See it Again – Message From the King

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Message From the King is a strange film for me to include in the “See it Again” category. For one thing it came out very recently. For another, since it was released on Netflix I do not have a sense of how it was received either by critics or normal folk like you and I. As much as I dislike Rotten Tomatoes and similar sites, trying to write about why you should give a film another chance feels a bit strange when you have no idea how people feel about it in the first place.

That being said I liked this film but I did not love it. Again, a weird way to go, I know. Usually strong feelings dictate which films I write about and while I certainly like this film, aside from the look and the acting, I do not feel strongly about it.

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So with all of those reasons not to write out of the way, let me say some kind words about it.

First, this is beautiful looking film. According to an interview I found online With a bit of this appears to be shot on film. The grain is visible in many scenes, and perhaps because of my age, I find it terribly pleasing. The way the faces are lit is just wonderful. Sometimes they are hauntingly beautiful other times haunting. Often there is a gritty, grimy quality to the images that is perfectly suited for the story being told.

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If you enjoy this kind of film, a noir-ish revenge drama with mystery and violence, Message From the King will deliver what you are looking for. Chadwick Boseman gives an excellent performance. There is something quite powerful (and meaningful) in his silences and the pacing of the editing effectively builds tension and suspense.

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The supporting cast is quite good as well, there are some big names in Message From the King yet everyone plays their supporting roles as they should be. It is clear whose movie this is and as the viewer we are always with the protagonist and his story.

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Opposed to several other films I have watched recently about the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles the grit and texture of Message From the King feels integral the story rather than an attempt to be the story. This is a lithe film that moves from scene to scene without getting bogged down in trying to say more than it needs to.

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If you have Message From the King in your queue or have been debating whether or not you should check out the film with that guy from Black Panther I suggest you do. It’s not high art and it won’t leave you feeling profoundly changed but it is beautiful and unexpected.

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See it Again – Jupiter Ascending

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What You Should Know

This film fits into many categories but “Space Opera” seems to work the best. How do we define “Space Opera”? Wikipedia gives us:

Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles, as well as chivalric romance, and often risk-taking. Set mainly or entirely in outer space, it usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons, and other sophisticated technology. The term has no relation to music, but is instead a play on the terms “soap opera” and “horse opera“, the latter of which was coined during the heyday of silent movies to indicate clichéd and formulaic Western movies. Space operas emerged in the 1930s and they continue to be produced in literature, film, comics, and video games.

This definition, as most definitions of genres, is fairly judgmental. Which is not to say it is incorrect. Jupiter Ascending features everything listed above. Does this have to be a negative? Jupiter Ascending is a – repeat after me – enjoyable film to watch. Feels weird doesn’t it? Especially in this age of superhero films that are often not enjoyable to watch.

The Wachowski’s once again made a science fiction film that delivers in terms of story and special effects. One of the things they do so well is to make special effect heavy movies that don’t call attention to the special effects (Not every time, I am aware!).

Case in point, Channing Tatum’s character wears special boots that effectively allow him to speed skate on air. This may not sound interesting or good to you, but it’s fun and if your inner child doesn’t stir while watching him glide on the air then your inner child is either stunted or boring.

Why You Should Reconsider

This film, much like Cloud Atlas suffered from negative press. I cannot point to a specific example where it was obvious but I believe this was, in part,  because of the directors personal lives’. People were very quick to judge Jupiter Ascending based on the character’s names, the basic concept, a complicated (or convoluted) plot – without seeing the film. All of which could be leveled at “The Matrix” and yet upon watching the films you see that they are incorrect.

This film is enjoyable, it is interesting and it has a heart. Notable criticisms from the online group Screen Junkies with their “Honest Trailer” focused on how the story ends. I won’t spoil the ending but to dislike and take issue with the ending is to not understand the story and what it was trying to achieve.

The acting in the film is good, it is what it should be. Characters that are supposed to be somewhat larger than life are and the everyday “normal” people are just that. Mila Kunis’s extended family feels real, which given the material is very impressive.

Which brings us to two aspects of the film I do not normally discuss, costumes and special effects. “Jupiter Ascending” is lavish, it’s lush. They created worlds and cultures and races. The things that people praised Neil Blomkamp for regarding Elysium seemed to fly over everyone’s head regarding this film. The film has moments of gritty reality and overdone pomp and they all work. They are appropriate and do not pull the viewer out of the story. The effects sequences are as seamless and perfectly integrated as those in the first Matrix. In short (if Cloud Atlas hadn’t come first) this is a return to form for the directors.

Misconceptions

I’ve stopped reading reviews for the most part so all I can glean is that people thought this would be a more straightforward story. That it would be less “Space Opera” and more…space story? I don’t know. Channing Tatum’s character is strange as other other characters in the film but given that the film addresses other life in the universe it makes sense. If we can accept this idea with Star Trek can’t we do so with a film like Jupiter Ascending?

Back when we rented our films from video stores I recall a particular phrase was used often to promote new films. Either on the box or the poster or in the trailer for a film they would say, “If you loved _______, you’ll love ______”. Which if you think about it is a pretty great way to sell a film. If I were going to use that line to promote Jupiter Ascending I would say, “If you loved The Fifth Element, you’ll love Jupiter Ascending.”

Favorite Film

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If there is one question I have struggled with it is, “What is your favorite film?” Granted, this question is nowhere near as important as: “How do we achieve world peace?” or “How do we stop global warming?” but then people never seem to ask me either of these.

So recognizing the proper ranking of the importance of this question let me now try and address some of the assumptions being made regarding movies.

First – that all movies are alike and are comparable. I touched on this briefly in another post when I mentioned comparing Cliffhanger to Citizen Kane. What I was attempting to show with this comparison isn’t that one film is lesser but that different films are made to satisfy different conditions. Cliffhanger needs to be exciting in order to be successful as an action film. The stakes in a film like Cliffhanger are life and death and therefore the story being told has to make the audience care whether the characters live or die. We need to worry when they are in peril, cheer if they manage to evade death and feel satisfaction when the villain (unless it is the Earth which is tricky) gets his due.

The same isn’t true for Citizen Kane. I don’t need to spell it out, different kinds of films have different rules, have different problems and different goals. So while we can attempt to compare them in terms of the overall experience there are still many cases where this is a fruitless exercise.

So in thinking about awards like Best Picture and answering the question of “what is your favorite movie?” I cannot help but dwell on these differences because they do matter.

Take for instance the different between comedy and drama. Forget subcategories for the moment. The comedy wants to make you laugh. It wants to make you happy. The drama usually wants to make you feel some deep emotion like sadness or longing or ennui or some other wonderful thing. I am being unfair but the truth is not far off. Comedy seeks to entertain you and make you happy, the drama usually attempts to make you experience some unpleasant emotions, possibly entertains you or it tries to teach you something.

This distinction is important and why you rarely see a comedy being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. For some reason we have decided that this is okay. That Comedy as a category does not compete in the same realm as Drama. Okay.

Yet, if you were to poll most people concerning their favorite film many would name a comedy. So what gives? The second distinction: is this a film you watch once in your life or never again?

We have all seen amazing, life-changing films that have moved us in ways words cannot properly express. Yet once seen we have no desire to ever see these movies again. Not in a Usual Suspects kind of way where once you know the story watching the film becomes less interesting. This is more that you have had an incredible experience and are glad to have had it but the thought of going through it again, even if it were somewhat lesser holds no appeal for you. A good example of this is Schindler’s List.

Then we have the other category, the film you can watch repeatedly and it is always enjoyable. The film that when you are sad or sick or just looking for a nice night on the couch you know will give you what you need. These films are usually comedies of some sort. For me the best example is The Philadelphia Story but I could list dozens that fit this bill.

So we have comedies and dramas. We have one-offs and we have endlessly watchable films. With just these four categories I find myself at a loss. How do I pick a favorite? What are we talking about? Pure entertainment? Something that helped shape who I am today? It becomes impossible for me to make any kind of choice because I need to explain the criteria involved in making that choice.

So, yes, this is not the most important decision a person will ever face. In fact, it is somewhat silly. Yet, and this is why I bothered to write all of this out: when I try and pose these questions to others I always find them puzzled at my response. “Why can’t you just pick one?” I can’t help but feel that when it comes to the awards that are given out that this must be the attitude of many who do the voting. Something must be chosen, so just pick one. They are only movies, so what does it matter.

Television – The Americans

(This is a post I wrote a year ago but for some reason did not share. I have since seen seasons one and two and think they are excellent but I like the simpler point made here by…me. What a guy!)

I would like to discuss the television show, The Americans. Now it may seem silly to try and discuss a show that has not finished and it will seem even sillier when I add that I have not finished the first season. So why discuss this show? Because it is one of a handful that gives the impression it was fully realized before they started making it.

This is a big claim and it is entirely possibly that the rest of season two might make what I am writing absurd. I will take that chance. In particular I want to say a little something about the pilot episode of The Americans.

What I feel sets a pilot episode like this apart from so many others is that you get the sense that they characters are fully formed. You meet your central characters, their relationship is not immediately explained and then through a series of events you come to know who they are. It is interesting and arresting television. The story is intriguing, it is engaging and what I enjoyed most is that the little details are simply put out there for viewers to either notice and understand or to be lost.

Making a show set in the early eighties that does not stop and point at each and every detail of clothing, hair, music etc., but rather attempts to recreate the world as it was without having a character stop and say, “Isn’t this earpiece absurdly large? We can’t hide the fact that we are wearing earpieces. If only someone would make them smaller.” allows the viewer to be swept up in the story being told. It is refreshing and rewarding to watch a show that does not call attention to itself, that does not feel the need to point and say, “Don’t you see now, thirty years on, that Regan was a bit of a …” but rather have the characters be as they should be and do as they do?

Lack of Definition

I have recently discovered that I am attracted to and yearn for rules and definitions. Whether in social settings, the workplace or areas of study I find that rules and definitions allow everyone to behave, work and learn more effectively. That is the reason for this post (for I admit it does seem a bit random).

In college my major was Sociology. I have encountered many people since who have asked what, exactly, Sociology is. I have typically responded with the definition I learned in my first course — “Sociology is the study of groups of people.”

This was a clear distinction from my understanding of Psychology, which is the study of individuals.

Lately I have been watching the television show Bones and enjoying it very much. The central character of the show is a forensic anthropologist. She has explained what it is she does and can do numerous times on the show. The more explaining she has done (regarding the non-forensic aspects of her field of study) the more confused I have become concerning the differences between Sociology and Anthropology.

I decided today to try and find definitions of each discipline in order to have clarity on the subject. To my dismay I find myself more confused. Below are the definitions  I have come across. The formatting is not uniform and for that I apologize.

Sociology:

  • the study of society
  • a social science involving the study of the social lives of people, groups, and societies
  • the study of our behavior as social beings, covering everything from the analysis of short contacts between anonymous individuals on the street to the study of global social processes
  • the scientific study of social aggregations, the entities through which humans move throughout their lives’
  • an overarching unification of all studies of humankind, including history, psychology, and economics

Taken from the website of the American Sociological Association — http://www.asanet.org/sociology.cfm

Anthropology:

Anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. To understand the full sweep and complexity of cultures across all of human history, Anthropology draws upon knowledge from the social and biological sciences as well as the humanities and physical sciences. Historically, in the US, anthropologists usually have been trained in one of four areas, socio-cultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. Often, however, anthropologists integrate the perspectives of several of these areas into their work.

Taken from the American Anthropological Association website — http://www.aaanet.org/about/WhatisAnthropology.cfm

Psychology:

Psychology is a diverse discipline, grounded in science, but with nearly boundless applications in everyday life.  Some psychologists do basic research, developing theories and testing them through carefully honed research methods involving observation, experimentation and analysis. Other psychologists apply the discipline’s scientific knowledge to help people, organizations and communities function better.

Taken from the American Psychological Association website — http://www.apa.org/about/index.aspx

I find this last definition lacking so I went to another site — Merriam-Webster.

Main Entry: psy·chol·o·gy Pronunciation: \-jē\Function: nounInflected Form(s): plural psy·chol·o·giesEtymology: New Latin psychologia, from psych- + -logia -logyDate: 1653

1 : the science of mind and behavior
2 a : the mental or behavioral characteristics of an individual or group b: the study of mind and behavior in relation to a particular field of knowledge or activity
3 : a theory or system of psychology <Freudian psychology> <the psychology of Jung>

http://www.merriam-webster.com/netdict/psychology