Blue Ruin (2013)

Context is king. Most filmmakers inherently understand that what we know of characters and events will influence our interaction with a film. A piece of knowledge might change a thematic interpretation or it might influence our empathy for a given choice. Many find withholding context until the very end is a good tactic to force dramatic reevaluation. The under-appreciated risk here is that without that context, sometimes decisions seem poorly founded or take on more problematic ethical tones that shape one’s sentiments toward a film that late reversals cannot change.

In Blue Ruin, we learn early on that Dwight (Macon Blair) has lost people and the one responsible is being released from jail, though it is over 20 minutes before it is made clear exactly who was killed, and a full hour before the circumstances of that act are revealed. The curious thing about the way the film withholds this information is it doesn’t use it as startling revelation (though there is a different piece of information that qualifies). And so it does occasionally strain one’s patience, seeing certain responses and wanting to know why extralegal approaches are seen as necessary on both sides of this feud.

I feel like some of this trend for withholding context is an artistic response to the critical concept that exposition is bad. To directly explain any knowledge is inartful and it isn’t enough to simply find natural ways to say things, but to hold that stuff back until later. It is kind of a tragic sense because one of the film’s most powerful scenes is the reunion between Dwight and his sister Sam (Amy Hargreaves), one of the few scenes in the film that truly reveals some of the facts of the matter. It is this scene that overcame my initial concerns and largely bought me into the action.

I have to confess to being a hard sell on revenge tales. Especially in Korea, where they predominate, there tends to be a strong cynicism involved, a single mindedness about the task. Blue Ruin succeeds in this genre by making those involved fallible, and at least somewhat hindered by doubt. This makes the tragedy of the genre have more impact than mindless obsession. As either pure revenge film, or twist on the family feud, the ending proves potent, pulling down some of the artifice we use to divide ourselves. Ultimately these moments of craft overcame any annoyance about withheld information.

B

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

On my first viewing of The Day The Earth Stood Still, it seemed pretty straight forward as a pacifist parable. A benevolent visitor arrives to scold humanity for its violent ways. There is definitely still a lot of enjoyment to be had watching Klaatu observe and interact with humans, pretending to be one. And with recent events, it certainly begs the question whether humanity deserves to exist (though one should note that warfare has decreased strongly globally).

In this rewatch, I actually saw a more peculiar interpretation, that of Klaatu’s people not simply as aliens with a lesson to humans, but as Westerners to the rest of the world. This interpretation gains some strength in that ultimately Klaatu threatens extinction if peace fails, exerting great power. While from a realist perspective, it makes sense for other civilizations in the universe to set a policy that prevents warring peoples from developing space travel to go along with it. On the other hand, extermination as a cure for violence doesn’t make a lot of sense from a moral standpoint, much like executing murderers. It seems a bit excessive, like using an improvised flame-thrower to kill a spider.

Given the tone of the film, if you do buy that the film is talking about Western powers vis a vis rising powers, it is a film that favors these Western powers. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It strikes me as the kind of two-tiered international law that lets the likes of the US have nuclear weapons, but considers it possible grounds for war if another country tries to develop such weapons. It strikes me as extremely hypocritical, and rather problematic, to approach developing countries in this way, no matter how unstable they are. The downside of this new interpretation is that it is one I don’t agree with like the more basic original one.

B+

Bonus content based on questions asked in response to this review:

Also what do you think of the religious interpretation? That Klaatu is a Christ figure and that the alien powers he threatens with is judgment day?

A lot of atheists I know would find the idea of Christ coming to Earth and saying “I want to talk to your scientists” in order to save the world from apocalypse fairly humorous and ironic. That scientist was apparently a highly regarded profession in the 50s, that would have massive social sway, makes me a bit sad for the present that this feels super far from the case. Expert is a dirty word now. But I’m perfectly comfortable with that interpretation, it just isn’t one that I tend to as a non-theist.

Morally, however, isn’t it the same, whether it is a pacifist alien race who threatens extinction or a Western power? Isn’t the problem inherent in the film?

You are right though, there is no moral difference whether one views it in its textual sci-fi context or convert it to a purely earthly metaphor. The only real difference is as aliens it is easier to imply a sense of omnipotence (which flows into the religious interpretation), especially as they outsource the actual destruction to impartial robots (though that is a laugh, a robot is only as impartial as the programmer). If you think of it as Western powers versus the developing world, it becomes a purely human affair, with all the corruptions of humanity and one sees it as a much less benevolent power.

Nymphomaniac (2013)

As someone who saw the feminist message embedded within the bleak and punishing experience of Antichrist, a film many others saw as misogynist, perhaps it was inevitable that I would be open to similar progressive interpretations with Lars von Trier’s potentially even more button-pushing epic Nymphomaniac. The film opens on Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg/Stacy Martin) beaten and abandoned in an alley, discovered by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Aside from just being a helpful stranger, he actually ends up playing the role of therapist as Joe recounts her life of sexual deviance.

While the roots of Joe’s self-loathing are undoubtedly patriarchal, it is interesting that she is the one who insists on her own sinfulness while Seligman consistently acts to reframe things in more positive or at least neutral terms. Joe unveils a sequence of approaches to female sexuality, the deflowering, as sport, etc. Seligman tends to have some form of natural metaphor…Fibonacci sequences and fishing. Joe’s view is socially constructed, coming with moral baggage while Seligman’s is natural and amoral. It isn’t concerned with good or bad, it just is.

If these are the film’s strengths, its weakness comes in its scope and the inconsistency of the script. One sequence, placing Joe as unintended homewrecker, has a truly off-key turn from the spurned wife. I get that the scene isn’t meant to be realistic, but placing all the possible subtext or tacit messages smack into the text it not only feels unreal but forced. I get where this all enters into the film’s point but just for quality it seems a ripe place for cutting that might have allowed this to avoid splitting. There are other scenes that stand out not so much for lacking quality but for lacking strong relevance to the main thrust of the film. These are long ventures without enough payoff and I start to doubt I have a grasp of what I’m supposed to get from this at all. So ends Volume 1 and the artificial break ensues.

The potency of Seligman’s philosophical analogies that were the strength early on kind of faded away, but the increased presence of Gainsbourg, as Joe ages, proved beneficial. There was a certain joy in watching Joe’s adventure to rediscover sexual pleasure. The film dares us to judge her as deviant and sinful, but what we get is consent-based exploration. It is a rejection of rigidly enforced “vanilla” sexuality, we see this in a different light as Joe uses a particular strategy for finding people’s secrets in order to extort money…everyone, women included, has a diverse and unique sexuality. Not all of it can be realized (that consent thing). The response to this continues the theme of consent in the second half in a pretty touching way. This point is sealed with emphasis in an ending that feels a tad out of place, but says so much.

I should say that the second half certainly had its share of dragging moments. I think this could have been cut down to a three hour movie that might not have needed arbitrary splitting. On the other hand, the first half and second half do take slightly different tones of emphasis. There are a lot of things I like that the film is getting at but it just feels a bit let down on the organizational side. I feel like there is a spectacular film to be found in the ideas here but von Trier got self-indulgent and didn’t maximize his opportunity, which is a shame because this had the chance to be something important.

B

Like Father, Like Son (2013)

While I recognize that the central question of Like Father, Like Son, whether these two couples should keep the boy they’ve raised for the first five years of his life or switch to the boy they realize is their biological son, speaks to weighty questions about nature versus nurture and how important genetic heritage is, for me it never seemed like a difficult problem. Obviously you keep the kid who has been in your care from day one. Those five tangible years have to outweigh the philosophical attachment to lineage. Yet then I thought about a similar story featured on This American Life, where the switch wasn’t revealed until the girls were well into adulthood, but you hear them talk about somehow not fitting in with the families that raised them and having an immediate bond with their biological families. Maybe blood is stronger than I give it credit for.

However, being a film from Koreeda, it isn’t just about this dilemma. It really is a broader critique of the family structure in Japan. Ryota is a hard-driven business man who is rather distant from his son, his main interactions being to push his son, Tiger Mom-style, to be the same Type-A achiever. This might be seen as what has been idealized in Japan, with a subsequent intensity that has birth rates in the country below replacement rate, with demographic problems as a result. Yudai, father of the other boy, is actively judged by Ryota as lazy, class animus seeming more forceful in a country with very little ethnic diversity. Yet Yudai is an caring and engaged parent, and as a family-driven man, has three children. Ultimately, I feel that handling this difference was more effective than the question of whether or not to correct the error.

This focus on family is nothing new for Koreeda as I Wish, Still Walking and Nobody Knows all have family (or the lack of family) as a central motif. While I enjoyed this entry, I didn’t engage quite as warmly as with some of his films, in part because I do think there were some character moments that felt out of place, serving to drive the film’s narrative in certain directions but not doing so in a way that felt organic. The ending is perhaps a slight enigma, but in a way that it may not actually matter what the final decision is. Koreeda definitely remains one of those directors whose next film can be anticipated no matter what.

B

We Are The Best! (2013)

Adolescence lends itself naturally to punk. The pressure to fit into neat social circles can be suffocating and as new and often risky activities start surfacing, parents can seem like tyrants. So why wouldn’t you be drawn to a brand of music that, aside from shunning conventions of what good music should sound like, is very much about anti-authoritarian and anti-commercial sentiments. So it makes sense that Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin) are obsessed with the scene. Yet, I kind of love how Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) gets pulled into their group. Her clean-cut Christian appearance at the start might seem the very measure of convention to an American, but I imagine in far more atheist Sweden, faith can be a form of rebellion.

Of course, perhaps even more than adolescence, being a woman in a patriarchal society would seem reason to be punk, yet it is a genre that is dominated by white men (though with a strong queer component). The film does a great job demonstrating moments of sexism, large and small, that the trio faces once they decide to start a band. One moment that particularly stood out for me is their reaction to being dubbed a girl band. That kind of label definitely has a patronizing aspect. But this is kind of a difficult path…I often highlight “female directors” rather than being perfectly gender blind because the state of the industry is such that it feels like promoting women in film is beneficial and important. I suppose context matters, the same thing can be acceptable one way and unacceptable another.

For me, this aspect of the sexism, and watching how the girls respond to it, is what ultimately makes this fantastic, beyond its more standard coming of age notes. The three lead actresses also set the film a step above. They have a wonderful rambunctious energy that comes off as quite natural. With all appropriate credit to the actresses and to Coco Moodysson for the story, Lukas Moodysson further establishes himself as a treasure, with four of the six features I’ve seen qualifying as good to great, proof that men should be just as capable at treating female characters with dignity.

B+

Coming To America (1988)

One thing that this rewatch was useful for is seeing it in light of Kermode’s discussion of the role of discipline in comedy. Most of the films that come to mind as comedies have a certain raggedness about them, and Coming To America has that too. Most notably I’d say the barbershop gang, whose routine isn’t all that funny, rambles greatly, isn’t particularly critical to the story and ultimately just comes off as a chance for Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall to put on heavy makeup and play absurd characters. This thing that has become a Murphy trademark is actually the biggest weakness of the film because it is a stunt in a film that has something real and affecting at its heart, more than enough to gain my interest.

I dare say this is a profoundly feminist film (mostly). Murphy, as Prince Akeem, has the ultimate of privilege. He doesn’t even have to wipe for himself and his culture suggests that he need not view women as people, but rather as obliging objects to cater to his needs. It is thus a statement for him to voluntarily cast off that privilege, and at least the affectations (if not the security) of wealth by going to Queens, NY to search for a woman with whom he connects on a meaningful level, an equal and individual person.

It is interesting to think of this film in the context of the Bechdel test. I’m not sure it passes that test exactly, but considering a male variant of the test, it is true that Akeem is largely obsessed with finding a woman and a lot of the conversation revolves around women. This primacy of romance is typically the plight of female characters so it is a refreshing enough change. However, there is ultimately enough discussion of economic concerns that it would pass a male version of the test. Films find ways to do for men that they surprisingly fail to do for women.

The question of the female characters is an interesting one. Even Lisa McDowell, the main love interest, who is allowed on occasion to show a depth of thought on relevant matters, is far from a dynamic character. Her sister is extremely one-dimensional and Akeem’s mother is the enjoyable enough type of matriarchal role that Maggie Smith tends to inhabit so well in things like Downton Abbey but with less time given to be more than that type. If these parts are not entirely praiseworthy, the lowest point has to be the borderline (or maybe outright) transphobic scene involving Hall in drag as a character credited as Extremely Ugly Girl. So yeah, this is an inconsistent film that doesn’t always obey its mostly noble purposes. It is probably not outright funny enough to be considered a great comedy but it compensates a bit for that with the story. This leaves it as a tentative entry in the Collection, probably not particularly underrated because it has a sufficient following, but I guess I’ll give it the rounding up because my Collection is nothing if not marked in large part by films that talk gender in useful ways.

B

Tim’s Vermeer (2013)

You might think this is an art film, Vermeer being a legendary Dutch painter, but you’d be wrong. It isn’t not about art, but the story here is really more of a scientific one. It is about a thought process and a way of thinking. Tim Jenison basically reverse engineers Vermeer’s painting in order to solve the riddle that is his unique and dynamic style of painting, with its photorealistic lighting gradations. Some could watch this and see this painting amateur mimic an acclaimed master and feel like it degrades the art or isn’t an artistic process because it is duplicative. I watch it and I feel inspired by the creativity of mankind. This applies equally to Vermeer, who in an earlier era took advantage of tools to create something splendid, as to Tim and his way of unfolding things to both diagnose the Vermeer’s likely techniques and to create them anew.

The worst thing I could say about this film is that at a few little points as he sets about painting it can feel drawn out (though it does suggest just how significant this process may have been for Vermeer), but at 80 minutes the film is through so quickly it is hard to really stick to a couple minutes that may not technically be essential. This is a film that just comes in, tells an impressive and interesting tale, and leaves, without lingering to expound on its importance or otherwise embellish. It is just precise and delightful.

B+

Godzilla (2014)

Over the past few years, summer blockbusters have worn me down in large part with the endless, grinding scenes of casual urban destruction with little moral weight. In many respects, Godzilla is the grandfather franchise for this kind of destruction, so I was a bit wary going into this one. There is indeed a lot of destruction, and likely lot of lives lost, yet Godzilla manages to avoid falling into the trap that so many other blockbusters have in that the monsters, and the destruction, are smartly crafted as metaphor.

Man vs. nature is one of the classic story types, but the lesson of Godzilla is that this conception is presumptuous. Nature is not an opponent, it just is, and sometimes we get in the way. With plot points that call forth earthquakes, tsunami and hurricanes, and perhaps a bit of good, old fashioned erosion, the monsters are representative of those things that make life a challenge, but are also a giver of life. When the film touches on at least three major natural disasters of the past decade, it could feel exploitative, but instead it feels therapeutic.

I’m not sure anything here quite compares with the best scene from Pacific Rim for pure visual awe and scale, but there is a lot of great work done here from subtle references to the history of Godzilla to crafty editing befitting limited human perspective that effectively builds tension. The characters may not bring wonderful complexity, but they aren’t the point of the film. As a grand spectacle ultimately about nature, humanity is but a side-show and that simple idea carries the way.

B+

The Crow (1994)

The Crow is a film saddled with the story of its making, and the tragedy therein, overshadowing the film. It is hard not to let the death of Brandon Lee, the result of improper safety relating to use of guns on the set, color one’s viewing of a film that involves his character being shot, a lot. A supernatural revenge tale, after a fatal attack on an activist for poor residents and her rocker boyfriend Eric Draven (Lee), Draven comes back to life (or animation at least) as The Crow to even the score.

This isn’t exactly a film of great finesse. Its baddies are very bad and it shouldn’t be a spoiler to say good will win out because that is how these films work. It is the getting there that makes the difference. Primary to this is Lee who lends a fantastic charisma and physicality to the character. I saw slight roots of Heath Ledger’s Joker here. The film’s main idea is a generic broad one about chips being stacked against poor people as various interests work to keep them disempowered or afraid. While this isn’t really tackled intellectually, it is effectively personified emotionally in the form of Sarah. A young girl whose exact tie to the murdered couple isn’t entirely clear, she is the mother of a woman caught up in drugs and hanging around the bad people. More than anything else, I ultimately see the film as fighting for Sarah’s future and whether she’ll be able to escape a cycle of abuse or misery.

The look of the film is interesting, being both oppressively dark but also overlaid by a certain artificial sheen that gives it a CGI or overexposed appearance that is a little off-putting, though I suppose it can be justified by its comic book origin. Director Alex Proyas would become perhaps better known for his next film, Dark City, which is a fairly dark-hued movie in its own right. Having not seen that one since its release, I do feel I owe it a rewatch as I remember enjoying it, but perhaps not as much as its reputation. Even with the pall hanging about The Crow and its imperfections, I did find it very gripping.

B

Once Were Warriors (1994)

One thing I constantly try to push myself on to be a better movie watcher is to seek the positives in mostly negative viewing experiences. So even in The Basketball Diaries, which was ultimately a bit unsuccessful for me, I still picked out an intriguing element that didn’t save the film exactly, but it made the experience more valuable. Thankfully, I can report that Once Were Warriors was overall a better experience, though again it was a fairly punishing movie that at times had me searching for those threads that would allow me to take something from it if it all became rather too much for me.

Focusing on a Maori family in New Zealand, this is a film that could speak to the plight of a lot of indigenous communities around the world. You have this historical cultural tradition straining against modern (European) civilization and the dislocation has left the community with a lot of poverty, alcoholism and violence. One thing that confused me a bit, not being overly familiar with Maori culture, is a distinction drawn between the central couple of Jake (Temuera Morrison) and Beth (Rena Owen) Heke. She is apparently a pure descendant of a Maori tribe while Jake is talked about as being from slaves, and of being “black.” It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that seemingly negligible differences in skin color were used to draw think lines of class or caste, yet I am unfamiliar enough that the film left me a bit at sea about how much of this was a real historical legacy and how much was metaphorical about two paths that Maori have taken, one holding to more noble, proud aspects and the other surviving on ignoble toughness.

Aside from showing how different characters engage with their Maori heritage to deal with their situation, it acts as a testament to the sometimes troubling bonds of love. An outside observer finds it a lot easier to accuse Beth of being too forgiving of the brute Jake, as we see the toll it takes on her and her children. The film is brutal in its depiction of domestic violence and rape, but handles both in a fairly responsible, realistic way. It doesn’t glamorize it at all nor does it try to soften the blow for the viewer’s sake. These horrors are as horrifying as they are. Reading about the differences between the book and the film, it does seem that Beth is made a bit more sympathetic and Jake given a slight bit more redemption, probably good choices to keep it from being altogether too much.

B

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