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The Zero Theorem (Dir. Terry Gilliam, 2013)

I have always had quite the love-hate relationship with Terry Gilliam’s output as a director. On the surface-level it appears I should love most of his films, as he is a visual genius who almost exclusively works in my favorite genre, Science Fiction. He also came into the world of film gradually while working with Monty Python on a whole bevy of visual products and designs. I’m always excited to see his name attached to new projects and scripts, but ultimately I am usually underwhelmed by his films. His much-acclaimed Brazil serves as a tidy example of how I view his career: beautifully striking in terms of both set design and cinematography, but void of any real substance inhabited in the characters or plot. Gilliam freely admits that Brazil is a work inspired by and derived from 1984, but he will also tell you in that same breath that he has never actually read 1984! I went into my screening of The Zero Theorem with high hopes despite that anecdote, as, unlike with most of his previous films, this movie has an independent screenwriter. Gilliam’s forward-thinking visuals combined with writing from someone who (hopefully!) is attentive to plot development and characterization? A combination worth slightly raising my low expectations for!

 

vlcsnap-2014-09-06-19h51m08s13There were other factors drawing me to watch this particular film, and probably the most influential was Christoph Waltz’s involvement. I was first introduced to his great talents in Quentin Tarantino’s last two films, Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained which both netted him Oscars for Best Supporting Actor. Despite loving and watching both of those films numerous times, I have yet to really been exposed to him in any other roles, so I was very excited to see what could do with a top billing. Here, he is an eccentric hermit named Qohen (Q – no U! – o – h – e – n, he repeatedly insists throughout the movie), believed by his boss (Matt Damon) to be the only one capable of proving the titular theorem. Waltz puts in a very admirable performance as the loner weirdo and since his character is in every single scene that is quite the relief. With roles like this it is sometimes very easy to get caught up in the tics and unique traits of the character but Waltz never goes too far with Qohen, displaying a wide range of emotions and tones. Gilliam has always seemed to draw out interesting performances from his big-name actors, whether it be Al Pacino as the janitor in Brazil or Bruce Willis as the unhinged time traveler of 12 Monkeys. Damon as Qohen’s mystical boss is an entertaining few minutes, but unfortunately the emphasis there is on few, as Damon’s screen time is limited. 

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As evidenced by the screenshot above, this is a very good looking movie with comedic futuristic flares. True to the rest of Gilliam’s oeuvre, it comes across as pretty empty and a little bit daft. Waltz’s character spends the entire film waiting for a phone call (sounds exciting, doesn’t it?) that he believes will give his otherwise tepid life meaning. For the first 1/3rd of the film there is heavy-handed commentary on the plight of the modern office drone in the form of Qohen using what looks like a Tetris-like 3D video game for his job. He complains constantly that he’d be more productive at home and is finally allowed to make the switch when he is assigned to prove The Zero Theorem. It’s at this point that the Qohen-as-a-cubicle-slave montage ends and the romantic comedy portion of the movies begins. “Montage” would not be appropriate here as this romantic subplot seemingly dominates the movie’s run-time and never really progresses the plot in any meaningful way. There are some funny moments (see the screenshot below) but it’s staggering how generic this side story is, especially when contrasted by the futuristic trimmings surrounding it.

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  To Gilliam’s credit, this cinematic universe is populated by some entertaining supporting characters, but they are so disposable and forgettable that the comedic relief role is swapped out halfway through the film and it’s barely noticeable. The only character with any depth at all is Qohen and any other characters are there simply to say or do something that will move the plot toward’s it’s forgettable ending. There are funny moments, great shots and enjoyable moments, but Gilliam disappoints on the whole for me yet again. Most of the philosophical meandering that takes place here seems culled straight from that kid in the back of your Philosophy 101 course who won’t stop raising his hand. Entire subplots are left (purposely?) unresolved, rendering the eye-rolling ending even lamer. I should probably just stop paying close attention to the Gilliam films I watch, and just take in the visuals. Or just not watch his films to begin with. If you are a hardcore Gilliam completionist, you will enjoy this film, If you are anyone else, stay far away. 

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World War Z [2D Version] (Dir. Marc Forster, 2013)

Big budget summer blockbusters are very rarely transcendent cinema, and almost never leave a lasting impression on its viewers, but are usually a good excuse to spend a few hours in an air-conditioned theater munching on candy. To be mildly entertained or even distracted was my only expectation going into one of the first major blockbusters of this summer, and even still I walked out of the theater feeling like I wasted my 9 dollars. World War Z is not scary, particularly funny, well-written, or even enjoyable. It is a movie that was rewritten and re-cut multiple times, and that shines through in its fragmented characterization and plotting. These issues quickly take a backseat to the film’s deplorable thematic racism and its odd, out of place pro-Israel, anti-multiculturalism stance that transform an otherwise benign, forgettable film into a reprehensible piece of cinematic garbage.

Before I get to the politics of the film, it is important to cover why this film fails on almost every basic level of cinema. One of the most basic rules of film is “show don’t tell”, meaning simply that you should use the imagery of your film to clue the viewers into what’s happening, rather than having characters directly hold our hand and tell us what we’re seeing. By ignoring this important edict, World War Z becomes an exercise in tedium. Every single mundane action undertaken by Brad Pitt’s character Gerry is quickly explained by another character as if the director/screenwriters couldn’t trust movie-goers to follow the film’s very basic plot. For example, towards the denouement of the film, Gerry comes to the brilliant conclusion that stabbing himself with a random deadly virus will cause the zombies to ignore him completely. A group of 5 or other characters who serve no purpose in the movie other than to tell us what is happening, are watching this development on a series of monitors. One of them watches as a zombie walks right by Gerry, ignoring him, and declares (verbatim) “He walked right by him! He walked right by him like he wasn’t even there!”. The viewer is fully aware of both what happened and what it means in regards to the plot of the movie, so why is this line necessary? Not only does it insult the intelligence of the viewer, but it is also a waste of precious screen time.

Redundancy seems to be the name of the game here, however, as there are numerous examples of scenes which do not advance the plot, show us something new about a character, or develop a theme further. After Gerry’s plane crash lands in Wales, there are a series of scenes set back on the UN fleet of the Army personnel and Gerry’s family learning of the crash. First we get an awkward 5-second scene in which the Army bigwig who sent Gerry out on his quest in the first place learns of the crash. A man off-camera informs him of the crash and he grimaces. That’s it. A character who’s only other action is to send Gerry out to find a cure is informed of a plane crash we just spent 10 minutes watching. This is followed by yet another turgid scene in which Matthew Fox’s character (who had most of his scenes cut due to re-shoots) informs Gerry’s wife that the UN Deputy Secretary-General has to speak with her. The scene is only around 3-seconds long, but it again points to the problem of bloat in this film. Why did we need to see a character with almost no other scenes learn information we are already privy to, quickly followed by a scene featuring yet another character with almost no other scenes? Why couldn’t it have just cut from the plane crash to Gerry’s wife’s conversation with the UN Deputy Secretary-General?

Insult my intelligence, whatever, waste my time, fine, but one of the worst things a film can do is bore me. And somehow this high-budget zombie action blockbuster found a way to nearly put me to sleep. There are 2 or 3 genuinely exciting set-pieces and each one is prominently featured in the trailers and TV commercials you have undoubtedly already seen. For a movie that is supposedly about zombies, there is almost zero blood or gore (gotta get that ever important PG13 rating!) and very little focus on the zombies. The film decides pretty early on that everyone knows everything there is to know about the living dead already and that it would rather spend its 2-hour run-time making sure that the audience understands the significance of Brad Pitt’s genius. There are a few jump scares in the film, very few jokes (I did find the zombies movements and noises to be pretty funny) and almost no moments that elicited any sort of emotion out of me. I may have laughed once or twice, but I do not recall being scared, excited or worried at any point.

All of this, and I mean all of the above words pale in comparison to the disgusting politics of World War Z. In the United States segment, Gerry and his family flee Philadelphia in favor of Newark, New Jersey, and eventually end up taking shelter in the dilapidated apartment of a Mexican couple and their Americanized son Tommy (who is bilingual, unlike his parents). Gerry quickly decides it is best to keep moving and, with Tommy as a translator, asks if the couple would like to accompany him. Gerry insists that in situations such as a zombie apocalypse it is best to keep moving, but the couple ultimately opts to stay put in their barricaded apartment.  Not 30 seconds after the wise white man leaves, zombies burst into the apartment and (off-camera of course) turn the mother and father, but spare the all-american boy Tommy. Tommy is later taken in by Gerry’s family and the message of this sequence of events is pretty clear: assimilate or die. Tommy’s parents refused to learn English, didn’t heed the advice of a white man and were turned into zombies as a direct result. Tommy is spared because he has shed his parent’s reliance on the “old world” and adopted the language and customs of his new home. The boy’s only other scene in the film consists of Gerry telling him how awesome he is. It is impossible to ignore the repercussions of Tommy’s survival (which plays absolutely no part in advancing the plot), as it is a clear message to any and all potential immigrants into the US: we don’t mind if you come here, but you better listen to what we say and you better learn to speak English!

As if anti-immigration racism wasn’t enough, what follows amounts to a 20-minute propaganda piece on how great Israel is. The segment starts off with blustery, bombarding music set to shots of the Israeli flag and overhead shots of the beautiful cities and people contained within. Gerry arrives in Israel curious as to how the country has been so unaffected by the zombie hordes causing chaos around the globe. Shots of giant walls and dialogue explaining that the Jewish people are more vigilant towards threats such as zombie apocalypses due to the holocaust and wars with their neighbors (which were instigated by the Israelis but that isn’t mentioned). Gerry is led to one of the many checkpoints at the walls and is surprised to see that people are being let into the country, an odd sight during a catastrophe. As Gerry watches Palestinians, Indians and various Arabic people gain entrance to the holy land, a fervor of religious singing breaks out. One Palestinian woman picks up a microphone and the heavy, loud feedback begins to excite the zombies outside of the walls. They quickly scale the wall and invade Israel, destroying the Utopian ideal of multiculturalism that the Israelis attempted to establish. That is all well and good, but did you notice what led to the downfall of paradise? A Palestinian woman caught in a religious fit incenses the unwanted’s on the other side of the wall and ruins everything. We’re still in the first hour of the film and we’re already being spoon-fed another ridiculous message: Israel is attempting to get along with their barbaric neighbors, but no matter what they do these savages keep ruining it for everyone! Never mind the fact that the Israeli government is engaging in a modern day apartheid.

This is starting to get really long, so I’m going to wrap up with one last point: the movie ends with a montage of mass genocide. In most zombie movies, there is at least a little lip service paid to the fact that the undead used to be living human beings with families and friends, and that, while they have to be killed for the ultimate survival of the human race, it is not an easy thing to exterminate things that look like your father, mother, neighbor or lover. No such lip service exists here, and the ending extermination montage lasts around 30 seconds and is accompanied by a voice-over of Gerry declaring that it wasn’t a permanent solution to the problem, but it was a good start. Throughout the movie the zombies represent undesirables, usually immigrants or poor people, and the movies ends with soldiers setting them aflame, bombing them and wiping them off the face of the earth. Essentially saying “now that we’re getting rid of all these brown people, the world is going to be a new and better place!”. I will be accused of reading too much into this film, but at every turn in this film you are confronted with racist undertones and troublesome conclusions. I find the disturbing racial themes of this movie impossible to ignore and labeling it as just another silly zombie movie does not mitigate the racism of the film.

 

 

vlcsnap-2013-05-22-21h32m47s164Blade (Dir. Stephen Norrington,1998)

Comic book movies are far from a new development in the world of cinema, but it is easy to discern the difference between movies like Batman and Robin (1997) and Blade (1998),  and today’s comic book fare. The former is filled with cheesy one liners, cartoonish villains and rote, cliche plots that simply exist to get the movie to the next action scene. The comic book it is “based” on is just a tool to get people to come see the movie, and oftentimes the plots and characters of the movie only faintly resemble its source material, if at all. Today, we are offered more serious films based off of comic books; movies that tend to closely resemble their source material and mix state-of-the-art CGI with mature plotting and characterization more often found in non-superhero/comic book movies. Is this a good development for movie goers? Well, it would certainly seem so as record amounts of people are going to see these films, and comic-book creators Marvel and DC are reaping the benefits. I harbor a certain nostalgia for films like Blade however, for they embrace the fact that they are silly and aren’t afraid to focus on action at the expense of plotting and characterization.

vlcsnap-2013-05-22-21h41m12s89The premise to this film is very simple: Blade (played by recently freed convict Wesley Snipes) is a half-human/half-vampire vampire hunter. He hates vampires and enjoys killing them. Most of the movies run time is spent by Blade either killing vampires or planning on how he can kill more vampires. His obsession with the creatures of the night dates all the way back to his birth, when his very pregnant mother was bit and killed by one, right before Blade popped out. This origin story is very similar to that of another comic book hero, Batman, who witnessed his parents senselessly killed by a mugger, sparking a lifelong obsession with defeating crime. Blade is essentially the black version of Batman. There is a distinct difference in his voice when he is on the hunt for vampires, versus when he is talking to humans. It’s not as noticeable or jarring as Christian Bale’s “Batman voice” but it is clear that both men put on a persona when they are out on the streets fighting their respective enemies. Due to the inherent nature of vampires, Blade is most commonly on the hunt from dusk to dawn, just as Batman inhabits the night to more effectively fight shadowy crime figures. Both are viewed as mythic figures by their enemies, and little is known about either except for what their name and reputation provides.

vlcsnap-2013-05-22-21h40m59s226Blade also wears sunglasses. Dark, sleek, bad ass sunglasses. There is one instance in the movie where he recites one of his signature one-liners (which are usually incredibly cliche and only funny because of Snipes complete devotion to the bit) and puts his sunglasses back on. Sounds innocuous but if you can watch that scene without The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” screaming through your head with accompanying images of David Caruso’s smug face, I don’t want to know you. Blade occupies a similar space as a show like CSI: Miami, which is often mocked for its silly puns and lazy science, where entertainment is king and everything other than thrills takes a distant back-seat. Jerry Bruckheimer was not involved with the making of Blade as far as I can ascertain, but this film would fit right into his action-packed oeuvre. The cinematic world today is certainly not hurting for mindless action movies with franchises like The Fast and The Furious, The Pirates of the Caribbean, and Transformers dominating the box-office every other year. What Blade provides (and maybe these films will also provide once they’re 15 years old) is a portal to another time, a way of perfectly summing up a decade of action and comic-book movies in 2 hours.

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“Let’s hurry this up, I’ve got to get back to the set of the Matrix”

Blade also has various similarities to another movie with a protagonist who dresses in all-black with accompanying black sunglasses: The Matrix (1999). There are a handful of shots in Blade that show crowds of people walking around, as the villain of the film talks about how sheep-like they are, and their ignorance of the true reality that surrounds them. This is, of course, the same insufferable philosophy 101 material that inhabits The Matrix as a movie and as a series, and probably speaks to the general fad of actions movies gradually becoming smarter and more self-aware since the end of the 1990’s. Still, it is hard not to compare the two movies during scenes like the picture above comes from, or when another character turns to Blade and says (verbatim) “You’re the chosen one Neo Blade!”. This film came out a year before The Matrix however, so we’d have to either add to the long list of movies that it borrowed liberally from, or chalk it up as a coincidence.

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Are you looking for a fun, mindless movie in which Wesley Snipes wails on a man’s testicles for 10 seconds? Or how about a movie where Snipes and an Asian man have a quick competition in the middle of a fight to see who can kick higher? Then you’ve come to the right place! If you’re a nerd like me, it might interesting to watch and compare with the action and comic-book films of today, but there is little of interest here in terms of plot. It’s a great movie to watch with a group of friends and some beer, nothing more, nothing less.

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A Bay of Blood (Dir. Mario Bava, 1971)

I’m not the biggest fan of the ‘slasher’ horror sub-genre by any stretch of the imagination, but my interest in this movie was certainly piqued when I heard it described as the forefather of such horror classics as “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”.  Even without that foreknowledge, it is readily apparent that Mario Bava’s outrageously violent film (for the time anyway) shares commons elements with the slew of slasher films that would dominate the 1980’s horror market. For one, there is the troop of four horny teenagers who galavant down to the titular bay for a day of debauchery, unknowingly placing themselves in the midst of a murdering madman. There are the inventive and imaginative kill scenes (two of which would be directly reproduced in “Friday the 13th: Part 2”) that are typically shot from the direct point of view of the killer, or his weapon in some cases. Then there is the setting: the calm, serene out-of-the-way bay is the perfect place for someone to go on a murderous rampage without anyone being the wiser. Despite these similarities, “A Bay of Blood” is ultimately very different from the formulaic tripe of the slasher film.

vlcsnap-2013-04-27-22h26m54s67As the aforementioned four teenagers come zooming into frame however, its hard to imagine how this scenario will deviate at all from the standard slasher formula that has been beaten into every horror fan since the early 80’s. They do what teenagers tend to do in horror movies: they find a remote, idyllic spot, and starting breaking into buildings and having sex. At first look, there is no uniqueness to what happens next. All four are brutally murdered by an unseen lunatic with a hatchet.  What separates this segment from the one’s it would eventually inspire is the motive and identity of the man behind the hatchet.

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Did she look at the title of the movie? It’s a bay of blood honey, might want to stay away

The teenagers find themselves on the wrong side of a sharp blade thanks to the above young lady, whose decision to go skinny dipping in the bay proves fatal thanks to her discovery of a dead body. The body belongs to that of the owner of the bay, who has been bumped off to make way for some sort of real estate project. The teenagers are killed off not out of a perverse pleasure for bloodshed, but out of what the killer views as necessity. This dynamic is directly addressed within the first 20 minutes of the film, as two characters discuss the difference between fishing in the bay and catching insects to kill and study them. The character who is fishing argues that it is not inhumane of him to scoop living creatures out of the water, for their death serves an ultimate purpose. He will eat what he catches, and derive no pleasure from having taken life to do so. He accuses his fly-catching friend, on the other hand, of essentially killing the flies to amuse himself. This is what truly separates this film from slasher films, which, to continue the metaphor, contain fly-catching madmen as their villains who kill for the pure excitement and thrill of it, or because they’re simply insane. Michael Myers, Freddy and Jason are not following any sort of plan, they have no goals or ambitions, they just like to kill. The reason these type of movies are so popular is that it really is scary that there could be a remorseless psychopath out there who simply enjoys killing any who cross his path. This film is scary for a similar but altogether more depressing and terrifying reason.

vlcsnap-2013-04-27-22h25m02s213Further deviating itself from its future cousins, the high body count of “A Bay of Blood” is not the result of one man, but of practically the entire cast of the movie. Due to the large amount of money involved in owning the land surrounding the bay, all the characters in the movie will do whatever it takes to be the last one standing. The only characters in this movie who don’t commit murder at some point or another, are the 4 teenagers and a married couple that consists of the aforementioned fly-catcher and a morose fortune teller. The fact that the character who is meant to represent those who kill for pleasure commits no acts of violence in this film tells you all you need to know. The “philosophy” of this film, if you will, seems to be that human beings will kill another living thing at the drop of a hat, but will not do so just for the sake of the act itself. Bava develops characters that are easy for the viewer to relate to, and then turns them into murderers simply by dangling money in front of their faces. To me, this idea that all humans are capable of murder is even scarier than the idea that dangerous psychopaths exist in our society. In Bava’s world, you face the potential of being murdered by anyone at anytime for any reason, whereas in the world of “Halloween” all you have to do is avoid Michael Myers (easy said than done I suppose).

vlcsnap-2013-04-27-22h25m17s150Ultimately, this film is a fun ride but with its fair share of drawbacks. The plot is impossible to follow at points, and is resolved in the most ridiculous fashion possible. Bava was forced to work with a minuscule budget (he used a little red wagon for his dolly shots!) and made a visually striking, influential work anyway, so that has to count for something. If you have any interest in horror films, or more importantly slasher films, you owe it to yourself to check out one of the most under-seen and influential films of the 70’s.

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Boss Nigger (Dir. Jack Arnold, 1975)

Ever since seeing a showing of Quentin Taratino’s latest cinematic offering,  Django Unchained, I have developed what is probably an unhealthy obsession with exploitation films, specifically blaxploitation films.  These films first found an audience in the early 1970’s a midst the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement, and featured black actors and cultural norms in a time when cinema was predominately white in almost every aspect. For a group of people whose recent history was almost entirely composed of strife and pain, blaxpolitation films were a revelation. Suddenly, young black people could go to the cinema and see black icons live out racially-charged fantasies, instead of being subjected to the white-washed dystopia that had been pushed upon them by Hollywood since the very beginnings of motion pictures (The Birth of A Nation). Finally a genre had been created that purposely sought out minority groups as its main audience; instead of attempting to appease the middle-of-the-road, straight and narrow folks, there was now a group of film-makers looking to challenge and obfuscate the mainstream.

I will readily admit that I was first drawn to Boss Nigger due to its outlandish title, which assuredly was controversial upon its 1975 release, and still can’t be discussed at parties today without  at least a little awkwardness. However, I was also intrigued at the premise of the film: two black bounty hunters arrive in an old west town to discover a void in power. There is no sheriff in town and the mayor is handcuffed in everything he does by a nefarious group of white bandits. The bounty hunters march right into town and declare themselves the new purveyor of the law. This set-up is a fantasy in and of itself: there were very few free black people in the times of the Old West, and those who were free tended to avoid directly antagonizing white people. But, by setting this movie in a time when relations between blacks and whites were so uneven, the director has chosen a time period that is perfect for an elaborate racial fantasy. As the audience is whisked back hundreds of years, they are provided an opportunity to relive their ancestors painful past, but this time the downtrodden will rise up and get the better of their oppressors (much like in Django Unchained). In this way, the term blaxploitation is misleading: these films aren’t exploiting black people, they are giving them a voice while at the same time helping them come to grips with hundreds of years of atrocities.

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White people in this film can be categorized in only two ways: there are those who sympathize with the plight of minorities and treat the black characters with a modicum of respect, and there are those who treat the black characters as vermin, human filth to be looked down upon. In simpler terms: you are either with them or against them. There is no middle ground to be had when it comes to race relations in this movie. In the above screenshot, the filmmaker is clearly showing this idea in a visual manner. The spokes of the wagon’s wheel separate the bounty hunters from the white townsfolk, who are clearly uncomfortable being bossed around by people they view as beneath them. Visual flourishes like this are not altogether too common in blaxploitation films, but it further reinforces the idea that the two races are vastly different, and while the whites in the film would argue that they are clearly superior to the blacks, the actions and attitudes of the characters say differently. The titular character (played by black icon and popular football player Fred Williamson) is effortlessly cool, much like Richard Roundtree’s Shaft, he is always quick with a one-liner and makes almost every white person he comes into contact with look like a fool. A staple of blaxploitation films is characterizing white people as hysterical, mis-informed buffoons who are not only racist, but are also massively unintelligent. White people are often used as comic relief in these movies, and this film is no exception. After setting up shop in the Sheriff’s office, Boss and his deputy post up new laws all over town (see below) and a recurring joke in the movie is the white folk disobeying these new laws and being hauled off to jail. The movie literally has its black characters redefine the laws of a white-majority town, and this delivers a message that transcends the boundaries of the Old West. As blacks all over the country were fighting for equal rights and treatment, this movie goes even beyond that and puts blacks above whites. While this is obviously a hyperbolic statement, blaxploitation commonly ignored basic civil rights messages and opted instead for more outlandish revenge fantasies, in an almost therapeutic fashion. Blaxploitation was not propaganda attempting to recruit new members to the Black Panthers or start race riots, it was merely a way for these people to come to grips with their painful past.

vlcsnap-2013-01-08-23h25m33s113Another interesting recurrence I’ve noticed in the few blaxploitation films I’ve had the pleasure of viewing is the treatment of women and romantic relationships. In Shaft, Richard Roundtree’s character has a steady, black girlfriend who he appears to care for deeply. However, he does not hesitate to bed an attractive looking white woman he meets a bar about halfway through the film. After their passionate night of lovemaking, Shaft wakes up the next morning and unceremoniously kicks the woman out of his apartment. Due to his relationship with his girlfriend, we know that Shaft is not just a woman-hating asshole, so it must be assumed that its white women he has an issue with. In many blaxploitation films white woman are treated merely as sexual objects to be used and thrown away, while black women are portrayed in a more matronly manner. Black women are often in committed relationships with black men in these movies and are always there to support and care for their man (especially after he has been shot or beat up). Boss Nigger is no exception to this trope, as Boss is shown to be quite affectionate towards the one black female in the movie, and seems to be building a relationship with her as the movie progresses. Her white counterpart, a school teacher named Ms. Pruit , is treated differently by Boss, however. He teases and flirts with her like he would a black woman, but most of their interactions revolve around her singing the praises of Boss, who often seems disinterested and distant when talking with her. This further reinforces the idea of blacks being superior to whites, and is visually encapsulated by the shot below. The cherry is put on this sundae at the end of the film, when a bloody, beaten Boss is cared for by Ms. Pruit. As she cries over him, she begs him to let her accompany him when he leaves town. Boss, who seems unphased by the multiple bullet holes riddled throughout his body, tells her that he has enough problems without a white woman following him around, and instead of using her name (which he assuredly knows) refers to her simply as ‘school teacher’. This interaction is a perfect encapsulation of the reversal of racial subjugation that blaxploitation movies practice. Whereas in reality it was whites who looked down upon blacks, mistreating them and abusing them, in these films the tables have been turned completely around.

vlcsnap-2013-01-08-23h27m23s0This film is far from perfect from a pure film-making aspect, as there are multiple plot holes, some pretty bad acting and rather unimpressive stunt work, but I would argue that that is beside the point in examining the cultural significance of a film like this. The original audiences for works like this weren’t critiquing it as a work of art, they were most likely just thrilled to have their culture finally reflected onto the big screen. Some more screenshots follow, with some captions.

The two competitors for the affection of the Boss.

The two competitors for the affection of the Boss.

Towards the end of the film, Boss goes through a Christ-like experience as he is shot in the hand and tied to a wooden pole.

Towards the end of the film, Boss goes through a Christ-like experience as he is shot in the hand and tied to a wooden pole.

The Boss leads a group of poor Mexicans into town to "liberate" badly needed supplies. Boss is portrayed as a Robin Hood like character, a folk hero.

The Boss leads a group of poor Mexicans into town to “liberate” badly needed supplies. Boss is portrayed as a Robin Hood like character, a folk hero.

The white towns-folk try in vain to sweep Boss out of town.

The white towns-folk try in vain to sweep Boss out of town.

A Dangerous Method (Dir. David Cronenberg, 2011)

If there were two words that could be used to describe the films of David Cronenberg as a collective,  they would most certainly be “body” and “horror”. Since 1969, Cronenberg has used the human body as a canvas for our fears and to explore human sexuality. A common occurrence in his films is a physical transformation mirroring that of a change in the character’s personality (for example, in The Fly, Jeff Goldblum becoming the titular monstrosity reflects his character’s shift from a normal, easy-going scientist to a deranged lunatic), but he has foregone that particular habit this time around in favor of philosophizing on the human body, without actually physically changing it. A Dangerous Method is a historical drama set in the early 1900s, mainly focusing on the relationship between noted psychoanalysts Carl Jung, Sabina Spielrein and Sigmund Freud. I was rather surprised to first hear that Cronenberg’s next film would be a historical piece, but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense: while he is forced to set aside the most common denominator of his films, the setting and characters of this piece allows him to talk at length about the human body, without it feeling like a lecture. This film is as much a retrospective on his entire career, as it is a comprehensive look at the birth of psychoanalysis.

A major complaint I have heard about this movie is that Keira Knightley’s performance is both “off-putting”, and “over the top”. The problem with this criticism is that she portrays a mentally ill young woman and her performance is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable. The beginning of the film consists of Jung (played by Michael Fassbender) attempting to treat Spielrein’s (Knightley) mania using Sigmund Freud’s (Viggo Mortensen) famous method of treatment. The first twenty minutes of the movie are incredibly uncomfortable for the viewer, and Knightley is perfect as the deranged patient who is desperately seeking the affection of her doctor.

 

It really must be seen in motion to get the full effect, but this opening scene is the closest Cronenberg lets himself get to manipulating the body in this film, as Spielrein juts out her lower jaw in distress and manically waves her arms around in a vain attempt to express her inner torture. These opening scenes paint Jung as the prototypical doctor: professional in the utmost, primarily interested in what’s best for his patient and wary of doing anything that could remotely be considered improper. The framing of this shot reinforces all of this, as it’s almost as if Jung is attempting to put as much distance between himself and his patient that will still allow him to help her. The clinical whiteness of both the walls and Spielrein’s dress remind the viewer, that despite the way Jung is dressed, this is the modern-day equivalent of a mental hospital.

 

As the film progresses, and we get to know the characters better, it begins to become clear that Jung has more than just his usual professional interest in Spielrein. After discovering his patient’s interest in the field of medicine, he encourages her to help out around the facility, and she becomes more of his assistant than his patient. He rapidly becomes infatuated with her, realizing they have similar interests and that she is easily his intellectual equal. This shot does a tremendous job of expressing all of what I have just told you: Jung can barely open his eyes he is so pained by his attraction to her, and I’m sure Freud would have had a field day with how Jung chomps on his pipe, if he had been present for this scene. Furthermore, Spielrein is engrossed in studying and analyzing her fellow patients, and is even using it to overcome her own manias. Cronenberg’s use of character transformation is much more subtle, and less literal here. Jung’s inner sexuality is slowly being brought out by his patient, and he goes from the stoic intellectual to the debased animal who can’t help but give in to his sexual desires through the course of the film.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

A reoccurring theme in A Dangerous Method is that of unconventional father-child relationships. Spielrein is beaten savagely by her father, but still cares deeply for him, and Jung views fellow psychoanalyst Freud as a father figure who he holds in great revere, despite their common disagreements. Just look at the expression on Jung’s face above. he resembles a little boy meeting his favorite athlete for the first time. A large chunk of the film is taken up by conversations and correspondences between these two men, which serve two main purposes: they allow the viewer to learn more about Jung by having Freud challenge his philosophies and beliefs, yet they also nail down the message that all humans share similar desires and wants, even the ones like Jung who seem above such “scandal”. Freud is obsessed with sexuality and attempts to relate almost everything he sees or hears to it, while Jung is doing his level best to repress every sexual feeling he has. Freud almost acts as an extension of Cronenberg himself, as they share similar beliefs on human sexuality.

On a more literal level, I was very impressed by both the costumes and set-pieces of this film. Historical drama pieces such as this are always very tricky to make convincing, especially when you have a well-known cast that the audience is going to associate with other roles and time-periods right off the bat. Yet, never once throughout this film did I doubt the authenticity of what I was seeing. It really felt like I was watching the events unfold, and the surrounding buildings, costumes, vehicles and locales really gave the impression of being authentic of the early 1900s. The lack of budget does sometime show through unfortunately, notably when Jung and Freud sail to America, there are a few bits of jarring, very obvious pieces of CGI that distract the viewer. Despite the lack of budget, Cronenberg still goes to great lengths to be as accurate as possible, even having the hand-written letters written by Jung and Freud be in their native German tongue. The film itself is an incredibly beautiful piece of cinema, and I will leave the reader with a few more shots that I found particularly eye-catching, but have no analysis to accompany them with.

The Bad Sleep Well (Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Of all the actor-director collaborations throughout the history of modern film, my favorite would most certainly be the combined work of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, who made 16 films together, ranging from 1948 to 1965. Something about Mifune’s quiet intensity, and the way Kurosawa works his camera always seemed to mesh together so well, and I can never shake the feeling that something is missing when I watch a Kurosawa flick devoid of an appearance from Mifune. Luckily, The Bad Sleep Well is a movie driven by Mifune’s performance, and is one of the highlights (for me anyway) of the pair’s long, productive mutual careers. For the average movie-goer, this film will most likely be a love-or-hate-it affair: a subtitled movie from 1960 that’s in black and white is never an easy sell, but I promise you it’s worth the ‘risk’.

The film begins with a lengthy wedding scene, which borrows it’s basic play-within-a-play structure from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It serves as more than a nod to the late Bard, however, for the 20-minutes spent on the ceremony help acclimate the viewer to the characters and puts the plot into motion. A group of journalists waiting outside the banquet serve as a quasi-Greek Choir, who both spell out the themes that will be touched upon later, and act as a surrogate for the audience. As the wedding comes to an end, one of the newspaper-men comments to another that it was “a helluva one act play”, but it is quickly pointed out that the ceremony is merely the prologue to a bigger story.

The journalists positioned just as an actual audience would be.

The wedding is indeed a prologue to a much larger, sinister story. Sprinkled throughout the ceremony are members of two of the most corrupt companies in all of Japan, and we are quickly clued in that there is a mole amongst them, looking to bring them down. As much as the film serves as a re-working of the basic plot of Hamlet, it is impossible to ignore Kurosawa’s scathing view of the cut-throat business atmosphere that was prominent in post-WWII Japan. This film is very much an indictment of what he considered to be a perversion of the honorific and loyalist qualities that helped make Japan a world-power in the first place. A recurring theme throughout is subordinates of high-level business officials (quite literally) falling on their own swords to protect their bosses from having their dirty dealings revealed to the public. The message prevalent here is that, while loyalty and honor are worthwhile qualities to pursue, they are also easily taken advantage of by those who do not put much weight in them. Kurosawa attempts to give a voice to the voiceless here, by putting the corrupt tycoons in the film on trial. While the days of 1960s Japan are obviously long-gone, the overall message here is still relatable: those with power often abuse it, and without someone or something keeping them in check, they will run rampant. I have a feeling the ardent supporters of Occupy Wall Street would greatly enjoy this film.

The accused stands before a jury of his peers

After making clear the true evil of the villains of this picture, Kurosawa introduces our hero (played by Mifune, natch) who is attempting to take down the company from within, both by marrying the boss’ daughter, and by becoming his secretary. Mifune looks the part of your average businessman: clean-shaven, well-dressed, wears glasses and carries himself with an air of professionalism. Yet, slowly throughout his tour through the seedy underbelly of Japan’s business world, we are shown another side to his character: one who is quick to fly into a rage, who is willing to do whatever it takes to expose the men who are feasting on the less fortunate. Mifune’s face is so vividly expressive in these scenes that the viewer instantly knows exactly how he feels, even before it is revealed to us why he is so desperately pursuing these men.

Always watching, always listening

Something that stood out to me throughout watching this movie was that almost every scene consisted of three people in a room together, talking, but rarely making direct eye-contact with each other (the main exception being the opening wedding scene). The way each of these scenes is framed leads the viewer to dwell on the intentions and motivations of each of the three characters in the scene. Take the following shot for example:

The character in the foreground has just realized that his two bosses (here, in the background) want him to commit suicide to insure that his knowledge of their crimes are not leaked to the press. Even without my telling you that, it is clear by the look on each of their faces exactly what position they are in. Kurosawa spaces out his actors and puts their gaze at such a level that you can have three characters interacting with each other in one shot, and still see the emotions playing out on their faces. This is even more important for foreign audiences: I don’t speak a word of Japanese, but due to the incredible cinematography, I could turn the subtitles off and mute the audio, and still obtain a basic understanding of the three characters who are on screen. That is incredibly film-making.

Lastly, Kurosawa’s use of transitions are possibly my favorite aspect of The Bad Sleep Well. If one is familiar with the Star Wars series (honestly, who isn’t?) then you are certainly familiar with the transition commonly referred to as a screen wipe (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usXca7W_jvM). Kurosawa is one of the pioneers of this transition effect, and was a direct inspiration to George Lucas. Throughout The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa uses this effect to clue the viewer in that while the individual scene we were seeing is coming to a close, the scene we are about to be shown is in direct relevance to the preceding events. When Kurosawa is ready to close off a continuous set of scenes, he uses a fade-to-black effect that serves as the equivalent to the end of a chapter in a novel, or the end of an episode of a television program. These little things that might not even occur to one on anything but a subconscious level, are the reason that Kurosawa is such a great story-teller. Despite presenting movie-goers with a complex story with a vast cast of characters, and complex motivations for each of those characters, Kurosawa always finds a way to present his tale in the simplest way, without simplifying it to the point of it losing it’s meaning.

The “King”, perched on his throne, with his potential usurper right at his side

 

In short, make an attempt to watch this movie. It may be challenging at points, and you may not have any interest in Japan or its history, but I firmly believe that this is such a powerful film that it can overcome even the most reluctant of viewers. It is far from being the most accessible of Kurosawa’s filmography, but it is right up there with the most powerful he has ever made.

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