The New Star Wars Trailer–A Cinematic Appreciation

The best thing about the new Star Wars teaser trailer is how thoroughly cinematic it is.  Most trailers, especially teaser trailers, are just a lazy mess of spotlighted clips.  This one, though, was clearly constructed with a specific narrative arc in mind.

It naturally falls into three acts:

Act I: Establishing character and setting

First we see Tatooine, then we see a hero.  The hero is tired, sweaty, and scared.  And alone.  That’s how we know he’s a hero, despite the Stormtrooper uniform–villains never appear so beleaguered in Act I.

The soccer ball droid reassures us that two big mainstays of the series are still present: innovation and whimsy.

The next shot reaffirms the first: a panicked, lone hero in a hurry.  No coincidence here: clearly, we’re meant to know that this film will show our new protagonists in a fractured, oppressed state, desperate to escape a threatening presence.  This, of course, is highlighted by the gravelly voiceover.

The fourth “scene” reaffirms the second: a reassurance here, not of innovation and whimsy, but of action and equipment.  Few series are so rooted in their weapons and vehicles as Star Wars, and this part of the trailer shows us J.J. Abrams doing what he did with Star Trek: preserving the bets of the old while updating its peripheral elements.

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More of Mill on Living Well

From chapter 5 of the autobiography…

On happiness through ignoring yourself:

The enjoyments of life (such was now my theory) are sufficient to make it a pleasant thing, when they are taken en passant, without being made a principal object. Once make them so, and they are immediately felt to be insufficient. They will not bear a scrutinizing examination. Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so. The only chance is to treat, not happiness, but some end external to it, as the purpose of life. Let your self-consciousness, your scrutiny, your self-interrogation, exhaust themselves on that; and if otherwise fortunately circumstanced you will inhale happiness with the air you breathe, without dwelling on it or thinking about it, without either forestalling it in imagination, or putting it to flight by fatal questioning. This theory now became the basis of my philosophy of life. And I still hold to it as the best theory for all those who have but a moderate degree of sensibility and of capacity for enjoyment, that is, for the great majority of mankind.

 

On music:

The only one of the imaginative arts in which I had from childhood taken great pleasure, was music; the best effect of which (and in this it surpasses perhaps every other art) consists in exciting enthusiasm; in winding up to a high pitch those feelings of an elevated kind which are already in the character, but to which this excitement gives a glow and a fervour, which, though transitory at its utmost height, is precious for sustaining them at other times. This effect of music I had often experienced; but like all my pleasurable susceptibilities it was suspended during the gloomy period. I had sought relief again and again from this quarter, but found none. After the tide had turned, and I was in process of recovery, I had been helped forward by music, but in a much less elevated manner. I at this time first became acquainted with Weber’s Oberon, and the extreme pleasure which I drew from its delicious melodies did me good, by showing me a source of pleasure to which I was as susceptible as ever.

 

On finding enjoyment in simple things:

Relieved from my ever present sense of irremediable wretchedness, I gradually found that the ordinary incidents of life could again give me some pleasure; that I could again find enjoyment, not intense, but sufficient for cheerfulness, in sunshine and sky, in books, in conversation, in public affairs; and that there was, once more, excitement, though of a moderate kind, in exerting myself for my opinions, and for the public good.

 

On poetry (and mountains):

This state of my thoughts and feelings made the fact of my reading Wordsworth for the first time (in the autumn of 1828), an important event in my life….   
  In the first place, these poems addressed themselves powerfully to one of the strongest of my pleasurable susceptibilities, the love of rural objects and natural scenery; to which I had been indebted not only for much of the pleasure of my life, but quite recently for relief from one of my longest relapses into depression. In this power of rural beauty over me, there was a foundation laid for taking pleasure in Wordsworth’s, poetry. the more so, as his scenery lies mostly among mountains, which, owing to my early Pyrenean excursion, were my ideal of natural beauty. But Wordsworth would never have had any great effect on me, if he had merely placed before me beautiful pictures of natural scenery. Scott does this still better than Wordsworth, and a very second-rate landscape does it more effectually than any poet. What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a Source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connexion with struggle of imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence. There have certainly been, even in our own age, greater poets than Wordsworth; but poetry of deeper and loftier feeling could not have done for me at that time what his did. I needed to be made to feel that there was real, permanent happiness in tranquil contemplation. Wordsworth taught me this, not only without turning away from, but with a greatly increased interest in the common feelings and common destiny of human beings. And the delight which these poems gave me, proved that with culture of this sort, there was nothing to dread from the most confirmed habit of analysis.
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My Favorite Hudson River School Paintings

Albert Bierstadt

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Park, c. 1868, Oakland Museum, Oakland, California

Yosemite Valley, Yosemite Park, c. 1868, Oakland Museum, Oakland, California

 

 

Frederic Edwin Church

A Country Home, 1854, Seattle Art Museum

A Country Home, 1854, Seattle Art Museum

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The LEGO Movie

Haven’t seen this one yet?  Definitely should.

The Lego Movie features voice talent from three of the best shows of the last ten years: Arrested Development (Will Arnett), Community (Alison Brie), and Parks and Recreation (Nick Offerman and Chris Pratt). It also stars Liam Neeson. Oh, and Morgan Freeman.

Lots of movies are about the importance of teamwork. Lots of movies are about the importance of individuality. Most of them aren’t even very good. But I don’t think there’s ever been a movie celebrating BOTH teamwork and individuality. And both themes are fully developed! That’s an impressive act of compositional acrobatics right there.

How Frozen Should Have Ended

For all the hyperbolic praise lavished on it and all the interpretive controversy surrounding it, here’s what I took away from finally seeing Disney’s Frozen last week: it’s very good, and decently thought provoking, but it is neither one to the degree that everyone says it is.

The animation and music are excellent, though not unusually so–Frozen is great in those ways, but it is not a masterpiece. For example, the symbolism of Elsa’s power is muted in vagueness–the simplest explanation of Elsa’s power is that she’s merely an introvert.

And this is where the characterization in the film went off track.  (Warning: spoilers ahead; on the off-chance that you’re even more out-of-the-loop than I and still haven’t seen it, the following may not make much sense, anyway.)

The whole concept of the film is that Elsa is different.  Hardly revolutionary stuff in storytelling, but the plot makes it clear that Elsa doesn’t have anything against people, but her nature makes it hard to be around them.  Her sister, on the other hand, is a social butterfly.

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Reviewed: Days of Heaven

I was interested in the work of Terrence Malick after seeing Tree of Life.  As I started watching his much earlier film Days of Heaven, I was at first reminded of Ron Howard’s Far and Away: young lovers brought together and separated by the the trials of pioneer life in an earlier American era, set against the gorgeous backdrops of that unsullied wilderness.

But where Howard’s movie was a fun bit of pop celluloid, Malick’s is art.

The style is wholly ambitious.  Not unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey in this sense, he uses dialogue sparsely, and constructs a deceptively simple plot.  Much of the film’s meaning is communicated symbolically through the physical environment on which the story is imposed.

Days of Heaven begins in fire: the furnaces of a factory and the violence that attends them.  After this prologue, we enter the paradise promised in the title; indeed, the story’s central act is truly a season of heaven on earth, one of those times in life where everything is perfect and you just lose yourself in the rapture of it all.

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“Beware of the Blob!”

Saw the old, original version of The Blob this weekend.  Three notes:

1. It’s surprisingly mediocre–not bad, but not great.

2. There’s a Criterion Collection edition.

3. The best part is the opening theme song, a catchy ditty by young Burt Bacharach.  It’s a perfect late 50’s tune.  Seriously, try getting this thing out of your head for the rest of the day!

God’s Art

The word “art” is related to words like “artifice” and “artificial,” which reminds us that art refers to things people create to represent beauty and other ideas.  All human art is, by definition, artificial.

But God’s art is natural.  A great example is below.  This is the photo used for the cover of the Ken Burns documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.  It’s a shot of Yosemite, California.  On our left is El Capitan, a vertical cliff well over half a mile high.  In the central distance is Half Dome rock.  On the left is Bridalveil fall, one of the most beautiful and popular falls in the U.S.

In this photo, mist covers the forest of the valley floor as the dawning sun first touches the highest points around it.

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The Art of J.R.R. Tolkien

This link collects some drawings by Tolkien.  They’re quite good.

Reminds me of when we were in Seattle last summer and we visited the EMP museum.  The fantasy wing had an exhibit of Tolkien’s manuscripts and drawings for Lord of the Rings.  Fascinating stuff, but taking pictures wasn’t allowed.

2013: My Year in Film

I got out of the habit of keeping track of what I watched last year.  I’m back in it, but for now, here are the first 12 movies I can remember seeing for the first time last year, in alphabetical order:

 

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

So much swashbuckling fun!  Actually saw this as a little kid, but couldn’t remember much about it; watched this with the fam now, and everybody loved it.  Errol Flynn is the perfect Robin Hood (“You speak treason!” “…Fluently.”)

Strange to contrast this with 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, a movie so bad I hadn’t bothered to see it again since then, and when I did this year, I thought it was even worse.  From the constant hero shots of Costner’s mullet, to the weird ways they contort their own screenplay to find excuses to use Morgan Freeman’s character, this is a sad, obvious bunch of clichés.  What a joke.  At least Alan Rickman knew enough to ham it up.

10/10 (the 1938 version!)

 

Babette’s Feast (Danish, 1987)

My main train of thought watching this was how different–and how much worse–this would have been as an American production.  In a Hollywood version, Babette would have been a sexy cougar whose metaphorically erotic orgy of food would have “liberated” all the “narrow-minded prudes” around her, freeing them all to “be who they really are.”

As it is, Babette’s Feast is far more subtle, realistic, and, therefore, moving.

8/10

 

Ikiru (Japanese, 1952)

Honestly, I didn’t see what the big deal about this Kurosawa classic was for most of the film.  Sure, it was poignant and beautiful, but not earth-shatteringly so.  Until the final act.  That daring bit of directorial bravado–where tipsy mourners at the protagonist’s wake review his final days, intercut with scenes of the great living in question–profoundly impressed me.  Genuinely insightful and impressive.

Another contrast with a hypothetical American version: in Hollywood, Watanabe would have had a love affair with Toyo in the second act, finding his passion for life in the arms of a young woman.  How sad that we’re so predictable.

10/10

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See Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter

Remembering legendary actor Peter O’Toole, everyone calls up his role in Lawrence of Arabia.  Rightfully so, as it may still be the screen’s most breathtaking epic.

But I’d suggest another work to cinephiles who would celebrate his legacy.

1968’s The Lion in Winter is one of my favorite classics.  O’Toole and Katharine Hepburn spend two hours flawlessly firing some of history’s most viciously barbed language at each other.  No movie before or since has had such deliciously venomous dialogue, and these titans of stage and screen relish every line with sadistic aplomb.  Cold blooded fun!