Films Facing Reality in 2012

Promised Land

The only movie of 2012 that makes a strong case for America being a cohesive social body with moral purpose binding it together is Lincoln. For those keeping track, that film is set 147 years ago.

For all the talk about the darkening mood in America, the aftershocks of a particularly nihilistic election season, an economic malaise that’s hanging around like a bad cold, and an ever-more divided electorate, the number one film at the box office in 2012 did not even remotely touch on any of these matters. The Avengers presented dangers, sure, but hardly the kinds of things that worry the average person. Rather, Joss Whedon's film is a classic Saturday-morning-cartoon celebration of teamwork. It envisions a world where everybody from dead-eyed assassins to mutant scientists, Norse gods, and patriotic squares could settle their differences and band together against a common foe. The world of The Avengers is in essence a benign one, where threats come from the outside and can be vanquished... at least until the sequel.

This is not the universe inhabited by many of the year’s best films, which raised grimmer possibilities. Here the social contract is weakened to the point of invisibility and economic concerns trump human ones. These films explore such issues with a particular edge and verve, even when, like Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land, the setting is nearly pastoral. Here, in an unnamed Midwestern state, diminished opportunities are the norm. Matt Damon and Frances McDormand play Steve and Sue, a pair of cocky advance team salespeople for a giant natural gas concern. Their job is to sweep into town, act like they belong there, and remind everyone there of precisely how limited his future looks. And then they offer a $5,000 check and a lottery ticket’s chances at getting a slice of the potential earnings in fracking.

What Sue and Steve are doing has a long history, recalling what the US government who first pushed Native Americans off their land. The gas company counts on its victims being ignorant and desperate, and so not notice either the bad deal it's offering or the hideous environmental price tag attached. The point is underlined when one of the townspeople wonders out loud why, if hydraulic fracturing for natural gas was so safe and awesome, why weren’t they doing it in Manhattan? Because that’s where the money and the power is located.

Another take on how power works is provided by Compliance, 2012’s great bloodless horror film. A queasy little bell jar of a story, it is primarily about the powerless, with an unspoken undercurrent of financial anxiety. Sandra, the fast-food restaurant manager played by the incomparably infuriating Ann Dowd, is in the midst of another day full of bad choices and meager rewards when she gets a phone call from the police. She hears that one of her workers, boilerplate blonde teenager Becky (Dreama Walker), has been spotted stealing from a customer. Sandra is asked to take Becky into the back room and question her.

The rest of the film unfolds like a version of the Stanford Prison Experiment. Sandra takes command after command from the voice on the phone, subjecting Becky to further and further humiliations. All of this is conducted under sallow fluorescent lighting, a corollary for Sandra and Becky's unspoken fear: I'll get in trouble if I disobey. If Becky is initially rebellious, she keeps going along with each of Sandra’s bizarre demands. Sandra herself is too eager to show how well she can get along and do what is expected of her.

It's too much to say that Compliance would not be plausible in an America where unemployment was at three percent. But there is a reason that fascism flourishes in uncertain times. When people aren’t sure where the next paycheck is coming from, or if there will even be a next paycheck, moral concerns tend to be neglected. If the world outside the bleak eatery here wasn’t one of decimated industries without economic or social safety nets, Sandra and Becky’s ritualized dance of acquiescence might not hold quite so much resonance.

The Hunger Games

The first film version of Suzanne Collins’ post-apocalyptic Hunger Games books is also about the effects of poverty and hopelessness. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her little sister’s place in a Roman Coliseum-like death match put on by a tyrannical government. The film offers hints of an Avengers-like humanism, with some of the contestants inclined to generosity and even altruism. But they are the exceptions. In the main, people in this universe have the look of those who have seen the abyss and will descend to any depths to avoid it, or, if wealthy and privileged, to preserve their distance from it. The Running Man-like concept is worth repeating, as today's televised sadism, faith in militarism, and class divisions are only expanding. The evolution hinted at in the conclusion is not fueled by anger over non-representative government or political differences, but by empty stomachs.

Another sort of dilemma grounds Looper. Here a time travel crisis is initiated when Joe, an assassin (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) in 2074 who's paid to eliminate people shipped to him from the future is assigned to kill his older self (Bruce Willis). The story feels uncomfortably familiar. Certainly, the tech is imaginary, and in this future, solar panels are widespread. But when the hyper-capitalistic hero (he stashes his fee money beneath his apartment's wooden floor) gets to Kansas, he finds a society less civilized than libertarian, a community where everybody takes the law into her own hands, leaving little room for peace or the common good. The very idea of a larger civilization appears to have collapsed under the related weights of gangsterism and vagrancy. It feels like the logical result of too many trendlines, a hollowed-out America where the only jobs left are those that involve taking from others.

Killing Them Softly

The year’s most brutal indictment of this system comes in Killing Them Softly. Andrew Dominick’s chilly, vaguely over-satisfied crime film is based on George V. Higgins’ profane novel of life and talk (and talk, and talk) amongst the underworld demimonde. Some hack crooks knock off a card game for what they think is easy money. Word gets back to the organization in charge of the game and Jackie (Brad Pitt), a hitman with a soft touch, is dispatched to relieve a few people of their lives. It’s a small nugget of a story, one that Higgins used as an excuse for his windy conversational exchanges that show that the crooks -- for all their macho posturing and pie-in-the-sky dreaming -- are utterly powerless.

The film is transplanted from the book’s Boston area setting to an unidentified nowhere that looks an awful lot like New Orleans. Amid the devastation, nobody seems to have a job and everybody looks exhausted. The crooks do anything for money, including kidnapping dogs, and the local mob bosses remain off screen, passing down their cruel but strangely vague directives via their well-dressed flunkie (Richard Jenkins).

The film’s steady march towards execution plays out against the sturm and drang of the 2008 US presidential election. A skittery title sequence jumbles up shots of a trash-strewn tunnel with audio of Obama's soaring rhetoric -- a road to nowhere. Asked whether he has room for friendships or loyalties, Jackie can only scoff, “Don’t make me laugh.” He nearly snarls the film’s last line, briefly agitated rather than utterly smoothly professional, as he's been to this point. Now, he lays it out: “I’m living in America, and in America, you’re on your own.”

Does he speak truth or just easy cynicism, a theme imported into a rather shapeless crime narrative to give it weight? There’s an argument to be made both ways. You could even posit, quite effectively, that of course all people are on their own, and always have been, in every society. But with so much of the national conversation focused on what, if any, responsibility a government has towards its people -- whether to heal them or protect them from automatic weapons -- it’s hard to ignore the anxiety that Jackie assumes and articulates.

It's worth noting that the only movie of 2012 that makes a strong case for America being a cohesive social body with moral purpose binding it together is Lincoln. For those keeping track, that film is set 147 years ago.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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