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.

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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.


2001: A Space Odyssey (Great Movies Odyssey)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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12 Angry Men (1957)

“This is a film where tension comes from personality conflict, dialogue and body language, not action; where the defendant has been glimpsed only in a single brief shot; where logic, emotion and prejudice struggle to control the field. It is a masterpiece of stylized realism–the style coming in the way the photography and editing comment on the bare bones of the content. Released in 1957, when Technicolor and lush production values were common, “12 Angry Men” was lean and mean.” Roger Ebert, 12 Angry Men (Great Movies Review)

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We learn only a few personal details about each juror in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, yet by the end of the movie, I felt like I had met each of them:

12angrymen_coverJuror #1 (Martin Balsam)– the genial foreman who is primarily concerned with keeping the debates friendly and organized

Juror #2 (John Fiedler)– physically small but big-hearted (it’s not his fault he has a squeaky voice!)

Juror #3 (Lee J. Cobb)– pathetic and hateful

Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall)– the most logical and analytic of the bunch

Juror #5 (Jack Klugman)– soft-spoken with roots in the lower class

Juror #6 (Edward Binns)– shopkeeper, not the type to be pushed around by loudmouths like Juror #3

Juror #7 (Jack Warden)– brash and clad in an outrageous checkered jacket

Juror #8 (Henry Fonda)– white knight

Juror #9 (Joseph Sweeney)– the oldest juror, has a knack for noticing what others miss

Juror #10 (Ed Begley)– not very intelligent, hiding some racist views

Juror #11 (George Voskovec)– the only foreign-born juror

Juror #12 (Robert Webber)– an advertising exec who behaves like a proto-Pete Campbell

I may not know everything about these men, but I know enough to understand why they make the choices they do in this film. That is what differentiates 12 Angry Men from lesser films– the quality of the writing and acting is such that even the brief amount of time each individual receives in this film is enough to establish their backgrounds and motivations.

12angrymen_fondaThe spirit of 12 Angry Men (1957) is perhaps best expressed in the physicality of its one A-lister, the late Henry Fonda. He is an imposing figure onscreen without a scrap of extra flesh on his bones; his cheekbones in particular seem best fit for the shadows of a black and white feature. His eyes are intelligent and kind but fierce. That balance of intellect and ferocity define his portrayal of Juror #8. In this story of a twelve man jury debating the fate of a young man accused of murdering his father, Fonda expresses most articulately the ideals at the heart of the American judicial system: the accused are innocent until proven guilty, it is on the prosecution to prove the guilt of the accused and if there is reasonable doubt that the accused did not commit the crime they must be acquitted by a jury of their peers.

Besides Fonda (who helped secure funding for the film), the other stand-out is Lee J. Cobb. He seems friendly enough at first–maybe a little loud– but as Fonda’s Juror #8 begins to persuade the others to reconsider their guilty votes, he erupts into a loathsome vendetta. Having driven away his own child years ago, he now seeks a terrible revenge with the accused boy as a scapegoat. It is fascinating how even as he spews out his hateful speech, Cobb shows that Juror #3 has not consciously drawn the connection between the kid charged with murder and his own son. He is so lost in his pain and anger that, like a wounded animal, he strikes out at the nearest stand-in.

Recently I was indulging in a reread of my childhood favorite Matilda when I came across this description of the wretched Miss Trunchbull:

Miss Trunchbull, the Headmistress, was something else altogether. She was a gigantic holy terror, a fierce tyrannical monster who frightened the life out of pupils and teachers alike. There was aura of menace about her even at a distance, and when she came up close you could almost feel the dangerous heat radiating from her as from a red-hot rod of metal. . . . Thank goodness we don’t meet many people like her in this world, although they do exist and all of us are likely to come across at least one of them in a lifetime. If you ever do, you should behave as you would if you met an enraged rhinoceros out in the bush–climb up the nearest tree and stay there until it has gone away. (p. 67)

That is what I think of when I think of Lee J. Cobb’s Juror #3.

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12 Angry Men is a remarkably intelligent film. Yes, the script spells out the definition of reasonable doubt several times for the audience, but it trusts that we will decide on our own what we think about the characters.

Fonda’s Juror #8 understands the American judicial system better than anyone else in the film, but after listening to him preach for an hour, I became frustrated. From the first moments of the movie, he seeks to prove to his fellow jurors (and the audience) that there is enough reasonable doubt in this case to prevent a guilty verdict. He argues so passionately that it is easy to forget that he is arguing for a reasonable doubt verdict rather than a full-out innocent verdict. He says at one point, “I know this boy. He wouldn’t have done it.”

Except he doesn’t know this boy. In fact, one of his methods of proving the young man’s innocence–going to the neighborhood of the crime to see if he could purchase a switch blade similar to the one allegedly used by the boy to kill his father– is illegal. After a while, it seems that this juror is projecting an awful lot on the alleged murderer.

Of course, Fonda’s Juror #8 is the most admirable (our white knight even wears a white jacket for much of the film); however in the end I found other characters more sympathetic. For example Juror #5 (Jack Klugman of TV’s The Odd Couple) has same ideals as Juror #8 but has some insecurities arising from his lower class background which prevent him from being an outspoken proponent of justice.

Likewise, Juror #4 (E.G. Marshall) is lizard-like in his chilly demeanor and clipped tone, but he is not indifferent to the fate of the boy they are about to convict. He simply relies on facts above idealism. This juror is at the heart of the most interesting conflict in the film.

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It is Marshall’s Juror #4 who brings up the most cogent arguments as to why the boy is guilty. The boy says he was at the movies during the time of the murder, but he couldn’t remember the film he saw and there were no witnesses. Juror #8 tries to point a hole in this by pointing out that Juror #4 can’t remember what he did only a few days earlier, but that doesn’t change the fact that there were no witnesses to the boy going to the movies. In fact, as this A.V. club review points out, there is actually a lot of solid evidence against him. It would be extraordinary if the young man was innocent.

What a fascinating possibility– that a movie all about justice could end with an unjust not guilty verdict. But of course the film isn’t really about whether or not the boy committed the crime. It is about what bubbles up when several humans are placed in a constrained situation and forced to debate on matters of right and wrong. In the case of Juror #10, the stress causes him to deliver a speech which perfectly encapsulates the “us vs. them” mindset behind racism. As he speaks the other jurors one by one stand up and turn their back on them until at last he collapses, overcome by self-loathing. It is a stagey moment (reflecting Lumet’s background in theatre), but it works.

12angrymen_group12 Angry Men deserves to be rescued from high school required viewing lists everywhere. Perhaps we should remake it every decade. Imagine a version with a young Middle Eastern or African-American man as the accused. Think of all the nerves that would hit.

Because today more than ever we need to reminded of our constitutional rights.

Have you seen 12 Angry Men? What did you think? I would love to hear from you!

(I own nothing related to 12 Angry Men or Matilda.)