The One and Only Birdman

Why do we watch movies? To we simply want to be entertained? Are we trying to avoid our dull loves? Do we want to feel emotion? Why do we stare at a screen for two hours watching people pretend to be other people? These are just a few of the many questions I asked myself after watching the movie Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).

Twenty years after playing Batman, Michael Keaton plays actor Riggan Thomson, who is twenty years removed from playing the superhero Birdman. Thomson is looking to reignite his career by writing, starring in, and directing a Broadway play. Throuhout the film we see him struggle to feel like he matters, that his work is relevant, and that he is not just a washed up actor and lousy father. Also in the film, we meet Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), a highly respected actor who is a last minute replacement for an injured actor and Thomson’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone). Shiner is a method actor who struggles to have real feelings in real life. He is real on stage, but not in the real world. Sam works as her father’s assistant, a job she hates, but fresh out of rehab, she has little else going on in her life. Sam is representative of all millenials in that she is deperate to feel like her life has meaning and that she is relelvant. 

All three of these characters struggle with identity. Their identities are wrapped up in what others think of them. Riggan Thomson wants to be seen as more than just the Birdman, Shiner wants to be more than just his characters, and Sam wants to find something worthwhile in her life. However, by the end of the film, only Thomson is able to make peace with his identity. He does so by ceasing to care what society and the media think of him, realizing that his family is more important than feeling validated by critics, and embracing the Birdman. 

It is no surprise that all three of the actors who played these roles are nominated for Academy Awards for their performances. They brought their characters to life in a hauntingly beautiful way. In a film that is so unique in its style and tone, it is imperative to have actors that can deliver in the unusual way this film was made.

Apart from the performaces and the style of the film, the story makes the viewer question oneself. The battles each character goes through easily makes anyone watch the film question their own sense of self. In short, Birdman is a movie everyone should watch.

Sometimes You Just Have to Watch Good Will Hunting

I was watching TV with my mom one night, and she was forced to change the channel because an R-rated movie was about to start. Before she left that channel, she told me how good that movie was and that when I was old enough, I should watch it.

Several years later, I was in my first semester of college and feeling miserable. While looking for something to do one night, I stumbled across that movie on Netflix, and that for the first time of my life, I watched the movie Good Will Hunting. Of all the movies I could have watched that night, that was the perfect one. There are some fantastic scenes in it that can provide guidance through life’s trials.

Good Will Hunting tells the tale of Will Hunting, a troubled young genius. Will gets caught working on an extremely difficult math proof at his job as a janitor at MIT. He escapes the professor who catches him, but later, after getting arrested following a fight, this professor makes an arrangement with the judge wherein Will avoids jail time if he works on math with the professor and attends counseling twice a week.

 

This scene teaches us that there comes a time in the midst of an inner-storm when we have to admit that what is happening is not normal, that something is wrong and needs to change. This change will not occur until we have the courage to take steps to correct what is wrong, to control what we can control, and let go of what we cannot control. No one else can make that decision for us. We have to make that move.

This scene is helpful if you are attempting to talk yourself into doing something bold. Sometimes, the only way we can know if a decision is a mistake is to make the decision, to open the box and see if Schrodinger’s cat is still alive.

The message of this scene is simple: Do not live life with regrets.

The key point of this scene is that sometimes tough love is necessary. There is a time to be gentle with yourself and others, but at times, you need to get nasty. You need to be brutally honest, to inspire the right action.

My grandmother once said, “When it’s bad enough, you can say ‘Shit.’” This what this scene is about, shit. We all have shit, bad stuff that has happened to us that we cannot control. I mean really bad stuff, not the disappointment of an F on an English paper, but real pain caused by a dramatic and traumatic event. However, our shit does not defines us. It will, though, if we let it. The shit happened not because we deserved it, but simply because shit happens. There is nothing we can do about it. We need to overcome our shit, if we want to be successful and happy in life. When our shit holds us back, we need to remind ourselves what Sean tells Will. It is not our fault.

The overall message of this movie is courage. Only by having the courage to take a risk, overcoming our shit, and doing something bold can we take control of our lives. Life is scary, but we cannot let that stop us.


Made for More: Commentary on Interstellar

Typically, Christopher Nolan films are known for their twist endings and non-linear timelines. At first, Nolan’s new film Interstellar appears to be of the same ilk, but a second viewing reveals the true nature of this film. This is not another mind-bender from the director of Inception and MementoInterstellar is an emotional story about mankind’s struggle for a greater existence. 

Interstellar opens in a world where human existence has been reduced to a mere struggle to survive. Dust covers the ground, and high winds frequently cause dust storms. Food is hard to find. Corn is the last crop that is still viable. There are no animals, making the procurement of meat impossible.

The main character, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), is a former-pilot and engineer who, like everyone else in the world, has become a farmer. Both he and his 10-year old daughter, Murph (Mackenzie Foy) have seemingly been born into the wrong era. The farming lifestyle is abhorrent to them.

A gravity-related anomaly leads them to discover the secret headquarters of NASA. Cooper is recognized as a pilot, and NASA’s lead scientist, Dr. John Brand (Michael Caine), talks him into piloting a mission to find a new home for mankind.

The essence of the story is the idea that mankind is not meant to merely survive. As he is explaining why he is leaving his family behind to go on a decades-long journey, Cooper tells his father-in-law (John Lithgow) that “[w]e used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” He describes the senseless state to which the world has succumbed. Like his daughter, he dreams not of farming, but of exploring and discovering new frontiers. Screenwriters Jonathan and Christopher Nolan highlight this theme by juxtaposing the space travel scenes with scenes depicting what life is like back on Earth. As time progresses slowly in space, time moves rapidly back on the astronauts’ home planet. The tension builds as they race to improve the lives of all those they left behind before it is too late.

Beyond a life of adventure, Interstellar depicts mankind’s need for love. As Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) states, “[l]ove is the one thing we can perceive that transcends time and space.” At the heart of the story is the bond between Cooper and Murph. Cooper’s goal throughout the film is to get  back home to see as much of his daughter’s life as possible. The tension of the film is built upon this struggle. The younger Dr. Brand’s monologue on love poses a unique view of love, one that equalizes it to science.

In short, Interstellar is not a save-the-ecosystem movie. Nor is it a movie that attempts to fool you with a twist ending. It is, however, a film that depicts the beauty of life lived to the fullest.  The beauty of humanity lies not in work or how the environment is treated. Humanity is beautiful when the mind and the heart are used in union to do great things. 

This Christopher Nolan film is different from his previous films in that it is not a story-driven movie. Instead, the focus is on ideas and a presentation of authentic beauty.

Ladyhawke: The Princess Bride That Never Was

The 1980’s was not a time period where high-tech graphics were in existence. As a result, movies made during that decade were of low quality when it came to fight scenes, blood, gore, death scenes, special effects etc. However, there are a number movies that are still excellent films despite these flaws. One film that exemplifies this is a fanciful film, set in the days of kings, knights, and swords, about man and woman in love, but who are tragically not able to be with one another due to the cruelty of the ruling tyrant. The movie just described is The Princess Bride, not Ladyhawke.

These two films, while strikingly similar visually and in plot, are very different when it comes to overall quality. Like many films from the 1980s, The Princess Bride became a cult classic. Yet, Ladyhawke has not enjoyed the same success. The chief cause of this phenomenon is that The Princess Bride embraces the humorous aspects of its plot; whereas, Ladyhawke does not. In fact, the former is actually a comedy. The latter makes no such claim.

Ladyhawke centers on recently escaped prisoner Philipe “the Mouse” Gastone (Matthew Broderick) and the dark and daring Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer). The two meet at a country tavern when Philipe tries and fails to elude the guards chasing him. Navarre, who heard Philipe brag about being the only person ever to escape the dungeons of Aquila, tells him that he wants to sneak back into Aquila to kill the nefarious Bishop (John Wood), who rules the town with an iron fist, and will need his help. Philipe is not given the option to not assist in this plan.

The journey back to Aquila takes surprisingly much longer than it did for Philipe to get to the country tavern. Nevertheless, this journey is faced with much treachery and takes up a bulk of the film. The guards from Aquila are still after them because Philipe is an escaped convict and Navarre is the former chief guard and personal enemy of the Bishop. Furthermore, a man who gives lodging to the pair tries to kill Philipe. His life is spared, however, when the man is killed by a wolf, who is friends with a mysterious woman, named Isabeau (Michelle Pfieffer).

It is later revealed that the wolf is Navarre and Isabeau is the hawk that travels with Navarre. Philipe learns that they have been cursed. When Navarre was chief guard for the Bishop, all of the men in Aquila fell in love with Isabeau. She chose Navarre as her secret lover. The Bishop found out about their love affair, due to the ramblings of a drunken priest (Leo McKern). Angered, the Bishop cursed the pair of lovers and destined them to be “forever together, forever apart.” By day, Navarre is a human, and Isabeau is a Hawk. By night, Navarre is a wolf, and Isabeau is a human. 

Together, Philipe and the lovers travel towards Aquila. Navarre is intent upon killing the Bishop, but the priest, who spilled the beans to the Bishop, informs them that they have a chance to break the curse if the Bishop is not killed.

Along the way, the viewer is treated to young Philipe’s naive nature and humorous prayers to God. It is this character that brings out the movies flaws. The writers could have been expanded the character and humor of Philipe and included humor from other characters to make the film a comedy, as opposed to a dramatic fantasy film with gratuitous amounts of comic relief from one character. This would have risen the film to the level of The Princess Bride. On the other hand, elimination of Philipe and the humor entrenched in that character would have made this film a solid drama.

The striking thing about Philipe is how completely unnecessary he is to the plot. He contributes nothing worthwhile to the progression of the plot. Navarre claims he needs his help to get into Aquila, but when they sneak into Aquila, Philipe is not the one who comes up with the plan to get inside the city. His only job in the plan is to open a door, which could have been easily done by Navarre’s behemoth of a horse. If the character of Philipe is eliminated from the movie, the plot does not change. The only possible reason for keeping him in the movie is to provide a likable protagonist. Despite being the love interest for the heroine, Navarre is not all that likable. His time as wolf as made him bitter. The character of Navarre was not strong enough to adequately fill the role of hero. Thus, the necessity of Philipe comes into play.

While the character of Philipe is questionable, the performance by Matthew Broderick is not. The pre-Ferris-Bueller Broderick does a superb job at portraying the humorous nature of his character. His prayers to God are reminiscent of his scenes in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where the title character speaks directly to the viewers.

Apart from Philipe, this movie fails on so many levels. Granted, many of its failures are due to the era in which it was made. Yet, some of these flaws are too egregious to ignore.

The most obvious failing is the soundtrack. It was accurately described by Rob Vaux of the Flipside Movie Emporium as “the worst soundtrack ever composed.” Plagued by stereotypic 80s music, the soundtrack is completely out of place almost the entire movie, creating a disconnect with the story. This dissonance is so distracting, it makes the film difficult to take seriously.

The director, Richard Donner, also failed to make his shots look right. While Donner did an excellent job scouting out beautiful Italian locations for filming, he failed to make the color and light look appropriate. The most noticeable problem is that it was nearly impossible to tell when it was day and when it was night. In a film where two important characters change form when the sun rises and sets, it is important to make that a clear distinction. One particular scene, where the change was an important plot point, was especially guilty of this error. 

Moreover, there are two other elements of this movie Donner overlooked. For example, nothing in the film explains the contrast between how unceremonious the change is in the above mentioned scene and how extravagant it is in a scene towards the end of the movie. Also, a good director keeps extras from upstaging the dramatic moments of the film with comically bad reactions to the main action of the film. One such extra can be seen adding humor to a dramatic death near the end of the film. The performance is so tragically bad it is reminiscent of a sketch from BYUTV’s Studio C.

Despite its faults, Ladyhawke is worth seeing. However, the film should be watched with friends with excellent senses of humor, so that the films flaws are not suffered through, but rather laughed at and are mocked.

Remains of Risks

This a little piece I wrote for a class in the Fall of 2011:

 

            In 1993, Emma Thompson and Sir Anthony Hopkins starred in the movie The Remains of the Day, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. This film has been described as a tale of repression and a film that provokes deep thought into the social order in Great Britain in the years leading up to World War II and into the internal aspects of the characters. While these theories have some validity, The Remains of the Day can also be viewed as a story of various risks that were taken and failed miserably leading to one man’s decision to not take a risk that would have fundamentally changed his life.

            Set in the 1950s, The Remains of the Day opens with a letter written by the former housekeeper of Darlington to James Stevens (Hopkins), the butler at Darlington. This letter reveals that the owner of the mansion, Lord Darlington has died and his estate has been purchased by a former American Congressman, Mr. Lewis. This letter causes a flashback to the 1930s when the housekeeper, Miss Kenton (Thompson), worked at Darlington. At this point in time, Lord Darlington is preparing to host a series of meetings with the hopes of avoiding another war with Germany. Mr. Stevens becomes so particular about maintaining order that he neglects his familial duty to be concerned when his father’s health begins to deteriorate. Even when his father dies, all Stevens can focus on is the major conference that is taking place. Miss Kenton unsuccessfully tries to get him to be concerned about his father. In the midst of all of this, Miss Kenton begins to have romantic feelings for Stevens. Eventually, Miss Kenton announces that she is engaged to another man and plans to move away to west country with him. She breaks down emotionally when Mr. Stevens fails to give the emotional response she wanted to this news. Years later, Stevens is encouraged by the news that she is now divorced and looking to get back into service. This opens the door for her to become a part of his life again. However, Miss Kenton learns her daughter is pregnant, making a return to Darlington improbable. As Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton say farewell after having tea and catching up, there is a moment where we can see that Stevens wants desperately to tell Miss Kenton how he feels and to beg her to come back to Darlington with him, but he lets that moment go. This entire story is told amidst repression, dignity, social order, introspection, and failure.

            The idea of repression comes from Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Stephen Hunter’s Baltimore Sun article “Remains of the Day is a Nearly Flawless Story of a Repressed Soul.” Hunter states that The Remains of the Day is “almost a clinical lab test on repression” (Hunter). He reflects on Stevens’ sense of duty that is so important to him that he seems to completely deny any and all emotion he feels. Stevens cannot see the absurdity taking place around him. He also cannot see that Miss Kenton, the woman he loves, loves him as well.

            Film critic, John Simon, in his review of the film, “‘Remains’ to Be Seen,” looks into the social order of the characters in the film and their internal thoughts and feelings. Simon says that this film has four basic plots working within the entire movie. The first is the over-plot concerning Lord Darlington’s attempts to get an appeasement deal with Germany. The main plot of the story is the romance (or lack thereof) between Miss Kenton and Mr. Stevens. The under-plot concern the lives of the servants of Darlington Hall. The fourth plot is what Simon calls a “quasi-documentary” concerning how a grand estate such as Darlington operates. According to Simon, the movie views the social system within Great Britain in the 1930s “with mingled admiration and distaste.”  Simon also applauds screenwriter Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for her ability to “objectify and animate what in the novel is mostly internalized, point-of-view reflection” (Simon). He goes on to point out the brilliance with which Anthony Hopkins portrays this emotionally shut off character while still showing his soft side.

            Both Hunter and Simon agree on some main points. They both discuss dignity and how courtliness affects the characters especially Stevens. The critics go on to talk about how Stevens cannot express emotion. However, they disagree on the nature of Stevens’ inability to feel. Hunter states that Stevens’ lack of feelings stems from repression following the logic that Stevens’ has such blind obedience to his master that he ignores his feelings. Simon, on the other hand, asserts that the social status of Stevens causes him to choose to not have emotions. Stevens—when answering questions from one of Lord Darlington’s political friends—responds by stating his inability to provide assistance in finding an answer to the world’s problems. He makes this evasive maneuver because in his view it is not his place to discuss politics with his boss and his friends. Even in the midst of a family crisis, he chooses his job over tending to his sick father, who succumbs to his poor health and dies.

            Both Hunter and Smith have valid points. One aspect they do not mention is the risks that are taken throughout the movie. Mr. Stevens takes a risk bringing in his aging father to work at a job he is probably too old to do. Lord Darlington takes a risk in his negotiations to appease Germany to bring about peace. Miss Kenton takes a risk standing up to Mr. Stevens in regards to his father’s inability to do his job. Another risk taken by Miss Kenton is when she gets engaged to someone other than the man she truly loves. After announcing to Mr. Stevens that sheplans to get married, Miss Kenton goes on to mock Mr. Stevens. She does all this to make him jealous in the hopes he will finally open up and admit that he loves her. What all these risks have in common is that they all failed miserably. Mr. Stevens throughout the entire story sees all of these risks fail. He is a very cautious individual and takes only the risk of bringing in his father as an under butler. It can be argued that he only takes this risk because of his sense of duty towards his father. It is very possible that all these failures makes him afraid to take a risk. He has a golden opportunity as the final handshake between Miss Kenton and Mr. Stevens lingers. It can be seen that he wants to cry out in desperation, “Do not leave me. I love you.” Unfortunately, he lets her ride off into the rain on the bus.

            The Remains of the Day has many layers. One layer is that of repression. Other layers include the social structure of Great Britain and the internal aspects of the characters. The final layer is the layer of the risks that failed in front of Mr. Stevens. After watching risks fail in front of him, he becomes afraid to take a risk to make his life better than his past. The final moment of the film shows the future of Mr. Stevens. Congressman Lewis lets go of a pigeon and watches the bird go soaring into the air showing the freedom and openness most human beings have, but after this Stevens showing his true colors closes the window and closes himself off from the world.

WorksCited

Hunter, Stephen. “Remains of the Day Is a Nearly Flawless Story of a Repressed Soul.” The Sun [Baltimore, MD] 05 Nov. 1993: 11. Proquest. Web. 27 Sept. 2011.

The Remains of the Day. Dir. James Ivory. Screenplay by Ruth P. Jhabvala. Perf. Anthony Hopkins and Emma THompson. Merchant Ivory Productions, 1993. DVD.

Simon, John. “‘Remains’ to Be Seen.” Rev. of The Remains of the Day. National Review 13 Dec. 1993: 61-63. Print.

Commentary on The Croods, Plato’s Cave, and the Spiritual Life

2013/04/14

“The higher we go, the better we shall hear the voice of Christ.” - Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

I recently attended the movie The Croods. While I do not recommend this movie due to its sappy nature, predictable plot, shoddy writing, and historically anachronistic dialogue, I did find many comparisons with this movie and Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

This is probably going to be filled with spoilers. So if you’re going to see the movie, first of all, don’t, and secondly if you must go see it, read this afterwards.

If you are unfamiliar with Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, let me give you a brief synopsis: 

There is this cave (see picture), and in this cave there are prisoners chained to the wall. They are chained in such a way so that they can only look forward. Behind them and raised up is a fire. There also men who run past the fire with puppets, casting shadows on the wall at which the prisoners look. These shadows are the only thing these prisoners know.

One day, one of the prisoners gets loose. He runs out of the cave and out into the sunlight. At first, the bright sun hurts his eyes, but once his eyes adjust to the light of the sun, he recognizes the beauty of the outside world. He returns to the cave and tells his fellow prisoners about what he has seen and that the shadows are mere illusions. He is ridiculed for what he says.

Confused? Google it. You can read the entire thing online.

Not as brief an explanation as I was hoping, but you get the point. The main idea is that there is something more than what we see. At first, the realization of the truth is painful because it requires a change, but in the end, we see the beauty in the truth. However, those who have not discovered this truth feel threatened by the truth and mock those that have come to know the truth.

Now, back to The Croods…….

The Croods is about a family (The Croods) of cavemen (or cavepeople if you want to be politically correct). The patriarch of the family, Grug (voiced by Nicolas Cage), is extremely protective and only allows the family to go out when it is time to go out to get food. He often tells his family stories, and the morals of the stories are: new is bad and fear is good. However, Grug’s daughter, Eep (Voiced by Emma Stone), is quite rebellious (how original!). She longs to be free of the cave and explore life outside of the cave. As one might expect, she butts heads with her father (once again just terrific writing here……not). 

One night Eep sneaks out and meets a strange young man named Guy, and, no, it is not pronounced the French way (the creativity behind that name just astounds me!). Guy (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) introduces Eep to fire and tells her the world is ending (Oh the sarcastic comments I’m holding back here!). Well, to make a long story short, the next day an earthquake hits, the cave is destroyed, and the Croods find themselves in a strange land with Guy as their guide. Shockingly (more sarcasm) Grug is less than thrilled with following Guy around. Grug is appalled by all of Guy’s new ideas, but the rest of the Croods think Guy is delightful. Furthermore, Grug and Guy spar over where they should be headed. Grug wants to find another cave, but Guy wants to find higher ground and leads the Croods towards a mountain.

Throughout this journey, we see a slow painful growth from Grug. By the end of the movie, he is more like Guy than Guy is. There is a difficult moment at the end of the movie where it appears as though the world ending will destroy them after all, even though they have reached the top of the mountain (I’m as confused as you are, and I saw the movie……once again, more shoddy story telling……just pure crap). Guy and his entourage/cheerleaders freak out and start retreating to seek out another cave. It is at this moment that Grug steps up and becomes the hero, leading everyone to safety and rejecting the idea of going back into a cave.

My guess is that, since this is Hollywood, they are trying to say that those who believe in God are the cavemen, and that they need to exit the cave, evolve, and become atheists. HOWEVER, this wannabe theologian/philosopher isn’t going to let that happen!!!

The connection between The Croods and Plato’s Cave is undeniable. The world outside the cave is beautiful, and Grug experiences growing pains adjusting to this truth. It is here that the secular philosopher will want to steer you towards atheism, but let me make the argument for God. 

The whole time they are headed for a mountain. Let’s look once again at the quote I used at the beginning of this blog post:

“The higher we go, the better we shall hear the voice of Christ.” - Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati loved mountain climbing. Shortly before his death (from Polio which he contracted visiting the poor and the sick), he was climbing a mountain and a picture of him was taken. When he saw this picture, he flipped it over and wrote “Verso L'alto!” on it. “Verso L'alto!” roughly translated means “To the heights!”. Blessed Pier Giorgio, like many other great Saints, saw the connection between the mountains and the spiritual life. One must climb to the heights of knowledge and wisdom and there find God. He is not beneath our human wisdom; He is beyond it. This is why Blessed Pier Giorgio’s quote is so pertinent. When one ascends beyond one’s natural altitude, things begin to be put into perspective. For many Christians throughout the ages, climbing mountains and getting out into nature alone was a great way for them to encounter the Lord. It is there they reflected on creation, and creation reflects its creator, allowing the Christian a deeper relationship to their creator.

As the Croods ascended, there is a dramatic change in Grug. He begins to adjust to what he discovers beyond the cave. He sees the world for how beautiful it is and recognizes it as good. At the top of the mountain, like our faith life occasionally, things begin to crumble. They are at the summit about to walk into the land of which Guy had dreamed (the promised land, if you will), but the earthquake hits. A great chasm is formed between them and where they want to go (which is what toooooootally happens in real life earth quakes………..seriously though, when will Hollywood take an Earth Science class?). Smoke and dust rise, blocking their view of their destination. While all seems hopeless and all around him his family and his new friend Guy are retreating towards a new cave, Grug sees a glimmer of hope. He sees light just above the smoke. He declares, “No more caves! We have to follow the light!”.

So too do we have to follow the light in our own lives. But, what is that light? A better question is: Who is that light? That light is Jesus Christ.