Archive for May, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by Bryan Singer. Starring Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Evan Peters, Peter Dinklage, Ellen Page, Halle Berry, Patrick Stewart, and Ian McKellen.

As a sequel not only to 2011’s X-Men: First Class, but the first three X-men films as well, Days of Future Past had many acts to follow, some notably better than others. This film had to serve not only as a grand finale to the first series, but also lay the groundwork for future films in the current series. I do not envy the scriptwriters who had to put together a coherent story that connected several films which were originally not intended to be connected.

The way that the filmmakers achieved a follow-up to four (or six) previous X-Men films from different timelines is fairly ingenious. When a war with mutant killing machines, the Sentinels, has nearly eradicated the mutants and any humans who might one day give birth to a mutant, Professor X and Magneto, (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) having reconciled their differences, have Shadowcat (Ellen Page) send Logan (Hugh Jackman) back in time to find their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender) and convince them to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing Dr. Trask (Peter Dinklage), during which she would be captured and her DNA used to implement Trask’s design for mutant killing Sentinels.

Sending Logan back in time consists of Shadowcat projecting Logan’s current consciousness onto his 1973 self, where armed with the foreknowledge of the future, he can persuade the other X-Men to change their actions, thus altering history and causing the Sentinels never to come into existence. While he is at it, Logan’s rewriting of history will also cause X-Men 3, which everyone hated, never to have happened.

In addition to undoing the storyline of X-Men 3, Days of Future Past somewhat feels like an apology for that film. Bryan Singer, who left the franchise after X-Men 2, returns to direct, and he is at the top of his game. He stages the action scenes with a sense of fun, never obscuring the action with chaotic editing, and for the most part keeps the action on a reasonable sized scale. The louder, noisier, ever increasingly violent excess of last summer’s Man of Steel is not on display here. There are a couple very large set pieces, but those seem believable within the world of the film, and they occur at logical climaxes. It does seem that some mutants, notably Quicksilver (Evan Peters), are powerful enough to solve almost any problem, which raises the question as to why they don’t use their powers towards the film’s end, but that is an oversight which is fairly easy to forgive amidst the enjoyable display of mutant powers that we do see.

Days of Future Past brings together what is probably the largest cast of superheroes in any recent film, and all of them manage to be memorable, even if in a few cases that is due more to special effects than character development. However, the central figures: Wolverine, Professor X, Beast, Magneto, and Mystique all well written, they have very good chemistry with one another, and the actors turn in convincing performances. For that matter, the entire cast gives it their all, and they are a joy to watch. Quicksilver’s major action set piece is hilarious, and it makes very clever use of slow motion, something I have not seen in an action film in a long time.

Being a time travel film, there are naturally some discontinuities. The generic script has to mildly contradict previous films at some points, and the ending raises more questions than it answers, even if it does permit one mutant to reappear in sequels he might not otherwise have been in. Despite the minor flaws, X-Men Days of Future Past is an exciting, intelligent superhero sequel during a time of uninspired, by the numbers superhero films that left me looking forward to the next outing with these characters.

 

Content Advisory: Fleeting rear nudity, quasi-nudity throughout, a mildly suggestive scenario, much action violence, some crass language and one strong vulgarity.                               MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested Audience: Teens and up

Personal Recommendation: B

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Perfect Blue (Pafekuto Buru)

Year of Release: 1997     Directed by Satoshi Kon.               Voices of Junko Iwao, Rika Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, and Emi Shinohara.

“Excuse me…who are you?” Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao) nervously repeats her only line as she prepares to shoot her first scene as a television actress. After a successful career as a Japanese pop idol, the young celebrity wants to expand her work to include more serious forms of entertainment. However, change is difficult, and due to obsessive fans and crippling self doubts Mima begins to question her profession and her identity as hallucinations that blur her television series with her personal life cause her perception of reality to start slipping away.

On the other hand, Mima’s hallucinations might not be projections of her uneasy subconscious. It is clear that a devoted fan is stalking her, the threats she has received are very real, as are the murders of those who exploit her vulnerability.

Then again, the police can find little connection between the murders, and by the time they happen, Mima is already so upset and self-conscious that she is sure everything is somehow connected to her. Regarding the obsessive fan, after the opening scene where he threatens a rioter trash talking Mima, no one notices him again. Mima is the only one who sees him loitering in the shadows everywhere she goes.

To compound Mima’s confusion and anxiety, a devoted fan has set up a webpage called “Mima’s Room,” which functions as an online diary of Mima’s daily activities. When she first discovers it, Mima is amused at how well one person knows her idiosyncrasies. However, as the online account deviates more and more from her daily activities as an actress, instead detailing her daily activities when she was a pop star, Mima begins to wonder which version of her life is real. To make things worse, Mima is discovering tangible proof in her apartment of the online account of her supposed activities, activities of which she has no memory.

The driving force behind Mima’s fear is a projection of her subconscious which criticizes every choice she makes, calling her a traitor to her real self. Mima is susceptible to these criticisms, because she does feel uneasy. She misses her friends with whom she used to perform, but more notably, the television executives are writing scenarios that are freakishly similar to her personal life, and they are exploiting her and trying to force her into racy situations that will boost ratings. The first appearance of Mima’s critical subconscious is synchronized with the arrival of a script that demands she film a rape scene. When Mima is tricked into a nude photo shoot, the subconscious informs her that she is no longer the real Mima and that the real Mima (the subconscious) will return to performing as a pop star while the actress fades into obscurity.

Until the very end, it remain unclear whether Mima is being driven insane by a dangerously obsessed fan, whether her own guilt is making her uneasy, or something else entirely. The depiction of this uncertainty and the possible surreal obfuscation of multiple mentalities is what Perfect Blue captures brilliantly. The editing effortlessly fluctuates between different realities, and towards the end, the film begins to show repetitions of the same event. One time it is depicted as it takes place in Mima’s television series, the other time it is within the nightmare of Mima’s subconscious. Each version concludes with Mima waking up in her apartment, distressed and confused, heightening the mystery of what is real and what is not.

Perfect Blue was released in 1997, and director Satoshi Kon makes excellent use of the novelty of the internet. The world wide web was a new phenomenon and obsession, and in the film it is used to manipulate Mima’s perception of reality as well as mirror her uncertainty as she begins a new career. Even five years later, that sensation would have been lost.

The film is also very culturally aware of other horror films, and there are references to two of the greatest psychological thrillers concerning split personalities and character transformations: The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho. The television series Mima is filmingconcerns a serial killer who skins his female victims so he can become a woman, like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Another scene refers to a role that Jodie Foster played before The Silence of the Lambs. And the ending takes a page directly from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror masterpiece.

Before his tragic death in 2010 at age 46 from pancreatic cancer, Satohsi Kon directed four feature length anime films and created one anime television show. Perfect Blue was the first of those, and it is an incredible achievement for a debut film, capturing a terrific sense of mystery and showcasing the danger of obsession that twists reality until it is almost unrecognizable.

 

Content Advisory: Graphic depiction of rape, full frontal nudity, several very gruesome murders, and an atmosphere of horror throughout.                         Not rated, would be NC-17 if it were live action.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

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The Virgin Spring

Year of Release: 1960     Directed by Ingmar Bergman.     Starring Max von Sydow, Birgitta Valberg, Gunnel Lindblom, and Birgitta Pettersson.

Ingmar Bergman has a well deserved reputation as not only one of Sweden’s greatest directors, but one of the greatest directors period. He also has a reputation of being a “difficult” director whose films, especially the later ones, are artsy and bleak, characterized by dreamlike narratives and themes of existential doubt. While faith and mortality play an important role in The Virgin Spring, the film is unique among Bergman’s output, not only because it is one of his few films for which he did not write the screenplay.

The Virgin Spring is one of Bergman’s most straightforward films with a completely linear narrative taken from a 13th Century poem, no hallucinations or dream sequences, no playing with the viewer’s perception of reality, and no crisis of faith or characters plagued by doubt. The reason for the first three is that Bergman clearly wanted the film to unfold like a fable, or a minstrel’s tale, which it does hauntingly and brilliantly. The reason for the last choice is simple, Bergman set the film in 13th Century Sweden, where a strong faith was taken for granted, and using that lack of doubt as a backdrop, Bergman explores naïveté, vengeance, sorrow, and contrition.

The religious nature of all the characters also makes the tragedy and horror of the story felt much more profoundly. Bergman frames the film with the same character kneeling down and leaning forward in prayer. The first time she is invoking Odin to punish another woman with whom she is angry. The second time is out of a feeling of guilt and horror, witnessing the results of the terrible tragedy that has occurred. The villains are also slightly more complex than simple menacing thugs. They are relieved when they realize their crime will not jeopardize the celebration of the Mass; the youngest of them becomes unable to eat because he is so disturbed by what he witnessed. While the film never suggests sympathizing with the criminals (nor does it need to), when it reverses their position from antagonists to victims, it is taken for granted that the next crime will be equally brutal. To reinforce the comparison, both crimes end with a senseless death. Under Bergman’s meticulous pacing, the reversal occurs just after the halfway mark, which was when the first crime occurred and set the stage for the second.

Birgitta Pettersson perfectly captures the correct balance of mischievous, naive, and compassionate as the titular virgin Karin. As her father and lord of a large castle, Max von Sydow is fittingly stoic and authoritative. The scenes where he breaks down are shot with him facing away from the camera, as if he does not want anyone to see him broken and unsure. Even with his back to the camera, von Sydow powerfully conveys the sorrow he is suffering.

This was only second film Bergman shot with his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Sven Nykvist, the first being Sawdust and Tinsel seven years earlier. The Swedish countryside looks absolutely stunning, and the stark black and white camera work is as haunting, chilling, and poetic as the tale it tells.

 

Content Advisory: Depiction of rape, several murders, and shadowy nudity – nothing particularly graphic                        Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Adults

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Thought Experiment

NOT MOVIE RELATED; however, this is my blog, and I can post whatever I want. For anyone who wants film related posts, skip this one. I do promise there will be one film comparison. (There was a second one, but it had to be cut for length.)

CCC 2297: Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the law.

CCC 2298: In past times, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors.

(emphasis mine)

Reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it seems very clear to me that the Church leaves no room for question regarding her teaching on torture. Much like abortion or euthanasia torture is intrinsically evil, an offense to human dignity, and should be abolished. However, after Sarah Palin’s recent comments comparing torture to baptism, it seems many conservative Catholics who pride themselves on being faithful sons or daughters of the Church are at worst defending her comments, or at least while acknowledging that torture is wrong, saying there is no way we can know whether or not waterboarding constitutes torture.

To those Catholics who believe torture is a perfectly legitimate and moral means to extract information or punish a prisoner, I have nothing to say other than: repent. They are in blatant violation of Church teaching and every bit as deranged as Nancy Pelosi when she uses her faith as a rationale for abortion. However, perusing the comments in response to other blogs posts about Palin’s remarks, it seems the dominant response is to say, “Yes, torture is wrong, but that is some obscure word to define a brutal act with no motive, which we good, noble Americans would not do. Furthermore, the Church does not say anywhere that ‘waterboarding is torture;’ therefore, it is okay for Catholics to support it.”

First of all, notice that the Church includes nearly all possible motives for torture: extracting confessions, punishment, frightening opponents to break their resolve, and hatred. In all cases, using physical or mental violence is intrinsically, gravely immoral, because it reduces the torture victim to something that is subhuman, much like abortion reduces the fetus to a subhuman being.

As the proponents of waterboarding admit, the purpose of waterboarding is supposedly to extract crucial information from the victim. Just because waterboarding has one of the same intents as torture, certainly does not make it torture, but read the Church’s other requirements for torture: an act of “physical or moral violence to extract confessions…” Is there any proponent of waterboarding who will seriously say that waterboarding is not an act of violence? It involves strapping down a prisoner so he cannot move, covering his face with a cloth, and then pouring large quantities of water over the cloth so he experiences the sensation of drowning. As a result, gagging, vomiting, and choking, can often occur, as well as water intoxication – when the blood salt level dips fatally low from consuming too much water. Even if the ordeal “goes smoothly,” and even if you deny it involves physical violence, there can be no denying that it involves psychological violence. Right?

Like physical violence, psychological violence against another human being in order to terrify them or extract information is condemned by the Church. I am not saying all acts of psychological violence constitute torture, nor I am saying there are not times when it is permissible to use violence, although it is a very slippery moral slope to eagerly concoct scenarios in which we’re permitted to enact violence. The sensation that your life is in danger is very frightening, and if that does not constitute mental torture, what does? About two months ago, I was driving home and stopped at a crosswalk for two pedestrians. A car with three young girls distractedly chatting was driving about 45 mph, and they did not see that I had stopped. Then I heard a screech, the pedestrians looked terrified, and I saw in the rearview mirror another car barreling right towards me. Thankfully, there were no cars in the next lane, I managed to quickly swerve out of the way, and the girls managed to stop before the crosswalk. Those two seconds certainly were not mental torture, and I did not think my life was in serious danger (I did think I was going to need a new car), but it was a rather nerve-wracking experience, and I don’t even want to imagine the sensation of truly feeling like you are going to die.

If one still doubts that waterboarding is torture, then let’s try the following thought experiment.

The Church teaches that adultery is intrinsically evil. Let’s suppose a married man wanted to have some fun with his secretary, but wanted to be technically free of committing physical adultery, not caring about adultery in thought. The Catechism defines adultery as “When two partner, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations” – CCC 2380. Suppose the man decided that kissing or fondling his secretary was not physical adultery since they would not be having sex. Maybe he would go so far as to rationalize sleeping with her as long as they refrained from sex and still claim he had not committed physical adultery.  Is there anyone who would not instantly say this reasoning is insane?

I understand that those who defend torture, or claim waterboarding is not torture, see a very real threat to the security of the United States and their loved ones, and they want to do all they can to stop it. If we are facing two regrettable futures, one with 20 million people dead and the other with 150 million people dead, isn’t there a clear distinction? It seems like a noble impulse to “no longer sit back and allow terrorist infiltration, terrorist indoctrination, terrorist subversion, and the international terrorist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” The only problem with that approach is you end up sitting beneath a sign reading, “Peace is our profession,” while strategizing the best way to commit mass murder.

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