Predestination (2014)

*this review contains massive spoilers, and a bunch of extra random discussion of the film*

Reading the Wikipedia article about this film, there is a quote from the writers/directors, the Spierig brothers, saying that if a hole were found within the Heinlein short story that forms the base of this film, it would have been found by now. Thus they rest comfortably that this twisty time-travel tale’s internal logic will hold. Well, I’m not sure about everyone else, but I didn’t struggle to find a weak point in the logic of the film, a matter of simple biology. Even if we assume an intersex individual has sufficiently developed sexual organs of both sexes that they can both in turn be fully viable at reproduction (I’m not entirely an expert on this, but what I do know would tend to lean toward infertility, not dual fertility), the logical problem is a much more simple matter of biology, namely that a sperm cell is half of one’s DNA code and an ovum is half of one’s DNA code. Each sperm and each ovum is different because it splits the various chromosomal pair in half in different ways, most notably in males splitting the X from the Y to ultimately determine, with some allowance for variation, whether the child will be male or female. Given this tendency toward variation, the odds of two genetically identical people from naturally producing a genetically identical child is vanishingly small. And yet that vanishingly small probability is the pin holding the entire logic of Predestination together.

Still, if I allow it this one fault, there is something impressive in this notion of completely closed loop wherein genetic material manages to exist without an external source. It works the mind as a paradox. I’d say the meaning of the story then is to create this device as a way of short-circuting discussions of genetic destiny, destiny being a point of discussion in this film, and most time travel films that recognize certain events as becoming hard-wired into reality. It takes temporal destiny to create this freedom from genetic destiny, so there’s a touch of irony involved. It is fun to think about, but ultimately, I’m not sure the rewards are quite there.

The one thing in the film that I think deserves unambiguous praise is the performance of Sarah Snook as Jane/John. Even if I critique the film a bit for acting like Sarah Snook is convincingly not good looking, able to immediately gain our sympathies for her ostracized orphan, I can’t critique the performance that must shine through pretty heavy make-up at times. Now does the film say much about gender? At this point I’m not sure and that is one part I’ll have to consider before I make a final decision on the film. For now:

B

As to [the question of gender], transgender is probably the wrong word to apply to the film, though I suppose it may still have relevance on that front, but in this specific case, the character is intersex. Jane expresses herself as a bit at odds with being a woman, certainly showing divergence from gender expectations of the age in being tougher and smarter, but she never really expresses it as a mismatch. In truth, she only really shows discomfort when forced into life as a man, and at this point also expresses divergence in taking up a more emotional profession writing confession stories. Becoming a male seems to open her up to her feminine a bit more.

I guess if I wanted to go really deep, the film is the story of God creating us in his/her image that also serves as the creation of God. Instead of the turtle that the world rests on standing on turtles all the way down, this theory would manage that closed loop creation. It suggests that there is male and female in all of us (and the fact that Jane is born as a “girl” reflects the fact that we are all female until hormones activate to create a male) and maybe could call out gender constructions. But I don’t really want to give the film more credit on the issue than it really merits. You could paint a fall from grace narrative starting with the innocence of a woman and ending with the violence of a man, but that would be fueling gender stereotypes.

One scene that maybe I should watch again because it didn’t have any impact on me was the attempt by John to justify his bombings to his younger self. It went by a bit quick. Frankly, the early scenes of the film I described in my mind as anti-world building because the whole Fizzle Bomber set-up did nothing for me so I guess I remained confused about that whole thing. It feels like a red herring that is just useful to the creation of the loop.

Pump Up The Volume (1990)

“You can’t do that.”
“Oh, I think I just did.”

Though this quote appears in a slightly squarer context (though still really satisfying), it is in some ways the thesis of the film. Whether we are the teens of this film, or as adults, we are constantly told what we can’t do. Sure, sometimes it is something obvious that causes a clear harm to others, but a lot of the time “you can’t do that” is a voice of social mores that exist to protect the status quo, patriarchy and capitalism, etc., and as that voice increasingly gets internalized, it can be pretty deadening. It really taps into the teenage angst that comes from trying to form an individualized identity while facing this homogenizing force.

Pump Up The Volume is the attempt of one student, Mark (Christian Slater) to push back against this voice through a pirate radio station that gives fellow students a voice to honestly reckon with the perils in their lives. It is a broadly anarchic mentality, but the film is considerate of both the benefits and the risks of fighting back.

Being based on radio, the film feels a little dated. Now no one needs to take the criminal action of jumping in on a radio frequency to be heard. A teen can get their voice out through blogs or YouTube channels or all the even newer things that I could mention to sound less old. The internet has democratized this voice, but also cluttered it so that it would be hard for a student to capture the audience that Hard Harry (Mark’s radio persona) is able to get here. And while there has been a lot of good from social media, a lot has been of the place I thought this film might be headed early on, the voice of an outcast in life who gains a certain confidence through his radio persona and turns it toward misogyny or other hateful approaches. There may be a fascinating remake of sorts to be made exploring that kind of character, but this film is much more a response to the Reagan years and thus casts out more toward reactionary and authoritarian instincts, which seems relevant enough today.

B+

The Babadook (2014)

In what is probably a reaction that disqualifies me from future parenthood, my first reaction to the opening five minutes of The Babadook was to make an abortion joke. In the early going, Sam (Noah Wiseman), is definitely a problem child, overly fixated on monsters and violent fantasies to fight them off that often cross too far into real life, putting others at risk or at least making them uneasy. Amelia (Essie Davis) has her hands full with Sam, having lost his father on the day he was born. It is that loss that haunts them in the form of a storybook character Mister Babadook.

The most positive thing I can say about The Babadook is that it is perhaps the most frightening film I’ve seen in a long time in the “maybe I’ll sleep with the lights on tonight” kind of way. It is a refreshing break from so much of the horror that relies on triggering sensory reflex and calling that a scare. The Babadook is more in the lineage of The Shining. That said, for as much joyful terror I felt in the buildup, especially the scene where she reads the book for the first time, the final third is a bit of a mess. It fits well enough with the thematic thrust of the story but lacks the cinematic effect present in the buildup. It also turns a strong performance from Davis increasingly into a bunch of screeching. This doesn’t render it a bad film, it just took a bit of the awe out.

B

Love Is Strange (2014)

Before the year is out, gay marriage will almost certainly be the law of the land, due to the expected outcome of an upcoming Supreme Court case. This feels a lot like a victorious end game for gay rights. Love Is Strange starts with two moments, the marriage of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) and the firing of George from his position teaching at a Catholic school. This is a harsh and quick message that the war is not over, even if one battle is won.

There are a couple really strong scenes with Lithgow and Molina together that firmly establish what a joyously good couple they are, which effectively amplifies the tragedy when their economic hardship forces them apart, relying on the hospitality of friends and family, as none has the space to really host both of them (at least not within the city that holds their lives and interests) and upon moving in, find that the close quarters add tension to these bonds. In this way it is a fundamentally urban story, as suburban and rural living tends to bring a lot of space, making it a lot easier to stay out of each others’ way. There’s a whole other movie to be made where they opt for staying together rather than staying in the city.

Ira Sachs is open in interviews about the inspiration of Make Way For Tomorrow and more present for him, Ozu’s Tokyo Story (which was inspired by MWFT). I haven’t seen MWFT so I cannot comment on relative merits, and I guess a cinephile is supposed to object to remakes because we can just watch the original, but I do think adapting to modern settings is a perfectly feasible approach. A driving force of MWFT seems to be the Great Depression, with a touch of agism. Aside from adding in the gay rights angle, we also get a brief insight into the depleted place of arts and humanities in the lives of students, this being a major source of George’s financial strain.

As much as these little contextual embellishments lend a bit of heft, the film ultimately does have a pretty simple humanist approach, focusing on small moments, little disputes, leaving a few major moments largely unseen. Where MWFT seems to be noted for its rather pessimistic view, Love Is Strange seems quite a bit more upbeat. A betrayal of the source? Maybe, but it certainly works as its own movie.

B

To Be Takei (2014)

Prepare to say “Oh My” more than once. There is nothing particularly showy about this biographical documentary, though it does have very effective editing for transition. What makes it so effective, ultimately, is the charisma of George Takei. This should be no surprise as, even though he became famous as Sulu on Star Trek, these days his dominant presence is as a dynamic social media wit, a source of cheer for millions of people. Given his upbeat nature, I’m not sure he could think of a greater success.

While the documentary does reflect his positive attitude, it comes with the grit of having been a gay, Japanese-American man born a few years before WWII. The film is very good at weaving in his history living in internment camps, issues with the portrayal of Asian characters in entertainment, and the way the industry forced him into a closet for decades. It is a story of facing injustice and finding an activist spirit. In this way it is pretty motivating. If you wonder why I make a point of talking about social justice when it comes to entertainment as much as I do, Takei gives voice to it.

B

Starred Up (2013)

It is a popular myth, certainly in American culture, that we are largely responsible for our actions and those actions determine our outcomes. It is underappreciated how much outcomes are out of our control, largely unrelated to our own actions, and how much our own actions are driven not by conscious choice but deep-set psychological programming. Watching Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) as he is Starred Up (progressed to an adult corrections facility), to the same prison as his father Neville (Ben Mendlelsohn), there is a lot that forces me to question my default lack of sympathy for this young man making destructive choices in pursuit of a self-destructive, tough facade.

In the initial, slightly dehumanizing, process of being booked into the prison, Eric seems a model inmate, calmly following directives. There is something tragic about his first break from this as it is purely instinctual, like a scared animal lashing out. The way things cascade from there are some combination of impulse control problems and simply not knowing how to properly signal his intentions. As we see more of his father, it is hard not to see a genetic link (more so than a nurtured link, as Eric wasn’t raised by his father, though his absence could be raised as a factor as well). The film didn’t always engage me in its twists and turns but the ending is a pretty powerful emphasis point in this father-son relationship.

B

Selma (2014)

Imagine a time and place where laws were passed specifically with the point of preventing a certain class of individuals from voting. Where the police maimed and murdered individuals with no legal ramification. Where people publicized individual’s addresses in deliberate effort to terrorize those they oppose? Okay, so it isn’t hard to imagine that time and place because that is a description of last year in America. With the partial overturning of the Voting Rights Act and subsequent flurry to pass laws like voter ID bills that on the surface are neutral but in practice disenfranchise specific groups, with Ferguson and Staten Island (and Cleveland and…), with GamerGate’s doxxing, swatting and other harassment of women and transgender individuals, there were a lot of troubling occurrences that made Selma of 1965 seem not so distant and that make the film Selma seem indispensably important. There are, hopefully, fewer hateful people in the country now, and they certainly have refined their language so that the offense is not generally so overt, but the way hate manifests itself stays disturbingly consistent as it evolves to new times and methods.

While Selma is undoubtedly an important film, it is only on occasion a great film. It’s coverage of brutality is particularly effective. Focusing specifically on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC’s Selma protest and its effect on the politics of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, it is a testament to non-violence, perhaps, but watching the more brutal scenes I would count myself with those ready to turn to violence, fruitless as that venture may be. It is hard enough to stage a protest without a few unrelated looters shading the entire action as uncontrolled thuggishness in public perception, much less active revolution and surely as justified as such revolution would have been, it would have been a political failure.

Given the recent controversy related to the film’s treatment of LBJ, I have to say it does feel a touch harsh. It certainly gives him redemption but the writing seems to remove any nuance or sympathy for his political calculations. The film also adopts as a framing device using lines seemingly from FBI surveillance of MLK as if to prove that the events are verifiable, while also continually making obvious that the FBI was tracking MLK. This and a related focus on his relationship with Coretta don’t really feel essential to the rest of the tale and drag things out. All this leave me wishing I could be more enthusiastic than I am.

A-

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