Actually, Arya and Sansa’s confrontation on ‘Game of Thrones’ was brilliant, heartbreaking, and full of lessons on feminism. Allow me to womansplain.

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After witnessing the tense, heated conversation between Stark sisters Sansa and Arya on last night’s episode of Game of Thrones (“Beyond the Wall”), I had only one thought:

That was the best scene in the entire show.

Don’t worry, I’ve softened my opinion after a night’s sleep. After all, there are too many contenders to count for that title – Daenerys burning down the patriarchy in Vaes Dothrak, Brienne and Arya’s scrimmage swordfight, Cersei’s Walk of Shame, Tommen’s tragic and silent death, Jon Snow punching Ramsay Bolton in the face again, and again, and again… and many more. The standout scenes on this show are memorable for a variety of reasons: some are shocking, some are satisfying, some are tender – and some are all three. There have been blips, of course (what even is the pacing in this season? Is time an illusion in Westeros?), but the show has always represented a paradigm of masterful storytelling. Not for nothing has Game of Thrones shattered Emmy Awards records and become a worldwide phenomenon over the past few years.

Scene-stealing dragons are great, but Game of Thrones has always thrived because of its character studies. Here is a patriarchal, medieval world of monarchies and magic, common folk and religion. How far would a woman go to secure for herself the power that her male family members and husband are awarded at birth? With whom would a calculating eunuch be willing to align in order to ensure that the next ruler of this world does the most possible good? What would it take for a spurned son to betray his entire family while following his conscience? And is it true that the good guy always gets beheaded finishes last?

For all of its accolades, Game of Thrones has also gotten a lot of flak for its depiction of female characters. With the exception of Sansa’s rape providing character development for a male character, I am honestly baffled by most of the criticism. Yes, the world of Westeros is far from a feminist utopia, and the cultural and socio-political attitudes actually reflect back on our real world much more than we’d like to admit. But that is exactly what makes the characters so engaging; that’s what makes their struggles so potent. After all, the tension between the ideal and the real is what gives our lives and actions meaning.  

Until the end of last season, Cersei cared about nothing but power and her children. (Now: just power?) The fact that Cersei is cruel and psychotic and wants to rule the world – a villainous personality usually reserved for men – but is also maternal and wants only the best for her children – a typically female personality – makes her a radically feminist character. Brienne and Arya are similar characters separated by a generation, but both have to contend with the way their dreams of becoming knights clash with society’s expectations of their roles as noblewomen. They, too, are feminist characters.

Women contain multitudes, and Game of Thrones does a fabulous job exploring these multitudes. And in my opinion, there is no more fascinating and complicated female character than that of Sansa Stark.

In brief, because this is an essay for another time (one that I hope to get paid for… any editors reading this?), Sansa was always a great character specifically because she was so unlikable. This assessment is partially a personal preference in that she was not the type of girl I would ever want to be, or even be friends with. Growing up in Winterfell, Sansa was vain, selfish, whiny, and privileged. She was content with the status quo, ready to live her life in comfort and ease, more than willing to conform to patriarchal plans for her future. For many of these reasons, Sansa is an objectively unlikable character as well; from a narrative standpoint, she served as a foil to rebellious Arya, the cool underdog that fans loved and rooted for. Arya is resourceful, athletic, determined, fierce, clever. Sansa is… pretty. Of course, this does not make Sansa any less worthy of life. And people like her certainly exist in our world. But to 21st century humans with progressive attitudes towards gender, her attitude is understandably antiquated, and therefore less relatable.

Arya and Sansa’s shared last name – and their shared gender – does not necessitate that their characters would ever see eye-to-eye or suddenly share the same values.

In their years apart, Arya and Sansa endure an immense amount of suffering. Both witnessed the murders of their family, and both thought, for a long time, that each was the last remaining Stark. Arya responded by training to become an assassin, fulfilling her dream of becoming a warrior. Sansa lived through physical abuse at the hands of Joffrey, emotional abuse from Cersei, unspeakable torment from Ramsay (including the infamous and controversial rape), and through an extended series of circumstances, she is now closer than ever to the dream future she imagined, as the Lady of Winterfell.

Arya and Sansa have always been very, very different – complete opposites, even – so their reunion at Winterfell this season was unsurprisingly awkward. Naturally, each was happy to see the other alive. But their shared last name – and their shared gender – does not, in any way, necessitate that their characters would ever see eye-to-eye or suddenly share the same values and dreams of the future. In fact, it would be poor writing, and reflect a poor understanding of the human psyche, if they did.

So, now that we’re all on the same page, let’s talk about that scene in “Beyond the Wall.”

We learned in the previous episode, “Eastwatch,” that Littlefinger (*shakes fist*) is trying to play the Stark sisters against each other, so he ensured that Arya would find the letter to Robb that Sansa was coerced into writing back when she was a Lannister hostage. The letter contains Sansa’s entreaty for Robb to come to King’s Landing and swear fealty to King Joffrey, while also denouncing Stark patriarch Ned as a traitor. Naturally, Arya was none-too-pleased to learn that Sansa had, in Arya’s eyes, so willingly “betrayed” her family. Sansa tried to explain that she was just “a child” – terrified and naive – and that although she didn’t have a “knife at her throat,” as Arya blithely suggests, she was threatened all the same. Her explanation falls on deaf ears.

The way I understand it, viewers of Game of Thrones are angry because of Arya’s utter lack of empathy for her sister’s situation. But people seem to be conflating Arya’s lack of empathy for the male showrunners’ lack of empathy. If you think every character represents their creators, I have news for you: this is fiction. So, yes, I very much doubt that Dan Weiss and David Benioff are toasting cups of Dornish wine, crowing: “Ha ha! Sansa sucks because she got raped and also she is a weak, boring woman!”

In the context of the show, though, Arya’s coldness makes total narrative sense. Are we not supposed to understand, given the way Arya slaughtered pretty much the entirety of House Frey, that she is now utterly unhinged? That Arya, driven to this point by grief and anger and the freedom she’s always desired, has become a vengeful and rage-fueled monster? Though she made that pivotal choice to set off for Winterfell rather than continuing her single-minded murder crusade, she is still a very, very angry young woman. Indeed, Sansa picks up on this (gee, what gave it away?) and tries to rationalize Arya’s harsh judgement of her by telling Arya: “Sometimes anger makes people do unfortunate things.” After taunting Sansa for being afraid, Arya shoots right back at Sansa’s achilles heel: “Sometimes fear makes people do unfortunate things.”

Oof. Brutal.

The tension in this scene is so palpable because of what is said: Arya’s spiteful barbs demonstrate that she still views Sansa as a shallow airhead. Sansa’s responses, though delivered with startling calmness, show that she still views Arya as a little girl. But it is also brilliantly crafted to make us think of all that is not said. Sansa alludes to, but does not explicitly delineate, all of the horrific abuses she suffered at the hands of her various male counterparts (and, of course, Cersei). Even if Arya knew, though, I doubt she would be any more sympathetic. Arya’s rage – against everyone who specifically wronged her family, and against a society, represented by Sansa, that told her she couldn’t be the one thing she wanted to be – has fueled her for years. She is unmoved by fear and disgusted by weakness.

Sansa, meanwhile, is conventionally pretty, and she has always wanted conventional things. Arya believes that Sansa is “weak” because she doesn’t want to – as they say often on this show – “break the wheel,” and because she gave in to Lannister pressure when, let’s be honest, most of us would have done the same. But – and this is why I find her character so enlightening – her experience still matters. Her trauma still matters. It’s horrible, but Arya clearly thinks that Sansa doesn’t deserve to live because she’s not “strong” or “courageous” enough.  Arya views weakness as a moral failing.We know better.

There is a saying that’s been going around Tumblr for a while: “Are you brave? the devil asked. No, she answered, but I am alive. And sometimes those two things are the same.” This, I believe, represents Sansa to a tee – and it’s something I can relate to, as well. Sansa is no warrior. She is not particularly strong or cunning. She is not even particularly kind. But she is alive, she has suffered, and she is deserving of respect.

When Arya declares that “the rules were wrong,” she is effectively calling out the patriarchy: societal rules say that Arya cannot be a fighter because she is a girl. Arya stands here now, proof that the rules are wrong. From a culturally progressive perspective, Arya is right – the rules are wrong. But Arya own feminism is short-sighted – she believes that Sansa is worthy of scorn and derision simply because what Sansa wanted for her own life happened to align with what the patriarchal society wants for her. Arya’s resentment bleeds through into every word of their conversation, most notably when she describes seeing Sansa stand next to the Lannisters – “I remember the pretty dress you were wearing, I remember the fancy way you did your hair.”

And you know what? I used to resent Sansa for all that, too. But Sansa, who is not a mite-sized killing machine or a Three-Eyed Raven, has earned my grudging respect.

I’m seeing a lot of commentary on Twitter to the effect of: “THIS IS NOT HOW SISTERS WOULD ACT! MEN FAIL AT WRITING WOMEN!” And to be clear, I think it’s a huge problem that Game of Thrones has not employed a female writer or director since season four. In certain areas, the storytelling may have faltered because of that. (Plus, I obviously support any and all diversity initiatives regardless.) But this scene – this heartbreaking, gut-wrenching confrontation between Arya and Sansa, a focal point for discussions about gender, feminism, tragedy, and trauma –  is absolutely one of Game of Thrones’ strengths.

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Part VII – Time Travel and Romance

Lost, Fringe, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Flash, Harry Potter, Legends of Tomorrow, even Game of Thrones. Why do so many of the stories we love involve time travel?

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File under: t-shirts I need in my life (From TeeFury)

Any discussion of time travel stories would be lacking without a nod to what may be the most popular genre of the mainstream time travel narrative: romance.

On Fringe, “White Tulip” features a romance plot that fuels Alistair Peck’s desire to reunite with his dead fiancée. Audrey Niffenegger’s best-selling 2003 novel The Time Traveler’s Wife set the bar for 21st-century time travel romances, and indeed, the 2006 Doctor Who episode “The Girl in the Fireplace,” penned by current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, was directly inspired by Niffenegger’s tale of love and loss. Nearly every story ever told hinges on the theme of love, and time travel stories are no exception.

Nearly every story ever told hinges on the theme of love, and time travel stories are no exception.

At the end of the day, time travel is just a plot device— it’s never really about time travel, it’s about the characters and their relationships,” says Damon Lindelof, former showrunner for Lost (2004-2010). “So, even the best time travel stories, like The Terminator or Back to the Future— two very different kinds of time travel stories— are really about the same thing.”

Back to the Future, that madcap adventure of Oedipal hijinks and science fiction shenanigans, grounds its tale in a twist on the typical love story— to fix his future, Marty  McFly needs to get his parents to fall in love in the past— and is propelled by the none-too-subtle Huey Lewis and the News hit “The Power of Love.” Stripped down to its bare-bones narrative, The Terminator is about Kyle Reese traveling back in time and falling in love with Sarah Connor, Skynet be damned.

The TV show Lost, for all its metaphysical mysteries, is perhaps remembered most fondly for the romance between Desmond Hume (Henry Ian Cusick) and Penny Widmore (Sonya Walger), a love story that reaches its pinnacle in the season four episode “The Constant.”The episode served up double helpings of brain-busting twists and heart-wrenching drama, epitomizing everything that was excellent about the show— and, indeed, everything that is so exhilarating about time travel tales.

As in X-Men: Days of Future Past— and, Lindelof says, inspired by Kurt Vonnegut‘s Slaughterhouse Five “The Constant” uses the Brain Method of time travel, moving a person’s consciousness (rather than body) through time. Unlike in X-Men, this time travel is uncontrollable, unexpected, and ultimately fatal— as we observe in the case of poor George Minkowski, who is already at the late stages of the affliction when we meet him in this episode. (In true Lost fashion, the character is named after a notable figure— in this case, Hermann Minkowski, the super rad mathematician who actually coined the term “spacetime.”)

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A mulleted Daniel Faraday explains spacetime and time travel to Desmond in 1996.

Traveling from the mysterious island to an equally as mysterious freighter, Desmond begins experiencing “consciousness jumps” between 1996 (the past) and 2004 (the present). At the urging of scientist Daniel Faraday in 2004, Desmond sets out to find the younger Faraday at Oxford in 1996, who in turn tells Desmond to find a “constant”— something or someone familiar in both times. He settles on Penny, his former girlfriend, recalling the picture of him and Penny that his 2004 self had been studying on the way to the freighter. The photograph is the link between the two times, and Penny is his constant.

The only issue is that 1996 Penny has no desire to see or speak to Desmond. In fact, she wants nothing to do with him anymore. And she changed her number. And moved.  

With the time jumps occurring more and more frequently, Desmond seeks out Penny’s (totally evil!!) father, Charles Widmore, who provides Penny’s address after a severe talking-to. He remarks— in a thoroughly disparaging tone indicative of how (un)successful he thinks Desmond is going to be— that what Desmond really wants is for Penny to give him another chance.

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One of the most thrilling aspects of this episode is the breakneck speed of the plot, but this scene pauses the action for a concentrated meditation on Desmond’s personal regrets, specifically when it comes to Penny. When he arrives at her doorstep, she reacts in the manner predicted by her father, angrily telling Desmond that “it’s too late to change things.” But Desmond makes his case— without going to much into the whole “my head will explode because time travel” thing— and secures her phone number.

“I won’t call for eight years,” he promises her. Indeed, eight years pass for her, but only seconds for Desmond (and us), as his consciousness is zapped back to his 2004 self, and, trembling, he dials the number from memory. Buoyed by an impeccably strong storyline leading up to the ensuing phone call, the scene is one that truly earns its emotional payoff— not least because of the way the story plays with our conceptions about the passage of time.

Fittingly, Penny and Desmond’s eventual connection all depends on an act of faith— Penny taking Desmond at his word, forgiving him, and trusting that he would call. Desmond, in turn, can do nothing after she slams the door in his face but hope that she, too, would keep her word.

“At the heart of everything, long before Flight 815 crashed on that island, this love story powers the meta-narrative of ‘Lost,'” says Lindelof.

The time travel in this episode enables Desmond to exorcise his biggest regret by expressing his love for Penny at a time when the stakes could not be higher, as his own health deteriorates and the fate of his fellow castaways hangs in the balance. Having witnessed their fall-out in previous seasons, we find Desmond’s climactic reconnection with Penny enormously fulfilling on an emotional level. And in terms of the structure of the show, their relationship is what eventually enables Penny to provide rescue for the survivors of Oceanic flight 815.

Lindelof and his Lost co-writers spent close to a month crafting “The Constant,” an episode they knew would be key to the entire show because it distilled the overall Lost narrative down to the fate of a single relationship.

“By the time ‘The Constant’ aired, the Desmond and Penny love story was repositioned as the essential love story of the entire series,” Lindelof says. “At the heart of everything, long before Flight 815 crashed on that island, this love story powers the meta-narrative of Lost. It wasn’t just an episode that was a fun little excursion from the main storytelling, it really plugged into and essentially rewrote and reframed the entire narrative of the series.”

“The Constant” resonates so strongly because it is, at its heart, a love story, and one between two characters in whom audiences have been invested since their introduction. For Desmond, there is a supreme sense of catharsis because he has finally gotten what he needs: a reconciliation with a lost love.

“This show is about loss,” Lindelof says, “and these two people have found each other again. There’s also this hopeful aspect to the way the episode ends, that even though Desmond ends up back on the island where he started, there’s a fundamental level of fulfillment that he accomplished his mission.”

Below, watch the fated phone call in action. Note keywords “hope” and “belief,” and make sure to have a box of Kleenex handy. You know what? Just watch the entire episode on Netflix. You won’t regret (see what I did there? *wink*) it.

Check back in next week for a discussion of alternate histories, including ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ and a favorite episode of ‘Star Trek.’ Or, you know, just hop in your time machine and read it now. If you choose that option, hit me up, I have some questions…

Part VI – Time Travel and Self-Reflection

Lost, Fringe, Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Flash, Harry Potter, Legends of Tomorrow, even Game of Thrones. Why do so many of the stories we love involve time travel?

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Past!Jennifer meets Future!Jennifer in Back to the Future II.

The 2009 Star Trek film explores another quirk of time travel: the possibility of meeting oneself. Curiously, the encounter with a past or future version of the self has become inexplicably taboo in time travel stories. Back to the Future toys with this idea quite a bit. Marty McFly’s girlfriend-turned-wife faints upon looking herself in the eye in Back to the Future Part II, while Doc Brown sidesteps the conundrum by avoiding eye-contact with his past self altogether.

Meeting oneself in a time travel narrative introduces all sorts of mind-bending possibilities and impossibilities, the latter of which is probably what sends logicians (and Star Trek: DS9’s Department of Temporal Paradoxes) into a tizzy. On a thematic level, the narrative opportunity is equally as enticing: You can self-censure, self-congratulate, and gain much-needed self-insight.

Late author David Foster Wallace poignantly expressed that we are all, at the end of the day, “uniquely, completely, imperially alone.” We are irrevocably trapped within our own minds— we are our own worst enemy and our own best friend. Which is why a physical encounter with another version of the self can be so terrifying— or so fulfilling. David Wittenberg, author of Time Travel: The Popular Philosophy of Narrative, explains that this science fiction trope allows for a (re)negotiation of one’s personal origins, since “any story at all in which identity over time becomes questionable” is, in essence, “any story of a self.”

We anguish over who we are versus who we were while wondering about who we will be. The problem of identity over time is one that has enthralled philosophers for centuries, and perhaps it is within the power of science fiction storytellers to provide a semblance of an answer. As Wittenberg writes: “Selves are stories— time travel stories.

Stories like The Twilight Zone’s “Walking Distance” and “One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty” provide an example of a self-directed trip down memory lane, as Martin Sloane and Gus Rosenthal are forced to confront who they are by interrogating who they once were. Thus, time travel allows for a meaningful construction of personal narrative.

As Wittenberg writes: “Selves are stories— time travel stories.”

In the 2009 Star Trek movie, Spock Prime does end up encountering his younger, alternate universe counterpart, and he takes the opportunity to offer himself some sage advice. For old-school Trekkies, the scene allows for a delightful passing of the torch from the “old” Spock, Nimoy, to the “new” Spock, played by Zachary Quinto. In the film, Spock Prime waxes nostalgic over a friendship with Captain Kirk that would come to define them both, alluding to the fact that for young Spock, all that is yet to come. When Spock asks how Spock Prime convinced Kirk not to reveal Spock Prime’s existence to him, Spock Prime’s eyes twinkle as he mocks the “meeting of the selves” paradox fear: “He inferred that a universe-ending paradoxes would ensue should he break his promise.” Spock dismisses it as a “gamble,” but Spock Prime corrects him, calling it instead “an act of faith.”

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Faith is a prevalent theme in time travel stories— ironic, since time travel can be so easily correlated with God-like omniscience and omnipotence. But knowledge of a future does not paint a complete picture, making faith and hope even more necessary for these stories. Faith and hope are the future-oriented counterparts to the past-oriented themes of forgiveness and repentance, which Walter Bishop pursued so fervently in Fringe.

Faith and hope are integral to 2014’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, a time travel movie so convoluted that the title alone is enough to spasm the brain. (If you’re really curious, here are a couple thousand words on that subject to tide you over.) But even amidst all the mind-bendy, timeline-trippy, franchise-rewriting time travel, the climax hinges on Charles Xavier’s faith in his childhood friend, Raven (Jennifer Lawrence).

Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and an assortment of X-Men have sent back the consciousness of the ageless Wolverine (equally ageless Hugh Jackman) to his younger body with the mission of preventing the Key Event that ruined everything— Raven shooting the antagonist, Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage). They’ve orchestrated events and torn through time and space in order to stop her, but instead of taking that final step, Charles (James McAvoy) relinquishes his mind-control power and says simply: “I have faith in you, Raven.” Time travel can only take one so far— human action and emotion are necessary to carry out the rest.

Knowledge of a future does not paint a complete picture, making faith and hope even more necessary for these stories.

Mirroring Star Trek’s Spock-meets-Spock torch-passing, Days of Future Past invokes a particularly moving— and plot-relevant— encounter between the older Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and the younger, disillusioned Charles. Professor X gives his past self an up-by-your-bootstraps pep talk, concluding with: “Charles, we need you to hope again.” Hope, Professor X says, is “the most human power” we have.

Check back in next week for a conversation with Damon Lindelof about the most beloved episode of Lost. Or, you know, just hop in your time machine and read it now. If you choose that option, hit me up, I have some questions…

There’s Good in the Star Wars Prequels, I Know It: A Defense of ‘Attack of the Clones’

Just like the hooded Sith Lord looming over his six “Star Wars” films, George Lucas has built himself an empire. After writing and directing the acclaimed “THX-1138” (1971) and “American Graffiti” (1973), Lucas threw his heart and mind into “Star Wars,” the epic space opera which hit theaters in 1977 and would go on to redefine science fiction cinema for decades to come. Inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s fast-paced adventure movies and drawing heavily from Joseph Campbell’s conception of the monomyth, the original “Star Wars” trilogy blended visually stunning action sequences with mystical themes while endearing the public to swashbuckling heroes, lovable scoundrels and rebellious princesses. Of course, there are villains in this saga as well, and Lucas himself became one as despised as the dark Emperor himself after the release “Star Wars” prequels, starting with “The Phantom Menace” in 1999. The man who created “Star Wars” was now accused of ruining it all with half-baked origin stories, mind-numbing politicizing and cringe-inducing dialogue. Where was the magic of the original trilogy? These were not the prequels the fans were looking for.

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I was nine when “The Phantom Menace” was released. That year, I dressed up as Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) for the Jewish holiday of Purim; pickings were slim back then as far as female Star Wars characters go. Purim After hearing so much about the legendary original trilogy from my father, I was thrilled to finally have a trilogy of my own; as a result, I loved the movies on sight. Years later, when I realized how universally maligned the prequels were, pure nostalgia compelled me to their defense. But even from a critical perspective, taking a closer look at the prequel trilogy reveals a thematically layered, visually arresting, and compellingly tragic tale that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The second of the prequels, “Attack of the Clones” (2002) marks the pinnacle of storytelling acumen as it reflects the larger whole, weaving together individual threads of cinematic achievement to display a tapestry as bold and spellbinding as the myth it encapsulates.

Much like the recently released and well-regarded “Episode VII: The Force Awakens,” “Attack of the Clones” takes its cues from the original trilogy, capitalizing on the nostalgia factor with specific callbacks to Episodes Four through Six: Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) enter a cantina on Coruscant reminiscent of the memorable site of the shooting spree between Han Solo and Greedo at Mos Eisley. While there, Obi-Wan’s cheeky use of the Jedi mind-trick— “You don’t want to sell me deathsticks,” he purrs to a skeevy-looking low-life— alludes to Alec Guinness’s original rendition of “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” in “Episode IV: A New Hope.” Another line that has become a gleefully implemented running joke throughout the series— “I have a bad feeling about this”— is wryly uttered by Anakin as he, Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Obi-Wan face impending doom in a Geonosis battle arena. These meta-textual moments are pure, unadulterated fun—admit it, you cracked a grin— but they also serve to situate the film within the larger context of the George Lucas canon, feeding into the epic scope of a six-part story of the rise and fall of good and evil.

To express the integral connection between the two trilogies, Lucas meticulously designed the prequels to “rhyme” with the originals. In “Attack of the Clones,” this plays out in the cinematic mirroring of shots and sequences, as with Han hiding his Millennium Falcon on the side of the the larger Star Destroyer in “The Empire Strikes Back” and Obi-Wan pulling the same trick on the side of an asteroid. There is also a dismembered Skywalker scene, a blossoming romance, and a bounty hunter called Fett. The deliberate parallels— and there are many— link the films visually and thematically. Lucas certainly knew what he was doing, and a careful viewer of the prequels will pick up on these enticing, metaphorically significant cues.

“Attack of the Clones” contains just enough politicizing to make the galaxy far, far away feel real, but it wisely fixates more intensely on the grander themes of good, evil, and the sliding scale between the two. The pulsating dramatic tension of the prequels hinges on the knowledge of what comes later, and the film capitalizes on this by building up the hubris of the Jedi in anticipation of their eventual— and inevitable— fall. While life in the Jedi Temple peacefully flourishes, Obi-Wan pokes around looking for the planet of Kamino— a stormy world signifying the upcoming unrest. The planet, however, evades his grasp, and the temple archivist declares with haughty finitude that “if an item does not appear in our records, it does not exist!”

At the beginning of the film, after Padmé is targeted for assassination, she correctly identifies the mastermind as Count Dooku, but the Jedi dismiss her with similarly misplaced confidence: “Count Dooku was once a Jedi,” Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson) says. “He wouldn’t assassinate anyone.” Ki-Adi-Mundi (Silas Carson) agrees: “He’s a political idealist, not a murderer.” Even when Obi-Wan, captured and shackled, engages in conversation with Dooku himself, Obi-Wan refuses to believe Dooku’s tales about the rise of the nefarious Sith. Though the dark side clouds the Force, the narrative implications are clear: these esteemed Jedi Knights, keepers of the peace and guardians of the good, have become arrogant. In a manner befitting a Shakespearean tragedy, the heroes of the democratic republic are becoming the very cause of its downfall.

The prequel trilogy also inverts the traditional hero’s journey by placing Anakin Skywalker— destined to torment the galaxy as Darth Vader— as its protagonist, and “Attack of the Clones” features the incident that precipitated Anakin’s turn to the dark side: the capture and death of his mother. As Anakin converses with Padmé before racing off, the camera briefly pans to their silhouettes, where Darth Vader’s helmet is prominently profiled on Anakin’s head, a powerful image foreshadowing (quite literally) what’s to come. Upon discovering his mother’s fate, Anakin slaughters the entire village of raiders in a fit of rage, and Hayden Christensen sells every beat of visceral, emotional trauma as John William’s iconic “Imperial March” crescendos in the background. It’s one of the truly cathartic scenes depicting Anakin Skywalker’s descent, and from the camerawork to the acting, it’s orchestrated beautifully.

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We can identify with Anakin’s journey because we feel that he is right to question the Jedi’s loftiness and stark emotional abstinence. Humans without feelings are more like particularly skilled droids, or clones. And it is Anakin, in a moment of omniscient wisdom, who lays out the paradox at the heart of the Jedi code. It is well known that attachment and possession are forbidden to a Jedi, he tells Padmé. However: “Compassion, which I would define as unconditional love, is essential to a Jedi’s life. So you might say that we are encouraged to love.” That Anakin is constantly chastised for embracing love— that is the true tragedy.

Other characters also make the most of their moments in the spotlight, such as the late Christopher Lee, playing to his strengths as the deliciously diabolical Dooku, and the hapless droid C-3PO (voiced by Anthony Daniels), spouting punny one-liners and unintentional social commentary at every turn. (“You obviously still have a lot to learn about human behavior,” C-3PO tells R2-D2 as Padmé and Anakin hurry away. “If they had wanted our help, they would have asked for it!”) The character of Padmé may feel underdeveloped in the previous film and is egregiously mishandled in the subsequent one, but her role in “Attack of the Clones” is prominent and most reminiscent of that of her future daughter and feminist icon, Princess Leia. When Anakin interrupts her in political proceedings on her home planet, she firmly puts him in his place, and while the Galactic Senate defers in worshipful reverence to the Jedi, Padmé speaks up, holding her own as a sharp-minded politician who strives tirelessly to sustain democratic ideals. As the opposition leader against the shady “Separatists,” Padmé is a strong public figure, and she proves that she can go toe-to-toe on personal matters as well.

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But the most complex relationship of the prequels is that of Anakin and Obi-Wan, as “Attack of the Clones” explores the deep connection that has emerged between stern master and wayward pupil, between father figure and prodigal son. Every interaction between the pair is laced with an undercurrent of gloom arising from the audience’s knowledge of Obi-Wan’s fate at the hand of Darth Vader in “A New Hope.” “Why do I get the feeling you’re going to be the death of me?” Obi-Wan jests at the beginning of “Attack of the Clones.” It’s a gem of a line, dripping with tragic irony. But it also reflects the easy rapport enjoyed by the two characters, and, indeed, by the two actors. McGregor and Christensen bring out the best in each other (unsurprising in a film otherwise riddled with CGI characters); both seem to truly enjoy trading dry quips and witty banter, and that boyish enthusiasm is contagious. I happen to enjoy Christensen’s monotone poutiness— Anakin is supposed to be a moody teenager, after all— and it balances well with Obi-Wan’s holier-than-thou snark. McGregor especially shines, fleshing out a character previously recognized more as an icon than a human being with hopes and fears of his own.

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“Attack of the Clones” showcases this legendary partnership at its apex, teasing a myriad off-screen adventures as well.  Meanwhile, we witness the beginning of an insidious tension creeping into their relationship; an austere Obi-Wan forbids Anakin to form personal attachments, as is the Jedi way, even while he himself unwittingly fosters a closeness with Anakin. Obi-Wan also frequently berates Anakin for acting rashly, specifically when it comes to the protection of one Padmé Amidala. Yet it is Obi-Wan who instinctively hurls himself out of a window in order to catch a probe droid after Padmé’s life is threatened yet again. Though  the two present vastly different exteriors, they are more alike than they might expect— hence the close, brotherly connection, and hence the heartbreak as their fates diverge.

The film’s score traces these transformations every step of the way. John Williams’s “Imperial March” hums ominously in the background whenever Anakin dips into the dark side, and it explodes triumphantly as the newly created Clone Army (later to turn on the Republic— another blurring of good and evil) marches onto the scene to close out the film. A new John Williams composition makes its debut as well, becoming an instant classic: “Across the Stars,” the hopeful yet mournful theme of Anakin and Padmé, the title alone alluding to the Romeo-and-Juliet tragedy of the star-crossed lovers. At the end of “Attack of the Clones,” “The Imperial March” bleeds into “Across the Stars” as scenes of the marching clones give way to Anakin and Padmé’s secret wedding. The stage is set in these two closing shots: the fall of democracy, the rise of evil, and the blossoming of a doomed love.

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“Attack of the Clones” was also notable for its pioneering special effects, and indeed, the dazzling visuals of this film still stand apart. Some of the CGI can be deemed excessive, but taken as a whole, it illustrates Lucas’s unparalleled penchant for world-building. Each alien rendered onscreen captivates the imagination, from Ki-Adi-Mundi’s enlarged cranium to Mas Amedda’s blue-skinned, quadra-horned visage. Each planet retains an infinite index of unique characteristics as well, from the opulent palaces of Naboo to the tech-noir metropolis of Coruscant— which serves as the setting for an exhilarating speeder chase— and Kamino, the water world on which Obi-Wan and bounty hunter Jango Fett engage in a rain-drenched, Mortal Kombat-style duel.

From the cantina on Coruscant to— yes— the lake on Naboo, “Attack of the Clones” features some of the most compelling characters, tragic themes, and awe-inducing visuals and music the Star Wars universe has to offer. Search your feelings— you know it to be true. You only have to let go of your hate and embrace the emotional journey unfolding right in front of you.

‘My Golden Days’ Is a Stumbling Trip Down Memory Lane

Quentin Dolmaire (left) and Lou Roy-Lecollinet shine in an otherwise dull narrative.

“My Golden Days” embraces its personal ties to director Arnaud Desplechin (who co-wrote the screenplay with Julie Peyr), but the resulting film is one that meanders, navel-gazes, and holds its viewers at arm’s length. If Desplechin hoped to imbue his film with some sort of universal truth— whether about the nature of memory and nostalgia or the vicissitudes of youth— that message is lost amid the confusing and off-putting mix of themes, styles, and cinematic techniques.

After a brief tryst in a bright, airy bedroom, “My Golden Days” picks up with a middle-aged Paul Dedalus (Mathieu Amalric, from the heartbreaking gem “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”) getting stopped by security at the airport on his way to Paris— some kind of passport issue. What begins as a routine interrogation ends up with Paul flashing back to distinct memories, though it is unclear why he decides to indulge this unsmiling security officer with his life story. He had told the woman from the opening scene that he harbors “no nostalgia” for his time in Paris, but that statement evidently couldn’t be further from the truth: Paul simply cannot let the past go. He jogs down memory lane and makes three stops, broken down by the film’s title cards: “Childhood,” a brief sequence depicting Paul’s astonishingly vivid (and ostensibly baseless) hatred for his parents; “Russia,” in which young Paul (Quentin Dolmaire) and a friend embark on a mini spy mission to free refuseniks from Minsk; and “Esther,” the tale of Paul’s teenage relationship with a bold and brash high school student (played by the fabulously talented first-time actress Lou Roy-Lecollinet), which dominates the remainder of the film, past and present.

As a portrait of the fragmentation of memory, “My Golden Days” is accurate to a fault. The film seems to discourage interpretation by emptying characters and cinematic techniques of any larger meaning. The jumble of French music, American pop music and an original score leaves the viewer with no sense of a unified tone. Visually, the pinhole camera effect alerts us to the initiation of a memory sequence, but other artistic quirks feel oddly out of place: a split screen towards the beginning of the Esther sequence is gimmicky and never replicated, and a mugshot of Paul against a pitch-black background addressing the camera through a haze of fire is just plain baffling. The latter instance is not the only fourth-wall breakage— the film’s disconcerting final shot comes to mind— but it is implemented with little rhyme or reason. Voiceover can be a powerful and effective cinematic tool— used memorably in films as disparate as “Annie Hall,” “Shawshank Redemption” and “Mean Girls”— but the clunky shift from first to second to third person unsettles the film’s flow. Not that the film has any sense of pacing, anyway. We get it, memories are disjointed, tainted, and don’t necessarily mean more than the sum of their parts. But “My Golden Days” refuses even to try making sense of it all. “Life is strange,” Paul murmurs at multiple points in the film. Desplechin seems content to leave it at that.

“My Golden Days” calls to mind “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” with its non-linear flashbacks, agonized brooding, and philosophizing between lovers mediated by the camera (in this case communicated onscreen via dictated letters). But “My Golden Days” lacks the moral urgency and grand, historical importance of the war that foregrounds Resnais’s New Wave classic. Instead, Desplechin focuses a lens on his own personal history, setting much of the film in his own hometown of Roubaix and bestowing his protagonist with the surname of “Dedalus,” recognizable as James Joyce’s literary alter ego. “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Stephen Dedalus says in “Ulysses.” In “My Golden Days”— a title that sours ironically over the course of the film— Paul Dedalus embodies a similar longing.

The film rambles aimlessly, forcing us to sit through a disproportionately long party scene, introducing us to a religious-minded brother who inexplicably buys a gun, and throwing in a whole host of other tidbits that lack any central coherence and don’t pay off later in the film. However, Lou Roy-Lecollinet, the actress who plays Esther, is a notable bright spot: her character is rude, egotistical, and shockingly unlikable, but Roy-Lecollinet infuses her with a vulnerability and unpredictability that makes her feel achingly human. Later on, the adult Paul mulls over their relationship, wondering if he was too good for her or not good enough, and if he was attracted to her because she was dangerous or because she was reassuring. The paradoxes could be illuminating, but with no discernible theme or character development, they fizzle. Paul thinks about his past while taking in an opera, and perhaps we are supposed to wonder about our own pasts while viewing Desplechin’s film. Unfortunately, it all falls flat. As young Paul was fond of saying throughout the film: “I felt nothing.”

‘Batman v. Superman’ doesn’t deserve your hatred. Here’s what the film gets right

“Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” is a tale of two cities, a tale of two superheroes, and a tale of cinematic paradoxes. There is both clunky dialogue and profound expressions of ideology, story pacing problems and exceptional editing, flat characters and characters with dramatic arcs. And there is despair— lots of it— but also a glimmer of hope (just take a peek at the second half of the title). When the critical fire and brimstone clears, what is left very well may be a fascinating, finely-tuned film worth seeing and worth rooting for. Yes, hater in the front row: even Batfleck.

From the interminable string of trailers, Snapchat filters, posters, and interviews with actors of other superhero franchises, every promotion for “Batman v. Superman” bills it as an epic showdown between two titans of comic book lore, akin to Marvel’s own upcoming “Captain America: Civil War.” But it’s not really about that fight— and least, not the physical one, though that sequence certainly does deliver on bone-rattling spectacle. Batman (Ben Affleck) and Superman (Henry Cavill) only start raining down blows on each other in the last third of the movie, and the fight dissipates rather suddenly (many would say too suddenly, but I was both moved and satisfied. More on that later). No, Zack Snyder’s unsurprisingly bleak yet surprisingly resonant film crackles with contemporary relevance, tapping into xenophobic fear-mongering and addressing moral and spiritual disillusionment. Perhaps I’m giving Snyder a bit too much credit— here’s the guy who said it was okay that Superman inadvertently razed half a city in this film’s precursor, 2013’s “Man of Steel,” because “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” destroyed an entire planet. (Um, Zack? Those billions of people in “Star Wars” were murdered by the bad guys.) But I won’t deny what’s right there on the screen, and even if the film fumbles with answers, it deserves praise, at least, for asking the pertinent questions.

“Batman v. Superman” takes its comic book inspiration from Frank Miller’s seminal four-issue miniseries, “The Dark Knight Returns,” and the multi-arc Doomsday narrative, so fans of both can already guess at the film’s trajectory. (Given opening weekend box office grosses, though, knowing what’s going to happen isn’t exactly keeping fans away.) After an abridged but artful explanation of the Batman origin story, the film dives into the aforementioned destruction of Metropolis in “Man of Steel,” this time from the perspective of a horrified Bruce Wayne. Already we’re offered a salient (if unintended) bit of meta-commentary: for those of us who were deeply disturbed by the unchecked devastation at the end of “Man of Steel,” Batman’s got our back— and so begins his fervent mistrust of the mighty and seemingly impenetrable Superman. Though it may seem self-serving to begin a sequel with a sizzle-reel from the franchise’s previous film, it works here, framing “Batman v. Superman” as a feature-length response to its own controversy.

The plot, at times numbingly complicated and at others thinly underdeveloped, can be summed up like so: Batman and Superman disagree with the other’s dispensation of justice. Thanks to some prodding from Jesse Eisenberg’s “psychotic” Lex Luthor— and because this is a Zack Snyder superhero movie— their ideological spat naturally escalates to violence. Say what you will about Snyder’s philosophical motivations, but his lush visuals make movie-goers feel like they’re right beside the action rather than merely in front of it. The film’s score stands apart as well; collaborating with multi-instrumentalist Junkie XL, musical magician Hans Zimmer ratchets up the emotion of unfolding drama with an operatic, “Star Wars”-esque theme, while the hopeful, Smallville-evoking tune from “Man of Steel” seeps into the background of more tender moments. Wonder Woman’s electric war drum theme starts to feel a bit grating when it kicks in for the fifth time, but, hey, the first four cues were pretty epic, amiright? For Themyscira!

With the immediate introduction of so many larger-than-life figures and set pieces, the film stumbles a bit coming out of the gate. But in other ways, the editing masterfully evokes the parallel journeys of our two superheroes: a close-up of Clark’s iconic glasses transitions to a shot of Batman’s equally iconic “Batarang” gadget; Clark approaching a smoldering ruin near his Fortress of Solitude shifts to Bruce standing in the rubble of Wayne Manor; and Clark watching news footage of Batman’s crime-fighting antics is interspliced with Bruce doing his own digging on the Man of Steel. Unfortunately, other scenes are laid out like puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit together: a flashback here, a different flashback there, a convoluted dream sequence (or two…or three…), journeys from Nairobi to Metropolis and from the Indian Ocean to Gotham. Frankly, it’s exhausting. But perhaps there is a metaphor to be gleaned here, as Snyder’s scattered movie and broken superheroes reflect a contemporary society equally as shattered.

“Batman v. Superman” was penned by Chris Terrio (an Oscar winner for “Argo”) and David S. Goyer, the latter of whom received a story credit for Christopher Nolan’s groundbreaking “Dark Knight” trilogy, the first hugely successful superhero franchise in the post 9/11 age (aside from Sam Raimi’s tonally different “Spider-Man”). This film falls far from the psycho-ethical thrill of “The Dark Knight,” which is arguably the best superhero movie of all time. But 15 years after 9/11, when terrorist attacks have become the numbing norm rather than a watershed event, Snyder’s film feels adroitly reflective of the state of our fractured world. These are conflicted heroes wrestling with the relation between power and morality, while humanity— through newscast-ready soundbites— debates the same. As Lex Luthor gleefully insists: “If God is all-powerful, He cannot be good. If God is good, He cannot be all-powerful.” Perhaps referring to Superman as “God” feels extreme; perhaps I occupy the niche spot in a bizarre Venn Diagram of people who are religious and intellectual and huge comic book nerds, but I actually do agonize over such matters, and it’s apparent that Snyder does too. Even so, let’s think things through from a practical standpoint: if an alien from Krypton were to land on our humble blue planet, people would react a lot like they do in “Batman v. Superman”—with equal parts Messianic reverence and fear. Snyder unashamedly feeds into the former; every time Superman is struck down or the Dark Knight rises, another Christ figure is displayed, and smoking crucifixes adorn the blazing aftermath of the climactic final battle. The entire film is a baptism by fire and water, and it’s both aesthetically and morally affecting.

Disturbingly, however, Batman reacts to “the Superman problem” with fear. “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race,” Bruce Wayne says to his butler and confidante, Alfred (Jeremy Irons), “and if we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” That’s the type of damning rhetoric we’ve been hearing from the Republican party. To make matters worse, Bruce consistently refers to Superman as an “alien,” which, although true in a literal sense, reveals an undercurrent of mistrust and hostility that shouldn’t exist in the souls of our supposed “heroes.” And yet, I still found the Batman arc compelling because of its resolution— Batman and Superman don’t, of course, go on brawling indefinitely, and though the reason for their sudden team-up can be viewed as contrived, it’s stirring because it promotes the commonality needed to breach the distance between two alleged “others.” Incredibly, Ben Affleck manages to sell this jaded, dangerously mistaken hero for the entire journey. Affleck’s tired eyes betray Batman’s wounded soul, and a defiled Robin suit hanging in the Batcave hints at a past tragedy that still haunts him. Chin up, Sadfleck: you done pretty good.

What’s more, these heroes are facing villains that embody opposing reactions to this chaotic world: mindlessly destructive anarchy, as exhibited by the barely sentient Doomsday, and nihilistic glee, carried out by Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. Though the villains represent intriguing prototypes of morality, the way each plays out in the film is, admittedly, pretty disastrous. The entire Doomsday plot brings nothing but befuddlement and a draining final act, and should have been cut outright. As for Luthor: Jesse Eisenberg seems to be making a career out of playing painfully awkward geniuses, and to his credit, many of his roles optimize that trait, from Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” to David Lipsky in “The End of the Tour.” Here, Eisenberg embodies Superman’s archenemy like a Zuckerbergian Moriarty of the Andrew Scott variety infused (somewhat desperately) with a dash of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Naturally, it’s a total mess. Though he has a few good lines that resonate, most of his pontificating on the problem of evil lands with a resolute thump, and his invocations of— by my count— Lucifer, Jesus, Icarus and Prometheus serve more to confuse the audience than to illuminate age-old mythological truths.  (Perhaps Luthor’s Prometheus shout-out—cheekily uttered while Clark, Bruce and Wonder Woman’s alter-ego, Diana Prince, are all sneaking around under his nose, not paying attention in the slightest to the madman with the mic— reflects a twisted motivation to “save mankind,” but the message is too far buried to count for much.)

And then there’s Superman himself. Snyder backed himself into a corner with an uncharacteristically gritty portrayal of America’s ur-superhero in “Man of Steel,” forgoing truth, justice, and the American way for anguish and uncertainty. Like his Gotham-based counterpart, Superman does go through a drastic transformation over the course of “Batman v. Superman,” but Snyder’s iteration of the character is still the weak point of the budding DC cinematic universe. Superman should be the focal point, the beacon of light and hope and all that is good and true. But after “Batman v. Superman,” I have hope that Snyder is building towards a grand rebirth that will showcase a lighter hero. We just have to have a little faith.

“Superman v. Batman” is undoubtedly a ponderous film. Tapping into culturally relevant paranoia as well as the nature of heroism, the film aims for the brilliance of Nolan’s “The Dark Knight” but falls towards the heavy-handedness of “The Dark Knight Rises”– which is, of course, impressive in its own right. “Batman v. Superman” is overstuffed on plot and rushed when it comes to introducing major game-changers, and the female characters don’t fare too well in terms of overturning decades of damsel in distress tropes. But there’s a lot to appreciate here, too. Snyder takes all of these characters so seriously that he entrusts them with the fundamental questions that plague the human race, and perhaps it’s too much, too soon. As Luthor would say, Snyder, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun. Luckily, he’s dealing with a mythic being who doesn’t need wax wings to fly. Godspeed, Mr. Snyder: The Justice League awaits.

‘Midnight Special’: The Indie Sci-Fi Gem That Outshines Them All

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It’s special, alright.

In a 2007 TED Talk, director J. J. Abrams revealed the inspiration for his creative vision: a “mystery box” from a midtown Manhattan magic store that has remained unopened since he purchased it as a child. “What are stories, but mystery boxes?” Abrams explained. “What’s a bigger mystery box than a movie theater? You go to the theater, you’re just so excited to see anything— the moment the lights go down is often the best part.”

So it is with “Midnight Special,” a small-time, supernatural drama from writer-director Jeff Nichols that blends the Abrams approach to storytelling with the intimacy of a Spielberg classic. In the current Hollywood climate, storms of viral marketing and near-pathological media attention ensure that moviegoers are so well informed on upcoming epics (think: “Batman v. Superman” and “Captain America: Civil War”) that actually going to see the movies feels like a rote formality. By contrast, “Midnight Special” opened in limited release with relatively little preceding fanfair, making that tantalizing moment when the lights go down feel all the more exhilarating. “Midnight Special” thrives on the mystery box formula (much like Abrams’s recently released, hush-hush production, “10 Cloverfield Lane”) by holding its secrets close to its chest. But it also flourishes as a profound exploration of familial love and personal values, grounding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

“Midnight Special” marks Nichols’s first foray into the science fiction genre, after 2011 film festival darling “Take Shelter” and the McConaissance-initiating “Mud” in 2012, but it is his fifth collaboration with actor Michael Shannon. Shannon shines as Roy, father to Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a child born with supernatural powers who is worshipped by a religious sect with morally dubious leadership. A small group of superb supporting characters lends the film additional gravitas: Joel Edgerton (“Black Mass”) as Roy’s buddy Lucas, a former cop; Kirsten Dunst as Alton’s mother, Sarah, in a one-note but still effective performance; and Adam Driver, coming off of a very different role in a rather huger sci-fi epic, “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens,” as NSA codebreaker and “Alton Meyer expert” Paul Sevier.

“Midnight Special” picks up in medias res, chugging forward while delivering backstory in tiny, cinematic morsels: news bulletins, brief lines of dialogue, and significant glances serve to lay the scene and clarify the stakes. David Wingo’s captivating score shifts between a melodious piano theme and a pulse-pounding bass, setting the tone for the film’s interplay between the wonder of the supernatural and the suspense of an “on the run” thriller. Early on, as the whirlwind of mystery picks up, religious leader Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) turns to the FBI officers investigating Alton Meyer and muses, “You have no clue what you’re dealing with, do you?” At this point, neither do we— and it’s a scintillating feeling.

“Midnight Special” takes its time answering the little questions (Who is this kid? What can he do? What’s going on?) while steadily building up the insurmountable questions of “how” and “why.” Many elements of the story remain unanswered, and it is in this regard that “Midnight Special” truly sets itself apart. Due to a side-effect of Alton’s powers, much of the film takes place at night, with breathtaking sunrises and sunsets marking the rotation of night and day, and there’s a storytelling benefit in (literally and metaphorically) leaving the audience in the dark: it precludes narrative spoon-feeding while allowing for a more active partnership between the filmmaker and the viewer. This richly drawn film needs you, the moviegoer, to use both your brain and your heart.

“Midnight Special” is the rare film that infuses its characters with as much complexity as it does its mystery, ensuring that the humanity at its core does not get lost in supernatural splendor. Roy burns with a quiet but fierce love for his child; he is gentle and caring from the outset, and his steadfast belief in the boy is never questioned as he spirits Alton away from institutions that aim to use him for their own gain. When Roy tucks his son into bed, adorning his youthful face with aqua-colored goggles and bright orange headphones, his tenderness is palpable, as though Alton were just another kid with a strange malady. Roy and Alton’s relationship is the beating heart of this story, and it is to the credit of both the actors and Nichols himself that father and son exhibit such magnetizing emotion. Through little dialogue, Lieberher, resplendent and mature beyond his years, indicates that there is luminous depth to Alton, while every crinkle of Shannon’s eyes demonstrates the aching burdens of parenthood. “You don’t have to worry about me,” Alton assures him. “I’ll always worry about you, Alton,” Roy responds. “That’s the deal.” You’d smile if you weren’t too busy trying to hide your sniffling.

“Midnight Special” also touches on weightier themes without forcing them to sweat it out under the spotlight. How would people react to the appearance of the supernatural? Calvin Meyer’s reverent cult is already established before the opening credits, and the FBI’s briskly bureaucratic manhunt is well underway as the story begins. Rather, by delving into the psyches of the characters, the film is more subtly able to explore the limits and excesses of knowledge and power. In one ironic scene, Alton, reading a Superman comic by flashlight in the back of a darkened car, asks Roy about kryptonite, and Roy berates Lucas for giving Alton the comic book in the first place, insisting that Alton “needs to know what’s real.” But knowledge proves to be an elusive concept; instead, faith and belief take center stage. As Meyer puts it at the conclusion of a sermon: “To know the source of such things is to know our place in the world.” “Midnight Special” revels in this search for purpose, embracing an all-too-rare sense of awe and wonder.

You Will Rue the Day You Saw ‘Knight of Cups’

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Just walk away, Padme.

You’ve heard a lot about experimental filmmaker Terrence Malick, so you decide to give his latest release, the Christian Bale headlined “Knight of Cups,” a shot. You never expected to emerge from the theater blinking uncomfortably in the sunlight as though recently released from solitary confinement, feeling ostracized (if you identify as anything other than a white male) and confused and hopelessly downtrodden.

When cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s signature landscape shot fills the opening screen, you’re already thinking ahead to the 2017 Academy Awards. Will Lubezki make history yet again by winning four Oscars in a row? At the very least, this film will be pretty, you think.

But, wait, the movie is running merrily along, leaving you in the (artsy) dust. You shift your attention back to the screen, where models slathered in black slime and painted eyeball masks undulate suggestively. You ponder the implications of Dadaism.

There is an earthquake in Christian Bale’s apartment. His living quarters are sparse, but in a classy way, like he has money to burn but can’t be bothered to spend it because of his crushing ennui. He rushes outside, barefoot, as though late for a beachfront photoshoot. Others are cowering with him on the clean-swept pavement. Potted plants lay smashed on the ground, like his dreams. It’s a metaphor. Probably.

There is an argument in a conference room with bright windows. You catch snatches of the conversation and gauge that Christian Bale’s character is a screenwriter named Rick. You’re already lost and confused but you’re an attentive, intelligent moviegoer, so you at least pick up on basic plotlines. But it turns out that the film doesn’t have much of a plot, so your meager knowledge is useless.

“Where did I go wrong?” Christian Bale’s character muses dolorously at the camera. “Knight of Cups” has only just begun, and yet you check your watch, wondering the same thing.

Your exasperation increases as the film goes on and Christian Bale attends more and more glamorous parties at mansions glittering with treasures worth the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP. Poor guy, tortured by his opulent lifestyle and white male privilege! you think. He must be suffering from affluenza. You send thoughts and prayers.

Soon, however, your feeling of generic queasiness is replaced by a blinding rage, helpfully sounded out onscreen by the oceanic roar that permeates the film alongside Hanan Townshend’s paradoxically pleasant score. As Christian Bale’s character drifts through a lineup of interchangeable women— each one tall, thin, big-eyed and coy— he becomes the literal embodiment of the male gaze, as the women amount to nothing more than different shades of wallpaper. What’s worse, the one woman of color, an Indian model (et tu, Freida Pinto?!), is depicted as an exotic yogi who slurs something about “casting a spell” on Christian Bale’s character. You furiously scribble “orientalism” in your notebook, which is now drawing ink from your own blood.

You live in LA, or perhaps you just wish you did. Either way, as the camera— constantly in motion— passes dispassionately over the greatest hits parade of Los Angeles locales, you feel sparks of recognition: here is the Santa Monica pier, there is the sadly barren LA River, here is Venice Beach, there is an ad-infested Sunset Boulevard, building-sized posters staring out as blankly as the characters in this film. When you lose interest in the film completely, you start to connect these locations to scenes from other movies: there’s a “Hail, Caesar!” scene, there’s an “Inception” scene, there’s a much happier scene from “Grease.” You briefly remember when seeing a movie was actually moving.

To distract from the tedium, you design a “Knight of Cups” Bingo card consisting of the following squares:

  • Christian Bale + [interchangeable character] frolicking on the beach
  • Highway montage
  • Underwater camerawork
  • Christian Bale sleeping
  • Woo! girls
  • Voiceovers in dramatic whispers

When you realize the characters are never going to actually converse with one another, you start trying to parse the impossibly obtuse voiceovers. Your mind jolts back to the beginning of the film, with John Gielgud intoning a passage from John Bunyan’s seminal Christian allegory, “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” But before you can recall a hazy lesson from your twelfth grade European History class, the fable shifts. Over a montage of Christian Bale’s character livin’ it up in Tinseltown, the voice of Brian Dennehy (who plays his father) laments the loss of the prodigal son, a prince in search of a pearl who diverted from his path and fell into a deep sleep.

At that point, you should have left. Or fallen into a deep sleep yourself.

The entire film is a nihilistic non sequitur: images out of context and muddled voiceovers (sample: “Don’t go back to being dead” and “You have love in you, I know it”— the latter from Natalie Portman, dredging up memories of her cringe-worthy turn as Padmé Amidala in Star Wars) as well as characters so thinly realized it makes you want to weep for the fate of humanity— and not in a cathartic way. Christian Bale’s character, the supposed “everyman,” wanders around in a daze, goo-like and catatonic, an empty shell of a person, and you realize you’ve been calling him “Christian Bale” because his character— Rick, was it?— feels like a papery husk, floating away at the merest mention. The irony of “Knight of Cups” is that it is a film about a screenwriter that was ostensibly put forth  by Malick without a screenplay of its own; actors on camera were encouraged to extemporize as the spirit moved them. The result is painfully awkward, demonstrating a film deeply at odds with itself; it is supposed to be freeing, but instead feels suffocating.

At some point, Christian Bale ends up at a strip club, ogling Teresa Palmer, who is described in the official plot synopsis as “a spirited, playful stripper.” Look how spirited and playful she is! See Teresa. Strip, Teresa, strip. When he asks her name (do men really do that? you wonder), she grins flirtatiously and tells him she can be whomever he wants her to be. “You can be whoever you want to be,” she burbles. Which is the much more heartfelt, hopeful and complex message of “Zootopia,” you realize.

Wes Bentley is Christian Bale’s brother and is overly cheerful and therefore inwardly sad and tragic and has a loft with a cracked mirror and a skateboard.

In the theater, someone’s cell phone rings, and you’re shockingly, sickeningly grateful for the distraction, for the reminder that a world exists outside this Malick monstrosity, a Los Angeles that is not all billboards and bimbos, where the sun shines unmockingly and people smile sincerely.

“Knight of Cups” leaves you feeling unbearably bleak and existentially depressed. You wonder if masochists would gain something from this movie, but you are still so enraged over the insipid thoughtlessness of the film and its specific treatment of women to care.

You really should have seen “Zootopia.”

Studio Ghibli’s ‘Only Yesterday’ is a Gorgeously Rendered Meditation on Life and Memory

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Takahata’s 1991 film charts the emotional growth of a young woman pursuing her dreams.

Though it was originally released 25 years ago, Isao Takahata’s “Only Yesterday” could have been made, well, only yesterday. Based on the manga by Hotaru Okamoto and Yuko Tone, “Only Yesterday” became a surprise Japanese box office hit, but has only recently made its way to North American screens. Fortunately, the film’s bittersweet exploration of one woman finding her place in the world— a universally appealing story aided by the lush animation of the famed Studio Ghibli— has gracefully withstood the test of time.

Taeko (voiced by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” actress Daisy Ridley in the English-language version) is 27, unmarried, and living in Tokyo. From a phone conversation with her sister early on in the film, we learn that Taeko is free-spirited and independent. Her character immediately shines, shying away from the hackneyed “bitter office drone” prototype and instead embracing refreshing self-awareness as a young woman who simply yearns for something more. Taeko exudes excitement when discussing her unorthodox idea of a vacation: harvesting in the countryside. Her sister is baffled, but Taeko is immediately understood by Toshio (“Slumdog Millionaire”’s Dev Patel), who collects her from the train station and enthuses right along with her.

This opening is interspersed with the film’s first flashback to fifth-grade Taeko (voiced by Alison Hernandez), as her school friends boast of their upcoming summer vacations to the countryside. Taeko’s family’s trip is less glamorous to her fifth grade mind, but she makes the most of the alternate plans and demonstrates a delighted enthusiasm that immediately endears her to the audience. Yet despite her bohemian temperament, it becomes clear that Taeko is still, in many ways, beholden to her past. “I didn’t intend to bring my fifth grade self on this trip,” 27-year-old Taeko muses on the train from Tokyo. “But she was always around.”

Taeko’s fifth-grade life is more engaging and vibrant than her present-day story, and the film lags a bit during her languid, repetitive days in the safflower fields. But perhaps that’s part of the point. Fifth-grade Taeko is an underdog, the misfit of her family and the “goody two-shoes” of her class. The youngest of three daughters, she struggles to relate to her older sisters, who were, like normal teen girls in the ‘60s, fully consumed with notions fashion and a global Beatles obsession.  Taeko navigates the wonders and pitfalls of adolescence, from her first crush, to sex ed, to hall monitor politics. Older Taeko, all bubbly optimism, seems to have her life all figured out.

But “Only Yesterday” is a more delicate film than that. Taeko’s reminiscences are no mere nostalgia trip; her past informs and shapes her present— indeed, her entire worldview— in more subtle ways. She recalls failing a math test and trying to learn from her mistakes with her impatient sister, Yaeko (Ashley Eckstein): Taeko draws a picture to explain her sophisticated thought process, but a bemused Yaeko waves her away and instead simply rattles off the mathematical laws. Soon after, the girls’ stern mother expresses the underlying sentiment felt throughout the film: Taeko is not a normal kid.

It is worth noting— and praising— Takahata’s pitch-perfect portrayal of little girls and young women across all cultures. From fifth-grade Taeko’s embarrassment about periods to her older self’s ambivalence towards marriage, the overall character feels startlingly real. Studio Ghibli is known for producing well-crafted female protagonists, and Takahata’s fellow Ghibli director, Hayao Miyazaki, has been particularly outspoken about this initative, calling his leads “brave, self-sufficient girls that don’t think twice about fighting for what they believe in with all their heart.” Taeko is a worthy addition to these ranks.

But “Only Yesterday” is also very different from other Ghibli films, foregoing the fantastical for a more understated tale reflected in its pastel-colored minimalism. Animation is an industry growing at an exponential rate, but at nearly three decades old, the film’s luscious, watercolor landscapes feed into the romantic, nostalgic tone perfectly. Even the drawn-out slicing of a pineapple is effective— I could actually feel my stomach rumbling.

“Only Yesterday” traces an unusual young woman’s identity over time, and true to the complexity of this journey, it’s difficult to judge whether the ending is a victory for Taeko or a defeat. (Speaking of the ending, make sure you stay through the credits, or you’ll miss it.) It’s a slow process at times, but the soft beauty of the animation more than makes up for the plot’s meandering, and the nostalgia of childhood coats the film like the rosy rouge of the safflower. In a voiceover, Taeko wonders at the vividness of her fifth-grade memories, noting that the remembrances played “like a movie in my head.” Audiences will walk out of “Only Yesterday” feeling the exact same way.

Foreign Language Film Nominee ‘A War’ is Delicate and Wrenching

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A war is fought on all fronts in Tobias Lindholm’s latest moral drama. (Nordisk Film)

Tobias Lindholm’s “A War,” a 2016 Academy Award nominee for best foreign language film, covers well-trodden ground with its depiction of the fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But like his 2012 film “A Hijacking,” in which the Danish writer-director tackled the subject of Somali pirate hijackings months before the widely acclaimed “Captain Phillips” took the stage, “A War” is far from trite, demonstrating Lindholm’s knack for delivering a finespun, gritty drama with a quiet but effective moral center.

Unlike “13 Hours,” Michael Bay’s bombastic addition to the movie world’s war genre, “A War” holds our attention by way of internal struggles rather than aggressive machismo. And in contrast to fellow Oscar nominee (and foreign film frontrunner) “Son of Saul” (Hungary), Lindholm’s film forgoes artistic boldness for a more subtle, understated aesthetic.

Pilou Asbæk, who starred in Lindholm’s two other feature films (“A Hijacking” and 2010’s “R”), plays Danish military commander Claus Michael Pederson. (The remaining soldiers, according to the Danish Film Institute, are portrayed by real-life Afghanistan veterans.) Claus and his men are stationed in the Helmand province and tasked with patrolling the area to protect local civilians. They are grim in a distinctly military fashion, but they are no robots— fear, uncertainty and guilt are simmering beneath the surface like the very minefields they patrol.

The opening of the film is silent— almost serene— as the camera lens provides a static sweep of the Afghan landscape before closing in on Claus’s group of patrolmen. The airwaves are punctuated only by the clipped military speak crackling over the soldiers’ radios, but tensions are running high; in the silence lurks one of many IED devices. When it explodes, a 21-year-old soldier becomes the latest in an ever escalating line of casualties. We are not spared the grisly visual details of the aftermath of such an explosion, but Lindholm is a more delicate filmmaker than those who use only guts and gore for the shock factor. Instead, he swiftly shifts to the psyches of the soldiers witnessing a horror they can never unsee while fighting a war they don’t quite understand.

After the IED incident, one soldier tells Claus that the young patrolman’s death “doesn’t make any sense.” Indeed, to Lindholm’s credit, he doesn’t try to make sense of war, brutality, severed limbs or pervasive terror. “A War” finds meaning in the smaller moments of kinship and compassion: when Claus shares a cigarette with a frantic Afghani father of two, and when an injured soldier video calls the unit from his hospital bed in the UK (communicating via notebook paper due a throat wound), thanking Claus for saving his life and telling his brethren to look out for one another. We see it when the soldiers cheerfully greet local children. And we see it when tragedy strikes, when military order is blown to hell and the soldiers ask each other (rhetorically) if they’re okay, as one gently tells his traumatized companion, “It’s okay to be upset.” No one’s kidding themselves with testosterone-fueled, gun-blazing epics— as a medevac helicopter transports the injured soldier out of the region, the camera lingers on the retreating copter, as though everyone below desires nothing more than a similarly miraculous way out of the cycle of violence.

As Claus and his men strive to keep the peace abroad, Claus’s wife Maria (Swedish actress Tuvo Novotny) struggles nobly to hold down the fort back home. Novotny conveys a stunning mixture of somber strength and vulnerable sadness without even saying a word, caring for three young children while stoically awaiting her husband’s safe and speedy return.

But after an ill-fated command by Claus leaves him under suspicion of war crimes, his homecoming occurs sooner than expected. The scene of the war morphs from the sandy desert of the Helmand province to the sterilized whiteness of the military tribunal, where Claus is being tried for unintentionally causing civilian deaths. Even within the setting of the bland bureaucracy, we’re riveted to the screen because we care about Claus— we’ve seen all the good he has done and all the men he has saved, and we’ve experienced the chaotic senselessness of war along with him.

“A War” is not so much about right and wrong as it is about a man trying to do what’s right when everything is already so wrong. At the beginning of the film, Claus comforts a soldier who feels responsible for the 21-year-old patrolman’s death, and later on, he is the one who is burdened with incalculable guilt and the burden of culpability.

All this is deftly revealed through furrowed brows and prematurely lined mouths, through haunted eyes and brooding cigarette breaks, and with a repeated image that packs the emotional punch of the girl in the red coat in “Schindler’s List.” Lindholm follows around his characters from the back (an interesting contrast to “Son of Saul”), wanting to pry into their thoughts but respectfully keeping his distance. When Maria and Claus have an intimate conversation about a particular experience in Afghanistan, the camera again waits outside. In “A War,” silence speaks volumes.