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It's funny because it doesn't know it's funny.
In the early 1930s, Ayn Rand was working on a screenplay to sell to young Hollywood that featured her signature objectivist take on totalitarian Communist societies and how they suck. Finding no success in selling it as a movie, she turned it into a novella called "Anthem," and it remains among her least-renowned pieces. My suspicion about "Equilibrium" is that Kurt Wimmer succeeded where Rand failed, and managed to get this particular brand of dystopia to screen. It is just as simplistic in its broad brushstrokes, just as childish in its dualistic treatment of the human condition, and just as rightly overlooked by the general public. Christian Bale's shocking lack of dimensionality (I assume Keanu was still locked into his Matrix contract and couldn't be bothered) paired with the outright absurd conceit of "Gun-Kata" (the comically overstated effectiveness of which is probably the singular reason to watch it) achieves an astounding lack of self-awareness which borders on self-parody.
Super Mario Bros. (1993)
Marred Mario Bothers...
So, *this* is what the movie of a SMB game should've looked like: Mario and Luigi, two lovable, Laurel-and-Hardy-esque plumbers from New York, take a job that involves a large, green pipe. By some unfortunate accident, they fall into the opening... only to emerge in a lush, flowering land full of verdant views and large, Alice-in-Wonderland-ish mushrooms. After meeting Toad, an ebullient native of this strange land, they learn that their princess has been kidnapped by a large, spiky-shelled creature named King Koopa. Vowing to earn their return to the home they know by rescuing this princess, Mario and Luigi overcome both the natural challenges of the environment of the Mushroom Kingdom as well as the attempts by Koopa's minions to thwart their advance. After overcoming the tests of mettle and might, and finding their way through labyrinthine castles, Koopa is defeated and the princess is found.
See now, how hard was that? The game *itself* has pretty much everything you need to make a movie about it... sure, you'd need some witty dialogue and an awful lot of special effects, but it's nothing that, say, *43 MILLION DOLLARS* couldn't do.
What you *don't* need are spurious and inane spring-loaded-rocket-jumping shoes, unnecessary connections to *wildly inaccurate* representations of evolutionary theory, awkward attempts to smoosh poor representations of unimportant baddies from every game into an hour and a half, or Dennis Hopper. They can jump high because it's a parallel universe, goombas are just creatures that evolved from whatever other creatures there were millions of years ago in that universe, and King Koopa is giant, spiky-shelled thing that looks *absofreakinglutely nothing* like Dennis Hopper. No, a spiky blond dye job on your head does not make you look like an evil reptilian tyrant - and it doesn't take the place of a shell.
Sadly, the Super Mario Bros. Movie makes the same mistake that virtually every other video-game movie has made: it flagrantly and arbitrarily makes stuff up that not only doesn't have *anything* to do with the game, but furthermore seems to perversely go so far off-course from the fun and adventurous tone of its source material as to make my childhood memories grit their teeth and softly weep.
Paranormal Activity (2007)
An Academic Review of Paranormal Activity
I've been mulling it over, and I think Paranormal Activity did what all great "horror" movies can do: it touched on the raw nerves that we didn't really consciously recognize were there. I'm not talking about the fear of the supernatural, or the unknown, or the tired trope of "possessed psycho girlfriend" - those things are usually exactly what filmmakers err in relying on to carry a movie in lieu of sloppy writing and poorly fleshed-out characters. Not, that is, that the writing and character-development was particularly stellar in the case of Paranormal Activity. It wasn't - but the atmospheric development was, and in a preternaturally magnificent way.
See, most American filmmakers (and Video Game directors, I might add) tend to pay far too little attention to the atmosphere created by the interplay between camera (or "implied narrator," in the filmic jargon) and viewer. It's what made Hitchcock Hitchcock. It's what made Silent Hill (the game) Silent Hill (again -the game, and *not* the movie. The movie was turd- balls). It's what makes Japanese Horror good. Really, it's only in contrast to the expectations that the "average" American horror movie yield that PA stands out as so delicately effective.
To start with, the film centers on two characters. Done and done. Furthermore, these two characters - a straight, white couple - live in a three-bedroom house that has all of the domestic charm of a newly-spawned SIMS abode (less, really, considering that in the SIMS you at least get that snappy elevator music). We learn that the dude is a Day-Trader and the chick is a Student (an English major, even). These details, of course, are entirely irrelevant to the "plot" (and I use the term loosely, as it can be described in less than five words: creepy haunting overtakes girl). This is where the Cloverfield intersection occurs: in like fashion, all of the exposition in PA occurs either outside of the film entirely (to be found in the viral video campaigns on You Tube, or the years-old My-Face-Space-Book profiles painstakingly created) - and is completely and utterly irrelevant whatsoever. It's like a giant middle finger being shoved straight up Aristotle's nostril - we don't need no steeenking plot!
What, then, makes us empathize at all with these characters? What provides us with the central conflict through which we, the audience, receive catharsis at its resolution? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. This film, along with Cloverfield, is proving what might just be the defining element of film that makes it different from any other medium: the characters, plot, and conflict are all practically negligible in comparison to the one effect that film can achieve best - atmosphere. We are immersed and engaged because we are already in the movie - it's talking to us in a way that mere writing and post-production SFX can never do. It's making a pseudo-Brechtian violation of the diagetic relationship by never even bothering to build the fourth wall, much less break through it. It alienates us by mimicking us exactly.
What I'm talking about is the subtext; the underlying commentary on life and people that the film tacitly makes by presenting the dual themes of isolation and consumption. It's precisely because the writing didn't try to explain why this newly-engaged couple would live in a large, empty house that it is so effective. No clumsy dialogue about wanting children, or building a future, or any of the other mundane claptrap that tries to legitimize the situation - it's just there. The barely-used kitchen equipment. The multiple musical instruments. The perfectly-maintained and hotel-quality spare bedrooms. They create the undertone of consumption, and it's that whispering indictment of excess that makes us guilty without even knowing it. Add to that the fact that only two other actors are even in the film, and you have an ambiance of isolation. These two are disconnected entirely from the world around them - amidst the suburbs of San Diego, this is relevant. This is what makes the voyeuristic quality of the implied narrator through which we interact with the film an added element of our guilt. No preachy monologues about the internet are necessary - we feel doubly-indicted because we, too, interface with the world via less and less "face-time", and it's that very disconnection with other human beings which allows our nerves to be so jangled by the keyhole-peeping quality of our interaction with the film. It seems... familiar.
Of course, the producers knew exactly who their target market was - it's no accident that footage from this film bears a striking resemblance to every one of the umpteen-thousand "paranormal" shows on every channel from Sci-Fi (sorry, I mean scyfi, or scy-fy, or skype, or whatever-the-hell-its calling itself now) to Animal Planet to even National-Effing- Geographic (academic integrity? What's that?) - the difference being that it actually pays off on its promise. Sure, they had a template - but it doesn't explain the sheer success of the film outside of that audience. If it weren't for the atmospheric element of the film and the way it exposes our cultural vulnerabilities, it wouldn't have made it to wide-release.
Now, I'm not saying that this was in any way intended by Oren Peli. If I've learned anything from watching DVD commentaries, it's that usually the filmmaker stumbles into genius like a drooling child who accidentally craps his diaper in the shape of the Mona Lisa. I'm just trying to explain why this film struck such a chord with its audience, and with me. bell hooks mentions the phenomenon of a "Social Haunting" in her treatises on media and culture, and I'm inclined to call this a manifestation of just that - the "Paranormal Activity" of the film, then, becomes the activity which it commits on our very social (un)consciousness, and which reminds us of the very real, existential vulnerability we face in our digitally-informed, non-renewable-resource-dependent, and increasingly- isolated lives.
This is the best movie I never, ever want to see again. It's dark, disgusting, powerful, painful and honest. The focal point of cinema has been used here as an assault on every day life. Everyone has had these moments at one point or another in their lives and now here's the hot-faced shame and moral nausea experienced vicariously through a parade of terrible, terrible people, not parsed out by blessed months or years between horrifying events as one would hopefully find in real life, but non-stop for however many minutes this film lasts. I can't deny that it was a good film, but it's also a film that hurts to watch. Good job in an era when the only thing I can remotely equate this experience to is being in the front row at "Cloverfield" and being surrounded by people vomiting.
Haken no hinkaku (2007)
Great commentary on corporate employment structure,
This subtle and humorous show underpins not only the nobility of demanding contractual obligations but the underlying humanity (or lack thereof) of an increasingly dehumanizing industrial existence. You have temps who serve as grist to the mill of a company environment who could care less and employees who not only lord over the haken but act like they actually blame them for their position in the company/society. Having been a temp, I find it hilarious to see such a highly-qualified individual (portrayed masterfully Ryoko Shinohara) by underestimated by an entire department of inept employees who don't have a clue about the advantage she represents.
Psst... Ben Stein just called you a Nazi.
This movie is a regretful abortion and a divisive, sloppy wedge intended obviously to placate a scientifically-uneducated audience who is quite happy to take it as a reason to not think too hard about what Darwinism is and to retreat into the safe womb of their religious beliefs - which (and I know it's elitist) *do not* have a place in science.
Here's the irony: Darwin *didn't* invent evolution. The only reason he's credited with having done so is because the work in Origin of a Species basically re-worked the hypotheses of Jean Baptiste de La Marck, who reasoned that species "desire" to evolve (e.g., a plant will "reach" toward the sun in order to grow). Once Darwin took out the "intelligence" of the species' "wanting" to evolve and placed it in the prima-fascia athiestic context of a process of "natural selection," the hypothesis started to work, as science had no need to explain the "why" of the matter, and could focus on what science is actually good at - the "how."
The film *never* mentions anything so close to an explanation of Darwin as this, much less *any* explanation of either Darwinism or Intelligent Design, which are its primary loci of "discussion". Rather, it paints with the broadest of strokes an imagined "conspiracy" of science shutting out ID supporters from its folds by interviewing three or four academicians who published articles suggesting ID's validity under the banner of the institutions they were representing. I assure you, if someone was using your name to propel ideologies you didn't believe, you'd fire them too. It's not a conspiracy - it's people who abuse their position getting put properly in their place: the Philosophy department, not Biology.
The point at which the film takes a dangerous and reckless turn toward irresponsibility is when it presumes to equate supporters of Darwin with Nazis. Yes. Nazis. Juxtaposing images of death camps (and the bodies of holocaust victims) with people saying that Hitler was a "Darwinist" (sic), it is overtly stated that Darwinism can and has been used to attempt the eradication of "unevolved" people. Well, it certainly has; and who is to blame?
Herbert Spencer. The name doesn't ring a bell, because in true propagandizing fashion, the film *never* mentions the man who actually devised the phrase "survival of the fittest." It wasn't Darwin. It was Spencer. Spencer, Spencer, Spencer. The scourge of "Social Darwinism" did, indeed, plague the early twentieth century, influencing the affluent from America to Europe with the false notion that they were "fitter" for their environment by dint of being rich. Yes, Hitler believed this. Who else did? Well, Henry Ford, for one, and Walt Disney, for another. Should we then equate driving a Festiva and going to the Epcot Center with killing Jews? No, surely that would be offensive and widely condemned - as this film should be.
Please, please, please tell others of the atrocious and unfounded insult this film is to not only the academic community, but humanity in general. I won't mention Ben Stein's personal responsibility in abusing his identity as a "trusted" expert (at trivia) by detailing how he peppered his commentary with shameless references to his prior exploits, and how he should be held accountable to his charges by being presented with a libel suit. That's too hopeful. I can only wish that it will live on as an example of what a childish and damaging group of defensive, angry self-deluders can do with a camera and a complete abandonment of ethical and academic integrity.
We're the camera.
The socio-political overtones otherwise muted by the odd marketing decision to bill this film as a "thriller" notwithstanding, it may be helpful to view this film as a humorous nod to the Brechtian "Fourth wall" breaking down before the film even begins (tre postmodern...). Perpetual references to the "campaign of terror" launched (in effigy) by Mahjid land a square smack in the mouth of the contemporary Western world-view. What is, after all, "hidden" is the inevitable complicity on all of our part to bear witness to a systemic hegemony by first-world powers over the past century that has resulted in the situation so aptly characterized by the allegory within "Cache." The penultimate scene finds Georges' father brutally binding a young Mahjid with rope, ferrying him away to a life "deprived of education" (the ramifications of which are only voiced by his son). All of the characters are broken by the dubious inheritance of the twentieth century, and we are left as the voyeurs, damned with mute involvement in a situation we don't expect ourselves to have any part of (i.e., the movie itself). Haneke presents a social critique as bitingly incisive as it is carefully couched within.
The Lake House (2006)
The Lack House.
Have you ever contemplated time travel? Have you ever pondered parallel universes and the complexities of communicating across years instantaneously? If so, great - go see "12 Monkeys" or read a Phillip K. Dick novel, because the writers of "The Lake House" clearly haven't. The characters of this faux-ontological exploration, while a shred sympathetic, clearly have more of a willing suspension of disbelief than I was able to. While I can forgive their shockingly rapid acceptance of the mind-bending discovery of being able to write letters spanning two years' distance, I simply cannot accept that they would become *so* immersed in their little emotional exploration and cute "long-distance relationship" bit that they would *never* actually test the limits of their connection (or even try any tricks with lottery numbers, splitting the winnings - it's kind of a no-brainer). Furthermore, while "KeAlex" (since he is *always* Keanu to some degree no matter what role he's playing) makes some strides to contact her in his time, she apparently fails to make a single attempt to find him in her time (which is actually a contrived, necessary plot point to make the "climax" work). In essence, a movie which promises so much in the realm of pseudo-sci-fi mystery, it resolves with the moral "look both ways before crossing the street." A major disappointment.
Môsô dairinin (2004)
An anthropomorphic fractal: stunning...
Comparable perhaps to the works of David Lynch, Satoshi Kon's enigmatic, sprawling masterpiece of ontological complexity will whisper dangerous truths in you ear: Mougenhouyou. The characters, like the story itself, split from a single iteration into an ebbing question-mark. Set in modern-day Japan, the critique of a globally-realized consumer-captilalism, embodied in the "ad-hoc relief" of material goods and childhood icons, is overshadowed by a larger remark of the ephemoral nature of life itself. Melded with an array of postwar historical references, the anthropomorphic fractal which this series becomes collapses in upon itself, becoming a singularity, the obscurity of which is its clarity. There's no way to discuss "Paranoia Agent" without paradox; there is no other time during which it could have been made than now. All of us are in the Sage's equation...
The Accidental Postmodernist?
Much like the well-known Literary Criticism lemma of the "intentional fallacy" (not fallacy with intent, that is - but, rather, the fallacy of assuming intent upon an author), the effect "Decasia" has upon the viewer will inevitably be a co-creation. Themes of Walter Said's "Orientalism" abounded in my head as the juxtaposition of Middle-Eastern and Asian imagery was infused with the designs of film decay: was this a brilliant visual citation of deconstructionist theory? Surely, the similarity to fractals which the living "blotches" of film decomposition bore was not lost upon the orchestrators, was it? Well, to learn that the etymology of the title was derived from a play on Disney's "Fantasia" did little to support the postmodern "reading" I initially lent the film.
Nonetheless, the pairing of these *entirely* unmanipulated images (save for their being slowed down) found and woven together by Bill Morrison along with Gordon's homage to Phillip Glass' "qatsi" trilogy elicited a rather visceral response from my mesmerized occipital lobe.
This film continues in the trend of what I like to call "aesthetic narrative" (the genesis of which I credit to Godfrey Reggio and Phillip Glass' "Koyaanisqatsi"): a filmic genre in which the "deep structure" of film is laid bare for the experience of the audience - there is no script, no plot, and no spoken word throughout the presentation; however, the proof of film as an art form unto itself is given by dint of the multiplicity of analyses projected and digested by the viewer.
Thus, while enjoying a mixed reception, the film stands as centrally important to this postmodern genre of "aesthetic narrative" (the term for which, by the way, I may likely have coined; feel free to adopt its usage whenever applicable). Certainly it bears watching.
Rachel's Attic (2002)
Amazing potential (for M.S.T. 4000)
I am still owed oral gratification for being misled into viewing this film. Hornswaggled into it by having been promised a wild fetish thrill-ride at an old and reputedly haunted Hollywood theatre, I began to wonder after the first ten minutes if even dead people would waste time sitting through it. After a multitude of inward groans at the unbelievable dialogue and mawkish characters, I broke out in audible laughter upon hearing the line "now is the time for bondage and c*ck rings." Fortunately, this promoted a series of heckles from my immediate company, and together we were able to foresee the inevitable future of "Rachel's Attic," which will be shared by all whenever Mystery Science Theatre 4000 rolls around and includes it as a film to be lampooned. Until then, I encourage viewers to hold responsible those friends who have forced the film upon them and demand compensatory restitution (i.e. oral gratification).
Whereas the audience is entreated to identify the promised "fat guy" and discover the degree to which he "goes nutzoid," s/he instead is placed in an epistemological quandary: how do we know who the "fat guy" is, and what type of behavior qualifies as "nutzoid?" Indeed, there are two fat guys in the film, and were the viewer to identify which of them were the intended referent of the title by analyzing their respective nutzoiditude, s/he would arrive at a standoff wherein the viewer is exhorted to discover the inherent social nutzoidity of a cruelly indifferent world harshly juxtaposed against the existential nutzoidness of a benevolent and childlike zest. Surely this film invites post-structuralist and semiotic analysis almost as bountifully as Girls Gone Wild (Totally Unexposed 8, that is) invites geopolitical discussion. And here I was, just expecting to see a fat guy going nutzoid .. .
Fight Club (1999)
The Fight-Club Manifesto
This is how `Fight Club' operates: through the emblematic `bar of soap' which decorates its marketing posters (and rather extensive ad campaign including fake office-equipment brochures), the presentation of a harmless icon gives way to a sweepingly critical exegesis of consumer capitalism. David Fincher's adaptation of the book by Chuck Palahniuk offers a quasi-postmodern view of Marxist themes as they apply to the culture of early twenty-first century capitalism. Fincher's `quasi-postmodernism' comes through in his presentation of the bi-level narrative within `Fight Club;' his Brechtian disregard for conventional aesthetic form is enacted by his consistent breaks `through the fourth wall' (i.e. narrative exegesis of plot details directed toward the audience). His use of `C.G.E.' (computer-graphical-effects) throughout the film are unobtrusive, and serve to visually heighten the suggested themes of technocratic, `corporatarchic' (ruled by corporate interests) fears which are implicit within the culture of late capitalism. Thus, while the film's narrative thread is presented in a chronologically linear fashion, the paroxysmal, disjointed presentation of its bi-leveled crescendo toward climax distances the audience in a manner similar to any non-linear film. Essentially, in postmodern terms, Fincher perfects the `verfremdung' (alienation) effect without having to resort to the manipulation of chronology. Not coincidentally, the term `verfremdung' has its roots in Marxist theory: `Capitalism is only second to slavery in its ability to alienate the worker' (Marx, Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts). This concept of `alienation' is at the root of the central tension within `Fight Club:' just as capitalism's exploitation of productive forces alienates the proletariat from the fruits of her/his labor, so does the culture of late capitalism's forced sublimation of impulsive action alienate the individual from her/his emotions. To put it plainly, the culture in which a Twinkie-factory-worker must purchase a Twinkie with a portion of her income is the same culture in which she is forced to find emotional catharsis in furtive forums of collective release. Tyler says: "we're an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; we're slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy sh*t we don't need. We are the middle children of history, with no purpose or place. We have no great war, no great depression. Our great war is a spiritual war. Our great depression is our lives. We were raised on television to believe that we'd all be millionaires, movie gods, rock stars, but we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very p***ed off." . . . And thus is summarized the `Fight Club' manifesto.