Three-Minute Review: The faculty (1998)

Summary:

What happens when you pit high school students against an alien invasion? You actually get a pretty good sci-fi thriller that’s a little underrated and totally worth watching. And, that’s just what happens in The Faculty, as high school students from Herrington High have to put aside petty bickering to battle an otherworldly aggressor before it leaves their little town and takes over the world.

Behind the Scenes:

The film is directed by Robert Rodriguez who is an exquisite director all around (see From Dusk Till Dawn [1996]), and he excels at this kind of pacing and storytelling, which seems to involve the struggle of evil forces against misanthropes and outsiders.

Elijah Wood and Josh Hartnett are also 90s icons that really lift this film into even higher highs; also, Jon Steward and Robert Patrick play literal members of the faculty that don’t have the children’s best interests at heart.

Takeaway:

The Faculty triumphs because it takes Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and simply moves the story to a high school, which creates a new interpretation of an age-old fear: can we trust those around us?

The genre shift of communist-paranoia to teen-romp in a suburbia works so effortlessly that as a viewer, I was immediately sucked into the story. I think it has some great acting, some truly terrifying scenes (swimming pool climax), and excellent pacing. It helps put 90s horror on the good side of classic cinema.

I think The Faculty gets left in the dark a lot when considering other 90s horror films, but it’s really good in my opinion. If you haven’t checked it out in a while—you really should.

Three-Minute Review: Fight Club (1999)

Synopsis:

Under the sweaty manliness of Fight Club is a movie that warns its viewers about corporate isolation and negligence of the human self.

Our protagonist, who is unnamed (played deftly by Edward Norton), is a career corporate drone, who is bereft of life and overcome by meaningless nature of working one’s way up the corporate ladder.

We meet Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) early on and learn that to break the chains of his corporate life, our unnamed protagonist has to completely tear down his sense of self and embrace a new construction, which may quite possibly result in the destruction of society and order as we know it.

Behind the Scenes:

This is a masterpiece of modern cinema and uses the postmodern lens to analyze the futility of the life of a worker bee and the nihilism in our singular wants and ambitions.

Director David Fincher presents the characters, the setting, and plot in such an amorphous, delightful way, that the viewer has no choice but to go along for the insane psychological ride.

Fight Club also boasts an excellent score by The Dust Brothers that is so distinctly that film that hearing it out of context only makes one think about punches to the face and castration via rubber band.

Takeaway:

Fight Club is without a doubt an excellent film and demonstrates much of what makes a good film compelling. The actors all embody who they play, from Edward Norton’s burned out shell of a cog, to Helena Bonham Carter’s Marla, who is so strangely relatable and distant that you have to wonder how the character works in the context of a “good character.”

The book that the movie is based off of is also a classic, too (if you are into that sort of thing), but Fincher’s movie more than adequately captures author Chuck Palahuniuk’s voice and themes from the book on film.

“Rules of Engagement” fails to become the definitive military courtroom drama

Released: Oct. 10, 2000

Director: William Friedkin

Starring: Samuel Jackson, Tommy Lee Jones, Guy Pearce, Bruce Greenwood, and Ben Kingsley

Writer(s): James Web and adapted by Stephen Gaghan


Synopsis:

Rules of Engagement (2000) is a military courtroom drama starring Samuel L. Jackson as Lieutenant Terry Childers, and Tommy Lee Jones as Lieutenant Hayes Hodges. It largely details the relationship between two men: Lieutenant Terry Childers (Jackson) and Lieutenant Hayes Hodges (Jones), during the court-martial of Childers for the murder of 83 foreign civilians outside of a US embassy in Yemen. It asks questions about soldier’s ethical responsibility during hostile engagements (sort of), and accountability in leadership when it comes to American soldiers on foreign soil.

Analysis:

The latter of the two themes—accountability—is more pervasive and especially evident in the film during a dinner scene in which Hodges is visiting his father, Gen. Hayes Lawrence Hodges (Philip Baker Hall), who says, “Even if you thought you weren’t responsible—it went wrong and you were there.” Purely for the contention of the movie, Childers and Hodges seem to be the only two who accept this idea as truth, whereas everybody else denies culpability in the war crime that took place.

The story behind Rules of Engagement is not a new one, and films of similar substance certainly had some impact on its arc and character development: A Few Good Men (1992) comes to mind. Rules of Engagement has an expectant ending, but I think what troubles me most about the film is that we don’t see definitive changes in the character, or any meaningful development in theme. “This movie is about accountability,” it says. “And at the end it is still about accountability (sort of).”

I suppose if a film offers something to the viewers in regards to this plot—a different take, an odd angle—I may be more interested in the story it has to tell. Samuel L. Jackson’s character commits a horrible atrocity in this film and yet he is vindicated at the end of the film, which should be unsettling, regardless of the clear picture of corruption in the legislature that the film is also trying to illustrate. I mean, we see him give the order to fire on civilians.

There was an annoying bit at the end, too, which involved a closing credit caption sequence as Samuel L. Jackson is strolling away from the court room, free of guilt. The words state that everyone who had lied and tried to cheat Jackson in the film was held up to high legal standards and convicted of some crime or were forced to leave their political position. I found this irritating because in a film that is asking questions about accountability, we suddenly understand that accountability is black and white, which simply isn’t true. The reason accountability is a problem in the United States is because it’s a difficult topic to parse, and assessing blame is a difficult action to pursue. Contrivance, I say.

I did enjoy watching Samuel L. Jackson and Tommy Lee Jones kick the shit out of each other in sloppy indoor fistfight; but, that kind of interesting storytelling and action is short-lived.

Both Jackson and Jones’ characters are carbon copy military characters as seen in myriad military dramas. Their superiors are the barking dogs walking in the shadows of George C. Scott’s Patton (1970), which makes the film a bit….blah. It has all been had and troubles an otherwise compelling (ish) narrative. Nevertheless, Guy Pearce really kills it in this film. During a scene in which he lays out the case to his legal team, he consistently displays his acting ability, strolling around the room, running the finer points through his head like a legal cheese grater. He has wit and is intellectually quick. The viewer understands that by watching him command the role he has been given. It’s good stuff in a film that is stacked full of cardboard simulacrums.

The film is shot in a very generic sense but it works to the advantage of the narrative. As I stated, the film isn’t doing anything new, so the filmmakers could only go in a few directions: either take a very general story and shoot it like a David Lynch film, or shoot it in a safe and practical way, which is what they did. The battle scenes look like battle scenes—the Vietnam flashbacks are so Vietnam-y it’s actually a little unsettling, as they look more like a satire of Vietnam than a historical recap. The courtroom scenes are straight out of JAG, so you can anticipate how the movie will play out before it unfolds. On the other hand, it’s a little comforting, but I think the viewer would want more. With such a violent introduction to the film, some more unnerving imagery might help the story of unlawful murder more gritty—more real.

On the score side of things, Rules of Engagement has a startling lack of music, and I believe what music exists is very stereotypical TAPS-style melody and rhythm, which is meant to evoke patriotic fervor from the audience, I suppose. I honestly wasn’t really wasn’t sure what the movie was getting at sonically. A subtle form of jingoism, maybe? Mark Isham provided this scarcity of score and seemingly committed to it intentionally, but it doesn’t work for the emotional weight of the film. Stark silence works for a thriller (sometimes) but for a dramatic court room drama—there has to be a bit more (typically)—especially if it the story is about a more controversial case. The audience may need to be keyed into what emotions they should be feeling.

I would recommend Rules of Engagement to viewers who enjoy war movies and courtroom dramas. I think there are a few interesting beats here and there—the fight scene between the embattled Jackson and Jones is one such moment—but it lacks something more that might push it out of the boundary of stereotypical drama. Of course, there are better ones, but if you are looking for a lazy, hangover Sunday film—this does the job.

Overall: 1 ½ stars (Writing 1/2 + Acting ½ + Sight 0 + Sound + Recommend ½)

A Domestic Nightmare in the documentary “Crazy Love”

Released: June 2, 2007

Directed by: Dan Klores, Fisher Stevens

Written by: Dan Klores


Crazy Love (2007) is all about psychosis. It’s about the intentions of the protagonist and the antagonist. It’s about the director’s decision to use a score that is totally incompatible with a film that is satirizing the institution of marriage; but, most importantly, Crazy Love is about two people who have lost touch with reality and a director who documents the two with sensationalist lust.

First, let me address the film’s content: it’s a good documentary. It’s good if only for the audience to scream at Burt Pugach and Linda Riss who are far more socially-handicapped than they or the director is willing to let on. There is a spectacle being made of these two, and they are going along for the ride with a candid “tell all” attitude.

There are long moments where Pugach talks about how much money he made as a lawyer, and there are equally long moments of Linda Riss talking about how much she loved him for having so much money. Their shallow relationship gets uglier with each minute of the film, and the viewer quickly comes to the conclusion that a marriage like this can’t be a successful one. Though Pugach is certainly a deviation from the norm, Riss comes off as comparably warped and jaded. If this documentary does anything well, it’s that the viewer begins to share the spoils of the couple’s unhappy relationship, which really makes one look at their own relationships more critically and will find (hopefully) that things could be a lot worse. In this way, the documentary works: the content is surprisingly good. It’s like a late night murder mystery on television, and the sheer macabre of the whole affair is intriguing.

The score, however, is incompetently weak. It stands in stark contrast to the theme of mutually assured destruction. Where there should be notes of distress and dissonance when Pugach pulls out his creeper peepers, there is instead a jovial laugh-track of guitar and horns.

“And then I threw acid in her face!” Pugach screams. *slide whistle*

(The above was not actual dialogue, but he did throw acid in her face).

It’s similar to watching Michael Madsen lopping off a cop’s ear to “Stuck in the Middle With You” by Stealers Wheel in Reservoir Dogs (1992). In attempting to use the juxtaposition of disparate music and imagery as an exclamation mark to punctuate the insanity of Pugach’s and Riss’s unholy matrimony, the sound designer compliments the documentary with all the subtlety of a hacksaw cutting bone. I would love to believe this was intentional, as if it was a sort of joke; but, alas, it feels accidental. I don’t believe Director Dan Klores and Fisher Stevens completely understood the implications (or lack thereof) of what they were attempting to create and instead jammed two warring parts together with seriously insane results.

It’s difficult to have patience with a film that is documenting two truly unlikeable people. The entire film is very similar to the (thankfully) dissipating trend in horror filmmaking of “torture porn,” in which the audience is supposed to sit in approving disgust as people are mutilated and dismembered. While I love good gore in horror movies (and movies in general when it’s necessary), I don’t know that I can abide a two-hour movie where someone’s body is being slowly torn apart. That is, violence and effects are not a substitute for storytelling. The qualities that I just sighted can be applied to Crazy Love, as the main difficulty of the film is sitting through long moments of hedonism and grotesque narcissism with very little payoff.

If one can get past the sensationalist attitude of the film and the circusy score, Crazy Love is an interesting documentary, as it shows just how far the human psyche will go to convince itself that it is, in fact, in love when it definitely should avoid it at all costs.