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The Revenant


Maybe the greatest cinematography since Lawrence of Arabia.  

That's the only good thing I can say about this movie, though even it has a problem I will get to.  ***Beware of spoilers--though a reasonably aware person should know what to expect from this film plotwise just watching the trailers.***

Artists tell stories.  And great stories are told and retold many times and can and should be adapted in the telling.  Yet, any change should serve some purpose to the story or to a larger theme the story is drawing our attention to. 

Hugh Glass and his story are an authentic part of the American West, though quickly turned into folk tale and legend.  Jim Bridger became one of the great mountain men, explorers, and entrepreneurs in his own right.  I encountered Hugh Glass' story in the masterful A Cycle of the West by Nebraska poet laureate John G. Neihardt, a volume that should be in the canon of American literature read by every well-educated person.

The real Hugh Glass story is one of forgiveness overcoming violence and revenge.  The genuine story is both an unconventional Western and true, which is one reason the story is so subversive of our romanticized notions of the West.  

Inarritu has chosen to tell a different story--a very conventional revenge narrative.  In fact, so conventional, that I quickly became bored by the film and wondered why I needed to wait hours more for a bloody death scene (I actually was checking the time to see how much longer I had to endure).  This film ratchets up our romanticized notions of the West and employs every stereotype and trope.  Whereas the real story reminds us that our romanticized notions are inauthentic.  This strange choice of a conventional plot also led to thematic decision I greatly disliked.

I was, in fact, disgusted by the film.  Not its violence, but the filmmakers' decision to create a hypermasculine story.  

First, they manufactured a half-Pawnee son.  Why?  They seem to have chosen to do so in order to make the revenge all that more potent and guarantee a violent conclusion.  

They've also chosen to set the film in mountainous winter landscapes instead of on the Great Plains where the events occurred (Glass encountered Fitzgerald north of Omaha at Fort Atkinson).  This choice, which leads to the stunningly beautiful cinematography, also seems to be about ratcheting up the hyper-masculinity.  Crawling across the rolling hills and grassy meadows of the Plains would seem to be not effort enough for these filmmakers.  They need to manufacture sturm und drang.

Then they add repeated and unnecessary sequences of sadistic tortures of Hugh Glass.  Was the story of bear mauling, betrayal, and survival by crawling not powerful enough?

As told by John Neihardt, the story is rooted in the friendship between Glass and Bridger, a friendship completely lacking in the film (because of the manufactured son?).  Glass feels betrayed by a friend and the anger and bitterness motivates his crawl, but evaporates when he finally meets up with Bridger again.

Also, the Neihardt version reveals a homoerotic possibility to the relationship between Glass and Bridger.  We know from the historical record that the men who blazed trails in the West often engaged in same-sex relations, though the films and television shows often unqueer these stories.  

Which they've done again.  This time in service to a hypermasculinity that can't tell a story of friendship, same-sex love, or forgiveness.  That would be a good story.  An unconventional Western film with unexpected plot developments.  And, very likely, also a true story.

So, if this film wins the Academy Award for Best Picture, then I will be even more angry for Brokeback Mountain lost.  Clearly the lesson for filmmakers is that they should purge the queer elements of the great stories.

Read more about the Neihardt story here.

And an article that also disliked the film for its refusal to tell the genuine story.

The Neverending Story

The Neverending StoryThe Neverending Story by Michael Ende
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have loved the film The Neverending Story since I first saw it in fourth grade (I believe that's when) back in the mid 1980's. Shockingly, as a lover of the film and a kid buried in books who constantly browsed library and bookstores, I didn't realize there was an actual book until a month ago when I encountered a copy laying the choir room at church; this copy belonged to the music director's teen daughter. "May I borrow this?"

Okay, I was glad to have some more details and enjoyed some of the material in the early part of the book which was lacking in the film (for example the way Atreyu and Falkor meet is much better in the book and inexplicable deus ex machina in the film), but there were some of the film choices that I did prefer. And I most definitely preferred ending the film where they did, as the rest of the book, about two thirds of the story, I really didn't care for at all.

The main difference is that Bastian is a rather unpleasant character in the book, from beginning to almost the very end. Which makes the story less engaging, I think.

View all my reviews

Inside Out


Michael and I took advantage of our first post-Sebastian's birth date night to go see a children's movie.  We wanted to see Inside Out because of all the good buzz it has received, and not just film-related buzz, but broader discussions of how the movie could impact the way children talk about their feelings.

We were deeply moved by the film (it is about emotions after all), both of us crying a number of times.  The movie also provoked a great deal of conversation afterwards, with us raising all sorts of interesting questions about the choices the filmmakers made and the meanings one could interpret from them (like Riley's emotions being both male and female unlike every other character).  

I had two intellectual reactions to the film.  I do think the movie will help children to talk about their feelings.  I can imagine conversations about the importance of what we normally think of as negative emotions--sadness, fear, anger.  I liked how sadness was the empathetic character.  I know I'll make use of the film's metaphors in the future.

But I also reacted as a philosopher of mind (my dissertation topic).  The reviews and articles I had read ahead of viewing the film worried me, and the actual film supported that worry.  The premise of the film promotes one of the worst mistakes in Western philosophy--the Cartesian theatre.  Alva Noe has written a very good critique on this very point.  We philosophers have been working hard to debunk folk understandings of the mind and our work will be even more difficult if a group of young people grow up imagining the human self functioning as the film presented.

So, effective metaphors if one can teach kids (and adults) that they are only metaphors and not good representations of how the mind functions.

"There are no war heroes"

My closest friend who is a veteran of Iraq & Afghanistan and I have been e-mailing about the reactions to American Sniper.  I have not yet seen the film, so I cannot react to it, but the reactions themselves are interesting.  Clint Eastwood, in an interview last week, reminded people that he has always been anti-war and believes he made an anti-war movie.  Clearly not all the people who've seen the film got that.

My veteran friend wrote the other day that one should avoid stating any critical opinion of the movie in public.

Today he forwarded me this article, by another veteran, reflecting on the film and the reactions to it.  The title of the essay is "There are no war heroes." A procative enough title.  An excerpt:

I'm a U.S. infantry combat veteran of Afghanistan, and I witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. Personally, though, I found the movie to be factually probable, visually and emotionally stimulating, but curiously aimless: like walking in a shallow pool looking for a place to dive and swim, expecting depth and finding none. I found the audience's reaction both inspiring and depressing. On the one hand, Thank god people are finally responding to the horror of war. On the other hand, This is not quite true.

Have you seen the film?  What do you think?

STREET by James Nares

Rarely am I very interested in video installations at art museum.  A few, here and there, have held my attention for a few moments.  Usually I think that they are strange.

Saturday afternoon I wandered into the new CAP gallery at the Joslyn Art Museum in downtown Omaha and ended up sitting there for more than an hour.

CAP is short for Contemporary Artists Project Gallery, and you can read about the new gallery's goals in today's Omaha World-Herald.  A small space currently set up as a screening room, with Le Corbusier-style black couches.  I nestled into the corner of the front couch, the only one open when I arrived in the room, and was quickly mesmerized.

STREET is only 2 minutes and forty seconds of film slowed down to run just over one hour.  In 2011 the filmmaker drove along the streets of New York City filming the people.  Initially I was enjoying the people watching aspect, when suddenly a face stood out for its emotional tone, and I realized that there were deeper layers of meaning in the art work.

I was struck by how aesthetically satisfying it was.  The colors of people's clothes, on food trucks, and in store windows created beautiful image after beautiful image.

And in scene after scene one sees a full range of human emotion--from a child running with glee to a family hugging and crying.  One is struck by how many different emotions can exist on one street corner at the same time.  I was also reflecting on how none of the people were really seeing each other, and yet we were seeing them together and that together they made a work of art.

I also realized that I can never see New Yorker's looking up again without thinking of September 11, 2001.

Nothing sinister occurs in the film.  I kept wondering if we would see someone fall or trip or some crime occur.  We don't.  

There are also moments of surprising artistry, as when the camera focuses in on a pigeon in slow-motion flight.

I highly recommend this work, which will be at the Joslyn till September 21.  Carve out an hour to go sit and watch and reflect upon our common humanity.



As we drove home from seeing Boyhood I told Michael that there was only one flaw I had noticed while watching the film.  Funny, I can't remember now what that was.  It has been eight days since we saw it, and whatever that particular flaw was, I've since forgotten it.

I was one of those people who fell in love with Before Sunrise because it seemed to authentically express many of my own ideas on life and love, lifting them to the level of generational thoughts, while doing it in an exotic, foreign setting.  It was the romance we all wished to have.  I'm not sure if originally or later I appreciated the craft of the film--the way a shot was held so much longer than most directors hold them now, the slow pacing of the conversation, the walking, the extras who appear (sometimes without dialogue) and add to the visuals, the sense of place.  When Before Sunset was announced, I encouraged younger folk to see the first film and then the second, and some of them became fans.  That film captured where we were in our late twenties, again authentically.  I decided I wanted a film from them every decade because it would be the chronicle of our generation's romantic life.  Then, Before Midnight did it a third time.  I don't know how many times in watching that film that I squirmed because one of the nasty things that Celine or Jesse said was close to something I'd said in an argument with Michael.  And along the way those aspects of Linklater's craft have continued to satisfy me.

And now Boyhood.  I was mesmerized and started regretting that the film was going to come to an end.  Here that craft is put to good use again--long meandering conversations, holding the shot longer, letting time flow, and rooting everything in place.  I've not seen a review that noted the use of place in this film.  We seem to begin somewhere near coastal Texas and move west, through Houston, to San Marcos and Austin, and then to the Big Bend area.  The young man is moving west.  Linklater pays attention to these spaces and lets them shape the shots and the flow of the conversations.

One thing that surprised Michael and I watching the film was how often we were on the edge of our seats expecting something catastrophic to happen.  And then it didn't.  For example, if a camera lingers that long on a family driving in a car, then usually that means there is going to be a car accident.  We've been programed by filmmakers to expect these sorts of things.  Just listening in on an ordinary conversation, then, becomes extraordinary.

I've seen so many cynical films lately.  Snowpiercer, for all its visual flair, was a glorification of violence and, ultimately, a cynical statement that revolution is futile.  Guardians of the Galaxy had its good moments, but could have been so much better than it was.  It largely lacked an human element, with sadly Groot the tree coming closest.  Planet of the Apes surprised me by how well done it was, but even it concludes that the demons of our nature can't be eradicated.

Here, in Boyhood, was finally a film about humanity.  It largely worked because these characters were not all that interesting.  They were, generally, quite ordinary.  And being ordinary, they were complex.  Watching we also were able to experience some nostalgia.  In that vein, I enjoyed the exploration of Austin as young lovers right before heading off to college.  The sentiments expressed there, more than the place or the actual words, resonated with my own memories of my late teen years.

What troubles me most about the film, is something that also may be authentic.  The dad is a jerk, especially in the early years, yet he ends up with the stable family life (the aging of Ethan Hawke wasn't very effective, but they had to do something because he has aged so little.  And NOW I remember the flaw I had forgotten.  That tie he was wearing at the end.  That character would not have been wearing that tie only a year or so ago).  Mom, who has worked hard, tried and failed at love, ends up alone and thinking her life is less than it should have been.

I left this Linklater film, as I have others, feeling that something of what it means to live in our time has been captured.  I left satisfied and grateful.  

Standing Ovations

Last night the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences acted like the U. S. Congress during a State of the Union address--they kept jumping to their feet.

Remember the days when you could only guarantee two standing ovations during an Oscar telecast?  One for the Lifetime Achievement Award winner and one for some other aged or recently ill star who showed up to present an award.  On the rare occassion that a winner received a standing ovation it really meant something.

Now they stand for almost every performance and almost every winner.

But in this way they are like the general culture.  I remember as a kid that when a play, concert, or recital ended, there was simply applause, not standing.  Occassionally there was a standing ovation, but usually only at the final show in a run or when something especially moving had happened.  Now people stand for every performance.  It may not be a bad development, but it has lost its special meaning.

Oh, and on those Lifetime Achievement Oscars.  I miss the segment of the show where that award and the Jean Hersholt and Irving Thalberg Awards were given.  They've been missing for a few years now, having been moved to another night with their own dinner.  This was the part of the show that real film fans really enjoyed and was the least like the contemporary awards show, which is probably why it got axed.  

On one hand, I don't mind them moving them to a special event on another night, but I have minded that they don't broadcast that ceremony.

On the other hand, I do mind them being eliminated from the Oscar telecast.  As a kid it was during these segments that I first encountered Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray.  It was a time to introduce some in the audience to the film arts that they may have never seen in their small town.

2013 Films

I think 12 Years a Slave was the picture 2013 picture which I have seen, and it will hopefully win the Oscar.  Gravity, the other film which seems in contention, was great, and I'd be happy if it won, though I thought it was only the third best film of the year, following Her.  I do expect Alfonso Cuaron to win Best Director, though I am puzzled by the lack of nomination for Spike Jonze.

I haven't seen Dallas Buyer's Club, Blue Jasmine, Wolf of Wall Street, or Philomena so it is more difficult for me to comment on the acting categories.  I'd be happy with Chiwetel Ejiofor or Bruce Dern for actor and definitely think Lupita Nyong'o should win supporting actress.

American Hustle was enjoyable to watch, but is way overrated.

Captain Phillips I did not care for.  The writing was banal, the camera work was both annoying and enforcing of stereotypes, and I was not impressed by any of the performances.

Nebraska was so funny and so well crafted, that I'm sorry it doesn't seem to be in greater contention.

I have no interest in seeing Wolf of Wall Street.  It doesn't strike me as even remotely of interest.

August: Osage County had its moments, though I prefered the production of the play that I saw.  Meryl Streep was disappointing.  Julia Roberts was very good, maybe her second best film performance ever, after Closer.

I enjoyed and cried at The Butler, but it wasn't a great film, so I'm glad it isn't in the running for Oscars.

Inside Llewyn Davis had some of the most mesmerizing visuals of the year.

I liked Saving Mr. Banks, though it wasn't a great film.  Still surprised the Emma Thompson wasn't nominated.

I also wish that Julie Delpy had been nominated for Before Midnight.

Frozen was an enjoyable delight.

Still on my list to see: Blue is the Warmest Color, Fruitvale Station, All is Lost, Dallas Buyers Club, and Blue Jasmine.