Wednesday, July 15, 2015

an American crime, American denial

** NOTE: this post concerns an especially disturbing subject. **

** this themed post includes some mild-to-moderate spoilers **

A few days ago I was sitting in a restaurant, and a woman walked in carrying a tote that read, "Trust Women."  This woman was white, about 60, tall and impressive, a latter-day hippie with long white hair and an air that she was enjoying a good, prosperous time in her life.  She also had what I've come to think of as the religious gleam in her eye. 
The religious gleam doesn't require a belief in traditional religions, only the confidence that one is on the side of God or truth, and that God or truth is by one's side, too.  It is a vaguely fanatical confidence that anyone who disagrees is bad, sad, or sadly confused.
I've seen this gleam on lots of "positive thinkers," such as non-fiction meliorist Malcolm Gladwell, and mystical film-director Terence Malick. 

As you can guess by now, I was not thrilled by the restaurant lady's tote-slogan.  It makes no sense to me: I know from experience that women are no better than men, prone to all the virtues and temptations as the rest of us.  (Men are more violent, but if you think that makes them morally worse, that's your own bias.  Some of the worst crimes and abuses are non-violent.)

Like the rest of us, women should be judged on their behavior, their statements fact-checked with the same rigor as anyone else's.  If the tote was specifically a reference to allegations of rape or other abuse, I disagree there as well.  Unfortunately, some women make false allegations.  If it's an attempt to balance out misogynist messages, it's too direct to do any good since most people dislike being patronized. 

The tote and the gleam go together.  The virtue of the slogan isn't that it's rational, but that it brings pleasure to those who agree, and pain to the rest, and so creates a little bit of heaven and hell right here on Earth.  And this ties in with my belief that modern feminism is a religion. 

An essential part of any religion is mystery.  In less charitable terms, a religion must demand the adherents believe in something that makes no sense, that appears to be nonsense, otherwise it wouldn't require faith, and the supposed religion wouldn't be a religion.  (At least Christianity admits this: 1st Conrinthians 1:17-20).  And so Scientologists don't keep the faith despite the stuff about being possessed by aliens, they keep the faith because of the stuff about being possessed by aliens.

I am not anti-religion, nor do I think that religion should be kept separate from other areas of life, because that's impossible.  Any strong belief wants to become a religion, and this tendency can only be managed, never extinguished.  If it's not managed, it will eventually poison the well and the true believers will do evil, because they're intoxicated. 
Perhaps this is why Hillary Clinton seems to think she's above the law and above the rules: she's a Democrat-woman-feminist-survivor, therefore she should be able to do whatever she considers best.  She'll probably be our next president, swept to office by voters intoxicated on religious feminism.

I believe that modern feminism has gone badly astray, especially in the United States where the culture has always tended toward dogma.  U.S. Americans also tend to profile people, and our profile of women is that they are civilizing-sexy-angels, and in recent years we've added that they are badass-scientist-entrepeneurs.  (If you disagree, try this test: what type of people do you visualize when I say "American women"?)
I indicated that women are as bad as men; this includes child abuse, including physical and sexual abuse.  I'm not talking specifically about all the teachers sleeping with their teen students, although that's bad enough, I'm talking about little kids too.  If you search for information on sexual abuse committed by women, you get articles from Britain and Canada.  Apparently, this isn't a problem in the U.S. 
Like any other social reality, this denial shows up at the movies.  Monster-mothers figure in some older U.S. movies, including Roger Corman's Bloody Mama, the notorious The Baby, and Carrie, but those films came out of the early 1970s when American confidence (hubris) was scraping bottom.  Since then, U.S. films about women who mess with kids are usually ticketed for obscurity: Mother's Boys with Jamie Lee Curtis, Loverboy with Kyra Sedgwick. 

EDIT, 19 July 2015: I should mention two better-known films that tried to sweeten with black humor.  To Die For (1995), with Nicole Kidman and by maverick director Gus Van Sant, was not a hit but did respectably.  Mommie Dearest (1981) arguably sabotaged itself by being so ridiculous it's now enjoyed as camp.  Compare the Casey Anthony protesters, who directed such hatred at the accused that her (indeterminate) failings as a mother seem more unusual than they are.

This is less so in other, less momist territories.  Bad Boy Bubby and Animal Kingdom are Australian films; in the latter, as in Bloody Mama, the matriarch of a crime family has emotional incest, at least, with her sons.  (Things are almost that bad in the current U.S. series Bates Motel.)  Mum and Dad (2008), about a horribly abusive family, is British.  Advocate and the biopic Karla (with Laura Prepon) are Canadian, and the satiric Parents (1989) was a U.S.-Canada production. 

In 1965, 16-year old Sylvia Likens was held captive, tortured, and murdered by an Indiana woman.  This story was finally told in two films that may have cancelled each other out, both debuting 2007: An American Crime with Ellen Page and Catherine Keener, and The Girl Next Door, based on the novel by Jack Ketchum.  Despite high imdb ratings (7.4 and 6.7, respectively), these movies are obscure, but even the titles remind us that such crimes aren't that unusual.   What is unusual is that the facts were established, and the perpetrator brought to justice, especially unusual when the criminal is a female.   
Lately, there have been a few other brave exceptions to U.S. denial, so maybe things are getting better:  Precious, The Killer Inside Me, The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  These films are a refreshing change from Hollywood-feminist Oscar-bait, films that use convoluted plots (even if true) to indicate that women don't abuse kids, such as Agnes of God, A Cry in the Dark, and The Good Mother

Despite getting the most attention, I found Precious to be heavyhanded, although its heart is in the right place.  The Killer Inside Me is surely destined for cult-legendary status, if you can stand the extreme violence.  The Perks of Being a Wallflower may be the  best of the three, a bittersweet story of friendship and recovery, including the battle to overcome denial to recover memories, the truth of what happened.  Without turning away from life's oceanic sadness, it's a plea for self-acceptance, its very title defying the American injunction that we're all superheroes. 



Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Monster's Ball (2001) 1.5 of 4

EDIT 21 June, 2015: I wrote this review before knowing much about the recent madness in Charleston, S.C.  I apologize for the poor timing, especially to anyone who's read before this edit.  (I'm 50, and the realities of digital media don't come easily to me; I tend to forget how easy it is to edit the blog, for example.) 
These remain my views on the film, but right now they are trivial at best. 

The sitcom 30 Rock once did an episode in which Tracy Morgan's character made a "serious" movie, a piece of  autobiographical Oscar-bait about his troubled childhood.  This way-over-the-top film-within-a-film seemed to be a parody of the then-current movie Precious, the biopic about a young black woman who's been horribly abused for years.  Though I was a fan of 30 Rock at the time, I remember thinking the parody unkind. 
Precious was directed by Lee Daniels, who'd already co-produced Monster's Ball, and would go on to the current TV hit Empire.   Now that I've seen both those films, I can see exactly where 30 Rock was coming from.  At least Precious was apparently based on a true story, whereas Monster's Ball is just shameless manipulation, piling on misfortunes as if terrified we'll stop taking it seriously. 

Lee Daniels also put his name in front of The Butler.  All of these movies and more (The Help, 42) seem best suited for suburban white people, for guilt mitigation.  These movies do everything but take my hand and say, "Now you hush, chile.  Ain't nothin' to be afeared of , 'cause black folk is jus' folk, jus' like you."

** major spoilers ahead **

Monster's Ball was showered with awards, but to me this just proves again that certain topics paralyze the critical faculties: the Holocaust, race in America.  It's the story of a prison guard (Billy Bob Thornton) who falls in love with Halle Berry, after helping to execute Halle's ex-husband (Sean Combs), who'd abused her.  The guard had a racist upbringing, but fortunately both of their sons die violent deaths (within days of each other), which is quite an ice-breaker, and before you know it we get some admittedly steamy, interracial sex scenes. 

So yes, this is an interracial love story.  Barely.  It seems to me that a racist redneck finding redemption in the arms of Halle Berry is like the person who claims they can't be anti-Semitic because they love Jesus.
Then again, this movie was made in 2001, when we were all more innocent.   


Monday, June 8, 2015

Blue Ruin (2013) 3 of 4

In my review of A Horrible Way to Die, I suggested that movie may actually be about the death of a culture.  The same is true of Blue Ruin, another violent film about dysfunction, grief, and death.  Blue Ruin is a crime drama, not a horror film, but the films are cousins.

Speaking of cousins, Blue Ruin is another film about hillbillies.  I suspect that such films are part of our attempt to come to grips that white people have their cultures, too, and we tend to cling to them with the same morbid pride as anyone else.  The title presumably refers to the main character's car, but it also describes the man, and maybe the Blue Ridge Mountains, at or near where the movie was filmed.
I haven't seen The World Made Straight, which is set in an Appalachian town still haunted by a Civil War massacre, nor Tucker and Dale vs. Evil, a horror-comedy that reverses stereotypes.  For a history lesson, there's the modest but sincere Chris Cooper film Pharaoh's Army, set in Civil War-era Kentucky.  Blue Ruin is probably a notch down from the high-water Winter's Bone, but it's still a good film. 
** moderate spoilers ahead **
The protagonist is Dwight, whose parents were killed when he was a kid.  He's never recovered.  At one point, his sister says that she could forgive him if he were sick, "but you're not sick, you're weak."  If you discuss the film after, you'll be discussing whether you agree with her or not. 
Like The Brave One, Blue Ruin attempts to show us what Batman would be like if he were a real person: he'd be a mess, even more of a mess than Nolan's Dark Knight.   

EDIT, 21 March 2016: I eventually realized, the film can also be compared to Hamlet.  Further, the word "hamlet" can refer to a small settlement of under 100 people, and is sometimes used of the Appalachians.  The common factor: modernity is leagues away. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Quarantine (2008) 3.5 of 4

** this review contains only minor spoilers **

I liked this better than the original, but I deserve cinephile credit: I saw [REC] first.  That film came out in 2007, Spain's entry in the viral-horror pandemic.  It's a good film, but some of the dark humor seemed to get lost in translation.  Also, [REC] involves Satanism, whereas the remake is more secular, if far from divine.

I believe that most horror films include a behavior that draws punishment on a moral level, even if it seems to be peripheral.  For example: in Night of the Living Dead, Johnny clowns in the cemetery, a sacred place (I believe it's a Sunday, which makes it worse).  In the world of the film and in the viewer's subconscious, the zombie mayhem is punishment for a world that has forgotten respect.  Johnny is the first to die.

In Quarantine, the trigger is a little tougher to spot, because the protagonists are an impressive group of people: a perky TV-show host (Jennifer Morrison), her loyal cameraman, and a group of firemen, the subject of the show.  In the U.S., any city's firemen are known as that town's bravest; for example, Boston's firefighters are "Boston's bravest."

Of course, this is essentially true anywhere: we admire firefighters and other first responders.  In both [REC] and Quarantine, the heroic characters discover and interact with a group of variously reclusive, self-involved people.  Instead of a wealth gap, these movies portray an enormous socialization gap, an abyss. 


Dark Water (2005) 3 0f 4

After various iterations of The Ring, The Grudge, and One Missed Call, we may assume filmmakers have exhausted the fright potential of running water and long-haired females.  Still, I’d also recommend Dark Water, a literary horror flick that sets the freaky water effects against domestic tragedy.  (Note: Ring-master Hideo Nakata had a hand in Dark Water’s screenplay.)

Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly plays the mom to a little girl, both trying to survive an acrimonious divorce from husband/dad Dougray Scott.  Connelly’s character falls through cracks and into a creepy (but affordable) high rise on New York City’s Roosevelt Island.  The Brutalist monstrosity is haunted (shocker), although Connelly worries as much about retaining custody.   
(Connelly has quietly assembled a formidable sci-fi/horror resume, including The Rocketeer and Dark City, and collaborations with Dario Argento, The Hulk, and the neo-Klaatu.)

** moderate spoiler ahead **

             Despite moments of dread, Dark Water is relatively muffled compared to, say, The Ring or Session 9.  It seems to actually care about its characters, as opposed to something like The Grudge.  Child abuse is a theme, but the worst acts occur before the movie begins: the movie is about the grip of the past, and it's profoundly sad.  Both mother and daughter are achingly vulnerable, met mostly with greed and indifference, despite a sympathetic lawyer played by Tim Roth (other familiar faces: John C. Reilly, Camryn Manheim, and Pete Postlewaite).

** end spoiler ** 

            The cliché is that most 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 has the same result.  Credit for this mix of fright and empathy is shared by Brazilian director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) and the makers of the original Japanese film, which was based on the novel by Koji Suzuki.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Zodiac (2007) 4 of 4

** this review contains mild-to-moderate spoilers **

Like Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac killer of the 1960s and 1970s looms large in the history of serial killers partly because he was never brought to justice.  I almost wrote that they never caught Zodiac, but that's misleading.  As David Fincher's superb fictionalization explains, investigators concluded multiple times that Arthur Leigh Allen was the killer.  They just couldn't make it stick. 

It's odd how recent films set in the 1970s seem as evocative of the era as films made in the 1970s: The Virgin Suicides, Boogie Nights, Frost/Nixon, The Runaways, The Lovely Bones, The Ice Storm.  The 1970s fascinate us with their mix of decadence and innocence (these people must have a kind of innocence, to wear those styles).

Zodiac is both matter-of-fact and frightening.  Impeccably mounted and detailed, it's enthralling, even at almost three hours.  In addition to other pitch-black serial killer films, it reminded of both Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men and Sidney Lumet's Prince of the City

The film is based on the book by Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), the newspaper cartoonist who became obsessed with the case, starting with his friendship with a cavalier crime reporter (Robert Downey Jr.).  The third investigator profoundly affected by the case was detective David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo).  Some of the principals are listed as consultants in the end credits. 

As much as violence, the criminal known as Zodiac craves attention: he claims murders he didn't commit and sends coded messages to the media and the cops.  Graysmith explains that the code is very basic, not hard to crack.  A nerdy, soft-spoken man, Graysmith haltingly tells interviewers about his love of books and puzzles.  This is a major theme of the film, what all concerned have in common: killer, pursuers, filmmakers and intended audience, we all love puzzles.

The way these characters are brought together by puzzles and mysteries dovetails with Fincher's usual theme of male loneliness.  Fincher's films follow conflict and behavior stemming from two facts: men get lonely and alienated, men are not supposed to admit to these feelings.

As with Silence of the Lambs or Se7en, we can't entirely separate ourselves from the sadistic killer because after all, we sought out the movie.  I may not kill someone, but I thrill to a good serial killer movie, even one with lines of dialogue like the following, directed to a winsome young mom (Ione Skye): "Before I kill you I'm going to throw your baby out the window."  (If that sounds comical written down, it's not funny at all in the movie.)

Zodiac portrays the killer as a loser: a lonely, hulking man; a repressed, self-hating homosexual who keeps squirrels for pets.  Still, we are left with the chilling probability that he won the game he started: Allen spent time in prison for child molestation, and was questioned by Toschi, but was never arrested or charged with the Zodiac killings.  He helped inspire the string of holiday-based slasher movies of ensuing years, and today, we still debate the media's proper role in reporting violent crime. 

Again like Jack the Ripper, Zodiac craved attention, which is why a film can be fact-based: he gave us the information.  We can only speculate about the more discreet predators that operate on our rural byways or down our pleasant side streets.   


Friday, February 20, 2015

going broke: the war on terrorism in U.S. films

I also wrote this piece, on other aspects of war-on-terrorism films:

** this post contains spoilers on multiple films **

If you believe commercial films are a reliable cultural index, it didn't take long before we knew we were lied to regarding 9/11 and/or the "war on terror."  The evidence: a matched-zeitgeist-pair from 2005, both of them about airplanes in trouble (but both also careful to avoid a too-soon plane crash). 

In Flightplan, what seems a supernatural mystery comes down to a greedy air marshal, who explains things to star Jodie Foster: "That's what authority means, people believe what I tell them to believe."  (Ouch.)  In Red Eye, the title flight really is menaced by swarthy terrorists, however the main villain is a white mercenary, and the terrorists have been baited by a recklessly macho Homeland Security honcho. 

Both of these made money, but of course they weren't realistic depictions of the war on terrorism.  That would wait for the likes of Green Zone, with Matt Damon as a WMD expert who goes rogue to find out the truth: that we'd been badly misled about supposed WMD's, out of a lust for war in Iraq and the expected spoils.  Watching the extras for Green Zone, it's clear that the principles were coached to lead with the word "thriller."  That's an accurate word, but the political agenda sent audiences elsewhere.  Despite a high profile, Green Zone struggled to crack $30 million in the U.S. 

Most of the above paragraph can also be applied to The Hurt Locker, the winner of a Best Picture Oscar.  Jeremy Renner's character also slips his leash in Baghdad, although in his case it's as much adrenaline addiction as a quest for truth.  Again, high profile did not become high grosses. 

Traitor is even more political than Green Zone, giving us Don Cheadle as an apparent terrorist who is actually a deep-cover agent for the U.S.  As with many undercover operatives, Cheadle's character starts to sympathize with his purported comrades; at one point he charges that the main difference between the insurgents and U.S. forces is the darkness of the skin of their victims. 

I found Traitor to be a deeply thoughtful and satisfying political thriller, which was a surprise given that it sank like a pebble at the box office (I'm pretty sure I learned about the film at least a year after its release).  Apparently, Traitor made $22 million in the U.S., presumably doing better in urban markets thanks to Cheadle's presence.  In any case, the obscurity of this worthy film underlines our deep discomfort with analysis of our current wars. 

This brings me to American Sniper, the one war film that seems to have brought (most of) us together.  Clint Eastwood's enthralling, moving film is experiential, carefully avoiding politics: it's a soldier's story.  Some liberals complain the film ties the war in Iraq to 9/11, but they're wrong, the film makes no such connection: it portrays our soldiers as being motivated by 9/11, which is accurate.  Not everyone is a deep thinker or a student of history, and some people possess both patriotism and the courage to defend their country.  American Sniper invites Americans to feel some gratitude and pride for our soldiers, regardless of politics.