Arrival

Arrival. I loved the short story collection that this movie draws from. I wish they’d played the extremes just a bit more. Maybe get even more nerdy with the science/linguistics, and even more fragmented/playful with the chronology. Can’t have everything, though. It’s about as good an adaptation as you can ask for that’d still get wide release.

L’Inhumaine

L’Inhumaine. Marcel L’Herbier’s old French 1924 silent film. I saw this one at Ebertfest, along with Darius Milhaud’s original score played live by the Alloy Orchestra. It… messed with my head.

It starts at this awesome crazy-designed mansion of wealthy singer. You see, she’s a babe and there are men competing for her attention. One is jilted and attempts/fakes suicide. People mourn. There’s a big scene at a Paris theatre with a big rabble-rousing crowd. (That scene also features some awesome cameos from real-life friends from the art world – Proust, Joyce, Pound, etc.). The singer feels guilt. The suicide guy returns. One of the other suitors, a Maharaja, seeks revenge for his jilting by posing as a taxi driver and planting a poisonous snake in her cab. She dies. A mad scientist revives her. Etc. That’s not even the half of it. The final trippy hallucinatory sequence is NUTS. There’s montage, translucencies, overlapping images, swapping color filters, flashes of bold color, accelerating cuts. Don’t sleep on the old stuff.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I had fun, and quickly forgot it. It mostly felt good to be watching a Star Wars movie again. If you’re pretty sure you don’t care about Star Wars in general, this movie will not convince you otherwise. If you do, you will probably leave feeling satisfied, depending on how you like your ratio of pandering nostalgia vs. breaking new ground. The hat-tips and references to previous movies wore thin pretty quickly and for me slowed down what otherwise has some nice momentum. Definitely some groaners, though (for example, the snowy mountain Nazi castle…). I really like Ridley and Chiyoga as the new faces. Isaac is always reliable. I feel like in a few months or maybe not until VIII we’ll look back and admit “Hey, VII is pretty thin but it’s not a total trainwreck and that’s okay”. Ranking the best episode 7’s in 2015:

  1. Creed, by a landslide.
  2. Furious 7
  3. The Force Awakens

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I don’t know how you could watch the prequels and pick anyone other than Obi-Wan Kenobi as the coolest guy in the galaxy. I also appreciate that it undercuts the Jedi a bit. They are powerful and try to do some good, but they mess up a lot. I really dig the psychological battles and manipulation in this one. Great stuff. While Christensen is not a good actor, I buy into his tortured melodrama because I believe in Darth Vader’s arc. You’ll forgive a lot if the story is worth believing in. Would have loved more of that. Meanwhile, who the hell is General Grievous? (Know what’s cooler than two light sabers? Four light sabers!) Yeesh. Better than the other two prequels, I think, and a good way to close things out.

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. One of my major complaints of the prequels is that everything looks so nice, and nothing really feels lived in. Very true in this one. I like that we get to hang out with Obi-Wan so much, doing private eye stuff, chasing down assassins. Overstuffed and scattered, though, and there’s just no way that Anakin & Padme fall in love. Teen Anakin is a nightmare. While I don’t see him in that relationship, I can start to feel for him here, just tragicomically buffeted by his emotions, absolutely at their mercy. The soundtrack is in peak form here, too.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Maybe it’s just that time has washed away the hurt and shattered expectations of 1999, but my thoughts after a second viewing:

If I learned anything from STAR WARS it’s to let go of hate and stuff and I realized episode 1 is kinda campy and charming on second watch?

The story is blah, the writing and acting is blah. But yet, I don’t regret watching it again. I love how every setting is packed with goofy species and local details, every cityscape is full of air traffic. If there is any saving grace, it is the soundtrack – the best part of all of the prequels.

Blade Runner (Final Cut)

Blade Runner (Final Cut). I like how the more I watch this the less I root for Deckard and the more I pull for Roy, Pris, Leon, and Zhora. Deckards’s kind of a jerk, right? Fits with the film noiriness to have a hero with a dark side. Those elements stood out a lot more this time, too, so much smoke and fog, backlighting, rainfall leaving everyone bundled and drenched. I forget how jarring some of the cuts and transitions are, but I’ll forgive a lot. Such a whole, rich world. You feel like you could go there. Filed under: Blade Runner.

Ex Machina

Ex Machina. One of my favorites of the year so far. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan is awesome, flipping back and forth from intimidating to genial. He’s a brogrammer archetype. Excellent critique here of tech sexism and overreach. His overconfidence makes him too casual, flippant about the ethics. Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb has his own blinders, about gender in particular. Some of the dialogue was tiresome. I wish they’d felt more courage to just let people talk, and let the audience get lost a bit (if needed) without preface and theory. On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised how they handled the ending. I’d imagined something more traditional. Loved it. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack for a couple weeks now. Good stuff.

2001: A Space Odyssey

I re-read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and am glad I did. It was cooler than I remembered. Much of it is a bit cold and distant, like the movies, but still has some awestruck moments, and it’s fun to come back to something that I’ve seen four or five times and have such convenient visuals/memories for. If you like the movie, this is a natural complement.

The Martian

I read about half of Andy Weir’s The Martian, and then I bailed. DNF. Definitely enjoyed the thought process and survival engineering. Ultimately, I was hoping for some more narrative progress, more quickly. On to the next.

Lucy

Lucy. Movie trailers can be deceiving. In this case, they sold it as a pretty yawner-looking action movie, but the story is delivered with more spirit and weirdness than you’d expect. There’s this really wonderful ongoing pattern of spliced-in nature footage as counterpoint to the story. A few moments are delightfully heightened (e.g. opening the briefcase), or thoughtfully disorienting (not translating other languages). Most of that is early on, though, and it unfortunately falls back on serviceable scifi/action pastiche, including plenty of Matrix-y philosophy talk. What really helps the early going is that Johansson is more fun to watch. It’s too bad that our hero basically turns into robot, loses affect. There’s an ongoing theme of conquering time via reproduction/evolution, and how knowledge transforms. Notice how they smuggle drugs in their stomach (womb). Also makes me think of study drugs, nootropics, etc. Also reminded me of Ted Chiang’s story Understand in his (really really good) collection Stories of Your Life. So maybe the overall problem here is that it was too good too soon, and once you’ve got the premise up and running, it’s hard to keep it weird. I’d place The Fifth Element ahead of this in my Luc Besson power rankings.

Strange Days

Strange Days. The last movie I watched in 2014. The setting is a dark and messy L.A. where the go-to underground drug is VR “playback” of other people’s recorded first-person thrills. All the stuff with rampant police abuse, violence for entertainment, and mediated experience seemed relevant today. It’s one of those where I love the world they built in the early parts of the movie, but didn’t have much interest in the story they developed from there. Love the closing song. My Kathryn Bigelow rankings:

  1. Zero Dark Thirty
  2. Point Break
  3. The Hurt Locker
  4. Strange Days

She’s really damn good.

The One I Love

The One I Love. Highly recommended, a lot of fun. I wish this one had made a bigger splash. A couple on the rocks goes on a retreat to focus on their relationship. Hijinks ensue. I love movies like this that focus on just a couple cast members, and you get to see their chemistry and talent carry the whole thing. Moss and Duplass are awesome.

Interstellar

Interstellar. First time I’d seen anything on IMAX. Lives up to the format. It’s one of the best Nolan films since The Dark Knight, probably. But it’s very Nolan: he can direct the crap out of some spectacular action/space sequences, but it rarely moves me. (The truck/rocket scene above in the above screencap is a glorious exception). And it could use some trimming. I have to give him credit for directing original material though, and working with smart ideas. No one is doing crazy stuff at that level like he is. Maybe my second favorite after Memento? I need to re-visit The Dark Knight and The Prestige to see where it fits in.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

I read Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, and I loved it in the end. I might even say it changed my life in a few pointed ways. It’s a mildly science fictional story that pairs a good sense of humor with some great thinking on memory, nostalgia, wistfulness, and stories we keep telling ourselves.

Time does heal. It will do so whether you like it or not, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. If you’re not careful, time will take away everything that ever hurt you, everything you have ever lost, and replace it with knowledge. Time is a machine: it will convert your pain to experience.

The writing is slightly distant and self-aware because it’s more fun that way. Like this heavily-footnoted passage, where he’s describing the time machine he lives/works in, which leads to a minor footnote on particle physics:

This unit, this phone booth, this four-dimensional person-sized laboratory, I live in it, but, over time, through diffusion and breathing and particle exchange, the air in here, the air that travels with me, it is me, and I’m it.* The exhaled carbon dioxide that gets recycle and processed by the pump, the oxygen-rich air that is piped back in, these molecules* move around me, and in me, and then back out, all* of it* the same matter.* I breath it* in, it* is in my bloodstream. Sometimes, they* are part of me, sometimes, I am part of them.* Sometimes, they* are in my sandwich,* […]

There are plenty of little aphoristic moments that come up, like…

Life is to some extent an extended dialogue with your future self about how exactly you are going to let yourself down over the coming years.

…or like this aside on growing up in a household with parents arguing and fighting:

Call it the law of conservation of parental anger […] bouncing around, some of it reflected, some of it absorbed by the smaller bodies in the house.

One of my favorite turns of phrase came up in one travel scene, picking up on that swelling, aching beautiful uplift you can feel when flying:

As the machine banks into its approach and we angle into our steep descent spiral, looking down into the city, I have, for a minute or two, some clarified sense of scale, the proper balance of awe and possibility, a kind of airplane courage […]

There’s also some clever meta-textual work relating to the physical book itself and some interludic commentary (like how people in recreational alternate universes can qualify as “protagonists” or even “heroes” in these fantasylands, or diagrams that clarify the plot, background sketches on history/setting, magazine tips for time travel, etc.).

I have to acknowledge that there’s a definite patch just after the halfway point where it dragged a bit for me. (You can see him getting carried away, piling ideas between commas.) But the opening half is so fun, and the final sprint led to a goosebumps ending for me. Very much recommended. Earlier this spring I also really liked Yu’s collection of short stories, Third Class Superhero.