Monday, January 29, 2018

Dystopian Visions #3: They Live (1988) ***1/2

John Carpenter's They Live has attracted more attention than anyone imagined at the time of its release back in 1988. I remember an Entertainment Tonight story on the making of the film when I was a kid and thinking it looked like a typical horror movie, the only point of interest being it would star WWF wrestler Roddy Piper. Now like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Night of the Living Dead, Carptenter's vision summed up the state of things in Reagan's America, trickle down economics as the cruel hammer vanquishing the working class.

The film begins with Nada (Piper) arriving in Los Angeles looking for work after losing his construction job in Denver. In L.A. he takes refuge at a shantytown where the rest of the homeless and unemployed pass the time. Pirate TV signals come across the television speaking of a massive plot to enslave the world. Meanwhile, the police engage on a massive crackdown on the dispossessed people. Despite the economic deprivations around him, Nada still looks to a brighter future:

I deliver a hard day's work for my money. I just want the chance. It'll come. I believe in America. I follow the rules. Everybody's got their own hard times these days.

Nada's eloquent words come right out of John Steinbeck or Bruce Springsteen. Yet he will discover that there are larger forces aligning against those who just want to deliver a hard day's work after he puts on the magic sunglasses. Once he puts on the glasses Nada gets radicalized, for he discovers Skeletor like aliens walk among us - mostly yuppie types.

Carpenter shifts the tone seamlessly, for They Live now becomes a slapstick/exploitation dystopia movie. Nada starts blowing away every alien he sees and utters unforgettable lines like "I have come to chew bubblegum and kick ass . . . and I'm all out of bubble gum." Keith David co-stars as Nada's skeptical friend Frank. They have one of the best fights in cinema history and then join forces against the invaders.

Despite all the hi-jinks, there's a lamenting tone running through They Live. The response to the alien invasion is disorganized and a little pathetic, nothing like the spirited resistance in the 1983 TV movie V.  I suppose the subdued response matches America's passive response to destructive economic policies that makes the Koch Brothers swoon at the sound of cash flooding their bank accounts. 

There's modicum of home in They Live, never getting quite as Nihilistic as Carpenter's 1982 film The Thing. Nada and Frank come out of their slumbers and the same values that drive them to be hard workers also compel them to resist an unjust system. In the mean time be sure to obey, reproduce, and consume. 

Dystopian Visions #2: Equilibrium (2002) **

Anyone with a surface knowledge of dystopian literature will recognize Equilibrium as a potpourri of Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and 1984. Include a visual style taken from The Matrix and you have a typical early 21st Century Sci-Fi movie. Christian Bale is the stone faced protagonist John Preston in a future where all emotion expression is against the law, drugs are used to keep everyone numb. Any outpouring of emotion will result in execution. There's no crying in the future! 

The best aspect of Equilibrium is in some of the visual concepts. For the future portrayed here, one that follows a cataclysmic war, adopts a retro Medieval look. The police seem to act as enforcers/spiritual leaders. Other than that, nothing else much works in the film, except the occasional unintended laugh. The most embarrassing parts are the fight scenes that combine gun play and martial arts, Bale looks like he's swatting at flies.

As for the script, none of it makes much sense. Bale and his comrades go around killing dissenters, while at home his creepy son makes sure he never shows emotion. In time, John goes through a change of heart and the story takes a predictable turn.

A dystopia pastiche lacking story and heart, Equilibrium leaves the viewer with nothing but bloated action sequences and banal plot points. 

Dystopian Visions #1: Gattaca (1997) ***

Genetic engineering was a source of public fascination during the 1990s, from Jurassic Park to the cloning of Dolly the Sheep in 1996 and the epic Human Genome Project. Gattaca imagines a future where humans have perfected genetic engineering, dividing the species between those made in a laboratory and those conceived the natural way. Ethan Hawke stars as Vincent, a man who manages to fake his way into the elite society, despite his inferior background as a natural born person.

The most impressive part of Gattaca are the streamlined visuals, a stark vision of a clean Utopia where the upper half lives. We get no glimpse of how the other half lives, except that they do all the manual labor jobs. Fittingly, Ernest Borgnine appears in a cameo as a janitor resigned to his menial life. Famed writer Gore Vidal is also excellent as the "Director" of the society. Uma Thurman and Alan Arkin are under utilized in supporting roles.

Vincent dreams of becoming an astronaut despite his "inferior" genetic status. Vincent manages to slip in unnoticed by using the genetic material (skin and urine samples) of paralyzed Jerome (Jude Law). As Vincent prepares for his mission he becomes a suspect in a murder case. 

Gattaca raises compelling questions on the future of human rights. Will a breed of genetic superiors eventually rule over the rest? Do we already live in a such a situation? Some are born with more advantages than others, what are the obligations of the fortunate to the less fortunate? Gattaca a also a great metaphor for a culture that discriminates and how far some will go to join the chosen few.

In saying that, Gattaca is not the most endearing Sci-Fi movie because it lacks emotional richness, especially the love story. Like a good Star Trek episode, Gattaca introduces a great concept and leaves it there for the audience to mull over. Neither a cult classic, nor a grand visionary statement, Gattaca tells a good story with some striking visuals and enriching ideas.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Phantom Thread ***1/2 (2017)

Paul Thomas Anderson's latest Phantom Thread presents a claustrophobic world of locked doors and secret rooms. In what Daniel Day Lewis has announced to be his final performance, he plays a fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock in 1950s England who finds his routine life upset after he meets a young waitress. Period detail and precision match Kubrick's Barry Lyndon in terms of accuracy and style. Phantom Thread is also an entertaining movie full of sly humor enclosed in a dreamy cinematic spaces. 

Woodcock is the toast of the town; the man who royals and elites seek out to keep them stylish and regal. He lives with his sister and is a "confirmed bachelor." Reynolds surrounds himself with women who serve as muses and lovers and carelessly casts them out when he grows tired of them. Prone to ill health after the busy spring and fall seasons, he retreats to his country cottage to recover his creativity. On one of these excursions he becomes intrigued with a gawky waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps). After charming him, Alma becomes Reynold's newest confidante as he introduces her to the best of London society, a real Cinderella story.

As their relationship deepens, Reynold's insecurities emerge in their power struggle. Here the film begins to cook, going off into some unexpected places. Thomas creates such an interior world of beauty and obsession, it's hard not to get caught up in the spell of everything. Gothic themes enter into the story that becomes a tale of manipulation and heightened emotion. 

Phantom Thread appears to be a change of pace for Paul Thomas Anderson, a fever dream of a movie, immersing the audience in an interior world tinged with hints of madness.  

The Post *** (2017)

Rushed into production in response to the 2016 election and the anti-democratic rhetoric of the incoming administration, Steven Spielberg's The Post is the right movie for the time. One could view it as a prequel to All The President's Men, a love letter to a vibrant and brave print media. Like Darkest Hour, the film emphasizes how history could've unfolded differently if certain people had made different decisions. An all star cast shines, with Meryl Streep towering above all in one of her best performances. In saying that, The Post looks and feels more like an above average TV movie, still worthwhile despite being a bit too on the nose at times.

The year is 1971 and Nixon Administration is desperately trying to achieve "peace with honor" in Vietnam. During the 1960s the Pentagon put together a "secret history" of the war known as the Pentagon Papers, detailing American involvement there since the 1940s. Defense Department official Daniel Ellsberg leaked the classified history to the media, and evaded the administration's attempt to discredit him by breaking into his psychiatrist's office. Nixon tried to stop the release of the documents and the case went to the Supreme Court.

Meryl Streep stars as Katherine Graham who became the publisher of the Washington Post after the death of her husband. Often the lone woman in conference rooms filled with arrogant and opinionated men, she had to find the strength to stand up for herself. These scenes play well, as Spielberg emphasizes Graham's point of view. Tom Hanks plays Bill Bradley, a role he could probably play in his sleep, as the grizzled editor and chief of The Washington Post. Bob Odenkirk takes a dramatic turn as the reporter who made contact with Ellsburg. 

Newspaper movies are a genre onto themselves and there have been quite a few good ones over the years. The Post does not refrain from the cliches, meeting deadlines and countless moments of truth, but Spielberg's expert direction and the sincere performances of the cast win the day. Whatever one thinks of the media, robust newspapers are a check against a budding authoritarianism.

John Williams provided a restrained score in a film more about talk than action, which doesn't necessarily play to Spielberg's strength as a filmmaker. Still, there's enough energy and period flavor keep the film afloat and relevant. 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Notable Discoveries of 2017

Over 2017 I kept track of my movie watching on Here are some of the best films I discovered for the first time over the past year. Many of these aired on TCM, or were accessible on Netflix or Amazon Prime. Here they are!

Shadows in Paradise and Ariel (1986 and 1988) Dir. Aki Kaurismaki

I caught these two films from Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki on TCM. Most European films I've watched are about the upper classes, everyday people are typically in the background. These two films look at working class life in Finland with surreal humor and wry observation. Shadows in Paradise is about a garbage man who loses his best friend and gets involved with a woman who works at the local grocery store. Ariel is a bit more adventurous, about a man falsely accused of a crime. A Chaplinesque story in a Post-Modern setting. 

Thief  (1981) Dir. Michael Mann

Michael Mann's debut film starring James Caan as a former thief trying to go straight is an old trope told with verve and nuance.

Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985) Dir. George Miller

I had never watched the third entry in the Mad Max series, had no idea how much it inspired Fury Road. Great action sequences with some Spielbergian flourishes. 

The Hitcher (1986) Dir. Robert Harmon

Rutger Hauer is a menacing presence as a stranger wreaking chaos on the highway.

Audrey Rose (1977) Dir. Robert Wise

A ghost story starring Anthony Hopkins who believes the spirit of his daughter lives on in the little girl of a New York couple. One of the gloomiest movies I've ever seen, a tough movie to get out of your head. More scenes with rain than any film that comes to my mind.

Wise Blood (1979) Dir. John Huston

John Huston's moving adaptation of the Flanney O'Connor novel about faith and redemption in the American South. Brad Dourif is excellent as the troubled protagonist Hazel Motes who creates a "Church Without Christ".

Allied (2016) Dir. Robert Zemeckis

A recent one from Robert Zemeckis, a classic espionage thriller set in North Africa and England during the Second World War starring Brad Pitt and Maria Cotilliard. Gripping period piece with a literary sensibility. 

The Believer (2001) Dir. Henry Bean

An eerily relevant film starring Ryan Gosling as a charismatic Neo-Nazi who hides a secret. A perceptive examination of identity, religion, and politics.

Married to the Mob (1988) Dir. Jonathan Demme

Jonathan Demme's 1988 crime comedy starring Michelle Pheiffer as mob wife who must fend for herself. One of the few mob films told from a female perspective.

Ladybug, Ladybug (1963) Dir. Frank Perry

Meditative Cold War film on the existential threat of nuclear war.

Robin and Marian (1976) Dir. Richard Lester

A melancholy take on the Robin Hood legend with poignant performances from Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. 

Alice in the Cities (1974) Dir. Wim Wenders

A young German artist must help a little girl find her Mom.  Interesting meditation on boredom and time management. 

52 Pick Up (1987) Dir. John Frankenheimer 

An Elmore Leonard adaptation is as good as anything made during the mid 1980s. Mature performances from Roy Scheider and Ann Margaret turns a trashy story into gold. 

White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) Dir. Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood plays a fictional version of John Huston as he was about film The African Queen. Worthwhile study of art and ego. 

Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) Dir. Irvin Kershner

Starring Faye Dunaway as an avant-garde photographer, this film was written by John Carpenter and directed by Irvin Kershner. Eyes of Laura Mars dramatizes the transition between the moral ambiguity of the 1970s and the moral queasiness of the 1980s.

The Grifters (1990) Stephen Frears

A neo-noir with a unique tone and a viscous sense of humor. Revenge is a dish served cold.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Darkest Hour **1/2 (2017)

Now more than ever the courage of Winston Churchill is a story that deserves retelling. The year 2017 was a big year for Winston with two films as the main subject and Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk all celebrated the courage of the British people during the Second World War. Darkest Hour focuses primarily on May 1940 as Churchill became Prime Minister and displayed brave determination in standing up to fascism.

Gary Oldman's been one of the consummate actors of the past 30 years, playing everyone from Sid Viscous to Dracula. In Nolan's Batman trilogy he was fantastic as Commissioner Gordon, his acting in The Dark Knight Rises is one of my favorite comic book movie performances. As Churchill, Oldman gives an exceptional performance, yet underwhelms, insisting on playing him as a doddering old man with occasional flashes of genius. Darkest Hour goes to great lengths to portray Churchill as all too human, prone to pettiness, drinking, and wild ideas. While the script does emphasize his mastery of the English language and ability to inspire everyone to do their best, those moments are few and far between. 

Darkest Hour plays like a Masterpiece Theater version of High Noon as Churchill struggles to outdo the appeasers who sought a peace deal with Hitler in the dark days following the French surrender in the spring of 1940. Attempts at humor fall flat, such as his secretary's inability to understand his slurred speaking style. A scene where Churchill rides a subway to get a sense of how Londoners feel about the crisis may or may not be true, but feels like a contrived moment. For example, he asks the occupation of a man and learns he's a bricklayer. Why did the film not explain that Churchill was a member of the bricklayer's union in England? It would've added something to the moment!

A more superior film on Churchill is the 2002 HBO movie The Gathering Storm starring Albert Finney, a teleplay that gave the personal and public sides of the man in a more intriguing way, Darkest Hour is more amusing diversion featruing a two dimensional Churchill.  

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Brawl in Cell Block 99 ***1/2 (2017)

Prison movies are known for the tropes: bad food, survival, evil wardens and so on. Brawl In Cell Block 99 sets up its audience for the tropes and knocks them down in a violent cinematic journey. Vince Vaughn gives the performance of his life as Bradley Thomas, a man with a violent past who's trying to make something of his life. Brawl begins with Bradley losing his job as a repo man and then discovering his girlfriend Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) has two timed him. From that point on - expect the unexpected. Through a series of coincidences and bad luck Bradley ends up back in the slammer where his troubles really begin.

S. Craig Zahler made an impressive debut with his Neo-Western Bone Tomahawk in 2015 and here continues to subvert genre expectations. In the first half of the film we follow Bradley try to keep his life and relationship together and the second half goes for extremes and surreal violence. The fight scenes are brutal. There's echoes of Tarantino's jujitsu plot shifts and John Carpenter's pulsating narratives from the 1980s.

Brawl In Cell Block 99 features a chilling supporting performance from Don Johnson as a sadistic Warden, whose motto is "freedom is minimal." Frankly, the maximum security prison looks like something from the darkest depths of dystopian lore.  

Yet the film is not all brutality for brutality's sake, there's a real story being told. A visceral and unforgettable film.