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Widely considered to be the best film of the past quarter-century and
certainly the most influential, the second film directed by Quentin
Tarantino is a masterpiece of modern storytelling. The film contains
multiple and intersecting story lines and popularized this structural
technique, paving the way for such excellent films as Magnolia, Crash
and Babel. Likewise, the non-linear chronology of the film was also a
likely inspiration for many future films, including Christopher Nolan's
Memento. But none of these later films come close to Tarantino's
The greatest strength of this movie, and indeed all of Tarantino's work, is the writing, particularly in terms of dialog. Characters speak as they do in real life, not just to advance a plot, but about random mundanities as well. Tarantino could have been as great a novelist as he is a filmmaker and it shows in this dialog. Musings on McDonald's in Europe or the level of intimacy involved in a foot massage become funnier and more fascinating than one would ever think. Characters also stutter, trip over their words, repeat themselves and use poor grammar (not just as in colloquialisms) just as people do in unscripted real life. Yet the film is so well acted and absorbing that we do not even notice these linguistic imperfections without applying very close scrutiny.
As an example of the realism of the dialog, take the famous scene (indeed, one of many famous scenes in the film) in which Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) has overdosed on heroin and Vincent Vega (John Travolta) has taken her to his drug dealer's house for help. The plan is to give her a shot of adrenaline directly to her heart (not a sound strategy according to any literature I've read; you would think they'd have some naloxone on hand for this purpose, but I digress). Vincent needs to make a mark over Mia's heart so that he can stab a needle into it:
Vincent: What I need is a big fat magic marker (pause) You got it? Jody: (after a pause) What? Vincent: A magic marker... (annoyed, desperate) A felt pen, a (expletive)ing black magic marker!
I find this very funny because it is like one of those situations in everyday life where people misunderstand each other because they have different words for things, or they mishear. Of course, in an emergency situation like this one, tempers would obviously flare.
All of Tarantino's films have excellent dialog, but what really sets Pulp Fiction above the rest are the themes of redemption/salvation and the character arc of Jules Winnfield (Samual L. Jackson). The partner of Vincent Vega, Jules is a bible quoting, murderous hit-man. Jules and Vincent sadistically kill a room full of young men to reacquire the mysterious briefcase, belonging to their boss. In finishing this job, however, they escape death themselves only by an extraordinarily unlikely occurrence. Jules believes a miracle has occurred, but Vincent dismisses it as chance. They debate the implications of what has happened first at the site and later at the restaurant that is the site of the first and last scenes of the film. As they debate, the camera cuts back and forth between them, showing them in opposite profiles and highlighting their opposite world-views. In a "moment of clarity" Jules decides to give up crime and "walk the earth." Vincent is skeptical, but Jules shows he is serious by going out of his way to save the lives of the two more amateurish robbers that attempt to steal the briefcase. Likewise, in one of the other story lines we see Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) risk his own life to save another human being (who only hours before was trying to kill him) from torture. It is these examples of morality from the immoral and of karma working its fatal purpose that make this an often inspiring film.
Finally, I have to wonder whether Tarantino even knew how great a film he was making. Pulp Fiction is a tribute to the lurid, disposable so-called 'low' art of the mid 20th Century - poorly dubbed Asian crime films, sci-fi magazines and detective stories, etc. Who would have thought that one of the century's last great works of art would have arisen from such material? Perhaps a microcosm of this is the manner in which Jules is a connoisseur of fast-food hamburgers, finding beauty and delectability in the most mundane and disposable of culinary indulgences. This film is indeed, a very tasty burger.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Originally a novella by Anthony Burgess, one that emerged from the same
British dystopian tradition that had previously given us Brave New
World and 1984, the film is an adaptation that is mostly faithful to
the book in terms of plot, but also is very distinctly Kubrick in its
visual style. The imagery is surreal, bizarre and frighteningly
entertaining, given the often disturbing subject matter.
Malcolm McDowell plays Alex Delarge a (supposedly 15-year-old, according to the book) sociopath who spends his nights terrorizing the British public of the near future, along with his droogs (meaning friends, but in a subordinate way). The film includes the use of the 'Nadsat' slang that was the defining feature of the book and is sort of a hoodlum dialect composed of Russian words, cockneyed English and slang from both languages). Alex and the droogs engage in a choreographed street battle with a rival gang set to Rossini's 'The Thieving Magpie' before assaulting an elderly couple while singing show tunes. After a series of shenanigans, including a high-speed orgy set to the William Tell Overture, Alex murders a woman during a robbery and is arrested. After two years in prison, the nearly totalitarian state attempts to reform Alex using a form of brainwashing known as the Ludovico technique.
As vile as Alex and the droogs are, we are aware that their society is almost as bad. This world is full of gaudy pop-art, run-down housing and there is not a single character we are meant to sympathize with in the first third of the film. Alex's parole officer P.R. Deltoid (Aubrey Morris) is particularly sleazy, only concerned with 'reclaiming' delinquents to benefit his own professional prestige. His position is clearly meant to create the appearance that the state is doing something about crime; in other words for public relations, hence his initials P.R. Alex's last victim is a nasty elitist who warns him: "I'll teach you to break into real people's houses!" In addition, we learn later that even Alex's parents are so shallow that they quickly find a replacement son once he is sent to prison. This is not to excuse the behavior of Alex; this character is absolutely reprehensible with not one redeeming quality. But because of the magnetism of McDowell, we willingly go along for the ride with him.
As for the most famous part of the film, the brainwashing sequence, it is for one thing a brilliant satire of the will-sapping, mind-numbing power of the mainstream media. On a more literal level, it is an exercise in aversive therapy: Alex is conditioned against violence, sex and even his other love, the music of Beethoven, by being made to suffer in their presence. This brings about the central philosophical question posed by the story: if one cannot choose between good and evil, then what value do they even have? The prison chaplain (the only remotely sympathetic character in the film) poses these questions, but the government dismisses such thinking as mere "subtleties." Of course, even in real life this is a moot point to some. The Ludovico technique, if realized, would be a profound example of applied behaviorism. A hardcore behaviorist like B.F. Skinner (a man both fascinating and creepy) would likely approve of this brainwashing as a means of control. Since Skinner considered human beings to be nothing more than complicated machines (clockworks, if you will) the issue of freedom of choice is meaningless, as free will is an illusion. By this thinking, we are only the products of a series of chemical reactions and we do not choose to do anything, any more than an ice cube chooses to melt.
If Dr. Strangelove and 2001 were about technology that slips out of human control in the accomplishment of its human-directed tasks, then A Clockwork Orange is about the danger of technology being used to directly control humans. In the age, of pre-emptive wars and terrorism-induced paranoia, both these ideas are still frighteningly relevant. We must never give into the temptation to "sell liberty for a quieter life."
Finally, A Clockwork Orange, is a rare adaptation that is, in the opinion of many, actually an improvement on the source material. Certainly, Kubrick did very well to remove Burgess' cop-out ending, the gravest flaw in that otherwise great book. On the other hand, Kurt Vonnegut used this book and movie as an example of the superiority of words to film, saying "there can be only one Clockwork Orange by Stanley Kubrick. There are tens of thousands of Clockwork Oranges by Anthony Burgess, since every reader has to cast, costume, direct, and design the show in his head. The big trouble with print, of course, is that it is an elitist art form. Most people can't read very well." So while this movie is just one of many interpretations of a single novel, there is no denying that it is a great, if hugely controversial, one. It clicked with me instantly and upon seeing the final image and hearing the final words I was immediately aware that I had experienced something unique and incredible.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
At the height of the Cold War came one of the bravest and most timely
and timeless of comedic films. Stanley Kubrick's satire of blow-hard
politicians, insane military men, conspiracy theories and the strategy
of MAD (mutual assured destruction) blasted a perceptive hole in the
madness of the time. This film is unmistakably modern in its comedy and
was a forebear to the ultra-ironic sense of humor that is the bread and
butter of all the popular satire of this era. Of course, most young
people (myself included) will have already seen many of the famous
scenes in Dr. Strangelove replicated on The Simpsons long before they
ever see the actual movie.
The film's plot involves ardent anti-communist General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden; ironically a one-time communist sympathizer) and his plan to destroy the USSR. Ripper's sexual inadequacies have led him to the conclusion that he is the victim of a communist conspiracy "to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids." His response is to order a sneak attack against the Russians, in the hope that President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) will subsequently be forced to finish the job.
From here we see the desperate attempts to stop the attack (and the subsequent activation of the Russian doomsday device) in some of the greatest sequences of comedy in film history. Ridiculous and hilarious dialog abounds. Most of the characters in charge are shockingly petty and out of touch with the deadly reality of the situation. In addition to Sellers' three roles the most memorable performance comes from George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson. He is jingoistic, incompetent and cannot refrain from insulting the Russian ambassador, even with the fate of the world on the line. "You can't fight in here; this is the War Room!" scolds the president.
Thematically, two things stand out for me. The Kubrick theme of dehumanization is constantly present and Kubrick makes it very clear that humans are the problem. The technology they create does, for the most part, exactly what it is supposed to do, whether this means bombs that were designed to destroy the world doing just that, or Dr. Strangelove's Nazi-made mechanical arm acting like... a Nazi. Kubrick, at least in this film, has no inherent problem with technology, only with the very frail and flawed human beings that control it.
Finally, to put it simply, human motivation in this film can be summed up as follows: it's all about sex. Phallic images are pervasive from start to finish and most characters have sexually suggestive names. The men's faces light up ebulliently when Strangelove suggest that human beings may be able to survive beneath the earth in mine shafts and states that a suitable breeding population should include a female to male ratio of 10:1. I cannot shake the idea that that may have been their plan all along.
Never before or since has such an audacious comedy been made. As far as the current geo-political situations go (Iraq et al), we have only seen a series of somber, often didactic dramas that have received mixed reviews and universally poor box office. Will someone have the courage to make another great intelligent political comedy, for our time? Given the much lower overall threat of total annihilation today, surely we deserve at least as much dark entertainment as audiences in the sixties received.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Mel Gibson's sophomore foray into directing was a triumph of epic
film-making and seems more timeless every year. The story of Sir
William Wallace and Scotland's wars of independence against England
from 1297 to 1314 is based upon a combination of history and the epic
poem about Wallace by Blind Harry the Minstrel.
At the start of the film, we see the roots of the conflict between England and Scotland. This conflict kills the father and brother of the young Wallace who subsequently travels throughout Europe and becomes an educated man. He returns to his home years later, hoping to live in peace despite the presence of occupying English forces. He secretly marries his love, Murron, and for a short time everything seems hunky dory. Then Murron is attacked by an English officer who says perhaps the creepiest thing you can possibly say before trying to rape someone: "You remind me of my daughter back home." This leads to Murron's death and Wallace subsequently goes berserk, killing all the English there and setting off a nationwide rebellion.
The film really takes off from here with lots of battles, heroics, victory and defeat. The film's depiction of the Battle of Stirling Bridge (minus the bridge) is perhaps the most spectacular battle sequence in cinema history. The entire film displays Gibson's very Catholic penchant for gore, but it is totally appropriate for the subject matter. And this is much more entertaining than The Passion of the Christ (a film I greatly admire, but have no strong desire to see again soon). Gibson does an excellent job of portraying the brutality and dirtiness of the middle-ages (though characters still seem to have far better dental care than one might think) and on both sides of the camera he is the main force behind its greatness. He was only allowed by the studio the make the movie if he starred in it as well and one gets the impression from his recent works that had he made it today with his current influence, it would have starred unknown actors and been done in Gaelic and Middle-English.
There is no doubt that historical accuracy plays second fiddle to entertainment in this movie. We see intimate interactions between Wallace and Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau) who never could have met in real life. We know that Robert the Bruce (Angus McFayden) was very much a politician and had shifting loyalties in the early part of his life, but was he really physically with the English at Falkirk? What is that black stuff that everyone uses to burn things with? (though certainly the real Wallace WAS fond of setting things on fire; it was said that he always "smelled of smoke"). The God-conversing Stephen of Ireland is a great comic relief character who may or may not have been a real person. And on the subject of Ireland, we see that the hard-luck Irish were, even back then, used as cheap cannon fodder by the English - though in this film with an exhilarating twist.
The point of all this is: it is sometimes necessary to change details of history or to modernize motivations to make an entertaining film. Back then, there was likely no concept of what we would think of as "Freedom!" today, nor even a well defined sense of Scottish nationalism. Braveheart is a translation of difficult medieval concepts into something regular people can understand. If you don't do this, if you attempt to portray ancient cultures as they were, then you get something else altogether - the best example of which would be Oliver Stone's 'Alexander' (I greatly admire this film as well, but there is no denying that it is grossly misunderstood and unappreciated by the majority of people).
There is a strongly religious feeling that permeates this film, and in the end Wallace becomes Christ-like as a martyr in several ways. But you do not have to be religious to enjoy it, nor do you have to have Scottish ancestry (as I, years after first seeing the film, discovered I did) to feel pride in the heroes portrayed. It is the universal human strength in the defiance of tyranny and oppression that we may take to heart, and that makes Braveheart perhaps the greatest war movie of all time.
A genuinely moving and inspirational experience, American History X
ranks one of the best films I've ever seen. Edward Norton gives one of
the great performances of all time as Derek Vinyard, a former skinhead
trying to make amends and save his brother Danny (Edward Furlong) from
the same path. The narrative is non-linear, alternating between the
present and flashbacks to various points in the past. The flashbacks
are presented in black and white, representing both the static and
unchanging nature of the past and the simplistic former world-view of
Norton is not only great in his performance, but frightening as well. He is articulate, intelligent and sometimes for a moment, he almost seems to make sense. Unlike, say, Daniel Day Lewis in Gangs of New York, his character cannot be dismissed as a relic of history; there are people like this around today. His rhetoric embodies everything that is both dangerous and alluring about the Right, whether in the form of the Nazis of the past or the Neo-Conservatives of the present. It feeds upon the vulnerability of the ignorant, upon fear and disillusionment and the need to feel victimized. From what he says, you would think that white Americans were at the mercy of some kind of hegemony of minorities, rather than the other way around (listen to the drunk college students in 'Borat' for a disturbing real-life example of this). We are "losing our right to pursue our destiny," Derek preaches before leading his gang to commit acts of terrorism and thievery. Where anyone who is not a WASP fits into this "destiny" is not made clear, but the words are hypnotic like Danny's Iron Cross swinging in front of his computer screen. These people hide behind false patriotism, using it as a tool for justifying the ugliest acts imaginable. The presence of the American flag is pervasive throughout the film (early on we see Danny picking his teeth with a miniature American flag, a brilliant metaphor for the above).
Eventually, Derek kills two blacks (perhaps the most sickening sound effect in movie history was that guy's teeth on the curb; if you've seen it you know what I'm talking about) and is sent to prison for three years. There, he meets and eventually befriends a black man who is there longer for a much lesser crime and he starts to see through his own rhetoric. He is changed both by his realization of the complex nature of the world and of the flaws in his manner of going about things. His former teacher (Avery Brooks) advises him, "You have to ask the right questions," and asks "Has anything you've done made your life better?" Salvation will come not through rhetoric and being vindictive, but only through working to change things for the better because as Danny later says, "Life's too short to be (expletive)ed off all the time."
After Derek gets out of prison, he severs his ties with the old "chicken-hawk" Cameron Alexander, who had previously been his mentor and who was now courting his brother. Danny is outraged when Derek snubs his former followers and after catching up to him, noisily beats him against a metal garage-like door while Derek calmly repeats to him, "Take it easy." That is perhaps the main message that we take away from American History X (and one also brought into focus in Paul Haggis' Crash). People are too quick to anger and too slow to accept responsibility for themselves. In this film, as in life, the easiest answers are seldom the right ones, everything is more complicated than it seems, and there are unfortunate consequences to actions that not even the best of intentions can allay. But 'Taking it easy' is an important step in the right direction.
To conclude, this is another (perhaps unfortunately) timeless piece of film-making. The US is heading into what will likely be the ugliest election in its history. That "Southern Strategy" of race-baiting will be used, perhaps more subtly than in the past, but powerfully and more than ever. It seems that John McCain's only chance will be the rallying of men like (pre-redemption) Derek Vinyard. In any case, the soul of a nation is on the line, and we're all going to be rising up or going down with them to some degree, whether we like to admit it or not. Though those outside of the US may feel powerless in this struggle, we can at least share in a great work of art like this movie, and receive some illumination as to the nature of the issues at play.
Undeniably one of the best films of the tremendous cinematic year that
was 1999, David Fincher's Fight Club is a cultural landmark. Chuck
Palahniuk's acerbic first novel (and still the best the 5 of his books
that I've read) is visualized with Fincher's stylistic creativity and
the result is a modern classic.
Edward Norton plays a white collar stiff, whose life is so nondescript that he is known only as The Narrator. He acknowledges that he is mired in shallow consumerism; a slave to the "IKEA nesting instinct." He is also an insomniac and can only find catharsis and sleep after sitting in on 12-step program meetings for dying people. This strategy fails, however, when Marla Singer (Helena Bonham Carter) pulls the same stunt and ruins the reality that he has found. After an explosion that destroys the narrator's apartment, he moves in with soap salesmen and revolutionary Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt). Together, they start an underground society in which men reject civilization and unleash their primal urges upon each other.
Fight Club is often described as anti-consumerism or anti-establishment. There are, however, two less talked about ideas that I take away from it. The first is the conflict between biology and society. Sitting on a bus, the protagonists see a rather gaudy advertisement for Gucci underwear. Durden asks derisively, "Is that what a man looks like?" I would argue that it is the insidious nature of the consumer culture, that it actually emasculates men by tapping into their male drives. It is the natural role of the male to be the hunter/gatherer, so buying things has become the modern incarnation of this. Another example of this interplay occurs when the narrator described how his father would leave his family to start a new one every six years. "Setting up franchises," says Durden. Interestingly, the behavior described here does approximate the behavior of human males, pre-civilization. The short average duration of modern marriages suggests the hard-wired nature of this behavior. The fight club, however, is an outright rejection of modern society, in which men revel in short bouts of non-lethal violence, perhaps as they were meant to. When these urges are bottled up, it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest that the result can be wars and genocide.
There are also, I believe, religious implications to the fight club and to Project Mayhem. Tyler Durden's philosophy seems to be part anarchism and part determinism, behaviorism and materialism (in the metaphysical sense; certainly not in the consumerist sense). He is about three parts B.F. Skinner and one part Henry David Thoreau. It is those facets of Skinner-type philosophy that are of the most interest to me and that Durden espouses most fervently. Like any good materialist, he utterly rejects the notion that human beings have any special worth. He extols to his followers: "You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake. You are the same decaying organic matter as everything else... We are all part of the same compost heap." Yet ironically, in supposedly freeing his followers from consumerism, he makes them slaves to his own purposes. They are shaved to become like the oft-mentioned sacrificial "space monkeys." They are removed of their names (this has a very anti-Christian feel to, since the having of and giving of names by humans is considered an important gift from God among the most meticulous followers of that religion). "Sooner or later we all became what Tyler wanted us to be," says the narrator. Durden also expropriates the idea of 'hitting bottom' as the beginning of salvation (the 12-step program is a fundamentally religious construct), further casting him as a sort of Anti-Christian. B.F. Skinner suggested that understanding the science of human behavior was the key to controlling that behavior benevolently. Similarly, Durden exerts control over his followers for what he believes are good ends. Whatever the merits of those ends, there is no doubt that Tyler, in some ways, becomes very much like the corporate fascists he despises.
Finally, Fight Club is a definitively 'male' movie. This is neither good nor bad, but it is undeniable. The character of Marla is entertaining, but almost entirely defined by her relationship to the two male protagonists. The picture would have almost worked without her. The idea of castration is presented as a deeply held male fear and is used skillfully throughout the movie. If we can take one thing away from this film, it would be the danger of denying the difference in biology between males and females. Males have a need for some level of violence and it is important that we have acceptable outlets for it. Conversely, it is interesting to take note of some of the ways in which society attempts to homogenize the sexes. Take the idea of "paternity leave" for new fathers - it's great in theory and it should certainly be an option, but I can almost guarantee that it will never become the norm, because it is a practice that is just so contrary to our deeply ingrained biological drives. To deny this is the height of naivety and will do no one any good.
Overall, Fight Club makes my top 10 list for superb acting (especially by Norton, the best American actor of his generation), great humor and satire and its excellent script, thanks largely to the excellent source material. To conclude, I'll quote the deterministic, yet strangely comforting words of Chuck Palahniuk, from near the end of Fight Club (the book): "We are not special. We are not crap or trash either. We just are. We just are, and what happens just happens."
Early in 2001, Australian auteur Baz Luhrmann followed up his modern
adaptation of Romeo & Juliet with an even greater cinematic
accomplishment. Moulin Rouge is set at the end of the 19th Century in
1899 (the 'summer of love'). The writer Christian (Ewan McGregor) sits
at his typewriter in a grungy Paris loft, typing out the story of the
life and death of his love Satine (Nicole Kidman). Thus from the very
beginning we pretty well know where the story is going but how we get
there is really something else.
Moulin Rouge is what's known as a 'jukebox musical.' It takes a selection of well-known popular songs and alters them (musically and lyrically) just enough to fit the story as needed. In this film, the purpose of this is two-fold. First the pop-songs communicate the foreign and dated culture that is portrayed in a way that the audience can understand. In the early dance hall scenes, we hear not gaudy horns, but the songs of Madonna, Nirvana and Patti Labelle, among others - the idea being that our reaction to them should be similar what the Frenchmen would have felt upon hearing the dance hall music of THEIR time. Second, the protagonist Christian is established as an incredible poet, as he has the ability to instantly spin off the greatest poetry of the 20th Century (in a time before it was ever actually written, of course). Thus he helps the dwarf Toulouse-Lautrec and a narcoleptic Argentinean write their modern Bohemian play 'Spectacular Spectacular' and then, at the Moulin Rouge, woos Satine with his rendition of Elton John's 'Your Song.' However, Satine has been promised to an evil English Duke, in exchange for funding for the Moulin Rouge. The Duke catches Satine with Christian, but they swiftly explain that they are rehearsing a play, the plot of which exactly mirrors what is going on in their own lives.
Which of the two Satine ends up with should come as no surprise. This is a film whose strength lies in style, not in unusual plot twists. The imagery is dazzling and often surreal; the music is densely layered and incredibly well harmonized. At times we hear up to four different pop-songs being played at once. The pace of the musical scenes is breakneck and there is likely more cutting than in any GOOD movie ever made. The film is also unapologetically silly at times, featuring cartoon-like motions and sound effects.
Admittedly, the ending is kind of a downer. Not only is Satine dead of tuberculosis, as we have known from the beginning, but we are left with the impression that the time of those oft-mentioned Bohemian ideals of Freedom, Beauty, Truth and Love will soon be swept aside by the tides of war. In fact, one early version of the script had Christian telling his story, not from his typewriter, but while dying in the Fields of Flanders. That would have really been too much and was wisely changed.
For outstanding (and Oscar-winning) costumes and art direction, a great ensemble performance and sheer frenetic energy, Mouling Rouge makes my top 10 list.
Gangs of New York marked Martin Scorsese's shift from Italian-American
crime films to Irish-American crime films with the story of the
beginning of the Irish in America. Waves of Irish immigrants, driven
largely by the Irish potato famine of 1845 to 1852, landed in America
through much of the middle of that century, including throughout the
Civil War (which would be the equivalent of moving to Russia in the
1940s or to Iraq today to find food and work; so Ireland must have been
pretty bad at the time).
In one of the greatest performances I've ever seen, Daniel Day-Lewis plays Bill 'the Butcher' Cutting, leader of the so called Nativists, and vehemently opposed to all foreign influence on his country. The character is based loosely on a man named William Poole, who was really more of blow-hard than a rough and tough street fighter and who died long before the 1860s in which the majority of this film is set. The evil nature of this character is ratcheted up several notches by Scorsese and Lewis, with his push broom mustache, glass eye and invented accent (think Jerry Seinfeld if he was always mean and angry and a few octaves lower in voice).
The other notable character is Jim Broadbent's Boss Tweed, leader of the corrupt Tammany Ring that influenced politics in New York well into the 20th Century. The appearance of Broadbent as Tweed is so spot on that you could easily put him in an encyclopedia an few would notice any difference. This man was a model for modern politicians. He says, "The appearance of the law must be upheld, especially when it's being broken," as he employs gangs for muscle work while trying to create the appearance of order.
While Tweed courts the Irish vote, the Butcher and his men throw rocks and harass them as they come off the boats. "If only I had the guns Mr. Tweed, I'd shoot each and every one of them before they set foot on American soil" he says. The Butcher is extreme in his actions, though typical in the attitudes behind them. He is the embodiment of American self-righteousness, wrapping himself in the American flag (literally at one point!) and claiming moral superiority on the basis of things his father did. He hates the Irish for their different language and their strange religion (Catholicism). After a failed assassination attempt against him by a Celtic-speaking Irishman, he attempts to get information from the wounded man the only way he knows how, delivering my favorite lines of the film, "Who's man are you?... You see this knife? I'm going to teach you to speak English with this (expletive) knife!" If that's not a perfect representation of the modern neo-conservative attitude toward foreigners, I don't know what is.
For brevity's sake I haven't even mentioned the main plot line about Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio)'s revenge plot against the Butcher, but it's almost incidental to the real strengths of the film. Chiefly, these include an honest portrayal of a brutal era of history. We see rival fire brigades fighting each other while houses burn, rigged elections that make modern Florida look like a democracy and the Draft Riots of 1863, (New York's most violent moment until 9/11) For incredibly well crafted sets, great acting throughout and themes that ring true as much today as ever, Gangs of New York makes my top 10 list.
I first saw this film before I read the book and thought that it was a
reasonably well done Campbellian-type story. Though not on par with The
Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia or His Dark Materials
(book-wise or film-wise), I still think Eragon is better than any of
the Harry Potter movies, which continue to have remarkable success
despite their mediocrity.
However, once you have read the book, you will be shocked at the amount of material that has been omitted (this movie would have had to have been twice as long as it was to really do the book justice). It is very clear that there were never any serious plans at making the sequel because many essential elements that figure prominently in the book Eldest have been left out altogether, such that it is hard to imagine how the second film could now be made with any coherency.
On another note, John Malkovich gives an... interesting performance as Galbatorix (an often mentioned character, but one who does not actually appear in either of the first two books). He speaks in a strange way, emphasizing syllables that you would not expect. It's either brilliant or terrible; I'm honestly not sure.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is the sixth and final part of my essay on the themes and motifs
of Star Wars.
The Star Wars saga ends with Return of the Jedi. While considered one of the weaker entries in the series overall, Episode VI has perhaps the best and most satisfying ending of the six.
The motif of nature versus technology occurs most visibly in this episode. The difference is highlighted through colors and image patterns - the Imperial forces are regimented and uniform, wearing black and white, while the rebel strike force and their Ewok allies are associated with more naturalistic earth tones (even the rebel capital ships in the space battle above are rounder and more natural in appearance than the triangular Imperial Star Destroyers). Ultimately the Imperials are defeated, despite their superior power and technology, by the clever and resourceful Ewoks wielding only stones, arrows and log traps. This scene has often been ridiculed as implausible, but it could be seen as an expedited version of the Vietnam War, which in the end had a very similar result and would have been heavy on George Lucas' mind as he wrote it.
Aside from this battle, the motifs developed throughout the series climax with the final showdown between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. The number two is an omnipresent force in this dynamic. There are two Sith, the only number of them that there can be. Palpatine wishes Luke to kill Vader and replace him, while Vader wishes his son to join him and overthrow Palpatine. Both know the other's motive and it speaks volumes about the treachery and rigid hierarchy of the Sith, that it can happen this way. Luke initially resists playing into this, but when Vader figures out that there are not one but two potential Jedi remaining (the other being Luke's sister Leia) Luke is angered and defeats Vader, severing his arm.
This is as close as Luke comes to the Dark Side, for thereafter he refuses to fight. Enraged, Palpatine attempts to destroy the apprentice he cannot have. But Luke is saved by Vader, who is redeemed by the love of his son and completes his prophesied destiny of destroying the Sith (being Palpatine and himself). Luke removes Vader's mask, revealing a battered human being. Obi-Wan had described Vader as "more machine now than man; twisted and evil," which may have indeed been the case. But there was some good in him, good that triumphed, if only in the very end, as Luke had believed it would.
So ends the tragedy of Darth Vader. At the very end of the story, Anakin Skywalker appears to Luke as a ghost, along with Yoda and Obi-Wan. While there is some debate whether his ghost appeared as an old man or as a young one yet unsullied by the Dark Side, there is no denying the power of this ending or this story. As bad as things may often seem for our world, we as human beings always have the power to make things right, if we can find the will to do so.
So ends my (over?)analysis of Star Wars. Thank you George Lucas for giving our world a great mythology to live by, one which we still need and without which there would be just a little less magic in our lives.
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