Don't ask me what my favorite film is. It's like asking a parent which child is the favorite.

Welcome to my film blog. I strive for a synthesis of good/bad and theoretical criticism.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Monuments Men

John Wayne the Peacemaker

A Review of The Monuments Men

By Daniel Carstens

In perhaps the best scene of The Monuments Men, Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), middle-aged soldiers on a crusade to save art, find themselves in a stand-off with a lone German soldier. Walter passes around peace cigarettes, and finally the guns are lowered. The German soldier, who has not uttered a word, smiles and says, “John Wayne.” This scene is fantastic in its fusion of high drama and humor, and perfectly illustrates some very important underlying themes of the film.

At multiple points in the film, Frank Stokes (George Clooney) verbalizes the main theme, and the purpose for their mission: Culture is important. It shows how people live and who they are, and were. Culture is worth fighting for. At one point, Stokes, in regards to Hitler's hoarding of paintings and statues, says that art does not belong to one man or people, but to all people. Art transcends political boundaries and can and should be available for all to appreciate.

The “John Wayne” moment portrays this beautifully. John Wayne, famous for his very specific, uber-American western roles, is known all over the world, even by a German soldier. This scene not only shows art's ability to transcend political boundaries, but to unite people across those boundaries. John Wayne was the only non-cancer-causing manner in which the German and American soldiers connected. John Wayne was a peacemaker. Art has the power to bring people together, as it does for many characters in the film, such as priests and the soldiers, and James Granger (Matt Damon) and Claire (Cate Blanchett) in their wonderful scenes together.

Perhaps this is partly why Hitler wanted all of the art. By removing art, he not only took away peoples' identities, but he removed this unifying force. He wished to bring tens of thousands of art pieces to Germany, thereby uniting the art world in Germany, as he also strove to do geographically. In World War I, among many German atrocities were the complete destruction of many significant culture centers, including libraries and museums. In World War II, Hitler, the failed art school student, understood the importance of art. He did not wish it destroyed. So, unlike World War I, Germany stole art. Was this simply Hitler's selfish indulgence, or did he actually wish to leave peoples' identities in tact (at least while they were under German control)?

Near the end of the film, after Germany had surrendered and tens of thousands of works of art were recovered, one last threat remained. Much of the art was stashed in the Soviet-controlled part of Germany. The Soviets were seizing art as reparations, rather than returning it to where it came from as the Americans did. The war in Europe had ended and the Soviet Union was taking over, but the Monuments Men had just discovered the last, and most important, stash of art. In a highly-dramatized scene, the men rush to load the art into trucks as a Soviet convoy drives to the mine. It is a classic race-against-the-clock scene. The Soviets, stern-faced (with music to perfectly accompany their evil intentions), become the villains who wish to take the art for themselves, the art that belongs to all people. From the film's perspective, the Russians are little better than the Germans. This short scene evidences my own observations that the Cold War mentality still exists in the United States.

Decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the rift between the United States and Russia is still strong. Many films, such as Mission Impossible II (2000), The Sum of All Fears (2002), Quantum of Solace (2008), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) (as well as conservative media outlets) all show that the Cold War mentality is still prevalent. Even the recent Olympics, created to harmoniously bring together all nations, are not immune. President Obama sent three gay athletes to represent the U.S. at the games, simply to spite Putin. The hockey game between the U.S. and Russia was much more than just a game. The players represented their countries in a battle for superiority. T.J. Oshie was labeled a hero. Athletes are not labeled heroes often. The country rallied around Oshie and the hockey team in its victory over Russia, proving U.S. superiority. Even though the Cold War is decades past, the mentality continues, as the end of The Monuments Men shows. As the Soviet convoy arrives at the cave, a giant American flag awaits them. This provoked cheers from the audience.

One of the issues The Monuments Men tackles is whether these men were truly soldiers. Early in the film, the men land on the beaches of Normandy in a boat, just as American soldiers did many months before. Many of these shots are filmed similarly to the famous Saving Private Ryan (1998) Normandy scenes. However, when the men exit the boat, nothing is shooting at them. When they arrive on the beach, the landscape looks similar to Private Ryan, bare with barbed wire, but the bodies and the bullets are missing. The men meditate for a brief moment. Clearly, in this scene, the men feel insignificant compared with the thousands of soldiers who lost their lives on that very beach.

As the film progresses, the men find themselves in real danger, such as the “John Wayne” scene. Later, two of the men are killed, and, as Clooney's voiceover points out, the men prove they are real soldiers. The voiceover, thinly justified as briefing the President or talking to the men, is the film's major flaw. The Normandy scene perfectly shows their inadequacy as soldiers without voiceover, and the audience did not need the voiceover to understand that the men are truly soldiers when they begin to die for their cause. Interestingly, the men are not soldiers because they fight. No weapons are fired in the John Wayne scene. One man dies while fleeing a fight. The other fires his weapon to save a piece of art, but he is a poor shot and is killed. The men are soldiers because they put their lives on the line. One does not have to fight to be a soldier.

The John Wayne scene reminds us of something else: film is art. It is not simply part of our culture, but the most significant art form today, because films are widely appreciated far more than any other art form. Just as many paintings require more thoughtful consideration to appreciate, so does film. Critical response to The Monuments Men has been largely indifferent. Most feel that the film fails in its attempt to be both humorous and dramatic. There is some validity to these opinions, but there are some truly humorous moments, as well as some truly harrowing moments. The critics who have dismissed the film have failed to look deeper than the surface. They fail to look at film as art, only considering the entertainment value. Film critics represent the widespread depreciation of appreciation for art throughout our entire society. One of the wonders of film is that it is simultaneously art and entertainment. A deeper look into The Monuments Men reveals a unique film that, while flawed, is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Saturday, February 15, 2014


The Technological Erosion of Human Relationships

A Review of Her

By Daniel Carstens

Valentine's Day. I put the kids to bed and sat down to watch a movie. I had not been able to catch Her when it was in the theater, and my desire to watch all of the Best Picture nominees required me to download a bootleg. Going in, all I knew about the film was that Joaquin Phoenix played the lead role (which was extremely unusual, I knew at least the premise of all the other Best Picture nominees prior to watching). So, on Valentine's Day evening, I curled up in bed with my laptop and watched Her. I had no idea how ironic this was.

Her is set in the not-too-distant future. Theodore (Phoenix) works for a website that writes “handwritten” letters for people. He writes other peoples' love letters. A new computer operating system is invented (called OS 1, not-so-subtly nodding to Apple), that thinks intelligently and independently. It adapts and evolves. It verbally communicates with the user. It's essentially Siri, able to actually think and evolve psychologically. Theodore has been separated from his wife for a year, but has been unable to move on emotionally and sign the divorce papers. He occasionally interacts with women, but it is clear that he is unable to have a normal human relationship. Theodore gets his new OS and gives it a female voice. Samantha (as she calls herself, and voiced by Scarlett Johansson) becomes emotionally attached to Theodore, and he reciprocates. They begin to “date,” and the audience later learns that the practice of dating an OS is becoming extremely common. They fall in love.

Naturally, problems arise, which I won't delve into, but all is not perfect in his relationship, yet he will not give it up. His long-time friend, Amy (Amy Adams, in the role she should have been Oscar-nominated for) leaves her husband, over a meaningless argument. It is soon clear (to the audience) that she and Theodore have an emotional connection, but Theodore is so engulfed in his relationship with Samantha, and Amy begins to grow fond of her OS, that the two do not even consider a real, human relationship.

The themes are clear. Our technology often prevents us from having real human relationships. A walk across a college campus evidences this. About one in ten students will be walking while staring at their cell phone. It would not be a stretch to say that half of students sitting alone are engrossed in their phones. How many potential relationships are thwarted by technology? We may connect with more people now via social networking, but the number of relationships that transcend status updates and texting are decreasing. There is a website that tells us how long we have spent on Facebook since its inception, and for many the figure is measured in weeks. Online dating has led to plenty of relationships, but it removes the pre-dating human interactions of asking people out (even striking out is still interaction). While we have not yet reached the stage of dating our computers, it is not far from feasibility. I know people who are addicted to technology. Constant phone-checking, even at extremely inappropriate times, is rampant. Actual dating of technology is not far-fetched. Her's power is its believability.

Theodore and Samantha do genuinely connect emotionally. The effect is far different than Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey, where intelligent computers that control our lives are to be feared. Writer/director Spike Jonze entices us with a relationship that is as genuine, perhaps more genuine, than most human relationships ever become. That is perhaps even more disturbing than Hal. If computers attempt to overpower us physically, we will fight back. When they overpower us emotionally, we don't even realize that anything is wrong. We still feel in control, even though the technology has overtaken us, to the detriment of our human relationships.

After the film ended, I realized the irony of my situation, watching Her while laying in bed with my laptop, on Valentine's Day nonetheless. And while having children gives me an excuse, it caused me to seriously ponder how technology interferes with my own human interactions. If texting and Facebook did not exist, would I make it a point to see my friends in person more often? If the technology for downloading movies to watch at home did not exist, would I have made it a point to see Her in the theater, around actual people? Would I have tried to get a babysitter and go out on Valentine's Day? If ebooks and online journal, newspaper, and magazine databases did not exist, would I visit the library more, around real people? What relationships have I missed out on because of technology? Her is a fantastic film that cannot be watched without causing one to question how technology has affected the human relationships in his/her life.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


The Beauty of Banality

A Review of Nebraska

By Daniel Carstens

Anyone who has driven through Nebraska would likely agree that it is one of the least eye-appealing states in the U.S.  Boring would be an appropriate term, which would describe more than the landscape for many people.  My apologies to Nebraskans.  So, a film entitled Nebraska will not likely entice people to flock to the theater.  Indeed, it is a film that depicts the banality of midwestern life: farming, small towns, and uninspiring jobs.  

In the film, Woody (Bruce Dern) is an elderly man who lives in Billings, Montana (only slightly more exciting than Nebraska, from the film’s perspective).  He is possibly in the early stages of Alzheimers, and believes he has won a million dollar sweepstakes.  His son, David (Will Forte), reads the letter, which is an obvious scam.  Woody often appears to be a bit incoherent, and he refuses to believe that he is not a millionaire.  He insists on traveling to Lincoln, Nebraska, where he is to pick up his winnings.  David eventually gives in, to make his father happy.

As the film progresses, the film suggests that Woody is perhaps not as senile as at first perceived, and that he might possibly realize that he is not winning any money.  It seems Woody is not really after money, but some excitement, a break from the monotony of his life in Montana.  The destiny of excitement?  Nebraska.  The film takes us through flat country and small towns.  Director Alexander Payne chooses to photograph particularly unexciting images: aged small town bars, dilapidated barns, intersections overhung with power lines, and flat, dull landscape.  Woody’s search for excitement brings him to a place even more dull than his home.  So why is he so hell-bent on going to boring Nebraska if he perhaps realizes that he is not a millionaire?  

Woody grew up in the small, Nebraska town of Hawthorne.  Much of his family still resides there, or in the surrounding farm land.  David and Woody stop in Hawthorne for a visit.  Though Woody insists that he wants to move on to Lincoln, time with the family keeps him from attempting to walk there alone, which he had multiple times before.  Woody and David venture into an old bar, where Woody’s old business partner (who Woody insists stole his air compressor) drinks with old friends.  Woody joins them, and tells them of his fortune.  Woody becomes the toast of the town.  

Though he did want the money to buy a truck and an air compressor, this is Woody’s excitement: returning home and seeing family and friends.  Even when he questions David’s desire to see his father’s childhood home and says he wants to move on to Lincoln, these are the only moments where Woody is content.  David had not been to Hawthorne since he was a boy.  Though it was only a day’s drive, Woody had hardly been home in decades.  As the end of life drew near, Woody simply wants to relive happier days past.  David realizes this, and buys Woody his air compressor that he will never use and his truck that he cannot drive (though David lets him creep down Hawthorne’s main street, just to show off).  As the number of elderly in our society are ever-increasing, the film encourages us to let them keep their dignity, and that the simple comforts of home are often enough to make them happy in their last years.

Few entirely black & white films have been produced by major studios in the last few decades.  Usually, the decision to go colorless results from the setting and subject matter of the film.  The Artist (2011) and Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) center around pre-color cinema and television, respectively, and the black & white was meant to aesthetically match the movies and television during the time they were set.  The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001) is a modern film noir, and the black & white gives the film a classic noir aesthetic.

Nebraska, however, is a modern film, set in current times.  Usually, such films in black & white are striving to emulate a style of film long ago, or just pretentiously artsy.  Nebraska is neither.  The black & white takes the boring images of Nebraska, the dull landscapes and the aged, small town buildings, and shows them to the audience from a new perspective.  Had the film been in color, the yellows and browns of the landscape and the old buildings would have been as utterly boring as one pictures when they think of Nebraska.  The black & white takes away the dull colors and allows us to see the true beauty of the images, resulting in striking photography.  The black & white enables us to see Nebraska through Woody’s eyes.  The banality of small-town, rural life is beautiful, even exciting, in its own way, that perhaps cannot be fully appreciated until one’s later years.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Lego Movie

Disney Business

A Review of The Lego Movie

By Daniel Carstens

“Everything is awesome.” It's the favorite song in the Lego world. In fact, it's the only song. It's the anthem of life. Everyone is happy with the mundane tasks of daily life. Everyone loves bad TV and overpriced coffee. Everything is awesome. The world depicted in the beginning of The Lego Movie is a bizarre mash-up of Idiocracy, Wall-E, and Communism. This world is ruled by President Business (Will Ferrell). Naturally, the Lego citizens love Business. Everything is awesome.

Of course, Business has an evil plot. His desire is to make the world perfect; at least, his view of perfection. He has imprisoned all master builders to rid the world of creativity. The remaining, ordinary citizens are happy to follow instructions in every aspect of life. However, there is a faction of rebel master builders who desire to free the world from Business' perfection. The group includes such extraordinary figures as Batman, Superman, Gandalf, Shaq, Michelangelo (the Ninja Turtle), and Abraham Lincoln. Yet, it is the most ordinary of figures, Emmet (Chris Pratt), who leads the group and saves the Lego world from Business' plot.

The Lego Movie tells the audience to be themselves, to be creative, to embrace what is special about themselves. It also tells the audience to question corporate America. Don't buy extremely overpriced coffee simply because everyone else does. Don't watch mindless sitcoms that are unfunny and rehash the same over-used jokes and plots. Question authority, especially those who act as if everything is awesome.

These are bold messages for a kids movie, especially when juxtaposed with the messages that Disney sends. Disney is exactly like President Business, trying to construct a perfect world where Disney pervades every aspect of life. Disney portrays itself as the unending source of magical joy and happiness, but this is a facade for the underlying corporate greed and an excuse to invade our entire lives. From printing Disney characters on newborn diapers supplied to hospitals to scooping up beloved film and comic book franchises, to owning major TV channels, theme parks, and cruise lines, to phone apps and endless merchandising, Disney is everywhere, telling us that everything is awesome if Disney is involved. Meanwhile, we pay significantly more for Disney stuff (every buy a Disney dvd or buy a ticket to Disney World?), just like the overpriced coffee. We watch anything Disney makes, even if it's an unimaginative sequel or spin-off (Planes 2!), like the “Where's My Pants?” sitcom in The Lego Movie that rehashes the same joke in every episode.

Consider the cornerstone of modern Disney films: The Toy Story franchise (with the fourth filmed as-yet unconfirmed but inevitable). The first film is a buddy story. The overt message is to trust in your friends. Who is your friend? Woody and Buzz are toys. It's a merchandising gold mine, not only because the film is about toys, but it explicitly tells us to trust in these toys. The toys are Andy's best friends. And, these particular toys, Woody and Buzz, are Disney creations. “You've Got a Friend in Me” is not just a nice song about friendship, it's an invitation from Disney, to trust (and buy into) Disney as much more than as entertainment, but as a friend, an important part of one's life.

Toys, à la Toy Story, allow for kids to use their imaginations, but in the manner that Disney wants them to. Legos, on the other hand, encourage kids to use their imaginations with few limits. Everyone who possessed an elaborate Lego set as a child knows that the sets were built to the instructions once or twice, then mixed with the other bricks to become new, one-of-a-kind creations. In the internet age, children need to be reminded to be creative. The Lego Movie is a wonderful encouragement of creativity, not only for kids, but adults as well. The film is also hilarious, even for adults. Milhouse from The Simpsons makes an appearance, as well as Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, and Shaquille O'Neal. These adult-oriented cameos, as well as smart dialogue and humor, assure that people of all ages can receive the film's messages. Everything is not awesome if a song, TV show, or company tells you so. Be creative! Draw, play music, or write. Make your own life awesome.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Captain Phillips

Captain Hanks

A Review of Captain Phillips

By Daniel Carstens
Captain Phillips begins with a portrait of the Phillips’ Vermont home.  This portrait is serene.  Dense woods provide a backdrop to the white, two-story house.  A gentle breeze gliding through the trees is the only movement.  This portrait is also sterile.  The trees are still bare during the dawn of the northeastern spring.  The day is overcast, filtering a pale, blue-grey light over the scene.  This single shot is the last moment of serenity in the film.  It is not the last moment of sterility.

Director Paul Greengrass is best-known for his Bourne films, and the uber-shaky, handheld camera cinematography.  For Captain Phillips, Greengrass tones down his signature style slightly.  There are no shots that are so shaky the picture is indiscernible, but nearly every medium and close up in the film is handheld, beginning with the shots of Phillips (Tom Hanks) and his wife.  This is a unique aesthetic choice.  We have grown accustomed to handheld action shots that accentuate the thrills of car chases and fights.  Usually, exposition and dialogue at the beginning of a film are static, camera-on-tripod shots.  In Captain Phillips, Greengrass uses the handheld camera to perfectly place the audience in the minds of Phillips and his wife.  The dialogue, while mundane, expresses the characters’ anxiety at Phillips’ upcoming trip around the horn of Africa.  They know the danger, and their unease is felt by the audience through the handheld camera, which is always subtly in motion, conveying the characters’ anxiety even before the audience knows exactly where Phillips is journeying.

The handheld shots continue as Phillips begins his journey captaining the freight ship.  Simple shots of dock workers and the ship’s innards are unstable, continuing to make the audience feel uneasy, anticipating the crisis to come.  Juxtaposed with these are wide shots of the shipyard and the ship casting off on its journey.  These massive shots, filmed in IMAX, provide a stark contrast to the handheld closeups of Phillips and the crew.  Still, they are usually filmed from a helicopter or fast-moving boat, so that even portraits of the ship on the vast ocean still have movement, continuing to make the audience feel uneasy.

The film has an interesting and unique visual style, to be sure.  But this style continues for over two hours, without letting up.  A few extended moments of a static camera peering out at the ocean would give a change of pace, like the serenity of the opening shot.  But they do not exist, and the result is that the film chugs along towards the end, like a freight train, only stopping when it reaches its destination.  The film is a half-hour too long, drawing out the lifeboat hostage situation for an hour and repeating quarrels between the pirate captain and his unstable accomplice.  Once the military entered the film with its machine-like, procedural handling of the situation, I really began to empathize with Phillips.  When they finally killed the pirates, I was almost as exhausted and relieved as he was.

Thankfully, after that moment, Hanks saves the film with his acting.  His performance in the last five minutes of Captain Phillips is among the most memorable of his career (and gives some validity to the outrage of his Oscar snubbing).  He finally shows real emotion in the film.  Previously, Hanks’ portrayal of Phillips is rather bland.  This is intentional, as it matches the character, who follows procedure and takes few chances.  His approach to handling the pirates is limited to encouraging them to take a break for some water to give his crew time to turn off the lights.  He leaves the bravery to his crew, who forcefully overtake one of the pirates and nearly diffuse the situation.  Phillips eventually gets desperate and takes action, but futilely, and when the military is already about to kill the pirates.  Phillips is not an extraordinary man, and likewise Captain Phillips is not an extraordinary film.  Phillips and the film both have their moments, but both are ultimately unspectacular.

Besides Greengrass’ aesthetic choices (particularly the handheld camera), the casting is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Captain Phillips.  The film’s title shows its focus, on the Captain himself, not on the crew or the situation.  Thus, a big star like Hanks is the perfect casting choice.  Hanks is the only star, surrounded by unrecognizable actors.  It makes the audience focus on Phillips, as the film does.  Hanks rewards the audience in the end, with more fantastic acting in five minutes than the entire cast in American Hustle, and ultimately saves the film, like the military saves Captain Phillips.