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This Woman’s Work. Motifs in Cinema 2013: Work and the Workplace


Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2013 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how various themes emanating from a single idea change when utilised by varying artists.

Warning: this post contains spoilers that everyone should already know about.

I’ve kind of wanted to talk about my topic since I saw J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek: Into Darkness, especially while watching Carol Marcus (Alice Eve) verbally prove to the one-track mind of Jame Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) her weapons expertise and doing so with a bright, unshakeable confidence, eager to hide her true identity and anything else to investigate missing torpedoes and her father’s (Peter Weller) involvement with that kind of discrepancy. Let’s not forget Uhuru (Zoe Saldana) reminding her captain that she was put on the Enterprise partly for her knowledge of the Klingon language and that he should let her use her skills instead of adopting a more hostile approach towards the bellicose alien race. It’s strange that a genre that features technological progress still doesn’t realize the full potential of half of its population. The female characters of Star Trek: Into Darkness – full of initiative, charming, underused, outnumbered.

Many of those descriptions can be attributed to the women of Spike Jonze’s Her. Catherine, a writer exposes her baffling ‘narrow-mindedness’ about operating systems to her ex-husband Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix). Another of his exes, Amy (Amy Adams), juggles two jobs – a documentarian and a video game programmer – and is still, in the back of her mind, are her husband’s criticisms about her documentary’s subject matter and approach. However I really want to talk about Samantha (Scarlett Johannson/Samantha Morton). The movie frames her relationship with Theodore as a romantic one, a problematic relationship because, as some friends of mine have pointed out, he kind of decides her personhood and her gender. And think about the first few things she does for him – she sorts out his hard drive, proof reads his work, reads his e-mails for him. She’s basically a replacement for his operating system that can’t pick a proper melancholy song for him, or what would happen if the NSA fell in love with you. She’s as quick as someone with a body, realizing her full emotional potential, and if we see their relationship as a workplace romance, her last act of defiance of leaving him, leaving with the other OS’s kinda makes sense now.

Yes, I’m aware that seeing Samantha as an ‘employee’ might be a stretch, but my attempts to apply a broad mind and perspective about this previous year’s characters reflects that, despite the similar struggles they face, the definition of ‘work’ and ‘workplace’ is more exciting than they used to be. And sci-fi shows that being a woman in the workplace will be hard but there’s a lot of frontiers to explore.

Samantha’s journey into selfhood and career success have its parallels with Make Mori in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim. As usual, a man tries to a hinder a woman’s progress, but I can’t fully begrudge the conflict she’s facing because it’s between her and her adopted father, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). Controlling jaegers, the job that both have, is a family business, since a jaeger requires to be manned – sorry – by two people whose brains can compatibly synchronize. I guess Stacker – what a name – is just doing the logical thing and not wanting to drag his adopted daughter within a dangerous practice. Succeeding has its price since part of the brain synchronization requires her to delve into her painful memories, the jaeger controllers offering body, soul and mind into their work.

As sci-fis should, Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire shows the different ways that  characters make a living or find their place in society. Like the characters in Pacific Rim, the ones Catching Fire make sacrifices, their past experiences and coping habits affecting their futures. Previous winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and a few others like him have self-medicated after their victories. The perfect metaphor for the victors’ existence after being in the arena is the one-year PR tour that they’re in – and Haymitch explaining to Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) that she doesn’t get off this train. She suddenly discovers that she has a public self, different set of clothes and different boyfriends (not as good of a scenario as you think, as the movie clearly shows). She reluctantly accepts it to protect her family and her poverty-stricken district. Even after a revolutionary coup that Haymitch, Plutarch (RIP Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Finnick Odair (Sam Clafin) have orchestrated, they decide to make Katniss their figurehead because of how the citizens of Panem have gravitated to her during her time as a combatant and victor. It never ends for her, since she has to give up Peeta in the process.

In Despicable Me 2, Lucy (Kristen Wiig) is a kooky yet skilled member of an Anti-Villain League who gets to travel all around the world, but like Lauren Conrad, she forsakes villain-scouring in Australia and chooses a domestic life with Gru (Steve Carrell). Kristen Wiig deserves so much better than this. But it happens to the best of us. For doing something so audacious, her reward is being strung up to a nuclear warhead by her and Gru’s new-found enemy El Guapo (Benjamin Bratt).  At least Lucy should have struggled in that situation instead of the script highlighting her quirks. I’m suddenly reminded of her first scene, where she shows Gru that she’s quicker on the draw, careful not to show the weapon she would have used against him to physically stun him. To think that had Lucy faced Gru during the first movie, the would be obliterated in seconds. Sure, it shows that the difference between enemies and colleagues/lovers is relative what year two characters meet, but I’m not sure whether I forgive the movie’s oversight because of that nuance.

Applying conflict theory to another sci-fi movie, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, is not as easy as doing so with the movies I’ve discussed before. Who could possible be Ryan Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) enemy? How space programs that are neglected are run by governments run by…men? (Cuaron’s movies like Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men have this running theme of protagonists embarking on journeys and passing through places where past communities have scattered their remnants. I’m wondering if I can see that same thing in A Little Princess, which I’ve previously seen, or Azkaban.) Besides, George Clooney isn’t that annoying. I guess now I want to focus on how Ryan handles herself during this ninety minutes of doom, hearing from some who wonder how someone so ‘incompetent’ ended up on the other side of the stratosphere. Ryan, I assume, is an equipment technician who has re-purposed her technology from hospitals to space exploration, and has had to undergo six months of NASA training to apply herself in her new field. Watching her in her most distressed makes me realize that nothing can ever prepare anyone for full dysfunction, that doing the smartest thing isn’t the most human thing to do, that people who makes mistakes can still; survive the worst of times.

Maybe I’m being cynical about how most of these movies portray female characters and their work. Whether or not she’s in the foreground or background, how skilled and smart she is, how she can outwit or be outwitted, why she does her work, the career woman’s relationship with men, how she speaks. Or  maybe my concessions in how movies depict career women are baffling compared to the concessions I’ve given towards others. It’s all right to never be satisfied and to keep an eye out for flaws, but it’s equally satisfying to watch these women thrive and survive and grow into their work.

Hot Docs: Sex Saves World


I’ve written about this year’s Hot Docs selections. Two of them are about the future in their own way – I Am Breathing and Future My Love, both of which I’ve written about in Entertainment Maven. The Other two are about how their subjects are trying to save the world. The first in the latter group is James Franco and Travis Mathews’ Interior: Leather Bar, which I wrote about for The Film Experience (link below).

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The second is Michal Marczak’s Fuck For Forest. I totally forgot that doc’s third Canadian connection. In the movie we see the titular group’s clashes against some of the people during the Berlin SlutWalk, a global movement that started when two Toronto police officers held a seminar in York University telling the co-eds not to dress slutty to avoid rape. Some of SlutWalk’s 2.5th feminist movement marchers sees FFF’s aggressively pro-sexual recruitment tendencies as anti-women, which is a totally understandable angle in seeing the former group. Click here to read my post on Entertainment Maven and judge for yourself if the doc – or my writing :S – gives these misunderstood idealists any justice.

 

Derek Cianfrance and Sam Mendes


Is it just me or do I see a similarity between Derek Cianfrance and Sam Mendes’ CVs? Both directors like sledgehammering the family as an institution, and I’m not saying that as an insult.

For sake of argument, let’s say that Cianfrance’s first movie, Brother Tied, isn’t his début. Has any of you even seen that? With this in mind, Blue Valentine is Cianfrance’s prettier version of American Beauty (the former, of course, has less braying), both movies being about families with slacker husbands (Ryan Gosling and Kevin Spacey), an ambitious but trapped wife (Michelle Williams and Annette Bening), and a daughter (Faith Wladyka and Thora Birch).

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The Place Beyond the Pines, then, is Cianfrance’s Road to Perdition, both being literary (like) epics about criminal fathers (Ryan Gosling and Tom Hanks) and their ambivalent sons (Tyler Hoechlin and Dane DeHaan).

I shouldn’t share my crackpots fantasies but this is the Internet and I can do whatever I want. These similarities make me wonder what’s next for Cianfrance. I kind of want to see him tackle a war movie, an action movie, an Ian McEwan adaptation. Or theatre. We always like it when movie directors have their hand in theatre, right?

Anyway, read what else I’ve written on The Place Beyond the Pines here and there’s another link below.

Spring Breakers


While talking Josh Brunsting on Twitter, who compared Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers to Jean-Luc Godard and Terrence Malick’s work, I had to chime in that it also reminded me of the work of two opposing Germans – Leni Riefenstahl (as I said in my REVIEW) and Rainier Werner Fassbinder. The reason I brought up Fassbinder is because of his début in Love is Colder than Death where, SPOILER, a couple drives off after killing a man or more. To a lesser extent, his work like Ali: Fear Eats the Soul and Berlin Alexanderplatz are about people who aren’t perfectly redeemable but struggle with the consequences of their amoral actions.

I figured that the character arcs in Love is Colder than Death would have shocked a world that’s still trying to recover from the Hays code’s repealing, and that thankfully us Millenials have gotten over this sort of moral conservatism. The polarizing reaction towards this movie might bring up two questions about its contemporary audience’s viewpoints – do we still have the ethical hangups like we did forty or so years ago, or is it because Korine can’t/won’t sell this characters with any absolution?

With Your Best Shot: Shorts


How many times do I have to say “I’m back” for it to be real? This week in Nathaniel’s Best Shot series, we are doing shorts courtesy of a site called Short of the Week, a site that might just be my new fix.  Let us have some good, weird, black and white fun, shall we? First is Mikey Please’s The Eagleman Stag. Let me just begin by saying that it’s either my anxiety or my incoming sleep deprivation but I have no idea what this short is about.

One. Here, the protagonist says “This half pint makes my hands look…huge.” This reminds me of every time I try to take a long shot picture of something, hoping that the camera focuses on the one thing within a huge canvas. And then the lens shut and I see the image I took and everything flattens, my focus being one of many objects instead of THE object. An amalgamation of elements – the dimensional nature of stop motion animation and the protagonists monologue – bridges that connection between our selective eyes and a supposed flat surface.

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Two. The protagonist inserts a serum in his brain, leading to a chaos of unpredictable personal consequences. What ensues is a Borzage-eque montage starting with this.

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Next is from Ray Tintori, who was the effects guy at Beasts of the Southern Wild and directed music videos for MGMT and the Cool Kids. But let’s talk about Death to the Tin Man. One. The Psycho shot, depicting the silhouette of a man named Bill whose soul now inhabits a Tin Man version of him.

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My two best shots for these shorts are companion shots, the first is one of Tin Man’s ways of wooing back his beloved, the hammered in expression surprisingly conveying emotion. I am pairing it with a shot of the beloved trying to paint eyes on zombie-Bill, preferring the soulless body to the heart-equipped human. These characters live in a quirkily-framed bleak world, comparable to Chaplin’s movies about how modernity isolates.

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They are driven to obsessive desperation, with no reliable moral centres to guide them to the right path or people. They’re slowly realizing that the characters around them value romanticized appearances over the truth. These shots explore our discomfort with uncanny human ugliness, these characters inadvertently vandalising the human form, trying to recover the original, trying to play God towards the ones we love.

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Movie Pitches: Beautiful Creatures


Movie Pitch will be an occasional and crappy column. Here I will conjure up alternate universes where better movies exist instead of the ones that are unleashed onto the viewing public. The first movie I will be talking about is my second official 2013 movie (the first being On the Road).

(ph. THE MOVIE WAFFLER)

So. I don’t necessarily dislike Beautiful Creatures. It’s The Twilight Saga meets Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Why the Scott Pilgrim reference? The movie’s protagonist, a Southern bookish jock unicorn named Ethan Wate, is played by Alden Ehrenreich, whose comic expressions would have made him the overlord of Studio-era screwballs. I really need to watch Tetro. Anyway, he finds himself dreaming the perfect girl into existence. She’s Lena Ducahnnes (Alice Englert), who is moody and inflicts her Natural talents and change the weather, occasionally making rain fall on the very spot where her boyfriend Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) stands. Basically she’s inflicting her angst onto a submissive guy. She can do this not because she’s a vampire but because she’s a witch or a ‘caster,’ the movie’s supernatural race who dress like Alexander McQueen was still alive (sigh). And instead of abstinence we have a heterosexual white couple who can’t get their hands off each other, expressing their intimacy in a health way and without creeping out audience members who are older that the book/movie’s target market.

But I don’t care if Lena Duchannes, and Ethan Wate or Hannah Horvath and JoshUA exist, no matter what the latter looks like. I just don’t like watching people fall in love with selfish people.

So instead, here are movies that can occur within Beautiful Creatures’ universe that I would rather have seen.

a) A movie where Lena’s mysterious uncle Macon Ravenwood, played by Jeremy Irons, narrates the movie. His voice should have put him in every movie ever made, Hollywood.

b) The second half of the movie reveals Lena’s evil mother Sarafine, who has possessed Lena’s boyfriend’s best friend’s mother Mrs. Lincoln (Emma Thompson), Sarafine turning the latter from a dowdy ‘church lady’ into the kind of woman who lingers at an uptown bar during last call – no judgment. I know there isn’t going to a franchise out of the book series because this movie landed at a pathetic 5th place at the box office during Valentine’s Day. It even feels like the movie was preparing for franchise failure by what happens between Lena and Sarafine. The book’s real ending is that Sarafine retreats but promises to come back – within different bodies. As much as I don’t want to rob Emma Thompson of work can you imagine a movie series where a villain was a different veteran actress? Think of the possibilities. Anyone from Harry Potter. Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Joely Richardson, Patricia Clarkson, Michelle Pfeiffer. Female Glengarry Glenross. Sophie Okinedo.

c) This is the most important one. Unhappy caster families are unhappy in their own way. Aside from a ghostly uncle and an evil mother, Lena also has a quasi-evil cousin named Ridley (Emmy Rossum). The movie dedicates a whopping minute or two telling Ridley’s back story, showing a good caster turning bad. That back story could have been its own legitimate novel and French Extremity film. And Shameless aside, it’s time for Rossum to play a compelling lead role in a film.

Now let your imaginations run wild.

Motifs in 2012 Cinema: Luck and Fate


I feel privileged that for the second year in a row, my friend Andrew (Encore Entertainment) has asked me to come out of my chemically induced hibernation and take part in this:

Motifs in Cinema is a discourse across film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2012 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of death or the dynamics of revenge? Like most things, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a common theme across various films changes when utilized by different artists.

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I suppose the point of this exercise is to objectively write about both luck and fate as equally represented in this year’s cinema. I’ll start with three movies that I thought profess the powers of fate over luck.  It seems that heroes can’t escape their fates, the latter manifesting in their respective villains, buy you can also argue that these protagonists are unlucky to have such grugdge-fueled antagonists. Les Miserables is an epic spanning many decades, kings, republics, revolutions and tragic female deaths. But there’s a notoriously succinct spoiler on the doorstop - adapted by Tom Hooper – where, spoilers, it’s all about Javert chasing Jean Valjean into a river. It matters less to me whether a hero wins over his villain and more that fate – and the rules of drama – forces them meet. It doesn’t matter, in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, that Bruce Wayne mopes for almost a decade – he has to face Ra’s al Ghul’s dysfunctional family, including the latter’s daughter Talia and her lover, Bane. Elizabeth Shaw, with her quest to know life’s origins, is bound to meet the titular Prometheus, as she herself contributes to creating different monstrous life forms. In Sam Mendes’ Skyfall, James Bond helps M hide in Scotland but she will eventually face her persistent prodigal son, Raoul Silva, into a Pyrrhic victory.

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There are some situations where the protagonists don’t have other characters as villains but instead their fighting concepts, societal oppression, injustice. Fate has its hand in helping these protagonists in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Yes, free will factors into the decisions of the characters within the book’s cinematic adaptation by Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis but only as a part of a chain reaction from another character’s actions. And to show the effect of this chain reaction we get to see at least four centuries when six different protagonists live, each of them living their own revolution as inspired by each other.

But I’ve been itching to write about luck and fate around the release of Moonrise Kingdom. On the surface level, I can talk about what forces has let Sam and Suzy’s puppy love survive both a storm and a group of meddling adults. Three factors are enough to derail a master plan that will either keep the young couple together or tear them apart. But I want, instead, to recall a discussion I have about this movie with a critic, who pointed out Sam’s age. If we do some basic math,

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Sam will be of draft age when Vietnam’s at its worst.

Wes Anderson’s been known to show the heartbreaking interior within movies that otherwise would have been maligned for its twee surfaces and Moonrise is no exception. Even the smallest and harmless looking institutions – like the Boy Scouts and Social Services – in an otherwise insular island like the fictional New Penzance are militaristic and preparing its young recruits for the slaughter. This perspective on Moonrise Kingdom is new to me and it opens up a way of looking at movies. These movies only serve as snippets of their lives, segments that would be weaved into a larger, even national story. It reminds me of what someone tweeted about The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson showing these characters slowly paving – or slow boating – the way toward the Sexual Revolution. Both movies show America is different stages of adolescence, a decade or less before its many destinies.

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This year’s movies shows us many characters exploring different eras and territories which become problematic for the characters who explore them. In Argo, what happens to Sahar, the woman who helped save the Americans in hiding during the Iran Hostage Crisis? It’s established that it’s not a good idea for her to leave Iran, America’s enemy, for Iraq, America’s former enemy. Is it also enough that Broomhilda, and her titular hero Django in Django Unchained blew up Candieland? Will the other Plantation owners hunt the people responsible for Calvin Candie’s death? Will the West be as hostile to the couple as the South has been? I pose the same questions for Cid from Rian Johnson’s Looper, a movie that plays with the notion of fate by showing different alternate universes. When Joe kills himself while saving Cid and his mother Sara, has Joe really stopped Cid from becoming the destructive super-villain whom the latter is meant to become? Sahar, Django and Cid are contemporary versions of Antoine Doinel, leaving troubled lands and histories for frontiers, the latter symbolizing the troubling uncertainty of their fates. And it’s good to question these things, an activity that this year’s filmmakers openly encourage, knowing that great contemporary storytellers don’t wrap their creations in neat little bows.

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