The 25th Hour (2002)

25hour_posterHello! Long time, no write. I have NOT disappeared off the face of the planet. No, instead I briefly disappeared to the great state of California, where I saw many beautiful things and learned that In-N-Out Burger truly is the best (though the fries are shit). Unfortunately when you are travelling by Greyhound and staying in hostels it is hard to watch movies, let alone write a blog. And no sooner did I return than I moved to Madison, WI, for graduate school! As in, I started loading up the truck five hours after stepping off the plane! Because why plan things over an extended period of time when you can cram it all into a week? But I have recovered now and so happily return to the world of blogging with the next installment of the Great Movies Odyssey: Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour.

The 25th Hour is above all a story about the America of 2001. The screenplay was adapted from David Benioff’s novel of the same name. To my understanding, the novel is primarily a character study of main character Monty Brogan. However between the time of the novel’s publication and the movie’s release something happened that changed America to its bones: September 11, 2001. In the midst of filming in the middle of New York, Lee had a choice: ignore the tragedy or work it into his film. Not knowing this on my first viewing, I thought that the film was always supposed to be about post 9/11 America, that Benioff had rushed out his novel after the attack leading Lee to take the opportunity to make a film about the city he loves. That’s how much 9/11 permeates this film.

The plot centers on Monty (Edward Norton) and his last day of freedom before beginning a seven year sentence for drug dealing. There is no question as to his guilt; however he doesn’t know who turned him into the police. Was it his girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson)? Or was it one of his childhood friends (Barry Pepper and Phillip Seymour Hoffman)? Or someone else altogether?

The opening credit sequence of the film focuses on the two beams of the Twin Towers Memorial. Like New York (and America), Monty has been knocked down. Formerly the Big Man around the neighborhood with enough wealth and power to have everything he desires, he has been humbled. His Ukrainian colleague Kostya (Tony Siragusa) encourages him to suspect Naturelle of turning him in, and indeed, she does have motive. But his ex-firefighter father (Brian Cox) says no: “Naturelle loves you,” he says, “She would never hurt you.” We see from flashbacks that they had a loving relationship before his arrest, but now Monty cannot trust her. The only people he does trust are his two best friends: Wall Street trader Frank Slaughtery (Pepper) and high school teacher Jacob Ellinsky (Hoffman). But even they say Monty is getting what he deserves. “He benefitted from the misery of others,” Frank tells Jacob, cheerfully ignoring the fact that high finance also makes its money from deceiving and hurting others–albeit from a distance.


Monty is not only representative of America; he is also repeatedly associated with Christ imagery. A poster for Cool Hand Luke, in which Paul Newman plays an obvious Christ figure, hangs prominently in his apartment. He even calls notice to his role in the (in)famous Fuck You New York scene: “JC got it easy– a weekend in hell and then hallelujahs for eternity.” To his mind, what does that compare to seven years in prison? However if Monty is a Christ figure, he is an inverted Christ. Monty has been betrayed, but he suffers because of his own sins. Whether or not he will be resurrected remains to be seen.

Watching the movie in 2013, I see more parallels to America post-9/11. America suffered, but I don’t think we ever resurrected ourselves. More specifically, I don’t think we ever regained the certainty of glory we had pre-9/11. Instead we remain lost in a moral mess that continues to grow worse. Of course, diplomatic relations have always been complicated. However I believe that pre-9/11 we had conviction in our moral superiority, whereas now we have lost our faith.

This despair is expressed in Monty’s Fuck You New York monologue. In the middle of his final supper with his father, he goes into the restroom to clear his head. Looking into the mirror, he sees a bit of graffiti saying, “Fuck You.” That sets him off in a rant against every single racial and economic group in New York and beyond. It is important to note that his reflection is the only one speaking. Monty himself does not move his lips. The entire monologue is in his head. Yes, it is racist. Yes, it is hateful. But haven’t we all had those thoughts at times? I don’t consider myself a racist, but there have certainly been bad days when my first thought if a foreign tourist gets in my way is something I would never say out loud. Frustration can dig up some dark stuff from the most shameful parts of our mind. That is what Monty is talking about. He ends his speech with an earnest, “Fuck YOU” at his reflection– all of his racist epithets come from his own self-disgust.

Balancing this scene is another monologue delivered at the end of the film by Monty’s father as he drives his son to prison. In it he imagines a future where he and Monty will drive out west. They’ll find a quiet town and part ways, never to meet again. Monty will live out a peaceful life outside the law, and his father will die a happy man knowing his son is free. It is an imagined happy ending.

How this speech ends is a matter for debate. Monty’s father describes a happy day in the future when Monty will tell his children that once upon a time he was a convicted drug dealer but that that life is all behind him. Then the film returns to Monty and his father in the car. When I watched the movie, I thought this was a sad reality check. Monty will still go to prison for seven years, and there will be no happy ending for anyone. However according to Wikipedia: “As the fantasy ends, we see Monty. . .sitting in the passenger’s seat of the car, which has driven past the bridge to the west.”

25thhour_dawsonI don’t know. It’s important to note that IMDB interprets the final shot completely opposite:When [the monologue] ends, we see they have gone past the bridge, meaning Monty has chosen jail over running.” However, Wikipedia’s reading would fit in with the “Go west, young man” rhetoric of American literature. But if Monty is going to be a Christ figure, he has to go to hell (prison)and suffer.

In my discussion, I haven’t really mentioned much about the individual characters besides Monty. I could write an entire post about the treatment of women in this movie. Rarely do you see a film that identifies so consciously with a male viewpoint: women are either overtly sexualized (Anna Pacquin’s jailbait high school student) or domesticated (Dawson’s girlfriend figure). They are not seen as people with desires outside of what affects their menfolk. Maybe that’s because the act of being humbled by an enemy attack is a traditionally male attribute– think of the end portion of The Illiad in which the Trojans are humbled by the Greeks’ victory over their city.

Next: Robert Altman’s 3 Women

Have you seen The 25th Hour? What did you think?

As always, I own nothing related The 25th Hour.


Millennial Girls Gone Bad? The Bling Ring vs. Spring Breakers

[I started this blog entry weeks ago but got overwhelmed with life. Here it is, hastily thrown together so that I can go on with other posts. Enjoy!]

Joel Stein’s article in Time Magazine about the “Me Me Me Generation” has had social media up in arms the last week or so. According to Stein, young people (ages 18-29) today are selfish, lazy jerks who will never measure up to previous generations– and he has the statistics to prove it! This argument was quickly shot down by Elspeth Reeve of The Atlantic Wire, who wrote an excellent response entitled “Every Every Every Generation Has Been the Me Me Me Generation.” For the record, I am part of the generation in question. I’m unmarried, mired in graduate school debt and underemployed, but I live independent of my parents and have hopes that someday soon I will get a job worthy of my talents and education. Do I have the “narcissistic personality disorder” with which my generation is apparently swamped? I certainly hope not. For one thing, I’m too poor to afford that kind of disease. For another, I have a solid support network of friends and family who would laugh themselves silly if I tried to tell them I am the only person in the world who matters.


However the fact is that each generation is different. The economy, the existence of a home front war (or lack thereof), social issues and technology shape us whether we want them to or not. In my opinion, we are no more selfish or lazy than previous generations, but we are the first generation to achieve maturity in a culture which smiles upon simultaneously isolating oneself through headphones and sharing intimate personal details online with potentially thousands of strangers. As the underrated and virtually unseen movie Disconnect demonstrated, this advance in technology places people into contact with others who can empathize with their specific situation but also denies people the connection of physical contact–making cruelty a much easier impulse to act on.

Out of this storm of generation welfare came two films: The Bling Ring and Spring Breakers. Released only three months apart, both films attempt to paint a portrait of the Millennial generation. Whether or not they were successful remains to be seen.

blingring_posterThe Bling Ring (dir. Sofia Coppola) is based on the real life Bling Ring, a group of teenagers who robbed the homes of Hollywood’s rich and famous by following their schedules via gossip blogs. The most famous of these, Alexis Neiers (called Nicki Moore in the movie), had her own reality TV show during the legal proceedings, prompting debate whether it was ethical for TV network to give so much money and attention to someone on trial. Like most of Sofia Coppola’s previous movies, it is about pretty people involved in decadent behavior. We don’t get to know any of the characters very well, but there is a sense that there isn’t much to know about them. They are obsessed with material things in the name of materialism. It isn’t as if they think having stolen couture will elevate their social status, and they were already upper middle class, so it isn’t as if they were deprived. They see something, they want it, they take it.

Compare this to Coppola’s earlier film Marie Antoinette, which also showcased a teenage character who placed too much value on material possessions. Kirsten Dunst’s Marie loves parties and pretty things, yet there is genuine sadness beneath her dissolute exterior. She’s been denied personal freedom, so she takes solace in things.

The characters in The Bling Ring are not motivated by unhappiness. They are shallow because they are shallow. Which is fine as a character trait–some people are like that. But since the Bling Ringers are not driven by any social issue, they are not bound to their own era. Every generation has had its shallow people, even the vaulted Greatest Generation. In the end, The Bling Ring is entertaining (particularly a hilarious turn by Emma Watson), but it delivers no opinion on the Millennial generation.

breakers_posterSpring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine) couldn’t be more different. For one thing, it features a group of girls who are deprived of something they want. They are well enough off to have everything they need, but they can’t afford to go on vacation for spring break. That is their motivation. As unethical as it is, they have a goal. So, minus the good girl of the group played by Selena Gomez, they rob a restaurant. With that behind them, they head to Florida where they engage in risky behavior sure to give grey hairs to any parent in the audience. After being arrested at a wild party (presumably because they are drinking underage) the girls are bailed out by local rapper Alien (played by James Franco in the biggest “I’m sorry, what now?” casting of the year).

Young people feeling deprived is also a timeless theme, yet this film is about a specific time and place–namely, America in the 21st century. It isn’t the girls’ amoral behavior which determines this; it is the way director Korine frames their amorality. They are consciously copying the violent antics of film/TV characters. This can most clearly be seen when two of the girls reenact their burglary for Gomez. The actresses’ body language is directly linked to that of fictional characters.


The teenagers in both films exist without a moral code. However, it is the girls of Spring Breakers who stand out most clearly as representative of my generation’s dark side: intelligent, confident, ruthless and violent. There is no good vs. bad here. It is only bad vs. worse. Surely it is no coincidence that Gomez’s character, who returns home mid-film, is the least interesting of the Spring Breakers. Though possessing a moral compass, she never does anything proactive for good or bad. It is the violent girls who are our protagonists because they are the only ones who do anything.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Great Movies Odyssey)


As I previously posted, I HATED the first part of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was literally bored to tears. Monkeys! Look at the monkeys run, play and fight! Oh wait. . . there’s a giant monolith! Where’d it come from? Is this going to lead to an interesting plot development? No? Okay, I’m bored again.


Perhaps part of the problem is that over the years 2001 has been parodied so often (Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part 1, Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, Ben Stiller’s Zoolander, any number of Simpsons episodes) that it is hard to watch without wanting to giggle. Play the opening bars of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (DUH, DUH, DUH, DUH-DAH!!!), and many people will more quickly identify it as the music accompanying the slow pan of sunlight over Cher’s phone in Clueless than the theme of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s masterpiece is easy to parody because it is unrelentingly serious. There is not even an attempt at humor in the entire film. That is not a criticism– Kubrick made the film he wanted to make. And given that the most sympathetic (albeit simultaneously diabolical) “character” in the entire film is a supercomputer, I would argue that any hint of humor would be completely out-of-place.

2001_halThe supercomputer to which I am referring is of course HAL 9000. HAL’s influence can be felt throughout Western film to the point that, like the parodies with which 2001 is so closely related, modern audiences recognize HAL’s successors more than they recognize him. The evil computer in WALL-E is a direct reference to HAL (as is the name EVA). Eddie the shipboard computer in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a spoof of HAL. I don’t think the gang on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 went an episode without mentioning the original supercomputer. Basically anytime you see an evil computer in film, you are seeing HAL’s effect on the depiction of technology in science fiction films.

What I found surprising is how late we are introduced to the character which holds the #13 spot on AFI’s Film’s Best Villains list. 2001: A Space Odyssey is divided into four parts– or perhaps it is best to say four movements. The first is The Dawn of Man, hence the monkeys. The second is TMA-1. We meet Dr. Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester). He is heading up a secret mission, the goal of which is to study another monolith like the one in the first movement. It’s not until the third, Jupiter Mission, when we finally meet HAL and the two astronauts Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Poole (Gary Lockwood). And finally the fourth movement, Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite, is when all the audience members wish they had taken psychedelic drugs before entering the theater.

So we sit through almost an hour of film before we even meet the film’s villain. Then, having met him, we are with him for another hour before the fourth movement begins. . .sans HAL. Yet he is the most memorable character in the movie. Like Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, the comparatively brief time he is onscreen makes him even more memorable. What do we learn about HAL in the course of movie? He’s a computer. He’s perfect (or he should be). He’s programmed to complete his mission at any cost. He wants to live.


That’s all we learn. But the ramifications of even these small facts are extraordinary. He’s a machine, but he makes a mistake. The two astronauts realize his mistake and decide to deactivate him. So HAL does a very human thing: he tries to destroy the evidence of his error– namely the two other people onboard.


Last night I saw a trailer for the upcoming George Clooney/Sandra Bullock vehicle Gravity. In it, Bullock is cut loose from her own spaceship. There is a lot of screaming, fire and Clooney close-ups. In 2001, Poole is also set adrift from his spaceship by HAL, but there is no yelling and certainly no fire. He falls silently, remotely, a wordless reminder that space is huge and man is small. I was reminded of the wonderful tagline from Alien: “In space no one can hear you scream.” Bowman goes after him, but it is too late. He retrieves the body, and (in the only genuine action sequence in the movie) attempts to reenter the ship. His line “Open the pod doors, HAL.” is simple but remembered by science fiction fans the world over. For of course HAL is not going to open the pod doors.

2001_pooleWe know little about Bowman and Poole, but what we do know is compelling. They have parents who love them. They are young enough to be excited for this adventure yet old enough to hold off on the giddiness. Perhaps most importantly, they demonstrate intelligence– a trait often lacking in science fiction leads (e.g. the male lead in the recent release Pacific Rim, who poses very well but gives no sign of a single thought in his pretty little head). Bowman can enter the ship without HAL’s help, but he will have no oxygen in the process. So he takes a deep breath and uses the vacuum created when he opens the doors to slingshot himself into the ship.

I mentioned that this is the only real action sequence in the film. It works because it is completely realistic, like the scenes of danger in Apollo 13. There are no dramatic moves, except for the awesome slingshot into the ship’s interior. What stands out for me is Bowman’s holding his breath. Obviously we all draw breath, so we can imagine what it is like to suffocate. We can place ourselves in Bowman’s shoes. We fear for him because, unlike a kung fu master battling twenty enemies at once, he is battling something we understand: the need to breath.

He makes it inside without suffocating, and then comes the most memorable scene in the movie: the death of HAL.

I have written a lot about HAL already. Looking over what I have written, I notice that I used the male pronoun in referring to the supercomputer. But why? His voice is male, but he’s a machine. Machines have no gender. But as Roger Ebert points out in his Great Movies review, HAL feels like the most human element in the movie. That feeling is confirmed in his death scene in which, like an old person slipping into dementia, he flashes back to his earlier existence in Urbana, Illinois. He even sings a little song to himself– still in that monotone male voice. It is wonderfully spooky and a little sad.


The reason why movement three stands out in 2001: A Space Odyssey is that it is the only one with conflict. Astronauts vs. HAL 9000. Astronauts vs. Space. It is also the only sequence in which we get to know any of the characters. In part two we learn that Dr. Floyd has a daughter back home, but we don’t really ever get a sense that he misses her. That’s not a criticism. Kubrick obviously did not want relationships to dominate his film. According to Ebert, the reason the director used classical music like “The Blue Danube” and “Thus Spake Zarathustra” was that he didn’t want this to be just another sci-fi film. I think that is why he didn’t want his audience to get to know his characters. Otherwise, 2001 would be Star Wars Goes to Jupiter.

So if Kubrick didn’t want to make a sci-fi film, what is 2001: A Space Odyssey? I think the answer lies in the use of “Thus Spake Zarathustra”. It is not a symphony; it’s a tone poem which leads from “Sunrise” (the famous DUH DUH DUH DU-DAH!!) through the “Song of the Grave” to the “Song of the Night Wanderer”. 2001 is a meditation on the cycle of human existence. From beasts we rise to science; from science we evolve to a higher level of existence.

2001_starchildThat is what happens when Bowman goes to Jupiter in the final part of the film. After a special effects light show (parodied in the Spaceballs ludicrous speed scene) he arrives in what looks like a very nice hotel suite. There he meets an older version of himself (maybe), wanders around for a while (maybe) and meets a being referred to the literature around the movie as the Star Child (maybe).

My reading of this concluding sequence is that he is our Everyman who has risen from science to the higher level. More than that I cannot say, nor do I think much more can be said, but surely it is not coincidence that the “Thus Spake Zarathustra” musical piece was inspired by Nietzsche’s similarly named treatise– in which he proclaims, “God is dead.” 2001: A Space Odyssey recognizes our present is only a brief moment in the timeline of the human race. If there is no God-force in this universe, there is no plan for us. There is only constant evolution. That is why the beginning movement with the monkeys is necessary to the development of the film. Like Poole’s body floating off into infinite space, we are a miniscule part of space and time.

So this is a science fiction film without aliens and barely any action, yet it is ranked as the #1 Science Fiction Film on the AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Films list. I can see why. I can also see why many audience members walked out of the initial screening in 1968. They had gone in expecting Star Wars, and instead there was this convoluted brainteaser. But if you can sit through it, you will find that by the end a kind of logic surfaces. Despite my preliminary loathing, I am still thinking about this movie a week later. There is a thudding perfection to it. Thudding in the sense that you rarely get a lift like a good comedy or action film will give you, but perfect in that nothing should be changed about it.

In conclusion, Stanley Kubrick is obviously a genius, and 2001: A Space Odyssey made me head hurt. Long live HAL.


‘MURICA. . . As It Has Never Been

To all those readers outside the United States, I say: Guess what? It’s America’s birthday!

To all those inside the United States, I say: Happy Fourth of July! Don’t set off fireworks into your neighbors’ trees!

For me, America is the land where my parents live. It’s writing words in the air with sparklers on a warm summer’s night. It’s running around with the other neighborhood kids catching lightning bugs (and occasionally feeding them to the local bullfrog). I see an American flag, and I think of performing with my high school marching band. America is the place where I spent my childhood. 

As an adult I still identify as an American, but this modern America is not the same country where I rode my bike to UDF for ice cream. It’s a place where a crazy person can walk into a Colorado movie theater and create a slaughterhouse. In this America, when you go to a restaurant you see half of the patrons giving more attention to their smartphones than the person sitting across from them. We distrust our politicians, we isolate ourselves from one another, we place our faith in drugs and alcohol.

American films present a view of our country that is equally skewed. The Patriot depicts the American Revolution as one man’s war against the eeevil British solider who (for no apparent reason) killed his family. Django Unchained gave us the Civil War with a righteous ending, but one that is soaked in blood and anger. So many of our popular films which deal with America are violent.

But maybe the America I remember never really existed except in a child’s mind. Like a personal movie, maybe this is just a story I constructed in my mind to explain why I was so happy as a child.

I realize this is a depressing post on America’s birthday, but I think we need a few somber moments on days like these– lest they become mired in food and alcohol. I am an American. No matter where I go, I will always be an American. But I am worried for my country.

Kissing Jessica Stein (2001) and the “Problem” of Gay Cinema

In honor of Pride Weekend here in Chicago, I took a look over the last few days at some of the movies Netflix categorizes as Gay and Lesbian. Perhaps not surprisingly, most of them featured a straight main character who has an over-the-top gay friend. Sassy Pants, for example, is about a young woman breaking free of her overprotective mother’s neurotic clutches. It is grouped with gay cinema because the protagonist’s father left his family for another man (played by Haley Joel Osmont, a long way from seeing dead people in The Sixth Sense). However, it doesn’t say anything about gay culture except: OMG having a gay bestie to sashay around the mall with is awesome, for realsies!!1!


Of course there is nothing wrong with a film featuring a gay character surrounded by straight folks. The problem is that so many of those gay characters fall into safe stereotypes. Every cute heroine searching for love needs a gay buddy who gives sassy advice! And how many times have we seen the hero’s runt of a sidekick threatened by a butch lesbian in a seedy bar?

Gay people! They are defined by their sexual preference, and it is pure komedy.

However there are a few jewels in the rough. I have known of Kissing Jessica Stein for several years, but this was my first viewing. To my delight, it is a quirky, intelligent comedy driven by two extraordinary performances– Heather Juergensen as the confident, adventurous Helen and Jennifer Westfeldt (Ira and Abby, Friends with Kids) as the rule abiding, borderline neurotic Jessica.


Jessica is a copy editor who is unlucky in love, mainly because she detests even the smallest imperfections in her dates. She has only ever dated men, so when she answers a “woman seeking woman” ad (because it quotes her favorite poet Rainer Maria Rilke) she doesn’t tell her friends or family. The ad was placed by Helen, who has many male lovers but who wouldn’t mind adding a woman to the mix. The two quickly strike sparks. Helen is certainly the aggressor while Westfeldt gets a lot of laughs from her depiction of Jessica’s wishy-washy approach to a lesbian relationship. She’s like a little kid at a swimming pool: dip one toe in and then yank it back right away.

jessicastein_bedEventually they consummate their relationship, but still all is not well. I was reminded of a letter in Dan Savage’s column in which a straight young man complained that as much as he tried to be receptive to a same-sex relationship in the name of open-mindedness, he could not become sincerely attracted to another man. Savage’s response was simple: you are straight. You can be open-minded all you want, but at the end of the day you are still a straight man. This is also Jessica’s problem. She has a strong connection to Helen, to be sure, but she isn’t a lesbian, not really. In one of the best scenes in the movie, she tries to describe her and Helen’s relationship to a coworker, and while she can easily list all of Helen’s wonderful qualities, she trails off saying “But she’s skinny and she has skinny arms, and it’s just all wrong, wrong, wrong.” She loves Helen, but she can’t love her in the right way.

Kissing Jessica Stein is not a perfect movie. The emotional impact of Jessica’s and Helen’s breakup (which of course must happen) is alleviated way too soon when the next scene shows them happily chatting away about Jessica’s new male love interest. As far as I’m concerned, breakups are hard enough. It must be even harder when you break up because one of you is not engineered to be attracted to the other. It feels unnatural to see the two women as good friends immediately after they stop being lovers. But before that disappointing conclusion, the film features many thoughtful conversations about love, sex and what it means to be straight/gay/bisexual/curious.

jessicastein_coupleAbove all, Kissing Jessica Stein is a worthwhile movie because it showcases characters who are not defined by their sexuality. Yes, Helen is a bisexual woman. She is also a smart, funny and self-confident art gallery owner. Likewise, her gay coworkers are not limp wristed stereotypes but well-spoken, intelligent people who see the difficulties in Helen’s and Jessica’s relationship long before they do. They feel well-rounded enough that another film could be made about their work at the art gallery instead of their sexual preferences, and it would still be interesting. This is what sets this film apart from movies like Chasing Amy.

So a slightly belated Happy Pride Month to everyone out there! May you find love in all the right places with nary a word being said against you.

When a Film Blows Your Mind

I watched Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey for the first time yesterday. I looked forward to the movie with great anticipation. Many of the critics and filmmakers I admire love this film. So when  I hated, hated, hated the first hour, I was pretty disappointed. In fact, I had to go out and get myself a cup of coffee just to stay awake.

And then something extraordinary happened. I began to love the movie.

If that transition sounds abrupt, good. Because that’s how quick my judgement flipped on Kubrick’s masterpiece— hated the first third, loved the middle third and bamboozled by the final third. I don’t want to go into too much detail, as my review will be posted early this week, but I can definitely say that I have never seen any movie like the last part of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

This is a short post because I am moving today. However I wanted to throw this question out to the internet world: what movie made you change your worldview? Or, maybe, what movie made you change your definition of film? What blew your mind?

I love hearing from you! I will post my review of 2001 soon, as well as brief look at some gay films on Netflix (in honor of Pride weekend).

Happy weekend, all!