Sunday, September 23, 2012

Movie Review: "Dredd" (2012)

"Dredd" (2012, dir. Pete Travis) is an excellent film, full stop.  Visualize for me, if you will, a snotty film critic who thinks he's so clever for starting his review with a joke like "You'll... DREDD having to see this movie!".  Imagine punching his face so hard that his teeth explode out the back of his head.  Now imagine Judge Dredd doing it.  Feels good, doesn't it?

It's very important to me that movies, especially action movies, handle violence properly.  The brutality of the violence should match the material, and the filmmakers should be conscious of how the audience is meant to feel about said violence.  For example, "Drive" fell flat for a few reasons, mostly because it's head-crushing ultraviolence was completely out of place with the rest of the film.  Other movies that aim at a PG-13 audience and hedge their bets fail from the other direction.

"Dredd" has no such problems, which is important when your main character is a fascist supercop.  The film is set in Mega City One, an endless steel urban sprawl stretching along the east coast of the U.S. from Boston to Washington D.C.  Crime is essentially unstoppable, and the only thing nominally protecting the citizens is an army of "Judges", given the authority to assess guilt and pass sentence personally.

Photo Credit: Joe Alblas

What's fascinating about this movie is that its universe is so morally grey.  This is not about good vs evil.  It is literally a war between the criminals and the cops for control of the populace.  As Dredd engages in shootouts with perps, copious innocent life is lost, and bystanders run screaming as in actual war zones.  Most people we meet are only loyal to the Law or the criminals as far as it will save their own skins.

Of course, the fact that the drug that the criminals traffic in (called Slo-Mo) bears a serious resemblance to pot is not at all coincidental.  Lena Headey's villainous "Ma-Ma" is one hell of an antagonist, since her chief motivator is fear, not sadism.  A formerly victimized hooker, she killed her pimp and took over his drug ring.  Clearly she is still traumatized, and turns her terror into rage to control others and never again be the victim.

Director Pete Travis allows the violence in "Dredd" to aim for the entire spectrum of audience reaction.  Sometimes, when Dredd's victims are clearly evil (and often stupid) we are led to feel vicarious satisfaction at how efficently Dredd sets their heads on fire.  At other times, the violence is not at all pleasant, and we don't exactly feel good about it.

Thankfully, Travis never turns the violence into an endurance test.  Rather his film has a solid moral compass, certainly one more solid than its protagonist has.  The most effective device for this is the way that Dredd is teamed up with a rookie who failed out of the academy, but is allowed a last chance because she's a powerful psychic.  It is Dredd's responsibility to give her a final pass/fail on-the-job examination.

This is rather more brilliant than you might think.  The standard stereotype is that men are harder, and better suited to jobs like this, than are empathetic women.  However, "Dredd" literalizes this by giving her actual psychic powers: She can read people's thoughts and emotions in a way that Dredd is physically incapable of doing, not just because she's a woman.  Furthermore, after the usual "first day jitters" subside she proves to be precisely as capable as her mentor, but in very different ways.  Sometimes a little emotional intelligence allows for more effective ass kicking, which is just awesome.

SomethingAwful's review of the film is excellent, and like them I find myself with too much to say about "Dredd" to write a review of reasonable length.  One of their insights bears repeating: The film has a recurring obsession with violence against the face.  Dredd is never seen without his helmet, and a clear contrast is made between his faceless authority and the criminals on the other side, who are all individuals.  A significant amount of the violence in Dredd involves current or past violence involving people's faces being cut, or blown off, or what have you.  I'll leave you to fill in the gaps.

The most important weapon in "Dredd"s arsenal is not the non-stop action, or the stylish direction that only rarely crosses into showing off.  It's the wit.  The ill-conceived "Judge Dredd" with Sylvester Stallone tried to be funny, and was terrible.  "Dredd" is witty.  The entire situation is absurd, and no stupid one liners are required for thinking audiences to laugh at it.  Thankfully Travis trusts that his audience will be smart enough to laugh, cheer, wince, and think at all the right moments.  For that, I'm very grateful.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On Interactive Art

It's been said that video games are a lesser art form than movies, books, or others because they are interactive.  If the user is allowed to shape the experience, this somehow means that it is less pure than a film, where the artist shows you what they want to show you, when they want to, and directs your attention precisely.  Of course, I think this is bollocks.  And the popular web comic xkcd has given me a wonderful example of why.

The comic is titled "Click And Drag", and it begins with a character holding onto a balloon flying through the air, saying:

"From the stories / I expected the world to be sad / And it was / And I expected it to be wonderful. / It was. / I just didn't expect it to be so BIG."

The final panel shows the balloon flyer to be a small part of a large landscape.  In truth the landscape is many many many times larger, and you can only see it by clicking and dragging the final panel to see more of the picture.  Xkcd is fond of this sort of user punking, and I rolled my eyes at it when I realized what was going on.  But then I started exploring.

The picture wasn't just larger than the viewable area, it was astronomically larger.  As I scrolled, scrolled, and scrolled it just kept going.  Little gags pepper the image, consisting of the standard xkcd stick figures, separated by what felt like miles of landscape.  Some were hilarious, other touching, but I knew there was no way in hell I would be able to see them all.

At several points I'd reach a branch.  I would see what looked like a little mine shaft cut into a hill, looking like it reached deep into the earth.  Yet the hills that it cut into continued on into the distance.  I knew that if I went into that pit to explore, I would likely never find that hill again.  What sights would I miss?  It took so long to scan through the enormous image that my choices had a consequence, not for the characters in the picture, but for me.

For something as low tech as an oversized image in a javascript (yes, I did try hacking it to see the whole thing at once), this struck me as awfully profound, and the opening dialog of the strip carried much greater meaning than I had anticipated.  Interactive art can be just as effective as non-interactive art, and in very unique ways.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Overlooked Films: Angst (1983)

Director Gerald Kargl's sole known feature film "Angst" (1983) really is an amazing piece of work.  It's obscurity is a crime, and any lover of sheer film technique and/or the dark arts really ought to check it out.  The nameless killer that the picture focuses on is not a hero, nor even an anti-hero.  In fact, he's pretty pathetic.  We first see him in prison where he has spent half of his life due to one and a half prior murders.

The prisons psychologists ask what he dreams about.  "Flowers... flowers... always flowers". As a result they turn him loose.  His ever-present voiceover informs us that all he can discuss is how much he loves killing, and who he should kill next.  This time he will kill, and continue to kill.  This time, they will not catch him.

He doesn't appear to have a plan, and basically makes it up as he goes.  Indeed he has to.  Everyone who sees him looking at them can immediately tell that there's something wrong with him.  As a result, it's quite a ways into the film before he can even secure a single victim.

"Hi!  I'm looking for some... victims?  Yeah, innocent ones!  You got those?"

In one brilliant scene he catches a cab, and begins plotting the murder of his attractive female driver.  As he unlaces his shoes to strangle her, his voiceover abruptly switches to an account of his first love, and the edgy S&M games they used to engage in.  The driver can see him practically salivating and slams on the brakes to demand that he leave the cab.  He loses his nerve when cornered, freaks out and bolts into the woods instead, shoelaces in hand.

This is our protagonist.  The camera follows him from a variety of angles that frequently make no sense.  The most noteworthy shots are filmed from a waist mounted, rotating camera that pans around him frenetically as he runs, always pointed at his panicking face.  Usually, however, our perspective is above and off to the side, as if we were a roving surveillance camera.  The cinematography here is stellar, and suburban Austria is depicted as a crisp, bright, wintery place to raise a family.

Of course, that's not the movie we're watching.  In this one, the killer eventually happens upon an empty home in the burbs that he thinks would make "a paradise" for him.  He hides when the inhabitants come home (no children, thankfully), but is quickly discovered.  At first he tries to subdue them all in any way that he can, but finds it more challenging that he thought.  Everything goes wrong.  His elaborate scheme to torture them fails when one dies ahead of schedule.  He loses it quickly, and in blind rage takes whatever he can get.

In the one truly grisly act of violence in the film, our "hero" becomes nothing more than a beast, slavering over his kill, raging until there's nothing left.  It's pretty shocking, but this isn't the payoff.  Our killer can't just leave well enough alone, and decides to take the bodies with him.  Because "he has plans for them".  Of course he does.  Watching him gather the bodies in almost real time is riveting.  You wonder, how long is he going to dither here in this abbatoir?  Everyone's already DEAD!

I see you haven't thought this through...

It's clear that the killer in "Angst" is mentally addled to say the least, and his plans are constantly undermined by his own fear and incompetence.  That's why I love this film.  It's almost certainly the most realistic depiction of this sort of killer.  He isn't charismatic.  He isn't even smart.  He just kills.  His victims are in the wrong place at the wrong time, and perhaps remind him of someone.

This apparent accuracy is only one reason that "Angst" is one of the best films I've seen in a long, long time.  Brilliant cinematography is another.  The perfect score by Klaus Schulze alternates between moody synth washes and a Kraftwerkian robot groove for the more panicky moments.  Some comedy involving the family dog is subtle genius.

What kicks it over the top is a fearless lead performance by Erwin Leder.  Patrick Bateman be damned, this nameless maniac is not messing around, and every little degree of panic, rage, glee, and confusion is visible on his sweat-drenched face.  The film's final pan up to the skyline provides some hollow comfort, as we realize that this beautiful city could somehow produce this guy.

"Angst" is nearly unavailable, except for a German DVD release from several years ago.  You may be able to find it online somewhere.  I also hear there's a thing called BitTorrent.

Friday, September 7, 2012

For the Record, I Remain Fairy-Agnostic

As Disney sequels go, "Return to Neverland" is not a bad one.  That is faint praise, and the fact that I have seen enough Disney sequels to make that call says something.  But what I'll always remember "Return to Neverland" for is a truly strange plot twist that sent my brain into a mad philosophical quandary.

In the film, Wendy's daughter Jane winds up in Neverland somehow, where of course Peter Pan has never grown up or aged.  Jane is much more skeptical than her dear mother, and at one point in the film, petulantly declares that she doesn't believe in fairies.  At this point Tinkerbell suddenly gets weak and faints.  Peter and/or the Lost Boys (it's been a while) explain that Tinks life force comes from people's belief in fairies, and that she will only be healed when Jane truly believes.

Now 'ang on a minnit.  I highly doubt that Jane believed in fairies at any point, so her declaring this should have had no effect on Tinkerbell.  This implies that Tinkerbell does NOT draw her power from peoples' belief in fairies.  Rather, Tink gains her power from her own false delusion that people believe.    She must now must confront the not-so-shocking truth that this cynical, boring little girl doesn't believe in her.  Clearly that is just one shock too many.

I am a little surprised that the headstrong Tinkerbell would have such a fragile psyche and/or belief system.  While I'm sure this was just a poorly thought out plot development put in by a hack screenwriter, it sure is fun to let your brain run with the implications of it all.  Do YOU believe in fairies?  Your answer could have consequences... unless you just keep your mouth shut.

FOOTNOTE: My friend Jeremy Duffy (a.k.a. The Geek Professor) raises an interesting counterpoint.  He argues that the film is based in a belief system in which words have power.  Therefore, the act of speaking the words "I don't believe in fairies" is an act of violence.  I hadn't thought of this, and there are many people even in the U.S. who believe this, which is why some people claim that people listening to music about Satan isn't harmless.  Food for thought!