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Dark Blue (2002)
A superb thriller made with commitment.
There's not really much to be said about this film: its internal integrity and the obvious commitment of everyone involved speak for themselves. When I think of Kurt Russell I always think of Soldier and Arnie he ain't but, DAMN, he can act when he's given a good script.
The DVD is well worth getting hold of. The documentaries are professional, detail packed and interesting. I like the comment by Cotty Chubb, the producer, who says that the four elements needed for a civil society are jobs, schools, hospitals and police. In many parts of urban America (he says) there are no jobs, the schools are s*i*, they've closed all the hospitals and the police are corrupt. For a foreigner, who has never been able to make sense of the perverse verdict in the trials of those infamous officers, this film shed some light on a very fragile society.
Truth is not a story
My first brush with Meta narrative was a novel by John Fowles, The French Lieutenant's Woman, which was adapted into a film starring Meryl Streep. It was also my first pet literary theory; the first time I realised that a work of art exists within a form and is shaped by its form: a novel is not a poem, and the same story told as a play is a different work of art. I know it's not rocket science, but I'm a slow learner.
What is most frustrating about any art form is what makes it a form: its accrued conventions and the limits these impose upon its ability to address truths whose structures may not fit into those conventions. Western narrative tradition demands an identifiable progress through a set of patterns and Hollywood cinema has refined and codified these until it is possible to predict the emotional arc of most of its product from a one minute trailer. This is over refinement, and is thus open to challenges from artists prepared to attack its forms: avant garde artists, if you will.
Bear with me: I'm getting there.
John Fowles put himself into his novel to allow himself the freedom to comment upon his story from outside its framework. In The French Lieutenant's Woman and The Magus, he was, in my view, successful; in the autobiographical Daniel Martin, less so. Charlie Kaufman, I think, is trying something a little bigger. Films, particularly Hollywood films, demand stories, but In Adaptation, he tries to make a film about something that is not a story; the perfection of life, the extraordinary truth of natural selection, and in the process he comes unstuck, and so tells the story of trying to create that film.
Briefly, Kaufman (as a character) sets about adapting Susan Orlean's non-fiction account of a horticulturist's passion for natural order. This character, John Laroche, is an obsessive collector and a vivid and engaging didact but Kaufman wants to write the film as a representation of what it is he is passionate about, rather than telling a conventional, character driven Hollywood plot. Kaufman's character spends much of the film fuming at the restrictions of unambitious narrative writing, characterised by the fictional Donald twin and his seminar holding mentor Robert Mckee. However, these two characters eventually guide him towards compromises (ie adaptation) with both his artistic and personal crises; Mckee by reminding him that stories are rooted in human truths and Donald by showing him that love is a condition of the soul, not an unobtainable ideal.
Kaufman's anxious characterisation of the unease of a conscientious mind is rooted in a far deeper context in Adaptation than it was in Being John Malkovich. The central philosophical assertion of this film is shown in a few short minutes in the bold graphical expositions of Darwin's great observation: the foundation of the modern rational mind. Chris Cooper's exquisite soliloquy on asexual pollination reinforces the theme but the idea is actually explained in Spike Jonzes'visual montages: this is bold writing, brilliantly visualised.
The central personal struggle, the narrative hook, is a grappling with the implications of Darwinism's effect on a culture used to describing the world in morality tales, rather than in close, dispassionate observation. It is a story about adapting to the moral consequences of understanding adaptation. On a great many levels this is a brilliantly made work of art.
I used to think this film was cool
One of my girlfriends at university in the early nineties had a VHS of this film lying around her flat and I thought at the time that it was a masterpiece. Watching it tonight, for the first time in a decade, it seems a little clunky, desperately contrived, utterly tasteless and, well, incredibly 1980s.
The 1980s had a really unpleasant sterile Nietzchian undercurrent bubbling through them, and this film is a product of that. The Christian Slater character, with his Jack Nicholson voice and Peter Falk posture, spouts inconclusive Reader's Digest/Mein Kampf aphorisms as if they seal the argument and then kills people. The satire rests upon the adults all being idiots and the children all being competitive vampiric brutes, except for the former best friend and the ostracised victim of body fascism, who wait around to prove that Winona Ryder's character has a soul by being implausibly forgiving to her.
The script's clumsiness even leads it into the same homophobia which it wants to satirise. It really is a poor effort.
So why did it look so cool when it was new? Well, Christian Slater certainly had an impact, although I seem to remember my girlfriend commenting that anyone who said "Greetings and salutations" was advertising himself as a dick-head. The colour coding, and stylization, instead of looking random, speed freaky and anally retentive, looked "Very" when MTV still seemed like a good idea, and...oh yes: this is the main reason...
There had been high school shootings before then; of course there had; Boomtown Rats wrote a song about one that was a huge hit in the 80s. However, they'd managed to sweep the idea under the carpet to an extent that became impossible pretty soon after this film was made. So, when Heathers was released, the idea of pulling out a huge gun and pointing it in the face of people who annoyed you still seemed pretty cool: "Radical", but cool.
That's what this film is really: the adolescent dream we all have of employing violence to wipe away our teen angst. Thank God, most of us grow up, accept that problem solving is a complex but rewarding part of life and look back on Heathers as a nasty, self-congratulating piece of nihilistic smugness. Most of us.
Man on Fire (2004)
Sympathy for the devil
It was only a matter of time until Hollywood got its act together and began to examine the rise of the right wing in America: in this case, the unfettered power of capitalism over the rule of law. The genius of this film is that it looks at evil through the eyes of an evil protagonist, who introduces himself by asking his buddy "Do you think God will forgive us for what we've done?".
Why should we care? We care because the man who plays the evil character is an actor of INCREDIBLE power and dignity and because the first third of the film is given over to him enjoying a glimpse of the possibility of redemption. The courtship (I mean nothing smutty by the use of that word) between Denzil Washington and the preternaturally talented Dakota Fanning is the awakening of a deadened soul and it shines brightly against the sickening disorientation of the rest of the movie, as investigation becomes classical revenge tragedy, (here's the spoiler) until the rescue of the child turns it back into a 'American hero gaining moral advantage over lowlife foreigner' diatribe.
For this film to be a work of realist genius it only needed to follow its own logic and stick to the death of the innocent. That is what drives Creasy to commit a variety of grotesque murders with which this innocent viewer (albeit, drinking Glenmorangie) was prepared to sympathize. Hollywood's determination to always provide 'closure' on every moral dilemma is at the root of America's failure as an imperialist power: the subject nations suffer, while they tidy it up for their own consumption, and thereby continue the belief that they only need to keep feeling sorry for the victims and everything will be okay.
The music is brilliant, by the way, and the editing is incredible, and the use of subtitles within the screen is the most respectful to the speakers of a foreign language that I have seen: the whole inter-relationship between Protagonist imperial observer eye (America) and Antagonist subject sufferer eye (Mexico-in this case, although it could be a lot of countries, including...ummm...Iraq?) is a lot more objective than we are used to. By Hollywood standards this is a bloody intelligent film and all concerned come close to actually saying something truthful.
In the end, though, the devil's pain is his own, and I prefer to let him suffer.
National Security (2003)
What IS the Problem everyone has with this film?
This is a painless, fun piece of nonsense, making light of the tensions and horrors resulting from the Rodney King beating, which one scene parodies. It is comedy doing what comedy does; defusing a situation by ridiculing it. Martin Lawrence is a ham and hams it up in fine style and Steve Zahn plays his part as only a man with a silly moustache can. They are supported by a professional enough cast who look as though they're enjoying themselves and the direction would not disgrace an episode of Cagney and Lacey.
Mentioning race is not racist. Beating people up because of their race is racist. See the distinction? That's what the Lawrence character is getting at. It's no deeper than that.
Fun. I enjoyed it. It's a Wednesday night rental.
Finally, the line "It's a sad day in Caucasian history" made me laugh so hard I spilt my tea. This is good.
Oh what a BAD BAD film!
Brad Pitt whinges on about how soldiers aren't to blame for wars, Orlando Bloome can't hide his humiliation and the rest of the cast do their best to try and make the Hollywood pretty boy look good, despite his talent deficit, without looking too ridiculous themselves.
I never, for one second while watching this monstrosity, felt carried into another place; it failed, as epic, as spectacle, as even the rudiment of a well told story, which, given the source, is almost an achievement. I couldn't help wondering whether there was supposed to be a message about modern American behaviour behind the insanity of casting a bleach blond underwear model as Achilles, Greek Hero.
Peter O'Toole shines amongst the mire, as one would expect, and Eric Bana as Hector strikes a reasonable note. The anachronisms, even for a viewer who is not a classical scholar, were nauseating: swords piercing armour (that would be bronze piercing thick leather), and all-out charges because the special effects people used the same software that was used in LOTR. Any schoolboy knows that Greek warfare was a push and shove match with blades and arrows.
I really HATE this overlong, stupid epic-by-numbers, and is it just me, or does Brad Pitt use the same facial expressions as Ben Stiller uses in Zoolander?
Made in America (1993)
A perfect Sunday afternoon movie
I really like this film. It's been on British T.V. almost as many times as Mary Poppins and I'm always glad to see it. There is a chaotic comic chemistry between Goldberg and Danson, but they don't egotistically dominate the film, allowing the charming and funny performances by Nora Long, Jennifer Tilly, Will Smith, Peggy Rea and others to shine. I particularly like Tilly's character, a new age airhead, and her new boyfriend, played by Fred Mancuso, who between them, make stupidity lovable. Everyone gets a fair chance, and they all make the best of it.
Formulaic as it is, Made in America is about racial identity, which is a difficult subject to address in such a frivolous form as romantic comedy, but it manages to more or less avoid cringes and concentrates on the laughs, only giving as much time to story as is necessary to keep everything moving on. Against the odds and thanks to the superb cast this is a good natured film. It harks back to the optimism of the early nineties, and seems strangely innocent, eleven years on.
Farewell to the King (1989)
A moving, if slow, drama
This is a curious piece whose dramatic arc takes a while to reach its full speed, but builds to a climax of considerable horror, involving cannibalism, genocide, loyalty and revenge. It is, I think, a mistake to label it an action movie: it is a drama, and played with a theatricality to which the viewer must adjust.
Nevertheless, once it gets into its stride this film has considerable charm.
The core cast bond closely and Frank Mcrae, who plays Sgt Tenga, and Marius Weyers (Sgt. Conklin) manage to give warmth to the invaders who threaten the survival of The People of the Hills.
The central relationship, between Nolte and Havers, is a fragile one which teeters on the brink of formulaic in Nolte's rescue of the sick Englishman and their mutual debts of gratitude and obligation. However, as they plunge into the conflict against the remnants of the defeated Japanese army, they each shock one another with what they are prepared to do.
I think the climax of the horror, which I do not wish to spoil, is brilliantly done. I felt the protagonists' turmoil and understood their brutal reactions, while still being shocked by it.
This film is open to charges of hokiness, theatricality and slowness, but, given a chance, it explores themes similar to those in The Thin Red Line; the imperialistic side effects of the Pacific war and the dehumanising effect of soldiering, against the fully human power of love and community.
Fung wan: Hung ba tin ha (1998)
I bought a DVD of this from a second hand shop because it referred to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon on the box. This is just as lush looking, but the story is from another planet. It's all well acted and brilliantly directed and all that, and the settings are epic and beautiful, but the script has the shudder inducing obviousness of an internet fantasy parody. The fight sequences are strangely detached, and some nice special effects (such as a bamboo walkway rising up and attacking a character) are almost lost in the twitchy editing.
Even more distracting is the fact that the character Cloud has a nineteen eighties hair colouring job that kills any sense of exoticism.
Actually, as I write this it occurs to me that this might be aimed at children and the UK DVD has been clumsily packaged for an adult market. Anyhow, despite all this criticism, it is a fun DVD for idle minds. Try watching this with vodka, and making farting noises every time someone says "Wind" (it's the name of one of the characters).
For the full effect, I recommend the director's cut. My DVD includes this and the international version, which besides being a great deal shorter, is dubbed, which kills it.
Deranged, but joyous.