Armageddon

Bruce Willis IS America (Pre-9/11, now it's Kiefer Sutherland)

A part of this view­ing listCri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #40: Michael Bay’s Armaged­don.

Despite the laugh­able fact that this movie is includ­ed in the Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion; and the almost cer­tain finan­cial & busi­ness-tac­ti­cal rea­sons for its inclu­sion, I’m going to try to review this film in good faith. This Michael Bay block­buster came out in 1998, and that’s impor­tant, because I can’t imag­ine a film like this being made at all post-9/11. Yeah, I went there. The film is a self-con­grat­u­la­to­ry pro­jec­tion of Amer­i­ca at the height of its pride, but before it had got­tenth to the fall; an Amer­i­ca that fan­cied itself so invin­ci­ble that it could kick a Texas-sized asteroid’s ass in 18 days. An Amer­i­ca with no prob­lems. This is a movie made in an Amer­i­ca that had for­got­ten what it is like to be hum­bled. (And if you think it’s just coin­ci­dence that the aster­oid is “Texas-sized”, you’re an idiot).

Despite the not-so-laugh­able fact that the entire world is threat­ened by the aster­oid, the only ones who can save the day are Amer­i­cans. Amer­i­cans who are arro­gant dicks. (Redun­dant, I know.) Amer­i­ca is the theme of this movie, not cos­mic anni­hi­la­tion. Most notice­ably, there are flags draped every­where, they are like sacred tapes­tries, and near­ly every scene is con­struct­ed to hon­or or pro­mote Amer­i­can-ness in some way. Plus, Bruce Willis; prob­a­bly the most stereo­typ­i­cal­ly “Amer­i­can” action hero. There’s noth­ing orig­i­nal here, the film is basi­cal­ly a HGH ver­sion of the played-out “can we dis­arm the bomb in time?” trope.

Armaged­don might be the most quin­tes­sen­tial­ly Amer­i­can movie of the post-WWII era. Its genius is that of an idiot savant, but because this movie lacks any­thing approach­ing self-aware­ness, the glo­ry of its brava­do & obvi­ous tack­i­ness cap­ture what it means to be Amer­i­can in the purest of terms. Michael Bay set out to make a block­buster about America’s big balls and suc­ceed­ed, but in his quest to present us with two hours of sub­con­scious mas­tur­ba­to­ry zeit­geist-stroking (there­by turn­ing us into lab rats who don’t even have to hit the crack but­ton) he man­aged to remove any­thing vague­ly approach­ing a com­pelling nar­ra­tive.  The movie is pablum; there is no there there, and that is the only rea­son it is pos­si­ble to make the grandiose claims I’m mak­ing about this film. If you are a thought­ful per­son, let­ting the tits, explo­sions, & smart-mouthed dia­logue flow through you is like sit­ting zazen and pen­e­trat­ing through the impen­e­tra­ble mu of the Amer­i­can psy­che through the force of sheer baf­fle­ment. You will grasp for any sort of mean­ing and come up emp­ty, and at the utter­most depth of your despair, when you sur­ren­der to the idio­cy; enlight­en­ment. This film is the arche­type.

Branded to Kill

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #38: Sei­jun Suzuki’s Brand­ed to Kill.

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Watch­ing a Japan­ese B-movie was a great way to get back into the swing of Cri­te­ri­on reviews. This is the first Sei­jun Suzu­ki film I’ve seen, but it remind­ed me very much of Samuel Fuller, and it is even a bit like Shock Cor­ri­dor in its por­tray­al of psy­cho­log­i­cal trau­ma. The pro­tag­o­nist is Hana­da, the third best yakuza assas­sin, and the film sticks with his iron­ic dis­in­te­gra­tion into mad­ness through­out. At first the film is quite hard to fol­low, main­ly because it is often dif­fi­cult to deter­mine whether we’re in his sub­jec­tive frame of mind or whether actu­al plot-ori­ent­ed action is occur­ring. The irony kicks in because the assas­sin is con­vinced that he’s going to win and become Num­ber 1, though he obvi­ous­ly becomes less and less sta­ble and capa­ble as the film pro­gress­es. In ret­ro­spect, the washed-up assas­sin we meet in the begin­ning of the film is a fore­shad­ow­ing of Hanada’s fate.

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Suzuki’s dra­mat­ic cin­e­mato­graph­ic stylings offer pro­found and some­times star­tling char­ac­ter insights; often serv­ing as a reflec­tion or coun­ter­point to Hanada’s self-absorbed obliv­i­ous­ness. All of the oth­er char­ac­ters have no exis­ten­tial qualms, they know exact­ly where they stand in rela­tion to the world they inhab­it; so Hanada’s ambi­tion is almost aber­rant in this envi­ron­ment. The tepid screen­play dia­logue becomes pol­y­se­mous and intrigu­ing in this con­text, as no one seems to know what the oth­er is tru­ly say­ing. There is no trust and lit­tle under­stand­ing between the char­ac­ters, so every attempt at com­mu­ni­ca­tion is fraught. There is also a dark­ly comedic tone to the plot that alter­nates between being noticed by the char­ac­ters and com­plete­ly ignored by them. Num­ber 1 is the only char­ac­ter who tru­ly knows exact­ly what is going, even unto meta-cog­nizance, as if he knows that he’s in a film and what the direc­tor is try­ing to do with it and him.

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It seems that the film has lit­tle to say as an ulti­mate moral; there are no sym­pa­thet­ic char­ac­ters, so their deaths don’t mean much to the view­er, except in the afore­men­tioned dark­ly comedic man­ner. The envi­ron­ment in which they lived was too vio­lent and chaot­ic for any sort of sus­tain­abil­i­ty or con­ti­nu­ity, they’re all liv­ing on bor­rowed time. The fre­quent sala­cious and vio­lent pow­er-strug­gle sex acts pro­vide anoth­er data point to strength­en this claim. It is cer­tain­ly a much more accu­rate Japan­ese film cul­tur­al­ly, instead of offer­ing styl­ized, cliché or stereo­typ­i­cal por­tray­als more in line with Hollywood’s MO, Brand­ed to Kill is vul­gar in the word’s most lit­er­al and com­pli­men­ta­ry sense.

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Lord of the Flies

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #43: Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies.

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It is tough get­ting chil­dren to act well; just ask any­one who’s ever had to get chil­dren to act well. A vast major­i­ty of the cast in Lord of the Flies couldn’t act their way out of a wet paper bag, but thanks to Peter Brook’s care­ful plan­ning and chore­o­graph­ing of key scenes, and relaxed impro­vi­sa­tion­al allowance in oth­ers, the awk­ward act­ing abil­i­ty morphs into an appro­pri­ate skit­tish­ness for ado­les­cent maroons. This adap­ta­tion is well on the mark of the book, with an added inten­si­ty of vis­cer­al imagery and psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare that only film can pro­vide so effec­tive­ly. The main strength of the film is that it was shot entire­ly on loca­tion, apart from the open­ing mon­tage, and the real­i­ty of the island set­ting feeds into the real­i­ty of the char­ac­ters’ devel­op­ment. With­out the impos­ing hand of civ­i­liza­tion, regress­ing to a wild and sav­age state becomes easy.

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Lord of the Flies is not only a tract about the impor­tance of civ­i­liza­tion, but also an inter­est­ing thought-exper­i­ment on the emer­gence of new cul­tur­al forms. In the film, this is notice­able fair­ly soon, as the polit­i­cal rifts between the two lead­ing boys, Jack and Ralph, are a micro­cosm of inter­na­tion­al polit­i­cal strife. Sim­i­lar­ly, the cre­ation of rit­u­al chants and activ­i­ties to ward off the beast­ie, and Jack’s clever manip­u­la­tion of their fear to main­tain con­trol have con­tem­po­rary par­al­lels in our own coun­try. This is no new trick, but its effi­ca­cy ensures its con­tin­ued use. The cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance and lin­guis­tic lacu­nae in their vocab­u­lary after the first mur­der takes place is also telling in terms of their fear. Sim­i­lar­ly, the devel­op­ment of face-paint and lit­tle to no cloth­ing are marked changes from their ini­tial school-boy attire.

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Still, there are sim­i­lar­i­ties between before and after. The choir­boys become the hunters and their dis­ci­pline, orga­ni­za­tion, and loy­al­ty as the lat­ter is due direct­ly to their train­ing in the for­mer. They are also the ones who cre­ate and enforce the cul­tur­al pro­gres­sion of the tribe of boys, while Ralph and Pig­gy, who’ve main­tained their rea­son to some extent, are increas­ing­ly ostra­cized. All of this ter­ror comes through strong­ly through the use of lib­er­al cut­ting and realign­ments in the edit­ing room, and the sheer amount of footage Brook had on hand to pick and choose from. The final scene is so abhor­rent , as Ralph flees the oth­er youths on all fours, much like the pig they are con­vinc­ing them­selves he is, that the appear­ance of white socks and match­ing deck shoes of adult pro­por­tions, and the adult that is wear­ing them is a great relief. The mon­ster we’ve only caught glimpses of, the mon­ster that was about to appear in full and ter­ri­ble force, espe­cial­ly because of its famil­iar­i­ty, is slain just like that.

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Dead Ringers

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #21: David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers.

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Dead Ringers is based on a true sto­ry about iden­ti­cal twin gyne­col­o­gist drug addicts; both played by Jere­my Irons. The film is a psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller deeply con­cerned with obses­sion, sex­u­al­i­ty and co-depen­dence. Cro­nen­berg doesn’t over­do the shots that con­tain both Man­tle broth­ers, but the most effec­tive aspect of the film is also the sub­tlest, there are vir­tu­al­ly no exte­ri­or shots apart from the begin­ning and end. So the entire film occu­pies a claus­tro­pho­bic inter­nal space both phys­i­cal­ly and psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, and these spaces tend to reflect each oth­er as the plot devel­ops. The twins are Elliot and Bev­er­ly, both male, Elliot the old­est and extro­vert­ed, the busi­ness­man and mar­keter of the two; Bev­er­ly younger and reserved, the med­ical genius. They share every­thing, includ­ing patients, includ­ing bang­ing patients. In par­tic­u­lar, an actress with a tri­fur­cat­ed uterus named Claire Niveau. Jesus Christ, you’ve got­ta love Cro­nen­berg.

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Bev­er­ly becomes attached to Claire and vice ver­sa, until she learns that she banged Elliot ini­tial­ly. They break up but get back togeth­er. Beverly’s love of Claire begins to sep­a­rate him from Elliot and their rela­tion­ship changes in small ways at first, but when Bev starts pill-pop­ping his per­son­al­i­ty begins to degrade rapid­ly. His nadir results in his attempts to oper­ate on a using “gynae­co­log­i­cal instru­ments for oper­at­ing on mutant women”. Elliot has his own psy­cho­log­i­cal eccen­tric­i­ties asso­ci­at­ed with his twin­ship [at one point he gets twin escorts and has one of them call him Elliot and the oth­er Bev­er­ly]. He also attempts to score a three­some with his broth­er and his girl­friend. When detox­ing Bev­er­ly fails, Elliot decides that he needs to start tak­ing drugs as well to get back on the same wave­length, so they can get off the drugs togeth­er. They deserve a Dar­win Award for that idea.

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There is no easy res­o­lu­tion to the myr­i­ad ques­tions about gen­der, abnor­mal phys­i­ol­o­gy and psy­chol­o­gy, sex­u­al deviance and rela­tion­ships that are raised in this film. The res­o­lu­tion instead comes in the form of an abhorred pity for the Man­tle broth­ers and a feel­ing of relief that such trou­bled souls find their rest. Mean­while, the casu­al view­er is left with the need to exam­ine his or her own pre­dis­po­si­tions about the nature of human rela­tion­ship and cul­tur­al con­for­ma­tion. In this sense, this film owes a debt to Tod Browning’s Freaks. The ref­er­ences to the first set of con­joined twins is also rel­e­vant in this con­text, and the moral of the film, if there is one, is that deviance from the norm has dis­as­trous con­se­quences, even if the deviant par­ties are inno­cent in and of them­selves. Or per­haps, that the heavy pres­sure to con­form has dis­as­trous con­se­quences to offer anoth­er side of the same coin.

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The Silence of the Lambs

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #13: Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.

Noth­ing is so fright­en­ing as what’s behind the closed door. The audi­ence holds its breath along with the pro­tag­o­nist as she/he (more often she) approach­es that door…”

Stephen King in Danse Macabre and before that Val Lew­ton

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The Silence of the Lambs is all kinds of great. For a hor­ror movie it offers rel­a­tive­ly lit­tle gore, instead rely­ing on what is not seen to grow the fear. The film pret­ty much uses one cin­e­mat­ic trick over and over through­out, but it nev­er gets old. Demme’s choice to use a shal­low depth of field and straight-on fram­ing of the char­ac­ters do much to strength­en the rela­tion­ships between char­ac­ter dia­logue and rela­tion­ship, the con­stant scopophilic gaze direct­ed by almost every man to Agent Starl­ng cre­ates a delib­er­ate and con­stant sense of unease to her sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, and the myr­i­ad ref­er­ences to change and meta­mor­pho­sis ensure that no one thing we know can be seen as cer­tain.

But time and time again what gives the movie its pep is the closed door, the reveal, the pas­sage through. The next time you see this film, count them. Door­ways are lim­i­nal sym­bols, inher­ent­ly unpre­dictable and the con­stant action of open­ing, pas­sage and clos­ing tak­en by Clarice reflects her own growth as an FBI agent. The view­er grows along with her and grat­i­fi­ca­tion is delayed in almost every scene; when we think we are about to make a dis­cov­ery, only anoth­er door is revealed.

The cli­mac­tic sequence of the film [if only I could find it online!] has well over twen­ty doors that must be passed through or at least iden­ti­fied as a pos­si­ble source of ter­ror for Clarice. Cou­pled with the unpre­dictabil­i­ty of Han­ni­bal Lector’s mind and the ease with which he manip­u­lates an entire inves­ti­ga­tion it should be no sur­prise that the view­er is just as eas­i­ly manip­u­lat­ed by the edit­ing in the lead-up to the Starling’s con­fronta­tion with Buf­fa­lo Bill. This is a film that has got our num­ber, can fool us over and over with the same cin­e­mat­ic par­lor tricks and leave us want­i­ng more. Hitch­cock, who I had ini­tial­ly thought of as the man who made the closed door quote, would have been proud.

The oth­er main strength of the film is the act­ing. Just about every­one is superbly creepy. This might be due to the fact that just as near­ly every­one is a man and we are often encased with­in Agent Starling’s world­view as the object of desire, but even the bit-part actors are awash in uncan­ni­ness that is all the more effec­tive because it is so nat­ur­al. We all know peo­ple who are that sort of weird. The rela­tion­ship between Lec­tor and Star­ling is often that of a snake hyp­no­tiz­ing a bird. Cer­tain­ly Antho­ny Hop­kins act­ing is makes the film extra extra­or­di­nary and the qual­i­ty of every­one else buoys his per­for­mance up even high­er. I real­ly have no crit­i­cisms of this film, it is so cruft­less, pol­ished and so effec­tive at what it does that I can’t think of much else to say.

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