Tag Archives: Drama

Jim Thorpe -All American

Jim Thorpe -All American

Jim Thorpe -All American (1951)

Warner Bros.

Director: Michael Curtiz

Main Cast: Burt Lancaster, Charles Bickford, Jim Thorpe


On the one hand, this film admirably portrays the life of a native american.  On the other hand, it is highly problematic.  There are some decent acting performances, but the score is tedious Hollywood pap.  The script is the biggest problem.  First of all, it is not very historically accurate, sacrificing facts to develop melodramatic plot points.  But the worst thing about it is that the story is designed to emphasize personal failings to diminish the nagging problem of racism.  Now, the film does address racism.  But it is brought up only as a “strawman” to be knocked down in favor of a formulaic personal struggle narrative arc.  It presents Thorpe’s life as one of him being too emotionally weak to succeed (in the face of racism, personal tragedies).  To draw an analogy, this is premised on the Louis Armstrong model — a great individual can overcome all institutional and social obstacles (racism) just by being personally talented enough in ways that are non-threatening to social power structures. The real-life Jim Thorpe was subject to a level of discrimination well beyond anything depicted in the film, and it would have been much better if it addressed that (and had a better score).

Arrival

Arrival

Arrival (2016)

Paramount Pictures

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Main Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker


This sci-fi film has roughly the feel of Contact (1997), with a bit of The Tree of Life (2011) thrown in for good measure. Credit goes to the many members of the crew who make this a marvel of technical skill. But the script falls apart in confusion as the film goes on. The central story line involves the arrival of extra-terrestrials to Earth, and the attempts of humans to communicate with the aliens. The protagonist is Dr. Louise Banks (Adams), a linguist brought in by the U.S. military. A central plot point involves invocation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a real-life theory that is stretched to absurd lengths in the film. This is precisely where the film fails.  Rather than the grand tradition of using sci-fi scenarios to open space to discuss wholly realistic human social concerns otherwise barred from “respectable” discourse, Arrival reverts to empty deployment of “magical” actions. Actually, from the beginning to roughly the middle of the film, it seems almost that it will be about something that was in Stanisław Lem’s classic sci-fi novel Solaris that was excised from every film version — that humans are unable to comprehend “otherness” (explicitly that of aliens, but implicitly of other humans). But that would seem to be beyond what Hollywood permits, so by the end the plot gets dumbed down to pointless time-travel drivel.

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Canal+

Director: Ken Loach

Main Cast: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires


One of the best “straight narrative” films I’ve seen in a while — reminiscent in some ways of Mathieu Kassovitz‘s La Haine [Hate] (1995). Basically, the premise of the film comes from Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward‘s theory about social welfare programs being about politically “regulating the poor” rather than solving the problems that create poverty.  (It is a modern twist on something that people have written about for a long time). In that respect, the film is meant to convey how the politicians who intentionally — though never explicitly, that is, they never openly admit as much — seek to implement policies that are ultimately cruel to the poor and trap them in extreme poverty have “blood on their hands”. At the extreme end of that spectrum, historically, would be the imperialist British policies in India during the late Victorian era, in which British support for native Indians was at levels less than what the Nazis gave to concentration camp prisoners during WWII (!).  While the film’s narrative is pared back from all the complexities of the real world, notably racial animosities used to prevent the kinds of solidarity repeatedly shown in the film, there is nothing far-fetched in the story.  The concision is understandable for a film meant to be accessible.

The most blunt premise of the film is unabashedly political: “Does the masses’ struggle for emancipation pose a threat to civilization as such, since civilization can thrive only in a hierarchical social order? Or is it that the ruling class is a parasite threatening to drag society into self-destruction, so that the only alternative to socialism is barbarism?” Slavoj Žižek, Afterword to Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin From 1917 (p. 210). This film argues the latter. And the way it does so is to magnificently depict the so-called “banality of evil”, the way the Kafkaesque bureaucracy mostly turns a blind eye to the callousness of its action in exchange for a (semi) privileged position above those who bear the burdens.  It also bears mentioning that I, Daniel Blake makes very modest demands.  For instance, the film goes to great lengths to depict the protagonist as someone who has skills (he is a carpenter) who simply can’t work because of a health condition (he recently had a major heart attack), as opposed to defending, say, someone who has no skills but still deserves to be treated with dignity.  In other words, the film goes out of its way to make clear it is not endorsing the notion of “to each according to her needs, from each according to her abilities.”  It might well have.

A few words for non-British viewers are in order.  The plot involves the protagonist seeking social welfare benefits after his doctor says his recent heart attack means that he cannot safely work.  In England, there is a national health service (i.e., socialized medicine), meaning that the (unseen) doctor who gives that diagnosis is a government doctor.  The welfare officials who deny him benefits constitute a vying faction of the government.  What isn’t made explicit in the film is that the Tory (conservative) government of David Cameron had gone to great lengths to purposefully undermine social welfare benefits, for ideological reasons.  Those sorts of cruel efforts continued in various arenas under the Theresa May government.

Legion

Legion

Legion (2017- )

Fx

Director: various

Main Cast: Dan Stevens, Rachel Keller, Aubrey Plaza, Bill Irwin, Jeremie Harris, Amber Midthunder


Here is an example of television living up to some of its potential.  Legion, a flagship “prestige” show made by some of the largest media companies in history, mostly succeeds.

The show has the production values of cinema rather than of most things on television.  The basic sitcom-style show is presented as filmed theater.  Think of the “filmed before a live studio audience” approach.  There are edits and one or more cameras, but the camera is like a “neutral” observer of a space in which actors work through a script.  In contrast, nearly every (season one) episode of Legion has a long slow-motion sequence, a montage of close-ups of inanimate objects, etc. There are many elaborate sets and costumes, and numerous episodes have scenes filmed on location outdoors.  There is also extensive integration of music to help convey meaning/perspective rather than just set a mood — the soundtrack is most impressive.  These are common devices, but they are common to cinema rather than TV.  In fact, most of the series can fairly be called pastiche.  Everything is old, sometimes knowingly old.  But this is not a drawback (copping from They Live is a great idea, for instance).

The cast is excellent.  The characters are good too.  Jemaine Clement as the pretentious wanna-be beatnik is delicious.  Bill Stevens is excellent as the lead, though Aubrey Plaza kind of steals the show in the last half of the first season.  While some of the casting could be called multicultural pandering, it resists such labels — rather than the dubious Commander Chakotay character on Star Trek: Voyager, we have the ass-kicking mutant Kerry Loudermilk (Midthunder).

As to the story, well, it poses some fascinating questions, even if the quasi-resolution of the first season falls back on boring convention.  Much of the show is set in mental hospitals, and relies extensively on scenes involving psychological therapy sessions.  (Fredric Jameson posited such things as being a key part of an American Utopia).  A central question is whether the main character is insane/schizophrenic or a powerful mutant with magical powers.  The way this is presented across the first five episodes is to suggest that the main character’s entire personality is constructed to create a certain appearance to the outside world.  Actually, this parallels a crucial insight of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan!  Personality is an attempt to cover the void of being.  The last few episodes draw away from this, turning instead toward a pagan “endless battle between good and evil” motif.  But even in the last episodes, the show openly acknowledges that the main character being encouraged to reconsider his entire life of memories from the standpoint of being a misunderstood demi-god rather than as a mentally defective wreck might well be manipulative pandering or self-serving empowerment fantasy (or both).

The first season does grind to a halt somewhat in episode six, but picks up again in the last few episodes, only to falter as the series bends over backwards to leave the main plot unresolved to allow for later seasons (though it does this less obnoxiously than The Strain, for instance).  This would have been better conceived as a mini-series than a multi-season series, probably.  But it does deserve credit for being among the more complexly “adult” level comic/superhero/sci-fi productions of its day, even more so than franchise-related films.

The Pursuit of Happyness

Thr Pursuit of Happyness

The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)

Columbia Pictures

Director: Gabriele Muccino

Main Cast: Will Smith, Jaden Smith


The Pursuit of Crappyness?

The Will Smith movie The Pursuit of Happyness, based on a memoir by Chris Gardner, is meant to be a heartwarming tale of overcoming adversity, and all that.  Of course, another way to view it is as a polemic of dubious realism and accuracy extolling the worldview of the wealthy (the book on which the film was based was written by someone who was a multimillionaire).  This is one long conservative trope, on film.

Will Smith plays a Navy veteran living with his wife (Thandie Newton) and son in San Francisco, trying to sell off an inventory of bone density scanners they purchased with their life savings while he pursues an unpaid internship at a securities and investment brokerage firm.  He struggles to sell his wares and to get a job interview.  His wife leaves (she is portrayed unsympathetically).  He demands that their son stay with him.  He does get the internship, after showing up to the interview in tattered closes covered in paint after being held in jail for an unpaid parking ticket.  But, as he undertakes the internship, he has little or no money.  He ends up homeless after the IRS attaches his bank account for failure to pay taxes.  He and his son live in a church-run homeless shelter.

The storyline is highly selective, implausible in places, and is mostly invested in isolated scenes of intensely emotional acting.  In other words, it is emotionally manipulative and counterfactual.  Numerous key scenes are deus ex machina — information available online suggests that the film modifies/distorts key real-life events.  Certainly, some scenes are simply implausible wholly apart from any origins in a memoir.  There is never any explanation given as to why the protagonist does not seek welfare or other public social services, or why he persists in pursuing an unpaid internship rather than another line of remunerative work (and, at least by today’s standards, the unpaid internship is illegal — the employer derives benefit form the interns cold-calling prospective clients, and the interns are judged by how many new clients they bring in).  Even the insistence that his son remain with him is not explained — could the mother provide for the son better?  But to the extent that some of this comes from a real memoir, it is worth bearing in mind here F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum from The Beautiful and Damned about how “the type of man who attains commercial success seldom knows how or why, and,…when he ascribes reasons, the reasons are generally inaccurate and absurd.”  In fact, Fitzgerald is a pretty good touchstone here, as few writers capture the banal depravity and moral shallowness of the strivers for material wealth so well.  The Beautiful and Damned, in particular, has only a slightly different story arc than The Pursuit of Happyness.  Yet they draw opposite conclusions.  In Fitzgerald’s tale the protagonists emerge scarred and damaged (“damned”).  In this film, the protagonist emerges triumphant.

Mostly, the film’s story is meant to emphasize the so-called “culture of poverty” theory/myth — that success or failure is determined primarily or exclusively by the degree an individual is committed to hard work and perseverance.  The film does not address racism in any way (despite how much that would affect the protagonist in real life).  It scrupulously avoids addressing any structural or institutional causes for the protagonist’s situation.  There is a single-minded focus on the success of the protagonist, with no concern whatsoever for the other homeless people shown in the film.  Audiences are expected to root for the protagonist to succeed, and are not supposed to analyze or question the other poverty around him, or why he is so devoted to a “winner take all” system.  When the IRS seizes the main character’s last bit of money in his bank account for failure to pay taxes (the film portrays it as a surprise to Smith’s character, which is utterly preposterous and misleading), there is a steadfast assumption that the government is unfairly taking his money — even as most of the film suggests his poverty would probably exempt him from income taxes (or is he really not as poor as the film lets on?).  Practically the entire discipline of sociology probably cringes at this film and the discredited ideology it flacks — Loïc Wacquant called this sort of thing “an old theoretical carcass periodically exhumed from the graveyard of stillborn concepts[.]”

One of the most groan-inducing moments is from the epilogue titles, in which it is conveyed that the real-life person on which the film is based later became rich.  This reveals the true heart of the film.  Everything before that was supposedly about the main character’s relationship with his son and being happy, but the ending titles suggest that it was really just about money all along.  After all, Thomas Jefferson adapted John Locke‘s crude protection of “life, liberty and estate” (Two Treatises of Government, Book II) into “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for the Declaration of Independence, a slogan the main character mentions thinking about a lot.  Jefferson supposedly changed the wording to make it seem less crass, without intending to really change the meaning.  So this film actually gets that part right, in a strange way, by repeating the deception.

A film like I, Daniel Blake from a decade later is kind of the polar opposite of The Pursuit of Happyness.  The Blake film is a critique of the system, which is to say social and government institutions, whereas Happyness is sub-Horatio Alger rags-to-riches claptrap pushing a myth of meritocracy.

Will Smith’s performance is actually quite good, as is that of his real-life son Jaden.  But it is ridiculous to focus on such performances when the film is as contrived as it is so as to provide disjointed individual scenes solely as vehicles for emoting by the lead actors.

Fury

Fury

Fury (2014)

Columbia Pictures

Director: David Ayer

Main Cast: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña, Shia LaBeouf


The problem with this film is that it has a beginning and an end.  Both are terrible.  In the middle there are worthy things.  But the ending is so stupefyingly, implausibly bad that viewers have to walk away embarrassed for having sat through it.  After opening titles that glorify American Exceptionalism, twisting the history of World War II to frame it as a conflict just between the noble but underdog Americans and the Nazis, the film starts by making Brad Pitt’s character out to be an inhuman monster (seemingly equally as bad as the Nazis), and those around him one-dimensional caricatures.  The film then seeks to humanize Pitt’s character, and add dimension to those around him.  The battle scenes in the middle of the film are excellently staged and are thrilling.  Of course, then there is the ending, which is so preposterously staged as to garner sympathy for the Nazis.  The Nazis (in vastly superior numbers) stand around waiting to be shot (really!).  The weapons they are shown marching with suddenly disappear and one Nazi indicates that a small box of other weapons must be rationed carefully.  The movie banks on viewers thinking that Nazi are so terrible that they should completely suspend disbelief at the staging of the final battle scene.  Ughhhh.  Terrible.

While clearly trying to follow on the style of Saving Private Ryan (an arguably even worse film), this ends up being a second (or third) rate version of The Big Red One.  Just compare the endings.  Lee Marvin‘s character in The Big Red One is, objectively, one who stands for something beyond himself.  Brad Pitt’s character stands for empty valor, no more.

Oblivion

Oblivion

Oblivion (2013)

Universal Pictures

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Main Cast: Tom Cruise, Andrea Riseborough, Olga Kurylenko, Morgan Freeman


The story is really just an amalgamation of plot points from other films: Moon, Total Recall, Independence Day, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Inception, The Matrix, etc.  But the special effects and technical realization of this movie really outshines all those others.  While the plot may not be ingeniously new, it blends known elements together in a way that is cohesive and effective.  Once the viewer accepts the basic conceits of the science fiction setting, every scene is staged plausibly — there are no scenes that prompt guffaws due to trivial yet implausible details.  At the risk of spoiling a plot twist, the film also takes a surprising matter-of-fact view toward cloning and the social interchangeability of clones.  Reviews of the film were poor.  No surprise, really.  This sort of film, though coming from Hollywood, chafes against what Hollywood prizes.  In other words, it is a better film than Hollywood normally permits, and the plot — derivative or not — has a kind of anti-corporate message that is always officially frowned upon even as Hollywood keeps inserting such messages into various films.  There is also some serious, if under-/unstated, questioning of how contrived and fake certain emotions and social institutions can be.  Tom Cruise is the perfect lead, able to convincingly deliver a role that requires a “useful idiot.”  The rest of roles are well cast too.

Sauve qui peut (la vie)

Sauve qui peut (la vie) [Every Man For Himself]

Sauve qui peut (la vie) [Every Man For Himself] (1980)

MK2 Diffusion

Director: Jean-Luc Godard

Main Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronc, Nathalie Baye


After a period of making aggressively experimental films and becoming isolated (his own word for it), Jean-Luc Godard returned to making widely shown and distributed films with Sauve qui peut (la vie) (released in the USA under the title “Every Man for Himself”).  Decades later, other works like Film Socialisme were still resembling this film.  That makes Sauve qui peut a landmark within Godard’s career.

The composer Karlkheinz Stockhausen has spoken (Musical Forming: Composing Statistically (1971)) about how “if you are able to compress an entire Beethoven symphony into half a second, then you have a new sound, and its inner microstructure has been composed by Beethoven.”  It would not sound like a symphony, but to human perception would resemble a single tone with a particular timbre.  The individual elements surpass a group, and completely different relationships begin.  Godard is concerned with the cinematic equivalent of that issue of the temporal limits of human perception — though tending toward expansion rather than the compression Stockhausen discussed (and maybe akin to key parts of Blow-Up).  A technique he had developed working with videotape for a television mini-series shortly before making Sauve qui peut had him deploying slow motion effects.  He applies a version of that to film here.  One scene has two of the main characters fighting in a kitchen, and Godard said he decided to show the incident in slow motion to reveal meaning that would not be perceptible at regular speed.  He wanted to show that as they physically fight and fall to the ground — what would happen in an instant in real time — the characters maybe still love each other, something that viewers tend to contemplate as the characters are held in contact as they fall.

Godard biographer Colin MacCabe wrote that men become film directors to meet women, and that quip at one time seemed to accurately describe Jean-Luc Godard, in his early career, but that phase was a distant memory by the the time of his “Second Debut” Sauve qui peut (la vie).  There are strong feminist themes here.  Though Godard emphasized in interviews in this era how a key preoccupation of the film was with workers and their work.  The absurdities, degradation, and obstacles bound up in working are sublimely stylized and symbolized in scene after scene — many of which ponder questions around privilege, exploitation and self-identity.  In the decades immediately following the film’s release, these aspects of work have not changed but perhaps only intensified, making Godard’s oblique insights of what might have been passing sociopolitical circumstance still seem compelling and relevant.  Godard’s films might be many things, but they are certainly not lacking for starkly original images.  This one is a bit more grounded than some of his early films, in that the romanticism and cinephilia is less pronounced, and in place a more nuanced view of the travails of “ordinary” life.

This is yet another astounding film from one of cinema’s truly great and visionary figures.  Count this as essential viewing for his admirers.

Seconds

Seconds

Seconds (1966)

Paramount Pictures

Director: John Frankenheimer

Main Cast: Rock Hudson, John Randolph, Salome Jens


Arguably John Frankenheimer’s best film, Seconds is an eerie thriller with an engaging plot, fine acting (and casting), and appropriately stark cinematography by James Wong Howe.  Frankenheimer was a political person, associated with Hollywood’s left.  Here he uses the previously blacklisted actors John Randolph and Will Geer.  Taking that sort of information as context, Seconds plays with the clash between the conservative American culture held over from the early post-war years, and the rise of the counterculture, asking some intriguing questions without succumbing to overly optimistic triumphalism or naivity, as befell some of the less lasting films of the era that tackled similar topics.  Continue reading Seconds

Werckmeister harmóniák [Werckmeister Harmonies]

Werckmeister harmóniák [Werckmeister Harmonies]

Werckmeister harmóniák [Werckmeister Harmonies] (2000)

Arte (etc.)

Director: Béla Tarr

Main Cast: Lars Rudolph, Peter Fitz, Hanna Schygulla


Here is a movie that is all about what isn’t being said.  The main character is János Valuska (Lars Rudolph).  In the opening scene, in a bar full of drunks that is about to close, he organizes them to move about like planets to illustrate how a solar eclipse takes place.  From there, he walks about his provincial Hungarian town to perform odd jobs the rest of the night.  Those jobs include attending to his uncle György Eszter (Peter Fitz), a respected recluse who is developing a theory about how Western music was corrupted when Just Intonation was abandoned for the keyboard tuning of Andreas Werckmeister, a Fifteenth Century musical figure who developed a sort of paganistic theory about harmonious order based on planetary movement.  A circus arrives, with a giant stuffed whale and “The Prince,” whose body is supposedly magnetic.  Workers (all men) gather in the town square around the circus, where they light bonfires and mill about aimlessly.  János visits the whale and is fascinated by it.  One of his employers, Auntie Tünde (Hanna Schygulla), is upset by the men milling about and wants “order” restored.  János walks back to the town square to investigate for her.  He overhears The Prince (only his shadow is visible) arguing with the circus impresario.  The Prince wants to be independent to make more money, and demands chaos and destruction — the film omits the term “creative destruction” but the analogy to that term coined by conservative economist Joseph Schumpeter is apparent by implication.  It is also revealed that this out-of-town Prince is agitating the men in the town square.  A group of those men set out as a mob and besiege a hospital, beating the patients and ransacking the rooms, until some of them encounter a naked man standing in a bathtub, at which point they pause, then withdraw.  János eventually tries to leave the town (emigrate?), following the advice of a relative to escape the mob.  Though he encounters a helicopter, and is next seen back in the town in a hospital.

The film is very clearly political commentary about the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Bloc, with The Prince something like Western Capital entering the former Eastern Bloc landscape and enthralling the masses to pursue ends that the locals eventually and belatedly realize are stupid and senselessly viscous.  And yet, the “order” that the visitors disrupt is absurd and insular.  For a film with so little dialog, these implications of the symbolically-heavy visuals is impressively complex and nuanced.

The entire film is shot in 39 long shots/takes.  That aspect is something of a directorial pissing contest whereby each director tries to have the longest shots/takes possible given technological limits (consider precedents like Soy Cuba [I Am Cuba] and Touch of Evil).  Aided by digital camera technology, Tarr loses to Alexander Sokurov‘s Русский ковчег [Russian Ark] (2002), filmed in one continuous shot/take.  There are definitely scenes in Tarr’s film that go on far too long, just for the sake of having long shots.  But at the same time the long shots emphasize a kind of stasis and slow pace of life that is completely at odds with the abrupt chaos stirred up when the circus arrives — many scenes emphasize the difficulty that locals have acting (or reacting) quickly.

Much of the film presents a sustained view of a character — János — seeking to access the wonder of the outside world while naïvely finding himself burdened by the “strings attached” by the outsiders who bring with them such wonder in the form of the circus, and who impose a new set of interests on the locals as The Prince tries to harness and “monetize” the locals’ curiosity, intrigue, and discontent though destabilization.  But the film is not just about that one character.  It concludes with a focus on György Eszter.  In the final scene the uncle examines the whale in the town square, the crude trailer in which it arrived now crumbled to leave its cargo exposed.  He has given up his private theorizing and perhaps will now help to keep his family, friends and the town going, or whatever else is needed under the circumstances; the whale is a thing of wonder but is also meaningless.  In this way he renounces what drove him at the beginning of the film and takes up a new path and new duties, unlike János, who is harmed and ultimately trapped by his desire to pursue things like the enigmatic whale.  Each character begins the film with desires that prove impossible in their implications, but only one of the two characters is willing to give up on what he once held dear and try to forge a new sense of meaning from the circumstances around him.  The political implication seems to be to reject the ruthless onslaught of Western Capital in all its seductive, enticing yet illusory power and instead recognize the need for the townspeople to undertake the hard work of improving conditions for themselves from within the town.

Even wholly aside from the allegorical content and symbolism, the stark, austere images alone make this a memorable film.