Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This review contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The overview is largely spoiler-free if you have been following the general media surrounding the movie, but the section where I start breaking down specific aspects of the film (character, story, vision, personal enjoyment, and style) I go into spoiler heavy territory.

swtfa poster

Overview

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the seventh movie in the main Star Wars saga. It takes place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi and introduces us to new characters who become our entry point to reconnecting with the characters from the original Star Wars trilogy as well as giving us glimpses into what has happened since we last saw those characters.

Sadly, they did not live happily ever after. The Empire was not completely defeated at the Battle of Endor, and the Imperial remnant has come together as a unified group called The First Order. They are led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the latter is a dark figure who can use the Force and wields a lightsaber.

Our heroes are the newly introduced Rey, a young scavenger from the desert planet Jakku; Fin, an ex-First Order Stormtrooper; Poe, a cocky but gifted Resistance pilot; and many of the characters we know and love from the original trilogy.

The Force Awakens is the first Star Wars film released under Disney, who acquired the rights from George Lucas for a hefty $4 billion. And so far, this purchase is paying off quite well. As of this morning (Sunday), The Force Awakens is sitting at a weekend gross of over $230 million. It’s likely that it will remain in the number one slot at the box office through the next three weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised if it hits six weeks. This film was highly anticipated, and it has already been received well by Star Wars fans and general audiences alike.

I would have loved to watch the movie a second time before this review. General impressions are usually not indicative of where I will eventually fall with regard to a movie. Some films I’ve loved on my first viewing but grew to dislike with each subsequent view. Others took years before I grew fond of them because something kept bringing me back, and I had to keep watching to figure out just what it was that caught me. The Force Awakens is somewhere in the middle for me. It was a great ride and a compelling watch, but I had an inkling of disappointment, and in the end, the movie left me slightly unsatisfied, though still excited to see the next chapter. With The Force Awakens, J. J. Abrams has put all the pieces into play, setting up Rian Johnson to deliver what I hope will be a big, visionary, and original episode VIII.

Below is a new review system (for me) in which I break down various aspects of the movie. I hope to continue refining this system as I write more posts (if and when my work schedule allows it).

Rey-BB8

Character                10/10

This is where The Force Awakens really shines. At no point did I get bored with any of the new characters. This was even more their story than it was the story of the original trilogy characters. It is through Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren that we start to see the legacy the original trilogy characters left the galaxy with. And that legacy is still a very uncertain one. Each character is well-written and performed. In fact, I don’t know that Star Wars has ever been as consistently well-acted as it is in this movie. Everyone takes it seriously, and everyone delivers.

Story                         8/10

This is where The Force Awakens struggles. (though “struggles” is a misleading word. I’ll try to come up with a better one.) While the story is actually good, its problem is that we’ve seen large chunks of the story before. In many ways, TFA is a reboot/remix. This movie isn’t mere homage to A New Hope; it is full-on retelling. The visual style and pace are modern, but the overall story is the same. TFA actually reminded me a lot of NBC’s Hannibal, a strange comparison, I know, but bear with me. Hannibal took the already-adapted and familiar stories of Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter novels, and recast the story beats and events in very different contexts. So while the overall story was the same, you never quite knew how the pieces would be used or where they would appear. Hannibal played on your expectation of the familiar and gave you something new.

The Force Awakens doesn’t quite do this, except in small ways: going to Starkiller Base to shut down the shield generator (Return of the Jedi), Starkiller Base is an ice planet (The Empire Strikes Back). Those moments were somewhat clever and fun. But where The Force Awakens isn’t so original is its almost beat-for-beat recreation of A New Hope. The story starts on a desert planet, a crucial secret is hidden in a droid, a young hero/skilled pilot who longs for something more encounters a legendary hero from another era who helps her take steps into a larger world, the legendary hero confronts a haunting failure from his past—which ends in the legendary hero’s death, a planet-killing base has to be destroyed before it reaches the rebel base on the jungle planet. I don’t think this recreation would be so disappointing to me if it wasn’t for Return of the Jedi, which resorted the same Death Star threat. The specific details of Starkiller Base don’t really matter in this case. It is the same old threat, trotted out yet again.

The story shines, however, when it recasts the context (such as the shield generator parallel above, or the stormtrooper going undercover as a Resistance fighter) or outright does new things: Finn’s crisis of conscience, Finn and Poe’s escape, Poe getting the star map, Han and Chewie’s latest smuggling scheme, Kylo Ren’s . . . everything. But even when the story was going places we had already seen, we were accompanied by characters who were a lot of fun, and I want to see them again.

star-wars-force-awakens-character-posters

Vision           9/10

What was it trying to do?

On some level, it was trying to relaunch the Star Wars franchise under the Disney brand, and to exhibit comfort that it was not the Star Wars prequels. But more than that, it was a movie that sought to continue the Star Wars story of galactic conflict, the quest for freedom against oppression, and the story of the Skywalker family.

Was it successful in doing it?

Absolutely.

Was it worth doing?

This is harder to quantify. Star Wars was not a dead franchise. However, the prequels were divisive, and they caused a major hit to the storytelling credibility of the franchise. While there are good things in the prequels and each of them gives us something new that expands the Star Wars universe, the movies are average at best. While The Force Awakens doesn’t expand the universe much, it is a much stronger movie than any of the prequels, and it accomplished exactly what Abrams and Disney set out to do: it revitalized an already strong franchise by forging a new direction and vision.

Personal Enjoyment       8/10

There were many parts of the movie that I enjoyed: from the opening sequence with Poe’s capture, to the escape from the Star Destroyer, to catching back up with Han and Chewie. I enjoyed all the new characters, thought Maz Canata is an interesting new character that I want to see more of, and want to know what happened with Luke, Kylo Ren, and Snoke. There are plenty of intriguing possibilities moving forward for this story, and I look forward to seeing them. The only detraction I have is the rehashes mentioned above. In many ways, TFA is a remake/remix of A New Hope, though with some new bits added on. But it is also a remake with style and enthusiasm. It works, but I would have liked to see something different.

And I admit that, in spite of it being the right storytelling choice, I am having trouble forgiving this movie for what it did to Han. But that may just be me and my own personal father issues. Apparently I connected with Han in this movie in the same way Rey did. Her pain was my pain, though I saw the death coming. I hoped it wouldn’t happen, but knew it would because it fit the story.

But that doesn’t mean I liked it.

Style/Craft              9/10

A friend described J. J. Abrams as a Xerox director: He can successfully emulate style. We’ve seen this in Super 8 and his two Star Trek movies. Thus, he was a good choice for replicating the style and feel of A New Hope for a new generation (and to reignite the imaginations of the old). In spite of this emulation, Abrams still added quite a few shots to the Star Wars bag of tricks, shots that were new and interesting. The tension as Poe’s blaster bolt hung in the air was extremely unnerving. The effect was perfect and the sound design with the hot crackle was masterful, and to end the scene with an overhead shot that resolved the blaster bolt was a great choice. This entire scene was like listening to a piece of music that swooped close to resolving, but always flowed back out to add more tension. Likewise, I loved seeing Kylo Ren pull the Imperial officer across the screen to lock his hand around his throat. It showed the visceral anger and petulance of Ren. He has great power and is prone to sudden outbursts. He is unpredictable. Vader was the picture of calm restraint next to Ren. But that also gives the impression that Ren is more conflicted, less resigned to his fate as he struggles to find his path, which at the moment is the Dark Side. I want this man’s story. I want to know what happened to bring him to this point.

The shot of Leia and Rey after the Starkiller Base battle, with the two women in grief on one side of the frame and the celebration on the other, is beautiful. In the midst of victory is great sorrow over those who were lost. It is one of the single most heart-wrenching shots in the saga.

And finally, the final shot of the film, the camera spinning around Rey and Luke from above as we move away from this story for a time . . . there is no shot quite like this in Star Wars. It is a new technique for the trilogy. And while so much of this film was a rehash, ending with this technique signals, to me, that we are now moving into something new. It’s like Abrams is saying “You haven’t seen a shot quite like this before. And as we move on to the next film, you are going to see new things.” I look forward to it.

Final Rating: 8.8/10

Film Analysis: The Grey (2012), Part 2

This is part two of my analysis of The Grey (2012), which I wrote for The Bible and Film. You can find part one and the introduction here.

John Diaz, the Untempered Masculine

John Diaz is the loner of the group. “It’s every man for himself,” he says when he disagrees with Ottway’s decisions. Diaz is ruled by masculine bravado. The only woman in his life was a prostitute who was a “piece of horrible ass.” Diaz has no family. He does not believe in God. He is loud, brash, and a drunkard. He refuses to admit weakness. As the survivors set up camp in the forest, Diaz asserts his gross masculinity and attacks Ottway’s leadership:

DIAZ: You guys with your fucking rules and orders and bullshit. Where are we? Look around. This is Fucked City, population five and dwindling. Two days, three maybe, if we really pull our shit together. And who’s in charge of that right now? This fucking guy? The Great White Hunter and his jerry-rigged fucking wolf sticks?

TALGET: Why are you constantly breaking balls and bitching about everything?

DIAZ: ‘Cause I wanna live, motherfucker. You understand that? I don’t want some timber wolf shitting me out on this mountain.

OTTWAY: You’re scared.

DIAZ: What?

OTTWAY: You don’t need all that nonsense, all that chest-puff bullshit. What’s wrong with being scared?

Diaz stands in line with his companions
Diaz stands in line with the other men. He is no longer an outsider. (Source: The Grey DVD. Copyright 2012 by Open Road Films.)

As tensions escalate, Ottway says, “Talking tough means jack shit now. You’re not scared? You’re a fool. Worse, you’re a fucking liar.” Ottway, as the alpha, puts the challenge down, not by killing Diaz, but by attempting to bring balance to his unbalanced masculinity. Ottway offers him solidarity; he helps lead him from ego to self. Diaz is literally brought back into line when the alpha wolf enters the camp. Diaz stands between the group and the wolf. In a close-up of the men’s feet, Diaz slowly backs up until his feet are in line with the rest of the men. The unity of the group is further illustrated in a deleted scene where the four remaining survivors work together to start a fire. They encourage one another. Diaz has joined the pack.

John Diaz’s journey becomes complete when he admits his own frailty. As the final three survivors—Ottway, Diaz, and Hendrick (Dallas Roberts)—come upon a river, Diaz decides this is a good place to die. He wants his final moments to appreciate the view of a mountain in the distance. In the commentary track Carnahan says that Diaz knows that Ottway and Hendrick would do anything to keep him going, even dragging him. This would lead to all their deaths. Thus, Diaz decides to embrace his frailty and chooses how he will die—appreciating the beauty of nature. He reflects on the life he once knew. “What I got waiting for me back there?” he asks. “I’m gonna sit on a drill all day. Get drunk all night. That’s my life? Turn around and look at all that. I feel like that’s all for me. How do I beat that? When would it ever be

Ottway, Diaz, and Pete converse in a long shot.
An intimate conversation filmed long rather than close-up. The audience is not a part of this group. (Source: The Grey DVD. Copyright 2012 by Open Road Films.)

better?” He cannot beat nature, but he can appreciate it. Throughout this scene, Diaz refers to Hendrick as brother, indicating their bonding through hardship. He reveals his first name as John and laughs as he discovers Ottway is also named John. “Of course that’s your name,” he laughs. “Thank you, John.” Hendrick also introduces himself; the three men are now fully known to one another. He gives each of them a parting gift to help with the journey. The entire scene is framed as a full shot despite the intimacy which would usually be framed as a close-up. Carnahan revealed in the commentary that he wanted the audience to know that these men were connected, they were close. The audience had no place among them. The audience could only look at the men from afar because we had not earned the right to be there. But this shot also emphasizes the scale of nature in relation to the men. They may now be brothers, but they are still insignificant compared to nature. They cannot conquer it; they cannot win. After Ottway and Hendrick leave, there is a long shot from behind Diaz. His head is barely visible over a log. The river and mountain dwarf him. As the sounds of the wolf pack grow closer, he utters his last line: “I am not afraid.” He has found meaning in sacrificing himself for his brothers. Because of Ottway’s guidance, he has rejected bravado and embraced the beauty of nature rather than its cold cruelty.

Faith or Reason?

Ottway’s purpose was bound to the men of his pack. When Hendrick dies, Ottway cries out to God:

OTTWAY: Do something. You phony prick fraudulent motherfucker. Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real! I need it now. Not later. Now! Show me and I’ll believe in you till the day I die. I swear. I’m calling on you. I’m calling on you!

There is no response, so Ottway decides, “Fuck it, I’ll do it myself.”

The question, of course, is what will Ottway do? What proof does he want? Rescue? Purpose? Death? Ottway is alone once more; his pack has been killed. He must confront the very question he started with: should he commit suicide? For Ottway, faith represents a return to his wife. There is no proof that death will reunite them. He wants to believe God exists because this will mean being reunited with his anima. He is willing to sacrifice his reason if God will reveal himself. Like Tolstoy, he is conflicted by his reason and by his desire for faith (pt. IV). God would put all this suffering and pain into context. He would create order from the chaos. Camus would call this absurdity, the desire for meaning in a world that intrinsically has none (Bragg). Ottway stumbles further, the weather taking its toll, tree branches ripping at his coat and skin. Nature scourges him and, according to Carnahan in the film’s commentary, it is laying him bare. Ottway finally falls to his knees and stacks the collected wallets into a cross. He looks at the pictures in each wallet, photographs of wives, daughters, and sons. In Diaz’s wallet he finds only a driver’s license, indicating that the man was truly alone. Ottway folds his hands over the wallet as if in prayer. In this moment Ottway realizes the greatest irony of his journey: he has arrived at the wolves’ den. He is surrounded by them. The alpha steps forward, indicating that this is between the two of them. He and Ottway are opposites; they are the two alphas. The alpha is death, and they have been locked in combat for the entire film.

This final scene connects the flashbacks Ottway has been having throughout the film. For the third time, he remembers his wife’s final words:  “Don’t be afraid.” For a third time, he remembers the words of his father’s (James Bitonti) poem:

Once more into the fray

Into the last good fight I’ll ever know.

Live and die on this day.

Live and die on this day.

Ottway prepares himself for battle.
Ottway chooses to fight, but does he fight for his life, for faith, or for something else? It is up to the viewer to decide. (Source: A Full Tank of Gas. Copyright 2012 by Open Road Films.)

These words have haunted his life, the words of his wife and of his father. In this final moment, they have coalesced. The two most important people in Ottway’s life offer their wisdom. If he fights the wolf and lives, it will be a miracle, a true sign from God. If he fights and dies, he will finally discover the truth he has been seeking and perhaps be reunited with his wife? Either way, he wins. He only loses if he refuses to fight. The film ends as Ottway rushes toward the wolf.

Carnahan does not show the fight. Thematically, this makes sense. The struggle had already happened. Ottway’s journey ended when he made his choice to fight. The audience is not given a concrete answer to whether or not God exists, and in doing so, The Grey allows viewers to make their own choice based on their experiences and beliefs. In an interview with Rebecca Cusey, Carnahan said:

I think if you’re an atheist, you look at the film and you say ‘He didn’t believe in God.’ If you’re a Christian: ‘100% he believed in God.’ I like that. I like that things coexist. I’m a hell of a lot more interested to hear people talking to me about the film than for me to be telling them about the movie.

It was this ambiguity that turned off test screeners, even though they admitted they would be talking about the movie for days to come (Wallace). This ambiguity is a universal struggle for humanity. What is the purpose of life? The book of Ecclesiastes is one of the most existential books in the Bible. The Teacher laments, “The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them” (Harper Collins Study Bible, Eccl. 1:11). He goes on to say, “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Harper Collins Study Bible, Eccl. 1:14). Similarly, Job attempts to understand suffering after losing property, family, and health. In both books, the ultimate message is to have faith in God.

Ottway cried out for God to show him something real. But would Ottway consider God’s revelation to be real? In his moment of despair, was Ottway was willing to put aside reason for faith. In his interview with Rebecca Cusey, Carnahan said he wanted to deal with “the contradictions that exist in all of us at times in reference to God or to spirituality or to religion in general. There’s a duality of a guy calling on God: ‘Where are you when I need you?’ and then at the same time ‘God helps those who help themselves.’” Until Ottway was ready to make a choice and to live (or die) by that choice, he would continue to be frustrated by uncertainty. His leap to faith was to make a choice.

In The Grey, Carnahan created an allegory that confronts human mortality and the search for meaning. Diaz found meaning by achieving solidarity to the group. This led to his selfless sacrifice. Ottway found meaning by embracing the mystery of faith, by choosing to fearlessly fight for life rather than passively allowing death to stalk him. Both men needed each other to find this meaning. Diaz needed Ottway’s guidance to find balanced masculinity in admitting weakness and frailty. Ottway needed Diaz and the other survivors to give him a purpose and remember how to fight. In the end, by not providing a clear resolution, The Grey forces audience members to wrestle with the ending, to ask what they believed happened, and to reflect on how they understand meaning and purpose in their own lives. Ottway’s journey in The Grey has been their journey all along.

Works Cited

“Camus.” In Our Time. Narr. Melvyn Bragg. BBC Radio 4, 3 Jan. 2008. BBC.co.uk. Web. 3 June 2013.

Cusey, Rebecca. “Interview: Director Joe Carnahan on God and Spirituality in Thriller The Grey.” Patheos.com. 23 Jan. 2012. Web. 2 June 2013.

“Deleted Scenes.” The Grey. Dir. Joe Carnahan. Universal, 2012. DVD.

“Feature Commentary.” Dir. Joe Carnahan, Ed. Roger Barton and Jason Helman. The Grey. Dir. Joe Carnahan. Universal, 2012. DVD.

 The Grey. Dir. Joe Carnahan. Perf. Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, and Dallas Roberts. Universal, 2012. DVD.

The Harper Collins Study Bible. Ed. Harold W. Attridge and Wayne A. Meeks. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006. Print. New Revised Standard Version.

Tolstoy, Leo. A Confession. Trans. Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude. 1921. N. pag. Minnesota State University Moorhead. Web. 2 June 2013.

Wallace, Lewis. “Survival Flick The Grey Is a Tear-Jerker for Tough Guys.” Wired. Jan. 2012. Web. 2 Jun. 2012.

Film Analysis: The Grey (2012), Part 1

The Grey movie poster
Source: Wikipedia. Copyright 2012 by Open Road Films

A month ago I took an intersession class about The Bible and Film. For three weeks we learned about film analysis and how to identify universal themes in film. It was great fun, and I enjoyed analyzing movies that I normally wouldn’t choose to watch. Our final project for the class was to write an analysis of a movie of our choosing. I had been looking for an excuse to rewatch The Grey (2012). The paper was longer than a standard blog post, so I have divided it into two posts. The following post is part one; part two will be posted Monday. Since this is an extremely existential film, this is only one way to look at the film. Ultimately, each viewer who engages with this movie will probably reach different conclusions. I would enjoy hearing other peoples’ perspectives on the movie.

Wolf at the Door: Faith, Reason, and Masculinity in The Grey (2012)

Perhaps the most divisive part of Joe Carnahan’s The Grey (2012) is the ending. In “Survival Flick The Grey is a Tear-Jerker for Tough Guys,” Lewis Wallace revealed that the audience felt the movie promised an epic showdown between John Ottway (Liam Neeson) and the alpha wolf, a battle which the movie failed to deliver. The disappointment is easy to understand. The official trailer marketed The Grey as a man versus beast, survival thriller. It emphasized men fighting to return home, and it ended with shots of Ottway preparing for one-on-one battle against a wolf. But director Joe Carnahan had other themes in mind for his movie. Carnahan places his characters in a world devoid of meaning, a world where death stalks them on all sides. Using nature as a metaphor for encroaching death, The Grey explores Ottway’s struggle for faith and purpose after deep, personal loss.

The central concept of The Grey is similar to Tolstoy’s parable of the well in A Confession. In this religious autobiography, Tolstoy told of a time in his life when he longed for God but felt proving the existence of God was impossible. He relates a parable about a traveler who is pursued by a beast. The traveler takes refuge in a well but discovers a dragon at the bottom. Stuck between the beast and the dragon, the traveler grasps a branch growing out of the wall, but he soon discovers mice gnawing on the branch. The only solace from this predicament is a few drops of honey on a leaf. Such is the plight of man, doomed to die with nothing but temporary joy for distraction. Having come to see life as such a bleak prospect, Tolstoy contemplated suicide, but he felt he was too weak to go through with it. He struggled with the contradiction of longing for a God he could not rationally bring himself to believe in (pt. IV). All the while, death continued to stalk him.

The Existential Landscape

The characters in The Grey also face death. In the film commentary, Carnahan explains that each man was injured in the crash; these injuries increased in severity as the film progressed. This is seen most clearly as Burke (Nonso Anozie) suffers from an escalating case of hypoxia. Later in the film, Diaz coughs up blood due to implied internal injuries. It is only a matter of time before these men’s bodies fail.

The men face death on another front: nature. From the first shot, director Joe Carnahan signals the immensity of nature. The camera pans across trees and mountains using a low shot. Clouds slowly drift across the shot. Wolves howl. There are no humans and no evidence of civilization. The camera cuts to an oil refinery. Pipes and smokestacks replace the trees, the mountains with buildings. Smoke replaces the clouds; the sounds of machinery replace the wolf howls. Humanity has entered the wild and now attempts to tame it. In the film’s commentary, Carnahan said that “there aren’t many industries that perpetrate the rape of the natural world like the oil company. They are intruders, interlopers. They don’t belong there.” Nature wants these men gone. After they crashed in the snow-covered stretch of the Alaskan wild, blizzard conditions continually strike the men. A wolf pack hunts the men, picking them off one at a time. In his opening monologue, Ottway says they are on “the edge of the world” and he moves like he “imagines the damned do: cursed.” This curse is death, and it is never lifted from the men. It will one day overtake these men just at it will overtake everyone. As the Teacher says in Ecclesiastes 8:8, “No one has power over the wind to restrain the wind, or power over the day of death” (Harper Collins Study Bible). It is up to each man to find meaning because death could arrive at any moment.

John Ottway, the Broken Self

Ottway and his wife in a dream.
Source: Critic’s Loft. Copyright 2012 by Open Road Films.

In the opening, Ottway makes his way past a church and stops in a bar for one last drink before he kills himself. In his voice over, he confesses that he has “stopped doing this world any real good.” He thinks about his wife (Anne Openshaw) who had died. In a shot after the plane crash, Ottway lays with his wife under a blanket. The camera is low beside him. He looks at his wife as she caresses him. She is suddenly pulled away, leaving Ottway alone in the snow. Ottway is like Job, his loved ones taken from him. Job’s words would resonate with Ottway, “Why is light given to one in misery, and life to the bitter in soul, who long for death, but it does not come, and dig for it more than for hidden treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they find the grave” (Harper Collins Study Bible, Job 3:20-22). Ottway is a man who had his anima ripped away from him. His happy ending never came, and now he longs for death.

Ottway has another problem, however. He also longs for God. His aching desire is to see his wife once again, and the afterlife is the only place this is possible. But Ottway only believes in things that are real. “I wish I could believe in that stuff,” he confesses to Talget (Dermot Mulroney) as the survivors huddle around a campfire and think about God and fate. “This is real, the cold. That’s real, the air in my lungs. Those bastards out there in the dark stalking us. It’s this world that I’m worried about, Talget, not the next.” Ottway longed for death when he was alone at the oil refinery. His only desire was to return to his wife, but his hand was stayed from pulling the trigger when he heard a wolf howl. Ottway found his purpose in the wilderness among the survivors. His purpose is keeping these men alive. He shapes the survivors into a pack. This is not a hunting pack, however, but a pack of social unity, a pack with a common goal: survival. To borrow from Camus, this is a pack united in solidarity. Ottway is their alpha. The greatest threat to their solidarity is John Diaz (Frank Grillo).

Part two will be up tomorrow.

Works Cited in Part One

“Camus.” In Our Time. Narr. Melvyn Bragg. BBC Radio 4, 3 Jan. 2008. BBC.co.uk. Web. 3 June 2013.

 “Feature Commentary.” Dir. Joe Carnahan, Ed. Roger Barton and Jason Helman. The Grey. Dir. Joe Carnahan. Universal, 2012. DVD.

 The Grey. Dir. Joe Carnahan. Perf. Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dermot Mulroney, and Dallas Roberts. Universal, 2012. DVD.

 The Harper Collins Study Bible. Ed. Harold W. Attridge and Wayne A. Meeks. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006. Print. New Revised Standard Version.

 Tolstoy, Leo. A Confession. Trans. Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude. 1921. N. pag. Minnesota State University Moorhead. Web. 2 June 2013.

 Open Road Films. “Official Trailer.” TheGreythemovie.com. Open Road Films, 2012. Web. 4 June 2013.

 Wallace, Lewis. “Survival Flick The Grey Is a Tear-Jerker for Tough Guys.” Wired. Jan. 2012. Web. 2 Jun. 2012.

Daniel Knauf’s Haunted

Sadly, I have never seen Carnivale, despite being fascinated with the cinematography. I have just never got around to watching the show. For some reason, I have done a bit of research on it and have learned two things: 1) Ronald D. Moore produced it, and I loved his work on Battlestar Galactica; 2) Carnivale has an incredibly complex mythology.

All this to say, I have peripherally kept an eye on Carnivale creator Daniel Knauf. I like his imagination. I admire his mind. And with his most-recent project, the web-film Haunted, he does not disappoint.

Primary screen for Haunted. (Source: The Verge website. Copyright 2012 by BXX LLC.

On the surface, Haunted seems to blend Ghost Hunters and the Paranormal Activity movies. The story follows a group of scientists who are investigating a haunted house. The house is due for demolition, so they only have 36 hours to conduct their investigation. They have cameras set up in all the rooms, some rooms have multiple angles. In a storytelling style reminiscent of Paranormal Activity, this is where most of the plot happens. Unlike Paranormal Activity, however, the viewer controls the images. Through the interface on the website, the viewer can select any camera at any point in the 36 hour story. Those who sign up on the website get the option of syncing the cameras so, as characters move from one room to another, you can follow them. Haunted can also be played as a game, with unlockable evidence that fills in background details on characters and events.

While lacking the depth of mythology of Carnivale, Haunted is a grand experiment. I love the creativity and the content. I applaud the cast and crew that had to work on this 36-hour, real-time film. Haunted is a proto-type for an interactive movie, and I look forward to seeing the response and evolution of this storytelling medium.

It is not perfect, however. The audio can be hard to hear. The story is not tight, due to having to wade through more than 36 hours of footage (when you add every camera angle). It isn’t feasible to have something interesting happening on every camera for every minute of the shoot. But again, this is an experiment. It is free. So if you like innovative storytelling; if you are a fan of the horror genre; if you are a fan of Daniel Knauf, check it out.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Directed by Guy Ritchie

Last week saw the U.S. release of the new Sherlock Holmes film, A Game of Shadows.  Being slightly behind the curve, I only recently saw the first movie.  In short, I didn’t like it.  Keep reading to learn why.

Sherlock Holmes: Steam-Punk Hero

Perhaps it is somewhat presumptuous to say so, but I love the character of Sherlock Holmes because I sympathize with him.  I sympathize with the tedium of everyday existence.  I understand the need to exercise the mind in a way to squeeze some sort of interest out of one’s surroundings.  I’m the type of person who spends a lot of time in his own head.  I’m happiest when I’m learning a new concept or trying to solve some sort of puzzle.  As such, I feel quite protective of the character of Holmes and Watson.  To me, the most important aspect of Sherlock Holmes is character.  To a degree, the story matters very little.  Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are not mysteries or “whodunnits”, they are adventures.  The clue is in the title.  Doyle crafted a series of stories suitable for the characters who inhabit them.  As it has been stated elsewhere, Sherlock Holmes stories are not detective stories, they are stories about a detective.  Thus, character is very important.

In Guy Ritchie’s imperfect interpretation, Watson is spot-on.  He is engaged in Victorian society.  He has a fiancee.  Jude Law plays the character to perfection.  No, what irks me so much about Guy Ritchie’s film is the character of Holmes.  His social inadequacies make him quirky.  His intellectual machinations often lead him to humorous situations.  In essence, the Holmes of this film is an intellectual idiot.  He is a bumbler who just happens to be very observant and able to put clues together.  And, being a Hollywood film, he is a good fighter.

I have no objection to the story itself.  Again, being a mystery in the style of Agatha Christie or P.D. James isn’t necessary.  An apocalyptic cult leader returning from the dead works on the fringes of the Holmes canon in much the same way the giant rat of Sumatra conjures images of the supernatural.  Doyle himself even tackled vampire lore in the Holmes canon. It is the title character himself who falls short in this adaptation.  Honestly, we don’t have Sherlock Holmes in this movie, we have “Robert-Downey-Jr.-Fresh-Off-Iron-Man-Playing-Sherlock-Holmes”.  Admittedly, as titles go, that would have been a mouthful.  This was an action film first and foremost.  Being male and having no particular attraction to Robert Downey Jr., I was unable to get past the flaws in portrayal.  As one of my co-workers advised me, I tried to think of the film as “action” rather than “Sherlock Holmes”.  But the other characters continued to call Downey “Holmes.”  I was unable to set aside my preconceived notions of who Sherlock Holmes is.  Perhaps if I had shot up on cocaine, I would have found it easier to engage with the movie.

A Review of Zardoz

This is a re-post of a review I originally wrote for the Popgun Chaos blog.  I have re-worked it a bit as I had written in response to a review of Zardoz which took the view that the movie was a bad movie. 

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ZARDOZ!!

Zardoz, when distilled to its most-basic concept, sounds absurd.  Sean Connery plays a man named Zed.  Zed lives in a post-apocalyptic society where an elite class called “Exterminators” worship a floating head named Zardoz, who gives them guns so they can hunt and kill those who breed.  One day Zed enters Zardoz and is taken to a society of immortals who are bored and want to die.  In the end, Zed brings about death.  Sean Connery wears a red speedo throughout the movie, and has a 70s Burt Reynolds mustache.  The film was directed by John Boorman, his first film after Deliverance, a movie which was a success.  Connery was fresh off the James Bond films, and still trying to get work.  Obviously Zardoz didn’t hurt his career.  It may not have helped it either.  Taking in this movie full of comatose youths, pyramids constructed from mirrors, a giant stone head, Connery’s speedos, images projected on nude bodies, a man with a Sharpie-drawn goatee, green bread, and bare-breasted women on horseback one is left to question just what everyone involved was thinking.  However, I think there is a sincerity that permeates the film.  Sean Connery plays the part straight, as if he were dressed in an Armani suit or, at the very least, something more conventional.  None of the actors give any indication that they think poorly of the material, nor do they seem to resent the parts.  In some episodes of Doctor Who, when a professional theatre actor appears on the show, it becomes apparent that they don’t quite understand the part or the story, even if they give it their best shot.  This doesn’t happen in Zardoz.  If anyone didn’t get the story, it certainly doesn’t appear on screen.

The film, while not a cinematic masterpiece, is effectively shot.  With a budget of a measly one million dollars, Boorman chose to shoot in the Irish countryside, practically in his back yard.  Even the lake where The Vortex is located is at the home of one of Boorman‘s friends.  Much was done to save money, and I personally don’t think Zardoz looks cheap.  It doesn’t look slick or polished, but it could look much worse.  In fact, I rather think for the concepts in this film, it was very effectively, if not magnificently shot.  The main problem is that what we see is, much of the time, rather unusual.  As I said above, when you actually have to explain it, or when you distill what you are seeing into words, it starts to fall apart.

So what about those words?   What is the story in detail rather than summarized?  Bear with me here because even outlined it gets a bit convoluted.  At some point in the future, the Earth began dying, her resources becoming extremely limited.  A group of scientists create arks, called Vortices, where a selected group could cultivate and protect the remnants of human culture.  The scientists had enough foresight to know that one day the Earth would be completely unsuitable for all life, and thus they unlocked the key to immortality, where upon they and their offspring could continue caretaking, but also develop a way for the Vortices to leave the Earth.  It is hinted at one point in the film that this actually happened, but there was no place for the survivors to settle.  The Vortices and immortality itself are controlled by a device called The Tabernacle.  The location and operational nature of Tabernacle was then erased from the minds of The Immortals to dissuade anyone from undoing what had been done.  The Immortals were then sealed off from the rest of the world, with all other humanity ignored outside.  Over the centuries The Immortals developed telepathic links with one another through both biology and technology.  They also eliminated the need for sleep.  Boorman also speculated that an immortal society, one that was attempting to control its own resources, would have no need for children, thus all concepts of sexuality die out in all but an intellectual sense.  As Consuela says at one point while lecturing on the concept of erection, “we know the mechanism involved, but we don’t know [how it happens]”.  A concept of sexual stimulation no longer exists.  As the centuries pass, many Immortals grow bored with their existence.  Those who refuse to cope any longer become Apathetics and enter a trance state.  Those who turn to psychic or other crimes that buck the system become forcibly aged according to the severity of the crime.  Imagine being immortally trapped in a senile body.  These people are called Renegades and spend their eternity in what appears to be a community center poorly decorated as a dancehall.  Finally, one Immortal is given charge of monitoring the population outside The Vortex.  His name is Arthur Frayn, but he travels in a floating head called “Zardoz”.  Arthur has a flair for the theatrical, and sets Zardoz up as a god.  His activities are largely unchecked, so when he and another Immortal named Friend come up with a plan to undo The Immortal Society, no one is there to stop them.

 

Please get me out of this movie.

Zardoz travels the outside world and chooses men and women to be Exterminators.  He gives them guns and tells them who to kill, which is largely anyone who breeds.  Only the Exterminators are allowed to breed.  What no one realizes is that Arthur via Zardoz is conducting genetic manipulation.  He is selecting people who will produce certain offspring.  Once the right generation has been born, an Exterminator will be chosen to enter a Vortex and that Exterminator will have abilities that allows him to resist Immortal powers and find The Tabernacle.  That Exterminator is Zed, played by Sean Connery.  Arthur began Zed’s journey by catching his attention and leading him into a library, leaving him a book that taught Zed to read.  Eventually, Zed begins to doubt Zardoz when he reads The Wizard of Oz, a book about a man who hides behind a façade and commands the lesser people.  Zed and The Exterminators formulate a plan by which Zed will infiltrate a Vortex and try to discover the truth and maybe get some revenge as well.

I feel that most Hollywood films, especially in that much-maligned genre of science fiction, are formulaic and unimaginative.  In recent years we have had very few science fiction movies that did less than offer CGI explosions and space battles.  For me, good science fiction shines light on life and the human condition, even if there are no humans in it.  I could care less for special effects.  I am a fan of old Doctor Who, after all.  Science fiction seems to have had difficulty recovering from Star Wars.  Don’t misunderstand me, I love the original trilogy, but Star Wars really changed the way science fiction films were made.  Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes, 2001: A Space Odysseywere all pre-Star Wars.  While the pace of these films wouldn’t be considered rapid by today’s standards, these films provided their own forms of action and suspense and, most important, world-building.  A science fiction film probably has to succeed in the third most of all.  World-building helps immerse us into the rules of the film so we can understand the concepts it presents to us so we can care about what happens, no matter how “other” it might be.  Before Star Wars much of this had to be done in script as well as through sets and effects.  After Star Wars, science fiction becomes more focused on action, and the world-building is left to the visual effects.  Thus, the world-building engages our eyes, but not our minds.

Just look at the pretty pictures. You don't need to think.

The concepts and world-building involved really attract me to Zardoz.  Boorman put a lot of thought into Immortal Society, and some of this comes through in the movie, some through the commentary.  As mentioned earlier, there is a sincerity on all sides of the camera.  Of course, sincerity doesn’t make a movie good art.  If it did, Ed Wood really would be one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.  Where Ed Wood fails and Zardoz succeeds is a level of technical competency and consistency.  Sure, some of the costumes in Zardoz range from unusual to ridiculous, but they are of a consistent vision.  On a technical level, Zardoz is a showcase of what one can do with visual effects with nothing more than cameras.  There are no computer enhanced shots in the entire film.  Everything was achieved on set.  From a technical standpoint, this film is impressive.  Sadly, in our current age of film, such technical achievements are not as easily appreciated because a computer could accomplish similar effects, yet do them “better“.  In many ways, Boorman praises his film for this achievement, and I agree with him that one day it would be possible to put “This film was made without computer effects” on a poster and it would be a remarkable thing.

Effects aside, how is the story itself handled?  This is a mixed bag.  While I feel that the information on the society is given out at a fair pace, some scenes are less clear than others.  First, Boorman is correct in his criticism of the scene where The Immortals connect psychically.  The problem is that he wasn’t entirely sure how to convey this on screen.  Thus we get hand motions or people mouthing what they are thinking.  In hindsight, this doesn’t work so well.  Second, some shots go on too long.  In particular, the sequence in The Tabernacle, which exhibits one of the failings of pre-Star Wars science fiction in that it is extremely trippy and not very clear from a narrative standpoint.  Another problem, or a positive depending on your view, is the nudity.  This is another trope that pre-Star Wars science fiction indulged in.  Granted, a society with no concept of sexuality would not think much of nudity, nor would it be erotic.  However, our society does consider nudity erotic, and Hollywood has often exploited this in order to attract more viewers.  How much of the nudity was necessary for the effect of the world-building, and how much was there to keep bored adolescents (or adults) entertained?

And now, for no reason, Sean Connery in a dress.

Sadly, the bottom line is that this movie doesn’t work.  It is a shame, really, as there was a genuine attempt, and not a half-hearted one.  My wife told me about a story she heard that covered The Museum of Bad Art.  In this instance, bad art is defined as art that doesn’t quite work.  Either a specific rule was ignored to the detriment of the piece, or the artist just doesn’t quite have the experience to convey the idea, but in this case bad art isn’t trash.  It is still art, just not good art.  Michael Frank, curator of the museum says, “We collect things made in earnest, where people attempted to make art and something went wrong, either in the execution or in the original premise.”  Based on this criteria, I would throw Zardoz into the pile of bad art.  It doesn’t work, but that doesn’t mean it is worthless.  It was too ambitious for the budget without a doubt.  In some places the narrative structure doesn’t quite work, and the directing occasionally fails to stand up to what it is trying to achieve.  But the world is striking and in many ways it sticks with you.  Zardoz should be hailed, not as a great film, not even as a good film, but as a work that truly tries to be original, and in many ways meets that goal.

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The quote from Michael Frank can be found here:

English, Bella. “Doing a Good Deed with Bad Art“. The Boston Globe, February 8, 2009