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Capsule Movie Reviews Vol.2012.9

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Joe vs. the Volcano (1990) — 8/10
Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan star in a movie that starts off like Brazil, depicting the life of a wage-slave—an empty, meaningless and mind-numbingly boring life. The kind of life that probably more rather than fewer people live today than in 1990 when the film was made. The entrance to the company where Joe works—which manufactures rectal probes and lube (really subtle)—is a jagged, winding path cut into what looks like volcanic, blasted terrain. The atrium of the building reveals the logo of the company to be the same pattern. Joe’s apartment has a huge crack on one wall, again in the same shape. There are other symbols like that—like the Great Danes, the significance of which I can’t begin to guess. Ossie Davis plays his limo driver/spiritual advisor on a shopping trip through Manhattan. The story is a fable but not really a morality tale. Just a unique story that you won’t really be able to guess. In hindsight, you may say you had seen it coming, but it’s unique and new enough that you won’t have, really. Perhaps the jagged road symbolizes the twists and turns of the plot, of life. Once you see Meg Ryan for the second time, then a third—and Joe doesn’t bat an eye—you slowly realize that you are watching a fairy tale, not a story of real life. Abe Vigoda and Nathan Lane play bit parts as members of the tribe living on the island with the big volcano.
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States S01E03 (2012) — 10/10
This episode deals with the Pacific theater of World War II. The initial focus is on American attitudes toward the Japanese. From president Truman on down, America was extremely racist toward them, with official and public denials that they were even human. The rhetoric echoes that of Hitler on the other side of the ocean and the actions—dozens of thousands of Japanese rounded up and forced to work in camps—as well. It was actually Roosevelt who did this, although he expressed chagrin—cold comfort to the prisoners, 75% of whom were American citizens. This disconnect from the enemy would lead to horrific bombing campaigns on civilians—even in the “good war”, America played dirty—culminating of course in Hiroshima, where America wiped out that city’s “usefulness to the enemy”, as Truman put it. The Europeans didn’t escape civilian bombing, to the point where “even Churchill wondered ‘are we beasts? Are we taking this too far?’”. American Curtis LeMay was quite famously one of the most notorious “terror bombers” and was not bothered by his conscience as all. The bombing of Tokyo, as described, sounds almost worse than Hiroshima, described as “one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of non-combatants in history.” The Potsdam conference is also covered in detail, focusing on the duplicity of the U.S. toward both Japan and the Soviet Union: the offer to Japan was rigged to be denied so the bomb could be used.
Crude (2009) — 8/10
This film is a documentary about the decade-and-a-half–long class-action lawsuit by the indigenous people of Ecuador—representing about 30,000—against Chevron neé Texaco. It’s a sad story, really, with poignant scenes in the hinterlands of Ecuador. Though the film is mostly in Spanish, there are interviews with some Chevron representatives. The most interesting of these is the chief environmental scientist, who swears up and down that there is no contamination and these people’s health problems are entirely due to their shitting in their own drinking water. She does not elaborate as to the likelihood of the coincidence that the indigenous peoples would change their sanitary habits after hundreds of years at about the same time that companies started drilling for oil. Unfortunately for her argument, her own company took a different tack, admitting that there is massive contamination but that the national oil concern PetroEcuador is responsible. The burden on the plaintiffs was to show that the contamination pre-dated PetroEcuador’s involvement. Chevron, for its part, has contract law on its side as everything that it did was either pre- or post-facto validated by Ecuadorian law. The plaintiffs would also have to show that corruption allowed Chevron to plaster their behavior over with a sheen of legality. This includes the various remediation processes, for which Chevron has ample “proof”—all provided by paid officials. The turning point in the case was the election of Rafael Correa, a 41-year-old left-leaning economist with more interest for his own people than for foreign investors. Steven Donziger, the main American lawyer, said “if you did this in America, you’d go to jail”. I wouldn’t be too sure about that (perhaps Donziger needs to watch The Last Mountain and other tales of environmental woe from the States). Pablo Fajardo, the lead attorney and native Ecuadoran is a very eloquent orator.
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States S01E04 (2012) — 10/10

This episode covers the aftermath of WWII, with the U.S. booming economically and worried that its markets would dry up as European countries licked their wounds and turned to the State for succor. The anti-fascist, socialist backlash in those countries would prove detrimental to American interests. Harry Truman’s jingoist and simplistically anti-communist view of the world would form the basis of American policy that continues, quite frankly, to this day. Bolstered by a burgeoning propaganda machine, the Soviet Union was promoted to the next great enemy bent on world domination. It was Churchill who defined the Iron Curtain and set the world on a path to Cold War. And poor Henry Wallace still provided the unheeded voice of reason:

“The only way to defeat communism in the world is to do a better and smoother job of production and distribution. Let’s make it a clean race, a determined race. But, above all, a peaceful race in the service of humanity. The source of all our mistakes is fear: Russia fears Anglo-Saxon encirclement; we fear communist penetration. Out of fear, great nations have been acting like cornered beasts, thinking only of survival. The common people will not tolerate imperialism, even under enlightened Anglo-Saxon, atomic-bomb auspices. The destiny of the English-speaking people is to serve the world, not dominate it.”

Despite the Freudian imagery and kowtowing to the idea that the West was enlightened, this is still the sanest assessment that came out of the States at the time.

The American involvement and manipulation of Greece, Turkey and other Balkan nations is covered in detail. The domination of communism abroad was followed by the Red Scare domestically. The propaganda onslaught continued as the U.S. knowingly used former Nazis to sell anti-communism until the Soviets were forced to react, closing down East Germany. All these charges against the Soviet while, at the same time, segregation of the “coloreds” still drove much of U.S. domestic policy. The Chinese revolution followed, which the U.S. could not hinder; Korea would be different. The U.S. sent troops (unlike the mere “advisors” present in Greece and Italy in the late 40s). And the domino theory was born and “you are the target”.

A Very Harold And Kumar 3D Christmas (2011) — 6/10
The eponymous pair have gone their separate ways: Harold is a successful business executive living in a quasi-mansion in the suburbs and married to a beautiful and loving wife whereas Kumar lives alone, pining over his lost love, having dropped out of med school to do bong-hits full-time. Circumstances bring them together and Kumar learns a modicum of responsibility while Harold remembers what it is to have fun. Hilarity and hijinks ensue. It’s decent; add a point if you like Harold and Kumar. The film is only tangentially related to Christmas in that they’re trying to buy a Christmas tree throughout the film … and that Santa Claus is in it.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) — 8/10
A Christmas thriller from Finland about the Santa Claus of ancient legends, a Santa more in line with Krampus, with goat horns and punishment on his mind. Legend has it that Santa used to punish children for being naughty by stealing them, slaying them or eating them. This Santa was frozen in a lake and transported to an underground tomb long ago, in the hazy past. But modern-day capitalism has found him and wants him/it back, for whatever reason. Strange event befall a trio of hunters/farmers in the Finnish countryside until they discover a man in one of their traps who looks for all the world like an emaciated Santa. Spoiler alert: he turns out to be one of Santa’s “elves” and the real Santa is stories tall and still trapped in ice, with his enormous horns sticking out. The trio—led by the well-read child of one of them—endeavor to put an end to Santa’s terror, once and for all. It was a tight, well-made movie that deserves to be part of any Christmas cinema tradition. Saw it in Finnish with subtitles and some spoken English. Recommended.
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States S01E05 (2012) — 10/10

Eisenhower is elected and there is hope for an end to the cold war. John Foster Dulles saw to its continued, anti-communist edge. Where does the U.S. find people like this? How do they get hired? Why—why?—do they wield such power? How can men like Truman speak of peace as his forces napalm every city and village in Korea to the ground? As his soldiers slaughter conscripted Chinese peasants 8000 miles from U.S. shores in a “peace offensive”? A “police action”? Do Americans know that their military killed 10% of the Korean population in 3 years?

And if it’s not enough to slaughter innocents abroad in an imperial war. At the same time, the idiot Joseph McCarthy comes to inordinate power and cows a nation into a becoming a “right-wing, totalitarian country” (as described by the retired president Truman), seeing communists everywhere and turning in their friends in the best traditions. J. Edgar Hoover, “with the full support of Eisenhower”, ran the deconstruction of American democracy—such as it was—from FBI headquarters, opening a simultaneous front on all civil-rights organizations (left-wing and black). By all counts, there were only 80,000 registered communists in its heyday, 1944—when the Soviet Union was still a close ally and was given credit for winning WWII. By the early 50s, there were only 10,000 left and, of those, “about 1,500 were FBI informants”.

Nehru, the first prime minister of India, quite rightly called the American leadership, “dangerous, self-centered lunatics who would blow up any people or country who came in the way of their policy.”. And they would. When Mossadegh was elected president of Iran—a man with a law degree from a European University, ordinarily a pedigree that would guarantee he become a puppet—the CIA (under Dulles and “Kermit” Roosevelt) orchestrated a coup, despite knowing full well that Mossadegh wasn’t a communist. Luckily, almost all oil concessions went to U.S. companies and the U.S. had a coerced government on“2,000-mile border with the Soviet Union”.

With so much power, wealth and might, the U.S. was not limited to spreading its insanity and malignant violence to the Middle East. There was also Southeast Asia, where the U.S. saved the Vietnamese from self-rule. The details are morally abhorrent in the extreme, but told very well in this documentary. Check out books by William Blum—Killing Hope is a good start—for details on all U.S. incursions and attacks in the 20th century. The U.S. was the gatekeeper to the U.N. as well, blessing fascist Spain (under Franco) and imperial Portugal with membership but denying communist China until 1971. When the Soviets attacked Hungary to keep it within the fold, the U.S. media seized on the attack as justification for the dozens of U.S. attacks—each orders of magnitude greater than Hungary. And if it wasn’t bad enough that we got one Dulles brother, John Foster, we got the other as well, Allen. These guys were instrumental in building up fantasies of imminent extinction that had almost no basis in fact and no roots in reality whatsoever.

The U.S. had no trouble making Cuba out to be the enemy that would end America and continued to use the domino theory to support “falling dominoes” all over the world, including even the Congo, where Patrice Lumumba was trying to get his people out from under Belgium’s imperial yoke (the Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver includes a historical fiction account of this period from a somewhat Congolese point of view).

Eisenhower would do America the favor of warning that the military-industrial complex had gone too far—after doing more than anyone else to grow it exponentially and put it firmly in the driver’s seat. He hired the Dulles brothers, after all. He also played fast-and-loose with nuclear threats—a tradition that continues to this day (though veiled in language like “not taking any options off the table”). The efforts of lonely, sane voices like Henry Wallace and George Marshall were as effectual as the voices of sanity today.

Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States S01E06 (2012) — 10/10

Camelot. Kennedy’s administration sounds like that of Obama several decades later, with a cabinet full of insiders and industry leaders. Robert McNamara is portrayed as level-headed, having been the first to go over the Pentagon’s books to determine that there was a gigantic missile gap—but in the U.S.‘s favor. The U.S. had approximately ten times the armaments of the reviled Soviet Union.

After stewing in their own fantasy world a bit longer, the U.S. attacked Cuba. Kennedy would play the good guy, who stopped aggression in the nick of time, but the reality was different. (See The Week the World Stood Still by Noam Chomsky (TomDispatch) for much more detail.) Though Kennedy’s behavior was standard for a U.S. president, privately he was quickly at odds with the “Joint Chiefs bastards […] and CIA sons of bitches” who were driving policy to their own ends.

Kennedy’s counterpart in the Soviet was Khrushchev, whose primary concern was Germany: “give a German a gun and, sooner or later, he will point it at Russia”. Kennedy’s reaction to Khrushchev’s pleas to allow revolution and to stand down was, quite frankly, as ignorant as Truman’s, though couched in finer language. He oversaw the acceleration of fear and the buildup of weaponry. When Khrushchev put 30 missiles in Cuba—for various reasons, to placate hard-liners at home, to stave off U.S. invasion, as a bluff to show power that wasn’t there—the U.S., with its syphilitic mind, reacted with little subtlety and almost started WWIII (again, see the article cited above, where you can read about the U.S. deliberately attacking Soviet nuclear submarines with depth charges). With an utter lack of context, the U.S. could portray the Soviet move as utterly unprovoked. The Soviets naturally blinked first but tried to get concessions on U.S. missiles in Turkey. Khrushchev blinked hard and sent Kennedy a letter pleading for sanity: Kennedy ignored it. Stone includes the story of Vasili Arkhipov, who saved the Earth from its first all-out nuclear war. Though the U.S. was at def-con two, “[i]t is interesting to note in hindsight that, during the entire crisis, Soviet missiles were never fueled, Red Army reserves were never called up, and Berlin was never threatened.” In other words: the Soviet Union never even came close to the war footing and insanity of the U.S. Khrushchev was instrumental in preventing American macho destruction but was “forced out of power the next year” having been universally perceived as weak, both in the Soviet Union and China.

The U.S. tried so hard to prevent a communist takeover of the world—despite little to no evidence for it—that it took over the world for anti-communism. When Kennedy finally changed his tune, the hive mind of the U.S. dumped him as no longer useful. The collected efforts of raging egos and madness-riddled and simplistic minds would continue to imbue the U.S. with a simple mission: to envelop the world like Kudzu, with no further goal than that.

So, here’s an excerpt from American University Speech by John F. Kennedy (Wikipedia)

“What kind of peace do I mean and what kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.”

Unfortunately, he also blathered this:

The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough—more than enough—of war and hate and oppression. (Emphasis added.)”

The world, in fact, knew just the opposite, having had that lesson drummed into its head for decades at that point. Now, five more decades later, nothing has changed. As far as the feeling of Americans themselves, he would be both right and wrong—and attitudes have not changed yet. Americans would love to have a world without war, yes. But they, at the same time, accept almost any reason, regardless of supporting evidence, as justification for starting one. That is, they don’t want war: they just want to be in charge of everything, be maximally comfortable and never want for anything that their diseased minds can conjure. So that’s easy, right?

Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008) — 7/10
Harold and Kumar pick up where they left off in their instant cult-classic stoner film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. They’re trying to get to Amsterdam to chase the woman of Roldie’s dreams and Kumar is relentlessly trying to get high. Even on an airplane, with a super-bong that he created himself. That lights up. And looks all high-tech. Wielded by a swarthy young man stoned out of his gourd. You can tell where this is going. So Kumar screws up everything and gets them thrown in Guantánamo Bay by Rob Corddry’s utterly over-the-top-insane under-secretary of something-or-other. They spend the rest of the film on the lam, trying to find someone to help them clear their names, while Corddry ignores all evidence to clamp the jaws of his gigantic trap shut around the “terrorists” that he thinks he’s caught. It’s good enough in its own right, but I think the original was better. Oh, and NPH[1] shows up again—and takes the boys for a good time at a Texas whorehouse. (What else?)
Cabin in the Woods (2011) — 8/10

A pretty clever take on the slasher-film genre. A group of college-aged folks drive into the woods to spend some time at an isolated cabin that one of their families just bought. The kids are actually portrayed pretty well and the stoner’s funny. Alongside this plot is what looks for all the world like a government agency running surveillance and experiments on the people in the cabin—it sounds like a new crop shows up every year. And this isn’t the only lab: there are others in other countries, with the Japanese having sewn up the horror award for the last several years running. The writing is good and the idea is dark, cynical and funny. The students don’t fit into their stereotypes until pushed there by aerosol pheromones and other drugs (to create a dumb-blonde slut and an alpha-male meathead).

There are shades of The Truman Show, Men In Black, Half-Life, Portal, Operation: Endgame and The Cube in it, except it’s run for the benefit of sacrificing innocents to appease the ancient Gods. The cabin is a high-tech killing floor run by an agency for this one purpose—as are other sites around the world. And the participants are trapped there by all manner of high-tech barriers. It’s really quite a bit of fun because you don’t know whether to root for the agency—to stop ancient evil from rising and enveloping the world—or for the kids, who are just trying to escape zombie slaughter.

The switches from the Running-Man–like world where the kids are being hounded and slaughtered to the headquarters of the agency running the show are jarring—but in a good way. The agency employees’ distance from the death and destruction, their office hijinks—betting pools, office-party celebrations—is perhaps allegorical for the distance to suffering that such functionaries have (think the drone pilots stationed in Nevada)[2]. It’s essentially a tale wherein the few must suffer so that the majority can survive (the essence of ritual sacrifice).

The Director (voiced by Sigourney Weaver): You’ve seen horrible things. An army of nightmare creatures. But they are nothing compared to what came before, what lies below. It’s our task to placate the ancient ones, as it’s yours to be offered up to them. Forgive us and let us get it over with.”

A pleasant surprise. Recommended.

Blade Runner (1982) — 10/10

Everywhere you look, there is something different, not of our world. The camera never lands on anything ordinary, even in the periphery. Every angle is carefully selected, as is every light source—and there thousands—every raindrop, the atmosphere, everything is so believable, it sucks you in. The police speak English—except for Edward James Olmos, who only speaks Cityspeak, a hybrid of several languages—but the flight-routing systems speak Dutch, German, Japanese and what sounded like Russian. An amazing-looking—and -sounding—film: it’s like William Gibson saw this movie and then spent the next 30 years writing about it.

JF Sebastien’s[3] house is amazing with all of his gadgets and toys. Darryl Hannah oozes madness, as does Rutger Hauer. Everything was going so well until Deckard felt the need to rape Sean Young’s replicant. It might have been called “rough seduction” in 1982 but it looked for all the world like rape (which, technically, does not apply because she’s a replicant, not an actual human being).

There is a lovely trick of the light that highlights a deeply buried red light in the eyes that shows up for replicants and other created creatures, but also for Deckard at one point in his apartment. Is this is a sign of a replicant? But how can it be if Deckard has it too? Light-colored eyes are subject to red-eye, aren’t they? Perhaps Deckard is also a replicant? How can you tell? Would a human be able to pass the kind of Turing Test that they use to weed out the manufactured from the borne? Would Deckard? Dammit, the owl has red eyes too and it’s definitely manufactured. Even Roy says “C’mon Deckard! Show me what you’re made of!” Does he know something that Deckard doesn’t?

Roy’s injuries at the end mirror those of Deckard. Roy’s are due to his genetic programming, his flesh is necrotizing, shutting down, rebelling against him: he’s running out of time. Deckard tries to restore the hand ruined by Roy. I’m sure there’s some significance to Roy driving a nail through his hand—giving himself a stigmata—because he was also referred to by his creator as the prodigal son. The final soliloquy was every bit as moving as advertised: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. [laughs] Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like [coughs] tears in rain. Time to die.” Rutger Hauer was impressive. Highly recommended. “It’s a pity she won’t live. But then again, who does?”

Armadillo (2010) — 7/10

A very professionally and well-made documentary about a Danish platoon deployed in Afghanistan. The footage on patrols is amazing[4]. The film follows them from Denmark pre-deployment through arrival in Afghanistan. The soldiers are young western men, so they have a party before they go—with a lap dancer—and they yearn for “real” action rather than just boring patrols. And they watch porn when they’re not on patrol (at pretty much every opportunity, but that’s not suprising … what else is there to do? Play video games, I guess.) The soldiers speak Danish amongst themselves but speak English on the public band; their Danish is also heavily sprinkled with English. And they run patrols in largely rural, civilian areas and then complain about the Taliban hiding behind civilians.

The interviews with the Afghans are conducted through a translator[5] and are fascinating. They start off with bravado, apologizing to a local mayor (chieftain?) for destroying his fields, but at the same time saying that “you all know that we have to walk through those fields”. He laughs at them and responds,

“How should we know? It is our fault, maybe? Last year they bombarded our house. I swear by God I don’t even have any clothes to wear. […] What should we do? Leave our villages? […] It’s not you or the Taliban who are killed. We are the ones who get killed. The civilians get killed. We sit in our homes and get bombed.”

In response to Danish promises that they will try to move the war north, to draw the Taliban away from their villages, the elder says “You can’t. People fight, because they’re poor, including the Taliban.” The translators with direct contact see the citizens as people; the soldiers—especially once they are hit themselves—begin the alienation almost immediately, “I would feel worse shooting a stray dog.” This attitude toward “their” deaths is starkly juxtaposed with the utter sorrow they feel when they lose one of their own. It’s hard not to think of them as hypocritical mouth-breathers utterly without philosophy.

Soon after, they get in a firefight and annihilate several Taliban; afterwards, they drag out the corpses (checking for weapons), comparing it to hauling livestock. Back at base, the camera captures their adrenalized excitement as they relate the specifics of the battle to each other, cementing the tale. This is quite standard, until the platoon commander[6] calls a meeting to find out who told his family of their post-firefight revelry and disrespect for the Taliban dead. It’s a very interesting conversation, almost a therapy session.

What never enters anyone’s mind is to ask why they are even there in the first place. To them, it was a huge battle; objectively, an overwhelmingly superior Danish force eradicated some Afghan farmers and then spend days, if not weeks, trumpeting about it, analyzing it, and whining about their compatriot who got shot in the ass. “You weren’t there, man.” Indeed. It probably seemed huge to them, but even in the small scheme of things, it was utterly useless. They should all read Catch-22 and get over themselves. Watched it in Danish with English subtitles.

Balibo (2009) — 7/10
A faux documentary based on the true story of the Indonesian assault on Timor—what would eventually become a near-genocide. The story centers on five young journalists who travel to Timor just as the invasion is beginning. Their intent is to capture the Indonesian army on film in order to prove that they are committing war crimes (the ultimate crime of aggression against another sovereign nation). The U.S. and Australia are firmly in Indonesia’s camp, though, so there is no help to be found and enemies abound, as do Timorese refugees fleeing for their lives. The story is told through another, older journalist who has been enlisted by the young and Ché-esque Timorese Secretary of Foreign Affairs, José Ramos-Horta. Several days/weeks behind, they travel in the footsteps of the young journalists, with both stories interleaved throughout the film. The horrifying, callous disregard for life shown the Indonesian army is portrayed well, as is the real back-story of Western support for the genocide (Suharto was, after all, “our kind of guy” whereas Sukarno was a bloody socialist and utterly useless to western interests). After several decades of exile, Horta would finally return in 1999 after Timor had finally been granted independence once again.
The Boondock Saints (1999) — 8/10
Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus star as the charismatic, hard-drinking and linguistically gifted MacManus brothers, who come to be known as the Boondock Saints once they get a taste for vigilantism. Willem Dafoe puts in a star turn as FBI Special Agent Smecker, a savant of crime-scene forensics and entirely too smart for the job. Add Billy Connolly as Il Duce and a lot of mobsters and you’ve got yourself a fun movie. The boys can’t miss and their enemies couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, but their characters are appealing enough that you don’t care and root for them anyway. With their Catholic God looking over them and the whole of Boston on their side, the boys make a career of being white-hat vigilantes.
The Boondock Saints: All Saints Day (2009) — 6/10
The boys are back, although they start off in Ireland this time, having escaped the long arm of the long at the end of the first film. The elaborate set pieces and extravagant though largely harmless—to the MacManus family anyway—shootouts are back from the first film. Willem Dafoe has been replaced by Julie Benz as Special Agent Eunice Bloom, whose given enough good dialogue to let her chew the scenery (even though I’d never heard of her before). Peter Fonda and Judd Nelson round out the cast of people you may actually recognize. Indomitable, indefatigable and bulletproof as ever, the boys press on to their goal of uprooting big-time crime in Boston. Oh, and they have to clear their name, which has been besmirched by a height-challenged Sicilian hit-man.
21 Jump Street (2012) — 8/10
Jonah Hill is lighter than ever and stars as fresh young cop opposite Channig Tatum’s equally fresh young cop. The movie is based on the TV show, in which young-looking cops infiltrate high schools by posing as students and ferreting out drug smugglers. The writing and dialogue is pretty sharp and the two leads are great (Channing Tatum, especially, is just charming as hell). The plot is what you would expect, though above average and including enough twists about “typical” high-school life to keep you guessing as to who is cool and who is not. Rob Riggle stars as—what else?—a PE coach; Ice Cube is the relentlessly foul-mouthed precinct sergeant of Jump Street. James Franco’s little brother Dave is also in this one, playing a rather big role—I didn’t know he was his brother and was wondering if actors that look like other actors just naturally crawled out of the woodwork.
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010) — 7/10
After having enjoyed The Cabin in the Woods, I remembered another horror/comedy that turned the tables on the classic formula. Tucker and Dale are supposedly hillbillies on their way to their vacation home, of which they are very proud. Some college students arrive in the same woods at the same time and their worlds collide. It’s all a matter of perspective: the college students think that the hillbillies are trying to kidnap and/or kill them all; Tucker and Dale can’t figure out why the college students are killing themselves in horribly gruesome ways all over their property. It’s a comedy of misunderstanding, get it? It’s a bit slower and chattier than it needs to be in certain scenes, but overall it’s quite amusing.
Planet Terror (2007) — 6/10
Rose McGowan stars as Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer who wants to become a stand-up comedian. Fate intervenes and zombies too. The zombies come courtesy of a government experiment that spreads a chemical/biological weaponized gas all over Texas, creating shambling zombies with effervescing exteriors. Josh Brolin has a larger role and Bruce Willis and Quentin Tarantino have smaller parts, which rounds out the cast of actors you’re likely to recognize. It’s a well-made movie—Robert Rodriguez has a certain, gory flair—but it’s not really a must-see film. The plot is relatively predictable and Cherry takes entirely too long to become “enhanced” as promised in the trailer. When she does, though, it’s pretty fun.
Forks over Knives (2011) — 8/10
A documentary about the human diet, with a focus on a diet that works over the long-term to provide you with a long, energetic, healthy, happy, cancer- and heart-disease–free life. The recommendation is a whole-foods, dairy- and meat-free diet. Combine this one with Food Inc. and Killer at Large and you should be ready and primed to drastically reduce dairy and meat consumption, if not eliminate it altogether. Large-scale studies (large as in nearly a billion Chinese) show that intake of processed foods, meat protein and dairy products increase the likelihood of cancer and hear disease, even in otherwise healthy people. In general, it’s a really good documentary—and quite convincing—though there are some parts that are a bit over the top. It’s hard to argue with the recommendation to eat more fruits and vegetables; if it’s true that this diet can stave off cancer and all sort of other ailments, then what’s the harm? Find something other than food to scratch your itch (like exercise) and you’re all set. So simple, right? It’s not only good for you, but you will no longer be taking part in a system that is destroying the planet and using up its resources at much higher rate. Also, you avoid all of the ethical issues with raising and consuming animals. If you can get past the need for meat and dairy, you can substitute it with a glowing feeling of self-satisfaction and superiority—and you should be able to lord it over everyone else for much longer and cancer-free. Pretty sweet deal, right? The claims of how quickly changes occur—one guy supposedly dropped his cholesterol by 43% in three weeks—are hard to believe, but maybe don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels (1998) — 8/10
Jason Statham makes his debut in this film written and directed by Guy Ritchie. It has a bit of what would come to be known as Ritchie’s trademark slo-mo and freeze-frame style, but it’s not as fancy as it would become. The story concerns at least seven groups of small-time to big-time criminals and drug-dealers who are all trying to get a big stash of cash and drugs and use it to settle various debts they have to one another. It’s all a bit complicated and the setup takes quite a while, but the payoff is grand and wonderfully serendipitous. It’s also a bit of a cliffhanger at the end, with you, the viewer, not knowing quite whether the main boys—the heroes, as it were, though they’re not really very heroic—will end up on top or not. Vinnie Jones is excellent as an enforcer who makes out OK in the end. Saw it in whatever English they were speaking: I had no problem with the dialects at all, but I’m relatively well-trained for it. There’s only one part that even approaches the impenetrability of Snatch but they generously provided sub-titles to translate the Rhyming Slang bits.
Iron Sky (2012) — 7/10
The premise can’t be beat: a Nazi colony on the dark side of the moon! The Fourth Reich has survived and flourished on energy provided by Helium-3 on the moon, licking its wounds and waiting for the opportunity to strike and reclaim the Earth for its own. A campaign-marketing mission sent to the moon by President Palin sparks the Nazis into action. They launch their toys from their gigantic bases—don’t ask where they got all that metal, it’s more fun that way—and send a mission to Earth, composed of Renate Richter and Klaus Adler (the next-in-line to Führer). They speak a mix of English and German throughout the film. The plot is at times quite campy, but the effects are top-notch, especially the Götterdämmerung warship! Wow! The gears and chains and sheer steampunk power! The space fleet of Earth—and, of course, by 2018, every country has one—is also not bad, but the Nazi toys are much, much better. They took the concept of Nazis on the Moon and stuck to it and did a much better job of it than expected. Recommended.
The Raid: Redemption (2012) — 8/10
This is a movie with a plot that feels like it came from a video game, a relatively simple and straightforward one. A S.W.A.T. team attacks a broken-down residential building where a crime lord and his many henchmen live (oh so many henchmen; the credits actually list people as “hallway attacker #45” and so on). Most of the cops are cleared out of the way relatively quickly, with the criminals making use of machine guns. Once the dross is cleared off and only a couple of important ones remain, they switch to machetes, knives and martial arts. I could not have cared less about the nonsensical plot devices because the choreography was breathtaking: super-fast, fluid and not a cable in sight. Really nice close-quarters fighting with a lot of one-on-one, two-on-one encounters and just flying fists, feet, elbows and knees. Sure, the protagonists—as well as the main henchman—seem to have super stamina and Wolverine-like powers of recovery, but it’s very entertaining if you’re into watching martial arts.
The Guard (2011) — 9/10
An absolutely spellbinding movie starring Brendan Gleeson as a member of the Irish Garda and Don Cheadle as an FBI agent. The story unfolds in Galway county in Ireland with an anticipated $500 million drugs delivery. Sergeant Gerry Boyle is a wonderful character, who barely says a straight word throughout the film: he takes the piss so much that when he actually means something, no one believes him. He’s a brilliant cop with a realistic take: he doesn’t mind whoring and taking some drugs once in a while, to say nothing of combining whiskey and beer with driving along the coast. The film design is really nice as well, with particular attention paid to some very retro-looking bars and offices, as well as Boyle’s home, which is very nicely appointed in a style that’s a bit back of now. The same goes for haberdashery, with both Gleeson and Cheadle gussying up in some quite impressive clothes. And some of the scenes are much more dramatic than you ordinarily find in an action/comedy: the move to 100% dark background at some points, as if in a theater piece, the flames in the background like Boyle’s an avenging angel in another, etc. It’s an Irish movie, so there are a lot of in-jokes and a lot of English spoken in that sometimes nigh-impenetrable Irish lilt[7], especially when it’s simultaneously slurred or whispered. And the dialogue is oh so worth paying attention to. The interaction between Cheadle and Gleeson, the conversations had by the smugglers (who are into philosophy). It’s apparently the most successful independent Irish film of all time and deserves it. Highly recommended.
Ninja Assassin (2009) — 4/10
Lots of blood and cool ninja stuff, including magical healing powers and handstand pushups on a bed of nails. Far out. However, why are the ninjas indomitable everywhere but at home? All of a sudden, in the middle of the training compound in which they grew up, they’re no match for a S.W.A.T. team? Lame. Utterly lame. Seriously, the end is utterly awful—all of sudden, their swords are utterly ineffectual and they have no shurikens anymore. It evens out after a bit, but why were they so taken by surprise? I guess it’s just a silly as Raiza being able to take out dozens of them—and where do all those ninjas come from anyway? They’re like cockroaches. And I just noticed in the credits that the Wachowski brothers produced this thing, so the over-the-top style shouldn’t be too surprising.
Examined Life (2008) — 9/10

A documentary about philosophy, with interviews with Cornel West, Slavoj Žižek and other usual suspects. West is, as usual, quite eloquent:

“The unexamined life is not worth living, Plato says on line 38A of the Apology. How do you examine yourself; what happens when you interrogate yourself? What happens when you begin to call into question your tacit assumptions and unarticulated presuppositions and begin then to become a different kind of person. See, I put it this way, that for me, philosophy is fundamentally about … our finite situation. We can define that in terms of we’re beings toward death, we’re featherless, two-legged, linguistically conscious creatures born between urine and feces whose bodies will one day be the culinary delight of terrestrial worms. That’s us, beings toward death. At the same time, we have desire, why we are organisms in space and time, so it’s desire in the face of death. And then, of course, you’ve got dogmatism, various attempts to hold on to certainty, various forms of idolatry, and you’ve got dialogue, in the face of dogmatism and then of course, structurally and institutionally, you’ve got domination…and you have democracy […]”
Cornell West
“This is something that Derrida has taught: if you feel that you’ve acquitted yourself honorably, then you’re not so ethical. If you have a good conscience, then you’re kind of worthless. Like, if you think, oh, I gave this homeless person five bucks, I’m great! then you’re irresponsible. The responsible being is one who thinks they’ve never been responsible enough, they’ve never taken care enough of “the other”. The other is so in excess of anything you can understand or grasp or reduce. This, in itself, creates an ethical relatedness. A relation without relation. Because you can’t presume to know or grasp the other. The minute you think you know the other, you’re ready to kill them. You think, oh, they’re doing this or this, they’re the axis of evil. Let’s drop some bombs. But, if don’t know, if you don’t understand this alterity, you can’t violate it with your sense of understanding, then you have to let it live, in a sense.”
Avital Ronell
“I think ethics has to come from ourselves, but that doesn’t mean that it’s totally subjective, that doesn’t mean that you can think whatever you like about what’s right or wrong. When you start to look at issues ethically, you have to do more than just think about your own interests, you have to ask yourself how do I take into account the interests of others? What would I choose if I were to be in their position rather than my position? […] One of the most obvious things that emerges when you put yourself in the position of others is the priority of reducing or preventing suffering because ethics is not just about what I actually do and the impact of that, but it’s also about what I omit to do, what I decide not to do. And that’s why questions about, given that we all have a limited amount of money, questions about what you spend your money on are also questions about what you don’t spend your money on, or what you don’t use your money to achieve. And, a lot of people, I think, forget that, they think, well, you know, I’m not harming anyone if I go and spend a thousand dollars on a new suit but, in fact, given the opportunities that we have to help and given the way that the world is, I think quite often you’re actually failing to benefit someone, which you could be doing. And I think we have moral obligations to help just as we have moral obligations not to harm.”
Peter Singer
“Now [Social Contract/State of Nature] was fine when you’re thinking about adult men with no disabilities. But as some of them already began to notice, it doesn’t do so well when you think about women because women’s oppression has always been partly occasioned by their physical weakness compared to men. And so if you leave out that physical asymmetry, you may be leaving out a problem that a theory of justice will need to fix. But it certainly does not do well when we think about people with serious physical and mental disabilities. And in fact, some of the theorists who noticed that said, well, this is a problem, but we’ll just have to solve it later. We’ll get the theory first and work on this problem as some other point. Well, my thought is, that this is not a small problem. There are a lot of people with serious mental and physical disabilities but, it’s not only that, it’s all of us, when we’re little children and as we age. How do you think about justice when you’re dealing with bodies that are very unequal in their ability and their power and perhaps even harder, how do you think about it when you’re dealing with mental powers that are very, very unequal in their potential.”
Martha Nussbaum

In answer to the question: “do you have to go to school to be a philosopher?”

“Oh, God no. […] A philosopher is a lover of wisdom. It takes tremendous discipline, it takes tremendous courage to think for yourself, to examine yourself. The Socratic imperative of examining yourself requires courage. You know, William Butler Yeats used to say “it takes more courage to examine the dark corners of your own soul than it does for a soldier to fight on the battlefield.” Courage to think critically, […] courage is the enabling virtue for any philosopher, for any human being, I think, in the end.”
Cornel West
“There’s a certain pleasure in the life of the mind, that cannot be denied. It’s true that you might be socially isolated, because you’re in the library, at home and so on. But you’re intensely alive. In fact, you’re much more alive than these folk walking the streets in New York, in crowds, which is no intellectual interrogation and questioning going at all.”
Cornel West
“We’re stuck, almost conceptually, between two almost cliché ways of thinking about revolution. On the one hand, we have the notion of revolution that involves the replacement of a ruling elite with another … better—in many ways—ruling elite. And that’s sort of the form that many modern revolutions have taken and have posed great benefits for the people but they have not arrived at democracy. So that notion of revolution is really discredited and I think rightly so. But, opposed to that, is another notion of revolution, which I think is equally discredited but from exactly the opposite point of view, which is it’s the notion of revolution that, in fact, hasn’t been instituted, that thinks of revolution as just the removal of all of those forms of authority, state power, the power of capital, that stop people from expressing their natural abilities to rule themselves.”
Michael Hardt

The camera pans over an enormous pile of garbage and, if you’re familiar with modern philosophers, you will be expecting a rapid-fire burst of Slovenian-tinged, lisping English to burst over the scene at any moment. And you would not be disappointed.

“This is where we should start feeling at home. Part of our daily perception of reality is that this [points to garbage] disappears from our world. When you go to the toilet, shit disappears. You flush it. Of course, rationally, you know it’s there, in canalization and so on, but at a certain level of your most elementary experience, it disappears from your world. But, the problem is, that trash doesn’t disappear. I think ecology, the way we approach ecological problematic is maybe the crucial field of ideology today.

“And I use ideology in the traditional sense of illusory, wrong way of thinking and perceiving reality. Why? Ideology is not simply dreaming about false ideas and so on. Ideology addresses very real problems, but it mystifies them. One of the elementary ideological mechanisms, I claim, is what I call the temptation of meaning. When something horrible happens, our spontaneous tendency is to search for a meaning. It must mean something. You know, like, AIDS. It was a trauma. Then, conservatives came and said it’s punishment for our sinful ways of life and so on and so on. Even if we interpret a catastrophe as a punishment, it makes it easier, in a way, because we know it’s not just some terrifying blind force. It has a meaning. It’s better when you’re in the middle of a catastrophe, it’s better to feel that God punished you than to feel that “it just happened”. If God punished you, it’s still a universe of meaning.

“And, I think that, that’s where ecology as ideology enters. It’s really the implicit premise of ecology that the existing world is the best possible world in the sense of, it’s a balanced world that is disturbed through human hubris. So, why do I find this problematic? Because I think that this notion of nature, nature as harmonious, organic, balanced, reproducing, almost living organism, which is then disturbed, perturbed, derailed through human hubris, technology, exploitation and so on is, I think, a secular version of the religious story of the Fall. And the answer should be, not that there is no Fall, that we are part of nature but, on the contrary that there is no Nature.

“Nature is not a balanced totality which then we humans disturb. Nature is a big series of unimaginable catastrophes. We profit from them. What’s our main source of energy. Oil. But are we aware, what is oil? Oil reserves beneath the earth are material remainders of an unimaginable catastrophe. Are we aware? Because we all know that oil is composed of the remainders of animal life, plants and so on and so on. Can you imagine what kind of unthinkable catastrophe had to occur on Earth? So that’s good to remember.

“Ecology will slowly turn into maybe a new opium of the masses, as we all know Marx defined religion. What we expect from religion is a sort of unquestionable highest authority. It’s God’s work, so it is, you don’t debate it. Today, I claim, ecology is more and more taking over this role of a conservative ideology. Whenever there is a new scientific breakthrough, biogenetic development, whatever, it is as if the voice that warns us not to trespass, violate a certain invisible limit, like “don’t do that, it would be too much”, that voice today is more and more the voice of ecology. Like, don’t mess with DNA, don’t mess with nature, don’t do it. This basic, conservative, archly ideological mistrust of change. This is today, ecology.”

Slavoj Žižek
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010) — 6/10

A documentary narrated by director Werner Herzog showing the cave paintings at Chauvet Cave in France. The paintings are at least 32,000 years old. For all that, the animal drawings are wonderfully done, conveying the essence of the creatures in just a few strokes. The documentary itself is a bit slow, lingering for a long time over many of the drawings, but it’s worth it all the same, if only to get a glimpse of these drawings to which so few people have access.

Interesting facts:

  • Humans never lived in the cave. All the bones found there are from bears and other animals (and there are lot of bones, some almost entirely buried in calciferous encrustation).
  • Animals that we associate with the African steppes ranged freely in France at the time. Ibex, mammoths, lions and other carnivores were plentiful. Bears, horses and other animals are also depicted.
  • Carbon-dating shows that the drawings were not made all at once. In fact, some are 5000 years older than others. This is truly amazing: the cave was used over 5000 years, always adding to the drawings.
  • Even without the drawings, the cave is beautiful, filled with stalactites and stalagmites.
  • There is only one partial drawing of a human form: the lower half of a woman (big surprise there) that resembles the fertility goddesses of other cultures.
Akira (1988) — 8/10
The classic Japanese anime set in the future, thirty years after WWIII, in which Tokyo was nuked. The crater is still there, in the middle of the city, which has grown up and around it. The film is set in 2018 and it’s quite prescient, both in its depiction of future Japanese cities and the tax and class-war protests depicted near the beginning. As with many other anime, Japan is still clearly working out the psychic trauma of having been nuked back in the 40s, a psychological cultural scar that colors almost every cartoon that comes out of that country. And the acid trips, magic, marching toys, mysterious superpowers and mutants—most likely the result of either nuclear fallout or mother nature’s anger at same—are here as well! And it’s exquisitely and meticulously hand-drawn, as usual. The finale is amazing, rephrasing the themes of uncontrollable power and unbridled—cancerous—growth in a grotesque and tragic end-game for Tetsuo.
Smoking’ Aces (2007) — 6/10
An elaborate Vegas movie involving Jeremy Piven as a Las Vegas card-sharp/magician/entertainer/asshole who’s ready to turn on the whole Cosa Nostra. They put out a hit on him for $1 million and every bounty hunter in the country shows up to take a crack at him. They are all, more or less colorfully insane and the entire hotel turns into a clusterfuck before it’s all over. A bit longer than necessary, but fun all the same. Starring Ryan Reynolds and Ray Liotta as FBI and a host of others, like Ben Affleck, Andy Garcia, Common, Chris Pine and Jason Bateman. There’s a reasonably clever twist at the end, but it’s only partially worth it. It’s kind of like a Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels for Americans.
Fist of Fury (1971) — 4/10
This is a very stilted Kung Fu film starring Bruce Lee. Lee does nothing more than sneer for the first 45 minutes of the movie. He has promised not to fight anymore and is sticking to it. This is a pity because he’s the only guy worth watching. Once he gets started, you’ll like his bravado and his willingness to make a movie fight that lasts two blows (well, three: he kicks the knife hand, kicks the head and head hits the ground). He fights five or six guys for about two minutes and then we’re back to more painful plot and watching Bruce Lee get drunk and grabby. At least half an hour later, there’s another fight, with Lee holding off dozens. He gets into the spirit of Jeet Kune Do and crushes one guy’s balls (there’s no such thing as cheating in a street fight) and then punches another guy through a wall—making a man-shaped hole, complete with legs and arms, like in a cartoon. I am not kidding (1:21:00). In the penultimate knife fight, it’s nice to see him anticipating and just the cracking guy in the mouth when he comes in with the knife (the best opportunity is when the enemy strikes). In the final confrontation, he’s a total bad-ass, chewing chips, jumping a ten-foot fence and sizing up the army against him with a smile on his face. Just laughing and smiling while he pounds on ‘em. And so quick. Not really recommended, except for the fighting bits with Bruce Lee, but that’s not too surprising. It’s about 90% not that, though, so not a great movie.
The Legend of the Drunken Master (1994) — 8/10
A Jackie Chan masterpiece, funnier than most of his American movies. He’s the eldest son of a doctor and his wife, who draws him in to her machinations as she hides her Mah-Jong gambling from her husband. The choreography is fast, furious and unique. He’s amazingly fast and strong, really in his element. Unlike Fist of Fury there is a tremendous amount of fighting, which is awesome. Chan’s drunken boxing is great, but there’s also more noticeable cable work.

That was it for 2012.

[1] I’m almost certain that I’m reading a bit too much into it, but the film is good enough to allow me that leeway. There is a scene near the end, where bear-trap-on-a-chain-zombie finds the last girl—the Virgin, whose death is “optional”—on the dock and begins to dismember her, all set to the soundtrack of REO Speedwagon’s Roll with the Changes which is playing over a huge, office-party celebration for a job well-done. With the scene playing on all of the big screens around them, one guy laments that “it would have been cooler with a mer-man” while another lady asks whether “we get an overtime bonus on this one”.
[2] William Sanderson—I knew him as Larry from Newhart.
[3] Pashto? Dari? Not for me to say.
[4] It’s interesting to note that the video games they play look so much like real life that it sometimes took me a few seconds to realize that I was watching real-life footage instead of a video game.
[5] Or whatever the hell his official designation is; I don’t know it in English and sure as hell can’t decipher it in Danish.
[6] Given that you’re not Irish. If you’re Irish, I assume you’ll be able to finally relax and understand everything with no effort. If you’re not a native, you’ll either need a lot of experience with English dialects or subtitles. The only anomaly is the little boy with the dog, who I swear speaks with an American accent most of the time.
[7] Neil Patrick Harris