Monthly Archives: May 2013

Mama

All the things we’ve heard about “a mother’s love” take on a decided chill in light of “Mama,” where supernatural arms of love don’t hesitate to smother and strangle wannabe protectors who horn in on her territory.

The movie begins with an unexpected death and two little girls taken by their father, and what almost happens next in a lost forest hideaway is unmentionable. Fortunately for the girls, someone (AKA something) is watching over them. And this is where their problems both end… and begin.

The father’s brother (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who also plays the father) never stops searching for the children and eventually they are found.

His relief is not matched by his goth slash punk slash whatever-she-is (we just know it involves a lot of black t-shirts/eyeliner) girlfriend Annabel, however, who is put off by the changes in location and lifestyle she must accommodate in order to raise these two little girls who mean so much to the man she loves. The rest of the movie is spent tracking her development from “other” to “mother,” and how that pits her against another maternal soul who has already laid claim to the children.

There are some things about “Mama” that unarguably annoying. For example, it’s packed full of “Dumb Things That Happen in Horror Movies Where You Wish You Could Strangle the Characters Yourselves Before the Monster Gets Them,” and I wish sometimes I could just lock up these characters for their own good, so that they wouldn’t go and do anything stupider. A significant portion of the action also takes place in yet another isolated “cabin in the woods.” And the characters often seem pushed about in order to make the plot work.

But there are also some good things. Jessica Chastain might not be entirely believable as a rocker girl despite the clothes and makeup, but she does believably track the progression from indifferent girlfriend to mother figure to these two girls she didn’t exactly welcome with open arms.

(As with at least one other critic I’ve read, I was reminded of the Ripley/Newt relationship from “Aliens,” which elevates what is a basic genre picture to something a little more substantial around the theme of motherhood between survivors. The more Annabel cares about the girls, the more I found I cared about the movie, even if at times the scenes and plot seem cobbled together.)

There are a number of horror tropes that occur in the movie, but “Mama” — knowing them by heart — doesn’t pretend to be original, it simply capitalizes on the expectations to generate scares and sometimes wildly succeeds. For example, in one scene, we suspect that Lilly is playing with Mama in the bedroom, but Muschietti makes us WAIT for it… agonizingly forcing us to track Annabel around the house until we can see (by visual elimination) that there is nothing human left in the house to be playing with Lilly. Mama is kept tantalizingly out of view (or at least masked by shadow) for the longest time. There’s also a scene with boxes that plays with expectation.

Visually, Mama herself is unsettling — a mix of computer imagery and an actor with an ailment called Marfan’s Syndrome, which results in distortions and elongations of the human body. Both Mama’s appearance and her methods of locomotion are effectively eerie.

But the movie’s heart really revolves around the little girls Victoria and Lilly. Feral kids absorb the traits and behavior of whatever beasts raised them, and when the girls are first found in the woods, they don’t move like people. Watching them scuttle about and play, I honestly felt like I was watching something more animal than human. Victoria, the older bespectacled girl who was better socialized before heading “into the wild,” eventually finds her way back to some semblance of humanity, recalling many things that she had merely forgotten; but poor Lilly, never being raised by people in the first place, seems hopelessly trapped between worlds. Victoria’s growing attachment to Annabel (versus Lilly’s fervid distrust of her) only drives a wider rift between the girls, and it’s clear that things will get ugly before they get better… if things getting better with Mama is even a possibility.

Eventually Annabel resolves the mystery surrounding Mama, and there’ s a final climactic confrontation of “mommo y mommo.” The ending seems like an attempt to split the difference between the sort of resolutions we’re used to; in that sense, “Mama” is more original in its conclusion than in other aspects, but is it a fulfilling resolution? Even as a producer, Del Toro’s trademark of melding beauty with horror might or might not work here. I found myself strangely indifferent, while simultaneously haunted by the ways we form attachments to people and things just out of familiarity, and how difficult it can then be to break those ties even when it might be in our best interests.

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Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher has a few good assets. The trailer grabs the eye, the first ten minutes is rather fascinating, and there’s an impromptu fight in close quarters at the halfway mark that reveals the importance of weapon choice and coordinated attack patterns over size, bulk, and numbers. The city is set in Pittburgh, Pennsylvania, without it being about a sports team or the steel industry. And, along with Richard Jenkins, we also get Robert Duvall.

Unfortunately, it’s all squandered on a pursuit of the predictable and (ultimately) boring.

Cruise isn’t bad, he’s normally a very dependable actor especially in the action genre. His normal cockiness plays well within Reacher’s character, but his intrinsic coolness almost comes off as indifference, leaving little sense of peril or urgency to the story. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more indifferent hero. The lack of synergy with the female lead (Rosamund Pike, a decent actress but miscast in this role) doesn’t help, and the small periodic laughs aren’t enough to elevate the film beyond its mundane beginnings. There’s some actual wit in some of the banter, to show that Reacher’s not just another bully working for the right side of the law, but it usually comes off as contrived and missing an organic beat.

The movie seems “paint by numbers.” As expected, there’s a crime but it’s not what it seems; Reacher, the best at what he does, buys into it at first… until he doesn’t; a nasty crime lord with some idiosyncratic physical traits does nasty things to people to prove his nastiness; someone ends up being a traitor; and in the end Reacher must go up against the tough guy playing for the other side. The resolution seems like a done deal from the first moments of the picture; it’s merely a matter of how many extras get their bodies stacked up along the way.

There’s one moment in the film that is dramatically interesting, and it’s when the DA (Pike) visits the father of one of the young victims and finds herself stuck in that uncomfortable spot between doing her job (defending the accused and publicly convicted) while trying to reconcile that with the loss the families of the victims have suffered. The scene doesn’t last long because it’s effective at creating discomfort in the characters and audience (a good discomfort); but Reacher might have been more memorable if it had allowed itself to exist in that uncomfortable place longer.

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The Fountain

“Why do you cry, Tomas?”

“To see Spain brought so low, with an enemy living within her borders, feasting on her strength,” agonizes the queen’s hard-driven conquistador. “I have failed her.”

“This loyalty of yours inspires you to protect Spain at any cost, but killing the Inquisitor is suicide,” says Queen Isabella.

The time periods change, the specific foe might change; but each narrative in “The Fountain” is one of clutching for life within mortality, something fallen humans have done (according to Judeo-Christian tradition) ever since God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden and placed a flaming sword there to keep the Tree of Life from our grasp.

But Tomas, the queen’s champion, has been sent to New Spain in hopes of locating the Tree. Tom, accompanied by a now-dying tree, travels through space to reach Xiabalba, Land of the Dead, part of a dwindling star. And in modern times, Tommy, a cancer research scientist, works frantically from extracts of the same tree to cure his wife Izzi before she succumbs to the tumor that is slowly killing her.

There is little doubt that the story of Izzi and Tommy is authentic, although whether you believe in the factual veracity of Tomas’ quest or Tom’s interstellar journey is up to you; Izzi herself writes the bulk of the past and future tales in her notebook labelled “The Fountain” before passing the last chapter off to Tommy to finish, truly making “their” story a joint effort. The question is whether Tommy will have the courage and wisdom to discern the authentic conclusion to the narrative versus the one he prefers.

Izzi and Tommy initially seem to share the vision that Tommy needs to cure her. “Take this ring as a sign of your promise,” Izzi’s regal counterpart says in 1500 AD. “When you find Eden, you shall wear it, and when you return, I shall be your Eve, and together we shall live forever.” But the further she proceeds into her cancer, the more Izzi explores the likelihood of her death and what eternal meaning can be found within it. This creates tension between the lovers as she becomes aware of patterns that Tommy can’t yet acknowledge, deepening their individual wells of loneliness at a time when each desperately needs the other even more.

Aronofsky explores pairs here — death and life, husband and wife, past and future. Are these things truly separate, or are they each part of the other, forever and always? Aronofsky lets even the imagery bleed together; the same lines of dialogue reverberate across the timelines (“Is everything all right?” / “Yes. Everything’s all right”), sometimes taking on different meaning depending on context, and in places visuals from multiple timelines are merged unsettlingly to blur differences and draw additional connections.

The Fountain is not an easy movie to evaluate. Could the story have been told better? On first viewing, I found myself moved in some spots and confused in others; a second viewing, once I had read a synopsis or two, proved much more profound and I can now recognize how interlocked the elements actually are. The story is much more efficient than it seems at first glance.

I do believe a movie should be accessible on its own merits, and yet there are ideas and images of such magnificence in “The Fountain” that I’m not only glad I invested the effort but recognize that perhaps some of the depth might have been lost with a simpler telling. Both Jackman and Weisz offer brave, vulnerable performances that linger with me, and the Kronos soundtrack lends the movie grandeur. The juxtaposition of human mortality with the notion of enduring love is not something that is easily resolved, so why should a movie about it be?

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Dredd

Dredd, unfettered by philosophical complication, reads as follows: Bad-ass futuristic cop trapped with rookie in building full of remorseless criminals. Will he get out alive? And will the rookie not just survive but pass her impromptu on-the-job initiation exam?

Simple story, still enjoyable.

Yes, the plot has similar overtones to the imported “The Raid” (despite the fact that “Dredd” actually went through a number of drafts before “The Raid” even got made.) And the original Judge Dredd with Stallone back in the 1990’s didn’t exactly win any awards. And the villain here (the notorious Ma-Ma) was a bit understated, even if ruthless by the atrocities she orders her hirelings to commit; a more rated-R-bordering-on-NC17 tallywhacking cluster of scalliwags doesn’t exist on this side of the virtual ghetto.

One of the most interesting aspects of Dredd was the character development of the rookie, a budding telepath without proper combat training who passes from soft-skinned naivety to a fully fledged “don’t f*** with me, mofo” mindset in the space of eight hours. The change isn’t just imagined, you can actually observe it, especially in the scenes she shares inside the heads of the crooks she’s forced to confront. She’s tougher than you might expect at first glance.

The other interesting angle was the SloMo drug, which is more than just a trip, it’s a stretched-out sparkly ride into the depths of a mental black hole that makes even one’s impending demise seem wondrous, like riding a demonic blood-guzzling unicorn spraying clouds of stardust and black powder. The movie is filmed in such a way that we experience these moments along with the characters; it’s about as good a trip as you can take without shooting up yourself.

For a drama, there might not be substantial meat on the bones, but for an action movie, it’s more than enough to lend some depth to the grit and grime of Mega-City One.

Urban’s done solid work in action movies (Riddick, Bourne, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings), and he’s just as capable here of believably taking and dishing out punishment as he was in “Red.” He manages to pull off Dredd while showing only his lower face — not the easiest job for an actor, especially one who is substantially easy on the eyes and might be tempted to coast at times. Stripped down to the basics, his version of Dredd is capable, unruffled, pragmatic, remorseless. Even the rasp of a voice works better for him here than for Bale’s Bruce Wayne, creating legitimate unease in the viewer rather than a plethora of snide fanboy comments on the Internet. 

If this cop pulled you over for a ticket, you wouldn’t try to talk your way out; in fact, it would be advised to just keep your hands on the wheel and do everything he tells you. In this world, Dredd is literally judge, jury, and executioner.

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The Crying Game

The Crying Game slipped into the US in 1992 after floundering overseas and ended up garnering multiple nominations for Academy Awards (although winning only one, for Best Original Screenplay, as the competition was fierce with Unforgiven, A Few Good Men, Howard’s End, and Malcolm X, among others), then subsiding just as quietly. Yet, even more than twenty years later, long after one of its nominated actors retired from acting to return to their old profession, the movie itself remains relevant.

It’s a remarkable film in both the subject matter it examines and how it seemed to defy classification at the time. The advertising material promoted it more as a thriller involving IRA terrorists, but it’s better described as an introspective relational drama centered around the resilience of individual nature. “Try as you might,” the movie ultimately says, “you can’t be something other than what you are; it’s in your nature,” and the movie itself is structured to be such a lesson of realism.

Stephen Rea (as Fergus) captures the essence of a man who believes in his faction’s cause while not sharing its prerequisite ruthlessness; he simply hasn’t yet come to terms with the thought that he’s not a suitable soldier. The giveway of this is his inability to treat the IRA’s prisoner (Jody, played by an endearing Forrest Whittaker) as just another piece of collateral damage, and the friendship they strike ends up disturbing the self-misconceptions Fergus has indulged himself with.

But that inner warmth is not always easily expressed, especially as Fergus’ world begins to unravel. He eventually becomes a study of a man who, confused, is unable to articulate or understand his own deep-seated feelings and desires; the secrets he keeps from Jody’s girl Dil not only mislead her but himself. Fergus is a man you ultimately need to judge by what he does in the end, not by what he can or cannot say, nor even by whether or not you can understand what he is doing at the time. Then again, as goes the fable of “The Scorpion and The Frog,” talk is cheap; what you do is what you are.

Davidson in turn plays Dil with a kind of gently mocking knowing on the surface, resilient and non-plussed even in awkward situations; she’s world-wise enough to know the score. But there’s also this haunting weariness in her eyes and voice that hints at some underlying fragility. (If you know her story, then you understand why she’s “had her share of the crying game / first there are kisses, then there are sighs / and then before you know where you are / you’re saying goodbye.”) As a woman, she seems fated to lose anyone she’s ever grown close to; her life seems to be a battle between living in that ache of loneliness versus tolerating the scavengers who are at least preventing her from sleeping alone for a night. She suffers from a crushing fear of abandonment, yet bravely soldiers on in a way that Fergus sometimes can’t rival.

The movie builds up a few good dramatic beats in its foreshadowing. For example, there’s an amusing scene early on where Fergus has to help Jody take a whiz without first untying the soldier’s hands first, and their different attitudes and comments are revealing and relevant. And the way Jody talks about Dil is careful and constructed, although unembarrassed; it seems like everyone has their secrets, but Jody perhaps is the only one who dances around truth as a way of honoring another person’s dignity.

The audience is firmly rooted in Fergus’ perspective (as the sympathetic narrator), so the plot turn in the movie’s middle not just throws Fergus into a tailspin but often leaves viewers wrestling as well with their own unexpected biases and visceral feelings. Yet Jordan doesn’t allow the movie to shy away from the ramifications of that revelation on the major characters; it continues to inhabit that uncomfortable place even when the characters respond in very human, albeit not completely admirable, ways.

It’s interesting to note how different people from different backgrounds will read this movie differently — some believing it to be rebelling against social norms, others insisting the movie only reinforces them. (My own particular read is that the movie simply highlights the way things ARE, without excuse or obfuscation, reinforcing the theme of embracing one’s actual nature without apology or judgment, and then it tries to build off that realistic foundation; but others might differ.) In any case, while the movie can be generalized in light of its larger social themes, it might be better viewed as simply the story of an unfolding relationship between two people, one of whom still doesn’t even really understand himself, which leaves it brilliantly messy and awkwardly honest.

There’s an unexpected cameo by Tony Slattery (who appeared regularly in the orginal BBC version of “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”) as Fergus’ prickly boss, and Jim Broadbent as Col adds unique flavor to an old bartender trope. Some of his banter with Dil is genuinely funny and provides the movie with necessary comic relief, while still retaining an undercurrent of dignity. As such, perhaps Col’s perspective best represents that of the movie — acting as a mediator between two very different merging worlds, while respecting the dignity and intentions of both.

V/H/S

I saw V/H/S the weekend it came out in limited release, via my PS3 sitting in the solitude of my living room. The $6 fee was expensive for a rental (when RedBox is involved, at least); but then again it beats movie prices, and I’m glad I did not pay good money to see this.

I don’t want to say it was all terrible… just underwhelming. The best parts of the movie are front-loaded, and the longer the film ran, the more redundant the clips became. The premise of the movie is yet another “found footage” pic, this time in a house broken into by a bunch of amateur thieves who end up finding that the joke is on them. This overarcing story is really just the framework in which all the other stories are placed and directed in such a way as to be irrelevant.

Why do people continue to present bad stories in the context of found footage? Because it’s cheap, I suppose. You don’t have to improve picture quality, you can adlib many of the lines, you don’t have to frame cleanly, you can get trashed the night before on cheap people and then just grab the camcorder and pass it off as dramatic liberty. It’s a poor man’s drama, and expectations are low. [For a horror flick with relevant sensible use of found footage, see “Sinister.”]

Ti West (a supposed up and comer, director of “he House of the Devil”and The Innkeepers) contributed one of the segments, about a honeymooning couple that discovers someone is breaking into their hotel room. The piece is marginally interesting and not nearly as good as the first movie of his I’ve mentioned, although it does have one shock moment. One segment is a hack-and-slash in the woods with liberal dosings of blood and entrails, another potentially involves creepy things that go bump in the night in your apartment while you’re Skyping your bf, and the last is about a Halloween block party that goes dreadfully wrong. (“Damn those satanic cults; damn them to hell,” as I can imagine Alan Arkin casually offering.)

I saved the best segment for last, as it’s worth the mention, although the movie tosses it up front: A group of guys out on the prowl for easy hookups (one with a convenient vid feed tucked away in his questionably trendy glasses) discovers that one-night stands are bad for your health. Keep an eye on the background imagery in the first five minutes of club scenes if you want to become increasingly creeped out. The actress who slowly becomes to dominate the segment is easily the highlight of the entire movie and evokes complexity of character in what might have been a generic throw-away role. I still wouldn’t have paid full admission to see V/H/S in a theater, but even the thankless moments of this movie were worth watching, if just to see this performance. I hope she gets picked up for something else.

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Cloud Atlas

Invariably when I say I’ve seen Cloud Atlas, the first question always is, “What’s it about?” That’s like asking what the Internet is about — easy to ask, difficult to answer… especially if you’re trying not to spoiler the movie badly.

Since its release, like or dislike for Cloud Atlas seems to reveal more about the viewer than about the film. In one of the later sequences, Sonmi-451 says, “Knowledge is a mirror, and for the first time in my life, I was allowed to see who I was….” Well, Atlas is a mirror as well, a jumbled network of ideas and characters aiming to tell us more about ourselves, and trying to sort through everything on the fly can be dizzying. It took me two viewings to discern what through-lines exist, and a third to start noticing small repetitive details that pull the through-lines together.

In the broadest sense, Cloud Atlas explores the influence of universal karma in the lives of a few particular souls reborn across a span of five hundred years. The movie even provides its own metaphor for this journey in the orchestral piece entitled, “The Cloud Atlas Sextet,” which one of the characters composes but musically overlays all the segments. The gist is that we (human beings) create this music together; we are not separate from each other as we might imagine, not isolated strains; no, we all are part of the same symphony and not just contribute to each other’s melodies but are changed by them, for good or ill.

Cloud Atlas is ambitious and probably terrifying to film — the kind of feeling that you are leaping out into space without a rope and that a pack of savages awaits you at the bottom of the fall if you fail to fly. But the directors thought through everything, from what aspects of the book were most important to capture to what changes needed to be made in order to fit the medium of film.

One of the most brilliant conversions was the structure. The book is written in chiasmic fashion, where if you assign each part a letter, the structure can be depicted as ABCDEFEDCBA. The movie, however, spirals through the narratives in an ABCDEF approach, to set the stage for each, then continues to whirl from part to part based on the visual and audial hooks from each in a way that reinforces the moment’s theme and tone. In this way, the settings and characters are not only established before we can forget who everyone is, but there are tighter dramatic links between each story – the similarities in pattern are more obvious, the resonance more pronounced.

The souls are also of different makes and models. One struggles with suicide regardless of incarnation. Two others seem perpetual villains, their lot in life only worsening with each despicable or boorish act they pursue as extensions of the “order of the age” (and let’s clear this up front – society is not the hero in this movie, it’s the disease). There are souls that are good but bland, and the occasional noble spirit. And a few of these souls seem adept at finding each other, life after life, to reaffirm love once thought lost.

There is one soul in particular who swings between bad and good, incarnation through incarnation, until there is finally an opportunity for repeated acts of bravery to compensate for past patterns of cowardice and greed. Even then, salvation will be found jointly, if at all. “From womb to tomb,” says Sonmi-451, “we are bound to others. Past and present. And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.” We speak of individual souls, yes, but in a sense we’re all part of the same ocean and there is no division between us.

The actors are all invested; some succeed better than others. The stories are also of all different genre and tone — from noir detective and modern farce to scifi thriller and a version of Burgess’ Nadsat — so some sequences might be more palatable than others to a particular viewer. Still, the performances are most interesting in the vision they contribute to, even if it’s amazing how certain actors melt into their roles so much as to be almost unrecognizable. Complaints about makeup hold less water with the audience needing to recognize the souls via the actors, so makeup has to still permit some sense of who is wearing it. Having a racially and gender-diverse cast where all actors eventually portray all genders and nationalities in their various reincarnations reminds us that boundaries and categories are ultimately illusions, which would make the suppression of individual voices a form of social murder. The Wachowski siblings made this statement back in the Matrix, where rebellion against the system is mandated in order to save it, and it would be no wonder if Lana, with her unique background, has contributed an accentuated personal sense here of what marginalization of minorities can occur at the hands of the social order.

The strengths of Cloud Atlas seem to also be its weaknesses. It is big, broad, interwoven; multi-genred, generating a gamut of emotions; at times it can seem like a big ball of rewound yarn, unruly and rough around the edges, parts of it impenetrable until the outer layers unravel. It has characters that can be considered funny, scary, lovable, loathsome, admirable, resonant. At the same time, if you step back to see rather than getting lost in the details, you can see something bigger that all that, like a field of night festooned with twinkling stars … and the occasional brilliant comet streaking across.

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Star Trek Into Darkness

Abrams really had his work cut out for him. It didn’t help that he made a decent reboot of the franchise in 2009, only setting the bar higher than it already was. Did he succeed in this follow-up release? Here he has made a movie that is enjoyable in many ways, yet doesn’t seem to possess as much sincerity and  organicness of the first.

The script is beset by some real techno bloopers — for example, how transporters on a Federation flagship apparently have trouble snagging someone from a nearby locale while somehow a small portable one is capable of blipping someone across the entire galaxy. It seems more a matter of convenience for the WRITERS to have the transporters work in one situation and not the next.

And that would mark one of the major issues with the film: Convenience for the sake of plot. There are numerous plot turns that end up either being conveniently negated or conveniently resolved by an earlier one, deadening their emotional power. They are also of the sort that, when those earlier plot turns occur, you keep them in mind because you sense they’re likely to be relevant, and unfortunately when the later crisis arises, you can then easily predict how it will be resolved. The writers (Lindeloff et al) were very good about not pulling magical solutions out of their back pocket in moments of crisis, but they could have used a little more sleight of hand in disguising the setup so that you could enjoy the legerdemain rather than seeing immediately through it.

Abrams also attempts to reinvent one of the Holy Grail moments of the Trek franchise (I won’t say which one), but the way it’s handled feels almost more a sacrilege than a homage — a mockery that attempts to lay claim to an emotional power that has not yet been earned. In the process, it even threatens to tarnish the original. Trekkies familiar with this moment (uh, basically anyone who cares at all about Star Trek) might have trouble getting past this slight.

Star Trek is famous for its banter, and this movie includes more than its fair share — banter between Kirk and Spock, Spock and McCoy, McCoy and Kirk, and even Abrams’ newer, spunkier Uhura gets into the act. Much of the back-and-forth is laugh-out-loud funny; the only problem is that sometimes it doesn’t seem organic but forced, somehow missing the ebb and flow of normal conversational patterns. There’s a wonderful passive-aggressive three-way convo driven by Uhura that is hilarious to listen to, yet might seem a bit unbelievable given the circumstances.

Despite all this, the cast gamely pushes forward, and they’re all as solid as ever, although Chekhov and Sulu don’t get nearly enough to do. (Sulu’s brief turn in the chair shows a side of him that few Trekkies have seen previously, and it provides a new perspective of the character’s potential.) The entire cast really does seem to literally channeling their characters, albeit younger versions of them. If the movie fails in some ways, it’s not their fault. There’s also a lot of Trek references ripped from The Original Series (plus an occasional reference from a more recent series) to please Trek fans.

Cumberbatch as John Harrison is probably the highlight of the movie, however. He tends to steal whatever scenes he is in, a man impervious to pain and pity, unintimidated by any threat or obstacle, and virtually unstoppable once he has a goal in mind. If he is arrogant (and of course he is), it’s only because he deserves to be. He really is better, stronger, faster, more capable than anyone else he might face, and the Trek heroes are hard-pressed to stop him.

Some of the best scenes are the ones unique to Abrams’ vision — specifically, the relationship between Christopher Pike and James Kirk. Kirk was orphaned at birth, and it was Pike’s prodding that got Kirk to apply to the Academy. So when Pike gives Kirk a deserved tongue-lashing, it’s not just anger over the young captain’s disregard for protocol but frustration over his own inability to save his “son” from the fate he has now brought on himself in his recklessness. And like the best of fathers, surrogate or not, Pike doesn’t let his disappointment prevent him from going balls-to-the-wall to ensure that Kirk gets a shot at redemption. It’s kind of the Superman story all over again — Jor-El might have sacrificed himself so that his newborn son might survive catastrophe, but when Clark Kent thinks about his dad, he is always thinking about Pa Kent… the man who has been there, pushed him, encouraged him, and (most importantly) believed in him when no one else did.

Likewise, there are some wonderful moments revolving around Kirk in his moments of weakness — circumstances where he realizes he might have just killed his entire crew, or when he has no clue what to do next, so he just decides to do what he knows he can and leave the rest for others to deal with. Cock-sure in his first outing, this Kirk is forced to face his own weaknesses, surrounded on all sides by violence and death and his own limitations, and perhaps finally has found something that has eluded him all his life until now: Humility.  It’s in those moments where the characters venture into the ambiguities of shadow and darkness that the movie itself becomes the most strong.

Depressing Movies Still Worth Seeing

“Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before–more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle.”  ― Charles Dickens, “Great Expectations”
 
People watch movies to be entertained, and there’s value in that. Some movies walk a darker road, but still offer up a happier ending by which to balance the scales. And then there are movies with other purposes in mind, the ones that leave you speechless and pensive after.

Interestingly, many of them revolve around people who are trapped by themselves, others, or even fate and are forced to either extricate themelves or reconcile themselves with dignity to their destiny as best they can. They sacrifice comfortable resolutions for honesty, maintaining the tone necessary to instigate thoughtfulness and provide the impetus we need to perceive, question, and perhaps change our own lives.

Never Let Me Go (2010)

The movie focuses on the lives of children born and raised by the state specifically as commodities when they come of age. I won’t spoiler it by saying what specific purpose they serve, just that it’s only the premise (not the day-to-day narrative) that has sci-fi overtones. The story itself explores the unfolding drama of three young people coming to terms with a destiny decided for them before their births.

The film features sensitive, nuanced performances by Carey Mulligan, Kiera Knightley, and Andrew Garfield, as well as the young actors who portray them as children. What makes a person a person and a soul a soul; and what makes one life more important than another, if death remains an inevitability anyway?

Like Crazy (2011)

Love “American-style” is often portrayed as enthusiastic, young, strong, powerful; what is often overlooked is the fragility of love when it is not properly maintained. This movie explores in a very raw way (with much of the dialogue being ad libbed) the process by which a promising relationship might falter and lose its way without the right kind of care. The strong performance by the leads is almost overshadowed by Jennifer Lawrence in the supporting cast.

The Remains of the Day (1993)

It’s not really an accident that two films in my list are based on books by the same author (Kazuo Ishiguro, who also wrote, “Never Let Me Go”). Nominated for eight Academy Awards, The Remains of the Day focuses on a butler who cannot reconcile his professional ideals with his personal life. The severity of his commitment to dignity threatens to strangle the enticing vulnerability for love. Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are in top form here; Christopher Reeve performs decently in one of his last movie roles.

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Darren Aronofsky directed this relentless drama about four addicts whose lives spiral out of control as their pleasurable highs become ever-demanding barbed hooks that they cannot remove from their own mouths. Ellen Burstyn won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a widow who becomes hooked on prescription medicine in order to lose weight.

The Wrestler (2008)

Another Aronofsky movie, an over-the-hill professional wrestler tries to reclaim his glory days, find love, and rebuild a relationship with a daughter he barely knows. It’s rightfully touted as Mickey Rourke’s “comeback” movie (I can’t imagine a better performance), with uneasy parallels between this and his own fall from grace.

Gone, Baby, Gone (2007)

Ben Affleck’s first directorial outing stunned critics and revitalized his entertainment career. It’s also a great example of a movie that outshines its source material (a noir-style book by Dennis LeHane).

A young girl in Boston disappears; it’s up to the detective team of Kenzie and Gennaro (here played by Ben’s brother Casey and actor Michelle Monaghan) to find her, alive or dead. What they discover over the course of the investigation wanders into moral ambiguity and no flawless solution. Decisions are made, and the movie lingers unsettlingly on the outcome without trying to justify which decisions were better.

Chosen (Season 1)

Could you kill someone to save your own life? How about the life of your children? That’s the first season premise for Chosen, where defense attorney Ian Mitchell finds someone shooting at him when he attempts to retrieve a mysterious box on his front porch. What he finds inside throws his life into a further tailspin.

I’ve been a fan of Milo Ventimiglia ever since he played Peter on “Heroes.” As an actor, he naturally conveys a goodness of heart that makes Ian’s dilemma here even more believable, which is good at those times when small details in the show don’t seem to make as much sense. For example, Milo seems a bit too moral to earn a living defending likely criminals. (I suspect it was a hook by the writer, so that Milo could fall back on some shady ties in his moments of need.) And although Ian’s physical response to the first time he fires a gun at someone is believable from the average person, you’d think a defense attorney would have already hardened up a bit, based on the kinds of cases he’s been dealing with.  Which reminds me — did he mark “run for my life” on his calendar so that he wouldn’t have business meetings scheduled for the two days he’s off getting shot at?

The biggest oversight? Once — just once — I would have liked to hear Ian say, “Why? Why am I being forced to do this? What is the big picture here?” Ian seems a true pragmatist — he takes the situation as-is and tries to run with it, without ever really caring what’s outside the maze.

But these are very minor quibbles. Chosen itself has format down very well. Not only does it come in easily digested chunks (22-minute episodes, in a six-episode season), perfect for the viewer whose mental palette is exhausted by streaming shows with episodes lasting twice as long and seasons lasting even longer, but the answers to mysteries are well-paced. We get only a little bit of an answer here or there, just like Ian, and so it’s easy to understand why he’s frustrated … and yet enough progress is made that the quest doesn’t seem entirely pointless. He’s barely hanging on by his fingertips… but the point is that he’s still hanging on.

Ian’s encounter with his first would-be killer is perfect, in that we get a little bit of information and context as to what is happening… and also a frightening glimpse into what might be in store for Ian himself unless he can either find a way out of his problem or toughen up for the long haul.  “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places,” says Hemmingway, “but those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” The question here is whether Ian is good enough, gentle enough, or brave enough to end up dying early, or whether he’s not quite as pure as he seems and will bend to the rules of the Game (and thus survive) in order to save his daughter. As another player suggests, morality is one of the first things to go out the window when your family’s life is threatened; and Ian receives the same advice from another unexpected source as he nears the end game.

Ian learns how to practice battlefield medicine with the tools at his disposal, and Milo plays those scenes so perfectly. And when he starts calling in old favors, he’s forced to deal with people who are as scary and merciless as the shadowy figures he is hunting. As it goes, these “players on the other side” aren’t toothless Terra Nova baddies either — it’s very clear that Ian is still alive only because they have permitted it… and if he causes too much trouble, that goodwill might be rescinded.  Even the relationship between Ian and Laura (his ex) shows depth in the awkward way they sometimes discuss their daughter — the gulf that occurs when ex-partners continue to disappoint each other and yet no longer feel it’s worth expressing their frustration. Even divorce hasn’t completely sundered the bond between the two.

The show itself has decent cinematography, and the night shots aren’t a muddle mess like much of The Following’s were. One daytime shot in particular is vibrant, crisp, and framed so perfectly you’d swear it was an Audi commercial. And why is Ian’s ex dating the hospital administrator from “Liar, Liar”?

The season finale goes where it needs to go — no creative solutions, just good old-fashioned blood and sweat, as Ian decides whether he can justify killing another human being. Even the closing sequence, not entirely unpredictable, is certainly gutsy. Ben Katei, the writer, can’t be accused of taking the easy way out; Season #2, if there is one, would be a real test of his mettle to continue the story in a way that isn’t a cop-out. If it happens, I can’t wait to see what he does.

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