TV Special: Black Mirror

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I usually don’t write about television much on here, because although I watch a good deal of it, I don’t have anything worth saying about the shows other than Tina Belcher from Bob’s Burgers is awesome. Not really shining television criticism, but that is about the end of my opinion on most things that relate to television. So I decided early on that this would be a mostly film blog about my opinions about things that only last two and a half hours instead of several weeks. It makes things simple on me and I really didn’t have to dive into the whole Breaking Bad craze that was just starting when I started this blog. (Good show, not great)

However I break this iron clad rule today to talk about a series that just went up on Netflix Watch Instant a few weeks ago called Black Mirror. Black Mirror is different from most other shows that we get imported from the Brits here in the Colonies. It has no awkward comedy, no melodramatic science-fiction plots and there are no impossibly hot guys that go around just being British (Cough Matt Smith Cough) and doing very little else (cough Benedict Cumberbatch cough). Black Mirror is an anthology series so the situations and the content are different every time. It is like the Twilight Zone in that way. It also like Twilight Zone in that it has science fiction overtones but is really about how a human reacts if put within a science fiction high concept like situation. While each episode is great, I have some personal favorites that I would like to highlight here.

The National Anthem is the first episode in the series. It can be summed up by a simple log line: the Prime Minister must fuck a pig on national television or a member of the royal family will be killed. While that may induce chuckles in you, like it did in me when first heard the description, the concept is actually taken very seriously. It goes through a step by step process of how the prime minister would actually be induced to fucking a pig. A live pig. The abduction and the rules for getting this royal family member back is posted on youtube so when the news breaks in the morning most people have already seen the video. The general population is aghast that something like this could happen and that the government would never give in to the demands. However, as the day progresses and the government is found out to be cheating by creating a CGI figure of the Prime Minister over another man who is actually going to do the deed, the tide turns and the public demands that he go through with the it himself. The royal family and his party also demand it. Then he actually does and it is not nearly as funny or as absurd as it should be. It is actually really sad and heartbreaking. He is crying the whole time and it goes on for a painful amount of time. What is fascinating about this episode is given the absurd concept just how heartbreaking it ends up becoming. While the prime minister ends up saving the royal family member, keeping his job and his popularity soars, his personal relationship with his wife deteriorates into nothing. Rory Kinnear who plays the prime minister in the episode does a fantastic job of externalizing the internal debate that must go through a person’s head when faced with such a damning and humiliating decision. If he decides that he can’t do it, then the royal family member is dead and so is his career. However if he does do it, then his marriage is essentially over. Plus there is the humiliation of fucking a pig over a national broadcast. It is a fascinating insight into how a political figure can be pushed into decisions he does want to make via the pressure he receives through many outlets, media, political party, and even the general public. What seems to be the right and moral decision (not fucking the pig) becomes outlawed by the pressure to do what the “public” demands. He ends up sacrificing love for the ability to keep his office.

The other episode I want to highlight is actually the first episode of the second series. It is titled Be Right Back. This episode is why I really like this series. I will give you a brief synopsis real quick and then I will dive into why this episode stands out from the rest of them, at least to me. A couple is seen in a small smart car together. They have a silly conversation that consists of whether or not the BeeGees is a good band. Once they get to their destination, we realize that this is a couple and this is a house that they have inherited. The girl chastises the boy for being on his phone too much and they have a conversation about the fakeness of a photo taken by his mother when he was young. After that they have a failed sexual encounter. In the morning they wake up. She has to do some work, so he is forced to return something by himself. After a whole day waiting for him, she starts to get scared and calls her sister. While on the phone with her, police show up at her door. He was killed in a car accident. At the funeral, a friend of hers signs her up for a new service that allows you to message your dead loved one. It culls material from comments on social media websites that the person said while they were still alive and forms a virtual identity of that person. At first she hates the idea, but eventually when she finds out she is pregnant, she decides to give it a try. At first it is just texting, then it is voice chatting and it finally evolves into a robot that has the same features and the same mannerisms as her dead husband. She gets wrapped up in the process and shuts everyone else out. However this robot is not her husband. It is a mere resemblance which makes her hate it. Despite all the information that we put on the internet, it is just a shadow of our real selves. Through my posts on this blog, you might get a sense of who I am, but you would never truly understand me and my mannerisms until you meet me in person. This is why this episode is so great. At every turn, the woman who has lost the one person who was dearest to her wants him back but knows deep within herself that this robot can never be him. Technology no matter how advanced, no matter how life-like and no matter how perfect it may seem can never replace human interaction. It will never give you the nuances of seeing someone else react to something like a kiss or a hug or even something as monumental as a snowstorm. You can read about reactions, but unless you really truly understand that person you still cannot get the actual reality of the situation. Once you have known love it is hard for it to be faked by a robot. This is what the woman learns in this story and yet she cannot destroy the robot that has her dead husband’s face. Instead it becomes like a pet to her and her daughter, something that her daughter can play with. But it will never be her husband. Ever.

This was easily the saddest story in the entire run of episodes because it was acted so well and it was structured perfectly. I have seem to be on a role with Domhnall Gleeson these days. He of course is in this episode as well. He plays the husband that gets killed and the robot that replaces him. His turn from altogether human into a robot is fascinating to watch, but I think he is really helped here by a fantastic script. Especially at the beginning when we get a glimpse of how cute their relationship is. He does seem to have the hardest job out of the two people involved with the story, but I will be remiss if I don’t mention Hayley Atwell. She quite surprised me. I have to admit that I watched the first episode of Agent Carter (she plays Agent Carter) and was vastly underwhelmed by her performance. I thought she was nothing more than a pretty face in period clothing. However, here she shines. Her devastation at losing someone so dear to her is so complete and so heartbreaking that I was balling almost immediately upon it happening. There was one scene in particular where she is extremely good. She has just heard the heartbeat of her daughter for the first time. She is walking out of the doctor’s office and has called this robot voice who sounds just like her husband. While she is talking to him, overjoyed with hearing this monumental thing for the first time, she fumbles with her phone and drops it, breaking it into a couple of different pieces. Her horror-stricken face spoke volumes for the emotions that she needed to convey at that moment. Here was her one connection to her dead husband and it was completely useless. It was great and made me burst out crying. Haha.

Each episode of Black Mirror is fantastic. I wish that I could have something original and cute to say about each one, but alas I do not. If you haven’t already watched it and you have some free time, why not give it a chance? At least you see someone fake fucking a pig. That seems pretty entertaining doesn’t it?

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Frank

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An artist, no matter what the kind, has a complex balance that must be maintained in order to be successful. They must harness their creativity and their talents in order to create an original piece of art but they also must eat. So being able to sell their art, if it be a painting, an idea, a song or a piece of writing, is usually on an artist’s mind. And yet making something commercial and sellable might hamper that creativity and not make it flow as easily as it should. Frank, about a strange artist who wears a big cartoon plastic head over his real one, grapples with this paradox in a refreshing yet subtle way.

Frank is a very gifted musician. He is also strange, complex and sporting a plastic head at all times. A young wannabe artist enters into his unpronounceable band’s line up and tries to change the artist and the art he is creating. He wants to be able to share the weird and beautiful music that is being created here in order for some taste of fame. He films Frank and his bandmates being weird and creates an semi-big online sensation. He takes this leverage and gets them into SXSW, a platform for emerging bands to get seen by new fans. However, Frank finds this type of pressure unnerving and is thrown into a panic that the wannabe artist is left to deal with after the rest of the band disappears. The wannabe realizes that by trying to make this band commercial, he strips everything that was unique and fascinating about them out.

The performances by the main actors in this film is what makes this film as interesting as it is. Almost every review I have read praises Michael Fassbender for being able to make a character believable while being impeded by a big plastic head. He is great as he is in everything he is ever done. He is our generation’s Robert de Niro. I do not say that lightly. Literally every performance I have ever seen of his, even in Shame, I have loved and realized just how great he is. However, I wanted to point out someone else who should have had a tougher time of making something interesting out of the character given to them but pulled it off with ease: Domhnall Gleeson, who plays Jon the wannabe artist. In a movie such as this he is the boring straight man who just doesn’t get it… man. He wants to be an insider but is pushed by all crazy freaks (i.e. more interesting parts) out of the circle. He then whimpers and is becomes the central wet blanket of the group. Gleeson tries a variation on this wet blanket routine that makes him feel more like a lived in character. His ambitions to be seen as much of a genius as Frank is constantly getting trampled on by everyone in the band but his belief in himself is unhampered. He continues to write music and tries his best to be exactly like Frank and yet he is missing something. While he bumbles through everything and is neglected by the band mates, he still sees himself as essential to the group. In other words he is conceited. He is not aware that he is the wet blanket, bland man of the group. He is not aware that he has no talent and true vision. Therefore when he fucks everything up, he does it because he believes that this is the right path to take, even when it obviously is not. In fact at a certain point, Gleeson is able to give this annoying and conceited person a sense of humanity that makes you feel for his wrong thinking. And it makes him even more gross when he rejects Frank after the disaster in the third act. Gleeson is perfect as he mugs his way through each uncomfortable situation after another all the while thinking that what he is doing is right and justified. He gives an interesting performance in a mostly conventional role.

Goodbye to Language 3D

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When I first started this blog, I used it as a platform to dive deeper into certain sections of film history that I wanted to know more about. I created blogathons that people (very few of them) could follow along with me in some sort of logical pattern. One of my first blogathons and the only one that was true to my rigorous standard was the auteurs of the French New Wave. Every week I systematically went through Godard, Truffaut and Chabrol (I stopped there because I became less interested in the project) filmographies and watched how they evolved from these scrappy young innovators into serious and developed directors. Godard was the first director I did and the one that has stuck with me the most. To see how evolved is to also see how art and philosophy can evolve within an artist. When he was first starting out, he used innovations to tell a simple story, but as he proceeded from one movie to the next the plot lines became more obscure and the innovations were placed at the center of the art piece. He started distancing himself from standard filmmaking that made him become one of the most difficult directors to understand. And yet his innovations and his art are still vital and still worth seeing. He is one of the few original French New Wavers that are still alive and working today and he still produces work that is strange yet innovative. Goodbye to Language is his latest effort. It stays true to his reputation as a crazy European art house director.

There is a dog. There is a couple who are mostly nude arguing about equality. There are cell phones juxtaposed with books. There is a boat that keeps sailing into the sea. There is a running commentary about war, technology and obscure philosophical concepts. But most importantly there are images. Images of flowers, women drinking out of water fountains, a dog wandering around in the forest and getting stuck in a river, words that overplay each other and classic film scenes of movies no one has ever heard of. A plot of any sort never enters the mind of Godard and nor should it for the audience. He is not creating a linear narrative.

He is creating a thinking and moving image using one of the most commercial technologies that has ever been invented: 3D. Art movies do not use 3D. It is too expensive. No. Only super hero movies, sleazy horror movies and terrible movies wanting to cash in use 3D technology. They use it not immerse you in any complex emotion, but to throw things at you from the screen. Nothing jumps out at you from the screen, there are no hands grabbing for things in front of your face or snowflakes falling. And yet the 3D is the most striking concept about this movie. He uses it to enhance a ginger’s bright and curly hair, to emphasize the mundane situation of a boat coming into shore like it has a million times before, the fullness of a bush of flowers or see the never-ending motion of the waves falling around a dog. While he is talking about the philosophy of a dog as the ultimate sign of naiveté, we see a dog playing dirty snow. This is not a typical image of commercial 3D and yet his using 3D gives us the ability to notice the strangeness and the intellectual possibilities of what he is saying.

Godard is famous for his collages. He collages here like there is no tomorrow. He cuts, he splices and he realign everything that we have seen before. At the beginning of the film we are following one couple that all but disappear and evolve into another couple who we see at their most intimate moments. But then again while we are just recovering from this shift, he brings us back to the dog who plays such a monumental yet silent role in this film. He layers on music only to cut it off at an awkward time. He gives us an image that is beautifully composed but does not seem to follow the following image. All of this he does in order to dislodge the comforts of watching a film. He wants the viewer to be constantly aware that this is in fact a film that they are watching and not some escapist drivel. He wants the viewer to pay attention to what is being said, if only what is being said that equality is like pooping.

His main idea is about the break down and destruction of language. This is obvious from even the title. But what he explores is deeper. He seems to say (at least this is how I interpret it now. I may change my mind at different time and if you have seen this movie you may disagree with me. This is a complex film and there are no easy interpretations.) that language as it relates to relationships is evolving to the point where one must have a translator in order to understand them. That the moment something is said and it is put into words that emotion or idea can be misinterpreted. We see this in the conversation between the naked couple throughout the film. She is saying one thing and he is always saying something else. She is naked and he is trying to cover her up with her jacket. It isn’t necessarily that they are talking of love. They talk about anything and it is misunderstood. The most classic example of this is one of the first speeches the couple has where the woman is talking about wanting to be equal with him and he talks about pooping as the ultimate sign of equality. He gives no justification for this idea and she dismisses it and yet it seems to illustrate what is wrong with their relationship. As the film goes on, we see the dog evolve from being this curious and wild creature in the forest to being a domesticated and depressed thing on a couch. He is bombarded by noises, shouting and other noises that can only be heard by him. The dog seems to be us as we become more civilized. When we were once happy just out in the wild not naming anything or caring for anyone besides new sensations and experiences, we were fulfilled. However now that we are stuck indoors, creating words and barriers against the outside world, our inner selves have become depressed.

All of these ideas that I have may be wrong about this movie. However what is great about this movie and other Godard films is that they can be interpreted in a myriad of different ways. What one viewer sees is not necessarily what another one sees. This is why Godard is still interesting even in his old age.

My Top Ten of 1976

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I wanted to write this post today for a simple reason: I was looking at my top and bottom ten lists that I have all fancily mapped out (they are on word documents where I have names and dates… its all very technical.) and I thought that 1976 was a particularly interesting year. So I said to my self: “Self: You are the coolest person I know. You are talented and full of awesomeness… now go write a post damn it!” Without further ado, bask in the glory that is my top 10 of 1976.

10. In The Realm of the Senses (dir. Oshima)

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Honestly I wanted to do a top ten list of this year purely so that I can talk about this film. Oh man. If you have not experienced In the Realm of the Senses, what are you waiting for? Well you are probably waiting to turn eighteen so that you can deem yourself old enough to watch such sadistic stuff. For those not in the know, this movie revolves around a couple who have a torrid affair. The graphic depictions of sex between the two turn into a sadistic one up man ship before they end up committing suicide together. At the time in Japanese cinema history, this was called a pink film due to its graphic depiction of sex. This was a popular film genre that has since inserted this mentality in the anime and manga that is now mass produced for these perverts. Unfortunately this movie does not go quite to the extreme lengths of tentacle porn but it comes dangerously close. Come for the graphic depictions of sexual doings and stay for the amazing cinematography and gorgeous costumes… when they are wearing any. Boom!

9. The Omen (dir. Donner)

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This movie is enough to make me never want to have children. I mean seriously who wants to be raising a child that people die around him and he is considered the Anti-Christ. Good clean horrific fun. Plus Damien is truly scary.

8. Carrie (dir. De Palma)

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I first saw this movie when it was playing late one night on USA, the cable channel. I was barely in high school at the time and I absolutely hated any kind of horror film. I would get so freaked out and scared by them. But my best friend convinced me to watch this movie. I identified with Carrie to a certain extent (I too have telepathic abilities) and was getting along just fine until the final scenes. During these scenes I went to hide underneath the table so as to be obscured enough from the television so as not to see all of the terrible images of young boys and girls dying at the prom. I have yet to revisit this movie. It is this high on the list because the movie is lodged so completely in my memory as being the scariest movie I had ever seen up to that point. Now I am more experienced, I know that it won’t be the case, but still like to think it is.

7. The Pink Panther Strikes Again (dir. Edwards)

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Peter Sellers is one of the best comedians of all time. He is just fantastic. He is a descendant to Buster Keaton. This is a silly movie, like all other Pink Panther movies, but it is one of my favorites purely because Sellers is a genius. End of story.

6. Network (dir. Lumet)

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This is one of those iconic films that everyone who wants to know about the history of film should see. Because of this movie, John Stewart was possible. Because of this movie, Peter Finch is remembered as a great actor, even though this was his last role. Because of this movie, everyone is just this much more aware of the corrupting influence that yellow journalism plays on our psyches and everyday lives.

5. The Man Who Fell to Earth (dir. Roeg)

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I saw this movie right when I was first started thinking seriously about movies and the impact they have on the viewer. I was naive to think that a movie that starred a music pop icon would be straight forward. It was not and yet I loved every moment of it. David Bowie plays an alien who comes to Earth and gets corrupted by the forces around him. He gets beaten into shape until he resembles a mere earthling and a shell of his former personality. It is breathtaking to watch. What Nicholas Roeg can do with a camera is fascinating. When I think of this movie, I can still recall long shots of otherworldly atmospheres instead of just the plot line. That actually doesn’t happen a whole lot to me these days.

4. Harlan County, U.S.A. (dir. Kopple)

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Each movie on here is iconic in someway. This movie is no different. Essentially about a mining town who’s workers have gone on strike for better wages and a healthier environment, it is also about the class struggle that still exists to this day. The big mining company who refuses to even let them have good running water doesn’t see the problem with paying their workers slave wages and giving them shacks to live in. They are poor so let them suffer. However, the workers are not just poor, they are many and have the ability to shut down plants in order to get their way, so they strike. This is one of the first documentaries to explore strikes and to give a voice to the voiceless in a stripped down fashion. Although it clearly shows it’s bias towards the miners and away from the mining companies several times, it is still a powerful statement about how little progress we have made from the turn of the century.

3. The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (dir. Cassavetes)

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Do you ever watch a movie for a first time and realize that you have just found one of the best actors of all time? Even if they had been discovered before by many other cineastes, directors, actors and film critics, the experience of seeing this actor’s performance for the first time was so mind blowing that you thought you discovered him. Ben Gazzara in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie gave me such a thrill at watching him just chew up the scenery as this sleazy night club owner who gets into some really bad trouble for no reason other than he likes to gamble that it felt like nothing I had ever seen before. For a period after that, I had to stop myself from thinking that Ben Gazzara was a new discovery for everyone.

2. All the President’s Men (dir. Pakula)

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1976 brought us two really great news stories. Network was about the corruption and gotcha journalism that was just starting in the news industry that has since rotted out it’s core. But All the President’s Men showed a more idealistic and serious side of news. It showed the potential that news had for changing the world. It tells the real life story of two reporters who revealed the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation. Well acted, well shot and an intriguing story all make this movie that was just Oscar bait into top notch Oscar fodder.

1. Taxi Driver (dir. Scorsese)

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Of course Taxi Driver is my favorite movie of 1976. I mean come on. I couldn’t call myself a film critic, a cineaste or even a classic movie watcher without this movie being my favorite of this year and potential favorite of all time. It is just sort of a given. I don’t have much to say about the film that hasn’t already been said millions of times before, so I will spare you all that. All I have to say is that if you are reading this blog post and you haven’t seen Taxi Driver, then there is something wrong with you. Seriously. You should probably be checked into the hospital and examined.

For a Good Time, Call…

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I have this issue with reviews that I read on websites that I trust. There are just too many movies out there for me to watch, so I trust very good writers that have never steered me wrong when to see a movie and when not to. In the case of For a Good Time, Call… I thought that premise sounded pretty great, but I was dismayed by the lackluster and generally unenthusiastic reviews that came out, so I let this one go by unseen until I was sitting alone late at night in my parents’ basement looking for something to watch. I figured that it wouldn’t be as bad as the chance I took on Divergent a couple of days previously (review where I rip that movie a new one to come shortly) so I watched the entire thing from beginning to end and I have one thing to say to those reviewers that are inevitably reading this right now because I am super important and everyone who is anyone is reading this blog with bated breath: you are awesome but were wrong when it comes to this movie.

Lauren moves in with Katie after she gets dumped for being too boring by her boyfriend. Katie and Lauren have a grudge against each other that involved puking in a car. Katie is a loose cannon always willing to put her sexuality out on display for everyone to see. Lauren is an uptight woman is scared of sex. When Lauren is let go from her job, she decides to take over Katie’s job as a phone sex operator and turn it into an independent business. As a result, the two become tighter and they forget their long standing grudge in order to make their business lucrative. Katie teaches Lauren how to loosen up with her sexuality and Lauren teaches Katie that it is okay to be like someone and not be emotionally detached.

For a Good Time, Call… is essentially about two women starting a phone sex hotline. But the movie evolves into more than just a joke filled way to pass some time and talk about sex. It becomes a study on how friendship between women evolves. The best friendships that I have ever had have been with women. There is more passion and understanding there than I could ever get with a person of my opposite sex. However the fiercest rivalries, such as they are, have also been with women, because they understand just how vulnerable you can be with certain aspects of yourself because they are vulnerable in the exact same ways. For a Good Time, Call… is best when it explores just how wonderful a friendship between women can be and how terrible it also can be at the same time. Katie and Lauren become so close that each one knows where their insecurities are and knows exactly how to push them. So when one perceives a hurt from the other, that insecurity button gets pushed so hard that it gets stuck down for some time. What makes this movie unique and worth watching is that these women are able to reconcile and find their love for each other again through their own actions and not through men. They realize that they love each other in a pure and sisterly way.

About halfway through the film, Lauren gets the idea to become a phone sex operator herself. She is interested in the power that it holds for the anonymous men on the other end of the line. Katie trains her and shows her just how to get a man off using only her voice. In a following scene, Lauren emerges from her room after fielding a call with her hair messed up and a sex look in her eyes. She had obviously just been masturbating while on the line with a man. At this moment, Lauren’s transition from prude to a sexual being is complete. What I find interesting about this scene is not the place within the plot that it functions, but the unabashed acknowledgement that women can derive pleasure within themselves. We do not see the act itself, but we can see just how calm and empowered the act has on her. The two women joke about it, but never once say anything against a woman masturbating. I find this scene to be refreshing and fundamental to my enjoyment of the movie as a whole.

This movie is not perfect. It lacks stakes at certain points and the plot machinations are sometimes forced unnaturally in to the story in order to find the way to the ending. Even with these flaws in place, I can still find something worth watching here that fascinates me and makes me want to return to it again.

Snowpiercer

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A break in schooling means only one thing for me: movies! I recently went on a Netflix bender, so I am dispensing of my normal (and very rigid) structure of a certain genre or type of film per day to just tell you exactly what I watched and why, at least in this case, it is so freaking awesome. Spoiler alert: Snowpiercer is as cool as everyone else says it is. Just stop reading and go watch it on Netflix already. Seriously, what are you waiting for?

Well if you are still with me, I guess I will have to make my case a little bit more clear. Snowpiercer is set in a future where the world’s governments in their infinite wisdom decided to fix global warming by shooting something into space that would cool the Earth’s temperature. Well just like the massive ice block dumped into the ocean by the Futurama crew lead to disastrous results like Bender almost getting killed, this idea froze the entire world. Only the people who were on this super train were saved from utter destruction. But this train is not the savior that all mankind wants. It is instead a caste system with the people who are nearest to the engine are the wealthiest and the ones that closest to the back are the degenerates. They are fed protein blocks that look like jelly blocks and are forces to live literally on top of each other. When they get out of line, a woman named Mason (played very well by Tilda Swinton) comes to the back to tell them of their place and punish the offender by sticking their arm out in the cold so that it will be frozen off. One man, Curtis (played by Chris Pine), cannot abide by this treatment any longer. He organizes an assault on the front half of the train in order to take over the engine therefore controlling the entire train. His journey through each train car becomes more and more deadly to the people who surround him.

What makes this movie so fascinating and ultimately worth watching is the complete world that Bong Joon-Ho commits to in this movie. With so other many dystopia, the plot gets bogged down in telling us the details of the world that the main characters live in. However, here Bong Joon-ho trusts his audience enough to understand what is happening and why, and he wants us to something meaningful in the plot, he lets the character discover it instead of telling us outright. For instance when Curtis finds out is really inside of the protein blocks, he looks inside the machine that makes them and is horrified to see what it really is. But he refuses to tell anyone else that hadn’t seen it for themselves. He doesn’t even reveal the secret when he forces Mason to eat one when she is captured by his crew in lieu of some magnificent sushi. He also makes each train car that we see in the movie as distinct from the one that comes before it. Each one serves a purpose that is evident from the moment they enter it, but they all have a grotesque texture to it that reminds me of Delicatessen (1991). Part of the tension lies in not just seeing Curtis succeed but also what lies behind the doors that are being opened by the security expert. It is not always to Curtis’ liking and in fact many times what lies beyond is nothing to be looked forward to.

This movie isn’t very subtle. The environment theme is laid bare for everyone to see. The critiques on religion, tyranny, and caste systems are also easy to read. But Bong Joon-ho doesn’t deal in subtlety. He takes these clichéd moments and does them best and twists them in order to subvert your expectations. In a typical Hollywood movie, each person that was introduced at the beginning would have made it to the end or had died in a way that was heroic, but SPOILER ALERT::: only the ones you least expect end up surviving. In a typical Hollywood movie, when the requisite hero monologue that explains his actions happens, I never expect to hear such violent and truly terrible things that Curtis did before he turned into a good person. And finally in a typical Hollywood movie, the ending wouldn’t have been as cynical and lack as much hope as it does here. Each surprise and subversion is what makes this movie worth watching and commenting on.

Unbroken

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Incredible true life stories during war time can often make riveting movies. Watching a man struggle against immense hardship and obstacles in order to overcome adversity is made all the more impactful because it happened in real life. To just name a few off the top of my head, I would say Rescue Dawn, Schindler’s List, and The Pianist all achieve this tinge of realism while also making the struggles of the men in them cinematic. However this is a tricky thing to pull off. Sometimes a movie can get bogged down in certain biographical details and loose the ability to make a compelling story. I think this is what happened with Unbroken.

Unbroken tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, an Italian American Olympic athlete who became an officer in the Air Force during World War II. On a rescue mission over the Pacific, his plane is shot down and only him and two others survive. Survive is a loose term given the fact that they drift on a life boat for over a month with very little to eat. When they finally get rescued, it is by the opposition, the Japanese, who put them in POW camps with overly sadistic rulers. Zamperini becomes a target for one of the men in charge and is forced to do several embarrassing and terrible things. The movie then turns into a never ending slog of watching this man get brutally beaten down by this commander. But he will never be broken! He will in fact emerge UNBROKEN!… Ugh.

My main issue with this movie is that I never got emotionally attached to Zamperini. His motives are never quite clear and his resilience is therefore groundless. I never understood what is going on in his head when he gets punched repeatedly by his fellow prisoners in order to save the life of another prisoner or when he must hold a beam over his head for several hours after he is caught faltering in his long work in the coal mine. The movie throws at the audience cliched sayings and events (he was a troublesome boy that gets saved by his passion for running) that fall on deaf ears because they seem to never have been uttered by a real human before. “If you can take it, you can make it.” is one saying that gets repeated again and again but it becomes a hollow rallying cry that doesn’t get to heart of his motivations. In fact the most riveting part of the story isn’t the climax that is depicted on every poster and highlighted in every trailer (the beam), but when he is trapped on a life boat with two other men. His motivations become quite clear. He wants to live and he wants everyone else that he is on that boat with to survive as well. So their efforts to catch fish, to dodge bullets from enemy planes, and to keep the spirits up of one man who is having a particularly rough time of it by describing how his mother makes gnocchi seem to be rooted in a reality that I can believe. Their natural villains: the sun and the sharks that surround them need no motivation because they are indifferent. They are nature at its base level. The relationship that he forms with one of the other men becomes touching because they are enduring this hardship together. I would have loved to see the movie end here where they board a ship that has rescued them. It would have been a very good film. Unfortunately it did not.

Once Zamperini gets to the POW camp and we are introduced to different characters, his motivations become hidden and the iciness that surrounds this character at the beginning reemerges. However it isn’t just his motivations that remain hidden. It is also the Japanese commander’s motivations. Why he decides to single this man out for an almost insane amount of punishment is never quite clear. The movie then just devolves into a simplistic Japanese: bad, American: good duality that is overplayed and a cheat. An audience member shouldn’t hate a person purely because he is Japanese, they should hate him because they have cause to do so. The movie becomes lazy, content with just showing you overlong torture scenes that seem to be strung together by the thinnest of threads. At a certain point I got numb to the violence and tuned it out. This made the beam scene, which is supposed to be the moment of emotional catharsis for the audience, less than impactful. It was just another scene of him getting tortured unfairly.

Gravity

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Before I talk to you about my very ingenious ideas about Gravity, I must offer an apology. I have been neglecting this blog for the past couple of months because of certain issues that slowed down my movie watching and robbed me of my free time. I posted on here several months back saying that I have returned to school to pursue my furthering education, but I also made a promise that I wouldn’t neglect my “duty” here, such as it is. Well, surprise surprise graduate school is very hard and all-consuming. Between my massive amounts of homework, trying to come up with original research ideas, an internship and the weekends that were full of trying to earn a wage so I wasn’t completely dependent on money that I have borrowed, this blog has taken to the back burner. Well, no more sir! I am back with a freaking vengeance. Expect this blog to get more lively over the next month and hopefully to continue to be lively for several months after that… but I make no promises. Now on to amazing musings on a movie so many other people have watched and spilled virtual ink on before me.

I decided in my infinite wisdom to watch Gravity, a 3D film that was designed to be in IMAX, on a 20 inch television. I also decided to watch this downbeat movie with a woman, my mother, who doesn’t care for anything that doesn’t have humor or at least a good love story to it. Both of these were huge mistakes that would have impacted my viewing of this movie if it had not been as engrossing and beautiful as it was.

As just a refresher course for anyone who doesn’t have a good movie: Gravity is about a scientist, Ryan Stone, who is working on a device that will make a space shuttle… I don’t know, more spacey? That doesn’t really matter. What matters is that she is a novice astronaut in space accompanied by a very talkative veteran astronaut, played by George Clooney. While they are working on something in the wild atmosphere of space a meteor shower interrupts their progress and sends Stone and Kowalski (Clooney) into infinite danger that they both strive to get out of throughout the rest of the film.

The plot line is simple. It is really just an excuse to see what the filmmaker can throw at Stone to hinder her progress towards safety. What isn’t simple is the impressive performance by Sandra Bullock, who plays Ryan Stone. For at least half of it’s running time, Bullock is hindered from the space suit she dons and the laws of space that the movie sets up. She floats, she spins and she grabs all with this cumbersome suit that hides most of her body movements. Thus she must rely on her face to do almost all of the reaction. Her cool, collected persona that she gives off to Kowalski and her other co-workers is nothing more than a front that hides her deep pain at past issues. The plot doesn’t just function as a how far can we push this woman without her cracking up, it also functions as a way to dig past the layers of rigid complacency and self-reliance her character feels she needs. So when she finally cracks up it is all the more painful and heart wrenching. But her ability to get away from that break down of spirits and push towards fighting for her life with all of the energy she has left is what makes this a strong character. I was quite frankly surprised that Bullock could pull this type of character off. I had sort of given up on her as an actress that could produce anything more that was worth watching. I struggle with her as an actress. I have seen several of her movies (my mother is a big fan of hers) and she always seems to be putting in an effort that draws the watcher towards her and roots for her but her abilities to choose the worst material (All About Steve, anyone?) relegated her to the cash grabbing hack category that is embodied by Nicholas Cage. I first realized how incredibly terrible her decisions were for suitable material when I watched her in The Proposal. By the time this movie came out, 2009, I knew enough to avoid her other disaster movies, but when my mother is watching something that is strange and off-putting, I must give in to my temptation and take no responsibility for it afterwards. (In this way, I watched two absolutely wretched Hallmark Original movies. In one movie the couple are pulled apart by a false accusation of stolen faberge egg. But it was all resolved when it was revealed that the dog of the house really stole it…. Groan)I watched with my mouth wide open as Bullock trounced around being this insane whack-a-doo character that was not based on any reality at all. I was convinced that some alien inhabited her body and tried their best to act as all humans do, but couldn’t quite pull it off. It was appalling to watch. When I heard that she was in Gravity, I was dubious. Many a great director can pull out a riveting performance from an actor or actress that aren’t really known for them but could Cuaron? He is a director that could get great performances out of already great actors, but could he get someone who has so debased herself that she has become a caricature and a punch line? I think that Cuaron proved himself to be a great director, not just by creating a riveting atmosphere, but by extracting a performance out of Bullock that got her a deserved (as opposed to the Blind Side) Oscar nomination and gave us a great strong woman performance.