Published July 27th, 2014 by

I don’t usu­ally post trail­ers, posters, and other stuff hyp­ing the release of a film here, because attempt­ing to assess the qual­ity of an upcom­ing movie by its pro­mo­tional mate­ri­als usu­ally resorts into rank spec­u­la­tion. It’s espe­cially ludi­crous see­ing as this nonethe­less pop­u­lar pas­time relies on whether a studio’s mar­ket­ing depart­ment is actu­ally doing a good job at what they are paid to do; that is, vig­or­ously whip­ping up excite­ment based on a few care­fully curated frames or still images, all gussied up and look­ing nice. That being said, I’ll make an excep­tion for Mad Max: Fury Road’s Comic-Con teaser. Not because I think it’s going to be a spec­tac­u­lar film, per se, but because it is a spec­tac­u­lar trailer and there­fore what­ever I just said doesn’t apply. All the poten­tially dis­ap­point­ing bits that will emerge scan­dalously when the film is released next year have been ruth­lessly trimmed away, leav­ing only the most visu­ally impres­sive moments. It’s a stand­alone work of art, if you will, that has absolutely no last­ing value besides the fleet­ing sen­sory plea­sures it pro­vides. Shut off your brain, brace your eyes and ears, and indulge yourself.

Published June 24th, 2014 by

IT’S ALWAYS RARE, and reward­ing, find­ing a sequel to an ani­mated film that sur­passes the qual­ity of the orig­i­nal, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 is a wor­thy can­di­date for that honor. The first film com­bined heart, humor, and heroic adven­ture to cre­ate the win­ning story of an unlikely duo—the friend­ship of young Viking Hic­cup and his dan­ger­ously cute and ques­tion­ably named dragon,Toothless, was fraught with dan­ger, love, and a sub­stan­tial amount of ini­tial mis­un­der­stand­ing. In How To Train Your Dragon 2, there’s more har­mony, to be cer­tain; the worlds of burly, bum­bling Viking war­riors and snarling, goofy drag­ons have been united thanks to the efforts of Hic­cup and Tooth­less. But on one of their enter­pris­ing for­ays out­side the island of Berk, our heroes dis­cover an incon­ve­nient truth: not every­one under­stands drag­ons like they do, and some, most wor­ry­ingly, have dif­fer­ent ideas of what to do with them. Heart, humor, and heroic adven­ture once again ensue in even greater capac­ity . But it’s worth see­ing How To Train Your Dragon 2 just to see the most mem­o­rable five min­utes of ani­ma­tion in recent years.  As Hic­cup, stub­born as always, sets out on his own to seek out the fear­some dragon con­querer Drago Blud­vist and plead the case for mutual appre­ci­a­tion among earthly crea­tures, he and Tooth­less find them­selves soar­ing over a vast dream­like car­pet of golden clouds. You just know they will encounter some­one or something, but you aren’t pre­pared to see an armored fig­ure ter­ri­fy­ingly rise up from the clouds below them—some kind of a pagan sor­cerer, tall and ter­ri­ble with a spiked mask and a staff, stand­ing erect on the back on a gigan­tic dragon. Who is this per­son? Are we still watch­ing How to Train Your Dragon 2, the block­buster sequel from Dream­works Ani­ma­tion? It’s a beau­ti­fully haunt­ing, uncom­fort­ably strange and won­der­ful scene that words can­not define appro­pri­ately. While dragon-flying is usu­ally rel­e­gated to ener­getic, fre­netic show­cases full of gutsy swoop­ing and elated hol­ler­ing, and while those scenes, of which there are plenty in How To Train Your Dragon 2, pos­sess their own thrills, to be sure, they appear com­mon­place com­pared to this mag­nif­i­cent sequence that truly makes your jaw drop. I would wish for more of these stun­ners, but once is more than enough. A

Published April 26th, 2014 by

IT WAS QUITE the genius stroke of Hol­ly­wood clev­er­ness how the pro­mo­tional mate­ri­als Alfonso Cuarón’s stuck-in-space thriller Grav­ity touted the omi­nously sug­ges­tive line, “Don’t let go.” After all, if there’s one uni­ver­sal and unimag­in­able fear that 99.9% of movie­go­ers have never expe­ri­enced but can nev­er­the­less vividly imag­ine with­out much effort, it must be the sheer ter­ror of los­ing grip on what­ever was teth­er­ing you to humanly exis­tence and tum­bling off into the far­thest reaches of cold, dark space. But through­out the film, the pro­tag­o­nist of Grav­ity, an emo­tion­ally injured and increas­ingly belea­guered astro­naut played by San­dra Bul­lock, reg­u­larly finds her­self not in dan­ger of let­ting go but rather fac­ing the dire con­se­quences of not let­ting go. And therein lies the beauty of Grav­ity. “Don’t let go”—if you let go, you die—represents what Grav­ity is on the sur­face, which is a sur­vival thriller set in space, a race-against-the-clock actioner that phys­i­cally pits our hero­ine against incred­i­ble odds and over­whelm­ing obsta­cles on her jour­ney to get back to Earth. “Let go”—if you don’t let go, you won’t ever live—succinctly sums up the psy­cho­log­i­cal jour­ney that Ms. Bullock’s char­ac­ter must undergo in the length of ninety min­utes. This para­dox­i­cal par­al­lelism sounds cheesy, and while it is, in a way, Mr. Cuarón presents the two themes together with­out embell­ish­ment or empha­sis on the melo­dra­matic, which results in a nat­u­rally occur­ring and won­der­fully organic kind of cheesy.  Grav­ity is not high art but per­fectly enter­tain­ing— the kind of Hol­ly­wood block­buster that enrap­tures you on the edge of your seat by value of its dra­mat­i­cal purity as much as by the stun­ning visual effects and other expen­sive tech­ni­cal achieve­ments (the sound design and score is notable). Some have claimed that it’s the “small­est” Hol­ly­wood block­buster in a while, or an inti­mate indie film cloaked as a big and loud movie-event expe­ri­ence. It’s not. It’s a big, loud movie-event expe­ri­ence pulled off with sophis­ti­cated restraint and min­i­mal­ism. With George Clooney as George Clooney, a suave vet­eran astro­naut with a pen­chant for lis­ten­ing to coun­try music while lazily jet­pack­ing around in Earth’s orbit. From 2013. A 

Published January 28th, 2014 by

STANLEY KUBRICK’s 1964 satir­i­cal black com­edy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love the Bomb is, most of the time, an exer­cise in see­ing how far absur­dity can go while still main­tain­ing the sense of real­ism that comes inher­ent with play­ing on Cold War anx­i­eties and alarm. The notion of an Air Force com­man­der in the throes of anti-Communism passion-slash-paranoia order­ing a decid­edly uni­lat­eral pre­emp­tive bomb­ing of the Soviet con­ti­nent and kick start­ing World War III, because “war is too impor­tant to be left to the politi­cians,” still has the potency to make one uneasy and queasy. That the mav­er­ick Colonel Jack Rip­per goes over the edge out of fear for the san­ity and safety of his pre­cious bod­ily flu­ids makes Ster­ling Hayden’s per­for­mance, played dead straight if unre­strained in its lunacy, seem like one long dead­pan skit of comedic gold. Indeed, Dr. Strangelove suc­ceeds as so much more than how it seems on paper because it melds together humor and drama ele­ments con­gru­ous to cre­ate some­thing alto­gether unique.  Case in point: when the actors play it straight—even Slim Pick­ens as the cow­boy Major T.J. “King” Kong—the sequences in the B-29 Super­fortress as the crew doggedly under­takes their first-strike mis­sion (insin­u­at­ingly under­laid with a sub­dued, solemn adap­ta­tion of the Civil War tune “When Johnny Comes March­ing Home”) have a sim­ple human poignancy and doomed noble­ness to them that match the beau­ti­ful end­ing, where the mush­room clouds of nuclear explo­sions rise to Vera Lynn’s cozy “We’ll Meet Again.” But when­ever the manic gum-smacking the­atrics of the bel­li­cose, Soviet-leery Gen­eral “Buck” Turgid­son, who George C. Scott plays with an endear­ing go-for-the-gold nut­ti­ness, dom­i­nate the screen, Dr Strangelove is the film with the best ratio of mem­o­rable zingers to lines of dia­logue. Peter Sell­ers, of course, is bril­liant in his triple roles, most espe­cially in that of U.S. Pres­i­dent Merkin Muf­fley; when Muf­fley, ever the prag­ma­tist, calls Soviet Pre­mier Kissoff on the hot­line, Sell­ers shows how to make a one-sided con­ver­sa­tion a side-splitting laugh riot. Mr. Kubrick’s spec­tac­u­larly razor-sharp film is a bit­ingly sub­ver­sive social com­men­tary about nuclear anni­hi­la­tion and the stu­pid­ity of the human race that man­ages to be so hys­ter­i­cally funny  you for­get how smart it is. Now that’s some­thing you don’t see every day.

Published November 10th, 2013 by

I don’t want to mis­s­peak, but Thor: The Dark World might just be the comic-book-iest film that Mar­vel has pro­duced yet, and that’s won­der­ful. And yet, to be expected. After all, between Iron Man, the Hulk, or Cap­tain Amer­ica, Thor, the hunky Norse god, is the only super­hero that lives, quite lit­er­ally, worlds apart from us. Sure, his heart belongs to Natalie Port­man, on Earth, but his home is the golden, gleam­ing citadel of Asgard, galax­ies away. Visu­ally, such a level of world-building is always tricky, expe­cially, it seems, when a large bud­get per­mit­ting excess usage of CGI is involved, and Asgard is clearly not a matte paint­ing (although that would have been nice). And the­mat­i­cally, how do you make the audi­ence care with­out spend­ing too much time doing so? The Asgard in Thor fails on many of these points, true. But it doesn’t really mat­ter. It’s much more excit­ing, and fright­en­ing indeed, to see such a fan­tas­ti­cal city com­ing under attack than see­ing New York City lev­eled, if only because maybe we can’t imag­ine it as clearly. Asgard could have eas­ily been Marvel’s Minas Tirith, if that had been the wish of the film­mak­ers, and, sim­i­larly, when Asgard comes under attack, it could have eas­ily held the same emo­tional sig­nif­i­cance as when the White City was besieged (in The Lord of the Rings). Although it was not to be, still, Asgard and its denizens are real­ized sat­is­fac­to­rily enough. I par­tic­u­larly liked Heim­dall, the all-seeing guardian of the Bifröst, an revolv­ing por­tal to the planet of your choos­ing, attached to an impres­sively out-there rain­bow bridge lead­ing to Asgard. He’s played by Idris Elba, out­fit­ted with a golden suit of armor—complete with a horned Viking helmet—and multi-colored eyes of unfath­omable, almost dole­ful depths, which is not unusual con­sid­er­ing that he stands gaz­ing out at the myr­iad uni­verses and the bil­lions of lives arrayed in front of him all day. Although that’s lit­er­ally all you know about him, you find your­self hop­ing Heim­dall won’t be killed off, if only because he is a good reas­sur­ance that while onscreen, “Thor” is a comic-book movie that isn’t afraid to be a comic-book movie. Is Heim­dall sub­stan­tial to the plot? Not really. But if you’re mak­ing an off-world super­hero adven­ture, why not indulge a lit­tle in the cool details of that far­away land, unbound by any expec­ta­tions of realism? Since it seems super­hero movies are required to cul­mi­nate in explo­sive, expen­sive world-destroying that involves an alien ship descend­ing on Earth and wreak­ing havoc, how­ever, here the finale involves the align­ment of the plan­ets over the Green­wich Obser­va­tory, in Eng­land and not in Asgard. It’s another noisy, who-can-get-back-up-the-fastest-after-being-thrown-fifty-feet bat­tle, although here the film exper­i­ments with Thor and the bad guy tum­bling though invis­i­ble, randomly-situated “por­tals” that suck them up mid-brawl onto dif­fer­ent worlds and then spit them back out again. True, it makes things mar­gin­ally more inter­est­ing, but all super-important, fate-of-the-universe match-ups are get­ting stale. The super­hero, out-matched but redoubtable still, needs to delay the destruc­tion while his human friends sci­en­tif­i­cally fid­dle with but­tons and try not to get killed. Here in Thor: The Dark World it’s no dif­fer­ent, and you wish that some­thing other was at stake than our sky­scrap­ers. Wouldn’t it be so much more excit­ing if Asgard instead recieved the atten­tion it deserves?

Published October 9th, 2013 by

Let’s face it: Dis­ney princess movies do not, in gen­eral, rep­re­sent women well and do not teach lit­tle girls use­ful life lessons. This doesn’t stop most peo­ple from lov­ing them any­how, but there are also many who deplore the films for their sex­ism, and we mustn’t neglect them. The usual punch­ing bags are 1937′s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, 1950′s Cin­derella and, espe­cially, 1959′s Sleep­ing Beauty, the last princess movie that Dis­ney would pro­duce before The Lit­tle Mer­maid, which kicked off the company’s pro­gres­sive Golden Age in the 1980s, thirty years later. It’s con­ve­nient to bunch these three films together as the ter­ri­ble trio, out­dated in val­ues (if not in qual­ity), but they were made years apart from each other and it shows. When it comes to pos­i­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women, Cin­derella is a marked improve­ment from Snow White, whose sex­ism is ram­pant, and Sleep­ing Beauty isn’t sex­ist at all. This ame­lio­ra­tion in atti­tudes can­not be explained solely by the evo­lu­tion of the princess, the lead female char­ac­ter, into some­thing with lit­tle more chutz­pah and inde­pen­dence. How­ever unlikely, the prince has a lot to do with it. The name­less prince of Snow White is briefly seen and rarely missed; Prince Philip of Sleep­ing Beauty is an ener­getic, witty hero with a mod­ern outlook—and wisecracks—on mar­riage. One might assume that the prince becomes increas­ingly impor­tant only at the expense of the princess. But that is fun­da­men­tally incor­rect and very much untrue.

Snow White is par­tic­u­larly insult­ing to women because the prince could well have been a card­board cutout for all his involve­ment in the story—he’s almost nonex­is­tent. And yet that’s worse than if he were the main char­ac­ter. What makes Snow White the most sex­ist of all the Dis­ney princess movies is not Snow White, who likes to sweep and cook and is a genial, gullible soul, but the prince him­self, both unim­por­tant and impor­tant. It’s sex­ist when the princess is saved by a prince who hasn’t earned the respect of nei­ther the princess nor the audi­ence and yet, cheers are expected when he comes to save the day. I didn’t cheer at the end of Snow White but prob­a­bly would have had Grumpy laid the prince low with the blunt end of a pick­axe. In Sleep­ing Beauty, Prince Philip isn’t just a prince in name who pops up when con­ve­nient. He proves that he is deserv­ing of his princess by fight­ing for her hand.

Prince Philip’s valor and brav­ery doesn’t work adversely and neg­a­tively accen­tu­ate Aurora’s tit­u­lar role, dor­mant as it is, because she isn’t the arche­typ­i­cal maiden wait­ing for her prince to come and res­cue her. At first, sure, she wist­fully longs for her “dream prince”—a vague, imper­sonal, if impor­tant, fig­ure in her mind. But all her girl­ish fan­tasies become insignif­i­cant once she meets Philip. Aurora never learns he is a prince, and Philip never real­izes that she is the princess to whom he was betrothed a long time ago. And yet the won­der­ful thing is they still fall in love with each other. Aurora actu­ally doesn’t care if her true love is or isn’t roy­alty. In fact, when the fairies reveal her royal sta­tus and her immi­nent mar­riage to a prince, she is—not know­ing that said prince is Phillip—inconsolably dis­traught. At that moment, she would rather be a peas­ant girl in love than a princess. She doesn’t want ser­vants or a king­dom or a clos­et­ful of pretty dresses, she wants the man she loves. The fact that Philip is actu­ally her dream prince is a clever twist that rein­forces the clas­sic fairy-tale trope while switch­ing things up refresh­ingly. It’s not “wait for your prince” but, unde­ni­ably, “true love con­quers all.”

Both Sleep­ing Beauty and Snow White fea­ture sim­i­larly plain-vanilla imagery— a princess under a sleep­ing spell, which is lifted only when her true love kisses her. But there are as many dif­fer­ences between Aurora and Snow White as there are between Prince Phillip and his insult­ingly empty pre­de­ces­sor. Aurora was never abused as a maid­ser­vant in her own home—she had a happy and inno­cent child­hood full of love and care. She was never cursed or hated or abused because of her fem­i­nin­ity, unlike Snow White or Cinderella—a sor­cer­ess was spurned, and in revenge she directed her spite onto Aurora, a baby at the time. (The sor­cer­ess, Mal­i­fi­cient, is another inter­est­ing female char­ac­ter. Unlike Cin­derella’s Evil Step­mother or Snow White’s Queen, her hatred of Aurora never stems from jeal­ousy or envy. She just wants to kill her because, as a inde­pen­dent, pow­er­ful woman, she can.)Aurora was a vic­tim but never vic­tim­ized her­self. Her cursed sleep has no direct cor­re­la­tion with her strength of char­ac­ter or lack of it. And it’s strange that Sleep­ing Beauty is per­ceived as sex­ist merely because a prince does all the heroic work while the princess lies under a curse. To believe that hav­ing the true love of your life slay a dragon while you are inca­pac­i­tated by magic indi­cates your inabil­ity to han­dle the prob­lem your­self is plain bizarre. Isn’t it to be expected that a man like Philip risk life and limb for his beloved? If the roles had been reversed, would it still be sexist?

Yes, Dis­ney could have been über-progressive in 1959 by mak­ing Aurora an Ama­zon­ian warrior-princess, or not have her cursed in the first place so she can wield the Sword of Truth her­self. But that is a dif­fer­ent movie, and it’s called Brave. That ani­mated film, released in 2012 by Dis­ney, would have ide­ally shown girls that a strong and inde­pen­dent young woman needs nei­ther a man nor mar­riage to feel secure or happy. The film­mak­ers squan­der that, how­ever, by insur­ing that that every male char­ac­ter in the film is dimwit­ted or silly or the sub­ject of all-ages deri­sion. Princess Merida, the hero­ine, can­not imag­ine a per­ma­nent union, or even a con­ver­sa­tion, with any of her suit­ors, who are all incom­pe­tent idiots crafted solely for comic relief, and we can’t seri­ously expect her to. Brave chose (what can only be described as) the easy way out by avoid­ing a strong male char­ac­ter out of fear that a hero would com­pro­mise the inde­pen­dence and dimin­ish the fierce­ness of Merida—or worse, that it would raise the very ghost of such pos­si­ble criticism.

What­ever gave them that idea? Brave, fun­da­men­tally, never touched once upon what Sleep­ing Beauty and the other princess films were invested in with every fab­ric of their being—true love, the type that only exists in fairy tales. Not in this one, though, pur­port­edly “mod­ern” and “evolved,” because Merida regards mar­riage with con­tempt. That’s fine, she’s young and hasn’t found any­one wor­thy. But would she have changed her mind if her Prince Phillip came rid­ing along? Would that have raised the ire of fem­i­nists? It does make you won­der why there hasn’t been any Dis­ney princess film that has the princess slay­ing a dragon along­side her prince—before get­ting mar­ried and liv­ing hap­pily ever after in quiet domes­tic bliss as wife and hus­band. And until that hap­pens, I pre­fer the story of Sleep­ing Beauty to Brave’s by a long shot. I would rather watch Aurora and Prince Philip waltz­ing in a wood­land glade and war­bling Tchaikovsky because if happily-ever-after romances, real love sto­ries like the one of Sleep­ing Beauty, don’t hap­pen in Dis­ney fairy-tales, where would they? Not in real life, with all its dou­ble stan­dards and fake out­rage. It’s not archaic, it’s time­less; it’s not some­thing to deride, it’s some­thing to love. And it’s time for peo­ple to wake up and smell the roses.