Tuesday, September 11, 2012

House Stark Direwolf Cross Stitch

My little direwolf is not exactly photogenic yet with all the strings and shit hanging off, but he'll look pretty killer once I find a Winterfell- reminiscent frame for him, right? I found the direwolf on HBO's site (as well as the other sigils, get ready for some kick-ass dragons, lions, and stags after this one) and the surrounding pattern was just on a cross-stitch site;

I feel as though the Starks would approve.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, episode 6, House of the Rising Sun

House of the Rising Sun
Events: At the beach, there is an incident between Jin and Michael; Jin attacks, unprovoked, first punching his face repeatedly and then nearly drowning him as Walt looks on, horrified. Sayid and Sawyer break up the fight and handcuff Jin to a piece of plane wreckage, but as Jin and Sun don't speak English, no one can determine what happened between the two men or why. Jin seems defiant and even unstable after being restrained, but through Sun's flashbacks we see that he was once a gentle, tender man, and a very devoted partner.
Meanwhile, Jack, Kate, Locke, and Charlie head for the caves to get water; Charlie upsets a beehive while trying to get himself a fix of heroin. After runnning from the bees, Jack and Kate stumble upon two skeletons inside the caves, one with two rocks in his pocket, one is light, one is dark. Jack takes the rocks and hides them from Locke, who christens the remains, "our very own Adam and Eve."

Later, when Charlie tries again to sneak away for a fix, Locke stops him and takes the stash but helps him find his lost guitar. When Jack starts to relocate people from the beach to the caves, Sayid, Sawyer, and Kate stay behind.
After exhaustive efforts to find out why Jin attacked Michael, Sun approaches Michael near the jungle and speaks to him in perfect English. Through further flashbacks it is revealed that Jin worked for Sun's father, the work he did was all-consuming and violent, and that she had planned to leave him the day they boarded the flight in Sydney, but ultimately didn't. Sun explains to Michael that Jin attacked him because he was wearing a watch that had belonged to her father, which Michael had innocently picked up on the beach. When Michael scoffs, she says, pleadingly, "You don't know my father."
Greater Meaning: Toward the end of the episode, when Kate inexplicably refuses to move from the beach to the caves, Jack is confused and frustrated. He asks, "How did you get this way?" And while certainly not without his own complexities, Jack (and his question) makes an important point at this stage of the show, and not just regarding Kate. Many of the survivors have issues, problems, and this episode does a great job of uncovering them without seeming overwhelming. It would be easy to just completely write Jin off as a violent, reactionary man if we didn't see that he had once been quite the opposite. Michael might seem like an uninvolved, impatient father and Walt a defiant, annoying child had we not been shown little bits of their histories. And Sun could indeed have been marginalized as a stereotype, a wet rag of a wife, but the writers make sure to show us that she really wasn't. As the episode opens, Sun looks from group to group, understanding every word being spoken but unable to react or participate because of her secret. Whatever happened in her marriage during her husband's employ with her father was significant enough for her to learn English, privately, and to want to leave Jin; what happened between them? How did any of them "get this way?"
Did Old Man Shephard send the beehive, too?
On a different note, those skeletons in the caves? Clear evidence that not only were there other people there before the crash survivors (in the place where Jack's father's clinking ice led Jack to find water) but that there is some connection, even if it's merely aesthetic, to Locke's backgammon explanation from the pilot episode or by association, any game where two opponents face each other. Already there seems to be a division forming on the island and a fair amount of hostility between camps and decisions: Sayid, Kate, and Sawyer on the beach, Jack, The Kwons, and Hurley in the caves. Is this how civilizations form? The beach group still hopes to be rescued while the cave group is "digging in," or as Sayid said, "admitting defeat." Live together, die alone? Not quite there yet.

Further Questions
1. Who were "Adam and Eve?"
2. What were the black and white rocks about?
3. What does Sun's father do?
4. How did Jin get blood all over him?
5. How does Locke know so much about nature?
6. What are Kate's trust issues?
7. Will Locke choose the beach or the caves?

Monday, August 20, 2012

Stallone and company better than ever in The Expendables 2

Good men get better with age. Good action stars even more so.

Sylvester Stallone together with director Simon West has achieved the near impossible with the sequel to his blockbuster action film, The Expendables--not only is it a successful second installment, but a film so remarkable in its own right that there's just no beating it. This is all the bad ass you've ever dreamed of, and more, too.
The film works wonderfully in that it's good writing, great visual storytelling, and above all, fun. This is an incredibly violent story, but done in an unapologetic way that revels in its excess; bad guys aren't just shot, they're shot, stabbed, and occasionally run over, all at once. In one of the early scenes where Jet Li suddenly finds himself unarmed inside a kitchen full of attackers, the fight simply shifts from guns and knives to pots and pans, each metallic bludgeon sounding more like a carefully composed percussion solo than a man fighting for his life. Gamers, are you watching? They're doing all this for real.
Also good for laughs is the continual self-reflexive stand the film takes in not only assembling basically every action star from the eighties onto one screen ("Who's next, Rambo?" one asks another in the midst of an all-out battle) but in that these guys know each other, they know the tag-lines, and they've all seen each others' films (clearly crafted by a screenwriter who knows his film history). The fight choreography is nothing short of amazing, especially in Jason Statham's scenes, and attention to little details like props ("Knock, Knock," on a tank's cannon among other choice stenciled phrases) and classic music ("Crystal Blue Persuasion,")--extremely well done. This stuff made for a literally smashing experience.
Ironic, isn't it? Best-selling books are getting less cerebral while action films get smarter? Keep 'em coming, Sly, keep 'em coming.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, episode 5, White Rabbit

(clink, clink)

White Rabbit

Events: Through young Jack's flashback, we learn that he got beat up after coming to another boy's defense at school, and despite being warned that it would happen, Jack stubbornly did it anyway. As his father relaxes in his den and clinks the ice in his lowball, he shares a story about a child's surgery with Jack and then imparts the following advice on his son: Don't try to save everyone, because when you fail, you just don't have what it takes. Jack's father, in contrast, has what it takes; he washed his hands after the child died on his operating table, came home, watched Carol Burnette, and had a drink, all easily, and with a clear conscience.

On the island, Jack rushes out into the ocean where both Boone and another woman are struggling. He can only save one person at a time; he chooses to save Boone, and the woman dies. As tensions mount over the woman's death, Claire's weakness, and the exhausted water supply, Jack once again catches a glimpse of the man he saw before, (which turns out to be his father) but Kate assures him he's hallucinating from sleep deprivation. After chasing the man into the jungle, Jack stumbles over a cliff and dangles for a moment before being rescued by John Locke, who apparently knew just where to find him. The two have a conversation about what Jack is chasing, which Locke calls "the white rabbit," and before departing, Locke urges Jack to find what he's looking for so he can effectively lead the people. Echoing his father's words from the flashback, Jack says, "I don't know how to help them. I'll fail. I don't have what it takes."

"Crazy people don't think they're crazy."
Through more flashbacks we see that Jack was sent to Sydney by his mother to bring back his father, and that there had been some sort of falling out between the two men, as Jack hadn't spoken to him in two months. As it turns out, the elder Doctor Shephard, in a drugged or drunken condition, suffered a heart attack in Sydney; Jack cries as he identifies the body and then again as he sits alone by a campfire, remembering it. The image of his father doesn't return but through the sounds of ice clinking in a glass, something leads Jack to a water source, where he finds the coffin that should have held his father's body, empty.
Greater Meaning: Isn't it strange, seeing someone with intelligence, status, and leadership abilities, struggling with a confidence problem? The bigger issue here is that Jack is flawed, just like the rest of us! And through having everyone second-guess his choices on the island ("who appointed you our savior?") Jack relives his own father's lack of confidence and suffers for it again and again. The episode is important, not only for what it explains about Jack's history but in that it shows us just how unfair we can be to our leaders, who are human beings, too. Jack's departure from the beach shows that the survivors are lost without him; or as Locke explains in the jungle, "they need someone to tell them what to do." Jack answers back, "I'm not a leader." But he is! Locke, a bit older and clearly more comfortable on the island, suggests that everything that has happened to them has happened for a reason. What is Jack's reason, is he being tested? And how does his father's undervaluing his sensitivities factor into everything else that's happening?
There are overwhelmingly huge references to religion in this episode, and instead of piecing them together in effort to overexplain (or perhaps ruin) future happenings in the narrative, we'll just leave it at that. Should you be interested in the similarities, you can check out Wikipedia and get your geek on over there.

Further Questions:
1. What did Jack do? ("you don't get to say 'I can't,' not after what you did.")
2. Is the man in the suit really Jack's father?
3. What were all those creepy dolls by the water?
4. Why is the coffin empty?
5. Why doesn't "the monster" find Jack in the valley?
6. Does Claire ever find a hairbrush?
And is there more to Sun than meets the eye? Join me next week for House of the Rising Sun.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, episode 4, Walkabout

Events: Opening with a repeat look at the crash, this time from John Locke's perspective, the episode is exciting and busy with a lot of reveals. As the survivors first struggle with what they fear is another encounter with the "jungle monster" in the plane's fuselage (it turns out to be wild boars) they realize that beyond supernatural concerns, they have two very concrete, immediate problems: there are dead bodies everywhere and food has run out. Jack suggests they burn the bodies inside the fuselage to create a rescue signal; John Locke, armed with practical knowledge and about twenty specialty knives, volunteers to hunt the boar for food. Through Locke's flashbacks we learn that he led a uneventful perhaps unsatisfying life, and that he had been planning a trip to Australia for a walkabout, or physical journey of "spiritual renewal." During a hunting expedition with Kate and Michael, a group of boar attack and leave Michael wounded and Locke disoriented on the ground; when Kate protests Locke's wish to continue on alone, he repeats what he earlier told his  boss, "Don't tell me what I can't do."
Greater Meaning: Through this episode we learn a great deal about John Locke---he was belittled by his boss, he was rejected by a woman named Helen, he was a paraplegic---but above all of this, he seemed adamant about making the Walkabout, despite his physical disability, saying several times, it was "his destiny." The episode opens with Locke's eye, just as the pilot episode opened with Jack's; as Kate's episode (Tabula Rasa) in between the two did not open with the same close up shot, we must assume that Jack and John are of greater importance or equality.
Don't tell me what I can't do!
In terms of anatomy, one cannot ignore the symbolism of Locke's connection (through his legs and feet) to the physical world, or in this case, the island, specifically. As Locke wiggled his right toe in the opening shots of the episode, his legs began to function after four years in a wheelchair; this causes not only a physical but also a spiritual renewal (later he tells Walt that a miracle happened to him). Thus, John Locke is a new man on the island. Reborn. It's interesting that despite the physical change, Locke already seems mysteriously at home; he plays backgammon, fashions a dog-whistle, and sits happily in the rain, all within the first few days of the crash. As a would-be leader, his knowledge and abilities are practical, primal. He has aim, skill, strength, and confidence, which is a bit at odds with the man we saw in the flashback; such a significant difference has a way of making the idea of destiny seem extremely relevant.
Jack, who is every bit as important, by contrast, is more at home in the scientific, cerebral world. Where Sayid earlier voiced hesitation in burning the victim's bodies for spiritual reasons, Jack focuses only on the immediate, logical needs of the survivors; "We don't have time to sort out everybody's God." When Claire suggests Jack lead the memorial service he replies bluntly, "It's not my thing." Jack comforts Rose on the beach but can't share her faith that her husband might still be alive. Man of Faith, Man of Science. Both useful, but which will lead?
Further Questions:
1. Who was Helen?
2. Why was Locke in a wheelchair?
3. Why did "the monster" let Locke live?
4. Why is Locke able to walk on the island?
5. Where exactly are they?
6. Why is Jack so anti-faith?
7. Who is the man in the dark suit?
8. How does Rose know Bernard is alive?
9. Why did Locke lie to Michael about seeing "the monster?"

Join me next week for a closer look into the enigma that is Jack Shephard in White Rabbit.

Monday, July 30, 2012

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, episode 3, Tabula Rasa

The face of a criminal?
Tabula Rasa

Events: The episode opens with a huge reveal for Jack (not for us, as we learned in the pilot's second half that Kate was wearing handcuffs next to the Marshal)---Kate is a criminal. The Marshal, feverish and sputtering, insists over and over that Kate is dangerous and shouldn't be trusted. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that Kate worked for an Australian farmer named Ray Mullen, who turned her in for reward money, but her crime still remains a mystery. Meanwhile, the group that went on the transceiver-hike makes its way down the mountain again, avoiding the jungle after dark. Once everyone is back on the beach again, Sayid announces that their mission was not successful while Kate shares with Jack the discovery of the French Woman's transmission. The Marshal's health continues to deteriorate, and Jack starts to take criticism from the other survivors for wasting resources to keep the man alive. The conclusion chooses to linger not on Kate's crime or the Marshal's unpleasant death but on forgiveness and new beginnings. Just after Walt explains to his father that the bald man, Mr. Locke, told him "a miracle happened here," Jack tells Kate, "we should all be able to start over," (the title of the episode, translated, means Blank Slate). As the instrumental soundtrack draws the episode to a close there come some extremely tender, human moments: Boone fixes Shannon's sun glasses with a paper clip and smiles affectionately as he drops them into her hand; Sayid tosses Sawyer a piece of fruit; and Walt is reunited with Vincent, his dog. That said, however, there was something extremely unsettling about that last, almost-scowling wraparound shot of Mr. Locke (?).
The face of a criminal.

Greater Meaning
: The crafty significance of Locke's backgammon game (Pilot Episode, part 2) seems to be its representation of the theme of duality (two sides, one is light, one is dark) given the events and differences in philosophy seen on the island thus far, and Jack is key. As he searches the fuselage for medicine, Sawyer ransacks luggage for contraband. As Jack does his best to treat his patient, the Marshal, Hurley faints at the sight of blood and the other survivors start pressuring Jack to put him out of his misery. As a doctor, Jack's first principle is to do no harm; his world is scientific, structured. The interesting point comes (specifically in this episode) when Jack's role as a doctor and as a leader intersect. A utilitarian leader would have perhaps conceded the point that a wounded man, suffering loudly, should be killed for mercy's sake and in order to preserve supplies for the rest of the group. Jack, though trained as a surgeon and no doubt familiar with the concept of triage (clearly aware that the man's condition was dire), did not act as a utilitarian and sacrificed materials to save just one man.

We should all be able to start over.
Kate, too, is an interesting character for this reason--her nature is at odds with itself as she's a peaceful, compassionate felon. She sews Jack's wound for him, breaks up fighting between Sawyer and Sayid, needs help in disarming a weapon, and in the flashback, saves the life of the man who ratted her out to the law. And through all these events, or in spite of them, we cannot help but wonder more about her (and her crime).

Further Questions:
She's dangerous.
1. What did Kate do?
2. What are Kate's trust issues?
3. What was the miracle that Locke told Walt about?
4. Did Ray Mullen ever get his money?
5. Was Locke upset about something at the end?

6. Was the Marshal telling the truth?

Friday, July 20, 2012

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, Pilot Episode, part 2

Pilot Episode, part 2.
Events: The second half of the pilot episode reveals more of the characters, more of the island, and yet ends with nothing but confusion and mystery. We learn that many of the characters have issues, with themselves or with each other. Charlie Pace uses heroin; Sawyer is outspokenly bigoted; Kate was handcuffed in a Marshal's custody when the plane went down. The Korean couple (yet unnamed) are strained; Walt and his dad don't seem to connect, and Shannon and Boone enjoy pushing each others' buttons. Hugo, Sayid and the bald man on the beach with the backgammon set are the only people who seem comfortable or at least welcoming to others.
As Jack tends to the Marshal's shrapnel wound, Kate, Sayid, Sawyer, Charlie, Boone, and Shannon hike to higher ground in order to test the transceiver. On their way they encounter more roars in the jungle, this time from a polar bear, which Sawyer kills. Later, when they test the transceiver, they hear a French woman's voice already broadcasting a distress signal. As Sayid discovers that the woman's message has been repeating on a loop for sixteen years, Charlie, concerned, asks, "Guys? Where are we?"

Greater Meaning: Both of the pilot episodes are overflowing with happenings that cannot be explained, scientifically. Surviving the plane crash was only the beginning (which was interestingly enough preceded by instrument failure). Once later events begin to unfold, the crash almost pales in comparison to the "creature" in the jungle, a mangling, roaring thing that no one can explain or even see; the tropical-dwelling polar bear; and the French woman's transmission, playing for sixteen years. What possible explanations can there be for these occurrences? 
Later, when Walt approaches the man on the beach, he notices the backgammon game and sits down. After explaining a bit about the game and its origins, the man asks Walt, "Do you want to know a secret?" In a situation like this one, it's strange that a survivor would simply lounge on the beach with a board game (just as it's slightly insensitive when Shannon tends to her toenails instead of helping others) given the fact that almost everyone else is busy with other, more important activities---Jack/the injured, Sayid/technology, Sawyer/firearms, and so on. But for some reason, this man, and whatever his secret is, seem significant, and so does his game. 
Further Questions:
1. Why is there a polar bear on the island?
2. What did Kate do?
3. What is the bald man's secret?
4. What happened to the French woman?
Next week, Tabula Rasa

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory, Pilot Episode, part one

That was one hell of a nightmare . . . Oh, Christ.
Do you roll your eyes when people start talking about LOST? Were you baffled by the ending enough for it to make you angry? Do you feel like you would have liked the show better if there had been more answers or more explanations along the way? LOST: It Wasn't Purgatory is here for you! Whether you're a newcomer to the series, a fan, or a skeptic, there are millions of discussions and ideas to be shared in reexamining the show, one episode at a time. Weekly, each episode will be tackled by recapping events, analyzing greater meaning (regarding science, religion, or links to other media) and organizing further questions, all of it, other than the title of the column, of course, virtually spoiler-free. Are you ready to go back to the island?

Pilot Episode
Events: A man wakes up in a forest of bamboo trees; He's injured, He has vodka in his pocket, and he's alone. After emerging from the jungle to find the aftermath of a plane crash scattered across a beach, he rushes about, saving people. This is Jack; he's a doctor. Later he meets a woman (Kate) whom he enlists to help him with his wound just under his back left ribs and they seem to connect. Most of the other survivors huddle together on the beach, awaiting a rescue plane while Jack suggests they find the cockpit in order to acquire the plane's transceiver. "I saw some smoke," Kate says, "in the valley." Immediately after this, there comes an enormous roar from the jungle and the booming sound of impact against trees, which are overturning. 

Greater Meaning: The pilot episode of any television program serves to expose a situation and its characters that in most cases, are firmly in place before we the viewer decide to sit down and watch. What's unique about this particular pilot is that the characters of LOST are unacquainted and in a completely unfamiliar setting after just having survived a plane crash. We come to this story the moment it begins. They are learning about each other at the same time we are learning about them, likewise with the place they've landed, the island. Every surprise to us is also a surprise to them, and in watching, we're implicated, almost as if we too are stranded. 

Play doctor? Sure, what the hell?
The next day Jack, Kate, and Charlie, the bass player in the English rock band Drive Shaft, head into the jungle in search of the cockpit, which they find. The ominous noises return, this time attached to an unseen entity that snatches the pilot just after he informs Jack and Kate, "they're looking for us . . . in the wrong place."

Clearly the characters of Jack and Kate are important, as evident from their early introductions and time on screen, and are even shown as equals (Kate takes on role of Doctor as she sews Jack's wound, Jack shares the personal story of a catastrophic surgery with her, Kate later counts to five as Jack said he had done in fear, etc.) But the pilot episode also gives ample (if not equal) attention to the geographical entity of the island itself. The island as a character makes sense given its complexities (sections: forest, beach, valley), its ability to sustain life (offer the survivors food or shelter), and its inherent danger in sharing its grounds with whatever creature is roaring, de-foresting, and bloodying pilots. The passengers of Oceanic Airlines may have survived the crash but clearly they still aren't entirely safe . . . 
Godfather reference?
Further Questions:
1. Will they be rescued?
2. Will the pregnant woman's baby be all right?
3. *What* is the creature in the jungle?
4. *Why* did the plane crash?
5. Where's Vincent? (the dog)
Next week: Pilot, part two.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Eat The Rich, Katniss: The Hunger Games

It's been said, recently, that a book commits suicide each time one watches Jersey Shore. As soldiers die for their countries, Kim Kardashian x-rays her hindquarters. And while millions post lavish photos of themselves online in various positions of vanity and consumption, people all over the world go to bed hungry. There are middle grounds, of course, between absolute pain and absolute gluttony; most of us are fortunate enough to inhabit them, as human beings, and as film spectators. But disparities such as these are impossible to be ignored, and make for the most meaningful stories, in fiction and in life. If there is a message to be taken from Gary Ross's film, The Hunger Games (adapted from Suzanne Collins' novel), it's not the violence, the effects, the chemistry between the actors, or the development of its characters (though plenty of critics have voiced their disapproval over these things). It's rage against the machine, it's "Do the Right Thing," and it's a question for humanity:
Are you all right with what's happening? Because no matter whose side you're on, you're implicated simply by watching.
In a dystopian society, The Capitol rules over the country of Panem and its twelve districts. Once a year, each citizen between the ages of twelve and eighteen enters his or her name into a drawing which will decide the tributes for Panem's "Hunger Games," a fight to the death among the districts that is televised, live. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a citizen of district twelve who hunts, volunteers as tribute when her younger sister's name is chosen; Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is the male tribute who joins her. As the two make their way to The Capitol to prepare and train, they're guided by a team of coordinators, stylists, and their own district's lone former victor, Haymitch Abernathy(Woody Harrelson), who serves as mentor to the pair, but has a difficult time staying sober.

Once Katiss and Peeta arrive, they're both at a loss to absorb the sheer spectacle of The Capitol and its inhabitants, not to mention the sudden availability of endless food, luxurious spaces, and materials thrust upon them, but they both seem oddly immune to such allure---Katniss defiantly so, shooting an apple from the mouth of the judges' roast pig to protest their indifference to her training ("Thanks for your consideration,") but Peeta in a way that suggests he's known all along what the games are really about ("I want to show them that they don't own me.") Once the games begin, Katniss follows Haymitch's advice to forego any resources and to first find water, and uses her keen hunting skills to survive in the wilderness, but news of her ability and rebellion has spread, and before long, Katniss Everdeen is on a dangerous hit list spanning from the tributes hunting her to the Game-makers all the way to Panem's own President (played by Donald Sutherland).
In a tale concerning such a distasteful moral dilemma (teenagers killing each other, some of them gleefully), the viewer has to understand the motivation or identify with the characters (or both) in order to become invested in something so taboo, and the scenes of Katniss's history along with the underlying ideology of her character accomplish this well. Her home in district twelve is gray and dusty. Rare is a smile or light-hearted event---life is hard for everyone that lives there. Katniss transitions easily between hunter, barterer, friend, and surrogate mother (to her younger sister) and eventually would-be martyr; out of necessity, she's become an omnipotent woman long before she reaches adulthood. This ability and later selflessness persists in the game arena as she keeps herself alive, only kills in defense, threatens her own safety forming an alliance with little Rue, (the tribute from district eleven, no doubt a reminder of her own sister) and later risks her life to acquire medication for a seriously wounded Peeta.
That the seemingly lesser-violent camp of tributes (Katniss, Rue, Peeta, Thresh) manages to hold onto its humanity inside the arena is huge, and stands in direct contrast to the ferocious, uber-violence displayed by the Capitol-supported "career" tributes of districts one and two, who seem to take sick pleasure with each kill. Despite this, the good guys refuse to be thwarted, even in such desperate circumstances: Peeta forms an alliance with the careers to keep them from Katniss. Katniss covers a fallen ally in flowers and sobs. Thresh spares Katniss's life because of her empathy, "Once, Twelve, for Rue." These acts are those of children, yes, but also tiny acts of rebellion toward the system that has forced these children to live hungry, watch others die, and now would have them carve each other up for the entertainment of The Capitol. There is pain and suffering, but there's heart, too. Haymitch Abernathy, though a supporting character, gives one of the film's most loaded reactions as he watches and grimaces when a young Capitol boy gleefully opens a toy sword and starts thrusting it upon everyone in anticipation of the bloodbath the games will bring.
Why are we doing this? What if we didn't?
(A kiss and three fingers to you, Miss Everdeen).


Hard times are when it makes the most sense to dream.
Martin Scorsese's Hugo might be about many things---a fatherless boy, a filmmaker, an automaton, French cinema---but underlying every act in the film are the central themes of memories, dreams, and yearnings, whether they be the characters' or the director's. Nothing is out of grasp, not really. Wars happen, people die too early, but occasionally there do come happy endings. And though times have definitely changed since the those of young Hugo Cabret and French film pioneer George Melies, we still dream, we still imagine, and we still need the magic and escape of movies. This is a topic no one knows better than Martin Scorsese.
Hugo, based upon Brian Selznick's novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is the story of a young boy (played by Asa Butterfield) who, through an incomplete automaton, hopes to somehow reconnect with his departed father. He lives alone inside a railway station in Paris, tending clocks, occasionally scoring croissants here and there, and stealing spare mechanical parts from the toy vender just outside his peephole in order to continue fixing the automaton according to his father's special illustrated diary. Things don't go well for Hugo once the toy shop owner (Ben Kingsley) catches him red-handed; he seizes Hugo's diary, as well as the miscellaneous spare parts he was carrying, and takes the lot home. As Hugo stubbornly tags along, he meets the man's Goddaughter, Isabelle, who is sympathetic to his situation and agrees to get the book back for him. The two become friends, sharing a love of adventure, stories, and eventually movies. As Hugo glides effortlessly through the inner workings of the different areas of the clock tower, he must carefully avoid the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), find food for himself, and work further at both retrieving the manual and fixing the automaton, as he's convinced it will bring forth a message from his father. In so doing, he and Isabelle discover the secret that her Godfather is not just a shopkeeper but a very special man, indeed.
Anyone familiar with Martin Scorsese's history will no doubt see the link between Hugo (especially the giddy filmgoing version) and Scorsese himself. Having admittedly grown up in movie theaters, many of which showed the films that would later influence his own work as a filmmaker, Scorsese isn't just paying homage with this film---he wants everyone to know the story, the origins of the blessed medium he loves so much. If Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas were the offerings to the auteurs of the French New Wave, then Hugo is a tribute to the man who largely made it all possible, George Melies.

Just as many of us have forgotten about or are uninterested in the histories of things like phones or automobiles, there are plenty of folks out there who surely love movies but have no clue how they really got started; this film will show you. Film theorists like to talk about "self reflexivity," or how a film pays attention to the fact that it's a film, even giggling about it, if you like; through the inner mechanics of the numerous clocks, the constant scenes showing film and film projectors, not to mention Hugo and Isabelle's jaunt inside the movie house---this film will show you that, too. Though we do care for them, what happens to the characters very nearly becomes secondary to seeing Scorsese's valentine unfold, to experiencing first hand what can only be described as complete and total passion and excitement for the craft, and to knowing that Scorsese was dreaming these big dreams, too, just as Melies had. The lights and colors are always striking; events foreshadowed in the films the characters watch actually happen in the manner depicted; two lonely people (one a boy, one a grown man) find new focus and joy in life. Wow.
Scorsese once said in an interview, "My whole life has been movies and religion. That's it. Nothing else." I say film is your religion, Marty, and the rest of us dreamers are all the better for it.


"How can you not get romantic about baseball?"
Billy Beane (Brad Pitt) wonders this several times throughout the film. To a large extent, it's a fair question, although baseball and sports in general may not be every filmgoer's cup of tea. What is romantic, irrefutably so, is the experience director Bennett Miller has given us, which in the end is only partially about baseball. If you've ever struggled with a confidence problem or simply wanted your actions to mean something, this is your film, America.
Beane is a former major league ball player-turned general manager for the Oakland Athletics whose budget is unreasonably tight. Forced to acquire new, inexpensive players to fill in for those the team lost to free agency, Beane radically employs a young analyst with a degree in economics (Jonah Hill) as his assistant and together, the two pull together a team that focuses heavily on the players' on-base percentage (OBP) and other unique statistics in order to gain runs and eventually win games. Virtually no one in the franchise supports Beane's decision, and one loss after another seems to shoot down the credibility of his plan----until it actually starts working.

This film, like many other Best Picture Nominees before it, is about the underdog and taking chances, but it's very much a story about trust, too. A fine example of this (and unarguably one of the film's greatest scenes) happens at Beane's meeting in Cleveland to arrange player trades where Peter Brand (Hill) is introduced. When an entire row of personnel agrees to a certain trade, Brand leans in quietly and briefly gives his disapproval; the manager doesn't ask a single question but immediately seconds Brand's veto. Beane immediately catches on and seeks Brand out moments later, "What just happened in there? Why does he listen to you?" Brand's ideas are unpopular and extreme, as Beane soon finds out, but somehow there becomes a trust between the two men as they put the formulas into action. When dissent starts flowing freely through the team clubhouse, coach Art Howe (Philip Seymour Hoffman) asks Brand if he agrees with Beane's decisions; "One hundred percent," he replies. 

Another inspired scene has Beane explaining to Brand the correct way to cut a player; Brand feels he should relay at least some level of sympathy but Beane disagrees, admitting he doesn't mix with the players, travel with them, or engage in unnecessary dialogues. Later, as the team's standing in the league become dire after a significant losing streak, Beane revises his social philosophy slightly and works together with Brand and his players in order to explain what they're doing and to build confidence (which coincidentally is when the team begins what would become a twenty-game winning streak). Once the team gets going, they go damned near all the way.
Narrative aside, this film boasts the most solid production of any this year. The two principal actors, forgive the pun, obviously brought their A-game to the filming, but the driving orchestral accompaniment, so invaluable to desperate, life-changing situations such as these, and the editing choices of classic baseball clips and pages on end of statistics really come together with the present to entice and entertain us, while using close up shots of Beane's reactions, mostly his eyes, to remind us just how much heart and dedication this story has on a human level.
Early on, an announcer scoffing at Beane's system says, "It's not about statistics, it's a game about people." What may have threatened the old boy network was the fact that money just may not have been the most important factor in someone's success.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

As with the holocaust, films concerning the terrorist attacks of 9/11 should not be taken lightly, even if indirectly linked to the event. Stephen Daldry has made a film that has a lot to say, almost too much, ties up neatly at the end, almost too neatly, but definitely won't be taken lightly. A child's uniqueness, the near-obsessive way he deals with his father's death, and overall quest to make sense of the tragedy are half of this story; the actual tragedy itself plays second chair to the former(s) for most of the film, but through news reports and frantic phone calls, America is transported right back to that day, the worst day as it's often referred to, and even a decade later, not all of us are ready. 
Thomas Horn, in an epic breakthrough performance, plays Oskar Schell, an eleven-year-old boy whose life was turned upside down by the events of 9/11. His father (Tom Hanks) who is portrayed as he appears to Oskar with nothing short of demi-god status and larger than life, is killed in the collapse of one of the towers. While searching for pieces of his father in his closet some time later, Oskar comes across a small envelope labeled, "Black," which inside holds a key. As Oskar clings to the key as a link to his father which may unlock something, anything, that might bring the two together again, the film shows just how dedicated Oskar is to organizing his mission, hinting at his maybe-Asperger's Syndrome and alluding to New York's experience the morning of the terrorist attacks here and there. Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Max von Sydow, and John Goodman all shine in interesting supporting roles, but are mostly overtaken by the bigger issues of Oskar's feelings, experiences, and elaborate system to (symbolically) get his father back.

The film, though competently created, suffers from taking one main issue (Oskar's search for his father/remembrance of him) and branching it out into several other secondary ones that while seeming adequately interesting and relevant, really just eat up the clock, or serve to make Oskar's screen time feel overly bloated. The renter across the street. The Blacks in Brooklyn (Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright). The numerous stories of the people Oskar encounters. At 129 minutes, the film definitely could have been slimmed down some, but instead each secondary issue is kept and ultimately tied up a little too neatly in the end. Where neatness is concerned, (and this might be where most other critics' beef with the film really lies)---just as Oskar's mother (Bullock) explains that one cannot make sense of 9/11, one also shouldn't try to illustrate it, organize it, or simplify it into a kitschy little scrapbook or collection of objects, which ultimately ends up happening here. 

The strongest moments then become the ones where the film steps outside that neatness and structure and allows unchecked emotion----Oskar's physical collapse as the first tower also falls; the mysterious quality of the renter; Oskar's breakdown that begins on the streets of Manhattan and continues in his mother's arms. Since we've been a little distanced from Oskar as a character, not just because he's slightly anxious or socially awkward but also because of a somewhat stiff and theater-esque speaking voice with which the narrative is explained, (which is not a criticism toward the actor but the director) these unrehearsed-feeling, true moments become crucial in our becoming invested. Like everyone else in the film, we'd like to get closer to Oskar Schell, and like him, we yearn for a catharsis that isn't possible and that no film, no story, will ever give us.

The Descendants

I almost didn't finish this film. In fact, I kind of spent a week hating it, not knowing if it was my gender or personal impatience that drove me to do so, but regardless, I wasn't sold. There were definitely things about it that I thought were well done, and if you'll grant me a tiny spoiler allowance, the ending definitely ranked among my top five favorite film endings, ever, so it really bothered me that I didn't love it and I gave it another shot. What I took from the second viewing was that this is an incredibly powerful, emotionally difficult story that captures the very essence of humanity; The Descendants might just be the most honest thing to come out of Hollywood yet.
George Clooney plays Matt King, an Oahu-dwelling lawyer with a life that seems to be headed for disaster. His wife has just been seriously injured in a boating accident, he's having a hard time relating to his two daughters ("I'm the back-up parent, the understudy,") and he's in the middle of a landmark decision over the property his family owns on Kauai, something the entire state is following. Soon after Matt learns that his wife will never come out of the trauma-induced coma she's in, his teenage daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) informs him that her mother had been cheating on him, and the two had fought about it at length before the accident. Armed with this uncomfortable knowledge, Matt makes arrangements for friends and family to say their farewells and eventually comes to terms with his own feelings and what he wants for his family.

Before we get to the film's Oscar-worthiness, it's necessary to address that this is a man's story, a father's story----and one that might leave women (at least at first, the way it did me) feeling a little cast aside. Matt King's wife, Elizabeth, never utters a word during the course of the film, and is repeatedly shown defenseless in her hospital bed, greasy-haired and open-mouthed. That she cheated on Matt is obviously unpleasant and undisputed, but she doesn't ever get the chance to explain her actions. Save for the brokenhearted pleadings of her father (Robert Forester) and the two framed photographs of her, one as a child and the other as an adult, Elizabeth as a human being and Elizabeth's feelings do not factor into this story very much. We're mostly able to see pieces of who she was through stories of rebellion (extreme boating, cheating, doing things always "her own way"), and through her daughters, who obviously cared for her but are conflicted about their feelings over her infidelity, but make no mistake: this is Matt's story.

The journey is an important one, and one that however uncomfortable, is pertinent for a lot of men. Money. Property. Communication. Common concerns, yes, but coupled with the certain death of an unfaithful spouse, things start to get tricky. When Matt receives the news that Elizabeth will never recover, Clooney's acting chops have never been better, transitioning from a controlled emotional breakdown (conveyed mostly through facial expression) to instant optimism when faced with the couple's two best friends, inquiring as to her condition. Later, when he informs Alexandra that her mother will soon die, she, too makes to hide her reaction (plunging underwater in the family pool) but then discloses her mother's infidelity to Matt, who listens carefully and then takes off running. It's not an arbitrary thing, Matt and his daughter disguising their true feelings; in a lot of ways, the story focuses on being honest, choosing forgiveness, and putting yourself on the line for your family, especially when it's the most difficult. 
So in addition to Clooney's performance, what makes this film an Oscar contender? Director Alexander Payne obviously has made great strides in showing us just how laborious and painful life can be---mainly that the people we love can and do hurt us and parents don't always have all the answers--but while focusing upon a very serious set of situations, still manages to keep Matt King's story from becoming dark or depressing. There's something very awe-inspiring about an average man, thrust into chaos, who in the end does the right thing. Paradise might initially be told to go fuck itself, but at the end of the day, this film's resolution and closing scene are as close to perfect as any I've ever seen. Things aren't fixed, exactly, and there will inevitably be more problems down the road, but in the world of parents and children, sometimes all that is needed is a quiet evening on the couch with ice cream. Would that all our problems iron out that way.