Published January 20th, 2015 by

For me, the verdict’s still out on whether Peter Jackson’s “The Hob­bit” tril­ogy was a success. It cer­tainly struck a chord with audi­ences who, as if drawn to the One Ring’s irre­sistible allure, couldn’t resist return­ing to Mid­dle Earth for yet another adven­ture drenched in nos­tal­gia, and I for one stand in full admit­tance of my gulli­bil­ity— when it comes to hob­bits and elves, for­get Gol­lum, I’ll fol­low Peter Jack­son to Mor­dor and back again. But as I rem­i­nisce on the films, the last of which, “The Bat­tle of the Five Armies”, was released in Decem­ber 2014, I have to admit: there’s some­thing that really buggers me.

It’s not the acting—Martin Free­man per­fectly captured—or rather, cre­ated— the man­ner­isms and char­ac­ter of Bilbo Bag­gins, and Richard Armitage, though he doesn’t look much like a dwarf, is noble and haunted as Thorin, the leader of the dwarf com­pany who recruits Bilbo to go reclaim their king­dom  from the dragon Smaug. I’m prob­a­bly one of the only peo­ple who appre­icated the addi­tion of Evan­ge­line Lilly’s char­ac­ter. And it’s not the story—Jackson could have a dozen dwarves traipse around New Zealand for four hours and I’d still watch it. Say, that sounds like a movie called The Hob­bit.…

No, what almost ruins the movies for me is quite sim­ple:  I don’t believe it. Not because the act­ing was lousy or the story par­tic­u­larly con­vo­luted, but because it doesn’t look any­thing like  The Lord of the Rings.   In those movies, there was more than a mere pre­tense of real­ity in the fan­tasy world of Mid­dle Earth—the land­scape is gritty and tough when needed, with­out any embell­ish­ment. In The Hob­bit movies, how­ever every pixel of the frame seems to gleam unnat­u­rally, tinged with the lumi­nous residue of CGI; some characters—like Azog the Defiler, the evil Orc—seem to have been born out of this artificiality.

Does this have any­thing to do with Peter Jackson’s much maligned exper­i­men­ta­tion with 48 frames per sec­ond (in 3D, no less)? I admit to being totally igno­rant to that con­tro­ver­sial aspect of The Hob­bit. But I do know that there’s a prob­lem when the lit­tle grassy hills of the Shire, exces­sively green and lush,  seems to come straight out of con­cept art for Oz the Great and Pow­er­ful, or when every­one glows sil­ver dur­ing moon­lit night scenes. There’s an even big­ger prob­lem when you can’t tell if there is actu­ally an actor under the scarred alabaster hide of Azog—and if there is, the finer qual­i­ties of his per­for­mance seem to have dis­ap­peared in post-production. What hap­pened to the won­der­fully tan­gi­ble qual­i­ties of, say, the Uruk Hai, the hell-spawned dread­locked louts over whose vicious fea­tures the cam­era could con­fi­dently linger as they bared their yel­low teeth and grunted out beau­ties like “We’ve have noth­ing but mag­goty bread for three stinkin’ days!”

To under­score my point, I’ve taken two screen­shots from each of the DVD ver­sions of two films: An Unex­pected Jour­ney and The Fel­low­ship of the Ring to com­pare the visual changes between the two. Does the more vivid col­oriza­tion serve to rep­re­sent a younger, more inno­cent Mid­dle Earth, not yet tainted by the evils of Mor­dor? Or did the Hob­bit movies just go through the same fil­ter process as every other Hol­ly­wood block­buster? I’ll go with the latter.

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The first photo is  from the begin­ning of “The Hob­bit”, Frodo’s clothes and even the mail­box are gauzy and smooth, like a paint­ing. The light is dif­fused, the fields yel­lower. Observe in the sec­ond pic­ture, how­ever, taken from the begin­ning of “The Lord of the Rings”—both scenes actu­ally occur only a few hours apart—how much sun­nier it is, the sharp­ness of the wagon and the hills and the blades of grass. It looks real. It feels real

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These two pho­tos both depict bat­tles that hap­pened a long time ago, in the “dark times,” so to speak., and I also picked them because they are totally fan­tas­ti­cal.  The first one  depicts the Bat­tle of Dagor­lad (as seen in the pro­logue to The Fel­low­ship of the Ring) and the color palette is murky and dark.  We can’t see much in the sweep­ing shots, which is prob­a­bly a good thing, because befit­ting the large scale of the bat­tle and our brief glimpse at it, a lot of CGI is used. It still looks pretty damn good. In con­trast, the sec­ond photo depicts the Bat­tle of Azan­ul­bizar, as remem­bered by Balin when Thorin’s hate for Orcs neces­si­tates explain­ing. Look at the color. It can’t be…it looks like Peter Jack­son fell prey to an cer­tain insid­i­ous color scheme (teal and orange) much favored by Hol­ly­wood but that pre­vi­ously was found in Michael Bay movies, not Mid­dle Earth.

Will movies ever look like The Lord of the Rings again? It was sad­den­ing to see dig­i­tal col­oriz­ing, among other things, take hold in The Hob­bit, because the beauty of Peter Jackson’s inter­pre­ta­tion of Tolkien’s uni­verse was that it was real—the wilder­ness of New Zealand didn’t need much tin­ker­ing or manip­u­la­tion to become the world inhab­ited by Orcs and Elves. There are some scenes in the Hob­bit tril­ogy that seemed less painted on by the color crew but they were few and far in between. And it seems that indeed, less is more: t’s ironic that the The Bat­tle of Five Armies, which depended so much on CGI wiz­ardry to cre­ate the emo­tional drama of the film, wasn’t even rec­og­nized when the Oscar nom­i­na­tions were announced.

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.