Movie Watch 2016: Science Fiction

A REAL short list of some sci-fi films I saw last year:

World of Tomorrow (2015): A short animated film by Don Hertzfeldt about the life of a little girl and her future clones. Recommended. Available on Netflix streaming.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): This Steven Spielberg fairy tale about a robotic boy is sentimental and strange but surprisingly moving and disturbing. Recommended.

Divergent (2014) and Insurgent (2015): To my surprise, I enjoyed these poorly reviewed films about a rigidly divided utopian dystopia. Though simpler than The Hunger Games, I actually like these more. However, I still haven’t seen the third movie. Recommended.

Star Trek Beyond (2016): The disappointing Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) followed the fairly successful reboot Star Trek (2009) and departed even further from the spirit of the original television series. Though well-crafted and spiritedly acted, the third movie in the trilogy is somewhat tired (that’s three out of three vengeful villains driving the plots) and, dare I say it, a tad dull. Not recommended.

Movie Watch (2016): Mind Games, Dystopia, and Abuse

Based on Just Seen It‘s rating system, I’m just going to list several movies along with a recommendation to “see it” (hearty recommendation), “stream it” (good but not for everyone), or “skip it” (I did not enjoy it).

See It

Whiplash (2014): Unfortunately, my top three recommendations all involve the abuse of young people. This tale of an ambitious young drummer and his vicious director is a stylized take on control, abuse, and unholy, destructive musical ambition. The themes recall the tonally different Black Swan.

Blue Car (2002): A heartbreaking take on a young poet who is taken advantage of by her teacher, this time a high school English instructor. (See my post about reviews of the film.)

Brothers of the Head (2005): The title refers to conjoined twins who are molded into punk rockers. Bizarre, atmospheric, darkly funny, and disturbing.

Stream It

Felony (2013): The Australian Felony follows a policeman who hits a child while driving drunk. The movie touches on the abuse of police power and how it is justified, racism, hypocrisy, and justice–or more accurately, injustice. Available on Netflix streaming.

The Double (2013): Based on Dostoevsky’s dystopian novel, this beautifully shot, nightmarish, if brief, movie follows a voyeuristic nobody whose life changes when his doppelgänger appears. Available on Netflix streaming.

Bad Manners (1997): This self-conscious film that betrays its talky theatrical origins is still an interesting portrait of four self-absorbed and even cruel academics who get together for the weekend.

A Good Baby (2000): This is a gentle thriller (if it can be called that) about a young man in rural North Carolina who finds an abandoned baby. It is slow with some unsettling undercurrents.

Skip It

dangerouswoman

A Dangerous Woman (1993): A bizarre melodrama about an odd woman who has difficulties with human interactions and always tells the truth. Includes murder and a sexual liaison that appears to be rape (but the film insists is not). Available on Netflix streaming.

Movie watch 2016: True stories

Of the documentaries I watched this year, I highly recommend Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), Werner Herzog’s magical documentation of some of the oldest cave paintings in the world. I go into more detail in my review.

I also recommend the very different, more flawed, and quite eerie documentary The Imposter (2012) (see my review here) about a missing boy who ostensibly shows up on the other side of the world, seemingly a completely different person.

Trailers for the Oscar-winning Spotlight (2015) promised a powerful commentary on sexual abuse and responsibility. This fictional portrayal of The Boston Globe‘s investigations of child abuse in the Catholic Church is well-acted, particularly by Mark Ruffalo, but somehow too brief and light. It depicts community culpability and creates believable characters based on real people, yet its brisk-moving plot and a slick running time, usually positives, do not allow it to be the searing and poignant movie it could have been. I still recommend it, but don’t expect anything life-changing.

All three films are available on Netflix streaming.

Movie watch 2016: Horror

In 2015, I saw The Babadook, an excellent horror film about a widow dealing with a difficult young son. One of his picture books that depicts a terrifying monster known as the Babadook seems to haunt them. The movie is available on Netflix, and I highly recommend it.

I didn’t see a horror movie that matched the suspense or artistry of Babadook this past year, but I did watch several interesting (and not so interesting) horror pieces.

Recommended:

The Witch (2015) follows a Puritan family in 17th century America who descend into paranoia when witchcraft is suspected to cause a tragedy. Though not “the scariest horror film in years,” as Collider says, it is a disturbing and beautifully shot indictment of religious hysteria (though the fervor is apparently warranted, due there being little suspense as to the actual existence of witches) with a script based on authentic old(e) school texts. Almost humorously dramatic at times, Witch features a straightforward plot and a thrilling ending. One disappointment: after hearing that the pet goat deserved an Oscar, I found his appearance to be far too brief.

The awkward, funny, and unsettling Creep (2014) depicts an ill-advised answer to a Craigslist ad. A videographer, the very tall Aaron, travels to an isolated location to meet Josef in order to film him for a day. Josef announces that he is dying of cancer and wants to make a video for his unborn son. His penchant for jump scares and a threatening wolf mask he calls “Peachfuzz” unnerves Aaron, but he feels sorry for the needy Josef. Creep is a found footage film that is sometimes too obviously improvised, but its creepy conclusion makes up for its flaws. Available on Netflix streaming.

In Honeymoon (2014), two newlyweds, Bea and Paul, embark on a honeymoon to a cabin in the woods near a lake, with no cell service or cable. The first half of the film focuses on the couple and their almost annoying giddiness and inside jokes. Their naturalism might not be incredibly gripping, but it is essential to the story’s turn for the worse. The lovers’ believable affection for one another makes their deteriorating relationship all the more effective. Bea starts behaving strangely, but she pretends nothing is wrong, in spite of Paul’s increasing agitation and alarm. Honeymoon is good for what it is, a small, slowly unfolding horror movie. Available on Netflix streaming.

Not recommended:

Fade to Black (1980) is a bizarre and campy story of a cinema-obsessed young man with a Marilyn Monroe fixation and a nasty mother. Unsurprisingly, this loner snaps and turns to violence and full-time escapism as he dresses as monsters from classic films. If this sounds good to you, see it, but it might be too goofy for most.

I had only heard good things about It Follows (2014), but, though atmospheric and beautifully shot, it felt like a let-down. The the rules of a curse in which a sinister “thing” follows its victims are too vague to be particularly suspenseful. The characters are not very well-developed, and the sexual transmission of the curse (suggesting sexual abuse, STDs, fear of sex, etc.) struck me as unoriginal and unimaginative. Available on Netflix streaming, for those who disagree with me.

While Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak (2015) is a visually sumptuous gothic romance, it is not particularly scary, shocking, or haunting. Its portrayal of men and women in a horror film is rather refreshing, but the story did not stick with me.

Movie watch 2016: Superhero Problems

Last year was a year for disgruntled superheroes. I already recommended Captain America: Civil War, in which heroes brawl over a UN resolution, and the much hated Suicide Squad, featuring criminals forced to fight a supernatural evil. I had more mixed feelings about Squad‘s precursor Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where one can witness even more battling saviors. In this case, Batman flies off the rails and turns against Superman due to Lex Luthor’s manipulations, and Superman has a very bad day. Wonder Woman also makes a brief but formidable appearance. While fairly entertaining, Dawn of Justice is both slow and convoluted. Jesse Eisenberg’s young Luthor has been criticized for differing wildly from the source material, but I found his twitchy performance to be by far the brightest spot in the film. No longer a calculating old-school businessman, Luthor is now a long-haired, narcissistic genius for the age of Google and Microsoft.

I also reviewed Deadpool, featuring a comic book character who alternates between hero and villain. In his movie, he’s a pop-culture referencing anti-hero, a mercenary turned mad superhuman by a brutal experiment. The sophomoric humor and graphic violence will not work for everyone, but the film’s enthusiasm and tight script generated enough energy to attract large audiences.

 

Recommendations for this happy final quarter of 2016!

Hello again! Since this year is winding down, I’m going to make some movie recommendations (or rejections) based on films I’ve seen in the past year. I’ll start with suggesting several movies I saw at the cinema:

Love and Friendship (2016)

I LOVE Whit Stillman. And Jane Austen is Jane Austen. Both are witty, observant, and pointed, so Stillman’s adaptation of Austen’s novella Lady Susan (confusingly named after another one of her obscure works) had very high chances of success. Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is a believable and marvelous villain, manipulative, self-righteous, and decked in gorgeous period costumes.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)

Taika Waititi has been another recent obsession. Boy (streaming on Netflix) is funny and touching, and What We Do in the Shadows is hilarious. Wilderpeople is a rollicking adventure about a foster child (Julian Dennison) who escapes into the New Zealand bush along with his crotchety foster father (Sam Neill). Lots of humor, a soundtrack with an ’80s vibe, and loads of wild fun.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Civil War manages to balance numerous superhero characters with a legitimate debate about whether these powerful people should be subject to international governing. Of the many characters, the smooth and driven Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the very young Spiderman (Tom Holland) stand out.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

I was reluctant to give more money to the Star Wars franchise after the prequels, but I still watched The Force Awakens in the movie theatre. At first I was frustrated with the derivative storyline, one that ostensibly picked up years after the original trilogy ended. In spite of the continuation not quite making sense, the movie eventually won me over due to the spirited and likable new characters.

Suicide Squad (2016)

While this superhero adaptation received an incredible amount of hate from critics, I ended up seeing it twice, enjoying it more the second time around. The second half occasionally devolves into an incomprehensible mess, and there are clumsy moments. Still, I enjoyed this cynical redemption story of sorts as well as its music video aesthetic.

That’s all for now, folks! I’ll come back with another short list in the near future. Cheers.

Reviews of Blue Car (2002): Disturbing views of abuse

Blue Car, directed by Karen Moncrieff, focuses on Meg (Agnes Bruckner), a teenage girl who struggles at home but finds an outlet in poetry. Her English teacher encourages her talent, offers a shoulder to cry on, and crosses a line of intimacy with a student. Meg is pretty, white, and blonde, and the subject resembles a Lifetime movie. Her poetry falls short, except perhaps her final piece. However, the film’s quiet portrayal of a young woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders rings true.

Thankfully, some things have changed since 2002, when the film Blue Car was released. Slowly, the public has become more knowledgable about abuse. The many reviews of the movie at its time of release, mostly written by men, display the ignorance at the time. Many of the critics expressed an inordinate amount of sympathy for the abuser, displaying a fundamental lack of understanding about the mechanisms of manipulation.  Some men decried the film for depicting abuse at all, saying it painted men and particularly male teachers in a bad light.

Of course, a number of the myths espoused in the reviews still exist. For example, even though the Entertainment Weekly review describes Mr. Auster the English teacher’s attentions to be dangerous, a later list of David Strathairn’s best roles describes Auster as both a creep and a hero. Moreover, it calls their relationship “mutually exploitative.” I’m going to reveal much of Blue Car‘s plot by pointing out the offense in calling a situation in which a fifty-year-old teacher has sex with his teenage student mutual in any way. (Her age is unspecified. Most sources say she is eighteen, but the actress was fifteen when she was cast.) Auster knows Meg has little money, an overworked mother, a recently deceased little sister, and a father who separated from her family during a divorce. Still, the writer at EW apparently holds them equally responsible.

Stephen Holden’s review in The New York Times focuses more on Mr. Auster’s psychology than Meg’s, seemingly identifying and sympathizing with him just a little bit more: “Faced with a young woman as dependent and adoring as Meg, who radiates a confusing mixture of innocence and sexual heat, he can’t resist the temptation to play God.” It’s a bizarre description of Meg. Even if she were openly flirtatious and precociously sexual, this would not justify Auster’s behavior. It would simply be a young woman exploring her sexuality. Meg herself is shy and quiet. She wears baggy clothes and only tries to dress up once Auster starts giving her attention. He approaches her, picks her up when she walks home, and requests that she share lunches with him. Holden’s choice of words suggests that all beautiful girls with crushes radiate a “sexual heat” that confuses poor old men.

The most offensive review I surveyed was written by a woman. I foolishly assumed a more acute take on the scenario would be found in The Austin Chronicle, but its writer Marjorie Baumgarten continues the trend of feeling sympathy for Auster, who, like Meg, supposedly “suffers from loss and self-doubt and is in need of support and encouragement.” Baumgarten also severely downplays the scene in which Auster has a sexual liaison with Meg. The director calls the moment “awkward and awful.”

It is actually a rape scene disguised as uncomfortable sex. Not only has Auster exploited an extremely vulnerable student, he takes her to a motel and attempts to have sex with her without any romance or preparation. He asks if she’s okay a few times, but she is clearly nervous and certainly does not enthusiastically consent. Eventually, she can only cringe in discomfort, and he finally stops. His expression might reveal guilt or shame, but he makes no attempt to comfort or apologize to her, even when she silently turns away from him on the bed.

Baumgarten outrageously characterizes the scene as a mild mistake that encourages character development: “Danger is recognized and averted, a few moments too late, perhaps, but still within enough time to rectify the course. … Although emotionally precarious, the moment is not a fatal collision, just a large bump in the road that leads toward Meg’s maturation.” Just because someone stops sexually assaulting someone does not undo the sexual assault. The betrayal Meg faces is heartbreaking. It is a tribute to the character, not the situation, that she handles her life as well as she does.

It was then refreshing to read The Washington Post review in which Stephen Hunter gives Strathairn credit for “how badly [he]’d like to beat Mr. Auster to a pulp.” He gives Meg credit as the story’s hero and observes Auster’s entitlement and weakness: his “sickest and most fundamental lie is to himself: that he cares, that he only wants to help.” Roger Ebert also points out how, “by maintaining a position of power and then overpraising her work, [Auster] gets inside her defenses.” He likely appears to be more well-intended than he is because the whole situation “must be within the twisted terms of his own compromised morality.” As Ebert says, “He is rotten in an everyday way, not in a horror movie way–and that makes him much more frightening.” He concludes the review by lamenting the high MPAA rating for the film, which he considers a cautionary tale.

Sexual predators must take responsibility for their actions. As much as our society outwardly condemns sexual abuse, we tend to extend forgiveness to the perpetrators and downplay the victims’ pain. These articles are perfect demonstrations of victim-blaming,  filled with myths about power dynamics and the intentions of abusers. We need to counteract these stereotypes in order to remove the enormous burdens that are placed on survivors of abuse. Blue Car is a sad and familiar movie about a young girl, struggling with too much, and an older authority figure who hurts her because of his monstrous self-absorption.

The jolly Poppy: ‘Happy-Go-Lucky’ (2008)

Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky stars Sally Hawkins as the silly and tender-hearted Poppy, a thirty-year old elementary school teacher. She giggles at everything, including pain, and can be both obnoxious and charming. This optimism makes her incredibly brave. She is the type of person who says “yes” to life, comforting her angry students and approaching homeless men in the middle of the night. Poppy has a few wonderful friends, particularly her housemate, who are on the same wavelength as she is, but a number of people say that her attitude is dangerous and immature.

One of these people is her driving instructor Scott (Eddie Marsan). Their initially funny relationship plays off of their starkly contrasting personalities before turning into something darker. Though the descriptions of Happy-Go-Lucky suggest a lighthearted romantic comedy, it is instead a theatrical slice of life, Mike Leigh style, and includes some disturbing elements. The piece is not a gripping thriller, but it is a generally pleasant and memorable way to spend a couple of hours.

 

Brian De Palma’s bizarre ‘Passion’ (2012)

In spite of striking aesthetics and a terrific performance by Rachel McAdams, Brian De Palma’s Passion becomes irrevocably silly and confusing. This remake of the French film Love Crime features Isabelle (Noomi Rapace), a young advertiser, who shows promise and grows closer to her beautiful boss Christine (McAdams). Christine is cutthroat and manipulative but also inviting to anyone she takes a shine to or needs. Though perhaps we are supposed to see her through Isabelle’s eyes, the “heroine” does not seem much nicer. Neither of them is satisfyingly developed as they vie for power in the advertising world and struggle over a mutual lover. While the first half of the movie is intriguing and elegant, the second half devolves into a melodramatic thriller which is more head-scratching than mind-bending. I have not seen the original film, but I recommend it in hopes that it surpasses the remake.

A tale of survival: The Way Back (2010)

A guard in a gulag announces, “It’s not our guns, or dogs, or wire that form your prison. Siberia is your prison… Nature is your jailer, and she is without mercy.” It is 1940, and a young Polish man Janusz (Jim Sturgess) who has been sent to a gulag meets the friendly Khabarov (Mark Strong), the hardened “Mr. Smith” (Ed Harris), and the violent Valka (Colin Farrell). Eventually, a group of prisoners escape, only to face their true captor, the harsh landscape.

Based on a dubious memoir by Sławomir Rawicz, The Way Back features stunning scenery and remarkable displays of human resilience. Thanks to Janusz’s survival skills, he leads the men through the forbidding tundra to Mongolia. From there, the prisoners must cross the Gobi Desert and venture into the Himalayas.

Director Peter Weir has an original touch, even with more straightforward works. The gulag is as stark and detailed as the nature scenes are gorgeous and haunting. Harris, as a tough old American, gives a particularly good performance, as do Strong and Sturgess, but the appearance of Saorsie Ronan as a young woman who joins them feels forced, perhaps to add sentiment.

Most of the actors speak with false accents, the potentially intriguing characters are not wholly rounded, and the movie is too long. Ultimately, the conclusion does not measure up to its powerful premise. The film remains believable because of its ostensible status as a true story, but the story might not be true at all. Still, for those who can stomach both tension and slowness, The Way Back, with its lovely soundtrack and striking setting, is not a bad film.