Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbiddenplanetposter.jpgWe’re all part monsters in our subconscious. ~ Leslie Nielsen as Commander Adams

I couldn’t help but recall Han Solo’s line about the Millenium Falcon in the original Star Wars in response to Luke’s derision. After giving his pride and joy an affectionate pat he defends her reputation like so, “She may not look like much but she’s got it where it counts.”

It seems fitting that the line is used to commend Forbidden Planet because this is the film that in many ways made science fiction what it is today. It’s almost too easy to trace the line from this film to the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek and a plethora of others. But today we’re so used to the canonical worlds of established sci-fi that Forbidden Planet might come off as quaint and a bit outmoded. Still, the film has it where it counts even today.

Forbidden Planet was also unprecedented in its day because this was no B-picture. This was A-grade entertainment and that was almost unheard of at the time for science fiction, a historically low budget genre. Leslie Nielsen is given his first starring role while Walter Pidgeon plays the scientist who greets the explorers on the surface of the planet that they were sent to investigate.

But the band of expeditioners who came before them was all but decimated by some unknown force leaving only Dr. Morbius alive (Pidgeon) along with his pretty daughter Altaira (Anne Francis) who has no grasp of what life on earth is like. Commander Adams (Nielsen) is intent on staying on the planet until receiving further instructions from earth.

Still, something doesn’t sit right. There’s something off about Altair IV. A silent, invisible adversary is oftentimes more engaging than a visual one especially when it dwells very close to home and that’s precisely what presents itself moment by moment as the narrative progresses.

From their very first touchdown, this is an incredibly eery picture which manages to carry the audience’s attention for a great deal of the movie. In fact, if this was Star Wars they would have said, “I have a bad feeling about this” at least a couple times. But equally crucial is the subsequent development of the landscape around us that’s at times utterly entrancing.

The key to the film is that everyone plays it straight and serious and in this particular case it doesn’t come off as camp. There’s a gravity to it all that’s mesmerizing even in its bits of antiquity because the world is full of grand endeavors in creativity.

The electronic instrumentation provides what is purported to be the cinematic world’s first fully atonal electric score and even today each note is unnerving to the core. Whereas the theremin has somehow entered into the realm of parody these notes still seem resonant and they perform far better than any traditional score might have in the same circumstances.

At times Forbidden Planet showcases a very simple, even austere mise en scene and other times expands to almost labyrinthian proportions. The sweeping palette photographed in Eastmancolor with CinemaScope certainly adds to its allure straight out of the 1950s while still managing to take cues from stories from centuries prior, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, being the most obvious inspiration.

While not necessarily prophetic or correct in all its assertions about space travel (as far as we can possibly know) there’s a commitment to the world and a specificity to its inner workings that makes the Forbidden Planet into a fairly immersive place — a world alternative to our own that we are able to explore and I think that’s part of its unique status as a pioneering film. Because now we are so used to worldmaking and fantasies outside the realm of Earth whether it be Star Wars or Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.

Here we see it too but it comes out of a time where most stories were human stories planted on earth or at the very least had the semblance of the reality that we know to be true here. And yet here was a narrative that dared transplant our human shortcomings to the other end of the universe in an entirely different paradigm while showing how man is his fallen nature can still make a mess of life even there. It’s a fairly powerful statement full of human psychology as much as it is about conquering new frontiers.

Robby the Robot (designed by Robert Kinoshita and the team at MGM) stands as a landmark among cinematic robots since he is his own entity as a standalone character. Far from turning on man, he’s about as useful as we might possibly think — even creating gallons of whiskey for the thirsty cook (Earl Holliman). The film was also a trendsetter in describing space travel in increments of light while miniskirts far from being a thing of the future still made a splash with 50s audiences as worn so provocatively by Anne Francis.

Through its final credits, Forbidden Planet is a special picture and that uniqueness goes far beyond its rightful place as one of the seminal explorations in science-fiction. The only thing left to say seems to be despite the iconic nature of its film poster, it has absolutely no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Still, it makes for a good piece of advertising. It must be if someone as oblivious as me is talking about Forbidden Planet over 60 years later.

4/5 Stars

Arrival (2016)

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Abbott and Costello can be placed with the most revered comic duos of the 20th century and their greatest skit revolved around a terrible miscommunication. The bit, of course, is “Who’s on First.” Whereas the “failure to communicate” found in Cool Hand Luke (1967) has more to do with our human tendency toward stubbornness and rebellion, it’s just as likely that we just don’t understand each other semantically speaking. The results can be comedic like Abbott and Costello demonstrated or they can be dire as exhibited in Arrival.

It was only later that I realized that far from being a pair of human, cultural pet names, bestowing the two aliens in this film these monikers came with a deeper resonance. There’s this recognition that hinges on the lack of an ability to communicate. What devolves is a thoroughly cognizant exploration of such dilemmas packed into a sci-fi thriller.

Imagine, there can actually be an intelligent sci-fi film about intelligent life. The themes that stood out to me concern themselves with our articulation of time and space which are also so thoroughly interlinked with language. When we actually look at the components that Denis Villeneuve has joined, we have a thoughtful effort that takes us through the minutiae of language and the mechanics of communicating with foreign life forms starting from scratch. The tension comes in not being able to decipher if they are friend or foe. Because any extraterrestrial life always delivers an element of surprise and a fear of the unknown.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistic expert and college professor who is quickly called upon by the U.S. government’s Colonel Webber (Forrest Whitaker) to examine an alien capsule that has landed in Montana. It is 1 of 12 such units discovered all over the earth. Banks is joined by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as they attempt to create a line of communication between the two heptapods they come in contact with. Ian is the one to nickname them Abbott and Costello.

What begins is a tedious process to form some sort of mutual understanding using the very building blocks of linguistics. It leads to an incremental understanding of creatures who compose their language not moment by moment but simultaneously front to back in a perfect cohesive composition that comes into being in a single moment. The goal is to get to a point where they can be asked what their purpose on earth is. Of course, that will take time and with time comes increased anxiety.

Far from being a singular endeavor, since 12 different pods have emerged, it’s an ongoing ordeal involving the entire world which adds a more complex dimension to it all. It’s not simply about navigating relations with these unidentified life forms but also coping with other countries with different ways of dealing with this tenuous situation. Not everyone is on the same page and as is often the case, fear drives action more than rationality.

Still, this paves the way for revelations and eureka moments that bend the ways we perceive the world through language and time whether linear or nonlinear. The implications are many. Because Film has often been a medium to manipulate, constrain, and contort time. But what if our very lives were defined by a different set of parameters as put in place by our very basic forms of communication? Life envisioned from start to finish. Palindromes endowed with a rich lode of meaning they never seemed to have before.

Arrival belongs to a hopeful strain of science fiction explorations that seems to look at the outer reaches of the galaxy with expectancy instead of trepidation. Instead of isolationism toward the universe at large, there’s an ardor to know what it might teach us. Instead of recoiling in fear, other life forms become helpers, not hinderers. The same could be said for the small-scale world. Progress is made when we hold onto altruistic intentions. Tools become far more vital than weapons. Everyone can thrive.

So often aliens and other lifeforms were forever depicted as horrible and dangerous beings that have come to decimate us. But rather like its forefather, Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977), Arrival seems to be more sympathetic to any life that might be out there. Ironically, by making them more human we begin to see the flaws in our own society. We are very often fearful, petty people. But we can also be capable of great expressions of love with global impact.

The film’s cinematography is marked by a distinctive washed-out palette that cloaks everyone. It’s composed of a foggy haze that far from just defining a corner of the earth seems to be emblematic of the entire world. And yet such a dour world with obscured contours is surprisingly hopeful as discovery burgeons up through its core. Because if the world around us is murky that simply means that the light is put in sharper relief. Arrival proves to be satisfying to the very last iota.

4/5 Stars

Review: Back to the Future (1985)

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Back to the Future zooms at us as a lovely mishmash of sci-fi thrills and 50s nostalgia that feels like pure happenstance. The one purported flaw, the fact that Marty McFly has no right to be in his family, is partially understandable. As Michael J. Fox wasn’t even slated to appear in the film. He was a last-minute replacement that just happened to pan out. But what a bit of serendipity it was all the same.

Without question Back to the Future clocks in as one of the most enjoyable adventures of the 1980s for delivering unadulterated audience satisfaction. It has all the great hallmarks we yearn for starting with rewarding characters, inventiveness that makes up for any corny interludes, and a pulse on what’s fundamentally entertaining.

Our introduction to the story tells us as much about Doc Brown as it does the teen rolling in on his skateboard, if not more so. Marty, the plucky kid with a penchant for rock n roll, finds Doc’s workspace in complete disarray thanks to an extended period of neglect. More on that later.

For now, the iconically cool vibe of “The Power of Love” underscores Alan Silvestri’s own cinematic orchestration on the project providing a fitting anthem for everything that is Back to the Future. McFly coasts around town on his skateboard using each passing car as his own personal lift. Rock is his main passion while his girlfriend Jennifer remains his main distraction. Meanwhile, Mayor Goldie Wilson looks to get reelected a la Nashville (1975) and Marty is accosted by locals championing the “Save the Clock Tower” campaign.

In fact, Hill Valley is a bit of a mythical city. It’s part Middle America, part fantasy, where the local principal is out to get our hero, his closest friend is a mad scientist, and he must battle against the ultimate affront of all time that he might not amount to anything just like his old man. Those are the stakes and this is the world. The perfect place for time travel. Doc in all his scatterbrained kookiness makes an appearance to introduce a DeLorean time machine into the storyline as well as the main conflict. The rest is in Marty’s hands as he whizzes away into the past.

The fact that it paints this world as a caricature as well instead of reality, far from being a weakness, becomes one of its bolstering charms. Refrains of “Mister Sandman” play throughout town. The local marques boast the star power of Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan (wink wink) in Cattle Queen of Montana (1954). Further still, the local five and dime features the tunes of Nat King Cole, Pattie Page, and of course, Tennessee Ernie Ford. Everyone gets a plug to set the scene.

A few good-natured jabs at incumbent President Reagan are also in order. After all, who could ever believe that an actor could become a president? Of course, nothing is all too surprising in this day and age. Still, the 50s via the 1980s were in many ways both simpler times. Star Wars and Van Halen. Chuck Berry and Jackie Gleason. That was the life.

It devolves into a glorious unfolding of circumstances as worlds collide and Marty’s cause begins to unravel at two ends. First, he needs to get back to the future, hence the all-encompassing title but in his haste, he accidentally tampered with the natural order of things – namely the initial meet-cute of his mother and father. It subsequently instigates one of the most awkward cinematic mother-son relationships known to mankind.

Having done irreconcilable damage to their relationship, Marty must do all he can to get his parents back on track. The problems are innumerable. Namely his mother’s infatuation with him, the dreamy out-of-towner Calvin Klein, his father’s undeniable dorkiness, and of course the bullies to end all bullies Biff. In fact, he’s been a thorn in George’s side for 30 years.

Still, with Doc’s aid (the quintessential secondary helper), Marty looks to right all that is wrong. It proves difficult as he attempts to set his parents up to attend the Enchanted Under the Sea Dance together – the fateful dance where young love kindled. Yet Marty watches his life slowly disappearing moment by moment as his parent’s union seems a slight chance at best.

With a few riffs of “Johnny B. Goode” and an imminent date with Doc at the old clock tower in town, a happy conclusion seems possible if not for the Libyan Terrorists still waiting for Doc in the future. After all, Plutonium doesn’t grow on trees and there are consequences for swiping it. Thankfully he doesn’t necessarily listen to his own advice about altering the future and Marty returns to a world that is strikingly different to the one he used to know. It’s strangely rewarding even if it does feel all too perfect in this third world.

While it becomes one of the most obvious films to shamelessly set up and plug its sequels (ultimately two other offerings), there’s no doubt that Back to the Future makes each a rewarding prospect. Not only is it boosted by a winsome performance by Family Ties favorite Michael J. Fox in a now defining role but Christopher Lloyd’s turn is equally laudable even if it easily typecast him in future tech nerd projects. There are certainly worst places to be.

Furthermore, under the tutelage of executive producer Steven Spielberg, director Robert Zemeckis became one of the great successes of the 80s and 90s with Back to the Future being yet another reason why Spielberg remained at the forefront of popular entertainment throughout the decade.

For their part, whether they like it or not Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd will remain pop culture gods in the hearts of nearly everyone. Bless them for that. Doc and Marty are as memorable now as they were back then and no doubt even years into the future. That’s right, a movie about a time-traveling DeLorean has staying power. There’s a bit of the magic of the movies for you.

4.5/5 Stars

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star_Wars_The_Last_Jedi.jpg“Let the past die.”  – Adam Driver as Kylo Ren

I left the theater feeling completely taciturn. It’s an onerous task to begin articulating all the jumbled fragments circulating through my mind but I will try my very best.  Certainly, there is a great deal to be enjoyed and to be relished about Episode VIII and you would be served well to go into The Last Jedi not searching out its faults but reveling in the successes that are there. Let it be known that there are many and Rian Johnson is a fine maker of movies as he guides us through the Resistance’s latest evasion of The First Order still up to their old business of quashing anyone who dares defy them.

True, I did not necessarily find it a narrative of revelatory reveals or epic showdowns in the vein of what I initially envisioned. However, I can see the picture separating itself from all of its predecessors — subverting the norm and drawing away from all that we knew before. That gels with much of what was said in the wake of The Force Awakens. It could not simply be another Empire Strikes Back if the new franchise was to flourish. In that regard, there’s no doubt Johnson’s film is an undisputed success building on the character arcs instigated in J.J. Abrams’ effort.

Yet my feelings are somehow conflicted.  Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) call to action to Rey (Daisy Ridley) midway through was never more pointed. “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” And that’s much of what has been done here. Not simply in a single film or to the Jedi order or the legacy of a character but in some respects to an entire franchise.

I am realizing that though I cherish Star Wars as my own, the many aspirations and fantasies of my childhood, it is a communal narrative. It might seem odd to get so thoroughly introspective but I can’t help it. Star Wars is almost inbred into my DNA.

Watching this film might topple the white knights. For one, the Jedi order as we know it. They lose much of their mythical stature that they always evoked. We already lost Han Solo and it’s little surprise that Luke and Leia (with Carrie Fisher’s passing) will most likely not be returning either. The old guard has been all but removed from their posts (with the exception of R2, C3PO, and Chewbacca though Anthony Daniels is the only other returning core cast member).

But it’s no surprise that I often savor the past — the way things used to be. That’s part of what made The Force Awakens such an enjoyable ride. There was an innate sense that this was something new, yes, but it was also squarely centered on the glories of the original trilogy. If I said it once I said it a thousand times, it was like returning to the company of old friends.

Now the old is gone and don’t get me wrong the new additions were greatly appreciated. Once more Rey (Ridley), Fin (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Issac) are indubitably winning personalities and fine action heroes. It’s easy to become immersed in their individual journeys along with the newcomers such as Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). However, that doesn’t take away my wistfulness at the conclusion of The Last Jedi.

It wasn’t even the kind of bittersweet conclusion we saw in earlier installments either but a plaintive ending without a giant climax. Harrison Ford received a venerable though tragic send off. His contemporaries not so much. There is still hope and events have been prolonged for Episode IX but not in some monumental cliffhanger fashion.

Whenever I take in a new film I am also constantly filtering it through the reference points that I already know. Obviously, Star Wars has such a vast lineage that must be sorted through but this latest film also can be read through various other archetypes. It strikes me that Luke Skywalker, the Star Wars hero I always aspired to emulate, was like Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man — waiting in the wings until he finally stepped out of the shadows.

Though I enjoyed that moment and the pure rush of adrenaline when he came back to the fore, expectations do not always correlate with reality.  Although we get to see Luke Skywalker and there are some enjoyable moments, the best of them come as all too brief reunions with his faithful astromech pal and his sister followed by a showdown with his main adversary — The nephew who turned to the Dark Side — again it was this wistful sense of an anticlimax.

We see in Luke what Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) once was at least in a visual sense. A hermit who has removed himself from society. Cloaked, bearded, and detached. But whereas Old Ben was a wise, eccentric, and even a fatherly wizard, Luke has become a world-wearied, surly misanthrope. A far cry from the man we dreamed about.

The reverberations of the past echo down in other ways too from the inciting distress signal from his sister that started him off on this cinematic adventure all those many years before and then a visitation from a furry friend.

Likewise, the final showdown is somehow more reminiscent to the archetypal lightsaber battle of A New Hope than all the fanciful epic showdowns we imagined of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker tackling every conceivable villain with his green lightsaber. The old man’s words even mirror the final lines of his late mentor (Strike me down in anger and I’ll always be with you. Just like your father).

Even briefly with lightsaber in hand facing down the greatest forces in the universe as we always thought possible in our mind’s eye, there’s a momentary catharsis. Though the full satisfaction of the moment is stripped from us. Luke is not quite how we remembered him, nay, maybe not even the same man Mark Hamill embodied all those years ago.

It does bring to mind the mythological line out of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And it’s still true of Luke Skywalker for those in the galaxy far, far away and right there he can remain a hero.

The film’s most intriguing dynamic reveals itself in the perceived connection between arguably our two most crucial characters in Rey and Kylo Ren also known as Ben Solo. But that core struggle between the two of them — literally the dissonance between the Light and Dark sides of the Force — is rudely disrupted. It’s such an ambiguous dividing line between good and evil and though it still remains, the character of Supreme Leader Snoke, equally implicated in this web comes off as little more than a ploy. All the potential grand conspiracies around it are gone in a puff of improbable smoke.

Intertwined with this is Rey’s familial identity which has been of paramount importance to everyone ever since these new pictures were conceived. It’s not so much that I minded what the revelation was (minor as it was) but it was more the fact that this bit of seemingly crucial exposition was so quickly cast aside as well. It felt once more a bit like a bait and switch — as if the Star Wars saga was somehow rewriting its own mythos in counterintuitive ways.

Maybe for once, Star Wars has become a bit more pragmatic; it has sought out realism and the things of this world more than a galaxy far, far away. Here I will admittedly contradict myself but I am not sure how to deal with this development because Star Wars was always a fantasy, always a science fiction fairy tale built out of imagination and dreams. Now it seems to be inching more and more toward the real world. Not because there are any fewer lightsaber battles or blaster fights or fewer alien species and star systems to explore, but the makeup of the new generation of characters is somehow different.

It is a pipe dream to believe that Star Wars could always be the same because it was not created in a vacuum, it is no longer George Lucases, and it has so many other parties invested in it. I for one must come to accept that. The film ends on a rather odd beat with young children getting rapt up in tales of the Last Jedi and looking off into space empowered by the hope brought by the Resistance before the credits roll. Though it felt very un-Star Wars it’s somewhat fitting given this new direction.

Hopefully, younger fans eat up this latest installment and conceive adventures and worlds of their own like I once did, feeding on the visions of the screen as fuel for countless Lego lightsaber battles and made up assaults on the enemy forces with their ragtag band of Rebel Scum. These new films don’t mean so much to me but maybe they can mean something to the current generation. Maybe that’s what they’re meant to do.

Will I see the Last Jedi again? I wouldn’t be at all surprised but unlike The Force Awakens, this isn’t so much an extension of the original trilogy. This is a breaking of the chain. This is something starkly different and it’s taken the galaxy into uncharacteristic territory.

I resolutely admire Rian Johnson for his choices because it seems like he’s made a Star Wars film that is hardly cookie cutter in nature and the fact that it will not please everyone is a marvel (no pun intended) given the usual reality that blockbusters are supposed to be easy on the eyes while hardly divisive. Though flawed, it’s a relatively bold movie in running time, in how it utilizes its characters, and ultimately how it chooses to depart from its longheld traditions. But the boy inside of me still yearns for the Luke Skywalker of my youth as naive as that might sound. I suppose I’ve never been much of a realist.

4/5 Stars

Blade Runner: 2049 (2017)

Blade_Runner_2049_poster.pngThe finest compliment that can be paid to Blade Runner 2049 is that it is indubitably the most enigmatic film I have seen in ages. Typically, that’s newspeak for a film that probably deserves multiple viewings, because its intentions, much like Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982) are not always clearly laid out. Especially in this day and age when we often expect things to be given to us and our hands to be held as an audience.

For that very reason, those who admired the original will potentially find a worthy successor in Denis Villeneuve’s rendition but this cult franchise might be hard-pressed to convert a new fanbase. Because while the greatest cinematic achievements are often equally artistic endeavors and continually entertaining, Blade Runner is worthy of the former while still lacking the kind of visceral fun that will grab hold of a new generation.

Still, there’s a necessity to draw up a distinction between faulty pacing and a film that is completely comfortable moving at the pace it deems important. The film paints in panoramas and epic strokes that the Ridley Scott’s original simply could not manage. Though perhaps more importantly, it did develop a cyberpunk, tech-noir aesthetic that created a new template for so many future projects.

The veteran cinematographer and Villeneuve favorite, Roger Deakins, produces visual splendors of the first degree with his own brand of photography. They are the kind of immaculate frames where shot after shot can be admired each one on its individual merit as if perusing a vast gallery of paintings. One important key is that oftentimes we are given enough time to take them in without frenetic editing completely cannibalizing the pure joy of a single image.

It can similarly be lauded as not merely a piece of entertainment for thinking people but a piece of visual art and a philosophical exploration. That last point will come up again later.

But it’s also quite easy to liken this installment to George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road (2015) which was able to provide a facelift to its material by successfully expanding the world that had been built in the original Mad Max trilogy. Likewise, this movie maintains much of the integrity of its predecessor by seeing the return of several cast members, screenwriter Hampton Fancher, and even Ridley Scott to a degree as executive producer.

Our story in this addition begins with a new model of replicants, Nexus-9, who are used as the current force of blade runners as well as other more menial duties. Among their ranks is K (Ryan Gosling) an officer assigned by his boss at the LAPD (Robin Wright) to track down the last remaining rogue models of “skin jobs” still surviving.

Simultaneously the Tyrell Corporation has been replaced by a new organization led by a visionary named Wallace (Jared Leto) who has aspirations to create an even more magnificent android in search of true perfection of the human form. He’s also very much interested in a mysterious discovery that K makes while performing his duties.

Wallace sends out his henchwoman (Sylvia Hoeks) to do his recon for him. Meanwhile, K travels far beyond the metropolis of Los Angeles with its unmistakable imagery full of Coca-Cola ads, Atari game parlors, and countless women walking the streets looking to pick someone up.

It’s comforting to know that my home away from home, San Diego, has been turned into a giant rubbish heap while Las Vegas looks more like the Red Planet than any earthly locale though still strewn with the remnants of the strip’s sleaze. If we ever took for granted that this is an apocalyptic world then we don’t anymore.

In keeping with the integrity of the picture and the curiosity of the viewers, it’s safe to say that Edward James Olmos makes his return as Gaff still partaking in his origami-making ways though his subject matter has changed slightly. And of course, the man everyone has been waiting for, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is of crucial importance that becomes at least a little bit more clear as K progresses in his search for concrete answers. The cornerstone of the story is, of course, Deckard’s beloved Rachael and the life of anonymity he has taken up since his retirement as a blade runner.

But until its very last frame Blade Runner 2049 feels cryptic and mesmerizing in a powerful way. The narrative is so expansive and grandiose making it questionable whether or not the film is able to maintain a cohesive core with a singular purpose but some potentially profound ideas are undeniable.

Plenty of spiritual imagery courses through it and hardly by accident. An almost Christ-like birth of a supernatural nature remains at its center and what we can presume to be several very conscious references to the book of Galatians —  a letter that not only tackled the so-called “fruits of the spirit” but Gnosticism or the idea that the Creator was a lesser divinity (not unlike Wallace).

Upon reflection, I’m still partial to the original because while both films grapple with the dividing line between the human and the non-human, the first Blade Runner came from a human perspective and that’s even in how it was shot and the technology of the time. It looks like our world, dark, dank, and gritty as it may be.

But in this narrative, while a further extension of that same world much of what we know is in question and it hardly feels like we are taking on a human point of view anymore but we are put in the place of a replicant — an android — even if he has a desire to be human. And again, that lack of humanity reveals itself in the very frames of the film full of unfathomable sights acting at times like a tomb-like mausoleum– so bleak and austere and cavernous.

That is to say that the original even in its darkness still managed to have a soul in the incarnation of Deckard. This picture though trying so desperately to do likewise feels even more detached. It, in some ways, brings to mind Gosling’s Drive character who was very much the same. And yet the other side still deserves some acknowledgment because there is an underlying sense that K does evolve into a more sympathetic individual as time passes. The case can be made that he is the most human.

Going beyond that, it’s also an exploration of how the world is saturated with sex and probably even more so than its predecessor. There’s a particularly unnerving scene where a man tries to combine fantasy with physical intimacy in a way that feels all too prevalent to our future society and consequently it brings up similar themes to Her (2013).

Even in such a future, it’s comforting to know that Presley and Sinatra live on in the hearts and the minds of the populous though that reassuring truth cannot completely overshadow the myriad of issues still to be resolved.

The final irony remains, the problems do not begin with the replicants themselves but in the hearts and souls of mankind. I see that central complexity of the film very clearly reflected in the two iconic objects. One an origami unicorn, the other a wooden horse.

Because we can read into the first if we want to as an indication that Deckard is a replicant and we can see the latter as confirmation that K is, in fact, human and yet on both those accounts we might be gravely mistaken. It comes downs to our own personal perceptions. Whether these beings were “born not made” or vice versa.

It gives more credence to the assertion that the eyes remain the window to the soul. That is never truer than in Blade Runner a film that fittingly opens with a closeup of an eye — the ambiguity established in the first shot. As K notes later, he’s never retired something that was born. Because “to be born means you have a soul.”

Of course, that razor-thin dividing line can be very difficult to dissect completely and that’s Blade Runner 2049 stripped down to arguably its most perplexing issue. Could it be true that an android could act with far more humanity than any human? The verdict might well be out far longer than 2049.

4/5 Stars

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

GotG_Vol2_poster.jpgI find that my own life was greatly influenced by my father during my most formative years, in particular in the realm of music. I grew up on the classics of the ‘60s. But there’s that juncture in time perhaps during middle school where you begin to branch out and you latch onto other sounds for some inexplicable reason. And it doesn’t have to be modern artists but even those who your parents never imparted to you. That is to say that “Brandy” by Looking Glass is such a song for me. I loved it the first time I heard it and not on any provocation of my parents. I consider it one of my own personal favorites.

Thus, when Guardians of the Galaxy opens in Michigan in 1980 “Brandy” blaring on the radio of a sleek convertible I resonate with the moment. The man and the woman are unknown to us but that familiar Dairy Queen Middle America matched with that paradoxically joyfully melancholy love song pulled me into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in an instant.

In this way, the film still plays to its strengths namely a retro vibe that’s in perfect cadence with the tongue in cheek tone and explosive sci-fi storyline. Writer-Director James Gunn is back in the driver’s seat delivering his expected riff off the Marvel blockbuster that at this point is both irreverent and violent with persistent zingers and mild touches of heart. It’s the kind of entertainment that will easily find a broad audience because once more he delivers the goods while simultaneously making light of them. We generally like him for not taking his subject matter too seriously, even if sometimes it, ironically, feels like the story dips too quickly into melodrama.

Still, at its core is a misfit hero that we love to cheer for in Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). This film examines in greater depth his own identity as a part human part spaceman. He’s still reeling in the shadow of his mother’s death many years ago and then he meets the man purported to be his father (Kurt Russell) the charismatic Ego.

Meanwhile, there are his other relationships to be parsed through and in many ways, they get pushed to the fringes. Baby Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel) definitely ups the cute factor and Rocket (Voiced by Bradley Cooper), as well as Yondu (Michael Rooker), are there to play their crusty curmudgeon roles that nevertheless are given a bit of definition. We like them better by the film’s end as might be expected just as we are made to consider the dynamic between Gamora and her vengeful sister Nebula.

So Guardians is not only grounded by Walkman and classic tunes and a very human sense of humor but these relational moments. True, they’re not played out to the best degree as Quill tries to figure out his “Sam and Diane” thing with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) or reconcile his feelings for his father but that’s okay. 

My only qualms are the fact that sometimes Gunn seems to play too much into the jokes and tries to delve into the conflict too quickly so it comes off a little shoddy. The laughs are funny initially and the drama compels us at first but at times Guardians seems to stretch itself too far tonally. It was not meant to do that much.

But the characters are still an endearing ragtag band of misfits, the music is spot on (IE. Sam Cooke, Glenn Campbell, Electric Light Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac, etc.), and there are some purposeful references to Cheers, Mary Poppins, and Night Rider that come off wonderfully as nods to a bygone era and an earth that we know and love. Brandy’s place at the center of the film’s narrative helps in in the nostalgia department as well. Whereas, in a film like The Martian you get the sense that disco was considered a cool addition, in Guardians music is often so closely tied to the storyline and the tones created in each scene visually. It uses its soundtrack incredibly well. 

An interesting caveat is the fact that in the rather unexpected arena of a superhero film, spiritual issues are briefly touched on. Namely ideas of a god complex, this idea of paneverythingism as coined by Francis Schaeffer, and even the idea of duality of persons compared to a trinity. It’s all perfectly introduced to us as we enter Ego’s creation with the sounds of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” wafting over the landscape.

Even if it only scratches the surface we are in some small ways asked to consider the true purpose of man, a being that while fallen is certainly meant to live in fellowship with others. What that’s supposed to look like is another issue altogether. If that’s a little too heady then there’s enough anarchy and joyous eye candy to fall back on. Enough said.

3.5/5 Stars

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

film1956-invasionofthebodysnatchers-originalposterBody Snatchers works seamlessly and efficiently on multiple fronts, both as science fiction and social commentary. Don Siegel helms this film with his typical dynamic ease putting every minute of running time to good use. The screenwriter, Daniel Manwaring, put together perhaps one of the greatest political allegories ever penned and, on the whole, it’s a  taut thriller combining sci-fi and horror to a tee.

It’s a wonderful bit of ethos that our main hero Miles Bennet (Kevin McCarthy) is a well-respected doctor, a genuine guy who over time gets transformed into a blubbering paranoid mess. It begs the question. What would evoke such a change in this man? Because it’s true. When he starts out he seems immeasurably chipper. Shrugging off a euphemistic “trip to Reno” and the subsequent alimony as if it were nothing. His practice is well-respected and his old beau, the beautifully elegant Becky Driscol (Dana Wynter) has returned to their idyllic town of Santa Mira, California.

The film’s amiable leads are able to suggest chemistry in only a matter of minutes. And though Wynter hardly seems indicative of a small town girl, it’s strangely of little consequence. While their relationship is integral to the narrative it’s only suggestive of the broader issue at hand — this epidemic of mass hysteria that slowly ingratiates itself on the small town.

It’s a systematic takeover — a silent killer– that runs city deep from the farmers to the police and everyone else in between. It comes slowly at first, only evident from a few seemingly incidental cases of psychological duress and odd coincidence. Dr. Bennet has sick patients leave messages with him frantically asking for help, only to reverse their pleas for help later. Then Wilma insists her Uncle Ira isn’t the same. There’s something different about him that she can’t quite put a finger on. The same goes for a young boy who repeatedly runs away from home insisting his mother isn’t his mother.

Once more Dr. Bennet finds the behavior odd but isn’t ready to come to a conclusion on it. But the epidemic continues and pretty soon Miles and Becky are horrified to find a faceless body at the residence of their close friends. It’s at this point where the full-blown hysteria begins to deluge them as well.

They must fight to stay awake as they try and get to the bottom of this nefarious scheme. But that’s precisely it. These alien lifeforms are using human seed pods to duplicate and replace people. For all intent and purposes, they look, move, and talk exactly the same. But perhaps the most telling human characteristic is absent. Their sense of feeling. Their emotions.

And as Miles and his girl frantically flee the invasion it continues to become more and more obvious that this paranoia-filled chiller is putting a voice to the anxiety of the age. Both in Hollywood and elsewhere. Both because of the Red Scare and the backlash caused by Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. Because that was the fear. That the Communists were infiltrating us. We couldn’t see them. We couldn’t weed them out because they were too well concealed. But another horror brought up by this film are the implications of having those you know and love turn against you and betray you.

All of that is in this film whether you want to acknowledge or not. But on a more cursory level, it certainly delivers on the horror and it’s the best kind of horror that’s not so much popping out at us. In those cases, the scare soon dies. It’s gone. But in the case of Body Snatchers, the horror is much more insidious as it burrows further and further into our brains. It has us unsettled from the first frame and it does not subside really until the film is over. Even with a “happy” ending, that cannot fully neutralize the impact of this 50s classic.

4.5/5 Stars

 

Solaris (1972)

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Now I can finally say that I have entered the cinematic world of Andrei Tarkovsky and I am better for it. Solaris somehow traces the lines of a paradox rather remarkably. It’s a sprawling epic of nearly 3 hours and yet hardly ever feels overlong. It moves through its rhythms contemplatively but never feels too slow. And though it’s a sci-fi story, it never loses sight of its human components which remain its guiding light to the end.

To Tarkovsky’s credit, he’s able to retain the film’s continual ability to mesmerize again and again and he never lets up. I know for certain viewers this will be dull monotony–even for me at times–but for others, it’s pure magic. Repeatably fascinating for both its enigmatic mysteries and revelations. Because it delivers both up willingly to the engaged viewer.

Like any master painter, Tarkovsky begins the film by laying down his base coats. We’re introduced to enigmatic psychologist Kris Kelvin while simultaneously accustoming ourselves to the director’s naturalistic imagery — glossy and distinct. It’s in these opening moments at the home of his father back on earth where the audience gains more insight and Kris prepares himself to mount a journey to the space station orbiting the planet Solaris. Only three crew members still survive there and the psychologist is being sent to check in on them and continue to expand the reaches of human knowledge. That’s the idea at least.

However, when Kris gets to the space station it’s far from welcoming, austere and dilapidated thanks to poor upkeep. Now only two crew members remain, the curiously odd Dr. Snaut and the cold cynic Dr. Sartorious. Both men will give Kris very little information about the general state of affairs. And he only learns later that his colleague Gibarian committed suicide for some inexplicable reason.

But the film enters its most perplexing stages when Kris receives a visit from a mysterious woman — her name is Hari and for reasons unknown to us, Kris is very close to her. And his emotional state from that time forth is constantly being manipulated by the presence of this special visitor. He’s frightened of her. Then in love and completely devoted to her well-being. And despite the adamant insistence of his colleagues, he will not believe her to be an apparition. He holds onto the fact that this woman in front of him who is constantly self-destructive and in the same instance totally devoted to him, is the woman he knows and loves. But the question is not so much whether or not that is true, but what Kelvin will do with all that has been thrust upon him as a result.

On the whole, Solaris is a visual treat but not due to grandiose visions of space.  Instead, Tarkovsky blends color and sepia footage into a patchwork while juxtaposing the environmental beauty of underwater vegetation with the dour interiors of the space station. And the suspension of disbelief is maintained through the use of simple special effects and the underlying fact that this film is not really reliant on pyrotechnics of any kind. It’s about people. An equally remarkable observation is the fact that Tarkovsky seems to be self-assured enough to have his characters play their roles with relative restraint. Numerous times they face away from the camera. In other films, directors would be afraid of such a tactic, but here it only works to heighten the amount of intrigue.

It’s a philosophical and psychological study that happens to take place on a space station. And that’s really like any of the great sci-fi movies of our times. They’re not really about science-fiction or technology or robots or any of that. They’re only another mode to tell the most human of narratives even in the outer reaches of the galaxy or in futuristic worlds.

It’s also highly reductive to call this Tarkovsky’s 2001. In deference to both films really. In fact, the director did not see Kubrick’s film until well afterward and I think I too would side with his conclusion that 2001 is a little bit too “sterile.” While 2001 is a decidedly grand narrative of exploration and technological advancement, you can easily make the case that Solaris is a film most precisely about the incredibly human emotion of love. Although it’s also about the human search for some kind of truth much in the same way as its predecessor, it’s also far more personal. Solaris feels more intimate and true — perhaps even more closely tied to some of Ridley Scott’s themes in Blade Runner. Particularly his examination on what exactly separates man and machine when they share striking similarities.

As far as sound goes, there is a score to Solaris, but Tarkovsky only utilizes it at the precise moments, more often than not foregoing typical music for either electronic distortions or perhaps even more boldly complete silence. He also gives nods to the great Flemish master Pieter Bruegel using his work in the set designs inside the space station.

Truthfully, it’s easy to peg Solaris as a pessimistic movie but it’s as preoccupied with morality as it is with the pursuit of knowledge. It’s as much about the innate human desire for love as it is psychological torment. And its ending strikes a note of poignancy and bitter despair in the same instance.  But if you want profound cinema that stays with you and marinates in your mind then look no further. I will certainly be returning to Tarkovsky sooner rather than later.

5/5 Stars

E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

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I remember the first time seeing  E.T. and enjoying it immensely, though it never floored me. I felt the same thing this time around for no particularly justifiable reason. Good but, in my estimation, not great, whatever that means because those terms are equally murky. Still, the fact that there had been little change in some ways made me feel uneasy. What was I not seeing?

But then thinking about it more I latched on to this idea that made me appreciate E.T. far more than I had before. Like an epiphany, it came to me what this film really is. It’s a childlike fantasy full of personal notes from a director who just happens to be Steven Spielberg. That’s not much of a discovery, but the implications are great.

The story of young Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his chance encounter and befriending of E.T. is rather like a boy and his dog story. Except both characters are going through almost parallel situations and Spielberg takes it to the literal extreme. They actually feel each other in a sense. They are perfectly empathetic towards one another.  With E.T. the motives are most obvious. His ultimate goal is to “phone home” so that he might be reunited with those that he calls family. For Elliott, it’s also about home. His home life is a bit fragmented with a father who is vaguely mentioned to be in Mexico (although that’s probably not the case) and siblings who quarrel like siblings usually do.

However, it also struck me how this family really does care about each other. Little Gerty –a beyond memorable Drew Barrymore–is the quintessential 5-year-old sister. First frightened of, then intrigued by and finally faithfully devoted to E.T. And the older brother Michael teases his siblings as has always been the case since the beginning of time but he too invests himself in this adventure. Certainly, it’s out of charity towards this visitor from outer space but it’s undoubtedly also an extension of the affection he has for his little brother.

It’s also peculiar that almost all the secondary characters are very ill-defined and the antagonistic forces attempting to impede E.T. and Elliott are even vaguer. At first, this felt wrong in some regards– a potential sign of poor storytelling. But once more I was brought back to the unmistakable idea that this film really is a boyhood dreamscape. This is Elliott’s story and if it’s Elliott’s story, it’s even more so Spielberg’s own meditation on adolescence and his own childhood. The narrative is even said to have been inspired by his own imaginary friend as a child and his own dealings with a split household. And there’s also a hint of the Wizard of Oz here. There’s no place like home.

Thus, what becomes undeniably important is this dynamic relationship between this boy and his newfound friend who just happens to be from outer space. It’s quite simple. It’s childlike really. And that is and forever will be the beauty and allure that comes from this film. Families can watch it. Kids can marvel at it. Parents can soak it up. Because just as it is about a family–dysfunctional as they may be in their suburban life–it is also for families.

There’s the sheer mayhem of the shrimpy kid grabbing a kiss from the pretty girl in class as hordes of frogs hop by. The iconic magic of Elliott and his friends soaring through the sky on their bicycles, John Williams’ score dancing majestically in the background again and again. Even the fact that this extra-terrestrial goes from death to life is strikingly analogous to the archetypal biblical narrative that permeates our culture. It’s all spectacularly remarkable but rather than be skeptical we acknowledge it with almost wide-eyed wonderment, accepting it, accepting these people that we meet. And watching E.T. ascend back into the atmosphere with true awe.

I find it fascinating that only a few years earlier Spielberg was inspired to put Francois Truffaut in Close Encounters. In E.T. I see his closest approximation of the French director’s own thematic elements. To put it in terms of homage. E.T. is Spielberg’s version of 400 Blows, granted featuring space aliens, Star Wars, cultural references and so on, but they’re not all that different. They really are about the same core issues. It takes until after 400 Blows for Antoine Doinel to find love and intimate relationship with his wife. For Elliot, it comes with family, his brother and sister, and mother, and of course, with E.T. This is what has a lasting impact on Elliott and I could guess, with Steven Spielberg as well. But the audience gets to be a part of it too, an equally important  piece in this trinity.

4.5/5 Stars

Rogue One (2016)

Rogue_One,_A_Star_Wars_Story_poster.pngFor so many, there is a deep connection to Star Wars that started at an early age. As I have alluded to on numerous occasions, I am no different. And if I feel that way about even the prequels, it’s exponentially greater for the original trilogy, as I can imagine it is for legions of others. Thus, when I watch Rogue One I do not linger on its shortcomings, though they most certainly exist, instead, I’m fixated on that very same suspension of disbelief that overtakes me every time I enter that world, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

If Rogue One had been an unredeemable, thoroughly bad film I would have been the first to say so. Perhaps it sounds crazy (or to fans maybe not so much) but I am deeply protective of Star Wars. I only want fanservice if it’s logical, fits the parameters of the world, and so on. I’m not a voracious fact checker of every Star Wars Wookieepedia page known to man and yet I might as well be. I was one of those who was deeply defensive when Disney looked to shake up George Lucas’s original canon. Though I digress…

But even as it stands as a mediocre story with vague contours at times, Gareth Edward’s Rogue One is propelled by fun characters, space opera entertainment, and, of course, A New Hope nostalgia. For those very reasons, it’s invariably easy to lend a heavy dose of grace to this standalone entry. And that’s what I will do.

We are introduced to Jyn Erso at an early age which gives context to her later exploits. In fact, when the story flashes forward after traumatic beginnings she (Felicity Jones) is a prisoner — not on behalf of the Rebel cause — and she has no plan to help the Rebels anytime soon. But in this way, she becomes one of their unassuming champions receiving news from her father (Mads Mikkelson) that the Death Star must be destroyed and she must spread the word.

It leads her to join forces with Rebel scoundrel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his sarcastic droid co-pilot K2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). The bottom line is that all the various trips to planets and skirmishes with the Empire lead to a final showdown on the planet of Scariff where the ragtag group of Rebels lands a sneak attack on their unsuspecting enemy led by Imperial Director Krennic (Ben Mendelson). Meanwhile, a space battle erupts in the skies above and Jyn looks to transmit the vital plans to the Death Star before it is too late — so that hope might live on in the galaxy — and she does.

Not surprisingly, Rogue One has its share of callbacks involving the likes of Ponda Baba, Mon Mothma, and Bail Organa all returning to the Star Wars cinematic universe. And unused footage from the original film of Gold Leader exchanging callsigns is repurposed in the final offensive sequence as well. Although Grand Moth Tarkin and Princess Leia (the late Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher returning from 1976) somehow look like carbon copies of their prior selves, they nevertheless sound vaguely different, giving off this peculiar sensation that they are CGI constructions and not the real thing. Still, it’s a remarkably impressive piece of work.

Obviously, the main objective of Rogue One is simple from a narrative perspective. The Rebels must obtain the plans to the Empire’s Death Star because without those, A New Hope would not be possible. But in order to get there, there are other necessary outcomes that feel a touch more suspect. I can see the need for finding Jyn’s father since his work is so critical to the Rebellion’s objective. However, the idea of a main switch to open up communication, her father’s hologram, Jyn’s final push to broadcast the vital schematics by reaching an antenna, and yes, even Kyber crystals, all seem like easy fixes to explain away the need for certain plot outcomes. I am, however, still trying to come up with an explanation how that is any different than the Force, aside from the very fact that its balance is crucial to the entire galaxy. I’ll get back to you on that one…

Furthermore, the idea of hope comes center stage in Rogue One. In fact,  even despite the influences of eastern monism, Star Wars’ mythology reminds me of the Biblical text that reads like so, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” The same could be said of the Rebels. And people might scoff but in its resolution, the film even takes a page out of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. That’s what makes this idea of hope so important because there could very easily be none at all with so much death and destruction.

My loyalty towards the franchise (more so than DC or Marvel or Star Trek) makes me also fear the continued mechanization of this world into a continuing box office cash cow. With film after film, story after story, it’s indubitable that Star Wars too will lose its allure. It will be run into the ground or become besmirched by some egregious plot hole, discontinuity, or for some far worse fates like the return of another Jar Jar Binks.

That is my major concern with Rogue One because with the absence of an opening crawl, what it really did was signal a changing of the times, a new seed has been planted as the extended Star Wars universe continues to germinate and grow. Time will indicate if it flourishes or sucks all the nutrients out of the vibrant creations that were given so much vigor by the likes of George Lucas, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, John Williams, and so many others. Only then will we see if this franchise is one with the force and the force is in it. Because with so many films, it’s difficult not to falter. Being both critical and an avid fan, I care all the more deeply about its fate. But for the time being, enjoy Rogue One and afterward slip in A New Hope again to be reminded exactly why Star Wars remains a cultural landmark.

4/5 Stars