Friday, July 5, 2013


My post title is slightly hyperbolic, but, in general, Man of Steel was a pretty terrible movie. I was disappointed because if anything was ripe for a 2013 remake it was those Christopher Reeve movies from the '70s and '80s. This version combines the storyline from Christopher Reeve's Superman and Superman II, in which Krypton criminals escape their eternal punishment to wreck havoc on planet Earth. So in Man of Steel we get Superman's back story and then some.

My list of complaints is long and it would be tiresome to lay them all out, but here are a few highlights: The film spends far too much time on Krypton. The filmmakers would probably justify this because they would say it's a way to provide a back story for General Zod, but who really cares about him? We needed to begin with Superman. The other main problem is really a stylistic preference. Man of Steel is shot in a modern hyper-kinetic style with constantly moving camera, rapid editing, and lots and lots of close-ups--this last trademark was most annoying. It also utilizes non-linear editing almost randomly. I mean, if you are going to tell a back story/bildungsroman, you kind of defeat the purpose of building the character and story to a climax by shifting back and forth.

The film's executive producer was Christopher Nolan, and I assume that he contributed the one element that I thought was pretty interesting. In this version we get a new philosophical dilemma that Superman is faced with. He has great power but when or if should he use it? Clark is bullied at school and later as an adult and his most difficult choices lie in not seeking vengeance. He learns to be peaceful and harness his power. He learns not to be Superman.

I heard a short piece on NPR describing how the film was marketed to a Christian audience, and, despite the fact that Superman's original creators were Jewish, this version clearly emphasizes the Superman-as-Christ-Figure elements. He turns the other cheek many times, thinks of others before himself, flies like a god, speaks to his omniscient father, and willingly sacrifices himself for the good of the planet.

Friday, June 21, 2013

This Is Not a Review

I've only watched one other film by Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi and that was The Circle (2000), but I've heard that his other films are excellent. I watched The Circle with a group of students for something we call focus week, where we take students out of the classroom for a week. The Circle tells the story of a group of Iranian women oppressed by their patriarchal Islamic regime. The film was banned in Iran and was one of the reasons Panahi was sentenced to six years of house arrest and banned for 20 years from writing or directing films--surely a harsh punishment for a man who is considered by Martin Scorsese and others one of the world's great directors. I remember discussing the film with my students and an Iranian girl said she thought it exaggerated the difficulties for women in Iran; she said that she went there often and never encountered any problems. I remember doubting what she said at the time, and now when I look back I'm sure she was either wrong or just coincidentally never experienced what most other women do experience in Iran.

This Is Not a Film is a documentary starring Panahi that was smuggled out of Iran to play at the Cannes Film Festival. It was hidden inside a birthday cake. In the film, as Panahi awaits the decision on an appeal, the film gives us a window into his imprisoned daily life. He has a new script and has even selected a cast, but, of course, he is forbidden from actually making the film. Instead, he reads the script himself and acts out the character's parts--or he starts too, anyway.

The film is fascinating for a couple of reasons. One, it makes us aware of the freedoms people lack in countries like Iran. While I may not always agree with political satirists (like John Stewart and Stephen Colbert--though I do agree with them more often than not) or other commentators, at least in this country they can essentially say what they want to say without being imprisoned or captured and tortured. Also, as a cinephile  I was struck by how difficult it is for Panahi not to make a film. Filmmaking is his life entire. And if he can't make films, what point is there to life?

Of course, the film's ironic title questions what filmmaking is and what it isn't. While Panahi is not able to make the film he wants to and becomes quite emotional when he realizes this is the case, we are left with something that is possibly more interesting than the film he would have made had he not been imprisoned and had he not lived in such an oppressive country. This Is Not a Film is a film after all.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A Brave New Apocalypse: Justin Cronin's The Twelve

I just finished reading Justin Cronin’s relatively disappointing The Twelve, the sequel to his epic vampire novel The Passage (2010).  The last 50 (or, if I’m being generous maybe 100) pages were gripping page-turners, and the story as a whole is interesting and original—as these things go. But there were other issues I had with the book that made it difficult to love. I’ll get to those in a minute.

The Passage tells the story of a quasi-scientifically plausible vampire outbreak wherein all of America descends into a bleak vampire apocalypse. Cronin’s vampires are not the suave and seductive Draculas (in his later television and film iterations, anyway) or the Anne-Rice-or-True-Blood variety, nor are they brooding and conflicted Edwards from the Twilight series.  Surely the most frightening vampires to appear on paper, Cronin’s monsters exude near godly power coupled with the fiercest ferociousness of a ruthless predator.  They move with lightening speed, leap into the air with ease, manipulate weak human minds, hunger for human blood, amass armies of followers, and literally rip people to shreds. Covered in a nearly impenetrable armor, the red-eyed beasts are close to impossible to kill. And all the main vampires but patient Zero, a research scientist infected on a trip to Bolivia, are former death-row inmates. (The military has the brilliant idea to test the virus out on murderers and rapists. They escape.) Scary indeed.

I admit that The Passage wasn’t perfect either, but I would still highly recommend it. I loved the shear breadth of the story, the grandness of the tale (it’s almost 800 pages long).  I loved that two women (girls, actually) are the heroes of the story. In fact, Cronin has said that he wrote the novel with his daughter’s assistance; she inspired him to write a story about a girl saving the world. Even in 2013, we still don’t see badass or powerful or even interesting women as often as we should. And these girls are rich characters who are fully human, not some clichéd sex object-Lara-Croft knockoffs. Considering that the book has several characters, I thought Cronin did a good job fleshing them out, giving them back stories and individual identities. Also, on a plot level, the book certainly builds to an exciting climax and has lots of twists and turns along the way—and lots of exciting “oh-man, he-is-going-to-die!” scenes. But most of all, I loved the writing. Cronin’s The Passage is very literary in the best possible way; it has a beautiful poetry that as I recall was free from clichés and free from wordiness.

The small issue I had with The Passage was that it was really two books in one, and I never understood why they weren’t published separately. The first part describes the pre-vampire apocalypse, mostly following a young clairvoyant who holds telepathic powers named Amy, who is kidnapped by the government and infected with a new strain of the virus. She develops a loving relationship with what will become her father in the trilogy, an FBI agent named Brad Wolgast, the man who helped kidnap her. The book then suddenly shifts 93 years in the future and mostly focuses on a colony of survivors living in California. They have barricaded themselves from the vampires and fend off the beast nearly every night.

While I mostly enjoyed the story in The Twelve and Cronin certainly thought of interesting variations on the genre, the problems I had with it probably outweighed what I liked about it. It’s a bit shorter than the previous book (about pages), but Cronin introduces several more characters and spreads them fairly thin. I like what he did with the two main female characters but another character named Peter, who is much more interesting in the first, falls a bit flat here. The same can be said of several others. Cronin also annoyingly jumps around quite a bit, a couple of pages here, then there, then there, and so on. This structure made the book not only less fluid but it was also a bit manipulative at times. He was clearly trying to create some cliffhanger scenes and leave the reader on the lurch. Perhaps the most unforgivable sin, though, was the huge amount of cheesy clichés he employed throughout the book. The writing just seemed rushed and somewhat lazy to me.
Ridley Scott purchased the rights to The Passage a few years ago and Matt Reeves (Cloverfield) has just wrapped shooting. The film version is set for release later this year. It has potential to be an excellent film, but I wish HBO would have optioned it; it would make a better mini series.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Memories

I created a close-analysis assignment for my film students and decided to do the assignment myself so that they would have a sample. I think it turned out pretty well, so I'm posting it. The assignment asks students to take a one- or two-minute scene; describe the background information needed to understand the scene; use a snipping tool to capture every shot in the scene; describe each shot, angle, transition, and duration of the shot; and write a 1-2 page analysis of the scene, discussing how the cinematography, mise-en-scene and editing impact the meaning. I chose Christopher Nolan's Memento (2000), based on a short story by his brother Jonathan. You'll notice that I don't have images for the shots. For some reason I couldn't copy and paste the images from the film from my Word doc.

Set up/Background Information:

Memento tells the story of a man named Leonard who suffers from short-term memory loss. Leonard believes his wife has been raped and murdered, and he, as a self-appointed vigilante, spends his days and nights tracking down the murderer. Because of his condition—his inability to remember incidents after the murder for more than a few moments—he writes basic information like “my car” on Polaroids, tattoos “facts” all over his body, and leaves post-it notes for himself everywhere. This is the first scene in the film, and it is shot in reverse. What follows the short opening scene is the first of many black-and-white scenes scattered throughout the film that occur in chronological order. These scenes are juxtaposed with the color scenes edited in reverse chronological order. The color and black and white eventually merge towards the end. Thus, the film ends at the chronological beginning of the story.

Summary of Scene:

 In this scene Leonard shoots and kills a man at point blank. He then takes  a Polaroid of the dead man. But because the scene goes in reverse, we first see the completed Polaroid picture, which then disappears.  The picture re-enters the camera, the gun flies from the ground and into Leonard’s hand, the man screams, the shell bounces upward into the gun, the bullet enters the gun.

 Analysis of Scene:
Intentionally jarring and confusing on its first viewing, this scene presents a microcosm of the ideas in the film as a whole. The Polaroid picture’s disappearance and the bullet’s re-entering the gun both serve as metaphors for Leonard’s condition. For him, memories are as ephemeral as the gratification of vengeance he receives in killing whom he believes to be his wife’s rapists and murderer. That is, memories and gratification disappear just like the picture. Because the scene is shot in reverse, for Leonard it is as if this murder never occurs—the bullet was never shot and the picture never taken.  Even though he takes a picture of the dead man, we know from other events later in the film that he will likely destroy this picture so that he can continue to hunt down and kill whomever he believes to be the true murderer. The picture will disappear when Leonard burns it. In doing so, Leonard sadistically exploits his condition to enjoy the pleasure of the pursuit and the fleeting moment of doing what he has convinced himself is right. He has supposedly avenged his wife.

One of the interesting features of the scene is Nolan’s use of close-ups and extreme close-ups. Only three of the 16 shots are not close-ups, but even these three are medium close-ups. With the lack of establishing shots or a traditional master shot, we don’t know where we are; we don’t see long shots of both of the men in the same frame; we don’t know why Leonard is murdering this man; we don’t even know who Leonard is at this point. Close-ups are traditionally used sparingly for emotional impact or to enhance a particular performance. But Nolan emphasizes and uses the close-ups to place the viewer in Leonard’s incredibly limited point of view.  We see what Leonard sees, and Nolan wants the audience as confused as his character. The scene epitomizes subjectivity.

What the close-ups show, however, might be even more significant that the use of the close-up. We see blood running on the floor, bloodied eye glasses, a shell casing, and the back of a man’s head.We only see the murdered man’s face for just a moment, a fraction of a second as he turns away to avoid the bullet. Thus, Teddy is not really a man. He is a collection of disembodied body parts and objects. He is an object himself, an object whose sole purpose is to fulfill some kind of fantasy in Leonard. A fantasy that Leonard knows is not the truth. The objectification of Teddy makes it easier for Leonard to kill him, and, shockingly, easier for the audience to approve of the murder. We are made participants in the heinous act.

Not only does Nolan employ primarily close-ups but he also edits them in rapid progression to further emphasize the ephemeral nature of the scene itself. After the initial six- then eleven-second shots, the rest of the shots last only one or two seconds. And the final shot last less than one second. The fact that the photograph shots last longer than the actual murder proves significant. By shortening the murder scene to mere moments of time and a few scattered shots, Nolan ironically downplays the seriousness of the murder. The viewer watches Leonard’s hand for a longer amount of time than we see the dead body, just as Leonard would. Also, if we were to blink we would miss the murder scene. It comes and goes just like Leonard’s memories. Murder is forgotten. It is not a big deal.

One important feature of the mise-en-scène is the color palette, color which is echoed throughout and serves as a metaphor for Leonard’s condition and the subjectivity of human nature.  Leonard’s tan suit compliments the brownish grey of the floor and walls. These earth tones might evoke the metaphorical grey area that Leonard has entered, an ambiguous place where in the moment he feels what he is doing is right only because he has lied to himself to get there. Possibly the grey might represent grey matter in Leonard’s diseased brain. The browns and greys contrast with the prevalent blues: from the bright blue title letters to the dark blue of the dead man’s denim jacket to the blue of Leonard’s shirt to the blue of Leonard’s eyes. Blue is the color of the sky and the ocean; it represents vastness and power. Leonard holds the gun, pulls the trigger, and has the power to take away life, whether that life deserves to be taken away or not. He is a god among men.

The use of fade-from- and to-black at the beginning and end of the scene parallels the image of the blank, undeveloped picture at the end of the first shot. With these transitions Nolan reinforces the idea that Leonard’s memories are wiped away—they also fade to black—just as the picture is wiped away. But beyond Leonard’s specific condition, Nolan implies here and throughout that that memories and, indeed, reality are subjective for all human beings, not just those with short-term memory loss. We, too, can never really know the truth, and we justify our routines and habits because they are truth to us.

With the use of close-ups, rapid editing, reverse filming, and an emphasis on the colors blue and grey, Christopher Nolan has set up the major themes and philosophy of the film as a whole. While these film elements specifically comment on the unreliability of memories, Nolan is after something much deeper and profound. The film becomes a kind of thought experiment that not only questions the reliability of truth but questions reality as a whole. It asks the ultimate question: In a world where memories and reality are as ephemeral as a few seconds of film, how can we truly know anything? We may be able to convince ourselves that we think we are right about our religion, our life philosophy, and our morality. But how do we really know?


Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Kid and the Virgin Mary

With The Kid with a Bike, Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne directed one of the most critically acclaimed films last year and won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2011. Film Comment ranked The Kid with a Bike number seven on their Best Films of 2012 list, and it has appeared on several other top-ten lists. The film tells the story of an 11-year-old boy named Cyril, whose father not only abandoned him to a boy's home but also sold Cyril's sole meaningful possession: his bicycle. Refusing to believe his father would do such a thing, Cyril, played with intense authority by newcomer Thomas Doret, begins a journey to find his father and disprove what he knows could not possibly be true. If the story sounds at all like the classic Italian neorealism film Bicycle Thief, it may have echoes but they aren't really similar. The father is noticeably absent in this story, and while the Italian film was primarily a commentary on the bleak post-war economic reality for men and the moral ambiguities that reality leaves them facing, this film is ultimately quite hopefull.

Stubborn, tough, restless, aggressive, and desperately in need of love, Cyril is a character who frustrates us but also garners our sympathy. He's clearly a product of his terrible circumstances. I couldn't help wanting to shout what would of course have been terribly painful for him or any child to hear: "your father does not love you." While attempting to escape from authorities, Cyril literally runs into a local hairdresser, knocking her off a chair in the waiting room to a medical center and subsequently holding onto her with all of his strength. As the men pull Cyril off of her, she says, "You can hold me if you want...but not so tight." The Dardennes acknowledged in an interview in the March/April issue of Film Comment that the mother and child image was meant to be a reverse pieta, an artistic representation of the Virgin Mary cradling the dead Jesus in her arms. While he may be holding her in this particular moment, the Virgin figure will do the carrying later in the film.

Michelangelo's Pieta (1498-99)

The Mary figure is goodness and purity to her core. She agrees to take Cyril in on the weekends, she drives him to see his father, she provides a safe, loving home for him and never expects anything in return. More importantly, she puts up with his poor manners, his aggressiveness, his disobedience, and his inability to return her love. She is a lovely human being, and we can't help but wonder why she doesn't give up. It's not as if she owes him anything. Of course, we know and the Dardennes know that there are people like her in the world. Some of us aspire to be like them but most of us fall short.

I tend to be drawn to darker stories: crime dramas, post-apocalyptic zombie tales, classic- and neo- films noir, and bleak endings.  And there are plenty of these types of stories today. Bleak stories are so prevalent that I wonder if the phrase "Hollywood ending" is anachronistic. Anyway, it's refreshing to see a film so rife with Christian symbols and messages--when it's presented in the Dardenne's characteristic neorealism, subtlety (no heavy-handed symbols here), and anti-melodrama (at least to a degree). But The Kid with a Bike uses Christian symbolism not so much to endorse or promote Christianity--or any religion for that matter--but to comment on the possibility of hope, love, redemption, and forgiveness in an increasingly secular world. The Dardennes were raised Roman Catholics but their films probably owe more to French filmmaker Robert Bresson (also raised Catholic but he famously called himself a "Christian atheist"--whatever that means) than to Catholicism. The Kid with a Bike has its descent into hell (or maybe hells plural--I suppose there a few of them for Cyril), its ascent from that world into the light of goodness and truth, a world where a kid can ride his bike with his mother. The sun shines and we know that the world isn't always a good place, but sometimes it can be.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Happy, Selfish Souls: The Loneliest Planet

After watching Julia Loktev's fascinating, subtly philosophical and psychologically complex  The Loneliest Planet, I read several reviews to see what other people had to say about it. Of the six or seven reviews in The New Yorker, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, and others, everyone focused on a key moment that takes place about midway through the film. While this moment is admittedly unsettling and presents a turning point in the relationship between the engaged couple, I thought there were three additional moments that, though perhaps not as shocking as the first, were equally interesting and equally troubling.

The film tells the story of Alex and Nica, played by Gael Garcia Bernal and the Israeli actress Hani Furstenberg, and their backpacking trek through the Caucasas Mountains in Georgia. Alex and Nica, engaged to be married in a few months, seem quite happy together. Opening with a nude Nica jumping up and down to signal her doting Alex that she needs help washing her hair, the film reveals many small scenes that typify their loving and happy relationship. They playfully swing on bars inside a bus, dance together and apart in a local Georgian bar, stand on their heads counting "one chimpanzee...two chimpanzees...three chimpanzees," practice Spanish verb conjugations, and politely listen without judgment to the often crude or slightly bigoted stories of their local guide. All while nearly constantly smiling or laughing. This seemingly perfect couple love each other and seem destined for nothing but happiness in life.

All of this becomes much more complicated after the aforementioned moment. (SPOILER ALERT: Don't read on if you think you might watch the film. Please see the film and experience it for yourself.) As Alex and Nica are walking with their guide, they encounter what might be a father and his two sons. The father(?), a man perhaps in his 60s carries an assault rifle. (A couple of the reviews thought the men were guerrilla soldiers, but the boys seem too young to me and they weren't armed, so I'm not really sure who they were supposed to be.) The three appear to know the guide and speak to him in Georgian, but we don't get subtitles, so we don't know what they are saying.  The conversation quickly become tense and there are raised voices; they seem to be upset about Alex and Nica. Alex asks what's going on and the armed man suddenly turns on him, pointing the rifle at Alex's head. This is the shocking moment: Alex quickly grabs Nica and uses her as a shield by putting her between him and the rifle. It's a skillfully staged moment, and it's clear that it is not a calculated move by Alex. It's an unconscious instinct; he does this without thinking about it. He does it to protect himself. After this incident, Nica is understandably upset. Her almost constant smile turns to an almost constant scowl. She doesn't want to speak with Alex and doesn't want to be touched by him. What is interesting about this situation is that, while it was certainly a cowardly and selfish act, it was not done maliciously. He did it without thinking. But the question is, does that matter? Whether is was instinctual or not, he still did this horrible and selfish thing, and we wonder if the relationship can last after this, despite how happy they seemed at the beginning of the film.

The theme of the power of instinct and the question of how much control we have over our actions is reinforced by the mise-en-scene and cinematography. While the film is mostly shot outdoors and we are nearly overwhelmed by the green, verdant, unspoiled grass and mountains, Loktev frames all of the shots in such a way as to never show us a true horizon line. Sometimes I thought I was seeing a horizon line but it was really just a snow-covered mountain in the background. Thus, the greenery and mountains close the characters in an imprisoning, inescapable world. This is done subtly, but it's a perfect example of how cinematography can add to the meaning of a film.

Another key moment occurs when Nica crosses a shallow stream and falls in. Loktev again films and edits the scene brilliantly. The camera is pointed at Alex's back, following him after his safe crossing, and we only hear the splash and cry off screen. Partly because of the guide's position (you'll have to watch this for yourself to judge), the guide rushes in to help her. Alex enters the water, too, but is too late to help and is told to rescue her backpack instead. The guide carries Nica safely to dry land and Alex takes her from him. She immediately jumps out of her fiance's arms. Once again, Nica is visibly upset but we aren't sure if she is upset at Alex for not helping her (maybe she fell in on purpose to test him), or if she is still angry over the earlier shield incident, or if she is angry at herself for falling.

The two other key scenes occur toward the end. Alex retires to his tent early while the guide and Nica remain by the fire drinking out of a ram's horn and exchanging stories of love and loss. The guide asks Nica if he can kiss her and she laughs and then says he can on her hand or check. The guide moves to kiss her on the check but kisses her on the lips instead. He kisses her long and deep and passionately while he caresses her body and she not only allows it but seems to be enjoying it--at least in the moment. Nica returns to her tent, cuddles with Alex and they begin to have sex, but suddenly she gets nauseous and rushes out of the tent and vomits. Alex caresses her bright red hair in a scene that mirrors the hair washing scene from the beginning.

So, here are the questions: Is Nica's kissing the guide justified? Is it an act of revenge? Is it as bad as Alex's selfish act? And what is to be made of her nausea? Is it guilt? Or does the thought of relations with Alex now sicken her? And the biggest questions remain unanswered. Will their relationship survive this trek through the loneliest planet? We see at the end that this couple is clearly more flawed than we initially thought. They are not destined for the happiness that we had hoped for them. Maybe they will separate. Maybe they will remain together and regret it. Or maybe they will be able to forget and forgive each other. My take on the film is that all of these moments, while revealing the flaws of these sympathetic characters, really tell us that they are simply human. They do selfish things that they might not really be able to control, but these acts are representative of who we are as human beings. We fail in so many ways. But if we can't move past our failures, we, too, will live in what can only be the loneliest planet.