Category: Film

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – movie review

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – movie review

Some remarks from George Takei at Denver Pop Culture Con prompted me to revisit the classic film, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The film came out in 1991 at the end of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had just been dismantled in the very same year, and the writers built an allegory that did an excellent job of mirroring contemporary political events. This was also the last Star Trek movie with the original cast. So it is trying to provide a summary of the series and Gene Roddenberry’s ideas that can serve as a strong conclusion for the show.

George Takei’s comments about both Gene Roddenberry’s vision and this film had a surprising depth to them. He talked about how he grew up in an internment camp for Japanese people that was set up by the U.S. government. He had essentially no rights, and his entire family was under the control of soldiers who treated him as the enemy because of his race.

Takei placed this against Roddenberry’s ideas, and it was one of most moving sets of comments I’ve ever seen. He described Roddenberry’s vision as one of humanity working together and ignoring superficial differences between people to find a common good and improve things for everyone. The starship Enterprise was meant to represent earth, and the show’s idea was about bringing people together to solve problems of the human species. With environmental collapse posing an imminent threat to life and civilization, these ideas are even more prescient now than when the show was made.

Star Trek VI explores Roddenberry’s ideas in the Cold War context very well. The relevance after nearly 30 years is stunning, and this is deepened by the extent to which Russia and the former Soviet Union continue to impact American politics and security issues, with tensions that started out of suspicion of American intentions after the invasion of Iraq and following efforts to expand NATO into East Europe, the most extreme tension happening over Ukraine and then spilling into retaliation from Russia through hacking.

The film deals with race, and it has an engagingly unsubtle way of doing so. Roddenberry’s original show foresaw a future where racial conflict no longer exists, but when Nicholas Meyer made The Undiscovered Country, he was clearly bothered by the extent to which it still existed, and he set up a conflict between this, expectations of a better world after the Soviet collapse, and Roddenberry’s vision of a perfect future. In many ways, the film foreshadowed the present, where a large part of society expected racial issues to have been overcome by now and are shocked by the extent to which these conflicts are very much still part of the present and have troublingly reemerged in sometimes extreme ways. The twofold reaction that is most obvious is on the one hand disappointment over liberal dogma turning out to be fiction and revulsion at conservative pursuits of militancy and racism. Both sides are basically a disaster, and the film sees a world where nothing works except the heroism and good intentions of its central characters.

Indeed, the end of the Cold War had a lot to do with how the world looks today along the lines of that issue and many others. The expectation of the 1990s was that nuclear war would not happen, that peace would prevail, that racism would become obsolete, that environmental problems would be worked out, and that capitalism would last forever. Those views have collapsed in a sadly violent way after the September 11 attacks, Iraq War, 2008 financial crisis, growing environmental collapse due especially to global warming, deforestation, and biodiversity reduction, and Russia conflicts. The Undiscovered Country was well received at the time, but it deserves new analysis in light of how accurately it predicted a disturbingly violent backlash against the progressive ideas that were prominent with the Cold War’s dissolution. It offers stunning echoes of crises that are happening in the present.

Nicholas Meyer returned as director for this film having previously directed what is usually considered the best film with the original cast, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That film was responsible for reviving the entire series in many respects. George Takei surprised me by going over the story of what happened after the show was cancelled and thanked long time fans for reviving it. That’s a history worth briefly recounting here. The original show ran for two seasons, and was expensive as well as very odd for its time, and CBS cancelled it. Then a letter writing campaign from fans brought it back for a third season. Then it was cancelled yet again. Then it became a hit in syndication, and yet another letter writing campaign led to a film being made.

So with that, Star Trek: The Motion Picture brought back the franchise. It was a good movie but not entirely successful at bringing Trek to the mainstream. Still more letters were written by fans for another film. Finally, Star Trek II brought in a highly intelligent director who spent a lot of time researching the show and working to create its most crucial qualities in a work of cinema, and it is probably the point at which the show reached a level of popularity that made it a somewhat permanent phenomenon that keeps finding new stories, new movies, new casts, and new series in what seems like an endless space opera.

Leonard Nimoy directed the next two films which continued the story from the second film, and Star Trek saw three very successful films in a row. That success led to the creation of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and because Nimoy had been so successful as a director, Paramount made Star Trek V under the direction of William Shatner. Sadly, it turned out to be the only original cast film that collapsed with audiences and critics. It had bold and smart ideas, but perhaps too many of them shoved into one movie, and Shatner was reputedly very nice and accommodating to everyone on the set out of love for the show, possibly with the price of not controlling the production as tightly as needed. He also had to deal with the studio creating some issues with reduced budgeting and had to work with a special effects house that wasn’t adept at the material. The result is a sort of meandering guilty pleasure that didn’t leave the Trek film series in the best position. So Paramount wanted a better conclusion for the the original cast and brought back Nicholas Meyer to direct with Leonard Nimoy as a major contributor.

That turned out to be an excellent choice, and the writing found inspiration in the pairing of Rodenberry’s ideas with the Cold War. This is especially potent, because the series as developed in the 1960’s during the height of the Cold War had the Klingons metaphorically standing in for the Soviets, and the entire show is heavily infused with 60’s ideas. That romantic and futuristic optimism during the economic boom of a world still being rebuilt after World War II gave way to grittier realities that would eventually lead to our present, and the film handles both sides of this adeptly enough to build an inherent conflict between them. In essence, Meyer’s film builds classic drama from the conflict of Roddenberry’s vision with depressing observations of the world.

Secrecy plays a major role in the film, and we see that the powerful often operate in the dark to bring to light impulses that would not be acceptable if they were held out in full view. Shakespeare is also used very well, and indeed his plays often portray similar conflicts, those between the intentions of the powerful and the natural good of humanity. The Elizabethan England that was Shakespeare’s central place of reference was a more orderly world of expectations but one that dealt still with gritty chaos in the streets of London. Certainly in his plays, the powerful plotting of the nobility and royals in their castles have motives that can be very twisted away from the relative harmony that he saw in nature, and so in this film we see elites within the military and political circles plotting together to ensure that profitable conflicts will continue, at the expense of everyone else. 

The cinematography is uniformly beautiful with very skillful and gritty choices for dark photography. It does create a more realistic atmosphere both for space and for paranoia , and it can be seen as a predecessor to the very dark and gritty turn that science fiction would take in the 21st century through examples like the recreation of Battlestar Galactica.

George Takei also recounted the film from Sulu’s perspective and described his efforts to create a series for himself as captain of the Excelsior. This turned very amusing with his appreciation of the film going well into a shot by shot analysis which to say the least, puts Sulu in the most positive and heroic light that could be read into the film. It was a deeply moving speaking engagement, and what stood out the most is that Take takes Gene Roddenberry’s ideas very seriously as offering something important for humanity that is needed now more than ever.

The fourth film, made in 1986 also helps to show the seriousness of this. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home takes a serious look at the environmental crisis, but it’s worth remembering here that the 1980’s was the high point of the environmental movement. Since then, that optimism and seriousness of trying to save both the planet and natural areas have been replaced by dire predictions and empirical observations showing very little to be left of a healthy ecosystem. Insect populations which are essential to the ability to do something as simple as grow food have declined so severely that mass extinction and complete collapse are possible within decades. Sadly, with Roddenberry dead, we are left with his powerful ideas but in need of someone with a creative vision as powerful as his at translating those into narrative art.

Game of Thrones – Season 8 – First Half – review

Game of Thrones – Season 8 – First Half – review

The last series of Game of Thrones is turning out to be a powerful combination of moving and thrilling cinema. I don’t think it should be considered television. That is too meager of a medium to describe the accomplishment. The scope of this series is so vast, and the concluding episodes show such beautiful cinematography, that it simply has to be called a long form work of cinema. Yes, HBO has produced it. Still, Emilia Clarke’s acting is so much more expressive, subtle, and powerful than the large quantity of garbage sent to multiplex theaters that I prefer to accept Game of Thrones as cinema rather than the Avengers movies.

The series is so filmic that it almost rediscovers film. This is a medium that is in serious need of fixing in the 21st century. Film has largely been withering under the force of even worse commercialism than before, tiny screens with junk social media content for an increasingly dumbed down and artistically numb population. Cinema needs a shot of life with new ideas and new perspective. Game of Thrones is closer to that than most films, though to be fair, cheaper distribution and digital production for smaller works has allowed for some good independent filmmaking to exist. The vision of this series though is truly cinematic while its dramatic portrayals are subtle and complex. Added to that is a willingness to challenge social norms and conventions, to slay sacred cows, that makes it one of the few challenging 21st century cinematic works.

The long running time of the series allows for Shakespearean stories of fights for power, fatal downfalls, and twisted intentions to get real life on the screen. That allows for Game of Thrones to reflect the world we live in better than most films can ever touch. The sheer lack of subversiveness in cinema as a medium has by contrast become frightening as it prevents organic real life from slipping in, replaced by cold technological simulations that are designed to please bureaucrats and consumers rather than human beings. Where Alfred Hitchcock once delved into psychology most would deem untouchable for the screen in Vertigo, today film is so absurdly scared to upset the powerful that the legal system is misrepresented as being just, reliable, and rule bound in spite of voluminous factual empirical evidence to the contrary, while rich authoritarians are made to look good in almost every movie. Then there is Game of Thrones.

In a masterwork, we see the powerful laid bare as corrupt, psychotic, perverse, stupid, and greedy in a way that American culture tries very hard not to admit. If HBO is able to air such original ideas, their production team for the series should be accepted as one of the only good parts of 21st century cinema. The first half of the final series has brought us to complex character dynamics with hints of resolution to some long conflicts, but the show does not go to the point of wrapping things up neatly. It brings resolutions alongside questions and still more dynamics of conflict and far reaching motivation. The willingness to not shy from controversy but to instead portray popular and powerful people as depraved and mentally deranged just like they really are is perhaps given more life by being shown in the home thanks to HD broadcasting. 

There is no concern about pleasing movie theaters or having a big glitzy and expensive opening weekend. Instead, there are hours and hours of very good acting and complex screenwriting. We see portrayals that challenge our perceptions of people in power around us, and we recognize truth. While America’s Attorney General is accused of committing a crime under the law by the Speaker of the House for lying to the U.S. Congress about a criminal investigation of the President, Americans are able to see themselves as being ruled by plotting idiots very similar to Cersei Lannister on HBO’s excellent television series. Game of Thrones has a subversive way of showing that American culture has become so corrupt that people are ruled by deranged people with fat stomaches and excited genitalia instead of honorable, intelligent, wise, just, or competent people. Much like Game of Thrones, violence perpetrated by the rich against everyone else has become the normal state of life.

If cinema were willing to go there the same way as David Benioff, D.B. Weiss, and Emilia Clarke it might have a chance of becoming a relevant artistic medium again, the way it used to be when George Romero made Dawn of the Dead as a rich allegory of American consumerism ultimately destroying all of us, and the way that people have to discover now by watching restored classics instead of new movies filled with CGI, pablum, and dialogue written for people so attached to their phone screens that they are unable to distinguish between fact and fiction any longer, a serious limitation that makes superhero movies very popular with the general population. For Game of Thrones, we instead get a gritty view of life where power and money have corrupted everyone of prominence. To some fans of the show, the Night King seemed like a savior for that very reason.

The beautiful third episode though, halfway through the final series, has brought us his death at the hands of the diminutive Arya Stark. It suggests power in the hands of the smaller and the weak, a principle of democracy entering the show in the background of a series that has shown us so much of how corrupt and depraved the powerful really are, with obsessions for gold and sex with their own family members or less powerful people very close to them much like politicians, businessmen, and academic leaders of today behave. While the powerful in America threaten journalists, point fingers at each other, frame their critics, and abuse logic to manufacture twisted lies and propaganda in desperate efforts to obfuscate their own corruption and abuse of power, Game of Thrones shows us the truth about rich and powerful predators who can’t wait to sink their teeth into everybody else just to steal more stuff.

Money is what really rules Westeros, and those who follow ethics and strive to be virtuous and to help other people pay the price for it. Sophie Turner’s portrayal of Sansa Stark showed us this as the meek and kind child of the just Ned Stark was brutally tormented by the rich and powerful Ramsay, a person of little intellect and no virtue but instead violent obscene power, much like the heads of organizations in our own society. We love the Stark family, because they stand up for normal people and virtue and don’t bow to wealth. 

The first two episodes of this last season of Game of Thrones set up the middle war episode deftly. They offered subtle character developments. We see the side of especially Jon and Dany along with their companions preparing for the worst and trying to form bonds with people they care for. That effort to care about each other in conflict is what made the first two episodes so very moving. The biggest revelation is Jon’s lineage making him a Targaryen and heir to the iron throne. Hopefully the show will have him and Dany decide that it doesn’t matter, because the iron throne is not worth very much after all. It’s too bloody, to corrupt, too vicious to matter as much as people being just and caring for one another.

Bird – movie review

Bird – movie review

Bird by Clint Eastwood is one of the most interesting and underrated film of the 1980’s. It has always enjoyed a good reputation and is routinely considered one of the best films on jazz, but it never seems to quite reach a higher status of being a universal study of art, and I think it deserves a bit better. It’s one of the best films about music that I’ve seen and does an interesting job of turning Charlie Parker into a tragic hero of the tough and uncompromising variety that director Eastwood is enamored with in his films, which have always been very influenced by the grittiness of westerns. Parker is a tough and direct character who maintains his path in spite of great opposition and oppressive circumstances.

Eastwood is a hardcore lover of jazz, and the deep appreciation for the medium comes through the entire film, imbuing every shadowy and smokey club scene. We see Parker as an emblem for the jazz world which was mainly made of African American musicians who were not accepted by the society of their time due to racial paradigms even while they created the popular music of the era, were loved by audiences for their creations, and were in the best cases artistic geniuses. That is one of the deepest paradoxes of American society, and Eastwood is a much loved but gritty personality who was in a unique position to seriously portray that in the 1980’s.

That decade saw the rise of commercialism in film pushing out artistic integrity (it’s gotten worse since), and it saw a massive backlash against progressive movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Eastwood in some respects takes on that entire decade with a film that shows that American art is deeply formed by outsiders from its most vital roots. Jazz and blues are often called the only original American art forms, and it’s not a leap to make the case for that. They also are entirely formative for later rock music that grew out of them. Rock and roll is the music of opposition and freedom, and it inherited that from jazz being a great art form made by the descendants of slaves, some of the most oppressed of people.

Eastwood dedicated the film to musicians all over the world, and the movie is enamored with the freedom, profundity, creativity, and universally moving power of music. I can certainly express appreciation for that viewpoint, but Eastwood is masterful with how well he carries that idea. Jazz breaks through every barrier, but the fact of doing that so successfully also meant living on the edges of society, because not only was America deeply racist in Charlie Parker’s era, but the racism caused more concern about successful and talented people of color than even the average oppressed person.

The scenes of Parker playing are beautiful. Forest Whitaker does a nice job of filling his troubled and inspired suit in an era of smokey clubs, rampant racism, and creative people who were by contrast very accepting of anyone. Parker is caught between two worlds for much of his life admired as a great musician and having played with prestigious people in excellent venues but also treated with scorn for having dark skin. This may have helped fuel his use of drugs as an escape, but that led to him being even more scorned. Eastwood’s focus on the problem of addiction makes Parker seem a bit paradoxical much like William Burroughs, genius and creative saint but also a deeply flawed, fallen, and troubled person.

Charlie Parker was addicted to drugs and this is an important part of the film. It’s been criticized for that as well, but I don’t find that theme to be overdone. Parker’s drug abuse was serious and unfortunate. It played a part in explaining his sadly shortened life, and drug abuse has been harmful to a number of musicians. Eastwood tries to find answers for that without ever acting too certain that he has them, and he also tried to warn other art lovers of the dangers inherent with that.  Parker seems to be drawn to them in the film for a few reasons. One side comes from the brokenness of his life. Caught up in conflict, he escapes through heroin. Another part of it seems to come from his outsider status creating its own pressures. Both of those issues could help to explain the presence of drug problems in poor and minority communities, an escape from desperation.

The other part of Parker’s drug use has to do with ecstatic art though. The experience of music is a being outside of oneself in an altered state produced by melody and sound, and it may then be no surprise that so many musicians have traveled that path of destructive drug use. Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue was also addicted to heroin much like Charlie Parker, and the list goes on. Other people have observed the damaging effects of this, and it has served to clean up the music scene in more recent times very well to the point that alcohol is the far more likely substance of abuse, but stories and works of art like this film have done a lot to give artists and art lovers the realization that drugs are a dangerous world best avoided and a road to nowhere.

Undeniably though, the sound of intoxication is present in Parker’s saxophone playing.  He is so fluid and colorful in his playing that if he had been on guitar rather than sax, his sound would be recognized as psychedelic. Of the many jazz greats, Parker alongside Miles Davis may be the closest to what became rock and roll. The bebop sound Parker helped to form was certainly a part of that development, and the speed of his sax playing alongside the strange gliding play between notes into a hazy synesthesia is where the guitar would go later on with rock. Sadly, his drug use as well predicted what would happen to a number of rock musicians who were similarly harmed or destroyed by the same thing.

Clint Eastwood’s film is then a lasting achievement. As time marches on, cinema has the beautiful ability to be a store of forgotten and lost times, and this 1980’s film captures the earlier era of jazz in a way that would be hard to do later on. Dizzy Gillespie was still alive when this movie was made, and some of the cultural issues the jazz era dealt with were easier to see in the 1980’s before digital developments changed music and culture to a much more packaged and reactionary place of over simplification. The film is gritty, fluid, and organic as real physical film is capable of, and it is sad to say that that both jazz and cinema seem to be leaving us. This was a topic well displayed later on by Damien Chazelle in his fine works Whiplash and La La Land, but Chazelle can only mourn what is gone. Eastwood still had some of it left to show us, and Charlie Parker’s memory and radical creativity can live on better with that.  

As an uncompromising and troubled artist in a flawed and oppressive time, Bird is clearly a hero for Eastwood. He is as forceful a personality as anyone Eastwood has ever acted or directed, and the most fascinating thing about his direction of the film is that he is able to give so much personality to that perspective. Every cut, lighting choice, blocking decision, and camera angle seem to reinforce that. People beat up on bird, and he dies young, but he stays a great musician. Compared to the anti-hero, William Munny, of Eastwood’s great Unforgiven who drank way too much and lived to excess at times against a life he would later prefer of love and domesticity, Parker is also addicted, and he ventures out into music clubs to try to support his family. Where Munny could be cruel though when crossed, Parker is fundamentally a lover who had limited means but exceptional gifts. The force of those great gifts made jazz a different place and made rock and roll possible later on. The film deserves a full restoration and reappraisal as a major 20th century work.

Game of Thrones – Season 7 – review

Game of Thrones – Season 7 – review

With Game of Thrones about to air its final season, it’s an exciting time to think back on the series as we await the conclusion. The George R. R. Martin derived series has become one of the most successful dramatic works of the 21st century. It’s taken seriously both aesthetically and as cult entertainment and has even revived interest in medieval storytelling.  Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen is one of the most enigmatic and interesting personalities to be put on the screen, and the high quality cinematography and expansive dramatic situations do a lot to suggest that HD streaming series can compete with film both on aesthetics and dramatic storytelling.

The extremely long running time that a series affords allows for more dramatic development than a film can permit, and Game of Thrones has used this expertly. The series is typically exciting to watch in anticipation of what happens next, but the beauty of it is that this happens in the sense of character development rather than typical Hollywood action as what we anticipate. There is a great deal of subtlety and depth to the portrayal of characters in Game of Thrones. In particular, Cersei Lanister has shown the excesses and horrors of a twisted personality in ways that would be hard to imagine in most dramatic works. There is a psychological richness to this that adds to Game of Thrones as a work of art and cultural achievement as well as entertainment.

With series seven complete and about to give way to the series’ conclusion, we can see paths charted out by these characters that reach very rich depths. Cersei started as someone who seemed innocuous in the first series. As King Robert Baratheon’s wife, she was on the sidelines too much for us to know at first how manipulative and destructive her character would become. As things unfolded though, we saw Cersei whittle away at any shred of decency the kingdom might have had in what would have been only a small way anyhow. Series seven saw her becoming desperate to hold the kingdom that she took control of by destroying so many people. The beginning of a rupture between her and her brother, Jamie, opens exciting possibilities and questions, both in terms of the show’s resolution and in terms of her own psychology starting to fracture. Cersei is so deeply twisted that it’s hard to find much of a personality with consistent values within her. She loves power, corruption, and destruction as much as a depraved politician, and we don’t see anything that is important to her besides that other than having sex with her brother. It’s an interesting twist of perversion becoming dementia that happens in a show that might have been positive towards fetishism like the great band the Lords of Acid are, but instead we see the medieval world unveiling perverse insanity through Cersei.

The shocks that go with the series follow a true medieval logic of shock and horror. This became the precedent of the time partly from kings using terror to maintain and structure their power over kingdoms. They used depraved and shocking violence to woo the population into submission. This is why torture was practiced, and it was used to produce so much shock that the populace would fear the king rather than rebel against being oppressed, as Michel Foucault so excellently charted out in his masterwork, Discipline and Punish. The show takes two basic possibilities of ruling. One involves the use of violence to control people and amass wealth, the model America follows as it abuses poor people very regularly through corrupt scheming with the wealthy. This has led to the show creating great excitement about how accurate it is in portraying contemporary times. The other possibility involves the use of power to support average people and represent their interests in order to raise up society. That model of power doesn’t really exist in the corrupt world of today, but on the show Daenerys and Jon Snow represent this as they fight for larger ideas of justice and protect people who support them. It is likely part of why so many people love the show and identify with its two heroes in great preference to their own crooked leaders. 

Jon Snow stands in series seven with a new alliance between him and Daenerys that is brought on both by necessity and good intentions. They see a common desire for justice and and a personal need to actually help the people who support them that leads them to fight together. They also see practical advantages of dealing both with an army of undead people and with Cersei. Magic and mysticism imbue both characters. In the case of Jon, it is through his having been revived from the dead. With Daenerys, it’s through her dragons. The dragons are somewhat up in the air now in how they will impact the show. This was a base of power and uniqueness for Daenerys throughout the whole series, but now a dragon has been taken by the Night King and turned into one of the undead. So we can anticipate an epic fight over this.

The character of Daenerys really is the show’s best invention, and it is somewhat unique to the series more than the books, because the character is so tied to Emilia Clarke’s dramatic portrayal. She is the most just character on the show and the only one who seems to be inspired by something that isn’t at all common. One of the better sides of medieval life and aesthetics was an appreciation for exceptional things, an idea that was often captured by nobility, kings, and varying views of god or magic. Emilia Clarke’s character places that idea in a much larger and otherworldly place by suggesting that she is divinely inspired. This also fits the medieval world well.

One advantage to living in the medieval world was that population sizes were far smaller and distractions far less. There was no environmental crisis in that era. A major reason to be disappointed by industrial civilization is that while we are told propaganda about higher standards of life, in reality resources have been depleted while populations have boomed to a noisy, nonsensical, and unsustainable level while the wealthy horde the planet’s stolen resources. Daenerys wants a more just world, and this is why so many people of today love her, but she does better than that. She wants justice all around. The beauty of the show and her characterization through Emlia Clarke’s slightly removed performance, made to suggest that she is in touch with higher powers like a sort of Joan of Arc (a character of great cinematic lineage through Jacques Rivette and Carl Dreyer), is that we see all of the enigma that goes along with that. She wants justice, and she knows that part of it involves a world of far more equality and less oppression, but she doesn’t know all the specifics of what justice really is. She is inspired by it but also admits that it is hard to define, and this is her greatest relevancy in portraying a just ruler.

By associating her with dragons in Game of Thrones, we see that there is a mystical side to wanting a better world. The good isn’t described by what everyone around her wants or normal human conventions, because the people around her are too corrupt to know what anything good is in the great game of thrones with so many players. Daenerys looks above herself and everyone else to get a sense as to what would be better. She wants to rule Westeros, because medieval conventions of divine bloodlines give her a reason to think that the throne belongs to her, but she also wants to rule simply because she knows she would be less corrupted than others and would do something better, whatever it turns out to be, something that is predictable based on her lack of selfishness. 

George R. R. Martin has fused magic, mysticism, fantasy, and politics in an exciting way that captures the flare of the medieval world very well. Game of Thrones has taken this and shown us endless political allegories placed in the context of very complex character development, but it has also managed to keep the fantastical on the edge of the world of Westeros. It allows for Game of Thrones to be magical without being overtaken by it. That’s a far better accomplishment than what Peter Jackson was able to do with Lord of the Rings. Rather than hitting us over the head with supernaturalism, we see glimpses and hints of it that fit the way medievalists were far more obsessed with magic and divine things than people of the present and how it also affected the way that people actually live and the wild world of corrupt politics around them.

The medieval world also had a real sense of physical things and tangible stuff. Unlike the carefully structured unreality of the present day world where people are surrounded by propaganda, fake news, and distracting electronic screens all built by money and greed, the medieval world Game of Thrones recreates snippets of so carefully as it deconstructs power relations actually had tangible objects. So when someone bought a chair it was made by nearby craftsmen instead of factories in China with the profits going to billionaires, and even though people were ruled by kings, it was at least a physical person in a nearby building rather than a psychotic person thousands of miles away propped up by tools of war so violent that nuclear weapons designed to incinerate the entire earth are stockpiled by the violent and insane leaders of today.

At the same time, kings were violent in maintaining their rule, and the population was treated as a game with people to exploit, much like they are today. So the endless comparisons of the old world before capitalism and democracy shown in Game of Thrones and the present are quite fascinating to unravel. I do suspect that medieval storytelling may gain even more popularity as people get ever more sick of their electronically controlled busy and false lives. The medieval approach of seeing a forest by walking out into an actual physical one is in many ways more attractive than the popular method of today in which people just look at a photo app, but it’s too bad there aren’t any dragons to save us.

Addendum

A few days after this was posted, Emlia Clarke authored a very moving piece in The New Yorker about suffering from a brain injury. After the first season of Game of Thrones was completed, she nearly died of a brain aneurysm. It was a tragic and painful close call involving multiple surgeries and two serious aneurysms. One surgery fixed an artery less invasively by working a probe up through her circulatory system. Things later got worse with a second brain artery rupturing and nearly killing her. That led to invasive surgery which removed part of her skull to access her brain and repair the damage. She suffered tremendous pain and loss of memory and personal characteristics and did not know if she would survive. The sad tragic nature of the story deserves a mention here, because it adds still more to the character of Daenerys and the inspiring power of the show.

The cinematic persona she most resembles is Joan of Arc, especially the Carl Dreyer version in The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer’s Joan suffers, yet is innocent and more than anything someone unusually inspired. She inspires the best in others, and there is a poetic resonance with such a powerful background story for Emila Clarke. She shaped her experiences into something positive by both recovering and starting a charity to help others with the same condition. Her charity is called SameYou, because brain injury can cause people to lose their identity, not know who they even are, and lose much of what made them their former selves. The terror of traumatic brain injury leaves many people uncomfortable with talking about it, and her charity is aimed at changing that and offering assistance. It’s also worth noting that she was in the last days of her health insurance when the near death injury requiring invasive surgery happened, and in the United States many people don’t have health insurance still. The ability to pay for treatment can be a life or death consideration with brain injuries, and her charity is calling attention to something very important.

Anna and the Apocalypse – movie review

Anna and the Apocalypse – movie review

Anna and the Apocalypse is a deliriously fun movie. Set against the end of the world as the title suggests, it turns that setting into a horror comedy centered around a high school, but on top of that, it’s also a musical. Anna is played by the excellent new actress Ella Hunt, and she dances and sings songs while she kills zombies. It’s a wonderfully odd movie that manages to blend a musical reverie of horror with serious topics, and it all happens at Christmas time.

There are so many unusual things happening just in those key ideas to make this an exciting project from the moment it took shape as a screenplay, but the execution of the film is remarkable for maintaining tight control over so many elements that each seem capable of dominating the film. The very first shot of Anna and the Apocalypse demonstrates how well controlled director John McPhail is of his subject matter. We see Anna’s family driving along in a shot that immediately is reminiscent of Danny Boyle’s remarkable zombie classic 28 Days Later. Her father is at the wheel, and the family is clearly dressed for Christmas with the appropriate music playing, but the way the scene is shot looks like horror instead of celebration even though nothing has happened yet.

This is a British film, and like 28 Days Later, it centers around the end of the world happening due to a virus turning people into zombies. Like Boyle’s film, it also deals with serious social topics within its entertaining guise, but the similarities mostly end there. By setting his film within a school, McPhail is able to have mostly innocent people just beginning to make their way in the world offer us a perspective on a society that seems doomed. We all live amidst a rapidly worsening environmental crisis. U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein was recently caught on video telling a group of children that she isn’t very concerned that the way her fellow elite leaders are trashing the environment will leave them with effectively nothing to live from. While powerful people like her are more disgusting than the zombies in John McPhail’s excellent film, Ella Hunt gets to play a heroic part as Anna, a lost innocent girl looking for hope amidst a collapsing world.

She fights zombies with her friends, and they are all saddened by how much their lives are shaped by technology instead of human interaction. McPhail is astute for seeing the way that smartphones and other high tech gadgets are ruining society and the future of young people rather than enhancing them. This art magazine was designed around the idea that the internet is high tech garbage. By having nothing besides in depth and clear content, I’m aiming to give readers something that is not an endless pile of ads, tracking services, and consumption and allow them a chance to think and engage exciting works of art. In that vein, I admire Anna and the Apocalypse for finding so much wrong with our world and for having an artistic vision that turns zombies into its metaphorical depictions and a singing girl into its heroine.

Anna runs around with a giant candy cane smashing and killing the zombies who took over her school, and in a remarkably odd scene she uses a seesaw to behead a zombie. To make that even better, she finds the seesaw on a children’s playground that inexplicably sits next to a graveyard she was dancing and singing in, and the beheaded zombie was dressed up as a furry. Anna and the Apocalypse is so inventive that I worry it might be missed for its high quality simply by virtue of being so fun that viewers might not realize how strange and meaningful the entire work is.

Ella Hunt is cast perfectly here. She has the right blend of ordinariness, innocence, and willfulness to convince us that Anna is an average girl made into a heroine. It reminds me of the best classic horror films from the 1970s and 1980s when directors like Dario Argento and George Romero were churning out masterful and inventive films that took cinema to new places it had never seen before. When films like Deep Red, Suspiria, and Dawn of the Dead came out they were controversial, but they were also aesthetically coherent works with powerful and deep themes and comments on our world within them. Anna and the Apocalypse is using a horror musical to do something similar, and it is a challenging film even though it is incredibly fun.

The students dance in an obviously well choreographed way that makes absolutely no sense for high school kids, and the headmaster has a gigantic and frightening academic beard he wears around the school while he pretends everything is fine as children are being eaten by the zombies. There is a lovely homage to George Romero when the zombies finally surround and eat him, and Anna spends a lot of the film singing about how much she wants to escape her dismal surroundings. For viewers who read between the lines, Anna and the Apocalypse has a very rich story, because we see scenes of Anna doing things like singing and dancing about her own misery and decayed world which is already so bad that she doesn’t even realize there are zombies at first, even though they walk right past her eating people.

As someone living in America, a country with such appalling violence in its schools that I am left thinking the leaders here should be locked up, this film does a beautiful job of showing exactly that much social deterioration. It is very much in the vein of George Romero’s work, because as most serious students of film know, Dawn of the Dead is a profound portrayal of American consumerism run amok in its depictions of people eating each other in a shopping mall. While many people wanted to see Romero’s film banned when it came out, his social commentary was right on the money as we now see selfish consumerism having reached the point of the planet nearing environmental collapse with major food sources threatened by disappearance and politicians living more corrupt lives than The Godfather.

In many respects, our civilization has gotten so bad that it is hard to even depict it in a work of art, and I love Anna and the Apocalypse for being inventive enough to be up to the task. The most memorable and beautiful line of the songs in the film, many of which are extremely funny, is surely, “There’s no such thing as a Hollywood ending.” After the recent success of Damien Chazelle’s excellent La La Land, that is a potent line. Chazelle revived the musical in a serious way by going backwards and revisiting a lot of classic Hollywood. His debut film, Whiplash, established him as a fine lover of jazz, and that certainly gives him classical credibility to have been up to the task, and La La Land is another important work of art. Chazelle is using Hollywood in that film to support dreams and artistic aspiration to be something more and something better than mundane life.

I think Anna and the Apocalypse has a perspective that would agree with that being a worthwhile goal, but it wants to bring us down to earth about how bad our surroundings really are even while giving us space to dream past them. So we get an innocent girl wearing a tie to her school having to pick up a giant candy cane and slay zombies while she dances and sings.

The cinematography in the film is appropriate to the subject matter and is beautiful in a muted sort of way. Fans of black and grey aesthetics will enjoy it a lot, and I love the way the film is able to use those images to combine both hope and decay. Clearly, we live amidst a broken monstrosity, but there is still some hope. We can wish for entirely different people to take things over and fix them by throwing out the past, and that is what Anna and the Apocalypse has its heroine doing.

The director deserves a lot of credit for how he blocks his actors. Musicals introduce the additional element of choreography, and combining that with drama and a story can be a difficult task. Even when the singing is incredibly funny, such as Anna’s ex-boyfriend singing, “When it comes to killing zombies, I’m the top of my class. While you were hiding, I’ve been kicking some ass,” the actors are well blocked. The story unfolds through every line and every shot, and drama continues on a consistent level.

We also care about John McPhail’s characters. Anna is too innocent and her dream of getting away to a normal life too respectable to not like her. When I see a new actress in a really good film that she completely nails like this my hope is always to see her in more good parts, because there aren’t enough good characters and scripts to go around. This one is a true gem, and Anna and the Apocalypse deserves to be taken very seriously even while its musical numbers manage to succeed at decadent horror comedy.

The Love Witch – movie review

The Love Witch – movie review

With The Love Witch, Anna Biller has crafted one of the finest films of the 21st century. A beautifully photographed story about witchcraft, love, and an odd personality, the film deconstructs enormous amounts of Hollywood iconography by reaching back to films of the 1960s to re-envision classic horror and love stories. The witch at the center of her story fills in for femininity and horror at the same time as she kills only because she wants to be loved. It’s a charming, funny, and odd touch to see a horror movie so centered around love.

The love witch of the title role, Elaine, has an interest in magic that is treated as a blend of occultism and female mystique, but both are laden with cinematic trappings. Director Biller treats them all as inseparable things. It means that the magic of cinema, women, and witches are the same poetic idea in her film, and we see a rich study of Elaine’s character using intricate scenery and bright color schemes. It’s as though Biller takes her starring witch’s psychology of love and extrudes it into the movie’s scenery as one fantastical but incredibly normal place, which is part of why this is a horror comedy.

I enjoyed learning that Alfred Hitchcock’s underrated and great psychological film Marnie was a major inspiration for the cinematography. Shot by Benjamin Loeb, The Love Witch has some of the most creative use of color I’ve seen since Michelangelo Antonioni. Like The Red Desert, it is able to use colors to portray the psychology of its characters. This is especially true of Samantha Robinson’s love witch, who is seen as a sympathetic and loving witch who just wants to be appreciated. We see her framed alongside vivid bright colors and soft pastels as well as darker facades of rich blackness. It shows the intensity of her emotion while also emphasizing gentleness and mystery. She’s supposed to be a dangerous witch, but she’s really funny and cute, and anyone with a heart has to like what Samantha Robinson does with the part. The cute mystique reminds me very much of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and that classic sensibility is exactly what The Love Witch is after. 

The cinematography is exquisite and recreates technicolor very well. The director and cinematographer spent a lot of time studying 1960’s films, and Hitchcock was a major touchstone. Marnie is one of his greatest and most underrated films. Tippi Hedrin’s character has secrets of her own psychology that she has no idea about, and they tie back into past trauma and actions by her mother, a story of sexual derangement drawn from Hitchcock’s fascination with psychoanalysis and Freud. Sean Connery’s character tries to understand and help her, but he has a hard time working his way in. In some ways, Hitchcock’s film is about the impossibility of love and the search for it. Impossible, because people are by nature separate, but desire calls us to one another even though no companionship is really a unity, and with the masterly techniques of the thriller and his past studies of psychology, Hitchcock makes love into horror. It’s a brilliant psychological turn, and the beautiful diffuse lighting with its dreamy qualities and sharply defined colors play major roles in the film. The Love Witch is openly indebted and also fascinated with the gender roles at work there, particularly the rational assertiveness of Connery and the vulnerability and confusion of Hedrin.

Psychologically we delve into the love witch herself in deep and gentle ways that cross fantasy and reality in manners that remind me of the great Spanish surrealist Luis Bunuel. Elaine’s key motivation is simply love, and Anna Biller uses this as a comic trope. It also allows the development of horror and magic to happen, because her desire for love pushes her to extremes. Mystery enters the film as she explores the occult in her efforts to make someone love her, and she is open to other people through both love and magic. The film makes fun of the convention that women only care about love while also using it to define its characters through remarkably rich iconography that confronts the entire tradition of cinema and deeply embedded cultural ideas of gender. Elaine is only happy when she is outside of herself loving someone else, and being a witch becomes her vehicle for achieving that. Part of the film’s humor is that she is using magic to get something that is entirely normal and doesn’t require witchcraft at all.

The acting has a wonderful classic sense to it. Samantha Robinson embodies classic beauty as Elaine, and she is very up to the task. Biller shoots her amidst bright surrounding colors most often with classic dress, makeup, and hairstyles that offer small hints at traditional depictions of witches. The goal is obviously to merge the idea of the witch with the idea of being female. Jennifer Ingrum plays a cute and funny pagan priestess in a witch cult, and she captures the irony of the film the best of any of the actors. Elaine’s boyfriend is a cop who wants to be masculine and tough and is thus afraid of loving Elaine, and her previous boyfriends were killed by her when she couldn’t get enough love. The funny quirk of Elaine as a witch is that she really just wants love in spite of all her odd involvement with witchcraft and its horror trappings. When she can’t get enough love, she kills. It’s a bit of a joke about feminine portrayals in cinema.

The editing gives the film a slow and realistic pace. With editing having gotten so out of control with brief shots that make no sense in most cinema of today, Anna Biller is remarkable for taking us back to organic filmmaking. I want to say that the use of Avid and related software has done cinema a disservice. When actual film was cut on a flatbed machine, there was an impulse to make things actually fit into a structured narrative and logical film. Now that it is so easy to put an edit in with software, the cuts go in places where they don’t belong in order to move ultra fast and maintain short attention spans while masking bad shots. The Love Witch is a welcome improvement.

Anna Biller follows her characters and develops them instead. We understand her locations for their longer shots. Emotion develops in the film. Time has a real sense like this, and it is a better way to make movies. The degree to which this film is informed about cinematic technique and history is masterful, and Biller went to great effort to make sure this was made on actual film. Digital has overtaken the industry so much that it is hard and expensive to even shoot on film any longer, and we should be thankful to have such an organic and analogue example of great filmmaking. I recently watched Scarlet Diva by Asia Argento, and that film was one of the first shot on digital, back in 2000. 18 years later it still seems innovative, because Argento had to work to use a new form for her medium. Anna Biller’s use of real film in The Love Witch has the same magical sense to me now, because she had to seriously think and work at her use of an old form for a medium that has been cheapened by easily shot digital video being far too common now. 

Feminist themes are a major touching point for The Love Witch. Anna Biller is fascinated by traditional roles of women and closely examines them in 1960s cinema. I have to agree with her that Hitchcock is the lion of all that iconography. He constructed Hollywood cinema perhaps more than anyone, and his take on gender roles is something popular culture has inherited as traditional gospel. Biller uses Samantha Robinson’s character of Elaine to deconstruct those traditional roles, and she obviously knows that Hollywood tradition is a foundation for shaping the present in that very same sense. Our minds are shaped by these conventions, and getting inside the love witch’s head is a deconstruction of how they operate within and around us, and on the screen in its flickering light.

Occultism was researched extensively by Biller to make The Love Witch, and she obviously references Wicca and Thelema throughout her film. One is an effort to recreate traditional witchcraft by reconstructing it historically, and the other is a later creation by Alistair Crowley which claims divine inspiration and also love, but both have influenced hippies, the arts, and California pop culture. In Anna Biller’s hands, magic becomes a natural part of art, and true magic is spread throughout this movie in its beautiful and vivid images that suggest something more than the mundane, a closeness to fantasy that fascinated Maya Deren in her experimental films of much earlier. Meshes of the Afternoon was about finding magic in the everyday and the self and thus bringing that into cinema. The Love Witch has similar lofty goals in bright color and a long feature running time of two hours, and I think Anna Biller is in many respects the inheritor of Maya Deren.

Iconography of women, men, and horror trappings are studied carefully throughout The Love Witch, and one of Elaine’s fantasies is to have a man become sensitive and experience intense love like a woman. This is taken to comic extremes of crying sensitive men who want to be held, and the way it all comes together to successfully explain Elaine’s motivations in a traditional narrative sense while being at the same time absurd is a delight. It’s a remarkably light take on witches while at the same time delving deeply into their iconography, and I find it fascinating to explore against One-Eyed Dolls’ excellent album Witches about the Salem witch trials, which was a tragic time compared to the freedom of Anna Biller’s remarkable film about witchery.

The 1960s are lovingly recreated and examined all through the film. I agree with Biller about this being a seminal period in cinema and find the beauty of the colors, fluid camera work, slow editing, and self-referential sense of cinema to be at a high point in that era. It’s a wonderful period for horror, because people were thinking about social roles and psychology quite a bit, and it would lead to the works of directors like Dario Argento and George Romero in the next decade. Roman Polanski’s great horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, is of this era, and it also examined gender closely. This is my favorite 21st century horror film. So don’t miss The Love Witch if you don’t already know her technicolor aura.

Mandy – movie review

Mandy – movie review

Mandy is one of the most exciting films I have seen in years.  It combines hallucinatory imagery with a strange plot that is not exactly linear. Nicholas Cage plays a man on a quest for revenge after his girlfriend is slaughtered by demons. That alone makes it sound like an odd movie that leaves some curiosity about how such a story would be executed. Panos Cosmatos is more than up to the task, and he uses this odd storyline as a vehicle for surreal imagery and symbolism that is refreshing and enrapturing. Cosmatos earlier on directed Beyond the Black Rainbow, an odd and absorbing film that is so hallucinatory it is hard to figure out what is happening. It’s a very interesting and psychological film, but it was flawed for not allowing drama to develop in its odd visual wrappings. Mandy manages to balance surrealism with dramatic storytelling very effectively and features fine acting and interesting psychological development of its characters and their motivations.

The way the characters are portrayed is intriguing and different. We see them in impressionistic glimpses with deep emotion, but we don’t get full explanations or a linear story about Red Miller and Mandy Bloom. We mainly see that they’re in love and are both dreamy people. They seem to inhabit a world of their dreams and are intentionally disconnected from everyday life as much as possible. She likes to draw, and he works as a logger. While logging is hard work, the Nicholas Cage character of Red seems to enjoy it for being so apart from society. The two of them have a home in the woods, and they shut everything out. She works at a local convenience store and comes home to draw, and they both love to look at the stars. Mandy is wonderfully dreamy, and it combines dreaminess with horror in a way that manages to be disorienting and oddly beautiful. Nicholas Cage gives one of his strongest odd and enraged performances of a man psychologically shattered, and I am reminded of his work with David Lynch in Wild at Heart, another strange and surreal film from a highly stylized director. Both films are a journey, but this one is a descent.

The demons are shown in a wonderfully visceral way. Instead of supernaturalism, we get crazed bikers who would make Mad Max proud. They offset the calm gentleness of Andrea Riseborough’s character of Mandy very well. We also get a religious cult that allows for commentary on religion and hipsterism in a darkly skeptical way that is absorbing as a bit of social analysis. Horror films don’t have the social commentary force they once did when George Romero was working, and it is well appreciated to see Cosmatos work to resurrect this in his film about a dead girlfriend. The cinematography is beautiful and odd. The color grading uses bright color schemes but softens them and has them flow into cloudy pastels. So part of a frame will appear harsh while another part looks soft and dreamy. It’s a beautiful and strange effect, and it seems to fit the psychology of its two protagonists who have their dream like world intruded on by harsh violence and madness. 

The descent of Red and Mandy is reflected brilliantly in the film score by Johann Johannsson with its harsh echos and musical screams of breakage amidst eerie haunting sounds that resemble industrial music. It sounds like an exploration of hidden interiors that are too apt to break us apart for it to be a good idea to explore them. Like a lot of movie scores, the opportunities for experimentation are ripe, and in this case, it sounds like a genuine musical advance. There are odd influences from heavy metal, psychedelia, Pink Floyd, Goblin, John Carpenter, industrial sounds, and other horror movies. I strongly suggest watching Mandy first, then listening to the soundtrack, and then watching the film again to absorb it all and see the psychological richness on display. Johannsson recently died, and this is his last score and quite a legacy.

Cosmatos has said he’s always been suspicious of hippie cults, and his previous film also explored that idea. The new one takes some of its discoveries and puts them into a more sensible narrative based on characters, where the other one seemed like a straight entry into distended madness with little explanation or exit. Mandy is killed by a group led by cult leader Jeremiah. He is a David Koresh like figure who is worshiped by his followers, and he likes to preach the end of the world and use hallucinogenic drugs. Cosmatos is taking the hippie interest in psychedelics and consciousness expansion and turning it into a dangerous upending of reality and normality. We see a shot of Mandy in her convenience store next to an American flag while one of Jeremiah’s gang visits and examines her. The flag can mean a lot of things to different people, but for Cosmatos it is just about a normal expectation of ordinary American life, a quiet life with her own place where her and her partner are left alone. Jeremiah’s insanity disrupts that. Mandy is not a conservative film, but it is suspicious of radicalism breaking things and taking away the basic pleasures of life.

The films of David Lynch are a nice reference point here, because he also deals with surreal themes and threats to ordinary safe domestic life. Lynch loves to reference the 1950s and paints it as a time of basic normal living in an undisturbed world of simple expectations. It’s his image of Amerrican tradition and its better norms. Underneath everyday life though, there are seedy and corrupt undercurrents of horror. Blue Velvet handled that exceptionally well with the white picket fence at the beginning of the film decaying into Kyle McLachlan finding a severed human ear in a cornfield and never being the same after. Cosmatos sees a similar world based on insanity. Jeremiah’s gang take LSD and become crazed killers with inhuman and depraved sensibilities, like a surreal vision of the Charles Manson gang of past fame. The suggestion seems to be that we should dream, but that it needs to be tied to normal lives. The basics of love, work, and domestic life are good things that give us the space to have real dreams and to see past ourselves in fulfilling ways, while Jeremiah’s hallucinatory decent and radicalism breaks the minds of himself and his followers. 

Eventually it also breaks Mandy. She is kidnapped and treated horribly by the gang, tormented and then burned alive while idiots laugh about it. Her portrayal is heartbreaking. Cosmatos has a scar on her face, but Cage finds her beautiful. She seems to be kind and dreamy, and she just wants ordinary things, a simple job, home, love… and art. She likes to sit around reading and drawing, and we see at the end of the film that she liked to draw Nicholas Cage and saw him as her safety. Cage becomes enraged by what happens to her, and her death takes place at exactly the midpoint of the film and is its dividing point. He goes on a quest for revenge, and the last hour of the film is his search for resolution through avenging her death. He gets a crossbow with arrows that cut through bone, and he makes his own axe. It’s an impressive device and reminds me of Bruce Campbell’s iconic chainsaw in The Evil Dead.

His revenge quest is bloody and violent, but most of all, it seems like a descent into hell and madness. The way that Cosmatos is able to portray this cinematically is genuinely brilliant. He uses harsh angles, bright colors, deep blacks, and diffuse lighting as Cage’s world gets more disoriented in the closing segments of Mandy. Hippie legends about LSD start to look like hell on earth, and the wilderness that is safe on its own is twisted into an apocalyptic landscape. Cage does seem redeemed by killing everyone who killed his girlfriend, but we don’t get the sense that he will ever be happy or normal. Jeremiah went searching for extremes, and he twisted the lives of two normal people into hell.

Ghost in the Shell – movie review

Ghost in the Shell – movie review

Ghost in the Shell presents a pleasant surprise in bringing to life a live action version of a classic Japanese anime. The film has a beautiful visual structure that sits somewhere between the 1980s, the future, and the present. It hypnotically draws us into the story of Motoko, otherwise known as Major, who we discover is a very incomplete and somewhat artificial person. The performances seem removed from drama and detached, and the film has its share of violence, but this advances an unlikely plot of a protagonist who is not quite human. In spite of some mixed reactions from other reviewers, the film does an extremely good and sometimes beautiful job of treating its difficult and alienated subject matter.

The film has been criticized for flat performances, but this seems intentional. There are Blade Runner borrowings and references throughout, another film which was attacked for flat performances when it was released. The film looks visually similar to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece set in a futuristic dystopia in which androids compete with human beings and blur the lines between people and machines.

Both films are covered in neon colors, an urban icon having more to do with the 80s than the present but that is able to depict technology and commercialism run amok in the future. Ghost in the Shell is populated with neon colored holograms projected from buildings to accomplish this, echoing the extent to which Scarlet Johansson’s character of Motoko is a ghost and also a reflection of what humanity is becoming. The two films also share a mixing of East and West in depicting the future. Most of all though, the films raise the question of what it is to be human by placing that issue in the context of technological disruptions of human existence.

Scarlett Johansson has become America’s sci-fi actress after a number of recent works, and this film sharpens that status even more. Her best work for the genre remains the British film Under the Skin, one of the most disturbing and interesting films of the last decade, but Ghost in the Shell creates another opportunity for her to offer a detached performance of not being quite human. It advances the kind of portrayal she developed in that film and gives her a chance to add some nuances to a person who is not alien in this case but is lost and out of touch.

While there have been some disappointed reviewers comparing this version unfavorably to the original anime film from 1995, I think it deserves better consideration. This is the first live action version of the film, and the story is based on a manga in the first place. So the classic film and the new one are both cinematic interpretations of very different source material, and to mix things up more, this story has also existed as an animated series. That all seems like good reason to be excited for a live action portrayal rather than reason to assess Ghost in the Shell as simply a Hollywood remake, though it does follow the anime film very closely.

The resulting film is a postmodern work of echoes, shadows, semblances, and catastrophe. While the violent scenes of Ghost in the Shell are easy to see as catastrophic, what is most intriguing is that the protagonist is herself a catastrophe. Brought about through a mixture of violence, technology, and superficial and shattered social bonds to become something not quite human, a ghost placed into a mechanical existence, Motoko is a metaphor for the postmodern and post apocalyptic human condition.

The future does after all have serious signs of being a disappointing place. The 21st century has been a string of failures for liberal democracy. Income inequality keeps getting worse and has for a couple of decades. Wars continue to be fought in the most violent and petty ways imaginable. Urban decay seems to have no end, and environmental degradation only worsens. With all of this happening, technology keeps improving, and corporate power keeps growing. We appear to already be very close to living in the dystopian world of Blade Runner, and Ghost in the Shell takes that seriously and shows a decaying world where only the technology seems to work properly. It also has beautiful shots filled with rain as its characters are betrayed and lost in a future noir of semblances and deceptions.

Like in William Gibson’s work and the overall cyberpunk genre, the story attempts to use technology to touch the surface of deeper questions of the human condition. Computers and artificial intelligence raise clever issues about our own self awareness and fundamental natures. Are we just bits of programming or something more? Whatever the case may be, a body does seem an awful lot like a sophisticated bit of hardware, and Ghost in the Shell skirts some underlying metaphysical issues by transplanting the brain of Motoko into her robotic body. The metaphor remains of the soul being something more than a superficial body or its surroundings, a point made all the better in scenes where the protagonist is made to become a transparent robot that effectively becomes her surroundings, blending in till there is nothing left, except for her ghost.

Ghost in the Shell is filled with beautiful shots of the rain falling and of water. The water becomes a metaphor for being washed clean of burdens, of the past, and of surrounding chaos. Somewhere submerged in the mind of Motoko is her past life before she was placed inside of her robotic shell. Retrieving those memories is a burden and an adventure for her, but at the same time, she longs for release from her turbulent present. The robot seems to be seeking peace while being caught in a world where it is impossible to find any.

The film’s strange temporal structure is a highlight here. Motoko is very much displaced in time, living with a burden of lost memories she wants to recover. Even recovering her memories won’t make her who she was. As a person, she is dislocated and has lost her origin. Moving into her future is both an effort to escape herself and to retrieve her past, and the puzzles of how she became this way raise questions about the future of where technology is heading for everyone else. This mirrors the film’s depiction of a future world with elements of past designs mixed in, and it makes it interestingly difficult to place within a traditional time structure. In a memorable plot line, she is hacked, and we see that her sense of both herself and her world become unstable as a result. The way she sees and the way that she remembers are both affected, as though these two senses are tied together. Who is to say who she is now and what she or anything around her really was before that?

The visual design borrows elements from Blade Runner and the 1980s, adapts them to the present, and presents a future with holograms displayed from giant grey skyscrapers in neon colors. The cleverness lies in how difficult it is to take apart these references. Some of this is a fair nod to Japan, where the ideas within the film originate, but it’s a portrayal of a digital world that has so many reconstructions and copies that it becomes impossible to know what is real any longer.

Ghost in the Shell does a better job of respecting its source material than some reviewers have noted in this regard. It does this in part by projecting an East meets West future that seems increasingly likely as Asia’s economy continues to develop and as the globe shrinks. Of course, Asia has played an important role in the development of computers both through Japan’s place in electronics in the 1980’s and in China’s current importance in manufacturing equipment and developing artificial intelligence. While the film’s shots of Hong Kong are anarchic and hard to place, that is appropriate to the subject matter.

Ghost in the Shell shows Asia in a way that reminds me of the Atari sign at the beginning of Blade Runner. It is anachronistic, misplaced, dreamy, scary, and beautiful all at once. Johansson’s beauty fits right into this landscape as an actress who is playing a robot who is a person inside, beautiful but superficial, with the light reflected from her curves in ways which echo the way it bounces off of glass panes, skyscrapers, and neon signs. Another lead actor has his eyes replaced with technological replicas in a way which also calls back to Blade Runner, a film which was filled with references to seeing. As a whole, the many internal references to Scott’s film do a great deal to improve the status of Ghost in the Shell, as it allows the work to inhabit a live action cinematic space that is distinct from its anime predecessor and which also shows a cinematic literacy and an effort to advance important previous film material, although it unsurprisingly lacks the enigmatic sophistication of Scott’s film. Blade Runner had many moments in which its world was dreamlike, to the point of the many semblances of postmodern high-tech life seeming to be an unreal place, a world of surfaces that is in reality just as unreal as the flickering cinematic light through which the audience viewed the film. Ghost in the Shell is able to capture part of this and reminds us that we are more like Motoko than we usually imagine, creatures so wrapped up in technology and images that we may have forgotten who we are.

Is there a depth, or is there only a surface to us? That is the film’s largest question, and beautiful shots of submerging into reflective water seen throughout the film help to realize this question as an image. The core of the self is elusive and hard to find, and our own memories are unreal based on the context in which they happened and our limited ability to have perfect recall. These are very Japanese ideas with certain Zen components to them. Sure, visiting the pub last night was nice and is well remembered, but is the memory the same as the original? Surely not, and none of us are the same people we were five years ago after many memories and experiences have shuffled us around. Ghost in the Shell raises the question of how deep down the rabbit hole we can chase that problem. Certainly there is an inner sense that is different from what is around us, but we can’t retrieve it perfectly. So is there really something inside us or not? The films wants to say yes but has a pleasant and disquieting lack of certainty that is properly ghostly.

Brains and software are wonderful analogies in this universe, and the intelligence of the film is seen in the imprecision of the analogy. As artificial intelligence develops, we will wonder more and more how much our own minds are like software running inside of a machine. At the same time, even very sophisticated AI would not prove that all parts of a person are the same as software code or reducible to complex programming. There is a lacuna here which leads us to question ourselves. There should one day be robotic things that look a lot like us and perform similar tasks, and scientists are already telling us that this is coming fast. That doesn’t mean it will be human, or that we will be machines, but it leaves us with surface similarities of not knowing how to draw the boundaries any longer. It is pleasing to see filmmakers with an awareness of these problems.

Johansson’s performance carries a subtlety that raises questions about what her character knows about herself and about which parts of her operate on survival and which parts allow emotion to find its way through. It is a subtle and difficult nuance to portray. She is not the emotionless alien of Under the Skin this time around, but she has given us a portrait of a damaged person who loses sight of feelings and buries them beneath in a way that leaves her perplexed about herself.

The director, Rupert Sanders, gives Johansson a lot to work with. She is framed in ways which allow her to dominate the image while at the same time seeming like a reflection of her superficial and glossy surroundings. Her character interactions often try to find out who she is, and when a lacuna arrives that seems deadpan, it is showing us how naked she is underneath. In some ways, her character is more naked than anyone ever is, a person stripped down to an inner awareness robbed of all context of who she was. Even a far greater film like Blade Runner could have used such an interesting paradox to shed light on its protagonist, and it is a delight for Johansson to have a part which allows for more development to be made on the strange understated character from Under the Skin.

The director has a clear grasp on postmodernity with its collapse of myths into repetitions of hollow cycles and images. He also is not ashamed to borrow B movie elements, which might have encouraged some to dismiss this film. I would offer the reminder that film noir was a B movie product to some extent, and this is an intelligent and dark enough film to use those trappings well.

Ghost in the Shell has an ending that is actually more bleak, existential, and interesting than the anime version. Some reviewers thought the director was giving us a happy ending, but this does not seem to be the case to me, whereas the anime provides a sort of high-tech transcendence. Motoko visits her mother at the end of the film, but does she really survive? She continues to exist, but the film has gone to great lengths to show that this is a very broken existence. She stares at her own grave and is left reflecting on her losses so much that she falls into the old existentialist tenet of life being made by what one does and nothing else. Her life falls back into robotic repetitions of the same job she had earlier in the film but with a bleaker image of herself now facing what she has really lost.

In a sense, finding her past only amplifies that loss, and this setup shows her to be very much like ourselves, partly connected to who we are and partly lost. Reconnecting with her mother says something about where she came from, but I don’t see the film asserting that she is left with more than a monstrosity. The ending is a postmodern circle of repetition and not a finale, and it fits the larger intent of the film, which sees technology as what we are stuck with and not something that can be our salvation or that can even answer our questions. In the last shot, Johansson fades away into a ghost again, not a fade out from the film, but from the actress. This director has done an excellent job with an important cyberpunk story, and Ghost in the Shell strikes me as an appropriately bleak and anxious film to treat its subject matter well.

Alien – movie review

Alien – movie review

Ridley Scott made one the best films anyone has ever made in the genres of horror, science fiction, and the thriller all at once with Alien. In a visually striking and dark setting, he delivers a disturbing story about space travel and alien life. The film confronts several basic questions that many people have. They are questions about being alone in the world, about life very different from our own, biological reproduction, technology and corporate power, predation, and isolation.

Those are some fairly heady themes, and perhaps the most missed point about Alien is that it is able to cover all of that intellectual and dramatic ground in a film that is entertaining and engrossing without making us realize how serious its topics are. It still rewards serious exploration of those themes, and it might very well be the most uncomfortable movie anyone has ever made. This is easy to miss when so many movies are much more violent, but I don’t think any of them are as scary or as well crafted. The vision Scott has with this movie is completely dark, bleak, desperate, and disquieting. There are lots of horror movies and lots of monster movies, but either they can’t really be taken seriously or else they are about a threat that can be overcome. Alien essentially offers no hope and entertains us with extreme nihilism.

Scott has a considerable intelligence for his way of realizing this. Space is vast, and the universe is a big place. The odds of only our planet having life makes effectively no sense, because science rests logically on the idea of nature being uniform. The simple need for the laws of physics to be the same throughout our universe makes it awfully likely that there is other life, some less advanced and some more advanced. If we drop all assumptions and take that basic point of logic into cinema and apply it to one of its worst possibilities, we get the movie that made Ridley Scott famous.

Some travelers heading through space on a mining mission land on a planet that gives a sudden indication of having life as they pass by. This is a wonderful narrative setting, because Scott has taken what we already know about corporations and technology and made it more advanced, as he would later do in Blade Runner. Corporate life and technological advances happen hand in hand. So once it is possible to make ships that can carry more things much farther in space, it is likely that resources will be harvested from other places. Resource deposits have already been found on asteroids that dwarf the presence of economically valuable metals on earth. So the idea of mining space in the future is very plausible and would be economically desirable.

Scott uses this setting to make science fiction realistic. The crew of the Nostromo deal with the same labor and corporate issues most employees deal with. Their company makes a lot of money off of their mining adventure. They are there simply to get paid and have this as their first concern. If something bad happens to them, they would suffer misfortune, but the company would take a loss and still be profitable, because that is how businesses tend to run. As technology advances and opens new profit avenues, Soctt has us troublingly ask: what will a company do to make a profit in the future?

Those concerns are reasonable, and it puts Alien into a strange mode of being a realistic film on many points despite its science fiction setting. The juxtaposition between realistic existential, economic, and technological questions with the unreality of the alien is what makes the film so scary and effective. We can connect with everyone in the movie and even like them, because they are like the normal workers of a corporate world simply trying to survive. The company they work for, the ship they are on, and an alien lifeform all converge to make that problem of survival become very difficult.

As biology advances to presumably one day become exobiology, more questions are raised about the expansion of science. We already have a lot to fear about the misuse of technology on our own planet to invade privacy with computers, to destroy things with atomic weapons, and to endanger life through the misuse of biology. What happens when biology deals with organisms from other planets, and some are more advanced than us? Scott’s answer is that we are simply finished and should give up all hope. His existential bleakness has few equals and is one of the best inspirations for drinking that I know of in cinema.

Perhaps most effectively, Alien is about indescribable otherness. We have no idea what will happen when humanity encounters life from other worlds. Stephen Hawking already warns that it could bring our destruction. More likely, we will encounter simple nonthreatening life of very basic sorts on places like a nearby moon before having to deal with intelligent life, but the question of what sort of otherness this could be is a powerful one. It is hard for us to make sense of animal life on our own planet, with cat owners wondering what their pets are thinking just as things are. Scott has us deal with how different life could potentially be, and he raises the question of hostility within it. Such a foreign encounter can’t really be categorized, and Scott’s film makes the alien odd enough to capture this very well.

Scott is a master at composing shots in his films, and Alien is a beautiful work even while it is bleak. The lighting on the ship is so eerie, and its corridors so carefully framed in so much shadowy darkness with bits of glowy high tech light breaking through that it is intoxicating. Alien manages to have the look of a classic film noir brought into an industrial setting as if to say that our technology is inevitably leading to a nightmare. The film at varying points does have a hypnotic dreamy quality that amplifies this sense of being a nightmare, though this often gets overlooked due to the high level of suspense.

When the film was made, Sigourney Weaver was not yet a famous actress, and it was unusual to cast a female lead in an adventure film of any type. Scott showed himself to be a subtle director of characters and built the entire cast into memorable personas who we could care about while giving the character of Ripley the heroic part. He is able to effectively keep her character as feminine while also conveying strength, as he would later again do very well in Thelma and Louise.

The gender exploration is a serious gesture in a film that is about the limits of life and humanity. This very obviously plays out in the horror of the famous chest burster sequence where the alien first emerges from John Hurt with a twisted form of birth. Similarly, the one black actor in the film is clearly portrayed as equal to all other characters in Scott’s film as though humanity should get over superficial reasons for treating each other as parts of separate groups when nature is big enough to include things that aren’t even human at all.

Finally, the treatment of artificial technology is a fascinating bridge to where Scott would go with Blade Runner. For a film made in 1979, Alien has a remarkably clear picture of a future in which computers are both necessary and dangerous, so needed they are even capable of taking over. The crew of the Nostromo can’t find out what is happening without help from a computer, but it turns out to be under the control of the company and does not have their best interests at heart.

The computer is mostly interested in profit and in war fighting, and it has been programmed to treat the crew as expendable in order to have the alien as a resource. This is done through an artificial intelligence that seemed just like another person. Certainly AI is gaining steam and will be making decisions that are very dangerous in the near future, but Scott is raising the philosophical question of how different humans and machines are in the first place once we live in a world surrounded with technology designed to profit from us.

Suspiria – movie review

Suspiria – movie review

Dario Argento’s 1977 masterpiece, Suspiria, has finally been restored, and the new version is a revelation. It shows subtle genius at work in the film and will do a great deal to establish this film’s place within the canon. Made just after Deep Red (which is also often argued as being Argento’s best film), Suspiria deals with witchcraft and the occult, and Argento uses an unusual and dreamy color scheme to show a world of hidden things to his audience.

All Argento films show a profound interest in seeing, and Suspiria is perhaps the best demonstration of this. The sophistication with which he handles the theme of vision helps to make the case for Argento as a major figure in world cinema. Suspiria invites us to attempt to see the unseen, and this has a basis in occultism. By using unreal color schemes and baroque framing on shots, we are brought into a dreamlike structure that feels like a fairytale. The self contained nature of Suspiria as its own dreamy world of incongruity makes the film like no other experience. The bright technicolor images haunt us, disrupt our place within the normal world, and draw us into Argento’s very different reality.

The restoration is crucial to the reception of this film, because mood and visual structure convey a large portion of the meaning of the film. Watching lesser prints with pale greyed colors over the years was unfulfilling and left only the film’s simple story intact, when much like Michelangelo Antonioni, Argento uses other specifically visual aspects of the medium to create his film with less emphasis on traditional narrative. As opposed to the profound humanism of Antonioni though, Argento gives us a very strange supernaturalism.

It is fair that Antonioni has the larger reputation given the universality of his ideas and the perfection and revolutionary nature of his work, but Argento deserves to be taken seriously for using a profound visual sense in Suspiria to take us out of the ordinary and into the occult in a way that no one else ever has. Occultism rests on an idea of unseen forces, and where most films leave that as silly creatures or jump scares, Argento turns this into a beautiful world of odd events and images which don’t make much sense on a normal level. He makes the unreal seem real for the 98 minutes of his film, and he changes the way that we see in doing so.

The story centers on a young ballerina who heads from Italy to Freiburg, Germany to attend a dance academy. Odd and unpleasant events ensue, and Jessica Harper’s portrayal of Suzy Banyon leaves us with sympathy for an innocent and decentered protagonist who we get to know mainly from being in far over her head. As the odd events continue, we discover that the school was the center of a witchcraft scandal and that the witch died. Of course, Argento shows us that the witch remains alive, but her existence turns out to be some other form from normal life entirely. Rather than explaining this, Argento relies on the use of striking unreal imagery to bring us into a dreamlike state of believing in an unseen force that is much larger than any person actually shown on film.

The reference to seeing continues into a a blind pianist who is murdered and eaten by his own dog under a full moon, as though a nocturnal type of seeing that is not normal perception is present. No one in the movie really can see what is going on, and that is the point of the film. We all seem to sense something just beyond the horizon of the image, and the baroque images of the film successfully portray this in an additive way that is masterful. It is one of cinema’s best accomplishments, and the restoration which Synapse Films has put together from original camera negatives with oversight from cinematographer Luciano Tovoli (who worked with Antonioni prior to this film and is not always in fine form in his later work but is brilliantly on top of his game here) make it possible to finally see this film on its own terms.

The music in the film is absolutely crucial to both the development of cinema and to electronic music. The score by Goblin is one of the most otherworldly and over the top compositions to ever be used in a film. Strange electronic sounds with wild keyboards and disturbing percussion draw us into a frenetic dreamworld that is haunting while at once being urgent and unstable. There is an all pervasive circular sense to the sounds as though something is always lurking around us with no way to pin down what it is. When artful stylized murders happen in unreal color schemes, the music has an eerie way of anticipating them.

Argento has had a problematic reception for a number of reasons. His films lie somewhere between the horror film and art cinema. While he is clearly a genre director, his aesthetic sensibilities take on a far more artful view than most of the genre with sophisticated issues being raised in his films. Some of his contributions have not been noticed due to being judged principally as an icon of the horror film. In particular, the place of seeing, reporting, sexuality, and psychology in his films is worthy of the most serious filmmakers. Many of the films feature journalists trying to uncover the truth, and Argento uses cinema as a means of helping the audience to interrogate the world through images.

His films often stand as fairytales, less aimed at disgusting us (though they are famous for that) than at warning us about dangers not everyone notices around us and offering a cathartic release from these concerns. His underrated later film, The Stendahl Syndrome, shows a woman struggling to overcome sexual trauma and examines its psychological effects on who she is. For Argento, we are all fundamentally unstable and face the risk of being split apart by our surroundings which may have dangers we don’t recognize. These dangers don’t only take the form of absurd killers or supernatural forces as is often caricatured about his films, but institutions as well are traps. We see this clearly with the dance academy in Suspiria, the boarding school in Phenomena, the research center in Cat O Nine Tails, the apartment building in Inferno, etc. Argento suggests that if we could learn to see better we could free ourselves, but searching for truth carries dangers in his world, because the people we notice might not appreciate our awareness. So reporters are regularly either in danger or else tricked into blindness and delusion, left to live as naive or else attacked by crazed people. Mere seeing is almost never enough for them to make their way around to the truth.

For many of his characters, surviving trauma becomes a centerpiece of self discovery, and Argento is inviting his audience to enact that experience. While the late films might not hold the brilliance of his heyday, the best period of his work is brilliant, running roughly from Bird With the Crystal Plumage to The Stendahl Syndrome, but admittedly at its best from Deep Red through Opera. Of that run, some films are stronger than others, and Suspiria is the pinnacle.