Miyazaki May: “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind”

It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on! 

Of all of Hayao Miyazaki’s films, the one that I least remembered was “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.” Upon revisiting, I rediscovered a gem that, while containing some unmistakable Miyazaki traits, also does some things that help it to stand alone in his body of work.

The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where much of the human population has been wiped out by poisonous gases created by the Ohm, a giant race of insects. Pockets of humanity survive in a few remaining kingdoms left on earth. One of those kingdoms is the valley of the wind, and Nausicaa is the princess of the kingdom. But unrest grows as tensions rise between the neighboring kingdoms of Tolmekia and Pejite, as humanity races to find a way to wipe out the Ohm and their toxic jungle once and for all.

The primary strength of this film is the character of Nausicaa, one of Miyazaki’s strongest heroes and one of the greatest heroines in movie history. Nausicaa is a pacifist and a Snow White type who loves all of creation, even the parts of it that have killed most of humanity. She struggles to find a way to make peace with the Ohm without wiping out the toxic jungle. She can be soft-spoken but has that prototypical Miyazaki-an courage in the face of adversity. In some ways, she is a Messianic figure (a trait the movie itself makes perfectly clear), but she is far from perfect; her challenges and struggles always remain relatable. This ain’t your typical Disney princess. In fact, one could argue that Nausicaa is a strong feminist heroine fighting against the Disney stereotype of passivity.

Miyazaki populates the film with his usual cast of odd and interesting characters, but the most memorable is the film’s “villain”, Kushana, princess of Tolmekia. I use quotation marks because “Nausicaa” exemplifies one of the grandest Miyazaki themes: no one is beyond corruption, and all are capable of redemption. Many of his films do not contain traditional “bad guys,” or, if they do, they are not so bad by movie’s end. Kushana exemplifies the other end of the princess spectrum; someone who always solves her problems with violence.  She has never known anything else. Even if she doesn’t exactly have a redemptive moment on-screen, it’s easy to see that encountering Nausicaa is forcing her to re-consider her way of looking at the world. The same can be said for the destructive Ohm, who come to their own understanding about humanity. I despise cheap villains in movies who seem to exist simply to give something the protagonist to fight against and this is something that Miyazaki refreshingly avoids almost universally.

The animation here is typically excellent, particularly on the Ohm, which is some of the coolest creature design I’ve seen. The fact that these awe-inspiring insects were created in the 1980’s, using hand-drawn animation, is a true testament to the power and endurance of the art form. Miyazaki also uses some experimental styles during a flashback sequence.

The score is provided by longtime Miyazaki collaborator Joe Hisaishi, and a Miyazaki film is never complete without one of his soul-stirring renditions. “Nausicaa” finds Hisaishi at his most experimental, utilizing more synthesized sounds and vocals, along with his traditional amazing piano work. I’m not sure his work was ever this consistently surprising in any other Miyazaki film. If you’re not familiar with his work, look it up on Spotify right now. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

“Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” finds Miyazaki working with some of his grandest and most enduring themes: pacifism and environmentalism. These themes are never obvious or on-the-nose, never politicized, never bludgeoned into the audience’s brains. Miyazaki never treats his audience like children, and one could argue that his films are not really meant for children anyway. This film is what I like to call a low-key great movie; it doesn’t exude the immediate awesomeness of some of Miyazaki’s later work, but that doesn’t make it any less of a triumph. Don’t allow this one to be overlooked in favor of some of the famed animator’s well-known works.

Miyazaki May: “My Neighbor Totoro”

 It’s May, and I’ve realized how long it has been since I’ve watched the films of master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki. I remember loving them when I was younger (I wrote a research paper on the life of Miyazaki in 7th grade), but I’ve been curious to see how they hold up to these more trained eyes. Or, maybe I just love alliteration. Either way, Miyazaki May is on!

 

There are a select few films in the history of the medium that perfectly convey the experience of being a child. “My Neighbor Totoro” is one of them. All of the emotions are there, from the fears associated with losing a loved one and moving to a new place to the simple joys of standing in the rain or discovering a pool of tadpoles.

This very simple film (some might use the term pure) follows sisters Mei and Satuki, who move with their dad to the countryside to care for their sick mother, who is in and out of the hospital. As they explore their new surroundings, they come across the forest spirit Totoro and adventures ensue.

Of all Miyazaki’s films, “Totoro” is easy to describe, particularly because it is essentially plotless. One immediately striking feature of Miyazaki films is their complete lack of cynicism. A modern American cartoon might have a sassy school chum who doubt the existence of Totoro, or perhaps the father, who might tell his children to put away such childish things and grow up. But there’s none of that; all the adults in the film go right along encouraging the children in their beliefs. It’s partially cultural; in Japanese culture, everything is seen as connected, and that connectedness runs through the family unit. It’s a beautiful, refreshing look at the way families can stick together even in the midst of hardship (in this case, the mother’s illness).

Also prevalent here is that most magnificent of Miyazaki themes: bravery. Nearly all of his characters have it (though some misuse it); one of the greatest strengths of this film is the way the bravery of Satsuki and Mei to simply explore a dark room is given the same respect and admiration as the courage to go up against a giant vengeful forest spirit, as Ashitaka does in “Princess Mononoke.” Bravery, both common and uncommon, is highly valued; the girls’ bravery in the small things reveals their ability to overcome their physical displacement as well as their mother’s condition.

Children are often seen as more at one with the natural world around them, an idea that “Totoro” conveys clearly. The film finds just as much wonder in rain puddles and acorns as it does in giant forest spirits. In fact, very little of the film is focused on Totoro himself; much time is given to the landscape of the Japanese countryside. Miyazaki often uses the medium of animation for a dichotomous yet noble purpose; to help convey the beauty of our natural world. We can often grow bored with the physical world around us; animation helps us to see these seemingly ordinary things through the eyes of a child once again.

Finally, I get to the animation itself. As with every Miyazaki film, there’s nothing to complain about here. Not a single frame is wasted; and every one looks like a painting come to life. There’s just so much going on visually in every scene; from the way rain falls on an umbrella to the butterflies that dominate the foreground, somehow creating an illusion of depth that is not actually there.

I’ll be getting on my animation soapbox often with these posts, and I feel particularly obligated to approach the topic after Disney’s recent abandonment of 2D animation. It’s a shame that the modern film industry views 2D animation as archaic, because it is actually the opposite. 3D computer animation will always be subject to the whims of technology (just take a look back at those old “Veggie Tales” cartoon or the original “Toy Story” and tell me how well they hold up visually). But 2D animation is hindered only by the imagination of the artist. There’s a purity to hand drawn animation that computer animation has never come close to matching.

“My Neighbor Totoro” is a marvelous film, and a great starting point for those new to Miyazaki. Some might find the ending too pat, and Miyazaki is playing with themes and ideas that would be much more fleshed out in future efforts. But, for what it is, “Totoro” is about as pure and pleasant an experience as you could possibly have with a movie. Watch it and reflect on the glorious imagination of your own childhood.

“The Great Gatsby” Review: One big empty party

I’m not convinced “The Great Gatsby” is a movie. It more resembles a calculating machine, churning out just the right emotions and just the right plot point at just the right times to keep the audience in their seats. But when this party is over, there isn’t much left to do but go home and get some shut eye.

Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated adaptation of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel is a dichotomous creation through and through. It’s both artistically ambitious and way too safe, exhilarating and deadly dull all in the same breath.

If you’re not familiar with the book, the story follows the narrator, writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) as he ruminates on his friendship with J. Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) the elusive billionaire who throws the hottest, glitziest parties in 1920’s era New York while harboring deep dark secrets. There’s also Carraway’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Carrey Mulligan), who is married to Tom (Joel Edgerton). The film mostly focuses on Carraway’s increasing disillusionment with the city and his increasing friendship with Gatsby, the only man he can truly trust, while also helping Daisy deal with her husband’s affair with a local woman (Isla Fisher). The latter part of the film emphasizes the romantic past that Gatsby and Daisy share.

The best and worst thing about this movie is director Baz Luhrmann. Known for directing such sumptuous films as “Moulin Rouge” and “Romeo + Juliet,” he once again shows a flair here for staging elaborate, exhilarating set pieces. Gatsby’s parties live up to their reputations thanks to the production design of longtime Luhrmann collaborator Katherine Martin and the film’s soundtrack, which transitions frequently between 20’s era jazz and modern hip-hop (thanks to the influence of Jay-Z, who serves as a producer). The party scenes in particular do a great job of conveying the thrill of the moment while also revealing the claustrophobic and woozy lows such booze-filled revelries often include. The filmmakers’ stylistic indulgences work for a while, but the frantic energy of the film doesn’t ever let up even during quiet scenes. I wanted to pin the camera down and tell the editors to stop cutting so I could actually enjoy the actors and lavish environments more.

Any rhythm Luhrmann creates during his major set piece moments comes to a halt whenever things get serious. The director has never had tremendous skill in conveying complex emotions unaided by song and dance, and it shows here as the dramatic moments are handled with all the grace and nuance of a sledgehammer. Audiences should never expect subtlety from a Baz Luhrmann film, but it would be nice to be able to let the excellent actors (particularly DiCaprio and Maguire) breathe a little more without having to telegraph every moment. What, for example, do we get to convey the growing tension brewing between Gatsby and Tom Buchanan? A car race. An honest-to-god, hold-onto-your-hats, pedal-to-the-metal sprint through the city streets. I couldn’t help but think of that car race home in “Meet the Parents.” Except that was actually supposed to be funny.

What surprised me the most about this adaptation is its faithfulness to the source material. Fitzgerald’s original critique of the party culture of his era thankfully shines through the translation, as does the enduring allure of J. Gatsby, perhaps the greatest character in all of literature. DiCaprio is just marvelous here, one of his best performances ever, and it is his Gatsby, with all of his flaws and fascinations, that holds the film together, much like the book. But, if anything, I never thought I would be hoping for a more ambitious adaptation. Lurhmann hits all the important notes from the book, right on the nose. While it is relatively faithful, it leaves little room for surprises or truly creative scenarios. I would have loved to see Lurhmann let his creative ambitions loose in preposterous flights of fancy that, even if they deviated drastically from the source material, would have been far more memorable.

“The Great Gatsby” is actually more of the “eh…Gatsby.” I loved the film whenever it took creative risks such as the modern soundtrack, and the acting and production values are uniformly excellent. But for every thrilling scene, there’s another that completely deflates the film’s momentum. It’s a faithful adaptation that ultimately plays it much too safe. Sure, you’ll have fun at Gatsby’s party. But don’t blame the alcohol if you don’t remember much of it the next morning.

“Iron Man 3” Review: A spectacular return to form

 

To say there is a lot riding on “Iron Man 3” would be an understatement. After a disappointing sequel in the eyes of many critics and fans, Tony Stark appeared in the smash hit “The Avengers.” All eyes have been on his third solo outing to see if lightning will strike again.

Fans can rest easy, because “Iron Man 3” is a spectacular return to form for the wisecracking hero, combining the sharply written dialogue the franchise is known for alongside some wonderful new supporting characters and an overall darker tone that nonetheless keeps the spirit of Iron Man intact.

The story cleverly ties directly back to “The Avengers” as Tony Stark (once again played expertly by Robert Downey Jr.) is experiencing the emotional ramifications of the massive fight against aliens in New York City. His issues are taking a toll on his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow), whom he has let take charge of most of his company’s operations. And then, there is the villainous terrorist Mandarin (an awesome-as-always Ben Kingsley) and a scientist named Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) who is trying to convince Stark Industries to invest in a product that uses the brain to bring about limb regeneration.

The numerous side characters, plot twists and complications should all add up to an “Iron Man 2”-sized mess. But the third outing works better because it stays grounded where it should: in the character of Tony Stark and his struggles. His internal conflict is more compelling here than in previous films, as he struggles with panic attacks and PTSD after the events of “The Avengers.” The film stays more literally grounded in the fact that, for the majority of the film, there is no Iron Man. With Jarvis down for a good portion of the film, Stark is forced to resort to some pretty cool Punisher-style guerilla warfare tactics (with the help of his friend Col. James Rhodes, played by Don Cheadle). Some might find an Iron Man movie without much Iron Man to be a betrayal, but most of the intrigue of this universe comes from the character of Tony Stark, not the exploits of his superhero counterpart.

That’s not to say that the suit tech is absent. Tony has created some impressive new gadgets, including implants that allow him to control a suit remotely as well as allow the suit to fly directly onto his body. By the end of the film, the promise of action is delivered through several spectacular aerial set pieces that outshine anything seen in the previous films. In fact, I would go so far as to say that some of the sequences here rival the best in the entire Marvel film universe.

There are a few aspects of this film that may irritate fans. The first is the amount of seemingly superfluous supporting characters that seem to pop up whenever Tony needs help. I would have found them annoying had they not been so well written. When Tony comes across a seemingly annoying child sidekick (played by the wonderful Ty Simpkins), it results in the funniest dialogue (and one of the best characters) in the entire series. These characters help to alleviate some of the murky plotting that plagued the second Iron Man and is still somewhat present here.

The major flaw of this film is, unfortunately, the villain. In a post “Dark Knight” superhero film landscape, a lack of a truly strong villain seems like a tremendous letdown. The blow is softened by the fact that Tony Stark is perhaps the strongest hero in the history of superhero films, but Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin, who starts out as a truly intimidating antagonist, devolves by the film’s end. A particularly lame plot twist leaves us wondering exactly what the villain’s motivations are and why we’re supposed to care. I really was hoping for more from Tony’s foil here.

Thankfully, Tony’s internal conflict is enough to carry the day here. “Iron Man 3” keeps the spirit of the franchise alive with stirring action, heavenly dialogue and the enigmatic man at the center of it all. I truly believe Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal will go down as one of the greatest combinations of character and actor ever to be put to film. To think of anyone else in this role is heresy. If this franchise is to continue further (either via “Avengers” or “Iron Man” movies), Tony Stark and Downey Jr. can never be anything less than a package deal.

Summer Movie Preview: My top picks

Few things get me more excited than a summer at the movies. And, so far, this summer is shaping up to be better than most. No matter your preferred genre, there really does seem to be something for everyone at the cinema. So grab your buttery, overpriced popcorn and join me for a few of my top picks in different genres.

 

Top Pick: Superhero movies—Man of Steel (June 14)— Before you see it: “Superman,” “Superman II,” “Watchmen”

This summer will see new and exciting entries in the “Iron Man,” “Wolverine” and “Kick-Ass” series. But, without a doubt the movie with the most riding on it is the artsy-looking Superman origin story “Man of Steel.” There hasn’t been a good Superman movie as long as I’ve been alive, so to call this film anticipated would be an understatement. Fans are cautiously optimistic, as the film is directed by Zack Snyder, who has a reputation for visually stunning yet narratively unsatisfying filmmaking (see: “300,” “Watchmen,” “Sucker Punch”). But, the fact that Christopher Nolan, director of the acclaimed “Dark Knight trilogy is penning the screenplay along with his collaborator David S. Goyer should propel Man of Steel back into “hotly anticipated” territory. Oh, and did I mention Russell Crowe is playing Jor-El and Amy Adams is playing Lois Lane?

 

Top Pick: Romance/Literary adaptation—The Great Gatsby (May 10)– Before you see it: “The Great Gatsby” (book), “Romeo +Juliet” (dir. Baz Luhrmann)

Also known as the shiny new adaptation of the only book in high school lit class you actually enjoyed, director Baz Luhrmann’s film looks to be garish, overproduced and completely awesome (not unlike his previous adaptation, “Romeo + Juliet”). Featuring an infectious modern hip-hop soundtrack and perfect casting all-around (how could Leonardo DiCaprio not play Gatsby?), the film is ambitious to say the least. But, if you’re not excited for this movie, you officially don’t have a pulse. However, if Gatsby isn’t enough to satisfy your hunger for modern literary adaptations, there’s also Joss Whedon’s (director of “The Avengers”) more intimate version of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” shot in just 12 days.

 

Top Pick: Sci-fi—Elysium (August 9)—-Before you see it: “District 9,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Dark City,” “12 Monkeys”

This is the very definition of a stacked category. Some might call it the summer of sci-fi. There’s the new installment in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, Will Smith in “After Earth” and Guillermo Del Toro’s much-ballyhooed Pacific Rim. But my pick has to be “Elysium.” In Neill Blomkamp’s stunning directorial debut “District 9,” the director proved adept at combining potent social commentary with solid genre thrills. Look for a similar formula here as humanity circa-2154 is divided between the wealthy, who live on a man-made space station where all diseases can be cured, and the rest of humanity, who are struggling to survive on this scummy place called “Earth.” Cue Matt Damon, who accepts a mission to break into the space station in hopes of bringing equality to humanity. If you’ve seen District 9, you know you’re already looking forward to this one.

 

Top Pick: Comedy—“This is the End” (June 12)Before you see it: anything starring the multiple funny actors in this film

Recommending comedies is difficult for me, because not only do I not watch very many, but there are just so many being made these days. Regardless, the concept behind “This is the End” is genius: a bunch of hilarious comedians are hanging out at a party when they are faced with the impending apocalypse. That may sound like a thin plot, but with the likes of James Franco, Paul Rudd, Seth Rogen, Danny McBride and Jonah Hill around, what else to you really need? If you like your apocalypse-themed comedies more British, there’s “The World’s End” starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Other anticipated comedies include “The Hangover III”, “The Heat” and the animated adventures “Monsters University” and “Despicable Me 2.” If you like watching terrible comedies for some reason, you should get a dearth of laughs from “Grown Ups 2” and “Smurfs 2.”

 

Top Pick: Action—“World War Z” (June 21) –Before you see it: “Dawn of the Dead,” “28 Days Later,” “World War Z” (book)

This summer doesn’t look to be a particularly exciting one for pure action movies, but the action/thriller/horror/sci-fi film “World War Z” is shaping up to be a tense summer shocker. While many fans of the book are crying foul over the seemingly loose adaptation, actor Brad Pitt and director Mark Forster are looking to innovate the zombie picture with what is being touted as “the most expensive zombie movie ever made.” Sure, money isn’t everything, but if one look at this  poster isn’t enough to get you excited, I don’t know what else I can do. If you’re a bit burnt out on zombies, there’s the sixth installment in the “Fast and Furious” franchise (yes, they’re still making those), Disney’s “The Lone Ranger,” “Red 2” and “2 Guns.”

Roger Ebert: Go gently, my friend

 

My copy of Roger’s memoir, “Life Itself,” personalized and signed by the big man himself. I never met him in person, but the fact that he was willing to sign these for fans he hadn’t even met spoke volumes.

Note: Some of Roger’s review archive is not appearing online at the moment. I think the amount of people viewing his reviews is messing with the site. I will link to the reviews when they again appear online. 

April 4 will forever be remembered for something more than the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. It’s now the day that Roger Ebert, the prolific and beloved film critic, died at age 70 after a long battle with cancer. Its’ safe to say that I wouldn’t be a writer today if it wasn’t for this man. He’s up there with Bill Watterson, John Steinbeck and Brian Jacques of major influences and reasons why I write.

      I don’t remember when I first really got into movies, but I do remember watching “Siskel and Ebert” on TV even before that. You could say it was that show that got me into movies in the first place. I remember thinking, if I ever made a movie, it would be my ultimate creative goal to get “two thumbs up.”

While Ebert’s TV appearances were a hoot, it was his writing that really engaged me. I’ve never really understood how someone could write so personally about something they themselves did not create. But, Roger somehow managed to make his reviews personal, intimate and raw. Perhaps it was the fact that he never descended into the miasma of intellectualism where so many critics find themselves. He always brought things back to the heart of film: how did it make him feel? “Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie to you,” he once said.

His emotions came through in reviews that could be surprisingly anger or tenderness. Some of my favorite “hateful” reviews include Transformers 2, Battle: Los Angeles and Kick-Ass. As for his positive reviews? Well, any one will do. Every fan of film needs to have a copy of “Great Movies” or Ebert’s wonderful four-star review collection from 1967-2007. One of the great pleasures in life has been seeing Roger’s joy over seeing a movie he loved. His prose never just made me want to see a good movie: it inspired me to create art that could have the same kind of emotional impact that films had on him. One of Roger’s last reviews was his in-depth analysis of Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” which is one of the best pieces of film writing I’ve read.

Roger’s personal touch also came through in the way he incorporated his culturally Catholic view of the world into his writing. In this regard (and others), his writing has only gotten stronger since his illness. Roger has written elegantly about science, the universe, faith and death in ways that most likely would have never manifested themselves without his illness.

Regardless, Roger’s writing has been spiritually challenging to me on a personal spiritual level.

“I have no interest in being instructed in what I must do to be saved,” he wrote. “I prefer vertical prayers, directed up toward heaven, rather than horizontal prayers, directed sideways toward me,” he continued. “If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, we must regard their beliefs with the same respect our own deserve.”

“I am not a believer, not an atheist, not an agnostic,” he continued. “I am more content with questions than with answers.” That may not sound like much of an answer, but Roger lived out his views of the world with resolve, writing passionately on topics such as evolution and gun control. I frequently disagreed with his posts, but I always knew that there was a real human, with a real soul behind those words. In an era filled with showy punditry and half-hearted plays for sympathy, Roger wrote from the heart and was always responsive and respectful to those who disagreed with or were offended by his works.

Roger’s last column, published April 2 and accurately titled “A Leave of Presence,” was an eerily poignant and foreshadowing goodbye to an era.

What in the world is a leave of presence?” he wrote. It means I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What’s more, I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review.” It was the perfect opportunity to say goodbye, but Roger’s presence is far from gone. It will endure, just as the art of cinema will endure.

Roger, the last chapter of your wonderful biography (which you were so kind to sign for me) is titled “Go Gently.” Even though you did not subscribe to the concept of an afterlife, I still pray you will do just that. If you should find yourself in Heaven, I hope all of your favorite movies are there, playing repeatedly on the celestial reel. Thanks for the memories, my friend.

Why The Oscars Are Going to be Disappointing

 

I hate to say it. I just don’t think I’m going to like the Academy Awards ceremony this year. Of course, I could be pleasantly surprised. I think it will be an entertaining show, and I think Seth MacFarlane is a consummate showman. But, the Academy has made some boneheaded decisions that I think will do the show a disservice. This is coming from someone who honors Oscar night as his favorite “holiday” and makes the show a special occasion every year.

In terms of the nominated films, I think this is an excellent bunch, and certainly one of the most commercially friendly lineups in years. I don’t really think there’s a bad apple among the whole bunch. I do, however, think the bunch is incomplete. Why are there only nine nominated films, when the Academy can pick ten? Were there really only nine films deserving the honor? I think back to the reason the Academy expanded the Best Picture category to ten in the first place. Wasn’t it to get more ratings by giving more popular films a chance and thereby boost ratings? Okay. So where is “The Avengers,” or “The Dark Knight Rises,” or even “Moonrise Kingdom”? What about the brilliant time-bending sci-fi actioner “Looper”? These films don’t have to win; heck, no one would expect them to. But it might get people watching, and inject a much-needed mass-market energy into the often rather dour proceedings. And how do you explain top 10 beneficiaries from past years such as “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” or “The Blind Side”? There were better films than those released this year that could have easily filled that tenth spot.

Then, of course, there are the snubs. I won’t complain so much about Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Director snub, but no Ben Affleck for “Argo”? That excellent film has been sweeping awards circuits left and right, and Affleck should have a shelf dusted off for his potential win. At the very least, he should be able to ride his awards train through to the big night. But, he can’t. For him, the journey is essentially over, although some have suggested an unorthodox write-in vote that doesn’t seem likely. I don’t think the Oscars should automatically hope on the awards bandwagon and praise a film just because everyone else is. And, certainly, his film has a great chance at taking home the big prize, but I feel like this is Affleck’s moment, and he deserved a nod at the very least.

There are always spirited debates surrounding the Oscars and whether the films in question deserved or didn’t deserve certain awards and nominations. I have taken part in some of these debates and think they’re healthy and productive. But, they’re always based in the opinions and tastes of those involved. But, the Academy’s decision to not include the full ten films in the Best Picture category in particular is confusing by any objective standards. If the Oscars are there to celebrate films, why not celebrate the largest amount of deserving films possible? The nominations shouldn’t be exclusive by default; and I can guarantee there were more than nine great films released this year.

And so, I shall begrudgingly watch the telecast (not live, unfortunately, work is getting in the way), and hope that the Academy loves movies as much as I do. As of now, their exclusionary policy does not have me convinced.

 

Sundance Reflections: Other Oddities

“Newlyweeds.” A stoner comedy for people who don’t like stoner comedies.

There are a few films I haven’t talked about yet. The first is “Newlyweeds,” a comedic drama about a young couple, Lyle and Nina, who is coasting through life smoking weed and generally not doing much of anything. But, things start changing when a new drug-dealer enters Nina’s life, and Lyle’s addictive tendencies start tearing his life apart.

The film is easily one of the funniest I saw at Sundance. Lyle and Nina’s drug use has a lot of comedic potential, and first-time director Shaka King makes excellent use of all of it. There’s the time where Nina brings her pot brownies to the child care center where she works and the kids get a hold of them, and the classic-in-the-making scene where Lyle, descending into alcoholism, wakes up on a subway train after a drinking binge wearing a girl’s pink jacket that is too small for him to even remove.

The characters are sweet (if foul-mouthed) and the film is beautifully shot. There is tons of drug use in the movie, but I don’t see it as gratuitous. The film shows the lows as well as the highs of getting high. For people like Lyle, pot is destructive, because it encourages his addictive tendencies. His eventual alcoholism ruins everything around him, even the relationship he was trying so hard to sustain. He is ultimately a kind man, which helps to offset his considerable character flaws. The supporting cast is excellent all-around, but it’s really the writing that shines through. Even during the characters’ more self-destructive descents, we never stop rooting for them and remembering the humanity behind the haze.

The strangest film I saw at Sundance was “Upstream Color,” about as puzzling film as you’re likely to see. Apparently, its some kind of deep meditation on the nature of reality and identity, but I thought it was pure nonsense. It’s one of those “art” films that tries so very hard to be meaningful, all while forgetting that its supposed to be entertaining the audience. The film follows a woman in the aftermath of an infection by some kind of worm that causes her to become brainwashed and lose her identity, which gets transferred to a pig. She falls in love with a man who tries to help her get her life back on track and live again. Sound confusing? Stupid, even? Yep.

The director, Shane Carruth, has received high praise for his unconventional and challenging style, and I can see why. The film is so beautiful to look at that I never felt exactly angry at it. In fact, in technical terms, it’s the best film I saw at Sundance. But, what is it about? Your film can be achingly beautiful, but if you don’t have a good script, you don’t really have much. Don’t get me wrong, I love art-house movies. The deliberately obtuse Terrence Malick is one of my favorite directors. But this is no Terrence Malick film. It’s incomprehensible mud masquerading as meaning. During the Q&A after the film, one audience member called it a “masterpiece.” I thought Sundance-goers were smarter than that.

Sundance In-Depth Analysis: “Blue Caprice”

“Blue Caprice” is a terrifying film, because its major events actually happened. If the Joker was a real-life villain and not just a comic book character, he might look a lot like John Muhammad.

John was one of the D.C. Snipers, a pair of shooters who terrorized the Beltway by shooting random targets from the trunk of a Blue Caprice. The film is a slow burn, as the terrorists slowly make their way towards their killing spree. It reaches into the dark depths of humanity and refuses to let the audience come up for air.

The beginning of the film takes place in the tropics, where teen Lee Malvo is living a life of abandonment. His mother left, and may not be coming back. She tells him to make friends with the man down the street while she’s gone. That man is John. John is a kind man, who takes Lee under his wing and treats him like a son. But John also has a short temper, and is particularly angry over his ex-wife trying to take custody of his three kids. He loves to hunt, and releases his anger by shooting firearms in the woods. But this isn’t satisfying. He wants to send a message. A message of chaos.

The film’s themes are nothing short of chilling. The story of John and Lee shows that, while some men are born violent, others are trained to be that way. Lee is a directionless youth, and John’s words quickly take a hold of him, brainwashing him into thinking that killing is the only way to solve his problems. It’s a subtle indictment of our current culture, which emphasizes widespread ownership of firearms but has little knowledge about the inner-workings of mental illness. It may be too early for a Sandy Hook drama, but this film covers similar ground in terms of our gun culture. There’s also a psychological mentality that permeates the story. John wants to kill because it makes him feel powerful. He may want to take out his violence on his ex-wife, but he doesn’t know where to find her. He is helpless. But killing other people could provide the same psychological release. Or so he thinks.

“Blue Caprice” is a brilliant examination of the nature of violence in our society.

The screenplay is brilliantly penned by R.F.I. Porto. We had an opportunity to speak to him about his writing process after the screening. One of the things he said that really stuck out is that, if you’re a beginning writer, you can’t write a first screenplay like “Blue Caprice.” It will destroy you. Writing this story took him to some very dark places, place of depression and doubts. It’s easy to see why. Getting into the psychology of a killer, particularly a real-life one, must be extraordinarily difficult.

One of the great sins committed in the film is the sin of pride. John quickly falls into the “us versus them” mentality of many killers, and he drags Lee there with him. He refers to those around him as “evil people,” and explains to Lee that “life is not fair.” Life beats the goodness out of you, and the only way to respond is to beat back, rally against all of those people who are so much worse than you are.

John’s brainwashing of Lee is all the more terrifying because it seems natural. Lee wants to win his “father’s” approval, so his first kill is a woman who John said testified against him in court. Lee shoots her in the face before questioning whether he “killed the wrong lady.” “Don’t you see?” John responds. “It could be anyone.” The random targets will prevent the authorities from attaching any sort of pattern or motive to the killings.

The killings themselves are violent but restrained. Lee’s first couple of kills, prior to the D.C. spree, are startling for how cold, bloody and immediate they are. The killing spree itself, which doesn’t begin until the last half hour of the film or so, is less graphic. I appreciate the filmmaker’s tact in shooting these scenes. We could have seen sniper bullets ripping someone’s head open, but that would be dishonorable to the memories of the real-life victims. What we see, instead, is the aftermath. The bloodied bodies lying in the street, at the gas pump or in their cars; the 9/11 calls and emergency response crews as they arrive at the scene. And yet, the threat of violence is always there. We don’t see Lee with his hands on a rifle until the killers are already well into their spree. When we do, Lee is sitting in the trunk of the Caprice, peeking through the hole in the trunk, through which the barrel of the rifle is resting. Lee chooses his target carefully, as John coaches him from the front seat. He chooses his target and shoots, but all we see is the cut to black and hear the piercing shot of the rifle.

I thought the film’s portrayal of violence was tasteful, and refusing to show a lot of gore actually made the film feel more violent. In a film culture saturated with action stars who kill hundreds of bad guys in one film, the filmmakers here remind us that every human life matters, and ensure that we will feel the impact of every life taken. It’s a subtle indictment of the medium of film and its power to desensitize us to exactly the kind of real-life violence that John and Lee committed. A movie made me feel guilty for watching other movies so casually. How ironic.

Back to the guns, the sound in this movie is some of the best I’ve heard. An audience member asked the director, Alexandre Moors, why they made the guns sound so loud that the audience jumped every time one was shot. He said that, in most films, the sound of the gun is toned down so that it doesn’t have that same visceral shock. Their goal was to do the opposite. The sound designer actually raised the sound of the gunshots, so that each one would feel like it was being fired right next to you. I thought the effect was jarring and effective.

Another success of “Blue Caprice” is the cinematography. The film is shot in hues of deep blue, creating a somber tone that also helps to complement the color of the Caprice itself. It also helps to contrast the beginning of the film, the part that takes place in the tropics. This section is much more colorful, as Lee’s life is ahead of him and John is living a seemingly happy life with his three kids.

I find it interesting to compare “Blue Caprice” to another Sundance drama based upon violent real-life events and starring an African-American cast. Compared to the phenomenal “Fruitvale,” “Blue Caprice” is a less pleasant film to sit through. I took fewer breaths and laughed less during it. In both films, we already know the outcome, thanks to both history and raw live video of the protagonists’ fates included at the beginning of the films. The themes of the films are also surprisingly similar. Every life matters. Violence can happen to anyone. African-Americans can be the victims as often as the perpetrators, just like everyone else. I think “Fruitvale” is perhaps a better film overall, willing to take the audience to more areas of human existence and make it feel a wider range of emotions. But, days after attending both screenings, “Blue Caprice” is sitting with me more. I can’t get it out of my head.

As a viewer, I tend to gravitate toward films that reveal the darker areas of the human psyche. Films like “Taxi Driver” and “There Will Be Blood” are near the top of my list of all-time favorites. I think our own darkness can often reveal more about who we are than the light can. We are sinners in need of redemption, and we are all, deep down, capable of doing similar things to our fellow man, under the right circumstances.        When we hear of acts of unspeakable violence in our world, we often ask, ‘how can one human being do that to another?’ This film responds, “Just like this.” We see how easily our fragile human nature can be manipulated and molded by those stronger and smarter than us, for better or worse. This idea is hammered home in the haunting final moments of the film, where Lee, now in custody, is asked a question during an interrogation, after he and John have been caught. “You do know he’s not your father, right?” Lee doesn’t answer, but simply stare forward at the screen. Lee may be beyond saving, all because of one man. That, to me, is the very definition of human depravity.

Sundance Review: “Fruitvale”

Ryan Coogler’s debut feature, “Fruitvale,” won the Dramatic Grand Jury prize at Sundance. It’s easy to see why.

Director Ryan Coogler accepting the Grand Jury Prize for “Fruitvale.”

“Fruitvale” is a difficult film to write about for several reasons. I didn’t take any notes on the film, because I was so engrossed in the world and story unfolding before my eyes. But, more than that, it’s a movie of such tremendously raw power that it’s difficult to put into words.

The plot is based upon the life of Oscar, a bay-area man who was senselessly killed by a BART officer on New Years’ Day, 2009. The film opens with the raw video of the killing, taken on a cell phone, and then proceeds to follow Oscar through the last year of his life.

What makes the film so immediately engaging is the character of Oscar himself. He is an incredibly likable yet sympathetic. Yes, he just got out of prison, but he’s trying to get his life back on track, and is deeply in love with his daughter and girlfriend. He’s even a good sibling and son to his supportive mother, wonderfully played by Octavia Spencer. And yet, he’s having a tough time getting a job, and has been selling drugs to make money.

I’m reading through Blake Snyder’s classic book on screenwriting, “Save the Cat.” In the book, he talks about a major element that every good screenplay should have. Early on in the film, the protagonist should have a moment where he/she “saves the cat.” This means that they need to do something that has us rooting for them from the beginning, no matter how flawed other aspects of their character may be. In “Fruitvale,” we get this in several scenes. Oscar attempts to save a dog that has been hit by a car. The dog dies, but we see how much Oscar cared for him. If he cares for a street dog, how much more might he care for the human beings that he comes across in his life? A similar scene occurs when he dumps his bag of weed, which he could have sold for money, into the ocean. It’s an amazing scene because we see that Oscar has changed, that he is now more interested in living with honesty and integrity than he is with making money.

The plot itself is brilliantly constructed. Every moment is thick with irony and foreshadowing. Since we already know Oscar’s fate, the tension comes from seeing him do mundane things that suddenly take on a raw power. In one scene, we see Oscar picking out a birthday card for his mother. We know, deep down, that this will be the last card he ever gives to his mother, but we hope against hope that history will not repeat itself, that, somehow, Oscar will live. We’re invested in the character not only because he is written well, but because our knowledge of what happened to his real-life counterpart adds to our sympathetic feelings.

The film takes some creative risks visually, and I think they all pay off. The main effect occurs whenever Oscar sends a text. We see a pop-up on screen as he selects who he is going to send the message to and the message he sends. This is a great way for us to see what he is saying without having to see something less visually engaging, such as an awkward close-up of the cell phone himself. The director also includes real-life footage of the shooting and the rallies for justice that took place during the aftermath. The director said he didn’t originally intend to put in these live-action bookends at the beginning and end, but in the end he just couldn’t deny their power. One interesting note: footage from the anniversary rally on Jan. 1, 2013 is included at the end of the film. This means that the footage was shot and cut into the film in a matter of weeks. It was a cool reminder of how quickly and hard filmmakers sometimes have to work to get their film into Sundance on time.