundred minutes.
The Grand Budapest Hotel is populated with zany characters played by the usual suspects in an Anderson film: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jude Law, and newcomers to Anderson’s films: Ralph Fiennes, Saorise Ronan and Tony Revolori. The characters take themselves seriously in the midst of the surreal silliness of the plot. The deep sincerity of Gustave and Zero plays in stark contrast to the slapstick situations in which they find themselves. As concierge Gustave is the picture of solicitous perfection. Acting as mentor to young Zero, Gustave passes on his philosophy of service and his love for the grandeur of Grand Budapest Hotel.
One aspect of Gustave’s service is “taking care” of the needs of rich, elderly women who are guests of the hotel. His devotion to one such lady lands him in an inheritance battle with her children. Throw in a stolen art piece, greed and poverty, evil Nazi-ish cops, and romantic adventure for Zero and oh, yes, a train; and the funny-sad-exciting-reflective story unfolds as told by Zero to the unnamed Author in 1968 whose book is being read on a bench by a teenage girl in present day. (Summarizing this requires several run-on sentences, so get over it grammar freaks.)
In addition to the financial appreciations, Gustave does seem to have a certain attachment to these older ladies, perhaps because they hold to the manners and customs of the age that is quickly slipping away. Years later, as Zero tells the story to another guest, he says of Gustave, “I think his world had vanished long before he even entered it.” The first few decades of the twentieth century marked a slow death to an era of manners and pretenses. It was a time when fortunes were made and flaunted and a time when people dressed up for dinner. Gustave and Zero’s story takes place in a similar time. Formality is beginning to relax in their world too, but Gustave is having none of it. The Grand Budapest clings to its shabby formality as it slowly wears out over the decades between the 1930’s and 1968 when Zero tells the story to the author.
Ultimately my take-away was a mood of nostalgia for the times when I sat cross legged on the floor, entranced as someone read me a story, or, better yet, embellished one told from memory. I remember visualizing unfamiliar settings and characters with the license of imagination. What I saw in my head skewed a bit from what the authors intended or what might eventually appear on screen when the story was made into a movie. Anderson has a way of making me feel like I’m reading a book and seeing it in my head but getting to share his skew. Like imagination inception.
Saving Mr. Banks is the story of Disney filmmakers collaboration with Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers to make the film. Mrs. Travers, as she insists on being called, is brusque, annoying, and controlling. She has very definite ideas about how she wants the story told and, uncharacteristically, Walt Disney, played by Tom Hanks, bends over backwards to meet her demands in order to get the film made. It is hard to imagine anyone less playful than Emma Thompson’s dour Mrs. Travers. Her vision for the film is as serious and unsentimental as she is while Disney is playful and positive. His aim is to provide joyful experiences for people at his theme park and in his films. Naturally their visions clash. Continue reading