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Timeless message more relevant than ever
I saw this in the theaters when it came out in 1975 and was far too young to appreciate not only its message, but its treatment of that message.
Thematically, this is an important film and joins the camp of several films from the time which used science fiction as a carrier for ideological discourse. Rollerball, more so than just about any movie I've ever seen, re-affirms the essence of the American ideology in a world where individuality has been neatly replaced with the perfect order of corporate utopia. (An interesting twist on the typical governmental utopia - but the idea is the same.)
The story development here is sublime, beginning with an adaptation of roller derby in an almost comical version with motorcycles that never seem to have a real purpose. But this sets the stage for a powerful allegory later in the film.
The real story here is the struggle of one man against the forces of society, all of which conspire to deprive him of the one thing he loves: the game. At first, he is bemused and doesn't understand, but as the movie progresses, we see him simply refusing to change as instructed while seeking the answer to why he is being asked to give up the one thing that gives his life meaning.
For those of us (myself included) who may not understand the message buried in the dialog, we are eventually told the simple premise behind the game itself, its role in a perfected (though far from perfect) society and the stunningly simple answer to the question as to why this man is being told to conform.
The dramatic development of the political theme and the characters make the actual game sequences meaningful and interesting, not because roller derby with motorcycles is in any way compelling, but because it brings the inherent struggle of the story to a pique and engulfs both ideas and characters that are extremely well set up.
I cannot help but think that in modern times, as we witness the (attempted) manifestation of many of the Utopian ideas presented in this film, that it is a timely reminder of - and a timely warning against - the essential forfeiture of liberty that seems more and more unavoidable.
This may be billed as an action film, but it's actually a thinking film and will challenge you intellectually even as those motorcycles which never seem to have any purpose race around the track.
An old fable in a rebellious medium - gotta' love it.
I first saw Wizards when I was 11. In 1977, graphic animation was not nearly as prevalent as it is today, so its impact carried an unique punch that stuck with me forever. There was much to the tale that moved me deeply, but I wasn't old enough to understand why.
22 years later, I found a used copy of the DVD and grabbed it up without even looking at the price. It's Wizards. You don't ask, you just get it.
The same emotional mysticism I experienced in 1977 came to life again, a forgotten old friend and yet so very familiar. At the tender age of 43, however, the fable which eluded me at 11 was now very clear.
The setting of this film - Earth 1 million years post destruction, and its culture - is but an allegory. The medium of animated fantasy is twisted in a wicked clever way by Bakshi to deliver a message that is oddly anachronistic for its time. 1977 wasn't that far from the revolution of the '60's and still simmered in a pasteurized version where disco and sex remained as sentinels. When you consider the culture of the time, the harsh commentary of Bakshi was, if not novel, certainly bold.
The notion of magic vs. technology is not meant to be taken literally as the primary theme here. What he's really talking about is the futility of pacifism in the face of aggression, a lesson we still haven't quite learned. In one of the most sublimely moving scenes, we hear a child ask his mother, "Why can't we fight and win, Mommy?" "Because they have weapons and technology; we just have love," his mother answers.
For those willing to fight, there is the notion that good intentions are equally futile. Warrior elves are no match for tanks. Enemies, sometimes, have to be taken seriously.
There is also a very blatant comment about the fallacy of religion in the face of reality, which still carries a pretty hefty punch. Priests are no match for guns, either.
The most compelling message in Wizards, though, is the notion of personal will. Nekron 99 a.k.a Peace, reminds us that we may not always be able to control what we do, but we do get to choose what side we're on. There is also the subtext of Peace being secured by the will to perpetrate violence and that violence can be viewed in different ways depending on its motivation.
Along with all this, Bakshi is very quick to point out the ignorance and, ultimately, the cowardice of naked aggression. Without compromising his message of pacifistic futility, he paints war in a macabre light highlighting its intrinsic futility in achieving anything and its vacuous cruelty devoid of any real meaning. No glory in war is to be found here. The victims of war abound, on both sides, and in all roles. War makes losers of all.
For me, it is the fusion of these two ideas that makes Wizards what it is. War is cruel and useless. In the face of war, pacifism is equally cruel and useless. And yet, there is a way out. In a world of fairies and monsters, we are given Avatar, the wizard you might find running a Deli in the Bronx. It is easy to mistake his weary wisdom for indifference. Avatar is a realist. But that is not to say he is fatalistic. He's just a bit smarter than the rest because he knows that the personal will and sacrifice of heroes can still carry the day. As long as they are willing to kill the King. The most humane solution to war is to cut it off at its source.
The Aviator (2004)
One would expect a movie about Howard Hughes with Aviator as the main word in its title would be about Howard Hughes and his accomplishments in aviation.
And one would be wrong.
Spending far too much time on Hughes's eccentricities, this film appears to be an attempt to explore psychosis more than anything else. Depicted to the point of hyperbole, the man's difficulties are slathered over this stylish and vacuous portrayal.
Meanwhile, the tale of Hughes Aviation is relegated to stage dressing punctuated by a few instances of genuinely exciting feats.
If you have any knowledge of the history of Hughes Aircraft or the man behind it, you will be disappointed.
Perhaps most indicative of the lack of real interest this movie has in aviation is the simple failure to accurately depict even the most basic concepts of flying. If you throw the stick forward, the plane will not go faster, it will nose over and crash into the ground.
This movie throws the stick forward.
I don't like film noir for the same reason I don't like modern art. Modern art is cool because it is incomprehensible, providing the illusion that indulging confusion is somehow deep. I've always thought this sort of thing was a kind of joke where the artist laughs quietly at our efforts to inject chaos with false genius. Or maybe I just don't get it.
To be incomprehensible because of intellectual prowess may be admirable, but to be incomprehensible due to little more than obscure confusion is annoying.
The problem with this film is that the plot is simply not resolved. Whether or not this is intentional, I honestly cannot tell. We are given an explanation in the penultimate scene that is presented in a manner that simply invites us to ask more questions which ultimately go unanswered and leaves the audience to make up their own mind. If possible.
Honestly, this little trick was old a long time ago and has not become less annoying with age.
I will say, however, that the film is captivating. I desperately wanted my answers and enjoyed the highly experimental sequencing. But the director owes me an answer. He owes me a story. He owes me a conclusion.
And we never get one. Or maybe I just don't get it.
If you want something that's different and kind of cool in the end, watch The Sixth Sense or Fight Club. You won't lose sleep trying to figure them out because they actually have a conclusion.
The Last Samurai (2003)
The Last Samurai is a poetic story about redemption, honor, love and the inevitable death of all things. Ed Zwick weaves a simple tale against the romanticized backdrop of late 19th century Japan when the last vestiges of feudal Japan, and its ancient culture, slip away in the face of Western modernization.
The story begins with Capt. Nathan Algren, a cynical whiskey-soaked veteran of the plains wars hawking Winchester rifles to an ignorant audience. The depiction of Western society is vilified to the point of caricature in this film, which I'm not sure was necessary, as the prose of the Samurai culture sings well enough on its own.
We soon learn through various flashbacks that Algren is a soldier who has lost faith in himself and his country but still retains the passionate spirit of a formidable warrior. Spiritually, he is quite dressed up with no place to go.
When he is offered a job as a mercenary to train Japanese Imperial troops, he is thrust into circumstances which forge a destiny that finally fulfills who he really is: a warrior who needs something worthy of fighting for. Though duty may call us to sell our soul, we may yet redeem ourselves if but we find the good fight. Honor best serves that which is honorable, or, perhaps, that which we genuinely love. These things may be enough to define a life of purpose.
The storyline here is not all that clever and is in most respects, quite predictable. It is the journey of Algren's character within the framework of this yarn that is most compelling and is played to a T by Cruise.
This is a film that is definitely worth seeing. Though the plot is a touch thin on the ground, the writing is superb, with moral and spiritual questions explored in a thoughtful manner. The production is mesmerizing and Cruise is well supported by a solid ensemble well directed by Ed Zwick.
Lost at sea.
I was really disappointed by this film. The reviews were good and the tomatoe meter was a solid 84.
I guess I just don't get it.
Things start off, quite literally, with a bang that promises us a captivating seafaring adventure.
Then there is a pause while the ship is repaired and we are introduced, courted by, and finally married to, a depth of authenticity that infuses this film with all the excitement of a Ken Burns documentary.
And the pause continues. After a while, I realized the pause was the movie.
The real problem here is that Peter Weir couldn't seem to decide what story he wanted to tell. Is it about the captain of a frigate, a simmering pacifistic naturalist and his protoge or the grain count of planks used in a frigate? The answer is: all three.
What it isn't about is a sea battle. There are times when the film seems to say to us, "Oh yeah, that sea battle thing, guess we better baste that a little."
Certainly lacking a sextant, compass and map, this movie just wanders around through a boring series of listless scenes occasionally punctuated by something exciting.
Oh, yeah, and there is a solid 15-20 minutes of screentime devoted to the ship in the duldrums. No kidding.
Wait for this one to come out on HBO. Or PBS, maybe.
Like many who grew up privately indulging the mythology of Episode IV, I felt betrayed by Episode I. Episode II is a redemption of sorts, both artistically and technically.
Some have commented that Episode II is marginally better than Episode I. This is not true - Episode II is *much* better. I boycotted Episode II in the theaters and, having seen it on HBO, regret not being able to see it on the big screen.
The story and plot are actually interesting. There's some intrigue and suspense here that keeps your attention. Characters, both real and virtual, are actually developed and have depth and complexity. This, to me, was the most significant improvement. The acting was better, the dialog - for the most part - was better. I actually cared about these characters and their fate. Ewan McGregor in particular honed the art of acting opposite a non-existant player. Hayden Christensen plays Annikan as a young man struggling with a brewing conflict within. Fits of rage are matched by a valient struggle at reconcilliation as he slowly loses control to the Dark Side. Annikan arcs from benign mischief to agregious outrage - we know there is something seriously wrong with this boy by the time the movie is over. Compared to the cartoonish adventures of Annikan in Episode I, this portrayal is far more sophisticated and refined. There are no Oscar (copyright, tm, etc.) moments here, but this is a real movie with real acting and a real story.
The integration of the virtual environment has improved, as well. The environment manages to serve as a stage rather than a seperate character and it's much easier to believe that these people are in the environment rather than in front of it. It's less cluttered and old-fashioned cinematography and composition are taken more seriously this time around. The last 20 minutes or so are astounding. Curiously, the world of Ipisode II is clean to the point of being anticeptic - unlike the "lived-in" feel of the older episodes. At the same time, ILM still manages to indulge itself on occasion and we are subjected to some video-game sequences here and there. I really with they would avoid these.
Another major difference in Episode II is that George Lucas has taken his world more seriously. The world of Star Wars is still a bloodless one, but combat in Episode II is more brutal, more savage, more violent. People and creatures actually die. Warfare is not taken as lightly this time around, despite the insistance on comic relief interwoven during fights.
And, a sure indicator that Lucas really was listening and tried to improve: We have a lot less Jar-Jar. He's still there, but not as much and he talks even less. Jar-Jar has matured some, too. He's tolerable at least in Episode II.
As those of us who grew up with the Force have matured and moved into the real world, so has Star Wars as portrayed in Episode II. It's more mature. Some innocense has been lost. But the spirit is in tact.
While Episode I was written for my little boy, Episode II was written for me. I would have gladly paid 8 bucks to see the real thing. Probably twice.
Should have taken itself more seriously.
I own the video and have watched it numerous times. I really like this film because mostly because of it's theme and some key scenes that are very moving.
What's frustrating about Mulan is that it's a really good movie whose potential greatness is forfeited to the commercial imperative of mass audience appeal.
Dramas employ light comic relief release tension. Comedies employ a smattering of drama to move the story along. Mulan tries to indulge both to a degree of contrast that is detrimental to its primary genre: drama.
The themes of honor and search for one's destiny are very well explored through the adventures of the heroine Mulan. The greatest moments in this film are when we see the courage of a young woman facing the dangers imposed both by cultural paradigm and warfare. We admire her more for dealing with both at the same time.
The problem is that too many moments are ruined with a comedic tag and the film's dramatic pace is often interrupted by obligatory slapstick comedy. I honestly don't think this was necessary. Children appreciate the story and don't need to be pandered to with incongruous comedy.
Still, the power of the story itself and the crafting of the main characters manage to stand out and hold their own despite the self-imposed comedic distractions. If the writers had given their own story the respect it deserves, this would have been a great film.
Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)
Being a fan of both Kubrick and Spielburg, this movie was a surprising miss. It tries real hard, but gets confused and lost.
I've read that Kubrick originally worked on this project before Spielburg picked it up. I don't know to what extent each actually worked on filming, but it sure does feel like two different directors worked on this movie - which is problem # 1.
Both have a unique style that do not mix well. Kubrick is a master at disciplined contemplation of a moral issue while Spielburg is a master at spinning a wonderfully entertaining yarn. This film tries to do both and it just doesn't work.
The first act of the film, which to me feels entirely Kubrickian, is great. We are immediately immersed in a moral conundrum. The pit is deep, dark, poignantly adorned with characters against a somber stage that compels us to engage the material. It also is very much in the style of Kubrick: sets, lots of master shots, slow moving and ponderous "photography in motion." The ambience is there to serve the story in every detail. If this was Spielburg's homage to Kubrick, well done. If this was Kubrick's work, wel l, it was right on target. (I really miss his work.)
The characters are drawn clearly if not archetypically and draw us unabashedly into the ring of moral discourse which we achingly yet eagerly embrace.
Then, the story that is being constructed is completely abandoned in the second act as the main character (boy robot) is taken completely out of the setting that's been developed to this point and we embark on an odyssey of sorts. I spent most of the second act wondering what was going to happen in the plot that was being developed in the first act. We never find out.
From this point on, the movie is all Spielburg. Fanciful staging, lots of effects, the obligatory allusion to the holocaust and gut-wrenching turmoil for our little hero and his friend. This is a huge contrast to the beginning of the story and is so different that it really feels like a whole different movie. Following the sublime Chardonnay of Kubrick with the super-charged Frappucino of Spielburg is unsettling and frustrating. For example, the staging in the first act is dominated by polished wood floors, furniture that is both kitsch and futuristic and smoky corporate offices. The second act is pretty much Back to the Future meets Thunderdome. The two have their place - but not in the same movie!
Where the first act compels us to consider the matter, the second act throws us against the wall, puts a gun to our head and screams, "listen to me!"
By the third act, I had really lost interest. I never quite got over the abandonment of the original story and didn't really feel like getting involved in the second one - both because it wasn't as interesting and because I didn't want to be cheated twice in two hours.
The end of the third act is really where the movie should have stopped. It was sad, pitiful and left us with the core moral issue of how we tend to implement an idea without thinking of the consequences.
But, no, here comes the fourth act - and the other major problem with this movie. Epilog, coda, call it what you want, the ending was tacked on and was just horrible. More face time for the FX folks and some really trite, contrived and irrelevant dialog from robots about the space-time continuum. Really, who cares? It's just an awkward plot device and you roll your eyes and ask "Wha--?" all at the same time. The second ending, as I like to call it, attempts to fulfill the demand for emotional conclusion that the odyssey portion of the film has built up yet fails to do so. "Whatever" comes to mind. I bet this was done in response to test screening.
Still, I'm glad I saw this movie. It has some great moments, compelling subject matter and Osment puts in a truly great performance. Just don't look for coherent plot and a sensible story line.
Last Night (1998)
We really need more like this
My favorite movies are these off-the-beaten-path gems that are so unique and whimsical that I sometimes wish Hollywood would just take a vacation.
Like most really good films, you have to work with this one and give it time to come together. Put people in a situation you and I will never see and watch them do things we will never do.
This film is about the nature of us all and explores the breadth and depth through the surreal circumstances of a few facing the unthinkable. As the undeniable truth of the imminent end of time presses down upon the populace, we watch some abandon the thin veneer of civility to indulge their true nature while others steadfastly adhere to their values. The latter is explored in more detail while the former provides a backdrop of sorts against which our characters struggle.
The idea of adhering to values for their own sake is explored at two levels. Briefly, the idea of vacuous ethical discipline is mocked. One of many statements in this movie is that ethics without purpose are no better than no ethics at all and trivialize the true value of what it means to be human. Thugs and stern traditionalists are shown to have more or less the same value in the ethical spectrum simply because they are self serving rather than genuinely committed to that which is worthy.
What the film spends most of it's time exploring is the struggle to maintain grace and faith in what we believe, that it is important because we want our lives to actually mean something. Even if we cease to exist, we hope to strike a chord in the cosmos that will linger after we are gone. Several characters seek their chord in sublime, mysterious and comical ways. It's so sadly funny and it hurts.
The final scene is one of the most deftly poetic statement of theme that I've seen in a very long time. The end is intensely moving and it's all about the indomitable truth behind the human spirit. We just don't know when to give up.