Category Archives: Late to the Party

Late to the Party: Ex Machina

Late to the Party: Ex Machina

Spoiler warning: right out of the gate, I have to tell you that I don’t know if there are spoilers here. I don’t lay scene out explicitly, but this piece also doesn’t shy away from detailing the contained philosophies. I guess be careful if you haven’t seen Ex Machina yet and want to.

I felt betrayed. I fell for her. Like, hard. Ava wasn’t just a female AI that Domhnall Gleeson’s Caleb Smith could (and would) love but one that anyone with a heart would.

Ex Machina asks a lot of intellectually overwhelming questions. It is, in fact, one of the most suffocating films I’ve seen in quite a long time. It poses problem after problem for the viewer to chew on all while shoving a compelling and meaty drama down your collapsing throat.

On occasion, it does so through parables, and well known ones at that. Caleb, for example, expresses the thought experiment of Mary’s Room to Ava in one of their sessions. It’s better known as the knowledge argument, created by Frank Jackson to counter the idea of physicalism, a view where everything in the universe is purely physical.

Caleb discusses it in the context of relating one of his AI classes to his talking to an artificial consciousness, but then flips it into a quandary for Ava herself to answer. Are her interactions something physical, something derived from a set of values being one instead of zero, or are they earned from being a true, experiential AI?

It’s an interesting question to pose to an artificial entity (one that the movie presents as an entirely real and thinking being just as you are and I am) and just as interesting of one to think about on your own. Strangely, though, it feels like a mechanical notion. Not just because we are dealing with a machine in Ava but that the question itself feels discrete.

Ex Machina

Perhaps it’s because it’s already a fully formed response to a question philosophers have been dealing with for years. And it’s one of many notions I would consider mechanical in this film. The questions it poses regarding a successful AI through the Turing test and that of personal boundaries through locked, physical ones and so on feel as though they are constructed and displayed.

But there are also a great deal more that feel…softer, more ambiguous. Oscar Isaac’s Nathan Bateman throws another consideration in the face of Caleb’s inquiry to Ava’s hardcoded sexuality: isn’t that the point of the interaction of two consciousnesses? It’s an extremely base and cynical view, but it’s still a valid one.

Otherwise, what drive is there? An exchange of knowledge? The original source would be more reliable. So then perhaps it’s curiosity. But to what end? That begs even more questions since curiosity doesn’t lead to a concrete benefit. Is curiosity ingrained into a conscious being or is it an affectation of some other dire need?

Ex Machina

The film even calls to light the idea of awareness. Caleb pokes at the testing framework for Ava, wondering if testing specifically for AI-like qualities makes it a reliable test. A chess-playing computer wouldn’t necessarily know it’s playing chess, just that given a situation, it would know how to respond via a set of positions and allowed moves.

So in testing an AI, you would need to test that it knows what it is, not just that it can do what that thing should do. But then it invites the delicious question of how to test that we are what we are. How do you test that a human is a sufficient human like an AI would be a sufficient AI? Is knowing that we are one good enough? We don’t even know what we are supposed to accomplish, unlike an AI.

I’m not even sure what to make of the ending. I don’t know if it’s more statement or question, even if it feels both like an answer and a query. It could be a statement on the strength of goals over the search of them, but the nature of the film itself seems far more question-oriented. It could be an investigation of means and ends, perhaps in regards to Ava as a means to an end and positing that means could have ends of their own far beyond yours.

Ex Machina

Like I said, Ex Machina is an overwhelming movie. Intellectually, emotionally, and so many other things in between does it force you to linger a little longer than you have before. It’s also a visually beautiful film with amazing performances, but it’s mental capacity for inquisition is simply far more stunning. From the implications of universal search to humanity out of machines to the simplicity of desires, it’s staggering.

I guess Mary wouldn’t know, though.

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Late to the Party: Black Mirror

Black Mirror

One slick trend that I approve of in modern television is smartly integrating technology into their narratives. BBC’s Sherlock, for instance, does a stellar job of showing how phones can be used to tell parallel stories and implicate heavier parts of them for drama. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. even kicks off the whole series with some timely references to how it disseminates information to the masses.

Those shows, though, rarely go beyond simply mirroring the functions of the real world. People text nowadays instead of sending emails and making calls, so that’s how it works in television. Granted, writers have learned to start using that sort of thing better and better (which Casey Johnston breaks down splendidly), but that’s very often where it stops. They just use it.

That’s where Black Mirror picks up, a British television series that dives into the minutiae of what makes technology’s twisted, symbiotic grasp on our lives so terrifying. Or at least what should make it terrifying if we ever stopped to think about it. And it’s very obvious creator Charlie Brooker, who also made Dead Set, has thought about it as he presents these self-contained short stories.

Black Mirror

As a satirist, Brooker takes our dependency and irrational love for technology to its horrifying logical conclusion. It’s not just that we use our phones at dinner or get our news from Twitter instead of actual news programs but that it has begun to infiltrate previously cordoned parts of our brain. It shows so spectacularly our collectively addled minds in the opening episode The National Anthem.

Spoiler Alert: from here on out, it’s very likely what I say will contain spoilers, major or not. The first two seasons of the show have just been added to Netflix, so if you have an account (and you are a human being, so I’m assuming you do), you should go watch it and then come back to finish reading so you can tell me how big of an idiot I am or whatever.

We have the “Facebook princess,” named so because she accepted a marriage proposal over Facebook, something that already happened way too many times to count as even news anymore. She’s also just a peach of a person, being a humanitarian and whatnot. But she’s been kidnapped, held ransom at the price of a Prime Minister’s dignity: he has to fuck a pig on live television.

Black Mirror

This introduction to Black Mirror is so intensely complex. There’s the whole idea that we, as a people, would be so perverse as to actually enjoy watching another person being forced to have sex with an animal to save another person’s life. But we also have an intimate look at the crumbling of a marriage as the Prime Minister’s wife simply can’t stand to look at him anymore, a tragedy that further encompasses a facade of happiness post-bestiality and the psychological trauma of the very act that did it.

And then there’s the bit about the journalistic hunt to pick up any news on the event in any way possible, which leads to a nearly botched rescue operation and a view at the withering integrity of both government and media. Brooker somehow turns an absolutely absurd and nearly comical situation into an incredibly sobering and realistic depiction of how we think and how we operate under the various guises of humanity being humane.

The second episode, Fifteen Million Merits, is perhaps the best of the first two seasons, and definitely bears a grotesque resemblance to our lives. (It bears mentioning that each episode has a completely different cast and setting with no overt sign that anything is connected.) In it, we find that nearly everyone in the world has been relegated to riding bikes to generate power to the world, an activity that also earns them the currency of Merits.

Black Mirror

Everything costs something. Toothpaste costs Merits. Food costs Merits. Skipping ads during a video game costs Merits. And boy are there ads. There are ads everywhere, and they are “tailored” to your habits. Our protagonist Bing Madsen, in fact, has a proclivity to watch a pornographic stream called “Wraith Babes,” so ads of women kissing each other will often plague his tiny, screen-covered square dorm room.

It is, actually, just screens. On every wall, you can see what they want you to see. Correction: you have to see what they want you to see, cutting off and warning and annoying you if you obstruct your view of the ads, a move eerily similar to how Spotify will pause ads if you mute or lower the sound.

Not everyone has this life, though. Some people escape by making it big on the talent show “Hot Shot,” an American Idol-type show where people try to make it onto a stream (read: channel) to escape the bike. It’s always either you take what they offer or you go back to the bike, a depressing existence of dark walls and petri dish food.

Black Mirror

Here, we have an exceptionally and disgustingly precise view of the world as we know it. The entire biking workforce has been subjected to gamification, earning Merits in nickels and dimes while walking past a giant leaderboard every morning. And then you spend it all back in nickels and dimes on digital hats and pants for you “Dopple,” a digital avatar not unlike the one on your Xbox Live account.

It is so striking because, as a person in the modern world, how likely is it that you will pick up your phone while you watch this show because it dings? And how often will it be an email asking you to sign up for a service? Or reminding you to log back in to something? Or just telling you that you can save %15 if you buy now?

It comments on something that is actively happening to you while you watch. Even the entirety of the arena for “Hot Shot” is formatted like that of 1 vs. 100 on Xbox 360, a memory hard to ignore as your Xbox One and Xbox 360 stare at you from your shelves and those Dopples wave back from your TV. The ad-driven economy of the workers, the inescapable necessity of grinding marketing, and a listless existence of snidely poking at everyone else’s decision to exist as well. It’s painful to accept that it’s all true.

Black Mirror

Even more piercing is the ending. The enumerating complaints that you nod along with as the episode goes on eventually gets spilled out in the way you’d hope: in the face of those most visible in the plight against those bikers. Yelling at the judges with a shard of glass at his neck, Bing erupts in articulate anger detailing how fucked up the framework of their lives is. And then, of course, he joins the corruption, choosing to host a weekly debasement of his fundamental beliefs so as to both not die and not go back to the bike.

That whole episode feels like a punch to the gut. It is poignant and twisted in a rare combination that I can’t say I’ve seen in years. The third episode lacks that same effect, mostly resigning itself to a superficial parable on living in the past and accepting people for who they are. But even then, it’s packed with such masterful storytelling and potent acting (not to mention a delicious premise of wholly accurate, controllable, and sharable memory) that it’s hard not to find it a compelling anyways.

The same goes for the rest of the second season. (I know they’re called series, but just let it go, okay?) The acting is just superb and the settings for the episodes are unbelievably well realized bits of science fiction and horror. Be Right Back, the first of the season, is emotionally impactful and has delectable notes of Her while White Bear, the second of the season, packs a devilish twist and skews close to parts of The Purge.

Black Mirror

The Waldo Moment, the season closer, is the weakest, bringing about somewhat misaligned attempts at jabbing at our half-assed political engagement. It has, once again, an interesting premise but fails to follow through on anything more than where we can see it heading in the first third of the episode. The best it provides is an aching sensation as we witness something one man creates being misappropriated for another man’s greed. Significant in its existence but not substantially explored in the story.

As a series, Black Mirror definitely stumbles every so often. Its quality wavers here and there and even dips into some mediocre territory at the end of season two, but it starts of with two absolutely unbelievable entries and continues to provide engrossing propositions of what-if. With stellar acting and topnotch production value shacking up with Brooker’s precise and pessimistic satirical mind, you have no reason not to watch.

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Late to the Party: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The idea of a S.H.I.E.L.D. series made me nervous. How could it not? The serialization of a sizable component of the Marvel Cinematic Universe could only ever be problematic. A television series nowadays survives on the ability to adjust both minutely and drastically according to viewer response each week. Movies, in contrast, are much more like monolithic, nigh immobile cruise ships. The two existing in the same narrative realm seems so star-crossed.

After watching the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on Netflix, though, I am convinced. Not that the entire series will work but rather that this season proved it can work. Here’s the quick summary of how it works: following the events of 2012’s The Avengers, we discover that Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) isn’t nearly as dead as we were lead to believe after being stabbed through the chest by Asgardian villain and Thor pseudo-brother Loki. Instead, he’s alive and well (sort of) and assembling a team.

To do what? That’s a very good question. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) more or less just gives him a giant plane to serve as a mobile base and tells him to take care of, um, things. The beginning parts of the series are, in a word, weak. The use of Gregg as Coulson and the guest star inclusion of Cobie Smulders as Agent Maria Hill certainly help lend an air of legitimacy and familiarity to something brand new, but suspicions are otherwise immediately raised.

The way the drama is ginned up between a hacktivist group called The Rising Tide and a mysteriously overpowered fellow feels far too much like another take on procedural mysteries like Supernatural or Fringe, which isn’t a bad thing but also doesn’t inspire much interest in continuing. Luckily, you can see the immediate Joss Whedon influences.

The surrounding cast is far more intriguing than the plot. Just the fact that two people are continually referred to as one via Fitz-Simmons—two intelligence experts played by Iain De Caestecker and Elizabeth Henstridge—is a quirky enough bonus to keep things fun and endearing. Not only that, but the acting is commensurate to the pace, which is to say brisk and confident. It strangely makes a story about a man about to explode far less interesting than the people involved.

Coulson and Gregg, though, offer an odd contrast. Gregg’s acting is…fine. It’s not bad but I do wish it was more consistent. Sometimes it feels like he’s a powerhouse holding back for moments of refined emotional release and other it feels like he just forgot how to talk like a human being. Coulson, however, soon becomes the bonding material for the series’ general intrigue.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Don’t forget that this man was, like, dead. All the way. How can you not be curious about how that happened? Unlike Fury’s death in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we actually saw Coulson die from a direct and fatal attack, so his revival is far more surprising. Whedon, though, is masterful at planting the seed and harvesting the crop. (Both Jed and Joss at this point.)

That’s really what this first season feels like—and also feels like Whedon rarely succeeds (commercially, anyways) at television. He loves the idea of liberally sprinkling seeds in your brain, watering them, and watching them grow. Coulson’s mysterious survival, the overlap with Thor: The Dark World, and the ominous outcome of The Winter Soldier. It all folds so nicely into one another precisely because of the efforts the show takes early on to put up a fascinating lattice that crumbles so beautifully.

A problem, however, is just how much the show depends on the films. A friend complained that it felt like early episodes were just biding time until the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s a sentiment I sincerely disagree with and one that I feel is a gross misunderstanding of a narrative foundation, but it does tangentially raise a point that an understanding of the mythos laid down by the other Marvel movies is basically required. Otherwise you wouldn’t care about Coulson’s resurrection and you wouldn’t feel the oppressive and uneasy shadow of Hydra coming up over the horizon. It takes away a large part of the impact when the show kicks it into high gear.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

It’s the smaller integrations with the encompassing universe that is problematic. Well, not problematic but certainly annoying. How many times can they mention Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff as the paragon of espionage? It doesn’t even count as fan service at that point. It’s just cloying. Pandering.

But the show does excel at exploring the smaller bits left by the wayside of the movies. Coulson’s love life—given up in a very Men in Black fashion—gets revisited in a compelling way. And there’s a satisfying reclamation of his death and rebirth. Even the closing bit is a great reminder of how well the show usurps assumptions and many conventions.

Each episode also ends with a tag, an end cap scene that incites further curiosity or merely provides closure. It feels very much like the films not because of the structure or the timing but because they actually achieve the same thing. It’s easy to just chop off each week’s story with a cliffhanger and let the tag just do what comes natural, but they very often come across as well engineered. The tags serve almost perfectly as a bridging epilogue and prologue to what you’ll see either immediately next or further down the road.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The seemingly high budget also can’t hurt. There is a lot of traveling around in this show, and even if there wasn’t, there was a lot of building or dressing sets to make them look like locations from all over the world. With the backing of the obviously and incredibly profitable Marvel and its further parent company Disney, it’s easy to see where the money can come from, and I’m grateful for it. The production value and ability to bring back direct characters and props from the hugely financed movies is a boon to the show.

For as good as it gets once the show finds its footing, it is a bit disappointing that it becomes ultimately predictable. Texting my friend as I watch it, I word-for-word say “I hope [redacted] doesn’t happen,” and then it happens. I even follow my concerns with the explanation that it would be too obvious to have this as a misdirect, and then it happens. It’s often that it’s never the true reason or outcome that is the reward but the further and deeper mysteries uncovered along the way. Of course, after Lost, we all know how that ends. (Poorly.)

I do, however, wholeheartedly believe that the first season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. is a winner. And from what I hear, the second season improves upon it. It’s just that it gets off to a shaky start just because of the higher aspirations for its narrative roadmap. Building a foundation is never fun when it has to happen quickly (and almost brutally on television), but the results simply have that much higher to climb because of it. Let’s hope it continues.

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Late to the Party: Edge of Tomorrow

Late to the Party: Edge of Tomorrow

Death doesn’t hold a lot of water in video games. It’s a leaky boat with you dumping out your liquid doom as fast as it’s coming in, but every once in a while, it pulls you under. But then it always comes right back up. Maybe a little worse for wear, but you’re floating either way. It’s only a matter of time, though, until you go back under.

MMOs can only thrive on this flow, such as it is (and they are). The corpse run is an idiomatic reference to the entirety of this surrealistic loop, dying and going back to loot your own shell of former existence. Some games now address this systemically and infuse its reasoning into a narrative impetus. Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor simply makes you an undying fusion of a wraith and a Ranger. Assassin’s Creed makes you a literal digital avatar of another digital avatar. NeverDead actually just made you an immortal.

But then this rise of Dark Souls-like games, where this loop is entirely vital to what makes the game work. There’s minimal consequence to death, but death comes often and swift. It’s the gradual slope to overcoming this brutalization that makes such games any sort of intriguing.

This is what makes Edge of Tomorrow so interesting. It takes the gamut of concepts from the industry regarding a live’s terminus and makes it all fit so well in a movie. In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise plays Major William Cage, a media relations officer in the US Army. Pretty normal save for the fact that the entire world is all but lost to an invading alien race known as Mimics.

The nations have banded together into the United Defense Force, but they’re fighting a losing battle. That is until a woman named Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a sergeant, proves that a new armored/mechanized exoskeleton is a proven weapon against the insanely fast and deadly Mimics. After being forced into combat for the first time in an all-or-nothing counter-invasion by the UDF, Cage falls after managing to take out one of a seemingly exotic species of Mimic.

Or rather, he only appears to die. He actually gets stuck in a time loop where he lives the same day over and over again, fighting and dying in the same mean and fatal combat each time but retaining every memory from every iteration. But with training from Vrataski, Cage improves. He eventually begins proficient in killing the enemy and is well on his way to forming a plan to defeating the Mimics once and for all.

Edge of Tomorrow

(Spoiler Alert: To further discuss what makes Edge of Tomorrow a success, I’m going to discuss its plot development, which includes elements of its ending. It may be all the way out of theatres by now, but it also only came out in May of this year, so heed this warning if you still want to watch it. (And you should.) Or just read on anyways. You’re a big kid. Make your own decisions.)

It turns out, though, that it’s due to a melding of the rare Mimic’s blood—an Alpha, actually—with Cage’s that forces him into this loop. And after sustaining a major injury, he receives a blood transfusion, which essentially removes his temporally confined existence but also removes humanity’s greatest weapon against figuring out how to beat the Mimics.

And that is where the genius comes in. For every moment prior, we are treated to nearly trivial representations of death. There are no life counters, no ticking tracker of one-ups counting down to a game over, and no punitive measures. It’s pure respawn. Counter to the likes of Borderlands deducting funds from your wallet for reviving you, you simply start over and try again.

Edge of Tomorrow

In fact, Edge of Tomorrow trains us to think that respawing is only ever a good thing, too. Cage learns to fight after only surviving his first outing for as long as he did through good luck and good hair. Vrataski, Cage, and their scientist buddy eventually discern the location of the Omega Mimic, the key to defeating the alien foe once and for all. We come to trade the cringes and laughs of Cage’s early fatalities for the knowing observation of his growth into a viable warrior and possible savior for Earth.

Then, when Cage loses this ability to revert each day’s activities, it becomes strikingly apparent what it means to die. The contrast is shocking, like jumping into a pool in fall. That crutch that the game taught us to lean us is suddenly gone, and every scratch on Cage’s face starts to look less like a reason to call it a casual wash and more like a reason to be scared.

When J Squad asks Cage what to do after they land/crash in Paris and he says he doesn’t know, that he’s never lived this day before, it hits home. It hits hard because it tickles a now-rarely touched or noticed part of your brain, the chunk that retains your days of playing Mario or Castlevania.

Edge of Tomorrow

Who hasn’t been in that exact same situation in one of those games? You’ve blasted through your health and your lives to get to the last boss. You managed to abuse your previous trial and error knowledge to cheat your way through hard bits and pieces, sacrificing resources where necessary. But now you’re at the end, the end that you’ve never seen or tried or even heard of.

And you can’t die now. Eat it and you might as well not pick up the game again, like, ever. This life has meaning. And as you get beaten down, back against a wall, you realize that all the lives that you had before meant just as much. You learned, you grew, and you made it here all through biting and clawing and fighting.

Edge of Tomorrow capitalizes on that notion so well. It expands just from the physiological improvement of Cage’s combat and the knowledge gained from understanding that the Omega has to be found and killed but also that Cage learns his love for Vrataski can blossom so quickly and irrevocably. It’s not a fluke, and neither is his success.

Edge of Tomorrow

It’s a delicious sentiment, especially in the context of video games. Our iterations have meaning beyond a number in a sequence. And Edge of Tomorrow lays it out so well through a wholly transformative and fulfilling intersection between films and video games.

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Late to the Party: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Late to the Party: Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

If you’ve been browsing the Xbox Video store, you might have noticed a new addition under the Featured section. It stands out quite prominently as the only Asian foreign film among the more recent Western releases, but more so as Stephen Chow’s latest attempt at a feature length piece. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons is a retelling of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West (also the basis for Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, one of my favorite games), but with Chow’s signature flair.

For those of you that don’t recognize the name, Chow is the man behind 2001’s Shaolin Soccer and 2004’s Golden Globe-nominated Kung Fu Hustle. And if you don’t recognize those two movies, then you really need to reprioritize your movie-watching. They’re both outlandish action comedies, the former about a Shaolin kung fu master playing soccer and the latter about two-bit thug being an unknown kung fu genius. Both are quite well known for being of a cartoonish nature.

Unsurprisingly, that is also one of the most striking features of Journey to the West. It doesn’t go quite as far as Kung Fu Hustle what with the knife-throwing and the Road Runner-esque chase sequences, but it certainly retains so much of what makes Chow’s films so easily identifiable. Especially held against the aesthetics of ancient, rustic Chinese villages, the sensibilities of modern action choreography and comedic cadences contrast quite nicely.

But even beyond that for Chow is his seemingly undeniable sense of heart. Everyone in this film takes up the part of some personable caricature—a dangerously skilled demon hunter with a propensity for schoolgirl crushes, a master swordsman who makes play he’s a prince (with less-than-ideal results), and so on—but they are so endearing for both their faults and their strengths.

For example, if you take our lead character Tang Sanzang (played by Wen Zhang), he’s a bumbling, oafish doofus of a demon hunter. He’s knowledgeable, but in the first instance we see of him doing his job, he attempts to sing a river demon to becoming nice. Not the worst plan considering how many fairy tales go, but given the very obvious lack of effect on the demon and the subsequent beating Sanzang receives, he should have gone a different route.

Then we see where this character truly is coming from once he returns to his master. He’s unsure of this tactic as well, but convinced and encouraged by his master to continue on. He must believe that there is good in these demons and that they are redeemable, even when he doesn’t believe in his own abilities. And then we see him soldier on into a den of demon shenanigans, still unwilling to compromise on his ideals.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Most affecting, though, is the relationship between Sanzang and rival demon hunter/love interest Miss Duan (played by Shu Qi). She is a talented hunter with a number of magical armaments that make her infinitely more effective than Sanzang. She’s serious and takes no guff when there’s a battle to be fought.

But she’s also weak to the idea of love, or at least weak to the idea of being loved. Try as she might, she can’t seem to get Sanzang to admit what she believes he feels, which she has roughly zero evidence to substantiate. But one elaborate plan after another lands her more and more in the grasp of some belief that their love is mutual.

While the specifics of these characters’ circumstances are rather unique and wholly improbable in modern times, the sentiment behind their actions is timeless. Chow not only has an ability to infuse humor in the strangest ways into the best possible situations, but he also manages to consistently distill the essence of human trials into outlandish yet relatable characters.

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

The only disappointing aspect of Journey to the West is that once again he seems to fall under the spell of deus ex machina. By some innate ability activated through a higher power, the final crisis is averted. It makes for an emotionally compelling climax to the film once again (see Kung Fu Hustle for reference), but upon reflection or with sufficient context of his other films, it comes across as a bit tired.

I’d like to see Chow try a more subdued, less divine intervention conclusion. He can do subtle, and he can do it well, even if he is known for going over the top and being ridiculous in every way imaginable. But Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons riles up a desire within me to see him tip the scales the other way, moving towards quiet and tempered over bombastic and spectacle. Still, though, it’s quite a good movie, and if you’re looking for a laugh and a warming smile to be left across your face, then give it a shot.

(Check it out on iTunes, Xbox Video, PlayStation Network, and On Demand.)

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Late to the Party: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Late to the Party: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

This might turn into a regular thing here. I’m not sure yet. But the point of it is to catch up on things that I and likely others had missed out on. They won’t be full-on reviews, but they will be deep considerations on the core of the subject, and today, it’s all about The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. Also, yes, there will be light spoilers. Nothing too serious, though.

I believe a great deal of what you get out of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is how much you identify with its themes. Mitty himself, a chronic daydreamer played by Ben Stiller and working as a negative assets manager in the last days of the print version of LIFE magazine, is someone nearly everyone can relate to. He’s at least not unhappy with his job, his superiors are dicks, and his love life is nonexistent, mostly for lack of trying.

But it’s not him the person that you are supposed to relate to. It’s a bit tricky considering how the movie opens. Mitty, recently signed up for eHarmony, is trying to send a Wink to a coworker that he has a crush on (played by Kristen Wiig). He sits there, finger hovering over his mouse, trying to will himself to click the button. And finally, through a moment of Fuck It, he jabs at it. Terror takes hold, regret, and…it fails. Then it fails again.

This, I suppose, sets up many people to believe that Mitty is the conduit through which we ally ourselves in this 2013 drama. Whether it’s taking a shot at the bar before you approach the guy or gal that has caught your eye or psyching yourself up before a big job interview, we’ve all experienced this moment. No matter what anyone says, nerves are universal. It’s just whether they get the best of you that makes a difference.

That scene, however, is deceptive. In that categorical consideration, we shift our perspective behind Mitty, shadowing him physically and emotionally for the next two hours. But the truth is that we should be standing behind Todd Maher, an eHarmony customer service representative Mitty calls shortly after he fails to send that first Wink.

Todd is the film’s equivalent of a Greek chorus. Detached from the actual proceedings of the movie’s narrative (for the most part, anyways), he simply comments on Mitty and his life. Mitty’s eHarmony profile is blank. He has nothing to contribute to his Been There, Done That section. He can’t even muster up the courage to ask out a girl he sees every day, opting to throw in an online proxy between them and his self-determined rejection.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Todd sees all of this and cuts right through it. How can someone, as old as Mitty is, not have anything noteworthy to contribute to his own, self-promoting dating profile? How can someone never been somewhere or done anything? How can someone not be willing to take a chance on something they want so badly?

In that last question, we find the true heart of The Secret Life. As determined as some people are to make this out as an ode to the triumph of the human heart, that love and will can guide you through the sea and storm—a real “Just Do It” ad as Variety’s Peter Debruge puts it—the movie is actually about the other half of that equation. It’s about the people that see the possibility and don’t do anything about it, not the ones that go the way of Mitty and jump out of helicopters and escape volcanoes.

It’s because we are Todd. That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Todd is a happy man working a decent job and making new friends like Mitty all (or at least some) of the time. But Todd is also never going to do the things Mitty does. We see and we observe just like Todd. We make the same comments and ask the same questions, and just like Todd, we stop the train there.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Only tangentially are we connected to this meaty story. It can be a depressing notion, but it’s one that eventually everyone accepts. Every step along the way Mitty was set up for failure, and not just in the conventional sense. Had LIFE not been going down the toilet and forced to transition to an online entity, he would never had to engage in the first steps of this adventure. He could have died at the hands of the helicopter pilot, or the volcano, or in the Himalayas.

We would have. We would have gone down so easily because the absolute core of the film is that Todd wouldn’t have made it. He couldn’t have fended off the shark or skated down that long, winding Icelandic road. And in our case, it wouldn’t matter either. Sometimes we simply aren’t the heroes of the story. We often play the bit roles, supporting others as they accomplish their goals. Your existence, in the majority of its moments, is nothing more than an extra on set.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, however, encourages you to be okay with that. Or at least shows that there’s nothing wrong with it. Todd is a great guy, but he doesn’t have what it takes to be Mitty because this story is about Mitty. We just see what he does, and all we can do is cheer him on. And that is a pretty good time any way you slice it.

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