Monday, 28 June 2010

American History X

Brutal and horrible, but totally compelling, I wanted to mention this film for a couple of reasons:

1. It's unusual to find a film that deals so convincingly with the human psyche. It shows how one man in American suburbia realises that the militant white power cause he's been living for is foolish and destructive. He sees that the movement has begun to manipulate him, making him a figure to revere because of the two murders he carried out - while he serves a tough prison sentence, alone and friendless.

At the beginning of the story Derek (played brilliantly by Edward Norton) is a neo-Nazi, full of hate, totally unpleasant, power-hungry, manipulative, clever but arrogant, full of testosterone and turning everything into protecting his family from who he sees as the enemy: foreigners and outsiders. But in light of the way he's humiliated in prison (a horrible section) he gets out of that life, which he tells his younger brother Danny is no good for him. He becomes a man determined to change, and to stop Danny following the same rebellious, anti-social path.

Some of the issues this raises are very interesting. For instance - why is it we tend to desire what is best for close family, even if we have given up on ourselves? This rings true.

And it highlights how, without something life-changing snapping us out of it, we tend to believe what is most convenient, what fits with the ideas that have influenced us in the past. This is how prejudices work I think eg. against immigrants. We can become trapped by ideas, which are actually lies, thinking we know all the facts. We weild the "facts" as weapons, or to stir us on.

And such "facts" can be power - a way to put down others and assert oneself or "succeed" in life. Feelings of injustice and resentment find a target. Responsibility is avoided, and so are responsible solutions, as the system is "against us" - let's just take it into our own hands.

The trouble is - when we want to be angry and take things for ourselves: the nonsense "facts" that we want to hear can sound so reasonable. Whether it's anger at local government for making things difficult, or anger at institutions or communities, it can simmer away in us, and we must be aware of this evil in us. It's true what the (supposedly out-of-date) Bible says: the heart is hopelessly corrupt.

2. The focus on inner-city poverty and the lack of opportunities for the poor is interesting too. Despite the bad patterns of family life passed on through the generations, this is a community that will not give up on its characters. And it's refreshing to see this in a film. Especially the bond between the two brothers, where frustration is met with patience, and respect is fostered. Even the teacher, an outsider, Dr Sweeney (a superb performance by Avery Brooks) won't give up on Danny, while Derek talks to his girlfriend (who seems to delight in being near chaos) to try and convince her to leave the movement with him, and others too haven't given up on the loved ones they have lost. Society matters in this movie - life is not throwaway, like the bad guys dying in old James Bond films. People are precious, especially when you don't have much.

The question is what will emerge at the disturbing end of the film? Will the violence cease? What legacy will these two brothers leave on their families, the next genration growing up in the schools, the world around? What lessons will be learnt about the fruitlessness of holding on to a destructive, angry cause?

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Mere Anarchy: Bizarre short stories

I happened to pick up this strange collection of stories from Woody Allen recently, and although I wasn't sure if I'd like it, I'm glad I checked it out. he has a knack for coming up with absurd situations (a little like some of Roald Dahl's adult stories) and they are very funny too!

Particulary amusing was the hubris of one two-bit, no-good supporting actor who gets captured by terrorists in the most bizarre cutting-edge film set-up in a developing country. This has me laughing out loud. The actor tells the story as if the whole thing was a "jaunt" over to the studio, rather than the trying ordeal it evidently was. Once you get used to the strange use of language, you'll enjopy the neuroses of the characters, and the cleverly hidden put-downs they use - which show what they are really after, or their real characters.

I was also loving the first story, with biting satire about a get-successful-quick scheme run through a manipulative new-age "prophetess" who has grown men in groveling in her service as they seek to escape their current mid-life crisis. And although some of the stories do mis-fire, one story called "Above the Law, Below the Box Springs" really cracked me up with a running gag about mattress tags, of all things, and another supremely silly story had me trying to imagine a dispute between Michael Eisner and the Disney character Goofy about screen time.

So take a look if you intrigued by something as daft as a man trying to buy a modern suit with built-in gadgets, or a couple whose nanny must be silenced before she publishes a book exposing what they are really like behind closed doors, or parents threatening legal action against the leaders of a ramshackle mountain summer camp who are demanding a stake in the rights deal for a movie sold to Hollywood.... some of these concepts bring out the pathetic, the ridiculous or the downright dirty in the modern Westerner, and it's funny while being kind of true.

This week I should be writing about some other books, including The Prodigal God by Tim Keller and The Suspicions of Mr Whicher. What are your summer top reads, and why?

Friday, 4 June 2010

Film review: The Lost Boys (1987)

Fans of this film at work got me to watch this 1980s classic. So here are some thoughts:

Here is an adventure/horror film which transcends its simple storyline of “kill the vampires to rescue Michael and his family from an evil fate” to deliver something more. This is the birth of “cool” teen vampire, complete with the spirit of rebellious youth, recalling the anti-society and cult-like teen gangs of American suburbia, with their strange initiation rituals.

The film also builds on the idea that everything can take on a sinister implication in a strange new town, and some of the biggest scenes are set within the bounds of the new family home, where trust between child and parent is hard to find. The children are pushed into a strange new world, and as you watch you become gripped by both the seductive quality of the vampires and some thrilling set-pieces, where you are not quite sure what is going to happen to Michael or his brother Sam next. It doesn't hurt that the comic relief of junior vampire “experts” the Frog brothers is pretty good, and they round off an impressive cast of characters, almost creating the illusion this is a family film, which is nearly is. But the themes of transgressing natural boundaries, the mystery surrounding the girl “Star” who rides with the vampires, and the exciting final scenes, are aimed more at the teen or young adult audience, and the horror of the monsters the children face is a focus of the film. You might even feel scared for the characters at a couple of points.

The soundtrack features a strong and memorable rock ballad theme “Cry Little Sister” which captures well the dark struggle that Michael, Sam and Star go through. The only thing I had against the film was some of the cinematography is dated and quite irritating – there's one scene where we zoom in on the faces of the two brothers so many times as they gaze at each other in horror.... it's just too cheesy. But minor slips like this won't stop me recommending this fun, well-produced teen vampire film, which excels in encouraging you to invest in its characters and their precarious situation as they hold out against their supernatural enemy.