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IcelandKlara Harden, Made in Iceland

For the last few weeks, I’ve been struggling to complete a comprehensive response to the Edward Snowden brouhaha (article to appear shortly). But at the start of summer, with warm nights and beautiful weekends calling me away from my keyboard, I can’t quite find it in me to hunker down and ruminate on the ramifications of his revelations and the bleak nature of “truth” in democracy.

So, instead, I thought I would post this gorgeous and inspiring short documentary, Made in Iceland. Its star and editor, Klara Harden, embarked on a multi-week solo journey through the wilderness of Iceland and filmed every moment. I couldn’t be more thankful for her efforts.

The sheer variety of Iceland’s beauty is breathtaking. Harden drinks in the expansive landscape, focusing in turn on the resplendent vistas as well as the more nuanced details. Her close-up inspections of water alternatively rushing and dripping over stone and moss are especially poignant. There’s a mesmerizing rhythm to watching the ground change from stone to grass beneath her striding feet.

Interspersed among the scenes of the environment’s plains and mountains and wind are glimpses into the highs and lows of Harden’s personal experience. Whether it’s the joy of meeting a fox pup or the despair of feeling irrevocably lost in unfamiliar territory, these introspective moments reflect the heart of the adventurer and what it means to experience unspoiled nature. Away from the convoluted trappings of modern civilization, the simple beauty and uncertainty of the wild is intoxicating.

Snowden be damned. I think it’s time to go outside.

01 Fast and Furious

Ten things I learned from watching Fast & Furious 6 (some minor spoilers follow):

1. There is no problem that cannot be solved by driving fast and punching hard.

2. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson abides by a philosophy succinctly summarized as “ABF,” or “Always Be Flexing.”

3. The “Fast & Furious” franchise is the United States’ answer to England’s James Bond: a seemingly immortal, ridiculous action franchise that crystallizes the stereotypical values of its country of origin.

4. Cool female characters more interesting than the rest of the cast are rendered completely inconsequential when dead.

5. According to the unique Physical Laws of Diesel, the older Vin gets, the more mass his neck accumulates.

6. The aforementioned Rock is a walking Predator drone, authorized by his fists to operate anywhere in the world with impunity.

7. No matter the circumstances, Paul Walker’s expression is forever frozen in time.

8. If you think the film is at any moment as absurd as it can be, just wait a second.

9. Everyone with a British accent is evil.

10. Nothing says “America” more than a film that in its closing moments gathers a multi-ethnic collection of freedom loving, golden-hearted outlaws around a dinner table to join hands and say “Grace.”

So begins another year and what better way to celebrate than a retrospective hodge-podge review of my most favorite recent versions of famous British stage and screen mainstays?

These revitalized pieces of modern film-making prove the idiom that “everything old is new again,” and their combined histories – a modern television show/series of films based on a late-19th century series of novels, a futuristic film adaptation of a play more than 400 years old, and the latest film in a 25-year-old franchise – are enough to make you feel like a well-known time-and-dimension-hopping-Doctor who will remain nameless as I have not yet been convinced of his preeminence.

British pop culture has never been irrelevant, but in the wake of the Harry Potter books and films, the Lord of the Rings films, and rebooted version of Dr. Who (I guess I lied), it has recently experienced a kind of renaissance abroad (especially in the United States) and for me, the three properties below embody that “return to form.” Modern producers have re-forged and re-invented many of England’s most precious cultural icons, building on their eclectic histories to produce arguably the most effective iterations of those properties yet.

My over-analytical ramblings aside though, these are some of the coolest film or film-like entities of British origin that I’ve seen in some time.

Sherlock

01 Sherlock

It took me a while to catch on to the quality of this short series, which so far consists of only six film-like “episodes” ranging in length from 1.5 to 2 hours, but once I did, I was hooked. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes was a favorite character of mine when I was younger, and I’ve since idolized not only him, but essentially every brilliant detective character of whom I’ve been made aware and who resembles Holmes in intellectual prowess and courage.

Like Doyle’s original stories, each episode of the show is a different “case file,” in which Holmes – the eccentric, borderline-sociopathic deductive genius – and Dr. John Watson – his infinitely patient, practically-minded companion – are tasked with the unraveling of a complex mystery. As the two confront each conundrum, they encounter a variety of allies and enemies and do their best to thwart nefarious plots. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, but their efforts are invariably captivating.

A big part of what makes this adaptation so good in comparison to other recent versions (I’m thinking specifically of the Robert Downey Jr. films) is that the principal actors, Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson) aren’t just playing roles that have been carried forward through time, cob webs and all. This version is purposefully founded in the modern age and both actors wholly inhabit the roles, making the characters and the plots in which they are caught up feel genuine.

Furthermore, the series is laser-focused on a goal that I think is imminently invaluable and too often ignored in most television: The main character and the show as a whole strive to get you thinking. Intelligence is engaging and fascinating, and though there are plenty of foot chases through the streets of London, the mind is the principal battlefield on which Holmes and his adversaries are engaged.

Doyle’s stories always dealt with a morally grey world, but the modern setting of this series allows the writers to address relevant ethical questions that touch on a variety of issues, including government oversight, the dehumanizing effects of technology, sexual politics, and more. None of the episodes strictly adheres to the original book or story on which it is based and this willingness to do something new with the material makes it feel fresh and exciting.

Simply put, I don’t think Sherlock is for everyone, but I cannot say enough good things about this show. My only complaint is that I want more. Immediately.

Coriolanus

01 Coriolanus 2

How do you address and criticize a corrupt military-industrial complex on which much of the world’s stability depends? Well, if you’re Ralph Fiennes, you film a modern adaptation of William Shakespeare’s prescient and uber-relevant play, Coriolanus.

In his directorial debut, Fiennes stars as the severe-yet-effective Caius Martius, the most prestigious and lauded military commander in a time-shifted, modernized version of ancient Rome. During an especially brutal and decisive battle with the armies of Rome’s rival city-state, Volsci, Caius engages his military rival and commander of the Volscian army, Tullus Aufidius (played by Gerard Butler), in mortal combat and emerges the victor, cementing a temporary peace. To celebrate his success, Caius is awarded by the Senate the honorary title “Coriolanus” as an additional moniker in remembrance of the pitched battle. Caius Martius Coriolanus is loved for his courage and becomes the darling of the military state, encouraged by those around him to pursue the powerful leadership position of “Consul” within the Senate.

But Coriolanus has no taste for politics, and staunchly refuses to pay homage to the teeming, non-military masses he sees as dishonorable parasites unworthy of his love. His elitist attitude is rejected by the egalitarian people who see his beliefs as a betrayal and Coriolanus’s tragic downfall is set in motion. A multitude of ethical and thematic questions arise as a result of Coriolanus’s steadfastness, and it is this complexity of thoughtful reflection that is one of the most appealing aspects of the film.

What allegiance do leaders owe to those they lead and vice versa? How does one balance the demands of popular power and personal beliefs? Are codes of ethics and public office at their core incompatible? What kind of leader should we admire and aspire to emulate? What does it mean to be a “good” man? These questions and many more are raised throughout and though Fiennes does not definitively answer any, they are all so incredibly relevant to our modern world of war, political scandal, and moral despair that I was taken aback these were all issues that were also relevant more than 400 years ago, when Shakespeare’s play was written. To quote another cliche: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The plot and thematic elements of this tragedy aside, I should also mention a few of the more technical aspects. The imagery is often bleak, but this film is shot beautifully, with an eye for framing human frailty within unforgiving industrial environments. Though this may be a turn-off for some, the script is composed of reorganized and mildly retouched passages of verse from the original play, all delivered by an extremely capable and excellent cast, including Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, and Vanessa Redgrave. Every event in this story’s plot is emotionally charged, and the principal cast perfectly elucidates the unforgiving pressures of tenuous power.

In all, if you want to watch a well-made film adaptation of a more-relevant-than-ever Shakespeare tragedy that touches on a multitude of issues facing the modern Western world, check out Coriolanus.

Skyfall

01 SkyfallSimilarly to Coriolanus, Skyfall – the most recent (and in my opinion most excellent) James Bond film – deals head-on with the decline of an empire’s founding ideals and those people working to pick up the pieces. I won’t go into the specific details of the plot because one of the pleasures of this film is watching the action set pieces unfold and morph into something different from moment to moment, but I do include below a brief review of the ideas and themes. There are no outright spoilers, but I touch on things that may influence a first-time viewer’s impressions.

I’ve never been an enormous fan of Bond myself, but I can assert with confidence one of the most appealing aspects of Skyfall is that, like any good movie, it is built of many varying and complex layers of plot, character, and theme. Each of three main characters constitutes a vital aspect of what the director Sam Mendes is trying to say with this entry in the series.

The most vital layer is of course focused on Bond. After a near-death experience, Bond (Daniel Craig) is forced to come to terms with his aging body’s limitations and his strained devotion to the country and organization that made him who he is. There is an overarching theme of “reflection across time” throughout the film and though Bond has been referred to as a “relic of the Cold War,” Skyfall attempts to make a legitimate case for the relevancy of old-school operatives like Bond and the role they must play in the security of contemporary society. As one character begrudgingly admits, no matter how many things you can do on a computer, “sometimes a trigger needs to be pulled.” The film lets you make of that moral indictment what you will, but it’s telling that many of Bond’s standard operating procedures in this film backfire. In response, he is forced to adapt; to evolve and become something more efficient.

Bond’s personal struggle for relevancy reflects the larger struggle of MI6’s leader, M (Judy Dench), to prove that an espionage organization and way of life is still relevant, despite the proliferation of technology, modern progress, and the decline of the greater British empire. She is under threat of replacement and is feeling the pressures of age and irrelevancy even more intensely than Bond. It’s important to note that though James Bond is a cultural icon for the country, this film is probably the only one in the series that is predominantly concerned with England itself. There are a few different exotic locales visited–Shanghai, Istanbul, a deserted island reminiscent of one in Japan–but the main action of the second half of the film all happens in London, and then in another part of Great Britain. It becomes clear that Mendes, a Londoner himself, is at his heart ambivalent about the history and future of the country he calls home.

To that point, there is security and danger in the past, and Bond and M are confronted by an antagonist who embodies this idea. Bent on revenge, Silva (Javier Bardem), a former MI6 operative similar to Bond, utilizes the most cutting edge computer technology to wage war on the country, organization, and person (M) he feels left him for dead. Obsessed with the past, but employing modern methods to rectify it, Silva epitomizes the potential pitfalls of an individual’s misguided attempt at moving on without letting go. But Silva’s most important piece of the thematic puzzle is in proving that dangerous enemies still lurk in the shadows.

There are a ton more aspects of the film worth discussing–including the nature of home, one’s responsibility to legacy, the line between hero and villain, the loyalty of surrogate “sons” to their perceived “mother,” and more–but I think this “review” has gone on long enough.

If this sounds heavy, it definitely is at parts, and I would say this is perhaps the darkest of the Bond films. But luckily, the more serious tone is often balanced by fun quips, snappy exchanges of dialogue, and references and call-backs to elements of Bond’s days of yore. Moreover, the entire film is one of the most well-photographed in recent memory. Every single shot looks amazing and most importantly, often visually reflects the thematic elements of the film. It is easily the best-looking in the series, and this high quality also permeates the acting. Though the series is best known for silly camp, there is an earnest effort in Skyfall to make the world of Bond more real, and all of the actors turn in great performances to that end.

Sure, all of the above is wrapped up in an intense, action-packed franchise film, and some viewers may be skeptical of an action movie’s attempts at intelligence, but Skyfall proves that with the right script, emotional heart, and philosophical drive, an action film can have as much to say as a more austere drama. For that reason, I think Skyfall far exceeds the expectations of a genre too often dominated by mindless garbage to become something very special and definitely worth watching. Oh, and it has a pretty great theme song.

Every kid wishes they could fly.Man of Steel

A new Superman movie, Man of Steel, is in development, and after seeing the most recent trailer, I couldn’t be more excited. The film is directed by Zack Snyder, whose visuals are usually excellent despite so-so story-telling, produced by Christopher Nolan of single-handedly-reviving-the-superhero-film-genre-with-Batman fame, and stars Henry Cavill, who appears to have been genetically engineered for the role.

Judging by the trailer alone (some say I have too much hope), it seems like the film has the potential to become something really special: a big-screen adaptation of the ultimate superhero that does justice to what he means to many fans (myself included). The excellent narration of the trailer, provided by Superman’s biological father, Jor-El (played by Russel Crowe – there is another version featuring narration by Jon Kent, played by Kevin Costner), sets a lump in my throat and my eyes to watering, and captures perfectly the purpose and significance of the character:

“You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you. They will stumble. They will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.”

Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent, a.k.a. Kal-El, is an incredibly complex character both in terms of his comic book incarnations and the public’s perception of him. Weighed down by decades of campy adaptations, inaccurate Christ comparisons, and sub-par storytelling, Superman is poised for a comeback on the more serious dramatic stage set by the recent Batman films. And given the relationship between the characters as two of the most popular of all time, it’s impossible not to compare them. It is common among people my age to dismiss Superman in favor of the Dark Knight, and that preference is an interesting touchstone with regards to the state of Western culture’s psychology.

If it wasn’t already clear, I am a fan of Superman, though not at the expense of my Batman fandom (friends know my faithful feline companion’s name to, in fact, be “Batman”). But it makes me sad to hear the tone of derision and cynicism with which many in my generation speak about Superman. I encountered this over the summer when the Man of Steel trailer above played ahead of The Dark Knight Rises. Despite the trailer’s obvious earnestness, it was met with murmurs of dismissal and scoffing. I was dismayed.

Like any good character, Superman has evolved since his creation and the most significant iterations have been fantastic (see Superman: Birthright, All-Star Superman, Superman: Secret Identity, and more). But for many, he is unfortunately nothing more than a cliched Boy Scout Christ allegory, without a place or relevance in today’s more hard-line, knife-edged age.

The gritty, depressing terror of the Batman films has dominated the pop-culture conversation regarding these types of characters and brought into question what they mean to the culture at large. Don’t get me wrong: I love Batman. The darker, more pragmatic side of me identifies with and idolizes the character for his ingenuity, steadfastness, seriousness of purpose, and many people obviously feel he’s very relevant.

But Batman inhabits a world of pessimism. Though he’s highly-skilled, the man in the suit is emotionally wounded. He rectifies wrongs, fights injustice, and helps others cope with the unfortunate ramifications of crime, but he cannot prevent crime. His most admirable qualities are generated in response to a world that reflects our own, but I find myself wondering if his is the kind of example we should seek to emulate. Any thoughtful reader or viewer knows that there is always too much injustice to combat permanently, so although we are entertained and satisfied by the stories, what do we take away? When we internalize the actions and ideals of a character like Batman, what do we do with his example? Is his path the one we need to walk?

Superman, on the other hand, offers the complete opposite, and although they differ, the characters are often presented as two sides of the same coin. Where Batman accepts a cynical reality, Superman encourages optimism with a vision of the individual as we would like ourselves to be. Where Batman is a human who is more super than any human will ever be, Superman is an alien who at his core possesses a humanity we wish we could emulate. Where Batman is distrustful and reticent, Superman is honest and joyous.

Superman is a metaphor that soars among the clouds, unhampered by the world that is, bringing into existence a fictional world we all wish could be reality.

As a recent ComicsAlliance piece demonstrated, the ideological significance of Superman cannot be understated. To celebrate Suicide Prevention Day, they posted a page from Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman graphic novel. The page deals poignantly with a young woman’s intended suicide. Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, she mistakenly concludes that no one – not even the doctor she came to trust – cares for her. Before she can kill herself, Superman assures her otherwise: “It’s never as bad as it seems. You are stronger than you think you are.”

Morrison wisely doesn’t have Superman show up in time to catch the girl after she’s jumped, making a cliched show of superheroics. Instead, Superman prevents disaster by offering a more human and inspiring solution: kind words and a hug. With this, Superman demonstrates the superheroics we could and should all engage in on a daily basis; to save a life is the kind of wonder we could and should all hope to achieve.

Sure, I may be ascribing more hope and credit than a big-budget film deserves, but the character of Superman – like the legends Robin Hood, King Arthur, Musashi, Gilgamesh, and countless others – holds special significance for culture and history. And sure, the stories from the comic books and movies don’t always embody the lofty paragon I’ve described here.

But in a time when you don’t have to work hard to witness the losing battle good, thoughtful people fight against true evil and horror every day in the real world, I personally cannot wait and sincerely hope that Man of Steel does what Superman has always done: Inspire hope for a better tomorrow among countless new and old fans everywhere. And that’s something I think the world could really use right now.

And if that’s not enough, bolting through the sky at the speed of sound is unarguably awesome.

The Shoes, “Time To Dance”

On a completely different note, I picked this one up from my brother, Brendan, and have been meaning to post it for some time.

There isn’t much to say about this excellent music video that wouldn’t ruin the dark, disturbing, strangely enjoyable experience. It is one of my all-time personal favorites, the song is awesome, and I think it is some of Jake Gyllenhaal’s best work. It’s nothing too brutal, but there’s a little bit of Patrick Bateman in his performance, so be prepared for that. This thing’s more of an extremely danceable short film than a music video, so get comfortable; it doesn’t actually get to “Time to Dance” until about 1.5 minutes in. Once things get moving though, it’s off like a rocket with some killer (ha!) sights and sounds, as well as a bizarrely inspiring message. Behold, the healing power of music and dance!

Just be sure to keep dancing, or Jake Gyllenhaal will murder you.

SlashFilm, Russ Fischer, “Meet Michael Fassbender’s Robotic Alter-Ego in ‘Prometheus’

UPDATE: The video originally featured at the link above and the main reason for my posting has since been removed due to copyright violations, but you can view the video here: Happy Birthday, David.

It is difficult to express how excited I am for Ridley Scott’s upcoming return to the science fiction genre with his newest film, Prometheus. I have been thoroughly obsessed with Scott’s Blade Runner since my father introduced me to it when I was young, and Alien, to which Prometheus is a prequel, is another one of my favorite films of all time. Scott knows how to do science fiction right, putting the people front-and-center and the science fiction in the world around those people. He has a knack for making characters extremely relatable regardless of the bizarre circumstances in which they are embroiled. This short film exploring the android character of “David” in Prometheus is a perfect testament to Scott’s prowess.

Michael Fassbender (fulfilling a role similar to the one played by John Hurt in the original Alien) is excellent as he manages to embody our worst fears about the future of artificial intelligence and robotics (he can replace humanity, blend in with the workforce) while simultaneously engendering intense emotional attachment (the tear is amazing). And of course all of this is undercut by the tension of uncertainty regarding whether David’s words are genuine or programmed for effect (which, in a “meta” sense, they are). Fassbender is such a good actor that despite the fact that David seems to be saying all the right things, there is a vague menace beneath the glossy presentation, especially when he explains “I can carry out directives my human counterparts might find distressing… or unethical.” This is emphasized by the creepy skulls over either of his shoulders in the interview shots. That kind of ambiguity is exactly why I love science fiction. Within a realm of unlimited possibilities, even the most simple pieces of dialogue can become fascinating mysteries.

This video reminds me a great deal of the malevolent humor of Portal and if this short is any indication of the quality of the final product, I have little doubt Prometheus will easily take a place among my most beloved films. I can’t wait.

Note: This started off as a simple response to an interesting New York Times article, but quickly took on a life of its own as a full review.

New York Times, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis, “A Radical Female Hero From Dystopia

I’m pretty sure the film alone does not support the level of critical thought (the reviewers confirm this by referencing the books frequently) given it in this article, but this is an interesting analysis of Katniss Everdeen’s character as a modern, popular heroine. I think it would make the conversation regarding her femininity even more interesting to address that in the books she is largely taught what she knows and how she acts by her father. It really bothered me that there was no explanation for her skills and what she knows in the film – I also thought the fact that the leather jacket she covets was her father’s was a touching scrap of information (among so many others) sadly missing from the adaptation.

While I wasn’t looking for an exact replication of the novel on-screen (and was aware as soon as they announced the adaptation that a first-person narrative was a near-impossibility), I maintain that what was presented in the film was largely a hollowed-out version of an extremely rich and emotional story. We don’t get any exposition or emotionally-relevant content about WHY Katniss, in a world where weapons are outlawed, food is supposedly scarce, and things are so rough that revolution foments, she has preternatural archery abilities, knows how to carve a bow, has a nice leather coat, knows about deadly berries, or looks more vaguely disappointed than HUNGRY. It just doesn’t make any sense in context and unfortunately turns her from a HUMAN character into a SUPER HUMAN character, rendering the dramatic weight of her transformation from “poor, hungry girl” to “symbol of revolution” inert; in the film it is made to seem as though she is already a hero waiting for opportunity, as opposed to a person upon whom the mantle of “hero” is thrust.

Further, key scenes, robbed of emotional context, are cheap and opportunistic. Specifically, I am referring to the much adored Rue death scene. In the book, the scene fills your heart with lead because in her tracker-jacker stupor Katniss mistakes Rue for Primrose, and upon Katniss’s recovery, Rue tells her own tragic tale. These aren’t first-person narration moments, but they are completely missing from the film. We are given ridiculous, unnecessarily shoe-horned exposition about genetically-modified tracker-jackers, but we can’t be given ANYTHING about Rue as a character? They cheaply introduce her in the film as a young lamb sent to slaughter and the emotional weight of her death is cheap, in my opinion. It’s a sucker-punch on film, nothing more.

Back to the main point though, I think Katniss being taught what she knows by her father enriches the complexity of her character as a modern heroine and brings a new facet to the discussion of gender identity. It’s also interesting to note (with regards to the idea of the “gendered hero”) Gale’s role in all of this. Gale (interestingly, often a female’s name) plays essentially the same role within his family as Katniss, is equipped with the same skills, etc., but what if the situation were reversed and HE volunteered for the games and Katniss stayed behind in the district? Would The Hunger Games be as remarkable and appreciated a story by half? Or would it be dismissed out-of-hand as embracing the traditional hero and patriarchy?

All of this is not to say the film adaptation was not a worthwhile attempt. It is extremely interesting for a variety of reasons, but principally because it seems almost impossible to discuss objectively on its own merits. Managed by a mediocre director with the backing of a mediocre studio, with complex, definitely R-rated, subversive material molded into a marketable, PG-13 romp-for-all-ages, it’s easy to come at this film with claws ready and eyes gleaming. All adaptations are, by their nature, altered, but, to elaborate… Fans of the novels see The Hunger Games film and their perspectives and knowledge are informed by what they’ve read, so they may not even realize what’s missing from this adaptation without really stepping back from it and looking at it as a movie unto itself. And non-fans seeing this story for the first time are given a tale so absolute in its moral simplicity and middle-of-the-road in its presentation that it’s difficult to find seriously offensive fault. The onus in the case of the non-initiated isn’t on the new-comers, but given the cultural ubiquity of the books at this point, as I said, I think it’s difficult to address this film in analytic discussion without knowledge of the source material.

So, I guess my problems with the film stems from disappointment in it as an adaptation, and perhaps I’m being too critical, but given the influence the story has garnered in popular culture, I don’t think it’s entirely ridiculous to look at the film with a critical eye. In my opinion, treating adaptations in this manner is the only way to ensure quality from Hollywood, and despite its semi-progressive bones, I don’t think this film should get a free pass.