A Bizarre Movie Week: THIS IS THE END (2013), THIS IS ENGLAND (2006), and half of ESCAPE FROM TOMORROW (2013)

Two and a half movies in one week is actually pretty good for me, considering the hectic nature of my life right now and propensity to zone out on ridiculous television show X when it is all said and done for the evening. This week in movies had some really surprising highs, some kind-of lows, and the ability to morph my dreams in strange and underwhelming ways.

This is the End (2013) Dir. Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen

There is a lot that I could potentially say about this movie. I could talk about its obvious self-referentiality, and whether or not this is smartly done. I could talk about it as a critique of the Hollywood movie industry, or as a deconstruction of the constructed identities of movie stars. I could switch directions and talk about its warped vision of the bible and Christianity, and what this means for eschatological visions of the apocalypse. I could also write about how the movie’s countless references to Pineapple Express acted as a continual reminder of how horrible that movie was.

All those topics are deserving of their own essays, but the thought of writing any of them fills me with dread. This is the End is not a horrible mess. It might even be intelligent and thoughtful. But it takes a special kind of movie to create such high levels of ambivalence.

This is England (2006) Dir. Shane Meadows

A movie that begins with innocence and ends in devastation, This is England is uncompromising in its representation of English Nationalism and its birth in the Thatcher era. Despite its polarizing subject matter (skinheads, militant racism, etc.), the film is never didactic, but rather shows the viewer a complicated global perspective which informs the bubbling, inchoate aggression in a podunk English town. This is England is sophisticated and nuanced in a way that makes a film like American History X look hokey by comparison. The pacing is superb, which makes the final act of violence all the more powerful and unsettling. My only critique is in the ending, where this unflinching film shied away from its own brutal honesty.

Escape from Tomorrow (2013) Dir. Randy Moore

I watched half of this one night, had strange and bizarre dreams, and never finished it. While I love a good Lynchian nightmare, this one was underwhelming, despite its original premise. It was really hard to find something interesting to say about this movie. There was something lurking on the edges about paternalism and how innocent, young boys are turned into violent, sexually-deviant men, but it never gained traction. Instead, the film insisted on showing us scene after scene of giggling, skipping French girls. All with horrible acting throughout.

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Films that Inspire: BICYCLE THIEVES (1948)

As some of you may have noticed, I did not post on my usual Monday this week. My life is a little topsy-turvy at the moment as we are spontaneously moving out into the country, and with all three of us still adjusting to my new work situation. Don’t fear, though, I will be back posting twice a week after things shift back to normal. However, the extra time allowed me to conceive of a new series titled “Films that Inspire.” I will use this series as an opportunity to talk about some movies that are very important to me. They are movies that deeply affected me and my worldview, while also shaping my personal film journey. All of us have films that not only opened our eyes to the complexities of human experience, but also to the potentialities of the medium. Through this series, I will share those films with you.

Some of the movies I will talk about are almost universally praised, and some will be more obscure. Bicycle Thieves, directed by Vittorio De Sica, belongs to the former category, as its importance to film history is pretty undisputed. If you took a film class in college about post-World War II and/or Italian cinema, odds are you watched Bicycle Thieves. It is a hugely important film with a simple story and straightforward visual style that makes it perfect for cinema neophytes. It was the movie that really opened my eyes to classic international cinema, as well film movements linked to real historical events and time periods. In the case of Bicycle Thieves, that film movement is Italian neo-realism, which was created in the fecund soil of impoverished, urban Italy after World War II. After watching Bicycle Thieves for the first time, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I had just watched the greatest film of my life. While I don’t still think this, it is one of those films that will stick with me forever, and which I hope to watch with my children someday.

I have included some analysis below regarding overarching themes, as well as some breaking down of scenes and plot points. Enjoy!

Bicycle Thieves has all of the core components of Itialian neo-realism, from the cinema verite black and white, the winding and intersecting paths of an urban landscape, the subdued sentimentality, and the point-of-view of the disenfranchised, with a heavy emphasis on children and the elderly, and powerful allusions to the holocaust. However, it doesn’t carry the political weight of a film like Rome Open City or The Battle of Algiers (not technically neo-realism, but highly influenced by it and often put into the same conversation). It also isn’t quite as surreal and strange as some of Felini’s early work like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria. All of this is to say that Italian neo-realism isn’t a clearly defined subset of films, but rather a continuum of common themes and traits that take place in a particular time period. What makes Bicycle Thieves so special, however, is that it transcends the temporality of its historical moment, and taps into something deeply emotional and universal.

The same can’t be said for other films in other epochs, such as the French new-wave. Godard’s Breathless is a very interesting movie, but it finds its worth and value in its historical significance. Without that context, it loses so much of what makes it a great film. Bicycle Thieves will always be valued as long as it is able to be seen. The story of one man’s desperate search for a single bicycle amid the tumult of city life is a philosophical insistence of the value of the individual even as it is swept away and ignored. One of the most powerful scenes is when the protagonist, his son, and a group of friends go to the Saturday market to look for the stolen bike. We see hundreds of bikes and bike parts that look exactly the same, but that one particular bike is nowhere to be seen. Through this scene, De Sica shows how the individual is incredibly important and lost at the same time. Throughout the film we are introduced to those associated with the bike, including the thief himself, and get brief glimpses into their own unique lives. The results are powerful and illuminating. It is for these reasons that Bicycle Thieves endures and is routinely included in countless “Top Ten Films of All Time” lists.

I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the somewhat recent English title change from The Bicycle Thief to Bicycle Thieves. There are important thematic resonances to this, but I will leave that be for now. Please, watch this wonderful film and, as always, express your thoughts and feelings in the comments.

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The Brutality of Love: BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (2005)

Brokeback Mountain is good. I don’t just mean that as a descriptor of quality, but also of value. If a movie can be honest, right and true, then this one is. There is an authenticity to this film that is rarely seen, and while it isn’t perfect, it resonates powerfully in all the right ways. What could have been cheesy and overblown is treated with a restraint that threatens to burst, but never does. The result is a special movie that everyone should see.

It has the artistic merit to carry its heavy subject matter, but it also taps into something immeasurable and unquantifiable. Ang Lee’s direction is stunning, the writing superb, and the cast impeccable. Heath Ledger will always be remembered as The Joker, and perhaps that is appropriate. It was the role that killed him and changed the pop-culture landscape forever. But I hope that someday, his part in Brokeback Mountain will be recognized. I haven’t seen many actors do so much with so little, and express heartbreak with such subtlety and nuance. Gyllenhaal is great as well, as is everyone else, but Ledger shoulders the emotional weight of the film, and it is a heavy burden. The fact that Brokeback Mountain lost a “Best Picture” Oscar to Crash is as close to a tragedy as these things get.

Certainly, Brokeback Mountain has plenty of political ramifications, but it is not a political film. It doesn’t concern itself with marriage equality or civil rights, only with what it means to love someone so much that it shapes everything. It was well respected when it came out, but also mercilessly mocked in playful and not-so-playful ways. Watching it again eight years after it was released, and after eight years of so much cultural and social change, was something of a revelation. I cried, but that in itself doesn’t mean all that much. This movie made me feel lucky to have been able to marry and have a child with the love of my life. It also made me wonder what it would be like if it wasn’t that easy; if I had to cross an impassable chasm every time I was with her, and if love was a destructive force that consumed me. Brokeback Mountain made me ask these questions, which made me identify with Ennis and Jack in a way that transcends sexual orientation. To say that it is a movie about “gay” cowboys is to dismiss the most powerful human experience available. In that sense, Jack and Ennis, despite the heartache, isolation, and brutal violence, are lucky too, because they experienced love at a high level, and it tore them apart.

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Special Movie Update: Final Conclusions for THE EAST (2013)

While I don’t usually post on Wednesdays, I wanted to give an update to my inchoate thoughts on The East from Monday. The full post is here, but my basic analysis was that The East was an oversimplified glorification of modern-day counterculture resistance movements. By insisting on punishing individuals for their corporate crimes, the eco-terrorist group The East fails to point their gun at the real culprit, which is the society that relies on and supports those crimes every day.  By the end of the movie, there is a gesture toward moral complication and a potential solution for how to effect change and hold people responsible for their actions without resorting to crime and violence. However, it never goes beyond the cliched “if we kill those who kill others, we are no different than they are” approach. The last two minutes of footage rolling during the end credits were the most provocative of the entire film, which is far from a glowing endorsement.

Oh, and there are at least two more “ludicrously absurd, self-serious, and hilarious-because-it-wasn’t-supposed-to-be-funny” moments to enjoy, so that might increase incentive. I tried to find the scene I mentioned in the original post on youtube, but no luck. Let me just say that it was an awesome combination of psych-ward bondage and community dinner.

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Navigating THE EAST (2013): A Progress Report

Last Friday I wrote about how easy it if for me to quit a movie halfway through, even if that movie is very good. Perhaps that is why I am coming to you this Monday morning with only having watched half of the movie I planned on writing about; because the last post either gave me an out that I am shamelessly capitalizing on, or this current post is an attempt to keep me accountable to my movie responsibilities. Whatever the reason, I watched an hour of The East last night and plan to finish it tonight.

From the beginning I got the overwhelming impression that this was going to be a politically charged movie. This wasn’t much of a leap in expectations considering the incredibly sad images of oil-soaked water fowl and the heavy, rhetoric-laden opening monologue blaming not only corporate entities for these crimes, but the people who run those corporations. Those people are guilty of murder, and people who are guilty of murder must be punished. That is the rationale of The East, an eco-terrorist group who punish those whose crimes often go overlooked. The film’s plot involves an undercover agent getting intel on the group, and this plays out about exactly the same as you would expect.

Aside from some half-baked throwaway lines about being uncomfortable and facing our transgressions, the members seem pretty content to point their guns at rich, corporate types and never at themselves or even society at large. What we have here is basically a Manichean conflict, where the good play banjos in dirty rags and jump trains, and the evil wear high-powered dress suits. This reluctance to look at the big picture and the readiness to put all of the weight and responsibility on a handful of people instead of coming to terms with the essential truth that we all participate in the oppression and destruction of innocents by virtue of living in a society based on that oppression, neuters this film’s very large political aspirations.  Instead of a political thriller with gravitas, we get a totally unnecessary film that doesn’t know what it is or supposed to be; a heavy hand without a message. The jury is still out, but I am pretty confident in my assessment.

To top it off, The East contains one of the most ludicrously absurd, self-serious, and hilarious-because-it-wasn’t-supposed-to-be-funny scenes I have ever seen. If you know what I am talking about, feel free to sound off in the comments below, and if you don’t, well, just know there is at least one good reason to watch this movie.

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Where Great Films Go to Die: My Personal Movie Graveyard

I used to be very anal-retentive about finishing the movies I started. I can remember watching Felini’s La Strada over three different viewings all spaced about a week apart. This is not the best way to watch movies, and I should really go back and watch it again, but the point is that I almost never left a film uncompleted. That was old me. And by “old me,” I mean “pre-fatherhood” me, otherwise known as “increased-responsibility-due-to-being-in-charge-of-a-life” me. Somehow, finishing the movies I start doesn’t seem so important anymore, resulting in losing countless wonderful movie moments.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Oftentimes the impetus for watching a film beginning-to-end wasn’t about the enriching experience, but an obsessive-compulsive need to complete it, or the desire to be able to tell people that, yes, I have seen La Strada. Allowing myself to not finish a film, and to know that I probably never will, has largely been about giving up control. Having said that, I want to memorialize those movies that started strong but died before they were able to finish telling their stories. Below is a list of films that I recently began viewing but never finished (with commentary).

1. Faust (1926) Dir. F.W. Murnau

2. To the Wonder (2012) Dir. Terrence Malick

  • These first two hurt the most, as Murnau and Malick are two of my favorite film-makers. I seriously loved Faust and so much want to finish it.

3. The Host (2006) Dir. Bong Joon-ho

  • This is the 2006 Korean monster movie that is the most successful film in Korea’s history and which almost single-handedly ushered in the Korean New Wave, not the Twilight-in-the-future movie from this year.

4. Ploy  (2007) Dir. Pen-Ek Ratanaruang

5. Sherlock Jr.  (1924) Dir. Buster Keaton

  • I have seen this movie several times, but the fact that I couldn’t finish my most recent viewing of this half-hour joy ride was a little sobering.

6. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)

7. Existenz (1999) Dir. David Cronenberg

  • I watched this long enough to see the undulating vagina game pads. That’s Cronenberg for you.

8. Antiviral (2012) Dir. Brandon Cronenberg

  • I have seen most of Cronenberg Sr.’s movies, but couldn’t get through his son’s first.

9. Man Bites Dog (1992) Dir. Remy Belvaux

  • I couldn’t finish this movie because it was just too unsettling. As I have mentioned before, my fortitude for violence has weakened since parenthood.

10. Daisies (1966) Dir. Vera Chytilova

What are the movies that you started but never finished? And if you have seen one of these movies to its completion, feel free to discuss at your leisure!

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Scattered Thoughts on AFTER EARTH (2013)

As some of you know, I started a new job last week, and it was both exciting and draining. Add to this the fact that my wife is transitioning out of her current job and that the two of us are trying to figure out childcare for my daughter, and you get a pretty hectic week. But Grandma and aunts and uncles have been amazing, which is a great reminder of why we decided to move back home in the first place. To top it off, Lucy got sick over the weekend, which is always hard. I did get to watch a movie, but I don’t have the emotional or physical energy to write a stirring, heartfelt, and life-changing post. In fact, I am not even sure if I can write a cohesive essay or make points that build off of each other. Instead, I am just going to give you some scattered thoughts on one of the most maligned films of the summer, After Earth. Here’s a brief plot synopsis:

The movie stars Will Smith and his real-life son Jaden Smith as fictional father-son duo Cypher and Kitai Raige. They both crash land on the long abandoned and extremely dangerous earth, and Kitai must travel through it to get to a distress beacon that is in the tail end of the ship. Cypher is injured and guides his son from afar. They are pursued by a creature called an Ursa that was once caged in the ship’s holding, but is now roaming free. Ursas smell fear, so it is important that Kitai masters his fears in order to save him and his father.

There’s the rundown, and following are my movie musings. They are your’s to do with as you will.

  • Will Smith has been accused of nepotism for dragging his son along to star in a blockbuster action movie, but the thing is, Jaden actually does a pretty good job. Take away the excruciating narration at the beginning, and you get a fine performance by a young actor. Will Smith is the one horribly mis-casted here. People love Smith because he has charisma and personality. Here he is essentially a comatose, unloving, and hardly interesting character.
  • On that note, here is a dictionary definition of the word “cypher”: “A person or thing of no importance; nonentity.” That is both the best and the worst character naming ever.
  • How are you supposed to be a fully functional human being without fear? Isn’t it a vital human emotion driving things like love, vulnerability, and risk?
  • One of the first things that struck me was how beautiful some of the film-making was, and I wasn’t expecting this. The visuals were lush and well-presented by Shyamalan, with some really nice landscape shots and pans to go along with his usually provocative close-ups. I have never really thought of Shyamalan in terms of his technical abilities, but this made we want to go back and re-watch some of his movies with this in mind.
  • The stunning visuals and impressive animations were marred by the absurd creatures and their even more absurd actions. How the hell were those death-apes not able to run down Kitai? Why does the giant vulture think that Kitai is one of its chicks? Why is the Ursa even on the ship, and how, exactly, is it able to chase down Kitai so quickly?
  • Here’s another mind-boggling piece of movie ridiculousness: Throughout most of the movie Kitai is able to communicate with his father through their little devices. Yet, when Kitai reaches his destination, this communication is broken because of some kind of atmospheric disturbance in the area. Rather than retrace his steps a little, Kitai has to climb to the top of a smoldering volcano that looks several miles away. This plot point makes no kind of sense, and is totally contrived in order to set up a nice final battle between Kitai and the Ursa.
  • Speaking of the Ursa, why are they so dangerous? I mean, they are monstrous creatures, but couldn’t you, like, shoot them with a gun or something? The human technology in After Earth is incredibly advanced. They can fly to other other planets and rip holes in space-time, but when it comes to weaponry, the humans are stuck with a really really cool double-bladed sword. If Kitai had a pistol of any kind, he could have killed the Ursa quite easily. I get that cool blade weapons are… cool, but this is another case of discarding logic and complexity for a simple desired effect.
  • Every night, earth’s surface freezes over (I mean literally freezes, with ice and everything) save for some hot spots that Kitai must reach every night. Think on that for a second.
  • After Earth wasn’t very good, but I don’t think it was as bad as people made it out to be. While it wasn’t a financial success, it wasn’t much worse than most major blockbusters released over the last twenty years. In some cases, it was much better. I mean, it is a masterpiece compared to the Transformers movies, and on par with the wildly over-rated Dark Knight Rises. After Earth is a great example of bloated Hollywood projects, but that doesn’t automatically make it a horrible movie.

Okay, those are my thoughts. Feel free to agree or disagree as passionately as you wish in the comments.

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