J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for January, 2011

The Night of the Hunter

Posted by J on January 31, 2011

It’s possible that The Night of the Hunter is the best film ever made.  That’s such a contentious claim, we know.  But as a midwestern Americans, we understand it very well, and thematically and aesthetically it fits the current accepted criteria for “great movie.”  So let’s just agree to call it one of the best yet made.

There is a lot of America in the movie, past and present.  A psychopath who disguises himself as a preacher, Harry Powell, who seems to believe that he is doing the Lord’s work, attacks and robs widows.  He does this by seducing them first with his God talk.  Thrown in jail for stealing a car, Powell learns of $10,000 in stolen cash from Ben Harper, a fellow prisoner who, the day after he tells Powell about the money, is executed for murder.  Harper has a wife and two children.  This is a great opportunity for Powell. Once released from jail, he heads to the Harper homestead.

The problem is that no one knows where the money is, except for Harper’s two children, John and Pearl.  The battle is on between Powell and the children.  Powell first seduces the townsfolk with a religious story about the battle between “Love” and “Hate.” words he has written on the knuckles of his left and right hands.  He then seduces Mrs. Harper and marries her.  For the kids, this is a big problem.  Their new stepdad is a psychopath.  For Mrs. Harper, now Mrs. Powell, it is a wild descent into being brainwashed by a misogynist.  She sides with Powell, and against her children, while believing that sex is an unclean abomination.

What we have described so far is a plotline that we tend to avoid.  We don’t enjoy being around psychopaths in reality, and we don’t like watching them on screen, especially those who try to torment children.  If this movie had been made anytime between the 1970s and today, it would’ve been a disaster. It most likely would’ve been a horror film strictly about a creep who chases children.  But this movie veers, in its third act, upwards to another level.  By doing so, it becomes a kind of Midwestern fairy tale — the old kind of fairy tale, like the stories of Brothers Grimm, where the bad guys are really maniacs who murder for pleasure.

The movie depicts the faults and virtues of the Midwest.  Granted, the faults of the Midwest and South have been the feature of many a film.    There have been so many idiotic or psychopathic rednecks in the last forty years of movies that we get really defensive about the depiction of our native region.  And Harry Powell may be the ultimate Midwestern psychopath. He talks to God and deceives all of the townsfolk, who believe him to be an honorable man of God.  But Powell’s character is balanced by another’s — whose we won’t say — who enters the third act and introduces hope into the story.  The movie does not treat Christianity as if it is a religion of hucksters and brainwashed fools.  It is quite honest about the possibilities of proclaimed Christians.  Powell, who sings “Leaning on Jesus,” is a devil in disguise, the townsfolk are naive fools who eventually form a lawless mob, but others are genuine Christians in word and practice.

The idea of Huck Finn is also attacked in this movie. John Harper, probably 8 years old, is a kind of Huck Finn, a would-be orphan who floats down the river.  But John is forced into playing Huck Finn by foolish and sinister adults.  And in the end, he is the anti-Huck Finn who needs reforming from a charitable Aunt Polly.  John’s fatherlessness is a major problem, and his substitute father (Powell) is an even bigger one.  The idea that he will be taught — via the story of the baby Moses — is that Christian doctrine provides the ultimate Father.

We like movies that have a touch of the mythical.  The Night of the Hunter has that.  It is a morality tale that taps into primal feelings and makes you root hard for the children and against Powell.  And it mythologically elevates Middle America.  Since this is one of a handful of movies that do that for our beloved, native land, for us, it is special.

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Posted in Great, Horror | Leave a Comment »

Inception

Posted by J on January 25, 2011

It seems odd to think of Inception as a science-fiction heist flick.  While it is just that, it never feels like that.  Perhaps that’s because, as viewers, we’re too absorbed and distracted to think about this.  Instead, we are constantly trying to listen for and learn this movie’s rules.  It has a lot of rules.  It makes them up as it goes along, but that never bothered us.  The movie is its own self-defined fantasy world.

Others have had problems with the movie’s logical expositions.  There are lots and lots of didactic moments, where the characters tell each other — and thus the audience — exactly what the rules of the dream world are.  These didactic moments are necessary because the movie is complicated.  The main character, Cobb, must implant an idea in Robert Fischer’s mind.  The way to do this is through dreams.  To get Fischer to believe that his recently-deceased father, head of a major energy corporation, wants Fischer to be his own man and split up the company, Cobb must create a dream within a dream within a dream.  Then he must guide Fischer through these dreams. Usually Cobb is involved in missions called “extractions,” in which he finds an idea in someone’s mind, but his mission here is the much harder process of idea-implantation known as “inception.”

To perform inception, Cobb must assemble a team.  He picks a chemist, a forger, a right-hand man, and an architect.  The architect creates the dream worlds, which must be enclosed, complex mazes so that the dreamer doesn’t realize that he/she is dreaming.   Cobb’s architect, a college student named Ariadne, finds that dream worlds are planes of “pure creation.”  There is a sense of wonder about this, but also dread.  A dreamer’s subconscious can turn upon other dreamers, attacking them with its manifestations.  And then there’s the problem of Cobb.  In dreams, Cobb’s dead wife keeps showing up and ruining his plans.  Ariadne worries that Cobb’s involvement will ruin the inception of Fischer.

It is nearly impossible to criticize this movie’s logic because it is its own self-contained entity.  We could ask, why is it safe to have three dream levels, but four dream levels is dangerous, the fourth level being the dreaded “Limbo,” which is the realm of “unreconstructed dream space”?  Why does the dream world experience zero-gravity if the dreamer experiences zero gravity?  We could go on questioning, but that’s pointless.  Questions like these do arise because, somehow, someway, the movie seems far more realistic than it really is.  The technology that makes shared dreaming possible is barely noticeable — it’s just a small, shiny gray box.  What does the box do?  How does it work?  Again, these aren’t relevant questions for this movie.

Inception‘s dream worlds resemble reality, but they allow architects to create entirely new, enticing places. This can be dangerous.  Cobb and his wife, Mal, once spent decades in a dream world, though technically it was only minutes of reality.  Mal loved the dream world too much.  As the movie shows, she loved an abstraction of real life — a fantasy world of statis — more than our everyday reality that necessarily involves time and change.  The threat to Cobb and his accomplices is that they, too, will get stuck in “Limbo” forever.

There are some obvious themes, then, that relate to modern addictions to fantasy worlds.  In a certain sense, we get sucked in to virtual worlds, whether in a video game, or a TV show, or online.  These virtual worlds must be fairly potent; for examples, head to your local library and witness dozens of people playing mindless games, fantasizing in Second Life, or creating new personalities on social networking sites. As with Inception’s dream box, these newer, digital mediums create dreams for us to inhabit and lose ourselves in.

Also, the movie touches on whether the mind is constructed by culture and influenced by visual communication.  Cobb’s mission is to implant an unwanted idea into another’s head.  This is a reasonable working definition for “propaganda.”  The idea that words and images can create reality — can bend or distort reality — is a powerful one for 20th century philosophy.  It is also the idea behind advertising.  While we think some arguments for the power of images to shape minds go too far, images certainly have some motivating effect on us all.  Watch this Darren Brown video on subliminal advertising for an example.  What Brown does is not far from what Cobb does in Inception.

It’s worth pointing out that Inception is an amalgam of other movies.  It’s already well known that the movie uses Fred Astaire’s dancing sequence from Royal Wedding, as well as various James Bond ski-resort scenes.  It also has major elements of every heist movie yet made, though the way Inception uses them to invent its own, unique world is probably the movie’s greatest success.  Implantation of ideas into another’s mind has long been a plot device for sci-fi.  We recently watched an episode of the 1960s series The Prisoner in which this was attempted (see “A.B. and C.“).  As a compilation of other movies, Inception is its own dream world.  It is about the effect of movies on viewer behavior, and it is about itself.

(Addendum: What’s interesting about this movie, psychologically, is the way that it conveys the directional space of dreams so effortlessly. In the final sequence, there are four dream levels.  As confusing as this could be, we know intuitively that these levels are layered, that one is on top of another.  We still can’t figure out why we get this certain feeling of the dream layers being organized vertically, but the movie pulls it off.  Well done.

Also novel is the ticking clock used in this movie.  Instead of a timer that counts down to zero, a van that falls off a bridge into the ocean is the clock.  This is an example of the way that the movie reinvents many cliches of the action genre.)

Posted in Big-Budget Eye Candy, Pretty Good, Reality-Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Fantasy | 1 Comment »

The Social Network

Posted by J on January 21, 2011

The Blu-ray and DVD covers for The Social Network aren’t typical covers, since their focal points are critics’ blurbs about how great this movie is. “An American Landmark!”  “A Brilliant Film.”  “Mammoth and Exhilarating.”  This all seems a little too boastful, and the curmudgeons in us, upon seeing this cover, immediately wanted to dislike this movie.

Well, we were entertained enough, though there were no exhilarating mammoths. But The Social Network ultimately fails in number of ways and it might be quickly forgotten.  As is well known, the movie is about the creation of Facebook.  500 million people use Facebook, and so the movie has a ready-made audience.  The story is told through a legal deposition in which Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is sued by his former business partner, Eduardo Saverin, who put up $19,000 to in start-up cash, and an identical twin pair, the Winklevosses. The movie is almost as much about the failures of Saverin and the Winklevosses as it is about Zuckerberg’s successes.

The movie cuts between flashbacks to Facebook’s formation at Harvard and California in 2003-2004, and the 2008 testimony at the deposition.  This structure works well, but it assumes that viewers know what Facebook is and why this deposition matters.  Yes, most people know this well today, but they may not tomorrow.  The problem with giving an Oscar to this movie is the looming threat of irrelevance.  How much would people today care about a 2004 movie about the founding of Myspace?  A 1995 movie about the founding of Microsoft or Apple would still be relevant; a similar movie about AOL or Sega would not be.  And we all would be bored to death now by a movie about Atari, Netscape, and Gateway. (A list of failed tech companies from the 1970s would be too obscure.) Obviously, powerful tech companies can vanish very quickly.

The Social Network sharply contrasts modern entrepreneurial spirit with the narcissism and arrogance of those same entrepreneurs.  In the opening scene, Zuckerberg has a conversation in a bar with his girlfriend, Erica. How Zuckerberg ever got a girlfriend, and one as patient as her, is a plot hole that is ignored.  Zuckerberg is a narcissist and an exacting logician, so Erica dumps him.  Angered, Zuckerberg returns to his dormroom to create a website called Facemash, in which users choose who the hottest girls at Harvard are.  Zuckerberg is best when programming at his computer — a phenomenon termed “wired in” in the movie — but worst when he’s talking to others.  This is the Nerd that you’ve seen a thousand times in movies, only this Nerd is annoyingly arrogant, not shy.

The Winklevoss twins hear of the success of Zuckerberg’s Facemash website, and so they ask him to work on a “Harvard Connection” website.  Zuckerberg agrees, but then never does anything for them.    This leads the Winklevosses to believe that Zuckerberg, once Facebook’s success is obvious, stole their ideas.  They are rich, handsome and athletic, and the movie makes them out to be spurned, prideful, gentleman jocks.  Once again, the Nerd defeats the Preppy Jock at the movies.

The Social Network makes it clear that Zuckerberg’s only good friend is Saverin.  It is supposed to be ironic that Zuckerberg, who creates a website where you could find 500 million friends, abandons his own friend to create a billion-dollar company.  Repeatedly, Saverin claims that Zuckerberg is not interested in money.  He may not be, but he seems interested in the power that money brings, a temptation offered to him by Sean Parker, founder of Napster.  The film’s last act shows how Saverin was pushed aside and how Parker stepped in to own 6% of Facebook.  Parker is a successful entrepreneur who seemingly has no friends, but he does have money and women.

So Saverin sues Zuckerberg because he, Saverin, put up the initial capital for Facebook and was CFO. It seems that he was tricked into signing a bad contract that, eventually, made his share of the company drop from 34% to .03%.  Since that company is supposedly worth $25 billion, Saverin is just a little peeved.

This is a movie that misunderstands what its major themes should be.  It focuses on the irony of the lack of friendship between its characters, who nevertheless are creating a website about finding friends.  But Facebook is not a website about finding friends, which is so easy to do that it makes the term “friend” meaningless.  Facebook is about proclaiming yourself to the world, about showing the triumph of you and your likes and dislikes, of trying to tell everybody that you matter.  Given who these characters are, it makes complete sense that they would create such a website.

The final scene — spoiler alert — shows Zuckerberg as desiring the thing he couldn’t have.  He sends a friend request on Facebook to Erica, the girlfriend who broke up with him and whom he mistreated.  Then he refreshes the page over and over to see if she will “accept his friend request.”  This is ridiculous.  Would Zuckerberg, a 25-year old billionaire and head of a global company that 10% of the world’s population uses, care about something so insignificant?  The movie has spent so much time trying to show Zuckerberg’s arrogance and narcissism, and he is clearly at the point in life where the abundance of money and power that he has would feed those qualities.  And yet the ending of the movie tries to figure him as a man longing for the past, a quality that usually manifests itself in much older people. Remember Charles Foster Kane uttering “Rosebud”?  It’s as if Kane were long for his Rosebud as a young newspaper owner, not as an old man on his deathbed. Reader, if I were a 25-year old billionaire, the last thing I would ever think about is the girlfriend I barely knew who dumped me five years ago.  Try me when I’m 75, maybe.

Posted in Modern Drama, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again | 1 Comment »

Winter’s Bone

Posted by J on January 19, 2011

Winter’s Bone is that rarest of movies that has a modicum of respect for the most hated of classes, the rural, poor  white.  I have been reading through Stuff White People Like recently, in which there is a repeated observation that there are “white people” — meaning hip, liberal-ish urbanites — and the “wrong kind of white people.”  This “wrong kind” has certain, vulgar tastes that offend the sensibilities of white people: Budweiser, professional wrestling, pickup trucks, Ed Hardy clothing.  And this offense is affirmed by dozens of movie examples.  Usually in Hollywood it’s the poor rural white who gets to play the moron, the buffoon, or the serial killer.  So when I see that a movie about poor, rural whites wins major film awards, I get a bit suspicious about its portrayal of the “wrong kind.”  (Confession: I am of the “wrong kind.”)

Yet, while there are some creepy people in Winter’s Bone, most of the poor Arkansas characters depicted therein are decent folk.  The movie, if I am reading it correctly, does not look at these characters condescendingly, but instead lets viewers enter their world and experience it in a fairly neutral way.  Incredibly, this movie is a reasonable presentation of the “wrong kind.”  This is especially true of the main character, Ree, a 17-year-old girl who must take care of her sick mother and two younger siblings.  Because of her delinquent father, Ree is forced to learn to be a caretaker and provider. She and her family live in a cabin in the Ozarks.  Ree attends school, but also must find food and fuel for her family, which includes shooting squirrels and chopping wood.  Ree’s family is almost too poor, and so they must rely on the good will of neighbors for provisions.

The backdrop to Ree’s life is drugs.  She has avoided them, but a few of the characters are either addicted to them — as is the case with her uncle, nicknamed Teardrop — or are making them.  The drug of choice to make is meth.  Her father’s involvement with meth is greatly responsible for his absence.  The story begins when Ree’s father, Jessup, has gone missing.  This isn’t all that unusual, but the stakes are far higher this time, because Jessup has put up the family home and their acreage on his bailbond.  He must show up to court, or else the family will lose everything.  Ree discovers that no one knows where Jessup is.  To avoid being instantly homeless in a week’s time, she tries to find out where Jessup is.

Netflix calls this movie “noir” and a “detective story.”  Others have called it an “odyssey.”  All of these descriptions are somewhat close to the mark, but none are precise.  It is above all else about the persistence of Ree to help and provide for her family, and the movie returns again and again back to Ree’s homestead.   At 17, she is now father and mother of this household.  Late in the movie, she tries to join the Army to get the $40,000 that the recruitment poster offers her.  And she risks harming herself by confronting shady characters to find out where exactly her father is.

Fatherlessness is the main issue of the movie.  Jessup’s absence is at the forefront. Indeed, there would be no plot without his absence, and he is practically a main character, someone talked about in almost every scene.  He has, we are told, loved his family, but he is also an adulterer and a drug runner.  When we finally meet him — alive or dead, I will not reveal — he is dealt with surprisingly.

Winter’s Bone offers what hope it can.  The growing kindness of Teardrop, coupled with Ree’s determination, are all that we can hang on in the film’s rather bleak, cold world.  This hope, however, is not enough, and I highly recommend that you not watch this movie in a semi-depressed or despairing mood.  Yet the characters are fairly realistic, people like I have personally experienced, and above all the movie represents them as human beings, and not as moronic rednecks or depraved sickos.  Hopefully it contributes what it can to overturning the notion that these kind of white people are the “wrong kind.”

Posted in Modern Drama, Pretty Good | 1 Comment »

Local Hero

Posted by J on January 18, 2011

Most movies are purely entertaining, a distraction from worldly cares.  Only a very few, maybe three or four, have ever provoked us to think for hours about them.  Local Hero is one of those few.  Mind you, it is not necessarily an entertaining movie.  You will have to stick with it.  You will also have to appreciate subtleties and try to make connections between characters and ideas.  It demands a little bit of work.

If we tell you the plot, you will think that you will know everything that happens.  A Texas oil company, Knox Gas and Oil, wants to buy the village of Ferness in Scotland, a tiny coastal town.  Knox wants to build a refinery there and drill offshore.  So Knox, headed by Felix Happer, sends an executive to Ferness to negotiate a deal.  This executive is Mac, a bachelor selected for this mission because he appears to be Scottish — surname: MacIntrye — but who is actually Hungarian.

In every other movie ever made with this plot, the village of Ferness will be so quaint and charming, so socially and environmentally precious, that none of the locals will want to give up their traditional homes.  A cliched movie would pit mega-corporations against quaint small towns.  Not so Local Hero.  The catch is that the villagers of Ferness actually want to sell their town.  They all dream about the piles of money coming their way.  They want to play the stock market.  They want to buy property in an urban area.  They want to ditch the place where their ancestors once lived.

Mac, on the other hand, begins to like Ferness.  It’s quite different from the bustle of Houston.  While the villagers stall negotiations in an attempt to get a sweeter deal, Mac walks the beaches and talks to the locals.  And he seems to prefer the quiet openness of the place.  Accompanying Mac is local representative Danny Oldsen.  Danny grows fond of Ferness too, but for different reasons.  He gets a crush on a mysterious local girl who is an adept swimmer.  Both Mac and Danny experience Ferness almost in an otherworldly way. It is that charming smalltown that compares favorably to their big city lives.  They are even transported to Ferness in an uncanny way, when a thick fog forces them to sleep on the road just before they arrive in town.

Mac has another mission.  Happer has asked Mac to watch the skies, to look for any strange or interesting cosmological activity.  Happer is a bit of an astronomy nut.  He’s unable to look at the stars in Houston — the bright lights of the city are too overwhelming — so he has an artificial dome of stars built into his CEO office.  In Ferness, Mac does see interesting stellar activity, seemingly for the first time.  This adds to Mac’s fondness for Ferness and prompts Happer to want to leave Houston and see Ferness for himself.

Does Mac make a deal for Knox to buy Ferness? In movies like this, there are only two ways.  Either the corporation wins and the oil refinery is built, bulldozing hundreds of years of local custom in a single deal, or the local town wins and tradition is saved.  Local Hero offers a third way.  While everyone wants to get the deal done, though Mac is tentative about it, one lone holdout who owns beachfront property doesn’t want to sell.  Actually, he doesn’t need to sell, as he is perfectly content.  This holdout upsets everyone, but it turns out that he has familial connections with Happer.  Happer and the holdout work out an unexpected deal.

I’m tempted here to discuss and analyze the solution that the movie offers, but I’d prefer that you see the movie and think about it for yourself.  It is worth pointing out that, in the movie, just about every character has unfulfilled dreams.  Mac wants the charm of Ferness, the citizens of Ferness want Mac’s lifestyle, Danny wants a girl, Happer wants to see the sky — and all of these experience different endings to their problems.  There are also subthemes that augment themes.  For example, there’s the threat of hostility in the sky when a NATO jet flies overhead and bombs a nearby beach, practicing for live war against Russia.  This is precisely that opposite of what Happer and Mac are looking for in the sky, but it’s challenged by the friendly visit of a Soviet fisherman who stops by Ferness to mingle with the locals.

And then there’s the final image. What does it mean?  What is it telling us about cities, after we’ve spent most of the movie in a quaint small town and looking at a natural skyline?  What is Mac thinking in that final shot?  Local Hero has one of the most provoking final scenes I’ve seen in movies, but again, it’s a quiet scene. It’s not a twist ending.  But it’s one that may inspire much thought.

I have not seen this movie twice, but I’m sure it’s one of the few that gets better on subsequent viewings.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 10

Morality: 10

Posted in Comedy, Great | Leave a Comment »

The King’s Speech

Posted by J on January 17, 2011

The King’s Speech is about as good as movies can get.  It’s a traditional narrative, but it’s also visually interesting.  It’s about quiet human problems, the conflict in it is minimal, there are no flashy scenes, and yet it’s deeply affecting.

One can hardly imagine how this movie got made.  The initial meeting to pitch the movie could not have gone well. “We’re going to do a movie about a member of the British royalty who stutters.”  “So what’s the conflict?” “Um, well, the stuttering is the conflict.  He needs to learn to speak well.”  And yet the fact that this movie is so darned good is proof that just about anything can be made into a story.

The problem is really that simple. The Duke of York, Elizabeth II’s father, needs speech therapy.  He cannot speak in public, and he rarely speaks well in private.  But the British monarchy, during the days of radio, is becoming increasing public.  As the Duke knows, he must be a kind of actor, able to deliver a rousing speech that will promote the right feelings.  The need to be an actor is pressing, in fact, since the Duke’s Brother will be (and eventually is) a problem king.  As we know, Edward VIII abdicated his throne to marry an American divorcee.  This abdication gave the Duke of York, thereafter King George VI, the crown.

The problem is complicated by the failure of numerous speech therapists to improve the Duke’s speech.  Persistent, the Duke’s wife rings up Lionel Logue, a native Australian who has advertised his services in the cheap Sunday papers.  Logue is respectful of the royal family, but he asks for “complete equality” in his studio.  Such equality is part of the therapy.

The relationship between Logue and the Duke lasts for years.  Lesser movies would’ve treated it with cliches.  You might expect the Duke to learn his lesson, that commoners like Logue are people too, that the Duke should learn to be democratic, that the Duke’s snobby elitism is a high sin.  But there’s nearly none of this here.  The two men become good friends and respect the other’s social status and abilities.  There is no monarchy bashing here; in fact, just the opposite, in recognition that all societies need good, honorable elites as figureheads.  Logue, meanwhile, gets his own praise.  His therapy works pretty well.  Yet he is not credentialed; while the Duke calls him “Doctor,” he is no doctor.  This is an issue later on in the film, but by that point we see that Logue is successful because of intelligence and practical experience.  The movie strongly argues against credentials as means to determine what works and who is good.

This is probably one of the best movies about friendship you will ever see.  It may be also one of the best about kingship and royalty.  The excellence of The King’s Speech is demonstrated by a scene that seems like a throwaway.  Early on, Logue goes to audition for the part of Richard III in Shakespeare’s play.  He begins to recite the famous “winter of discontent” speech, but is quickly stopped after a minute.  The director tells him that he is not kingly, and that his Australian accent is in the way.  Logue cannot be a competent actor, nor can he act the part of the king.  But he can teach a king how to act and how to speak.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 9

Morality: 10

Posted in Great, Period Drama | 1 Comment »

Malcolm X

Posted by J on January 16, 2011

At the end of Malcolm X, we see a succession of contemporary black children declare “I am Malcolm X.”  Yet after three and a half hours of Malcolm’s bio, we are left asking, “So which Malcolm X are you?”  Like all good screen biographies, this one shows the multiple contradictions — indeed, multiple selves — — of a controversial public figure.  Like all screen biographies, it also argues something about its subject.

What it argues exactly is rhetorically complex.  Consider the opening scene.  We hear Malcolm X declare that the “white man,” more or less, is the scourge of human history.  His speech is overblown, ridiculous, and hateful, yet the opening shot is of an American flag.  The reference is to the opening scene of Patton, in which George C. Scott gives a speech in front of an American flag.  Patton, in that scene, is not to be taken seriously, and so the reference implies that we are not to take Malcolm X seriously.  But then intercut between shots of the flag are shots of the Rodney King beating by white, L.A. police officers.  So what’s the argument here?  That Malcolm X has a point?  That Malcolm’s hatred is made legitimate by the King video?  That Malcolm is a better Patton, wacky yet honorable?

The movie shows Malcolm X as a man who grows up intellectually, who moves through various stages of life until he embraces the modern-day notion of sociopolitical diversity and pan-religious ecumenism.  But throughout most of the movie, he is neither a a diversity lover nor an ecumenist.  In the film’s opening third, Malcolm parties and hustles.  He does what some young men do: parties, two-times, and yucks it up with his buddies.  We are shown, however, that underneath Malcolm is a brooding hatred of racism.  This hatred stems directly from his youth, during which his father was harassed and killed by the KKK, and his mother was put in an insane asylum unjustly.  As a boy, Malcolm was basically orphaned, and the white folk tell him that he, a Negro, must learn his place.

When Malcolm goes to Harlem in his 20s, he turns into a gang-banger and robber.  He is caught and sentenced to at least ten years in prison.  There, Malcolm converts to Islam.  The movie teases its viewers (those who don’t know Malcolm’s bio) by hinting that Malcolm at this point will escape racism and crime with his conversion.  But, clearly, Malcolm travels from one kind of foolishness to another.  Malcolm begins to believe the teachings of Elijah Mohammed, the leader of the Nation of Islam.  It is a quasi-cult group.  As well, the reason for Malcolm’s conversion has nothing to do with a religious awakening, but it is entirely racial and sociopolitical.  Once out of prison, after a long period of self-education, Malcolm begins a leadership role in the Nation of Islam that has him prefacing most every sentence with “The Honorable Elijah Mohammed teaches …”

Here the movie shows a split Malcolm.  In public, Malcolm X is a black racist.  Angry and defiant rhetorically, yet calm and educated, Malcolm denounces all whites everywhere.  When a young white girl apologizes to him for her ancestors’ crimes and asks what she can do, he replies “nothing.”  Malcolm’s rhetoric is racialist and separatist, which has appeal to some inner-city blacks.  This sociopolitical change in Malcolm’s outlook is figured by his dress; in his pre-prison days he wore colorful suits, but in his post-prison day he wears black-and-white.  He now is straightforward and binary, and those are the only two colors he seems to see.

However, in private Malcolm X is, bizarrely, white bourgeois.  He lives in an ordinary home, wants to be a good father and husband, deeply cares about his wife, and does all things that a movie dad should do in a those warm comedies about bourgeois life.  What changes him into such a softie is his marriage to his wife, also a member of the Nation of Islam.    This bourgeois Malcolm X is ironic and unexpected, but it greatly helps us viewers in liking him during his racialist years.

After many years, Malcolm discovers that he is in a cult.  As with all cults, sex and power are the major issues.  Elijah Mohammed, Malcolm discovers, has had multiple affairs.  Further, Malcolm’s public image is too powerful for the leaders of the Nation of Islam, who have all (except for Malcolm!) been made rich by the growth of their cult.  Even after Malcolm finds out the truth about Elijah Mohammed, he remains relatively loyal.  But he makes a verbal gaff when, after JFK’s assassination, he describes the president’s death as “the chickens coming home to roost.”  This statement is a PR problem for the Nation, and offers a good excuse for Elijah Mohammed to silence Malcolm X for ninety days.

During this ninety-day silence, Malcolm makes a trip to Mecca.  It is during this trip that he has another conversion.  In Egypt and Mecca, he experiences the world.  He witnesses pan-racial unity.  He has spiritual experiences.  He is, for a time, a “complete human being.”  Once he returns to the U.S., Malcolm dissociates himself from the Nation of Islam.

This begins Malcolm’s final stage in which the Nation tries to kill him, and he submits to assassination.  The movie argues that the CIA, or perhaps FBI, was involved in the assassination.  But it also says that Malcolm himself was involved in it.  The long, protracted final scene in which Malcolm is to give a speech in Harlem is also one in which he submits to death.  Somehow, he knows when he will die, and he chooses to do so in front of his wife and children.  Because of this, the movie argues that he renounces his bourgeous self for a greater purpose: he will become a martyr.

What is he a martyr for?  That is not exactly clear. One of the movie’s ironies is that, even though Malcolm and the Nation of Islam preach against all white people, they end up fighting each other.  These internecine black wars are something that Malcolm renounces but nevertheless helped create.

The movie tacks on an unnecessary tribute to Malcolm X, given by a schoolteacher, children, and Nelson Mandela.  They celebrate him, even though four-fifths of the movie shows him as either a gangbanger or as a racialist.  Which Malcolm X are the children who declare themselves to be Malcolm X?  The racialist?  The bourgeois father and husband?  The self-educated wit?  The Muslim?  The diversity champion? The martyr?  Take your pick.

Posted in Period Drama, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Barton Fink

Posted by J on January 14, 2011

What is there to say about Barton Fink that’s not on its Wikipedia page?  It won a bunch of awards in 1991, it’s stylistic, it’s got the Coens.

But what’s noticeable on the Wiki page is that Barton Fink is a theory movie that has something to do with modernism and postmodernism.  For those who don’t keep score between literary theorists, this fact doesn’t matter.  What will matter are the inexplicable twists the movie takes that, if you’re not able to view them in terms of theory, will be far too bizarre.

The movie follows a successful Broadway writer in the 1930s who moves to Hollywood to write screenplays.  After the studio executive kisses his rear end, he tries to write a wrestling movie.  He should be able to do this, because he wants to write about the common man, even though he’s a bit too wrapped up in his own mind.  But he types a line and then … nothing.   Constants interruptions stop him from continuing. His writer’s block is only alleviated by a friend, an insurance salesman, who comes to visit him.

At this point, we’re watching a movie about making movies and a buddy picture.  About two-thirds of the way through, we switch genres to some kind of mind-bending fantasy horror movie.  This had members of our household saying “huh?” and “what does this mean?”  Your present writer, having taken lit crit classes, had a guess that the Wiki page confirms.  But the other members were left a little clueless.

It’s not their fault that they wanted a somewhat conventional narrative.  It’s not their fault that they wanted something that seems coherent.  When the hotel catches on fire and John Goodman turns into a kind of devil, it’s not their fault that they wondered what this had to do with reality or theology.

The interesting thing is that, though this is called a postmodernist movie, it’s a modernist movie, given the reactions of our household.  Like Barton Fink, it is art that alienates the common man and tries to make some artistic statement that only intellectuals can decipher.  The movie is best viewed through modern philosophies of art and literature, but it is worst viewed through the ordinary experiences of ordinary people.

Entertainment: 5

Intelligence: that depends on yours, obviously

Morality: 1

Posted in Clever but Immoral, Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Reality-Fantasy | Leave a Comment »

The Hurt Locker

Posted by J on January 8, 2011

The Hurt Locker is a pretty good attempt to realistically depict the War in Iraq (2003-???), which is probably the best reason to call it the best picture of 2009, which the Motion Picture Academy did.  It does not, however, say anything that older war movies haven’t.  The same kind of experience is depicted in Black Hawk Down, only better, because that movie offers a fatalistic, yet herioc approach for soldiers in a no-win conflict.  The message of The Hurt Locker ultimately falls far short and is even quite annoying.

The movie follows an army bomb squad through several of its missions, all of which involve disarming IEDs.  During each mission, the soldiers have to watch out for enemy Iraqi who might explode the IEDs, and so by default all Iraqis become enemies.  It is tough duty. Anybody disarming the bombs can be killed quickly, as the first mission in the movie shows.  After the bomb disposal expert dies early on, Sergeant William James takes over, and here the movie proceeds.

James becomes fearless, even reckless, in his attempts to disarm bombs.  While he gets the job done–living up to his name, which recalls the famous American pragmatist philosopher–he sometimes puts his team members in harm’s way.  This team, made up of two soldiers, Sanborn and Eldridge, recognize that James is addicted to adrenaline rushes.  But there’s nothing they can do about it.  This is particularly clear to us viewers, who see the men during their downtime play shoot-em-up video games and punch each other in the stomach for fun.

The movie depicts the war as an obvious colonial campaign.  Iraqis deal with that in different ways, but the soldiers ultimately must suspect everyone, pointing their weapons and shouting at everyone, which, as James says, creates insurgents out of innocents.  The best set of scenes is when James goes off-base by himself.  Thinking that a young Iraqi boy who sold DVDs on the army base has died, James ventures into the Baghdad night.  Where he ends up and how he gets back is probably the best part of the movie.

Despite the excellence of this movie, I violently disagreed with its ending, which will now be revealed.  The ending implies that James and soldiers like him cannot get enough of war, that despite having family (James has a wife and child), there is only “one thing” that James loves.  That is the adrenaline rush of disarming bombs.  Near the end, we see James in a grocery store, staring at the endless boxes of cereal. The point is that he gets no satisfaction out of consumerism, and perhaps that’s all the U.S. offers him.  We’ve heard that message a thousand times.  In the end, James goes back to Iraq to diffuse more bombs.  His fearless behavior got one of his team members seriously injured, a fact that doesn’t seem to make James remorseful at all.

I think the point here is that U.S. soldiers learn to love war, even in goalless conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq.  While it is true that men can get addicted to battle and killing–see Niall Ferguson’s book on WWI–the message that soldiers forsake home and family to find happiness in war is one entirely without hope.  Kathryn Bigelow had already made another war movie, K-19: The Widowmaker, in which soldiers were in a pointless, thankless situation. But in that movie she depicted Soviet soldiers as acting bravely and courageously, and banding together to respect their fallen comrades.  Why not offer a similar message here about James and his squad?  You will remember that in Lawrence of Arabia, Lawrence kills and then learns that he loves doing so, but this is disturbing both to him and us.  In The Thin Red Line, there are many different human reactions to the battle on Guadalcanal.   I would even accept a stoical resignation to fate as a message over what The Hurt Locker tells me.  All I’m asking is for honor to be conferred on these soldiers, especially James, and I don’t think the movie does that.

Entertainment: 9

Intelligence: 5

Posted in Pretty Good, War | Leave a Comment »