Monthly Archives: July 2015

Lucy Review

This film seems to be, at least to some extent, emulating 2001: A Space Odyssey, so I’ll give it the same criticism I’d give to Kubrick: “If you’re going to contribute to the discussion of human evolution, all I ask is that you please use complete sentences.”  Notice how that last sentence of mine was quite full, risking being overcrowded, but at least it got its whole point across in the best way possible.  That is what I like.  I like it when ideas are fully explicated, and it should show that the writer has cooked up some good food for thought, rather than just gesturing in the general direction of a kitchen saying, “make your own.”  Don’t get me wrong – I’m perfectly capable of coming up with my own ideas, and inventing stories to describe them, but when a filmmaker concocts an idea only halfway with the intention of leaving the explaining to me, I get stuck with all of the tedious labor. This just makes the creator seem lazy.  The key problem with Lucy is that it serves as a great prompt for someone to fully explicate its ideas in a more creative and interesting story, but a truly great film would have a hypothesis at its core, not a prompt.

Now I suppose I must explain what I mean when I say a prompt or a hypothesis.  A prompt (according to my mental movie dictionary) says, “Here’s a thing that could happen.”  A hypothesis says, “If this happened, here are some of the implications and conflicts that could arise.” This is the difference between “What if a teenager got a time machine?” and “If a teenager got a time machine, what would happen if he accidentally kept his parents from falling in love?” I wonder if the old adage “show, don’t tell” has taught filmmakers to show ideas rather than exploring their implications.  The way that Lucy explores the idea of a person gaining access to 100% of the mind consists of the following: Dr. Exposition (Morgan Freeman) runs through a checklist of what would happen at a given percentage of access to the brain, in spite of the fact that he has no way of knowing this since it’s all guesswork, and then Lucy coincidentally displays that behavior at the exact same time. There are missed opportunities for good storytelling at every corner: the drama of her parents losing their daughter, the comedy of watching her clumsily try to use powers she hasn’t mastered, the sadness of the loss of her friendships, the confusion of figuring out where the powers came from, the arguments about what to do with the knowledge she has, the irony of a girl who flunked math suddenly being an expert, the heartbreak of her growing apart from her lover… okay, I got that last one from Her, but it would still work, if the writer had given her a decent boyfriend. Alas, the film is mostly interested in going through a laundry list of special effects, and the plots are secondary. Here’s the bizarre part: this movie held my interest.

I didn’t care all that much about Lucy as a character because the film puts a roadblock at any potential route to empathy.  At the beginning of the film, she’s clearly not the type of person anyone with half a brain would want to befriend, and we haven’t learned enough about her to empathize yet.  Then, she progressively becomes less and less human throughout the “story,” thus placing her in the mental category of “non-person,” and we humans have a hard time remembering to care about anything in that category.  To make plot all the more futile, conflict is practically non-existent since there is no appropriate adversary for an omnipotent goddess, and it’s a given that she will inevitably succeed unharmed.  My enjoyment of the film is relying almost entirely on my relationship with the director, who keeps tossing interesting ideas and visuals my way for me to enjoy.  Sometimes he gets so pretentious it’s laughable, but I must admit that I was pretty entertained on the whole, and the film even passed my Pause Test.  It tries to substitute drama with intensity, and it kind of pulls off this trick by being concise.

So, in the end, it may not be a brilliant masterpiece, but it keeps the viewer curious about what’s coming next, and it satisfies the curiosity adequately, making for a good cinematic experience.

67 Lucy

Underrated Songs of the Week – 7/26/15

I find that there are a lot of songs I adore that don’t get much attention from anyone else, and I want to share them with the world… somehow.  The trick is always finding the right way to do it.  So, I’ll try this: I’ve put together a list of the top five songs I feel like sharing this week that I think are underrated, meaning they don’t get radio play, never charted, weren’t recognized as well done, were forgotten to history, are covers that top the originals, are overshadowed by the artist’s better known hits, aren’t known by my friends, etc.  Since I’m not sure what the best way to select or sort songs for this list would be, I’ll just choose songs I’ve heard on my iPhone recently, and put them in whatever order I feel is best for presenting them.

1. “Déjà Vu” – Giorgio Moroder (featuring Sia)

This song came out just a few months ago on Giorgio’s new album of the same name.  It makes sense for this to be the title track for two reasons: first of all, this is probably the best track on the album, and secondly, this album is sort of Giorgio’s return to disco.  I’ve been a big fan of his work for some time, so I was excited by the new album, and pleased by some of the tracks… it just bothered me that this song didn’t become a huge hit.  It should be playing on the radio in a waiting room right now.

I think it’s a strong song because it brings back disco in a good way.  It could have done awkwardly sexual disco, or laughably corny disco, but instead it does impressive and fun disco, which is a natural fit for Moroder.  It’s not an imitation of the disco era because he is the disco era, but his incorporation of very modern musical elements also works naturally for him.  The album may not be entirely comprised of winners, but with Sia on vocals, I’ll never understand how this song has struggled for recognition.

2. “A Little Bit of Love” – Paul Williams

Paul Williams was certainly very popular in his day, but history has only labeled him as a very good songwriter, omitting his brilliant work as a recording artist.  Among the albums of his that are not available anywhere as a digital download (because it’s assumed that not many people will buy them) is A Little Bit of Love, which featured some of his most notable works.  However, one of the most brilliant pieces on the album, or perhaps even his best ever recording, is the title track, which doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page.  The way the song is structured and arranged to build so beautifully (by Kenny Ascher) makes it one of the best produced songs I’ve ever heard, which isn’t even mentioning the captivating melody by Ascher  or the truly fascinating depiction of the character in Paul’s lyrics.  It may not be heard on the ’70s hour of the oldies radio station, but whenever I hear it, I can’t help but play it loud enough for all to hear.

Buy it.

3. “Undecided Man” – Paul Revere & the Raiders

Once again, no Wikipedia page.  I think it was released as a B-side to one of the other songs on the Spirit of ’67 album, and it never charted.  I’m fairly sure that it was seen as a mere rip-off of “Eleanor Rigby,” but I think this song may be on par with the Beatles’ classic.  I can understand why “Indian Reservation” is the song we all know the Raiders for, but I think the very sing-along-friendly tune, in conjunction with its artistic use of classical styles, makes “Undecided Man” the stronger track.  The subject matter is one that any person around the age of 22 will relate to, and yet the song expresses the pain of the young men from its day without pandering to them.

4. “Green Grass” – Gary Lewis & the Playboys

There may be a lot of fun songs about summer, but this is by far the most cheerful.  It perfectly captures the excitement that any optimistic teen in the ’60s would love to have about the fun awaiting in the sun.  I’ve actually been planning for years that I would use this song to represent the 1960s in a film that parodies the old Batman series, and I still can’t think of a better song to express exactly the kind of 1960s we’d all like to imagine existed.

5. “Undun” – The Guess Who

This classic B-side is probably one of my top five favorite songs of all time, if I can even have such a list. While it may be impossible to narrow down exactly what my favorite song is, I think this is surely the song with my favorite ending. Half of the times when I consider doing a cover of a song, I feel like I’d have to end it around the same way this song ends, because it’s just so dramatic and powerful. I say this is underrated not because it didn’t chart well – it was the #22 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart – but because it never gets as much recognition, praise, or radio play as other songs by The Guess Who. This band will always be famous for great songs like “These Eyes,” “No Time,” and “American Woman,” but “Undun” tops them all.

Its blend of a soulful singer who nearly screams, jazzy guitar chords and wind instruments, artistic vocal sounds in the vein of “Time of the Season,” poetic and metaphorical lyrics, a catchy tune, and a pleasant soft rock style mixed with passionate rocking out all make it the group’s best work in my view. I wish it would be recognized as such.

Magic in the Moonlight Review

How does one make an audience root for a pompous, cynical, pessimistic, insulting, egotistical intellectual?  Simple: ensure that the audience is specifically J. D. Hansel.

I have a theory about Rotten Tomatoes.  Because of the accessibility of several reviews from different critics all in one place, we have a tendency to adjust our opinions of movies at least slightly towards what most critics think.  The most bizarre part is that I find myself expecting the average of rotten/fresh reviews to tell me just how much I like the movie, even though – as I understand it* – the average is based on a pass/fail system, rather than averaging the critics’ ratings.  The worst part is that, because it was listed as “rotten,” I thought I was in the minority for really enjoying it.  It took me a while to notice that, at a rating of 51%, the majority is on my side… but it still really bothers me that someone may see that rating and think the film’s not worth watching.

In truth, I think the reason why this movie is split down the middle is that its value truly depends on the individual’s response to the subject matter, so the critic simply must be the right type of person for this type of story.  This may very well be a pass/fail situation in which the Tomatoes rating system is rather accurate, because it seems that the viewer will either be moved by it and really enjoy it, or get absolutely nothing out of it.  Fortunately, I fall in the first camp, and I think it’s because the story expresses the struggle I currently face everyday.  I’ve written before about my theory of Functional Illusions and their necessity in our culture, but this film expresses the pain that comes from being the type of skeptic who refuses to give in to comforting fantasies just because they would make life easier.  I related to the protagonist the whole time, was impressed by the twists and turns, admired the dialogue, and was totally satisfied by the ending.  This may not be any big achievement in the history of cinema, but it is a nice, simple, pleasant low-budget film that’s just right for little old me.

66 Magic in the Moonlight

 

*I could totally be wrong about how Rotten Tomatoes works.

Austin Powers Review

Some of us are blessed, at one point or another in life, with a special kind of friendship.  It’s a magical thing when one can plan a get-together without actually planning anything but getting together, secure in the knowledge that it’ll be a fun time no matter what happens.  With certain special friends, one could even sprawl out on the lawn and watch the grass die for hours, and yet it would still be a delight.  This is my only explanation for how a film as pointless Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery can be so enjoyable.

At the heart of the picture is a bunch of lovable characters.  In spite of the shortcomings that could make a person of Austin’s intelligence unlikable, it’s clear that Austin doesn’t know any better than to be… well, Austin.  He may be a moron, but he clearly means well, and he strives to do good work (often with success).  Dr. Evil still has an innocence about him because, much like Dr. Doofenshmirtz, he does what he feels he’s supposed to be doing.  He’s playing the role in life that he truly believes he’s meant to play, and he tries his best, although he’s constantly conquered by a fool.  The Charles Schulz concept of empathy generated by being “more acquainted with losing than winning” applies here.  Evil’s son also seems to mean well, but is just confused.  This film even found a way to make the flat protagonist from Cabaret likable, and that is no small feat.  In spite of the number of scenes that do not really move the plot along, we would watch these characters in any number of situations, regardless of whether or not we were getting a proper story.

This actually may challenge a theory of mine to which I have been quite devoted: “People don’t go to a movie theater to watch a film, but to experience a story.”  I now suspect I must amend that to include, “and/or explore ideas,” but might that be redundant?  After all, at the heart of a story is the exploration of an idea, namely showing what would happen if a particular character were put in a peculiar situation, with a narrative built to explicate the idea.  That, I think, is the root of all storytelling, and perhaps it is because of that that we can forgive a scene or two that would conventionally be forbidden from a screenwriting standpoint (e.g. showing Dr. Evil and his son in a support group, which has no relevance to the plot whatsoever).  I may go so far as to say that the deliberate ignorance of conventional storytelling (as seen in the Monty Python films) is not only forgivable, but has a disorderly and chaotic quality that only adds to the comedy.

So, in short, while I don’t think I laughed aloud as much as I would have hoped, I do think this movie has an irresistible joyful quality about it.  It is a celebration of freedom, of heroism, and of the 1960s.  It is very visually appealing and stylistically crafted.  The soundtrack is not only perfect for the story, but would be great to have in my music collection.  Its leading lady does a stupendous job at portraying the type of competent and intelligent woman that is most desirable for stories in this age of film.  Another thing to note is that I actually had seen the third film in the series many years ago, and although I did not remember it well, I’ve been surprised by just how much I enjoy seeing these characters again and going back to this whimsical world of bizarre lunacy.  It may not have been a huge laugh for me, and I may not have related to the characters as much as I would like in order to really care about them, but I must confess that the film is undeniably quite well done, baby.

65 Austin Powers

History of the World – Part I Review

I absolutely love it when a film has such a strong creative essence that it immediately relays its muses to me, who inspire me to express the experience in a review (in much the same way that a songwriter might be overcome by the need to play the expression of his/her passion).  At those moments, the essence of the film appears before me as a dream awaiting a poet’s articulation.  Other films, however, leave me scratching my head (and leave my muses shrugging) as I try to figure out what to make of whatever I’ve just seen.  These are the moments that make me look at Roger Ebert with jealousy, knowing that he could nearly always express exactly how he felt about a movie, no matter the film’s complexity.  Unfortunately, History of the World – Part 1 is a puzzler for me, since I really want to love the film, but I just don’t think I do.

The film has its moments that hit home and are very strong, but it has a lot of moments that simply don’t do it for me.  Unfortunately, the movie can’t decide whether it’s comprised of comedy sketches, vignettes, or (not very) short films.  This inconsistency in length means that many scenes leave me thinking, “that’s it?” while others make me cry, “it’s still going?”  I think that consistency – or, better yet, a narrative (or some focused structure) to tie everything together – would do the film some good.  That being said, I love the “Inquisition” number, and I’m more moved by Mel’s take on 2001: A Space Odyssey than I am by the actual Kubrick film.

I generally wouldn’t hold a vignette-based film to my Pausibility Test (I measure a film by how content I am with pausing it and coming back to it in a few weeks) because the nature of such a film has built-in stopping points, which makes pausing natural.  The problem with this film, however, is that I was content with pausing the movie mid-segment, and I suspect that’s because of the characters.  Ebert helped clarify this for me by pointing out that we are presented with cardboard cut-outs of Jews, monks, etc., but there is not much detail added to make them funny or interesting.  Instead, our interest in each character is dependent on the performers.  While I didn’t necessarily “have a blast” watching the movie, I cannot be as hard on it as Ebert because I suspect that many scenes from it will stick with me for the rest of my life.

64 History of the World - Part 1

Carrie (2013) Review

I have extremely high standards for the handling of this particular story, even though I haven’t read the book, or even seen the 1976 classic.  What I have seen is a theatrical production of the musical based on the book, which was performed a couple years ago at a nearby community college.  That performance was one of the most amazing experiences of my life, and it is that show, along with the Broadway production of The Lion King and the StarKid musical Twisted, which makes me fear that I may never be moved by a film in the way I have been moved by musicals on stage.  I now must compare a film with a rating of 48% on Rotten Tomatoes with one of the most moving moments of my life.

Amazingly, this movie was just what the story needed.

In all honesty, here is what went through my mind as I watched it: from the moment Carrie drops into her school’s swimming pool, we are plunged into a pool of fiery pressure, where we must quietly wade as the gates of Hell creak in the distance.  We know it’s only a matter of time before Hell breaks loose, so we watch anxiously to see which flame will be the one to push open the gates, allowing the fire to consume us all.  But that’s not the scary part; the horror is in our powerlessness to do a thing about it.

So what is this fire?  That’s simple.

High school.

I have absolutely no interest in the average horror film, which tries to make what’s on the screen terrifying.  I have no patience for a film that flashes scary images on screen or makes me anxious about a fictitious terror.  (I already have to deal with plenty of fear in my real life, so I don’t need anymore of it in my entertainment unless it’s really worth it.)  What excites me is a film that makes me detest reality and fear life itself.  To do this, one must capture the essence of powerlessness, and high school is the perfect setting for achieving such a thing.  The scenes that show the inadequacy of the school principal, the misguided punishments enforced by the gym teacher, the subtle mockery provided by the English teacher, and the overall inability of the school system to handle abused students are the ones that have a lasting sting and send shivers.

The scenes with Carrie’s mother truly strike fear and rage into my heart, since I know that similar households could easily exist perpetually without anyone ever raising an eyebrow.  The portrayal of the mother, in my view, is spot on, making me cringe and nearly scream.  It is that particular character that stirred me up in a way few other characters in film have before, particularly with her relentless superstitious attribution, forcing the world to meet her particular worldview just so that she can process it.  That is perhaps the most despicable element of religion, and it brings to mind the philosophical question of Sam Harris’, “If someone doesn’t value logic, what logical argument could you provide to show the importance of logic?”  The line in this movie that really sticks out to me is when Carrie retorts some of her mother’s nonsense by saying, “That’s not even in the Bible!  It doesn’t say that anywhere!”  There are thousands, or maybe millions, who similarly display vehement dedication to their own imaginary edition of the Bible that happens to conform perfectly to their worldview, and this film is a delightfully horrifying reminder.

This story can be, when done right, a masterpiece in cynicism and disgust.  I think it ought to be contrasted to Disney’s Tomorrowland, largely because Carrie‘s strength is Tomorrowland‘s weakness – the resemblance to reality.  When one considers the much beloved 1976 Carrie movie, which I must confess I analyze based on the trailer alone, it seems to have a surreal, theatrical, otherworldly style.  Generally, this is the style I greatly prefer in film, and I think that the ’70s film has shots in it with an an outstandingly fantastic look . . . just not for this story.  I can’t look at a very ’70s movie about a girl with a goofy accent and take it seriously, especially if it goes so far as to cast John Travolta as the highschool hunk, which just sounds like a parody of ’70s movies (although casting Ansel Elgort may be the modern equivalent).  Frankly, the trailer to the 1976 film makes me laugh, which is exactly what should not happen.  This story must be portrayed as close to reality as possible, which does not become the issue it did with Tomorrowland since it’s so obviously a fantasy story.

The movie has the same Tomorrowland-like goal of shouting its message to the world, but it does so by bluntly displaying our society’s detestable ugliness.  This, in turn, makes it beautiful.  As a visual experience, it’s just fine (even though it’s not my style).  As a story though, it is stunningly gorgeous, with a build up that screeches with the scraping of Hell’s gates pushing against the floor in fractions of a centimeter, expelling “nails on a blackboard” from the phrasebook, only to reach an immensely satisfying conclusion to drive its point home.  It boldly declares to everyone, “Your world is so miserably broken that only so much as one little tweak to the laws of nature could end hundreds of lives and destroy cities.

“Fix it.”

63 Carrie (2013)

Film Me Up Episode #1: Respectful Filmmaking

Around Thanksgiving of 2014, we recorded this experiment, which we called “Film Me Up.”  The idea was to give us a platform for discussing our thoughts on film in a way others could see listen and respond, and the topic of this episode was whether or not it’s okay to disrespect the audience.  (Disrespecting, of course, means the same thing in film as it does in face-to-face communication: ignoring, excluding, stereotyping, deceiving, mocking, pandering, cheating, or harassing.)

Now, we’ve finally finished the video and are excited to share it with you!  Enjoy!