Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Fantanstic Beasts: Some Hits, Some Misses, All Fun

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Director: David Yates
Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Alison Sudol, Dan Fogler, Colin Farrell

Again, I’ve emerged from my semester-long hibernation to write another post. It’s difficult for me to read so many papers and assignments throughout the semester while trying to keep up with this blog, but one of my New Year’s resolutions is to write at         least one post per month, whether that’s a post about a new movie or one of my old favorites.

Now that the housecleaning is out of the way, let’s talk about the newest silver-screen debut from J.K. Rowling: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. As somebody who really liked the Harry Potter movies, I was split on watching this one: part of me felt like this was a stab for money, but part of me was still excited at an expansion of the universe. Everything said and done, I would recommend this movie. It’s a fun, popcorn-chomper of a movie, and it hints at some deeper elements of American society, but there are still a few problems.

Our story begins as Newt Scamander (Redmayne) arrives by boat to New York City and goes through customs with an enchanted suitcase full of fantastic beasts. After one of his crazy critters gets loose in a bank, Scamander’s suitcase gets mixed up another one carried by a nomaj—a person who doesn’t know magic—named Kowalski (Fogler). Scamander and Kowalski attempt to recapture the creatures that escaped from the magical suitcase, but they are quickly apprehended by an American magic-police officer, Tina (Waterston). A mysterious beast is threatening the city, however, and Graves (Farrell), the head of the magic-police, blames Newt for the invasive species that’s terrorizing New Yorkers. Scamander, Kowalski, and Tina team up with Tina’s sister, Queenie (Sudol) to find the menacing monster before it’s too late.

I had a lot of fun with this movie, and that’s partly because of the expanding Harry Potter universe. There didn’t seem to be much of an expansion in the normal Harry Potter sense, but it took the series in an interesting direction. In the proper Harry Potter movies, there’s a focus on using spells, dueling with wands, and brewing potions—and that makes sense for those movies, considering we’re following our main characters throughout their time at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. That being said, Fantastic Beasts moves away from spells and wizard duels and toward Hagrid’s realm of care for magical creatures. I found the designs for the various creatures very interesting, and the animation was all well done. There wasn’t any place containing beasts where I felt like I was taken out of the movie. It made me smile to see an even larger universe.

Though this movie focused less on wand-work and more on care of magical creatures, I felt underwhelmed with the wand choreography in the movie. What I mean by “wand choreography” is the natural look of an actor using a wand in the context of a scene. In the Harry Potter books, we learn that “the wand chooses the wizard,” but the wand almost becomes an extension of the self (something, something, phallus reference). If the wand is an extension of the self, it becomes an extension of the user’s personality. Take Sirius Black in The Order of the Phoenix: the climactic battle shows him waving his wand with light-hearted flourishes and little twists, like he’s expressing his fun-loving personality through his wand-dueling. In a stark contrast, Newt Scamander seems like more of an academic, not a fighter, and he’s kind of an awkward, shy person—he doesn’t have those aggrandizing flourishes with his wand. My big issue here is Colin Farrell: his portrayal of Graves doesn’t seem natural with his wand. We would expect Graves, as a captain of the aurors, to be a tremendous fighter with a list of really good wand-dueling moves, right? Wrong. Farrell swings his wand around almost like he’s trying to lasso cattle, and it took me out of an important scene.

I did find it quite interesting that Fantastic Beasts explores magic society in America—and even brings in some contemporary issues in American culture. The movie brings up a salient point about America’s divisiveness: an American magic-user normally doesn’t associate with a nomaj person, which creates a huge rift between two parts of American society. This felt incredibly important that the characters noted this division, especially in today’s culture. Another example of Fantastic Beasts’ exploration of American culture comes when a group of aurors—which are more or less magical police officers—destroy a dark wizard, though Newt is speaking to and calming down the wizard. Though Newt’s conversation with the dark wizard seems to be leading them in a direction where fatal violence seemed unnecessary to me, the aurors still fire away and kill the dark wizard. I watched this movie with my fiancée, and she was of the belief that the dark wizard was too powerful and unstable to leave alive; I can see her point of view, but the point remains the same here that the magical police might have been a little too trigger-happy (wand-happy?) in this instance. These little moments seemed to point to larger issues in American society that aren’t simply relegated to the magical community, however, and that helped me immerse myself in the story even more.

 The music in Fantastic Beasts was an issue for me. After having eight films’ worth of music—music that is iconic and almost universally known in American culture, I felt very disappointed that there wasn’t a new, interesting diddy to go along with this new series. I discussed this with my fiancée afterward, and I compared it to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies: The Lord of the Rings had beautiful soundtracks thanks to Howard Shore, and he also scored The Hobbit series. While the Hobbit movies do share musical similarities with The Lord of the Rings’ soundtracks, the Hobbit movies still had their own identifiable music—music that says These movies all belong to the same universe, but they’re separate stories. Fantastic Beasts didn’t use much of that iconic music that we’ve grown to love with Harry Potter, and I honestly don’t remember much of it even now, having left the theater only a couple of hours ago.

In the end, Fantastic Beasts was a fun movie, and I’d definitely like to see it again someday. The creatures are fun and interesting, and they’re definitely the spotlight of this movie, and the hinting at American society, as oblique as some of those hints are, was a nice touch. I’m always going to be disappointed with the wand-duels in this movie, however. My love of movie soundtracks wasn’t tickled with this new iteration of the Potter universe, though, and that was also really disappointing. Overall, though, I’d recommend this one.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Suicide Squad: A bit late to the party, but it was 'meh.'

Suicide Squad
Director: David Ayer

Stars: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Viola Davis

If you’ve been following my blog a while, you know that I like my superhero movies, so the new Suicide Squad flick shouldn’t be any surprise. I love the movies that Marvel has been putting out, but DC still seems a bit off its game—first with Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and now, with Suicide Squad. The plot seemed slow with an odd tempo, the acting was pretty bad, and Jared Leto’s Joker was…I don’t even know where to start there.

Suicide Squad tells the story of the aftermath of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice where the world is under threat of other “metahumans” like Superman—those people who have exceptional skills or powers that could be a threat to national security. Amanda Waller (Davis) assembles a team of metahumans—“the worst of the worst,” she notes—to defend us from the next Superman, should he or she arrive with less-than-noble intentions. At the top of that list is Deadshot (Smith), an expert in all guns and weaponry; also on the team is Harley Quinn (Robbie), a psychologist-turned-baddie whose main squeeze is the Joker. Another villainous member of the team, the Enchantress, goes rogue while fueled with an ancient and mystical evil power. It’s up to the Suicide Squad to take her out—or die trying.

Suicide Squad had a very strange tempo in the storyline, like the filmmakers tried to add too much in too little space on-screen. The Suicide Squad was new to me (as a filthy casual to the comic book world), and the movie had to do a lot of background on each character so the audience would know something about each villain’s backstory. The squad had at least six members—I honestly can’t even remember them all now—which meant that the story was bogged down time and time again by trying to explain each character’s backstory through flashbacks. While those flashbacks did add a bit of action to the movie, the overarching storyline of the film seems to get drowned out by all the necessary background information for the team members. In the end, Suicide Squad almost plays out like a road movie for as much travelling as the characters had to do to get to the finale fight with the Enchantress.

I honestly don’t know where to start with the acting, because there were so many bad, cringe-worthy moments in Suicide Squad. It seemed like the casting was all over the place in this movie—some of the casting was spot on, such as Davis’ portrayal of Amanda Waller as a stone-cold government entity or Jay Hernandez as the repenting—but fiery—Diablo. I had a lot of issues with Will Smith as Deadshot; after playing the Arkham Batman games, I’ve always thought of Deadshot as a loose cannon, both figuratively and literally. He always seems to shoot first, ask questions later with a bit of a temper…but that temper didn’t really show up with Smith. Rather, he seemed to take the character in more of a quipping, one-liner direction who made light of situations instead of releasing his rage through wrist-mounted guns.

I feel conflicted about Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad, since I expected a bit more of a feminist slant from her. From an acting standpoint, Margot Robbie felt natural in this role, and she encapsulated how crazy Harley is in the comics with a splash of dark one-liners; to boot, her costuming seems natural to this new iteration of the character compared to her full-body costume from the Batman cartoons where she debuted. That being said, I thought Quinn would be more of a feminist presence in the film, and it didn’t really seem that way to me. I discussed the sexualization of a half-orc woman in Warcraft in a previous post, and Suicide Squad definitely took Harley Quinn in a sexualized way, too. Is that altogether wrong? No—but this reeked of fan-service. The primary audience for most superhero flicks is going to be young men, and the filmmakers seem to cater to that particular audience by gratuitously showing Margot Robbie walking away from the camera in blue-and-red hotpants every few minutes—isn’t that going to make the audience objectify her to some degree? I’m still really torn over this debate, considering I know a little bit about Quinn’s “relationship” with the Joker, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Can we consider Harley Quinn a feminist character in this movie?

I’d really like to talk about Jared Leto’s portrayal of the Joker, but I made a boo-boo. I’ve tried to find the time and ambition to write this post for the past couple of months, and I’ve never gotten that creative and critical jolt I needed—until today—to finish the post. That being said, it’s been too long since I watched Suicide Squad, so I would need to rewatch it in order to write a more accurate review of Leto’s performance. Would anybody be interested in a post specifically aimed at the Joker’s portrayal in film? If so, let me know, and I’ll get to work on it while focusing on method acting.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Suicide Squad, but here’s the thing: I wasn’t entirely disappointed in it, and I wasn’t completely in love with it. I wouldn’t give this movie my stamp of approval—I’d rather give it my stamp of “Well, I guess it was okay.” It’s not something I plan on buying, which is similar to my view of Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, but I’m still looking forward to Wonder Woman to see if DC can start gaining the same traction as Marvel Studios has.

Thank you for your patience, dear reader! I’ve been quite busy with school and other life events recently, but I’m trying to get back into the swing of things. Now to find time to go to the movies…

All photos taken from the Internet Movie Database (

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Horror Movie Master-Post!

I’m currently in a long-distance relationship with Renee, and whenever we get to spend time together (usually summers and Christmas breaks when we’re not working), we love watching horror movies together. That being said, instead of doing my typical one-movie-per-post write-up, I’m going to lay out this horror movie master-post to give a quick rundown of the movies we’ve viewed throughout this vacation.

The Conjuring (2013)
Director: James Wan
Stars: Patrick Wilson, Vera Famiga, Ron Livingston

I had heard so many good things about this movie that I had to watch it. The Conjuring follows two paranormal investigators, a husband-and-wife team (Wilson and Farmiga), to an old swamp house where mysterious things start happening—specifically involving the mother of the family who resides there. This was a pretty decent movie: the pacing was really good, the effects were interesting, and the acting didn’t put me off like so many horror movies do. What I get really interested in, however, is sound—nothing makes a horror movie for me more than sound. From the creaking sound of a noose swinging on a rafter to off-key piano notes, the sound in this movie made it scary. Overall, the plot seems a bit run of the mill, but it’s a solid movie.

The Hallow (2015)
Director: Corin Hardy
Stars: Joseph Mawle, Bojana Novakovic

This title cropped up on Netflix, and the movie poster drew me in. A young couple (Mawle and Novakovic) and their infant son move to a secluded house on the edge of an Irish forest, but things begin to go bump in the night. As I watched this with my girlfriend, we immediately made the connection of Ireland and changelings, monsters that steal babies, and we were both surprised—I couldn’t tell you the last time I’d heard of a horror movie based around Irish folklore. This plot was quite original, and we both enjoyed that part of it, but where The Hallow really shines is in the make-up and creature design. The monsters from the forest all take on an earthy tone: most of the monsters seem vaguely humanoid, but they’re made from sticks, leaves, and mud. For what seems like a low-budget movie, having (I think) three characters with speaking roles, the movie is worth the watch.

They Look Like People (2015)
Director: Perry Blackshear
Stars: MacLeod Andrews, Evan Dumouchel, Margaret Ying Drake

This is another Netflix pick that came up out of the wild blue yonder, and again, it surprised me and Renee with how good it was. Christian (Dumouchel), an up-and-coming employee at a design firm, runs into an old, mysterious friend, Wyatt (Andrews). Wyatt is convinced that a war between good and evil is coming, and the story follows his prep-work and armament—but is the war real or only in his head? While this movie smacks of a student film, it felt very tense the whole way through the story because of Wyatt’s paranoia: the whole idea here is that the evil creatures are taking over people’s bodies—they look like people—and he can’t tell who is good and who is evil. That tension builds even more as Wyatt gets eerie phone calls in the middle of the night; and we watch Wyatt prepare weapons for the (maybe fake, maybe real) coming apocalypse. On top of being a very tense movie, the film also explores the meaning of masculinity, which definitely piqued the interest of me and Renee, since we’ve both done research in gender and masculinity studies. This movie is definitely worth a watch because it's just so simple.

We Are What We Are (2013)
Director: Jim Mickle
Stars: Bill Sage, Ambyr Childers, Julia Garner

Another Netflix pick, We Are What We Are explores the relationships between Frank Parker (Sage) and his two daughters, Iris (Childers) and Rose (Garner), who must carry on the family tradition after their mother’s death—a tradition that involves eating people. This movie was based off of a Mexican horror movie of the same name—Somos lo que hay—and it seems like a more original story than most horror movies tell because it adds the family dynamic to the cannibalism. That being said, there wasn’t enough tension to really hold our interest during this movie; we didn’t care about most of the characters, and personally, I didn’t feel like I was rooting for anyone to survive. The movie pokes at the theme of “traditions” and questions why we do the things we do, as a culture, but it didn’t really work for me. You aren't going to miss much with this movie, and it was one of the least favorite ones out of this list because the characters didn't really mean much to me, and it dragged on so long. 

Would You Rather? (2012)
Director: David Guy Levy
Stars: Brittany Snow, Jeffrey Combs

Iris (Snow) needs a significant amount of money to pay off her brother’s medical bills until Shepard Lambrick (Combs) invites her to a very special dinner party where she and the other contests play a game—to the death. I added this movie to my Netflix queue months ago, but I never got around to watching it: whenever I scrolled over it, it piqued my interest enough to not remove it from my list, but it wasn’t interesting enough to watch. Now that I’ve watched it, I feel like my actions were justified. It was okay, but it wasn’t really anything groundbreaking. Renee described it adequately as “torture porn,” which is a trap that many horror movies fall into: the story doesn’t need to be good, but the visuals have to be gory enough to keep audiences on edge. If this review were based entirely on the “torture porn” aspect of this movie, I’d be writing a great review, but horror movies shouldn’t be based entirely on how gory they are and how queasy they can make audiences. Again, this is another one you could skip, and it's another of my least favorites in this list: there was just too much imbalance in the character development, story, and torture porn. 

Come Back to Me (2014)
Director: Paul Leyden
Stars: Matt Passmore, Nathan Keyes, Katie Walder

The thing that drew me in about this movie was the poster, and that’s sometimes how Renee gets drawn into movies, too. Come Back to Me delves into the sudden night-terrors of Sarah (Walder) after a creepy neighbor named Dale (Keyes) moves in across the street; Josh (Passmore), Sarah’s husband, tries to support her through her horrifying dreams, but he works night shifts in a casino—meaning that Sarah is alone and afraid throughout most of the movie. Let me get this out right away: the acting in this movie is terrible. The only one who I found believable was Dale, because he’s supposed to be a socially-awkward weirdo neighbor. The rest of the cast was very meh—Josh’s character felt wooden most of the time, and Sarah’s character seemed to overdramatize everything. The movie fell short in a lot of areas, but the ending caught me be surprise. I'm not going to say that this is a "must see," by any stretch, but it's a poorly-acted movie that has a fun idea, and that's kind of worth the watch.

Starry Eyes (2014)
Director: Kevin Kolsh, Dennis Widmyer
Stars: Alex Essoe, Amanda Fuller, Noah Segan

It wasn't so much the poster for this movie, but the Netflix thumbnail of this movie with a woman with pentagrams drawn over her eyes. I really like movies about demonic possession, and I thought that this would be up that alley--I was a little off, but it wasn't bad. Sarah (Essoe), an actress in Hollywood looking for her break-out role, finds an opportunity at a highly-regarded yet mysterious production company...but she doesn't understand what she has to trade to reach fame. Essoe does very well in her role, and she's very believable throughout the movie; on top of that, the makeup used on Essoe's character is pretty good (though some of the blood in the movie looks like red-tinted chocolate syrup). I did like this movie, because it tapped into my feminist side: Starry Eyes highlights the distinct differences between men and women in the film industry by suggesting what a woman must do to get a break...a break that isn't necessary for a man in the same position. The biggest thing that stuck out to me was the storyline: it's an interesting storyline, but it quickly turns into a Faustian bargain where Sarah more or less trades her humanity for beauty and fame. The plot, especially where she fulfills that Faustian bargain, made me raise an eyebrow, and I'm not sure where the writers were going with some of the unnecessary torture porn that ensues. Despite the oddness in the plot, I'd still recommend this movie.

Sinister (2012)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Stars: Ethan Hawke, Juliet Rylance, James Ransone

This is our second go-around with Sinister, because I honestly didn't remember a whole lot from it the last time we viewed it about two years ago. Ellison Oswalt (Hawke) needs to write a new best-seller crime novel to keep his family from drowning in debt; a quadruple homicide case in Pennsylvania might be the answer to his family's problems--or it might cause more. Sinister has incredible work in sound design that definitely makes things more tense, such as the whirring of a video projector after Ellison finds a box full of Super-8 reels...that show various murders. As we watched this movie, we realized that we liked the first two-thirds of the movie; after that, the filmmakers decided that the story was too complex, so they felt the need to "dumb it down," like the audience wasn't quite following things well enough. Renee even said toward the end of the movie, "They could've ended this movie five minutes earlier and it would've been way scarier." I completely agree that the ending dragged on way too long and explained things that didn't need explaining, and there was one sequence where Ellison scours the house after a mysterious noise only to be followed by spoopy ghosts--but in horror movies, less is more. What we can come up with in our own heads is often more scary than what's shown to us on the screen. This one is a cool movie, one that you should definitely watch, but don't let the ending turn you off from it. 

Any horror movies that we should tackle? Have a different opinion on one of the movies I’ve listed here? Write a comment below!

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Warcraft: Stay home and play World of Warcraft instead


Director: Duncan Jones
Stars: Travis Fimmel, Paula Batton, Ben Foster

You know, at this point in my life, I should know that I shouldn’t watch video game movies. I shouldn’t. I just should not. The issue is that Blizzard’s World of Warcraft (WoW) video game sucked me in when I started college, and I got caught up in the nostalgia of that universe—and I actually paid money to watch this movie. I was not impressed with the film at all. Did it touch me in the Department of Nostalgic Feels? Sure. Did it make me want my money back? Hands down, yes.

Warcraft seems to take place in the time before the events of the video game WoW, which is where most of my knowledge of this universe lies. Gul’dan, an evil orc sorcerer, builds a massive, magical gate by which to send himself and his orc brethren to Azeroth; the issue is that Azeroth is already inhabited by humans, night elves, and dwarves—a group that normally goes by the title of the Alliance. As Gul’dan leads a war party of orcs through the portal to Azeroth, the captain of the humans’ forces, Anduin Lothar (Fimmel), seeks counsel from the Guardian, a powerful magic user known as Medivh (Foster). Lothar and Medivh attempt to protect Azeroth from the orcs’ onslaught, but that onslaught is reconsidered by Durotan and Orgrim, two orcs who realize that Gul’dan’s magic poisons and destroys the lands it touches—and that’s the reason why Gul’dan moved the orcs through the portal in the first place, since he basically usurped the orcs’ original home. Gul’dan must be stopped before all of Azeroth suffers the same fate.

I have to ask, dear reader: were you able to follow that last paragraph? There’s a ton of stuff happening in Warcraft, and the movie seems like more of a nod to WoW players than a real narrative. Even as a player of WoW, I recognized a lot of the names mentioned, but I was still miffed by quite a bit of it—it seemed like that one friend of yours who makes a joke and then smiles really wide and asks, “Did you get it? Huh? Right there? Huh?” There were mentions of Elwynn Forest, the beginning area in WoW for the human characters, Goldshire, another part of the humans’ starting area in the game, and even Dalaran, the floating city where magic users gather and study together—again, how much of this are you actually following if you’ve never played the game? There’s an awful lot of fan-service going on, and I suppose that’s to be expected in a video game movie—but this was piled way too deep.

In addition to the overbearing fan-service, the themes presented in this movie were mostly forced. One theme dwelled on racial issues, though this use of “race” refers more to the different kinds of beings in Azeroth, such as the “race of Men” (to steal Tolkien’s terminology), the “race of night elves,” etc. One character, Garona (Patton), represents a mixed-race being: half human and half orc; at one point in the movie, three main characters sit around a campfire and tell their backstories in an attempt to make viewers make deeper connections with those characters, and I still didn’t care about Garona (or anybody else, for that matter). Really, it seems like Garona’s only purpose in Warcraft was to sneakily add in a sexually-appealing orc character for—you guessed it—more fan service. Even the theme of fatherhood is tacked on, like the writers were trying to force the story to be deeper than it was. All of a sudden, Lothar’s son pops up in the movie with little to no backstory—and then he dies. Okay, well, sorry (not sorry), I still didn’t care about this character, but he’s gone now…so there’s that. If they really wanted to play up one particular theme, they should have stuck with the idea of a “homeland”—the orcs are trying to find a new homeland, and the humans are trying to defend theirs. Yes, it does come up that Lothar and the humans are fighting for Azeroth, and “For Azeroth!” does become a battle-cry here and there, but again, most of the themes in the movie are just thrown in for no reason.

Don't even try to tell me Garona is in here for anything more than fan-service sex appeal. Come on.
I know I’ve ragged on this movie a little at this point—okay, a lot at this point—but the shining point was really in the CGI. This movie shows us the height of motion capture technology, since several characters—and I think all of the orcs (except Garona)—are CGI. These shots are masterfully done, and I was truly amazed by how far CGI technology has come over the last few years. Before seeing Warcraft, I watched a Youtube video that helped explain how motion-capture CGI works, and it was fascinating. In the same vein, Gul’dan and Medivh using their respective magic spells was equally amazing. It didn’t take me out of the movie when I saw characters lobbing spells or opening huge portals to another dimension in a stone gateway. These instances of CGI felt very natural to the movie, and they helped make a very pretty movie (at times).

With that small glimmer of light, most of the budget was spent on CGI (I’m guessing), since the costuming was absolutely terrible. As I watched the movie, I could tell that the costuming wasn’t all that good, but I was trying to go along with things while sitting in the theater—you have to give things a bit of a chance, right? When talking to my partner about this movie, she pointed out that the CGI looked incredible, but the physical characters’ costumes—especially the soldiers’ armor—looked like cheaply-made plastic from a Halloween costume shop, and I’d have to agree. The WoW universe is quite stylized, such as the Alliance shields that have high-relief lions and eagles on them, and for as stylized as this movie tried to be, the costuming took me out of the movie way too much to enjoy things.

Watching people fight in that armor was also pretty awful, but I blame that more so on fight choreography. People who are supposed to be wearing heavy armor aren’t going to have much mobility in real life—but this isn’t real life. If you watch any of the WoW cinematic scenes that begin each new expansion of the game, there are incredible fight scenes, but Warcraft’s fights seemed bland, almost like they were done in half-hearted slow motion and sped up in post-production to make the fight scenes more fast-paced. I love watching escapist movies with interesting and different worlds, but all of these factors made it hard to watch Warcraft, as nostalgic as it felt to be placed in that universe again.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend this movie--again, except for the CGI. If you’re looking to get that same nostalgia you felt from the vanilla WoW game, you’ll probably find it here, but If you’ve never played WoW before, you’re not going to have a great time. Even if you have played WoW, don’t hope for much. Before I gave up WoW, I think I’d logged about a thousand hours in-game, which is a pittance compared to many other players, but I feel like you need to play the game instead of watching the movie: the game has so much more content to get that immersion in the universe that Warcraft lacks. I’d love to see Assassin’s Creed, the new video game movie with Michael Fassbender that’s coming out soon—but do gamers expect too much from video game movies after logging extensive hours in the actual video games? What do you think?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Her: "Play melancholy song," then watch this movie.


Writer/Director: Spike Jonze
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson

After Her was released in 2013, a friend approached me and said that I should really watch it. I shrugged it off, since I’m not a huge fan of Joaquin Phoenix. Furthermore, I’d really not heard anything about the plot except that it was a romantic movie; I normally don’t shy away from romantic movies, but they really aren’t my go-to when it comes to movie nights. One of my students wrote a review of it recently, and the student included a brief synopsis of the story, and I knew I had to give it the ol’ college try. Within the last little while, I’ve been more in tune with sci-fi movies about robots, such as 2015’s Ex Machina, and hearing the synopsis of Her really struck a chord with me.

Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) gives off that loner vibe as the movie begins, and we quickly find out that he’s not much of a success with the ladies. Case in point, he’s actually going through a pretty rough divorce from his wife, Catherine, and he’s not quite over her yet—to the point that he’s been keeping Catherine in limbo by not signing the paperwork to finalize their divorce. Theodore’s life is filled with insincerity and mundanity, and his friend, Amy (Adams), attempts to set him up on a blind date—but again, another strike. In his wanderings around the city with an earbud in his ear and listening to a robotic voice read his emails to him, he sees it: an advertisement for the world’s first artificially-intelligent operating system. Siri and Cortana can eat their hearts out, because Theodore’s operating system—who names herself Samantha (Johansson)—can do it all for him. Literally. All of it. As the two of them spend more time together, Samantha learns about Theodore, and he learns about her.

This movie has (sort of) pulled me out of my Joaquin Phoenix slump, because he made this an incredible performance. In terms of The Revenant from earlier this year, my actor friends argued with me about how deserving Leonardo DiCaprio was because of his performance in that movie and having to act alone throughout most of the movie; I can only imagine how hard that movie was to film, and he’s a real trooper for doing it. That being said, I found Phoenix’s performance here just as dramatic and emotional as DiCaprio’s was in The Revenant—if not more so. Whenever Theodore and Samantha speak to one another, Theodore has to have an earbud in his ear in order to hear her (unless he’s sitting in front of his computer speaking to her directly from his desk chair). Again, having to act in a movie like this all alone is incredible to me, and again, I can only imagine how hard that is to shoot, considering Ian McKellen broke down on the set of The Hobbit because many of his fellow actors were added into his scenes after he completed shooting.

The big thing I love about this movie was the comparison and contrast of humans and machines. The way that Jonze presents Theodore and Samantha’s relationship is so interesting, because he portrays it as a taboo—a taboo that may become more of a reality in coming decades. In our time, if someone loves a machine, we think it’s totally absurd, but in Theodore’s time, set in the near future, it sounds almost acceptable, but it reminded me a lot of how people sometimes hide relationships because they’re ashamed of their partners or because they know society will view the relationship as “abnormal.” In the same vein, Theodore hides his relationship with Samantha from those closest to him, and it’s a good way into the movie before he reveals the relationship to Amy—who also begins dating her own artificially-intelligent operating system.

The human/machine line is crossed further when we start thinking about genuine emotions. Are emotions purely a human thing, or can a machine also have human emotions? Or is a machine simply mimicking human emotions and thereby manipulating the humans around it? These are all questions that Her brings up, from Theodore and Samantha falling in love to Theodore and Catherine falling out of love. When Catherine learns of Theodore’s technological tryst with Samantha, she brings up his introversion and even questions his ability to feel, since he claims to have pushed Catherine away during their marriage when times got tough. Looking toward Samantha, philosophers say that upon the invention of AI systems, those systems will match—and then surpass—human knowledge, so in surpassing human knowledge, is Samantha then more able to feel human emotions, or again, is she simply better able to mimic those human emotions?

In playing with this gray area of human/machine, there are several other areas of the film that could be explored. For example, Theodore works for an online company as a professional writer—of personal letters for people who aren’t good at writing personal letters; a client sends a few pictures and a brief description of the rhetorical situation, and Theodore dictates the content of a personal letter to his computer: the content appears on his screen in a handwritten font, and he then prints the letter and sends it for the client. If people are complaining nowadays about how technology use is ruining young people’s ability to communicate with other humans on a personal level, is this the future that we have to look forward to? Could I be a professional writer who writes personal letters for people whose personal feelings are so inept that they can’t write a letter themselves?

The gray area expands even further when looking at the way that Theodore uses humans/machines (because the line is so blurred, humans and machines are almost the same at this point). Theodore and Samantha start exploring the sexual portion of their burgeoning relationship, which pretty much boils down to cyber-sex or phone sex. Samantha wants to keep pushing this boundary with Theodore, and she invites a woman over. The woman places an earbud in her ear so that she, too, can hear Samantha’s voice, and the woman more or less acts out Samantha’s role in the sexual relationship—which more or less turns the woman into a sex toy. This represents a powerful scene in the movie, and it further blurs the already-blurry line between humans and machines.

Overall, this movie is an absolute triumph, and I’ve found so few movies recently where I’ve actually raised questions about the movie’s themes after it was done—I’m really impressed by the whole thing, and I’d like to buy this soon. This movie felt like a punch in the gut—but in a good way—and it’s definitely worth the watch. Even with all the melancholy bits to this movie, it's still got some great moments of humor that made me laugh really hard. 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Forest: Jump-scares? Yes. Horror? Eh.

The Forest

Director: Jason Zada
Stars: Natalie Dormer, Taylor Kinney, Yukiyoshi Ozawa

While most of the movies I’ve written about here have been superhero movies because I’m a Marvel drone, I do occasionally watch non-superhero movies, such as The Forest that came out this year. I really like watching horror movies, but they’re always better to watch with someone else, just so you can experience the jump-scares with somebody in the room. With this one, I couldn’t wait to have somebody in the room with me, so I watched it by myself, and that was okay. Other than quite a few jump-scares and some tense moments, I wasn’t all that spooked. I rented this through Amazon tonight, and I ended the movie thinking, “I’ve wasted more money on worse stuff.” (I’m looking at you, Halo: Guardians.)

Identical twins are said to have a deep connection to one another, and that theme plays quite heavily in The Forest between twin sisters Sarah and Jess (both played by Dormer). Sarah receives a call from the school Jess teaches at in Japan, and she also feels her “Wonder Twin” powers activate to tell her that Jess is in trouble. Sarah flies all the way to Japan to find out that her sister has entered Japan’s infamous Aokigahara suicide forest. One of Jess’s colleagues explains that historically, in times of famine, the elderly or disabled were taken to the forest and left for dead, but in modern times, people go into the forest to kill themselves. Sarah, desperate to find her sister, enters the forest with Michi (Ozawa), a Japanese park ranger, and Aiden (Kinney), a journalist. Stepping over the “No entry” sign leading into the dense woods, Michi sternly tells Sarah and Aiden that if they see something strange in the forest, it’s all in their heads…but not this time.

One thing that bothered me about this movie was Natalie Dormer’s acting. Granted, I haven’t seen her in many starring roles: I remember her from The Hunger Games and a small cameo in Captain America: The First Avenger, so it’s difficult for me to gauge her as an actor. That being said, I didn’t find her all that convincing here. Some of her line deliveries were really clunky, and at times, she seems downright wooden when she’s supposed to be acting concerned about her sister’s disappearance. I did appreciate that she played both roles, Sarah and Jess, because she did alter her voice and behavior in accordance with each specific character; I could tell when she was acting like Jess, and I could tell when she was acting like Sarah. When one person plays two different roles in a movie, that differentiation doesn’t always shine through.

Where there was a glimmer of light—but only a glimmer—was in the cinematography. The suicide forest is supposed to mess with people’s minds, and there are quite a few moments where Sarah is starting to lose herself, and it’s at those moments that Zada uses a handheld camera to circle around her while she turns the opposite direction to show her disorientation, or he cuts to a close up of Dormer using a Dutch tilt to show that she’s becoming off balance. That glimmer fades into darkness for the rest of the movie, however, and a lot of the film remains utterly dark to the point where it’s actually hard to see what’s happening on screen. Again, I get it—it’s a horror movie, and horror movies are supposed to be dark and scary, but the darkness didn’t really help build tension for me. There were certain moments where a face was darkened to add to the suspense of a scene, but more often than not, the scene was dark for the sake of being dark. Judging by IMDb’s page about The Forest’s director, Jason Zada, it doesn’t seem like he’s got much experience under his belt, and this looks like his first feature-length movie as a director. That could potentially explain why most of the movie is so dark, but at the same time, he did do some cool stuff with the handheld camera.

Those camera angles definitely show that the forest isn’t quite right, but the horror aspect of this movie doesn’t come through very well. The whole crux of the movie is that Sarah and Aiden are lost in a haunted forest, and while there are creepy moments, such as Michi cutting a hanged man down from a tree, Zada often relies on jump-scares to remind the audience that they are, indeed, watching a horror movie. The tension between Sarah and Aiden builds quite a bit, but there are points when Sarah stops dead in her tracks to stare at moss growing on the side of a tree while all the sound around her becomes muffled. Tree bark doesn’t render me catatonic, generally, so I’m not sure why Zada decided that those shots would help build the tension around Sarah’s distress in the forest.

This movie seems to hint at how Western culture sees Eastern culture in the ways that Sarah and Aiden—both white people—interact with the Japanese locals. First arriving in Japan, Sarah goes to find something to eat, but she’s appalled when a restaurant serves her what looks like recently-killed-still-moving shrimp—she even asks the chef to bring her something that’s already dead. Later, she goes to a trail guide center to search for clues about Jess, and a woman outside the center tells her about Yūrei, which is the Japanese word for a ghost. Sarah scoffs at the woman’s claim that there are ghosts in the forest known for people committing suicide there. Later, Sarah and Aiden follow Michi into the forest, and when Michi gives his warning about strange sightings in the forest being in their heads, both characters immediately make fun of him behind his back, as though they’re saying, “Oh, you silly, superstitious Japanese people! We’re white! You can’t scare us with your suicide forest hocus pocus!” I couldn’t help but notice how obliquely Sarah and Aiden dismissed every warning they heard about this place. When the professional trail guide for the goddamn suicide forest tells you, “Hey, we should leave now, it’s getting dark,” you don’t reply, “No way, bruh, I’m staying here tonight in this abandoned tent.” I wouldn’t say that I believe in ghosts, per se, but if all the locals tell me that a place is haunted, I’m probably going to put at least a little stock into what they’re telling me. This is a common trope of horror movies, of course, so maybe you should take this idea with a grain of salt.

I was actually pretty excited to watch this movie, and my partner was, too. I texted her that I was watching it, and she replied, “I heard it wasn’t very good”—it turns out that she heard correctly. It’s not a stellar film, by any means, but it kept me kind of engaged throughout the roughly 90-minute runtime. It’s not the worst horror movie I’ve ever seen, but I know I’ve seen better elsewhere. Find a friend or two to get through the jump-scares, because that’s mostly what this movie is. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice : Fun, but long, but fun, but okay.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Director: Zack Snyder
Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg

This semester, I’m teaching Introduction to Film, and as soon as I walked into the movie theater to watch Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, I saw one of my students. I stood behind him in line to get my popcorn, and he turned around to tell me, “I’m not here to analyze this movie. Don’t even ask me to analyze this movie.” I laughed and replied, “Hell, I’m just here to watch Batman.” Really, that’s the only reason why I was interested in this movie; I’m more of a Marvel fan than DC, except when it comes to Batman. In any case, there was a new superhero movie, and I was on top of it like flies on a gut-wagon. What I will say about Batman v. Superman is that it was okay—not exceptional, not something that I’m going to rush out to buy when it comes out on blu-ray—but it was okay.

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice begins with a flashback to Superman’s fight with General Zod from 2013’s Man of Steel. Bruce Wayne (Affleck) watches from street level at the alien carnage befalling Metropolis, and he begins viewing Superman (Cavill) as a threat. Superman’s character is tarnished further when Lois Lane (Adams) is taken hostage as she chases a hot lead in the desert, and Superman rushes to save her—though the whole event is orchestrated by Lex Luthor (Eisenberg). Wayne’s distrust of Superman grows, and he explains that if there’s a one percent chance that Superman is dangerous, we must take it as an absolute certainty that Superman is dangerous. Luthor also pulls strings to antagonize Wayne into donning the Dark Knight suit to take on the Man of Steel, and there we get to the whole crux of the movie: Batman vs. Superman in a knock-down, drag-out fight.

Now, I say this movie is okay—not spectacular or exceptional—because I really don’t care for Superman that much. I remember watching Man of Steel and thinking that I didn’t care about the character at all—sure, that movie played up the whole idea that Superman is the only one of his kind and he’s all alone in the universe, but I just can’t relate to him on any level. On top of that, I really don’t care what happens to Superman because nothing can hurt him (save the one obvious thing that crops up in Batman v. Superman: kryptonite). He seems grossly overpowered, and I just don’t care. If I can’t care about what happens to the main character, I’m not going to connect with the movie as strongly.

Because Superman is invincible and grossly overpowered, his fight scenes get a little boring. We see a lot of the same visuals in Man of Steel: laser eyes, explosions, picking up a guy and throwing him into the side of a building and the glass all shatters, etc. Watching Superman fight is like washing your hair—lather, rinse, repeat. He picks up Batman and throws him away; he walks back to Batman on the ground, picks him up, and heaves him through a wall; then he walks back to Batman on the ground, picks him up, and shotputs him through another wall. Since he’s so overpowered, it gets a bit tedious to see him basically do the same move over and over (knowing that he can’t really be hurt). I feel like Marvel superheroes show more character in their fighting styles, and because these are all action movies, that would make sense—you can’t have the superhero do the same fight across two or three movies that need to have their own separate identities. In Batman v. Superman, Superman seems like a one trick pony.

The one refreshing bit about the fighting in this film was Batman, since he actually seems to have a style more his own compared to Superman’s lather, rinse, repeat. In Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Bruce Wayne learns a number of different combat styles focusing on martial arts, but I found Batman v. Superman refreshing because Batman actually incorporates gadgets into his combat styles instead of relying solely on his mastery of martial arts. Seeing Batman shoot his grappling gun at an enemy, swing him around the room, and eventually throw the guy through a wall was much more gratifying than seeing only martial arts combat. This gadget-based combat style seems more in line with the Batman video games, such as Arkham Asylum, Arkham City, and Arkham Origins. (I still have yet to play Arkham Knight, but I’d need to buy an Xbox One first.) In these games, the player gets bonus points for using gadgets during combat, and this lends credence to Batman’s intellect: he uses gadgets during fights in order to outsmart his enemies and gain an advantage, and that’s something that Batman v. Superman did better than Nolan (though Nolan’s visuals still trump this new iteration).

Now, because we’re on the topic of Batman, we have to talk about Ben Affleck. I keep seeing these screenshots from interviews with Affleck where he just looks like someone’s told him that Batman v. Superman was the worst movie in the world—well, I’m guessing someone’s already said that on the internet somewhere. Really, I didn’t mind him as Batman, but as Bruce Wayne, I didn’t find him all that convincing. Bruce Wayne is supposed to be this dapper, intellectual billionaire genius, right? Affleck didn’t really pull that off for me; for example, in one scene, Wayne attends a party at Lex Luthor’s manor, and while he’s there, he hooks up a gadget that downloads a bunch of encrypted files from Luthor’s mainframe—but he’s caught in the act. Instead of playing things suavely, he says something like, “Oh, yeah, uh…I was looking for the bathroom. All those martinis, huh?” Buddy, you’re clearly standing in what looks to be a server room fiddling with the electronics—this is obviously not something to piss on. Part of it could be the writers’ fault in this particular instance, but part of it was Affleck’s performance of Bruce Wayne. Like I said, as Knight of Gotham, we’re good to go, but as cool, billionaire playboy? Not so much.

Getting to acting, let’s talk Luthor and Jesse Eisenberg. Like I’ve said a hundred times before, I’m a filthy casual when it comes to comic books, but I like the movies, and that’s why I write this blog. That being said (again), can someone tell me if Lex Luthor is supposed to be so obnoxious? Eisenberg’s performance here felt really forced, and I didn’t get the same DC villain vibe as I got with Heath Ledger’s Joker (but really, that’s my gold standard for Batman villains). Again, I’d really like someone to tell me in the comments if Luthor is supposed to be as nutty and annoying as Eisenberg makes him out to be. I remember snips from Kevin Spacey playing this role, and he seemed more like an evil genius than…whatever Eisenberg is doing here. His scenes were honestly hard for me to watch.

The big thing that people have asked me about with this movie is Wonder Woman, especially my partner. I don’t really know much about Wonder Woman, though, and, once more, in case you’ve forgotten, filthy casual. My partner made sure to mention that she only saw Batman v. Superman to support the franchise so that the studio would continue on its track to make a standalone Wonder Woman movie. Do you think, based on the low ratings that Batman v. Superman is receiving, that we’re still going to see a Wonder Woman movie in the near future?

Overall, again, it’s an okay movie with its ups and downs, but two and a half hours seems like a long runtime for this movie when things could have been cut down quite a bit. (I shouldn’t speak too poorly of Batman v. Superman on this point, since Captain America: Civil War supposedly has an equally-lengthy runtime.) Am I going to rush out and buy this movie when it comes out on Blu-ray? No, probably not. I might wait a while for the price to go down and pick it up after a couple of years. 

The real question is this: “Was the movie entertaining?” Hands down, yes. This was a nice afternoon at the movies for me.  

Monday, February 15, 2016

Deadpool: A Fun, Adult Not-Superhero Movie (For Adults)


Director: Tim Miller
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, T.J. Miller, Ed Skrein

Love—and some various body parts—are in the air this Valentine’s Day with the release of Deadpool. Now, dear reader, I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I am a filthy casual when it comes to comic books. Growing up, I never had an outlet for comic books, and I never had any Big Brother-figure to give me hand-me-down comics, either. Going into Deadpool, I didn’t know much about the character—except for what I learned about him from 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine (but let’s not talk about that…ever.) I knew that Deadpool is supposed to be more of an antihero than most other comic book characters, and I knew that Deadpool is a jokester. With fourth-wall-breaking fun, I found Deadpool to be quite entertaining—but Marvel’s villain here, again, was pretty lackluster.

Deadpool obviously follows the exploits of Deadpool, formerly known as Wade Wilson (Reynolds). After being dishonorably discharged from a special ops team, this military man turns mercenary, and he takes contracts to help the little people—as Wilson explains, a punch in the face is earned. As he settles up a contract with his friend, Weasel (Miller), he meets a woman with a sense of humor as dark and deranged as his own; to boot, Vanessa (Baccarin) also shares Wilson’s high-flying libido. Years into their relationship, Wilson learns that he has late-stage cancer throughout most of his body, and he believes he’s sparing Vanessa from watching him wither away by abandoning her. He enrolls in a shady research program under the control of Ajax (Skrein), and with Skrein’s help (read: torture), Wilson’s cancer is cured, and he becomes the avocado-skinned not-superhero we all know and love. Deadpool’s mission? Find Ajax, make him fix the avocado skin, and then kill him.

Now, I mentioned “libido” and “kill” in the last paragraph, so parents, listen up: this is not a superhero movie to take your kid to. Toward the beginning of the film, there’s an extended montage of Wilson and Vanessa as they, uh, push the boundaries of their relationship; at another point, Wilson and Weasel go looking for leads in a strip club, and there’s gratuitous nudity— It’s a strip club! (Here, I looked over at a father and son in the theater, and the father leaned in close to his kid, likely saying, Don’t you dare tell your mother about this.) Along with the sexual encounters we see on screen, we also hear about as much sexual humor as you’re likely to get from Deadpool. On top of that, there’s still a high level of ultra-violence that’s supposedly a trademark of Deadpool, from splattering blood to downright decapitation to full-on flattening. There’s an R-rating for a reason, people, and you’ve been warned. Find a babysitter, ditch the kids, and see this movie for yourselves.

Really, I can’t think of another actor who could play Deadpool like Ryan Reynolds. It’s a little disgusting to think about, but his prior performance as Wade Wilson in X-Men Origins: Wolverine stole the show, and I’d have loved to have seen a stand-alone Deadpool movie back then. This style of comedy—one full of punchy dialogue and physical humor—is right in Reynolds’ wheelhouse. Deadpool’s comedy seems to harken back to his performance in Waiting, a comedy about raunchy restaurant staff from 2005 full of similarly-punchy dialogue, and Reynolds shines in that type of humor. His comedic timing is what sells his comedic performances, and his calling card is a tell-tale pause that helps drive his character’s jokes. His comedic acting here isn’t just about his dialogue, though—his job becomes even harder because he has to bring that same silliness without using his face, since he wears the Deadpool mask throughout a good portion of the movie. Overall, Ryan Reynolds is Deadpool, and Deadpool is Ryan Reynolds; he was literally born for this role after “…Freddy Kreuger face-f*cked a topographical map of Utah.” A friend mentioned that Ryan Reynolds has been wanting this movie to be made for years, and he actually took a good deal of the production onto himself, proving, again, that he is the actor for this particular character. 

The beauty of the Deadpool character is his versatility, since Deadpool can be everyone and everything. I know I’ve leaned on this book before, but I’m again reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s border fiction: Blood Meridian’s seeming main character, simply known as “the Judge,” is larger than life—a suzerain of the earth, he calls himself. Literary critics try to interpret his character time and time again, and all of the interpretations fit, so you can’t really say they’re wrong, since he fits and simultaneously doesn’t fit these various categories. The same can be said about Deadpool—all of these interpretations fit. No matter how absurd the situation, Deadpool always finds ground to stand on, and because of this, the character pushes a lot of boundaries and almost denies classification.

Because of this versatility in Deadpool’s character, one of the greatest things I thought about this movie was the sex positivity—much of which is shown on-screen (again, leave the kids home). Since the beginnings of film, Hollywood and the film industry have largely promoted heteronormativity—a love story can only involve a man and a woman. We see the same thing in Deadpool in Wade’s early relationship with Vanessa, sure, but with that heteronormativity, there’s a good level of sex positivity—once more, going back to the sex montage, it’s clear that they have a healthy relationship based on exploring one another’s sexuality. Once we see Wilson’s transformation into Deadpool, however, we see even more exploration in the character’s sexuality: the internet has been throwing around words like “pansexual” and “omnisexual,” meaning that Deadpool sees anyone as a sexual partner. Dan Tracer explains, “Deadpool has been portrayed as an omnisexual flirt who will go after any gender that happens to strike his fancy at any particular time,” and those moments of “any particular time” flash on the screen over and over and over. Again, the versatility afforded in the Deadpool character means that he can be anything, and it was refreshing to see less heteronormativity on-screen (plus, Deadpool more or less gropes Colossus’ metallic manhood, which got big laughs in my showing).

The issue I have with this movie is the same one that I had with Ant-Man last summer: the villain isn’t threatening or memorable. Ajax, a mutant with heightened reflexes and nerve endings that don’t work (meaning he feels no pain) seems like he could be an interesting villain, but part of the problem here is that he feels more like a henchman than a supervillain—think of Bane in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. “As Ajax, Ed Skrein fails to become a truly threatening or memorable villain,” Daniel Krupa notes, “since he’s given so little to do.” The whole point of Ajax in the movie is to fulfill Deadpool’s revenge plot, and he doesn’t have any real endgame—there’s no villainous terror plot that has to be stopped like in Avengers: Age of Ultron that would connect him to the larger world or make it feel like there’s more at stake than simple revenge. Really, the worst thing he does is create mutants through medical experimentation and torture, and then he sells the mutants as slaves to the highest bidder, whether that bidder is a government entity or a real supervillain. Now, is this a villainous thing to do? Obviously, yes, but because there’s no real checkmate coming that Deadpool has to prevent, there wasn’t much tension in the character, so I have to chalk this up to another Marvel movie where the main character has to destroy a foil of him- or herself.

Overall, would I watch Deadpool again? Hands down, yes, and I plan to buy it when it comes out. While the film didn’t stray too far outside the boundary of the superhero genre, it does stray a bit further in making fun of that genre—the beginning of the movie attests to that, since the opening credits list the director as “an overpaid tool,” and they mention a “British bad guy” and “a super hot girl” instead of listing any actors’ real names. The actual plot may not push many boundaries, but the metacommentary on the genre through the numerous times that Deadpool breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience is really refreshing, and it almost made me engage with the movie more, since it felt like we were all in it together. If you have the time to spare and want to have a lot of laughs at an odd take on the superhero genre, this is the movie to see.

Outside readings:

Krupa, Daniel. “Deadpool Review.” IGN. IGN, 6 February 2016. Web. 15 February 2016.

Tracer, Dan. “First Queer Superhero Lead? Ryan Reynolds Opens Up About ‘Deadpool’s’ Fluid
           Sexuality.” Queerty. Queerty, 4 November 2015. Web. 14 February 2016.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Revenant: An Artistic Twist on America's Fur Trading Days

The Revenant

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson

Again, I emerge from the void, awakened from the hibernation of a cold winter’s day, to write a reaction to Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s The Revenant. Out of the all the movies I’ve reviewed in this blog, I think this one hits the closest to my homeland—the upper Midwest.

The Revenant focuses on the (mis)adventures of Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a frontiersman and tracker who is stationed with a fur trading company led by Captain Andrew Henry (Gleeson). After a gruesome, exciting, and artistically-beautiful opening sequence where the fur trading camp is attacked by Native Americans, Captain Henry and his men flee into the wilderness and attempt to reach their fort. The ever-complaining John Fitzgerald (Hardy) worries only about his fair payment after the company’s men are run off and killed. After Glass is gruesomely wounded, Fitzgerald volunteers (for extra pay, of course) to nurse Glass back to health or give him a proper burial while Henry and the other men return to the fort; Fitzgerald, being the stand-up buddy he is, kills Glass’s son, Hawk, and leaves Glass for dead in a half-dug grave. Glass struggles to survive in what one woman in my viewing called “the longest, most boringest movie [she] ever seen.” Did I mention this movie is gruesome?

With a nearly three-hour runtime, yes, it’s a long movie, but if you actually pay attention to what’s on-screen, it really is a beautiful and engaging film. As I mentioned, the opening sequence showing the attack on the fur trading camp is masterfully done; to boot, there is very little actual cutting taking place. The choreography that went into some of these long-duration shots must have been obscene as the camera focuses on one man, follows him to his death, then follows the first man’s attacker to his death, and on, and on, and on. Furthermore, the special effects in this film make it totally engaging, enough so that the audience gasped and cringed at some points.  If the woman I mentioned above was looking for a spaghetti Western where the lawman shoots the bad guy at high noon and rides off into the sunset, she was in the wrong theater: this was art.

Speaking of art, there was some phenomenal acting here from Tom Hardy. Hardy took on an excellent character, and he was believable through and through. His portrayal of Max Rockatansky in Mad Max: Fury Road was great, and he made for a very menacing Bane in The Dark Knight Rises; that being said, I love that Hardy can immerse himself in his characters well. That’s what I consider great acting: when an actor takes roles with such stark contrasts, but I can’t see any prior performances in this new performance (if that makes sense). Hardy is nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor in a Supporting Role, and I’d say he’s a major contender in that arena.

Above: Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald
I can’t say the same about Leonardo DiCaprio, however. In interviews I’ve read and watched, DiCaprio has said that this is the hardest role he has ever played, and that could partially stem from the fact that Hugh Glass suffers an injury to his throat (spoilers are unbearable), and the character doesn’t speak for a good chunk of the film save grunts and gasps. DiCaprio has been nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor in a Leading Role, but part of me wonders if he’ll win this year (finally) or forever be a bridesmaid and never a bride. Going back to what I said about great acting and actors who take on distinctive and contrasting roles, DiCaprio has done that—time and time again—but I always see his facial expressions or hear subtle nuances in his delivery and think, Oh, that sounds like when he played that other character in that other movie. He was engaging the whole time, and his acting was believable, but I guess I’m on the fence about this performance being Oscar-worthy.

One of the most poignant themes I kept coming back to while watching this movie, though, was that nature is not your friend—leave your Tolkien at the door, kids. 95% of the movie takes place outdoors and shows Glass being flung off of cliffs, drifting through whitewater rapids, or damn near freezing to death, and overall, it very much reminded me of reading books from Cormac McCarthy. In McCarthy’s novels, it’s not just Native Americans or Mexicans or the Judge who is out to get you—it’s the world, itself. The environment in McCarthy’s novels seems to take on a life of its own as though it, too, is a character that works against the Glanton Gang in Blood Meridian, for example, and that seems to be the case throughout The Revenant.

This similarity to McCarthy’s work is echoed in the gender issues presented in the film, in that there really aren’t any women. Again, if you’re looking for a stereotypical Western with a spunky female lead who falls for the lawman cowboy, this isn’t the movie for you. One review wrote of McCarthy’s novels that he presents a world where “woman” is not yet realized; in this movie, the only women who appear are a kidnapped Native American woman and Glass’s deceased Pawnee wife. While the kidnapped woman does get a single line, Glass’s wife appears to him throughout the movie as figment of his dreams, and we frequently here a voiceover refrain from her. Past that, there are no women to be seen throughout the whole movie. At some points, it subtly hints at constructions of masculinity, and there are a few other places where Fitzgerald all-too-bluntly emasculates his fellow fur traders. 

I was excited going into this movie, as it's a far cry from the movies I generally gravitate toward, and that initial excitement wasn't wasted. If you're looking for an artistic representation of the fur trading days of America, this movie should be right up your alley.