Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Void Zone Episode 149, or "Dakota's Story Gets Cut and So Does Everything Else!"

Things get cut, fights don't happen, and there is just a general sense of confusion. Still, movies had to be watched, so Dakota, Nick, and Brit were on the case! In an attempt to thwart the efforts of all sorts of acronym-ed internet users, no matter where they stand, they talked about these movies. If only Brit hadn't cut so much out!

Oh, well. This week the Void Zone crew reviewed The Dark Crystal, Pitch Perfect 2, and Mad Max: Fury Road.

Get the episode at this link or stream it below!

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Void Zone Episode 148, or "Don't Get Hot Under the Collar. It's Only the Pursuit of Taste."

Nick and Brit fight again, which, you know, is a return to form. Dakota listens and thinks, "Why subject myself to this?"

At the same time they reviewed movies. Those movies are Harlem Nights, Blue Velvet, and Hot Pursuit.

Get the episode here or stream it below!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

4 Stars

Avengers: Age of Ultron picks up where Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3 left off. In Iron Man 3, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) confronted the fact that “The Battle of New York” (known to movie fans as the plot of The Avengers) had left him scarred. By the end of that film, he was contemplating the end of his superhero career. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, Stark begins to consider the next step – how he should be replaced.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier saw Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) realize that the all powerful military-intelligence organization known as S.H.I.E.L.D., previously led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), was actually a front for a post-Nazi spy organization called H.Y.D.R.A. Captain America oversaw the downfall of that organization, and has reassembled the super group he led in The Avengers in order to mop up S.H.I.E.L.D.’s mess.

An early victory over H.Y.D.R.A. allows the Avengers to reclaim the scepter (a weapon wielded by 
Tom Hiddleston’s Loki in the previous film). Stark begins to analyze the scepter and realizes that it contains a powerful computer. He recruits his teammate, Dr. Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and his digital butler J.A.R.V.I.S. (Paul Bettany) to help him use this alien device to allow him to take a great technological leap and create artificial intelligence. If I remember The Avengers correctly, S.H.I.E.L.D. previously attempted to use alien weaponry to create advanced weapons using alien technology which led to an alien invasion of Manhattan. I must have an inaccurate memory of that because surely someone would have said that to Stark if that’s what happened.

Together, Stark, Banner, and J.A.R.V.I.S. create an artificial intelligence dubbed Ultron (James Spader). After about twenty seconds of existence, Ultron concludes that the Avengers are the problem with humanity (for some reason). Ultron downloads himself into one of Stark’s robotic assistants, and wages war on the team. Along the way, Ultron aligns himself with a pair of twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson) and builds himself a new body (also played by Paul Bettany) that he intends to use to destroy the Avengers once and for all (again, for some reason).

Look, this movie isn’t about the plot, it’s about the spectacle. All your favorite superheroes are back fighting alongside each other and trading screwball dialogue as they do. I enjoyed this movie, but I have to admit that eleven or so movies into this franchise, the creative seams are beginning to show. There’s a needless repetition here. Once again a villain has decided to rain death from above down on the Earth. Once again, the villain finds a way to get his hooks into Bruce Banner and unleash the giant green rage monster inside him in order to distract the heroes while he gets away with his evil plan.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some fresh wrinkles on the same old themes. Much has been made in the press over Natasha Romanov/Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) rumination on her characters inability to be a mother. But all the characters (yes, all of them, even the male ones) find themselves confronted by the possibility that their uniqueness means that they will never be able to have ordinary homes or families. And that leads to the film’s strongest idea: Ultron was right. These people aren’t even humans anymore. Maybe we aren’t theirs to save – or avenge.

Age of Ultron for all its faults actually does do a pretty good job of addressing that question. They have to do a few narrative contortions to get there, but once they do Age of Ultron does actually suggest an answer – and set up a half dozen sequels that will take us everywhere from a fictional African republic to the far side of the universe.

Bertolt Brecht once wrote, “Unhappy is the land that needs heroes.” If he was right nowhere is safe. Age of Ultron is to be believed, we might just be okay.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Void Zone Episode 147, or "When Only One Title Just Won't Do."

In this week's episode, Brit longs for Idris Elba and Martin Freeman. Dakota and Nick stare on in horror.

In addition, the group reviewed Halo: Nightfall, Berserk: Egg of the King, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron! Because reviewing movies with subtitles is the thing to do.

Download the episode at this link or stream it below!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Void Zone Episode 146, or "Getting Older After Midnight"

Technical difficulties never go away but we are back again! And still alive! Again! And we watched movies! Again! And they were... Sometimes okay! Again!

Dakota, Nick, and Brit reviewed Tiny Furniture, The Babadook, and Age of Adaline!

Get the episode here or stream it below!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Best of the 2000s: Finding Nemo

5 Stars

I’m two movies into this project, and I’ve already learned some things. The first thing I’m learning is to operationalize my terms. I think the type of movie I’m looking for is not just a movie that I want to watch over and over again, but a movie that enters my language and becomes a cultural or personal touchstone or shorthand for a certain feeling or situation.

The second thing I’m learning? This is going to be an emotionally difficult project. The list of potential classics from 2000 to 2009 is bookended by Synecdoche, New York and There Will Be Blood. Along the way, I get to explore such emotionally uplifting topics as the Holocaust, gang violence, serial killers, the Iraq War, and abortion. (Honestly, Hollywood needed a hug for the whole ten years). As a consequence, I am resolved to enjoy the lighter fare, like Finding Nemo, as much as possible.

I first saw Finding Nemo on the big screen in 2003. I’d say that it was about six or eight weeks before I started college. I was about to move out for the first time. Parents, for the most part, were still “grownups” to me. The only person I had ever really known who had died were elderly. I enjoyed Finding Nemo, but I was at the wrong age to realize what a masterpiece it is. And it is a masterpiece.

Pixar’s rich, maybe even overactive, imagination has allowed it to craft incredible environments, showing us the world from the perspective of insects or toys, and holding up a mirror to our own world by populating it with superheroes, cars, or monsters. Finding Nemo takes place in a completely different animated world – our oceans, which are stunningly rendered. It turns the ocean into a fantasy land as beautiful and breathtaking as anything Disney has ever produced. The fish and other animals are created with an attention to detail for the way marine life actually moves. Somehow, the movie just feels right. Nearly every frame in this movie would work as a piece of fine art. I would hang it on my wall.

Finding Nemo follows Marlin. Marlin loses nearly his entire family to a predatory fish, and afterwards vows to “never let anything happen to” his surviving son, the titular Nemo. Of course, Marlin can’t hold on to Nemo forever, and Nemo is captured by a diver on the first day of school and Marlin must give chase through the entire ocean in order to find his son. Along the way he meets and befriends the amnesiac, Dory (Ellen Degeneres), and together they brave all obstacles to save the poor boy.

The voice cast is tremendous. Albert Brooks, continuing his one man quest to make insecurity and desperation more attractive, voices Marlin, creating a character that is all nervous energy and the very personification of worry. Ellen Degeneres was so beloved as Dory that she’s getting her own movie. Alexander Gould voices Nemo, and then there's the supporting cast featuring Willem Dafoe, Brad Garrett, Allison Janney, Geoffrey Rush, John Ratzenberger, Eric Bana, and Andrew Stanton (who also directs).

Finding Nemo is less funny and more complex than some of its Pixar-ian contemporaries. It evenly divides the audience's sympathies between the parent, Marlin, and the child, Nemo. Nemo must learn the difference between self-assertion and rebellion and Marlin must learn to let go. The result is that Finding Nemo features one of the most nuanced portraits of the relationship between father and son in modern cinema, and while the father-son relationship is at the movie’s core, the audience spends most of its time with a different pair – Marlin and Dory.

At first glance, Marlin and Dory are just another variation on the buddy comedy duo now common in Pixar movies (think Woody and Buzz or Sully and Mike), but there’s an added layer here. Dory’s amnesia and Marlin’s truly tragic life have left them both alone. Marlin needs to learn to let go of his past. Dory is physically incapable of holding on to hers. All she has is the present, the people in her life now. Maybe if Marlin could do a little of Dory's forgetting and she could do a little of his remembering, they'd both be ok. They aren't just foils. They're perfect foils, and, as a consequence, Dory never feels like the truly tragic character she is. She’s grateful for the friendship in her life and the opportunity to be helpful. When Marlin threatens to take that from her, Ellen Degeneres steals the movie delivering an impassioned speech about the importance of this friendship – it’s literally the only thing she knows. These layers of emotional depth are surprisingly deep, like the ocean the characters swimming through.

Two lines of its dialogue have staid with me all these years: 1) “Fish are friends. Not Food.” The motto of the shark support group who defy their nature and try to be kind to the other fish has entered my personal lexicon as a reminder that I am what I choose to be; and, 2) “Just keep swimming,” has entered my personal lexicon whenever I find myself overwhelmed. Break the task down into doable bits, and just keep going.

Despite this, I didn’t really think about Finding Nemo for years after I saw it. Not until 2009 when I was catching up on the TV show Lost in preparation for its finale where it was briefly referred to. The character Shannon (Maggie Grace) described Finding Nemo like this: “It was the cartoon about fish. You know, one of the computer ones.” (Lost, Season 1, Episode 12, “Whatever the Case May Be”). When I watched that episode, even though I hadn't seen Finding Nemo in years, I nearly shouted at the television. Finding Nemo’s not about fish. It’s about us.

In the years since I saw Finding Nemo, my life has changed. It is lonelier, touched by tragedies and lifted by triumphs. I’ve had to let go of dreams, and try to make the best of a life that is less than I might have hoped for. I have no son, but my relationship with my father has deepened and become more complex. I have taken more responsibility for it, something Nemo had to do as well. The waters of Finding Nemo so accurately reflect the lives of its human audience that I can’t help but acknowledge, with the gift of a few added years, that it must indeed be one of the best films of the 2000s.

Finding Nemo finds itself on this list because it was selected as the Number 1 film of the 2000s by Ann Homaday of The Washington Post. She couldn’t believe it when she chose it, but I can.

I’m far from finished. I’ll “just keep swimming” until I’ve seen my next selection. You Can Count on Me.

As always,

From Out in the Void


Monday, April 20, 2015

Best of the 2000s: Synecdoche New York

4 Stars

What do we want from the world? From our lovers? From ourselves? I doubt if there is anyone who could accurately or completely answer those questions. Even if there was a person who spoke every language past, present and future, that person couldn’t find the words. They would give an answer, an answer that was only a part standing in for the whole. A synecdoche. 

Synecdoche, New York confronts these questions. It postulates that the tensions in the lives of its characters stem from the disconnect between what they want and the fraction of it they can articulate. It follows Caden Cotard (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a regional theater director living in Schenectady, New York. He is in an unhappy marriage to his wife, Adele (Catherine Keener). He is creatively stifled. He is preoccupied with death, reads the obituaries, and he is possibly dying. His name, Cotard, is the name of a rare mental disorder wherein a person believes they are already dead. So maybe he just thinks he’s dying.

Adele, an artist herself, can’t live the life of stifled dreams any longer. She leaves Caden and takes their daughter to Berlin. Caden’s world shatters. So does the narrative. Caden wins the MacArthur Genius Grant. He plans to use the money to create an elaborate piece of theater. He will pour himself into it, but once he’s done, will there be anything left?

Synecdoche, New York’s narrative cannot be explained in much more detail in this review. The symptoms of Caden’s disease worsen, or the symptoms he believes he has do. His original family never returns. He makes several attempts to find his wife and his daughter. They fail. He installs his production in an impossibly large warehouse in Manhattan's theater district. He writes episodes from his quest to regain his family into his play. In the process he blurs the distinction between the drama and the dramatist. He embarks on an ill-fated attempt at an affair, and alienates the woman he loves most, Hazel (Samantha Morton). He casts his lead actress, Claire (a brilliant Michelle Williams), as Hazel and revolves his production around her. He marries Claire and produces a new daughter. He alienates this new family as well. He recasts Claire as herself. He hires a new actress to play Hazel. He hires an actor to play himself. He fills the warehouse with a life size replica of New York City, and populates it with actors portraying everyone he has ever loved, known, or maybe everyone he’s ever seen on the street. He’s looking for something, but, what? He can’t say. Not entirely. So he is building this part in hopes that it will lead him to the whole.

Synecdoche, New York is almost frustratingly inaccessible. It’s narrative is fractured and convoluted. Consider this sentence: Caden casts Sammy to play Caden in the play, and then casts another actor to play Sammy playing Caden. You see what I mean? But somehow looking at Caden’s truly sad life this way, played and replayed at increasing levels of narrative distance somehow makes Caden’s feelings abundantly, achingly, unremittingly clear. As quickly as I lost track of the narrative, I identified with the characters.

Charlie Kaufman wrote the screenplay and directed the film – his directorial debut. I’m not sure that Kaufman was the right choice to direct his own work. There are passages that I think would have been clearer if filtered through the steadier directorial hand of Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry. It has the grammar of Fellini’s 8 1/2, but not its substance. Imagine if 8 1/2 were Fellini’s first picture, and the problems with this film begin to take shape.

That said, the scope and depth of Synecdoche, New York is awe inspiring. When the narrative jumped 51 weeks ahead without giving me a clue, I gave up on following the story and concentrated on allowing the emotions Synecdoche, New York explores to wash over me like an impressionistic painting. I’m reasonably certain that I “got” it.

Synecdoche, New York explores that space in the darkest part of each of our psyches where we struggle to understand the relationships in our lives – where we struggle to comprehend our place in the world. It explores contradiction that occurs when we understand the sequence of painful events, but can’t comprehend the myriad contradictory causes that led those sequences to occur. I found myself reflecting on my own past, remembering those whose paths have parted with mine whether by death, by distance, or by estrangement and wondering if I truly understood the reasons for those partings. I wondered if they could be explained at all.

This is a melancholy film. It’s anchored by a powerful, complex, and richly layered performance from the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman. His portrait of a tortured artist struggling to bring meaning to his life (while struggling with a preoccupation beyond his control) takes on an added dimension with the knowledge of his passing. It features a standout performance by Michelle Williams in a very tricky role (at one point she portrays her character portraying Samantha Morton’s character mimicking Michelle Williams’ original character). She may never have been better.

Synecdoche finds itself on this list because it was listed as the best film of the first decade of the new millennium by the esteemed filmmaker Roger Ebert. I am in awe of what Synecdoche, New York was trying to do, but only haunted by the film that was produced. I think Kaufman needs a translator to bring his postmodern masterpieces to his audience. Without that translator, I don't think the film finds the proper balance between its daring heights and well... being comprehensible. In the end, it's a great film. A complex one. A film that demands to be studied rather than a film that demands to be seen. For that reason, I don't think it will make my ultimate list of classics from the first decade of this millenium.

My quest for a classic continues with Finding Nemo...

From Out in the Void