Monday, January 28, 2013

Movie Buff: Variety is the Spice of... this selection of movies

There will, sadly, be no Bibliophile this week; I was too busy doing other work. Sad, I know.  Unrelated note: I watched a lot of movies this weekend!  Brief commentary for Argo, Dredd, Offside, and a liiiiiittle bit of Pirate Radio, all after the break.

 Argo.  First off, this is a film with a stellar cast.  But I'll say that for any movie that has Bryan Cranston in it. The plot of the movie, in case you don't know, is that it's the story of the real-life Iranian Revolution, when the CIA created a fake film--Argo--to use as cover for sneaking six Americans out of Iran in 1980. I like that it didn't sugarcoat the reason the Iranians were upset with Americans at the time; American forces had been behind propping up a dictator-like leader who, by all accounts, was pretty corrupt.  The film is most notably not about that; it's about getting the six Americans who really had nothing to do with those designs out of the country.  The film's been getting a lot of awards, and a lot of nominations for awards.   It's won an AFI for Movie of the Year, Best Film of the San Diego Critics Society, Best Picture of the Producers Guild of America, Best Picture at the Golden Globes, and many more. And it's been nominated for seven Oscars.  And the truth is... I don't really think it deserves them.  The best thing about the film is the way it absolutely nails a sense of the 80s, in costume and in tone. And on that front, it deserves recognition.  And maybe it is the best adaptation of the year; I don't really know the field.  But best picture?  I think it's mostly getting so much attention because it's Americana of the type that doesn't immediately come off as jingoist nationalism, and it's based on something that really happened. I'll give it points for not portraying the Iranians as villains per se, and for delivering perfectly decent performances from its cast.  But it didn't do a lot beyond that, for me. I had two problems with the film: first, by the end, the false escalation of drama was wearing a bit thin (will they stop them.... here?  No.  Well how about.... at this point! No.  Well, maybe they'll run afoul of the authorities!  Oh, no they won't.).  And second, it felt weirdly schizophrenic, like it was wavering between wanting be an action hero/thriller type movie and wanting to be a period piece where the historical authenticity was absolute. And it didn't quite hit either, because it kept swinging.  And Ben Affleck's character was the biggest part--he looked like he should be in that action movie, while everyone around him looked like they should be in the period piece.  So yeah: it's a good film, but not quite as good as it's being hyped.

Dredd. It's The Raid: Redemption, with Judge Dredd.  And if you liked The Raid, that Asian hyper-violent martial arts film, that means your decision is pretty made.  The plot is pretty simple: Dredd and a new recruit telepath have been assigned the task of cleaning up a building that has been taken over by a local crime lord.  And they fight their way to the top, with heavy reliance on Dredd's gun, which seems capable of firing virtually every type of bullet imaginable.  So the plot of the Judge Dredd comics is that he is the law enforcement for a city in the future.  That future stuff appears in the film, but by limiting the action to a building, they can downplay that element, and focus on said action. It's a simple thing, kind of dumb, but if you're looking for ridiculous action, it's great.  Unlike the previous Dredd movie, it minimizes his character; Dredd is tough, and pretty much emotionless.  And the character works much better that way--Dredd is more an ideal than a person. What little emotional connection the film needs comes from the sidekick telepath and the villains. Judge Dredd, the comic, is part of an anthology comic called 2000 AD, published in Britain (which started in 1977, before the 2000 date seemed... dated).  And it's been running a Judge Dredd story for the past 35 years.  I find the character of Dredd fascinating, because he's both the symbol of both the good and decent in the law, but also a symbol of fascism, and the other Judges are frequently corrupt.  It's a very British sort of mentality.  It's hard to imagine an American version of Dredd; the closest would probably be a combination of Captain America and the Punisher, and that'd still miss the mark by a fair bit. Anyway,with 35 years of stories, at the rate of one per week, that's a lot of history; the film ignores 99% of it, and is the better off for it.  It keeps things simple, and delivers, provided that's what you're looking for.

Offside.  An Iranian movie (two movies set in Iran in a week.  Weird.) about the 2006 qualifying soccer match.  Or football, if you're of that persuasion.  The plot is that a bunch of girls, separately, try to sneak into the game; in Iran, it's illegal for women to be in a soccer stadium that also has men in it. We see the ones who get caught, and the guards there to look after them.  The whole thing is shot and scripted in such a manner that it seems like there just happened to be camera there; there's a plot, but it never seems to be driving the film.  Tt proceeds at its own pace, and we just happen to learn a little bit about each character as we go along.  There's the girl who's the tomboy, the girl who stole a soldier's uniform, the girl worried above all about her father's reaction, the girl who has to pee (and her attempt to get escourted to the bathroom set up a lot of the film's funniest bits), and so forth. That's important, I think; each of the girls is distinguished from the others in some way, so that they're all different, but we never get so much that they have an identity outside of the soccer game.  As an audience, all we need to know is that they all share a love of soccer. A film of this nature could easily be preachy, but it's not, because it sticks so thoroughly to its "fly on the wall" filming. As a result, it never seems like the director is arguing that we should be against the law preventing them from seeing the game; it just presents the events, humanizes everyone involved (except the shadowy law makers), and lets the viewer draw their own conclusion.  Someone I was watching the movie with pointed out that while various attempts are made to defend the law ("women like to follow it, in the country" "it keeps men from going wild" "you shouldn't be in a position to hear men swear"), no one ever invokes Islam.  That, he said, is obviously a choice on the director's part.  And he's right.  It rhetorically frames the law as a social construct, rather than a religious dictum. It's a criticism of the Iranian government, but it's a criticism all the more insidious for never directly attacking anything.  Rather than standing up in defiance against the law, it mocks it, and shows it to be outdated and stodgy.  And that's probably more effective a tactic, in the long run.
But nobody's head explodes, so clearly Dredd is the superior film.

Pirate Radio. I saw about the first hour of this before I went to catch the bus.  It's loosely based on the pirate radio stations in Britain in the 1960s, which operated just on international waters so they could broadcast songs the British government didn't approve of. This speaks more to my own past than anything else, but I can never stand smug heroes in fiction--as soon as the protagonists start to get too big for their britches, I instinctively start rooting for the villains. (See: Shrek. I really empathized with Farqhad. Or for a real example, see the later books by David Eddings.)  There's something about the "look at me, I'm so cool" characters that set my teeth on edge; it's why my least favorite ninja turtle is Raphael, why I don't like Owen Wilson, and why I can only handle Bill Murray in small doses. Anyway, my point is, this is a film that entirely does the smug leads thing, but I still liked it because the villains--the stodgy British government (that's stodgy twice in one post--record!)--were so over the top villainous that it made you think they wanted to be defied, just so they could be villains, because they're having so much fun with it.  I assume it goes on in that manner; it looked like fun, and I'm sorry I missed it.

Later Days.

1 comment:

RobotParking said...

Haven't seen The Raid, but I pretty much echo your comments on Dredd. In looking at the wikipedia page for the comic, I found that Judge Dredd is aging in real time. So every year that goes by, he gets a year older (rather than, y'know, Peter Parker, who seems to be a terminal university student -- actually, one can sympathize.) At any rate, apparently Judge Dredd is in his seventies. I don't think he's shooting things as much as influencing policy, but that's the version that lives in my head.

In my brain-comic, Judge Dredd started as a hyperviolent comic and slowly aged into a political drama as he's increasingly hemmed in by his own inescapable finitude and the unwieldy institutions he helped build. Almost tempted to hop the wall into crazyville and pick up those collected editions to see how disappointed I can get.