Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: The Imitation Game (dir by Morten Tyldum)


The 2014 film, The Imitation Game, takes place in three very different time periods.

The majority of the film takes place during World War II.  While the Germans are ruthlessly rolling across and conquering huge swaths of Europe, the British are desperately trying to, at the very least, slow them down.  A key to that is decrypting the secret codes that the German forces use to communicate with each other.  Since the Germans change the code every day, the British not only have to break the code but also predict what the next day’s code will be.

Working out of a 19th century mansion called Bletchley Park, a small group of mathematicians, chess players, and spies work to design a machine that will be able to decode the German messages.  Heading up this group is a man named Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Alan is a remote and, at times, rather abrasive figure, a man who appears to be more comfortable dealing with equations than with other human beings.  The people working under him occasionally chafe at Alan’s lack of social skills.  Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) suspects that Alan’s a Russian spy and would just as soon close down the entire operation.  At first, the only person who seems to have any faith in Alan’s abilities appears to be Winston Churchill himself.

It’s only when Joan Clarke (Kiera Knightley) joins Alan’s team that they start to make progress.  Joan brings Alan out of his shell and teaches him how to deal with other human beings.  When Joan’s parents object to her being away from home, Alan even offers to marry her.  Of course, Alan also explains that it would just be a marriage of convenience, one that will last until they get Christopher up and working.

Christopher is the name that Alan has given to his encryption machine.  Why Christopher?  Throughout the film, we get flashbacks to Alan’s time in boarding school and his close friendship to another student, a boy named Christopher.

And finally, serving as a framing device to both the World War II intrigue and Alan’s relationship with Christopher, is a scene that’s set in 1951.  Alan’s home has been broken into and, as the police investigate the matter, they come to realize that Alan is hiding something about both his past and his present.  Their initial assumption is that Alan must be a communist spy.  The truth, however, is that Alan is gay.  And, in 1951 Britain, that is a criminal offense….

The Imitation Game is based on a true story.  During World War II, Alan Turing actually was a codebreaker and he did play a pivotal role in creating the machine that broke the German code.  After World War II, Turing was arrested and charged with “gross indecency.”  Given a choice between imprisonment or probation and chemical castration.  Turing selected the latter and committed suicide in 1954.  Alan Turing’s work as a cryptographer is estimated to have saved 14 million lives during World War II but he died a lonely and obscure figure, a victim of legally sanctioned prejudice.

Admittedly, The Imitation Game does take some liberties with history.  For one thing, most of the people who worked with Turing described him as being eccentric but not anti-social.  Though the film pretty much portrays the decoding machine as solely being Turing’s creation, it was actually a group effort.  Perhaps the biggest liberty that the film takes is that the machine was never called Christopher.  Instead, it was called Victory.

That said, The Imitation Game is still a strong and effective film.  Anchored by a brilliant lead performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game is a film that manages to be both inspiring and infuriating at the same time.  It’s impossible not to get caught up in the team’s joy as they realize that they actually can beat the Germans at their own encryption game and, after spending 90 minutes listening to everyone doubt Alan’s abilities, you’re more than ready to see him and his unorthodox methods vindicated.  And yet, because of the film’s framing device, you already know that Alan is not going to get the credit that he deserves for his hard work.  Instead, he’s going to be destroyed by the laws of the very country that he worked so hard to save.  Success and tragedy walk hand-in-hand throughout The Imitation Game and the end result is a very powerful and very sad movie.

I have to admit that it was a bit jarring when the opening credits appeared onscreen and the first words that I read were “The Weinstein Company Presents.”  It’s only been a year and a half since Harvey Weinstein was finally exposed and forced out of power but it’s still easy to forget just how much the Wienstein Company used to dominate every Oscar season.  In many ways, with its historical setting and its cast of up-and-coming Brits, The Imitation Game feels like a typical Weinstein Company Oscar contender.  In this case, The Imitation Game was nominated for a total of 8 Oscars, including Best Actor for Benedict Cumberbatch, Best Supporting Actress for Keira Knightley, Best Director for Morten Tyldum, Best Adapted Screenplay for Graham Moore, and Best Picture.  In the end, only Moore won his category.  In a decision that continues to confound me, the Academy named Birdman the best film of the year.

Weekly Trailer Round-Up: Destroyer, The Aftermath, Escape Room, Monster Party


In the upcoming film Destroyer, Nicole Kidman plays a detective who is haunted by her past.  This film, which is getting a lot of Oscar buzz for Kidman’s performance, will be released on December 25th and its trailer kicks off this week’s trailer round-up.

The Aftermath is the latest Keira Knightley historical drama.  This time, she’s the wife of a British colonel in post-war Germany and she is tempted to cheat with a German widower.  The Aftermath will be released on April 26th, 2019.

Escape Room is the upcoming movie based on the game that all the kids are talking about.  Can you find the clues and figure out how to escape from the room before you die?  Escape Room will be released in January, just in time for everyone to compare it to Saw.

Finally, Monster Party invites you to attend the dinner party from hell.  Despite being a horror movie, Monster Party will be released two days after Halloween, on November 2nd.

Lisa’s Early Oscar For Predictions For August


It’s time once again for my monthly attempt to predict next year’s Oscar nominations!

As always, these predictions should be taken with a grain of salt.  BlackKklansman has emerged as a contender and there’s a few impressive trailers out there.  If the Academy goes through with this stupid Best Popular Film Oscar, I’m going to assume that’ll knock Black Panther out of contention for Best Picture.  For now, I’m going to hope that the backlash will cause the Academy to abandon the idea.

(For the record, it now appears that the whole Best Popular Film fiasco was due more to pressure from ABC than from actual members of the Academy.  And, let’s just be honest — Best Popular Film sounds just stupid enough to be the idea of a television executive.)

So, as usual, these nominations are a combination of wishful thinking, wild guesses, and sincere intuition.  If nothing else, they should be amusing to look back upon when the actual nominations are announced.

Be sure to check out my predictions for January, February, March, April, May, June, and July!

Best Picture

Beautiful Boy

Black Panther

BlackKklansman

Boy Erased

First Man

Green Book

If Beale Street Could Talk

Old Man and the Gun

Roma

Widows

Best Director

Damien Chazelle for First Man

Alfonso Cuaron for Roma

Barry Jenkins for If Beale Street Could Talk

Spike Lee for BlackKklasman

Steve McQueen for Widows

Best Actor

Christian Bale in Backseat

Steve Carell in Beautiful Boy

Ryan Gosling in First Man

Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody

Robert Redford in Old Man and the Gun

Best Actress

Glenn Close in The Wife

Viola Davis in Widows

Felicity Jones in On The Basis of Sex

Keira Knightley in Colette 

Saoirse Ronan in Mary, Queen of Scots

Best Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali in Green Book

Timothee Chalamet in Beautiful Boy

Russell Crowe in Boy Erased

Adam Driver in BlackKklansman

Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther

Best Supporting Actress

Claire Foy in First Man

Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased

Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk

Margot Robbie in Mary, Queen of Scots

Sissy Spacek in Old Man and the Gun

 

Lisa’s Oscar Predictions for July


Well, here we are.  We’re more than halfway through the year and, to be honest, the Oscar forecast seems just as cloudy as ever.

To be honest, I’m starting to get the feeling that this is going to be a year where the Academy is more concerned with sending a message than anything else.  Just as the Emmy nominations were all about sticking it to Trump (as opposed to actually honoring the best that television has to offer), it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Academy try to do the same thing.  That doesn’t mean that the nominees aren’t going to deserve to be nominated, of course.  Instead, it just means that this might be a good year for films with a political agenda.

Anyway, here are my predictions for July!  They’re still pretty random, to be honest.  Be sure to also check out my predictions for January, February, March, April, May, and June!

Best Picture

Backseat

Black Panther

BlackKklansman

Boy Erased

The Favourite

First Man

If Beale Street Could Talk

Mary, Queen of Scots

Old Man and The Gun

Widows

Best Director

Damien Chazelle for First Man

Barry Jenkins for If Beale Street Could Talk

Yorgos Lanthimos for The Favourite

Spike Lee for BlackKklansman

Josie Rourke for Mary, Queen of Scots

Best Actor

Christian Bale in Backseat

Steve Carell in Beautiful Boy

Ryan Gosling in First Man

Robert Redford in Old Man and The Gun

John David Washington in BlackKklansman

Best Actress

Glenn Close in The Wife

Felicity Jones in On the Basis of Sex

Keira Knightley in Colette

Rosamund Pike in A Private War

Saoirse Ronan in Mary, Queen of Scots

Best Supporting Actor

Russell Crowe in Boy Erased

Sam Elliott in A Star is Born

Topher Grace in BlackKklansman

Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther

Sam Rockwell in Backseat

Best Supporting Actress

Claire Foy in First Man

Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased

Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk

Margot Robbie in Mary, Queen of Scots

Sissy Spacek in Old Man and the Gun

Weekly Trailer Round-Up: Mary Queen of Scots, Colette, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, The Favourite, Goosebumps 2, A Simple Favor, The Extinction, The Package, Life Itself, Along Came The Devil, Little Italy, Unfriended: Dark Web, Wonder Park, Castle Rock


It’s time for the weekly trailer round-up!  We’ve got fourteen today so let’s get down to business:

First off, we have the trailer for one of the most anticipated films of the year: Mary, Queen of Scots.  This movie brings together two of last year’s nominees for best actress, with Saoirse Ronan playing the title character and Margot Robbie playing Queen Elizabeth I.  It is set to be released in December for Oscar consideration.

Also getting early Oscar buzz is Keira Knightley for her performance in Colette.  Colette premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year and will be released on September 21st.

Another film that generated buzz at Sundance was The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which stars Chloe Grace Moretz as a teenage girl forced into gay conversation therapy.  The Miseducation of Cameron Post will be released into theaters on August 3rd.

Following the arthouse success of The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos returns with The Favourite.  Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone play cousins who compete to be the favorite of Queen Anne.  The Favourite will be released on November 23rd.

The books and the monsters are back but Jack Black is nowhere to be seen in the trailer for Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween.  This film will be released on October 12th.

When Blake Lively disappears, her new best friend, Anna Kendrick, teams up with Lively’s husband to find her.  Directed by Paul Feig of Ghostbusters and Bridesmaids fame, A Simple Favor will be released on September 14th.

Everyone’s favorite sidekick, Michael Pena, finally gets the leading role in The Extinction, a sci-fi thriller that will be premiering on Netflix on July 27th.

Also coming to Netflix is The Package, a teen comedy from the creators of Workaholics.  The Package will be delivered on August 10th.

The second film to be directed by This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, Life Itself will be released on September 21st.

According to this trailer, Along Came The Devil is “an exorcism film for a new generation.”  This film will be released on August 10th.

Have you ever wondered what happened to Danny Aiello?  He’s in Little Italy, with Emma Roberts and Hayden Christensen.  Little Italy will be released in August.

The internet is still the most dangerous place on Earth in the second trailer for Unfriended: Dark Web.  See for yourself on July 20th.

After a long and troubled production that saw original director Dylan Brown fired for “inappropriate conduct,” the animated film Wonder Park will finally be released on March 15th, 2019.

Finally, here is the long-awaited official trailer for Castle Rock, the new Hulu series from J.J. Abrams and Stephen King.  Castle Rock premieres on July 25th.

 

Lisa’s Way, Way, Way Too Early Oscar Predictions For February


Could Black Panther be the first comic book movie to receive an Oscar nomination?

Last year, around this time, we were asking the exact same question about LoganLogan didn’t pick up a Best Picture nomination but it was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, which would seem to suggest that the Academy is slowly coming around to accepting that so-called “Super Hero Films” can also be legitimate Oscar contenders.

As for Black Panther, it is currently the most critically acclaimed and financially successful film of 2018.  For those who say that there’s no way the Academy will ever nominate a comic book film for best picture, it should be remembered that there was a time when people said that Academy would never nominate a horror comedy for Best Picture.  Much like Get Out, Black Panther could prove the naysayers wrong.

Anyway, here are my Oscar predictions for February.  As always, it ‘s really way too early to be making these predictions.  Usually, Sundance provides at least a little bit of a guide but this year, Sundance was pretty low-key.  The most obvious Sundance Oscar contender — Burden — doesn’t even have a release date yet.

Also, the uncertain status of The Weinstein Company has thrown a lot of films into limbo.  Some of the unreleased TWC films might find homes with other studios.  Others will probably be left in limbo.  Then again, even if those films do get a release, I doubt the Academy is going to nominate any films stained with the noxious fingerprints of the Weinsteins.

Even more than usual, the guesses below are random.  At this time next year, we’ll probably look at this list and laugh.  Some of you might laugh today.

Check out January’s picks here!

Best Picture

Black Panther

Boy Erased

Burden

Colette

First Man

Mary, Queen of Scots

A Star is Born

Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Widows

The Women of Mawren

Best Director

Ryan Coogler for Black Panther

Andrew Heckler for Burden

Richard Linklater for Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Steve McQueen for Widows

Josie Rourke for Mary, Queen of Scots

Best Actor

Christian Bale in Untitled Adam McKay/Dick Cheney film

Lucas Hedges in Boy Erased

Ryan Gosling in First Man

Jake Gyllenhaal in Wildfire

Garrett Hedlund in Burden

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett in Where’d You Go, Bernadette?

Viola Davis in Widows

Keira Knightley in Collette

Chloe Grace Moretz in The Miseducation of Cameron Post

Saorise Ronan in Mary, Queen of Scots

Best Supporting Actor

Jeff Bridges in Bad Times at the El Royale

Robert Duvall in Widows

Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther

Rami Malek in Papillon

Forest Whiteaker in Burden

Best Supporting Actress

Claire Foy in First Man

Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased

Leslie Mann in The Women of Mawren

Lupita Nyong’o in Black Panther

Margot Robie in Mary, Queen of Scots

Sci-Fi Review: Stars Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (1999, directed by George Lucas)


Star_Wars_Phantom_Menace_posterA long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

The time was May of 1999.  The place was a movie theater in Baltimore, Maryland.  The theater was packed with people waiting to see the most anticipated film of their lifetime.  The film was The Phantom Menace, the first prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy.  For two years, the people in the audience had followed every detail of the film’s production.  Some of them had gone to showings of Meet Joe Black and Wing Commander, just so they could see the first trailers for the film.

Sitting out in that audience was one 16 year-old boy who, a few nights earlier, had been standing outside a Target at midnight so that he could be one of the first to buy Phantom Menace merchandise.  He bought two Jar Jar Binks action figures because, even before Phantom Menace opened, he suspected Jar Jar would be the most controversial character.

When the lights went down, the audience cheered.  At the start of every trailer, someone in the dark theater shouted, “I bent my Wookie!”  The audience laughed the first two times.  By the fifth time, there were only a few pity titters.

Finally, it was time!  The first few notes of John Williams’s Star Wars theme echoed through the theater.  Again, the audience cheered as the familiar title crawl appeared on-screen.

The 16 year-old read the opening crawl and he started to get worried.  What was all this talk about taxation?  Trade routes?  Trade Federation?  Blockades?  It seemed more appropriate for Star Trek or even Dune.  Except for the mention of Jedis at the end of the crawl, it did not sound much like Star Wars.

Things started to look up as soon as Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor made their first appearance as Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan.  Obi-Wan’s first line was, “I have a bad feeling about this.”  A few people in the audience clapped.  “I bent my Wookie!” a familiar voice shouted.  Nobody laughed.

When a hologram of Darth Sidious appeared and told the Trade Federation goons to kill Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, everyone in the audience knew that Darth Sidious was Palaptine, the future Emperor, and the excitement was palpable.  When Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan fought off the battle droids and escaped to the besieged planet of Naboo, the audience started to relax.  Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as the critics were saying.

Then Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan met Jar Jar Binks and the whole movie went to shit.

In the months leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace, everyone had heard about Jar Jar Binks and how he was a totally computer-generated character.  Jar Jar Binks was the future of movie technology and, from the minute he first appeared, the future was fucking terrifying.  Jar Jar was a Gungun, an amphibious creature who was characterized as being clumsy and cowardly.  He shrieked in a high-pitched voice and spoke in an indescribable dialect.  As much as the audience tried, there was no way to avoid or ignore Jar Jar Binks.  He was not in the entire movie but he was at the center of every scene in which he did appear.

As Jar Jar led Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon to the underwater city of the Gunguns, a voice in the dark theater shouted out, “I bent my Wookie!”

“Shut the fuck up!” the 16 year-old snapped back.

The 16 year-old was not sure if anyone heard him but the voice was silent for the rest of the movie.

Sorry, Ralph.

Sorry, Ralph.

No sooner had the audience recovered from their introduction to Jar Jar then they met young Anakin Skywalker.  Anakin’s story was the whole reason that The Phantom Menace had been made.  The audience knew that the prequels would show how Anakin Skywalker would grow up to the greatest and most evil badass in the universe, Darth Vader.  But in Phantom Menace, he was just a 9 year-old slave on the planet of Tatooine, conceived by immaculate conception.  Even before Phantom Menace was released, the word was out that Jake Lloyd, the child cast as young Anakin, was not exactly the best actor in the world.  But even though they had been forewarned, the audience was not prepared for just how terrible little Jake Lloyd was in the role.  There was no darkness to Jake Lloyd’s cutesy performance.  There was no sadness or toughness.  Jake Lloyd came across like the type of hyperactive child who would end up in the ensemble of a Christmas play, breaking character and waving to his parents during the Crucifixion.  Not only could the audience not see him growing up to be Darth Vader but they could not imagine him as a slave living on an inhospitable desert planet.

Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, Jar Jar, Queen Padme (Keira Knightley), and Padme’s handmaid, Amidala (Natalie Portman) were stranded on Tatooine when they first met Anakin.  Qui-Gon felt that Anakin was “the chosen one,” who would bring balance to the force.  It was hard for the audience to believe him when they heard Anakin shout, “Yippe!”

For that 16 year-old who had stayed up past midnight to buy two Jar Jar Binks action figures, that “yippe” was the final straw.  He had watched the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS tapes.  He had gone to the re-releases.  He loved Star Wars and he wanted to love The Phantom Menace.  Instead, he felt so let down by the film that he could barely look at the screen.

The 16 year-old wondered why C3PO and R2D2 were in the film.  Phantom Menace revealed that they were built by the future Darth Vader.  R2D2 would even help Anakin in the film’s final battle.  It made no sense.  The 16 year-old wondered if anyone else in the audience was as confused as he was.  He wondered why, if he could see that this made no sense, George Lucas could not understand the same thing.

Anakin won a pod race and was allowed to leave Tatooine.  The film’s action was moved to the Coruscant, a planet that was covered with one huge city.  Samuel L. Jackson appeared as Mace Windu and, when he stared out at the audience, he seemed to be saying, “I fucking dare you to yell anything about bending your motherfucking Wookie!”  There were scenes set in the galactic senate, presumably to appease everyone who wanted a meticulously detailed portrait of how a galactic Republic would be governed.  Padme turned out to be a fake and Amidala was revealed as the real queen.  There was a final battle between the forces of the Republic and the Trade Federation.  Qui-Gon was killed in a duel with the evil Darth Maul (Ray Park) but Obi-Wan promised to train Anakin in the ways of the Jedi.  Palpatine promised that he would be watching Anakin’s development.

And, of course, there was this:

For many in the audience who truly loved the original trilogy and who had spent the past two years scouring every corner of the Internet in search of news about The Phantom Menace, the midi-chlorians was the point that they give up on the movie.  The Force added a hint of mysticism to the original trilogy.  Because it was so mysterious and its origins so deliberately obscure, fans of Star Wars could imagine that The Force was inside of them as well as Luke and Darth Vader.  “May the force be with you,” was more than just a catch phrase to those fans.  It was a reminder that, even in a galaxy far far away, there was still mystery and faith.  When Qui-Gon talked about midi-chlorians, fans realized that not only did they understand the appeal of Star Wars better than George Lucas but George Lucas did not even care why they loved his film.  For those fans, the midi-chlorians not only ruined The Phantom Menace but cheapened the original trilogy as well.  The Force was no longer special or mystical.  Anakin might as well have just been bitten by a radioactive spider.

For the 16 year-old, it was somehow even worse that, before asking about the Force, Anakin apologized to Qui-Gon for causing so much trouble.  Sitting out in the theater, he knew that the boy who would grow up to be Darth Vader would never yell “yippie!” and he would never apologize for causing any trouble.

At the end of the movie, the audience did not know how to react.  The 16 year-old talked to his friends as they filed out of the theater.  Everyone was in a state of denial.  They knew that they had seen something very disappointing but, after all the excitement leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace, they did not want to admit how disappointed they really were with the actual movie.  They talked about what did work.  They talked about the pod race, which had been fun.  They talked about the exciting light saber duel between Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and Darth Maul.  Being teenage boys, they also talked about Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley.

Natalie Portman and Keira Knightley

They tried not to talk about Jar Jar Binks, beyond agreeing that he sucked.  They tried not to talk about Jake Lloyd as Anakin.  It was too painful to know that Star Wars had been reduced to Jar Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd.  They did make fun of the “I bent my Wookie” guy.  In the face of grave disillusionment, it was all that the 16 year-old and his friends could do.

Today, enough time has passed that it is easier to laugh about Jar Jar Binks and The Phantom Menace.  Though the initial trauma may have faded into memory, it all came rushing back to me as soon as Lisa asked me if I would be willing to review The Phantom Menace for this site.  I cautiously agreed and hoped that, since I already knew what I was getting myself into, The Phantom Menace would not be as disappointing the second time around.

It was a strange experience rewatching The Phantom Menace.  While I remembered how bad the movie was, I’d forgotten how equally boring it was.  Jar Jar Binks was even more annoying than I remembered and Jake Lloyd was even worse.  Of the film’s best scenes, the pod race went on too long and the duel with Darth Maul was too short.  For such a badass villain, Darth Maul was underused for much of the film, as if George Lucas did not understand that the kids he claimed to have made the film for would be far more interested in the dynamic Darth Maul than the histrionic Jar Jar Binks.

Emphasizing Jar Jar Binks over Darth Maul made as much sense as emphasizing the Ewoks at the expense of Boba Fett.

Emphasizing Jar Jar Binks over Darth Maul made as much sense as emphasizing the Ewoks at the expense of Boba Fett.

Worst of all, the entire movie felt even more pointless the second time around.  When the prequels were first released, George Lucas always said that all three of them should be viewed in the context of the larger story that they were telling.  But what do we really learn from The Phantom Menace or any of the prequels?  Did anyone really want to know about how trade was regulated before the Empire?  Did we really need to know the exact details of how Anakin became a Jedi?  Watching The Phantom Menace, the answer is no.

I was especially surprised by how bad the CGI looked.  When The Phantom Menace was first released, the CGI was often the only thing that was critically praised.  Critics may have hated Jar Jar Binks as a character but they all agreed that it was impressive that a major character had been created by a computer.  It is easy to forget just how big a deal was made about The Phantom Menace‘s special effects.  At the time, we had yet to take it for granted that an entire movie could be made on a computer.

But seen today, the CGI not only seems cartoonish but, like the midi-chlorians, it feels like a betrayal of everything that made the original Star Wars special.  The universe of New Hope and Empire Strikes Back felt lived in.  It was imperfect and real.  It was a universe where even the most fearsome storm trooper could accidentally bump his head on a doorway.

But the CGI-created universe of The Phantom Menace was too slick and too perfect.  There was no chance for spontaneity or anything unexpected.  The universe of the original Star Wars trilogy was one in which you could imagine living but the universe of The Phantom Menace seemed only to exist in the computers at Lucasfilm.  With The Phantom Menace, George Lucas seemed to be reminding those who loved his films that the Star Wars universe belonged to him and him alone.  Our imagination was no longer necessary.

As for that 16 year-old who first saw The Phantom Menace in that Baltimore theater, I still have those Jar Jar Binks action figures.  I keep one of them on my desk at work and I enjoy the strange looks that it gets.  If you push down its arms, Jar Jar sticks out his tongue.

It just seems appropriate.

Film Review: Everest (dir by Baltasar Kormákur)


Everest_poster

If I wasn’t already scared of heights, I definitely would be after seeing Everest.

Based on a true story, Everest tells the story of two expeditions attempting to climb to the top of Mt. Everest.  One expedition is led by a New Zealander named Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), an experienced climber who, we’re told, pretty much invented the entire industry of taking commercial expeditions up to the top of Mt. Everest.  Criticized by some for being a “hand holder” who gets too emotionally involved with his clients and, as a result, cheapens the Everest “experience” by helping weaker clients make it to the top of the summit, Rob is married to a fellow climber, Jan Arnold (Keira Knightley).  While Rob tries to lead his clients to the highest place on Earth, the pregnant Jan stays home and waits for his return.

The other expedition is led by Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal).  Scott and Rob are friendly rivals, with Scott taking a much more hands off approach to his clients.  (It’s not a coincidence that Rob’s company is called Adventure Consultants while Scott works for Mountain Madness.)

Everest details what happens when the two expeditions are both caught in a sudden blizzard and find themselves trapped at the top of Everest.  The rest of the film is about the attempts of a stranded few to make it back to civilization.  A few make it, though not without suffering a good deal of pain and, in one particularly case, sacrificing a few body parts as a result.  Tragically, several others fall victim to the whims of nature, some dying of hypothermia while others, hallucinating from the lack of oxygen, literally walk off the side of the mountain.

Everest is one of those films where men die tragically but we’re supposed to find some sort of comfort from the fact that they died doing what they loved.  To be honest, I usually have a hard time buying into these type of narratives.  For instance, I love shopping but I wouldn’t expect anyone to be happy for me if I died while looking for a new purse.  (In fact, that’d probably upset me if not for the fact that I’d be too dead to know about it.)  At the same time, guys seems to love movies like this and I think, in the future, Everest will probably be remembered for being the epitome of a guy movie.

And that’s not meant to be a criticism on my part!  Everest does what it does with a lot of skill and confidence.  It’s an exciting film that, once the disaster hits, will leave you breathless.  And yes, at the end of the film, I did shed a tear or two.  Narratively, there’s really not a surprising moment to be found in the entire film.  I went into Everest not even knowing it was a true story and I was still able to guess who would survive and who would not.  But Everest‘s amazing visuals make up for the predictable narrative.  The term “visually stunning” is probably overused (especially by me!) but Everest is truly a visually stunning film.  For someone like me — who has asthma, a huge fear of heights, and who lives in North Texas (where, regardless of what you may see in the movies, the land is remarkably flat) — Everest is probably as close as I’ll ever get to climbing a mountain.

I should also mention that it never ceases to amaze me that Josh Brolin was born in Santa Monica, California because, on the basis of this film and No Country For Old Men, he is one of the most convincing Texans to appear in the movies.  In this film, he plays Beck Weathers, a Dallas doctor who is a member of Rob’s expedition team.  Usually, of course, if a Texan (especially one who is specifically identified as being a Republican, as Beck is at the beginning of a film) shows up in a movie, you know he’s going to end up being the villain.  Fortunately, Everest was based on a true story and, as a result, Beck turned out to be one of the most compelling characters in the film.  (If you know the story behind the film, you already knew that.  However, I went into Everest blind.)  Josh Brolin brings a lot of strength to his role and to the film overall.

Everest may predictable but it’s still an exciting film.  Make sure that you have someone beside you to whom you can hold on and that you see it in 3D!

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #117: Never Let Me Go (dir by Mark Romanek)


NeverletmegoposterquadI can still remember, back in the year 2010, when I first saw Never Let Me Go at the Dallas Angelika.  Going into the film, I didn’t really know what was waiting for me.  I hadn’t read the novel that it was based on.  All I knew was that it had a cool trailer and it starred two of my favorite actresses, Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley.  Before I watched Never Let Me Go, I didn’t even know who Andrew Garfield was but that changed quickly.  Never Let Me Go took me by surprise.  I figured it would be a sad movie, based on the melancholy trailer and title.  But I had no idea how sad or effective it would be.  By the end of the movie, I was in tears.

And, even though I was already writing for this site at the time, I somehow never wrote up a review of Never Let Me Go.  Oh, I certainly meant to.  I went out of my way to recommend the movie on twitter.  I included it on my list of films that deserved Oscar consideration.  But I never actually got around to writing that full review.  The emotions were just too overwhelming.

Well, I’m going to use this opportunity to recommend that, if you haven’t already, you make an effort to see Never Let Me Go.  It’s a beautifully done film, one that confirms that director Mark Romanek is a major talent who really should have more than just three feature films to his credit.  (True, he does have a lot of music videos…)  As well, the film was written by Alex Garland, which should interest those of you who fell in love with Ex Machina earlier this year.

As for the film itself, it takes place in a world where, we’re told, a medical breakthrough was discovered in 1952 that allows people to live to be over 100 years old.  The details of that medical breakthrough are slowly revealed to us over the course of the film.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible to really talk about this film without revealing those details so consider this to be your SPOILER WARNING.

Basically — much as in Clonus — life has been extended through the use of cloning.  Cloned children are raised outside of the view of “normal” society.  They go to special schools.  And when they turn 18, they are harvested for their organs.  Clones are told that their ultimate goal is to “complete,” which is a polite way to say that most of them die before they ever reach 30.  A few lucky ones are allowed to be “carers.”  They take care of and comfort dying clones and, as a result, they get to put off their first organ donation for a few years.

Unlike Clonus, where the cloning was clandestine and done only to benefit the very rich, the clones are not a secret in Never Let Me Go.  Everyone knows why they exist and everyone knows what is going to ultimately happen to them.  Whenever the clones are allowed to leave their schools and explore the real world, they are greeted with a mix of hostility, fear, and guilt.  Because they are due to be sacrificed, society chooses to believe that the clones are somehow less than human.

As for the clones, the majority of them accept their fate.  You watch Never Let Me Go and you keep waiting for some sort of revolution and it never comes.  Some of the clones are angry.  Many of them desperately believe that there’s some way that they can avoid having to give up their organs.  A good deal of the film is spent listening to people you’ve come to love talk about getting a “deferral” that the audience knows does not exist.  For the most part, though, the clones passively accept their fate because that’s what they’ve been raised to do.

The film itself follows three clones from their childhood to their completion.  Kathy (Carey Mulligan) is a carer.  Ruth (Keira Knightley) starts out as a snob but softens as her fate becomes more and more inevitable.  And, lastly, there’s Tommy (Andrew Garfield).  Tommy starts out as an awkward young boy and he grows up to be an awkward young man.  Of all of them, Tommy is the most convinced that, as a result of the artwork he innocently drew as a boy, he will somehow be given a deferment.  Garfield is so heartbreaking in this role.  When he finally snaps and screams in frustration, you scream with him.

Never Let Me Go is not an easy film to watch but it’s one that I highly recommend.  It’ll make you think and it’ll make you cry.  And after you watch the movie, read Kazuo Ishiguro’s wonderful novel.  It’s even more heart-breaking than the movie.

Embracing the Melodrama Part II #110: Atonement (dir by Joe Wright)


Atonement_UK_posterWhenever I think back on the 2007 best picture nominee Atonement, my first thought is usually, “Oh my God!  Benedict Cumberbatch is in this movie!”

And, indeed, he is.  However, I’m kind of glad that I didn’t know who Benedict was when I first saw this film because, if I had, I doubt I would have ever been able to look at him in quite the same way again.  (Fortunately, I had somehow forgotten that I had previously seen him in Atonement when I first saw Benedict in Sherlock.)  Benedict’s role in Atonement is not a large one but it is pivotal to the film’s plot.  He plays Paul Marshall, a man who has made a fortune as a chocolate manufacturer in pre-World War II England.  Paul is handsome, charming, and rich.  After all, he’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch.  He’s also a rapist who, later in the film, marries one of his victims specifically to make it impossible for her to ever testify against him in court.

Atonement is one of those films where the British upper class meets the lower class and forbidden love and tragedy follow.  Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) is the oldest of the Tallis sisters.  Her family is rich but she’s in love with Robbie Turner (James McAvoy), the son of the housekeeper.  One night, Robbie attempts to write a love note to Cecilia and, growing frustrated with his inability to come up with right words, he writes an over-the-top, sexually explicit letter as a joke.  (And the audience gaps, “Oh my God!  They used that word in the 30s!?”)  He then goes on to write a more standard love note.  However, when he asks Cicilia’s younger sister, 13 year-old Briony (Saorise Ronan) to deliver the note to Cecilia, he accidentally gives her the wrong note.  Briony reads it to her cousin Lola (Juno Temple) and, already jealous of Robbie and Cecilia’s flirtation, she decides that Robbie must be a “sex maniac.”

Briony, who writes plays in her spare time, later spies on Robbie and Cecilia as they have sex for the first time.  Briony, who has a crush on Robbie, grows more and more jealous.  Later that night, while looking for Lola’s twin brothers, Briony sees a man running through the woods.  When she goes to investigate, Briony discovers that the man has raped Lola.  When asked by the police, Briony lies and says that Robbie was the man running in the woods.  She also shows everyone the “joke” letter that Robbie wrote, proving, in their eyes, that Robbie is guilty.  Robbie is sent to prison.  Of the Tallises, only Cecilia believes that Robbie is innocent.  Angered over their quickness to accuse Robbie, Cecilia cuts off all contact with her family.

As the years pass, Briony comes to realize that Paul was the rapist and she struggles to deal with her guilt.  When World War II breaks out, Robbie is released from prison on the condition that he join the army.  Meanwhile, Briony volunteers as a nurse and tries to come up with a way to bring Cecilia and Robbie back together.

I didn’t really appreciate the film the first time that I saw it but, with subsequent viewings, I came to appreciate Atonement as an intelligent and well-acted look at guilt, forgiveness, and redemption.  James McAvoy and Keira Knightley both have amazing chemistry and Saoirse Ronan is amazing in her film debut.  You can see why Atonement‘s director, Joe Wright, subsequently cast her in Hanna.  Compared to the other films nominated for best picture of 2007 — No Country For Old Men, Juno, There Will Be Blood, and Michael ClaytonAtonement is definitely a low-key film.  But it definitely more than deserved its nomination.