Sunday, October 23, 2011

Seraphim Falls

Revenge is a common theme in stories, movies, books, TV shows... When characters seek revenge, it is a sign that they have not much else to lose. What has been taken from them sparks a flame that will not be quenched until vengeance is seized. This is a large part of why watching or hearing of people wanting revenge is so brutally intense to watch; it is that person at his purest, rawest most emotional state. Much like the old adage stating that you never know who you truly are until you are backed into a corner and have nothing left to lose, characters chasing retribution are in a comparable and vicious state of mind where not much else remains but the drive to go as far as one can until satisfied.

The Unforgiving Wilderness

Seraphim Falls is dominated by the themes of revenge, loss, and absolution. These are hardly abnormal for a western, but this film delivers in a way that sets itself apart from what you expect. Key to this is the minimalist approach to the story and characters.

We are thrust into Seraphim Falls knowing only that Carver (Liam Neeson) is pursuing Gideon (Pierce Brosnan). We don't know why. We can't assume that one is the good guy and one is the bad. Both men do awful and morally questionable acts in an effort to alternately pursue and run from the other. We are told that Gideon is incredibly dangerous and on the run from the law, but we aren't told why. And we don't actually know if Carver has any lawful standing in trying to hunt down and kill Gideon.

There are a great deal of uncertainties, but they serve to add to Seraphim Falls more than detract from it. This is accomplished through that minimalist approach. Focusing on the chase and how the characters react to the travails they are forced to undergo, you construct your own impression of what is going on and who to root for, if anyone at all. The movie's attention to detail in replicating the Old West adds to the effect enormously. You see beautiful vistas of stark mountain ranges, you can almost feel the chill of the icy nights, and you can completely comprehend the thirstiness that the characters must have as they travel through endless arid badlands and deserts. It is a tapestry woven carefully to draw you further into the never-ending chase between the two men.

Characters as Device

As a writer, one thing that quickly caught my attention was how the director chose to lay out the story. For, all things considered, the plot behind Seraphim Falls is very simplistic. Despite the limitations of the basic revenge tale, the director makes it work through the use of other minor characters littered throughout the story. It would be easy to make a timeline of the movie based upon when Carver and Gideon encounter new characters. What's more interesting is that each of them tend to end up meeting the same ones, giving us further insight to their characters as they respond differently to new faces and are responded to differently in turn.

One other interesting to note is how the story starts out feeling like a starkly realistic western and then ends up slowly transitioning toward a more... metaphysical... ending. Things start to get pretty weird towards the end and we, as the audience, find ourselves beginning to question whether the characters Carver and Gideon meet are actually real or figments of their imagination, constructs of their own perception of themselves. It's hard to explain further without going into spoilers, but I thought that this transition from reality to ambiguity helped the film more than hurt it.


All in all, I was enraptured with Seraphim Falls. Although, in the end, I can't help but note that the movie was very basic in plot and characters, the delivery and stylistic choices made with its filming and depiction kept my attention intensely. The minimalist approach and the use of minor characters as a way to prod forth revealing reactions from Carver and Gideon served to make what could have been an average western into a great one. Psychological, harrowing, and raw, Seraphim Falls impressed me. I highly recommend it to anyone who is up for a thoughtful and sharp revenge tale set in some of the most beautiful wildernesses the American west can offer.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Occupy Portland / Occupy Wallstreet

Written by Joe the Revelator

The Occupy Wallstreet protest, which has lasted for nearly a month now, has been adopted by activists in several other major cities including Portland, Chicago, and Seattle. The one I visited in Portland Oregon is now the second largest "Occupy" with a population that wavers between 200 and 400, set up in a miniature tent town that takes up two city blocks of park space on 4th street.

At first glance the Occupy zone looks like a country fair had a fling with a Hoover-ville. Stepping into the tent-and-cardboard enclosure can be a bit claustrophobic, and the eye is distracted by the litany of anti-government, anti-bank messages scrawled on every available surface. The biggest message: We are the 99%, and we're mad as hell.

It was this 99% I wanted to speak to. But instead of visiting the Media or Information centers (kiosks of tent poles and cardboard), I went to the most functional part of any budding society: the kitchens. There, under the rain-heavy tarps surrounded by tables of foodstuffs and plates, I rolled up my sleeves and started washing dishes as a temporary volunteer.


It's said that in America 1% of the elite own or control 99% of the wealth. On Thursday the 6th of October, a fraction of the 99% of the not-so-elite banded together and marched through downtown. They numbered well over a thousand, and were met by police and swat who were called in from neighboring counties. The demonstration ended peacefully, and the die-hards settled in the park where the makeshift city began.

Thus far our iffy vagrancy laws and camping restrictions have failed to move the protesters. Mayor Adams has taken a patient stance, allowing them to remain so long as they don't interfere with traffic (which they have) or cause sanitary issues for the city. The police have followed this example, and both sides seem to be working together for this indefinite sit-in.

During my visit I spoke to several other volunteers working in the kitchens, the sanitary station, and the aid station, and I talked to a few of the more fanatical protesters who seemed content to stand around in Guy Fawkes masks shouting rhetoric. I asked everyone the same question. What are you protesting?

The general consensus was that nobody knew exactly what they were protesting against. Nobody could pick out one particular law or business or figurehead. And although everyone seemed in high spirits and were pleased to be doing something about the dire economic situation our country is in, the cause lacked direction. One person told me that Occupy held regular meetings, during which they would decide what to protest. But in the following days their signs haven't changed and their slogans are still vague, directed at the rich upper crust of society.

Guy Fawkes Lives!

One hallmark of the protest movement is the presence of Anonymous. What started as a meme on the hacker/image board/rant site 4chan, has spawned an organized group that uses the face of Guy Fawkes and passes out leaflets informing people which corrupt businesses to avoid, essentially to ban the use of their products. The group as a whole and their literature is cohesive and well-informed. As individuals, Anonymous struck me as narrow minded and volatile.

The first Anonymous I met was standing outside the sanitation station like a statue, watching the comings and goings with his hands jammed in his pockets. He was completely uninterested in me while I was washing dishes. But when he saw me scribbling in my notepad and asking volunteers about the movement, he shot toward me like an arrow, his ramblings muffled by his cheap plastic mask.

The first Anonymous, and the three others I spoke to all had the same solution. Down with the government. The volunteers of Occupy seemed to want to work with authority, and threw around words like Fiat Currency, Korean free trade agreement, and gold standard. The man serving in the kitchens told me taxation on non-sustainable products would go a long way in solving our dilemma. Anonymous simply wanted a revolt. Blowing up British parliament wasn't enough for Guy Fawkes anymore, he demanded a system without presidency, without representation, and without police. When asked who Guy Fawkes was, one Anonymous said; "He was an English guy who fucked the government's shit up for the people."

This is the new face of anarchy. ('a-nar-ke) ***noun*** 1. A social structure without government or law and order. 2. Utter confusion.

My understanding of the Occupy movement is no clearer than before I visited the tent city. Its followers are directionless and are soon to face a winter outdoors. Their lack of cohesive vision or goal makes them easy targets for public mockery. The local media treats them like a glorified hobo camp. And the emboldened men in masks are one step away from bandanna-faced looters.

The atmosphere is calm now, but it would only take one mishandled confrontation with the law to set off the more explosive elements of the protest. They lack the numbers for a full scale riot. That is, until someone is jailed or attacked and a rallying cry is called out. If that happens it won't matter what the group's goal is. If the tear gas is thrown and picket signs become clubs, nobody will remember it was the dissolving middle class that spurned the 99% into action.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Fast and Furious: The progression to Fast Five

Written by Joe the Revelator

The Fast and the Furious franchise has been hit an miss with me from the beginning. I enjoyed the first one when it came out because there weren't any big racing movies that involved tuners (foreign automobiles with extensive out-of-factory modifications). I still find neon running lights and kite-sized spoilers obnoxious, but there were a few moments of car talk wedged into the bro-mance between Paul Walker and Vin Diesel.

Skip ahead to 2Fast 2Furious, a movie with half the cast of the first; sans the Vin. It sported a lot of American muscle cars, the drug cartel, the undercover cop played by Paul Walker, and some unbelievable street racing. But like so many sequels it lacked the flare (whatever that was) of the original.

There was also Fast and Furious, not to be confused with THE Fast and THE Furious, which felt like the directors tried to remake 2Fast 2Furious by injecting Vin Diesel back into the series. The results were forgettable.

Then there was The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift, which stars none of the original cast and takes place in a different part of the world, with cars that drift (the tires are intentionally slick/hard so the cars fishtail around corners) instead of drag racing. The formula of "new kid on the racing block" seems to have worked, making Tokyo Drift the most watchable part of the franchise.

The power of five:

So far we have 4 movies, half of which could have been drug-fueled Hotwheels commercials for all I was concerned. In comes Fast Five.

The driving crew for Fast Five, which includes Diesel and Walker, is made up of random characters taken from the last four movies, some of which I'm certain were killed off. Their new goal as fugitives from the American government is find a country with no extradition and begin new, wholesome, law-abiding lives... right after they go on a crime spree in Rio which involves robbing from the biggest cartel in South America.

All seems to be going well until federal agent Luke Hobbs, played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, manages to catch wind of their impending caper over the smell of his own oiled bicepts and skintight cotton shirts. His mission: To destroy as much public property in the persuit of the car thieves as he can justify to the Diplomatic Security Service.

Why is this movie good?

Rarely do I come right out and ask this, but I've been trying to justify to myself why I sat through Fast Five. Here's the best I can do: Take a heist movie like Ocean's Eleven, put everyone in fast cars, make them drive right up to the vault, add in a few muscle-bound wrestlers on steroids and some gangland style shootouts. Fast Five is a bastard child of every stereotypical guy movie.

That's not to say it should be hailed as the new king of dude-bro-guy flicks. In fact, it barely holds together with so many different elements. But it does hold together, so feel free to give it a try.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Drive (2011 film)

by DionysusPsyche
When I finished watching the film Drive, I assumed these things about Ryan Gosling's choice to take on the role.
  1. He wanted to be around a lot of cars
  2. He didn't want to say much—the less, the better (they might even pay him more for less words!)
  3. It needed to be a well-photographed movie where critics would judge it based more on films from a previous Golden Era in Hollywood cinema
  4. He didn't want something dragged down heavily by too much plot
  5. No leading lady eclipsing his acting—sorry, miming
Gosling's character lives in L.A. He's been there awhile, but you wouldn't really notice him. He wants to be part of the scenery. Let's be honest, the camera likes Ryan Gosling. It doesn't mean that the movie can abandon a poorly written script to distract us with shiny scenes that one would see in a three page fold out in Vogue.

We are blessed with a 1980's font opening. This film is purposely vintage, which is a beautiful quality. Sadly, that's one of the few things in its favor. Gosling's character has three jobs. His first job requires him to be a stunt driver in movies. He also occasionally works on cars as a mechanic. Kind of dirty work, but stunt driving's cool. His third job has even greater potential. He moonlights as a getaway driver. The opening sequence with Gosling in his gloves listening to a baseball game is fascinating and thrilling.

He also does a lot of leaning.
Unfortunately, shortly thereafter, the film takes a downward spiral. Gosling is semi-stalked by a woman that looks about 12 who lives down the hall from him, and it is clear that Gosling wants to rescue her. She's sweet, she's broke, she has a kid, her car sucks, all the filmmaker destiny for a zany relationship.

Except for her husband. He's a tough guy who's made some bad deals. Instead of Gosling seeing this as either the chance to look good next to a loser or biding his time for this guy to make his inevitable trip back to prison or wind up in an alley somewhere, Gosling sees this as an opportunity. “I can do what I do best for this guy. I can DRIVE! I'll get to be a hero, and this family gets to be happy! At the end of the day, I can return to my unromantic, pathetic lifestyle and feel good about myself—albeit miserable. That's okay, because I like being miserable. If I'm lucky, I can sit at the table, while my crush stares at her husband while sneaking glances at me, and I can hope to maybe be his friend. Or just listen to their music in my room. Either way, this sounds like my idea of a good time.”

Oh no, but something goes wrong! Just as I was being pulled back into the story, Gosling makes a number of nonsensical choices, and suddenly he's in deep water. Bring in some creepy creatures and a twist we all see coming. Watch Gosling be depressed and make more strange choices. Roll credits.

I'm not sure why this film received such high accolades from critics. Despite the cinematography, I'm not sure why anyone would vote it for best anything. Even if you took the classic movies that a film like this seeks out as role models, they're all far superior. He ain't no Marlon Brando, and this ain't On the Waterfront. He couldn't be a contender! No matter how little he speaks! Which reminds me, why don't you want Gosling to say words!? Why do you let him get into situations where talking could have gotten him out of sticky situations? I kept waiting for a counselor to walk onto the screen in a secret after school special moment and tell the characters, “If only you'd communicated and made good choices, you wouldn't be here.”

In addition to being sad and bored, this actress looks twelve.
Unfortunately, that would make for an interesting and exciting film. Not one that builds up a buttercup just to let her down. If you replaced the lead and any of the other characters with hand puppets, they would be less handsome, but equally effective. I don't think they had anything else to do for a year, and for some reason, the writer didn't feel that puppets would accurately display a moving car commercial. He should have gone with hamsters.

Conclusion: Drive? It has none.