Friday, November 30, 2018

Nouveau Western Surrealism

The release of the Netflix film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), written and directed by the Coen brothers, contributes to a Western film renaissance marked by what I call Nouveau Western Surrealism, a recent sub-genre that blends classic Western realism and romanticism with touches of surrealism, cruel irony, dark humor, and sardonic manipulations of standard tropes into something entirely new. Though I prefer more traditional Westerns (Open Range and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford have been the best Westerns of this century’s first decade), I love Westerns and I gladly embrace this millennial sub-genre.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, an anthology of six Western tales, presented as stories from an old book, offers some gritty scenes of realism: burying a deceased traveler along the Oregon Trail; panning for gold; setting up a traveling show in grungy mining towns – along with large doses of absurdity and grim irony: a singing cowboy; a bank robber rescued from hanging by an Indian attack; an armless, legless poet reciting Shakespeare in a traveling show; a stagecoach acting as Charon’s boat to the kingdom of the dead.

Scruggs comes to us not long after the wide theatrical release of The Sisters Brothers (2018), directed by Jacques Audiard, another realism/surrealism hybrid starring Joaquin Phoenix, the perfect performer for Westerns of this ilk, and John C. Riley, whose style fits wonderfully into the film’s realism. The opening scene – a classic trope – stages a gunfight at a cabin, but we see it only as flashes of gunfire in pitch blackness. The film waxes surrealistic as the Sisters brothers are tasked with appropriating the invention of a scientist (Jake Gyllenhaal in memorably quirky style): a gold-finding method that involves adding chemicals to a stream to illuminate the gold nuggets - and it works with grim results. When the Sisters brothers strive to change their ways and hang up their hired guns, they must evade constant pursuit by bounty hunters, but the film ends with an amazingly touching moment of homecoming and motherly love that is one of the best sequences I've seen this year.

Shortly before The Sisters Brothers came the limited release of Damsel (2018), directed by David and Nathan Zellner, starring Robert Pattinson and Mia Wasikowska. In this case, the story is more surrealism than classic realism as Samuel’s quest to wed his damsel in distress leads to strange irony and a grim look at life in the Old West. The opening scene – out in the middle of nowhere - in which a preacher, broken by hardship, plans to abandon the West - is pure surrealism portraying the harsh truth about life on the frontier. The straight cut to Robert Pattinson as he zealously engages in a boot-stomping dance with the girl that he loves is a beautiful moment. Indeed, Pattinson’s oddball performance is engaging throughout, and Wasikowska aptly portrays a strong damsel who needs no rescue from distress. While the film includes humorous bits of Western deconstruction, it also includes quirky interludes that are nothing but ludicrous and disappointing. The film ends with an enigmatic metaphor.

Bone Tomahawk (2015), directed by S. Craig Zahler, makes a point of distinguishing itself as a different kind of Western that blends action-oater tropes with a bizarre story. Here a traditional quest to rescue a rancher’s wife leads to a desperate struggle with stone-age cannibals. Thus, traditional Western tropes, carried along by the performances of Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, and Patrick Wilson as traditional Western character types, meet elements of horror and absurdity. Watching this film, with its very disturbing scene of cannibalistic butchery in preparation for the feast, it was clear to see that the Westerns had undergone a distinct metamorphosis.

Although most of the new Westerns make grand use of classic Western locations, Slow West (2015), directed by John Maclean, makes one think, “Whose woods these are, I think I do not know.” These woods sure don’t look Western - the film was shot mostly in New Zealand and Scotland. This ironic film features Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Ben Mendelsohn is the tale of a boy who comes all the way from Scotland in search of the girl he loves – only to meet violent characters and a tragically ironic end. In most of these Westerns, the West is a cruel place. This film, however, ends with the kind of twist typical of the sub-genre. Ultimately, the West is good to Michael Fassbender, the opportunistic bounty hunter who has protected and come to love the boy, - and he ends his elegiac narration with "O, for the West."

Ethan Hawke and John Travolta recently donned Western duds to play in Ti West’s In a Valley of Violence (2016), an enjoyably gritty and atmospheric Western featuring standard tropes and some tense action. Filmed in New Mexico, the film is an attempt at pure Western classicism though it falls short of achieving significance. Nevertheless, the locations are bleakly rugged and the action is tense. What I appreciate is that here is a film that came about because of its risk-taking director and a versatile actor, Ethan Hawke, willing to throw himself into any kind of project.

Even the Danes have gotten into the act with the violent The Salvation (2014), directed by Kristian Levring, in which a Danish settler (Mads Mikkelsen) goes on the vengeance trail after the murder of his wife and son. Although filmed in South Africa, the film features ample Western action and the performance of Eva Green.

Hostiles (2017), directed by Scott Cooper, is another attempt at a straightforward Western for the new millennium. The film is modern revisionist in its apology for the treatment of Native Americans – though it goes further by pointing out the cruelties perpetrated by both sides of the conflict. Somewhat slow and ambling like a Howard Hawks film, but majestic and violent like a John Ford film, Hostiles features Christian Bale as an Indian-hating cavalryman ordered to escort a Cheyenne family back to their homeland. Along the way they rescue a frontier woman (Rosamund Pike) whose family has been killed by renegades. As a reflection more of millennial, wishful-thinking tolerance than nineteenth century attitudes, the two Indian haters ultimately embrace the Cheyenne as humans and end up protecting them from violence.

No matter the anachronisms, the surrealism, the cruel ironies, the sardonic humor, the downright weirdness – the new Westerns embrace much of the classic Western spirit. These films make the best of their outdoor settings. They employ a musical score that is often traditional. They acknowledge the raw violence and the ruggedness of everyday life out West. They appreciate the drama of a well-staged shootout. And they make effective use of that picaresque style of many Western stories in which men and women on horseback head down the dusty trail toward whatever they might encounter over the next rise. “O, for the West.”

Saturday, April 21, 2018

My Post-apocalyptic Movie

Enjoy Solus, my post-apocalyptic film. Catch the film allusions!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

God's Lonely Replicant: Blade Runner 2049


Blade Runner (1982) moves at a slow pace through its perfectly established film noir construct, but the story carries a sense of brooding, ominous dread that makes this hour-and-fifty-seven-minute a compelling experience throughout. This gripping, ominous dread comes primarily from the performance of Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, the advanced model synthetic human who strives to be a real human, and the film’s dark, congested setting,

Blade Runner 2049 (2017), however, strolls along throughout its two hours and forty-five minutes without much that I found very compelling. Sure, there is mystery, but the mystery seems nothing newer than the questions established in the original film, and I felt no sense of ominous dread.

I love science fiction films, so I tend to be lenient in my critique of flawed sci-fi films that I like, but I felt little enthusiasm for this film beyond its visuals. The opening sequence in the desert establishes the mood and K’s character well. Then K flies over the low-lying outskirts of the metropolis, and as the buildings get taller, I felt a modicum of thrill, but then the high-rise cityscape is not nearly as dazzling or interesting as the city in the original. I loved Joi, K’s holo-girl friend, and I was very sorry that she gets deleted. In my favorite scene in the film, Joi melds her image with a prostitute’s body so that K can imagine holding and kissing Joi as though she were a real girl.

I get the heady philosophical questions posed by the film, but none of them seem any more compelling than the original film’s rather basic quandary: if you have feelings, are you real? The whole Pinocchio syndrome works well in the original film. We especially feel Roy Batty’s urge to live and be a real boy.

In 2049, this paradigm is inherent in the story as K, a synthetic programmed for obedience, searches for Deckard and Deckard’s mysterious offspring. Ooh, ah, is K a sci-fi Ethan Edwards on an existential search - God's lonely replicant? Okay, that's cool, but lets get down to some compelling obsession or lust for vengeance. Instead, the conflict seems flat. Where are the shocking revelations? This slow, tedious search seems directed toward the same questions we already know.

In the end, nothing happens with the revelation of Deckard’s daughter, even though there is an underground movement of replicants raring for rebellion. Unfortunately, rebellion never comes. Instead, we arrive at a flat climax. Deckard had a daughter, and K finds her.

Rachael gave birth to a daughter? How? Well, I guess that makes her as real as robots can get though I guess if Tyrell can create Roy to be the strong, emotional, philosophical being he is, then I suppose he can create a female synthetic who can get pregnant. The technology can be pushed to the limit; it's all fictional.

Meanwhile, not much is done with this premise, and it’s not very compelling – nothing more than the whole belabored question about the point at which a synthetic being becomes human (even though the answer seems simple: no matter how real technology gets, it’s still technology and not human). I guess you can go a step further - if you accept Rachael as human, then I guess you don't believe in God, so what's the worry about a soul? In a sense, perhaps we are all soulless fabrications.

Yep, I get all the great questions posed by this film but, even though I love to worship at the altar of Denis Villeneuve and Roger Deakins, I guess I need a film to be more than just a thought experiment.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Alien Saga - Favorite Moments

From Alien (1979)

When the landing party sights the alien ship, you know you are in for a different sort of ride.

"Look, Ma, no CGI!" It was a shocking, gory, visceral surprise! One of the best moments in cinematic history.

"Here, Kitty, Kitty."

"A perfect organism."

From Aliens (1986)

"Oh, man, we're really fucked!" Bill Paxton's most famous line.

When the huge Xenomorph rises up behind Newt - you get a full view of this "perfect organism.

When Ripley goes back alone for Newt - one of the most gripping moments in film. She loads herself down with weapons. She takes a deep breath, exhales, shakes off the tension - and now she is in the zone!

Alien 3 (1992)

Up close and personal! An iconic image:

Alien Resurrection (1997)

Winona Ryder as the android with a license to kill - Xenomorphs.

Xenomorphs can swim underwater! One of my all-time favorite Alien images:

From Prometheus (2012)

"The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts." David the synthetic human (Michael Fassbender)alludes to Lawrence of Arabia and styles his hair after T.E. Lawrence. "Big things have small beginnings." Fassbender as David is one of the most awesome things about this film.

The Medpod operation - one of the most gruesome and gripping scenes in all six Alien movies.

The Xenomorph's evolution. Here, a gigantic, rather impractical face-hugger. Future modifications to come!

Alien: Covenant (2017)

A new "David" in a Kubrickian world:


The Engineers' planet:

All hell breaks loose on the landing shuttle. This is a wild, fast-paced, violent scene that provides a gripping turning point in the film.

Ooh! Aah! The Engineers got fucked by their own creation.

The Xenomorph - our favorite Alien - continues to evolve. Here it displays its signature aggression, tenacity, and downright meanness!

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The 89th Academy Awards – Oscars Live Feed - La La Land Awards Watch

LIVE FEED STARTS AT 8:30 EST. All times noted will be EST. Don't forget to REFRESH the feed. Also, feel free to post comments. I will respond to comments on the post. (See below for an explanation of my mission.)

Getting close to curtain time!

8:24: Emma Stone says, "Just keep going" in pursuing your dreams.

8:30: Good start! Justin Timberlake sings "Can't Stop the Feeling" all through the theater.

8:46: Finally - first award. No chance for La La Land in this category. I was saying earlier that often musicals have colorful supporting characters, but not in La La. Best Supporting Actor . . . and the winner is Mahershala Ali. MOONLIGHT: 1 LA LA LAND: 0.

8:52: Suicide Squad gets it for Makeup. In your face, La La Land! Oh, sorry, it wasn't nominated.

Uh, oh, the Costume Award. Some competition here. And the winner is . . . Fantastic Beasts. Sweet! Thank you, Harry and Hermione, for this magic trick. La La Land is now down two (since it's going against itself in Best Song).

9:04: Okay, it's the wristwatch montage.

9:10: Best Documentary - I have met Owen Suskind, the subject of Life: Animated. Darn, it didn't win! Then, again, neither did La La Land.

9:26: Uh, oh, Sound Editing and Mixing. Know which is which? Editing creates the sound. Mixing adds it. Arrival I hope!

Yes, Arrival gets it! La La Land is down three. It must win 11 to make the record. Not a chance! Feeling good! I like how, so far, there has been no sweep. Arrival deserved something.

And Hacksaw Ridge gets something too. Mel is happy.

9:33: We are in the clear! La La Land can only win 10, and it's not likely to do that. I kind of feel bad. Not really. But with the spread of Oscar winners - does that mean Moonlight or Manchester has a chance for Best Picture? Exciting!

This also means my job is done! Goodnight! Naw, I'll hang in there a while longer.

9:41: Best Supporting Actress - and the winner is . . . Viola Davis. Good one! Passionate acceptance speech. Good actress!

9:57: Best Foreign Film goes to The Salesman. Protest speech from the director! Good one. How long will it take for a Trump Tweet?

10:10: Piper wins for Best Animated Short - I saw it, but I have to say the clips from the other nominees looked better than Piper was.

Best Animated Feature - I saw them all - and I loved Zootopia but it will be nice one day when a small studio wins in this category. I feel bad for Kubo.

Ooh! "Fear of the Other" mentioned in acceptance speech. Wow, I taught that as reflected in 50s films in Film History at my former school where Film History no longer exists.

Production Design goes to La La Land. Oh, well. Lots of competition here - but Allied deserved it for creating Casablanca in the 1940s, and it wasn't even nominated.

10:19: So, you're taking a tour of the Kodak Theater while the Oscars are going on and you're taken backstage and you think you're not going to end up in the theater for a gag? Not likely.

10:26: Okay, Special Effects - Felicity Jones is cute - I love her - and The Jungle Book gets it, deservedly, though I guess it's Disney and they've got the best of the best. Thought for a minute that Kubo might get it.

10:36: Film Editing - thought we did this one. Oh, well - Hacksaw Ridge slips in another surprise of the evening. Thought for sure it would be La La Land or Arrival. Man, and I was worried La La Land would sweep the Oscars.

10:58: All right, Cinematography - this is what film is all about and we have images of an alien spacecraft and Japan in the 1500s and crowd scenes in India and the touching swimming scene in Moonlight and the Oscar goes to La La Land with images that are 95% digital effects.

11:09: Ah, snooze, a song from La La Land. Don't know if I'm going to make it much longer. Bed sounds good. No worries about La La Land hitting the record, so my job is done.

11:15: Yeah, now it starts. La La Land scores for Score. I love musical scores - and I can't think of one memorable score this year. No Mad Max: Fury Road this year,

Best Song - La La Land wins one, loses the other.

WTF! - "I was educated in a public school where arts and music are valued." Yeah, right, if the school gets enough funding! Otherwise, not. And I guess private schools don't value arts - so that's why I directed 28 full-length stage productions.

11:30: Okay, the Matt Damon roasting was fun. Manchester takes Best Original Screenplay. Nice achievement!

11:33: Amy Adams and her boobs announce nominees for Best Adapted and the winner is Moonlight I predict . . .

11:34: . . . and I'm right!

And the Best Director (shown below directing a tense zombie sequence):

11:51: Casey Affleck wins Best Actor! Bravo!

11:54: Best Actress: will it be "the crack whore" (according to an unwanted Tweeter), I mean, Emma Stone? Yes, it is. Uh, like, kind of overrated, I think.

Do I need stay up for Best Picture?

And the winner is . . . could it be a surprise?

Yes, it is. Moonlight wins, deservedly, but not until after the Emma Stone - Best Actress/Faye Dunaway Flub. Warren Beatty opens the envelope. He looks puzzled or maybe it's just senility. He looks in the envelope for another card. Looks like he's toying with the contestants. Faye takes the card. Reading skills! She doesn't call anyone over to explain what the Emma Stone card might mean. She announces La La Land - which would be anyone's best guess based on the Best Director win. But Price Waterhouse screwed up big-time.

Moonlight wins Best Picture.


The nominations are all over La La Land even though I don’t know how popular it was with viewers. Viewers liked it – okay. I was underwhelmed. No catchy songs – and the songs didn’t elicit much emotion. Not much story – and what story there is has been told multiple times: young persons pursue their dreams in Hollywood, fall in love, one makes it, the other makes it so-so.

So why has this film been so popular with critics and the Academy?

1. It’s called La La Land and it’s about Hollywood.

2. It’s a musical. People in a traffic-jam burst into a sprightly dance number. Emma Stone swishes her dress as she embarks on a girls’ night out on the town with her roomies.

3. Trump got us all depressed. Then along came La La Land to cheer us up, and musicals are inherently cheerful.

So here’s my prediction: La La Land will win Best Picture, and I’m fine with that. It’s a done deal – unless this year’s awards turn out to be as surprising as the recent Super Bowl. I expect it to win. I enjoyed the other films nominated for Best Picture but I’m not passionate about any of them. I think Moonlight is the best-made film of the lot – the artistic and touching indie – but I’m not passionate about it.

Again, I don’t care if La La wins Best Picture and a bunch of other awards it doesn’t really deserve.

I just don’t want it to win 11 awards to tie the record or, horrors, surpass the record! I don’t want it to tie Ben-Hur and Titanic for most Oscars won: 11. (Yeah, yeah, that includes Return of the King too, but that was more of an installment or episode – part of a masterpiece trilogy that deserved some sort of award.) Beyond the fact that Ben-Hur has the unsurpassed chariot race and Titanic has the masterful sinking of the great ship - oh, and Kate Winslet in the drawing scene, let’s not get into why I don’t want La La to win 11 or 12. Let’s move on.

If you care about this, the situation is very dicey!

Here’s the deal - La La is nominated for 14 awards. Yikes! This makes me nervous – but wait! It can’t win 14 because it’s competing against itself for Best Song. It could win 13, but that won’t happen. Gosling won’t take Best Actor against Affleck or Denzel. That bumps it down to 12. It must lose two more! I predict, I hope, it will not win for Best Original Screenplay. Voters might want to honor Manchester By the Sea. That cuts it down to 11.

Oh, shit! One more! It must lose one more!

It does not deserve Best Cinematography - there's Silence and Arrival, but when the Academy voters latch onto a favorite they vote without imagination and they fall into sweep fever – give it all to the favorite! Or, Justin Timberlake could come through for us and take Best Song for "Can't Stop the Feeling" - the kind of catchy song La La needed. Could Meryl Streep's outlandish costume for Florence Foster Jenkins choke the competition? Could the Force be with us so that Rogue One gets it for Sound Mixing? Unfortunately, Allied - which created multiple blocks of Casablanca and London in the 1940s - is not nominated for Production Design.

In the spirit of meaningless pursuits – at a time when such trivial diversions are crucial for maintaining one's sanity during the current administration in Washington - join me for a Live Feed La La Land Watch this Sunday, February 26, at 8:30 EST (at 5:30 out there in La La Land).

(Once the winners start being announced – be sure to refresh this feed for updates.)

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Hannah – Past or Future? – The Non-linear Time Paradox in Arrival


How refreshing it is to watch a well-made film that makes you think and compels you to view it again – which I did, and I plan to see it again. Arrival is the kind of film that stimulates examination and discussion – and one question I wonder about is whether Hannah is born BA (before the aliens arrive) or AA (after aliens).

Just about all the websites, YouTube videos, reviews, and chatlines I consulted say – and rather bluntly as though you’re an idiot if you think otherwise – Hannah is born AA – period – or, PERIOD!, as some posts put it. If we go with AA, then the opening scenes involving Hannah are presented out of sequence, which is kind of a gimmicky trick that cheats the audience into accepting, as most viewers would accept, that a depressed women seeing her young daughter is having flashbacks – not flashforwards.

Most of these sites that I consulted start with, “That’s the way it is in short story.” But this is not a strong argument because, we know, filmmakers love to adapt and “re-envision” their source material – often to the outrage of readers faithful to the source material. At least, filmmakers may not change the source radically, but they love to inject ambiguity. In my film course, I had young students who hated ambiguity. I love it!

For this film, ambiguity is all in keeping with the non-linear time paradox that is part of heptapodese – also in keeping with palindromic nature of Hannah’s name – which can also be read the same way backwards as follows: hannaH. Ooh, ah!

I have no problem placing Hannah’s life – from birth to premature death – AA or BA. I suppose AA needs no argument here since that’s “the way it is in the short story”! Also, toward the end of the film, it seems that Louise is learning that she can time-shift as part of comprehending heptapodese. Still, if we go with BA, Louise gets to time-shift when she goes ahead to the book-release party and she gets General Chiang’s phone number so she can call him in the film’s present and tell him his wife’s dying words – which prevents the Human-Alien War.

Still, still, if we go with BA, Louise also gets to use her new talent to shift into the PAST to answer her daughter’s question: “Zero-sum game.” She is also able to shift into the past and tell her husband that she knows Hannah is going to die prematurely. “I told him something he wasn’t ready to hear.” Also, also, alien time-shift vibes seem to have affected Hannah who draws the picture of Mommy and Daddy with the caged bird – which will happen in the future – which suggests that Ian – or a different scientist guy – is Hannah’s father.

Of course, it at first SEEMS clear that Ian is not Hannah’s father – he’s the father of a second child - because when Ian and Louise meet they don’t ACT LIKE they know each other, and references are made to Louise’s life BA as though he was not part of it: “I didn’t know you were married,” says Ian. “I just realized why my husband left me,” says Louise. But I think the filmmakers are being coy here. I think they are throwing in more ambiguity on top of the film’s mind-bending sci-fi premise – if you go total immersion with heptapodese, you will be able to time shift - because –

if we accept that Ian is not Hannah’s father BA, then why the hell does he say – in the scene in which Ian and Louise watch the alien shell disintegrate and then embrace – “Do you want to make a baby?” Wow, this is pretty familiar! Sounds more like something a formerly estranged ex-husband might say to his ex-wife after a bonding experience. This does not sound like what a guy would say to a woman before he’s even gone out on a date! They haven’t even kissed yet! Also, when they embrace, Louise says, “I forgot how good it felt to hold you.” Did I hear this wrong? Accepting Ian as Hannah’s father BA does not rob the film of its question regarding "would you still have your child if you knew she was going to die prematurely." AA, Ian and Louise may still have to face this dilemma.

None of this discussion is meant as criticism of the film. I love it. As a teacher of ESL, I loved their efforts to find a way to comprehend alien speakers and make communication as easy as possible. I love that the “weapon” is language! But I feel there are some loose ends – which I hope are not loose ends but intentional elements of ambiguity and paradox – because ambiguity and paradox are what the film is about in many ways.