Archive for the ‘Film Theses/Analyses’ Category

JCVD: An introspective satire of uncommon intelligence and grace (***** out of 5; Grade: A)

December 18, 2008
When the listing came out for the Toronto Film Festival, I was shocked to hear a Van Damme movie would be screening.

JCVD was best described by a Toronto critic as being the sort of film you’d expect if Charlie Kaufman was an avid fan of Bloodsport. A surrealist romp of blazing wit, insight and heartrending honesty, it features the one-time action star Jean Claude Van Damme playing himself (or a version of himself): mocked in the industry and labelled a bad father in court during a custody battle. He returns to Belgium to unwind after the disastrous (but blackly funny) trial before he takes on yet another mundane action film (the scene in which he negotiates with his agent, is an insightful if heartbreaking moment when he reveals his desire to sacrifice financially in order to improve the film in question; it shows how something that must have started off as a quest for fame and fortune has become one for respect).

He is a local hero Belgium, accosted by taxi drivers and store owners for photographs and autographs. But the trip devolves into a fascinating comedy of errors as a bank heist breaks out, complete with a sticky hostage situation, with all signs pointing to JCVD as the perpetrator. As the police, media, and a battalion of adoring fans descend upon the scene, the question arises: could the cash-strapped Van Damme (who just lost a film role to Steven Seagal because Seagal offered to cut off his famed ponytail) be so desperate to raise the money to fight for his daughter’s custody?

The first act unfolds from several perspectives, reminding me a bit of another clever heist film, Sidney Lumet’s under-appreciated Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead. It may seem a bit like a gimmick at first, but on reflection one realizes the significance in getting the audience to appreciate the varying perspectives surrounding the man (in order to separate him from the myth), and the value in seeing cause and effect reversed. This is probably the strongest portion – emotionally – of the movie, when we get to peer behind the superstardom veil of Van Damme (the 3rd act, by comparison, feels a bit flat – even if the final frame is gold).

The heist puts things into overdrive without ever once becoming an action flick. The effect of this brush with celebrity on everyone – from the cops, to the spectators, to those inside the bank – is fascinating and brimming with comic genius at nearly every turn. The scene when Van Damme is very politely asked to flick a cigarette out of a hostage’s mouth with a kick is gold; it gets several shades more brilliant when someone else tries to replicate the feat. My personal feat was not falling to the floor from my seat in hysterical laughter.

The revelation here isn’t that the French can make a genre-defying, razor-sharp film, but that a) one could be fashioned around Van Damme, and b) he would live up to his end of the bargain. It is a brave, intelligent, honest, charming performance, from the exasperation during the custody hearing and his disarming desire to placate fans, to his naked regret and worry about the meaning of his life, should it end badly during the standoff.

This brings me to the most daring and divise scene in the movie: JCVD’s floating, piercing and brutally introspective monologue. It is a riveting moment, whether you agree with its use or not, and indisputably the high-point of Van Damme’s career. I’ve always liked the man, in an off-hand kinda way (Universal Soldiers, Timecop and Lionheart are pretty sweet flicks), but this pushed the love-and-respect meter through the roof. It has to go hand-in-hand with the comebacks of 2008: Robert Downey, Jr and Mickey Rourke, neither of which were as surprising as JCVD.

The film opens with a furious, stylish (if mechanical) action sequence done in one seamless shot. JCVD, winded and out of breath, complains that he’s 47 and can’t do these things in a single shot. The aloof director deadpans “He still thinks we’re making Citizen Kane.” By the time the end credits rolled, writer-director Mabrouk El Mechri had come as close to anyone will probably ever in making a Sidney Lumet film written by Charlie Kaufman.

The Meaning Of Life (from ‘The Dark Knight’, not ‘Monty Python’)

August 12, 2008

The Dark Knight is the gift that keeps on giving, as I continue to draw inspiration and ideas and concepts from it for my writing, my political and ideological sensibilities, and my personal life. That it would spur my renewed probe into the Meaning of Life is no surprise given the not negligible role it played in averting my attempted suicide some 35 days ago; that, in doing so, it would edge me over the precipice into a full-blown existential crisis is an expected side effect.

The Joker, the film’s magnificent central villain, espouses Chaos as the only fair way to live in the world. Harvey Dent, its impeccable hero fallen from grace, prefers Blind Chance. Neither truly exists in an unadulterated version in our world due to manipulation from the powerful elite in our society, who “make their own luck”. (Chaos negates a powerful elite, but remember that power vacuums are only temporary, and must eventually be filled).

That said Chaos, pure or contained, is the order of our existence, and Chaos is here to stay. In light of this, can life truly have any meaning? Because Chaos negates any true Meaning, the highest worldly calling is to reign in Chaos, which is where peace officers, aid workers and (allegedly) governments come in. Bruce Wayne is all of this in one, answering to a higher calling – the meting out of ‘Justice’ and ‘Order’ and serving the Public Good – than few of us will ever realize. This gives him Purpose, the only true Purpose in life with any concrete meaning: Self-Sacrifice. But what makes his special is scale; he truly lives for it, and if his methods are questionable, his impact is not.

Who else can have such significant or lasting impact on society at large? World leaders are quickly relegated to history books or celebrity fodder when their tenure expires, except when they serve in times of unmitigated Chaos, or – worse – when they cause unmitigated Chaos. It’s hard to swallow – but impossible to dismiss – that leaders or regimes like Hitler, Stalin, Pinochet, or the Khmer Rouge have stronger Purpose, greater impact (and by extension more Meaning) than well-meaning ones like Clinton or Carter or even Kennedy (himself magnified by tragedy).

Bruce Wayne’s tortured quest as Batman may give him Purpose, but it doesn’t really give him Meaning, which is why Harvey Dent surmises that Batman can’t want his job forever. Wayne’s hope for Meaning lies in a much more attainable (or not, depending on your outlook) source: Love.

A pivotal moment: he agrees to turn himself in to stop the Joker, and there’s a sense of relief as he asks Rachel if they can now be together. Her response is a telling one:

“Bruce, don’t let me be your last chance at a normal life.”

She is his Love, but she’s also his oldest friend, and understands his heart the way Alfred understands his logical and philosophical machinations.

So it is that I propose the only way to can glean any sense of personal Meaning in this haphazard, chaotic existence is the fulfillment we can only gain from those we love, and those that love us back.

Mind you, I do believe in a Greater Plan, but also accept that on ground level it can only look like Chaos to our untrained eyes. And only in God can we find true peace and fulfillment. My point is that, as a Christian, it’s necessary to care for the overall betterment of people – a quest the Realist in me knows is fundamentally impossible. No matter what we do or believe, bad things will happen to good people, and at times like that, when Meaning and Purpose seem hollow, do we need the fortitude of those we love.

I believe this is why I fell in love, and as my outlook on the Human Condition grows bleaker and bleaker, I become more entrenched in my feelings, desperate for a crutch to lend me stability and guidance. The fact that it hasn’t been requited in a while hasn’t stopped the slide, or the growing ache that has accompanied it. It only makes sense, I suppose – if anything can provide an existence with Meaning, it shouldn’t be easily attainable if at all; that would cheapen the Meaning. I mean, can you seriously see Bruce Wayne quitting cape and cowl to live Happily Ever After with Rachel?

Christians know true Meaning can only be attained through true communion with God, something I’ve found myself woefully short on for years now. Valerie, the appointed LOML, is a devoted, inspiring but humanly flawed Catholic herself, which was perfect: through a Meaningful relationship with her, I’d find a Meaningful relationship with God – a rather reckless notion: Now I was burdening Valerie with the task to literally Save me – my sanity, my spirituality, my sense of being. It’s naïve and unfair – how do you tell someone that? There’s no way she can let you down easy.

Bruce doesn’t voice it, but Rachel senses it, and lets him down – easy. As hard as her loss was on him, it is the impetus to throw himself more blindly into his calling, so Purpose will consume a lack of true Meaning. For me, I’ll admit that my goal of writing and filmmaking are nowhere near as noble or high a calling, but I hope it can be every bit as consuming, to keep me functioning in this existence I am shackled to.

When I opted to kill myself on July 8th, 2008, thinking instead of the impending Dark Knight made me realize something: as Meaningless as life often felt, death was even more so by a landslide. And nothing drove home that point like Heath Ledger.

A promising career, a father and thoughtful soul, cut down in literal prime. Sure, he’s immortalized on screen like few others – his Joker is a vibrant, affecting portrait of sheer genius. There will be accolades, maybe even an Oscar, but so what? It doesn’t change the fact that he’s gone, forever separated from the adulation that he would’ve surely, despite himself, gladly – and deservedly – basked in.

‘Achievements’ are no measure of Meaning. Maybe Love is an oversimplification, but oversimplification could be what’s needed to attack such a large concept. I personally have never felt anything so strong, as to be unbearable – insomnia, anorexia, depression – and because I’ve so mangled it, never want to feel it again. Yes – even if I’ve got Purpose with no Meaning. Better than me have resigned themselves to such a fate.

The last lesson lies in Ledger: for all his very intelligent use of a God-given talent, from where I sit all I see is tragic waste. And from my personal vantage point, Life on Earth as we know it is one frenzied, frenetic activity devoid of Meaning, and then you die.

Realism vs. Idealism: The Politics of ‘The Dark Knight’

August 11, 2008

There is nary a medium like film, that possess the uncanny ability to entertain and enthrall, to move, engage, provoke (thought, feelings, ideas, debate, passions), stimulate, question, answer, provide wake-up calls or flights of escapism, all in the same breath.

The Dark Knight belongs in such a heady pantheon. ‘Message movies’ can often be too preachy/pedantic and heavy-handed; blockbusters are typically stillborn and brain-dead. TDK manages to avoid both, espousing heavy logic and weighty themes while remaining fleet-footed and breathtaking. It’s already inspired me to much thought and contemplation (as anyone who’s read anything I’ve posted can attest to, i.e. no one). But I never thought it would lead me to question the nature – and meaning therein – of life.

It’s quite the weighty concept, so I shall try to explain what I mean. The core is in the dynamic of Batman vs. The Joker, two beings so alike yet so disparate, as well as in the crime-fighting triumvirate of Batman-Jim Gordon-Harvey Dent. In The Joker you have a rare character that is an absolute: no half-measures, no self-doubt or second-guessing; he believes in unbridled, unrestrained chaos. He has no real sense of personal gain, except to mete out his philosophy (which sadly has a degree of merit to it) to the unsuspecting, “civilized” masses.

Batman represents Order, but is by no means unconflicted. Seeking ‘Order’ as a vigilante? That’s a contradiction in itself. But in this character you find one of the great contradictions in modern popular entertainment, an embodiment of the uneasy marriage of Idealism and Realism. He believes in weighty concepts like Justice, Freedom, Honor, and personal codes; these make him an Idealist, because these concepts are really fabrications of a society that knows it has to aspire to be more than mere wild animals and cannot come to the realization that, on a societal scale, they are Subjective and humanly Unachievable. Only a Realist will dare admit how pathetically unmanageable humans as a species are, how basic traits can never be washed out, and how drastic measures must be taken to maintain some measure of Discipline, Harmony, and ‘Order’.

Batman’s voice of Idealism is the beautiful (in either incarnation) Rachel Dawes, the perpetual Assistant DA and his lifelong friend. Lucius Fox (aka head of ‘Q’ Branch) chimes in when Batman unveils a secret surveillance system so comprehensive it would give the entire Bush cabinet woodies for months. But this is Batman the Realist, as spurred on by uber-butler Alfred, his voice of Realism and the person that “knows him [best].”

When The Joker subjects Gotham to a crime wave designed to force Batman’s hand, Alfred advises him to “endure.” Endure, even as people die? Bruce Wayne baulks at this, not because of codes but conscience. Even Rachel can spot this. But ultimately Harvey Dent, an even more layered and complex character – who yells at Batman, “You can’t give in!!” – makes Wayne realize that there is more to Batman than “giving in to the whims of a madman.” Batman does what any person in a position of great power and responsibility must – he keeps his Ideals in check and faces Real World problems with Real World solutions. Debates and codes and ‘honor’ never solved anything by themselves.

Then there is of course Harvey Dent. Lt. Gordon goes as far as labeling himself a Realist (implying Dent is an Idealist), which is interesting because while they both start out that way, neither ends as is. Going above and beyond the call of duty (e.g. faking his death without his family’s knowledge for their protection) displays Gordon’s Realist tendencies. But he loses the plot after the disfigurement of Dent.

Gordon ditches a raid on the whereabouts of The Joker in order to evacuate every threatened hospital in the city and protect Coleman Reese, letting the Idealistic notion of the sacredness of every solitary life overhaul the very Real World answer to the city’s woes: capture (and kill) The Joker. When Batman wants time to precede a later raid on the Joker’s hideout, Gordon disagrees, wailing heartbreakingly, “We need to save Dent! I, need to save Dent…”

Back to Dent. He’s an Idealist par excellence. Nicknamed ‘Two-Face’ for the appetite he nailed dirty cops with, he believes in speechifying and Justice and Hope and Peace; in Nolan’s incarnation, the only character in the DC universe more Idealistic than Dent is the flying boy scout himself, Superman. He believes in Batman’s vigilantism, calling Gotham “proud” and admitting he would be honored to continue the crusade if he’s “worthy.” But he shows Realist tendencies worthy of mention. He alludes to Rome’s system of suspending democracy and handing control to one person in times of crisis, essentially supporting ideas like Martial Law and suspensions of freedoms in the face of grave threats. And later, when he defends Batman to a press conference (Idealistically, I might add), he gives a speech that sounds Idealistic but, at its heart is Realist (things get worse b4 they get better: “The (k)night is always darkest before the dawn.” I could so see G.W. saying that).

Which brings us to the real world. I’ve been reading the most fascinating book: The Coming Anarchy, by Robert D. Kaplan; who knew doomsday prophecies could be so page-turning? It espouses such controversial ideas (most of which I’ve supported since time immemorial) as the pointlessness – nay, the flat-out dangers – of exporting ‘Democracy’ to the developing world, the dangers of peace (and wanting it above all things; just look at Prime Minister Chamberlain’s shameless appeasement of Nazi Germany), and how Idealists debate and teach but Realists must rule. He largely defends uber-Realists Kissinger and Nixon while chiding them for often going too far. And of course, he wins true hero status with me by rightly placing the burden of guilt on the West for majority of the mess in the so-called Third World – from Sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East and Latin America. It’s a harrowing, intelligent, fascinating read.

A Realist's Guide to Doomsday Prophesy

A Realist's Guide to Doomsday Prophesy

From what I can tell, Disaster brings about Realism, Debacle Idealism. WWI was a debacle that “delegitimized” war according to Kaplan (Kaplan points out that, before the 20th century, war wasn’t seen as a bad thing; think of all the things achieved through revolution and battle). This ushered in a phase of Idealism never before seen, which allowed such things as Nazism and Imperialist Japan and, eventually, the USSR to gain an oppressive grip on civilization. WWII was a disaster, a wake-up call, after the most old-school of Realists Winston Churchill had to step in and clean up Chamberlain’s mess (notice that this didn’t stop Churchill from later being ousted, though). The Cold War kept us on our toes, and for the first time in a while the world realized that sometimes, to keep Order and Sanity, you had to do the unthinkable, if it was necessary (that said, I still think The Cold War was blown hideously out of proportion by paranoia and idiocy).

The end of the Cold War made everyone realize just how stupid we were to exist for decades just a hair away from nuclear annihilation; this Debacle led to renewed Idealism, which in turn led to disasters such as the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia. But these were still sufficiently far away to induce a lull, leading us to poo-poo such ‘drastic’ anti-terrorism attempts as those weighted against Osama bin-Laden and friends. Of course until the disaster of September 11th.

Harvey Dent, the ‘White Knight’ of Gotham and unflinching crusader, is “brought down to our level” with stunning ruthlessness by The Joker. Does he go off the hinge as in the old incarnations, becoming an outright evil criminal? Not at all – he remains a crusader, logically; what changes is his 180-degree swing from ardent Idealism to murderous Realism. He goes after the dirty cops and the mob – people responsible for his disfigurement and the death of his beloved. Then he goes after Gordon.

Why, you ask? It’s the battle between newfound Realism and newfound Idealism. But the irony is that Realist Dent is punishing Idealist Gordon for mistakes that Realist Gordon made (i.e. trusting a crooked police squad). Dent seeks to shatter Gordon’s belief system(s), and teach him a very cruel lesson that he learned at the hands of The Joker: life is cruel, hard and unfair, and it’s pointless trying to be “decent men in an indecent time.” When Batman points out he doesn’t want to hurt a child to get his point across, Dent answers that it’s “not what [he] want[s], it’s what’s FAIR!!” And that’s true. Because the world is an unfair place, where bad things happen to good people – regardless of what you believe. It’s the true “Chaos Theory,” because ‘true’ ‘justice’ or fairness can only come from chance: “unbiased; unprejudiced…fair.” In this sense Dent – like the Joker – tempers his ruthless Realism with a touch of Idealism.

Dent ends up taking a swan dive, and Batman takes the fall. This is the most crucial part of this thesis. Why does this happen? Merely to give us a deep, dark Empire Strikes Back-esque ending and set up a sequel? You vastly ‘misunderestimate’ this film. Batman has finally – after 2 movies – learned the only way to make grounds in a world that’s as broken, corrupt, and misguided as ours. You’ve got to be a Realist decision-maker, while marketing Idealist tendencies to a lost public.

Kaplan points out how most politicians thrive on selling an Idealistic image to voters, who love someone who stands for their belief systems. But who can actually – effectively – govern that way? Leaders are those able to make tough decisions everyday that we wouldn’t even dare contemplating in a game of ‘Would You Rather?’. It means often doing the unpalatable, for the greater good.

Churchill knew that, and Batman does now, too. Give the people something to believe in (in this case, Harvey Dent) but do what needs to be done if you’re in a position to take the punishment and repercussions. The perfect marriage of Idealism and Realism. Because too much of the former can in itself morph into an unsightly dose of the latter. Just ask Hitler, or if he’s out of reach, try The Joker.