Saving The World While Wearing High Fashion and High Heels

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Title: Atomic Blonde

Rating: 4 Stars

If I was in the business of giving halvsies, I’d give it a 3.5. But I’m not and I really don’t like giving out 3 stars, so 4 it is.

Set in 1989, right as the wall is coming down, Charlize Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an MI6 spy sent to Berlin to recover a list of spies. She teams up with the Berlin station chief, David Percival (James McAvoy), to try to recover it. She quickly discovers that Percival is not to be trusted and that the KGB is hot on her trail. Extreme violence ensues.

It would be charitable to describe the plot as convoluted or contrived. A more accurate description would probably be nonsensical. Especially in the mid part, the plot is about as important as the plot is to a porn movie. Even for spy / action movies, the plot here verges on the ridiculous.

However, Charlize Theron legitimately is a kick ass action hero. I loved her in Mad Max and here again she is a presence. She is tough, strong, and fearless. After an endless string of dudes, it really is great to see Theron positioned as a top line action star, which right now she unquestionably is.

James McAvoy has a special gift for portraying authority figures that have gone to seed. His performance of a spy who has been in Berlin for too long and has been corrupted by it reminds me a bit of his role as the police officer in Filth.

The style of the film is reminiscent of the John Wick films and to Kingsman. The violence is graphic, gory, and voluminous. In fact, the violence reminds me of nothing more than a graphic novel. Considering the fact that both Atomic Blonde and Kingsman were based on graphic novels and that John Wick was later turned into a graphic novel, I guess that’s to be expected.

I’m guessing that all three of the films themselves owe a debt to the Matt Damon reboot of the Bourne series, which in hindsight was a landmark in action film development. They all share the same graphic, extremely short take fight sequences.

Atomic Blonde and Kingsman take it a step further. In both cases, they’re an absurdist ironic reboot of the essential spy film genre. The violence is more graphic, the sex is more explicit, and the plots more ridiculous. The actors all but wink to the camera as the film progresses.

In fact, including the phrase Atomic in the title is a throwback to the 50’s and the 60’s, when atomic warfare was on everyone’s mind. During that time, the phrase atomic appeared in multiple cultural contexts (watch the documentary Atomic Cafe for a more thorough discussion of this).

Another reference to the 1960’s in Atomic Blonde was to its pervasive use of fashion and music. This seemed pretty clear to be a subtle wink to the Mod movement in England. Whereas Mike Myers openly and absurdly exaggerated this movement in his Austen Powers movies, here the irony is less broad but still quite apparent.

What’s interesting to me is…what’s next? Once you’ve completely deconstructed a cultural archetype through irony, what do you do next? What is post irony? Will the movies just keep getting more and more cartoony (perhaps ending up like the movie Idiocracy where there’s an entire series devoted to nothing more than a man getting hit it in his balls)? Or will it cycle back and movies become sincere again? Or will the genre just die off with nothing interesting left to say?

If you’re really interested in the role of irony in art and the impact that the pervasive nature of television (and if he was still alive, I’m sure he’d say internet now instead) has had in drowning us in a sea of irony and what impact that will have on art in the future, please read David Foster Wallace’s essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”.

One final note. Yesterday, I finished reading Legacy of Ashes, a searing review of the incompetence of the CIA. Reading this before served quite the contrast to Atomic Blonde, which portrays intelligence agents, even if they are corrupt, as ruthlessly efficient. Don’t be fooled, our intelligence agencies don’t even have a fraction of the knowledge, ability, and competence that is shown in this film.

A Week, A Day, An Hour At The Beach

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Title: Dunkirk

Rating: 3 Stars

This is a hard film for me to rate.

The basic plot, in case you really need this to be spelled out to you, is about the WWII evacuation of Dunkirk after Hitler inexplicably halted his panzer advance just as the German army was about to push the British and French forces into the sea. There were some 300,000 British soldiers trapped on the beaches. Fearing a German invasion, the British did not want to risk their navy, so they marshaled an entire flotilla of small boats to come out and bring the soldiers back to England. In so doing, the British army was saved.

Clearly the evacuation of Dunkirk, from a historical perspective, was a huge undertaking. The film narrows its scope to land, sea, and air vignettes. The land part, which takes place over a week, concerns a soldier trapped on the beach trying to get home. The sea part, which takes place over a day, concerns an English civilian sailor that takes his boat to Dunkirk to rescue all of the soldiers that he can. The air part, which takes place over an hour, is three airmen that fly out to try to keep the skies clear of German fighters. The three stories are told in an inter-weaved, nonlinear manner,

First of all, I’m not sure if Christopher Nolan can make a bad film. I’ve seen all of his full length movies. Even the one that I liked least (I’m looking at your Interstellar), was thought provoking and visually appealing.

Dunkirk was certainly a panoramic film. I saw it in 70mm, which heightened this effect. Especially in the air part, you really get an idea of the vastness and the emptiness in which pilots have to operate. Also the theater I watched it had a state of the art sound system, so the sounds of war came through loud and clear.

The cast was also top notch. Any movie with Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, and Cillian Murphy is going to feature top tier acting.

As usual with Nolan, he handles time confusion masterfully. The three episodes, taking place over a week, a day, and an hour are effortlessly integrated together.

The film was beautiful. The acting was top notch. The plot was engaging. So, what was the problem? For some reason, the movie seemed to lack drama. I never really felt on the edge of my seat. There just didn’t seem to be much suspense in the little boat crossing the channel to pick up soldiers. The shell shocked soldier (Murphy) fighting the civilian captain Mr Dawson (Rylance) almost seemed to be a plot contrivance to add drama to the crossing. In all three sub-plots, there seemed to be an air of almost detachment that kept me from becoming completely engaged.

Maybe there was just a little bit too much British stiff upper lip to me. Hardy’s, Rylance’s, and Branagh’s characters all seemed to just calmly go about their duty. I never really sensed any conflict or fear or doubt in any of them. I know that the WWII British ethos was to Keep Calm and Carry On, but this just seemed to take this to extremes. Near the end of the movie, you hear that Mr Dawson very recently suffered a serious loss. The only reaction in the entire movie that you get of that pain is a slight grimace.

Because none of the leads seemed to show any concern regarding their well being, it in turn made it difficult for me to really feel engaged in the plot.

Human’s Ultimate State Is…A USB Stick?

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Title: Lucy

Review: 2 Stars

A young woman (Lucy (Scarlett Johansson)) gets trapped into making a delivery by her boyfriend. The delivery goes bad and she ends up being used as a drug mule. The drug in question is a synthetic version of what a mother gives a fetus at a very early stage of development to spur it. The drug is surgically inserted into Lucy’s body. She is attacked and is kicked in her stomach, where the incision was made, unleashing all of the drug into her body. She gains an extremely enhanced understanding of the world and gains super intellectual powers.  As she consumes more of it, she nears the point in which all 100% of her cognitive abilities are in use, which gain her an almost godlike existence. All the while, the gangsters that originally made her the drug mule are trying to track her down to reclaim the drugs.

To start with the good, the movie is visually stunning. Having said that though, I don’t remember seeing anything that wasn’t already in the Matrix over a decade earlier (or we can say it in an even more mean manner and say a century earlier). At some level the conceit is the same. Lucy, in her most advanced states, is essentially above reality. She can manipulate it at will. She can win fights without fighting. She can see events without actually having seen them. You know, kind of like Neo.

The bad has to do with the plot. The premise rests on the fact that only ten percent of our brain is ever in use. This was a theory that has been around for a while, but has pretty much been demolished ever since the development of brain imaging. It’s pretty clear that all of our brain capacity is used, and is actually in use pretty much constantly.

I could maybe have suspended reality a bit on that point, but with Morgan Freeman, playing the role of philosopher / scientist Dr Norman, using his voice of God credibility to spend a significant amount of screen time pontificating upon the fact was pretty ridiculous.

I might have been OK if they’d stopped her development in the early stages. At least then, there could have been some kind of ultra genius fish out of water story (think Flowers for Algernon, John Travolta in Phenomenon, or even Jeremy Renner in the hilariously bad The Bourne Legacy (“he’s going to run out of brain!”)). But no, Luc Besson had to keep kicking it up a notch as Lucy ingests more and more of the drug.

By the end of the movie, she has time traveled, stopping at various moments, including apparently the original Lucy (as in the first hominid) and actually doing some kind of Michelangelo Sistine Chapel finger touch with her. Does that affect the original Lucy? Does this act actually fire some kind of synapse in Lucy’s brain that leads her to become the founding mother of the human race? If so, then on top of all of the other silliness that’s in this movie, Besson has also introduced a time travel paradox.

By the end, Lucy (now I’m back talking about the present Lucy) has essentially become one with the cosmos and one of her last material acts was leaving  behind what appears to be a USB memory stick containing all of the knowledge that she’s discovered.

I have to give it credit. It’s not the normal everyday kind of movie that is mindlessly put out. It was fast paced and I was entertained, albeit in a largely bemused manner. I just couldn’t get past the intellectual / visual pretentious silliness of it all.

A Music Video Dressed Up Like A Movie

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Title: Baby Driver

Rating: 2 Stars

Baby Driver was a pretty good summer movie, but considering the 95% top critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, its overall positive buzz, and its pretensions to be more than just another action movie, it kind of fell flat.

The absurdly named Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver par excellence. A childhood auto accident killed his parents and has left him with tinnitus, which he alleviates by constantly playing music. The omnipresence of the music has given him a physical grace both inside and outside of a car.

Doc (Kevin Spacey) is a fixer that organizes robberies.  He caught Baby stealing from him, so Baby has been working off the debt by being his getaway driver. He finally does pay off his debt and tries to go straight, but in true gangster fashion, finds that Doc has no plans to let him ever stop. Doc threatens Baby’s new girlfriend, Deborah (Lily James), and Baby agrees to do another job.

With him on this heist are the psychopathic Bats (Jamie Foxx) and the couple Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza Gonzalez). Despite his attempts to avoid it, Baby ends up participating in the heist, which goes horribly wrong.

The chase scenes are well constructed and exciting. Baby displays a dazzling set of driving skills. Foxx is genuinely menacing as Bats. Hamm is genuinely charming (until he isn’t) as Buddy. There is strong chemistry between Elgort and James.

The music is the star here. Both the chase scenes and the violence are choreographed to a set of well chosen songs.

This movie also has the dubious distinction of making the best use of a Red Hot Chili Pepper. Flea does good use here as a criminal known as No-Nose.

Although stylish, ultimately the movie was somewhat cartoonish. The plot was somewhat nonsensical and was essentially used to set up the chase scenes. By the end, Bats was a cartoon caricature of insane violence and Buddy somehow became the embodiment of an unkillable terminator.

So, not a bad movie, but it was a victim of higher expectations. It felt to me as if it was a couple of music videos stitched together into a semi-coherent narrative.

 

The Red Death Held Illimitable Dominion Over All

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Title: It Comes At Night

Rating: 4 Stars

I’ve noticed something interesting about this film. According to rotten tomatoes, the critics are highly favorable. Top critics give it an 88 rating. However, the audience score is exactly half of that (44).

I think I understand why (or at least a working hypothesis). It’s marketed as a post apocalyptic horror movie. It’s never explained, but apparently some kind of contagion has pretty much wiped out, at least the local population, if not global.

This puts you immediately in mind of The Walking Dead. You think of a plucky group of survivors desperately trying to fight off zombies as they try to find a place to survive. This is nothing like that, so if the audience is expecting something along those lines, they will be disappointed.

However, critics see a shitload of films every year. After a while, I’d think that you’d get sick of the same formulas. This is not a typical horror film, so I’d imagine that the critics would breathe a sigh of relief at the attempt of trying to bring something new to the genre.

Be that as it may, I enjoyed it. I’m not a huge fan of horror, so the fact that it was way more psychological than horrifying made the film more satisfying to myself.

The basic plot (discovered via very little disposition) is that some kind of highly contagious infection is raging through the area. As I’ve mentioned above, it’s not known if it’s local, national, or global. It’s clear that not even the characters themselves know how widespread it is.

Regardless, a husband, wife, and teenage son (Paul, Sarah, and Travis, respectively) are now holed up in a highly secure house in the wilderness. They’ve just buried Sarah’s father, who has died of the plague. Shortly thereafter, a man (Will) tries to break into their house. The family captures him and ties him to a tree to see if he’s contagious.

After determining that he’s clean, Will explains that he has a wife and young child (Kim and Andrew) that are at a house some distance away. They have food but are desperately short of water.

Paul’s family has water but do not have any fresh food. After discussing it, Paul and Sarah decide to let Will and his family to live with them.

They do so, and for a short while, all is happy. Clearly, Paul, Sarah, and Travis were unhappy and going a little stir crazy. Having three new people in the house allows them to share chores, relax, and even have a little bit of fun.

Ultimately, the two families end in conflict. Will’s story does not completely make sense. Travis hears strange sounds outside. Andrew might be infected. All of this ends up with conflict between the two families. Suffice it to say that there is not a happy ending.

This was produced by A24, which also made The Witch. This has a similar feel to that film. You have a family, independent and isolated, trying to make do in a harsh wilderness. You have an outside otherworldly kind of force that may or may not exist, trying to destroy them.

Horror movies are pretty much always dark places. With this film, it’s even darker. Most of the action takes place inside. The house is completely boarded up, so there is no natural light. The film ends up feeling claustrophobic. Since the film gives no indication of the circumstances that brought the world to this end, you find yourself getting caught up into the claustrophobia yourself.

This is very much a minimalist kind of film. There’s only a couple of settings. There are very few wide shots. There are really only five characters who have any lines at all. This minimalism is used to nice effect. It does feel like the world is winding down or dying off.

You sense the paranoia that must build up between families awkwardly trying to coexist. They hide guns from one another. They try to catch each other up in lies. On the one hand, they are codependent. On the other, you get the sense that one false move will destroy the equilibrium of the relationship and it will quickly devolve to violent death.

So, despite the fact that this is a dystopian world in which the dystopia is never defined, that this is a tense psychological battle in which the truth is never truly discovered, and it appears by the end that the world will end grimly and quietly, I still found the movie enjoyable.

It stayed true to its nature and followed its course come what may. With no compromise in vision and no tacked on happy ending, I found it to be a rewarding experience.

In case you’re wondering about the title of the post, it’s the last line from Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death. In the short story, there is a plague rampaging. With little regard to those suffering, Prince Prospero walls off an abbey so that and his noble friends can be safe. It does not work. Death cannot be held back using locks and walls.

Paul here shares the same conceit as the Prince. If only he can make his house secure enough and if he can make the brutal, hard choices that he knows that he must, then he can protect his family. By the end of the film, as with the Prince, he understands the futility of his actions.

The Sociopath With A Conscience

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Title: The Talented Mr Ripley

Rating: 5 Stars

I think that I saw this when it first came out in the theaters, way back in the previous century. I don’t remember being all that impressed by it, but it seems to have aged really well for me. Sometime in that same time frame, I also read Highsmith’s book. Although her most famous work, I don’t remember blown away by it either. Perhaps I should give that another shot as well.

The movie opens at a wedding reception where Tom Ripley (Matt Damon) is playing the piano. He is wearing a borrowed Princeton jacket. Dickie Greenleaf’s father, a wealthy shipbuilder, sidles up to him and asks if he knew his son, Dickie (Jude Law), who also went to Princeton. Ripley bluffs enough to impress the father. The father later offers Ripley a substantial amount of money to go to Italy to try to convince Dickie to come home. Ripley, actually quite poor, agrees to try.

Ripley heads off to Italy and ingratiates himself in with Dickie and his fiance, Marge (Gwyneth Paltrow). He is dazzled by their lifestyle and completely won over by Dickie’s charms. He immediately confesses his true mission to Dickie and by doing so, cements their friendship.

Dickie is a shallow, spoiled man, so ultimately the charm of his friendship with Ripley fades. Ripley, seduced by the lifestyle and in love with Dickie, cannot give it up. Ultimately, they have a confrontation, and Ripley murders Dickie.

Ripley is a gifted mimic and finds himself easily able to take on Dickie’s life. He convinces Marge that Dickie has abandoned her and he then flees to Rome.

As Marge’s suspicions are heightened, as Dickie’s father comes out to investigate, and as the Italian police are investigating, it becomes a tense cat and mouse game for Ripley to stay a step ahead of everyone.

A couple of themes stood out to me while watching.

One is that the rich are truly different than the rest of us. They all look haughtily down upon Ripley. He is treated almost as a pet by Dickie. Dickie’s true best friend, Freddie (Philip Seymour Hoffman), maliciously ridicules Ripley, just because he can. Even Marge, who is one of the more sympathetic characters, treats him with casual contempt. He is a toy for them to play with, and then to be set aside when bored. They seem to barely recognize the possibility of his humanity.

The overt gay theme is interesting. The novel was written in the 1950’s. Highsmith, who was herself gay, had to be careful with how to work this theme into the novel. The film is also set in the 1950’s, but even in the year that it was filmed (1999), although much better, was still during the time of don’t ask / don’t tell. The film was pretty overt in its expression. Ripley talks regularly about the dark basement where he keeps all of his deepest, most disturbing secrets, and wishes that there was someone in his life that he could share this with. Since his metaphorical basement includes several murders and probably a lifetime of other acts of evil, he undoubtedly never will be able to share. Although his secrets are much darker than his sexuality, it speaks to the secret life that gays had to live during those times.

Ripley tries so hard to fit in. He is a natural mimic and is a very quick study. He just has so much ground to make up. He knows it and takes every opportunity to suck up new knowledge and to ingratiate himself with everyone he meets.  It’s a desperate life that he lives. He realizes that every moment he is on a knife’s edge and one wrong move could result in Dickie, Marge, or Freddie thoughtlessly casting him out of the paradise that he’s managed to weasel into and into the inferno that he probably thinks that he deserves.

The acting is superb. Jude Law lights up the screen with his charm, and then, when displeased, darkens it immediately. He is truly the feckless spoiled man-child who just takes it for granted that everything will turn out well for him. Philip Seymour Hoffman is wonderful as the hedonist Freddie, not even trying to disguise the fact that he treats his lessers as a lower form of humanity, and pretty much everyone is his lesser.

At the center of all of this is Ripley himself, Matt Damon. Ripley is truly a sociopath. He will say or do anything to get what he wants. He will smile and endure all kinds of both subtle and overt abuse if at the end he is still ahead. He will murder. He will lie. He will steal. He will flee.

Despite that, and here’s the contradiction, you sense his vulnerability. He knows what he is doing is wrong and he knows that it will haunt him. He might achieve his goals but he will always be haunted by what it took to achieve them. Damon does an outstanding job embodying this contradiction. He is the desperate poor boy, nose pressed against the window, desperately trying to get inside. He does so, at the price of his soul, and he knowingly pays it, knowing that he’ll always hate himself.

 

The Madness of Machines

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Title: Alien: Covenant

Rating: 4 Stars

I think it’s fair to say that Ridley Scott has seen the future and is not amused.

Covenant takes place 10 years after Prometheus.  A spaceship is on its way to a supposedly habitable planet. On that spaceship is a crew and a couple of thousand colonists, all in hibernation. The ship is run by Walter, a synthetic.

Some kind of random burst damages the ship, causing the crew to be awoken. While awake, they notice a signal arriving from what appears to be an even more potentially habitable planet. They go off to investigate.

After they land, they realize that the planet has been infected with spores that when ingested, cause xenomorphs to hatch. They also discover David, the synthetic from the Prometheus mission (who looks identical to Walter). He rescues them and explains that while trying to land on the planet, that the spores were accidentally released, thus destroying all life on the planet.

As more crew members continue to die by the xenomorphs, Walter discovers the truth. David has somehow advanced to the point where he thinks that he is above humans and that humans are a dying breed. He intentionally unleashed the contagion to destroy the planet and has established a rapport with the xenomorphs.

It then becomes a race for the few remaining crew to get off the planet before the xenomorphs kill them all. Walter, feeling his duty to crew, must fight David, who wants to destroy them, to the death.

A couple of thoughts here…

The atmosphere, even though on a different planet, is consistent with the other alien movies. Everything is dark. There is no evidence of a sun. Hard rain and storms obscure the planet and make landing and taking off from it difficult. Several times during this movie, my thoughts went back to Blade Runner, which is another dark and rainy setting. Scott’s future seems to be a dark, uncomfortable, miserable place.

Also, as in Blade Runner, you have an artificially created being that ultimately surpasses his human creator. David looks towards humans as his creators but finds them lacking. He too wishes to be a creator and maybe in a nod to Freud, wants to kill his creator. Scott is apparently watching the approaching singularity, when machine intelligence exceeds human intelligence, with growing dread.

In David’s drawings, you can see his inspiration coming from the paintings of William Blake. In some of Blake’s later philosophy, you see him struggling against the dogmatic religion imposed upon him by convention. In his view, the devil is nearly a sympathetic figure in wanting to overthrow the false, authoritarian religion. Could David be sympathizing with this interpretation? Did he see himself as a true rebel forced to overthrow his false creator gods, the humans? And in so doing, bring about a higher level of being?

In all of this, has David gone mad? Is he consumed by megalomania? Is he a narcissistic sociopath? Can an artificially created being become insane? Is it his fault? Or bad programming?

All interesting questions. There are plans to create additional films to chronologically link this narrative with the original Alien franchise. I’m looking forward to seeing if this can be completed (after all, Ridley Scott is 80 years old).

Marvel’s Cash Sucking Formula

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Title: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Rating: 4 Stars

I have to hand it to Marvel. They really do have the formula for making money down pretty pat. I’m not a huge fan of the Avenger’s universe. I couldn’t care less what happens in the X-Men universe. The Fantastic Four? eh…

However, they suck my wallet dry with the Guardians of the Galaxy. For whatever reason, it has the exact right combination of snark, slapstick, action, thwarted love interest, daddy problems, anti-hero, and overt, maudlin, violin-string schmaltz that makes me rush to the theater and leave oh so satisfied.

It clearly is a formula. I picture a room full of psychologists, comedians, and stunt coordinators, carefully designing a script via an extremely explicit deterministic process in a massive war room full of charts, graphs, and stop watches.

But, goddammit, it worked. I laughed and was thrilled, and a couple of times pieces of dust blew into my eyes.

Each character has a role. There is Drax, who is hilariously socially inept. You have the sociopathically amoral raccoon that of course has the secret heart of gold. You have the strong heroine, Gamora, not so secretly in love with Quill. You have Quill himself, the prototypical action hero who’s actually a charming doofus.

And of course, you can’t forget about Groot, the most adorable sentient plant to ever exist.

The charm of all of these characters is their emotional frailty and their uneasy dependence upon one another. They are a self-chosen family that probably at some level, we all wish that we could be a part of.

With the exception of Groot, they all have family problems. The most obvious is Quill, who feels abandoned by his father as he watched his mother die. He was then kidnapped and raised by a semi-father figure Yondu, who terrified him but yet raised him, albeit in a haphazard manner. In Vol 2, we get to meet Quill’s real father, a god named Ego.

This is the main source of conflict in the film. You have Quill’s real father finally coming into his life and offering him everything that he can imagine, but at a cost Quill pales from paying. In comes the reprobate thief, Yondu, to try to save Quill and be the father that he wishes that he could have been.

Will Quill choose the god-like Ego or will he choose the thieving but true Yondu? If you really think there’s any doubt about his choice, then this might not be the movie for you.

Along with that, you have the two sisters, Gamora and Nebula, constantly at each other’s throats, all because they both, even now, are themselves subconsciously competing against each other for their absent father’s (Thanos) love.

It’s not exactly subtle that the names of the fathers at the center of the plots are called Ego and Thanos. Thanos was the Greek god of death. The Latin meaning of the word Ego is I. Can there be two words that are more self-centered than I and death? The two names speak to the impossibility of ever understanding or getting succor from the father figure.

Parental loss is a common theme across comic books historically. Superman’s parents died on the planet Krypton. Batman’s parents were murdered. Batman became Robin’s guardian after Robin’s parents were murdered. The X-Men mutants are sent off to live at the X-Mansion. Tony Stark’s (Ironman) parents are killed in a car wreck. Peter Parker (Spider-Man) lives with his uncle and aunt, and his uncle is then murdered.

This is not a coincidence. Clearly the comic superhero archetype has now gone mainstream, but remember that the original comic books were targeted at young boys. Breaking free of the parental bond, especially if the young boy reading the comics had a troubled relationship (or no relationship) with his parents must have made seductive reading. This was a major theme in Chabon’s novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

With comic superheroes now gone mainstream quite literally around the world, the missing / troubled paternal relationship truly does seem to be a universal motif.

Having said all of that, it was a fun movie. I have no idea why Sylvester Stallone was in it, but thankfully his time was short. On the other hand, David Hasselhoff has a brilliant cameo.

Speaking of cameos, Stan Lee as usual makes one. In hindsight, it’s obvious, but when you first hear of it, it seems amazing that Stan Lee is the greatest grossing movie star of all time. Clearly, the lesson to learn here for movie studios is that they need to cast Stan Lee in more movies.

So, you win again Marvel. Although I despise what you and your ilk are doing to the movie industry, I had a wonderful time watching Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol 2.

Congratulations Marvel, and fuck you.

 

A Motion Picture Without Motion

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Title: La Jetee

Rating: 4 Stars

I just finished Time Travel, by James Gleick. Although I didn’t love the book, there were some topics that I found interesting. In particular, he was discussing movies involving time travel and he mentioned La Jetee.

I’d forgotten La Jetee. I remember when 12 Monkeys came out. I have a weakness for perplexing, non-linear plots and it certainly filled the bill. I enjoyed it and later researched it a bit. I remember reading that it was based upon La Jetee, an odd French film from the early 1960’s.

Reading about it again led me to try a hunch. I ventured over to youTube, and sure enough, there was a version available. This version apparently was played in an auditorium in the Philippines, with musical accompaniment and English narration. Since it’s only 28 minutes long, I sat down to watch it.

And I was properly amazed.

Warning, below are some spoilers. However, the movie was made in fucking 1962, so if you’re gonna get upset by me giving away plot points in the year 2017, may I suggest that there might be bigger battles for you to fight.

It’s the story of a man who has a single childhood memory of being at an airport, seeing a mysterious woman, and then something horrible happening (that he does not remember). Shortly after the time of that memory, some cataclysm hit the planet and nearly all people have perished. The few remaining ones are now deep underground with at best steampunk technologies.

Scientists underground have come to the conclusion that the only way out of their predicament is to send someone either backward or forward in time to either stop the cataclysm or to be provided with advanced technology.

Time travel is attempted by many but all of the experiments fail horribly. The man is selected because of the fact that he still has such a strong memory. This implies that he might have the proper mindset to cross time (for you literature geeks, think Time and Again, by Jack Finney).

The man is successful and on successive trips, recovers more memories. He meets the enigmatic woman and they fall in love. The scientists then send him into the future and he returns back with some kind of energy device that will allow them to start advancing civilization again.

Later, the people from the future visit him and offer to take him to the future, away from the current misery of underground existence. He declines but instead asks them to send him back to his past so that he can be with the woman.

So, he is sent back to the past to stay. He ends up at an airport. It’s the airport of his original memory. He sees the woman and heads over to her. He turns and sees that one of his keepers from the underground has followed him and intends to kill him. As he’s preparing for his death, he realizes that the memory from his childhood is in fact witnessing his own death as an adult.

If you’ve recently seen and/or remember 12 Monkeys, you can see how much of that plot was lifted from La Jetee.

What’s amazing about this movie is that it was told as a series of montages. As far as I can tell, there is only one truly filmed scene, where the woman opens her eyes. All other scenes are just a series of stills. For a film trying to make a statement about time, how cool is it that it tells the story in this manner? For, if you think of time as being just a series of moments, isn’t a movie ultimately just a series of images?

Just like in Finney’s book, I found it interesting that time travel can only happen to someone that is already susceptible to memories. Is having detailed memories a form of time travel? Especially if the memory is so detailed enough that it can trigger you to enter almost a different state? Not to make too much of this, but can the point be made that when Proust’s narrator takes a bite of the madeleine and is immediately flooded with an involuntary flood of memories that he might actually be transported in time? In fact, is that ultimately the meaning behind In Search of Lost Time?

At one point, the character is described as ‘no plans, no memories’. Does that mean at that point he is effectively out of any concept of time? If he has no plans, then he has no awareness of the future. If has no memories, then he has no awareness of the past. Without knowing of either the past or the future, what does time mean?

The fact that such questions can come out of a less than thirty minute film made over fifty years ago that consists of only one moving image is a testament to its greatness.

What Will Be The Next New Jim Crow?

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Title: 13th

Rating: 5 Stars

This is a documentary about the mass incarceration of predominantly men of color since the 1970’s.

To a large extent, if you’ve read The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, then you know where this movie is going. In fact, Alexander is one of the people interviewed for this film. Even if you have read The New Jim Crow, then the film is still an emotionally searing experience because you visually see the horrors that the last four decades have levied on the black community.

The film features a number of black professors, writers, and intellectuals that you can tell are trying their best to dispassionately describe the causes and effects of the mass incarceration movement, but just barely under the surface you can feel the rage that they all share at the utter injustice of it all.

The film discusses the start of the mass incarceration movement. It starts with the Nixon Southern Strategy. In the wake of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam war protests, there was a dramatic rise in civil unrest in the 1960’s. In that unrest, Nixon saw an opportunity to move historically democratic voters over to republicans.

Nixon’s enemies were hippies and blacks. If he could harden the drug penalties for drugs and then associate marijuana with the hippies and heroin with the blacks, then he could crack down on his enemies via entirely legal means. There’s a quote from his chief domestic adviser, John Ehrlichman, that openly, blatantly admits this. In detail, the quote is:

The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

This tactic becomes tremendously successful for the Republicans and they continue to use it. Again, they are completely aware of what they are doing. Here’s a quote from Lee Atwater, campaign manager for the George H.W. Bush presidential campaign:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other.

The Republicans use this as a weapon to bludgeon the Democrats. As Newt Gingrich says in the film, “you want to be on the side of the murderers rapists”? The Democrats learn this lesson and in Clinton’s campaign and later presidency, the Democrats come down hard and strong with such things as the three strikes you’re out law and mandatory minimum sentencing.

So, for a forty year period, you have politicians that built political capital by throwing people, predominantly people of color, into prison.

And what’s the consequence of that?

Sadly, many members of the black community have bought into the myth of black crime and have supported the need for increased incarceration of its own people.

Thirty percent of black adult residents in Alabama have lost the right to vote.

With the brutal reality of having to face draconian prison sentences, 97% of all defendants plea bargain, guaranteeing that some non significant percentage of people in prison today are innocent of whatever crime that they were initially arrested for.

Many people languish in prison because they do not have enough money to post bail. This is even more incentive to plead to a lesser charge, even if you’re innocent, just so that you can get out of jail. Of course, by pleading, many times you end up disenfranchised and you have a scarlet letter next to your name on all future job applications, college applications, and aid applications. Again, in many cases the defendant is factually innocent of the original charge but feels that he has no choice but to plead.

All of this incarceration growth has resulted in the development of a prison industrial complex. Prisons have become privatized. States enter into agreements with corporations to house a certain number of inmates. Therefore, a state government  is now incentivized to convict and imprison its own citizens so that it can meet the terms of the corporate contract. Corporations band together and lobby for stricter penalization laws so that they can house more prisoners.

Towards the end of the film, it juxtaposes scenes of civil rights violence with scenes from Trump rallies. It’s truly heartbreaking to contemplate how barely below the surface overt racism continues to be.

The sole encouraging light is that in the last year or two, the incarceration rates have dipped slightly. However, for obvious reasons, all of the black speakers in the film look upon this with deep suspicion. For 250 years, America had slavery. The slaves were then freed and there was rejoicing. This was followed by 100 years of Jim Crow. The Civil Rights Act was passed and there was rejoicing. This was then followed by over 40 years of mass incarceration. Yes, maybe this too shall eventually pass.

But what will follow it?