Friday, July 30, 2010

Three Recent Movies: The Karate Kid, Toy Story 3, Kick-Ass

The Karate Kid is a needless remake that still hits all the right notes. It does all the expected things, follows the predictable plot-line, but it does it well, and it works. Jaden Smith is solid and likable enough as the titular kid, Dre, and Jackie Chan is excellent as his mentor and coach, Mr. Han. The movie is a good 20 minutes too long, and it takes itself a bit too seriously--the training montage feels at least 10 minutes long, and involves an incredibly difficult array of exercises for a 12-year-old--but these are surprisingly minor gripes about what is a very solid, even commendable, family film.

Toy Story 3 is another Pixar triumph, without question one of the best films of the year. There's really not much else that needs to be said. It meets or surpasses the bar set by the previous two movies, once again filling the screen with the beloved characters who have become worldwide stars over the past fifteen years. There's a great deal more action--including a coordinated break-out sequence that puts The Great Escape and Ocean's Eleven to shame--as well as more sentiment, including the saddest ending the Pixar team has yet created. I'd like to say something more perceptive and insightful here, but I can't think of anything right now. I'll probably write more on it in the future.

Kick-Ass is not a film that caters to every taste. It is alternately crass, vulgar, and graphically violent, and it is easy to see why people would be turned off. I, however, was highly entertained by it. The movie is perhaps best described by a commenter on IMDb who described it as a cross between Superbad and Kill Bill. Indeed, the movie seems directly influenced by both of these, with it's sex-obsessed, slacker high schoolers and its brightly colored, tongue-in-cheek, action sequences featuring swords and spraying blood. Apparently most offensive to many viewers (including Roger Ebert), was the character of Hit-Girl (played by Chloe Moretz), an 11-year-old girl responsible for most of the blood spraying violence. I'm not going to attempt to defend the movie's morality, which is pretty indefensible, except to point out that all but one of the deaths in the film are lacking in emotional and narrative weight, and suggest that basically all the dead bad guys deserved to die according to common action movie conventions. I'm more interested in the way the film attempts to subvert and deconstruct the superhero genre.
The movie is based on a graphic novel by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr. Millar is one of the most popular writers in comics right now, as well as one of the most immature and overrated. While he has excellent ability to write action and has written at least one truly excellent all-around book (Superman: Red Son), most of his stuff is filled with pointless blood and gore, awful dialogue, and (especially in the case of Wanted) a complete lack of morality. With this book, he sets out to create a savage parody of the average comic-fan's dreams of becoming a superhero and suggest what wackos people would have to be to actually try it. The movie follows his plot pretty closely--with one notable adjustment--but ultimately ends up more satisfying and entertaining, as well as just slightly more thoughtful and even human.
The movie's influences are numerous (thought not exactly broad), including Quentin Tarantino and Judd Apatow (as mentioned before), John Woo's Hong Kong action epics, Edgar Wright, and just about every other superhero movie ever made. Each superhero in the movie seems to be styled after a different "real" hero and his movie(s). Kick-Ass himself is patterned after the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies: He lives in a suburban home that looks almost exactly like Peter Parker's, has a clumsy training montage on top of rooftops, and rather pitifully attempts to be cool and get the girl like Tobey Maguire does. Big Daddy (played by Nicolas Cage, in a delightfully wacky performance), is obviously modeled on Batman, with the body armor and bone-crunching martial arts of Christian Bale, but the speaking voice of Adam West, complete with portentously silly pauses in between words. Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) could arguably be inspired by the Joel Schumacher Batman movies of the '90s, with his garish red-black-and-purple suit and vehicle that seem somehow disturbingly plastic and ugly. His last line appears to be a reference to Jack Nicholson's Joker in the original Tim Burton Batman. Hit-Girl is the most daring creation, though, subverting the image of the teen side-kick almost beyond recognition. Gone is the always-fantastical Boy Wonder who could cheerfully learn to fight crime alongside Batman or other heroes, growing up perfectly well-adjusted with no adverse effects. Slightly younger than the usual sidekick and a girl to boot, she is systematically brainwashed by her father and trained to be the ultimate killing machine. With no friends or regular schooling, she loves guns and knives above all other toys, spouts extreme profanity, and displays joy in slaughtering gangsters, cutting off limbs and heads with abandon. While her feats are obviously impossible, her character is still the most interesting take on a comic tradition that has come along in years, suggesting the ugly necessities under the childish fantasy.
These styles are more than just clever references, though, because the characters are often aware of the "real" superheroes they're imitating. Kick-Ass explicitly begins his mission by wondering why no one ever wants to be Spider-Man instead of Paris Hilton. Big Daddy draws comic stories to explain his crusade to Mindy/Hit-Girl, and gangsters describe him as "a guy dressed like Batman." Their entire world is already saturated by knowledge of superheroes, and the ones they imitate therefore take on special significance.
Ultimately, though, the movie leaves behind its explosion of superhero movie conventions to end with an exciting, action-packed climax where the good guys win and the bad guys lose. While the graphic novel has a similar ending, the film decides to make the good guys more heroic [SPOILERS]: Kick-Ass actually contributes to the final battle, and gets the girl instead of being rejected as a creepy stalker. Big Daddy's mission is also somewhat noble, in the sense that it really is a revenge mission in the face of a corrupt system; in the book, he's just a right-wing militia type who wants to give his daughter an exciting life. The film drops this subversive nugget, but in turn it deepens the relationship between father and daughter, giving real emotion to his death and a real sense of danger to the final battle. While the film stops short of subverting the superhero genre as much as the book, it ends up far more satisfying and positive, deciding to offer real entertainment instead of mockery, and that left me with a good feeling.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

An Introduction to the Blog

"A film is a petrified fountain of thought."--Jean Cocteau

Starting a blog has the potential to seem narcissistic, or at least a waste of time. What could I say that is actually worth reading that a dozen other bloggers and professional writers don't already say ten times better than I can? The truth is, maybe nothing. But, hey, no one else has to read it. This blog is mostly for my own benefit, a place where I can practice writing and clear thinking, and if I'm lucky, share thoughts and ideas with others.

My inspiration for starting this blog, and the hope that it might be successful, comes largely from these two blog posts by Roger Ebert: The Golden Age of Movie Critics and The Blogs of My Blog. Ebert is, of course, a legend of film criticism, having been at it for over 40 years, and with his bestselling books and long-running TV show, At the Movies, probably the most recognizable movie critic in the world. Since his recent, debilitating battle with cancer, he has spent more and more time online, turning his site into one of the genuine must-read blogs of the web. I generally don't agree with his political views, but I find all his thoughts on film and pop culture fascinating, and he is definitely one of my heroes. In these two posts, Ebert gives an example of how democratic and supportive the blogosphere can be, singling out dozens of other blogs written by his readers and giving shout-outs to all the movie blogs that he reads. If all these people can start their own little websites just because they want to, and somehow end up attracting readers and generating real thought and conversation, why can't I?

So this blog will mostly be about movies, because that's what I want to write about at the moment. I love film as both entertainment and an art form, the greatest synthesis of technology, skill, and creative vision yet produced by modern man. If the mood strikes me, though, I may write something about books, comics, religion, or even politics. I'm making it up as I go along, so posts may seem kind of random, at least at first. I hope you enjoy.

In the interest of giving my qualifications, though--as well as providing myself with a record to see where I started from--I have provided below a rough list of the films I've seen and the films I haven't. This obviously isn't an attempt to name every movie I've ever seen, but rather a checklist for what I've seen in the Film Canon, arranged in an auteurist manner by country and director. Looking over this list, I feel I'm fairly well-(seen? read? watched?) in terms of breadth--at least considering my age and how long I've been at this--but my experience is pretty limited when it comes to depth. There are a multitude of movies I have yet to see--indeed, an endless number--and dozens of artists I have yet to experience. This limits me in what I may understand in terms of cinematic history and style, but it's also kind of wonderful. There is so much more to explore.

Thoughts on Iron Man 2

Without Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man 2 would probably be painful to watch. With him, it is a light romp filled with clever dialogue and fun action. If it wasn’t clear before, Downey, Jr. is probably the most charismatic and entertaining actor currently working.
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Mickey Rourke is powerfully menacing as mad scientist/supervillain Whiplash, but he isn’t given enough to do and he is beaten far too easily--as was Jeff Bridges’ Ironmonger in the first film. Samuel L. Jackson is Samuel L. Jackson--tough and cool as always. Gwyneth Paltrow is fine as Pepper Pots, Tony Stark’s right-hand-girl and love interest, while Scarlett Johansson is awful as Stark’s new-assistant-who’s-actually-a-secret-agent called Black Widow. She’s supposed to be mysterious and sexy but comes off as stiff and boring, her fight scene is ludicrously fake. Sam Rockwell is a disappointment. He’s a terrific character actor in plenty of other movies, but here he just becomes incredibly annoying, draining all menace away from the villain’s team and replacing it with obnoxious faux-macho chatter.
The plot is uneven. Tony Stark has a problem with the arc reactor keeping him alive and is slowly being poisoned to death, but this is resolved before the final act, and once it is all sense of danger goes with it. The rest of the movie follows the fairly predictable superhero formula: a villain arises with some sort of new powers, clashes with the hero once or twice while formulating his evil plan, then eventually unleashes his full attack at the end before being defeated by the hero. It’s the scenes with Stark out of his robot suit that are interesting.

You see, Congress wants to take Stark’s suit away as a dangerous weapon. But as Stark points out in the hilarious Congressional hearing scene, it’s his property, he built it, and no one has the right to just take it away. In fact, Stark says, taking on the character of an Ayn Rand hero, they should thank him, because he has “successfully privatized world peace!” This is a wonderful line, but raises serious political questions. While the scene overall seems to be a libertarian hoo-rah (and made my conservative soul cheer), the implications of “privatizing world peace” are not so simple. Just because one believes certain government functions would be better handled by the private sector does not mean we should hand over national defense and the right to use deadly coercive force to a private entity, much less an unknown quantity. with suspect motives. The movie seems to acknowledge this by having the military--with the help of Stark’s best friend, Rhodey--steal one of his Iron Man suits. They apparently intend to use it as another weapon in their arsenal for things like the war in Afghanistan and other matters of national interest. What does Stark think of this? He never says. This conflict between public and private interests never has any payoff, and the movie’s politics are just muddled. The same thing happened with the first Iron Man, where Tony is awakened to the violence and injustice in the world by being kidnapped by terrorists. He discovers that the weapons he manufactures have somehow been falling into the hands of terrorists, who then use them to kill American soldiers and innocent civilians. Yet, while this would naturally make a man want to stop giving weapons to terrorists, he takes it a step further and declares that he will stop making weapons altogether--depriving the soldiers he was officially selling to, anyway, the tools they need to defeat the terrorists. Then he builds his own weapon suit and goes killing on his own. Somehow this is supposed to be more enlightened.
People generally don’t want politics mixed with their entertainment, and I’m usually no exception. Part of the beauty of Downey, Jr.’s performance, though, is that he could map out a position and stick with it, no matter how outrageous, and the audience would still love him and accept what he says. Anyway: Both Iron Man movies are highly entertaining and are among the finest superhero movies to appear so far. But while they appear to deal with the real world, bringing up contentious political subjects with a light and inoffensive touch, they lack the conviction and/or self-awareness to follow through on their positions and merely end up muddled.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Fascism, Ayn Rand, and The Incredibles


 (Note: File this under clumsy early writings.)

Some argue that The Incredibles pushes a Randian-fascist ideology where only the most special are allowed to succeed and those not gifted in the same way are told to keep their place. This is symbolized by the way the Parr family is celebrated for the way their superpowers allow them to do things others can’t, while Syndrome is demonized for attempting to artificially give himself powers instead of accepting his pace as a non-super-powered human.
This interpretation is wrong for several reasons: first is the non-sensical pairing of Ayn Rand and fascism, two ideologies diametrically opposed to one another. While Nazism emphasized the master race, this was not necessarily a part of other fascist movements, and Ayn Rand celebrated human achievement but never advocated keeping others in their place. Instead, she abhorred the attempts by the masses to constrict, leech off, and subjugate the gifted instead of taking care of themselves. And in fact, The Incredibles does seem somewhat influenced by her vision. The Parr family starts out essentially in hiding, confined by both government and large corporation to be an average, unremarkable family, despite their potential for great individual achievement. When they finally are unleashed, they have the ability to save the world and succeed in doing it. Syndrome is a complicated character in that he started out as a little kid who just wanted to follow his heroes. When Mr. Incredible rejects him, he does it offhand but nevertheless cruelly, and when Mr. Incredible later apologizes for this treatment it is an honest admission that this was wrong. In fact, one of the major story lines of the film is the way Mr. Incredible comes to realize that he does need help, that he can’t always “work alone.” Syndrome’s angry reaction, however, is a far greater wrong--but not because he builds his own weapons and gadgets to approximate having powers himself. It is rather because he feels the need to repress and kill all the other superheroes so that he alone can be great. Syndrome is, in fact, another person trying to hold back and stunt the achievement of others. It is not that they are gifted and he is not, therefore he should know his place. It is that he refuses to allow those others to be gifted at all and opts to kill them rather than honestly compete. Holding others back, restricting their freedom (and killing them) because of one’s own jealousy us the crime here, not the attempt to become great oneself. That is encouraged, as each child finds their own unique talents and learns to use them morally in their own way. Indeed, the film ends up deviating from Rand significantly in it’s affirmation of traditional morality and altruism. Rand was an atheist who believed all decisions ought to be based on objective self-interest, but a superhero’s life is composed entirely of saving others from harm at great personal risk to oneself. What could be more altruistic than that?
In the end, the film celebrates achievement by affirming the existence of great natural talents. It admits the existence of mediocrity and doesn’t falsely promise everyone is equally special, but it argues that this is no reason to place restrictions on those who have greater talents and it encourages one to develop one’s own gifts to he fullest instead of hiding them or letting others hold one back.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Movies of 2009

Here are all the movies I have seen that came out in 2009. About half I saw in the theater, half on DVD. They are in order from best to worst. Obviously there are plenty of great movies that I didn’t see. The ones I am still missing that I most want to see include An Education, The Road, Public Enemies, Zombieland, 9, The Princess and the Frog, A Prophet, and (guilty pleasure) Terminator Salvation. Overall, I liked most of the movies I saw, so it wasn't a bad year. But it wasn't an especially good year, either, as I would only call one or two of these masterpieces.

1. Inglourious Basterds-- The most entertaining film of the year also happens to be filled with virtuoso dialogue, beautiful camera work, and an incredibly original--yet somehow familiar--cast of characters. There are a few glaring missteps (most involving Eli Roth), but otherwise the film dazzles with life and wit in at least four languages. Not only is it laugh-out-loud funny and tongue-bitingly suspenseful, it is also surprisingly thought-provoking on subjects as diverse as just war theory, the characteristics of Nazism and its followers, and the very nature and purpose of cinema. This may very well be Tarantino’s masterpiece.

2. Where the Wild Things Are-- An art film for kids. Has that ever been done before? It emphasizes mood over plot, mapping the psyche of a 9-year-old boy with searing, heart-breaking intensity. It’s beautiful and painful to watch.

3. The Hurt Locker-- The first good Iraq War film. It was overpraised by the industry and critics, receiving award after award, but it’s still an excellent piece of cinéma vérité that lets the audience feel the intensity of war in a realistic manner. Unfortunately, according to real American soldiers, the films depictions of protocol and certain characters’ actions are highly unrealistic, but this doesn’t overshadow the incredibly realistic “feel” of the movie or the thankfully no-nonsense depiction of insurgent atrocities.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Andrzej Wajda's Danton

I wrote this paper for a European history class. I haven't edited it and I left out the footnotes. I don't think it's really my best paper, but I had fun writing it. It deals more with the historicity of the film in question rather than the cinematic qualities of it, and if you don't know anything about the French Revolution then it might be confusing.


When it was released in 1983, director Andrzej Wajda’s film Danton ignited a major conversation both in Europe and America about its historicity and its implications for the current political situation in Poland. Wajda was a Polish patriot making a film about the French Revolution, and many French critics attacked the film for distorting facts and being too critical of Robespierre. Others suggested Danton was meant to represent Lech Walesa, the Polish opposition leader, and Robespierre the Communist leader General Jaruzelski. In the end, both of these criticisms are unconvincing, and while the film does modify a few facts, it turns out to be an excellently researched and persuasive historical drama.