What I Have Been Watching, July 2010

George Lucas’ THX 1138 – I will say in advance, by way of warding off abuse from those who are truly devoted, that I am actually a fan of the Star Wars franchise, even in its current bloated and unwieldy state.  However, I would also say, after watching THX 1138, that the staggering success of Star Wars has perhaps prevented Lucas from reaching his true potential.  THX 1138 has a much better sense of style and atmosphere than Star Wars does, and it creates a more emotionally and intellectually engaging world, a world that remains engaging despite, or precisely because, Lucas avoids the temptation to define it too far.   The world of THX 1138 remains unexplained in many respects, even at its conclusion, relying on its visual force and its characterization to make it compelling, so it escapes the long explanations and the grievous contradictions that distract from other science-fiction film worlds, many of which, like the later installments of Lucas’ own Star Wars franchise and like the Wachowskis’ Matrix films, could have been greatly improved by less explanation and more filmmaking.  THX 1138 reminds me strongly of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris in this respect: both allow the film world to remain mysterious to the characters and to the audience, so that there is a structural tension and suspense that informs each scene.  Lucas accomplishes this filmic tension well in THX 1138, which makes it all the more disappointing that his films since have mostly been content to follow the conventions of Hollywood storytelling, albeit with great success and with considerable technical innovation.  It is not that I dislike the Star Wars films or the Indiana Jones films.   I quite enjoy both.  I just feel like there might have been something more in Lucas, something more aesthetically original and interesting that never got a chance to be explored.

John Hillcoat’s The Road – I watched The Road on Father’s Day, and it was a powerful film experience for me.  I had already been thinking about what it means to be a father and to be a son, so perhaps this deepened the emotion that the film produced in me, but I think I would have found it impactful even apart from this added dimension. Though I do have some reservations about the plot, especially with the assumption that hunger and lack of social structure would suddenly cause mass numbers of people to overcome millennia of taboo and become ravening cannibals, the film is tightly structured and well acted, and it achieves a very satisfying and coherent aesthetic vision.  Rather than posing the question of how to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, it poses the much more considerable question of how to raise children to be moral human beings in a world that no longer has a standard of morality.  It is not so much about the survival of humanity as it is about the survival of what makes humanity human.  I recommend it very highly.

Mabrouk El Mechri’s JCVD – I confess that I am not really a fan of martial arts movies.  While I am not immune to the coolness factor in watching some of the stunts, I usually like a plot and some characters to go with this sort of thing, which means that my exposure to Jean-Claude Van Damme has been limited and mostly forgettable.  JCVD, however, is another sort of film altogether, and while I would stop well short of calling it great cinema, it explores in a thoughtful way the relation between the film star as person and as actor, and it does so with a nice balance between humour and poignancy.   The central scene in the film is indicative of the whole in this respect.  It begins with Van Damme being lifted mysteriously into the rafters of the building where he is a hostage.  He then addresses the camera and the viewer directly with a kind of confession, beginning with the claim that the movie is for him, and ending with him saying, “I truly believe it’s not a movie.  It’s real life.”  The moment is surreal.  No explanation is offered for it.  Yet it stands as a remarkably moving and original scene, and it alone is reason enough to see the film.

Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert
– The wit and irony of this surrealist attack on the Catholic church in particular and on organized religion in general make it a most entertaining film, and it is well short of an hour in length, so it feels like the visual equivalent of a short-story: brief, structured, and pointed.  It is abruptly cut at times, but is otherwise a very nice bit of filmmaking and is sure to spark a conversation among those who see it with you.

Alex Proyas’ Dark City – There is much about this film that I liked very much.  I only wish that it had been able to avoid alien intervention in order to make its plot work.  It needed its villains to remain mysterious and unexplained.  It needed them to remain more metaphor than reality.  It needed there to be no way out of the city.  It needed there to be no Shell Beach.  It needed, in short, to have the intellectual courage really to explore the possibility that our lives are constructed more by external forces than by our own will and free choice.  It is an entertaining film in many respects, but it is much less than it could have been.

Fernando Meirelles’ City of God – This is a truly remarkable film.  Its subject is engaging.  Its acting is strong.  Its story is seamless.  Its cinematography is inventive.  To me eye at least, the film has no flaws.  It is what a film should be.

Rémy Belvaux’s Man Bites Dog –  I will need to direct my remarks about this film to two different sorts of viewers.  To most people I would suggest that the brutality and the grotesqueness and the purposeless of the violence of the film will make the it almost unwatchable, and recommend that they give it a very wide berth.  Even the cover picture will likely offend them.  On the other hand, to the sort of people who are willing to approach this violence with the irony and the detachment in which it is directed, there is no film quite like it.  If you think you are one of the second sort, do watch it, but you have been fairly warned.

Albert and Allen Hughes’  The Book of Eli –  I gave this film a chance, despite the trailer and despite the word of mouth reviews, but I should have known better.  The few action scenes do not distract sufficiently from the bland plot, the indifferent acting, and the unendurable dialogue.  The ending, which promised all along to be painfully sentimental, was made even worse by also falling into the kind of cloying, self-congratulatory, vaguely nationalistic religiosity of which only Americans seem to be capable.  There is very little about this film that justifies the time it takes to watch it.

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8 comments
  1. Have you seen The Legionaire? it is another great film starring Van Damme. Alot of the film I think is much more evenly dispersed among the support cast, but it is a good number, and for it’s low budget, well executed, deep and real.

    As for Book of Eli, did you really expect something deeper? I mean though you’ve never played it likely, the whole story seemed placed in the Fallout Universe, and whilst it was expectedly cheesy, it did have some high points, some of the lines, some of the ironies, the literal blindness and faith of the main character.

  2. mmmm, a movie you should see, simply because Verner Herzog acts in it Marvelously, The Grand. That is all.

  3. Interestingly, I recently watch The Road and the Book of Eli back-to-back and found I had similar reactions, though I was perhaps less critical of Eli. The Road needs me to think on it more, and I have wondered if I should be reading the book; though I currently think no.

  4. Curtis,

    If the main character is meant to be literally blind, which I think is the case but desperately hope is not, then the movie becomes so unrealistic as to be farcical, with one of those silly reveals that make me so crazy. I choose, against all Hollywood script probability, to believe that he was just a guy who knew how to read braille.

  5. Dave,

    I am also undecided about whether to read the book. It has been recommended to me quite highly be several people, but I am not sure yet that I would prefer it to several other things on my list.

  6. tc said:

    Luke and Dave
    personally i hated the film as the book
    is like a long slow exhaling poem of a road.

    I found it exquisite.
    You must at least read it one day.

    The boy, what did you think?

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