Full Metal Jacket (1987)

When a great director decides to take on a notorious historical event, the film is always held against the rest of their work. For Stanley Kubrick, that may be a bit unfair in terms of Full Metal Jacket. However, as I will point out later, I do see some parallels between this film and Dr. Strangelove.

Full Metal Jacket is broken into two main parts. In the first part Joker (Matthew Modine) and Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio), among others, must survive the grueling drill sergeant Hartman (R. Lee Ermey). Hartman consistently berates the cadets and seems to favor punishing Pyle for his weight and slow mentality. Joker is tasked with helping him survive and graduate, which culminates in one of two big climaxes.

The second half of the film takes place after Joker is sent to Vietnam. He serves as a reporter who initially sees very little field action. After the Tet Offensive, he is sent into the field to “get into the shit” and ultimately finds his unit in a showdown with a North Vietnamese sniper. This becomes the films second big climax.

The nature of Full Metal jacket is largely humorous. Each character is given a nickname that fits their unique and quirky personalities. The humor and pace of the film make it easily watchable and highly entertaining, though the antics of Hartman make the first half of Full Metal Jacket more engrained in the public consciousness.

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SPOILERS

In defense of the second half of the film, I would like to present a theory I formulated. When Joker’s unit is pinned down and facing the sniper, Eightball (Dorian Harewood) goes out into the field to try and locate the sniper’s position. He is shot several times with a pause between each hit, slowly wearing down the nerve of the other soldiers. Soon Doc Jay (Jon Stafford) has had enough and against orders runs out to help him. He is shot in a similar manner, further wearing down the troops. Finally Animal Mother (Adam Baldwin), the stereotypical hotheaded machine gunner, runs out and ultimately finds the sniper’s location. Before the troops can enter the building, their leader Cowboy is shot which raises the death count to 3.

I give all this information to illustrate my theory. I see this as, maybe unintentionally, an allegory for America’s involvement in Vietnam. Despite better judgement, the troop’s nerves wear to the point that they can’t help but making an irrational decision. This is much like the way the war, public opinion, and professional advisement wore on President Johnson. He continually made private remarks about feeling trapped in a no win situation.

In the end, Joker shoots the sniper in the head….officially earning his thousand yard stare and killer instinct. This clearly parallels how the war negatively effected the psyche of both the American public and the troops serving.

END OF SPOILERS

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The biggest similarity I see between Full Metal Jacket and Dr. Strangelove is in their tone. Superficially both may appear as relatively serious dramatic films with maybe a dash of humor here or there. However, on closer analysis both films are full of wit, satire, and sarcasm. I think one of the main reasons that Full Metal Jacket appeals to both pro and anti-war audiences is because of this duality.

I believe this was my third or maybe fourth time viewing the film, although it had been quite a while since the last time I watched it. Although I greatly admire the work of Stanley Kubrick, he has never been one of my go to directors. When you watch one of his films, it’s almost automatic that you will get excellent cinematography and a well organized plot. This is true of Full Metal Jacket. I enjoyed re-watching it and am sure I will watch it again, however I can’t say it will be in the near future. Overall Full Metal Jacket is an excellent movie, just not one on my list of infinitely watchable films.

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First Reformed (2017)

Being hailed as Paul Schrader’s best film in years, First Reformed is a dark spiritual journey into the heart and soul of small town Reverend. In turn, it examines the persisting darkness and pollution (literally and physically) that plagues world.

Ethan Hawke is Reverend Toller, a pastor plagued with guilt over the death of his son in Iraq. He has started a journal where he vows to be completely honest at all times. After divorcing his wife, he was given the opportunity to head First Reformed church. With a small congregation and more interest as a historical tourist destination, he seems to have little responsibility.

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One day Mary (Amanda Seyfried) asks him to speak to her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger). Michael, with his wife a few months pregnant, can’t reconcile bringing a child into a world facing the repercussions of climate change. This leads Toller to grapple with man’s role in God’s creation. He is further tested when he discovers that his church is funded by one of the leading polluters in the U.S. Battling personal illness and diminishing hope, Toller’s journey culminates at the 250th anniversary of his church.

The performances in this film are top notch all around. Hawke has always been underrated in my opinion. Seyfried delivers a deeply emotional performance as a distraught wife and soon to be mother. Even Cedric The Entertainer, who is the pastor of Abundant Life Church (owners of First Reformed), gives an excellent performance in maybe his only exclusively dramatic role.

The philosophical and spiritual underpinnings of the film are infinitely fascinating and explored in depth. Where some religious films may gloss over contradiction, doubt, and darkness, First Reformed dives in head first and never relents. This is further exemplified by excellent cinematography, lighting, and limited use of music.

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My biggest complaint deals with one particular scene. To avoid extensive explanation or any possible spoilers, I will simply say that there is a use of CGI, green screen, or some other backdrop producer that really took me out of the film temporarily. Anyone who sees the film will likely know what I’m referring to. There were also a few minor instances in which dialogue delivery was unconvincing, though that was very limited.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed First Reformed. I did not watch any trailers beforehand so I was completely uninfluenced going into the theater. I anticipate rewatching this film when it comes to DVD or digital streaming. The themes will continue to keep me contemplating life, spirituality, and hope.

Cashback (2006)

How do we spend our time? How do we perceive time? Do humans have the ability to bend time through pure mental tenacity? These and more questions form the plot of Cashback, a feature length follow-up by Sean Ellis to his Oscar-nominated short film of the same name. The short is actually contained in its entirety within the feature.

The primary protagonist and narrator is Ben Willis (Sean Biggerstaff), an art school student who just broke up with his girlfriend. He finds himself unable to sleep and takes a nightshift job at a local supermarket. There he begins to philosophically examine time as he learns to make his shift go faster. By taking the job, Ben views his paycheck as “cashback” for the 8-hours he would normally spend asleep.

While working, he discovers an ability to freeze time (at least mentally) and begins examining the world much closer during these periods. Ben soon develops an interest in fellow employee Sharon (Emilia Fox), but must compete with his boss and co-workers who also attempt to win her over.

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Near the end of the film supermarket boss Jenkins (Stuart Goodwin) throws a party where Ben runs into his ex-girlfriend Suzy (Michelle Ryan). This creates a series of events building the films climax and eventually leading to the conclusion.

The film’s biggest strengths come from its pace and storytelling. It seamlessly moves between past and present, sharing anecdotes about Ben’s childhood that give a more complete picture of his character.

Another strength is its philosophical backbone. Ben’s understanding and perception of time and people develops throughout the film, taking it a step beyond the standard breakup movie. The concept of an aspiring artist’s acute eye for detail in the world and the human body was part of a few interesting concepts that work together in the films plot. Finally, the film’s score and cinematography add much to its overall watchability and audience engagement.

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Despite putting a few new twists on the classic breakup story, Cashback still relies on some standard tropes. It’s very much the story of someone who can’t get an ex out of their mind. Further, his finding what seems like the perfect girl by chance shortly after his breakup is common of the genre.

Another criticism I have is a bit harder to explain. At times, the film feels immature…for lack of a better way to put it. To be fair, this is the first feature length film directed by Ellis. I guess one could say that shows at some points more than others. As someone who has written short stories and even attempted some basic screenwriting…I can see some of the go to “edgy” plot lines, in particular insomnia. I don’t know what it is, but for some reason insomnia is such an alluring narrative yet also incredibly difficult to pull off in execution. Furthermore, there are attempts to pay homage to other well regarded films. The nod (possibly unintentional) to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off felt a bit more like a ripoff than a tribute.

Cashback is the first film in quite a while that I watched completely spontaneously. I happened to be scrolling through Hulu and decided to give it a shot out of the blue. For anyone who has Hulu or another streaming site that may offer this film I’d recommend giving it a shot. Other than that, I wouldn’t say it is worth going out of your way to view. One fair warning is that there is quite a bit of nudity in the film. Personally when used with discretion that doesn’t bother me, but others may be more sensitive.

P.S. – Shoutout to a British film for using a song by the Black Keys before they hit it big.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

It seems that when it comes to a film masterpiece, there are two categories. The first being the slow, deliberate, painstakingly detailed epic. The second is fast paced, quote a minute, and filled with action. Clearly, at least for those who consider it a masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey falls under the prior category.

The film is directed by Stanley Kubrick and stars Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and William Sylvester. It starts with a prehistoric sequence in which, possibly due to the appearance of a large black monolith, a group of apes suddenly and rapidly evolve. This leads the apes to become carnivores and violently use the bones of their prey to fight and kill.

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In the second segment, Dr. Heywood Floyd (Sylvester), joins astronauts on a trip to the moon where an identical monolith has been discovered. They know little about, other than its vast energy output. The discovery is kept top secret.

The third, and probably most famous segment, follows Dr. David Bowman (Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Lockwood). They are aboard Discovery One on a mission to Jupiter. The ship is primarily controlled by an intelligent supercomputer named HAL 9000. Slowly things on the mission begin to fall apart as HAL’s behavior becomes erratic. This develops into the the films much analyzed climactic ending.

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SPOILERS/ANALYSIS

The most straightforward theme of the film is its analysis (and arguably criticism) of artificial intelligence. Clearly HAL’s belief that humans would impede the Discovery One mission is a warning that AI technology can be dangerous. Further, it seems to be a statement that the potential for danger is more likely than less.

Now, of course, the ending. Decades of analysis has been put into the ending of this film. The biggest debate in my own contemplation is whether the monolith causes evolution or merely allows those who touch it to see into the future. The prehistoric scene would seem to suggest it causes evolution. The finale feels more like Dr. Bowman taking a look into his own future. Others may say that the monolith is simply a device that extraterrestrial life is using to monitor earth/human activity.

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What makes the film so great is that it induces thought and deliberation. I wouldn’t put forth any of my own theories as a be all end all. One of my favorite comedians, Bill Hicks, refers to psilocybin (found in mushrooms or “magic” mushrooms) as an accelerator pad for evolution. I personally drew connections between the idea of accelerating evolution between 2001 and Hicks. The idea that evolution didn’t end, isn’t stagnant, and is mental as much as physical is something I firmly believe. I would add that as a criticism of AI and supercomputers I am also highly skeptical of such innovation.

END OF SPOILERS 

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Overall I greatly enjoyed the film. At times the extended shots and slow pacing did seem to detract from the film. Despite that, if given a fair chance the film builds well on its slow pacing and lack of dialogue. The music and cinematography are impeccable, which is of course due to Kubrick’s precise style.

I would recommend a first time viewer consider watching the film in segments. 20 to 40 minutes at a time allows one to view the film without losing concentration. After doing so, a consensus can be drawn and subsequent viewings could be in one sitting if you find it enjoyable.

Heat (1995)

Is Heat the greatest film of all time? Is Heat the most technically proficient film of all time? Is Heat the best heist film of all time? All these monikers and more have been attributed to Michael Mann’s high action crime thriller.

Even those who haven’t seen the film might be aware that this is the first time DeNiro and Pacino shared screen time (i.e. been in the same scene together in a movie.) I could easily list the entire cavalcade of stars who appear throughout but the three most prominent are Robert DeNiro as Neil McCauley, Al Pacino as Lt. Vincent Hanna and Val Kilmer as Chris Shiherlis.

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McCauley and Shiherlis are two members of a very proficient group of organized thieves. Pacino is a veteran cop whose sole focus in life is hunting criminals. All three of them must contend between their path in life and their respective relationships with a wife/girlfriend. DeNiro in particular has made a choice to not attach himself to anyone or anything, so it goes entirely against his code when he finds himself in love with Eady (Amy Brenneman).

One thing that clearly works well about Heat is telling a complex story with multiple perspectives while maintaining clarity. Each actor in the film brings their A-game with total dedication to his/her role. Aside from the main stars, this was incredibly impressive with Dennis Haysbert as recent ex-convict Donald Breedan. Periodically, the film will shift back to his character starting with very little information and slowly building an understanding of who he is. Eventually, Breedan is forced to make a tough decision which serves as an excellent bit of tension and drama.

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While the film shifts perspective and handles a large cast well for the most part, I must admit that there were a few times I got mixed up by characters names. I came to the conclusion that it’s more important to remember faces than names. Even when I would get temporarily mixed up, it would ultimately resolve itself if I just kept watching.

Another positive element of the film is its use of cinematography. Many of the scenes are beautifully shot, particularly in their use of color. With that being said, I felt that some of the scenes were a bit too dark. I’m not sure if that was just due to my laptops display or not, nonetheless, it was a minor criticism.

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Regardless of my personal opinion, which is positive, Heat is a must view solely because of its impact on film in general. It has inspired many subsequent heist and crime films, most notably the bank robbery scene in the Dark Knight.

Although at times the film is over the top (see extensive police shootouts with automatic weapons and many of Al Pacino’s interrogation scenes) it is both engaging and entertaining. Once again, a must see. In fact, it’s on Netflix currently which is where I watched it.

The Night Porter (1974)

The Night Porter is a 1974 period drama direct by Liliana Cavani. It stars Dirk Bogarde as a former Nazi officer and concentration camp guard, as well as Charlotte Rampling as a former concentration camp prisoner and Holocaust survivor.

Max (Bogarde) works as a porter at a hotel in Vienna. Lucia (Rampling) is married to a conductor and meets Max by chance while staying at the hotel where he is working. While in the concentration camp, Max sexually abuses Lucia on a regular basis. After meeting again they seem to rekindle the sadomasochistic relationship. For this reason, the film is highly controversial due to its sensational nature.

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To me, some parts of The Night Porter were truly fascinating. Particularly the details about Max and other former Nazis going to great lengths to remain in hiding. These plot elements transcend sensational sexual exploits and provide an intriguing psychological investigation. With that being said, certain parts of the film felt more exploitative than natural to the plot.

The sound track and cinematography in the film were both excellent. It is easy to get lost in such a well shot film. That may cause some to lose consideration as to whether the film as a whole is unethical in dealing with one of histories greatest tragedies.

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Aside from critiquing the overall plot and subject matter, another criticism I had was in the setting and costumes. Though the cinematography is great, it feels like a film that is taking place in the 70’s rather than the stated year of 1957.

Overall I feel this film is an important piece of culture to investigate. Moments of raw emotion and the concept of Nazis in hiding provide strong content for analysis. I would recommend this only to viewers who are willing to bring skepticism and historical context to their viewing experience.

Daisies (1966)

What do you do when you realize the world is “spoiled”? In Daisies, the 1966 surrealist comedy/drama directed by Vera Chytilová, Marie I and Marie II decide to directly reflect said world.

Marie I (Jitka Cerhová) and Marie II (Ivana Karbanová) are two young women (maybe sisters???) who reflect the spoiled state of the world primarily by pranking older men. They frequently will go out on dates, have their meal paid for and then hop off the train as it leaves with the man on board.

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Daisies is rife with symbolism. This includes apples, which may reflect the forbidden fruit of eden. Also sausages and eggs which are cut with scissors, potentially representing a break from conventional sexual norms. As well as an overall theme of purposeful gluttony as satire of communist rule leading to greedy dictatorship.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the wide variety of cinematic techniques used while filming and editing. Some scenes are in black and white while others are in color. Further, many scenes adopt interesting color tints to add another layer of experimentation. In one particularly interesting sequence, Marie I and II humorously cut off their limbs with scissors. The scene then devolves into a fast paced patchwork mural over the rhythmic sound of a typewriter. (By the way, yes that is as crazy as it sounds).

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If I had to mark one complaint, it would be one sequence in particular which I felt was a bit heavy handed with its use of symbolism. When the two Marie’s sit on their bed slicing sausages, eggs, pickles, and other food with scissors, the phallic and yonic (yes I had to google that word) overtones felt over the top in a film that clearly skates that boundary throughout. The commentary being made is interesting, but the method of doing so felt obvious and unoriginal to me personally.

For anyone not familiar with surrealist European films, I being no expert myself, a movie like Daisies may be a culture shock. There is very little linear story and a plethora experimental cinematography. With that being said, I feel it always valuable for individuals to keep an open mind and experience new things. Therefor, I would recommend Daisies. I greatly enjoyed watching and it is widely heralded as an important piece of cinema history.

Pariah is the 2011 feature length debut from writer and director Dee Rees. It’s an expansion of the 2007 short film she made by the same name. The film has been described by Rees as semi-autobiographical.

Pariah was produced by Spike Lee, which I was unaware of until after watching the film. As I watched it, the film did have a similar tone to some of Spike’s work. It was not then surprising to find that out. 6675da943810a1468b4440f94a8b0c03_originalThe movie stars Adepero Oduye in the lead role of Alike, a gifted student struggling with expressing her sexuality to her family. She has a close relationship with her father, played by Charles Parnell, who is a police officer suspected of cheating on her mother. Sahra Mellesse plays Sharonda, a religious and often strict disciplinarian mother and nurse who is in conflict with Alike.

Throughout the film, Alike is close friends with Laura (Pernell Walker) who dropped out of the same high school she is attending. Together they regularly visit a local lesbian nightclub and confide their struggles to each other. On the way to school and club, Alike packs clothes in a backpack to change in and out of what her mother finds appropriate. x950Eventually, Sharonda tells Alike she is going to be friends with Bina, played by Aasha Davis, the daughter of her coworker.  After a time Alike develops feelings for Bina, which leads to a tumultuous relationship and eventually the film’s resolution.

The performances in Pariah are top notch. The relationships are both convincing and full of raw emotion. The scenes of Alike and her father playing basketball together are just one of the many examples. The characters are so interesting and endearing that the movie left me wanting more.fHHHovuNllg.maxresdefault

screenshot3The film also has the unique ability to make you love and hate each character at different points in the film. Particularly the mother who so often is harassing Alike. Despite the harsh treatment, empathy is evoked in the fact that she is also facing an adulterous husband. Further, it is somewhat implied that she has a strained relationship with many of her co-workers.

One minor criticism I have is that occasionally the dialogue or interactions in the film feel unnatural. This is not unique to Pariah, almost every film has moments like this. It’s hard to describe accurately, but unnatural or un-organic is the best wording I can come up with.PariahPariah was an excellent film. Most of the films I choose to watch I anticipate I will enjoy, so it may be rare that I don’t recommend something I watch. This movie is on Netflix and I recommend everyone check it out.

 

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

The Hitch-Hiker was made in 1953 by actress turned director Ida Lupino. It is one of the only noir films directed by a woman. The story is based on true incidents involving hitchhiker/spree killer Billy Cook from 1950-51.

The film stars Edmond O’Brien as Roy Collins, an escaped convict who takes up hitchhiking to avoid authorities. He cons Gilbert Bowen (played by Frank Lovejoy) and Emmett Myers (played by William Talman), in the midst of a trip to go fishing and relax, into giving him a ride. From there on out they embark on a tension filled journey through Mexico as Collins seeks permanent solitude.

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One of the strongest elements of The Hitch-Hiker is the acting. Each of the three main characters give incredibly convincing performances and really drive the movie forward. There is also an interesting study of friendship as Bowen and Myers continually pass up opportunities to escape individually.

One particularly emotional moment comes when all three characters enter a Mexican convenient store to pick up food and supplies. Bowen, who has a child/children (I can’t recall of the top of my head which), hugs the storeowners young daughter. The look on his face and remark for her to “go with God” masterfully express how much he misses his family.

The Hitch-Hiker is also an interesting analysis of the difference between true strength and masculinity as opposed to fear and paranoia. At one point Myers, who begins to break down much quicker than Bowen, even confronts Collins about this directly. The acting and story combine for an edge of your seat experience throughout the movie.

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One minor weakness is the films semi-predictable ending. I will say that though it could be guessed, I remained engaged till the last moment. Watching the movie and becoming engrossed made the ending, while obvious on paper, less predictable than some may claim.

Overall, the film comes highly recommended from me. It is “short, sweet, and to the point” as some may say. It’s also in the public domain, therefor it is quite easy to access. Any fan of the noir genre or those interested in films directed by women will find an enjoyable viewing experience in The Hitch-Hiker.

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