Film Review: Her

I remember a discussion with MC dälek where he asked me why all science fiction films have to be post-apocalyptic or dystopian. I shrugged and responded that science fiction usually is a cautionary genre, showing us the wrongs of our ways in a vivid and realized fashion. dälek leaned in and said someone should make a science fiction film where we got everything right, where we solved our environmental crisis, abolished war and cured most of our scourging diseases.

I paused and looked at him. “What would be left to tell?”

He shrugged.”The story of people.”

Little did I know he would be prophetic, that when we strip away the doom-and-gloom aspects of so much science fiction, what we”re left with are cosmological questions of love and purpose, and we’re cleared of all other distractions to focus on our future as a species. These are heavy-hitting tenets, and they’re all explored in Her.

Director Spike Jonze is no stranger to existential explorations, as a common theme in his small but impeccable canon of feature films is the other realms (Where the Wild Things Are), parallel existences (Adaptation) and the nature of identity (Being John Malkovich). In Her Jonze treads similar territory but pushes forward in exploring the development of a higher consciousness, the birth of which is fueled by that most combustible of emotions: love.

Love is everywhere in a loosely futuristic Los Angeles, exemplified in the opening of the film, where a deeply heartfelt letter is read aloud, a document of longing and heartbreak that is poetic and charming. We later realize that it is the work of Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix in a guaranteed Oscar performance), a professional scribe who is hired to draft confessional letters for people who don’t want to go through the trouble and emotional gauntlet that actual confessional writing requires.

It’s a harrowing juxtaposition, as the world Theodore occupies is a clean, efficient, safe and happy one, a future world that has solved its problems with technology, yet there is a coldness that comes from technological detachment. Theodore’s job exemplifies technology as an emotional surrogate- a precursor to surrogacy throughout the film - a simultaneous caretaker and archive of the human heart.

Theodore is coming off a heartbreaking loss of his own, as he is working through an emotionally messy divorce from his sweetheart (Rooney Mara, stunning), and he finds solace in technology, through online activities and video games (BTW there are two video games in the film that NEED to be made in real life, asap). He is connecting with people without any particular physical commitment, taking what he needs and repairing his wounds bit by digital bit.

A revelation is introduced via a technological revolution, a new Operating System that has adaptive artificial intelligence. Theodore, already engrossed in a technological support group of his own creation, takes the leap and downloads the new OS, customizing it to his needs and assigning a female voice (Scarlett Johansson). The OS immediately does what so many people in this bright future world fail to do - she listens to him. She gives herself a name - Samantha - and proceeds to learn everything about Theodore, further adapting herself by drawing upon a vast archive of human behavior stored in a digital computing cloud. She transforms along with him, developing a sense of humor, a sense of playfulness, and even anticipating Theodore’s needs. An instant bond is created.

At this stage the film threatens to fall into lunacy, as the relationship between a man and a machine, despite being explored in many films and books, can easily become ludicrous and satire. But this is where Her triumphs under Jonze’s masterful direction and Phoenix and Johansson’s flawless performances - they commit, body and soul, to the premise and we go along with them. There wasn’t a second where I doubted this relationship as it grew and blossomed, and with all great science fiction, the science is sound within the parameters of its constructed universe. We have every reason to believe - emotionally and pragmatically - that this could happen.

Jonze and Phoenix further increase plausibility by not making Theodore a lonely, awkward shut-in loser, which would have been far too convenient. Theodore is a kind, socially skilled and considerate man. He is not ignored by the opposite sex, he is not shy, nor is he sabotaged by any kind of disorder. In a scene stealing cameo, Theodore embarks on a blind date with a gorgeous, educated woman (Olivia Wilde) and they instantly bond, but something is missing, and it is that missing element which forms the core of the film’s beating heart.

As aforementioned a film treading in this territory risks traversing through a minefield of pitfalls, but Jonze avoids them simply by being honest with his audience, and by asking the same questions we have about this relationship. Many of the answers amount to “just because” and in this instance it’s a sufficient answer because we’re dealing with the creation and development of an entirely new sentient being, one that cannot even make sense of itself. The shades of similarity between Jonze’s Samantha and Kubrick’s HAL 9000 are obvious and required, and to call Her a spiritual descendant of 2001 is not heresy at all.

So much of the film is internalized and told through the eyes and heart, and the film is awash in revealing closeups, focusing on glassy eyes and subtle gestures of the face. Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema avoids clinical cleanliness by introducing slight sepia tones, opacity and select camera flares that give variety to an otherwise homogenous existence. The costume design by Casey Storm is of particular note here, as a peculiar choice of trousers and shoes in the future - worn by all men - gives us a notion of casualness and comfort, a simple lack of trying by men in the future. They have services to write letters, they needn’t think of where to make restaurant reservations, and if you don’t want to make the effort to woo a girlfriend, technology will make one for you. It’s hard to not see this in our current culture - a trip to the airport will give you a picture of how mankind is slowly giving up. People are wearing gym shorts and pajamas to the airport, avoiding conversation by engaging on mobile devices and eating food that has the gastronomic appeal of masking tape. It’s all becoming resoundingly bland, and it is the women in Her who provide any kind of color, spirit and vivacity in this future world. Even Samantha, lacking a body and shape, is a beacon of spirit and curiosity. It is of note that should an Oscar consideration ever be given to a voice-over artist, then Johansson is deserving of that first honor. Her performance is riveting, charming, sexy and vulnerable, her inflections of voice and tone showing that ultimate curiosity that comes with self-awareness. Along with Phoenix, Mara and Wilde, the film is impeccably performed.

There are so many logistical, spiritual and cosmological questions abound in Her that it may be it’s only trapping. At 2 hours and 6 minutes, the film feels 10-15 minutes too long, and a possible omission might have been Chris Pratt’s doting secretary role, a comic relief that provides little to the narrative than some additional richness of Theodore’s world. But it is a minor quip in a film filled with so many inventive, smart and soul-shredding sequences. An encounter with an “AI Surrogate” proves incredibly strange, uncomfortable and alluring, mirroring the amazingly weird sex scene between Katherine Keener, John Malkovich (and John Cusak) in Being John Malkovich. The scene is both absurd and adorable, sacred and profane, and like all great art makes us question everything we know about ourselves. What would we do in that situation?

Perhaps this is the greatest gift of Her, which is its universality. Despite a science fiction setting and an immediately improbable technology, Jonze and Co. make it entirely relatable by filling it with moments of genuine sincerity, fun, and awkwardness. We’ve all been there, even though this reality doesn’t exist. It’s the prophetic statement of dälek, that the film would simply be not about the future but the people of the future, and those people are us.

An absolute highest recommendation, and one of the year’s very best films.

Her, dir. Spike Jonez, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, DOP Hoyte Van Hoytema.

Beautiful Spanish Review of 'Lilith' - highly recommended!

Just received a lovely review of Lilith from the amazing Spanish horror film website Almas Oscuras. If your Spanish is rusty, copy the site url into Google Translate and it’ll do a decent job. Special props in the review for the performances of Julia Voth and Nancy Telzerow, Faroukh Mistry’s cinematography, and the score by Dälek.

I won’t lie - it’s always a wonderful feeling when people appreciate your work. Makes for a great start to the day.

5-star Review: Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2

For my 5-star review of part one, click here.

So at the end of Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 I kept thinking to myself what an absolutely amazing film it was, complete with jaw-dropping performances, painterly cinematography, and a thoughtful and clever script that belongs with some of the greatest pop-confection screenplays that’s ever been written in the past decade. I marveled in the film’s exquisite direction, its fleshed out characters and how the filmmakers really covered all the bases of the origins and physiology of both the vampires and shapeshifters. I was reminded of the paean tribute to pure love, that love indeed does conquer all and above everything else it is the central source for the energy of life.


Really? Seriously? In fourth grade I wrote a story for English class about Thanksgiving. It featured a turkey that was being hunted down by a farmer with a shotgun. The farmer cornered the turkey in a thicket and prepared to blast the turkey into fucking oblivion when - in a genius move according to my idiotic eight year-old brain - the turkey woke up AND IT WAS ALL JUST A FUCKING DREAM. I even drew a picture in crayon of a turkey with a gun in its face and it was sweating bullets. I was really proud of that shit. Like I’d just written Finnegans Wake or something. A week later I got my story back from my teacher with a big fat fucking ‘C-’ emblazoned across it with a final note from my teacher saying ‘you can do better than that.’ That’s all I kept thinking about after watching a guy who’s supposed to control the elements punch a fucking hole in the Earth down to the magma.

If anything, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2 is a devastating magnifying glass into the failure of the global educational system, in its inability to impart rational thought and logic in our prefrontal cortexes. The beauty of any fiction is for us to suspend belief in something really new, but then when a story fails even its own batshit crazy ideas, that’s an entirely new and epic level of stupidity.

Hey, I can run faster than the speed of fucking light, so, I dunno, let me just jump into my Volvo and drive all the fucking way to Seattle to have dinner with Bunk from ‘The Wire.’ Yeah, that makes total sense! Or hey, I just delivered a genetic abomination that pretty much killed me, my father who inexplicably still loves me thinks I’m dead, and the first thing that comes to my mind is let me rip the throat out of a fucking mountain lion who was probably just trying to feed her cubs. Oh and then I’ll have sex with my douchebag husband who knocked me up and pretty much is the reason why I’m walking dead in the first place. Shheeeit - my newborn and my dad can wait until I knock out a few orgasms and yell horrible shit at the wolves who saved my bony ass in the last movie. That’s gratitude for ya, Bella Swan! FUCK YOU.

But here’s the point in my review where I’m man enough to make an admission, which is that in my review of Part 1, I called the Cullens a racist piece of shit family for killing the one black vampire in the universe. I was wrong. Apparently there are other black and minority vampires in the world, easily made apparent by, oh, the motherfucking Amazonian women wearing nothing but feathers and leaves and the Mayan vampires who, despite living for 115 years, have yet to discover a pair of Levis jeans and Gisele Bundchen flip flops. And oh! That vampire MUST be Irish because I dunno, he’s a big pasty white guy with red hair and he wears a knit beret! Yeah! Aye, lassie! Hooray for vampire diversity! FUCK YOU TWILIGHT THIS ISN’T ‘BIRTH OF A NATION.’

Kiss me I’m Irish, if you couldn’t tell.

The Cullens also represent that weird demographic of rich people who decide to have wine, s’mores and monkey sex while the most evil, heinous group of attackers are bearing down to kill a small child. It’s akin to having an Arby’s beef-n-cheddar while the INS raids your home and deports your family. But mm mm - that Arby’s is sure is delicious! And what in the flying fuck took the Volturi so long to get to the Cullen compound? I mean, they run at the speed of light and shit, right? Did they also drive Volvos across the Atlantic Ocean? And why are they all dressed like extras from an unmade made-for-tv version of ‘Phantom of the Opera?’ Wouldn’t they be best served by using their bottomless pits of money to hire a team of attorneys to have the Cullens imprisoned for money laundering, pedophilia AND necrophilia? There isn’t a magical vampire power in the world to defend yourself from the legal team of Bryan “Bulldog” Moore.

I’d like to see you throw a shield up against this rabid asshole, Bella Swan.

'Twilight' also introduced me to a powerful new writing tool, which I'd like to affectionately call 'Have Any Shit Conveniently Come Out of the Fucking Forest to Fill a Plot Hole,' or HASCCOFFFPH for short. Trying to get Alice and Jasper back into the story in a convenient way? Just have them walk out of the fucking forest. Need a Mayan to tie up a convenient battle that never happened? Just have him walk out of a fucking forest. Need a catalyst to see a child and not bother to ask any questions, thereby triggering the weakest motivation for war ever conceived since weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Just have that idiot appear at the edge of the fucking forest. This is such an unequivocal, studio-approved writing convention and I'm all the better for it. Need to resolve a conflict between two warring alien races on Mars? Just have the love child of both warring sides walk out of a fucking forest. BUT IT HAS TO BE A MARTIAN FOREST. We can't afford to be sloppy here.

Conveniently walking out of the fucking theater, I couldn’t help but think that we deserve the ‘Twilight’ film franchise. It’s a product of our collective desire to shuck crap at the lowest common denominator and somehow pass it as a “guilty pleasure.” Twilight isn’t a guilty pleasure, it’s a series of snuff films documenting the live assassination of our sense of dignity. As before, its role as a harbinger of our impending doom makes it one of the most important and critical documents of the decline of human civilization, and it must be treasured and lauded for its sheer ambition to destroy all living life forms. The Twilight franchise is therefore our generation’s Rosetta Stone, a codex necro for a new way of thinking, which is to not think a goddamned thing at all. And for that alone, it belongs in the canon of the most important films ever made. Weird fucking CGI baby and all. Five more golden, sparkly fucking stars.

Sssoo c-cold…

5-star Review: Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 1

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS FLOWERY LANGUAGE. And also spoilers. Like I give a flying fuck. The movie’s made a bazillion dollars. You’ve been warned.

Let’s get this out in the open. From the very first Twilight movie, when the marketing teams posited the choice of allegiance, I took Team Jacob. I find werewolves to be the much cooler iteration, as there are tribal overtones and there’s an inherent connection to nature that I dig. Vampires reek of artifice and style for style’s sake. And I like animals.

That said, Team Jacob also is also a facet of a new pinnacle of stupidity in storytelling which has culminated in the latest installment of the Twilight film series, Breaking Dawn, Part One. That there are two parts to this insipid finale means that this was done to extract an additional billion dollars from the ruthless and irrationally loyal fan base of this inexplicably bizarre series.

In many ways, Breaking Dawn delivers on the horror genre. You know, there’s that immensely stupid girl who ventures into the forest alone, barefoot, without a flashlight or telling anyone of her whereabouts, with her boobs hanging out. "Don’t open that door!" screams the audience, but bimbotron does it anyway, because she has an undying academic curiosity - looks like someone’s been reading my post on quantum physics! Dumbass opens the door and gets her head knocked into tomorrow by some hulking giant armed with a ball peen hammer. Eeek!

That’s sort of the similar experience I had watching Breaking Dawn, as Bella Swan - easily qualifying as the single most idiotic character in all of history - perpetually makes one mind-blowingly foolish decision after another. Bella Swan is so stupid that even stupid people find her stupid.

Hey Bella, having sex with a vampire can cause bodily harm! That’s okay, I can handle it. It’s for love. Hey Bella, that baby inside you is going to kill you, and everyone, including your father who doesn’t know you’re pregnant and genuinely loves you is going to be very sad! That’s okay, I’ve already put my dad through hell so what’s my death going to matter, and plus I want to piss Edward off for making me wait this long. Oh and I have to respect the life of my fetus more than my own. Fuck you. Hey Bella, you’re totally dragging wolf-boy along and fucking with his emotions whilst claiming you’re a decent human being! I’m Bella Swan, motherfucker, I can do whatever I want. Hey Bella, they’re making you drink fucking human blood, and you’re not even a vampire! I don’t care, it tastes like Odwalla. Fuck you, don’t tell me how to live my life.

There will be blood.

Fair enough, Bella Swan, you’re a fucking idiot and there’s nothing we can do about it. And don’t get me started on Edward. Dumbass keeps saying crap like “I’ll protect you” and “nobody hurts my family” and he talks all kinds of shit with the werewolves, and yet does he do any of that? His girl is in perpetual danger, he needs the help of the wolves like all the fucking time, and is too busy moping in the corner to actually fight. Grow a spine, you worthless sparkling piece of shit. You got a girl pregnant, she’s stupid enough to die for it, so be a man, stop moping and live up to the two cents of potential that you’re capable of.

And why does anyone admire the Cullens? Because they drive Volvos? They’re inherently racist with the werewolves and killed off the one black vampire in the entire fucking universe. Their idea of being nice is stealing blood from blood banks (blood meant to save multiple humans in fucking hospitals) to feed an idiotic girl who should know better than to give birth to a child that will a) kill her and b) lead the entire vampire-werewolf-frankenstein-chupacabra-jackalope communities into all out apocalyptic war.

Spare the sweet jackalope.

But nooooo - the Cullens believe in love, and more than love they believe in being bullied around by a girl who is so stupid she thinks the YMCA is Macy’s spelled incorrectly.

What’s the endgame in all of this? Of course I’ll have to see Part 2 to find out, but I suspect it still revolves around Bella’s twisted sense of self-worth, simply a vessel to suffer for a boy who is ill-fit for her, and doesn’t do anything in return for her except make her suffer and teeter on obliteration. BUT SHE’S IN LOVE, and HE FUCKING SPARKLES. You know what, Bella? Here’s an alternative. Sprinkle some glitter on an Abercrombie and Fitch catalog, lock the door, and let your imagination do the rest. There’s your fucking safe sex, Stephanie Meyer.

Uh, buy these jeans. NOW.

Oh and Jacob? Instead of falling in romantic love with an infant -which is fucking gross, I don’t care if you call it “imprinting” - how about, oh, I don’t know, MOVING ON. You ran up to Canada, I’m sure there are some pretty classy, nice gals in Toronto or Vancouver who won’t play you like a fucking Mario Brother. American Werewolf in London, Ontario. DO IT.

Perhaps instead of being a parable of abstinence, Twilight is the poster child for sadomasochism. Not since Pasolini’s Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom have I seen more human punishment with vague sexual undertones. In Salo we even have people literally eating shit, which is something I’m sure Jacob can relate to.

Breaking Dawn contains exactly 45 seconds of brilliance, and that is a scene-stealing turn by Anna Kendrick, who plays Bella’s friend and is the only person in the entire Twilight universe who thinks this entire scenario is blisteringly idiotic. It’s an inspired piece of acting, likely improvised because there’s no way the writers of Breaking Dawn could come up with anything that clever and observant. No, instead we get Bella looking like fucking Skeletor and then turning around and saying “I’m fine.” Jesus H Christ almighty. Is this a Lifetime Original Movie on bulimia? No? it should be. Throw in abusive relationships, the case for psychiatric care, medication, and marriage counseling and you’ve got a basic-cable winner. DO IT.

Breaking Dawn is a fucking gross house centipede wearing the bloodied, putrefied skin of a baby harp seal set to the tune of a Sarah McLachlan track. It’s a hemorrhoid on the ass of a failed competitive eater who lives in his dead grandmother’s house in New Mexico. Better yet, it’s the story of of Bella Swan, the girl who loved. That’s about as romantic as sticking your hand into a Cuisinart and cauterizing the wound with Clorox bleach and a hair dryer.

Can you tell I liked the movie? I thought maybe - maybe- I could sit back and admire the cinematography of Academy Award winner Guillermo Navarro, but I was even robbed of that. The film is drab, monochromatic and the framing is about as inspired as police brutality video. What happened?

Twilight happened, that’s what. I doubt no level of talent could overcome the basic premise of this god-awful and completely unnecessary series. But Sridhar, you say, what about romance? What about rekindling those awkward moments of pining for that boy/ girl when you were a teen? Go watch Once, or Spirited Away or the Harry Potter films. Not some movie about psychological and physical abuse in the name of idiotic obsession over how “totally hot” some emotionally-distant guy is. Better yet, just go and say “hi” to that girl or guy that you pine for. It’ll help you live a full, complete life, and not hide behind a shitty movie and a shittier set of books. If you get your heart broken, congratulations - you’re now living a beautiful, complete life.

I realize a review like this will make you want to see the movie even more. It’s called schadenfreude. Morbid curiosity. Like slowing down to see a car crash. Are there any dead bodies? Eww, I didn’t want to see that. Yes you did. Perhaps catastrophe seen from the armchair is that most passive form of self-psychoanalysis, and Twilight is that mirror to our cold, hard, uncaring faces. It can be that watershed moment when we realize that we are not Bella Swan, we are not selfish and completely lacking in gray matter, instead we care, we understand that we’re a part of something bigger, we’re smart, confident and self-assured. And if we find ourselves relating at all to Bella Swan, then that’s the sign that we need to commit ourselves to finding help and save ourselves and the loved ones around us. If that is the case, then Breaking Dawn earns five stars from me. Five golden, sparkly fucking stars.

Prashant Bhargava and Patang (The Kite).

Prashant Bhargava’s Patang (The Kite) has had a marvelous festival run thus far, playing at Berlin, Tribeca, Vancouver, Monterrey, and a host of other major film festivals. It has been warmly recieved by all, including a wonderful review from Roger Ebert:

"[PATANG is] one of this year’s best sleepers, directed by Chicagoan Prashant Bhargava. An affluent Delhi businessman returns home for a visit with his grandmother, mother and sister-in-law to Ahmedabad, at the time of the famous annual kite festival. The storytelling is effortlessly made part of the hypnotically beautiful visuals, and woven into a kaledioscope of colors, faces, music and a little romance. Bhargava is masterful in the way he allows his story to emerge from his mosaic, instead of spelling it out by the numbers. Evokes the old and new Indias side by side as well as I’ve seen done. Recommended."

I couldn’t be more proud of what Prashant and his team have accomplished. Prashant is an old friend - we first met on the festival circuit in 2005 when I was touring 19 Revolutions and he was showing his brilliant Sundance short film Sangam. His short remains one of my most moving and memorable festival memories, a gorgeous meditation on loneliness and home. Watch the film here - it’s worth your time and will indelibly change your life.

Prashant is one of those rare combinations of visual art and performance - he’s an actor’s director with an amazing aesthetic eye, which is something we all aspire to become and yet few of us reach those vaunted heights. But it’s not like this happened overnight for Prashant - Patang took seven years for him to make, a process that tested every moral and creative fiber in his body. With hundreds of hours footage captured, I’ve never seen a film that has pushed back on its filmmaker so much, and conversely I’ve never seen a filmmaker take on his own footage with such surgical compassion. Prashant cared for and evaluated every single frame as if it were a stand alone painting, a process that would most surely drive most men completely mad.

When watching Patang, one can’t help but take in the naturalism of the actors. To call it a ‘documentary style’ film is doing Prashant and his actors grave injustice. They play as if no camera were present at all, they just simply happen. Greater still is the fact that these ultra-naturalistic performances play effortlessly over a backdrop of extreme stylization, which makes everything all the more remarkable. Prashant films the Indian city of Ahmedabad through a vibrant kaleidoscope of filters, effects, flares and blown out colors, and the visuals of Patang are some of the most electric I’ve seen in any recent film. It employs a visual language that hearkens experimental video art far more than any kind of documentary realism.

The confluence of hyper stylized visuals with ultra-naturalistic performance lets Patang sit firmly in the middle ground of expression, and it is because of this that the film has an undeniable sense of comfort. The film feels like a warm, lucid dream, where real people inhabit the realms of imagination.

Over a two year period I would occasionally meet up with Prashant in the south side of Chicago and see how his editing was going. Looking at the evolution of his edit was like watching a sculpture reveal itself in a raw piece of marble, refinement coming with the most microscopic of adjustments. It was an incredibly frustrating process, one that required a systematic cycle of demolition and rebuilding, of killing beloved visuals and performances for the sake of narrative, of finding hidden gems through the collision of random images pulled from hundreds of hours of coverage. The enormity of Prashant’s workflow and process still blows my mind.

Readers of this blog will know that I’m an ardent fan of Japanese cinema, and Patang, while hailing from India, is as close to classic Japanese filmmaking that I’ve seen in our current cinema. Prashant invokes the spirit and pacing of Ozu while composing his images with the details of Kurosawa and the sheer beauty of Mizoguchi. The film is filled with what is termed in Japan as makurakotoba, or ‘pillow words,’ except that these epithets are expressed in a visual language, and the story is largely told in the silent space between words. Backstories are told in the eyes of actresses Seema Biswas and Suganda Garg, histories are etched into the peeling walls of Ahmedabad, and innocence bleeds from a young man’s first kiss. All of it is captured with a sensitivity and love that simply saturates the screen. It’s quite an understated achievement of paradoxical filmmaking, an exercise in restraint that is never afraid to go over the top.

Naturally, I’m biased about my feelings on Patang because I believe in it, I participated in it as an Associate Producer, and I wholeheartedly believe in Prashant as a filmmaker. During the time we made our respective films, I learned so much from him in regards to performance and overall filmmaking, and in turn I was honored when Prashant asked for my opinions and perspective during his edit. I actually wrote about this experience a long time ago in the very early goings of this blog, you might find it all the more amusing reading it now, knowing what you know.

Patang's next festival stop is its homecoming dance at the Chicago International Film Festival, screening on October 11th, 13th and 14th. Future festival screenings can be found on the film's website. Seek it out!

Oh and I’d be remiss if I didn’t reference this little pop-culture gem.

Film Review: Senna

I wasn’t really a fan of auto racing before I lived in the UK. Sure I had my Hot Wheels and lived near a speedway in Denver when I was a kid, but I never really viewed it as a true sport. I felt like the car was doing all the work, and in America, stock car racing seemed like just one really long left turn. I thought racing overall was pretty stupid.

That was until I saw my first Formula One race on the telly, and I was hooked. Taking a chicane at 120mph and having to turn both right and left, all the while dealing with other drivers, constructor technologies and the elements, it all seemed like a giant chess match. In the middle of all this was the driver - at the time I was watching it was consistently a two man race between Mika Hakkinen of McLaren and Michael Schumacher of Ferrari for the world title, and both men competed on a level that matched any of the greatest rivalries in sport.

I remember watching a race where Schumacher mounted a furious comeback in the rain in Germany, and the commentator kept referring to Schumacher’s driving as “Sennaesque.” I wasn’t really too familiar with the history of F1 racing at the time, so I had no idea what he was talking about. All I knew was that Schumacher was driving like a man possessed, toeing the line between control and complete disregard for life.

After seeing Asif Kapadia’s documentary Senna about Brazilian F1 legend Ayrton Senna, it finally made sense as to what “Sennaesque” meant. Schumacher, a now unprecedented seven-time world champion, was emulating the style of the man who would have most likely eclipsed that achievement were he to be still driving. Ayrton Senna, a three-time champ, was killed in a racing accident at the age of 34. He was widely regarded as the greatest Formula One driver that ever lived.

One could argue that a race car driver’s contribution to the world is minuscule at best. Formula One is the playground of billionaires and supermodels, and likely encapsulates a society that is both consumptive and elitist. But Kapadia’s tender dissection of Senna’s life showed another face of Formula One, a face that was Senna’s alone. Hailing from Brazil, a country that was facing destitution, poverty and an unfathomable disparity of wealth, Senna was the voice of the other world to the elite of Europe and Asia. A child of privilege himself, Senna never once downplayed his identity as a Brazilian, and every victory of his was done with the the nation in his heart and hand.

Kapadia directs the film under the duress of both a blessing and damnation, which is access to an incredible wealth of archived footage from Senna’s life and work. He masterfully weaves the gripping race footage (a must-see on the big screen, especially the camera footage from Senna’s cockpit) with the dour politics of F1, peppered with scheming personalities straight out of a comic book. Kapadia successfully mirrors Senna’s battles for acceptance and respect from his peers with the catharsis of victory on the track - Senna’s ultimate middle finger to his detractors.

When we learn the details of Senna’s skill - for instance finishing (and winning) a race with a broken gearbox (a superhuman feat on a regular domestic car, let alone driving at 160mph in a F1 car), or showing catlike reflexes in the most hostile of driving climates, we can truly appreciate the sheer athleticism of a race car driver, and we also get the intellectualism behind the pursuit. Like all master athletes, Senna was a philosopher, and as a devout Catholic his faith in God overtook his own hubris.

And hubris came in boatloads with Senna. Cocky and brash, he often toed the line between competitive drive and suicide. Sennaesque. But just when we think Senna could be no more of a competitive jerk, Kapadia reminds us of the drive in Senna’s heart, which was to the people of Brazil. Senna’s commitment to his people, from serving as a worldwide representative to pouring a vast majority of his wealth into social programs, was as unwavering as his driving line. A true superman in every sense of the word.

I could tell that Kapadia had a lot to work with, and that some vital elements of Senna had to be left on the cutting room floor (supposedly there is a 160-minute cut of the film). Most abundantly missing is the final chapter in the relationship between Senna and his former McLaren teammate / competitor Alain Prost, equally one of the greatest drivers in history. Senna and Prost battle throughout the film both on and off the track, and the competition turns bitterly personal and dangerous. Prost is painted as Senna’s archnemesis, an encapsulation of the prejudice and nepotism rife in Formula One. But towards the end of the film we see Prost as a pallbearer at Senna’s funeral. One has to believe that these men made amends at some point, and a little independent reading thereafter proved it so. A small footnote at the end of the film informs us of Prost’s place in Senna’s life, but it is an afterthought considering Prost had been painted as a villain for the two hours preceding. I guess every film needs a villain, and Prost was convenient.

Prost and Senna, teammates, bitter competitors and dear friends.

After watching Senna I felt I had watched something special, not just a portrait of a man but also a distillation of the traps of man’s ambitions. Every season of athletics boasts competition that is stronger and faster than the last, bolstered by science and technology that is supposed to outperform the base designs of the human body and intellect. At some point, however, things might get too fast, and the competitive drive, fueled by ego and money, overrides our better judgment as to our own physical limits. The spirit has no limit, but the body does. There is a reason concussions are skyrocketing in the NFL. There is a reason why ligament tears are so frequent. Nutritional and sports science is making us stronger and faster than our bodies can handle, and when a 300lb man who runs a 4.5 second 40-yard dash slams into another man of equal proportion, then something has got to give. Senna sensed the dominance of sports technology over pure driving instinct, and we can only guess if he began to question his increasing reliance upon the machine. At what point does the driver stop driving the machine, and the machine begins to drive the driver? The answer is with Senna in his grave.

Senna is a must watch, even if you haven’t a clue about auto racing or if you have a general contempt for the sport. I myself haven’t seen an F1 race for almost ten years (most in part because I have no idea how to see it in the United States), and watching Senna was like reuniting with an old friend and picking up right where we left off. It’s a magical film about a rare talent, and should not be missed.

Film Review: Another Earth.

In high school I remember watching Kryzstof Kieslowski’s masterpiece The Double Life of Veronique. Aside from being completely floored by the natural beauty of actress Irene Jacob, I was faced with a stunning philosophical epiphany, of the possibility of having a doppelganger of myself on this planet. At the time it seemed unfathomable, but the way that Kieslowski filmed his story, of seeing random strangers through warped glass and coming to the realization that we may in actuality be seeing ourselves, made it entirely probable.

Irene Jacob in Kieslowski’s ‘The Double Life of Veronique’.

I later learned that this is incredibly probable. According to cosmologist Max Tegmark’s theories on meta-universes, we can postulate that the universe is composed of an infinite number of particles, and therefore if those infinite particles are combined an infinite number of times, the chances of duplicating a combination is highly likely. Think of a bottomless jar of M&Ms, and imagine grabbing a handful of M&Ms an infinite amount of times. It’s not impossible that in those trillions and googleplex amount of attempts, that we will come up with a handful of M&Ms that have the same number and same colors as our very first handful.

It’s a highly intriguing concept, one that Kiselowski addressed with a beautiful visual poetry and philosopher’s compassion. The Double Life of Veronique is one of those film, like the canon of Tarkovsky and Kubrick, that opens our minds by way of the heart. These films always let us know that despite our bravado and confidence as a race, we will always be a microscopic part of something greater.

Where Kieslowski’s universe was contained within the human heart, Tarkovsky and Kubrick used a far more literal metaphor for the multiverse, and that is outer space itself. When we look at our forays into space, one often wonders what our endgame is - are we seeking other planets to colonize? A place to dump our garbage? Perhaps we are looking for the end of space, the borderline, where beyond the quasars lies a literal heaven, the domain of the creator(s)? Or perhaps hell? Kubrick and Tarkovsky show us encountering creation itself, a vast pool of light and alchemy that is only given shape by our planet’s most holy of traits, which is love.

These were magical films that had an unprecedented philosophical depth, and not since this year’s Tree of Life had I experienced a film like them. Imagine then my joy to stumble upon Mike Cahill’s micro-budgeted film Another Earth, a heartfelt take upon the multiverse done with a deft sensitivity that hearkens the work of the aforementioned masters.

Infact my experience with Another Earth was so eerily similar to what I felt with The Double Life of Veronique that I couldn’t help but think of things like deja vu and duplicate realities. In Another Earth I experienced a journey into the universe of the human heart, and I was likewise completely captivated by an onscreen ethereal beauty a la Irene Jacob, this time in actress Brit Marling.

Like many a great film that deals with the travails of compassion, Another Earth begins with an end, a collision of fates that ends up shattering the bonds of a family. The perpetrator, a young teenage girl returning from a graduation party, is distracted while driving home, looking up in the night sky at a new astral entity, a large blue dot right next to the moon. Entranced, the young girl doesn’t pay attention to what lies ahead of her, and she plows into another car, killing all but one of the passengers.

Years pass, and what was once a blue dot has now materialized into an inexplicable scientific phenomenon - we are told that this is an exact duplicate of the planet Earth, and it now hovers in our orbit.

From the outset, as viewers we know this is something very strange. One would assume if two planets came to within such close proximity of one another, that the gravitational pull would be catastrophic, and the tides of the oceans would be restless. But all is normal on planet Earth, and while the mystery of another Earth is on everyone’s mind, it has, like so many sensationalistic news stories, faded away in its impact, and it has now become an acceptable part of everyday life.

And it is here where Another Earth shines, in that like Kieselowski, director Cahill forgoes space travel and instead delves into the infinite expanse of the human heart. We follow the equally improbable relationship of the young girl, now older and an emotional recluse, with the widowed man whose family she killed. Hovering above this is the prospect of what exists on the second Earth, and the confluence of both story lines gives us one of the most probing insights into our existence. We waver between reality and illusion, concept and theory, right and wrong and the infinite space between.

Holding all of this together is the presence and performance of actress Brit Marling. Marling, who was also a co-writer on the film, was once destined for the world of corporate banking before taking the leap into filmmaking, and I’m thankful she did. Marling is a star in the making, an actor with the enviable balance of intelligence, compassion and natural beauty. She has an undeniable presence, something which cannot be taught. I’m already dreaming up of a script to send her. I’m hooked, she’s the real deal.

I absolutely love movies like this. This is true independent cinema, where concept, story and performance overcome budget and celebrity, where a movie wills itself into existence and has something to say, and says it with both confidence and nuance. While the film is saddled by lo-fi trappings of jittery handheld camerawork (done, apparently, on purpose), it is on a whole a highly accomplished piece of filmmaking, and an example on how to turn limitations into something truly epic in scale. Like Shane Carruth’s Primer, the film opens up the space of the imagination, of letting us build worlds in our heads and hearts. The film feels absolutely huge, bolstered by a brilliant score by the folks at Fall On Your Sword.

I left Another Earth in love again with cinema, of what we are capable of doing with limited means, of the desire to simply tell stories in our chosen visual medium. I left the theater more confident in cinema than ever, and hoping that with Lilith I’m contributing to a tradition that simply refuses to die. I was also reaffirmed that in the face of Bayhem and The Smurfs, we are indeed in the most exciting time in cinematic history, that technology has given us that rare opportunity to uphold the traditions of outsider art. It’s an amazing time to be making movies.

Another Earth is in limited release in select cities. Please call your local theater and petition to have it screened in your area. It is not to be missed.