Sunday, January 31, 2016

Cassandra's Dream (Allen, 2007): Mini-Film Review

Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream (2007) fits into the director's exploration of subterfuge, vice, and murder in the vein of Match Point (2005) and Irrational Man (2015). Here we find another Allen film in which violence is never isolated but rather violence begets more violence, characters possess an inherent understanding of right from wrong and a clear sense of where the line between the two is positioned, and perhaps most interestingly: characters who have had their debts repaid are more likely to be aware of their moral compass in comparison to those who have been given wealth without earning it on their own.

Cassandra's Dream Premiere at the Toronto Film Festival

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997) & Whale Rider (Caro, 2002)

"Appeals to audiences of all ages and expectations" is the title of a brief film review I wrote for the San Diego Reader. The link is here. The rough draft was titled "Films I Like to Watch with my Daughter" and it covers Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997) and Whale Rider (Caro, 2002).

Princess Mononoke Trailer

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Hateful Eight (Tarantino, 2015): 3 Questions

3 questions come to mind after watching Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight:

1) To what extent is violent artwork necessary? Not in the sense that it appeals to a minor demographic that craves the grotesque, but for all of us in society at large. I've always thought it's not essential. Yet in the west, people have been required to read tales like these since Homer--as a young person I always questioned why the Euro-American tradition considers The Odyssey a classic when it's method of justice is essentially a bloodbath. After all, and to put it bluntly, Odysseus "harms" the suitor Melanthius' scrotum and also hangs his faithless housemaids who kick their feet until their last breaths; echoes of these literary scenes clearly occur to The Hateful Eight characters Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) respectively. Even the crucifixion, a representation of which the camera dwells on at length in The Hateful Eight, is violent. And in the end, violence remains. And in the west, these stories are told generation after generation...

2) Is racial harmony only possible when a common adversary is shared? At the end of the film, both Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Sheriff Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) share a laugh in harmony while (and only when?) Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) slowly hangs.

3) Is a healthy society one in which biases are openly expressed, or is it one in which people are restricted from offending each other? Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek has argued that a healthy culture is one that tells painfully blunt jokes "as part of his maybe dubious strategy of countering racism with “progressive racism” or the “solidarity” of “shared obscenity”—the use of potentially uncomfortable ethnic humor to expose uncomfortable political truths that get repressed or papered over by politeness." Without exception, the characters in  in The Hateful Eight are racist, sexist, ageist, and every other "-ist" condemned in U.S. culture today.

O.K. It's a great movie so I have more than three questions, and the film answers these questions in interesting ways, but I'm stopping here for now.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Best Thing About the Star Wars Prequels

The best thing about the prequel trilogy is the way they have become memories over time. When watching them the first time (and the second time, and tenth time...I've watched all of the episodes so many times with my kids because Star Wars films and Mario Kart are excluded from our family's two-hour screen time rule) it's impossible not to cringe when Jar Jar Binks opens his mouth, Anakin opens his mouth, the battle droids open their mouths, Dex in Dex's Diner opens his mouth, and other things open their mouths.

Arguably, spinning isn't that great of a trick.

Despite Ewan McGregor who single handedly redeemed the franchise, and some really cool scenes that I love: the seismic charges in Episode II when Obi-Wan is evading Jango Fett:
 The soundscape in the prequels is stellar.

...and the moments of silence in Episode III when Anakin and Padme contemplate their fates by looking out over the Coruscant, what is most important to me is how we can picture a young Anakin on Tatooine during the age of the Republic, the Jedi Council, Obi-Wan's duel on Mustafar, and the separation of the young Skywalker twins--without the feeling of embarrassment when watching the films in their entirety.

It's impossible to retain every detail of any film. Like our own memories, we rely on a few images from the past as reference points that signify the whole. When it comes to Star Wars prequels, I take pleasure in remembering only the best details the longer I am distanced from them--probably similar to what has been recorded in happiness studies such as this one from the University of Chicago.

The way in which the past stories remain most effective as memories are wonderfully captured in these videos below. Thanks to Matt Brown (on Twitter @thehangedman) who introduced them to me.

Darth Vader Remembers, posted by Make It Dirty on YouTube

Obi-Wan Remembers The Truth, posted by Shahan Reviews on YouTube

 Star Wars Poetry, posted by Mca Free on YouTube

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (Ritchie, 2015): Mini-Film Review

Guy Ritchie's 2015 caper isn't perfect, but the 67% rating on Rotten Tomatoes seems pretty odd (as is the 42% given to Woody Allen's outing from the same summer). Sure, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. left my 14 yo behind when we watched the film on Blu-ray the other night, but he was tired after soccer practice, and nationally syndicated reviewers aren't 14, right?

I thought U.N.C.L.E. had to be shot on film to create its retro feel, but no.

Ritchie's films draw attention to technique without relegating story to the background. This one establishes location with innovative shots, integrates (yellow) subtitles and text (of all sizes) in an entertaining manner, and provides character and historical background details creatively. Its car chases could give the Furious franchise pause, and while many scenes would seamlessly fit in a 007 film, this one has a sense of humor to boot. It's funny but no spoof--I laughed so hard during one scene at the theater that I looked around in embarrassment to see if I was the only one laughing and fortunately I wasn't.

One of the film's backstories (of Uncle Rudi) seems to be awkwardly placed, but (as with many films) on repeat viewings you can tell why the filmmakers elected to place the info. where it is, although I think it would have been more effective if presented when the character was first introduced. And actor Alicia Vikander delivers a few lines as unconvincingly as Hayden Christensen in Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones--a furrowed brow only expresses so much.

Most importantly, it's disappointing to see a fairly weak female role in a year with such strong female leads in some of the best western mainstream films: Mad Max: Fury Road (Miller, 2015), The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015), and Inside Out (Docter & Del Carmen, 2015).

But Guy Ritchie's montage+music sequences are nearly always on point (as they are in Snatch), and I'm a sucker for the split-screen style almost whenever its used because of its link to comics (I even loved it in Ang Lee's Hulk in 2003).

Split-screen montage? Check.

Finally, what's with all of the strapped-to-a-chair torture sequences in 2015? We have them in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Spectre (Mendes, 2015), and Star Wars. Extracting information from our hard drives seems to be on the forefront of filmmakers minds these days.

We're paranoid that people will figure out how to extract our hard drives.