Why is it that there is an explosion of absolutely stunning, 3D-enabled, panoramic movies in the past 10, maybe 20 years? I think that movies have become more spectacular in their look and their sound by leaps and bounds in the past two decades. I think this is attributed to two major things: designers and technology.
Oblivion is absolutely gorgeous to look at. The design of the sets, the technology the characters use, the post-apocalyptic Earth, all of it is visual detail that your brain just drinks in. It has both scenes of stunning beauty and high-powered action that show off the chops that modern-day movie technology can make. There are seamless transitions from the broad, scene-establishing shots to the wonderfully simple yet detailed costumes. The end-movie space shots are particularly beautiful as well.
Movie designers are essentially the painting and drawing artists of a century ago. “Real” art no longer pays as well as designing a movie or a video game or a marketing campaign, so it stands to reason that the most talented and expansive artists (the ones capable of defining a whole vision, refining it, making it both beautiful and accessible) will be the ones who get the jobs. Instead of painting a picture or gambling that your work will be noticed (hint: it won’t be) then you might as well nab a job doing something creative and work against that. Oblivion had excellent visual elements and design.
While in the past the complaint that designers ramped up against technology was very true–ever seen the original rotoscoped Lord of the Rings?–nowadays technology can permit nearly any scene to be crafted. There have been excellent displays online of what some real television and HBO show sets look like, and they are 95% green-screen. While this does this eliminate the cost of prop-building and set-making for moviemakers, it adds the cost of offloading a lot of the movie to the hands of the designers. If anything, it permits a more consistent and well-themed presentation from being executed.
So there you have it: the reasons as to why Oblivion is an absolutely gorgeous movie. It’s not just beautiful buy itself, but rather it is an example of how the movie industry will likely continue to make movies going forward. But there’s a downside to all of this: your ears.
Writing and executing a good, original movie idea is just as difficult (if not moreso) than it was 10-20 years ago. Simply having the idea is a difficult topic: don’t believe me? There are thousands, if not millions, of scripts out there right now that would probably make an Academy Award movie right now. But why gamble on those scripts when instead you can execute a movie that essentially is the same as Ice Age (I’m looking at you, The Croods) or really expresses the same concepts as Dances with Wolves (Avatar) or essentially capitalizes on something that a competitor has, obviously, determined will be a profitable movie? It’s a safer bet than trying an unknown, untried script from a nobody writer.
Take Damon Lindelof for example. I’ve complained about his horrific writing before. His writing is pathetic, deeply flawed, and attempts to show drama with the most mundane ‘twists’. I simply refuse to see movies or shows written by him any longer (which is unfortunate, as he worked on Star Trek: Into Darkness), he’s definitely gone through an M. Night Shyamalan shift, where what was before (admittedly, a cliched) stylish is now simply shoddy work. But he’s an industry insider: his movies are profitable, he has a decent fan base (Lost). For all those deadhead MBAs managing Hollywood right now, his work is a safer bet than the untried work of an unknown writer.
If anything, now there’s cross-theming and adapting for certain markets and rewriting for universality and political correctness. Even a script that would win awards needs to be modified, edited, reviewed, and ultimately reviewed again and again and again until there’s little of the original ‘soul’ of the work left. Usually this was good–especially in the days when directors had more say in how their movies were executed–but committees of executives and creative directors have muddied the waters until now there’s really no single creative command for the execution of a movie. Charisma and influence aside, and some movie studios excepted, of course: but in general it’s safe to say that you no longer should have an expectation for a movie to be well-written.
Ultimately, Oblivion isn’t really worth commenting on besides it being an example of major movie industry trends. It’s gorgeous but the script is absolutely drivel.
It’s so sad that even an original idea like Oblivion can be turned into the money-making, intellect-weakening, stomach-churning shitfest that it was.
Battleship is a tragedy, a story of a first contact mission to Earth gone wrong. Told in the tradition of tales like Oedipus and The Misunderstanding, it depicts a race of noble, powerfully advanced aliens who come to Earth to protect it from a potential global disaster starting in Hawaii. Their efforts at saving mankind and bringing it into the fold of the intergalactic community fail miserably when the over-masculine US Navy reacts violently to their peacekeeping efforts under the command of a cruel and vicious acting commander. In the end, the cruel victor of the war is able to procreate with a female, ultimately ensuring the cycle of violence continues another generation.
NASA discovers and transmits a powerful signal to a potentially habitable planet, far away from Earth. Detecting this signal, advanced aliens hear all the tell-tale signs of a society on collapse: lack of organization around resources, over-militarized sovereign states, great wealth disparity in its societies and lack of recognizable technological advancement. Rather than permit Earth society to collapse or even retrograde, they come to Earth with the intention of removing the military (if need be), and instituting a new form of rule which will bring human kind into the galactic fold. They send five ships, which would be enough to at least begin the process, rather than sending their vast armada.
While all the humans portrayed in this movie are in some way by-products of current Earth society and its rotten state none exemplify its primitiveness more than Lieutenant Alex Hopper. A consistent slacker and law-breaker, he is forced into the US Navy not out of grander schemes to be a noble warrior, but rather to save his own skin. Obsessed with sex, especially with his girlfriend (who happens to be the daughter of an Admiral), he is unwilling to stand accountable and enter into a full relationship with her due to a base fear of her father. His brother, who has continually been disappointed with his brother, is left to deliver the news that he will be kicked out of the Navy. Why? He brawled with a soldier from another nation after their loss during their near-primordial game of football. In contrast to the aliens–whose goals are long-term, milennia old, and are deeply wise, he is nothing more than a mote against a sunbeam. But soon, his actions will have repercussions across the stars.
Landing on Earth, their primary communications vessel is destroyed by an orbiting satellite. Now lacking the capability to communicate with the humans, the aliens immediately quarantine their crash zone and begin to assess the situation. But as fate would have it, three US Navy destroyers (crewed by these weak humans) are within their quarantine zone, and react violently to the aliens. With only the deepest regret, the aliens counterattack, for the greater good of humanity; in this exchange Hopper’s brother is killed and his ship is lost with all hands.. Hopper reacts purely on instinct, wishing to attempt to destroy the aliens, and about 3-4 minutes of screen time is devoted to convincing him otherwise, only showing how incredibly primitive and unlearned he is.
The aliens’ technology inadvertently breaks radar and sonar, technologies they themselves have not used for centuries. Utilizing NOAA buoys around Hawaii to locate the alien vessels, they destroy a significant portion of the alien fleet using cleverness adapted only to hatred, violence, destruction. Throughout the movie, the only thing on his mind is his continued failure to live up to the needs of others–his girlfriend, his brother, his fellow soldiers–and as a result acts singularly on the grim work of death. As a result, this anti-hero destroys mankind’s future when he misinterprets the telepathic message of a captured alien: the aliens don’t destroy other planets, only as a last resort when they resist entering the intergalactic community.
The girlfriend (a bland, blonde physical therapist), a psychologically unstable disabled veteran, and a fidgety and ignoble scientist track down the aliens on Hawaii and misinterpret their activities: after having crash landed, and found themselves in literally increasingly hostile waters, the aliens attempt to signal home and bring in reinforcements. What would each of us do, if we landed in a strange place and found powerful soldiers there to great us, and ready to misunderstand our activities? Attempting to delay their activities, their brazen activities buy more time for Hopper to conscript disabled veterans and steal historic US Naval property (namely, the USS Missouri), and destroy the alien mothership in an act of curiously absent nautical physics.
In destroying the mothership, the shield surrounding Hawaii collapses and they are now vulnerable to the full power of the US Navy. Hopper’s second to last act is to destroy the aliens engaged in attempting to contact their homeworld, firing on non-combat technicians and engineers assembling a communications array in-land on Hawaii. Assisting him is the remains of the Navy, who wipe out the the last aliens in a localized attempt of genocide and ethnic cleansing on a galactic scale.
In the conclusion of the movie, Hopper finally asks his girlfriend’s father to marry him, now having the confidence to do so since this intergalactic incident. Perhaps he is thinking that there is only so much time left before the aliens come and wipe out their destructive race? At any rate his procreation with a female means that the cycle of violence will continue for another generation. The congratulations and well-wishes displayed to the victors of the battle seems like gift baskets given to the Serbians after the Bosnian war. In a post-credits scene, an alien hand comes out of a crashed spaceship, implying that perhaps the aliens will at least be able to extract revenge upon the ape-like, primitive Homo sapiens.
(You may ask why I wrote this review like this. Battleship is a farce, a horrible, terrible movie that was the excrement of some Hollywood marketing ass clown. It plays on perhaps the most nationalistic and bro-ish of emotions–veterans, asking your girlfriend’s father to marry you, brotherly/soldierly love, a Fight Club-like masculine disappointment–and at the same time tries to interweave a bland, uncaring romance against an alien invasion. It’s so bro it practically had its cap on backwards and its collar flipped up. I felt that they almost exploited veterans and disabled veterans when they showed their one-dimensional portrayal of US Naval officers and a disabled officer. As I walked out of the movie theater, retching, I realized that it gave you so little details to go on, so little actual story, that it could be completely twisted around and told from a different perspective–logically. A true sign of ineptitude, and I pity the writer who has to speak to the poor sales figures. I hear the writers and director are edging away, slowly, from their abortion of a movie.)
Sometimes, a movie will come along that I get intensely excited for. I’ll sign up for updates–watch the promotional videos and the viral marketing–and read incipient thoughts on what the movie is about or going to contain. And then I go to the movie, I watch it, and it is awful. Prometheus is one such movie. Please note, this is not a spoiler-free review, and I am going to be positively nasty about this movie.
The movie starts with echoes of Erich von Daniken, as evidence is uncovered globally that points to “ancient aliens” having manipulated primitive man. We are treated to a somewhat inexplicable scene where an alien drinks a black ooze, and then literally collapses apart into a waterfall. Thousands of years later, a scientific expedition is built and sent out to the system identified in these pictograms and early cuneiform writing. So, we’re already ignoring the fact that Earth cultures had different ways of expressing stars in designs, and that stellar drift over 30,000 years is a significant factor. All righty, those are fairly subtle oversights, let’s continue.
The movie starts to build up the oversights as time goes on. An angry geologist with a mohawk and tattoos on his face, who brings along ‘tobacco’ in his space suit breather? A biologist, sorry, a biologist who was selected to travel to a distant star systems refers to evolution as Darwinism?! Elizabeth, the female lead, is confronted with direct evidence that her creation myth is patently false, and that aliens have manipulated our development for milennia. But even against this she says “This is what I choose to believe.” What is this, the community college team of science exploration? What the hell? If someone had truly spent the trillions of dollars needed to travel all the way to this system, you’d think they could afford experts to go.
From here on out it just gets worse. They smash and stamp their way into an ancient alien facility, discover an unknown chamber with horrifying pictograms and mutilated remains of the aliens and their technology. They recover a head–which they try to “trick into being alive”, a scientific impossibility–and they find canisters filled with a horrifying black liquid. One scientist blatantly fiddles with it, while David the android steals one and brings it back to the ship. The male lead takes his helmet off (War of the Worlds, anyone?) in bold defiance of all billions of years of evolutionary progress of microbes. The geologist and the biologist run scared (the exact opposite reaction of even the lowest-level geologist and biologist on an unknown world). No scientific expedition, even 50 miles away, would commit some of the scientific crimes that this team did.
And now things begin to unravel. David poisons one of the humans, the black ooze runs rampant and creates the first proto-facehuggers, and Elizabeth gets impregnated by the poisoned human and gives birth to a terrifying creature. The movie is playing into good fears–homosexual oral rape, abortion, poison–but it’s doing an awful, utterly awful delivery. Are we supposed to believe that a biologist would think a black ooze-snake would be cute, and wants to be its buddy? Are we to believe that scientists get lost in this structure, despite the extremely advanced mapping technology?
Throughout the movie I was just bouncing on my heels for the aliens to appear. And I mean Xenomorphs, from Ridley Scott’s original Alien (and much maligned sequels, though Aliens is generally considered wonderful). Instead we’re treated to the absurd genetic mishaps, following the Japanese horror trope of huge mottled heads, limbs in the wrong position, jumping and smashing and generally being more effective at melee combat bare-hands than any other team member with a ranged weapon. The alien at the end, when he does appear, is the only thing we vaguely recognize as being Alien-esque. But the way it appeared at the end, popping out of an Engineer’s body all smooth and clean, reminded me of Aliens vs. Predator (something I never want any movie to do). All I could think was “Ooh, look, a new form of Alien–just like the Predalien!”
Ultimately the entire movie could have removed the human beings and had a cast of Davids instead. Now that would be interesting–they’re not meeting their gods, they meeting their grand-gods! And as far as technology is concerned, these ancient aliens had the sense to avoid making some form of artificial intelligence, but perhaps it was because they had such a command of genetics. I suspect David would have been clever enough to roll sideways when the alien spaceship crashed back down on the planet–I was quite pleased that the two female leads were crushed (did they have Being Crushed Coaches? (It’s huge!!!)) beneath the crashing spaceship.
Online, I’ve read that there are as many interpretations of Prometheus as their are viewers of it. Every good nerd has their own theory about the development of human life, as well as what it would look like if it had been tampered with by aliens. Frankly, I feel like my review is kind of a shambles at this point and not nearly as succinct as some of the ones I’ve read online. I’m deeply dismayed that a movie I was so excited about turned into, well, a pretty bland sci-fi movie that fought against all elementary scientific knowledge. Prime directive? Incompatible microbes? General biological analysis of new lifeforms? Quarantine of people exposed to external biological agents? Hyperdrives in atmosphere? DNA is an “exact match” after thousands of years of drift?
As Lev Grossman put it so well, a crew of monkeys making decisions based on horoscopes in USA Weekly would have done better than this crew. I suspect they were exiled as they were all shitty scientists. I left the movie theater bummed, waiting for the motherly gush of affection for a science fiction movie, but it didn’t come. I don’t want things spelled out for me directly in a movie, but I also expect that when there are things to be read into, they make some sense or give me some general direction of where I should be thinking. Instead we’re given a Lost-esque foray into scientific absurdism, a Waiting for Godot in space that made little to no sense. The only thing this movie points to is another shitty sequel.
This review was started a few months ago, right after Taften and I went to Chicago. Our Sunday had a few hours until our flight out, so we went and watched Chronicle. Enjoy.
Ready for a bile-excreting, abnormal excrescence-laden disgusting movie review? Well, you’ve come to the wrong place, because, surprise surprise, I actually kinda liked Chronicle. It had some major areas of improvement (which I will dutifully enumerate for you), but in general I found that I was watching it with interest and truly enjoying it.
The story goes that, at a party in the middle of nowhere, three male teens come upon a hole in the ground that leads to a blue, glowing crystal that gives them all nosebleeds. After the camera cuts to black, we begin to see the effect of this little fantastical visit: increasingly powerful and precise telekinetic powers, flying, and the ability to create defensive ‘force fields’. The three boys–each of whom comes from a different high school ‘faction’–all begin to bond over their newfound powers, and begin to enjoy each others’ company, despite their growing superhero capabilities.
Enough of this silliness, what was wrong with it?
1. Andrew, the antagonist of the movie, is shown as being an incredibly resilient young man: his mother is dying of cancer, he is abused by his alcoholic (and out-of-work) father, has severe communication problems, is bullied at school, and vomits on his one-night stand at a party. I think the director went to great lengths to show that Andrew was not a villain that was born this way, he was made this way from his environment
But frankly, I don’t buy it. That’s a lot for a single individual to go through, and it almost seemed like too much–I feel like even just a single factor like this could have set him off, and if they had focused on that one thing, it would have hit home a bit more cleanly, rather than showing the 30 different factors that made him the villain. It was too complicated, and not heartfelt enough. It takes a surprisingly small amount of real stress and tension to throw young people into the air, and I think if they had focused or showcased one particular effect (especially bullying, which is good contemporary issue) it would’ve had better dramatic effect.
2. The movie has this weird, erm, rule I suppose, where we only witness the events of the movie live through various recording devices. Camcorders, security cameras, iPods and iPads and iPhones, android phones and whatnot. At first it started out as clever, but the shot of the main characters turning on a camera and then levitating it above themselves, as well as the endless product placement, got to be too much. Eventually it become kind of hilarious, especially when Andrew uses his powers to pull a crowd’s recording devices into a floating ring around him, and we see the action from each of the devices. If they had done it at certain points, it would’ve been more poignant, rather than feeling forced.
3. I like to think that young people these days have different concerns than what was portrayed in the movie. The high school football jock, the generic social studies everyman, and the loner filmographer are all over-used stereotypes from high school-themed movies. The characters start out as semi-real, develop a little bit, then eventually you lose connection with them once they start all fighting and bickering. It becomes way too simplistic.
4. At about the point where I lost connection with the characters is when they began repeating and shouting each other’s names. This reminded me deeply of Star Trek, where Nero yells Spocks name twice. Somehow, I think it was intended to come across as dramatic and that their name is an expression of the character’s essence, but it really is just bothersome. Yes, I get his name is Andrew, and his name should evoke both pity, revulsion, and fear because he’s this carefully crafted teenage villain, but will you please STOP yelling his name?
Ultimately, while I was pleased with the movie, there were some nits. I’d give it a C.
Typically, Taften and I will sit and kill time by playing video games, and in between us we’ll have a monitor playing some movie on Netflix. Usually, this is done with the unwritten rule that we take turns and that I’ll pick a movie, then he’ll pick a movie. I’ll find something from PBS or National Geographic, and he’ll say something like:
It’s attractive that you’re so intellectual but this is not cool at all, sorry.
And then there will be times where Taften will turn on something and I will complain in a much less verbose, more whiny version about how terrible of a movie it is, how it doesn’t tell us anything, how it’s only vaguely entertaining. Sometimes, in my best form, I’ll be able to MST3K it and get some good jabs in at the film–which, to his credit, Taften usually laughs at.
Limitless is one of those movies where it’s certainly entertaining–where is the story going next? it follows a basic thriller method–but what’s the message of the story? I see some elements of the “ship of Theseus” debate, put forth as a vaguely existential drama. But the movie focuses more on the material gains of being motivated and how your progress can be almost, well, limitless if you simply put your mind to it. Why, anything (even complex mathematics and stock exchanges) are just a few scene changes away from your present studio apartment over a Chinese express diner! The movie producers who skimmed off the multi-million dollar budget of this movie aren’t even laughing, this is just too formulaic.
The movie starts in media res. As Bradley Cooper is standing at the top of this building, about to commit suicide and giving his voiceover, I can’t help but think in my head:
Cooper: How did I get here?
Billo: I bet you’re about to tell me!
Starting a movie out with the main character about to commit suicide doesn’t really give me any interesting reason to watch the next 2 hours–he might as well have jumped, for all I cared.
Cooper goes through the motions of encountering the wonder drug NZT, cleaning his apartment, doing some writing, and generally upsetting his overall bland existence. I think that the movie could have maybe expanded on how much happier he was with simply having washed hair and a clean apartment–why go through the remaining 2 hours of motions of how much more he can achieve? It’d at least be realistic, and the domestic drama of him trying to unravel the life he annihilated would have been more interesting to me had he not had the, well, limitless resources that this wonder drug gave him. As it was it became the story of the nouveau riche attempting to disassociate himself from his old life–Russian money, lack of self control, drinking and drug habits–while not getting noticed by the other blue bloods.
Eventually, the movie jumped the shark when Cooper’s girlfriend takes the drug and essentially becomes Superwoman. Climbing over wooden rails, dropping ten feet and not losing her momentum, then using a child’s skates as a vicious weapon to cut the cheek of her pursuer. Afterwards, in a fit of pique, she claims she will never take the drug again and that he should stop taking it as well–reasonable advice that we expect that all of us plebes would give Cooper at that time. But I doubt that’s the case. Cooper’s self-loathing hasn’t gotten to the point of needing therapy (that’s debatable, but he at least seemed somewhat functional prior to taking the drug), but he is the everyman here. Wouldn’t it be great to become Superman, to rise above every challenge life throws at us? Wouldn’t it be awesome to be, well, limitless?
The correct answer here is No. Limits define us, limits are meant to be edged and pushed, not removed entirely. With drugs like NZT (or a cape, or a wand, or a radioactive spider bite) we remove that one last shred of humanity that defines us. The only thing that he needs to be able to uncover the Theory of Everything is to simply take more of the drug, to become less and less human and therefore less and less interesting. It was only a matter of time until Cooper thought his way out of every problem, even the mere problems of addiction to the drug and the negative side effects. Why, he hasn’t become merely a superhero, he’s become god. And stories about gods are best kept to mythologies and pulpits, thank you.
The movie might as well be called “The Apotheosis of Bradley Cooper”. The adversity that Cooper faces here (lapping at NZT-infused blood, threats to his life from Russians, the always-intimidating Robert De Niro) are at best a mini-golf course. It’s more disgraceful than actual problems, more things that white blue-bloods would be terrified of experiencing, or better yet, having it socially known that they are experiencing. What about real adversity? What is Bradley Cooper was black, or transgendered, or was blind or deaf, or maybe foreign? What if he was female and hit the glass ceiling with de Niro? I don’t think there’s any drug, legitimate or otherwise, that could help him there. The real message of this movie is “If you get the money (through whatever means, even a dangerous brain-modifying drug) then you’ll get the power. Money makes you, well, limitless.
The Onion AV club put forth a review of Limitless as essentially being a 2-hour commercial for Adderol. I can’t help but agree, and I would add that Adderol would have been needed on my part to maintain my lagging interest in the movie.
New Hope, Minnesota (disparagingly referred to as ‘No Hope’) is where I found myself Friday night when Taften took me out to dinner. We’ve both been wanting to geek out and go see Captain America since we first started dating, and I earned this by baking him a pecan pie on Wednesday and bringing it to him before his night shift. So we bummed over to the New Hope Cinema Grill, which touts itself as a weird fusion of both movie theater and restaurant.
Before I rip into Captain America, permit me to expound upon this idea a bit more.
Food is an integral process of entertainment. But the usual fair–popcorn, pop, and candy–rarely has the same impact that options like pizza, burgers, fries, sanndwiches do. While none of these options are particularly healthy (I now see the economic niche for natural/organic/vegan restaurant/movie theaters), it seems completely logical that a fed customer is a happy customer, and more apt to be entertained by a two hour movie.
When I looked at the menu and saw that they even offered Surly beer, a favorite local brew, I was shocked. Why, my dears, I might now even be able to balance out terrible movies with delicious local beer and cheesy, meaty pizza! They had cheese curds on the menu! With such dishes on a menu in front of me in the movie theater, I thought I should have had this when I saw, say, Sex and the City 2 or Thor.
To clarify: even with food and good beer, I cannot enjoy movies like Captain America.
Problem One: This is not a movie, it’s a prequel. Marvel has very publicly touted their Avengers movie, which ties in their Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and now Captain America series into one movie. As such this movie already clears up a lot of the plot points: Captain America survives and is never in any real danger, yes we all know who wins World War II, and yes we get there was some weird occult stuff going on there too. Not enough to create energy weapons and genetically engineered superheroes, but yes there was an undercurrent–I digress.
Problem Two: This is not an action movie, it’s a <romance><character drama><comic book movie>. The movie suffered from a lack of direction. Is this scene focusing on his love interest? Oh, OK, so you’re trying to appeal to young women a bit. Now we’re focused on his overly developed sense of justice (straight from the streets of Brooklyn!), so this is trying to focus on the comic book angle. Oh, but look, he has brothers-in-arms in World War II, some of whom are of different races and obvious credos. This must be a dramatic scene.
Plus there were lots of things to draw your attention elsewhere. Oooh, his last name is Stark, I think I secretly understand the connection the Iron Man! Oooh, the tesseract is hidden in an old Norse-style church building, and Odin is mentioned, clearly this has some underhanded connection to Thor! In general, there was a lot going on, and not enough action. Where were the feats of unbelievable strength and power?
Problem Three: Do military-themed superhero movies do well in wartime? I could only imagine the incredible irony of the invincible Captain America fighting next to other soldiers. What is their opinion that he has great equipment and biological super-strength? How can the military justify the expenditure for this one soldier and not the others? Furthermore, how can anyone actually sit and watch this silliness while an actual war is going on, one that’s not exactly as clear-cut and black-and-white as what’s portrayed in Captain America?
I wasn’t impressed. Lack of direction, poor acting, and the clear fact that this movie is a setup into yet another B-class Marvel movie left me less than impressed. As I munched on the final pieces of pizza and drained my beer, I decided that as a critic, I’d be just as entertained watching randoms at a bar, or sitting and watching a sports game.
The Tree of Life mysteriously opens with a wavering, unsubstantial light. Accompanied by eerie music, lilting music, you enter Terrence Malick’s latest movie. The Tree of Life is a film experience, worth enjoying like a good wine, an afternoon with a lover, or a vast panorama after a long climb. The film spoke to me particularly, as it went through both the two things that remain with me from my childhood–the real-life tribulations of growing up in a difficult setting, and the vast internal imaginative resources that still are with me today. Structured like a prayer, the movie walks through an almost non-linear sequence of events, beginning and culminating in the strange, wavering light.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Job 38:4,7
The director, Terrence Malick, is well known for his masterful films. As the mind behind Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and The New World, he’s a particular favorite of mine, and I walked into the movie expecting to be wowed similarly. While I had a great experience, the director’s style is simply confusing in this movie. Don’t get me wrong–it’s beautiful, deeply touching and thoughtful, and wonderful; but it left me with many questions, and if any film could be described as ‘impressionistic’ this definitely fits the bill. The movie won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, and has received high critical acclaim–though, admittedly, a lot of confusion form audiences and unclear overall audience satisfaction.
Jack O’Brien (played by Sean Penn) is a disillusioned adult. Though surrounded by success and all the modern comforts of the early 21st century, he is upset, angry, unable to find happiness. His life seems barren and empty, as emphasized by set design and filmography of scenes involving him. In long recollections, he tells the story of his childhood. His complicated relationship with his father, his adoration of his mother, his brothers and friends and their misadventures, and foremost, the loss of his older brother. The film is laid out with a prayer, with many of the main characters directly addressing god. As an atheist, this at first made me somewhat uncomfortable–but the film was particularly lack in giving any clear ‘answers’ or providing any direction in regards to what their praying did. Furthermore, the one time they did elaborate on one of the character’s prayers (“How did we get here?”) they showed a vast backdrop starting from the Big Bang all the way up to the development of life, dinosaurs, mammals…giving a sense that the questions we ask of a higher power are simply beyond human understanding.
I connected with the film especially in its regard to the relationship portrayed between Jack and his father. Jack’s father is a hard-working man, brilliant in his own right, but struggles to find success. He also battles with his own difficulty in connecting and loving his sons–he must be harsh and hard with his sons to prepare them for the world. Again, the film is lacking on specifics, but it appears that towards the end of his life, Jack has reconnected with his father–but it gives him no satisfaction or deep happiness.
The final scenes of the film show Jack reuniting with his family in the midst of a sandy beach, where other people mill endlessly. He comforts his mother, and his younger brothers and self, and finally his father. Standing on the beach at twilight, the movie ends with his life essentially having flashed before your eyes. Ultimately, Malick’s portrayal of Jack O’Brien’s trials, tribulations, and final end meet with my critical acclaim. It was an incredible experience–unlike any other movie I’ve seen–and while it didn’t leave me reeling in so much wonder as, say, The Fountain did, it certainly left me with a deeper understanding of how the story of our lives unfold, and how our families define our person more than we expect.
Readers of my blog will know that I have a deep, deep loathing for David Yates, director of the last 3 Harry Potter movies. Yates takes these books–full of wonderful, awesome, terrifying dialogue–and strips them down to pregnant pauses in the most bare, CGI-filled sets. In a sense, his Harry Potter movies are like still lifes–watch the actors and actresses, listen to their dumbed-down lines, and watch the absolutely fantastic CGI wizard fights! It’s magic as he strips out the writing of one of the most beloved fantasy books of our times.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 seemed promising because the first movie seemed to set nearly everything up perfectly. It had certain drawbacks it inherited from the sixth movie, but it seemed to do fairly well–some story elements were directly omitted or were exaggerated, but even then I started to have a sneaking suspicion that many elements were being skated over. Deep exposition on the Dumbledore family and their history, and Voldemort’s search for the Elder Wand, seemed more like montages than actual storytelling elements. It was almost like I could see Yates grinning and saying, “See fanboys? I mentioned Grindelwald, so there!” Sadly, Part 2 took this to an extreme–it seemed like Yates wanted to make a movie out of everything but the book.
Voldemort is reduced to a basic image of what an evil villain should be like. He’s straight out of a Disney story. The entire totalitarian regime and focus on racial purity? Skipped over, that’s too complex for most audiences, and it rings maybe a bit too close to home in a country that is facing increasing wealth gaps between whites, blacks and Hispanics? Voldemort is just scary, it’s not explained why he is scary or why he is essentially a sociopath. Dumbledore’s message at the end–pity those who live without love–instead becomes a line, and doesn’t become a message that the antagonist of the movie should be pitied for his flawed, reduced way of thinking.
Snape, though considered an antagonist, is really the anti-heroe of the book series, and really of this book in particular. But he’s reduced to being a simple symbol by Yates, and his murder, while actually filmed OK, still doesn’t capture the full betrayal, redemption and absolution of the most human and complex character in the series. Why doesn’t David Yates tell the story of why Lily chose James over him? Why don’t they clarify that in the past entire movie series, his actions have been guided by the loyalty of his love towards Lily and his complex feelings towards Harry?
Major story elements became little more than momentarily exposed plot points, so that when they occurred, many avid readers were left scratching their head. And it just seemed to get worse as the movie went on: Aberforth Dumbledore suddenly appearing and speaking only a few lines in regards to the major plot point of his brother’s secrecy; Grindelwald and Gregorovitch appearing and talking about the Elder Wand; the treasured first kiss between Ron and Hermione, suddenly over a big tidal wave of water and no thought of house-elfs in sight (no oppression is as good as invisible oppression). Were I the author, I’d be greatly disgusted–it seems like someone wanted to almost do a finger painting of Harry Potter, thought it cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
Let’s stop and think. What’s the reason for making these changes and modifications? Why make a movie that lacks a significant amount of its written dialogue or plot points? Why, that’s marketing, that is! Take the movie and turn it into the most profit-maximizing, broad-audience product you can create. But seriously, who at this point has not heard of Harry Potter? He’s become a household name, and even the Christians who once slandered him as being a pagan, wiccan demon are now singing his praises simply because they get kids to read! J.K. Rowling’s effect upon the reading habits of young people cannot be understated at this point–without Harry Potter, I think the last one to two generations (or more) would not have had a comparable book to pick up in the past few decades. Writing seven amazing books in rapid succession, though, apparently just turned into a silver screen marketing ploy.
In the final scenes of the movie, the greatly expanded and exaggerated duel between Harry and Voldemort seems just ridiculous. It’s made clear throughout the series that Voldemort was toe-to-toe in terms of magical ability with Dumbledore himself. The thought of Harry dueling Voldemort with normal spells is just silly, yet it goes on for nearly 20 minutes. When Harry finally defeats Voldemort and he goes up in smoke and small skin-flakes, I couldn’t help but groan. Another chance to show off some CGI chops! It truly was needed.
But the absolute last scene really riled me. Harry, walking about with the Elder Wand, exposing (almost as an afterthought) how he came to hold the most powerful wand in the world. When he snaps it in two (apparently it already was ‘damaged’ from earlier in the movie, again an addition from Yates) and throws it over the bridge, I couldn’t help but think Harry Potter should have said, “I shall cast three spells with the Elder Wand!”
He would take his broken phoenix tail feather and holly wand from its pouch and say, “Reparo!” It’s what happens in the books, and after all, what other wand would Harry use? Were I him I wouldn’t snap the most powerful wand in the world without at least fixing my original wand. It’s reasonable.
And then he would point the Elder Wand at Hogwarts, smashed and destroyed with little piles of artful rubble about it, and say “Reparo!” It’s a chance for the director to make a vast CGI scene as all of Hogwarts repairs itself, and it would have a nice symmetry to the opening scene of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, where Dumbledore repairs the living room that Horace Slughorn is staying in. And it just seemed to make sense, but the director just didn’t seem to think of this.
And then finally, Harry would point the wand at the screen, at the cameraman and the director, and say “Avada Kedavra!“, because let’s face it, the crimes of David Yates for his absolutely embarassing attempts at turning Harry Potter into world-class movies is worthy of the death penalty, if any crime is. Once I had annihilated that man and his marketing team, I’d feel that the world would be safe to snap the Elder Wand in two.