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Sunday, December 27, 2015

The Saga Continues: Why I Admire The Force Awakens

My curiosity about The Force Awakens was mild.  I was more skeptical than anything else.  And yet, when opening day crept up on me, I found myself getting excited.  Finally, sitting in the cinema as the opening crawl started the film, I was captivated in a way I had not expected: After all these years, I am still deeply connected to Luke Skywalker's story.

I was too young to see the original Star Wars in the cinemas, but just old enough for The Empire Strikes Back.  I was nine for Return of the Jedi.  I had my share of the toys and books, and I'm pretty sure I had Star Wars underwear, too.  My infatuation was gone before puberty hit, but the iconography and mythology never lost their potency.  Star Wars references have always been there--not just because they are fun, but because they are meaningful.

Now, witnessing the continuation of the mythology as a middle-aged man with a soft spot for nostalgia? Finding that the story is not over and that new characters can pick up where the old must end? The complexity of emotions is striking.

Yes, The Force Awakens is a product.  Yes, they are trying to make money and reboot an old franchise.  That's all true, but there is also love and art in it.  The Force Awakens respects the mythology and the iconography.  It doesn't pander. The fan service is a way of paying respect to the original trilogy, to remind us that that is where this film owes its dues.  It may be excessive at times, but that is a minor complaint.  Like so many others, I found enough freshness, fun and authenticity to satisfy me.  More than that, my childhood connection to Luke's story has not merely been awoken, but also developed in a meaningful way.

The more I reflect on the film and compare it to the original Star Wars, the more I understand why it feels right. The original trilogy is all about destiny.  The characters talk about it enough, but more importantly, it is shown through coincidences.  In the original Star Wars:
  • Leia's ship is waylaid right next to Tatooine.
  • The Empire doesn't fire on the escape pod carrying R2-D2 and C-3PO at the beginning of the film. They presumably know that it could be carrying droids, but they let it go because they don't detect any life forms.
  • R2-D2 and C-3PO split up on Tatooine, only to be captured by the same group of traders.
  • The second unit Luke's uncle wants to buy from the traders breaks down, leading him to buy R2-D2 instead.
  • Luke and his uncle happen to need droids at that moment at all.
  • The Empire doesn't notice there are life forms on the Millennium Falcon, giving the good guys a chance to sneak past the stormtroopers on the Death Star.
  • The Death Star has a design flaw that allows it to be destroyed by a single fighter pilot.  What young Jedi-to-be could ask for a better opportunity to prove his or her worth?
All of these coincidences and absurdly fortuitous circumstances (and more) help nurture the audience's belief that Luke is following his destiny. He was meant to find R2-D2.  He was meant to study under Kenobi.  He was meant to blow up the Death Star.  It just had to be.  If the film had relied exclusively on exposition to tell us about Luke's destiny, we might not believe it; but when we see all the pieces just happening to fall into place, it feels right.

So it is with The Force Awakens.  I was first critical of its heavy reliance on coincidence, but now I see it as a necessity. 

I'm not the first to observe that there are many similarities, deep as well as superficial, between The Force Awakens and the original Star Wars. You could criticize the writers for that, but it's not like they were trying to hide it.  All the criticism means is that some people don't want a movie that is so similar to the original Star Wars.  And that's fine.  Not everybody wants it.  Not everybody is going to appreciate it.  But for the rest of us, it's exhilarating.  

As it happens, I think Rey is a lot more compelling than Luke in the original Star Wars, which relies more on exposition. We are told (by his uncle) that Luke has a lot of his father in him, and we are told (by his aunt) that most of his friends have already gone off to join the academy, and we are told (by Luke) that he wants to join the academy and do something bigger and more exciting with his life, and we are told (by Obi-Wan Kenobi) that Luke's father was a Jedi who had been killed by Darth Vader. Exposition sets up Luke's inner conflict, telling us who Luke is and what he wants.  All we really see from Luke at the beginning is that he is loyal to his family:  He races after R2-D2, because he does not want to disappoint his uncle.  Then he races home, heedless of the danger, to find his aunt and uncle killed by the Empire.  He only agrees to join Kenobi when he has nothing left on Tatooine.  These acts are important, but don't go very far in establishing Luke as a young Jedi-to-be.

Compare that to Rey.  We see her struggling to survive on Jakku.  We see her isolation.  We see how she wants to feel close to the old legends, putting on an old fighter pilot's helmet as she sits alone, eating her meager rations outside an old, fallen AT-AT.  We see her make a difficult choice:  to give up a fortune in order to protect a droid, her new and apparently only friend.  We know she doesn't belong where she is and that she has a great deal of inner (and outer) strength.  Sure, in many ways, Rey is a sort of Luke Skywalker reboot.  In fact, the two films are structured around their respective character arcs in remarkably similar ways.  There's nothing wrong with that.  The Force Awakens takes the time to bring Rey to life, to let us believe in her, and that's what counts.

Nobody goes into a Star Wars movie as if it were just another action-adventure.  The expectations are too high.  The mythology is too ubiquitous.  And that, I think, is what makes the success of this movie so impressive and worthy of respect.  There are plenty of complaints one could make about the film.  It is flawed, and it can be fun and interesting to go over everything that does or does not work.  But the more interesting question to me is, what makes this so satisfying for so many fans--fans who have long felt mistreated, and who can be hyper-critical of how Star Wars properties are developed?  I think it's about destiny, and that is more a feeling than anything else.  The Force Awakens makes us feel the way a Star Wars movie is supposed to make us feel:  like the hero is fulfilling her destiny, and the Skywalker saga is alive and well and up to date.

Some say this film only works as a promise for new films.  On the contrary, I think it is a solid stand-alone film. Of course we're being set up for more, but there is a clear beginning, middle and end to this story.  If the next Star Wars films are disasters--or even if they never come about by some bizarre twist of fate--this will remain a compelling addition to the mythology.

My nephew--he's not yet ten years old, but he's seen all seven films--he says this new one is the best so far.  His previous favorite was Return Of The Jedi.  One day he'll grow up and realize that there is no topping The Empire Strikes Back.  But when it comes to second best?  The Force Awakens may not be that good, but it might give the original a run for its money.  I'm looking forward to seeing it a second time.

Some additional thoughts on character development below.


Some complain that Kylo Ren is a weak or inconsistent version of Darth Vader.  His apparent inconsistency did bug me for a while. At the beginning of the film, his power over the force is impressive.  By the end of the film, he's not a very intimidating adversary.  In fact, he doesn't seem to know what he's doing.  How is Finn able to stand up against him in combat at all?  (Some speculate that Finn must be strong with the force, but I don't buy that.)  And Rey could actually defeat him?  

Then I considered the characters.  We only see Kylo Ren having strong command over the force when he's wearing his mask. Maybe, when he takes it off, his insecurities take over.  He clearly lacks self-control and self-confidence.  When Finn raises his light saber against him, Kylo Ren is unmasked.  He wields his light saber with the angst and fury of a petulant child, not the caution and focus of a Jedi.  He's no Vader, and he knows it.  Ren is emotionally unbalanced enough so that Finn is able to put up a fight, if only for a short time.  When looked at that way, it is not so surprising that Rey--who is much more self-assured, has learned to defend herself on Jakku and is apparently much stronger with the force than her opponent--is able to beat him.

There is another Finn moment that didn't sit well, but which makes more sense to me now.  I initially thought that, at the beginning of the film, Finn's primary goal was to help Poe escape, even though Poe said that Finn was doing it just because he needed a pilot.  So when Finn seems like a coward later on, and runs away from the resistance, I thought it was out of character.  I think I was just misled by my own desires:  I wanted Finn to be selfless, to be only interested in helping Poe escape.  That was my mistake.  Of course Finn just needed a pilot.  He was happy to help Poe escape, but that was not his goal.  He'd risk his life to escape the First Order, but he doesn't see any sense in trying to fight a war.  He was never out to help the resistance.  So he comes clean at the cantina and decides to split--to get as far away from the First Order as possible.  That all works for me.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Terminator Genisys: A Rant

I watched Terminator Genisys last night. I was prepared to forgive all kinds of time-travel plot holes, and a general level of incoherence. I was not expecting a Good Film. And yet, I was not expecting a movie that undermines everything that made the previous Terminator movies work. And so I must rant.

[Major Spoilers Ahead.]

It comes down to two things: character and principle.

The earlier films had clearly drawn characters whose actions generally made sense. When the second Terminator film came out and we saw Sarah Connor again on the big screen, we knew what she was capable of.  We knew what to expect, and she did not disappoint. In Terminator Genisys, we get a new Sarah Connor. New, but not improved. This Sarah Connor has no resemblance to the old one. The original Sarah Connor is one of the greatest female action heroes of all time.  The new Sarah Connor is not a hero by any measure. She cannot do anything on her own. Her only choice in the movie is to follow Kyle.  By film's end, she needs a man to explain to her that she can actually make choices in the world. We don't see her doing it. He just says she can, and the film ends.

Sarah and Kyle are both idiots in this movie. Kyle has mysterious new memories (don't even pretend you can explain how) and believes in them so much, he's willing to die for them. His willingness to die for them convinces Sarah that they must be legit. They have one shot to save the world (or so they think), and they risk being too late being Kyle insists his magic memories are trustworthy.  Yet, as logic would have it, there's no reason why Kyle's plan would be better EVEN IF HIS MYSTERIOUS MEMORIES ARE LEGIT. That's right. Even if Kyle is right, and the world isn't going to end until 2017, they could still travel to 1997 and do whatever they need to do to stop it. So why risk being too late? There is absolutely no reason for the characters to do this. There is no reason why they should be so stupid, and there is no reason why Pops wouldn't have stepped in and said: "Sarah Connor, I am here to protect you, and I cannot let you make this mistake." No reason. Except there is a reason why the writers put it in there: It is to show that Kyle and Sarah have faith.  But faith in what?  In Kyle? In intuition?  In weird quantum memory magic?  I guess it's all three.

This is where principle comes in.  While every previous Terminator film has driven home the dark message that the end is coming, and there is nothing you can do to stop it--not even travel back in time--this film says You Gotta Have Faith and You Can Change The Future. It's not that those are bad messages. They just don't work in this franchise. Okay, maybe there is a way to work them into the franchise, but it would take some ingenuity. This movie forces them on us in a way that destroys all credibility.

The relationships between the characters are all screwed up, too.  Not because they're different from the original relationships, but because they're just screwed up.  For one thing, the emotions in Terminator Genisys are underwhelming. Instead of the simple, carnal passion arising out of heightened emotions which we got in the first installment, Terminator Genisys gives us forced awkwardness and unconvincing romance between Sarah and Kyle.  Why do they fall in love, anyway?  Is it because Kyle was obsessed with her and decided he would die for her before they even met?  That seems to be what melts her heart, and it's a little creepy.  Is it because Pops, her father figure, was sent from the future to protect her, so now she falls for the first guy to come from the future to protect her? Whatever it is, it does not feel authentic, let alone true to the original characters.

And what about the relationship between Sarah and Pops?  Like in T2, the T-800 in Genisys goes through awkward moments of trying to appear human (which is odd in Genisys, since Pops had been living with Sarah for decades already), but it's not as effective this time around. Pops is no fun, and there is absolutely no chemistry between "him" and Sarah Connor.  When she cries out because she thinks she's going to lose him, it's not at all convincing.

Pops keep asking Sarah if she and Kyle have "mated." Is he just curious about her love life or was Pops sent back to make sure they had a child? Presumably he was, since that is the only reason why he would be sent to keep her alive.  So, will he make them keep having children until they have a boy who grows up to be like John Connor?  That's pretty sick.

But wait.  Why send Sarah and Kyle to the future if John Connor is supposed to be born in 1985?  The real mission is to take down Skynet.  In that case, why bother with Sarah Connor at all?  It doesn't make sense.

There is no way the writers of this film ever thought for a second that they should worry about internal logic.  You can read about the plethora of plotholes on other Websites, though I doubt anyone has enumerated all of them. (They might be uncountably infinite.) There is just one more scene, however, that I need to include in this rant.  It's when Pops shoots John Connor the first time, and Kyle starts yelling that Pops was sent there to kill John (a theory which makes NO sense, idiot Kyle), and Pops grabs Kyle by the throat. WTF? I mean, really. First, why would you start ARGUING about a T-800 that you think is a threat RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE T-800? And why did Pops grab Kyle by the throat? Since when does a T-800 choke people? A T-800 would explain: "That is not John Conner. It's a cyborg. Run!" And why did Pops assume that John Conner was a bad cyborg in the first place? He sees Sarah and Kyle having a friendly conversation with cyborg John Connor and just assumes it's a threat?

I didn't care for the third Terminator film, and the fourth was entirely forgettable, but neither of those was a disgrace to the franchise. At least those films gave a damn about creating believable characters and a fairly coherent narrative. The only fair comparison, I think, is this--and I know it's harsh: Terminator Genisys is the Prometheus of Terminator movies.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road - Renewing Old Mythology

Mad Max: Fury Road is a fitting allegory for modern times:  We can find messages about reproductive rights, natural resources and religious warfare, as well as some meditations on the more general themes of home, family, power, freedom and survival.  What makes the film more than just a generic action flic is that these themes are brought to life through the creation of a compelling, mythologically rich world.  Though it is unmistakably a Mad Max film, Fury Road surprisingly calls to mind the familiar mythological territory of the original Star Wars saga.

Spoiler Alert:  Mad Max: Fury Road is all about the action and visual spectacle, so you can still enjoy it even if the plot has been spoiled.  However, it offers plenty to think about in the few quiet moments between (and after) those astonishing action sequences.  If you'd rather not know much about how the plot develops, don't read what follows.

Fury Road' opens at breakneck speed and within minutes we learn a few key details about Mad Max (Tom Hardy):  He is independent, he is capable of doing anything to survive, and he is a universal blood donor.  Metaphorically, that last part could represent his lack of loyalty to any cause: he could give his blood to anyone, for any reason.  At the beginning, his blood is used (against his will) to help Immortan Joe's (Hugh Keays-Byrne) tribe.  As his blood is literally forced out of his veins, Max is caught in the middle of a deadly chase between Joe and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron).  Still, Max shows no inclinations of sympathy for either side.  He and Furiosa soon start working together, but Max is reluctant.  Like Han Solo, he finds common cause with and eventual sympathy for Furiosa and her rebels.  When he gives her his blood at the end, the opening metaphor comes full circle.  Max's war is won when he is able to give blood as he sees fit.  If there is a message here, it's about taking ownership of our own lives.

This is a film about life, and the fluids that sustain it: blood, mother's milk, gasoline and water.  All of these fluids are used to control, exploit and sustain life in this post-apocalyptic wasteland.  If the film raises a question, it is this:  Who has a right to the fluids of life, and what kind of power can they wield?

Immortan Joe is the great exploiter of fluids.  Under his reign, blood is stolen from Max, mother's milk is stolen from women, gasoline is stolen from anybody who has it, and water is hoarded and used to subjugate the masses, who try to steal it from each other.  If Max is Han Solo, then Immortan Joe is Darth Vader.  We are introduced to Joe with imagery that calls Vader to mind:  Joe's old, scarred and worn torso is slowly covered with a sort of military armor.  We never see his full face, as it is behind a grotesque version of Vader's mask.  And like Vader, he has two primary concerns:  his power and his progeny.

Furiosa is the only character who is not clearly exploited or subjugated in the film.  The reason for this is never directly stated.  She tells Max that she is seeking redemption by freeing Joe's wives. Furiosa therefore must have been one of the exploiters.  All we learn about her past is that she was taken from her home and family as a child and eventually became a great warrior in Joe's army.  Perhaps Joe adopted her, took her on as one of his own.    Indeed, if Joe is Vader, Furiosa is Luke Skywalker, except in this version, Luke has succumbed to the dark side and now wants to make amends.  Like Luke, she has a mechanical replacement for a missing hand, she is from a desert world which was once green and full of life, and she was taken from her parents when she was young.  A great warrior, she stands up against and fights her "father," who wishes to use the force (fluids of life) to exploit and subjugate, to wield an unnatural power over people.

To emphasize the unnaturalness of Joe's power, we see his followers exhibit a religious devotion to him.  They explode in ecstasy if Joe gives them the simple honor of looking directly at them.  They have a highly ritualized way of dying in battle for Joe.  And when one of them sees that Joe is fallible, the spell is broken: If Joe is capable of error, then the whole mythology of his world is a lie.

To make the comparison to the Star Wars mythology complete, we can identify Furiosa's people, who she eventually finds again in the desert, as jedi knights.  They are the rightful mothers, the righteous givers of life.  They are the ones who know how to make the world green again.  The oldest and wisest of them is Keeper Of The Seeds, too old to fight, but still wise in the old ways:  in short, Yoda.

Warning:  Way Bigger Spoilers Below

While George Miller has succeeded in creating a compelling world with absolutely thrilling and visually stunning setpieces, I didn't find the dramatic development entirely convincing.  When Furiosa found her "green place" and had to come to terms with that harsh reality, I didn't feel a strong enough connection to her character.  I didn't believe what she was going through. I never felt like she needed the redemption she was after.  And I didn't like that she had to be saved by Max.  The Furiosa in the second half of the film seems weaker than the one in the first half.  Also, I wasn't convinced when Nux (Nicholas Hoult) had his profound transformation, or by his connection with Joe's wife, Capable (Riley Keough).  It was too quick and painless.  I was also disappointed with Max's development.  It was never clear exactly how or why he started to care about Furiosa.  I also think the women should have headed back to the Citadel on their own.  Max should have decided to follow them, to help them, but not to lead them.  And it should've been because he didn't have a choice.  If 160 days of riding in the desert wasn't going to get them anywhere, where would it have gotten him?  Finally, at the end of the film, Max has no car, nowhere to go, no way to survive on his own.  Furiosa would certainly be willing to help him along on his way.  I guess there's symbolism in him disappearing into the crowd as Furiosa is raised into the sky, but it doesn't really make much sense.  He should've stayed, at least for a little while.  Anyway, it's an enormously entertaining and impressive film, but the development just didn't always work for me.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Cold In July: Grappling With Character and Narrative

I watched Cold In July last night.  It's not a bad movie.  The acting and directing are stellar, and it is in some ways original and daring.  But when it was over, I was more frustrated than satisfied. Be warned: the following contains spoilers.

Rich (Michael C. Hall) accidentally kills a man whom he and Ben  (Sam Shepard) are told is Ben's son.  Ben makes thinly veiled threats, but the police refuse to act until Ben does something illegal.  The police are very concerned about the law, apparently.  Then Ben breaks into Rich's house.  That gives the police enough suspicion to watch the house, but not to arrest Ben?  Fine.  So they watch and find out that Ben never left the house.  Well, they don't see him, but they assume it was him.  So they arrest him. For what?  For breaking in and not leaving until late at night?  They couldn't have just arrested him for breaking in in the first place? In any case, they arrest him.  Then the police try to kill him.  They sneak him out of jail and try to make it look like an accidental death.  For what?  There is no reason at all for the police to want him dead, or to break the law to get rid of him.  One minute, the police are very concerned about carefully following the rules; the next, they are breaking them without any reason.

What was Ben going to do to Rich's son, anyway?  He could have killed him.  He could have kdinapped him.  He did nothing.  Did he just want to scare Rich?  He hid in the house all day and then risked getting caught (or killed) by the cops, just to scare them?  Ben must be insane to do that to a person's family just because the father accidentally killed his son in self-defense.  Which makes us wonder:  Why was Ben in jail for most of his son's life, anyway?  We never find out.

The Ben of the first part of the film is a dark, deranged and menacing figure.  Then Rich saves his life.  After that, Ben seems remarkably centered and disciplined, with a strong sense of duty.  Sure, he persumably a bit disturbed and he is clearly comfortable taking the law in his own, violent hands; but he's not so off-kilter that he would terrorize a family in these circumstances.  He is not so dark and not at all deranged or menacing.  Instead of carrying through with Ben's sinister edge in the second half of the film, Ben comes across as too likable, too principled, too moral.  This is not the same Ben that was in the first half of the movie.

This may to some extent be intentional.  The movie might be saying something about monsters and men.  Perhaps Ben has two sides:  one is a monster, the other is a man.  And we can see Rich's character arc in these terms.  By the end of it all, Rich has changed.  He is no longer afraid to use his gun.  He kills with determination.  Rich and Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) help him along with this transformation, but it comes from within.  Rich changes himself, and it is compelling drama.  He becomes more like Ben and Jim Bob Luke.  Perhaps we are supposed to be left with this question:  Has Rich become a man, or has he become a monster?

Perhaps they wanted Ben to have two sides, one monster and one man.  But in that case, we should see them co-existing.  We should be able to interpret the same action from both sides.  Instead, we just get two different characters when it is convenient to the plot.  Thus, Ben's character doesn't ring true, and the entire story that brings him and Rich together is unconvincing.  It's really a shame.  I found a lot to enjoy in Cold In July, but couldn't shake the bad taste after it was over.

The Unintended Irony of Birdman and Big Hero 6

Birdman, Oscar's Best Picture of 2014, is a satire of Hollywood's lack of artistic gravitas.  The primary target is the dark hole of superhero films that attracts much of the industry's money and talent.  Birdman goes out of its way to repeatedly poke fun at superhero movies.  And yet, the Oscar for Best Animated Feature went to Big Hero 6 . . . a superhero movie.  Who said the Academy had to be consistent?

I just watched Big Hero 6 and enjoyed a lot of it.  Yet, it suffers from all of the problems that often plague superhero movies.  It is the perfect example of the sort of film that Birdman is making fun of.  (Warning:  the rest of this post contains major spoilers.)

The hero (subtly named "Hiro"), a thirteen-year-old boy of limited means, somehow manages to produce thousands of tiny 'microbots,' and gear for controlling them directly through his thoughts.  It's not even so ridiculous that he could come up with a way to build such things--it's that he actually was able to build them.  But okay, he does.  Absurd, but let's move on.

He builds them and shows them off, because he wants to impress the head of a school:  Callaghan, who is duly impressed and convinces Hiro to bring the new technology to his school for further research.  To repeat, Callaghan--who is in charge of what may be the most advanced technological research academy in the world--has successfully convinced Hiro to bring the tech to his school.  This would put this new technology in Callaghan's hands.  Callaghan wants the technology in order to exact some twisted revenge fantasy.  So what does Callaghan do?  He destroys one of the buildings at his school, fakes his own death and steals the technology.  He risks his life and gives up his career just to steal technology that he otherwise would have had complete control over at his school.  Nonsense.

Also, remember that Hiro thought all his microbots were destroyed in the fire.  Hiro, the person who built them.  If anybody knew how those microbots would respond to a fire, it was Hiro.  But Callaghan assumed that the microbots could protect him from the fire--that the microbots were actually fire-proof.  How did Callaghan know that, and how could Hiro not have known that?

Then there's the fact that Callaghan's plan is absurd:  he thinks the best revenge is to destroy Krei's building.  The building?  If he just wanted to destroy a building, he didn't need microbots.  And if he just wanted to destoy a building, he didn't need to put together that weird interdimensional teleportation device.  (And how'd he get that device to work without a power source?  Where were its controls?)  As with many superhero movies, we have a villain who is so poorly motivated and whose plan is so convoluted, we cannot possibly take it seriously.

The flaws don't end with Callaghan.  There's also the fact that Hiro knows every spec about the microbots and the headgear which Callaghan steals from him.  It should be very easy for him to regain control of the microbots, or just build new ones of his own--which could've been cool:  a microbot showdown--but he never even considers that.  Instead, he creates superheroes out of his late brother's fellow science students (and one mascot), people who have had no combat training at all.  How are they all of a sudden supposed to be super warriors?

At the beginning of the movie, we learn that Hiro is a hustler.  He does not respect authority or rules.  He is a loner, happy to use his skills to take advantage of others.  At the end of the movie, he has control over the most powerful technology in the world.  Why are we supposed to trust him?  Oh yeah, because he gave up his prior life and decided to commit himself to . . . to what, exactly?  To going to school, where he could develop even bigger and better technology?  To exacting revenge on the person who stole his technology and killed his brother?  At what point did Hiro become a good person with a convincing sense of social responsibility?  Never.

There was supposed to be some transformative moment when he watched the video of his brother.  He learned that we should heal people, not hurt them.  That's it?  One video, and he's a different person?  That's just the sort of magic moment that distinguishes popcorn entertainment from serious drama.  It's just the sort of narrative weakness we have come to expect from Hollywood.

In reality, Hiro does not seem interested in making Baymax the sort of health care provider his brother had intended.  Instead, Hiro makes Baymax into his personal slave.  Why isn't Baymax constantly trying to help as many people as possible?  Why is this "health care provider" only doing what Hiro wants?  We are supposed to think that Hiro is following his brother's altruistic footsteps, helping bring his dream of health care to life.  But in reality, Hiro is stealing his brother's invention and using it for his own personal betterment.  Sure, Hiro thinks he can save the world.  He's delusional.  He's selfish.  He's thirteen.  We should not be happy with how this movie ends.

Last point.  At the end of the film, before Baymax uses his super-punch to send Hiro back into our world, he takes out the disc which controls his programming and puts it in his hand.  That way, Hiro is able to make another Baymax just like the first one.  The problem is, how and why would Baymax send Hiro back into our world once he removed the disc?  Without the disc, he is nothing.  Baymax magically transcends his wiring in order to make sure that Hiro gets a hard copy of his programming.  Again, nonsense.  This plot hole could have been avoided.  Hiro could have returned home after losing Baymax and then found a copy of Baymax's program.  I mean, his brother must have made a back-up disc, right?  No?  Seriously?

Big Hero 6 is funny, exciting, touching and visually-entertaining.  It lacks well-developed characters and the plot is absurd.  Nobody acts in a way that makes sense, and the whole thing is an absurdly disturbing sort of wish-fullfilment.  It is everything that Birdman is against.  Yet, both films won Oscars.  Can we be fans of both?  Can we enjoy Big Hero 6 one minute, and make fun of it the next?  What does this say about us?  Are we just used to living with cognitive dissonance?  Do we enjoy it?  Or are we not even paying attention?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Movies of 2014

In lieu of the Oscars, here are my own categories (and winners) for 2014 films.

Best Drama:

Best Sci-Fi:
Under The Skin

Best Horror:
The Babadook
Runner Up:
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Best Comedy:
Runner Up:
What We Do In The Shadows

Best Action:
Edge Of Tomorrow

Best Children's Movie:

Best Director:
Richard Linklater (Boyhood);
Runners Up:
Ava DuVernay (Selma)
Jonathan Glazer (Under The Skin)
Jennifer Kent (The Babadook)

Best Actress:
Essie Davis (The Babadook);
Runner Up:
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Best Actor:
Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)
Runners Up:
David Oyelowo (Selma)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
Laura Dern (Wild);
Runner Up:
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:
J. K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Runner Up:
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)

Best Cinematography:
Mikhail Krichman (Leviathan)
Runner Up:
Robert Yeoman (Grand Budapest Hotel)

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Jonathan Glazer & Walter Campbell (Under The Skin)
Runner Up:
Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan (Frank)

Best Screenplay:
Andrey Zvyagintsev & Oleg Negin (Leviathan)

Most Overrated Movie:
The Imitation Game;
Runners Up:
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Gone Girl

Most Underrated Movie:
The Amazing-Spider Man 2

Biggest Disaster/Disappointment:

Movies I still want to see:
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Song of the Sea
Two Days, One Night
Two Faces of January
Mr. Turner
Winter Sleep
and all of the Oscar-nominated documentaries

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Judaism Lost: A Comment on "Ida"

My initial reaction to Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida was anger and frustration:  Not at the historical injustice documented in the film.  Not at the personal tragedy.  Rather, it's the film itself that bothers me:  It is a film about two Jewish women in the wake of the Holocaust, but Judaism itself is absent from the picture.  A. O. Scott observes, in his New York Times review, the film "unfolds at the crossroads where the Catholic, Jewish and Communist strains of Poland's endlessly and bitterly contested national identity intersect."  What Scott fails to notice, however, is that Judaism exists in the film only negatively:  Jews are victims of the Holocaust; Jews are corrupt communists, faithless, self-destructive and morally lost.  The film makes "an implicit argument . . . between faith and materialism," as Scott also observes, but it is Catholic faith that is on the line, not Judaism.  There is no representation of Judaism as a viable option in the film at all.

Finally, thanks to Joanna Auron-G√≥rska, there is a review of the film I can wholly get behind.  She writes: "Ida shirks the responsibility that there is in the terrible knowledge imparted to its main character."  That knowledge, of course, is that the titular Ida is a Jew whose parents were slaughtered by Polish farmers during the Holocaust.  The entire review is well-worth reading, but this is where she identifies what I think is the main problem with the film:

"Why doesn't Ida ask herself what her being Jewish may mean to her? She has a go at the secular life; why does she not at least try on her Jewishness, the way she tries on the pearls and the vodka? It may have been difficult if not impossible to be a Jew at that time in Poland in any other sense than that of an internalized, partially hidden identity, of memory, or of faith; but it was certainly possible in those ways. For Ida, though, Jewishness is inconsequential. Had she at least explored the appearances, she would have to ask herself what it is like - if it is not possible to learn what it actually is - to be a Jew; she would have to assess the viability of her Jewishness; try to make meaning out of her family's death; attempt to understand the significance of the virtual disappearance of Jewish communities from Poland; finally, she would have to critically appraise the Poles and their Church. She does none. The return to the convent is Ida's best, in fact her only choice."

During a scene in the middle of the film, Ida and Wanda struggle over a Christian Bible.  It may be the most emotionally salient scene in the film, for it is the only time Ida expresses any significant emotions.  As Wanda suggests, it is as if a wild beast awoke inside the otherwise placid and stoic girl.  When Ida finds out she is Jewish, her face doesn't change.  When she sees the man who killed her parents during the Holocaust, her face doesn't change.  When she is handed their remains, and travels a long distance to bury them properly, her face doesn't change.  But when Wanda wants to quote the Bible to her, seeking to justify her decadent lifestyle, Ida erupts in violence and forces the holy book out of her hands.  Ida can face genocide with a dispassionate eye, but she cannot tolerate misuse of the Christian Bible--at least, not in the hands of a drunken, promiscuous Jew.

Ida's violent outburst over the Bible is not a sign of bubbling anger or frustration with the world and her place in it.  She never again shows any inclinations towards violence.  She never again shows anger or frustration at all.  In fact, her only other outburst in the film is the momentary, slight laugh she accidentally emits during dinner back at the convent.  What recollection or insight brought laughter to her lips?  We have no way of knowing.  The point is not why she was laughing, but that she was noticeably out of place, no longer comfortable in her old skin.  It didn't have to be laughter.  It could have been any emotional outburst at all.  Why does she laugh?  This should be striking, for nowhere in the film is Ida ever given reason to laugh.  She and Wanda have just found the man who killed her parents, watched him dig up their remains, and then driven a long way across Poland for a proper burial.  After all of that, Ida returns to the convent without any hint of emotion.  No anger, no frustration, no tears.  Then, for no apparent reason, she gives a small laugh over dinner?

Imagine if, instead of a laugh, Ida had quickly suppressed an unintended cry of grief?  What if she gripped her fork tightly and brought it down just a tad too hard on the table, causing some heads to turn?  Wouldn't that have made more sense?  Wouldn't it have given some depth to her journey, and not made her seem so empty and uncaring?  Some sense that she was struggling with what had happened to her and her family?

Or does she simply not care?  Is that the point?  Forgive and forget, as they say?

When Ida finally decides to leave the convent on her own, it is not because she is Jewish.  It is not because of her situation, her family's fate or her people's tragedy.  It is because she is childishly and innocently curious about the world.  And what she finds is death and a meaninglessness that cannot be cured by romance or the possibility of a family.  So she turns back.  Pawlikowski has said that we are not supposed to know if Ida returns to the convent or not at the end of the film.  Why, then, does he have her dress as a nun?  If he wanted an ambiguous ending, he should have had Ida wearing plain clothes at the end of the film.  And how much more effective would that have been:  a young woman taking the first steps alone towards self-discovery as a Jew, with no clear path forward, venturing bravely into a mysterious world alone, hoping for meaning but not sure where to look?  That would be a powerful ending, especially if we had seen her struggling with anger and rage, fear and mortification, beforehand.  Especially if we had seen her doubt the institution and faith which so far had dressed her.  Unfortunately, that is not Ida.

Ida looks most comfortable, most natural, when she is a nun.  At the hospital, after they have confronted the man they believe killed her parents, Ida holds Wanda, comforting her.  Wanda is in turmoil, but Ida is emotionless.  She is dutiful.  That is her character, but it does not feel real.  She does not seem human.  This may be partly because of how the part is acted (we have to wonder whether Ida's restrained characterization is the result of Agata Trzebuchowska's acting talents or the lack thereof; either way, it is surely intentional), but it is also because of how unnaturally the image is framed:  the two women are at the lower right-hand corner of the screen, their bodies cut awkwardly out of the frame, and their huddled shapes overwhelmed by the vast, barren wall behind them.


Such awkward framing is common in Ida, and it is visually striking.  It also draws our attention away from the characters, making them seem less real, as if they aren't quite there.  The characters take on a more symbolic significance:  Ida, the innocent, graceful child; Wanda, the emotionally-charged victim of evil, her own as well as others.

Has Ida struggled with her faith?  Presumably she had some doubts, or she wouldn't have left the convent the second time.  But where is her struggle?  How does it play out?  In a short-lived experiment with alcohol and cigarettes?  In a one-night flirtation with secular romance?  These are traversed without pause or hesitation, without reflection or consideration of their significance.  It is as if Ida is trying to force her awakening before its time.  Or perhaps she is awake, but unable to feel.

Ida tries on Wanda's decadent lifestyle, but without Wanda's tears.  Ida still does not cry.  She does not scream.  She does not rage against her fate.  There is no visible grief or struggle at all.  Instead, she is playful.  She spins delicately in Wanda's curtains and falls clumsily to the floor.  As with the laugh in the dining hall, this scene would make much more sense in a different movie, one with a lighter tone and less at stake.  Ida does not seem to experience the world around her.  She does not respond to the world as it is.  She is not there.

Ida is a film, like its protagonist, without an emotional compass.  It ends with Ida as she has always been:  most comfortable clothed in Catholic garments, without an identifiable sense of loss or discovery.  Ida is more cipher than human.  And while we might respect the artistry with which the auteur has pulled off this abstraction, we have to wonder at its meaning.  What is gained by making a film about the Holocaust in which the only salient emotional struggle occurs between two Jewish women and a Christian Bible?