Scattered Thoughts on AFTER EARTH (2013)

As some of you know, I started a new job last week, and it was both exciting and draining. Add to this the fact that my wife is transitioning out of her current job and that the two of us are trying to figure out childcare for my daughter, and you get a pretty hectic week. But Grandma and aunts and uncles have been amazing, which is a great reminder of why we decided to move back home in the first place. To top it off, Lucy got sick over the weekend, which is always hard. I did get to watch a movie, but I don’t have the emotional or physical energy to write a stirring, heartfelt, and life-changing post. In fact, I am not even sure if I can write a cohesive essay or make points that build off of each other. Instead, I am just going to give you some scattered thoughts on one of the most maligned films of the summer, After Earth. Here’s a brief plot synopsis:

The movie stars Will Smith and his real-life son Jaden Smith as fictional father-son duo Cypher and Kitai Raige. They both crash land on the long abandoned and extremely dangerous earth, and Kitai must travel through it to get to a distress beacon that is in the tail end of the ship. Cypher is injured and guides his son from afar. They are pursued by a creature called an Ursa that was once caged in the ship’s holding, but is now roaming free. Ursas smell fear, so it is important that Kitai masters his fears in order to save him and his father.

There’s the rundown, and following are my movie musings. They are your’s to do with as you will.

  • Will Smith has been accused of nepotism for dragging his son along to star in a blockbuster action movie, but the thing is, Jaden actually does a pretty good job. Take away the excruciating narration at the beginning, and you get a fine performance by a young actor. Will Smith is the one horribly mis-casted here. People love Smith because he has charisma and personality. Here he is essentially a comatose, unloving, and hardly interesting character.
  • On that note, here is a dictionary definition of the word “cypher”: “A person or thing of no importance; nonentity.” That is both the best and the worst character naming ever.
  • How are you supposed to be a fully functional human being without fear? Isn’t it a vital human emotion driving things like love, vulnerability, and risk?
  • One of the first things that struck me was how beautiful some of the film-making was, and I wasn’t expecting this. The visuals were lush and well-presented by Shyamalan, with some really nice landscape shots and pans to go along with his usually provocative close-ups. I have never really thought of Shyamalan in terms of his technical abilities, but this made we want to go back and re-watch some of his movies with this in mind.
  • The stunning visuals and impressive animations were marred by the absurd creatures and their even more absurd actions. How the hell were those death-apes not able to run down Kitai? Why does the giant vulture think that Kitai is one of its chicks? Why is the Ursa even on the ship, and how, exactly, is it able to chase down Kitai so quickly?
  • Here’s another mind-boggling piece of movie ridiculousness: Throughout most of the movie Kitai is able to communicate with his father through their little devices. Yet, when Kitai reaches his destination, this communication is broken because of some kind of atmospheric disturbance in the area. Rather than retrace his steps a little, Kitai has to climb to the top of a smoldering volcano that looks several miles away. This plot point makes no kind of sense, and is totally contrived in order to set up a nice final battle between Kitai and the Ursa.
  • Speaking of the Ursa, why are they so dangerous? I mean, they are monstrous creatures, but couldn’t you, like, shoot them with a gun or something? The human technology in After Earth is incredibly advanced. They can fly to other other planets and rip holes in space-time, but when it comes to weaponry, the humans are stuck with a really really cool double-bladed sword. If Kitai had a pistol of any kind, he could have killed the Ursa quite easily. I get that cool blade weapons are… cool, but this is another case of discarding logic and complexity for a simple desired effect.
  • Every night, earth’s surface freezes over (I mean literally freezes, with ice and everything) save for some hot spots that Kitai must reach every night. Think on that for a second.
  • After Earth wasn’t very good, but I don’t think it was as bad as people made it out to be. While it wasn’t a financial success, it wasn’t much worse than most major blockbusters released over the last twenty years. In some cases, it was much better. I mean, it is a masterpiece compared to the Transformers movies, and on par with the wildly over-rated Dark Knight Rises. After Earth is a great example of bloated Hollywood projects, but that doesn’t automatically make it a horrible movie.

Okay, those are my thoughts. Feel free to agree or disagree as passionately as you wish in the comments.

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Top 5 Actresses Who Should Play Wonder Woman

Monday’s post was an emotional one, and this week has been pretty wild for me and my family with all of these life changes. It has also been really fun and exciting, and I want to continue the fun with more Wonder Woman coverage. This post is not a social critique or a deep look into the fabric of life and love. It is a simple list by a simple Wonder Woman fan.

Enjoy, and make sure to give me your own picks in the comments section!

5. Angelina Jolie

I know what you are thinking. Seriously, I do. But before you write me off for perhaps the most formulaic and hokey pick possible, know that there are substantial reasons Jolie would make an excellent Wonder Woman. While her physical skills have diminished since the Tomb Raider days, she can still do action (Salt, anyone?), and her age and sage demeanor gives a kind of royalty and prestige to the role. Jolie adds a powerful presence to every movie she is in, and is a great choice to play Wonder Woman. She is also incredibly talented and one of our most underrated actors.

4. Michelle Rodriguez

This might be the most unconventional pick, as Michelle Rodriguez is generally type-casted as the tough-as-nails action star with a thick accent who dies halfway through the movie. Yet, this is hardly Rodriguez’s fault. She has made a nice career for herself in those bit parts and cameos, but she deserves a starring role and the opportunity to lead a movie. Rodriguez’s Wonder Woman would be the most physically powerful of all those featured here, and so a movie with her in the role would need to utilize this. I am thinking action-heavy, but Rodriguez can also seriously act and would bring a vital tenderness to the role as well.

3. Rosario Dawson

Dawson already has some experience with Wonder Woman under her belt, doing the voice work for Artemis in the 2009 animated feature, but I think its time she takes center stage as Diana herself. Like Angelina Jolie, Dawson would bring a regal presence to the role while still being able to beat up bad guys if she needs to, as evidenced by her work in Sin City. Her calm intensity and striking physical presence would work perfectly for a Wonder Woman movie.

 

 

 

2. Jennifer Lawrence

The Hunger Games showed us that Jennifer Lawrence can do action, and Winter’s Bone and Silver Linings Playbook established her as one of the best actors working today. Lawrence is a busy woman, but she needs to carve out some time to play Wonder Woman. The world would be a better place, and we would get a near-perfect representation of the Amazon princess.

 

 

1. Kerry Washington

Okay, forget what I said earlier, this is definitely my most unconventional pick, and Washington the least known actor of the five mentioned here. Yet, last year’s Django Unchained revealed what she is capable of as an actor, and while that movie left me wanting more from her character, Wonder Woman is a great opportunity for her to show the world that she can lead a film on her own. Having said all that, this pick is more intuitive than anything else. Washington’s look is so unique. It is beautiful and scarred and powerful. With the right team around her, she could elevate any Wonder Woman to the next level. While Lawrence would give us everything we want from a high-quality superhero flick, Washington could flip the script and help create something truly original.

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Ozu’s LATE SPRING, Change, and Loss

Late Spring was the first Yasujiro Ozu movie I ever saw, and it was something of a revelation. I had never been so moved by such subtlety, precision, and complete lack of grandiose gesture or sentiment. So unemotional and even-keeled, yet powerful beyond measure, an Ozu film can leave you floored with a simple gesture or look. The final scene in Late Spring  destroyed me with a man peeling an apple; an act that held all the loss, heartache, joy, and deep love that pervades every ounce of that movie. I have since watched many of this great artist’s films, and I go to them when I need centering or to be reminded of how deep movies can take me.

Yasujiro Ozu is a quintessential auteur who addresses the same subjects over and over again in the same unique style. He is trying to understand how a nation can hold onto meaning when everything around it has changed. While there are countless ways to express this in post-war Japan, he illuminates the crisis of modernity by focusing on the home. Ozu is a savant of domesticity who dwells relentlessly in the minutiae of family life, but to dismiss his movies as mere melodrama is to dismiss the profundity of a father’s love for his daughter, a daughter’s disappointment, or what it means to lose something that you may have never had in the first place. It is to ignore getting drunk in a bar while listening to a song charged with memory, or meeting with an old friend and laughing at misfortune, or saying goodbye to the person you love more than you can ever understand. Ozu’s movies force us to face the truth of our own lives, and confront in them what frightens us most; that they are so unequivocally important and powerful.

It is not happenstance that I am writing about Ozu. The truth is that my time as a full-time stay-at-home parent is ending today, as I start a new full-time job. One of the things that Ozu, and Late Spring in particular, has shown me is that every gain means we lose something, and that loss is an ever-present reality even in times of great joy. I am happy to begin what I hope will become a long and fulfilling career. I am happy to be able to provide financially for my family. But I am going to miss my daughter. I am going to miss waking up to her kisses and her climbing all over me. I am going to miss making her breakfast and reading her books and watching Sesame Street after her nap. I am going to miss all of the little moments that make up our days together, all the hugs and smiles and laughs, and tears and cries. I feel like the last six months have been a gift and an opportunity that I might never get to experience again. I also know that there will be new experiences and gifts and joys in the future. I know that loss and gain are not mutually exclusive. But still, I am hurting. I love you Lulu.

SAM_0221

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Breaking Down the WONDER WOMAN Short Film

The last couple of weeks have been unofficially dedicated to the horror genre, and with October being Halloween month, I think this is appropriate. However, Cinephile in Decline is not a genre-specific blog, and I want to remind my readers that I watch and appreciate all kinds of films. Today I want to talk superhero movies, but not the over-saturated hyper-masculine variety. Instead, I want to talk about my favorite comic book hero, Wonder Woman, and what I think a Wonder Woman feature film needs. Rainfall studios created a short film that went viral several weeks ago depicting what a potential WW movie would actually look like. This is very good press, and the hope is that the short film could create some momentum and push Warner Bros. to pull the trigger on a feature, or at the very least inclusion in the eventual Justice League collaboration. However, I am not sold on the film or its interpretation of the character. The movie is roughly two-and-a-half minutes long, so take the time to watch it for yourself:

Up to this point, the biggest obstacles to a Wonder Woman film getting made deal with the complexity of the hero’s mythology and how that mythology can translate into the more realistic Nolan-esque interpretations of the DC universe. Screen Rant does a good job showing how the Rainfall production resolves this by inter-cutting between New York City and the mythological Themyscira. Their argument is that this approach is perfect for Zack Snyder’s movie-making style. Snyder is responsible for this year’s Man of Steel and 2015’s Superman-Batman collaboration project, and looking at Wonder Woman through this particular lens is helpful when determining the possibility of getting Diana to the big screen. Yet, I am not sure this is the right direction for the Amazon princess. I want to look at one small moment in Rainfall’s film that could have nailed what makes Wonder Woman such a special character, but instead goes a more traditional route. The moment occurs around the 1:40 mark after WW has dispatched all but one of the city thugs. He is pointing the gun at her and she gives a slight shake of the head, indicating that it would be wise if he laid down the weapon. A few moments later, we see him fire a shot that Wonder Woman easily deflects with her bracers, and this is where the film’s interpretation of the character went awry.

What sets Wonder Woman apart from the rest of the superhero pantheon is that she is ultimately a symbol of peace. She is physically powerful and will use those powers when necessary, but her power is also pyschological and spiritual. Her primary weapon is a lasso that forces people to tell the truth, and while it is understandable that such a seemingly silly tool would be downplayed in any contemporary mainstream production, the essential truth about the character that the lasso represents is vital. Wonder Woman can not only beat you with a punch or a kick, but also with an uncompromising look into your soul. She can make you see things you otherwise wouldn’t; the truths about your own motivations and insecurities. She also makes you see the life-changing powers of love, peace, and compassion. In the aforementioned scene, the thug should never have fired his weapon. Instead, after gazing into Diana’s eyes and seeing the truth of himself there, he should have dropped the gun, fallen on his knees, and wept.

A lot of feminist interpretations discard these pacifist values in favor of more masculine ones, but I think this does Wonder Woman a disservice. Non-violence and peaceful reconciliation are not weak. They are strong and powerful tools in the fight against evil. I don’t think this works in the dark, violent, and perhaps overly simplistic Nolan and Snyder superhero universes. The “dark approach” to superheroes is supposed to add more realism and depth to what are often seen as trite and silly characters, but the problem is that these interpretations are often shallow and one-dimensional. I think Wonder Woman deserves a film that will treat her as a rich, complex, and multifaceted hero. As a huge fan, I would love to see her on the big screen, but not if it sacrifices her integrity.

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The Lifeless Intelligence of THE BLOB (1958)

Without question, The Blob is a silly movie. This is obvious from the very beginning with the intro credits sequence and theme song, and the fact that the titular monster depends on the profound ability of its victims to fall down for no reason and move very slowly. It is a thoroughly watchable picture, and for those of you with children or young nieces or nephews, it would be really fun to watch this with them. If nothing else, it could be a kind of history lesson of what movies used to be like.

I watched it for the first time last night, but in reality, the film was already part of my cultural consciousness. The Blob acts as a stand-in for every schlocky monster movie made in the fifties, and even people who are totally unaware of the specifics of the film will recognize those two words and associate them with ridiculousness and an earlier time. The movie even spawned a remake thirty years later. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why it is part of the Criterion Collection. While this inclusion doesn’t automatically make The Blob an important film, it does mean that a significant contingent of people thought it was meaningful enough to be listed next to some of the greatest films ever made. I like that Criterion is broadening their scope to include these kinds of movies, but cultural relevance can’t be enough to garner such high esteem. If it were, then we might see The Hangover 3 or Grown Ups 2 in the Collection twenty years from now, which would be a real-life terror. I think The Blob is more than just a horror movie with an absurdly original monster. I think it is a running commentary on monster movies, and perhaps even an acknowledgement that its particular brand of horror is dying. It was ten years later in 1968 that Night of the Living Dead was released and revolutionized horror cinema, and while The Blob doesn’t explicitly foretell this change, its prescience and self-awareness point toward that shift.

Toward the beginning of the movie there is a scene where the protagonist Steve is trying to convince a group of buddies to help him figure out what is happening in the town. They don’t help him at that point, saying that they are going to a “spooky picture show” instead. They tell Steve not to take things too seriously and to go with them to the movies. This is the first explicit mention of horror cinema, and the encouragement to “not take things too seriously” is instructional for the audience watching The Blob. Later, when Steve is trying to explain to the police what he saw, one of the policemen asks if it was a monster. When Steve replies in the affirmative, the policeman immediately dismisses what he has to say, and the term “monster” is used derisively throughout the movie. Again, this is the film letting the viewer know that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and to view it accordingly. To top it off, the blob actually invades the theater where a film called The Vampire and the Robot is playing, and literally destroys the projector and the theater. These kinds of explicit references to horror cinema reveal a deep self-referentiality and awareness of movie tropes and expectations. We can even see the destruction of the theater as a kind of death knell for those horror movies that do take themselves too seriously. The only path left is that of The Blob, which makes a joke of itself and recognizes this at every turn.

The Blob’s attack on horror cinema

For all of its absurdity, I think The Blob is a smart film, but I also think this works against it in many ways. This intelligence might be what made it into the Criterion Collection, but it is my humble opinion that the best camp is of the unintentional variety. There is a reason we watch and enjoy movies like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Troll 2. There is a certain life and vivacity to these films precisely because they take themselves seriously. This seriousness allows us to laugh at their grandiose failures while admiring the gusto that went into making them. There is an innocence and authenticity there that is attractive. An overly aware film like The Blob lacks this, making viewing it a kind of empty pleasure.

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Movie Magic and the Mystery of ROOM 237

The documentary Room 237 is a thorough investigation into the many interpretive theories about the ultimate meaning of Stanley Kubrick’s classic horror film The Shining. The Shining is a powerful film and I remember watching it for the first time. It was scary and mysterious and deeply unsettling. I have since watched it numerous times, and each time I watch I come away with a few answers and countless more questions. Room 237 takes that essential truth about the film and extrapolates it, resulting in one of the more interesting documentaries I have seen.

The people interviewed in Room 237 have all watched The Shining dozens of times, and they all have extremely nuanced and well-formulated theories about what Kubrick is actually saying. One of the more fascinating theories is that Kubrick filmed the Apollo 11 moon landing, and that The Shining is a documentation of his inner and outer struggle with that deception. This may sound crazy, but it is also extremely convincing. In fact, it might be the most cogent argument in the entire film with the most concrete evidence and examples. Another theory is that The Shining is about the eradication of the American Indians and the larger reality of socially sanctioned genocide and mass murder. In this interpretation, the Overlook Hotel is a kind of Freudian house of mirrors dealing with how to face and recognize the horrors lurking deep in our cultural unconscious. Another theorist posits that The Shining is a labyrinth that denies and further complicates any attempt to understand it. All of these theories are fascinating in their own way, and the attention to detail is impressive. It was very easy for me to get wrapped up in these stories, making Room 237 an enjoyable movie experience.

Apollo 11, blasting off

While Room 237 is an ode to one great film, a celebration of it and its maker, it is also a documentary about film magic, of which The Shining is a particularly fecund example. Something as simple as a disappearing chair or a picture on the wall resonates with powerful meaning, and what could easily be dismissed as a continuity error by a jaded and knowledgeable movie-watching public is now a symbol of a deeper mystery. Room 237 gives us back that sense of wonder; the magic of the movies. Yet, this only scratches the surface of what Room 237 is offering us. It also offers a world and a worldview that is only opened up through cinema; a unique hermeneutics with deep philosophical and historical implications.

Room 237 personifies much of what I love about the movies; that the smallest detail can hold profound meaning, that film can access time and cultural memory, and that by watching we can know ourselves and our world more fully. Communicating those things is what makes Room 237 exceptional. If you are even remotely interested in film as a unique communicative medium, I can’t recommend Room 237 enough. It is more than just the movie it is about. It is a movie about movies, about human history, and about the deeper mysteries of life and celluloid.

This movie is available on Netflix Instant.

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On RE-ANIMATOR and Reliving the Past

Horror movies fascinate audiences for many reasons, and are somewhat of a treasure trove for academics interested in cultural studies. Two of the best ways to understand our social values and anxieties is to understand what scares us and what turns us on, making horror movies and pornography more than just vapid titillation, but forms with deep cultural resonances.  Oftentimes fear can turn us on, although not in an explicitly sexual way, making the horror genre an endlessly interesting subject. From my experience, there are generally two types of people who enjoy watching horror movies; critics who probe these films for what they say about our culture, and people who simply enjoy the excitement of fear and spectacle. It is a difference between watching Saw as a post-9/11 film about torture, and watching it to see how grotesque and innovative the next kill will be.

For most of my adult life I have been the socially aware and culturally conscious critic, but this hasn’t always been the case. There was a time in my early twenties when I watched for the glory of the next kill. The entire Friday the 13th franchise is like an exercise in creativity to see how you can kill a horny teenager a hundred different ways. There was a certain pleasure in watching this play out, and either applauding or denigrating the film based on its decisions. This led me to a lot of campy eighties and early-to-mid nineties movies. While all that blood and gore was fun, I think what really drew me to horror was the fantasy of reliving a childhood completely devoid of these kinds of visceral pleasures. Some kids I knew grew up with treated Jason Voorhees, Freddy, and Michael Meyers like old friends, but I couldn’t even watch the animated Ghostbusters cartoon. I can remember looking through the pages of Fangoria as a middle-schooler the same way I would look at a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition; with the voyeuristic excitement of the forbidden.  As a twenty-year-old kid venturing forth into adulthood, indulging in horror movies represented a kind of freedom from my constricting past.

Things have changed a lot since then. I haven’t watched a whole lot of horror movies since becoming a parent. I can’t seem to stomach it. I get scared a lot easier, and the violent images are much more disturbing. I have begun to think that perhaps my parents didn’t let me watch horror movies as a kid because they themselves were deeply affected by them. There is something to say about an increased sensitivity to the violence and cruelty of the world when you have a totally pure and innocent life with you at all times, as if you could contaminate that purity by merely associating with depravity and filth. I may have unintentionally aired my psychological dirty laundry there, but it is a sentiment that I think most parents can understand, if not share.

In the spirit of this blog and being intentional about studying film even when it is difficult, I forced myself to watch a horror movie last night. There are so many great scary movies that I love, but I chose the somewhat obscure Re-Animator from 1985, mostly because it is a campy and ultimately harmless flick. It is apparently based on a H.P. Lovecraft short story, although I imagine the two are very different in tone and style. The movie follows a young doctor named Herbert West who has invented a re-animating agent that brings the dead back to life. He is somewhat of a mad scientist, and the movie chronicles the destruction he wreaks on the medical school where he works. This is a pretty easy thing to accomplish when the re-animated corpses are brainless, erratic, and and super-strong. There are exploding heads and rib-cages, bodies spewing puss and gore, and a healthy dose of gratuitous nudity. But there aren’t any sadistic serial killers in surgical masks, so I was able to handle all of this with good spirits and a handful of gleeful cringes. That is, until a disembodied head began tongue-raping the female protagonist. That was gross and difficult to watch, despite the obvious absurdity of the whole thing. I would have found that scene pretty amusing not too long ago, but now it just makes me a little sick.

I still love horror movies. I can’t wait to watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Shining with my daughter when she gets old enough. I want Halloween (a holiday that my family didn’t celebrate when I was a kid) to be both fun and scary. I don’t want witches and demon possession to be taken too seriously. I want fear and horror to be powerful and accepted emotions in my home. I also don’t want to be glib and careless. I want to be aware of my daughter’s sensitivities and how I can best protect her. That doesn’t mean shielding her from everything frightening and scary, but it also doesn’t mean throwing all the things I couldn’t watch in her direction, forcing her to enjoy the things I couldn’t. Ultimately, I want her to feel safe in our home. Safe enough to watch a horror movie, and safe enough to tell me if that movie is too scary.

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