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: Shakespeare

Chimes at Midnight (1965)

Sorry Shakespeare lovers! Orson Welles’s film about Falstaff has moments of brilliance, including a suitably ambiguous portrayal of Prince Hal by Keith Baxter, but I found myself drifting in and out of consciousness with boredom. Of course, I’ve always thought Falstaff to be overrated.

The Merchant of Venice (1980)

Though this version of The Merchant of Venice is basically a recorded performance, it is a clear and complete (or nearly complete) production of Shakespeare’s most controversial play which manages to illuminate the characters’ complex motivations. If you don’t mind a little dryness and low-budget cinematography, I recommend it.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990)

Tom Stoppard directs a respectable adaptation of his own wonderful play about two interchangeable characters in Hamlet. It’s philosophical and humorous, and it features two of my favorite actors, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, along with a well-cast Richard Dreyfuss as the Player.

Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000)

This wordy comedy is difficult to adapt (and read), but it can be a joy to watch. Kenneth Branagh and his cast do an admirable job, pairing the original text with songs by Gerswhin, Porter, and the like. The newsreel footage is great fun, but the movie loses steam and feels overly long.

Movie Watch 2016: For kids!

Here’s a quick rundown of the “children’s” movies I saw in 2016:

WALL-E (2008)
I finally saw Pixar’s WALL-E, which features an adorable robot who harbors a love for Hello Dolly. The first half of the film is lovely, but the second half, which introduces round humans (also cute), has an incredibly simplistic take on how humans need challenges to thrive.

Coraline (2009)
Coraline‘s beautiful stop-motion animation and creepy premise set my expectations high. In spite of several amazing set-pieces, the plot is thin (I have not read the book, save one passage–this is criticism of the movie) and not as original as I had hoped.

Peabody & Sherman (2014)
This spinoff film of the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon series is about the relationship between a father and son, in which the father is a genius time-travelling dog. It is overstimulating and features (intentionally) ridiculous history “lessons,” but it is fairly entertaining.

Cinderella (2015)
The live action version of this fairy-tale is not revolutionary, but it is a sweet ode to kindness, with a charming performance by Lily James as the titular Ella.

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Another stop-motion feature with gorgeous animation, Kubo is an epic story about the power of storytelling. However, the script’s attempts at wit are not as impressive as the striking visuals, and the characters feel underdeveloped. It is still worth checking out Regina Spektor’s cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” arranged by Dario Marianelli.

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: Musicals

I am neither a musical fanatic nor a hater, but I do not generally seek out musicals. The few music-related films I watched last year were recommended by others.

The French Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) (see my review here) should delight those who love a song a minute, romantic couples, and deliciously shot towns in southern France. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) is not a musical in the same sense, but it includes numerous songs mouthed by its drag queens played by Hugo Weaving, Guy Pearce, and Terence Stamp as they travel across the Australian outback. The sometimes poignant story revolves around a gay man traveling to meet his son for the first time. Along the way, he and his companions find themselves in both tense and ludicrous situations. In spite of some misogyny and an egregiously racist series of scenes, this comedy, considered a classic by many and a key moment in MOGAI film history, is for those looking for a fabulous splash of color in the desert and a representation of characters who are unapologetically themselves in the face of a stunned society.

Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe (2007) creates a movie musical out of songs by The Beatles. The film is as visually innovative as one would expect from Taymor, but the plot is lacking and the pacing slow. Some may love the kaleidoscopic nature of Universe, while others, like myself, might do little more than appreciate the aesthetic fantasia and familiar tunes, competently sung and adapted.

If you’re tepid about musicals, consider yourself warned, and if you’re a Broadway-head, check out Rochefort, Priscilla (if you haven’t seen either the movie or the theatrical adaptation), and Universe.

Beginning the new year with… Una.

Disclaimer: I have seen neither the movie Una (2016) nor the play Blackbird (2005), on which the film is based. Some described it as Lolita years later fifteen years later, from Lolita’s perspective. I read that Rooney Mara plays Una, a young woman who confronts her abuser Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) years after their “relationship.” The first review that popped up in Google was that by Peter Debruge, chief reviewer with Variety

The article itself disturbs me as much as the film content. The writer refers to pedophilia as “a love that dared not speak its name” and the abuse in Una as “a love affair in which at least one party never stopped caring.” To be clear, a middle-aged man had a sexual relationship with a thirteen year old girl. This is in no way “a love affair” or a pure affection forbidden by society’s cruel mores. Debruge continues:

Her fixation on Ray is so intense that we almost feel sorry for him. He may have ruined her life by promising to take her away to Europe and then abandoning her in a small-town bed and breakfast, but there’s no question that she would ruin his if he only invited this simultaneously brittle and determined femme fatale back into his life.

He refers to a woman suffering from trauma due to child sexual abuse as a “femme fatale” and indicates that we should pity pedophiles who ruin young girls’ lives. The movie and play may show an emotional bond between Ray and Una or depict seemingly genuine remorse from Ray, but I’m confused as to why Una should be content with her lot in life while Ray should be excused from such a fate. Also, did he abandon her a bed and breakfast when she was merely a child? Not only is that extremely dangerous, it also understates the way grooming and raping a young person can ruin one’s life–trips to motels (or rather kidnapping) aside.

The author then notes that the sadism of the situation emerges more on film than in the play: “It’s as if instead of showing ‘Lolita’ from Humbert Humbert’s p.o.v., little Dolores Haze had grown up and taken matters into her own hands.” This statement suggests that it is more twisted and sadistic to turn the tables on a sexual predator than to be a sexual predator, more “comfortable” to watch stories about pedophilia from the pedophile’s perspective.

The only highlight in this shockingly cavalier review was this comment by WandaSes:

we almost feel sorry for him? Is this writer a psychopath? The whole movie is about her confronting him for what he did to her. This writer is a sick, sick person.

I don’t know what I’ll think about the film if I see it. I also don’t know how many more deplorable reviews like this will pop up. Until then, thank you WandaSes!

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.

Hiatus

Even though I only started this blog a few months ago, I am unfortunately going to have to take a break from filmvivant. I will at least try to stay on Twitter, and I might still write the occasional post. Feel free to keep following! I just wanted to let everyone know why I’ll be posting even more sparsely than usual. I’m going to try to take advantage of an opportunity that recently emerged. Though it would be nice to keep this up, realistically, I need to devote more energy to this particular project. Thank you for visiting! 🙂

 

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.