Monday, 18 August 2014

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is a staple of 1980’s teenage cinema. Part of the ‘Teenage Kicks’ season at the BFI, this is where Cameron Crowe (who would go on to direct Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous) and Amy Heckerling (of Clueless and Look Who’s Talking) would get their start. The many cast members, including Sean Penn as a sweet stoner, would all use Fast Times as a springboard for successful careers following its release in 1982. What separates Fast Times from teenage films such as Porky’s, is the sense of sincerity and brutal honesty it seeks. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is purposefully explicit, but it highlights home truths that our teenage selves might find difficult to articulate. It begins the conversation about masturbation, abortion and sex amongst teenagers, with a playful tone to balance the seriousness of the issues.

The watering hole of these teenagers is Ridgemont Mall. Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Linda (Phoebe Cates) work in a restaurant, and sex and boyfriends are the only thing to talk about. Stacy’s brother, Brad (Judge Reinhold), works in a fast food joint whereby he’s popular and with a girlfriend (though he toys with the idea of breaking up to be more “free” in his final school year). Mike ‘Rat’ Ratner (Brian Backer) works in the cinema, while close friend Damone (Robert Romanus) is a ticket tout for local concerts. Damone, stylish and slick, offers advice to Woody-Allen-esque Mike. Mike is in love with Stacy from the first moment he sees her in biology class. Finally, we have Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) and his chums (including Eric Stoltz). They smoke all day and fall into school when they’re not dreaming of surfing and bikini-clad women, to the frustration of crusty old Mr Hand (Ray Walston).

These very vaguely interconnected stories are the focus point for the school year. 15-year-old Stacy sets the tone of the film as she uncomfortably asks Linda about sex, before sneaking out of her parent’s house to lose her virginity at ‘the point’ with an older man. What Fast Times at Ridgemont High deftly manages to do is observe these kids without judgement. There is a sense that the older man is a little creepy, and she caves to peer pressure from her friends, but Cameron Crowe doesn’t spell it out. A teenage audience may see the story in a completely different light. The final act even touches on the theme of abortion, and this darker tone is a subtle hint at the potential dangers at play in those precious teenage years. Cool and likeable characters are revealed as insensitive and thoughtless, while naivety and innocence can be influenced easily, with dire consequences.

In many ways, this isn’t a ‘story’ at all, more an insight and snapshot of (white, middle-class) teenagers in the early 1980’s. The scorn you could hold towards lazy, stoner Jeff is countered by his dreams and ambitions of surfing, and his reckless optimism (that even drives him to order a pizza as he sits in class). Within this single year, Jeff will do fine. Job-hopping Brad too, though fantasising about his sisters friend, has his heart in the right place.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is first and foremost, good fun. There is no definitive moral to the story, and though it celebrates the sexual freedom of youth, it doesn’t seem to pack a punch when it surely could. Abortion, rather than an easy-fix to a flippant situation, is often a difficult process for any woman to go through. By the same token, Jeff’s disenchantment and lack of interest in education is often the case with many, and very few are lucky enough to still achieve the grades to continue. But these are concerns that negate the purpose of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It raised awareness at a time whereby discussing the issues would be taboo in and of itself. By not placing judgement or criticism, it opens the door to interpretation and places the ball back in your court. Teenagers are irresponsible and, rightly so, Fast Times at Ridgemont High has this reckless attitude at its core.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth

Lucy (Luc Besson, 2014)

Lucy asserts itself from the start. Cells form and apes evolve, immediately confirming its ambitious intentions. Luc Besson, of The Fifth Element and Leon, boldly throws the titular character into a situation she, and we, barely understand. Scarlett Johansson has supported the Avengers, and notably, this year she was second-billing in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Lucy becomes her first leading film as a sci-fi, action heroine, complementing her indie work with Spike Jonze in Her and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. Lucy is a crazy type of fun. It’s a film with a loopy edge that tries to profoundly state the meaning of life within its ridiculous premise - and we hold on tightly to enjoy the ride.

In Taiwan, Lucy (Johansson) is a shot-drinking, club-dancing, student, inadvertently pulled into a relationship with Bono-shades wearing Richard (Pilou Asbæk). He forces her to deliver a briefcase, without the knowledge of its contents. Moments later, Taiwanese gangsters kidnap her and force her to carry drugs by surgically implanting these underneath her skin. Lucy’s trials are intercut by a lecture delivered, in grand tone, by Morgan Freeman. He explains the teeny amount of brain power we pesky humans use. Barely 10%, apparently, unlike dolphins who use sonar power by using 20% of theirs.  Suffice to say, the drugs Lucy carries seeps into her system and she increases her brain power. Akin to The Bourne Identity, she has to grapple with the significant skills she has acquired in a short space of time. Gangsters pursue her, less-fearsome cops seek to apprehend her and the knowledge she possesses has to be stored for future generations.

Considering her brain can control “magnetic fields” and her hair changes colour at will (is hair-control part of the brain?), she possesses powers seen earlier this year in X-Men: Days of Future Past. Even Morgan Freeman’s lecture echoes the opening monologue in X-Men. Evolution as revolution or mutation, it seems to make the same point about our need (or our challenges) to adapt. Whereas the comic-hero team subtly comments on homophobia and racism, Lucy is far more on-the-nose. There is a messianic figure in Lucy. Her attitude is openly anti-capitalist and almost Buddhist in her sense of place in the world. Our existence is nothing without time, we’re told. So bold in its stance, Lucy draws inspiration from Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, or even Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as she witnesses the birth of humanity, from a comfortable office chair.

You’d be lucky to observe these magisterial moments from a comfy chair too, in an IMAX cinema. The small time-frame of the film ensures that it snaps along with assured pace. The plane-hopping and unknowable extent of her powers creates a thrilling tension. When the drugs first kick-in, it is an awkward moment as, Exorcist-like, her body contorts and twists as she is flung across the room. It’s difficult to stifle a laugh when everything is expected to be taken so seriously.

Gang-leader Mr Jang (Cho Min-sik) and his Korean clan all speak their own language. Lucy even requires an interpreter initially when pleading for her life (we need the translation too as it plays without subtitles). As Lucy gains her powers, she understands the symbols and language better. The main drive of the film is a desperate attempt at sharing knowledge. It’s a clever play on us as English-language cinema viewers. You haven’t learnt a second language? Maybe, French-filmmaker Luc Besson is making a point. We’re told that “knowledge does not create chaos, ignorance does”. Am I ignorant? Am I worthy of Lucy’s “sacrifice”?

Lucy is bonkers, but it’s carries an air of confidence in its defiant tone.  Ambition can often lack in summer releases, but not here. Lucy may veer from pseudo-serious intelligent discussion to ludicrous memory-recall of breast-feeding, but it doesn’t shy away from some electronica Matrix­-like gun-fights. It doesn’t get the balance right, but Lucy can’t be faulted for trying. It’s strangely sincere, preposterous and equally bat-shit crazy. Lucy is a refreshing piece of the summer pie, and a welcome change to the formulaic, sequel-driven films that dominate the cinema screens at this time of year.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (Brian Knappenberger, 2014)

Aaron Swartz was a genius. A child prodigy involved in developing the RSS process as a 14 year-old. This was a boy who was going places. His suicide at the age of 26, in January 2013, remains a shock. Coverage of his death credited him as a “co-founder of Reddit”. This underplays his political attitudes and deeply personal ambitions to make a better world. What is difficult to comprehend is how Swartz clearly had so much more to accomplish. This young man looked to Tim Berners-Lee as inspiration, not Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. As a child, pre-dating Wikipedia, Swartz created a program that utilised contributions from multiple sources to provide information to share across the internet. It is difficult to imagine what would’ve happened if Berners-Lee had a patent or demanded royalties from the use of his world wide web, but he didn’t. It’s clear from Internet’s Own Boy that there are forces working behind the scenes that are keen to monetise every possible element of the internet. Swartz fought these forces.

Swartz’s early brushes with the law are crucial to his story. Law, Culture and Scientific studies are documents that many believe are freely available to the general public. With the internet, it is a shock to discover that in America, access to public records and law documents are purposefully difficult to gain access to. Furthermore, it’s a multi-million dollar industry that creams off the money of graduates and those in the business who require regular access to these documents. Take PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records), an American website that houses all the public records digitally. Despite its ‘public’ nature, it costs (currently) 10c per page, with a maximum of $3 per document. As these are deemed public records, Swartz (amongst a group of other internet activists) began downloading as many of the records as he could, and giving actual free access to the documents via a “PACER recycling” website. PACER earned £150m in revenues in 2008 according to court reports. Even visiting the site in 2014 proves how purposefully difficult it is navigate. Suffice to say, law documents that are considered public record and therefore free to all, should be the type of thing the internet can ensure is freely available, but it’s not. This is only one example of the hypocrisy Swartz was prepared to fight. Consequently, and what led to his depression and suicide, he was hounded by the government in an era whereby computer hacking was considered the new threat. FBI drove outside his house, ex-girlfriends were aggressively interviewed and Swartz’s movements were restricted as he awaited trial. Unfortunately, he killed himself before the trial leaving an incomplete legacy – especially as his lawyer states how convinced he was of their win. The tactics used against Swartz was purposefully aggressive and threatening as he was to be “made an example of” in the face of cyber-threats to America.

As a documentary, director Brian Knappenberger is passionate about his subject. A clear narrative, Knappenberger uses Swartz’s death to bookend the story. His choice of interviewees is friends and family members who openly support the liberal bias that dominates the film. Crucial representation from the government, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and JSTOR is awkwardly missing, with voiceovers revealing their declination to comment. Sometimes, the absence of crucial figures is a reveal unto itself as “silence speaks louder than words”. In this case, it seems like a gaping hole in the story.

Inevitably perhaps, Aaron’s voice did not fall on deaf ears. Before his death he was part of the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) movement, which won its cause in 2012. People talk of freedom and the ample opportunity for the internet to truly make a difference in the world, and surely it can. But these fights require people like Tim Berners-Lee, Julian Assange, Jimmy Wales and Aaron Swartz to lead the way. These are people, who desperately campaign for funding and support; who are maligned in the media and by governments but it is they who passionately defend their belief to change the world, rather than cash-in their chips for the big bucks. Compared to “the billionaire” Mark Zuckerberg, Aaron Swartz struggled to pay his legal fees and this pressure came to a head. Zuckerberg regularly repeats his mantra about “sharing” everything on the “free-of-charge” Facebook. Aaron Swartz was trying to truly “share” the scientific and cultural heritage of the United States, and ensure that “free” documents of law truly were for the public. The Internet’s Own Boy proves that there are fights still to be fought and a genius and important activist has been lost in the process. It may not be the slickest of documentaries, but it is a story that needs to be told. Aaron Swartz was so much more than a co-founder of Reddit, he was an activist that was making a difference for the sake of the world.

This post was originally written for Flickering Myth

Monday, 11 August 2014

The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)

Cinema often depicts characters that we compare ourselves to. Social groups will turn to The Hangover and Stand by Me and discuss which character they, and their friends, are similar too. The six friends in The Deer Hunter, as they gleefully run down streets naked, create this same thought-process. Michael Cimino’s second film sets up a close-knit community we recognise, but it is broken down and irreversibly changed following the Vietnam War. We don’t see Michael (Robert De Niro), Nicky (Christopher Walken) or Stevie’s (John Savage) superiors when they are sent to war. They are people, thrust into a conflict that breaks them physically, emotionally and mentally – with only their loved ones to pick up the pieces. The disheartening and tragic rendition of ‘God Bless America’ before the closing credits has never lacked such hope (a controversial stance to take in 1978).

Broken into three definitive acts, The Deer Hunter introduces the group as they complete a gruelling day at the local mill. For three of them, this is their final day before they are drafted. The wedding between Stevie and Ange is doubled-up to become a leaving ceremony for the groom, Mike and Nicky. Their portraits hang on the wall, almost in remembrance, undercutting the celebratory atmosphere created as a send-off. The remaining friends, clumsy Stan (John Cazale in his final role), “fu**in A” Axel (Chuck Aspegren) and Bar owner John (George Dzundza) playact and get drunk, with a final deer hunt the following morning. Through lingering looks and flirtatious banter, Nicky’s partner Linda (Meryl Streep) and Mike hold a deep connection. Maybe going to war has forced them to confront this or maybe this has always been the case. Jarringly, the film suddenly cuts to the soldiers in the middle of the crisis. Women and children are decimated while Michael uses a flamethrower to burn an opponent. The three friends suddenly find themselves holed up beneath a small shack whereby Asian soldiers play Russian roulette with the lives of our leads. They escape, but not without consequence. Stevie has severely damaged his legs leaving him paraplegic. Nicky has lost parts of his memory and can’t escape the horrors of what he has seen. A hardened Michael returns to Pennsylvania and realises nothing will ever be the same again.

The Deer Hunter is truly a masterpiece when screened at the cinema. From the vast landscapes as they wander the misty American hills in search of a lone deer through to the explosive horrors in Vietnam. The clear contrast between nature and industrialism elevates their meaning and provides ample opportunity for interpretation. The initial mill-worker scenes are dangerous and violent until we see the fire within the war-torn village in Vietnam. The factory-like perspectives of militarism as people are put into the mill and the death of young men is churned out. There is a genuine chemistry between the actors and we can only feel saddened by the chaos created in the era, and its consequences. 

The racist depiction of the Viet Cong is an unfortunate aside as they purposefully represent an enemy. In the same manner that Russian roulette (no evidence has been found that claim this happened in the conflict) is merely representing the gamble these men have placed with their lives. These are men that Cimino has purposefully framed within a small town where “everybody knows your name”. Tony Curtis Fox, for Film Comment, writes how the church and bar (locations that dominate the first hour of the film) are “metaphor[s] for the closed nature of community”. The Green Beret who sits in the bar dismissively says “fuck it” to the war, but he is an outsider. He is also berated and bothered by the boys before they leave. When Michael returns, he realises how he has changed. This is front and centre of The Deer Hunter. The horrendous destruction and wanton loss of war on the one hand. The beauty of America and tender friendships on the other. The Deer Hunter is bold and defiant in its stance, and at the cinema it is incredibly powerful. At a time whereby war is only a few thousand miles away and we celebrate the centenary of WWI, this sobering attitude couldn’t be more timely.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

150W: Alien

Short reviews for clear and concise verdicts on a broad range of films...

Alien (Dir. Ridley Scott/1979)

Often taught as an example of the genre mash-up of horror and science-fiction, Alien manages to get under your skin in a way few films can. The isolation and distant location of the Nostromo is part of the charm. We wake up with these low-paid truck-drivers who, due to a signal, are drawn into the sinister territory where the alien resides. The H.R. Giger planet contains erotica-fused biology to create the phallus-headed beast. Once the creature bursts free from the stomach, the white walls are only blank canvases for blood paintings. Murdered one-by-one, with a unique ambiguous rape-scene, Alien is the sinister underbelly of the happy-aliens seen in Star Wars. Ellen Ripley is the sole survivor and Ridley Scott is the genius that merged art and cinema together, to be appreciated forever after. In space, no one can hear you scream. In Sci-Fi, no-one can think of anything more horrific.

Rating: 5/5