The Art of Self-Defense: element of surprise. (No-spoiler film review.)

A young man recovering from a brutal street attack happens upon a martial arts dojo and decides to join in order to learn self-defense.

Seems like a premise for a simple, straightforward plot, right?

We’ve been lucky with movies lately, Callaghan and I. As infrequently as we go to the theater, it’s pleasing when two consecutive outings put us in front of brilliant cinema. First we watched Midsommar, and then The Art of Self-Defense.

 

 

When independent film distributor Bleecker Street released The Art of Self-Defense, we didn’t take notice. The movie wasn’t getting a lot of attention, and we weren’t paying a lot of attention. It slipped by us into the theater as quietly as a ninja too broke to buy a ticket.

As it turned out, we almost missed it! The showing we caught at Alamo Drafthouse would be the last of The Art of Self-Defense not only at that theater, but at any in our vicinity.

I didn’t know anything about this film beforehand. Sitting down unaware that I was in for a black comedy – a favorite genre of mine – proved to be a fascinating experience in and of itself, a treat of a discovery. The film’s comedic elements appear at the beginning (Rex Kwan Do, anyone?), while the dark aspect stalks through at its own, measured pace: it develops incisively and in tandem with the protagonist’s own development as a karate student.

More than comedy with a dark underbelly, The Art of Self-Defense stands as a feat of comedy and horror merging agreeably while maintaining their respective identities. It’s a film with a lot of personality considering its small cast of characters, a black comedy whose darkness takes on a voice and insistence of its own, as if to challenge the humor. First I was amused, then successively perplexed, frustrated, and appalled… and in the end, I was rewarded. I found the ending of this film to be immensely satisfying. A rarity!

(You might be wondering how I didn’t know that The Art of Self-Defense is a black comedy when the words are printed right there on the film poster. This is where I admit that the poster only caught my attention because it features people wearing karate uniforms. I didn’t read the quoted text.)

The Art of Self-Defense stars Jesse Eisenberg  (Zombieland) as its protagonist, and it was written and directed by relative newcomer Riley Stearns. Beyond a sharply penned black comedy piece, Mr. Stearns wrote a straight-up satire on toxic masculinity, the concept of which slaps you in the face over and again as the story progresses, as a good satire should. If you’re unfamiliar with toxic masculinity before seeing this film, I can guarantee that you’ll have an idea of it after seeing it. The Art of Self-Defense is a smart, successful film; it’s jarring in its boldness, which is the paramount feature of exploitation cinema.

My only regret in seeing The Art of Self-Defense is that I got to it so late in its run-time. I wish I’d seen this film early enough to recommend as a theater viewing! You may find it lingering in theaters here and there. No matter – it’ll be just as clever and fun on a smaller screen.

 

 

Midsommar: you don’t go to frolic. (A review, of sorts. No spoilers.)

On Sunday, we went to the movies anticipating a good scare, because we thought we were about to see a normal horror flick. But that plan didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. Nothing about Midsommar turned out the way I thought it would. Midsommar is a film that does things to you. Leaving the theater, it was more “what just happened to me?” than “what did I just see?”

There’s horror, and then there’s Midsommar.

 

 

Writer/director Ari Aster (Hereditary) and independent film distributor A24 bring us a masterpiece of psychological horror in Midsommar. One needs to be somehow mentally prepared to see it. Don’t look to the trailer for help with this, because the “scary” parts aren’t even in it. Midsommar is disturbing to the extreme. For me, it was an unsettling and inexplicably compelling visceral experience.

A group of four American friends travel to Scandinavia at the invitation of a fellow student at the university. He’s from Sweden, and he’s spoken of a special summer festival held in his small community back home. The festival takes place only once every 90 years! Cultural anthropology doctoral candidates can’t pass it up, can they? Especially considering that they’re still wavering on where to train their focus in their graduate studies. An ancient festival in Sweden, now, that would be different. One of the students has a girlfriend suffering in the aftermath of a tragic event; she tags along, desperate to hang onto her caring yet ambivalent boyfriend.

And so we’re all shepherded to Sweden by our congenial Swedish student friend. He’s happy to take us on this trip to experience the festival… and a trip, it is.

I’m leaving by the wayside any attempt at sounding intellectual in this review, because I’m not an expert reviewer, and it’s difficult to characterize how I felt from the time the Americans reached Sweden. Having made this disclaimer, I can say that once the group arrived at the festival in all its isolated, bucolic splendor, it was just WTF piling on WTF slowly and steadily throughout the rest of the film. Midsommar is a true WTF-fest. By the end of the movie, I felt pinned to my seat beneath the weight of a WTF stone tower, each stone heavier than the last. If I needed the restroom during this movie, I couldn’t feel it. Midsommar is completely immersive, and that is one of its horrifying strengths.

In Midsommar, Ari Aster seeded the horror in the atmosphere of the setting; from there, he grew and cultivated it with methodical precision. Simple acoustic music played by festival hosts takes the shape of a voice that serves as much as a character as the actors. Skillful usage of foreshadowing and symbolism help the film to burrow under the skin. There are no jump-scare cheap thrills in this film.* An early scene in which the group is driven through the Swedish forest to the festival is presented upside-down. This bit of symbolism sets the tone for the rest of the movie as standard horror conventions fly out of that upside-down vehicle’s window.

We are in Sweden in the summer. Our tendency is to think of horror unfolding in the dark, but Midsommar is horror unfolding in a place that never gets dark.

Elsewhere in the horror genre, we might experience the horror of, say, a haunted house. In Midsommar, we experience the horror of nature in a peaceful, Scandinavian countryside.

Midsommar robbed me of some pedantic horror-movie joys: a few things happened that I guessed would happen, but I couldn’t take satisfaction in guessing correctly, because the events played out in ways more twisted than I could have imagined. I was too traumatized to be smug.

That’s the thing about this film. Even if you know what f*cked up thing is about to happen, you can’t believe what you’re seeing as it’s happening. The happening is more horrific than the thing, itself.

Another of Midsommar’s strengths is that it’s horror that could occur in real life. You think, this could happen. Then you dare think, maybe it does.

I’ve spent the past few days recovering from this nightmare film, and yet I’m sitting here recommending it. As disturbing as it is, Midsommar is impressive and beautifully wrought. The writing, direction, and acting are superb. It’s a fine work of indie art, as we’d expect from A24.

When we stopped at the store after the movie, I made my way through the aisles feeling disoriented and panicky. I was jumpy and irritable. You would’ve thought I was in Costco, not Whole Foods! Everything freaked me out: interactions with people in the store. The color white. The flowers for sale. My inability to find an item that I needed. The cashier handing me the receipt.

I saw runes everywhere, in everything. I still do. It’s chilling to the core.

I don’t know whether a film this macabre, graphic, and psychologically disturbing can be an Academy Awards contender, but if it can, Midsommar deserves nominations. The big ones all apply: writing, acting, directing, cinematography, musical score, costumes, editing.

If you’re up for the challenge and thrill of psychological horror, go see Midsommar in the theater! You need the theater to optimize the immersive experience of it. I would recommend that you see it in any case. It’s an excellent film. It’s an experience. As the tag-line says, let the festivities begin.

*****

*Don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy carefully placed cheap-thrill jump scares!

 

 

Pay attention: It’s Hereditary. (Non-review movie review!)

My partner-in-crime Caroline and I anticipated Hereditary for months, so you can believe that we were in that theater on the morning of opening day. I do have something to say about this film, but it constitutes even less of a “non-review movie review” than usual. This is not a review of the movie. It’s a mere commentary on my reaction to it.

 

 

First, I found the ending to be disappointing, which affected my immediate opinion of the whole movie. I don’t know what I was expecting the ending to involve. I guess I wasn’t expecting it to involve what it did. It wasn’t the ending that I wanted.

Well, that was my problem, because the movie turned out to be an overwhelming success for me as a person who loves to get scared by horror movies, and who very rarely gets scared by them. Hereditary got to me. I just didn’t realize it until later that day. And that night. And the next day. And that was the beauty of it: the delayed reaction.

[Sidenote: It made no sense that I left the theater with such a dominant feeling of dislike for the ending, because while I was complaining about the ending, I was also marveling at the excellence of the production as a whole… not to mention Toni Collette’s stunning performance.]

I didn’t think that Hereditary had any effect on me, but then the day drew to a close, the sun went down, and I started to look around the house apprehensively. Hours later, I got ready for bed feeling more than a little creeped out. I thought back to the movie and couldn’t pinpoint a single scene or instance to blame.

Hereditary wound itself into the back of my mind, and then its creep-factor unraveled forward and stayed with me for a good two days.

That night, I couldn’t bring myself to turn off the dim lamp in the dining room when departing with my glass of water. For the first time, I was so spooked by a movie that I didn’t want to turn out the light. I’m not afraid of the dark.

I went to bed with my heart thumping in my chest.

Tired as I was, I stayed awake. Then I had to pee, but I was loathe to get out of bed, so I held it. How old was I the last time that happened, if ever? Five?

A shuffling sound moved quietly across the space by the closet. I couldn’t breathe. Callaghan didn’t move. When it happened a second time, Callaghan murmured that it was the fan blowing his cup off the nightstand, which didn’t make sense because the small fan was sitting on the floor, and the cup was up above and full of water. He reached down to turn off the fan. I didn’t hear the sound again.

The next day, I went around with many questions in mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie. Caroline and I discussed it in a flurry of messages. She said that when she woke up at 2:44am to get a drink of water, she was “kind of freaked out and heard noises” as she walked around in the dark.

“I felt like there was something on the ceiling… following me as I walked to the kitchen,” she said. “And I heard a bump… and the hairs on my neck stood up and I gingerly looked up… but there was nothing there. ghghhghg.”

I would say that this sums up our joint reaction in terms of scariness on a scale of 1-10: ghghhghg.

I’ll be going to see Hereditary again… with Callaghan. This time, it’s his reaction that I’m anticipating.

 

Just believe: The Florida Project. (Non-review movie review!)

Last week, we went to the cheap seats (the iconic Tempe Pollack Cinemas) to see The Florida Project, a film about a young mother and her little girl who live in a run-down budget motel, and the motel manager’s conundrum of having to be an effective manager in difficult circumstances while also being the compassionate person that he is.

Theirs is one in a cluster of colorful, Disney-themed budget motels crouched on the outskirts of Disney World. The motels create a mini-village mostly populated by human beings living in poverty the likes of which most of us couldn’t imagine, while skipping distance away, tourists visit the Magic Kingdom.

 

 

In the Magic Kingdom’s shadow, the motels strung together with fantastical storefronts of various establishments – gift shops, corner markets, eateries – contain a precarious world concerned with survival… a world of have-nots and have-nothings. Worlds exist within other worlds, though. At the center of The Florida Project, the little girl, Moonee, explores her world and finds smaller ones, each of them magical. She knows where to find them.

Left largely to her own devices by her mother, who comes across as more sisterly than motherly, Moonee is like a little old person, wise in the ways of her universe yet oblivious to danger, to the fact that her mother is unstable in perhaps every sense of the word, and to the reality of living a hairsbreadth away from homelessness. It’s both a relief and a heartbreak to note that the difficulties of Moonee’s life haven’t deprived her of her childhood innocence.

Halley, Moonee’s mother, can’t seem to set examples of right and wrong, but she can exemplify elation and the ability to turn the mundane into wonder-provoking discoveries. In terms of parenthood, there’s fit and unfit, but can you be a thoroughly bad parent when you can show your child the incalculable value of joyful play in found moments?

Writer/director Sean Baker discovered Bria Vinaite on Instagram, and he cast her as Moonee’s mother. She is a treasure. Young Brooklynn Prince’s raw and unfettered performance as Moonee could make you believe that she’s not an actor, either, but a child who wandered onto the set. All of the children in the film are wonderful. And as the motel manager, Willem Dafoe – the only “named” actor in the film – gives a superb performance that eclipses any I’ve seen from him… after all these years, we finally get him in such a role!

 

 

I would describe The Florida Project as a dramedy, and I highly recommend it. Just believe.

Lingering: A Ghost Story. (Non-review movie review!)

A Ghost Story isn’t a horror film, but it’s haunting nonetheless. It’s haunted my thoughts since we first saw it last week.

 

 

Why do some spirits choose an afterlife of haunting?

A Ghost Story  raises a multitude of questions. I might as well start with that one.

As far as haunted house movies go, I’ve never been compelled to consider the fate of the ghost, or how lonely it must be for a ghost tethered to his place of haunting. But then, I’d never seen a haunted house movie from the perspective of the ghost.

It’s a despondent ghost who’s unable to leave his place until he gets his answer, or achieves his goal, whatever that may be. Time glides endlessly and the ghost goes along with it. It’s the only dimension he can traverse.

Watching this movie was a profound cinematic experience.

We begin with a married couple, but we never learn their names. I suppose this is because the humans in their physical bodies are more or less props, there to set in motion a possibly infinite journey. In the middle of the film, another nameless person passes through to hold forth at a social gathering. The scene ends and we never see him again, but we’re left thinking.

We fall deeper into introspection. What does it mean to be alive, to exist? What does it mean to be not-alive?

We witness the pain of grieving, but we feel the ghost’s pain more than the pain of the one still living. It’s the bereft ghost whose story we follow.

A Ghost Story is a ghost’s story, yet the ghost is not the protagonist. If the film has a protagonist, it’s the place to which the ghost is fixed. Or it’s the universe. Or it’s time.

If the ghost has a voice, it’s the sheet he wears, its movement, folds, and appearance; even the shape of its eye-holes as they seem to alter with his emotion. That’s the thing about this ghost: he’s emotional, even to the point of throwing the occasional tantrum. The ghost’s sheet is his voice, and Daniel Hart’s exquisite musical score – the most sorrowful voice in the film – makes it devastating.

Thus, the driving forces of A Ghost Story are inhuman. And yet, in this inhumanity, we perceive the timeless plight of humanity. This is brilliant writing. It’s poetry.

In my humble opinion, writer and director David Lowery succeeded with his experiment in mixing mediums to tell his story. Film as poem, or poem as film? When a work of art is effectively both, it doesn’t matter how you assign its primary medium.

Speaking of mediums, I’ll touch again on the expressiveness of the ghost’s sheet, because its authority is so striking in its simplicity. I was fascinated by the way the ghost stands or sits still and turns only his head to look to the side or back, so the folds of his sheet twist with the turn. The effect is dramatic, and that is the point. Facing forward, but looking elsewhere, the ghost’s sheet conveys that he inhabits temporal realms in a transcendence of future and past. We can perceive the enormity of this by merely looking at the drape of a sheet.

A Ghost Story is a highly visual film. It’s maybe 80% silent movie, if not more so. As the ghost lingers, there’s lingering in the silence; we linger on what there is to see. There’s lingering in the sustained notes of the musical score.

There’s more I could say about the significance of music in this film, on how it helps to speak for the ghost, and why, but I’ll hold back. In this aspect, though, A Ghost Story calls to mind The Piano. In The Piano, the instrument serves as voice for Ada, who can’t speak. Also silent, Ada expresses herself through her music.

Watching A Ghost Story, tears collected in my throat early on, and they stayed there until the end, the aforementioned musical score by Daniel Hart partially responsible, I’m sure.

Callaghan was mesmerized, too. When A Ghost Story was over, we looked at each other at the same time that we both said, “I want to see it again.” And we did see it again. I would see it yet again.

A Ghost Story is a beautiful film, a story to ponder and discuss. It’s an elegant study in the philosophical discipline of metaphysics, and it’s a poem. Maybe more than a moving picture, it’s a moving poem with pictures.

 

DUNkirk. (Non-review movie review!)

Last weekend, we went to see Dunkirk, an historical war drama written and directed by Christopher Nolan. As you may know, I enjoy historical war movies – the operative word being “historical.”

 

 

The film is named for the WWII event that took place in the town of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) on the shores of northern France: the rescue of allied forces hopelessly hemmed in by the Nazis.

I didn’t know anything about this event at the start of the movie; neither did I know much about it by the end. Dunkirk didn’t have a lot to teach. One thing I did learn is that I can gauge the appeal of a film by my degree of willingness to use the restroom in the middle of it. In the case of Dunkirk, the slightest urgency in my bladder had me rushing out of the theater.

Yes. I’d eagerly anticipated seeing Dunkirk, so it was with disappointment that I had no problem at all getting up to use the restroom about an hour in. I was disappointed because I feared missing… nothing. There was nothing worth the struggle of ignoring my bladder so I could sit through the remainder of the movie.

I wasn’t held in my seat by suspense (there was no suspense). I wasn’t invested in any character (there were no developed characters). I wasn’t afraid I’d miss out on great acting or brilliant writing going into the dialogue (there was very little in the way of dialogue).

Dunkirk starts out promising. There’s a scrappy kid on a mission to survive. He’s got his wits about him, and he seems resilient and resourceful. But the film’s human component fails to evolve beyond that. We never get to know the kid. What remains is a maelstrom of impersonal and chaotic drama that consumes the film, resulting in turbulence that had us fidgeting with annoyance and boredom.

I mean, we were utterly bored.

We yawned through scenes that seemed cut, altered, and pasted throughout the film. Did Nolan decide that after reaching the apotheosis of his vision in one scene, he could get away with making a few changes and then “saving as” so he could plug it in here and there? It was as if he re-worked the scenes repeatedly until he could use them to string the film together.

So yes… after an hour of this, I had no fear of missing anything in the 10 or so minutes I’d be out using the restroom.

Let me mention, too, the nuisance that is the film’s soundtrack. Dunkirk’s “music” is a ceaseless cacophony that plays too great of a part in that above-mentioned turbulence. The musical score could have used at least a measure or two of restraint, even a little bit of push-and-pull… not only to give us a break from the noise, but to employ the sound as a device of suspense-building.

Making it all worse was the fact that I later read about the event and found myself wondering whether the film was in fact historical or merely based on historical events. From what I read, it was more the latter. We saw fewer than 10 boats, fewer than five aircraft, and merely one or two hundred troops in peril. For all of its powerful, sweeping cinematography – the film’s great strength – we saw barely a fraction of the magnitude of the evacuation of Dunkirk. If Nolan’s strategy included condensing the event in order to give us a focal point representative of the event as a whole, he forgot to include in that strategy, as I said, an iota of character development to keep us engaged.

In summary, Dunkirk is inaccurate and repetitive. It’s somewhat difficult to follow as its perspective swings from land (specified as “mole”) , air, and sea, which made it often unclear as to where we were in time. The film has no human quality to speak of, which is why, perhaps, we felt no sense of profound triumph at the end of it. If you’re a fan of Nolan’s non-linear storytelling style and you wouldn’t mind seeing it applied to the telling of an historical event, then you may enjoy this movie.

We were drawn to Dunkirk by its trailer. We didn’t suspect that the merits of the film would stop there. We would have been better off leaving it at the trailer’s sweeping scenes, its enticing glimpses of sturm und drang and suggestions of gravitas promising an outcome of stirring heroism worthy of a film made more than 70 years later.

 

Wonder Woman: a superhero of a female bildungsroman. (Non-review movie review!)

We went to see Wonder Woman on Tuesday night.

 

 

When I say that this is not a real movie review, I really mean it. I’m in no way equipped to say everything that needs to be said about this excellent film. I could say that its writing, direction, casting, acting, film score, cinematography, costumes, et cetera are superb, and call it a day. It’s for the real film reviewers to elaborate on all of that, as I’m sure they have.

No, I’m only here to offer my personal reaction and observations, beginning with the women’s training, sparring, and battle scenes. (Those of you who know me are shocked, I’m sure!)

Be that as it may. Starting from there, here are my three main thoughts about Wonder Woman:

1). In making Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins didn’t hold back. She directed the women to fight the way actual, trained women fight: brutally. Trained female fighters are fearless and capable of taking tons of pain and punishment, and Jenkins hands the general population this reality with no-big-deal nonchalance. How refreshing and unexpected it was to see these women training and sparring like they were actually trying to kill each other.

 

 

2). It’s with this same deftness that Jenkins merges the film’s worlds in time and dimension without skipping a beat, at the same time crossing Wonder Woman over multiple genres. With its tight, complex plot, this film has something for everyone. You want to watch a movie about ancient western mythology? Wonder Woman. You want to watch a superhero movie? Wonder Woman. You want to watch a Great War movie? Wonder Woman. You want to watch a drama with a little comedy thrown in? An action/adventure flick? How about a martial arts action flick? Wonder Woman.

(About that last: you want to watch real-life tough, highly trained, battle-scarred badass women warriors facing off in real-life action? Watch MMA.)

 

 

3). The film is really all of the above, but the way I see it, Wonder Woman is, at its core, a female bildungsroman presented in a superhero framework, a coming-of-age story ending with the protagonist fully realizing who she is. Literally. It’s maybe too easy in this regard, but it works. The result is breathtaking. First of all, the notion of a female bildungsroman disguised as a superhero movie is, in itself, brilliant.

Directed by anyone other than Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman might have turned out to be another one-dimensional superhero flick. In Jenkins’ hands, Diana did not come out to be a sword-wielding piece of ass in a short skirt, and neither did the Amazons. Diana is the hero, contingent on nothing, peripheral to no one.

What there is to drool over here is a well-crafted film that’s already a classic.

Not to mention, the battle-scene fight sequence choreography is stunning.

Phoenix Forgotten. (Failed non-review movie review!) (+PTSD diagnosis story)

We went to watch Phoenix Forgotten, which brought back the year of 1997.

As I sat there, it occurred to me for the first time that the beginning of my PTSD coincided with the Phoenix Lights.

[NOTE: The link function to open the linked page in a new window is down at the moment, so you’ll have to back-arrow to get back here]

 

 

Probably many of us living here in Phoenix metro in 1997 remember the lights that moved over the Valley in March. For me, 1997 was also eventful because it involved numerous doctors throughout the year. 1997 was the year I was diagnosed with PTSD. Yes – six years post-main event.

I wasn’t in school in 1997. I was taking a year off, the year after college and before grad school. There were only two things on my agenda for 1997: write poems and train for my black belt in Tae Kwan Do. I was also working.

So I was doing all of that, just minding my own business, like you do, and then, one night, I went to bed feeling sick to my stomach. As soon as I closed my eyes, my heart jumped in and crashed the party, like, Hey! I’m here too! Whheeeeeee! Cannonball!!!… and I couldn’t breathe, and I thought I was going to die of a cardiac event.

Then I was waking up. It was morning. What the hell just happened?

It happened again the next night, and the next and the next. It got to a point where I was too gun-shy to go bed. Going to bed had become a horrifying prospect, so every night, I put it off until I was passing-out tired. I don’t know why I didn’t go to the doctor sooner.

Eventually, I did go to the doctor, because I had an episode that was different than the others, and that was the proverbial last straw.

In that episode, I was trapped in another dimension and I was going to die for sure. Somewhere between awake and sleep, something happened. If I was completely asleep, it would’ve been a nightmare. Whatever this was, it was psychedelic and real, like, 3D real… and that was on top of the physical Armageddon that was my new normal. After I survived that night, I finally went to the doctor.

*****

1997 became a year of medical mystery. I went back and forth between different internists and specialists, cardiology and gastroenterology and cardiology again, everyone referring me to everyone else. I was deemed healthy – good news! – but I was still having these ridiculous episodes.

Then my baffled first internist started asking me questions about my background. When it came out that I was a combat vet, she referred me to a shrink. The shrink explained that panic attacks mimic heart conditions and other physical issues, which was why no one thought of the PTSD possibility.

He explained that the first episode was a panic attack. After it recurred nightly for a period of time, it became a panic disorder (PTSD, in my case). And the next-level attacks, he said, were “night terrors.”

Why did it take so long for the PTSD to manifest? He said it wasn’t unusual for vets to come home fine and then experience a trigger years later. The trigger could be anything, he said. So what was my trigger? We’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter.

All we know is that my PTSD was triggered by something in the spring of 1997. Coincidentally, I’m sure, the Phoenix Lights also happened in the spring of 1997.

*****

I sat in the movie theater remembering and pondering all of this, and that is how my non-review movie review became a post about my PTSD diagnosis.

I can’t be objective about this movie, but I can say that in my opinion, it wasn’t bad.

Phoenix Forgotten begins on a robust note, then bleeds out into the Found Footage horror movie sub-genre. In my experience, Found Footage movies made after the first Blair Witch Project are doomed to the basement where Bad Horror Flicks live. I often really enjoy Bad Horror Flicks, but I can’t even say whether this movie was bad enough to qualify as that bad.

If you’re intrigued by the Phoenix Lights and/or you’re a fan of Found Footage horror movies, you may dig this one.

 

 

The Mysterious Case of the White-sheeted Ghost (in the Shell)

We went out to see a movie last weekend. The usual assortment of trailers rolled before our eyes ahead of the featured film. One trailer stood out. It caught me off guard. Then my surprise turned to annoyance and dismay, and I wanted to stop it there, but it kept returning to my thoughts, and now I’m just fed up.

Here’s the thing…

  • There’s a popular manga series (Japanese comics) called Ghost in the Shell.
  • Ghost in the Shell has been adapted to the big screen in a live-action production.
  • The Japanese story is set in Tokyo, Japan.
  • The protagonist is Major Motoko Kusanagi, and she is played by… wait for it… Scarlett Johansson.

Scarlett Johansson isn’t Japanese? No problem! We have CGI (digital special effects), and we can use it to make her look Asian! Because the actress doesn’t have to BE Asian. She just has to LOOK Asian. “Asian” is all about how you look, after all. Japanese are actually bananas… yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Use CGI to turn Scarlett Johansson yellow! Also, we have clever make-up artists. We can do stuff to make Scarlett Johansson look Asian, so there’s no need to cast an actual Asian woman for the lead role. Thank heavens. There’s a billion dollars to be made from this picture, and we need Scarlett Johansson in order to make it.

Except the CGI and make-up didn’t work. It just looks like the crew tried to make Scarlett Johansson look Asian.

 

The many faces of Scarlett JAPANsson

 

Scarlett Johansson thinks she’s turning Japanese/I (don’t) really think so. (If you watched MTV in the 80’s, you can name that song.)

And if you were to insist that the ethnicity of the main character in a manga/anime movie is open to interpretation (to which manga and anime fans would say perish the thought), then at least don’t keep the character’s name “Motoko Kusanagi” when you cast Scarlett Johansson, for crying out loud. Keeping the name “Motoko Kusanagi” obliterates any argument that the character shouldn’t necessarily be of Japanese ethnicity. The old “anime characters’ features are made to look more western, anyway” argument doesn’t work, either. The characters are still Japanese. Major Motoko Kusanagi is Japanese. If artistic liberties had been taken with the character’s ethnicity, then no effort would have been expended to make Scarlett Johansson look the part.

When asked about it, Scarlett Johansson allegedly said that she didn’t mind taking a role that could have been given to an Asian actress because the role “empowers all women.” I’m not kidding.

We need to talk about Hollywood’s apparent problem with ethnic representation and how they’re going to reconcile it with their pride in being the paradigm of societal righteousness. Casting a Caucasian actor to portray an Asian character isn’t new in Hollywood, and Asians aren’t the only ethnic minority group of artists being passed over. Whitewashing is an on-going insult, a symptom of the institutional racism embedded in Hollywood. That racism doesn’t look to be going anywhere. No (privileged white) actor has the right to make sanctimonious speeches about the superiority of diversity and inclusiveness in Hollywood. The hypocrisy here is staggering.

Frankly, it makes my skin crawl, this idea of casting a white actor and then using CGI and/or make-up to adjust the features to match the character’s ethnicity when you could simply cast an actor of that ethnicity.

Ghost in the shell, indeed. One thing’s for sure: they nailed the invisibility part.

“La La Land” in a flash of whitening.

We went to see La La Land to catch up with the hype it’s been generating. Then, on Facebook the other day, I joked about writing “La La Land annoys me and I’m not sorry.” This was met with interest, and I do appreciate your interest! Here we go.

La La Land, a film widely beloved as a throw-back to Old Hollywood, has a core cast about as diverse as a pile of snowballs in a blizzard. We were both surprised by the extent of its whiteness.

Also, in a bizarre twist on the familiar trope, the story peaks when the knight in shining armor races up on his steed to rescue a damsel’s career in distress.

And there are no gay characters in La La Land, which I found to be an odd omission.

What is happening? At the Golden Globes, a highly acclaimed veteran actress extolls Hollywood’s diversity and then contrasts it with football and MMA. Football is indeed decidedly all-American. MMA, though, is an international sport that’s arguably more diverse than Hollywood… her example a blunder she makes due to her preconceived notions (effectively reinforcing conservatives’ view that liberals are elitist and hypocritical). Ironically, the notably nondiverse La La Land sweeps the same awards ceremony. Now the Oscar nominations have been released, and La La Land again leads the way. 14 nominations!

(This is not a commentary on those who enjoyed La La Land. If I had a penchant for romance films and musicals, I’d find it dazzling, too.)

La La Land is a boy meets girl story.

 

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The two artists collide and collide again and then again and then finally get together in rapturous love, but the missed-connections shenanigans continue. One aspect of the plot I appreciate – and it’s a major aspect – is the sincere concern each has regarding the other’s faithfulness to their art.

They don’t end up together, but they get what they want, professionally: at the end, he’s opened his jazz club, and she’s reached stardom.

She reached stardom because she wrote a play at his encouragement, and when that led to a call for her possible big break, he heroically raced across a state line to collect her and get her there.

The one black character in the film plays a pivotal, yet behind-the-scenes role. Interestingly, the white lead character envisions a livelihood in an old-school jazz club, and the black background character convinces him that the way to go is to make money playing keys with a touring pop band.

So I have questions, beginning with: Stone and Gosling? Why? They’re excellent actors, but they’re clearly not singers and dancers. And why is Hollywood enamored with La La Land to the point of 14 Oscar nominations? With its nostalgic, retro tone, the film seems intent on recapturing the magic of a Hollywood moment that took place in the 50’s/60’s, an exceptionally racist moment in Hollywood history… and not a good moment for women in the industry, either.

From the standpoint of craft, the film is undeniably glorious. But in this time of political fervor driving Hollywood even more to give impassioned speeches for inclusiveness and equality, the favoritism toward La La Land is off-key.

Hell or High Water. (Non-review movie review! NO SPOILERS.)

You may have noticed that my non-review movie reviews are almost all positive. That would be because I prefer to “review” movies I like. Generally, if I don’t care for a film, I won’t write about it. I’ve seen fewer than 10 movies this year, and only two of them were disappointments. (I’m looking at you, Captain America: Civil War and Suicide Squad.)

This brings me to the part where I declare, for what little it’s worth, that Hell or High Water is easily the best film I’ve seen this year. It is brilliant.

The story, which takes place in Texas, though the movie was filmed entirely in New Mexico, is about relationships. Two parallel, family relationships.

 

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Complicated dynamics relationships. Love shown in funny ways relationships. Beer as an olive branch relationships.

Big talk, slick talk, real talk, risk-taking relationships. Loyalty to the bone relationships.

Stoic guy, desperate guy relationships.

Hell or High Water is a testosterone-driven story, so don’t go in looking for strong female characters. The few women in the mix are peripheral. We never get to meet the most important woman in the film, because she’s dead. Central to the plot, but dead.

Thankfully, no one saw the need to throw in a love interest, because that would water down the beautiful disaster that is the protagonists’ predicament.

With the action fueled by family hardship, the events amount to a test of emotional stamina in the context of moral limits. Pacing is critical. We’re fortunate in the hands of director David Mackenzie (Starred Up); we trust that he can calibrate the hell out of a story, and he doesn’t fall short. Hell or High Water demonstrates how restraint can heighten the tension in a film and effectively build its suspense. Here, we see it masterfully done. I was hardly aware that I was holding my breath.

Not to mention, it was fantastic to sit down in a theater and find myself before a fine piece of writing. Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) wrote an intelligent film of considerable depth. I loved the unconventionality of the plot arc barely descending after the climax. The film leaves you hanging on the other side, but near the top, right where you want to be and don’t want to be.

Again, restraint.

 

 

As a result, we walked out on a variety of cliff-hanger that demands no sequel.

I highly recommend this film, if you don’t mind a little gunfire. It’s really, as I said, about relationships.

 

Don’t Breathe. (Non-review movie review! NO SPOILERS.)

Don’t Breathe is a thriller/drama, otherwise known as a thrillama. (Adorable, right? If that term didn’t already exist, it does now.) It’s categorized as a horror film because there’s no other way to describe the shit that goes down.

 

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Don’t Breathe is an anomaly of a horror film. There’s no hint of the supernatural. No monsters or creatures of lore. No deranged killer wearing a mask while hunting people. No scheming lunatic masquerading as an ordinary person in unsuspecting victims’ lives. No lethal super-virus trampling international borders. No evil aliens or UFOs. No colossal, razor-toothed fish torpedoing out of the ocean. No natural disaster threatening humankind with the apocalypse in a planetary meltdown. No serial killers. No creepy dolls. No clowns stalking children in the Carolinas. (Oh, wait… that’s not a movie. That’s really happening). (It’s not a movie yet, that is.)

There’s just a guy.

And he’s both a victim and a victimizer.

He has reason to do the things he’s doing, as he is being provoked. In his own home.

He does have an obsession, shall we say… but by the time it rears its head, the reveal is powerless to overtake the action and suspense already blurred in full throttle. We’re brought back to the central terror, albeit minus any sympathy we may have had for the guy.

Likewise, a reveal in the backstory of another character serves in the reverse: it seeks to help us feel sympathy for her, lest we’re feeling 100% like “she’s getting what she deserves”… though some of that sentiment may remain. It did for me. There can be no justification for her actions, but at least we’re given some kind of device with which to understand her emotional motives.

Don’t Breathe is smart, unlike a great percentage of its ilk. I enjoy a stupid, campy horror flick as much as the next devoted fan of the genre, but Don’t Breathe is a pleasurable breath of fresh air, as they say. Director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) crafted it into an exhilarating and tight ride.

I think I’ve said all I want to say that I can say without spoiling it for you, if you haven’t seen it. This aptly-titled film is worth the price of its ticket. (An alternate title could be Why Everyone Should Know How to Hot-wire a Car.) I recommend this film highly if you enjoy horror and/or thrillamas, if you don’t mind a bit of gore… and a lot of breath-holding.

Lights Out. (Non-review movie review! No spoilers.)

We went to see Lights Out two Fridays ago, which happened to be the night of our first major monsoon storm of the season.

It was daylight when we went in, and darkness with rain, booming thunder, and flashing light when we went out. The movie had been darkness and flashing light, too. All kinds of light. Flickering light, steady light, florescent light, candlelight, black light, light bulbs, headlights, stage lights, overhead lights, lamp lights, cell phone light, you name it.

 

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Lights Out is an old-school horror film that benefits from its uncomplicated plot, one part jump scares and one part jittery suspense. (In another dimension, one part atmosphere, one part sound design, both exquisitely crafted.) (In yet another dimension that’s irrelevant, no part award-winning acting.)

We didn’t care about the acting, and we didn’t care much about plot, although the plot in this film isn’t badly lacking. We just cared about being spooked by the monster as we sat ensconced in the dark theater.

See, in this movie, you don’t know when the lights will go out, and the first thing you learn is that when the lights go out, scary things happen. Lights Out preys on – or resurrects – our fear of the dark. It’s a simple premise, and that’s why it works.

Rather than wasting time and effort trying to impress us with plot complexity, character development, and CGI effects, the film teaches us how to react. It lends a coat of paranoia to each interior scene, each room, confining tension within the walls. The attention paid to the integrity of each scene maintains the mood, and I appreciated this consistency. There we were in a house that seemed real, with lighting that seemed real (not forced, as props as central motif can seem), holding our breath the whole time. Lights Out is back-to-basics, monster-under-the-bed horror, enjoyable and making no apologies for its lack of embellishments.

I found the monster in Lights Out to be satisfying, too. It’s scary because it’s elemental. It’s unencumbered by CGI overload, devoid of the cheesiness that often ruins the spook potential of contemporary horror movie evil entities.

To make my conclusion as simple as the movie itself: Lights Out is an entertaining horror movie.

 

Ghostastic Crazy: Ghostbusters 2016 (Non-review movie review! No spoilers.)

I went to see Ghostbusters 2016 with Callaghan, my partner in all kinds of crime.

 

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We’d both seen the original Ghostbusters  in the 80’s. He loved it. I don’t remember much about it; while I liked it, it didn’t make such an impression on me that I got caught up in the enduring excitement over it. So there we were at the theater, an original Ghostbusters fan and an original Ghostbusters mildly interested viewer, going in to see 2016’s version.

We found Ghostbusters 2016 to be wondrous. It’s daffy. It’s unapologetic. It’s funny, even hilarious at times. Yes, we laughed, often glancing at each other to find that we were reacting the same way. We also did a lot of leaning in and whispering to each other.

(One of many benefits of those glorious wide, puffy recliner seats in movie theaters is that you can whisper to each other without disturbing others.)

Our whispers mostly went as follows…

Callaghan: Holy sh*t this is funny!

Me: It totally is!

And…

Callaghan: I think this is better than the first one!!

Me: So do I!!

And…

Callaghan: Hell yeah!

Me: This is awesome!

And…

Callaghan: Hahaha Ozzy!!!

Me (at the same time): Ozzy!!

And then…

Callaghan: Is that Sharon? Where is Sharon? That must have been Sharon (Osbourne).

Me: I don’t think that was Sharon.

Callaghan: It kind of looked like Sharon.

And…

Callaghan: I love this!

Me: This is great!

You get the idea.

I don’t know what we were expecting, but we both loved it, and we both said we’d see it again.

We consciously opened our minds before we went in. This was necessary because the movie has generated a brou-ha-ha in the existing Ghostbusters fandom, some kind of kerfuffle that I swear has been the second-most pervasive topic on my FB newsfeed lately, the first being, shall we say, general furor of a political nature.

In fact, the outrage over politics only slightly overshadowed the outrage and scorn over Ghostbusters for a while as people engaged in flame-wars on Ghostbusters-related posts. I don’t know if this is still going on, because I’ve stopped paying attention.

The truth is, I haven’t clicked on any of the articles or blog posts. I just skimmed the titles, snippets, and comments as I scrolled past, because I knew I was going to see the movie, and I didn’t want my head all lit up with the acrimony and disdain flung about on the Internets.

From what I can gather, though, people are mad because the new movie called “Ghostbusters” features female ghostbusters… of all things.

Oh, and they’re mad because Melissa McCarthy is the Grinch who stole Ghostbusters.

And to think that all this time, I’ve been oblivious, blithely unaware that ghost-busting was a male-dominated field in the first place. I guess there are a few remaining men-only jobs, including catching ghosts. As it happens, at least one of the ghostbusters in 2016’s movie does sweat the machismo. She just happens to be a woman. And no, I’m not talking about Melissa McCarthy. I’m talking about Kate McKinnon.

Kate McKinnon’s character, Jillian Holtzmann, is weird, bad-ass, and wildly exaggerated. She’s a caricature. She’s brash, in-your-face, and unpredictable. She reminds me a lot of Lori Petty’s Becca in Tank Girl (1995), another rollicking, campy action/comedy/sci-fi flick (which happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time). Tank Girl isn’t highly rated. Neither is Ghostbusters 2016. But there are cases of lower-rated movies that are fantastic, fun jaunts with cult movie potential, and these two are great examples. Ratings are irrelevant because we’re just there to have a good time. We’re not afraid of no bad reviews.

 

Becca in Tank Girl on the left. Dr. Jillian Holtzmann in Ghostbusters 2016 on the right. NOT UNLIKE.

Becca in Tank Girl on the left. Dr. Jillian Holtzmann in Ghostbusters 2016 on the right. NOT UNLIKE.

 

The entire cast performed well, starting with Kristin Wiig’s character (Dr. Erin Gilbert) getting livid at Melissa McCarthy’s character (Dr. Abby Yates) and subsequently heading over to confront her. The two former best friends end up working together again, but not without the shade of their rift as the invisible third person in their duo. Leslie Jones’ character (Patty Tolan) brings the reality factor, and she does it with comedic aplomb. The dynamics between these four distinct personalities are amusing to watch.

Chris Hemsworth as the dumb blond secretary (Kevin Beckman) is hilarious, too, and also well-cast.

In our opinion, Ghostbusters 2016 is well-written with well-timed dashes of comedy. We loved the cameos and the setting of the digital world we now inhabit (Erin gets mad at Abby because of something she saw online). If the makers utilized CGI in the cheesiest way possible, they pulled it off as an effort that serves the movie well. This movie is supposed to be zany, not realistic.

Let’s be real. This is art, so it’s subjective. Not everyone will like this movie. But to go in already not liking it because the cast is female is unfair. Callaghan pointed out that women (especially as portrayed in movies) tend to be more attuned to the supernatural, which is true, from what I understand… so it makes sense that the ghostbusters are women. If The Conjuring’s paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren were to check out the haunted sites in the Ghostbusters movies, it would be Lorraine who’d experience most of the ghostastic crazy, and the craziest of it all, at that.

Callaghan can’t see the reason for the big deal because this new Ghostbusters plot barely resembles that of the first one, he says. As far as he can tell, this new one isn’t even a remake… it’s a different movie altogether. I have to trust him on this since I don’t remember much of the original’s story.

Ghostbusters 2016’s plot nods and winks at the old one more than copies it, and the nods and winks are as funny as hell.

Oh, and I’m a fan of Fall Out Boy’s cover of the theme song, too (featuring Missy Elliott).

 

The Nice Guys (Another informal review that’s not a review.)

The Nice Guys. The Nice Guys are Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, and from the title you know that their characters are either a). literally nice guys, or b). guys with nice-guy hearts buried somewhere deep in a flailing chaos of beating people up and sometimes killing them.

Of the movie’s various brands of humor, at least one will make someone in the audience laugh at least once. In my book, this signifies a successful comedy: make everyone in the audience bust up laughing at least once. When we went to see it, everyone laughed more than once, including us.

What the Nice Guys lack in aplomb, they make up for with dumb luck, and it is hilarious. The last time a dubious (yet strangely compatible) pair of investigators made us laugh like that was in Rush Hour. If Rush Hour had a grittier, hard-boiled cousin, it would be The Nice Guys.

 

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The writing is smart and crisp, the acting is effortless, and the fight scenes are interesting, with plenty of elbows thrown. Refreshingly, there were more elbow strikes than punches, fight scene choreography reflecting our growing public enthusiasm for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). I’m not sure if this counts as an anachronism, but I certainly enjoyed it. It’s about time Hollywood realizes that elbows are more practical weapons than fists in street fights.

If you’re a fan of Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Rush Hour, comedies, action flicks, or 70’s-ass suits and ‘staches, you might find it worth your while to catch The Nice Guys while you can.

10 Cloverfield Lane (Informal non-review review.)

You go into a sci-fi horror film prepared for some gore, and eventually, you get… just a little, if it’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. You might even be taken aback when it happens. You probably also go in anticipating campy sci-fi horror film fare, and you might get a tiny morsel of that, too. The smidgen of camp may even come with a light dressing of irony, which would make 10 Cloverfield Lane a clever specimen of its genre.

10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t insult the intelligence of its viewers. Its writers reveal what’s necessary to piece together the backstory from which horror arises. As important as that backstory may be, no one spells it out for us, and this restraint helps to make up for its lack of depth.

10 Cloverfield Lane is billed with the tagline “Monsters come in many forms.” This is apt, so you could say that it’s a monster movie as well as a horror movie, a thriller, a sci-fi movie, a sci-fi horror movie, and a drama… yet 10 Cloverfield Lane is in no danger of an identity crisis. It works just fine switching its hats. Horror seeps in as the mystery unfolds, and the Great Unknown serves as a character in and of itself.

 

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I just wanted to share these few thoughts with you, should viewer opinions interest you. Sci-fi horror (or sci-fi anything) is readily passed over by those not endeared to such films and their ilk. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re not a sci-fi fan, you may yet find something to enjoy in 10 Cloverfield Lane, as its appeal goes beyond the constraints of its genre.

SPOOKTASTIC: The Boy (movie review – NO spoilers)

There’s a scene toward the end of horror movie Dead Silence (2007) where the protagonist removes a cloth covering a mysterious shape. “Is that a doll?” asks the detective as he studies the revealed marionette. “It’s not a doll,” says the protagonist. “It’s a boy.”

This captures the central question in The Boy,  William Brent Bell’s new horror movie. Is it a doll, or is it a boy?

 

(from "Dead Silence")

(from “Dead Silence”)

 

I love good possessed-doll horror movies. And bad ones, for that matter.

To write a horror movie review without spoilers is almost to write no review at all. The challenge leaves me, an amateur film critic, with little more to say than, “I liked this movie,” or “I didn’t care for this movie.” But I do want to say a little bit about The Boy.

After the obvious Dead Silence, the next film that comes to mind is Poltergeist (1982). Poltergeist matters because it was my first spooky horror movie, so it set a standard of comparison. (I say “spooky horror” as opposed to “psycho slasher horror,” “serial killer horror,” “sci-fi horror,” “psychological horror,” “mystery horror,” etc.)

Poltergeist made an impression on me partly because I was 14 and new to the genre, but more because it was just a great film. Looking back on it now, after 33 years and countless more horror movies, I can appreciate the restraint and effective use of fright tactics in Poltergeist. The 2015 Poltergeist remake, on the other hand, did nothing but bore me. I couldn’t help but set it against the original in my mind. I rolled my eyes when the family moved into the house and the kid almost immediately discovered a whole box filled with clown dolls. I didn’t finish the movie.

The Poltergeist remake failed me because I wasn’t spooked by a pile of clown dolls in a box. I was spooked by one clown  illuminated in the night at the convergence of built-up of tension and weather, as in the original Poltergeist. That’s pacing. And nuance. And Steven Spielberg. Probably many of us Gen-X’ers derived our fear of clowns from that movie. I know for me, it was that clown that hooked me on the shiver of dread I’ve sought in spooky horror movies ever since. I don’t know that The Boy would inspire any such lasting impression on those who see it as their first spooky horror film, but it’s a solid example of nicely done metaphysical terror. Where spooky horror is concerned, “less is more” works for me.

The Boy has this focus in common with the original Poltergeist. There’s only one “boy” in The Boy.  If a remake of The Boy is ever done and it features triplets instead of a single child, I would roll my eyes and walk away, like I did during the Poltergeist remake. The clown doll in Poltergeist was little more than a prop, but it was the most memorable prop for many of us, and the creators of the remake knew it. That’s why they figured they’d capitalize on its impact by filling a box with clowns and shoving it at us at the beginning of the movie. “You got a major rush from that one scary clown in the first Poltergeist? Here, have a whole bunch of clowns!”

Granted, that box of clowns might be terribly scary to a child who sees the movie, but as an adult who saw the original decades ago and has henceforth proceeded in life with an instilled dread of clowns, that box of clowns was ridiculous.

For a more literal comparison, you could align The Boy with other “possessed doll as main character” films such as Child’s Play or Annabelle. Unlike Chucky and Annabelle, though, Brahms (the titular character in The Boy) isn’t made to look creepy. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I think of “Amelia,” a tale in Karen Black’s Trilogy of Terror (1975). The possessed doll in “Amelia” is so over-the-top in its vicious appearance, it safely clears the level of “trying too hard” and goes straight to campy gore. It’s one of my favorites.

Brahms in The Boy is not a possessed doll-turned-slasher. Brahms is a normal-looking porcelain doll who sits calmly and does basically nothing. Brahms resembles the eight-year-old male child shown in a painting hanging above the stairs in the darkly atmospheric English country manse that provides the setting for the movie.  If the Brahms doll is animate, it’s animate by suggestion only. We do not see it move. It is quiet. It doesn’t go tearing around the house with an upraised dagger. It doesn’t go ripping out people’s tongues. It’s this element of absence that spooks me more than the obvious, albeit entertaining, antics of the possessed dolls in other movies.

 

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The Boy features its share of horror movie tropes such as jump-scares and phones that suddenly don’t work and terrifying scenes that turn out to be nightmares, but these tropes are used judiciously and kept to a minimum so the story can evolve of its own accord. It’s a rare horror movie that doesn’t depend solely on cheap tricks to get reactions.

The Boy impressed us with its fresh take on the possessed-doll horror theme. I don’t know what else I could say without spoiling the film, so I’ll stop here. I do recommend this film if you’re a fan of the horror genre, or if you’re just curious.

Oh, and by the way… the clown in Dead Silence is, to date, my favorite of all the scary movie clowns, and that includes the one in Poltergeist. To me, it’s the scariest.

Scarier, even, than the one in Saw.

“Beasts of No Nation” and The Oscars should have collided, but they did not, and I can’t believe it.

As the dust settled at the end of this crazy week at work, I finally got to sit down and look at the list of nominees for Oscars at this year’s Academy Awards.

I’m happy with some of the big nominations. Mad Max: Fury Road and The Revenant  were two of my favorite films of the year (of the Best Picture nominees, I hope Mad Max wins). I also enjoyed Bridge of Spies, Creed, and The Big Short. 

I hope Amy  wins for Best Documentary Feature.

I wish that Ex Machina got nominated for something more than a small award.

Moving on to OUTRIGHT SNUBS, Straight Outta Compton, another of my favorite films of 2015, deserved a Best Picture nomination, in my opinion. I also believe that Straight Outta Compton is worthy of a Best Director nomination, and why Jason Mitchell didn’t get nominated for Best Supporting Actor as Eazy-E is beyond me.

But the main questions in my head as I read the list of Oscar nominees were:

1). Why wasn’t Idris Elba nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Beasts of No Nation?

2).  Why wasn’t Abraham Attah nominated for Best Actor for Beasts of No Nation?

3). Why wasn’t Beasts of No Nation nominated for Best Picture?

4). Why wasn’t Cary Joji Fukunaga nominated for Best Director for Beasts of No Nation?

5). Why wasn’t Beasts of No Nation nominated for Best Costume Design?

 

Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation.

Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation.

 

6). Why wasn’t Beasts of No Nation nominated for Best Cinematography?

7). Why wasn’t Beasts of No Nation nominated for Best Original Score?

 

 

(“A Song for Strika”)

At least Straight Outta Compton received a nomination for Best Writing – Original Screenplay. Beasts of No Nation received ZERO Oscar nominations. It was completely left out of the competition, and I’m incredulous. Who, exactly, is responsible for deciding what constitutes art in cinema?

Idris Elba’s searing performance as Commandant should be recognized. And young Abraham Attah? His performance as Agu hurt my heart so profoundly, I’m unable to shake the memory of it, or the pain I felt when I witnessed it.

That’s how Beasts of No Nation made me feel: Like a witness. Not a movie-goer, an audience member, an entertainment seeker. A witness. That is what good art can do. It can put us in the picture, in the moment, make us see and feel things we don’t necessarily want to see or feel; it can unflinchingly cast light on the abominable, because we need to see it. We need to acknowledge it.

A part of the brilliance of Beasts of No Nation is that somehow, overall, it manages to be poetic. Maybe at the end I was too emotionally spent to see it, but thinking back on it now that I’ve processed the film as a whole, the imagery in that last scene was poetry… and it was beautiful.

My personal feelings aside, Beasts of No Nation is next-level outstanding in every respect of film-making, and for it to have been excluded from the Academy Awards is a gross oversight. A colossal oversight. I would go so far as to say that it seems like a deliberate oversight, because anyone with eyes and a heart can see that it’s a masterpiece, and the movie-nominating people have eyes and hearts, do they not?

Idris Elba’s and Abraham Attah’s performances are performances that deserve Academy Award recognition.

Beasts of No Nation is difficult to watch, for sure, as I’ve said before. But art’s intention isn’t solely to entertain us. Good art in all of its genres makes us feel things, including real despair for real-life realities.

How is it that The Martian received a nomination for Best Picture, while Beasts of No Nation and Straight Outta Compton did not?

Two of my favorite movies of the year – both of which I thought were objectively stellar – were snubbed, and I can’t fathom why. I could go on and on about Beasts of No Nation, but there’s no need. I wrote a lot more about it after I saw it, so click here if you’re interested in reading that.

I’m actually so disappointed about the omissions on the list of Oscar nominees that I’m not even sure I want to watch the Academy Awards this year.

We got wrapped up in the Golden Globes and I have no qualms about sharing my thoughts.

Before I get started, I want to give a shout-out to @proselfdefence for sharing my post in the Arts & Entertainment section of The Martial Arts Daily. Thanks, guys!

In other blog-related news, I finally updated my “About Me” page. I admit I’d been avoiding it because of the “…we have two cats, Ronnie James and Nounours” part. Updating the page was painful, but it’s done, all shiny and current. I also added new category links in my sidebar [**points to the right**] in an attempt to organize this body of content, so you can check there if you’re looking for posts on specific topics.

Now that the blog house-keeping updates are out of the way, I can focus on the shameless frivolity that’s the subject of this post. (“Shameless” is my favorite kind of frivolity.) If you fellow pop culture fanatics are curious about my thoughts while watching the 2016 Golden Globes last Sunday, read on.

[Thoughts during the pre-show interview with Leonardo DiCaprio]:

  • Alejandro González Iñárritu actually dragged his cast around the world – including to the southern tip of Argentina – so as to be able to constantly film The Revenant in the snow and the freezing cold? DiCaprio should win. Also, great film, The Revenant.

[Thoughts during the main event]:

  • Kate Winslet collects the ceremony’s first award, and she’s already delivered the most poised acceptance speech of the night… even though she seemed genuinely shocked that she won!
  • Not to be mean or anything, but is Jane Fonda aware that her dress looks like it should be covering a Kleenex box in Great-aunt Lottie’s bathroom?
  • YES Maura Tierney wins for The Affair!! She deserves it, and not just for that awesome scene where she’s drunkenly singing “Changed the Locks” in her underwear.
  • OH NO HE DID NOT. (Quentin Tarantino)
  • Jamie Foxx: “OH YES HE DID.” (In so many words. Okay, in one word.)
  • Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt’s skit while introducing The Big Short – LOL
  • Aziz’ fake bookcover about “Losing Graciously to Jeffrey Tambor” hahaha!! Aziz is hilarious.
  • Why didn’t Aziz win for Master of None?? ROBBED.
  • So that’s what they mean when they say someone is “dripping in diamonds.” (Helen Mirren)

 

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Dame Helen Mirren at the 2016 Golden Globes

 

  • Helen Mirren gets more beautiful every year. How is that even possible. #AgingGoals
  • YES Lady Gaga wins for American Horror Story: Hotel!!
  • What is this music? Why aren’t they playing American Horror Story’s awesomely weird and creepy, noise-infused main title sequence tune as Lady Gaga goes up to the stage? This is the music that identifies AHS:

 

 

  • Totally impressed with Lady Gaga’s graciousness and humility in delivering her acceptance speech. It’s all the more endearing in contrast to her fabulously eccentric and commanding music persona. I LOVE HER.
  • (Madonna is probably so chagrined right now)
  • Of course the James Bond song wins for Best Song.
  • Um… is Ricky Gervais bringing the same glass of beer every time he comes up to the podium, or is he on his fifth beer?
  • Mr. Robot won over Empire?! NO.
  • The hell… The Martian is a comedy? Did I miss something? Did I fall asleep during the part that was so hysterically funny that the whole movie had to be classified as a comedy?
  • DENZEL! DENZEL!! Apparently we’re not the only ones who call him, simply, “Denzel.” Love that Tom Hanks pointed that out.
  • This montage of Denzel’s work is really beautifully done.
  • Denzel seems speechless accepting his Cecil B. DeMille Award, but still… DENZEL!
  • YES Sylvester Stallone wins for Creed!!
  • YES Taraji P. Henson wins for Empire!! COOKIE!!  

 

Tariji P. Henson as Cookie in "Empire"

Tariji P. Henson as Cookie in “Empire”

 

  • Hahaha Tariji handing out cookies on her way up.
  • Where is Ricky Gervais’ glass of beer?
  • Matt Damon wins “Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Comedy” for a movie that isn’t a comedy. I’m a big fan of Damon’s, but in my opinion, Steve Carell should have won for his role in The Big Short.
  • Did they classify The Martian as a Comedy so Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio wouldn’t have to compete with each other for Best Actor in a Drama? Because they both deserve Best Actor awards. But so did Steve Carell.
  • Come to think of it, I wouldn’t have classified The Big Short as a Comedy, either.
  • Maybe the definition of “comedy” has changed and we didn’t get the memo.
  • YES and BRAVO to Alejandro González Iñárritu and Leonardo DiCaprio for their awards for The Revenant!!
  • Aaaaand The Revenant wins Best Motion Picture! Well-deserved. We saw it last month, and we couldn’t believe how DiCaprio wasn’t even recognizable by the end of the movie. You know it’s a great performance when DiCaprio no longer looks like DiCaprio.

[/thoughts]

NOW.

While I’m here, I just want to take a minute to see if I’m getting this straight:

In 2000, there’s a movie starring an actor with comedic acting roots. He plays a character who meets disaster during a storm, and he ends up marooned on a deserted island. He must try to survive physically, mentally and emotionally. He befriends a volleyball named “Wilson.” Wilson the volleyball is the actor’s co-star. The movie is labeled a Drama.

In 2015, there’s a movie starring an actor with dramatic acting roots. He plays a character who meets disaster during a storm, and he ends up marooned on a deserted planet. He must try to survive physically, mentally and emotionally. He meets disaster upon disaster until he’s finally saved in a hair-raising, dramatic rescue mission. The movie is labeled a Comedy.

You’re drunk, movie-classifying people. Get a Lyft and go home.

2015 Favorites!

Today, instead of “December Favorites,” I’m diving right into my top favorite little things (some not so little!) of the year that just ended. These are my favorites of the favorites… if some of them are from December, you wouldn’t have seen them here before.

If you’re curious or you just enjoy these “Favorites” posts, read on! Here are the things I loved the most in 2015:

1). Favorite cruelty-free skin care products: Burt’s Bees coconut & pear moisturizing lip balm, The Body Shop camomile waterproof eye and lip make-up remover, The Body Shop honey & oat 3-in-1 scrub mask, Lavanila Laboratories The Healthy Sunscreen SPF 40 face cream, Tarte Maracuja C-Brighter eye treatment, Alba Botanica Hawaiian facial cleanser pore purifying pineapple enzyme, and Alba Botanica Hawaiian facial scrub pore purifying pineapple enzyme.

2). Favorite T.V. series: Empire, The Affair, American Crime, Better Call Saul, Hannibal, The Good Wife, American Horror Story: Hotel, Jessica Jones, Modern Family, Scream Queens, and Master of None.

3). Favorite films: Ex Machina, Mad Max: Fury Road, Southpaw, Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation, Bridge of Spies, Creed, The Revenant, Soaked in Bleach (documentary), and Tyke Elephant Outlaw (documentary).

4). Favorite cruelty-free cosmetics: Too Faced Born This Way foundation in Nude, e.l.f. Essential volumizing & defining mascara (black), Burt’s Bees 100% natural lip crayon in Redwood Forest, e.l.f. High Definition powder in Shimmer, Urban Decay Naked Skin Weightless Complete Coverage concealer in Light Neutral, and Flower by Kenzo l’Elixer (perfume).*

5). Favorite foods: Dave’s Killer Organic Bread in 100% whole wheat, Arrowhead Mills organic buckwheat pancake & waffle mix, any natural no-added-B.S. creamy peanut butter, Lara fruit and nut bars, fresh pineapple, fresh artichokes, pasta with garlic and olive oil, and Sting ‘n’ Linger habanero salsa.

6). Favorite random thing: New footwear for the gym… Asics Gel-Venture 5 running shoes.

7). Favorite random events: Setting up our home gym in the garage, adopting our little girl kitty Nenette, going to Drag Bingo, and plastering my (work) Mac with a Microsoft Windows Ninja Cat Riding a Tyrannosaurus Rex laptop sticker.

2015 Highlights: Outfitting our garage as a home gym in January and adopting Nenette on the 4th of July were definitely high points!

*****

Four images and a video clip:

We’re enjoying our home gym immensely now that it’s not 110 degrees. The heat kept us out of the garage all summer. This year, we have a plan for making the space tolerable during the hot months, so we won’t have to stop training in there for so long.

 

Home gym in the garage, one year later.

Home gym in the garage, one year later.

 

(I’ll go into more home gym detail in a future post!)

Meanwhile, Nenette says, “Don’t breed or buy while homeless animals die. Adopt a pet and save a life.”

 

Stocking stuffers! Nenette laying next to her new wicker ball, hugging her new mousie.

Stocking stuffers! Nenette laying next to her new wicker ball, hugging her new mousie.

 

What really happened to Kurt Cobain? The makers of Soaked in Bleach lay it all out. They don’t draw a conclusion, but the evidence, if it is what they say it is, is damning. This excellent documentary reveals details surrounding Cobain’s death that shocked us, quite frankly. I highly recommend this film, even if you don’t know or care about Kurt Cobain or Nirvana or music.

 


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The final episode of Hannibal was glorious…

 

Maybe the most beautiful scene I've ever viewed in a television series. (Hannibal)

Maybe the most beautiful scene I’ve ever viewed in a television series. (Hannibal)

 

And The Affair? Its opening sequence’s images paired with the music and lyrics of Fiona Apple’s song (“Container,” which she wrote specifically for The Affair) become increasingly spooky and suggestive of clues as the story develops. By the middle of Season 2, we found ourselves replaying the opening from time to time, stopping and starting to search the images for answers. It’s haunting. It gives me chills. I love it.

 

 

(Don’t even get me started on Maura Tierney’s great performance, especially when she sings Lucinda Williams’ “Changed the Locks” in S2, Episode 4.)

HOWEVER, if I had to pick just ONE series as my current number one favorite, I’d have to say it’s Empire. If you’re a Shakespeare fan, you’ll love it, too, or you’ll at least see where I’m coming from. And Taraji P. Henson as Cookie is phenomenal.

 

*Kenzo’s perfumes aren’t tested on animals, and I’m glad because this perfume I’m wearing now was a gift. I adore the fragrance. I wouldn’t want it to collect dust.

Beasts of No Nation: A review, of sorts (No Spoilers)

I didn’t include Beasts of No Nation in my October “favorites” post because those posts are about Little Things, and this film is anything but that. Beasts of No Nation is an immersive experience, and it’s a heavy one. A powerful one. It didn’t feel right lumping it in with Scream Queens and salsa.

 

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The crafting of Beasts of No Nation demonstrates exquisite mastery; if you’re into movies to appreciate the fine art of film-making, I’d say it’s a must-see. However, be warned: Beasts of No Nation is difficult to watch… it’s a must-see for reasons beyond its artistic merits.

There came a point where Callaghan just stopped. As tension tightened our throats in the scene that ended it for him, he muttered, “I don’t want to watch this anymore.” I understood where he was coming from. I was on the verge of stopping, myself. He got up and said, “I’m sorry… you can watch the rest if you want, but I don’t need to see this!”

The challenge when watching a war drama so finely rendered is that you’re there. The film engulfs you, and you become a witness to gut-wrenching circumstances and atrocities appalling beyond belief. It’s harrowing, it’s heart-breaking, and it took me two more days to finish watching Beasts of No Nation after we stopped (and Callaghan had gone to France for his business trip). It took two days because I couldn’t watch more than a chunk at a time.

While all movies of this nature don’t trigger my PTSD, enough of them do that I generally avoid them. I couldn’t turn away from this one, though, and I don’t mean that in a train-wreck kind of way. It was more like, I have to keep watching because at some point something has to happen that will restore my faith in humanity.

While the story in Beasts of No Nation is a work of fiction, the tragedy of it is real. The film depicts a reality that’s largely overlooked in our ongoing lament over global atrocities and human rights violations. We commonly bespeak outrage over horrendous things that are done to little girls, practices we know to be inhumane and abominable. Comparatively, we give negligible thought to the horrendous things that are done to little boys. We forget to acknowledge the trials of male children in some war-torn countries… trials that, as this film so brutally illustrates, result in bodily harm, psychological damage, and an obliteration of childhood innocence too sad to contemplate.

I’d never seen Callaghan so upset by a movie that he had to quit watching it. As for me, I’m usually dry-eyed while most everyone grabs at tissues… but there was one scene in Beasts of No Nation that had me crying, and it wasn’t due to illusory maneuvers on the director’s part. The director avoided any semblance of heart-string-pulling and simply let the power of authenticity do its dirty work, a feat allowed by his elegantly nuanced talent. My sorrow felt heavy, like a sorrow for the entire planet.

The director, Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective), also wrote the film’s screenplay (based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala). I’ve seen several movies this year that I thought deserved serious Academy attention; Beasts of No Nation joins them and rises – urgently – straight to the top. I’ll go so far as to say that I hope it captures awards not only for itself, but for humankind. Fukunaga’s adapted screenplay and directing ought to garner Oscar nominations, at least, and actors Idris Elba and Abraham Attah deserve the highest accolades for their searing performances. They were both brilliant. The cinematography and costume design were also stunning. All of the art that went into the making of this film took my breath away.

Here’s the trailer:

 

 

Beasts of No Nation will do more than tug at your heart-strings… it’ll just seize your whole heart and crush it. But this film needs to be seen. Child soldiers need a place in the discourse of the problem of world suffering, and if swallowing our horror through the viewing of films like this can help bring awareness to the plight of these children, then we need to do that.

Child soldiers are not out there bearing arms and killing people because they had aspirations to do so as healthy children with sound minds. They are victims.

Beasts of No Nation elucidates one of the ways in which art is important and even essential for the well-being of the human race. We can’t continue to keep our eyes closed while certain things are happening in the world, and this is why Oscar-generated hype over Beasts of No Nation could be seen not only as well-deserved, but necessary. Everyone’s attention should be brought to this film.

Beasts of No Nation is Netflix’ first original film, being to movies what House of Cards is to television series. The movie streamed on Netflix the same day it appeared in theatres. If you have Netflix and you want to see Beasts of No Nation, it’s there for the watching.

“Southpaw” floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee.

 

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It seems like a long time ago that an upcoming boxing drama called Southpaw crossed our radar… or, rather, a long time since we found out that Jake Gyllenhaal, one of our favorite actors (we’ve never seen a film of his we haven’t enjoyed), would be portraying a boxer called Billy “The Great” Hope. We went online and found a photo of his Southpaw physique, and we hardly recognized him. Needless to say, we were stoked.

 

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We admire Gyllenhaal because he’s consistently good, and he has a knack for choosing solid projects. He has depth. He has range. But we’d never seen his range extend into action/sports hero territory, and he’d never been an actor I’d expect to see in a gritty, testosterone-driven role such as that of Billy “The Great” Hope. Along with the rest of the world, we were eager to find out how he did. How he did was he went out and trained obsessively and developed himself the bod and the skills, and he smashed it.

 

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Some actors, you can see how they come to casting directors’ minds for such roles: Robert De Niro in Raging Bull, Sylvester Stallone in Rocky, Russell Crowe in Cinderlla Man, Michael Jai White in Blood and Bone, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and Mark Wahlberg in The Fighter, for instance. Then you have excellent but unexpected choices, like Will Smith, who bulked up and trained to play Ali and nailed it, killing everyone’s skepticism (that marked the beginning of Smith’s action hero career, didn’t it?)… and now, Gyllenhaal, who does the same in Southpaw.

There are several ways you can describe Southpaw. It’s a fight movie, a boxing drama, a story of redemption, a vendetta movie, a come-back story… and it’s a family drama.

Here, I have to say that fight movies – especially the ones about boxing – always carry a note of sentimental value for me, so I can’t approach them unbiased. I’ve mentioned before how my fascination with boxing began in early childhood, growing up in the 70’s sitting in front of the T.V. with Dad on Saturday afternoons watching the likes of Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Duran, and Hagler, and into the 80’s with Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns (not to mention Howard Cosell throughout it all) on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Because of those intervals of bonding with Dad throughout my grade school years, I’ve loved the “the sweet science” of boxing for as long as I can remember.

Because I watched the film through the lens of some of my fondest childhood memories, I saw Southpaw as more of a family drama than as a straight-up fight movie. Southpaw is a simple story about a father-daughter relationship and how it was both shaken and healed by boxing. My own enduring affection for the sport of boxing was inspired by my father when I was a young girl of the same age as Billy Hope’s daughter. Unsurprisingly, I found the drama of that relationship to be the most inspired theme in the film.

Nevertheless, Southpaw follows a standard fight-movie formula; fortunately, it does its thing exceptionally well. It transcends the mundanity of its story with great acting and all the technical trimmings of the film-making craft. Neither Callaghan nor I had trouble forgiving the film its baldly formulaic plot, because if you turn it upside down, you can see that the formula works in Southpaw’s favor in some ways. It relieves the film of obligations to be fresh, and it opens up space for the characters and conflicts to develop. It’s telling an old story rife with clichés, and the refreshing part is seeing it done so well.

Family drama aspect aside, Southpaw’s boxing scenes are beautifully filmed and keenly impactful, and we found ourselves on edge even if we could predict the outcome of the bouts. Much of the movie is painful to watch. Southpaw is relentless, a film that needs no time to find its footing, gliding into its rhythm right from the outset. I’d love to watch Southpaw contend for Academy awards, and I think it could, considering the talent that infuses it: Director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer); actors such as Forest Whitaker and Rachel McAdams, and, of course, Gyllenhaal. Then there’s the music by James Horner (the film was dedicated to his memory) and Eminem’s contribution of four songs, including “Phenomenal” and “Kings Never Die”… and the fact that the film was brought to us courtesy of the Weinstein Company.

Of all his memorable quotes, Muhammad Ali is perhaps most famous for proclaiming that he’d “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and that’s what Southpaw does. It floats along on its easy, predictable plot, but in the end, it’s a knock-out.

Not Self/less Enough.

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You know how it is when you’re terminally ill and someone slips you a business card offering help, and, despite all the medical expertise your bottomless fortune could buy at the most prestigious of world-class medical facilities, you call the number, thinking that going rogue with your healthcare might resolve your mortality crisis… and if it doesn’t, you have nothing to lose, anyway?

That story.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went with Callaghan and two friends to see the newly released sci-fi action-thriller Self/less (directed by Tarsem Singh) on Saturday, but I’d seen the trailer, and I was intrigued. Though it’s been nearly 20 years since my college metaphysics class, my copy of John Perry’s A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality (1978) still occupies a sliver on my bookshelf, and it was partly because of this pamphlet-size book (required reading for the course I needed to complete my philosophy minor) that I wanted to see Self/less.

 

A relic from college metaphysics.

A relic from college metaphysics.

 

Metaphysics had been one of my favorite philosophy courses, and A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality is a text that’s echoed in the ravines of my memory ever since, as personal identity theory interests me greatly. My penchant for sci-fi action-thriller-type movies would have been enough to propel me into the theater for this movie, but academic curiosity heightened my anticipation. What were the writers of Self/less going to do with this challenging metaphysical topic?

Turns out, nothing. The people behind Self/less took on the subject by not taking it on at all. This is anything but a toothsome philosophical study; about a quarter of the way through, I accepted the fact that Self/less is a dumb sci-fi action movie, romping around the casings of the ideas.

But no matter! I was really there for the fun of it and the thrill of an action-packed ride… and sometimes, truth be told, the dumber the sci-fi movie, the more I enjoy it. Before I knew just how insubstantial and mediocre Self/less was going to be, I settled back for good times, but a part of my mind remained occupied, needled by the ghostly recollection of Perry’s book. I made a mental note to pull it down from the shelf when I got home.

An hour later, the credits rolled, the lights came on, and the four of us left the theater somewhat underwhelmed by what we’d just seen. The movie fell short of delivering in the “good times” department, as well.

When I retrieved A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality from my bookshelf the next day, I opened it and read the first sentence to greet my eyeballs:

“Memory is sufficient for identity and bodily identity is not necessary for it. The survivor remembered Julia’s thoughts and actions, and so was Julia.”

Just as I’d thought I’d recalled! I flipped back a few pages, read a little more, and couldn’t help but wonder if the Self/less script-writers had been inspired by Perry’s paper. The story behind the above quote reads:

“Julia North was a young woman who was run over by a streetcar while saving the life of a young child who wandered onto the tracks. The child’s mother, one Mary Frances Beaudine, had a stroke while watching the horrible scene. Julia’s healthy brain and wasted body, and Mary Frances’ healthy body and wasted brain, were transported to a hospital where a brilliant neurosurgeon, Dr. Matthews, was in residence. He had worked out a procedure for what he called a ‘body transplant’. He removed the brain from Julia’s head and placed it in Mary Frances’, splicing the nerves, and so forth, using techniques not available until quite recently. The survivor of all of this was obviously Julia, as everyone agreed – except, unfortunately, Mary Frances’ husband.” 

This, essentially, provides the premise for Self/less. The “body transplant” procedure described in A Dialogue on Personal Identity and Immortality is called “shedding” in Self/less, and Perry’s Dr. Matthews correlates to the Self/less character Albright (Matthew Goode).

In Self/less, the (cleverly named) company offering to perform the body transplant/shedding, Phoenix Biogenic, has made an exclusive private industry of the procedure, available to the 1% who could afford it. The company’s slogan? “Leaders in Consciousness Transfer Technology.”

Consciousness Transfer Technology. The door is open here for a re-con mission into the complexities of mind, consciousness and identity in relation to the body, but mostly what we get is Ryan Reynolds playing a character vacationing in another character’s body until flashes of memory from the original owner of said body clues him into the reality of his situation. A bunch of predictable shit hits the fan. “Soon I’ll be gone,” Damian (Ben Kingsley/Ryan Reynolds) intones toward the end. “I can already feel myself fading.” Our protagonist gallantly bows out after Doing the Right Thing. Imagine that!

All snark aside, I have to say that Self/less deserves points for coming up with the most elaborate suicide I can remember seeing in cinema. The movie encompasses a long, slow self-destruction from beginning to end, with Damian unwittingly employing a convoluted and roundabout method of killing himself. This path proves to be beneficial in allowing him opportunities to tie up some critical loose ends along the way, such as banging a succession of hot chicks in his borrowed body (freshly shedded Damian remarks that his new young and healthy body “has that new-body smell,” and he wastes no time in taking it out for a few joy rides) and delivering a heartfelt letter to his estranged daughter, who believes him to be dead (atonement and closure, check and check).

Self/less wasn’t the worst sci-fi action movie I’ve ever seen… I thought it was marginally better than last summer’s disappointment, Lucy… but I’m thinking it rather dulls the luster on the resumes of some of its talented actors. As Albright astutely remarks, “Immortality has some side effects.”

Jurassic World… because sometimes, your life is lacking in dinosaurage. (“Rage” being the operative part of the word.)

Jurassic World spoiler alert:

There’s a huge, pissed-off dinosaur in it.

 

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No, really. In one scene early on, park operations chief Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) explains that their on-site scientists needed to innovate bigger, better dinosaurs (she may have said the words, “faster, louder, scarier,” but I wasn’t taking notes… you get the idea) in order to re-boot the general public’s interest in visiting the park of living, prehistoric attractions. Because, you know, living prehistoric attractions aren’t interesting enough as they are.

I appreciated how Claire was just as much speaking of we, the audience, as she was of the fictional Jurassic World visitors. We movie-goers are the actual visitors of the park; we’re now on installment number four of this behemoth of a sci-fi action-adventure franchise, and let’s face it: At this point, we need “bigger, better, faster, louder, scarier” dinosaurs if any movie starting with the word “Jurassic” is going to get us salivating to the tune of (insert lofty dollar amount in theatre ticket sales). 22 years after the fresh, meteoric impact of the original Jurassic Park roused millions of imaginations around the world, the team behind this new chapter in the saga had to come up with something spectacular… at least in raw dinosaurage, if the plot lines were going to continue along the uninspired course they’d taken in the intervening years.

1993’s Jurassic Park, based on the novel by Michael Crichton, was just a tough act to follow, so to speak. Steven Spielberg unleashed it on a public that’d been unaware of exactly how well dinosaurs could be done in cinema, and not a mind that saw it was left unblown. The sequel was, in my opinion, dull, and the third one looked to be even less interesting. Following that disappointment, folks on the Jurassic World team got busy spawning a super enormous, intricately modified version of a dinosaur. Callaghan and I entered the theatre fully expecting it, since the trailer had looked promising, and we really wanted to believe the hype this time. We weren’t disappointed. Indominus rex was delivered, and the Jurassic thrill was back and intact.

Because Jurassic World quickly developed into a well-paced, rollicking visual fest of panic and people flung asunder, I was breathlessly entertained enough to shrug off my annoyance and suppress my inward eye-rolling provoked by some of the sub-plots and caricatures of the people in the story. I was willing to overlook the absurdity of the shoes on Claire’s feet, which were 1). white (I noticed as she was running through mud), and 2). high-heeled (I especially noticed as she was running through mud). In fact, from the time she started running, I made it a point to look at her feet in each scene, checking to see whether she’d resourcefully broken off the heels. She hadn’t. She ran at breakneck speed through a prehistoric forest and fields with rampaging beasts and her life in peril… wearing high heels.

I wasn’t there for well-developed characters devoid of stereotypes. I didn’t go in expecting to marvel at the usage of restraint in the writing, or in any other aspect. I was there for the suspenseful thrill of it all, and the snappy lightness of the script allowed us to simply enjoy that. We didn’t have to wrangle too much with ethics in science or the over-arching concept of “playing God.” We could just appreciate the excellence of everything done well in the film. We could admire the panache of the motorcycle-riding Velociraptor Whisperer played by Chris Pratt. We could feel gratified when Claire started to see beyond the dollar signs in her park’s living, breathing “assets” and “attractions” and developed respect for the dinosaurs as actual, sentient beings. We could bask in the nostalgic pleasure of the Jurassic Park theme music sweeping through the theatre, carrying us along on our ride, and we could enjoy exhaling before the spectacle of it all. There were angry, vicious dinosaurs, and they were impressive.

[Side note: Glancing around the theatre, we couldn’t help but raise our eyebrows at each other over the sheer number of young children we saw. Especially with the level of advancement reached in CGI technology, how did this film end up with a PG-13 rating? The girl sitting next to us had to be around six years old, and she was in good company with plenty of other children – including babies and toddlers – throughout the sold-out house. We were genuinely confused. Did the parents think that perhaps Jurassic World would feature Barney?

I remember when I went to the theatre with my family to see Alien. I was ten, and the scene that horrified me – the alien popping out of the guy’s chest – made Alien look like a walk through Mister Roger’s neighborhood compared to Jurassic World].

Directed by Colin Trevorrow, Jurassic World brings dinosaur-sexy back after all these years. It’s a satisfying blockbuster summer action flick to watch, and it’s certainly unlike any zoo you’ve ever visited.

Mad Max: Fury Road – (SPOILER ALERT!!)

(NOTE: So I started writing up my May Favorites for Tuesday. Mad Max: Fury Road was Number One on the list, and when my little blurb about it got too long, I decided to give it its own post. I’m publishing it now, off-schedule, because Tuesday will still feature my May Favorites. Carry on, if you will!)

 

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When we sat down in the theatre to watch Mad Max: Fury Road the day before Callaghan left for France last weekend, I had no expectations. It was Mad Max, right? I’d read nothing about the film since its release. I settled in for what I hoped would be an action flick so action-packed it’d numb my mind for a couple of hours. That was what I wanted… a mind-numbing movie, a big, loud, dumb action movie, preferably with lots of explosions and car chases.

I wasn’t planning to employ my brain. I was there to shut my brain off, not to turn it on… but something in the story tickled my neurons at the beginning. At first, I couldn’t figure out what. It started with the improbable spectacle of Max being restrained and forced into use as a “Blood-bag” to keep a sickly child alive, a development that followed the opening sequence of events in which Max is chased down, abducted, attempts to escape, and gets re-captured.

That’s right. After Max – Max – was hauled back into hell, he was put to use as a talking, breathing blood supply. “Blood-bag,” in fact, even became his name… it was what his parasite (the bratty war-child) called him. And that sort of lit something up in the back of my brain, but things were happening quickly, and I wanted to keep up with the events, you know, as you do when you’re blasted into action flick oblivion on a convoy fronted by a demonic wraith of a dude playing a fire-shooting electrical guitar.

But at some point after Max was rescued by Furiosa, the female war-truck driver on a personal mission to free the Biggest Bad Guy’s imprisoned harem of wives, the tickle in my brain started crackling like a live wire with the realization that this parasite (that’s how I think of him… does he even have a name? …the war-child) was literally connected to Max-the-Blood-bag via I.V. line.

The first image that embedded itself in my brain like a song on repeat was of Max tied to the outside of the vehicle with his blood feeding into the child inside.

The second image? Max struggling mightily to free himself from the child, and, giving up, simply slinging him over his shoulders, still connected by the I.V., as he trudged over to Furiosa.

And I realized that Max wanted, among other things, an abortion. It was like he’d been beaten, raped and forced to keep the resulting baby. When he finally got free, it was at the hands of a woman. It had been the men in power who’d forced him to nourish the war-child with his own blood against his will. The I.V. line of “Blood-bag” (no longer referred to as a human being, Max had been reduced to a thing) was an umbilical cord.

What was unfolding before my astonished eyes was a role reversal played out on a massive scale in a spectacular, mainstream action movie, and it barreled on relentlessly until the end. It did not stop to care. How much did it cost to make this movie? Let me look it up… okay, about $150 million, let’s say, if Google is correct. This movie is an estimated $150 million dollar middle finger stuck in the face of all the standard action flick conventions.

Max played Robin to Furiosa’s Batman, and it was something to behold.

Many more things happened along the way, many other things I’d never seen before in a high-octane action flick (which, by the way, was practically ALL explosions and car chases).

Like a gang of weather-beaten, much older women on motorcycles lending aid to Furiosa’s group. WHAT.

And Furiosa making the tough decisions (like leaving the pregnant girl behind because going back for her would have put them all at risk).

And Furiosa being the one with the superior shooting skills (Max wisely and respectfully hands her the weapon when they’re down to their last round, and she nails their target).

Furiosa does most of the driving, and none of the sleeping. Furiosa dispatches of the Biggest Bad Guy. Furiosa is unequivocally the toughest no-bullshit badass female hero I’ve ever seen in an action movie. She has nothing to prove. Charlize Theron hammered her home.

 

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Max joins Furiosa’s group of women and instantly has in common with them the fact that they’d all been used for their bodies. When war-child connects with that one girl (sorry, I’m terrible with names in movies, and I’m too lazy to look it up), their bond gives war-child the sense of humanity we assume he’d been lacking. We see nothing sexual happen between the two – I also find it refreshing that there’s nothing sexual in this movie at all – and the power of his emotional bond with her (love) proves to be more profound than his former physical bond to his “Blood-bag.” That old reliance disappears, and he’s able to recognize the humanity in Max and defect to the other side, even switching their roles and assisting Max.

When Furiosa lingers near death toward the end, Max finally reveals his name to her. “Max,” he says. “My name is Max.” There’s something about the way he says it, like the words are more meaningful to him than they would be to her. Max has emerged from the experience with a restored sense of himself, of his own humanity. Once again, he has a name and an identity. He’s no longer “Blood-bag.” He’s no longer an object, reduced to his body and used according to how it could benefit others.

I absolutely loved this movie, and Callaghan did, too. Everything about it impressed us. We pretty much left the theatre with our minds thoroughly blown. We just looked at each other and didn’t even know what to say except HOLY SHIT!! We have to see it again!!!

I went in wanting to zone out before a mindless spectacle, and ended up mentally stimulated while simultaneously holding my breath with the pace of the action. If I’d had expectations, they would’ve been obliterated… and I couldn’t have asked for a better soundtrack for such utter destruction, either.

I saw American Sniper. Here are my thoughts.

Somewhere around October-November, we found out about the upcoming film American Sniper. It was set to open on Christmas day. We were looking forward to it, and I liked the idea that two years in a row, the newly released movie we’d see on my December 27 birthday would feature Bradley Cooper.

As it turned out, the movie’s release date got pushed into January, so we didn’t get to see American Sniper on my birthday. Interestingly, though, the holiday movie we did go to see on December 27, Big Eyes, also featured an actor from last year’s birthday movie: Amy Adams! We saw American Hustle (Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper) on my birthday in 2013, and Big Eyes (Amy Adams) on my birthday in 2014.

I like Bradley Cooper. It’s not a crush. I’m not obsessed with him, and I don’t race to the theatre just because he’s in a movie, but I am a fan. I’ve never seen him flounder in a role, and I’ve never seen a film of his I didn’t enjoy or appreciate in some way. Bradley Cooper in a movie usually means that I’m going to like the movie, and this is also true about Amy Adams and a few other actors (Jake Gyllanhaal comes immediately to mind); Callaghan and I are almost always on the same page, which is good. It’s more fun spending money on movie tickets if we strongly suspect that we’ll really like the movie.

So we saw Big Eyes on my birthday, and we enjoyed it, and we continued to anticipate the release of American Sniper. When the day arrived, we went to the theatre with our favorite action-flick movie-watching partner-in-crime, Jason, and I didn’t know what I was walking into. Somehow, I had the idea that the film was about a veteran who was using his lethal military skills for some grand operation in the civilian sector. I didn’t know that I was walking into a war movie. Neither did I know that the story was based on an autobiography/events that happened in the life of a real person.

And I’m glad. I’m glad that I didn’t know it was a war movie, because I generally avoid war movies. Had I known, I would have dropped American Sniper off my to-watch list, and I would have missed out on an incredible movie.

Yes, I know. I’m a Buddhist and a mostly-vegan vegetarian and I’m all about peace and compassion, but I highly appreciated American Sniper. This might seem incongruous, but it’s really not. For one thing, just on the artistic level, I thought it was a brilliant, finely-wrought film. I thought Bradley Cooper gave a tremendous, nuanced performance. I thought Clint Eastwood’s handling of the project was masterful.

Where can I even begin to try to explain my appreciation beyond that?

I guess I should start with the disclaimer that I’m not motivated by politics when it comes to art. I’m a registered Independent, anyway… my political views do tend to lean in a certain direction (if you know me well, you know what direction that is), but there’s a reason why I won’t join a particular party. Also, I generally stay away from the subject of politics on social media sites. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t intend to talk politics here today or any day. I get that it’s hard to avoid politics where this film is concerned, but I’m going to try to avoid the damn politics.

Then I should point out that I’m a combat veteran. I spent six months in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait during Operations Desert Shield, Storm and Sabre, from the beginning of December 1990 to almost the end of May 1991. The ground war in January took all of two days, and the whole thing was rather anti-climactic after the airstrikes, but somehow I managed to get embroiled in the only real action American foot soldiers saw pushing through Iraq. I ran Commo (wire, radios) in a segment of a ground ambulance unit, and our convoy was comprised of mostly medics from my Garrison unit in Germany, along with some infantrymen, American National Guardsmen and women, and a few British soldiers. We were ambushed, and it was intense, and I brought that personal history with me going into the movie theatre to see American Sniper, not knowing, as I’d said, that it was going to be a war movie.

Now, about that Buddhist thing, since I know that it’s confusing to many people. I’ve been Buddhist all of my life, and I’ve been a martial/fighting artist for more than half of my life, and no, contrary to the popular opinion of our times, this does not create a contradiction. Buddhism and the fighting arts are not mutually exclusive. If you can understand this, then my admiration of American Sniper shouldn’t seem contradictory, either.

Rather than going into a tedious academic tangent on the principles of eastern philosophy, including the meaning of the yin-yang symbol, I’m asking that you hang with me for a minute here!

Buddhist monks in the Shaolin temple of ancient China were resourceful and inventive. They developed seitan, a popular protein-rich meat substitute made of wheat gluten, so they could avoid eating animals. They also developed Shaolin Kung Fu, a martial art that enabled them to kill with their bare hands and laid the groundwork for basically all eastern martial arts thereafter. What’s more, the full spectrum of the Shaolin martial arts system includes fighting with weapons. The “Buddhist warrior” is actually a thing, and it always has been. I’m not saying that ALL Buddhists are warriors. I’m just saying that warriors in the ranks of Buddhists have existed for ages, at least as long as there have been temples to protect. Long before Bruce Lee, there were the Shaolin Buddhist soldier monks.

Hard to believe that there’s a history of martial arts bad-assery in Buddhism, right?

Enough about me and my background. Returning to American Sniper, I want to talk about the “problem” of the veracity of (every detail of) Chris Kyle’s story. He apparently made some claims in his book that aren’t true. In my opinion, just from my perspective as a literature major, this is normal. Biography/autobiography/memoir/creative non-fiction and, loosely, historical fiction all rely on facts and factual events for the backbone of the stories within, but there’s usually good reason and/or artistic justification for alteration or invention in some places, and authors take this kind of creative liberty all the time.

Take, for example, a staple of children’s literature well-known and loved by most Americans. The Nellie Olson character in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series of books didn’t actually exist… she was an amalgamation of two real-life figures from her childhood. Because Laura Ingalls Wilder also altered the chronology of her family’s travels (reportedly for the sake of simplicity), she took two classmates from two of her schools in two different geographical locations and blended them together to create the one insufferable character we know as “Nellie Olson.” (The real Nellie Olson was one of the two classmates Laura Ingalls Wilder used to create the fictitious one.)

This is a well-documented fact, and yet I’ve never heard anyone say that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories are meaningless because she “made up” the character or “lied” about the trajectory of her family’s pioneering path, nor have I heard of anyone calling her out on any of the other half-truths, embellishments or omissions that resulted for artistic purposes. I never heard anyone say that because of all this, Laura Ingalls Wilder is not to be trusted or believed, and that the attention paid to her stories is undeserved. I never heard anyone say that the worth of other art based on the books she co-wrote about her life – namely, the world-famous Little House on the Prairie television series – was invalidated by her “lies.” I never heard anyone complain that the T.V. show was “mendacious” because Laura Ingalls Wilder changed some things, omitted things, and flat-out made other stuff up.

We know that she did these things, but we still accept her work as autobiographical. That which wasn’t real didn’t cancel out all that was real. Her story is still her story, and Chris Kyle’s story is still Chris Kyle’s story, and just because Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tone was demure and so many people dig stories about pioneer life more than they dig stories about soldiering life doesn’t mean that by majority opinion, we can have a double standard. If we’re going to call Chris Kyle a liar, then we’re going to have to call Laura Ingalls Wilder a liar for the exact same reasons, and we don’t want to do that, now, do we?

And while we’re on the subject, let’s think for a moment of how Laura Ingalls Wilder “glorified” and “romanticized” how her Pa decided to drag the family into Indian Territory and knowingly illegally squat on the Native Americans’ land, and how Laura Ingalls Wilder plainly recounted her parents’ racist attitudes and sentiments regarding the “savages” (sound familiar?) – have you ever heard anyone lambasting her for this dubious aspect of their “courageous” pioneer life? Neither have I. Needless to say, the storylines in the television series’ episodes conveniently omit any mention or reference to this part of the Ingalls’ “adventures.” Most everyone still loves the show.

But people are sure enjoying harping on Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper for “glorifying” and “romanticizing” the darker sides of Chris Kyle and his story.

Finally, I want to say that it’s interesting how the people shouting the loudest about how Chris Kyle was a lying psychopath (and no hero at all) are the ones who never spent a day in his or any other soldier’s boots. Now, I didn’t know Chris Kyle. I didn’t know him before, during or after his service, nor am I a psychiatrist. For all I know, he could have been a psychopath or a sociopath or whatever other -path you want to call him… but I don’t care. I don’t care if Chris Kyle was the kind of guy who’d help an old lady cross the street, or the kind of guy who’d push an old lady off a cliff. Because what I do know is that combat military training and circumstances change you in ways that civilians can’t even begin to fathom. What you were before is rendered nearly irrelevant. Even emerging from regular old Army basic training (Chris Kyle underwent Navy S.E.A.L. training, which is much more intense), you’re different than you were before you went in.

In basic training, you’re broken down from the inside out, with the whole point being to re-build you into something you probably weren’t before you went in: a killing machine that can be set into action when the circumstances call for it. The mental and physical conditioning you undergo in order to serve in combat is complete. I’m talking about the average person here. Now imagine that instead of being an average person, you were already an expert shot accustomed to taking lives (as a hunter)… and imagine, too, that your military occupational specialty is killing.

Someone’s got to do it, guys. The military is an establishment in which there’s a need for many roles, just like in civilian society, and while all soldiers are required to be conditioned in the basics, everyone has to choose an occupational specialty. Some soldiers are cooks. Others are band musicians. Others work in supply. There are the tankers, the ammo soldiers, the administration office-working soldiers, the morgue soldiers and the medics and the mechanics and the military cops and the JAG (legal) corps and the signal corps, the soldiers responsible for ensuring communications in the field (what I did – my 31K occupational title was “Combat Signaler.”) And so on, and so forth… and then you have the soldiers whose specialty is killing. These are the infantry, the “grunts.”

Regardless of your occupational specialty, though, all soldiers function the same way in combat zones, and again, to reiterate, this is what basic training is for. When thrown into a combat situation, the conditioning deep inside you surfaces, enabling you to automatically act according to the situation, and I’m sorry, but combat situations don’t usually involve making butter, choosing fabric for dresses, or embroidering. Pa Ingalls is not going to bust out his fiddle at the end of the day and make everyone laugh merrily as they sing along to his folksy songs.

When I was 18, I went to basic training and came out different than I was before, because that is what basic training is designed to do. Not only are you different, but you’re also no longer your own person. You become government property, calibrated to respond and operate on a situational basis. The minute you raise your hand and take that oath, the Constitution you’re charged to protect no longer even applies to you. You opt out of those rights in order to protect them. It’s the Unified Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for you!

A day or two before Christmas 1990, we were out there in the vast, cold and empty Saudi Arabian desert when we were told that Sadam Hussein had threatened an attack as a “Christmas present” for the Americans lying in wait, meaning, us. We went into high alert for an indefinite period of time. I remember my 22nd birthday very well. I spent the entire day in a foxhole in the biting cold, suited up in MOPP 4 (head to toe chemical protection gear) with a full bandolier of ammo strapped around my chest and my M-16 at the ready, and again, I came out different than I was before, because that’s what happens when you spend hours on end with every cell and nerve of your being waiting to either kill or get killed. Just being in that situation day after day changes you. Even if “nothing happens,” you can’t ever be the same again.

A few weeks later, the ground war started, and we switched gear from alert to action. We convoyed out of Saudi Arabia to follow the front line through Iraq, destination Kuwait. We were a ground ambulance convoy in our Cut-V’s and Hum-V’s, and we saw and dealt with everything you’d expect to encounter on a battlefield. Then we were ambushed. There were Iraqi snipers. There were detonating landmines. There were casualties. Afterward, there were smoke grenades and medevac helicopters. I’m not going to go into the details of what I did and saw, but you can bet that again, I was a different person by the end of it.

Now, take my modest little combat experience and quadruple it and give it another hefty boost for increased severity. Chris Kyle couldn’t possibly have ended up being the same person he’d been before any of his four tours of combat duty, whatever that may have been. He killed people, as we were all prepared to do, as Navy S.E.A.L.S. were expected to do, and I would venture to guess that he saved many more people than he killed. Whether I “agreed” with the Iraq War or not, I’m grateful to Chris Kyle for his service, and for the service of all men and women in uniform in all the branches of the Armed Forces, regardless of the conflict or the reason for it or behind it, or the duration or severity of it, or the number of times they deployed, or my opinion of it or your opinion of it or anyone’s opinion of it, or anything else.

I’d like to think that if I never lived the experience of being broken down and built back up to human war-machine specs, if I never set foot in a combat zone, if I never mentally prepared to suffer and die under chemical attack or by gunfire or other ordnance, if I never swallowed 12 mysterious pills a day “in case of chemical attack”… if I never lived a day of my life serving my country… I would recognize that I’m not in a position to judge Chris Kyle.

Like him or not, Chris Kyle was a hero. As far as I’m concerned, everyone who voluntarily raises their hand and swears away their own constitutional rights in order to protect yours is a hero, whatever else they may be, and whether they go to war or not. To try to posthumously shame Chris Kyle for being the lying asshole he maybe was is to miss the point of American Sniper. Deriding Eastwood and Cooper for taking part in “glorifying” anything is also an exercise in missing the point.

Aside from all of this, what’s really important here, of course, is that we found American Sniper to be a great piece of cinematic art in and of itself. Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper did a damn fine job, along with everyone else who put their energies into the making of the film. I’m saying this, and I don’t even like war movies!

So, American Sniper? We recommend it. It’s not easy to watch, and I wouldn’t necessarily call it “enjoyable,” but it’s an amazing film.

On that (hopefully cheerier) note, Happy Friday, All!

(Here are some photos I took in the war):

 

The first Hum-V ambulances....

The first Hum-V ambulances….

 

Random tank in Iraq

Random tank in Iraq

 

After the ambush, we continued on without stopping to sleep. This is what Kuwait looked like as we approached it.

After the ambush, we continued on without stopping to sleep. This is what Kuwait looked like as we approached it.

 

As we moved through Kuwait, children came running out from nowhere to greet us, happy and excited

As we moved through Kuwait, children came running out from nowhere to greet us, happy and excited

 

After the ground war in January 1991, this was mostly my view until we left in May.

After the ground war in January 1991, this was mostly my view until we left in May.

 

Thanks for scanning them, Callaghan!

A Fan’s Perspective: Will the Real Jack Reacher Please Stand Up?

Bad Guy: *touches his gun*

Reacher: Hang on a second while I get a chair so that I may stand up on it and head-butt you.

If this scene exists in any of Lee Child’s 17 Jack Reacher novels, then congratulations, Jack Reacher film team… you’ve done well to cast Tom Cruise as Reacher.

The movie Jack Reacher opens today. I’m in France, where it won’t open for another week or so, but that’s irrelevant because I’m not going to go see it.

Before you dismiss me as a whiner harping on the height issue, let me just say that I know it’s hard for you movie-goers uninitiated to the Jack Reacher novels to comprehend the far-ranging negative reaction to this casting. I mean, with all of this brou-ha-ha over the casting, there must be something more to it, wouldn’t you think? So, I’m going to ask you this question to make it easier to understand (or at least to appreciate) the disbelief:

If you were looking forward to the making of a movie about the Vikings, the legendary drifting explorers and warriors of the north seas, would you want to see Tom Cruise cast in the lead Viking role?

Think about it. I mean, try to envision it. If you don’t know enough about the Vikings to form a mental image of Cruise as a Viking, then do some reading. Familiarize yourself. Get to know the subject matter. Get to know the Vikings.

Now tell me what you think.

Is Tom Cruise Viking material?

No? Okay, what if he was 6’ 5” tall and weighed 250 lbs – would he be Viking material then?

Still no? Why not? I thought the concern was his size, since that’s the obvious issue, but okay, let’s go further and imagine growing out and bleaching Tom Cruise’s perfectly styled, clean-cut, dark brown hair into a haphazard, dirty-blond un-style. Also, we’ll fit him with colored contacts to give him the icy blue eyes of the typical Viking.

Does that do it? Alright, then how about this: We’ll drag Tom Cruise face-down on a gravel path so his skin roughens up appropriately (I know what you were thinking… he’s “too pretty” to be convincing as a weather-worn, battle-scarred Viking who was never good-looking to begin with), and we’ll also give him a voice box transplant to replace his higher-pitched, bookish and slightly nasally voice with the deeper, quiet menace of the Viking’s voice – or at least what you’d imagine a Viking’s voice would sound like. Potentially thunderous, when needed, but not often needed. No need to talk much when you walk into a room and people instantly react to you because you’re, well, a Viking.

There!

What? After all that modification, you’re still saying “Tom Cruise is not a Viking?” That makes no sense at all, people. This is TOM CRUISE. He’s a great actor with years of experience making mega-millions at the box-office, guaranteed to deliver a cinematic hit! Oh, ye of no faith. Tom Cruise may be small, but he has massive star power. He may not be Mr. Universe, but he can carry this movie and the whole franchise, to boot. Give Cruise and the movie a chance. You might be surprised. Do I need to remind you that he’s not just any movie star, but an action movie star? TOM CRUISE IS A VIKING.

Right?

Now, replace “Viking” with “Reacher” in all of the above, and this is exactly where you arrive. At best, you’re still going to be scratching your head, thinking about it. No amount of “Give him a chance… size isn’t everything” is going to change the fact that Tom Cruise is not Jack Reacher, because even if we do forget about his size, there’s still a lot wrong with Cruise in this role.

Here’s an example of a well-known Reacherism: Mobility. Reacher walks a lot. Walking is his favorite mode of transportation. He walks almost as much as he drinks coffee, and that’s a lot. Second on his list, he takes the bus. Third, he hitch-hikes. And fourth, he takes the train.

Although Reacher can and does appropriate and drive whatever vehicle suits his needs at any given moment, it’s been firmly established that Reacher is not a driver. He dislikes driving, and he’s never had a civilian driver’s license. This is why Reacher fans know immediately that something is off when the first sound in the movie trailer is the gunning of a V-8 engine with the supposition that Reacher is behind the wheel. From that second on, the Reacher fan is thinking, “Wait! I thought this was a movie about Jack Reacher….?” Jack Reacher is not a driver.

So why do we have a movie called “Jack Reacher” with Tom Cruise agilely maneuvering a sports car around using every flashy show-off trick in his action-flick auto repertoire? Looks like Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise the Action Hero under the name of Jack Reacher. OH SHIT – Jack Reacher has been hijacked!!

That was the first part of my multi-tiered reaction to the movie trailer.

I found the trailer by accident. It was a thrilling little moment of discovery: YES! There’s a Jack Reacher movie!! I eagerly clicked to open the trailer, and I was instantly confused. I couldn’t find Reacher. All I saw was Tom Cruise. Once I understood that Cruise was supposed to be Reacher, I couldn’t believe it and kept looking around for the real Jack Reacher. (“Will the real Jack Reacher please stand up?” HA.) I remember thinking, “Okay, uhh… I see Tom Cruise acting tough and trying to sound threatening with his little round voice and looking sharp with his perfect hair and preppy outfit, but where is Reacher? OH… SHIT TOM CRUISE IS SUPPOSED TO BE JACK REACHER??” The trailer wound down to an end, and the final assault materialized before my eyes: the movie title “JACK REACHER” glowing in blue letters on the screen. Not only does Tom Cruise play Jack Reacher, but the film itself is called Jack Reacher. I went on Facebook and dashed out something that ended with *headdesk.* It felt like my fingers were throwing up.

Jack Reacher has a certain combat style, the central criteria being a massive physical form. In his case, size is not mere window-dressing, decorative and changeable according to whim. If it was, then sure, festoon Tom Cruise with a bunch of ribbons and bows and call it a day. In book after book, Jack Reacher the Pain Inflictor (if I may call him that – I like the way it rhymes, it’s corny and it sums him up) incapacitates and destroys his opponents using moves that would be physically impossible for a shorter-than-average man to perform.

In the first Jack Reacher book I ever read, Reacher “snaps forward from the waist” and head-butts two guys, one after the other, laying them out flat. The guys are described as “each about six-two and around two hundred or two hundred and ten pounds. They had long knotted arms and big hands. Work boots on their feet.” (The Affair) Hours later, after they regained consciousness, “Both of them had noses like spoiled eggplants. Both of them had two black eyes. Both of them had crusted blood on their lips.”

Sorry, Tom Cruise. You are not going to convince anyone that you can damage two big goons in this manner. Even with elevator risers in your shoes, you are not going to stand there and head-butt two guys who are 7-8 inches taller than you. That arrogant smirk on your face isn’t going to add to your credibility, either. The Tom Cruise smirk doesn’t call to mind the expression of quizzical bemusement that’s another Reacherism. It’s not ominous. There’s no gravity behind it. It’s just… the Tom Cruise smirk.

In the end, this casting is simply unfair. It’s asking too much of a Reacher fan to try to reconcile the profile of Jack Reacher with Tom Cruise. We’re not a tough crowd to please. We’re not looking for the “perfect” Jack Reacher actor, because we know that there’s no such thing. It’s just that as loyal fans, we would feel respected if an honest attempt had been made to cast an actor who could be more believable as Reacher, an actor who could better embody the essence of and maybe even slightly resemble the Reacher that has been constructed for us on the written page. I think there’s something to be said for a good effort to preserve the integrity of an artistic creation.

Unfortunately, no honest attempt at an appropriate casting took place here. After years of expressed interest in Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise bought the rights to the book (One Shot) and went ahead and produced it and starred in it. Author Lee Child, who at one point said that Tom Cruise was “way too short to play Reacher,” has since tap-danced all over the table justifying (yes, he does have to justify it – he owes it to his baffled million+ fan base, without whom he would have nothing) his approval with flimsy assertions like “No one else could do it” (really?) and “Reacher is a metaphor” (simultaneously evading the issue and elevating his work to a higher level of prose than the pulp fiction that it actually is, excellent though it may be).

Of course we Reacher fans are feeling ripped off getting Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. (Or, shall I say, Tom Cruise instead of Jack Reacher.) How great would it have been to be able to anticipate this film, as so many fiction fans do when their favorite books are being adapted to film? Harry Potter fans got an amazing cast for their literary obsession. Hunger Games fans’ heroine Katniss was done justice by the brilliant Jennifer Lawrence. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean works, I think; in his elaborate stage make-up, he is Jack Sparrow when you look at him, not Johnny Depp. But Jack Reacher? All anyone will see when they look there is Tom Cruise. No attempt was made to adapt his appearance to fit that of Reacher. It’s Mr. Clean-Cut Risky Business-As-Usual Cruise showing up to play the part of a hulking, Viking-like character. It’s a colossal disappointment for Reacher fans. An actor who would actually make sense in the role could’ve taken it and run with it all the way through the franchise. Jack Reacher would have his own face – not Tom Cruise’s.

So that’s why I’m not going to buy a ticket when Jack Reacher gets to France. I have no desire to watch Tom Cruise play himself in another Tom Cruise action movie, when what I want is to watch an actor playing Reacher in a Jack Reacher movie.

If I want to see Tom Cruise, I’ll rent Tropic Thunder again, or Jerry Maguire. See? I’m not a Tom Cruise hater. I’m just a person who loves Jack Reacher.