Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The tentacles of corruption

Quick-ish impressions on some videos I've recently watched and thought about. All of these probably count as Mega-spoilers.

Logan's Run

This is Dave's favorite movie, you know. It's more or less what I expected, a pre-Star Wars 1970's sci-fi movie with lots of social and environmental messages in a cheesy package.

One thing that makes this one sort of unique is that, while this future would probably be classified as "dystopian," it certainly LOOKS much nicer than the world we have now. There isn't the omnipresent pollution of "Soylent Green," nor the invasive fascism of "1984." It is, as the opening monologue tells us, a world built for pleasure, and other than the little matter of everyone being killed once they reach 30, it seems nearly ideal.

To me, this made the world much more interesting than Soylent Green, because it presents a choice. Granted, it's a rather cliched choice, of freedom versus comfort, but an interesting one nontheless.

It's a fun exercise to watch this movie and think of the protagonists as villains. They act unilaterally to destroy the base and force everyone to join them in the wild, whether they want to or not. And, when you think about it, the base served a valuable purpose. It was constructed because the world grew too polluted; by the time they get out, extinct species are still gone, but the air and water are once again clean. Letting the humans back out will start the cycle again, and before too long they'll probably be killing the planet once again.

Oh, and I personally felt that the plot about killing (erm, "renewing") people once they reached 30 was a theme much better addressed twenty years later in an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation." That episode was almost certainly an homage to this movie, but I remember it being much tighter and more compelling.

This would be a good movie if you're interested in the history of socially conscious science fiction. Otherwise, not so much.

Cool Hand Luke

Yet another 70's (I think...) classic. I'm not sure when I first heard of it, but it's one of the favorite movies of Mr. Piro, one of my wonderful high-school English teachers. It's one of those cultural touchstones, and while watching it I suddenly got all sorts of references that had popped up in The Simpsons and elsewhere; at the same time, it was a bit of a letdown, as the movie itself just didn't feel all that exciting. It's really a classic case of having a movie that's revolutionary for its time and re-shapes everything that follows, to the point where later generations find it derivative of what came after. I'm sure Paul Newman's attitude was unusual and alluring at the time, but now, it's almost expected of a lead.

The interesting, and tragic, aspect of this picture is watching Luke's transformation. He starts as incredibly sanguine, equally complacent towards jail, the rules and his fellow inmates. He isn't a rebel like James Dean or Marlon Brando, he's more of a postmodern hipster who sneers at everything without deigning to fight back.

That changes after the extremely arbitrary and callous way that his captors put him in "the hole" after his mother dies. Ironically, though he was never a flight risk before, he becomes one once they treat him like one. This version of Luke is no longer content to drift along, and he takes surprising initiatives.

I thought it was an interesting choice of the filmmakers to always show Luke's escapes as they are happening, but to only hear about his recapture. This creates tension and aligns us with the chain gang, so we feel the same elation at his escape and the same surprise and despair when he is brought back.

The final act of the movie is actually painful to watch, as Luke is finally broken, then makes a last heroic run. It includes his bellowing roar, "Stop feeding off of me!", which for me is the most resonant part of the film... his fellow inmates won't let him be what he is, a loner, and all his attempts to establish individuality have been sort of tribally claimed by the rest. It's incredibly fitting that one of the last lines of the movie is Luke's taunting impersonation of the Captain: "What we've got here is a failure to communicate!" Hearing that made me realize that communication really is a two-way street, not just an acknowledgement of orders, so both he and the captain were really right on this point.

This falls into the class of movie that's almost inevitably disappointing, just because it's been built up so much over time. But, Newman's performance brings a lot to the table, and there are certain people you'll impress just by mentioning that you've seen this.

Oh, and I just looked it up: the movie came out in 1967. That seems more appropriate somehow, sort of an establishment of the counterculture, if that makes any sense at all.

Ghost World

All I knew when I picked this up was that Steve Buscemi played a record collector. I think I was subconsciously expecting something like "High Fidelity"; what I ended up with was a lot closer to Linklater's "Slackers" or Smith's "Clerks." Not that I'm complaining or anything, it was still good, but definitely one of those painful-funny rather than laugh-out-loud movies.

Buscemi was great, but I was impressed all around by the cast's qualities. The leads are Thora Birch, from American Beauty, and a still-to-be-discovered Scarlett Johanson. There is a brief, but terrific, cameo by David Cross. Even the actors I don't recognize are good across the board.

What's the movie "about"? On the most immediate level it's another paen to Generation X coming of age; the young leads graduate high school and struggle with what to do with their lives. One grudgingly conforms, getting a job and searching for an apartment, and ends the movie on the path to the grown-up world she claims to hate. The other claims to want all the grown-up stuff - living away from parents, economic independence - but is unable to mount any serious plan to attain these things. Her pattern throughout the movie is to want whatever she doesn't have, and when it seems like she might get it, move on to something else. Watching the movie I got the impression that what she was scared of was committment, but I'm far from certain that's the intended way to read it.

More generally, the movie is about identity. This is where Buscemi's character really shines: is he a geek through-and-through? Can he become attractive to women and still be the same? All the relationships in the film feel fragile, and when one character starts to change, their connections with others are broken. Read in this way, the movie is about Thora deciding how to define herself. She experiments with punk rock but doesn't like the reception she gets, so she tries something else. As long as she's trying on identities, she's in control and wants to move forward; however, when others start acknowledging her new identity, it becomes confining and she tries to shake it off.

In a peculiar way, I am reminded of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials." In Lyra's world, every person has a daemon. When they are young the daemons are flexible and can assume any shape they want; when they grow up, the daemons become fixed in the shape best corresponding with their human. This is really the same thing that's happening in this movie: Thora doesn't want to stop shifting, and though she would vehemently deny it, she likes the lack of responsibility that a child posesses. She is being thrust into a world she claims to want but isn't ready for.

Kung Fu Hustle

What's to say, really? It's a kung-fu comedy movie. If that sounds appealing to you, you'll enjoy it. If it sounds strange or dumb, you won't.

I still need to see Shaolin Soccer, Stephen Chow's previous movie which some people (not all) think is better than this. This film is a mishmash of fighting scenes, broad parody and slapstick comedy. I was struck by how many homages it contains to American cinema, such as Gump's floating feather and quotations from "Gone with the Wind." What I'm getting at is that this isn't a coherent movie, and if you try to view it as a quest movie or a revenge flick or a love story you'll be disappointed. If you just want a good time, well, expect to find one.

I loved the fact there was actual choreography in ths movie. Usually in a martial-arts movie "choreography" just means stage fighting, but here we got to see some cool dance moves from the Axe Gang.

I really wish I had gotten to see this one in the theater; it was still a lot of fun to watch, but far less impressive on my TV than it would've been on the big screen.

This isn't knocking Kill Bill off its pedestal or anything, but it was still an enjoyable way to pass the time. Generally recommended.

A History of Violence

Another one I wanted to see in the theater, and had to settle for a bootleg copy on my TV. This was a phenomenal movie. Granted, I've only seen 2/5 of the Oscar-nominated films, but I think it's a shame this one didn't get the nod.

I saw this movie mainly because I think Viggo Mortensen is awesome. The uniformly good reviews and intriguing subject matter sealed the deal. Still, it was more or less a flop, and disappeared from theaters before I could make it in.

This is kind of another movie about identity. Joey has deliberately shed his old identity and built a new life as Tom. The whole middle third of the movie feels very existential to me: is Tom defined by what he DOES, or what he DID? Is there an underlying essence to Tom that he has somehow covered up? Basically, should we view a decade of good, wholesome fathering as an intrinsic part of his identity, or something he does alien to what he is?

The other theme is right there in the title, violence. When I first heard the title, I thought the emphasis was on "history". In other words, a sort of academic examination of past incidents of violence through human history. Several months later, while reading an unrelated story in the newspaper, I suddenly remembered that the phrase "a history of violence" is often attached to criminals in news stories. It's something someone HAS, rather than something they're IN. "Guido Marchusi has a history of violence" means that Guido has done violent things in the past.

When actually watching the movie, a third interpretation came to mind. It was closer to my first definition but more personal like the second, and puts the emphasis on "violence". Rather than "A History of Violence," it could be called "Tom's History of Violence," as opposed to his history of love. All those horrible things Johnny did are still there; you can change your future, but you can't change your history. All you can do is lie and cover it up, but it's still there and will continue to touch you.

The film isn't just about violence's potency; it also examines the nature of violence itself. I'd need to watch the movie again to be sure, but I think every time Tom acts violently, it's always in retaliation. He attacks the thugs after they've taken hostages; he hits his son after his son insults him; he chokes his wife after she strikes him; he kills the henchmen after they try to garrot him. There is something very primal in us that seeks to react violently when someone harms us or our loved ones; and of course, once we respond, the victim will become the attacker, and so on, until one party stops the cycle or one side is dead. And this seems natural to us; as the audience, our sympathy is with the victim, and we believe their retaliation is justified.

Anyone who watches movies sees this played out everywhere. Whenever the villain fights the good guy, he almost always starts off by hurting him. Once the good guy has been hit (preferably by an unfair shot), everything is fair game, and he can whale on the villain as much as he wants. But you need that initial trigger to get things going, or else the audience will feel uneasy about the hero taking the initiative in fighting or killing the villain.

The director is Canadian, and I can't help but wonder how much he thinks he is showing American attitudes towards violence rather than human attitudes. The excesses are distinctly American, even if the impulses are human. I think there's something in our culture that loves conflict; citzens of other nations may be just as violent, but we seem to celebrate it in a way many others do not. Other reviews have talked about this a lot, but one of the great achievements of AHOV is the way the movie causes the viewer to start thinking about their own relationship to the violence on the screen. We want to cheer when Tom shoots at the thug after being stabbed in the foot, even though we are repulsed by the sight of the man with his face blown away. This movie presents violence in all its gory splendor, much as Tarantino does, but lingers over the consequences in a way that builds unease. I think we Americans love to see guns shooting and punches landing, but are less enthusiastic about sucking chest wounds and torn tendons. We love violence but not sadism.

I think, though, that the movie gives itself an out: if you wanted to, you could watch it as the very thing it challenges, a gory mystery and revenge flick. It wouldn't take that much effort to turn off your mind and cheer Tom as he takes on the bad guys. However, people will be best rewarded if they question the movie while they are watching it. I highly recommend this movie, and am considering placing it atop my list for best movies of 2005. (Yeah, I didn't see that many movies last year. So what?)

Top 5
Just off the top of my head, and I may be forgetting something altogether. These are movies that were released in the US in 2005 whether I saw them during that year or not. Criteria is just that I think it was a "good" movie, as opposed to necessarily being "fun" or "enlightening."
1. A History of Violence
2. Howl's Moving Castle
3. The 40 Year Old Virgin
4. Good Night, And Good Luck
5. Sin City

Movies are good. I feel awkward about going to a theater by myself (did it for #2, #3 and #5 on this list), and I don't really have a group here to do movies with, so I end up seeing much less than I'd like. This does have some benefits - there are always enough good movies "on the list" that I'm never tempted to see a mediocre movie, so the quality of my cinematic experience is high, though the quantity may be low. I don't really have any specific plans to address this in the future. I trust my friends and several specific critics to make good recommendations, and try to make it to them when I can. Here's hoping for more good movies in 2006!

UPDATE 6/19/06: Agh, I just realized I left off Serenity! I'm sorry. That movie-going experience was probably #1 on the list - the preview screening crew was phenomenal, and it was a wonderful movie and a great coda to one of the best seasons of sci-fi ever. It terms of how "good" it is, I'd probably put it at #3 - nothing against the movie, it was excellent, but A History of Violence and Howl's Moving Castle were transcendent.

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