Monday, March 30, 2009

The Seventh Seal

It would have been slightly eerie if my seventh post for a seventh period class would have been about The Seventh Seal, but alas, it is my eigth. A cinematographically flawless film, I enjoyed the setting (and symetry) of the first and last scene, being on the coast. This is a place that is constantly battered by the sea, a force more powerful than any seagull, crab, or rock that inhbaits that area, thus being symbolic of death's universally overbearing role. In addition, death erodes our lives and changes our schemas.
The director makes it quite blatant that the central theme of the film is death. He is personified, takes just about everyone in the film, and ultimately shapes the lives of them all. Antonius is scarred by what he sees in the Crusades, the unnamed girl dies believing that there is no heaven and that everything is governed by absurdity, and Squire Jons understands this as well in his "conversation" with the corpse. This movie presents our infatuation with death as having only two solutions: fighting, as does Antonius, or partying, as do the people in the bar and the church painting character. Death appears in every scene and in even the most obscure places, both directly and in the forms of other people. I can not figure out why both forms are neccessary other than to fill up screen time. In addition, I would like to ask why the silent girl that Squire Jons does not rape is the embodiement of Christ? She has a single biblical line in the film, but she does little else to resemble our lord and saviour. It should be noted that one of the lines that death's lips utter in the film is "nothing escapes me." Blok tries to correct him in saying "no one escapes you," but the fact of the matter is that even abiotic items are eventually destroyed as well, which is supported by the coastal opening and closing scenes. Nobody escapes death, but that is exactly what the Jesster and his family do, these are the little battle that we can win (refering back to Runaway Train) or the games of chess we can play before the inevitable catches up with us.
I must say that the ending dissapointed me. Though the hand holding vision has it own purpose and offers us a suggestion that heaven is real (suggestion because it is a light filled scene, but is seen through the eyes of the sometimes innaccurate jesster) it would have been much more satisfying if the director had not sparred us the scene of physical death that he had no trouble showing us numerous times throughout the film.

Monday, March 23, 2009


A movie that begins with a scene of gray clouds floating across the screen is a fairly straightforward foreshadowing that this is not going to be a happy movie.
What movie is this, you may or may not ask? It is Andrzej Wajda's 2007 import "Katyn."
Taking place in one of Poland's worst five year spans (1940-45), it is the story of a woman named Anna (Wiktoria Gasiewska)who watches her husband Andrzej (Artur Zmijewski) go off to fight Soviets on the country's eastern front. She and their daughter Nikka must escape to Krakow, one of the only major cities in all of Europe not destroyed by the Axis, but they must dodge Nazi fire as well as Soviet fire along the way. This one story becomes several as Andrzej and his army is defeated and captured by the Reds and sent to a POW camp where he is selected as one of over 22,000 lucky winners who are later transported to the Katyn forest to be shot in the back of the head. This happens, chronologically, early on and it takes a long time before his family finds out. Anna and Nika escape with the skin on their teeth from the Soviet forces several times in the film, because they are the family of a top army officer. Andrzej's father is also executed, along with his colleagues, because he is a professor at a university. As the movie progresses, an additional mother and daughter are thrown into the plot, who also suffer the loss of their military father. Another woman and child are executed. With every scene, the madness of the communists increases. The most central example of which is the reason that gives this story historical significance. Upon invasion in 1940, the Soviets committed the murder of those 22,000 people and then attempted to brain wash the nation to believe that it was the Nazis all along. After all, a scape goat is always appreciated when you're trying to control a rebellious nation in an "orderly" fashion. It seems that no one in the film believes them for the obvious reason that they just experienced it several years ago. This does not stop the Soviets from attempting to kill everyone, including a young man who is applying for college (who lost his father in the tragedy), a woman that quotes Antigone (because they do not allow her to bury her brother because his tombstone reads that he too died in Katyn), and numerous others.
The film ends on a very dark note, the actual murder of the Polish army in Katyn. How it is done shows the general mood of the movie. They all have their arms tied behind their backs and shot in one spot in the back of the head, in between each murder the blood is washed or swiped aside and the body falls in the trench. Each soldier killed on screen says part of a prayer, together saying one completely, except for the big word: Amen. This, and a cross that a corpse is holding on to but loosens his grip on after a few moments sends one message: God left this place (just as the atheist Soviets begin their reign). The whole film is about murder and suppression of the truth and intelligence. Andrzej's journal only makes it back to Anna by chance, but was meant to be kept away because it contains threatening information as far as the Russians are concerned. All the people that are killed hold some piece of the puzzle. The officials in power are always the common stupid folk that have been granted power by the reds and therefore would not speak against them. Even Jerzy, one of Andrzej's army buddy's commits suicide when he realizes society has ostracized him for attempting to set the record straight. All this lying, deception, and taking of life is done in a very clean cut, bureaucratic sort of way. These are the regulations and all who obey not only live, but they do it becuase it is their job.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Reader

A film about post-WWII Germany is not exactly an original idea, neither is an adolescent boy having a steamy affair with an older woman, for these reasons I would not nominate "The Reader" for best original screenplay.
The movie begins in a excessively white apartment in 1995 Berlin. A man, Michael, watches his one night stand leave his residence when he has a flashback induced by the structure of the untidy bed covers. We are transported 37 years back to see our protagonist as a miserable (the rainy scenery, cold induced red nose, and downward slumping posture would suggest this) youth with poor self esteem ("I didn't know I was good at anything" he later mentions). As he tries to find his way home in what later turns out to be a fever, he is assisted by a serious looking blond (Hannah - Kate Winslet). Months later, upon recovery, he returns and finds her to thank her (with red roses). Surprising as this is, it is a nonchalant comment about not even being able to read when sick that gets Hannah hot for the 15 year old. Soon, they are meeting on an almost daily basis. They meet in the tram carts, Michael spends less time with friends and family. His life is nothing short of miraculous. However, Hannah does not give it away for free, she makes her lover read to her. The Odyssey, The Woman with the Little Dog, Mark Twain, and numerous other classics. The director does not make it terribly difficult to notice, but Hannah turns out to be illiterate. She orders what Michael orders at restaurants, she refuses to look at the books he reads to her, and having him read to her, of course. The affair only lasts for a summer, but years later this tiny fact comes back to haunt both of them. When Michael is in law school, a professor takes the class to view a controversial case concerning ex-guards at a concentration camp. One of them just happens to be Hannah, which naturally brings stress upon Michael despite years of absence. The trial is brought to light because a former prisoner wrote a book (ironically enough) naming eight women who had been employed by the SS. It is in this scene that Winslet won her Oscar. She puts on a persona of a pure Hitler youth. She states in a naive tone that control over prisoners is more important than their lives. She gives brilliant looks of perplexity when the court is shocked and appalled by her words. Fear and confusion emulate her. The woman accused conspire against Hannah and forge a confession that names her as the one responsible for leaving prisoners locked in a church after it catches fire (another poignant symbol). The judges asks Hannah for a hand writing sample, but she is too proud to admit her illiteracy to a court full of people. Throughout the trial, the law professor gives philosophical musing about law and society, stating that the laws shape a society more than morals, thus explaining why so many (like Hannah) were so willing to assist the Third Reich in its destruction. Hannah is imprisoned for life. She would likely have killed herself early on if it were not for Michael sending her cassette recordings of all the great novels that he once read to her. With both written and spoken words at her disposal, Hannah's confinement in prison is actually a release from the prison that has tormented her all her life. She slowly begins to learn to read and write, and continues to contact Michael to keep sending more. He puts so much energy into it that he loses his wife and comes off as cold to his daughter. The passion of their youths is felt in a much more mature manner here. Eventually, Hannah is due for release for good behavior and you'll never guess who her only contact on the outside is. Michael meets her as a very old woman and this brings him down to earth. Her granny appearance makes him act standoffish, reminding us that the affair they had was just that (despite the profound feelings he clearly has). On the day of her release, she stands on a pile of books and hangs herself. Ironic, since they were the objects of her internal resurrection (Note the Bible is nowhere to be found is the film, though it fits in quite a few places).
Overall, this is not a film that will be remembered as a classic decades from now, but it deserves the credit of being called an interesting plot. The entire movie has an element of secrecy, the affair, his being dishonest with his family and friends, her dishonesty about being what boils down to a Nazi, and the theme recurs in all the books that he reads her. It is when the truth begins to come out that people become miserable, quite parallel to Hitler's Germany. The sun naively shines on most of the film. "The Reader" is not a masterpiece, but has plenty of things to look for and is a good way to forget about life for two hours.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Madea Goes To Jail

To contrast the artistic films that we have been watching in film class, I decided to pick Tyler Perry's most recent film about the craziest elderly black lady that ever roamed God's green earth.
Granted this is nowhere near "Mr. Bennet levels" of film quality, but it is not entirely fair to dismiss this film as something worth raising your nose to. Through previous films, like Diary of a Mad Black Woman and Daddy's Little Girl, it is evident that Perry's greatest attribute as a director, writer, producer, what have you, is his ability to tell the story. He often multi-facets his plot to leave his audience (whatever quality they may be) thinking. This particular story is about a lawyer in Atlanta (the setting of all his films and shows) named Joshua, who is soon to marry a fellow attorney Linda, both of whom are quickly rising in the city's legal institution. All seems well until he finds himself defending a college friend that has since become a prostitute. This bothers Josh not because he is such a naturally nice guy, which the film completely justifies, but because the two were at a point inseparable and it all fell apart one night in college when Josh unknowingly left Candie at a party with his football teammates who then raped her. Josh carries this guilt all these years and fights for her freedom to the point that his fiance actually fluffs up the charges against her in hopes of increasing her jail time. Where does Madea come in all this? She mostly serves as comical relief; the stereotype that Perry has grown comfortable with. She bumps around life from one crime to another, not in hopes of gain, but in hopes of revenge. Every time someone wrongs her, she feels the need to wrong them back a few times (this is done mostly in the form of shooting at and beating the tar out of agitators). The modern Hammurabi, if you will. After destroying a woman's car with a fork lift for just that reason, she is finally sentenced to jail after a life time of dumb luck with judges. Madea and Candie meet in jail and begin helping each other out in the day to day grind. Another character in the film is a prostitute-turned-preacher named Ellen who reverbrates one of the themes of the film. Straight out of the Bible, one forgives others not for their sake, but for their own. Carrying hatred in the heart is no way to go through life. No matter where we have come from or how bad our conditions may be, we have the choice to act in accordance with our morals. I won't spoil the ending, but believe me when I say it isn't much to spoil.
Perry is quite talented in showing the meager life that exists in the city. Prostitution, drug addiction, constant fear of invasion (by any number of forces), arrest, etc. Perry shows that every level of society experiences corruption. The lawyers at Josh's firm cheat and lie, Josh has a dark past, even the company that tries to employ Candie (as part of community service with Ellen's ministry) does not willingly take the battered Candie for a job unless she is willing to perform sexual favors on the employer. He does however offer a light of hope in Josh, Ellen, and even Madea, who is crazy but by and by a good person that does very much of her questionable behavior for the benefit of those around her.
The camera work is virtually nonexistent, only a shoulder high shot of the characters speaking is consistent, the rest of the time it is simply sowing the scene for the sake of showing the scene. The lighting is equally complex. This film offers little for the artistic mind, but Tyler Perry has grown somewhat as a movie maker. He does use symbols such as rain to show when life seems to be at its worst for Candie. The pimp that hunts for Candie drives a Cadillac Escalade while Joshua drives a Chevrolet Tahoe. Physically, these cars are virtually the same, thus suggesting a very thin line between the two extremes of good and evil. That idea is further reinforced by everyone exhibiting some jarring flaw, be it Madea's lively behavior, Linda's fraud, another lawyer's cheating on the LSATs, or even Joshua's college regret concerning Candie. Perry even pulls a Spike Lee by making Linda, the least likable character, a very pale shade of black. The prison to which Madea goes to is incidently more white than black. Coincidence or not, it can be suggested that Perry has some issues with racism (understandably so if you've ever read biographic work concerning him). However, he is no racist as a fellow jailbird (white) that starts out as a royal pain in the neck soon becomes friends with Madea and Candie.
A certain history teacher will have to forgive me about my choice of film, while I do not view this as a memorable film by any stretch of the imagination, it is a work of art nonetheless. There need to be at least twenty Madeas for every Slumdog, Reader, or Revolutionary Road. Discrimination is not my policy and I choose to evaluate every film with any shred of objectivity I may or may not have been blessed with.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The root of all evil makes for a good movie

Not that I want to ride the bandwagon, but I only recently saw Slumdog Millionare for the first time. I also don't want to ride on the coat tails of Citizen Kane, but there is one sentence that almost sums up the whole movie. One of the security guards is listening to our protagonist Jamal Malik's life story and he nonchalantly says that most of life's problems stem from money and women. Almost from the moment we are introduced to the five year old Jamal, we see that one force or the other is dictating the course of his existence.
The first chronological action of Jamal's that we witness is him and friends playing cricket on an empty airport runway because their local slums do not have adequate room. When he jumps into an open air public toilet to receive his hero's autograph, his brother waits only a few hours to steal the photo and pawns it. His mother's death is one of the few exceptions in the film. That tragedy is a result of uncompromising hatred. I could make the argument that this is a result of an equal and opposite passion to that of love, which is what is really meant by "women" in the phrase, but I won't because I don't believe this. What follows is certainly money related: Living in a box cart, which is exactly where the other problem maker rears its head. Jamal and his brother Salim befriend Latika, a fellow slumdog that also lost her family to the anti-Muslim riots of that day. They quickly become loyal companions and are all sucked into a camp for training beggars by the gangster Maman, who is obviously in it for the money. The sweet taste of the Coca Cola he offers the boys when they meet is symbolic of legal tender's constant presence in the movie. In fact, rupees are so important to the movie that Salim almost has his eyes cut out in hopes of arousing sympathy in beggars. When the brothers escape, they leave behind Latika unintentionally, setting up the women troubles to come later in the story. As for the Maliks, they travel in the roofs of trains in hopes of swindling food, they steal shoes and give phony tours at the Taj Mahal. They even get in trouble with the brutal police in front of rich Americans in hopes of getting a few dollars in exchange for a bruised eye. The movie shows the life of crime as quite appealing to the alternative. An honest Joe seems to be a hungry one. They eventually end up as restaurant workers. Once again, they are in a position where they are surrounded by those that are "better" than they are, enjoying the sweat of their labor. After years, they decide (mostly by Jamal's heartache) it has been too long since last seeing Latika, so they go back across India in search of her. They find that she is the star of Maman's exploitation ring. The only reason they escape with their lives is because Salim pulls out a colt .45 and ruthlessly kills the gangster. His last action is to hand over his wallet to the gun blazing adolescent, so they are able to rent a hotel room that night. Of course, money is power is embodied in Salim's bullying of his brother out of the room at gun point so that he may be alone with Latika, presumably to rape her. Because she intervenes voluntarily, as oppose to watching her friend be shot, Jamal feels betrayed and heartbroken. For years, he is separated from his brother. Once reunited years later, the only slightly bitter Jamal finds that his brother never lost the addiction to money and power that he adopted that night. Salim works for a different gangster named Javed. Who should this rich man's wife be, but the emotionally distraught Latika. Jamal is still very much in love with her and tries to reunite and runoff with her, but Javed sends his men (including Salim) to abduct her and bring her back to a different and well guarded house.
Jamal decides to go on an Indian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" Somehow believing that this will help him find her. In a show where the whole point is to make money (one of the questions is who is on the American one hundred dollar bill), Jamal consistently risks everything rather than getting away with a smaller amount of money, as if he is stalling to give Latika time to escape and find her way to the most televised place in India. Even the host wants to screw over hero out of the money he deserves, feeding him wrong answers he does not take, and having police accuse him of cheating in hopes of not letting him get rich like he did (as he was also a slumdog). Eventually, even Salim feels the love for both his brother and Latika and helps her escape. In a blatantly symbolic manner, Salim gets into a bath tub full of money after his epiphany and awaits his death. What killed him inside years earlier, is now his tool of literal suicide. After a number of heart pounding questions, Jamal finally wins the twenty million rupees, becoming the show's first winner in India. However, it wouldn't be a sentimental movie if he was not sitting at the train station he wished to run off with Latika at, looking horribly depressed (as if his recent victory were not rich enough for him) and then seeing the love of his life approaching him and ending the movie with a kiss.
I assume that yellow is the Indian color of love, or something to that effect because she wears a top of that color in every fantasy Jamal has of Latika in the latter half of the movie and is the last thing she wears for the final thirty or so minutes of the move.
Money is the root of all evil, is strongly supported in the film. Money causes Jamal nothing but trouble and never amounts to anything positive, making his long face at the train station justifiable. However, love is given way too much credit for happiness (as it usually is in just about every story). He does suffer for his love but eventually is rewarded for it, but the same can be said for money as he becomes affluent in the end. Danny Boyle's ultimate message for the movie is that love conquers all, though money plays an important role, it can not solely make one happy. As cliche as it is, all the gangsters and Salim either die or very despicable characters. Only Latika and Jamal make it out uncorrupted and full of bliss, making it a very Bollywood ending (the dance scene certainly added to this).

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Comedian

"Watchmen" is a well crafted film that spares neither expense nor time (2 hours 45 minutes) to develop every detail of the story. The most critical element of any story is its characters. Though he does not receive the most camera time, the super hero known as "The Comedian" is arguably the most important character in the film.

The movie begins with this "hero" suffering a brutal beating from the hands of a mysterious murderer. Though it is evident that he knows how to fight, he is aged and ultimately is bested and thrown through a plate glass window thirty or forty stories up. As he hits the ground, a smiley face pin he was wearing falls next to him. In addition to having a single droplet of blood trail diagonally from the eye, the pins is engulfed in a puddle of the same liquid within moments. Blood is one of the key motifs in the film, it is symbolic and characteristic of the movie's mood of gross cynicism. The Comedian, ironically, embodies this better than any character. If the death of the Comedian, or Eddie Blake, is less than family appropriate, than his life is arguably sinful enough to put the devil to shame: Burning Vietcong alive with a flamethrower, pushing away all the heroes he fought alongside, raping women (and producing illegitimate offspring), shooting pregnant women, shooting the President (hint: grassy knoll), and other moralistic acts. Such behavior might be deemed madness without method, but Blake is sick of society. He watches it destroy itself as the years progress. He, like everyone else, is force fed the despicable stories of murder, fraud, perversion, and the likes, that the media has adopted to sell more papers, magazines, commercial time, etc. The degradation of society inspires him to, as an equally cynical character Rorschach puts it, be the ultimate parody of it. With all his actions, he has a philosophy behind it: the country is falling apart because the American dream came true, and violence is the only way to protect America from itself. The week before he meets his untimely death, Blake breaks into his archenemy's (Malik) home and breaks down in tears. He scalds himself for his deplorable actions and admits that Malik is the closest thing to a friend he has, embodying the crowded isolation of modern society by doing so. In the flashbacks to the 1940s, when the Comedian is a young member of the watchmen, he wears a colorful costume, yellow, purple, green, and so on. However, he never goes through a stage of innocence that turns to pesimism, he is always the conscious lacking troublemaker we see through the whole film. Suggesting that you can dress up sin any way you'd like, but there is no hiding it. Perhaps he realizes this as the film chronologically progresses when he adopts a suit of black comando style armor. The attitude remains constant, but the costume change is seen first when he is fighting in Vietnam, hinting to the shell shock so many veterans suffered. His assasination of Kennedy symbolizes what little hope there is for a beam of light to shine upon the world (though some political scientists might disagree). In a scene where he murders a vietnamese woman, he accuses a fellow hero of being every bit as bad as he is for standing by and watching as he commits the act.

The Comedian is not just the reason for the plot dynamics, he is also a warning. It is the director's tool to help audiences realize what is happening to society as a whole. Excluding saints, the Comedian represents all of us in some way or another. The smiley face he wears is a skin deep aesthetic, a collectively unatainable desire, just another one of his jokes. This caricature is meant to awaken us from our naivete that everything is not alright, far from it.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Blame the Parents

When watching the movie Citizen Kane a question that is on the mind of probably every viewer is why does Kane act the way that he does? Why does he launch a nationally printed newspaper? Why does he build an opera house for a wife that can't sing? Why does he try so hard to attain the love and respect of everyone that he meets and everyone he does not?

As a teenager, I feel very comfortable saying that it's all mom and dad's fault. When we discover Charles as a young boy in Colorado, he is the victim of a violent father. This is evident through his mother's emotionless demeanor, no doubt the result of years of abuse. She loves her son so much that she is willing to send him away to live with a distant relative just to ensure that the father can not continue his abuses. In that same scene, as the circumstances are being explained to little Charlie, he is quick to distance himself at the very sight of his patriarch. He takes comfort only in his mother's warm embrace just as that scene is ending. However, momma Kane is not blameless and the shutting of the window at the beginning of that scene should be a hint. Though she does help her son to a brighter future, with countless oppurtunities, she never again sees him. She still lives many years after Charles Foster Kane becomes a success. She could have tried to find him in all that time, but she did not. There must have been some underlying strife between them. If anyone wishes to make the argument that she was probably poor and could not afford to take a sabbatical to find her child, then why didn't Kane look for her? He had all the time and resources in the world and could have easily hunted her down even if she left that little town in which they once lived, which is unlikely. Kane only attempts to reconnect with his mother after she dies by going to a warehouse where old possesions were stored. Ms. Alexander is enough of a distraction to prevent him from going. It is hard to say who dislked whom, but all was not well between any of the Kane family.

Kane understood early on that he was not loved, so he decided to compensate for this by winning over everyone else. He does this in possibly the best way, by starting a chain of newspapers. This is a medium that just about everyone was using on a daily basis, so if he could keep the readers' attention then he would capture what he desired. The fact that the readers' care is fickle worked out beautifully for Kane becuase he would have to put out a new issue everyday. it is this lack of permanent popularity that drives him throughout his life. As time progresses with both of his wives, he goes from desiring and interested to bitter and unpleasant. This is because he has attained, in his mind, permanent love from them. With that kind of security, he would be able to focus on others' transient affection. I found it appropriate that he should bring a new woman (Susan Alexander) into his life just as another one (his mother) leaves.

Kane is eventually destroyed by Susan rejecting him for two reasons. First, a love that he thought certain was permanent is now gone and there is no blatantly obvious reason (like an affair) for it (at least to him there is not). Second, it is because he is quite old when it occurs. He is bald, fat, and decrepit to the point that he seldom leaves his chair, much less his home (hence why he fills it up with every imaginable pleasure). He understands that Susan was his last love because he does not have the vigor, in any sense, to go out and find another "singer" for himself.

He dies in a realization that since rosebud he has lived a loveless existance, one full of delusion and self centered power struggles. Such a film only strengthens that power of "daddy never hugged me!" It can lead a man on a life long journey for something so basic, yet so apparently unattainable. He never recieved the foundation for human empathy (only in the emotional sense, since he gives $25,000 checks to fired close friends and opera houses to wives with only distant fantasies of actually using it) so he struggled his entire life to express something he always had. His parents left quite the profound effect on him (as do all our parents). His mother gives him his emotionless caring nature that is present in the way he treats his close firends and his family. His father gave him his violent tendencies like hitting Susan or destroying her room after she leaves him. It all starts in the nurturing phase, when we are blank slates waiting to be bombarded by the world around us. No doubt that is where Kane's greatest strenght and weakness developed.