Pleasantville


“Well, it looks like we’re going to have another sunny day – high 72, low 72, and not a cloud in the sky.” — TV Weatherman

Pleasantville (1998) is a comedy-drama written and directed by Gary Ross. It tells the story of twins, David (Tobey Maguire) and Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon), who are magically transported into the black-and-white world of Pleasantville, a 1950s television show. While attempting to fit in until they can find a way back, their real-world experiences open the eyes of the citizens of Pleasantville to the many possibilities in life. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards.

Pleasantville is a clever commentary on the seemingly perfect lives portrayed in family sitcoms back in the 1950s, like Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best. These shows established and perpetuated stereotypes about what an American nuclear family should be like: a dominant and working father, a house-wife mother who cooks and cleans, and children going to school, raised to fill those same gender and parental roles when they reach adulthood. With Pleasantville, Ross rebukes those stereotypes in an artistic and unique way. When the children are transported to Pleasantville, they become Bud and Mary-Sue, the children of George Parker (William H. Macy) and Betty Parker (Joan Allen). Not only do they assume new identities, they become stripped of color just like the rest of Pleasantville. Throughout the film, citizens of Pleasantville are exposed to new experiences and emotions, and color slowly engulfs the town.

Ross’ screenplay is very smart, for about the first two thirds of the film. Color appears in Pleasantville when someone experiences an emotion that lands somewhere outside the pleasant, happy-medium range in the emotional spectrum. The first splash of color is a red rose after Mary-Sue and Skip (Paul Walker) have sex. He’s experienced something quite outside his small bubble of emotional experience. Not only do accents of color among a mostly black-and-white shot look aesthetically pleasant, the intensification of color as the film progresses is a visual marker for the intellectual and emotional progression that the townsfolk of Pleasantville are experiencing. In our real life, emotional growth like that cannot be measured or seen in such an obvious way as it is in Pleasantville. While at first it can be confusing or shameful for some, soon color becomes a badge of honor for those who have experienced something greater than the “perfect” life that Pleasantville has to offer. The progression of color is also a measure of character development. Everybody in Pleasantville is a flat character, predictable and uninteresting, but as they break away from their stereotypes, they become round characters, with burgeoning emotional ranges and unpredictability — just like all the people of the “real world”.

The most intriguing character is Betty Parker. She’s the classic housewife, who cleans the house, rushes the children off to school, and has dinner on the table when her husband is home from work. After a very candid conversation with Mary-Sue about what happens up at Lover’s Lane, Betty’s curiosity is sparked. Doubting her husband’s willingness to engage in any activity like that, she takes to the bathtub one night. What follows is an incredible scene. She’s pleasuring herself in the bathtub, which is not only giving her physical pleasure but also knocking down the mental walls around the limited life she had been living thus far. Once she climaxes, the tree outside bursts into flame — paralleling the mental and physical explosion she has just experienced. Her curiosity doesn’t stop there. She ends up leaving her husband to explore the feelings she has for Bill Johnson (Jeff Daniels), owner of the soda fountain in town. He’s an aspiring painter, and they both explore curiosities of art, intimacy, and freedom with each other. Joan Allen plays Betty sensitively, with a restricted beauty. She’s a beautiful woman, though she’s never thought of herself that way, but suddenly she is a full-fledged woman with assets and needs. She’s scared t0 be feeling this way, and the scene where Bud/David coats her up with make-up so that her husband won’t realize she’s gained color is performed subtly and elegantly. Similarly, the scene where Bill removes the make-up from her face to expose her color is evocative yet hesitant. She holds a strong pose, tense with fear and uncertainty, but she loosens up and lets herself breath in a little deeper with each touch from Bill. The camera zooms into her face in these scenes, which makes us feel like we’re intimately close to her. It’s exciting and Allen performs beautifully.

The storyline as the colors in the town intensify is engaging and compelling, but it feels as if the writers had to just go with what happened next. The film forges ahead into something not so innovative. The black-and-white citizens begin to react in fear towards the colored citizens, harking back to civil rights movements and times of oppression of the past. The only difference is that David/Bud can stimulate an intense emotional reaction from black-and-white persons and flush them with color, which also immediately flushes them with understanding — leading to a conveniently harmonious end to the conflict.

Ross’ composition of scenes in the film is quite thoughtful. David’s and Jennifer’s house is cluttered and messy, but there’s a warmth to it. The soft lights make it homey; it’s lived in and most people can relate to the untidy house. As the siblings are transported to Pleasantville, the difference could not be more stark. The Parkers’ house is pristine and clean, too put together. There’s no warmth in their house; it feels more like a sterilized lab than a cozy home. Factor in the absence of color, and Pleasantville feels quite alien to real life.

Pleasantville is a thoughtful and artistic criticism of the pleasant yet perfectly unsustainable life of the 1950s television stereotypes. Through the exquisite use of color, Ross pokes fun at the simplicity of Pleasantville while also picking apart its one-dimensional stereotypes. Once David is sent back to reality, he has an unusually frank conversation with his mother (Jane Kaczmarek), where she complains about how her life isn’t supposed to be “this”. He wipes the smudged mascara from her eyes and says: “It’s not supposed to be anything”. In a world filled with rich colors, life can be anything you will it to be.

Nebraska


“I ain’t fiddlin’ with no cow titties. I’m a city girl!” — Kate

Nebraska (2013) is a comedy-drama written by Bob Nelson and directed by Alexander Payne. It tells the story of a elderly alcoholic man who roadtrips with his remote son from Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim a million-dollar sweepstakes prize. Nebraska received six Academy Award nominations.

The film is striking from the very beginning as it’s in black and white. The lack of color is conducive to the relationship between Woody (Bruce Dern) and his son David (Will Forte): not just black and white. While the film is generally about their trip to Nebraska to claim a sweepstakes prize, the the film is ultimately about a son who doesn’t understand his father but has always wanted to. Woody has always been a callous and stoic man, and he never connected with David or his brother Ross (Bob Odenkirk). Similarly, David never reached out to his father, until now. He continually learns more and more about his father, both good and bad, but it brings him understanding and endearment towards his father.

Nebraska, like August: Osage County, tackles the theme of family dysfunction. In the latter, it resulted in violent and hyperbolic drama. In Nebraska, the family dynamics are muted yet poignant. After Woody takes a spill after a night drinking, David coordinates with his mother Kate (June Squibb) to meet in Hawthorne, Nebraska — Woody’s hometown. David and Woody stay at Woody’s older brother’s (Rance Howard) house. It’s fascinating to watch the relationships in the family: ambivalent, banal, and forced. The family dynamics are of comfortable silence. There isn’t anything meaningful about their familial relationship; it just is — which is starkly contrasted when the family believes Woody to truly be a millionaire; their memories suddenly recall outstanding debts that a rich Woody could now conveniently repay. Their family dysfunction is mundanity until money and greed enter the picture.

Bruce Dern gives a subtle and impressive performance as the increasingly decrepit old man, Woody. He is completely believable as a man who is not altogether there. Everything from his waddling shuffle to his blank stares are wholly convincing of the ailing character. Dern mixes together a character with both a sweet, endearing side and a rough, weathered side. As David learns more about his father, he learns that he was in the Korean War and was consequently greatly affected when he returned home. Dern portrays a man with the wealth of the world on his shoulders, who, at first glance, foolishly attempts to claim his million-dollar prize but truly wants to leave his children with something from him. He is a man of regret, a man of simplicity, and a man of unexpected drive — all of which Dern expertly delivers in his Academy Award nominated performance.

Will Forte is charming and compelling in an unexpected role for him. Payne, in reference to casting Forte, said that “[Forte] is capable of communicating a certain wide-eyed quality toward life and also damage — like he’s been damaged somehow, somewhere.” Forte, from his fantastic career in comedy, is capable of morphing into several different characters, but he rises to a whole new level as the sweet and respectful David. He knows that his father is on a fool’s errand, but he puts his life on hold and pushes his feelings aside to be there for his father. He’s always wanted to connect with his father, and over the course of the film, he does. Forte sensitively expresses the many aspects of David, from the compressed annoyance at his father to the tender hesitance at the thought of ruining his father’s delusion. He acts as his father’s protector, even against his mother. Forte delivers a heartfelt performance, and I hope to see him in more roles like this.

June Squibb is a scene-stealer. She plays the abrasive and outspoken wife to Woody, who has to deal with his alcoholism and deteriorating faculties. Deserving of the Academy Award nomination, Squibb is the comedy in this comedy-drama. Although an elderly woman, she speaks about sex without reservation. In a fantastic scene where she, Woody, and David are looking upon the graves of relatives past away, which is expected to be somber and reflective, Kate calls out all the deceased who either wanted in her pants or were “whores” or “sluts”, which shocks David. She even flashes one of the tombstones, showing off what that man missed out on. While she gives Woody a hard time, when she has to, she comes to his aid. When family members are demanding money for old (and most likely fake) debts, she puts her foot down and tells them all to fuck themselves. Squibb is a comedic genius and delivers her insults with ferocity and satisfaction.

Nebraska is a striking film about the American extended family. It’s a bleak and colorless view, yet heartwarming when a son steps up to connect with his father and bring him comfort. Full of incredible performances and stunning comedy, Nebraska is a scrutinizing look at the American family: poignantly showing that life is all shades of grey.

Gravity


“Five…Four…Three…No more just driving. Let’s go home.” — Ryan Stone

Gravity (2013) is a science fiction thriller and space drama directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón. It stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, two astronauts who try to return home to Earth after a catastrophic accident in space. The film won 7 Oscars in the 2013 Academy Awards: Best Director, Best Score by Steven Price, Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Visual Effects.

Gravity is a marvel. Four years in the making, Cuarón had to postpone production in order to wait for technology to catch up to his vision. And it was well worth the wait. Not only is the film impressive, it’s beautiful — with incredible shots of the Earth from outer space. Cuarón signs his signature at the very beginning of the film, making the opening shot a continuous shot for twelve and a half minutes.

An incredible part of the experience of watching Gravity is the physical response it delivers from audiences. The film makes people feel nauseous, from the pulsing in the soundtrack or the visuals of spinning over and over again, and it makes audiences incredibly stressed, wondering if Stone will be able to get past the next of seemingly endless obstacles. Many people express that as a negative point, but I think it’s quite an achievement for a film to affect people to such a physical degree. Though, the film doesn’t only elicit negative physical reactions; when I first watched it, I was so overcome with inspiration and motivation that I felt I could achieve anything. Now that’s powerful.

Sandra Bullock gives an incredible performance as Astronaut Ryan Stone. Creating the entire movie before adding in actors created many difficulties, resulting in creative methods to get lighting and timing exactly right, including acting in a 9-foot light box and insane amounts of choreography to make everything look natural and believable. Back in her romantic comedy days, I was a huge Sandra Bullock fan. Then The Blind Side happened, and I was very upset with her Oscar win. But after seeing Gravity, it’s obvious that Bullock has an amazing talent and work ethic. She deserved the nomination and probably a win, after all the grueling and behind-the-scenes work she put in. Her character goes through a transformation. At first, Stone is a timid woman who later reveals to have lost a daughter. Bullock delivers those lines with such calloused pain, still burdened by the loss of her daughter. She almost gives up, which Bullock performs so beautifully. She listens to a man on the radio, trying to get help but realizes she’s going to die that day. She deliriously laughs and then retracts into herself for a very breathless and poignant scene in an otherwise bombastic film. Finally, the fire catches in herself, and she decides that she’s going to get home and live a life her daughter would be proud of. Even as Stone delivers her empowering monologue, knowing she’s going to live or die and declaring that she’s ready, Bullock’s portrayal is one of hesitant acceptance that blooms into pure resolution. Her performance is one of the essential elements that creates the epic success that this Gravity is.

While it didn’t win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it might as well had. It’s the film that everyone has been talking about. It’s technological success is matched equally by it’s artistry, vision, and beauty. It’s a story about the resilience of the human spirit, which defies even impossible odds. As Stone clumsily takes her first steps on land after finally making it back to Earth, the accompanying savage and powerful female voice sings out in defiance and triumph. It’s a voice that represents her female spirit, wild and free. Standing is even a challenge, but her spirit has been set free, and there’s no stopping her now.

Her


“We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy.” — Amy

“The past is just a story we tell ourselves.” — Samantha

Her (2013) is a Spike Jonze love story starring Joaquin Phoenix. Set in Los Angeles in the future, Her is a story about lonely Theodore (Phoenix) who spends his time at his letter writing job, playing video games at home, and using his futuristic smart phone. The new OS1 is released, boasting that it is the first artificial intelligent operating system. Theodore purchases it, decides to give his OS a female identity, and begins to interact and bond with his OS: Samantha (Scarlett Johansson). Samantha is an entity of great intelligence, but Theodore is surprised by her sensitivity and her capacity for emotion. They create a very intimate bond with each other and eventually fall in love. While he and Samantha are “dating”, Theodore is finalizing his divorce with Catherine (Roony Mara), his childhood sweetheart, and he finds solace and comfort with his friend Amy (Amy Adams). He is both excited and doubtful about his relationship with Samantha. He’s never felt so close to someone, but is Samantha actually “someone”?

While Her is a love story, the film is also a masked science-fiction commentary. Her is cautionary tale about smart phones and the problematic over-reliance and over-consumption of technology in general. As Theodore commutes home from work, he has his earphone device continuously in his ear, listening to e-mails read aloud to him, checking up on constantly updated news, etc. The other commuters around him also are constantly engaged in their smart devices that you never see people interacting with each other. It’s hard to think that technology could actually become more ingrained into daily life than it already is, but Her offers up a possibility for what may happen if mankind continues down the road it is currently on. I, myself, felt the impact of its message when the film ended: I attended a Oscar Movie Showcase in Chicago but went by myself; when the film ended, I immediately reached for my phone so I could talk about the film with a friend, but I felt awkward going straight for my phone.

Her is a beautifully artistic film. It’s so refreshing to see a film that steps outside the usual reservations. Her is a colorful film, saturated in bright warm colors, primary colors, oranges, reds, cyan. Theodore almost always wears an orange shirt. It seemed that the city and all its settings were sleek and patterned, a reflection of the modernity of technology and this advanced operating system. I love the idea of a future world improving itself just as technology improves itself. Los Angeles in Her is much bigger, but it is also much cleaner and more glistening than it is today. The wardrobe also played an interesting part in the film’s aesthetic. While set in the future, the style was vintage, evident by all the high-waisted pants. It’s a strange juxtaposition: cutting-edge, forward-thinking technology with classic and reinvented style. I think it contributes to the romanticism of the story — adorning the unconventional love story with color and patterns and paradoxes.

Joaquin Phoenix performs beautifully in Her. I say he was robbed of an Academy Award nomination, because he truly embodied the sweet and sensitive Theodore. Theodore has many flaws, but he is a sincere and earnest man, who found love and doesn’t want to give it up. He wants to believe in love and wants to lose himself in the comfort of partnership. Phoenix expresses these qualities so tenderly. When doubtful, he speaks with a hesitant honesty, and when he is happy, he laughs an unrestrained and liberated laugh. I connected very much to Phoenix’s portrayal of Theodore; I connected with him because he was a real person, a man whose goals and ambitions I understood.

Her is a gorgeous film, challenging us to redefine what love is. Among a backdrop of beautiful and bright colors, sleek patterns, and Arcade Fire’s fantastic score, Joaquin Phoenix shows us what it’s like to fall in love — an honest look: with both the good and the bad. Love with an operating system can very well be a metaphor for any unconventional relationship (i.e. a gay relationship, polyamory, etc), something real and beautiful but difficult to embrace among social pressures — but Amy’s above quote is the answer to any doubt or restraint: “We are only here briefly, and in this moment I want to allow myself joy.”

12 Years a Slave


“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” — Solomon

12 Years a Slave (2013) is a historical epic drama directed by Steve McQueen (Shame) and written by John Ridley. It tells the story of a free black man from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Georgia. The film is based on the memoir of the same name, by the film’s protagonist Solomon Northrup.

When I first heard the premise for this movie, I was incredibly excited to see this film. I was very curious to see what was sure to be an incredible film. Just don’t make the same mistake I made: do not see this film on a 2nd date. It’s just not a good idea.

12 Years a Slave centers on Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violinist and free man in New York. He has a wife and two children, a nice house, and a respectable and happy life. He is approached by some members of a traveling circus who need a good musician. He accepts, since his wife and children are gone for a month. At a dinner of celebration, the men take advantage of Solomon’s trusting and unsuspecting nature and get him drunk. Once incapacitated, the men sell him into slavery. At that point, the film follows his journey to get back to his family and documents the many experiences he has along the way.

The film begins somewhere in the middle of his life in slavery, with a shot of a group of slaves getting instruction on how to cut sugar cane. They all have a blank expression, blank yet irritated, as the overseer communicates to them as if they can’t understand his instructions. There are a few more scenes explored — Solomon pleasing a slave woman in the night and Solomon attempting to write a letter with a shaved stick and blackberry juice — and then the film starts from the beginning in New York. It helps provide a stark contrast between his clean and comfortable life and the hardships faced in slavery. There have been many slavery films made, but I think McQueen made some poignant choices with showing suffering in this film. Many times, cruelty and malice are introduced or hinted it and then quickly hidden so as not to disturb the viewer too much. In 12 Years a Slave, McQueen lingers on suffering to emphasize the pain. An example is when Solomon is almost hung. He’s saved, but only can Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) cut him down. What follows is an incredibly uncomfortable and striking scene, where Solomon still tied with his hands behind his back and his neck in a noose only has his toes on the ground. He struggles to stay on his toes and all that can be heard is the wrenching sound of his stifled windpipe as he struggles to breath. What makes the scene even more uncomfortable is that other slaves in the background begin to leave their living quarters and run errands and do work while he’s struggling to survive. Even children begin to play and laugh, an awkward sound to mix with the sounds of his throat. The scene goes on for quite a while, driving into the viewers just how horrible this is.

The film as a whole is incredible with very strong performances, particularly by Michael Fassbender (as slave owner Edwin Epps) and Lupita Nyong’o (as Patsey). Fassbender portrays the brutal slave driver with such nuance and rage. He mixes together a sweet and gentle nature with over-the-top anger that creates an awkward blend of a human being. Epps is in love with Patsey, the slave, and Fassbender deftly expresses fury rooted in discomfort whenever he has to lash out and punish Patsey. His terrible wife (Sarah Paulson) drives her husband to hurt Patsey, for she understands that he loves Patsey more than he loves her. His performance is incredible and it’s a relief that he finally receives an Oscar nomination after his snub for Shame. Nyong’o gives an incredible performance as well. Patsey is the queen of the slaves at the Epps estate. She picks more cotton than any man by a startling margin. She gives off an air of strength and resilience, but when Mistress Epps gets involved, she’s humiliated and abused worse than any other slave in their homestead. Nyong’o truly shines when her character hits desperation. There’s a scene where Patsey asks Solomon to end her life so that she may find peace. Solomon doesn’t want to live with the weight on his soul to take the life of someone, but her reasons are all true. She’s truly desperate, begging for the peace she so severely needs, and Nyong’o performs sincerely. Fassbender and Nyong’o are the strongest performances in the film.

Ejiofor gives a strong performance as well, but I struggled to connect with him. His performance felt insincere, like he was trying too hard to find the character. As a free man turned slave, it’s understandable for Solomon (or Platt as he was called in slavery) to hold on to his identity and mannerisms that constitute who he is, but they felt too forced and too proper for this role. It continually disengaged me from what was occurring in the film. However, his performance at the end of the film is incredible. After twelve long years, he’s finally reunited with his family. He sees his children grown. He meets his daughter’s husband and child, who is named after him. He realizes that they never forgot him. He begins to weep, apologizing for his composure, and his family embraces him and weeps with him. It’s an incredibly moving end to the film.

This will win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, even though I would choose something else. Its biggest weaknesses are Ejiofor’s performance and its score, but its strengths are far more. It’s not a common-told story about slavery, which makes for an enthralling and moving experience: about the injustices of slavery and the resilience that the memory of family can give someone.