J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

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.”

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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 »

True Grit (2010)

Posted by J on December 24, 2010

This is a Western where the women are tough and the men are tougher.  True Grit honors the time and place of post-Civil War Arkansas.    It takes on the spirit of the 1969 original and, assuming you prefer a degree of realism, trumps it.

The story is probably familiar.  A 14-year old woman, Mattie Cole, hires a U.S. Marshall to track down her father’s killer.  This Marshall is Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a man that other people say have “true grit.”  Mattie has to talk Cogburn into taking on the job, which is to bring the killer back to court, to be tried and executed under Arkansas law.  Cogburn agrees, but leaves Mattie behind as he heads into Choctaw country.  Bold, but also concerned about Rooster running off with her money, Mattie follows him.  The two are accompanied by LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger, who doesn’t always get along with either Rooster or Mattie.

There is some gunplay here, of course, and an inevitable showdown.  But the most important feature for all the characters in the movie is their ability to talk.  Because the Coens wrote the movie in a high, mid-nineteenth century dialect, it’ll take a trained ear and a decent vocabulary to watch this movie.  I’ve seen elsewhere that other people have dubbed the movie’s dialogue as “Western Shakespeare,” which is an insult to Shakespeare and to the Coens.  Instead, of all the characters seem to be highly educated Mark Twain characters.  It is even a bit much; read Twain and you’ll see that different degrees of education and experience call for different ways of talking.  It’s a little frustrating that everyone in True Grit talks like the The King but not really anyone talks like Huck Finn. Yet this emphasis on talking is smart.  Tall tales were a primary feature of the Southwest and West, thanks to the locals’ ability to tell a good yarn.  Cogburn seems like not just a character from a tall tale, but someone who could make up one.

The characters talk well and use wit to improve their situations.  The movie’s opens with Mattie bargaining with a horse trader.  The next scene features Rooster testifying in court.  These are long scenes–slow ones to the modern moviegoer–but they establish the necessity in this world of speaking well and bargaining well.  This becomes useful when, late in the movie, Mattie tries to bargain with Ned Pepper.  The nice thing about the movie is that no one is out to harmfully deceive, ala the King and the Duke.  LaBoeuf is a bit of a braggart, but seems to believe what he’s saying about the honor of Texas Rangers.  There’s not a dishonorable character here, including the villains.

Unexpectedly, Mattie is the star.  In a movie with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, her character outshines them all.  You will wonder why there can’t be more young women like her today.  You will in fact long for the increased frequency of this type of woman.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 9

Posted in Great, Western | 1 Comment »

Wag the Dog

Posted by J on December 23, 2010

Wag the Dog is satire that doesn’t always want to be.  It could’ve aimed for the biting darkness of Dr. Strangelove, but it likes its character and Mark Knopfler’s soft guitar soundtrack is reminiscent of his music for the Princess Bride.  The movie is somewhat prescient in its depiction of media’s relationship to government during the last ten years.  Perhaps for that reason alone it deserves to be watched.

The premise is somewhat shaky.  The President of the U.S., eleven days before the end of his own re-election campaign, is accused of sexual misconduct with a teenager.  For some reason, the President is in China during a re-election campaign, who knows why at a critical moment in his career.  So the President’s team hires a fix-it guy, Conrad Black, who understands that reality is not what actually happens, but what the TV says happens.  Black’s mission is to distract the American people for eleven days so that the sexual misconduct story is effectively buried until the elections are over.  What to do, what to do?

Oh yes, of course. Start a war!  In the great American tradition of fomenting war by creating some incident and blowing it out of proportion — see the sinking of the Lusitania, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction (which this movie basically predicts) — Black decides to invent a war with Albania.  His story involves Albanian terrorists and the threat of nuclear weapons smuggled into the United States.  To pull off this stunt, Black hires Stanley Motss, a longtime Hollywood producer who is more interested in doing his job perfectly than in thinking about the morality of inventing a war.  Motss creates a scene of horror with Hollywood magic: a young girl holding a bag of Tostitos is transformed by Motss into an Albanian girl with a kitten who runs away from terrorists.  This scene with the Albanian girl is broadcast nationwide.  For Motss, it’s glorious, his best work ever.

Black and Motss manage to pull off their stunt, although they somehow survive a plane crash and handle a dangerous convict whom they are trying to turn into a warhero.  Their deception is fairly powerful.  They create patriotic music for the occasion.  When the CIA tries to stop them, Black reminds the CIA that all intel organizations have no purpose if there is no enemy.  He, Black, is creating an enemy.  Therefore the CIA should love what he’s doing.  After all, he’s preserving their jobs.  It’s almost as if Black, in 1997, has created the War on Terror — a war against an abstraction of an everlasting enemy who can always be used as a bogeyman.

My primary issue with the movie is that its world is too self-contained.  It castigates thoughtless patriotism at a national level, but is itself too nationalistic.  It assumes that Black’s fraud, which is international in scope, could not be known pretty quickly.  Surely the international press corps would realize that there is no war in Albania and jump on that lie, yet there’s no hint that any press beyond America’s exists.  Moreover, the movie stays within Black’s circle for the entire duration.  We only get to see the innerworkings of Black’s fraud, but never its effects on others (except on TV).  There, in fact, are a lot of people who can sniff out the lies of Presidents and news networks quickly and devastatingly.

The movie also simplifies the ways in which lies and frauds are perpetuated.  The fraud in this movie emanates from one place, Black’s group.  It is therefore nearly completely controlled by this group.  But real life is more complicated.  In Washington DC, there’s a vast network of self-serving bureaucrats and reporters who, first and foremost, are looking out for #1.  There are five major media corporations that print and publish news.  When there’s fraud, as with the fabled Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in 2002-2003, it’s a vast conspiracy in which everyone assents to and contributes to that conspiracy.

Still, the movie is quite useful in understanding the nature of our current “War on Terror.”

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 7

Morality: 8 (some bad language)

Posted in Comedy, Pretty Good | Leave a Comment »

Appaloosa

Posted by J on December 23, 2010

Appaloosa is standard Western fare, except for its assault against certain elements of political correctness.  Viewers of this film will be reminded of Lonesome Dove, My Darling Clementine, and John Ford’s entire career.  Its likeness to Lonesome Dove — the epitome of the Western bond between two males — is striking.

So here’s the story.  The town of Appaloosa needs a bit of law.  A sheriff has been shot by a scalawag named Bragg, only Bragg can’t be brought to justice, because no one will testify against him.  The businessmen of Appaloosa hire two men, Virgil and Everett, cool and experienced gunmen.  These two men are intimate friends.  Virgil is the alpha dog of the relationship, the head sheriff who reads Emerson but gets frustrated when he can’t remember certain vocabulary words.  Everett is content to be Virgil’s sidekick.  The two are willing to take on Bragg and his men.

A woman named Allison French nearly interrupts Virgil and Everett.   She arrives by train in Appaloosa and takes to Virgil.  They move into together, but shortly after that Allison tries to seduce Everett.  Love triangle alert!  Meanwhile, Virgil and Everett capture Bragg and get someone to testify for him.

Not much more needs to be said.  The plot is quickly guessed knowing the above information.  The big surprise here is how lowly the character of Allison French is portrayed.  She’s an elegant woman, yes, but she also sleeps with four different men.  Around our parts, she’d be labeled with words that begin with ‘s’ and ‘w’.  Virgil and Everett agree, yet Virgil can’t help loving her, even though he tells Everett that, to become a better gunmen, Everett must eschew feelings.  Virgil and Everett decide that Allison is a frontrunner.  She will mate with the alpha male — that is, whichever male is on top in any given situation.  This is exactly what the movie shows.  It’s as if we’re watching primates on Animal Planet.

Entertainment: 7

Intelligence: 5

Morality: 2

Posted in Okay, But We Won't Watch It Again, Western | Leave a Comment »

Lost Season 6 and Overall Lost:The Series Thoughts

Posted by J on May 25, 2010

So Lost has concluded.   Here is a review of Season 5, Season, 4, Season 3, and Seasons 2 and 1.

How did it end?  Unfortunately this has to be explained, with a bit of (easy) exegesis.  It shouldn’t be so confusing.  Season 6 starts when Jack drops the bomb down the hole.  It explodes and prevents a catastrophy, which leads to the building of the hatch.  Everyone timetravels to 2007.  Jack becomes the protector of the island, kills the smoke monster, then dies after saving the island.  Hurley becomes the new protector of the island.  The plane with Kate and Sawyer fly away safely (how they had so much extra fuel, I can only speculate).  Then the flash sideways we see throughout season 6 is some kind of afterlife.  We know this because jack realizes that he died, and Ben and Hurley have an exchange about being a good #1 and #2.  It seems that everyone is really dead in the sideways.  In this afterlife they all have to “let go” and “move on.”  Make sense?

And now to my concerns. Let’s put aside the numerous small loose ends that the show never tied up.  These are preoccupying too many people who want their insignificant questions answered.  There are massive narrative problems to look at.  The first is this: we just spent an entire season watching an afterlife. Half of the season consisted of the characters in an afterlife world that ended in a sort of redemption, with them all sitting in a church and a bright light entering the sanctuary.  But this plotline is totally unnecessary to the action.  There is nothing in particular about the Lost story that calls for characters to enter an afterlife.  Yes the Island is mysterious and we see dead people, but the show has no internal justifications for what it does in Season 6.  Frankly, any story could add on a Coda with its characters in an afterlife, finding some kind of peace.  The fact that Lost concludes — in fact climaxes — with an unnecessary plotline is troubling.

A further problem is the syrupy New Age version of purgatory portrayed in this Lost afterlife.  The final scene, where Jack meets his dad, was critically important to a show where Jack’s dad’s person was a deep mystery.  But we are treated to mumbo-jumbo about the purgatory being a placed “that you [the characters] all created, so that you could let go.”  In this final scene, we are in a room filled with religious symbols.  It’s an extremely heavy-handed scene, screaming RELIGOUS SYMBOL, RELIGIOUS SYMBOL.  At best, this last episode of Lost is really the last episode of Touched by an Angel.

And then, why would the characters want to create an afterlife reality where they all meet and reminisce about a place that was ultimately troubling?  The nostalgic flashbacks that the characters envision in the final episode are absurd.  They remember the few happy moments, but forget all the lying, conniving, and undermining of group cohesion that characterized this entire TV series.  And they all love each other, which is bizarre, since the lovefest atmosphere rarely occurs on the show.  (I wonder what Sayid would think of seeing Ben Linus in his afterlife.)

The final show was hyper-emotional.  The music swelled, people cried, but ultimately the final show treated the heart and not the head.  Plotlines were not resolved.  The story was not fully realized.  Perhaps worst of all, it offered a definitive conclusion about the characters but not the plot.  The question of “Why are we on the island?”, the show’s abiding major question, was not addressed.  There is so much talk of fate and purpose and destiny on the show, but what has created that purpose and destiny, and for what purposes?  The show demolished its god figures in the final season when Jacob and the Smoke Monster were revealed to be flawed humans.  This left a deep void.  There is no god on the show, which is a problem when the show is about providence.  Any notion of “fate,” at least in a story, has to have an agency behind it.

I believe this: Lost is not a purgatory story.  It is not about characters on the Island who all find some relief in the afterlife.   It is John Locke pounding on the hatch door, asking “What do you want from me?”, and then the light pours up through the hatch door window.  It is Desmond telling Jack that he too was nearly at the brink, when all of a sudden he heard Locke pounding on the hatch door and turned on the light.  It is John and Jack fighting about whether or not to press the button.  It is Desmond turning the fail-safe key.  It is Jack, inspired by Locke’s faith, desperate to go back to the Island to fulfill his purpose.  It is Jack saving the island, and then dying.  That’s the heart of the show, and hopefully that’s what it’ll be remembered for.

Five Worst CGI Moments on LOST

For a show that employed hundreds of people to write scripts, edit, make music, find clothes, make props, design sets, coordinate stunts, and so on, Lost was mostly terrible at major CGI shots.  Let’s recount them.

1) The Island Underwater — In the first episode of Season 6, we see Jack look out of the plane.  Then the camera zooms downwards, breaks the surface of the ocean, and peers into its depth.

2) The Black Rock ramming the Egyptian Statue — Exactly how did a wooden ship smash into a hundred-foot tall rock statue, break the statue, land in the jungle, and survive in tact?

3) The Golden Light in the cave.

4) Any submarine in motion.

5) The reveal of the Egyptian statue.

Five Best Characters

1) John Locke

2) Jack Shepherd

3) Ben Linus

4) Mr. Eko

5) Tie: Hurley, Sawyer, Sayid, Desmond — It’s telling that no female characters make this list.  Would any even make a top-15 character list? I find the charge against the Lost writers true enough: that they weren’t successful at writing female characters or dealing with female issues.   Sun was their best effort, but any complexity she had was demolished when in Seasons 5 and 6 she was reduced to a husband-hunt, having nothing to motivate her but that, and when she did find him, they both died in the very next episode.  The female problem probably started with Kate, who in the second episode of the entire series is revealed to be a dangerous criminal.  Eventually we find that she’s a murderer.  The implausibility of this set up contrasts that were too jarring to be taken seriously: Kate’s background is always at war with what she wants and believes in on the Island, and also with her motives off-island.

Five Unresolved Mysteries

1) How, when the Oceanic Six returned on the Ajira plane, did some of the passengers travel back in time while others did not?  — This is most annoying mystery for me.  The writers tried to give explanations for the plane crashes and shipwrecks, but there is no explanation for this.  Time travel only occurs on the show when the Island is moved.  This by itself requires a lot of suspension of disbelief by the audience.  In the case of the Ajira plane, there’s no explanation at all for why some people travel back in time and others do not.  No electromagnetic event, no moving island.  Jacob never showed any such power.  Neither did the smoke monster.

2) Why aren’t babies born on the Island after the 1970s?  — The obvious answer is that the hydrogen bomb that Jack detonates in the 1970s emits radiation that gives defects to fetuses.  But this doesn’t make sense in numerous ways.  Wouldn’t the Dharma Initiative have figured out real quickly that radiation levels on the island were extremely high, causing fertility problems?

3) How did the Smoke Monster turn into the Smoke Monster? — In “Across the Sea,” we see Jacob throw his dead brother into the Golden Light cave.  He emerges from the cave as the smoke monster.  But then, in the final episode, Jack and Desmond go down the cave and nothing happens.  There doesn’t appear to be anything that could instantly turn someone into a smoke monster.  It didn’t seem possible, either, for a dead body to float down the cave, then into the pit of golden light and electromagnetism.

4) How can you timetravel to the perfect time after detonating a hydrogen bomb on top of a pocket of electromagnetism?  –  Anyone who attempts to answer this needs professional help.

5) How did certain people get special powers?  — Hurley can see dead people, Miles talks to dead people, John Locke’s spine is fixed, Rose’s cancer is cured, and Walt is supposedly special beyond belief.  The only explanation is that the Island has a Golden Light.

Posted in Silly but Entertaining, TV Series | Leave a Comment »