Sunday, March 30, 2008

Letters from Iwo Jima

Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) is an excellent film. What makes it unusual is the historical context. Made by an American director, Clint Eastwood, it attempts to imagine the battle of Iwo Jima from the standpoint of the Japanese soldiers who were fighting the Americans. In most World War II films made by American filmmakers, the Japanese are portrayed as the Enemy—as brutal, soulless, and anonymously hostile. This film doesn't ask its audience to side with the Japanese, but it does ask them to see the Japanese as human. Told more than sixty years after the battle it dramatizes, Letters from Iwo Jima argues, among other things, that more than enough time has passed since the battle that we can view it for what it was—as a battle in which many men fighting for their countries lost their lives in moments of carnage and terror

The entire film is told from the Japanese point of view. Soldiers speak Japanese. English subtitles translate the dialogue. The only time we see American soldiers is from the perspective of the Japanese, as soldiers advancing towards their hideouts, as soldiers menacing them with gunfire and flame throwers, as wounded or captured soldiers, as corpses. This film isn't really interested in the American perspective—hundreds of other films have given that perspective. Instead, as an act of compassion and imagination and understanding it seeks to view events from the perspective of the Japanese.

Eastwood isn't interested in this film in the underlying causes of the war that Americans and Japanese are fighting against one another. He's simply interested in war, in War, and in the perspective of men who are waiting to fight a battle they know they will lose and in which they fully expect to die. This is in that sense a film about how anyone confronts mortality, and a film about the horrors of war in general.

A key scene in the film comes when a commanding Japanese officer reads a letter he has taken from the pocket of a dead American soldier. Because he can read English, he translates the letter for his men. The letter is from the American GI's mother, and in it she tells him the latest family news and also advises him to "do the right thing . . . because it is right." The soldiers are moved. One of them later talks about how the letter forced him to view the soldier as a human being—the letter he says was like a letter his own mother would write to him. The scene is a bit stagey and contrived, but at the same time it's moving and it makes its point.

Eastwood humanizes the Japanese soldiers in a number of ways. First he shows us their individuality. Some of them have willingly joined the army to fight for their country. Others have been drafted and forced to fight. Some are fully committed soldiers and others are half-hearted patriots. He also shows disagreement among commanding Japanese officers—one in particular, a man who lived for a time in California and had American friends, believes in modern warfare and is constantly thinking about strategy, about how to win the battle despite the odds. Other commanding officers are more traditional. Some commanding officers are bullies who abuse their men.

One of the points of Letters from Iwo Jima must be to encourage awareness and understanding of the differences between the two cultures at war. The film shows several scenes in which Japanese soldiers, convinced the battle is lost, commit suicide so as to die honorably rather than to be captured or forced to suffer defeat. Yet we also see scenes that stress the similarities between the warring nations. The letters from home that the Japanese soldiers value so highly are akin to the letter the commanding officer finds in the pocket of the dead American soldier.

We see one scene in which Japanese soldiers brutally beat and then bayonet a captured American soldier. We see another scene in which two Japanese soldiers who have been taken prisoner are shot down by the GIs assigned to guard them.

Letters from Iwo Jima is a companion film to Flags of Our Fathers, another World War II film directed by Eastwood and made at the same time as this one. Letters from Iwo Jima is the better of the films. Its refusal to be interest in the ideology of war and its insistence on focusing instead on the suffering and brutality of war, most especially on the plights and individual perspectives of the men who are fighting in the war, makes it a truly remarkable film. To describe it as an anti-war film is in fact to underestimate and devalue it. It is much more. It's a film that calls for cultural understanding and appreciation, that argues for the irrationality of war by focusing on the commonalities between the warring sides.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Akeelah and the Bee

Akeelah and the Bee (2006) is a film whose parts are greater that their sum. It's a predictable film that relies on effective acting and a winning plot for its success. It's about an African American girl in the Los Angeles projects who is mired in unpleasant circumstances and knows it. Her father is dead; her mother is distant; her older brother runs with a gang. She's pretty much ignored and on her own. Her solace is her passion for spelling. When her teachers discover her talent, they begin to think she might do well in the spelling bee. And of course she does do well, moving from her school competition to the regional and state and national competitions.

Akeelah is an unlikely competitor. She's at first afraid her friends will make fun of her. Her mother isn't supportive, and her older brother doesn't take her seriously. Her principal talks a college English professor (Lawrence Fishburne) on sabbatical into coaching Akeelah. He agrees, after much grumbling. He has his own issues, dark secrets, to worry about.

Everyone in this film has issues. Akeelah's mother (Angela Bassett) dropped out of college because she felt insecure and unworthy. Akeelah's spelling coach still grieves over the death of daughter and the failure of his marriage. Her principal struggles with inadequate funding for his school—he hopes Akeelah will bring attention and more support. Everyone in Akeelah's neighborhood comes to see Akeelah and her prospects in the spelling bee as a symbol of hope and success and escape. Akeelah herself, played by Keke Palmer, gives this film life and passion and raises it above and beyond itself as a basic feel-good film.

This is also a film about character. At first Akeelah spells simply because she enjoys doing it. She enjoys spelling so much that she lets her other classes slide. It's a means of self-gratification in an environment that give s her little to be happy about. Later, spelling becomes a source of pride and accomplishment. Finally it becomes an achievement she is willing to forfeit so that her main competitor, an Asian boy whose tyrant-father continually berates him for coming in second, can win. But this is not exactly the outcome in the film.

Akeelah seems heavily influenced by a documentary entitled Spellbound (2002), about eight teenagers competing in the national spelling tournament. Several individuals in that film resemble characters in Akeelah and the Bee, including a black girl as well as competitors bullied and pushed around by their parents.

There are elements of schmaltz and the unlikely in this film. How many teenagers stuck in the projects have a chance of escape by learning to spell long words no one uses? Yet the film works. It's inspiring and stirring. We cheer along with Akeelah's neighborhood when she wins her victories. Everyone's redeemed, in a sense. Everyone transfigured.

Perhaps it's not in the spirit of the film to ask what follows Akeelah's final victory. Will her success allow her to escape from the projects. Will it give self-confidence to her mother and a better future for her brother? Maybe. But the film's message that hard work and determination and a dusting of luck can pay off is worth consideration.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Bonnie and Clyde

Bonnie and Clyde (1967) is not technically about the American South. It's really a film about the southwest and the middle-United States—the regions in which Bonnie and Clyde were active during the 1920s and early 1930s. But Bonnie and Clyde are a Southern tradition and heritage. I remember my grandmother, in her last days, rambling on about two young hoodlums in Texas who held up banks and shot people during the 1920s. it took me a while to realize that she was talking about Bonnie and Clyde. Though the actual province of the film may not be the deep South, it certainly feels Southern—the accents of the primary characters (not that authentic) and the Homer and Jethro soundtrack.

The new book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris discusses how screenwriters Robert Benton and David Newman wrote the original screenplay with Francois Truffaut in mind, and how they even managed to interest Truffaut in the idea of directing a Bonnie and Clyde film. Truffaut seriously considered directing the film and made detailed notes on the screenplay. According to Harris, Truffaut significantly influenced the shape and style of the film. At the time, Truffaut's attention was mainly focused on Fahrenheit 451, which would be his first English-language film. He apparently discussed the Bonnie and Clyde screenplay with Jean Luc-Goddard, who also considered directing. Ultimately, the task fell to Arthur Penn, whom Truffaut admired. This information led me to look at and think more carefully about the film. I had not watched it all the way through since its original release in 1967. At the time the film had considerable shock value. It was violent and bloody, and it presented the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde in a relatively sympathetic context. Their deaths in a brutal hail of gunfire at the end of the film were incredibly graphic and shocking. Though that final scene still has its power, it no longer delivers the shock it carried forty years ago. The realism of the film has suffered as well. There's an air of glamor surrounding the two main characters as portrayed by Beatty and Dunaway. The film often shows photographs of the real Bonnie and Clyde, who were considerably less beautiful that the movie versions. The originals were sallow and hard in appearance. The film versions seem well fed, full of curves and smooth lines. They wear nice clothes, even before they start accumulating money by robbing banks. It's difficult to think of a character as goofy as the Warren Beatty version of Clyde robbing banks and killing folks.

Bonnie and Clyde is not seamless, it suffers from certain logical flaws, and it is broadly drawn. It has more energy and force than skill.

The film attempts to portray the two outlaws as depression-era heroes. During one bank robbery, Clyde decides not to take the money of an old man because he is a farmer who needs it. Yet in other robberies he shoots people who are little better off than the old man.

Penn's outlaws are not rebelling against social injustice or poverty. They're rebelling against boredom. At least this is the case for Bonnie, who wants escape from the heat and emptiness of her bedroom, where we first see her lying naked at the beginning of the film. She also wants sexual adventure, and at first she thinks she has found it with Clyde. Their first bank robbery together is clearly a sexual thrill for her, though she soon discovers that Clyde is unwilling to respond to her advances. Clyde at first glance is not the kind of rebel Bonnie wants to be. He's an ex-convict, of course, recently released from prison, but he's not in revolt against much at all. He comes across as a dumb brute, at times, and it's only his unstoppable vigor and momentum that gets him through the robberies, which he carries off more by impulse than by plan.

It's not always clear what Bonnie and Clyde really want. Clyde at times seems willing to settle down into a traditional husband-and-wife relationship. Bonnie chafes at these moments, yet she also longs for her family and her mother—who knows very well where Bonnie's prospects are bound. Mostly the two don't know what they want. They just want to be themselves, and they don't want to give much thought or time to self-justification.

Contrasted against law enforcement officials in the film, especially the sheriff who devotes himself to bringing Bonnie and Clyde down after they take embarrassing photos of him and then throw him in a river after he spits at Bonnie, these outlaws don't look so bad. The film shows Bonnie and Clyde doomed to failure almost from the start. As their fame spreads, more and more law enforcement people want to catch them. The better known they are, the more likely it is that people will recognize them and report them to the police. The last half of the film dramatizes the downward spiral of their exploits.

To what extent do the rampages of Bonnie and Clyde answer to the dreams of the 1960s-era audiences that flocked to see the film? Surely there were numerous films that catered to the youthful American audience desire for escape from middle class conformity and blandness.

Across the Universe

The songs of the Beatles are signposts by which I measure events from my life over a ten-year period, from 1962 to 1970. They are the songs of my adolescence and early adulthood. I listened intensely to the Beatles for much longer a time. Only the songs of Bob Dylan have for me the same intense personal meaning. The same must be true for millions of others in my age range. It is no surprise then that films such as I am Sam and Across the Universe use the Beatles as a soundtrack in order to appeal to people of a certain generation. Of course, the Beatles remain popular, and numerous people younger than me enjoy their music. But it is mainly people in my range for whom the Beatles have such a powerful personal significance.

Across the Universe (2007), directed by Julie Tamor, seeks to be a musical in the same genre as Moulin Rouge (2001), directed by Baz Luhrmann. It tells the story of a love affair set in the 1960s, when the Beatles were recording and performing. The development of the music itself, which is featured in the film in the general order in which it was composed, helps to trace the progress of the love affair. Moreover, the film also traces the rise and fall of the band by paralleling events that we generally associate with the rise and fall of the Beatles with events from the love affair. Early in the film characters attend performances in a smoky nightclub where performers who faintly resemble the young Beatles are performing an early Beatles song. The scene could have come from a nightclub in Liverpool or in Hamburg, Germany, where the Beatles performed early in their career. The climactic scene in the film is a musical performance on the roof of a city building, much like the one where the Beatles gave their final performance in 1969, a scene presented in the film Let it Be (1970).

There are also characters in the film who vaguely approximate Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, although the resemblance is not close. Historical events of the 60s range in the fore- and background of the film. One of the characters works for an anti-war movement, and her increasing radicalism parallels that of the movement in general in the late 60s.

All of these devices and historical markers are props, and I mean mere props, for the love story. There is no depth at all in this film's representation of music and events. Characters break out into song at various points to express their emotions. Sometimes these moments are quite effective, as in the final scene, and a number of others. Sometimes they are quite ineffective, dull, saccharine, and flat, and there are enough of these moments to bring the film down.

Across the Universe has some wonderful moments, but as a whole it lacks passion and force. It is more like a series of rock videos than a coherent narrative. The characters are broadly drawn. Most of them are named after Beatles songs—Jude, Lucy, Rita, Prudence, and so on. Much of the setting of the film, especially those portions involving urban New York and London, remind you of the stylized and sometimes surreal urban world that gave birth to the wonderful songs on Revolver and Sergeant Peppers. But the film never takes off. Just when it seems to soar, it always comes back down to the ground.

10,000 BC

My son Charles sent me the following commentary on 10,000 BC, which he prefers to think of as 10,000 BS:

"I'm hoping I'm writing this to a group of people who haven't yet wasted their time on the movie 10,000 BC. My opportunity to prevent you from having to waste money and time at that movie is the only good thing that will come from it. It was written by a 14-year old. I don't think I'm kidding either. This movie is based on a paper-thin plotline that attempts to exploit every old story and parable from the bible and old fairytales to the Michael Jackson "Black and White" video. There is a hot chick in this movie . . . , but by the end, I was so %#!*&& that the movie was still going on and that she was part of it that it wasn't even relevant. Relevance. There's a term that should have been defined to whoever decided to greenlight this cheesefest. At one point, the main guy befriends a saber-toothed tiger by saving him from a pit that was filling with water. He told the tiger not to eat him so it didn't. The guy fell in the pit because he was hunting for food for his friend who was dying. His friend had been hurt bad, and he dragged his friend on a stretcher across miles and miles of desert. This guy was in bad shape. He couldn't move or anything. Dude left his broken self alone in the middle of the wild and went hunting, fell in this hole, and weathered a night of torrential downpour in the hole. When he came back to the dying guy, the guy was perfect and had been doing recon around his campsite. No mention was ever made about the mortal wounds he had sustained earlier. I've named the style of story-telling that these jokers decided to use the "and then" narrative style. The entire story can be told with no back story in a completely A to B fashion and possibly in one long sentence. In this case, the sentence would involve misspelled words, it would lack all punctuation and capitalization, and it would be written in crayon. (Possibly a little doody would be on the back of the paper too.) e.g.: there's this guy and he knows this girl and they were kids before but now they're not and he has to kill these wooly mammoths but they're not wooly mammoths--there called something else and the guy's dad goes away and then later the guy kills the mammoth and he gets to take the girl and then he gives up the girl but he still wants her and then bad people come and take her away and then the guy says he is going to get her and takes his friends but there's a kid that wants to go and they say he can't but he goes anyways and they see him and then they all go and they meet a tiger and the tiger and the guy become friends and then they make friends with everyone in Africa and attack a really advanced civilization where the bad guys took the girl and then they make all the slaves fight too and there are more wooly mammoths and the girl gets hurt but then an old mammoth fixes her and they all say bye to their friends who are all from Africa and then they go back to their shitty houses on the top of a freezing ass mountain that was a terrible place to live anyway . . . and then I walked out of the movie. The only thing i took from that film was half of a diet coke. This movie makes such a laughable attempt at leeching the collective plots of Gladiator, The 13th Warrior, Ben Hur, 300, Jurassic Park, Stargate, and other otherwise decent-to-good films that I was surprised I never saw a cameo by Snoop Dogg or Shatner. The only thing that bothered me more than this movie was the creep show that had to be the crowd at the 9:55 PM showing of Horton Hears a Who. I've seen some weak movies this year (Fool's Gold) and I've seen some wonderfully awful films this year (Rambo) but this $%^& of a film should have gone straight to beta max. Not Blu-Ray, not DVD, not VHS...Beta Max. You can play the game when it comes out for TurboGrafx 16 later on this week. This movie would have actually been more understandable if Leslie Neilson had appeared at some point. To conclude, and I'll probably never, ever say this again, this movie might actually be more entertaining in a Broadway musical format."

"Sorry for the rant, but I had to get it off my chest."

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

The premise of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) is so obvious that the film is at a disadvantage from the start. It is highly self-referential. In the opening scene the narrator, Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), who is also one of the main characters, starts talking to us, the audience, about what is going to happen in the film. He pauses at several points in the film to do the same again. Towards the end, he discusses whether the film will have a happy ending and points out that the formula of many such films is to ensure a happy ending. He offers us two versions of the same scene. The film is much concerned with a mystery writer from the 1970s whose novels have been a source of fascination for one of the other main characters in the film, and for her father as well. These novels, or at least one of them in particular, prove to contain the plot or plots that the film itself is enacting.

This film is a kind of film noir and a kind of buddy film. One is especially reminded of the Lethal Weapon films, and not coincidentally the director/writer of this film--Shane Black--was also a screenwriter in all four of the Lethal films, so that there is another degree of self-reference here (a film colleague pointed this out to me), although there is no real parallel between the buddy characters in this film and the Mel Gibson and Danny Glover characters.

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is as full of strange twists and turns as LA Confidential or The Maltese Falcon. When Lockhart, who robs toy stores, is confused with an actor who is auditioning for a part in a detective film, he gets the role of a detective. At his director's party he meets a gay detective, Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), who offers to train him for the part by enlisting him in his investigation of a man he has been hired to survey. Murders ensue, and for at least one of them Lockhart appears to have been framed. A beautiful aspiring actress whom Lockhart meets at a party turns out to be a girl on whom he had a high school crush years before.

The film is certainly entertaining, but the whacky and spontaneous atmosphere it cultivates, where anything can and will happen, is forced and predictable and stale. Val Kilmer is fine in his role, as is Downey.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Grindhouse (2007) is a set of films directed by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarrantino, in apparent tribute to B-grade films of the 1960s and 1970s that specialized in depictions of ultra violence. I watched Machete, the film directed by Rodriguez. A virus is released that infects everyone with whom it comes in contact, turning them into flesh-eating zombies. A ragtag group of hooligans and hoods band together to fight off the zombies. In numerous scenes various appendages of the human body, including heads, are cut, chopped, bitten or sawed off. Blood gushes in torrents. The special effects are intentionally low-grade—the blood looks fake, the severed limbs look plastic—that is supposed to be part of the fun of the films. Tarrantino appears in a minor role as one of the bad guys. Bruce Willis also appears in a minor role: just before he swells up to the size and appearance of a grotesque cucumber and explodes, he confesses to killing Osama Bin Laden.

Grindhouse attempts to simulate how it would have been to sit in some sleazy, b-grade movie house or drive-in theater watching one of these films. The print is full of intentional defects and scratches, a reel is actually missing (its absence does not detract from the coherence of the plot), and the faux-trailers at the beginning are hilarious.

The two Kill Bill films were Tarrantino’s tribute to the old kung fu films that influenced him. Are we to think these B-grade grindhouse films to which Rodriguez and Tarrantino pay tribute deserve similar honor? The outpourings of blood and violence become boring after a while. One of the most memorable moments involves a young woman whose leg is torn off by a zombie. Her boyfriend attaches a large machine gun as an artificial limb, and she uses it to great effect, killing zombies (can zombies be killed? Apparently so, if you shoot off their heads) and other bad guys with zeal.

One can appreciate the realism and attention to detail in this recreation of an old 60s/70s-style schlock film while at the same time wondering what is the point and what is the benefit.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Kingdom

The opening sequence of The Kingdom (2007) offers a newsreel-style history of Saudi Arabia from its founding in 1932 to the present. In briefly shown images, some narrated by the voices of recognizable American news broadcasters, we see the major figures and events in Saudi history. The focus is mainly the nation's relationship with the West. Specifically emphasized are the paradoxes of the Saudi kingdom: it was organized by tribesmen hostile to the west, but the discovery of oil in 1933 made an alliance with the Kingdom essential for the West. U. S. support for Israel complicated Saudi relations with the West. When the United States cemented its alliance with the Kingdom by offering half a million troops, the Osama Bin Laden was forced out, along with his followers. At the end of this introductory sequence, a rapid series of images show major terrorist events of the last decade or so. The last image is of a jetliner approaching the New York Twin Towers on the fateful day on September 2001. A message on the screen reminds us that fifteen of the nineteen terrorists that day were Saudis. The opening sequence emphasizes the many contradictions of U. S./Saudi relations. The point suggested here is that the nature of the West's involvement in the Kingdom was at least one factor leading to the attack on the Twin Towers and, presumably, the current state of affairs regarding Iraq, Iran, Al Qaeda, and Afghanistan. We are thus prepared for a film that investigates the causes of those events, along with the ironies, paradoxes, and contradictions of U. S. relations with the Kingdom. Unfortunately this opening is the most incisive and interesting element of the film.

Directed by Peter Berg, The Kingdom concerns a fictional terrorist attack against Americans living in Saudi Arabia. Terrorists enter an American compound, shoot down Americans standing in their front yards, then shoot down members of a crowd at a softball game. A man dressed in what appears to be standard Saudi military garb blows himself up. As ambulances and emergency personnel gather to treat the wounded, a truck bomb explodes, two hundred die.

Although Saudi policy forbids the presence of American agents in the Kingdom, in this case a small team of F. B. I agents is permitted to investigate the attacks. They are allowed five days for their investigations. They are interested in going to Saudi Arabia partially out of a desire for revenge—a fellow agent died in the attacks. A female agent, Janet Mayes, played by Jennifer Garner, weeps when she hears of his death. Another agent, Ronald Fleury, played by Jamie Foxx, leans down and whispers something to her—she stops weeping. One of the points of the film is the argument that Saudi Arabia on the one hand appears to be an American ally and on the other hand harbors, if not funds, terrorists. The attacks in this film are carried out by men wearing standard Saudi military uniforms, a fact suggesting that Saudis, perhaps even members of the Saudi military, were involved in the attacks.

The Kingdom builds on the notion that Saudi Arabia has managed to survive by supporting both American interests and forces that oppose American interests. This particular issue has occasionally been debated in the media and by politicians, but for the most part it has been avoided. The film acknowledges the issue but for the most part avoids it as well.

The Kingdom uses Saudi Arabia as a backdrop for a standard suspense story about American agents attempting to discover the perpetrators of the attacks. It is told clearly from an American perspective, in a form that American audiences would find comfortable. It does not, for the most part, except in the opening sequence, question the American role in Saudi Arabia but instead considers the possibility that Saudi Arabia supports or at the least acquiesces to the presence of terrorists within its borders.

What the film uses most clearly is the theme of cultural contrasts. Ronald Fleury in particular is portrayed as an ambitious agent who goes on the mission to Saudi Arabia only because he is assigned to it. Only gradually, as he learns more about Saudi culture and the Saudi people, does he develop a personal interest in and commitment to the mission. As a parallel to Fleury, a Saudi police sergeant, Colonel Faris Al Ghazi, is assigned, against his will, to assist the American agents. They don't like him, and he doesn't want to assist them. In the course of the film, Al Ghazi comes to respect and like the Americans. Gradually they come to like and respect him.

In the climactic scene of the film one of the American agents is kidnapped by the terrorists responsible for the attacks. The Saudi sergeant and the American agents work together to find and rescue the kidnapped man. They accidentally run across the hideout of the terrorists, whom they kill in a gun battle. The real point of the film is how people from different cultures come to discover what they share in common, and this is the basis of friendship. Unfortunately, the Saudi sergeant dies at the end of the film. Contrasted against the friendship the Americans share with him is the statement of the dying terrorist leader to his grandson that eventually all the Americans will be killed. The film makes a point of letting us know that these same words were what agent Fleury said to agent Mayes at the start of the film to comfort her: "we are going to kill them all." The film suggests the deep hostilities that underlie the relationship between Saudi and American culture, and the difficulty of bridging them. It suggests as well that hatred for the West is passed down from one generation to the next. Without delving into the causes of that hostility, The Kingdom argues in a superficial and fundamentally platitudinous way for mutual understanding. It thus avoids more difficult issues.

The Kingdom is a police drama set in Saudi Arabia. It is not a film in the same class as Syriana or Munich.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Resident Evil: Extinction

The best that can be said of this film is that it does, eventually, end. Resident Evil: Extinction (2007) builds on the story introduced and prolonged in the first two Resident Evil films. It also borrows heavily from video games and the Mad Max Road Warrior films but lacks their grit and vigor—it relies too much on poorly rendered digital effects and not enough on story and character or imagination or logic or intelligence or basic filmmaking skills. But what more should one expect? This film surely wasn't conceived with the purpose of creating art or of making profound statements about humanity and the world. Surely it was conceived primarily in hopes of making a profit, of wrenching the last dollar out of the concept introduced in the video game and the predecessor films.

What is most interesting about this film? My answer would be the actress Mila Jovovich, who plays the main character Alice. She brings exotic energy and life to the film, furtively, haphazardly. At the film's beginning we see that a clearly evil and power-hungry scientist has cloned hundreds of copies of Alice in an effort to discover an antidote for the virus that has turned most of the world's population into flesh-eating zombies. He periodically brings one of the cloned Alices to life for reasons that are not quite clear—the clone always dies in some grotesque way. He also spends most of the film tracking the real Alice by satellite—her blood contains an antidote to the virus. He's somehow programmed her so that if the satellites issue a command she will obey it. She has unusual psychic as well as physical abilities for which the film offers no explanation (perhaps one of the earlier films explained). She discovers her cloned other selves at the end of the film, which leaves open the possibility of still yet another sequel in which they will play a role. This prospective sequel was perhaps the least heartening aspect of Resident Evil: Extinction.

The Mad Max link is a caravan of survivors wending their way through a desert in the American west, trying to survive in one way or the other, trying to avoid hordes of ravening zombies. Many of these survivors predictably lose their lives in the course of the film. At one point the caravan travels through an abandoned and wrecked Las Vegas, covered with sand, evoking "Kubla Khan" but also evoking certain images from the Planet of the Apes films. Of course, the Las Vegas monuments half-covered in sand in this film—the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, others—were replica monuments to begin with, pallid ironic tributes to the great works of the West. Perhaps this film is aware of the irony, and of the symbolic potential of Las Vegas as a metaphor for the lost and broken western world—brought down (presumably) by its own obsession with unfettered experimentation, science, and technology. At least I think this is the message the film wants us to carry away.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson

The key to Tree of Smoke (2007) by Denis Johnson is confusion, ignorance, unawareness. The key question, in a sense, is whether confusion and ignorance absolve one of culpability. The main character is Skip Sands, a young CIA officer, who is assigned to Vietnam in 1966 and who hopes to be in the center of action. His uncle, Colonel Sands, is famed for his exploits, and Skip hopes his uncle's reputation will get him the kind of assignment he wants. Instead his uncle assigns him to live in a house miles from the action, and Sands spends much of his time in Vietnam doing nothing, reading the notes of the French doctor who once lived in the house and who was killed when a booby-trapped underground tunnel he was exploring exploded and collapsed on him. Sands is always on the outside of events, and somehow on the inside. He's like one of those souls forever imprisoned in Dante's limbo, guilty of moral indifference, guilty not of a failure to choose correctly but of a failure to make any choice at all, guilty of choosing ignorance rather than knowledge that would make him responsible.

Peripheral vision, confusion, uncertainty—these are the viewpoints from which Sands and Tree of Smoke view the war. It's also the perspective from which the reader engages with the novel.

The scope of this novel is expansive. It begins with a hundred-page narrative, set in 1965, of CIA activities in the Philippines and the assassination of a priest suspected (wrongly) of collaborating with an obscure enemy. Focused specifically on American involvement in Vietnam, it engages the totality of American foreign policy during the latter half of the 20th century. In scope it might approach the momentous visions of Delillo's Underworld or Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. But there's a lack of detail here, a narrowed focus on Colonel Sands and his nephew and the people surrounding them, that vitiates the potential for depth and mythic import. There's much spectacle and intrigue here—the novel comes specifically to life in its descriptions of the Tet Offensive, in many ways the centerpiece of the book—but there's small opportunity for insight and understanding. Maybe the point is that Vietnam makes little room for such knowledge.

Tree of Smoke also concerns the issues of character and of guilt. Skip Sands is always on the periphery, mostly a witness to events of the war, but at the same time somehow deeply implicated. His uncle's renegade exploits, which he is not wholly aware of himself, implicate him as far as other CIA operatives are concerned. But implicate him in what? In criminal behavior, insubordination, acts of treason? We never clearly know. Maybe even Sands never knows. He just knows he's suspected. The novel gives the clear sense of a war that generates its own energy and momentum. No one is in charge. Everything is chaos. Depending on who you are, your national allegiances, your situation in a given moment, your view of the war and your place within it varies wildly. Is Colonel Sands an American hero, flaunting pointless bureaucracy, taking brave and courageous steps when no one else is willing, or is he a renegade, half-mad, driven by ambition and greed? No one knows. (Colonel Sands in this regard suggests Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1978)).

At the least, Tree of Smoke portrays a war in which issues of morality, of what is wrong and what is right, even of national policy, matter not a bit. The war lives outside the dimensions of justification and reason. It is its own phenomenon. Beyond it, the world doesn't exist.

When the novel ends, in 1983, we encounter Skip Sands as a wholly compromised individual, condemned to death in Malaysia for illegal weapons sales and other activities. He's been destroyed by the war as fully as others who died from gunshots or mine blasts.

The novel reminded me of two recent films about the CIA and American involvement in wartime espionage: The Good Shepherd (2006) and The Good German (2006).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

For All Mankind

For All Mankind (1989) is perhaps the best documentary made so far about the U. S. expeditions to the moon. It is not especially long, only eighty minutes. Instead of focusing on technical details, the development of the mission, the scientific aspects of the moon flights, it focuses instead on impressions—visual and aural impressions, the thoughts and reactions of the men involved. Most of the footage is taken from official NASA archival films. There is no narration. There are no recreated scenes. Instead the participants in the mission talk for themselves. The documentary covers everything from the minutes immediately before the first launch to the moon landing itself and then to the ascent from the moon and the rendezvous and docking with the command module orbiting the moon. We see just a brief glimpse of a command module parachuting through the atmosphere and landing safely in the ocean.

For all Mankind is a simple and straightforward visual narrative. Without overtly making clear that it is doing so, it takes the eight lunar missions, including two lunar orbital flights that did not involve landings, and combines them into one narrative, so that the story of the lunar expeditions is told from the perspectives of all the men involved.

The film tells its story with awe and even reverence. It treats the moon flights as the landmark events they were, epical extensions of the human presence from beyond the sphere of the earth to another world. The soundtrack by Brian Eno for the most part contributes effectively to this purpose, though occasionally it becomes a bit unfocused.

This film would benefit from a wide-screen, high-definition treatment. My only major complaint is that there is not enough footage of men walking on the moon's surface, riding around in the moon buggy, talking about what they are doing. Sometimes the comments of the astronauts are too prosaic and mundane—they make jokes, sing, drive golf balls (Alan Shepherd), jump up and down, run, pick up rocks. If it were not for the occasional comments they make that show their awareness of the transcendent significance of the event, you would think they did not understand. But they clearly did.

Forty years after the first lunar landing, the image of the blue-green earth floating in the void still astounds.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Biloxi Blues

Neil Simon's plays about bleached out New Yorkers are not to my tastes. Biloxi Blues (1983), based on the play of the same title, may be the best Neil Simon play (in film form) I have seen. It's essentially a memoir of Simon's days in basic training in Biloxi, Mississippi, in 1945. Directed by Mike Nichols, the film focuses on a small group of young men in their first days and weeks of basic training. They are young, fresh, and just out of high school. They all believe they are headed towards mortal combat in the Pacific, and maybe even death.

In many ways there is nothing particularly remarkable about the film. Matthew Broderick is good as the main character Eugene Morris Jerome, obviously based on Simon, who records his impressions of his experiences in a journal. Late in the film one of his friends finds the journal and reads from it to assembled friends—giving Eugene's opinions about every man in the group. Christopher Walken as the basic training sergeant Toomey is the most interesting character in the film. He demands total obedience from his recruits and has a streak of cruelty in him that takes aim at the more vulnerable boys in the group. He claims to have a silver-plate in his head, the result of a war wound, and at the end of the film, when he is apparently called to Fort Dix, NJ, for surgery, he appears to go crazy and threatens to shoot Eugene.

Despite the title, the South in Biloxi Blues is incidental. The South means humidity, mosquitoes, heat, swamps. It offers some slight local color. In one interlude Eugene has a budding romance from a young Gulfport girl he meets at a USO social. But what's more important in the scene than her Southern background is the fact that they both are young, this is their first romance, they both know they will never see each other again. The best scene in the film involves Eugene's first sexual experience, with a prostitute from Gulfport. The scene is hilarious, but the character of the prostitute with her gentle Southern accent and her lackadaisical attitude is the real source of humor. The South as a place in this film is relevant for its Otherness—it is not the place the characters in this film are from; it is not home; it is somewhere else, thus strange and foreign, though with a few exceptions the most one sees of it is from within a military barracks.

It's obvious this film is based on a stage play, and certain scenes seem taken straight from the stage. But the film is entertaining enough.