Showing posts with label film. Show all posts
Showing posts with label film. Show all posts

thoughts on "Inside Out"

(contains mild spoilers)

Terence and I saw "Inside Out" on Thursday night. Wow is that one Trojan Horse of a movie. Hey boss, how we gonna sneak heavy concepts like psychological development, subconscious thought, and emotional programming into our movie? Oh yeah! Pretty Pretty Pixar! Of course!

We cried like babies. I lost it especially hard during the forgotten memories scene (and later I realized this blog is an attempt at keeping some of my own neural matter from turning to dust). I maintain the film has much more to offer adults than kids, glossy and fun as it is - though chances are, being childfree, I'm just underestimating them. Either way, I loved the message that emotions often mix, often conspire to complicate our lives in beautiful ways. It's a poignant meditation on the bittersweet nature of nostalgia, and a reminder that in order to appreciate the light, we must stay in touch with the dark.

Destroyed as I was by it, I can't imagine the number it does on parents. Oh, hai, no pressure but those core memories you're helping create for your children? Those are really, really, really important. Kk, carry on! We came home and wrapped Chaucy into the biggest cuddle ever, kissing and loving on him while I wondered aloud, perhaps absurdly, perhaps not, about my part in his psychological growth. Every time someone compliments his calm, sweet temperament is a secret gold star stuck on my heart and I think to myself, If nothing else, you did that. You gave a dog a happy life. You made a happy dog. 

Is it ridiculous that I managed to make a feature-length cartoon about how I've raised my pet? Absolutely. Am I the only dog mom that came away with the same thoughts? I have to doubt it.

"Inside Out" gives its adult viewers a lot to reflect on, regarding their relationships with their parents. (And I don't think I could have handled watching it very soon after losing either of mine.) In fact it practically invites us to critically review these relationships. We all went through rough transitions, as children. New home, new school, change, loss - moments that challenged our still developing minds so deeply we needed the support of our families to keep us steady. And I expect those adult viewers who are also parents came away doing a lot of introspection about their own emotional availability - to their kids, and to their partners. That is, if the way I renewed my pledge to Chaucer's well being is any indication.

All this thinking. Makes me say something I don't often: Thanks, Hollywood.

What If, or In Defense of Snorkeling

There may come a day when Terence will turn to me and say Remember when you made me watch that movie about the time-traveling hermaphrodite who had sex with herself and gave birth to a baby...that was actually her? And I'll have to reply Yep. Yep I do. Because that was last night's activity.

As a dues-paying, voting member of SAG-Aftra, Terence gets free screeners of the award-nominated films. Super cool perk that's turned our living room into a regular AMC lately. No Horrible Bosses 2, either. Just compelling, thought provoking, heartstring-tugging dramas.

The stuff, in other words, that I don't like as much as time-traveling, self-impregnating hermaphrodites.

All movies are predicated upon a What If of some kind, but I like my What Ifs exotic. Big, outlandish, fantastical What Ifs that are so far removed from the realm of reality that my (admittedly sensitive, though gradually toughening) triggers remain safely out of reach. Give me science fiction. Action adventure. Horror. Give me post-apocalyptic chaos, ghosts, outer space, super powers, aliens, time travel. Alternate universes I can visit without cutting too close to anywhere near home. Give me something I have to imagine, because I've never gone through it. Family dysfunction? No thanks. Divorce? I'll pass. Abuse, disease, death and grief? Chaucer and I are going for a walk.

Spare me from having to vicariously relive, even obliquely, anything familiarly painful. Show me the never-known instead. Because when I unplug in front of the screen, I want to forget the kind of stuff that has too much real estate in my brain already. I want to be taken out of myself. Not shown a mirror, however distorted. Bottom line: the greater the possibility some element of a drama's plot has happened - or could happen - to me, the less interested I am in watching it.

This makes me sound like a dispassionate, maladjusted robot. I'm not, and I'd be -- wait hang on, let me adjust this dial on my neck -- I'd be more embarrassed of my cinema dramaphobia if I didn't consider it compensated, in the interest of culture and Deep Thinking, by the novels I read. Oh yeah and then there are all the feels of daily life. Got plenty of those. Doing okay with them. As well as the next person, anyway, I think.

But movies can be tricky little bastards. Some get to you organically, but others will manipulate the hell out of you. Push you to places that, if it's all the same, you'd rather not be pushed to for a tidy one hour, thirty minutes before being left bewildered, when the reel runs out, by a heartful and a headful of WHOA. WAIT. WHAT. WHOA.

It's the difference between scuba diving and snorkeling. You might see some dazzling, dangerous, indescribable things if you're willing to go deep and risk drowning. Or being eaten alive by sharks. Or you can float closer to the surface, still get a decent show, and be much safer.


If you've got time for a good What If this weekend, here are a few of my recent(ish) favorites:

Edge of Tomorrow: Live. Die. Repeat.
The Hunter (a more conventional, closer-to-Earth drama, but the animal lover in me was enchanted; the final fifteen minutes of this film are stunning)
Europa Report
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Road

And hey it's Friday! Would you like a pretty song to ease you into the weekend? 

Have a good one, guys.

snow job

Sometimes after I finish a movie, I'll look to see what critics thought of it. I guess I'm hoping to see my opinion backed up by the experts (in those instances where I have a strong reaction, anyway). Sometimes I'm validated, but sometimes I'm baffled. Last night I was baffled. Snowpiercer's 95% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes baffles me.

If Snowpiercer were an addition problem, it would look like this:

                   Schindler's List
            The Hunger Games
    The Day After Tomorrow
               The Wizard of Oz
                  + Polar Express

Dystopic, post-apocalyptic movies are my absolute favorite, so I was already primed to like Snowpiercer. It's the story of a perpetually running train which circles a frozen Earth, containing the last surviving humans, strictly divided by socioeconomic class. Awesome, right? Oh and it stars Tilda Swinton. Even awesomer.

But Snowpiercer is dystopia plus camp, and that is a difficult combination to pull off. At moments I felt as jerked about by this movie as the train's inhabitants, zipping wildly around jagged mountain peaks with no control over their fate. Just when I'd accepted Snowpiercer's slapstick, eased into its cartoonish feel, it would suddenly bring me up short with some inexplicably disturbing concept or visual. Case in point: towards the end, the film's protagonist tells a story about the early days of the train, a time when the poor, starving passengers sequestered in the last car were so desperate for food that they fell to cannibalism. "You know what I hate about myself?" weeps Curtis. "That I know babies taste the best."

If you're going to drop a bomb like that on your audience, you'd better be sure you've steeled them for it. I was not steeled, and the line hit me like a snowball to the face. And not tlapa, either. Carpitla.

Another problem with Snowpiercer: it quickly kills off its most compelling characters (including Swinton's character, a loathsome toad of a woman she plays gloriously), then fills the gaps left behind with new ones that seem like they should be important, but aren't really. For instance, there are a number of fight scenes directed to emphasize the significance of some bad guy (repeated close ups of his face, etc.) but ultimately those characters don't add very much to the storyline. I was confused as to where my sympathies were meant to go. They certainly weren't drawn to Curtis, Snowpiercer's irritatingly reluctant savior who, when faced with the full truth of reality in the film's final scenes, crumbles like tlacringit (sorry, but that whole list is amazing).

Even the film's villainous mastermind, Wilford, the train's creator and dictator figure (played by Ed Harris), is disappointingly bland. He's less terrifying than smug and disaffected. His whatever attitude towards the horrors his creation has perpetuated was contagious, because by the end, I felt pretty damn whatever myself. Critics raved about Snowpiercer's set design, but its most important component, the exalted Eternal Engine of Wilford's front car, just looks like an oversized hamster wheel. It's as if the art department had exhausted its creativity somewhere between train's caboose and its lush middle section. Eh, fuck it. The audience'll get that it's a big deal.

In Snowpiercer's last scene, the train breaks up spectacularly, cars scattering like toys across blindingly white snowcaps. One of the final shots is that of a polar bear, gazing at the destruction with a dafuq? expression on his face. I imagine that for much of Snowpiercer, I looked a lot like that polar bear.

tea: no cream, two sugars

I watched The Grand Budapest Hotel tonight, and I enjoyed it in a way I haven't enjoyed a Wes Anderson movie in a long, long time. It feels scandalous to admit, but the truth is, none of his subsequent films have charmed me nearly as much as Rushmore did. At least, not in the way they seem to charm everyone else.

It's actually been kind of lonely, this Anderson apathy of mine. I mean, you don't confess to something like that without garnering looks of shock, if not outright contempt. It's Wes Anderson, after all. He's a fucking genius, and the patron saint of indie film-loving creatives everywhere. How dare I.

Don't get me wrong. I really, really like his work. His stories are heartwarming and delightfully taut. The aesthetics of his set design and costume are utterly beguiling. Heck, I left Tenenbaums (and later, Moonrise Kingdom) wanting to redo my entire wardrobe in head-to-toe Anderson heroine chic. Natural fabrics to regulate my body temperature when adventuring! Muted brights to set off the glow of guarded optimism in my face! 

But watching his movies sometimes feels like eating a sleeve of Pepperidge Farm cookies. They are pure perfection, irresistible deliciousness...right up until the point that I've had too many and I have to shove them away, semi-disgusted. And just like the binge, no one can know about it. Because Anderson films are such lovingly appointed dollhouses that to criticize them is to be the bully who pooh poohs the playroom tea party. I don't wish to pooh pooh the tea party. It's a very lovely tea party, and I'm glad to have been invited. I'd just like my tea a mite stronger, please.

But back to Budapest. I haven't seen Anderson's complete works, but those I have, I personify thusly: Rushmore is the smart-alecky kid; Tenenbaums is the snarky graduate student; Life Aquatic is the eccentric uncle, and Moonrise Kingdom is the bookish teenager. These characterizations are meaningless, but they helped me figure out what Grand Budapest is, and why I liked it so much: it's the favored, playfully conspiring grandfather. The one I want all to myself for an afternoon of swapping tall tales.

Ironically, what I loved about Budapest is how it's both "so Anderson", and so not. All the usual themes are in place: the fight against injustice, innocence vs. experience, adolescent love, and the most interesting to me - the families we get vs. the ones we choose (the classmates of Rushmore, the boat crew of Life Aquatic, the scout troop of Moonrise Kingdom, the hotel staff of Budapest...). But it feels like Anderson is doing some things for the first time. Poking fun at himself, for one (my favorite instance of this being the hilariously campy degree to which the ski/sled scene action is sped up). And more significantly: getting his hands dirty. Really dirty, in fact.

There's violence in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Multiple murders and gruesome bodily dismemberment. Sure, it's funny - but darkly so. There's no on-screen sex, but sexuality is referenced frequently and unabashedly (there's even an allusion to prison rape!). The story is set against the backdrop of war.

There's a cat thrown out a window.

A cat. Thrown out a window.

Everything about it feels like Anderson, but evolved. More mature. More evenly balanced between light and dark, between creative abandon and directorial self-awareness. Even the Society of the Crossed Keys cameo montage feels less like a showy parade of celebrities (zomg! everyone wants to be in my movies!) and more like an acknowledging wink at an absurdly star-studded club (lol, everyone wants to be in my movies).

But you can't talk about what makes Budapest wonderful without talking about Ralph Fiennes's character, as conceived and as played. He's more fully fleshed out with imperfection and contradiction than any Anderson character I've yet to meet. In turns a scoundrel and a gentleman (occasionally at the same time), we never quite know how pure his intentions are. And that's okay, because he's written with such nuance that it seems unclear if he even knows. His ambivalence (which runs all the way down to his sexuality) is intriguing to his last bits of dialogue.

I could go on, but the point is, I'm happy to say the bloom is back on my Wes Anderson rose. In fact now I'm inspired to go back and catch up on what I've missed, if for no other reason than I'm curious to see when this evolution began. Bottom line: I would never want Anderson to lose his twee. I just want him to keep sharpening it. Sharp tools are always the most effective - even when all they're building is a dollhouse.

water, logged

Here's a fun exercise. Write an abstract of the metaphorapolooza that is Water Gravity I mean All is Lost, seeing how many words/expressions you can employ that are figuratively well as being literal descriptions of action that occurs in the film. It's exactly the sort of thing David Brooks was talking about in this New York Times piece (that we can barely get through a conversation without resorting to metaphor).

I highlighted mine in Indian Ocean blue.

Our Man is coasting through life, no longer in his prime but still plenty capable of weathering storms. Along comes Misfortune, blindsiding him, breaching his security. In order to overcome this challenge, he must identify, explore, and find a way to untangle himself from it. Our Man shores up the hole left behind, but the damage is catastrophic. He can barely stay afloat. And just when he gets his head above water, forces beyond his control take him for a tumble. His cries for help go unanswered. Our Man salvages what he can before letting go of what threatens to drown him. Adrift, subject to the tides of fortune, he must learn new skills - including new ways of seeing the world - in order to survive. Broken and battered, humbled at the hands of nature, he is invisible to those who could help him. Only when he is willing to give up everything can he be saved.

Yep. I actually just did that.

If you need me, I'll be over here cooing reassuringly to my diploma. That's right, precious. Professor looks after us. Professor wouldn't hurt us. Liberal artses degrees aren't useless. Sneaky little counselorses! Wicked, tricksy, false! 

thoughts on metaphor in Spike Jonze's Her

I saw Her yesterday. It absolutely blew my mind, and I came away feeling inspired to write a little bit about it, because I can't remember the last time I found a film so intellectually stimulating. (Clearly I need to make better Netflix selections.) If you haven't seen it and intend to, definitely skip this post. I'd hate to spoil anything for anyone.

There is so much beautifully orchestrated symbolism in Her, both narratively and visually speaking. More often than not, I find myself rolling my eyes at the construction and delivery of metaphor in movies, which tends to feel heavy-handed, or worse - manipulative. But in Her, it just sat quietly with me, waiting for me to grasp and appreciate it. I actually got the chills when the full weight of certain dialogue exchanges and plot points settled on me. The writing is just that fantastic.

The first thing that struck me was the use of color, in the set design and costumes - bright hues that had been desaturated; softened in intensity. Oranges and corals and reds with the heat turned down - a directorial choice that I interpreted as a deliberate exception to what seem to be the two predominant colorscaping choices in films set in the future: glaring, overly bright and blown out (as if to reflect the inevitable obliteration of the ozone) or coolly monochromatic and desolate (the hopelessness of a post-apocalyptic world). The color story of Her suggests an outlook that is optimistic overall, but devoid of the falsely cheerful/easy futurism we are sometimes promised. No, there won't be jet-packs. And yes, there will still be human emotion and sentiment, in spite of our enhanced technological state. Her goes easy on us in this way. We are asked to consider some rather disturbing concepts (and occasionally make difficult leaps of logic), but the film's gentle aesthetic at least makes them easier to swallow.

Another thing I noticed about the costumes was their construction and fit. The clothing in Her is relatively conservative in style, with very little skin showing either on men or women (save for at the beach). This is especially noticeable in the outfits of Theodore's friend Amy, who dresses in layers that are literally buttoned up to her neck. In the context of a repeatedly emphasized disconnectivity between humans (everyone onscreen is perpetually dialed in to one or another electronic devices, and the degree to which we've become reliant on virtual relationships is made graphically clear in a phone sex scene involving, among all things, a dead cat), this reads like visual punctuation to that disengagement. As if, since we no longer let us see one another's emotions without some kind of mediating barrier, we may as well hide our bodies from each other, too. On the other hand, the wardrobing of Her seems like a reaction - a backlash, even, to our contemporary era of Facebook overshare. Having let our collective, digital guard down so completely that privacy has become a joke, the last frontier of self-containment - our bodies - is the place we've put up a stop sign. No. You can see everything else about me, but you can't see this.

One last note on the scenic qualities of Her. Besides being thrilled by how many familiar sights I identified in the film (which was shot largely in my neighborhood, in places I walk Chaucer almost daily), I loved the way in which it uses vertical space. Theodore's apartment is located on the upper level of a high rise, a physical counterpoint to the lows of his emotional life. Many scenes take place in the elevator at his workplace, emphasizing the intense ups and downs he's experiencing in his romantic life and even, I think, subtly reminding us that control over those ups and downs rests in the technological realm. He punches a button, and he goes up. He punches another, and he goes down...and so it is that with the entering of certain keystrokes (both actual, in his case, and metaphysically, in hers), Theodore's relationship with Samantha approaches new highs, or plummets to unanticipated depths.


When Theodore installs the operating system he eventually falls in love with, the very first decision she makes (that is, the first computational calculation that it makes) is what to name herself. The scene is handled with such grace and sweetness that as I watched it, it didn't even dawn on me how befitting and natural a first choice this is. But it couldn't be more so, because that's exactly how we commemorate a new life, after all - by naming it. In allowing Samantha to dictate this very essential aspect of her own "birth", we are being shown, right off the bat, precisely who the greater intelligence is. And yet her immaturity (in terms of human qualities) and youthfulness is reinforced by the playfulness she exhibits with Theodore, engaging like a teenager in his gaming sessions and even sending him a childishly crude drawing.

Yet despite her stumbling beginnings, Samantha's emotional growth speeds up exponentially, in ways that are initially exciting to both her and Theodore, then troubling, then ultimately destructive to their relationship. And this is where, in my opinion, we stand to learn the most from Her. Because in spite of her vastly superior abilities of cognition, the one thing she cannot learn on her own is how to love. Samantha has what is probably best line of the film: "I don't know if my emotions are real or if they're just programming." With the amount of time and energy we invest in our online lives, one can't help but shudder at her prophetic words. Because at what point do we cease to feel actual emotions, when our interactions with one another become more and more removed? At what point do those emotions become facsimiles of emotion - emoji-laden autoresponses to memes, to "trending topics", to the #hashtags we categorize our life experiences with, in order to make them relatable to the strangers we share them with? Am I actually smiling, when I send a smiley face into the ether(net)? Am I actually laughing, when I type L-O-L?

Not always.

Theodore's budding human-OS romance is, in may ways, an inversion of his dying human-human one (i.e., his divorce). In one of my favorite moments from the film, he describes to Samantha what his marriage was like. He explains that his wife and he created a space where they were safe to try new things, and to fail (and safe, therefore, to learn) But failure does not compute in Samantha's world. There are only 0s and 1s, to be configured and reconfigured in ways that will move her beyond Theodore's understanding, and beyond his reach. So despite her being the more evolved entity, and despite the fact that theoretically, she should be able to program herself to emotional perfection - ultimately, she is useless to Theodore. Because as a human being, his greatest lessons are learned through human failings. In a way, his failed marriage taught him more than Samantha ever could, since in his ex-wife was reflected another set of human shortcomings - of flawed humanity. In Samantha is only reflected an idealized version of his hopes and dreams; artificial software that is calibrated to meet his logistical needs, but cannot, at the end of the day, meet his emotional ones.