Category Archives: Movies

“Her” Makes Sci-Fi Heartfelt

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Someone once read that the key to writing good Sci-Fi was creating a future where the major difference from our current world isn’t the technology, but the culture that surrounds it. Well, if that is the key to an amazing work of Science-Fiction, director Spike Jonze nails it on the head with “Her.” Dismissing the doom and gloom of recent science-fiction, Jonze instead focuses on how relationships could flower and grow between humans and AI. The result is that “Her” makes Sci-Fi heartfelt, and all the more haunting. (Some slight spoilers ahead)

“Her” follows recently divorced Theodore Twombly – played amazingly by Joaquin Phoenix – an introverted, awkward, and miserable man. Theodore’s life consists mainly of writing personalized messages at a card company and playing video games in his apartment in slightly chromified and glassy future LA. An emotional mess, Theodore on a whim decides to try out the world’s first AI operating system.
Once set up, Theodore and his AI, Samantha – voiced flawlessly by Scarlett Johansson – develop a strong relationship that eventually blossoms into a complete romance. While this concept had the chance to be highly flawed and flat out ridiculous, Jonze  masterfully built an entire universe and culture that allowed such a concept to flower. So, while Theodore becomes intimately connected to Samantha, other characters drop hints of the friendships they are simultaneously developing with their own respective operating systems or gossip about how rare this type of relationship actually is.

A movie like “Her” would never have worked fifteen, or even ten, years ago. But now, as we are already all but inseparable from our phones, “Her” doesn’t feel like such a leap. Who hasn’t had a friend, or acquaintance, become genuinely emotional about breaking a laptop or losing a phone? Now how would we all actually respond if our devices could actually learn, connect, and talk to us with their own unique personalities and view points?

“Her”‘s greatest strength most certainly lies in the casting choices. Joaquin Phoenix manages to convey genuine remorse, doubt, and joy. At every step of the story, you can understand exactly how Theodore must feel and, more masterfully, you can empathize with how someone in his situation would eventually seek a relationship through Samantha, who does seem to truly love him – thanks to Johansson’s amazing work.

Whereas many films may fall into general sappiness or reach for some deus ex machina solution to the underpinning question of how a human and a disembodied machine may ever truly achieve a true relationship, “Her” suffers no such pitfall. The ending is masterful, and drives home the general thrust of the film – What are relationships truly? How tenable are they ever really?

All in all, “Her” is the first must see movie of 2014 (or, technically, the last ‘must see’ of 2013).

The Ten Most Entertaining Trilogies

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With the recent release of Christopher Nolan’s third installment in the Batman Trilogy, all I see online or hear from friends are discussions about what film trilogies are best. There are obviously multiple ways to judge ‘what’s best’ ranging from artistic talent and writing to pure entertainment value. Although I know these top ten lists have been done to death, I hope no one will mind my two cents. So, without further ado, my list of the ten most entertaining trilogies (presented in no particular order).
1. The Vengeance Trilogy

Most entertaining trilogies
No other series of movies has had as profound effect upon me as The Vengeance Trilogy by Chan-Wook Park. The most famous movie in this series is the second installment, Oldboy, which I have already written about here. Unlike most trilogies that are sequentially related, these films are instead only linked by the theme of revenge and its consequences. All three of these films – Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance – are works of pure art. Although some might find them a little slow moving, and they can be confusing on first watch – imagine an artful Korean version of Quentin Tarantino at his prime – I have never had movies draw so much out of me: laughter, tears, hope, camaraderie with those I’m watching, cringing, and then ultimately despair; because, at the end, all you will end up feeling after watching these films is soul crushing sadness and the relief that none of the characters in any of the movies was you.

2. Star Wars

Most entertaining trilogies
This entry is almost a throwaway. I love Star Wars. I grew up watching it – and, I admit, reading fan fiction novels – and in terms of pure time spent, I do not think I have ever loved something as long as I have loved these movies. Although the acting is not the best, and the effects pale now compared to the likes of Avatar, there is something about Star Wars that cannot be beaten: maybe it is the dynamic scenes – think Mos Eisley Cantina – where the characters, even though they are obviously the focus, are still just part of a living, breathing, radiant environment; maybe it is how all the effects in the movies, made in a time before computer effects, seem almost more realistic and possible because of this; maybe it is because of Han Solo and Boba Fett; or, maybe, even though I don’t know a single person who likes Luke Skywalker, it is the plot that makes Star Wars so epic. Joseph Campbell  once referred to Star Wars as the modern equivalent of Greek myths due to its mixture of grandeur and minutiae – on the one hand the galactic clash between the forces of darkness and the forces of light; on the other hand, the protagonist’s search for justice for his murdered father. Epic.

3. Lord of the Rings

Most entertaining trilogies
The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the single greatest film adaptation ever produced. Some complain of the films’ length and extreme detail – especially in the extended edition. For fans, there might never be enough LoTR. After all, this series, based on Tolkien’s work, covers one of the greatest mythic journeys in human literature – really, a modern odyssey. The films keep the epic scope of the books, while not losing any of the pure emotion and fellowship that occurs amongst the characters in the non-action scenes. Every character is also perfectly cast, and this trilogy – for better or worse – started the trend of making blockbusters over two hours long.

4. Evil Dead

Most entertaining trilogies
So there’s this guy, Ash ( played by Bruce Campbell), who just can’t get any luck. In the first film of the franchise, The Evil Dead, Ash and four friends travel to a remote cabin which is then attacked by demons. The second film in the franchise, Evil Dead II, is essentially a remake of the film, whereas the third film, Army of Darkness, is a horror-comedy focusing on Ash being hurled back into Medieval England where he must fend off… an army of darkness. All three films were directed by Sam Rami, and inspired a radical cult following, for good reason. They are horrific, hysterical, and all together masterful.

Continue reading The Ten Most Entertaining Trilogies

Extreme Vengeance – An Oldboy Review

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Oldboy Review
Image from thefilmist.wordpress.com

Conventional knowledge holds that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” Why this is true is never fully explained, and I’m not sure if I agree with the thought. What’s the rational? Is revenge best cold due to the fact that the perpetrator of said revenge has ample opportunity to obsess over the harm done to them, while slowly nursing their wounds? Is it the idea that if you delay vengeance, the pain slowly becomes a part of you making it that much more cathartic when you do finally manage to serve your dish – so to speak.

These explanations seem to come up short for me. For instance, if you spend your life raising the idea of exacting revenge, what do you do when you finally achieve your goal? Who do you become after everything is accomplished? What is Inigo Montoya’s purpose in life after he screams “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father, prepare to die!” one last time before vanquishing the six fingered man?

Oldboy Review
Photo credit at remycarreiro.com

These are the types of questions that keep me up. I would feel worried asking myself this, except for the fact that everything I have asked has been explored in unparalleled strokes of cold artisitic genius by Park Chan-wook in his masterpiece of a film, Oldboy. The film follows the exploits of Oh Dae-Su, a man imprisoned for fifteen years without explanation and then suddenly released, and his quest for understanding and revenge.

Trying to write an accurate Oldboy review without ruining any of the suspense or turns the movie takes is a difficult task. It is surely a movie about revenge, as is evident from the fact that the movie is the second installment in the thematically linked Vengeance Trilogy; however, whose revenge we are watching unfurl, and why anything happens the way it does, is not always completely apparent. In keeping with this ambiguity, the film is extremely graphic.

Usually I am able to watch films without flinching – not so for Oldboy. There were several times throughout the film – and still, now, after having seen it untold times – in which I will squirm. What separates this movie from common pulp is that none of the violence is gratuitous. Everything you see, although you will earnestly wish it never flashed before your eyes, has value. It demonstrates the extremes people will go to in the effort to correct wrongs they think have been done to them.

Oldboy Review
Photo credit from blog.thephoenix.com

Oldboy isn’t simply a gory movie focused around revenge. It is also a deep psychological study of how easy it is for people to lose sight of their own humanity if they are pushed far enough. Throughout the film, without spoiling anything, there is a strong motif of the battle between the inner monster lurking in all people and their desire to suppress it. By the end of this film, you will fully understand that struggle.

There are really no heroes or villains in this movie. By the time the credits roll, the only real emotion one could possible have for any of the character’s is sympathy. They were all so wrapped up in their own destruction, that it became impossible for them to escape.Rating: Extremely worthwhile. Watch it on the first chance you get. Be warned, though, this movie is not for the weak stomached.

Favorite quotation out of context: “Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.”

Last Life in the Universe

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In September I am heading to Turkey to teach English for nine months. Before then, my girlfriend – Jen – and I have been trying to get through a huge, and growing, bucket list of activities we have. The activities range from the mundane – getting lahmacun, a type of Turkish food – to the intense – visiting Australia. Yesterday, we managed to watch a movie on our list, Last Life in the Universe.

Last Life in the Universe

I have been told multiple times that the best stories are always those that, although not necessarily the most engaging at the moment, can be dwelled while always providing new insights. I do not want to make a blanket generalization, but I feel as if this type of cinema is extremely common in Asia. My favorite film Oldboy, for example, is Korean; I have stayed up to dawn multiple nights after seeing that movie with friends discussing all of it’s intricacies.

Although Last Life in the Universe was not immediately engaging, and indeed did drag a little at times, I can not stop thinking about its overall message. The movie centers around Kenji, a Japanese ex-pat living in Bangkok, who is half-heartedly suicidal and Noi, a Thai woman who witnesses her sister die. The two characters eventually become involved, and the movie follows the development of Kenji’s emotional condition.

The way the relationship develops and is portrayed is beautiful and artistic; however, that is not the element of the movie that really captured my interest. Instead, what I fell in love with was Kenji’s tired suicide attempts. It is established in the first scene of the movie that Kenji is not truly suicidal, but instead just tired of the annoyances of the modern world. With this in mind, the suicide attempts reminded me of the French saying l’appel du vide, which translates as ‘the call of the void.’

L’appel du vide corresponds to those feelings that, I hope I’m not alone in saying, we all experience when looking from a great height or being on a bridge. It is the subtle feeling of being interested in jumping – not because we are upset, but rather because it is the unconscious longing to see what would happen. Kenji embodies this perfectly. He is alone and out of place in Bangkok, and as such, is drawn to the ideas of the sharp contrast that suicide provides.

The movie is much more than just this, and a sharp line of dark subtle humor manages to run throughout, while simultaneously being played off with much more light-hearted elements. Overall, Last Life in the Universe is beautiful and is continuing to reverberate through my mind over a day later. This movie, I say, is worthwhile.