Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Best of the 2000s: The New World

2.5 Stars

The New World tells the story of the settlement of the Jamestown Colony in 1607, particularly the exploits of Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), his capture by Powhatan (August Schellenberg), and his fateful encounter with Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher). From there, it diverges from history in favor of the famous of the legend of Pocahontas. Smith and Pocahontas fall in love. Smith is called back to England. Pocahontas is informed that Smith as killed, grieves and ultimately marries the widower John Rolfe (Christian Bale).

Terrence Malick deliberately chose the legendary version of Pocahontas’ life story rather than the historical one, and with good reason. The Legend of Pocahontas is an important part of the American psyche. In John Smith’s love for Pocahontas, Americans see their own love of country reflected and hear an echo of the biblical imperative to leave one’s parents and cleave to one’s wife. In Pocahontas’ reciprocation of John Smith’s love, Americans see a dream of what their history could have been – a union of different people coming together because of what they discovered they had in common. It is not just about whitewashing our past or appropriating a princess. The legend provides us with a lesson for how we should try to live going forward.

For the entire running time of The New World, I sensed the movie that it could have been. The Legend of Pocahontas is the first truly American romance. If the love affairs depicted on screen had felt alive or visceral in some way; if the emotions at its center had exploded or burned a little hotter, The New World might have been a truly remarkable film. In Days of Heaven, Malick staged a love triangle where every word and action seemed to be tinged with danger. Unfortunately, The New World never seems to have a beating heart.

The New World is kneecapped by its cast. Neither Colin Farrell nor Christian Bale has ever impressed as a romantic leading man. They seemed oddly motionless in this film – nearly comatose. At one point, Pocahontas actually compared Bale’s Rolfe to a tree, which I thought was surprisingly apt. They are, in a word, boring.

Thankfully, the failures of Mr. Farrell and Mr. Bale do not extend to Ms. Kilcher. She shines as Pocahontas, delivering a performance that ranges from girlish whimsy to motherly wisdom, as the role requires. Ms. Kilcher is required to perform in English, a Native American language, and pantomime, and makes herself understood in each. She is, in a word, charming. It is a great relief that The New World focuses so completely on her story.

For all its uneven qualities, The New World is perhaps the most beautiful film that I have reviewed for this project. I was struck, as I was when we reviewed Days of Heaven, with how extraordinary and singular Malick’s images are.

But man does not live on beautiful imagery alone, and The New World moves far too slowly to work as a historical drama or compelling romance. It is only an average film.

The New World is also only the second best film based on the life of Pocahontas to feature Christian Bale. If you would like to see the best film based on the life of Pocahontas featuring Christian Bale go watch the 1995 Disney animated Pocahontas (Christian Bale voices Thomas, I will kill you all at Disney trivia).

The New World finds itself on this list because it was selected as one of the best films by five different reviewers. My next film for this project, The Lives of Others, received the same reception.

From Out in the Void,


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Best of the 2000s: Yi Yi

4 Stars

All this has happened before, and it will all happen again. But this time, it happened in Taipei.

Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a movie about challenging the narratives people construct of their own lives. In the process Yi Yi reveals the extraordinary beauty of ordinary lives.

Yi Yi tells the story of an upper middle class family in Taipei. NJ (Nien-Jen Wu) is a software engineer at a video game company. He is unsatisfied in his work, ambivalent about his marriage, and uncertain how to relate to his children, Ting-Ting (Kelly Lee) and Yang-Yang (Jonathan Chang). Nevertheless, he’s a very good man. An honest one, and he is doing his best in all aspects of his life. At his brother-in-law’s (Hsi-Sheng Chen) wedding, he has a chance encounter with his one true love, Sherry (Su-Yun Ko). His business provides him with a chance to relive that romance. Meanwhile, his daughter Ting-Ting embarks on a first romance of her own, and the sudden illness of his mother-in-law prompts a crisis of faith in NJ’s wife (Elaine Jin). Finally, the gift of a camera permits Yang-Yang to begin to see the world for the first time, and he discovers a truth that he hopes to share with everyone.

Mr. Yang has an eye for life, and he puts his characters through the crucible of the past forcing them to confront the decisions they made, live with their consequences, and ponder whether they would have done anything differently. Slowly, over the course of nearly three hours, Yi Yi becomes more than a character drama. It becomes an epic constructed out of the ordinary. Mr. Yang complements this strange duality with another. He selects baroque music selections to complement his film that is frequently modern and romantic.

Yi Yi is one of the most finely scripted of the films I’ve watched for this project so far. The characters all seem like real people. Each has a realistic amount of virtue and trouble, and a realistic amount of self-awareness too. They are aware of their past actions, why they took them, and what it is about them that makes them return to these particular moments that they find so important in their own life stories. They consider their past. The strongest of them change. The weakest despair. The best grow, and learn to accept themselves. Every role is well acted to boot by a cast that works in at least three languages.

L. P. Hartley once wrote that “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” I think we are guilty of thinking of our own pasts that way. The people we were aren’t the people we are, but Yi Yi makes a powerful argument that if you get to see your past it might look very, very familiar. The only reason you think your past is so different from your present is that you can’t see it anymore. As NJ explains to Yang-Yang, you can’t see what’s behind you. That’s why we need cameras. Maybe that’s why we need movies like Yi Yi.

My New Mexican readers might find some passing interest in Yi Yi because there is a brief news broadcast about the Wen Ho Lee scandal. Yi Yi finds itself on this list because five critics selected it as one of the ten best films of the 2000s, just as five critics also selected the next film on my list, The New World.

From Out in the Void,


Sunday, November 15, 2015

James Bond Rankings

With our discussion of Spectre now out in the open, I've taken the liberty of definitively ranking every James Bond movie from worst to best.

24. Skyfall: 1.5 Stars. Skyfall made a billion dollars, and it’s everyone’s favorite Bond movie. Not mine. Skyfall isn’t bad on its own terms, but it reinvents Bond as Batman complete with orphan backstory, stately manner, and Alfred style butler. Skyfall is beautiful, stylish, and well-acted, but Skyfall, ultimately, is a rejection of everything James Bond is. The script even says so: “We don’t really go in for that sort of thing anymore.”

23. Diamonds are Forever: 1.5 Stars. Diamonds are Forever borders on the unwatchable. After the fan rejection of George Lazenby in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the producers convinced Sean Connery to return to his most famous role. Unfortunately, he seems visibly disinterested, which given the poor script and slapdash direction is absolutely justified. The one bright spot in this picture? Shirley Bassey’s return to the Bond franchise delivering her second stellar Bond theme. Just turn off the movie after the opening credits role.

22. Quantum of Solace: 1.5 Stars. Daniel Craig’s sophomore outing as Bond was a setback for the franchise. Unable to use SPECTRE, the producers created a substitute SPECTRE and set Bond up uncovering the organization in order to get revenge for the murder of his one true love (not Theresa, Vesper). Unfortunately, this involves some kind of convoluted plot about missing money, oil and water futures in the always critical country of … Bolivia. In the end, Quantum of Solace is notable only for a great scene at an opera house, but it isn’t worth watching the whole movie for. Unfortunately, I think you have to watch it now, because Spectre spends a lot of its run time retroactively insisting on Quantum of Solace’s importance.

21. Spectre: 2 Stars. Building on the complex narrative scaffolding of Quantum of Solace, the emotional trauma of the conclusion of Casino Royale, and the James Bond is Batman thematic shading of Skyfall, Spectre is the James Bondiest of Daniel Craig’s outings in the role. Unfortunately, it’s bloated, overlong, and way too connected to the confusing and almost unwatchable Quantum of Solace. It also takes a page out of Star Trek Into Darkness by attaching great importance to a character’s name that would be meaningless to the other characters in the movie and a separate page out of Return of the Jedi by revealing a sibling relationship between two characters that is meant to provide emotional stakes and closure, but just ends up being silly.

20. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service: 2 Stars. There’s a school of thought that says you can grade a James Bond movie based on its villain. Anyone who actually believes that hasn’t watched On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. George Lazenby’s only outing in the role proves that it doesn’t matter if the rest of the movie is good. Bond won’t work without a charming and charismatic actor in the title role.

19. Die Another Day: 2 Stars. The 20th James Bond film is not as bad as people remember. In many ways it’s a loving tribute to the franchise’s history, and many of its scenes are direct homages to the previous entries in the franchise. In the end, Die Another Day fell into the same trap that many films in its era did: they tried to CGI their way into a bigger and better movie when CGI just wasn’t up to snuff. Notable for the appearance of a pre-Gone Girl Rosamund Pike who plays one of the film’s most interesting characters in retrospect.

18. You Only Live Twice: 2.5 Stars. You Only Live Twice is a pretty average Bond movie. It’s not easy to watch from a modern perspective because Sean Connery dresses up in yellow face, but You Only Live Twice shouldn’t be dismissed. It features the first full fledge confrontation between Bond and the head of SPECTRE, Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

17. Live and Let Die: 2.5 Stars. Live and Let Die is another film that plays uncomfortably to a modern audience. The action is good. The settings are intriguing. The music is phenomenal. Unfortunately, the film cozies up to the Blaxploitation films of the era. However, Live and Let Die remains notable as the only time James Bond has faced off against a supernatural villain. Meaning that in the world of James Bond, Voodoo is real, and it can kill you.

16. License to Kill: 2.5 Stars. James Bond abandons his country and his license to kill in order to seek revenge for the attack on his friend Felix Leiter. It’s not a bad movie. License to Kill strips down Bond, low on gadgets and high on emotional stakes and driving stunt work. Unfortunately, License to Kill plays more like a Rambo sequel than a Bond movie.

15. The Living Daylights: 3 Stars. The Living Daylights is the most Cold War Bond movie of the whole lot. Bond assists in the defection of a high level Soviet operative who blows the lid off a terrifying Soviet plot that might lead to the destabilization and destruction of the world. Not the greatest Bond film, but far from the worst, The Living Daylights is a fairly good movie to end the Cold War era of cinema’s greatest superspy.

14. Moonraker: 3 Stars. Moonraker is unfairly maligned. The James Bond franchise had indulged in all kinds of nonsense over the previous decade: Jet packs, helicopters in suitcases, razor sharp hat brims, lasers that cut you in half starting at the genitals, yellow-face, dragon tanks, and metal claw hands. Then Roger Moore went to space and everyone FREAKED OUT. There’s absolutely nothing in Moonraker that is objectively sillier than the Connery pictures. So everyone needs to shut up and enjoy this better than average Bond feature. Movies aren’t better just cause they are serious. I’d watch Moonraker twenty times before I’d watch Quantum of Solace again.

13. A View to a Kill: 3 Stars. Computers, apparently, were taking over everyone’s lives in the 1980s. So, James Bond had to stop a mad man bent on the destruction of our nascent technological infrastructure. Also, Supersoldiers. A View to a Kill is a half an hour too long and Roger Moore is a full decade too old, but other than that, A View to a Kill is not a bad movie.

12. Thunderball: 3.5 Stars. SPECTRE has stolen some nuclear weapons. Only James Bond can save us now. This is a great, over the top, spy caper, and features a stunning underwater battle scene.

11. For Your Eyes Only: 3.5 Stars. Like The Living Daylights, For Your Eyes Only is a Cold War picture. A British ship goes down with a key piece of technology on board. Bond must race the Soviets to reacquire the device so that it doesn’t fall into enemy hands. A reaction against Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only is notably more violent and realistic than any of the previous Bond films in the franchise.

10. Dr. No: 3.5 Stars. The one that started it all. Bond is sent to Jamaica to investigate the murders of a British Agent and his secretary. Bond’s investigation would lead him into his first confrontation with SPECTRE.

9. Tomorrow Never Dies: 4 Stars. Brosnan gets a bad rap. His films come closer to capturing the tone of the Connery era films: that special mixture of serious action and whimsical jocularity that sets Bond apart from the rest of the action spy genre. Tomorrow Never Dies even goes old school, forcing Bond to team up with a Chinese agent in order to fight a common enemy. Tomorrow Never Dies proves that there is no need to worry about the end of the Cold War. There will always be crazy megalomaniacs for Bond to thwart.

8. Octopussy: 4 Stars. Forgers, Smugglers, Circuses, and a Russian plot to force an American withdrawal from her bases in Western Europe. Octopussy is another of the few episodes where Bond goes up against a Soviet antagonist. It also features a female lead of remarkable agency. Octopussy came out the same year that Connery returned to the role of James Bond in the non-Eon Never Say Never Again. Octopussy was the higher earner proving that while Connery originated the role, he didn’t own it in perpetuity.

7. Casino Royale: 4 Stars. A slick update of Ian Fleming’s first novel, Casino Royale is a deadly serious entry in the franchise. I think that’s the wrong direction for Bond, but Casino Royale is so well done that even I have to respect it. Casino Royale also purported to be the beginning of Bond’s story, which raised the hope that we would see how Bond evolved into the James Bond I knew and loved. Unfortunately, over the course of the Daniel Craig era, he just evolved into Batman.

6. The World is not Enough: 4.5 Stars. Another Bond film that is unfairly reviled. Most of the vitriol aimed at this movie centers on Denise Richards’ unbelievable portrayal of a nuclear physicist. Of course, Bond has a proud tradition of dubious casting decisions among its female cast. That said, the rest of the film is fun and tightly plotted with seemingly minor lines of dialogue revealing deeper meaning in the film’s final reel.

5. The Man with the Golden Gun: 4.5 Stars. Golden Gun features a plot that could only be from a James Bond movie. A world class assassin catches the assignment to kill James Bond; his weapon of choice: a golden gun and a golden bullet. However, the assassin knows he can’t be an assassin forever and makes a bid for a new energy source/weapon – the Solex Agitator that will solve the energy crisis. The film is effectively a showdown between Roger Moore’s Bond and Christoper Lee’s anti-Bond. Its tongue may sometimes be in its cheek, but Golden Gun still satisifies.

4. GoldenEye: 4.5 Stars. The first Bond film to visit Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Bond must deal with a defunct Soviet space based weapons platform that has fallen into the hands of rogue and mercenary forces out for revenge against the West. GoldenEye was a confident debut for Pierce Brosnan in the role, and it pointed the franchise in a solid direction – facing off against an array of non-state actors who would come to dominate the post Cold War world.

3. The Spy Who Loved Me: 5 Stars. The Spy Who Loved Me features a plot that mixes the best bits of Thunderball and For Your Eyes Only. Two nuclear missiles go missing (stolen by the actual villain) prompting the Brits and the Soviets to send their best agents to find out what happened. The best of Roger Moore’s tenure and in many people’s minds, the best in the franchise, The Spy Who Loved Me is at once a Cold War thriller and a throwback to the style of Bond films made in the Connery era where East and West were pitted against each other by a villainous third party.

2. Goldfinger: 5 Stars. A great film. Iconic. Goldfinger’s elements fire on all thrusters. Bond. Gadgets. Spycars. Over the top villainous plots. And of course, Jill Mastersons death scene. If you imagine James Bond, it’s probably Goldfinger that comes to mind.

1. From Russia With Love: 5 Stars. The Wrath of Kahn of the James Bond franchise. Bond squares off against the deadly SPECTRE agency that wants vengeance against him after he killed Dr. No. It even features the debut of Desmond Llewelyn as Q.

From Out in the Void,


Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Void Zone Episode 155, or "Devil S**t is my slave name... With apologies to Kunta Kinte."

A certain special guest is back, which means the title will piss everyone off.

That's right,
friends of the Void, Steven Johnston has returned to offend the socially sensitive, feminists, and new school Bond fans with his brand of... Steven-ness.

Steven rejoins Dakota, Nick, and Brit so they can discuss movies, make call backs no one remembers or understands, and generally make pointless commentary.

Somewhere in all of that, they reviewed Way of the Dragon, Goon, and Spectre.

Good luck! I mean... Get the episode here or stream it below!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Void Zone Episode 154, or "Our Brand is Boredom."

Dakota takes an episode or two off and the guys are stuck trying to solve their own personal crises. Additionally, Evan Cochnar makes a triumphant return to the show!

This week, the movies reviewed were Three Amigos, Beasts of No Nation, and Our Brand is Crisis. (The film with Sandra Bullock, not the documentary of the same name.)

Get the episode here or stream it below!

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Void Zone Episode 153, or "Impression-ception"

Dakota vanishes leaving Nick and Brit to cry and fend for themselves.

Also, they review The Shining, Pi, and Steve Jobs.

Get it here or stream it below.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Best of the 2000s: Cache

4 Stars

At the heart of Michael Haneke’s Cache are two interlocking ideas. First, Cache explores how the lives of contented people can be torn asunder once they learn that they are under surveillance. Second, Cache argues that we are responsible for the sins of our forebears, particularly where race relations and colonialism are concerned.

Cache stars Juliete Binoche and Daniel Auteuil as Anne and Georges Laurent. Georges is a media personality in Paris and Anne works for a publisher. They receive a video cassette that depicts their home and has recorded their comings and goings. At first, they attempt to put this strangeness behind them, but they receive another tape and then another. Each subsequent tape comes with a child’s drawing, and eventually a pair of clues that lead Georges to suspect these tapes are being sent by someone from his past.

Cache depicts how the revelation that they are being watched causes strain on Anne and Georges marriage. The stress causes Anne to lash out in frustration. Her frustration gradually grows as it becomes clear that Georges has a suspicion about the culprit's identity, but refuses to share that information with her. Cache doesn’t descend into cliché. Each spouse trusts the other’s fidelity; but Georges is ashamed of his family’s past, and Anne doesn’t understand why her husband would keep his own counsel and refuse to tell her whatever secret he’s hiding that might ease her fears.

Georges shame is related to the Paris Massacre of 1861, a tragic event wherein the French National Police confronted an unauthorized demonstration by the National Liberation Front (an Algerian socialist political party) resulting in the deaths of at least 40 Algerian-Frenchmen. Some estimates place the death toll significantly higher.

As it happens, Georges family employed an Algerian couple on their estate. The Algerian couple had a son a little older than Georges named Majid. The Algerian couple apparently died in the massacre, and Georges’ parents decided to attempt to adopt Majid. But Georges was jealous and made up lies about Majid’s behavior in order to prevent his parents from adopting Majid.

As the anonymous videographer’s campaign to terrorize his family increases, Georges confesses all of this history to Anne and confronts Majid. This gives Georges the opportunity to make statements like, “I refuse to give myself a bad conscience because of what happened to Majid’s parents.”

Cache attempts to draw a parallel between the actions of the French National Police and the six-year-old Georges in 1961. This is where Haneke's second concept for Cache takes over. It seems that Haneke’s intent was to challenge Georges’ statement that he is not responsible for Majid’s fate. Haneke seems to believe that France as an institution, and the French people by extension, are responsible for Hajid. Just as France ruined the lives of so many Algerians that day, Georges ruined Majid's life.

As put forward by Cache, the problem with this argument is that the actions of the French National Police and the actions of a six-year-old boy are in no way equivalent. At the time, the French National Police were commanded by Maurice Papon (later convicted of war crimes for his role in the Vichy Government). The French National Police were motivated, at best, by their desire to quell political dissent and, at worst, by racist impulses. Six-year-old Georges was simply jealously guarding the affections of his parents. It seems very unlikely that Georges was motivated by racism or political dissent. The difference between the motives of the French National Police and the actions of a six-year-old boy are significant, and this difference undercuts the argument that Haneke is trying to make.

Nevertheless, Cache remains an effective psychological thriller and compelling mystery. Binoche and Auteuil give wonderful performances, and Haneke’s pacing is perfect. However, I think Cache means to indict us for the sins of our ancestors. Whatever differences I as a viewer have with Haneke on this topic, Haneke has not made a very compelling case. Consequently, Cache is not classic, but it is thought provoking.

Cache was selected as one of the best films of the 2000s by four different reviewers. The Times of London selected Cache as the best film of the 2000s. The next film for this project is Yi Yi, and it is the first film selected by five reviewers for their best of the decade lists.

From Out in the Void