Sunday, September 17, 2017

Gangs of New York (2002) 2.5 of 4

** minor spoilers only **

I see good and bad here, much of it stemming from Martin Scorsese's status as Hollywood elder.  The bad news: at the end, candles are placed on the dead after the draft riots, so survivors can identify loved ones.  The problem: the scene is lit such that candles wouldn't be necessary (on the DVD).  Judging from Scorsese's progressively impersonal output, he's lost the will to defy industry SOP.  Gangs of New York mostly ignores the overcrowding, debilitation, vermin and stench that prevailed in slums of the era (if not today's).

At the same time, Scorsese had the pull to deliver a star-filled epic about an historical period usually avoided (even so, the film was shot in Rome, with both Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio reportedly taking reduced salaries).  The ethnic and regional divisions of the 19th century remain, thus the appeal of the Western, which skirts the issues, and Civil War films that flirt with "Lost Cause" Confederate nostalgia.

While it may simplify local history,
Gangs of New York implies a disturbing truth: at one time in America, white supremacy was inclusive, it was multiculturalism.  (The film gestures anti-racism, but partly for our sensibilities.)

Divisions between Euro-American groups threatened to tear New York City -- tear the nation -- apart.  The U.S. stayed united by exalting whiteness (as do Lost Cause movies).  Of course, American racism held other benefits, especially free or cheap labor.  Today, white supremacy as national identity seems pathological, like losing weight by smoking cigarettes.  Still, it's our history, its legacy unresolved.    

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Red Planet (2000) 1.5 of 4

** spoiler warning  **

best sequence: landing on Mars, with air bags
I've always heard this was a stinker, but as a sci-fi fan couldn't help car-wreck curiosity.  Red Planet is one of those movies so poorly sewn together, the subtext is evident while watching, as if the screenwriters did a nude scene.

Red Planet is a "deal movie," crossed with a feminist take on white males as the problem-population-at-millennium.  The movie opens with clunky narration from mission leader Carrie-Anne Moss -- who is she talking to? -- sound techs should avoid cosmic echo when the actor speaks colloquially, as in "we were kidding ourselves" and "gonna."

It seems Earth is dying of pollution etc., so a motley crew goes to Mars to check on automated terraforming.  Behind the green veil, the movie is an overlong, indecisive PSA on sexual harassment.  Tom Sizemore jokes about being king of Mars and making Moss queen, his repartee landing like a boulder.  Then again, confining five men with the statuesque Moss is a moral hazard.  Val Kilmer corners her as she exits the shower, then fails to pull the trigger; later, facing mortality, he says (by radio) he should've kissed her, and she quietly agrees.  No wonder the human race is dying.

The five guys are shipwrecked on the ginger orb, soon to be stalked by AMEE (pronounced "Amy"), a homicidal robot evoking the days of The Black Hole and Saturn 3 for viewers of a certain age.  On the mothership, as it were, Ms. Moss spends much of the movie thinking her misbehaving boys are dead, and increasingly, she's correct.  Terence Stamp (as a scientist, nevertheless spiritual) is the first to cash his check.  Future Mentalist Simon Baker, a weasel here, responds to feelings of inadequacy by knocking Benjamin Bratt off a cliff.  Later, Baker's character himself succumbs to guilt-related misadventure.

I mentioned it's a deal movie: Red Planet seems to originate in an alternate universe where  Hollywood is autocratic socialist state.  In alt-Hollywood, no one wants to work with Val Kilmer or Tom Sizemore, but as Party Members they're entitled to stardom until retirement.  Thus, this perfunctory (Red-themed) sci-fi with younger stars paying dues, and a Brit (Stamp) playing Latin for global buzz.

Sizemore is supposed to be the scientist blind-to-the-dangers, so he gets killed, when a new lifeform uses his body as a hatchery.  Unfortunately, Kilmer's character survives the end of the film.  Mars now has oxygen, but it's infested with carnivorous CGI locusts, which means someone was readying Red Planet 2.

Fortunately, there are better films set on the fourth planet, including Robinson Crusoe on Mars and The Last Days on Mars.  Even Mission to Mars (also from 2000) is watchable.  (I haven't yet seen John Carter or The Martian.)     

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Business of Strangers (2001) 2 of 4

** this post contains major spoilers **

I watched this expecting "In the Company of Women," but it lacks the scandalous energy that made Neil LaBute's debut worth watching.  The two leads are good, but the characters cliche (actually, they describe each other as such).  Stockard Channing is Julie, a veteran exec who's had to eat (extra) shit in a man's world.  Recently promoted to CEO, her personal life's a desert.  On a business trip she bonds with young counterpart Paula (Julia Stiles), an underemployed cynic who messes with people, compulsively.

Julia Stiles, edgy as ever

The third character is a plot device: a handsome headhunter (Fred Weller, star of LaBute's The Shape of Things) hired by Julie.  Paula tells Julie that in college, he date-raped her friend (in a later version, Paula herself).  Over drinks, the vengeful women roofie the man, then leave him half-naked in a deserted area of the hotel, slurs marking his body.  The ironic sting: on waking he's bemused, and assumes a wild night.

In the Company of Men sustained interest with gratuitously cruel behavior, and reappraisal of who's been damaged, but The Business of Strangers teases wild behavior that's more of a postmodern prank. A twist ending indicates the rape never happened, further obscuring the point: is it that capitalism destroys ethics? -- age before gender? -- hotels need better security?

Or perhaps triviality itself: that in a male-dominated (pop) culture, the actions of women diminish.  Maybe so, but as presented here it's thin and stagey for a feature film.  Writer-director Patrick Stettner made just one subsequent feature, The Night Listener (2006).

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Dark Water (2005) 3 of 4

** review contains moderate spoilers **

acclimating to the new place (Jennifer Connelly) 
Dark Water came and went in theaters and merits only 5.6 on Imdb.  Maybe after The Ring and The Grudge we no longer found running water terrifying.  Maybe it got lost amid other female-led horrors (The Others, The Skeleton Key, The Orphanage, Black Swan).  Maybe it triggered premonitions of the housing collapse.  Certainly, a J-horror remake suggests more jump-scares than provided by an atmospheric, literary ghost story.

Ethereal Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly plays the mother of a little girl, surviving acrimonious divorce from Dougray Scott.  Hard-up and emotionally raw, Connelly's character is checkmated to an (understandably) affordable high-rise on Roosevelt Island: it's not much of a spoiler that this Brutalist monstrosity is haunted.  New York City's lesser islands are useful for showing evil comfortably hidden at the heart of civilization, as in The French Connection and Don't Say a Word.

Connelly projects wary intelligence as well as anyone, and so is often cast in fantastic films: she grounds anything.  At first she assumes strange occurrences are a custody plot, but she's haunted by a familiar stranger.

As a horror film, Dark Water is more muffled than The Ring or Mama.  Child abuse is involved, but most of it off-screen.  Still I found the film difficult to watch because it's so sad.  Vulnerable mom and daughter are shunted to new, oppressive surroundings and met with coldness, despite a sympathetic lawyer played by Tim Roth (someday he'll get that American accent).  Other familiar faces: John C. Reilly, Camryn Manheim, and Pete Postlewaite).

Many of us are one paycheck away from disaster.  Dark Water is social horror, dramatizing the companion truth that for many women, a messy break-up means the same bottom line.  Brazilian director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries, On the Road) justifies this remake of the Japanese film, both based on the novel by Koji Suzuki.   

Monday, June 12, 2017

Planet of the Apes (1968) 4 of 4

** this review contains spoilers (for one of the most-spoiled films) **

In the 1960s, the rules known as political correctness were in process, which makes some of the classic films of the era problematic for today's hypersensitive viewers.  For example: the original Planet of the Apes, one of the best films of the decade.

As Eric Greene establishes in his book Planet of the Apes as American Myth, this first film was less specifically racial than the series would become.  It begins with Taylor's (Charlton Heston) cynical, timely wish for something "better than man."  Unfortunately for him (and like co-star Roddy McDowall in the Twilight Zone episode of the same name), he finds that "people are alike all over" -- even when they're apes.

The film arguably satirizes liberals of its time: the apes are hairy, wear leather and live in commune-like villages.  Though divided by species and corresponding behavior (gorilla, chimpanzee, orangutan), all disdain humans, who therefore parallel old-line conservatives, with both (considered) bypassed by evolution.  

"You may not like what you find." 

Greene's book, brilliant as it is at times, is an index of how far we've fallen since 1968.  He ties himself in knots trying to lift the films and counter their dim view of humanity.  A good leftist and multiracial in heritage, Greene feels white people are almost entirely to blame (and not just historically), with reverse racism a (suburban) legend.  He answers white paranoia with equally far-fetched, utopian multiculturalism.

The recent Planet of the Apes reboot (Rise and Dawn) is similarly contorted. Rise wasn't bad, but Dawn is pointless: whereas the original films have no real heroes, Dawn founders as good and bad people interact with good and bad apes.  With the satire muddied, we might wonder why we're watching apes in the first place.  I suspect these neo-Apes films exist because younger viewers realize there's something of value in the originals, but prefer softened versions.

Fantasy is a natural for race themes; both racial tensions and fantasy concern our attraction to/fear of the other.  The early 20th century had tales of lost worlds and races culminating in King Kong (1933), viewed by some as an allegory of slavery.  Ralph Ellison answered H.G. Wells by claiming "the invisible man" as metaphor for the black experience.  If the original Apes film-cycle equates black people with apes, it's only because the white imagination has always done the same.  The fiction of speaking apes allows an interrogation of racial anxieties.  Given approaching white minority, perhaps a film will reverse the scheme.  (Some might enjoy seeing the current president as an orangutan, orange comb-over included.)

Planet of the Apes opened 3 April 1968, the day before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.  I'm not sure I've read a review that mentions this, probably because it might be misunderstood, but it must have made the transgressive film an especially dislocating experience.

As the narrative begins, the desiccated corpse of the human crew's sole female implies -- it's over.  The white -- uh, human race is over.  Taylor shouldn't mind, given his cynicism, but the story will reduce him to Biblical grief.

"She was going to be the new Eve."
Over the five-film series, it's revealed the ape power structure doesn't disbelieve human intelligence, they just want to cover it up.  This branches into struggles over evolution, speech, and literacy (both ape and human).  All of it seems to prefigure the furor over Barack Obama being "articulate" and then the "birther" conspiracy-thought.  With Obama's intelligence unavoidable, the matter of legitimacy got bumped to matters of birth and record-keeping.  Some think of the original film as embarrassing artifact.  It could've been made yesterday, if we had the courage of Arthur Jacobs, Franklin Schaffner, Michael Wilson, Rod Serling, Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, and Kim Hunter.

The above-named were over 40 in 1968.  Baby Boomers were more optimistic, but motivated by the fact every generation drifts back to the norms of that prior: we become our parents.  For Boomers, this meant intolerable hypocrisy.  Even as the Civil Rights Movement seemed to triumph, white Americans fled en masse to the (white) suburbs, and American men were sent to fight in a seemingly insignificant Asian country.

At home, a rebellious generation attempted to blow up the timeline with sex-drugs-rock-n-roll (and to a lesser extent, with bombs).  It didn't work, they had kids, and bent to whisper: "When you grow up you're going to make the world such a better place."  Making the world better means change, and so the new apes films must be different from the originals.  It feels like change.  



Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Year of the Sex Olympics (1968) 3.5 of 4

** this review contains fairly mild spoilers **

First, this isn't spicy as the title suggests: it's a low-budget, British made-for-TV movie from 1968 (broadcast as part of Theatre 625).  If you're still reading, it's very good, like a low-budget Brave New World mixed with the anti-TV agitation of Network, Max Headroom, and Idiocracy.

It seems only a black-and-white copy survives, but the YouTube presentation was acceptable (the title is also listed on amazon).  The cast is excellent, including Leonard Rossiter (2001: A Space OdysseyThe Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin) and an impossibly young Brian Cox.  The standout, though, is Tony Vogel as Nat.  With his burning, bugged eyes and combination of curiosity and idiocy, Nat seems of a future dystopia.

Nat Mender (Tony Vogel) gets an idea
The script borders on brilliant, with intelligence and a good pace.  There's some quietly effective future-slang: "so" is used roughly equivalent to "aloha," "king-style" means good, "super-king style," even better.

The story is from the point-of-view of the TV-producing elite, which saves on sets.  What makes them elite?  Mostly young, they're "high-drive," anti-intellectual and proud of it.

Lasar Opie (Brian Cox)

They share contempt for the "low-drive" majority, the idle proles watching the programs, and seen in surveillance footage (for purposes of ratings monitoring).  Escapist television is essential to keep the masses passive: it's "apathy control," much preferred to the dreaded "tension," root of all evil.  (Thank God it's just a story.)

the low-drives
The Sex Olympics is event-viewing targeting overpopulation: "Sex is not to do.  Sex is to watch."  (The surveillance shots are similar to those in Star Trek's inferior overpopulation-episode of 1969, "Mark of Gideon.")  Viewers are fickle, though, and new ideas are welcome.  Nat's restless, and inspired by a friend's transgressive paintings ("I want tension") he offers to leave comfort behind and (with two others) live like old-days "savages," as it's broadcast as a series (not called Survivor).  Can any good come from going outside?

Inevitably, the film is dated in some aspects (some of the music), and may seem all too low-drive next to the overblown likes of The Hunger Games.  It works though, as written by Nigel Kneale, creator of the TV/film character Professor Quatermass.  The Year of the Sex Olympics remains disturbing, even as most of it has come true.    

Friday, February 17, 2017

New Year Baby (2006) 3 of 4


New Year Baby is a documentary about the Khmer Rouge genocide, which occurred in Cambodia in the 1970s.  Specifically, it's the filmmaker's personal inquiry into her Cambodian-American family, several of whom gradually become more responsive to questions during a trip back to Cambodia.

From the world point of view, the news of the Khmer Rouge gave notice that genocide was not an historical anomaly but a pattern.  Subsequent events, of course, have confirmed this.  I remember this genocide achieving mass consciousness only with the release of The Killing Fields in 1984, approximately five years after the end of the genocide.  This delayed acknowledgement is part of the pattern.

I'll admit I had trouble adjusting to the gentle rhythms of New Year Baby, although that says more about me than about the film.  I've seem many movies and shows in my life, and most of those were made by men (behind the camera).

It seems to me that New Year Baby is a more feminine film (the title refers to the filmmaker's birthday being the Cambodian New Year).  That is, it focuses on how events and decisions affected a small group of people, especially their relationships.  The broader story of the genocide is covered in impressive animated sequences, but the film's emphasis is not facts, figures, or historical parallels.  This approach also allows the film to be suitable for all ages, despite the challenging subject. 


New Year Baby is about acceptance, compassion, and human growth.  It doesn't spend much emotion placing blame; the facts speak for themselves.  Those who survived did so through a mixture of heroism, blending in, and luck.

The fact that sticks with me is that the filmmaker's parents were matched (by the then authorities)  because they were so different (different class background, etc.).  The Khmer Rouge were high on this sort of thing, as they tried to remake their nation into a collectivist utopia at the point of a gun.  The matching of opposites could easily be made into a reality show by 2017 Hollywood, in the vein of Beauty and the Geek and Wife Swap.  My point is that the madness of genocide doesn't grow from this or that religion or political viewpoint, but from a mix of ideology, fanaticism and hatred.  I have to believe that latent self-hatred is a precondition for any attempted genocide.

I tend to see things politically/historically, so I'll continue in this vein, though New Year Baby gracefully refrains from such analysis.  

As far back as I remember (the 1970s), genocide has been a present topic of learning and discussion. What has changed, because of our inability to stop it, is a desperate emphasis on predicting the next genocide, which has now devolved into ugly rhetoric: we are quick to call our foes Nazis, and quick to identify ourselves with the victims of genocide.  Even aside from matters of taste, this is simply inaccurate: whether we admit it or not, history indicates that we are all potential genocideers.  Not all of us would wield the weapon, but all would at least be tempted to look the other way.

Our leaders use the rhetoric of genocide; the day's enemy is always the next Hitler, especially if war is in the plans.  What we've seen is that fighting "the next Hitler" is as likely to cause mass murder as prevent it.  In both Southeast Asia and in the Middle East, U.S. wars devastated and destabilized the region, leaving a power vacuum for the Khmer Rouge and ISIS, respectively.

As an American, I feel a little guilty about this, but not all that much, because I had nothing to do with those decisions.  Those wars were run by people who had themselves avoided combat, if not most types of hardship.  (I believe this is disastrous.  The best leaders have been through hardship: George Washington was a combat veteran, Abraham Lincoln had crippling depression, FDR had polio.)  Whatever their motives, those who prosecuted recent wars lacked the hard-won wisdom and humility of those interviewed in New Year Baby.  

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Rumor of War (1980) 2.5 of 4

** this review contains spoilers about this based-on-truth miniseries **

Maybe this is a good time for watching and discussing Vietnam War movies: it looks increasingly likely the American electorate will never choose a Vietnam veteran to be president.  (Of our last four, Donald Trump is the third draft-evader; Barack Obama was too young to be eligible.)

After taping this off TBS in 1993 (thus the commercials for Children of the Corn II and Matinee), I finally watched this miniseries, much-praised on release as one of television's first serious treatments of the Vietnam War.  I probably saw a cut version (the broadcast was larded with commercials), but I got the gist of it.

John Sacret Young, who later co-created the Vietnam War TV series China Beach, adapted Marine Philip Caputo's memoir.  A product of small-town America and admirer of the late John F. Kennedy, Caputo became a Marine lieutenant after college, serving in Vietnam 1965-66.  Brad Davis stars as Caputo; the excellent cast also includes Keith Carradine, Brian Dennehy and Stacy Keach.  Richard Bradford gives a memorably satiric turn as Gen. Rupert, so immersed in his talking points he's aghast when reporters doubt his accuracy.

Amidst the usual scenes of male bonding and military manners, the film relates how young soldiers were driven half-crazy by a war in which they rarely knew where the enemy was, or even who, given the Viet Cong's lack of uniforms and uncanny skill to blend into the countryside.  The soldiers' stress and grief over fallen comrades climaxes in their murder of civilians, after which Caputo is subjected to Kafkaesque military justice.

My authority on Vietnam films is Michael Lee Lanning, via his 1994 book Vietnam at the Movies.  Lanning's a bit hawkish for me, but as a Vietnam veteran he at least knows what he's talking about.  A Rumor of War gets one of his more positive reviews, although he idly wishes for an equally good film about a green lieutenant who does not murder noncombatants.

As a doughy non-veteran, I found A Rumor of War worth watching, if superseded by the likes of Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and Full Metal Jacket.  (The Vietnam film that rocked me the most: 84 Charlie Mopic, which Lanning also raves about).  My main complaint was the lack of convincing combat scenes.  I understand that the film is arguing most of our troops in Vietnam were woefully ill-prepared for a task that may have been impossible, the main point being the maddening lack of direct confrontation.

Still, it seems unfair this lengthy film lacks any scenes of American men on the offensive, fighting valiantly.  Instead, they mostly patrol the countryside, then frantically try to survive when they're shot at or bombed, always from a distance.  As Lanning observes, most of the cast fail to make convincing Marines.  (Also, I'm pretty sure that real soldiers don't throw their hands in the air like synchronized cheerleaders every time a bomb explodes nearby.  Even if they do, it looked vaguely ridiculous here.)


Reading the respectful reviews from Lanning and other vets, I'd like to see an uncut version sometime.  I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by now, but this TV production is not on DVD in the U.S. (even the VHS releases had cuts).  If this were a theatrical movie, Hollywood would've by now released it multiple times, with each one a bit different to catch the double-dippers.  To me, such non-releases indicate U.S. television still struggles with self-contempt.