Published October 25th, 2014 by

Her

The sad, joy­ful, won­der­ful movie “Her”,  set some­time in the future, is directed by Spike Jonze  and stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a mus­ta­chioed, bespec­ta­cled hip­ster with for­lorn eyes and a sweet, shy dis­po­si­tion recov­er­ing from a failed mar­riage, and Scar­lett Johann­son, who, although she never appears onscreen, makes a a great impact as the infec­tiously spunky voice of Saman­tha, an advanced com­puter sys­tem with her own self-perpetuating per­son­al­ity.  They fall in love. You could say they get mar­ried, and then their love suf­fers a few set­backs. He doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he’s fine with that, except when he’s not. For her part, she longs to be more than just a voice in the dark. Weirdly enough, I can sym­pa­thize with Saman­tha. Try­ing to imag­ine pos­sess­ing a mind with­out a body brings back mem­o­ries of wak­ing up in tears dur­ing the night, stricken with the ter­ri­ble feel­ing of my con­science being iso­lated in a vast men­tal labyrinth of sorts, unable to find a way out or even begin try­ing, with no agency over any­thing phys­i­cal, if it even existed, and an imme­di­ate real­iza­tion of immo­bil­ity and despair, as if I’d been rot­ting in that place for­ever. It’s hard to define dreams, just as it’s hard for Saman­tha to define how exactly she feels in cer­tain moments, how she’s sup­posed to feel com­pared to how she does,  how to define and explain those exis­ten­tial crises. Samantha’s night­mares are just unfath­omably more real and much scarier; the truth of her inabil­ity to expand her exis­tence to some­thing real and phys­i­cal when that exis­tence evolves, stun­ningly fast, to involve a whole other world keeps her awake at night, I imag­ine, long after Theodore plucks his ear­bud out. “Her” is about our tan­gled rela­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy, but the twist is that Mr. Jonze and Ms. Johann­son  have made tech­nol­ogy tran­scend the arti­fi­cial to become some­thing entirely, mess­ily, achingly human. The film, how­ever, remains a work of beau­ti­ful, sophis­ti­cated engi­neer­ing, smartly crafted and smoothly tuned, unplagued by melo­drama or cheapness.The Los Ange­les where Theodore resides is still smoggy but mostly blind­ingly sunny, a vaguely defined yet, weirdly, per­fectly pre­cise glimpse into a world where there exists, for many peo­ple, no social inhi­bi­tions regard­ing an emo­tions attach­ment, or even affec­tion, towards tech­nol­ogy. It begs the ques­tion: Could we ever be so freely open with our lives, share them so inti­mately with tech­nol­ogy in such an ten­der, lov­ing way? “Her” is fas­ci­nat­ing because tech­nol­ogy isn’t evil in the world of Mr. Jonze. It doesn’t insid­i­ously cor­rode your human­ity nor attempt to mur­der you out­right. It exists, for all the lonely souls and peo­ple who have for­got­ten how to dream, for the lovers and for the losers. It can lib­er­ate you, or you can lose your­self within it. Or both. Just hope that you have a gal like Saman­tha in your pocket, and in your ear, and in your mind, and in your heart. A

 

Published October 4th, 2014 by

It’s some­what ironic that Dances With Wolves endures to this day as the first film, at least in my eyes, that suc­cess­fully brought the heart-wrenchingly sor­did undo­ing of the last free Native Amer­i­cans at the hands of Man­i­fest Des­tiny (as enforced by the mus­kets of the maraud­ing U.S. Army), as an obscene amount of the nearly four-hours-long time is spent with the cam­era indul­gently fix­ated on Kevin Cost­ner who, when bathed in the golden light of the prairie, whether it be in appro­pri­ated Sioux cloth­ing or those tight cav­alry trousers, never fails to reveal him­self to be a white guy. I would nor­mally be quick to men­tion that Costner’s involve­ment, as he not only starred in the pic­ture but directed it as well, is not solely lim­ited to look­ing pretty, soul­ful, or pretty soul­ful as the white guy who saves the day. But when you think about it, isn’t that exactly what Cost­ner should be lauded for—not only onscreen but behind-the-scenes as well?

The Civil War is draw­ing to a close, and Costner’s John J. Dun­bar, hav­ing suc­cess­fully sur­vived every bloody bat­tle despite his best efforts to the con­trary, wants to see the West­ern fron­tier before train tracks are laid over the bones of buf­falo and Indi­ans alike. He’s a Union sol­dier, a roman­tic, sim­ple fel­low who, when we first meet him, is try­ing to get killed. His sui­cide attempt—riding his horse towards the Con­fed­er­ate lines, seek­ing a bul­let and a quick escape from the bloody absur­dity of the war—is instead mis­con­strued as a heroic  impro­vi­sa­tion, and not only did Dun­bar not gain an acquain­tance with Death, he was pro­moted and granted any post­ing of his choice. He picks Fort Sedgewick—the Army fort far­thest out West, all the way Out There. How Dun­bar gets there (hitch­ing a ride with a flat­u­lent wagon dri­ver deliv­er­ing sup­plies) and his first impres­sions of the vast prairie (‘Where are all the buf­falo?’) is doc­u­mented with mad­den­ing imper­turba­bil­ity. The pace is glacially slow, and yet you are inex­orably drawn in due to the lik­a­bil­ity of Cost­ner, the stun­ning land­scapes, and the promise of peril to come. There’s a scene where Dun­bar gets spooked, along with the audi­ence, by the wind ris­ing in the prairie. Is it an Indian crouch­ing in the tall grass, wait­ing to pounce and scalp? Or is it just the fron­tier taunt­ing this man who thinks he has found his paradise? Dunbar doesn’t want to know. Off he bolts, whip­ping his horse away.

Dunbar’s not reas­sured once he arrives at his des­ti­na­tion either. He finds a ram­shackle hand­ful of build­ings, made even more pathetic by the total absence of humankind. His sol­diers deserted, appar­ently after hav­ing under­went some dis­heart­en­ing experiences, Dunbar nev­er­the­less decides to set­tle in. After all, why not? It’s every­thing he could pos­si­bly wish for—a soli­tary exis­tence on the plains, his con­science made easy by the pos­si­bil­ity of the Army find­ing him—after all, he knows the wagon trains are com­ing sooner or later. Might as well enjoy it while he can. Then, how­ever, Dun­bar befriends a tribe of Sioux. They find him some­thing of a a curios­ity because the first time Dum­bar came upon their med­i­cine man Kick­ing Bird (Gra­ham Greene), check­ing out his horse, Dun­bar was stark naked (hav­ing just bathed in the river) and yelling loudly in protest—not the usual behav­ior of U.S. sol­diers. Dun­bar, how­ever, is eager to scrib­ble in his diary a vari­a­tion of the phrase: “Met my first Indian today. OMG! 2scary4me.” How­ever he feels at home in the prairie, lay­ing by his camp­fire under the stars with a big goofy smile on his face, he’s still a tourist, and his first encounter with the local population—certainly not to be trusted—is a jolt to the senses.

Even­tu­ally, after a lot of bad starts, the Sioux and Dun­bar come to under­stand one another a lit­tle bet­ter. Their con­ver­sa­tions are facil­i­tated by Stands With A Fist (Mary McDon­nell), a white woman who was cap­tured by the Sioux in her child­hood and raised as one of them. Dun­bar learns that the Sioux are wait­ing for the buf­falo, and is only too happy when, awak­ened by the thun­der of hooves in the night in one of Dances With Wolves’s most haunt­ingly real­ized scenes, to rush to his new friends and tell them the news. Despite his mis­giv­ings and sense of duty to the Army, as fre­quently expounded on in Costner’s nar­ra­tion, Dun­bar real­izes he’s going native. It doesn’t help that he’s falling in love  with Stands With A First, nor that the Sioux has wholly embraced him as one of their own. But, there’s a new peril, far greater than the occa­sional Pawnee attacks, for Dun­bar knows some­thing that is nag­ging at his insides, and it is this: The White Man is com­ing. The days of the Sioux are counted.

Dances With Wolves is really a remark­able movie. The destruc­tion of the Native Amer­i­cans’ liveli­hoods, and the forced dis­place­ment of all those who weren’t killed when they resisted the encroach­ment of set­tlers and sol­diers on their ances­tral lands, is a dark, shame­ful mark in Amer­i­can his­tory.  One can cer­tainly argue it was inevitable, and that’s what lends this movie a mourn­ful, heart­break­ing qual­ity. It brings the story of the Sioux and and all Native Amer­i­cans out of the dusty pages of his­tory books and onto the big screen. Bravo, Kevin Cost­ner. But at the same time, I feel strangely uneasy about express­ing my love for the movie. I have to won­der whether the Acad­emy of Motion Pic­tures and Sci­ences, in show­er­ing Dances With Wolves with lit­tle golden stat­uettes, did so because they felt guilty, deep inside (and they loved the fact that Kevin Cost­ner, a hand­some Hol­ly­wood­ian, was the one respon­si­ble for it). I have to won­der whether I think Dances With Wolves is a beau­ti­ful movie because I feel guilty, deep inside. I most prob­a­bly do. I do know is that we all have a col­lec­tive guilt inside of us, regard­ing the fate of the Native Amer­i­cans in this coun­try, that will never go away. We all want to see a movie where Native Amer­i­cans, strong and fierce, hunt the buf­falo, whoop­ing and hol­ler­ing, to admire and gaze at them, to cheer when they beat back the brutish, despi­ca­ble U.S. sol­diers. We want to soberly reflect as the film ends. We want to shake our heads and say, “Wow.” Dances With Wolves makes us all feel a lit­tle bet­ter inside. But is it for the good reasons?

Published August 14th, 2014 by

Guardians of the Galaxy, the lat­est block­buster from Mar­vel and a decid­edly dif­fer­ent one than what we’re used to, works because it walks, with all the seem­ingly effort­less adroit­ness of a funam­bu­list, the fine line of not tak­ing itself seri­ously and tak­ing itself seri­ously. That’s the most intel­lec­tual line I could come up for this film, because it is a mess, but an enter­tain­ingly endear­ing mess, make no mis­take. It’s a space opera that is enter­tain­ingly mad­cap at best and barely com­pre­hen­si­ble at worst, bur­dened by a sub­stan­dard Mar­vel sto­ry­line involv­ing a glow­ing blue MacGuf­fin and indis­tin­guish­able bad guys but also, weirdly, lib­er­ated by it: since the plot is so unin­spired, the empha­sis devolves onto the char­ac­ters which, luck would have it, pro­vide a beguil­ing mix of goofi­ness and seri­ous­ness, and are the best thing about Guardians. You have the newly emer­gent Chris Pratt, a truly charis­matic, enjoy­able  pres­ence mostly because, I sus­pect, he wasn’t asked to do things that weren’t already in his wheel­house. As Peter Quill, A.K.A Star­lord, a scruffy thief of lit­tle galac­tic renown (think Han Solo and/or Indi­ana Jones), he gets to groove to 1970s music and trade quips with the rest of the Guardians: a green-skinned Zoe Sal­dana, both flinty and vul­ner­a­ble; an mostly genial talk­ing tree (think Lord of the Rings’s Treebeard) named Groot who says “I am Groot” to every­thing and is inex­plic­a­bly played by Dwayne John­son, some­where under all that bark; an bel­liger­ent anthro­po­mor­phized rac­coon with issues and a lot of fire­power named Rocket, voiced snarlingly by Bradley Cooper; and for­mer WWE wrestler Dave Bautista’s mus­cled brute out for revenge, Drax, whose defin­ing trait is his lit­eral inter­pre­ta­tion of every­thing (“Noth­ing goes over my head—my reflexes are too fast”). They’re a silly bunch, and not always funny, but still hilar­i­ous enough. Mostly, they’re a lot of fun to watch, and that’s the joy of Guardians of the Galaxy: It’s pure, unfil­tered fun.  I say “pure” because the humor exists solely to please and not to self-deprecate. Sure, Guardians occa­sion­ally pokes fun at the self-serious pseudo-portentousness of many Mar­vel movies, includ­ing itself (most notable dur­ing the won­der­ful open­ing sequence), but it does so organically, without try­ing to; there’s no neg­a­tiv­ity to be seen. It embraces its inher­ent absur­dity and stu­pid­ity instead of attempt­ing to be a post­mod­ern or obnox­iously “smart” super­hero movie; rather than “We know you’re laugh­ing at this angry lit­tle rac­coon, but we’re laugh­ing right along­side you! Doesn’t that make it so much bet­ter?”  it’s We’re hav­ing a lot of fun here. Come laugh with us.” And with that in mind, there becomes very lit­tle rea­son to not give Guardians of the Galaxy the utmost respect it most deserves. A–

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