Saturday, January 6, 2018

Lana Del Rey is the last of the classic, feminine women. It is exactly this that has earned her almost all of the vitriol that has been thrown her way. In today’s climate in which the focus is on eschewing traditional gender roles, Lana Del Rey stands as the last holdout of women who embrace and lauds the relationship between men and women.

Her music videos are often a celebration of men and women and the joys to be had in these interactions. As such, she has been criticized for not being a feminist and by extension making her a villain and the target of numerous negative pieces of “journalism”.

Many female celebrities wear makeup, but Del Rey has drawn ire for using this in the creation of her brand. I hate to quote Entertainment Weekly, but in a 2014 article, writer Ray Rahman described part of the initial backlash to her as stemming from the public’s disapproval of her “narcotized sex-doll” image. Del Rey has worn heavy yet stunning makeup in her music videos, but why does this earn her the negative perception of “sex doll” when others like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry manage to wear large amounts of makeup while going unscathed? The reason is context. While Perry and Lady Gaga in their videos and personas both on and off the stage incorporate messages of rebuking negative male-female relationships and a challenge of standard gender roles and ideals, respectively, Del Rey inhabits and espouses a world of retro Americana in which men are men and women are women. Because she celebrates tradition and clear differences people frequently misinterpret this as a denouncement of same-sex relationships or feminism. This is to make the mistake that a celebration of male-female dynamics and the support of modern, progressive causes are mutually exclusive. Del Rey has never made any comment or given any indication that she doesn’t support the LBGTQ community or women in general. There was an interview in which she was asked whether she was a feminist and failed to get in robotic line with everyone else, which is the source of much of her detractors. One of the most unfortunate trends in celebrity interviewing during the past four years (an era that has seen a number of unfortunate trends) is that of asking the usually female interview subject if she considers herself a feminist. Perhaps as with a courtroom question

directed at a witness by the attorney who knows the answer they will receive, the question of whether a woman is a feminist is lobbed at almost every female interview subject now with the expectation that she will say she is a feminist. This of course, gives the media outlet the ability to run a headline along the lines of, “Reese Witherspoon discusses blockbusters, fashion and feminism”. The feminism aspect is not so much something that was brought up by the actress in question, but rather discussed at the behest of the reporter. Should the actress decide to not fall in line and opts instead to speak her own mind, the outlet might have even more powerful clickbait with a headline deriding the actress or singer for not supporting women.

This was the case with Del Rey and also Shailene Woodley. Woodley was asked in a 2014 interview with Time magazine whether she identifies as a feminist and replied, “No because I love men, and I think the idea of ‘raise women to power, take the men away from the power’ is never going to work out because you need balance. With myself, I’m very in touch with my masculine side. And I’m 50% feminine and 50% masculine, same as I think a lot of us are. And I think that is important to note. And also I think that if men went down and women rose to power, that wouldn’t work either. We have to have a fine balance.”

The negative response to Woodley’s opinion that balance is preferable to usurpation was swift and sure. Later on, after her fame and career took a hit (not just because of the lackluster Divergent series) Woodley backpedaled and began playing the game every celebrity needs to in order to have a career. It should be noted that in today’s online “journalism” culture, the need for clicks overrides sincerity and in any article, it is not certain whether the writer is genuine or searching for high traffic in order to keep their job. Nevertheless, ran a piece criticizing Woodley for her shift from non-feminist to feminist, splitting such ridiculous hairs as Woodley’s use of the term “females”, which supposedly denotes a species’ gender-specific state of providing procreation, instead of the use of the term “women” to describe a specific human gender. Furthermore, the piece took aim at Woodley’s supposed exclusion of transgender women in using the term “female”.

Del Rey took a hit for expressing her opinion that feminism wasn’t an interesting concept. She said to Fader magazine,  “For me, the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept.

“Whenever people bring up feminism, I'm like, god. I'm just not really that interested.

“I'm more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what's going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities.”

Del Rey went on to say, “My idea of a true feminist is a woman who feels free enough to do whatever she wants.”

It’s interesting that the concept of freedom is not honored by the feminist movement, as Del Rey is clearly exercising her freedom to think as she pleases. Thought that is only in line with a mandate is not thought at all, but rather obedience. If feminism includes equality as well as freedom, Del Rey is at least being denied the latter.  It’s not only Del Rey’s refusal to fall in line with the mainstream view of feminism that has caused the backlash, but also the lyrics in her songs and her overall persona.

In her breaskout song “Video Games”, Del Rey sings of the comfort and bliss she experienced while spending time with a man. The song is about the simplicity of sharing an experience or activity with someone she has feelings for.

“Open up a beer and you say get over here and play your video games,” she sings early in the song. Both drinking beer and playing video games are activities one might associate with whiling time away. They are listful, unproductive activities. They are activities associated often with what is remembered fondly as a period of life associated with unhurried contentedness in the early stages of adulthood. During this stage, usually in our early 20s, we are old enough to feel grown up yet young enough not to know what adulthood means. It is a time during which a man and a woman haven’t yet encountered the anxiety that comes with aging. The fear of unfulfilled potential and dwindling opportunities is far beyond the horizon and at this time the most serene comfort is found in simply enjoying time together; time of which there is plenty available.

Del Rey confirms this by singing, “Heaven is a place on earth with you.” She is romanticizing this joy and the song is a celebration of this type of infatuation that leads to being happy just watching the object of one’s affection play video games. It is her embrace of admiration of a male that earns her much of her criticism.

Romantic relationships between men and women are a theme in many of her songs and accompanying music videos. Often these relationships involve older men, contributing to the criticism Del Rey receives for being submissive. Her video for “Ride” opens and closes with her narration, which as the credits for this roughly 10-minute short film note, was written by her. She speaks, “I was in the winter of my life and the men I met along the road were my only summer.” The video features shots of Del Rey cavorting with a series of men at gas stations, dive bars ad roadside motels. In between these scenes of aimless wanderings are sequences in a desert landscape emblematic of a classic American ideal.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Okja will make you hungry for change

Okja is a film so affecting and moving that it will stir up emotions and thoughts you didn’t
know were within you.
When the movie opens, the CEO of the Mirando corporation (Tilda Swinton) is giving a presentation about her food company’s solution to growing need for food. The have created a genetically-engineered “super-pig”. Several of these piglets have been sent to live on farms in different parts of the world, where they will live for the next decade. The top specimen will be revealed before the world.
We then are taken to the mountains of S. Korea where we meet Okja, a super pig who’s been living here for 10 years with 14-year-old Mija and her grandfather. Mija is an orphan and Okja is her best friend in this isolated corner of the world. What follows is a magical sequence of the two frolicking in their beautiful countryside. They hike together, explore, cuddle and embrace as any dog and companion would and Okja Assists Mija in her fishing expedition, jumping off a cliff at one point into a pond below, causing the fish to burst onto land so Mija can collect them for that night’s fish stew. Upon returning home from their day’s activities Mija discovers visitors from the Mirando corporation including a zany TV personality veterinarian played by Jake Gyllenhaal who seems to have raided Hunter S. Thompson’s wardrobe.
This character is here to inspect Okja and he is impressed by what he sees. Mija soon discovers that Okja is to be taken to the United States and put on display as the prime example of a successful super-pig. She will eventually be slaughtered and sold as food.
The disruption of the peaceful life shared by Okja and Mija and their introduction into a larger, crueler world is the first of many heartbreaking elements of this also very endearing story. Mija is 14 and because she’s lived in a remote area with only her grandfather and her beloved super-pig, she has little knowledge of the complexities and harshness of the outside, industrialized world. Okja is of course an animal, although a highly intelligent one, and also isn’t familiar with the effects of capitalism. The two are about to learn about these realities at the same time and this loss of innocence is perhaps the emotional core of the film.
Mija embarks on a journey from her farm to rescue her friend.  This takes her to Seoul where she finds Okja just in time to see the truck she’s being loaded onto. She is joined by members of the Animal Liberation Front, a group also trying to rescue Okja. The sequence through the Mirando labs and in which they follow in a car behind Okja are thrilling, funny and high-stakes. At one moment, John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” plays and the action moves to slow motion, bringing a memorable lyricism to this rescue. The group eventually manages to stop the truck carrying Okja in a tunnel with dozens of other cars containing drivers able to view this creature for the first time. Okja emerges from the vehicle into the crowded tunnel and spots Mija. The two see each other again for the first time, both of them in an unfamiliar probably scary place. Okja lets out a bellow and runs toward Mija, lifts her up onto her back so she can ride and the two run off together. By incorporating this bond between the two, Bong-Joon ho has created a chase sequence as exciting as that in many Bond films, but with as much emotional resonance as in a Hollywood tearjerker.
Okja eventually ends up back in the hands of the Mirando corporation and Mija follows her to a slaughterhouse in New Jersey where the film shows the horrors of factory farming. We see a large, open range filled with hundreds of super pigs as they are being shocked with a cattle prod and forced up a ramp on their way to their deaths. Inside the building are hanging carcases, the sound and sight of industrial saws tearing through dead flesh, and machinery that enables an assembly-line production method. Okja narrowly escapes the fate of many of her species and seeing this beautiful animal who has brought so much joy and companionship to young Mija be corralled toward such a grisly end is one of the most heart wrenching experiences a film has ever provided. When Mija intervenes and rescues Okja it is done with such a simple touch of basic humanity that the movie follows up something horrible with something equally beautiful. Inside this sprawling, largely mechanized facility of mass production, where legislation attempts for better practices and the outcries of animal-rights activists have failed to cease these abuses, this young girl manages to disrupt the system and place a face, an identity and to borrow from A.O. Scott’s wonderful New York Times review, a soul on Okja. Over the course of this film we’ve come to love Okja, but we now see her as not just one animal, but all animals. This is done in the film without any words, but the moment has more power than a thousand articles about corporate agriculture. This is another miracle of Joon-ho’s masterpiece and why it is more effective at touching us than Fast Food Nation. That film, Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s muckraking examination of the effects of demand for quick, cheap food, like the book itself, was more of a lecture than a moving experience. It managed to present troubling information but wasn’t able to break the disconnect between what we know and how we feel. Human beings have a remarkable ability to compartmentalize. This is a necessary survival tool and if we didn’t have this we’d be so overwhelmed with feeling over the atrocities and injustices of the world that we wouldn’t be able to function. For that reason it’s very tough to create a work of art that will erase the line between knowledge and feeling and it’s even harder for this to cause a lasting effect. This probably makes the movie seem a lot less enjoyable than it actually is. It’s definitely at times tough to take, but at times it is also heartwarming, funny and whimsical. Joon-ho has created a rousing adventure that is also an important cultural examination.
Watching Okja might have a profound effect on you, causing you to look at your food differently and rethink the way we conduct ourselves as a society. It might turn you into one of those people who cries at videos of unlikely animal friends, it may cause you to regress to a childlike state where you wish we could live in a kinder, gentler world, or it may make you hug your dog more often. As Scott pointed out in his review, this movie makes no overt ethical statement on the consumption of animals, as indicated by the early scene of Mija and Okja working together to make fish stew. In addition to the cinematic marvels of the film, perhaps the major achievement of Okja is that it leads us to question whether our dependency on quick-service, mass produced foods is worth the methods behind much of the production. This is definitely food for thought worthy of consumption.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Masculinity is narrowly depicted in pop culture, with rare exceptions

A CIA agent intensely interrogates a detainee. She stands, pacing as she fires questions at the prisoner seated at the table. Sitting across from the detainee is a burly man with closely cropped hair. The man says nothing as the agent inquires and stays on her feet behind him, almost looming. Periodically, when the detainee attempts to avoid answering or evades the topic, the female agent firmly pats the burly man on the shoulder. This is his signal to lean forward and punch the detainee. The female agent speaks with purpose and authority and has a wealth of knowledge about the operation under way. The burly man says nothing, waiting for his cue to exercise brute force. The only decision-making he exercises is what level of force with which to hit the man across from him. This scene is from Zero Dark Thirty, a fine film, but one that includes this excellent example of how men are oversimplified, reduced and limited to a small range of skills and characteristics in modern film.
To be clear, Zero Dark Thirty is not to blame. Director Katherine Bigelow is under no obligation to fight against unflattering depictions of anything, including waterboarding. Yet it helps to point this out as in introduction to the way society and Hollywood view and portray men.  
One of the most successful franchises of the past two decades is the Fast and Furious series. The men in this series are unpolished gearheads who also happen to be criminals, hijacking trucks for a living when they’re not illegally racing in the streets. In the first entry in the series, Paul Walker is the undercover police officer who infiltrates the group led by Vin Diesel and of course attracts his sister (Jordana Brewster). The theme of criminality and a rugged job as a means of attracting a woman is one that surfaces time and again in film after film. In the 2012 film Contraband, Mark Wahlburg portrays a former smuggler who has gone straight. He now works in security and because he was a criminal, he is rewarded with a life of domestic bliss with Kate Beckinsale (!).
In season 5 of Girls, the character of Charlie is revisited when his ex-girlfriend Marnie runs into him while walking on the sidewalk. Charlie was an overly kind man in the early seasons and Marnie was turned off by his “smothering love.” He now speaks with a street-influenced voice associated with small-time thugs and while he once owned a tech company after developing an app, he now works on a construction crew. By the end of the episode featuring his time spent with Marnie who, apparently attracted to his new street persona has slept with him, it’s clear he now uses heroin. In her comments about this episode, creator Lena Dunham said this character change was inspired by a man she knew in her personal life who put on a harder persona in order to make himself more appealing to women.
The transformation this fictional character went through and the real-life one it was inspired by are indicative of an unfortunate preponderance of this limited view of masculinity. The concept of life imitating art or art imitating life goes back ages. There is an unquestionable prevalence in reality however, of men being limited in how they present themselves and what careers and ambitions they may have while still being attractive to the opposite sex. When it comes to quantifying this, the careers men have and which number are employed here, are available through the Bureau of Labor Statistics. When it comes to finding a precise number of how many men are in these types of “masculine” fields and are also in relationships with women, this is available through a less scientific method called anecdotal evidence. Considering a vast majority of stories of gender stereotypes is the result of anecdotal evidence, it’s fair to proceed with an examination of male/female careers and male gender expectations with the same.
It is not uncommon at all to see women with men who are in a field that society might consider “below” them in terms of intelligence and education. The halls of couples are filled with duos of women who have intellectually taxing careers requiring extensive education while the men they’re with are in fields requiring them to hold a gun or a tool.
There are a few examples in pop culture of this stereotypical version of masculinity being flipped on its head. In season three of House of Cards Claire Underwood is speaking to an Israeli military official about a policy affecting the Jordan Valley President Frank Underwood is spearheading. The Israeli official criticizes the president’s lack of personal experience regarding the region. She says to Claire, “I served in the Jordan Valley.”
Claire interrupts her before she can continue and says, “You held a gun and stood where someone told you to.” She then explains that the weight of the decisions her husband makes on a daily basis would overwhelm most people.
A Most Violent Year includes a scene in which both the strength of an ambitious style of masculinity and the strength of femininity work together to show how a couple can be stronger when matched well.  Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, a man who owns a heating oil business and during the course of the film is attempting to secure a loan in order to purchase a piece of waterfront property that will make his business even more profitable. Jessica Chastain plays his wife and business partner and throughout the film they work together, sometimes harmoniously, and sometimes with great conflict. To see a man and woman work together and feed off each other’s ambition and intelligence is electric, especially when presented by two such gifted actors. In this scene that is a rare display of a multifaceted masculinity, Abel has come from a day of fending off competitors who are literally stealing from him and is under the weight of the deadline by which he must receive the funds, which have fallen through and are not yet materializing. Seeing the stress on her husband, who is in a seated position, Anna (Chastain) kneels in front of him so she can meet his eyes. She firmly grasps him with both hands in a display and gesture of comfort and encouragement and tells him she told their children earlier that their father has been out there today working hard for them.
A Most Violent Year depicts a woman being drawn to a man’s mental strength, as her husband is ambitious and succeeds due to his intelligence and sophistication instead of brute force. This scene is doubly effective because it shows the power of femininity as Chastain’s character knows when and how to provide strength to her man by offering this display of affection and encouragement. There’s another great scene in which Abel is explaining to the bank representatives why it’s important to purchase the property. As he articulately describes what the property will do for his business, Anna smiles with pleasure while she listens to her obviously business-savvy husband.
The show House of Cards, for all its depravity, offers a positive view of masculinity. Claire Underwood is another woman drawn to her husband because of his ambition and intelligence. Frank Underwood is a criminal, but one who doesn’t use physical force as his primary weapon. (He is guilty of two murders, but his wife doesn’t know about these). Frank’s weapon is foresight, calculation and a keen understanding of what drives people. This understanding allows him to use his other skills so well and succeed as a result. There are scenes throughout the series in which an expression of pride washes over Claire’s face as she watches her husband take the upper hand over an opponent though his use of intellect and eloquence. Frank can assert himself over someone and talk circles around them while doing so, leaving them intellectually outmatched and defeated.
There is a single moment in the series in which there is even a flash of a baser attraction in Claire and it occurs when she is at a very low point in her relationship with Frank. On the campaign trail, they are in their hotel room at night and Claire asks that Frank take her in a very forceful sexual fashion. Frank is turned off by this and angrily says to Claire, “If you wanted someone to prove his manhood that way you should have stayed in Texas and married the prom king!”
This is one of the best moments as it shows Frank being both disgusted and offended by the fact that not only is he being asked to present this demeanor, thereby lowering himself, but that he might actually be with a woman who is attracted to it.
Yet these are unfortunately only two of what is an all-too-rare representation of masculinity being represented by intellectual or thoughtful achievement. Pop culture and society as a whole still have a long way to go when it comes to encouraging men to not be afraid to be intelligent and ambitious.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Jennifer Lawrence's new film is an absolute "Joy"

If Jennifer Lawrence weren’t already a movie star, “Joy” is the film that would make her one. Since Lawrence is already one of the most recognizable actresses in the world, has anchored a juggernaut franchise and been nominated for four Academy Awards with one Oscar already on the mantel, “Joy” reminds us she is more than just a movie star and critics’ darling. She is still in the early years of what will undoubtedly be a long career with many great performances along the way. She received her fourth Oscar nomination for this and it is arguably her best performance and most challenging role.
Writer-director David O. Russell takes the story of Joy Mangano’s invention of the Miracle Mop and her battle to successfully market it and tells it with the tension of a suspense film and the corporate ruthlessness and bootstrapping of “There Will be Blood”. From the early scenes, it’s clear Joy has always been an inventor, but hasn’t had the breaks in life to turn her ideas into a career. As she’s heading out to go to her job at the airline desk, she finds a prototype of one of her early inventions and reminds her mom she could have had this patented if her mother had been more helpful.
When Joy gets an idea for a mop which can be wrung out without the user having to touch the cloth, she gets to work on drawing up a design and lobbying for investment capital. The major investor also happens to be her father’s affluent girlfriend Trudy (a steely Isabella Rossellini) and the extent to which family plays a role in Joy’s failures and successes makes for some of the movie’s most effective scenes. The American Dream is a much-romanticized concept, but the realities are often only referenced, if thought of at all. This is true not only in the way society views the concept, but also in many movies’ treatment of it. Russell’s script avoids a cursory look at the development stages of the product and the ensuing struggles that come with building a business and instead brings the audience right to the negotiating table with the characters. When Joy finally gets her investment money, it’s after a series of meetings with Trudy and her family in which she’s has to go to painstaking lengths to convince them of the merit of this idea. The audience also sees the research and development going into the endeavor, including a worldwide patent search to ensure the rights to the product design aren’t already held, the manufacturing of pieces needed to assemble the mop, and the difficulty in finding a retailer or marketer willing to promote and sell the invention. Like few movies before it, “Joy” chronicles a business in a way so precise and detailed, it could be a documentary.
Success is easiest with the right support, yet neither Joy’s financial support nor her emotional support was optimal. Anyone watching who’s ever had a dream could either identify or empathize with Joy based on the scenes with her family in regards to her ambition. Viewers who had supportive family members may be more appreciative of this and anyone whose family was not supportive, or even disparaging, will feel for Joy as she works even harder against this current. Robert De Niro plays her father as someone who loves her, but doesn’t champion her. it takes some time to convince him to approach Trudy with the suggestion she invest and when the deck is stacked against Joy, he’s more likely to tell her to accept her supposed limitations than to persevere.
As the thrills and disappointments of this venture occur, Lawrence portrays Joy’s experience with sincerity and conviction. She’s doing the finest acting of her career and yet she doesn’t appear to be acting.
This is the story of someone from an ordinary background doing something extraordinary. The scenes with her family emphasize this and make it a much more human drama than it might have been. She could be anyone and this makes her immediately relateable. When she hurts, the audience hurts. Yet when she succeeds, the audience feels like they’re right there with her and the rush is exhilarating.
This is a tremendously uplifting and inspirational movie and one so well crafted it is simply a pleasure to watch.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

In defense of the Star Wars prequels: The critic strikes back

The Force Awakens has finally opened worldwide and has been received with universal acclaim. As a standalone film, it’s a success; it has likeable characters, humor, special effects, creatures, lightsabers and the classic battle between the light and dark sides of the Force. It has everything audiences go to a Star Wars movie for.

Movies should be critiqued on their standalone merits. This website recently published a column dismissing negative reviews of Spectre as the result of viewers comparing it to Skyfall and then, because it is not as good, deciding Spectre isn’t a good movie. What is troubling about reviews of The Force Awakens, is the way this film is gaining praise on the backs of Star Wars Episodes I-III, the much- (unjustly) derided prequel trilogy.

Cristopher Orr of The Atlantic wrote, “With The Force Awakens. Abrams has begun one of the most important reclamation projects of our time: the complete erasure from cultural memory of The Phantom Menace and its sequels.”

The “complete erasure from cultural memory” of the prequels would be a very sad cinematic event indeed. At this point in time, it’s difficult to track the origin of the derision and to ascertain how many viewers sincerely dislike the prequels and how many say so because they are trend whores of the California bear T-Shirt, planking and Harlem-shake mentality. The Phantom Menace, released on May 19, 1999, grossed $431,088,295 domestically (a 2012 3D rerelease grossed $43,456,382 domestically) according to Box Office Mojo, an industry tracking site. Yes, box office doesn’t mean a film is good, yet when looking at major reviews of The Phantom Menace, the loathing is even more complexing.

The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote, “But stripped of hype and breathless expectations, Mr. Lucas's first installment offers a happy surprise: it's up to snuff. It sustains the gee-whiz spirit of the series and offers a swashbuckling extragalactic getaway, creating illusions that are even more plausible than the kitchen-raiding raptors of ''Jurassic Park.'' While the human stars here are reduced to playing action figures, they are upstaged by amazing backdrops and hordes of crazily lifelike space beings as the Lewis Carroll in Mr. Lucas is given free rein. The ''Star Wars'' franchise was funnier and scrappier when it was new. But it simply wasn't capable of this.”

The last sentence above is a crucial one. Maslin expertly recognizes what many viewers didn’t about the prequels, which is they are intended to have a different look than the originals. Lucas spoke many times about how he had intended to do the first three episodes once technology caught up to his vision. Maslin’s mention of “Jurassic Park” is apropos because Lucas stated the success of the CGI in “Jurassic Park” convinced him it was finally time create the Star Wars universe as he wanted it. Fans of the original trilogy complained of Episodes I-III being overwhelmed by CGI and the characters and story fading into the background. It is a fair criticism for someone to say they don’t like a movie with so much CGI, but this is separate from the film being poorly made. However, to criticize the film for lacing character development (which it actually doesn’t) is to ignore what the Star Wars franchise is.

Roger Ebert, who will forever be the most insightful and brilliant voice of film criticism, wrote, “At the risk of offending devotees of the Force, I will say that the stories of the "Star Wars" movies have always been space operas, and that the importance of the movies comes from their energy, their sense of fun, their colorful inventions and their state-of-the-art special effects. I do not attend with the hope of gaining insights into human behavior.”

It’s not as if the original Star Wars films were Tolstoy-esque character studies with the occasional lightsaber battle and creature effects. They were vehicles for fun and imagination and anyone who criticizes the prequels for lack of rich characters either misses the point or is trying to sound highbrow. Incidentally, there is much character development in the later prequels and this will be addressed later.

Ebert enjoyed the movie and said on his TV show, “My thumb is up, with a lot of admiration.”

Ebert did say the plot details of the trade dispute brought the Star Wars universe to a more scaled down level. This is a criticism which can be accepted (although the elements of the trade dispute were admittedly

The Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, in a review mostly comparing how he felt watching this to how he felt watching the original when he was 22 years younger, wrote, “Part of the reason for this lack of wit is that 'Phantom Menace' is intentionally skewed quite young. One of its key protagonists, as anyone who cares knows by now, is 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, and many of the film's characters and situations are set up to please tender minds. "We're doing it for the wide-eyed 13-year-old," one of the film's key technicians told Premier magazine, not necessarily a pleasant thought for the rest of us.”

Again, it’s a fair criticism for someone to prefer a story about adults to one focused on youth, but this is not something fairly used to demonstrate the film’s supposed lack of quality. This would be like criticizing the quality of Kramer Vs. Kramer because a child is a central figure in the story. The difference is Kramer Vs. Kramer wasn’t part of a franchise which earlier focused only on adults. Strangely, it would only be two years from The Phantom Menace when a cartoon called Shrek would so enthrall supposed adults that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would create a new category specifically to give Shrek an Oscar (and ensuring years of lackluster nominations like “Surf’s Up”).

Episodes I-III were heavily criticized for wooden acting. Natalie Portman, who portrayed Queen Amidala said in an interview she had difficulty getting work following the films because people in the industry assumed she couldn’t act well. It’s true actors that are good in other films (Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Hayden Christensen and Christopher Lee) sometimes give poor line readings in the films. However, this like the focus on effects over characters, is something that existed in the original trilogy. The most famous example of this is Luke Skywalker’s exclamation that he was on his way to pick up some power converters when he was asked to do a chore by his uncle Owen in A New Hope. Fans that cite this as a reason for the prequels’ supposed lack of quality are ignoring the fact it existed in the first three movies. 

Episode II was the first to star Christensen and until The Force Awakens, was the weakest entry in the series. Yes, Attack of the Clones is superior to The Force Awakens. If Episode I was the foundation of Anakin Skywalker’s rise and fall story, Episode II was the segment that first revealed the early stages of a declining republic and a rising empire. In a featurette on the Episode II DVD, Lucas describes Anakin as a “transitional character” in this episode. In the film, Anakin is now a Jedi of 19 and fighting against the work of Darth Sidious, while also showing flashes of anger vengeance and mort than a flash of love, which will lead him to the dark side. When his mother is killed by the sand people, Anakin wrathfully murders every member of their camp including women and children. Anger is also present in Anakin’s resentment of Obi-Wan, who he believes is “overly critical” and responsible for holding him back.

Another strong element of the prequels (and one most fans do recognize as a strength) is John Williams’ transporting scores for each film. While he created “Duel of the Fates” to accompany the climactic lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul in Episode I and “Battle of the Heroes” for the Obi –Wan Vs. Anakin battle in Episode III, it is his stirring love theme entitled “Across the Stars” in Episode II which is arguably his greatest of many great contributions to the prequel trilogy. By definition, the prequels are showing audiences how characters arrived at a destination already known. Episode II tells a romance everyone knows is doomed from the outset. Williams tapped into this by creating a theme in “Across the Stars” which is beautiful, but also touched with notes of melancholy. This piece is woven into the film in several moments, but is perhaps most effective just before the climax. Anakin and Padme have been captured and are about to face an elaborate execution attempt in an arena. Padme, who has always adamantly opposed a romance between the two because of their respective positions, confirms her love for him and the music swells as the two kiss as they are transported by their captors into an arena to face an execution.

Revenge of the Sith, while a casualty of the prequel backlash, is at least regarded as the strongest of the three. This is justly so, as it succeeds at being both an exciting, sci-fi epic and a significant character story. Ten years after its release, the most memorable pull-quote which could be seen on newspaper advertisements for the film was an excerpt from Ty Burr of The Boston Globe who wrote that “Sith was a “terrifically compelling high-stakes human drama.”  Burr also called it “the most emotionally powerful  of all six.”

Revenge of the Sith dives right into the action with the series’ most exciting opening sequence.  In a single, long tracking shot (although aided by CGI) Anakin and Obi-Wan pilot their ships along a massive destroyer in space as a familiar score by Williams plays and builds to a crescendo as the two Jedi take sharp turns in their fighters and the audience’s viewpoint follow them and the full expansiveness of the battle is visible, with explosions going off and enemy spacecraft at every turn. The camera then narrows its focus on the battle, closing in on Anakin in the cockpit of his small starship. Anakin and Obi-Wan land in the hangar aboard General Grievous’ ship in order to rescue the kidnapped Chancellor Palpatine. It’s a thrilling start and when the heroes are back on the ground, the story continues to build quickly.

Padme is expecting a child with Anakin, although their relationship is still a secret and Anakin finds his allegiance tested when he is asked by Chancellor Palpatine to be his representative on the Jedi Council and in turn is asked by the council to report on the chancellor’s dealings. Anakin once again is driven to act because he fears for the safety of a loved one. He dreams Padme dies in childbirth and Palpatine uses this as an opportunity to bring Anakin to the dark side.  In one of the trilogy’s best dialogue-driven scenes, Palpatine tells Anakin of the tragedy of Darth Plagueis. He says Plagueis had such knowledge of the dark side he could stop the ones he cared about from dying. Anakin listens intently and asks if it’s possible to learn this power and is told, “Not from a Jedi.”

There is treachery everywhere in Revenge of The Sith and it all builds to a rousing and heartbreaking conclusion. This already emotionally powerful and action-heavy adventure is made even more thrilling to watch by the fluidity of its editing and the significance behind some of the scene transitions. The Star Wars saga has always used wipes as an editing technique, which as always adds to the sweeping quality of the viewing experience and Sith has a particularly expert use for added emotional impact. In the film’s final minutes, Lucas shows the procession at Padme’s funeral. Her body is being carried with her hair at her sides and her hands clasped together on her chest. Entwined in her fingers is the pendant Anakin made for her years earlier, which she still wears. The camera focuses on the pendant as a circle forms on the screen, transitioning to show a star destroyer as the scream of two TIE fighters becomes audible and the familiar imperial ships fly through space. It is one of the series’ most powerful moments of visual storytelling.

The hatred for the prequels is extremely misguided and perhaps the result of fans’ inability to recognize and articulate that they don’t feel the same I their present day as they did years earlier about a first-time viewing experience. It’s completely fair to express an opinion that the look of the original trilogy is better than the prequels. Yet the prequels are true to the original trilogy in many ways. Therefore, to regard the prequels as an awful exercise in moviemaking and the destruction of a legacy means there is a great disturbance in the Force.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Room is an indescribably powerful story of love and an unbreakable bond

Ma (Brie Larson) and her son Jack spend 24 hours of every day inside a small space. Most people would call it a room, but they refer to it as Room. It has been Jack’s entire world and the name Room with a capital letter R emphasizes this.

As the movie opens, we see them doing what is most likely a daily routine. They have breakfast together at the table, brush their teeth and do exercises in the form of short sprints and push-ups. This day is special, however, because as Jack excitedly tells Ma, “I’m five.” To celebrate, Ma let’s Jack know they will make a birthday cake today. After cracking eggs, adding butter and all the necessary ingredients, they remove the cake from the oven and sit down to eat. Jack is immediately disappointed when he learns there are no birthday candles inside Room.

He angrily tells Ma she should ask Nick for candles for their Sunday treat. She says in a tone bot exasperated and with tempered frustration that she has to ask for things they need. Parents often say their children are their whole world and for Ma, whose real name we learn is Joy, this is entirely true. She was abducted seven years ago and has been inside Room ever since, and for the past five years has raised Jack, her son with her abductor whom she calls Nick and who brings her Sunday treats along with food and other items. When Ma gives Jack that exasperated tone, it is just one of many moments her strength is astonishing. She remembers what it’s like to have a life and she knows what the outside world holds. Jack, being born in captivity, has the luxury of believing Room is everything. He believes all the items they receive from Nick are procured through magic and travel through the TV. When a mouse scurries through a tiny hole in the wall and is shooed away through the same spot by Ma, Jack has no concept of the fact it has merely gone back outside. Ma has created a world entirely for them inside this small, drab space and the fact the is able to provide a happy childhood for her son while withholding from him the incalculable despondency she must feel at times is almost as heartwarming as it is heartbreaking.

Nick is given little screen time and this serves the story well. We see he spends time with Ma almost every night, but the screenplay, adapted by Emma Donoghue from her own novel, is not interested in exploitation. This isn’t a story of horror and mistreatment. This is a story of strength, resilience, a mother’s love of her son and the unbreakable bond they form.

Through some ingenuity and luck, they finally make their escape and Ma re-enters the world and Jack enters for the first time. At first, Joy is elated and there are many exciting moments for the two, such as when Jack asks if they can get something for their Sunday treat and is told by his mom, “There will be so many treats and not just on Sundays!”

Assimilating back into a regular life is difficult and puts a strain on both herself and her parents, as Joy worries about how Jack is progressing. There are wrenching moments as the effect of Joy’s absence becomes clearer and stress is released through fits of anger. Yet there is a tremendous amount of joy and relief. Joy smiles as she looks out the window and for the first time watches Jack play ball with a boy his age who is his friend and the excitement and happiness on Jack’s face when he gets to meet the family dog (he had an imaginary dog named Lucky in Room) is so endearing one can only cry.

The performances of Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and Jack are both masterful and more believable than anything else this year or in recent memory. Room is an emotional gut-punch of a movie and one of the most remarkable works of the past five years.

Roger Ebert said, “Art is the closest we can come to understanding how a stranger really feels.” Room is a masterpiece.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Bond battles both Blofeld and comparison critics in the thrilling Spectre

Spectre is the 24th James Bond film and reviews are as mixed as a Vodka martini. Almost none of the reviews find fault with the film on any technical level, the actors are all praised (length of screen time for them notwithstanding) and everyone agrees the action sequences are satisfying. Why then is this film being treated as if it’s Octopussy?

It doesn’t take an MI6 security clearance to discover the truth, which is that Spectre is suffering from a syndrome plaguing several franchises and many of the negative reviews aren’t written by Bond fans. Many of these critics that aren’t Bond fans also gave glowing reviews to Skyfall and Casino Royale, so it should stand to reason that their inherent disinclination to enjoy any Bond film doesn’t matter as long as it’s a solid piece of filmmaking. This is flawed reasoning and this is when the franchise-plaguing inconsistencies in criticism enters the (ahem) picture.

Daniel Craig’s four Bond adventures have been treated with a swinging pendulum of good and bad reviews. He was given his double-0 status in Casino Royale, a rare movie that almost everyone at least enjoys. It doesn’t matter if someone’s seen every Bond movie or if it’s their first; whether their first theatrical Bond viewing was of a Sean Connery film or a Pierce Brosnan film or if Casino Royale is the first time they’ve seen the sartorially gifted spy sip a martini. Casino Royale is a movie everyone is dazzled by. It’s a great movie, not just a great James Bond movie.

Following what was undoubtedly the series’ highest peak since 1964’s Goldfinger, anticipation was high for the next installment. “Fans”, critics and audiences didn’t give an inch. 2008’s Quantum of Solace is one of the most derided films in the series’ 53-year history. By all accounts, Quantum is a solid Bond entry. Yet rather than review it as a standalone film, most people went straight to calling it terrible because it wasn’t as good as Casino Royale. Not a single review states that is the reason, but this is because it’s a sub-conscious thought process.

This is a process seen when The Lost World: Jurassic Park received negative reviews because it didn’t live up to Jurassic Park. How could anything? It also occurred notably when 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises was considered a massive disappointment. Had Rises followed Batman Begins, people would have lauded it as a rousing entertainment and a social commentary, but because it was the follow-up to The Dark Knight, one of the most critically acclaimed superhero films of all time and the reason the Oscars now nominate between five and 10 films for Best Picture, it was loathed.

Skyfall, like Casino Royale, received rave reviews and is also considered one of the best in the series. Skyfall is undoubtedly a great film on its own, but the fact if followed Quantum greatly helped its reception. It is also worth noting that Casino Royale came four years after Die Another Day, which many consider to be the series’ nadir.

Spectre has created derision and critics seem to have their own license to kill when it comes to their reviews of it, but these criticisms are clearly from reviewers not fond of or not familiar with the canon.

One of the most common critiques of Spectre is the way it connects itself to the events of the three previous films. As Devon Faraci pointed out this is accomplished by having Christoph Waltz’s villain say he was responsible for the events. “It was me, James. The author of all your pain.” We learn that Casino Royale’s LeChiffre, Quantum of Solace’s Dominic Greene and Skyfall’s Silva were all underlings in Ernst Stavro Blofeld’s global network of Spectre.  The intricacies of how these previous criminal foes were connected could be fleshed out as the premise of an entire film, but the fact that they are revealed through a few sentences and some investigative work by Q Branch accomplishes the task just fine.

Casino Royale demonstrated that LeChiffre was a low-level player in a major organization. This is why M repeatedly counseled Bond on the merits of viewing “The Big Picture” instead of simply killing the enemy right in front of him. This is a lesson she continued to try to teach him in Quantum by saying, “If you could avoid killing every possible lead, it would be much appreciated.” It is for this reason that Bond’s objective in Casino Royale was to bankrupt LeChiffre at the poker table, so that due to the loss of his money he would be sought out be his overlords and have to seek asylum. The British government would then offer this asylum in exchange for intel on his organization. 

Quantum opens with Bond bringing Mr. White, one of LeChiffre’s superiors (and the man who killed LeChiffre to prevent him from divulging secrets) to an interrogation room. He is the next link in the organization and the key to uncovering the power structure. White escapes and Bond eventually comes face to face with Dominic Greene, the movie’s main villain.

Skyfall did not contain any direct links to the Casino Royale and instead focused on a storyline involving a former British agent named Silva who was bent on revenge for what he viewed as a betrayal by M. Yet there is nothing in this film to prove Silva couldn’t have also been part of an organization. As we learned from M, he has a history of working on the side for other teams and it’s possible his revenge plan was merely an extracurricular activity.

In Spectre, Mr. White returns to the storyline and after learning intel from him Bond finally meets with the most iconic Bond villain of them all; Ernst Stavro Blofeld. He is, as Carrie Mathison would put it, “the head of the snake” and he gleefully boasts to Bond that he was in charge the whole time. This should not be construed as inconsistent. Casino Royale rebooted the series and the character. While watching the 21st James Bond film and seeing Daniel Craig’s Bond go on his first assignment as a double-O agent, nobody complained, “But he was a double-O agent in the last 20 films! This isn’t right at all!”

Bond films can be linked through characters and events, but as far back as the late 1960’s continuity has had a different definition than in other series. You Only Live Twice featured Sean Connery as 007 and Donald Pleasence as the first actor to play Blofeld without his face obscured.  Blofeld escaped and in the next film, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,   Bond was now played by George Lazenby and Blofeld by Telly Savalas. In the film, Bond impersonates a member of the heraldry in order to infiltrate Blofeld’s top-secret clinic. Blofeld is attempting to establish his claim as the rightful heir to a count position in an esteemed lineage and Bond is ostensibly working with him to research this. The ruse works until Bond gives some incorrect information, causing Blofeld to be suspicious of his identity. Blofeld discovers the truth and while brandishing Bond’s glasses which were part of his disguise, says “It will take more than a few props to turn 007 into a herald.” Blofeld’s suspicions, he says, were also aroused Bond began seducing several of the female patients at the clinic. The use of two different actors here was coincidental and keeps the fact that while having spent time face to face with Bond, Blofeld doesn’t recognize him out of the audience’s mind. The glasses comment is meant as an insult from Blofeld and not meant to suggest the frames were the reason Bond stayed hidden. After all, it wasn’t as if Blofeld was only suspicious once they were removed. The reason this supposed inconsistency isn’t an issue is because it’s not a true inconsistency.

The reason for this is that in the world of Bond, not the cinematic one the audience views, but in Bond’s actual life, the events of You Only Live Twice didn’t happen. Bond movies, while sometimes connected with story threads like characters such as Mr. White, are independent entries and unrelated to the others. Part of the reason for this is that when the movies started there was already a wealth of Ian Fleming novels to use as source material and these were adapted out of sequence. The movie versions of You Only Live Twice and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service came in reverse chronological order compared to their literary counterparts.

It’s fair if not every critic is a fan of the James Bond canon. In the 1960’s the Bond films created a new take on the secret agent genre and influenced countless films and TV shoes (not to mention men’s fashion and drink choices), but nobody in the world of film criticism said it was art in the form of the contemporary French New Wave. This is not a criticism of the series, but a compliment. The Bond films exist in their own realm of the movie world. Bond is a genre all its own.

It is a longstanding, popcorn, escapist entertainment that has been a staple of moviegoing for more than half a century. At this point, the series has been recycling and reusing locations and action sequences, but again, this isn’t an insult. It’s a compliment. It’s a compliment to the series’ importance to our lives and to the fact that it is so beloved. It’s why when before getting to see Spectre, just the sight of a production still featuring Bond in a suit, holding a gun with a gorgeous female in a designer dress by his side running from an exploding lair, audiences know they’re going to get exactly what they want. It’s why when the early production photos of Spectre were released, the sight of Craig on an Austrian ski slope quickened the pulse of fans who weren’t around or were too young when Lazenby, Moore and Brosnan each had snowbound adventures. Now it’s their Bond’s turn to be chased down a mountain! Connery is the only Bond to never hit the slopes.

Bond is to many a sign of the Holiday season. Almost every Bond film was released in November or December and therefore, they are as comforting as a hot chocolate or an eggnog latte. In the dead of winter, audiences can count on an exciting adventure in amazing locales. They can admire pressed, perfectly tailored suits and vicariously experience the luxury of five-star hotels and exquisite meals in Michelin-star caliber restaurants. Bond films are event movies and almost everyone has a story and memory of seeing one with special family, friends or loved ones. Spectre is a great Bond film, but is also important because it satisfies the need for audiences to form lasting memories and have an amazing escape. If this sounds a little too mushy, remember it was Daniel Craig who said, “People feel very strongly about James Bond … and that’s absolutely cool.”