When sci-fi is working properly it’s as a longer narrative form of the philosophical thought experiment, tweaking certain variables of existence while holding others constant to see where the manipulation leads. Sadly, the cinematic variety rarely does this, instead being an excuse for replacing bullets and criminals with lasers and alien monsters in what amounts to little more than just another action spectacle. So, it’s a good thing when a movie like Moon comes along, however modest its ambition, preferring to explore thought over action. Make no mistake, it falls well short of the ontological resonance of its two primary influences, 2001 and Solaris, but nonetheless gives the viewer a good bit to mull over, which is fine by me.
In the not too distant future, Earth’s scientists have found a solution to the present day’s energy crisis, mining something called Helium-3 from the moon. The governmental/corporate means of production for this involve mostly robot digging contraptions, but with a single human who has “signed up” for a three-year stint to make sure everything is running smoothly. Now, three years with nothing but books, models, an endless supply of '50s sitcoms and the ability to romp on the moon sounds pretty good to me, but I guess it would get a good deal lonesome for most. Thus, instead of paying volunteers, a series of clones are used, which are all based on one person, Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell). With only a HAL-like robot called GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey) to keep him company, Sam’ (to distinguish this one from the original) whiles away the time in the aforementioned manners, occasionally receiving a transmission from Earth or having to do repairs on the diggers (as relayed by his robotic assistant). It’s on one such repair mission that things become philosophically interesting.Continue Reading
At age 22, Britain's "most violent criminal" Charles Bronson (nÃ© Michael Peterson, who initially took the name for his short-lived boxing career and then had it legally changed; here played by Tom Hardy) began serving a 7-year sentence for armed robbery. The year was 1974, less than 2 years after Stanley Kubrick pulled his movie Clockwork Orange from the theaters due to death threats. With the exception of just over 4 months, Bronson has spent the last 35 years as a ward of the state, all but 4 of them in solitary confinement. This extended sentence has to do with his seeming love of violence for violence's sake, something like the performance art of an evil Andy Kaufman. As such, he's a child of Alex de Large, or an Agent Orange -- that is, one whose real life lends itself to Kubrick's satire. Or, at least, that's how Bronson's director Refn takes it (some of Bronson's victims tend to approach his nature a little less abstractly). Therefore, Refn gives us Clockwork Orange's malevolent juxtapositions of barbarity and high-toned culture, gravitas and cornball pop tunes, with a comic book color palette and told through the wide-angled, symmetrical perspective of a demented narrator in clown makeup. Not exactly original, but like Cape Fear was to Hitchcock, livelier than most other films that don't steal from only one source.Continue Reading
A fantastical adaptation of Emile Zola's Therese Raquin. Not that I've ever read any Zola, mind you, but I've read about him. Maybe after I've finished working my way through the entire output of the 19th century Russian realists, I'll be ready. If only Zola had featured more vampires in his stories...Well, Chan-Wook Park knows how to get me interested in realism, at least -- same as the Russians -- with ideological discussions of atheism.
Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) is a Catholic priest with a martyr complex or strong death drive (amounts to the same thing, I suppose), who plays guinea pig in a macabre experiment to help doctors find a cure for a virus that's particularly dangerous to Korean men. He's the only one to survive the voluntary infection due to a transfusion using vampire blood. The catch is that he now needs to feed on normal human blood to keep from sweating his own and breaking out in disfiguring boils. Initially, he's racked by guilt over his bodily urges, which leads to his sucking on a comatose patient's IV and a fellow priest, Noh (In-hwan Park), with a more sanguine attitude about the vampire virus. Sang-hyeon sees vampirism as a loss of humanity, Noh as a gift, a potential cure for his blindness. Due to his miracle cure, the vampire picks up a religious following of Catholics who see him as another messiah, parallel to that other popular tale of transfiguration. Is he a vampire who walks like a man, or man who acts like a vampire?Continue Reading
Not counting the fairly recent 300, the '60s produced my favorite gay films: Basil Dearden’s Victim, Robert Aldrich’s The Killing of Sister George, and particularly Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter's The Servant. The three form a trilogy to my mind: all are British; like the kitchen sink realism of the period, they foreground class in their sexual politics; both The Victim and The Servant feature Dirk Bogarde, the finest of cerebral actors, making you feel every thought his characters have; Losey trained and will always be closely aligned with Robert Aldrich. Although Aldrich was more of a bare-knuckles kind of director, his film shares with the more intellectual Losey an approach to sexual identity and politics that I prefer: as a just-so given, full of suggestion, and with a good deal of nuance.
Compare the matter-of-fact presentation of lesbianism in Sister George -- where the indignities heaped upon its protagonist, June 'George' Buckridge, are more common, a fact of modern existence -- to the more literal minded identity politics of Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. In the latter case, oppression becomes a matter of sexual identity, whereas in the former, said identity is just another method those in power might use as a means for subjugation. Not that there's anything wrong with the more particularized morality of Philadelphia in principle (Victim is, in fact, a much better example), but unless one already sympathizes with its gay protagonist, the story remains one about the Other. Aldrich’s film requires no such identification, but is instead a reflection of power itself, irrespective of the particularities of sexual orientation or gender.Continue Reading
Rachel Getting Married
So, I'll go ahead and use a fussy distinction, and call Jonathan Demme's film cinema direct, rather than cinema verite, since it calls more attention to its subject than itself. It's grueling enough to deserve the three accent marks, however. Unlike the use of the shaky-cam in Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield, Demme and his cinematographer, Declan Quinn, always keep the camera in the objective, 3rd-person tense. They also, thankfully, keep it more transparent than Paul Greengrass's more navel-gazing camera eye. While moving room to room, the audience floats along, but when the wedding party guests are talking, the filmmakers fix the shot, remembering that modern cameras can re-focus on stuff in the background without having to move. Whatever you call it, Rachel Getting Married is realism at its squirm-inducing most direct.
Jenny Lumet's script rarely hits a wrong note in analyzing a particular bourgeois Connecticut family's power struggles that are inherent to most families. Whereas my family get-togethers center on frito-pie and football, Rachel's wedding involves Indian attire and cuisine with Robyn Hitchcock and Cyro Baptista supplying the entertainment. All attention is being paid to Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt) until her younger sister, Kym (Anne Hathaway), shows up with a weekend pass from court-mandated rehab. What follows is the gentrified version of the Electra Complex. The sisters compete for attention from Dad (Bill Irwin) using what they have: Rachel is the perfect daughter with some undefined perfect job, perfect friends (successful musicians and writers) and a perfect fiance, whereas Kym is the classic second-child fuckup, with drug addiction being her calling card.Continue Reading
A friend's mother used to have one of those tacky plates expressing homilies hanging up on her kitchen wall. Hers read, "Lord, if you can't make me thin, please make all my friends fat." There's a sort of religious fanatic's wish fulfilling fantasy expressed in that message, namely: "I don't want to be happy, but others to be more miserable." Only, it doesn't quite get the desire for power correct; more accurately, it should've read, "make my friends fatter than me." Peter Parker would've hardly captured the dork imagination had he only been given the strength of his high school arch-nemesis, Flash Thompson. No, he needed to become vastly superior. A thought experiment regarding this fantasized superiority complex comes by way of Fernando Meirelles' film adaptation of Nobel-laureate Jose Saramago's novel, Ensaio sobre a Cegueira (An Essay On Blindness). I haven't read the book (too busy with comics), but it sounds pretty close to the film's.
The story takes place in the not-too-distant future in an unnamed city where an epidemic of "white blindness" breaks out. The afflicted characters describe the blindness as swimming through milk, and the grey shapes fading into a white fog digitally created for the camera eye reinforce this description. A more allegorically rich name for the film might've been The Ganzfeld ("whole field"), since the affliction bears a close resemblance to the old gestalt effect of creating a sort of snowblindness with a homogeneous distribution of light across the retina. The ganzfeld parallels the redistribution of power relations among the blind and the seeing within the story. As it were, "seeing the light" no longer has any beneficial effects for the sighted (just as belief in a god has no real moral benefits for the religious, if the millennia-old Christian support for torture is any indication).Continue Reading
The Bourne Ultimatum
The last (for now) of the Bourne trilogy, which turns out to be the most intriguing of the three due to its critical approach towards Hollywood’s demand for viewer identification. Based on Robert Ludlum’s series of novels, the distinguishing feature of Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), keeping him from being just another fantastic superspy in the mold of James Bond, is that while his super-abilities come from his secretive training, his morality comes from no longer being able to recall the ends for which he was trained. Thus, the narrative thrust of the trilogy: in trying to find out who and what he is and why a top secret offshoot of the C.I.A. wants him dead, he tries to make amends for various assassinations he performed, but can only remember as abstractions without their ideological intent.
So as not to condemn the entire C.I.A., there are good guys (Julia Stiles as Nicky Parsons and Joan Allen as Pamela Landy), who recognize the wrongs perpetrated on Bourne by the ultra-clandestine offshoot, Operation Black Briar, and real bad guys (David Straithairn as Deputy Director Noah Vosen and Albert Finney as Dr. Albert Hirsch), who do everything they can, including killing innocent civilians, to keep the conspiracy under wraps. In terms of the action spectacle, the film delivers (although there is an extended sequence involving cellular technology that reminded me of that tedious Ben Affleck actioner where he spends an hour and a half with a phone to his ear). As with 007, the object of the audience's fantasy is clearly delineated, only with a face that suggests more B.M.O.C. at your average Mid-Western fraternity than international espionage. But the film is tuned to Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers in that the final reveal has the viewer questioning his or her fantasized identity rather than giving into the lure of diversionary entertainment. * SPOILER ALERT * Upon going face-to-face with Dr. Hirsch, Bourne achieves total recall, remembering that he willingly gave himself over to the Operation, proving his allegiance by willingly killing an unknown captive for no other reason than he's told to. * END SPOILER ALERT *Continue Reading
I’m Not There
Contrary to the average Hollywood celebrity, Bob Dylan’s a star who largely created the stories surrounding him, sold his image based on those stories, but then resisted those stories once the media and his fans began to read him too literally through them. In this fantasy documentary about the singer, director/co-writer Todd Haynes tries to walk the line between individualism (subjectivity defining itself) and his own radical semiotic belief that everything is just stories, signs signifying other signs. The problem here is that if there is no core Dylan that we can ever arrive at, only a series of stories that we compile, how can we understand or appreciate what Dylan was resisting against or why, since that rebel is nothing but another confabulation, no truer than the rest? As the title suggests, the movie celebrates Dylan’s resistance to being defined, giving its subject what he wants, a portrayal on his own terms, not held down by anything he says about himself or others. It’s hardly surprising, then, that Dylan gave permission for the extensive use his music. The irony here is that, despite its postmodernist structure of multiple narratives, the film divines a core Dylan-construct by giving into and clearly defending his side of the story, or stories.
One might be tempted to take the position that the only thing important about Dylan is his music, but this film isn’t about determining the meaning of his lyrics from his personal life. Rather, it asks how we should view an artist (or artist qua celebrity) in relation to his art. Haynes is right in the sense that, at best, all we’re going to get is a construct/story of Dylan, but aren’t some constructs better than others? You can sail as long as you like, but you ain’t going to fall off the world, regardless of how old your map is. Therefore, aren’t we entitled to hold the storyteller, or mapmaker, responsible for at least some of his creations? It’s in addressing this question of moral/political/aesthetic responsibility that Haynes gives up the postmodern ghost. As has been well reported, there are a number of actors playing what’s been best described as avatars of Dylan. None of them are named ‘Bob Dylan,’ nor are they supposed to be biopic versions of the man himself, only cognates of stories about the man that have been spun by Dylan and others. I’m only interested here in a few of them: Jude Quinn (Cate Blanchett as a female version of Pennebaker’s folk-rebelling Electric Bob in Don’t Look Back), Woody Guthrie (Marcus Carl Franklin as a black child representation of Americana that Dylan emulated at an earlier age), and Billy the Kid (Richard Gere as the storybook American rebel and rambler that Dylan often played out in his songs and as symbolized in Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, which featured Dylan in a supporting role). I no more care about their actual veracity than Haynes does, only the way he uses them as suppositions in his argument as a movie.Continue Reading
Set on the cusp of the advertising revolution in 1960s Madison Avenue, Matthew Weiner’s Mad Men follows the exploits of the admen at a mid-level firm as its old-fashioned ways are being challenged by the popular onset of the counterculture. Advertising is America’s subterranean cultural history and most of the drama from Weiner’s show comes from contrasting our collective marketed images with the personal reality of his characters as this distinction begins to dissolve. As lead adman Don Draper (Jon Hamm) sits on a train confounded by the new Volkswagen Beetle ad from Doyle Dane Bernbach, you can feel the Age of Schizophrenia coming on. It was no accident that the Beetle became a signifier of the hippies.
William Bernbach’s major innovation was using the anti-consumerist rhetoric of fifties pop culture critics to sell more stuff. Where ads had previously promoted the supposed benefits of some object to the viewing subject, the new advertising began to redefine the subject through the object, emphasizing what that object says about its owner. As the potential buyer began to define himself by the connoted images of his desiderata, homo economicus gave way to homo consumens, man as consumer. That it has become nigh impossible to extricate ourselves from Madison Avenue’s Mephistophelean bargain can be seen by the way product placement serves to make the critique possible. Does it matter if the use of the VW Bug functions as sponsorship or objective correlative? The Marxist critique of capitalism has been reduced to comedic effect by this point – only, we’re the butt of the joke.Continue Reading
Set in the last days of Cooley High’s 1964 class, the film follows the extracurricular exploits of a disaffected young writer, Preach (Turman), and his more matriculatedly inclined friend and local sports star, Cochese (Hilton-Jacobs). Based on the post-adolescent years in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project of writer and the film’s primary auteur, Eric Monte, the story serves as a counter-narrative to the white-flight reactionary dreaming of American Graffiti. Where that film sought to return the disillusioned 70s mainstream audience to simpler and happier times, pre-JFK assassination, Monte places his characters right under the storm cloud a-brewin’ and still manages to find the same teen-aged joie de vivre one encounters in Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Dazed and Confused.
Preferring lived experience to the more academic variety, Preach spends his days ducking classes, gambling, drinking, smoking dope, trying to get into the pants of the best-looking girl in the neighborhood, Brenda (Davis) and dreaming of being a Hollywood writer. Cochese has considerably less trouble with the girls and makes plans for college. With a bit of movie magic, it turns out that Brenda loves the same poets Preach does, while Cochese has learned that he’s going to the school of his choice with a full scholarship. Although the film delivers as many comedic highs as any suburban teen comedy, the graffiti-ridden streets framed by the petroleous columns of Chicago’s metro railways taints the wish-fulfilling qualities it shares with a John Hughes flick. And, sure enough, the film takes on a more somber tone after Preach and Cochese go on a joyride with some felonious friends in a Cadillac.Continue Reading