Saturday, July 31, 2004

The Village

(This may be considered by some to be a spoiler... You might want to read it after you see the film).

M. Knight Shyamalan has done it again. He has created another horror film with THE VILLAGE. Sure, there's a difference between this and SIGNS or THE SIXTH SENSE, or even UNBREAKABLE and WIDE AWAKE (a little movie that people who treasure family films - in the best sense of the word - will love). All of these have a spiritual dimension, other worldly. What binds all of these films together, however, is that they are predicated on chaos over which one person or more have no control. This is what makes a horror movie that works. They scare.

I once heard Wes Craven speak and he said that the reason people go to horror films is because they are already scared... They go so they can gain a kind of symbolic control over the chaos of their lives. And there is a beginning, a middle and an end to a horror film. Closure.

What makes THE VILLAGE interesting is that it's about a group of white people, and families, presumably well off enough to live well in isolated circumstances; there are only hints of any work being done to support the group. The people seem to be living around the year 1900 and they are surrounded by Covington Forest. They seem peaceful, at least the leaders do; everyone else is pretty much terrified by "those of whom we never speak" who dwell in the forest. They are attracted by red berries, so the people dig them up whenever they see them. Some villagers have seen the creatures; they certainly hear them. The creatures wear red capes, and have claws and horns, and skeletal faces. As the film opens we see skinned dogs left about the village, and we see a young girl getting all sweet on a young man, Lucisus (played by SIGNS actor Joaquin Phoenix). School goes on as normal; a wedding takes place; and Lucius spurns the girl in favor of Ivy, the blind daughter of the school master and head of the village, Edward Walker (John Hurt.)

At night, Lucius helps keep guard over the village that is surrounded and seemingly protected by a ring of fire. Another skinned dog appears; someone sees one of the red-caped creatures.

At a meeting of elders one day, Lucius asks permission of the elders to go out among the towns to get medicine for Noah,the "village idiot.". He thinks the creatures will sense his good heart and let him pass. The elders turn him down.

Adrien Brody plays Noah,  but he is not as handicapped as he seems. When Lucius and Ivy's love is made known, he stabs Lucius and leaves him for dead.

Ivy seems to have preternatural vision, and the courage of a "man." She asks permission of her father to go to the towns to get medicine for Lucius. He makes a list of the needed medicines and lets her go, accompanied by two young men, dressed in the yellow capes that are supposed to signal the creatures that those who wear them do so in peace.

This is where we start to understand what's going on. It's like the ending comes here but there's still more scary stuff to come. The acts of the film seem inverted (two and three).

Yet the film worked for me. I went to see this with my sister and I have bruises on my arm where she kept grabbing onto me at the scary scenes.

THE VILLAGE is a psychological horror film about fear - real fear and manufactured fear; fear of the chaos of life and living because of the bad things that can and do happen, fear manipulated to keep people under control so they will be safe (supposedly); and maybe its about the false security created by an addiction to fear.

Who has the right to keep people from living freely, under the guise of keeping them safe, by creating a situation of perpetual terror from threat of attack? Do you terrorize your own children so that they will not stray into the forest and see what's beyond the narrow horizon you have built for them?

I kept thinking this film was going to be about religious fanatics, but that didn't happen, though God was mentioned as part of village life here and there.

I think that this film could be seen through the lenses of family, community, faith tradition (how the people who interpret teaching can create and promote an image of God that controls people rather than empowering them to fulfill their true nature as children of a loving God), and nations. Fear is a universal emotion; how we deal with fear is where conscience, freedom and responsibility come into play.

I thought early on that the film was going to be about supernatural evil vs. supernatural and natural good, like THE SIXTH SENSE. No, it was about the extremes good people will go to when they cannot handle the chaos, grief, abuse, and sins that life hands to them. If they cannot name the darkness, they create darkness to deal with it.

THE VILLAGE is a movie with ideas, and without a very satisfying ending.


Some things are never explained, like why Ivy sees people in "colors"; no one ever questions the village elders and how they know what the creatures will respond to and what antagonizes them - though we do find out how the village came to be. The Noah character deserves more consideration than what I have done here, because I didn't want to give away the whole plot. Shyamalan has finally chosen a female protagonist (all his other films focus on the male characters), though her father pulls all the strings.

Coventry Forest... a wild life preserve... a covenant made between a group of people never to leave the village, and a covenant broken.

Why only white people? (The film offers a plausible answer, that begs even more conversation.)

It would also be worth exploring how Shyamalan uses the same techniques in his films, e.g. the color red (THE SIXTH SENSE); aliens and "the other"...

Lots to talk about.

The Bourne Supremacy

I am a fan of author Robert Ludlum who died in 2001. His spy-thrillers are still a good read, though many took place during the Cold War. One of my favorites is "The Road to Gondolfo" from the early 1980's about some mafia guys who kidnap the Pope for ransom, but he's so happy to be out of the Vatican, he doesn't want to go back. Reminded me of "The Ransom of Red Chief" by O'Henry. Now, people are finishing books Ludlum started before he died, and I think they keep up the tradition satisfactorily. Medical and corporate conspiracies have taken the place of the Cold War....

Anyway, The Bourne Supremacy is a better movie than The Bourne Identity that came out in 2002 - nothing against Matt Damon but if you liked Richard Chamberlain's TV version, then it might have been a tad disappointing. However, The Bourne Supremacy is an engrossing spy drama that presents a new cinematic technique to viewers. Instead of too many over-long car chases and fights (there are some), much of the action is "chopped up" and blurred so we don't have to sit through what have become cliche' sequencing. Same old, same old. On the other hand, the fast moving blurred visuals gave my brother-in-law a headache. I thought it was rather classy, but if over-used, the technique could become predictable.

The blurring certainly reinforced the lack of clarity Bourne has about who he is, why the CIA is after him, and the Russians as well. When Marie, the woman who saved him in the last film, is killed by an assassin in Goa, India, where she and Bourne have been living, he continues his search for who he is.

You have to stick with this one to figure out the plot. You might want to see The Bourne Identity again if clarity of plot is important to you.

What's interesting is that Marie had been working with Jason to curb his first response to any situation: killing. He realizes he has been brainwashed by the CIA - but why is at the heart of the story. In the film, the CIA basically collapses from the inside because of self-conspiracy, treachery, secrecy, fraud and greed. Is anyone to be trusted ever again?

Joan Allen is excellent as the Berlin CIA bureau chief and is the agent that reveals Bourne's identity. But she still wants him to come in and talk about it... sequel?

Bourne's damaged conscience and his humanity begin to emerge as he knits together the threads of his memory and his life.

Matt Damon plays this role supremely well.


Monday, July 26, 2004

I, Robot

It was a toss-up: I, Robot or Catwoman? I, Robot won. Be warned: this may be a bit of a spoiler.

I am always prepared to like a Will Smith film, and this one started off okay. I, Robot is a sci-fi action film based on the collection of short stories of the same title written by Isaac Asimov and published in 1950.

Science fiction is an okay genre for me; I don't seek it out because it seems to always be a variation of the same theme (I am willing to be enlightened on this, however): what is the nature of the human person? True, the human person is a universe, but with one outstanding characteristic: free will and consciousness: the ability for a person to reflect on him or herself reflecting (to put it simply.).

This film is about robots that evolve - or are evolved by Dr. Lanning, played via holograms by James Cromwell. Like Frankenstein, Lanning has created a monster, and he gets the monster to promise to kill him - though we don't find this out right away. Lanning has even named the high end robot: "Sonny". And yes, the humans then kill (i.e. are recalled - can you imagine the cost?) all the other robots that have gotten out of hand.

The film seems to be predicated on the logic of Asimov's rules of robotics (though if you do some research on the internet you'll find that sci-fi experts now question the absolutism of the rules) :

(1) A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; (2) A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law; (3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.


Certainly Del (Will Smith) questions these rules but the female lead, Dr. Susan Calvin (lots of talk about free will here; I wonder if Asimov chose the name on purpose; played by Bridget Moynahan) believes in them absolutely. Her job is to make the robots seem more human. The recurring chant throughout the film was that V.I.KI., the central brain of the robotic computer system, kept proclaiming how logical "she" was.

The plot seemed forced to me, though average summer fare. What bothered me the most however, was the ending. Just when this film could have asked intelligent and existential questions (like Blade Runner) about what makes a human being human, and the consequences of our dependence on technology or where it is taking us, the film seems to veer off into the free range of a "feel good" ending. Del and Dr. Calvin are rescued by Sonny; they shake hands with Sonny and send him off to find his own way, since that's what it means to be human. He then ends up at the dump where the old robots have been exiled to act as a kind of redeemer.

A feel good ending does not mean a "postive" one for I, Robot. If it were positive, robots would be robots and humans, human. The film ends, at the very least, in an ambiguous manner regarding human nature and the act of creation. It questions, then posits, that if humans evolved, then machines can, too. If the writers are being ambiguous, then it seems they don't know the difference between humanity and machines ... and this seems very pessimistic regarding the nature and future of human race.

The film's final ambiguity might lead one to consider that the film is a commentary on where humanity might be heading, rather than affirming a specific existential reality, e.g. that what makes us human is free will and consciousness. I don't think this is the case, however. The film is too much about high concept entertainment than big ideas.

This is not an intelligent film, it's a feel good film with the usual car chases and even a robotic revolution. These terms (intelligent and entertaining) are not always mutually exclusive, because "smart" can be entertianing, too. But the distinction is often the difference between an average film and a really good film that makes you say, "Ah ha!"

I am still waiting for the best film this year.

Saturday, July 17, 2004


I went to see Anchorman this morning.

The story of Ron Burgundy played by Will Ferrell, meets the emerging feminism of the 1970's in the person of Veronica Corningstone, played well enough by Christina Applegate.

Hold that syllable there: Corn-ie.

I think they had more fun making it than what actually made it through the editing suite.

Adolescent body-part sexual-inuendo pseudo-machismo ... humor? Poor San Diego.


I liked Ferrell better as Buddy the Elf.


Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Spider-Man 2

"Ecastatic" may be overstating my mood somewhat after seeing Spider-Man 2, but I liked it ever so much - and it's the closest adjective on the list the Journal provides to express my response. Better than Spider-Man (2002)? You bet!

Spider-Man 2, for its comic book, action-super hero premise, is actually a morality tale about character and virtue. The bottom line: "Don't listen to them; we have to be steady, give up what we want the most, even our dreams, to do the right thing."

Lots to talk about from a character education perspective: honesty, fairness, justice, courage, self-sacrifice and love - and choosing the right path in life, and the right action. 

The "virtue" in the film is offset by Harry's desire for revenge and Otto's split personality that turns him into an A.I. driven scientist with a god-complex.

I thought the acting was just right - and it is a high-concept over-the-top action film, so hold onto your seats! It's also a movie that makes you - smile.

I overheard a couple leaving the theater say, "It was good even though they spent the last twenty minutes setting up the sequel." Well, there is that.

So far this year... this is one of my top five for an entertaining, wholesome film with real ideas.


I'll Sleep When I Am Dead

I'll Sleep When I Am Dead is a bleak, overcast, British film noir tale that leads the audience through the dark streets and underbelly of London's criminal world on a quest for a reason that morphs into revenge. It is about the deception of memories - and the myths they create.

Davey is the younger brother of former crime lord, Will (excellent performance by Clive Owen of King Arthur and Greenfingers - one of my favorite films.) Will had left London three years before and has been drifting through jobs showing kindness when the occasion arose. He left behind his friends, his girl friend - a restaurant owner, and a younger brother, Davey ... to get away from his life. Is he a changed man?

Will is looking for work when a memory of his brother makes him try to contact Davey. When there is no answer, Will drives back to London in the van he has been living out of. He discovers that Davey, into the soft money made by selling crack at parties, is dead by suicide.

Will cannot believe Davey would do such a thing and starts to investigate. What Will discovers is truly terrible and dark. While we like Will, we will not be happy with the way he settles the score, though on some level we understand it.

The one thing thoughtful viewers will take away with them (if they like this kind of film, with its fine acting) is that crime doesn't pay, never pays. It violates the integrity of the person and his family and friends. It's somewhat discouraging, too, because Will won't go to the police because he truly believes he will not get justice; and though he tried to change, he chooses again the path of loss and revenge. Where is redemption?

The accents make much of the dialogue difficult to understand. This is not a movie for the faint of heart. It is a very dark story.

I would almost like to see a sequel because I think the character of Will has the capacity to accept love and redemption. I lived in London for two years; there is life and light in the city on the Thames.


Wednesday, July 7, 2004

The Clearing

In the midst of movies that entertain, others that are disturbing for various reasons, and others that are mostly about nothing in particular, The Clearing is an exceptional small thriller about the transparency and ultimately the transcendence of married love.

Robert Redford plays Wayne, a self-made multi-millionaire who started is own car rental and then consulting business. Eileen, his wife, is played by Helen Mirren. Wayne gets kidnapped one day by the mentally ill, out-of-work, fanatical, and ambiguous Arnold, played by Willem Dafoe. Eileen's family rallies around her and does the FBI. Soon enough a ransom request is made and secrets about Wayne are revealed.

Eileen lives in hope and follows all the kidnapper's instructions.

And that's all I can tell you or this will be a spoiler.

I call the film small because it is so focused on two men from two families. We meet and come to know Eileen, but we only know Arnold's wife by what he says. Fuller, the FBI agent, admits that his marriage is in danger. Tim, Wayne and Eileen's son, seems to be having a hard time adapting to fatherhood; their daughter worries that her dad may not have known she loved him.

The Clearing is about the journey toward awareness. Arnold and Wayne chat along the way; this communication is a symbol for their own lack of it with their spouses. At one point on their trek through the hills toward an isolated cabin, Arnold and Wayne come to a place where they can see the valley below. All of a sudden, as a storm breaks, Wayne sees the consequences of his life - family and work - and choices clearly. Arnold never really does.

I chatted with some ladies after the film. Two of them said that they were impressed because Helen Mirren never tries to hide her age. Neither does Redford in this film about what it takes to make a marriage and a life work. Even when the characters, played by our favorite actors, are flawed people in the stories they tell and grow older along the way, we come to understand that this is an opportunity for us to see clearly, too. This seems to be a film as much about Redford and Mirren as actors, as it is about Wayne and Eileen. 

The audience can look at this film through the lens of relationships and family or through the social impact of what happens when the world of work changes and disinfanchises people. Arnold is out of work and living with his wife and daughter in his father-in-law's house. He cannot take responsibility for his own life but becomes obcessed with Wayne's life instead.

The Clearing wasn't what I expected but it did not disappoint me either. Solid and satisfying.