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1. City Of Ember

This movie came out in 2008, and to the present, I and my family are the only ones I know who have seen it.  I didn’t save this flick for last because it is the best movie among the ten.  It isn’t.   That distinction would have to go to either The Travelling Circus of Dr. Lao or The Iron Giant.  I think I saved it for last because it is the most obscure.  It has some strong performances, especially by Tim Robbins and a very young Saoirse Ronan before she became a hot property in Redemption.

City of EmberEmber is a city that was built underground to preserve a portion of the human race from some unmentioned apocalypse.  Everything about the environment is artificial.  The night sky, with which you are greeted at the opening of the film, is nothing more than a collection of electric lights suspended oer the city and one of which burns out and falls with a great racket to the streets far below.  It is a warning that things are beginning to run down in Ember.  As the story progresses, we learn that the sojourn underground has lasted nearly twice as long as the city’s founders intended, and all of the life support systems on which the Emberites depend are more than a little threadbare.

As far as the spectrum between parable and myth goes, City Of Ember falls leadenly into the parable category.  Here is a world where everything is running out.  You can go to any warehouse and request canned goods, but anything except turnip greens and refried beans are in short supply.  There are frequent blackouts due to the testiness of the aging dynamo at the city’s core, and the residents seem not to notice.  They are lulled to sleep by official pronouncements of how good it is they have it in Ember, and pull the comfort blanket of Singing Day [a very thinly veiled swipe at religion] around them when things get difficult.

Of course, two Plucky Youngsters™ discover The Truth, and most of the dramatic tension in the movie results from their desperate attempt to escape the doomed city and from the obstacles placed in their way by others who know the truth but hav a vested interested in maintaining the status quo, even though it means extinction for everyone.  Of course the Plucky Youngsters™ succeed intheir Quest, and are amply rewarded by the Grandmother of All Light Shows.  I’ll leave it at that.

Recently I saw another very good Korean Sci-Fi flick, The Doomsday Book, in which a Buddhist robot attains enlightenment.  It’s on Netflix streaming.  Seek it out as well.

In case you were curious, the other films in this series are:

2. The Circus Of Dr. Lao
3. The Last Starfighter
4. Hearts In Atlantis
5. Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji
6. Brendan And The Secret Of Kells
7. Fantastic Planet
8. The Iron Giant
9. Enemy Mine
10. Wizards

This is from my son’s Tumblr page.  I hesitate to call it a blog because Tumblr is just a couple of steps above 4chan and people have been known to post some really objectionable and unedited material there.

For some reason, my son’s discussion of American director Whit Stillman’s film Metropolitan tweaked the nose of the hipster-gioisie milieu in which he lives and moves and has his being.  I’m just impressed that any 21 year old knows who Wit Stillman and Chris Eigeman are.

Who knows.  Maybe soon he and his friends will be discussing Charles Fourier.


now im going to make an AMV using clips of chris eigeman and chief keef

okay alex i will tell you my feels on Metropolitan and Stillman in general


In a way, I think American cinema needs a director like Stillman. Irony has been kind of a constant in a lot of popular film here and most of our beloved films have had some ironic schematic orchestrating a lot of a movie’s interactions with the audience, especially when addressing the class system of the United States. That’s why I think a lot of people enjoy Anderson because his films are really biting of the American upperclass and utilize a lot of ironic movement to generate humor. As American movie goers, we’ve become desensitized to the “plight” of the American bourgeois, a reality to people like Stillman and a welcomed circumstance that has been lampooned by people like Franzen in The Corrections and by Wes Anderson over the years, and its common for us to treat people who have definitive power and influence in our society with a lot of derision. However, the way we do this is by introducing our own vocabulary, our own manners (an important word to use when describing Stillman) and making it the primary lens from which we view this world. We view these people as alien, kind of remote, and the only way we have of relating to them is through antagonism or by taking the rich out of their frame of reference and putting them in ours, because it reflects the struggle of rich vs. poor that we’ve been taught is the reality (“the rich raise your income taxes, they live better than you do and don’t care about you, kim kardashian spent a ludicrous amount of money for a wedding and got divorced in three months isn’t that fucking ridiculous i could have paid off my student loans with 1/64th of her budget for that wedding”). And because these feelings or conceptions are the immediate response to imagery exemplary of the upper class, it is easier and simpler to make film that takes them out of their context and places them in our own and makes fun of them. Stillman proves that you don’t have to go through the effort of taking the rich out of context to make fun of them because the rich are capable of doing this on their own homefield.

I can understand why people dislike Stillman. He isn’t ironic in his films at all. This goes against our expectations of depictions of the upper class in film to be! Stillman isn’t crude, ironic, or chastising of the upperclass in his film and we absolutely, positively despise him for it sometimes. We want to see these people punished or stumble because it makes us feel better about our selves (this is some pretty basic shit that goes all the way back to Aristotle’sPoetics and what not) but Stillman won’t let us have the satisfaction. That’s because Stillman is a part of that world and that world has its own rules on how and why people fail, and to have his characters fail to such a point that they’d be brought to our stature is disingenuous to his characters, his experience, and to the rules of that reality. Really, when you first watch his films you feel a bit uncomfortable and annoyed that these people who clearly live better than you do and dress better than you do are having a good time and aren’t suffering, but then you watch them do things and talk about interesting things and you start laughing because, jesus christ these people are doomed and they know it.

To me, Stillman’s documenting the fall of an empire. He’s a chronologist of the privileged in America and he knows that the upper-class identity has been smudged by popular culture. I don’t think he’s trying to defend it in any way, but he is definitely trying to preserve some truths about that culture that the American audience isn’t exposed to. Metropolitan is a funny movie because it’s 100% American bourgeois and it’s genuine in its depiction of both the good and bad of that culture and does so without taking the culture out of context. I think a lot of people complain about the movie being 90% conversation, but fuck Louis Malle took a movie about two friends eating dinner and talking and made it really captivating so don’t tell me shit about how a movie about people talking is boring okay last time i checked people thought lost was a great show and you can literally reduce it to a clip reel of people reacting to shit. These conversations were definitely ones I could see myself having with people if I ever had the chance to run into such opinionated, quickwitted young people, or made the effort to leave my bedroom to see James, Andrew, Cass, or Galeon more. Really, it’s watching these people who have this structure of manners in place and seeing them being so unmannerly by it that makes Metropolitan such a great film. I think Nick has some great moments in that film that make you really sympathetic to him as a character and sympathetic of his awareness that his world is becoming more and more ephemeral with each passing day.

At the same time I’m really attracted to Carolyn Farina.

tl;dr i can understand why people hate stillman and Metropolitan but that is because he isn’t playing by our game in the first place and we want him to because we think our game is the only one worth playing

Lent is beginning to creep up upon us again.  In the Orthodox Church we are in the middle of what is called the Triodion, a period of preparation for Lent which is, in itself, a preparation for Pascha.  There are, aptly, three Sundays in the Triodion, all of which bring repentance front and center; last week was Zacchaeus Sunday,  tomorrow is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee followed by a week free of fasting.  Next Sunday is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, and the Triodion will be complete.  After that is Meatfare Sunday and Cheesefare week, where dairy is allowed but meat prescribed. This  completes the gradual descent into the full rigors of an Orthodox Lent.

Last year, I asked for suggestions about movies that might be appropriate viewing for the Lenten season.  I got a lot of recommendations.  Some were  classics;  Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, The Gospel According to St. Matthew.    Some were wonderful surprises; The Island, Godspell, In Bruges, Italian For Beginners, Tokyo Godfathers

There were some which were recommended for which I couldn’t discern any connection to the season; Au Hasard Baltasar, Ordet, Seventh Seal.    There were some that even interfered with my celebration of the season, although they are excellent films otherwise;  Gran Torino, Facing The Giants, The Blind Side.    I found Fireproof unwatchable.

Of all the films I watched during Lent last year, there are three in particular I want to take with me into Lent this year as being particularly reflective of three major virtues I am going to try to cultivate; Repentance, Simplicity, Gratitude.

Repentance:   Flywheel (2003).

Before culture-war Christianity there was just plain Christianity.  This comes out clearly in this first film by Sherwood Productions, a production company which has since gone on to release lucrative releases for the Evangelical market such as Fireproof and Courageous.  Flywheel was their first attempt, and it shgows, especially in the acting and in the production values.  The spiritual value of the film, however, is head and shoulders above its successors.

The protagonist is the church-going owner of a used car lot.  He takes pride in being able to milk more profit out of each transactions than any of his other salespeople.  His marriage is falling apart, but that doesn’t particularly concern him.  I don’t remember offhand what the crisis was that led to his repentance, but at one point he came face to face with the teachings of Christ.   He had to make a decision to cease his dishonest dealings and make costly restitution.  The struggles he faces while attempting to reorder his business in a way that would not be unfaithful to his faith are believable   This modern-day Zacchaeus re-emerges as a business leader in a way that is neither hokey or predictable.

Simplicity  Amal (2007) 

Truth be told, we Orthodox are proudly semi-Pelagian.   Inasmuch the whole nature vs grace distinction that so preoccupied the Blessed Augustine  makes any sense in our context at all, we are not so uncomfortable with nature as are many other Christian traditions  (Forgive me if appear as though I am speaking for the whole Orthodox Church here.    I am a layman, and not a very good one at that).  Natural human goodness was God’s original plan.  There is more of it than we have a right to expect, and wherever it is encountered, it should be encouraged.

This film is the story of Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin on the crowded streets of New Delhi.  Amal is a rickshaw driver, who never complains when others abuse him, never charges more than his due, and who is honest to a fault.    Indeed, like Mishkin, he is thought to be a little  bit simple.  However, one day he gives a rich man a ride who is in the throes of an existential crisis.  Amal so impresses the rich man that the rich man determines to leave his entire fortune to the rickshaw driver to the despite of his dissolute and violent children.  Amal’s character illuminates the flaws of the other, more self-centered characters in the film, and many of them come to, if not repentance, at least a greater self-knowledge a lessening of their egoism.

Gratitude  Babette’s Feast (1987)

Two sisters, spinster daughters of the founder of an austere Protestant sect, take in as a cook/servant a worldly Parisian woman who is in some political trouble.   Despite the hard-scrabble lifestyle of the sisters and the  barrenness of their physical surroundings, the Frenchwoman does not complain and earns the respect and even the love of the two sisters over the years.

The Frenchwoman wins a sum of money in a lottery, and everyone expects her to return to Paris and resume her life.  Instead, she spends the bulk of her winnings on a single night’s dinner for the sisters and  surviving members of their sect.  Indeed, the major part of the film is food porn at its most lascivious – the Frenchwoman is a master chef and she lavishes all her considerable skill on this single meal.

When the food and drink finally arrives at the table, it works an almost Eucharistic spell; old wrongs are forgiven, lapsed friendships are renewed, paths not taken are reopened and cherished for what might have ensued.   Briefly, earthly food and drink becomes the transmitter of grace, and the barrier between the sensuous and the spiritual dissolves.

2. The 7 Faces 0f Dr. Lao – 1964   This curiosity movie is as close to sui generis as anything I have ever seen, including Last Year At Marienbad, and showcases what has to be the finest performance ever in a fantasy movie.  Tony Randall plays not only the enigmatic, if stereotypical, title character, but also six other phantasmagorical entities; The Abominable Snowman,  the Magician Merlin, Medusa, Pan the “god of joy”, The Great Serpent, and Apollonius of Tyana, a blind soothsayer who has been cursed by the gods to speak only the truth.

Dr. Lao, a bald, opium pipe-puffing (I don’t think anybody thought there was anything but tobacco in Dr. Lao’s pipe in 1964, but times have changed), “me-no-speekee” Chinaman rides into the Western town of Abalone to set up his tent of wonders.  The townspeople are busy having their community stolen out from underneath them by an unscrupulous real estate speculator, but they pause in their headlong rush towards chaos and dissolution to pay heed to the dusty and weatherworn marvels on display at Dr. Lao’s “circus”.    Alternately astonished, cynical, unbelieving, and shocked, the inhabitants of Abalone are one by one coaxed out of their fantasies of individual power and significance to confront themselves as they actually are;  ridiculous but necessary and beloved threads of the greater tapestry that is the community of Abalone.

Not all of them pass the test.  One of the most uncomfortable moments in the film is when the blind soothsayer confronts a silly not-really-a-widow who is desperately clinging to an outdated self-image of herself as a young coquette.    Apollonius tells her that she will never be rich, she will never marry again, and that her days will blur together into a dreary parade of sameness until she dies and is forgotten.  For good or for evil, he tells her, she will have had as much effect as if she had never existed at all.  As self-awareness breaks over her character, the talented actress playing this role displays for a brief moment the horror of the damnable truth Apollonius has just told her, but then her face relaxes again as she pulls her comfortable lies back around her.

This is a deeply Taoist film, whether by design or happy circumstance.  I have always wished Christianity was more like Taoism.  I wouldn’t want Christianity to be  Taoism, exactly, because the Tao of the Old Boy is impersonal and, frankly, a bit scary.  Nevertheless, when I look at the face of the personal Christ in the New Testament, I see a lot more that reminds me of the Tao than of the joyless moralist we have made Him into.  Dr. Lao, who has to be based on the founder of Taoism Lao-Tzu (he disappears from the town of Abalone mounted not on a bullock, but on a donkey, the foal of an ass), strikes me as a Holy figure.

I have always wanted to study the idea of Holiness apart from the idea of Morality,  with the idea of Morality being a declension from holiness, an oblique case of Holiness, as it were.  Dr. Lao, despite his seeming amorality, is good place to start.  Without striving, and without putting himself forward in any way, he gently diverts each of townspeople who are amenable to his guidance away from the stampede towards non-being they are pursuing back towards a position of Coinherence in the Web of Exchange that is the town of Abalone.

Interestingly, the author of the book that this film was based on, Charles G. Finney, was not only an influential writer of fantastic fiction in the thirties and forties, but he was also the great-grandson of the evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, who introduced so many fantastic elements into the American strand of Christianity.

Look To The Skies!!

The Last Starfighter – 1984      It was 1984.  The original Star Wars trilogy had just completed, with Return Of The Jedi having left an awful taste in everybody’s mouth after the gee-whiz fireworks of A New Hope,  followed by the masterful chiaroscuro of  The Empire Strikes Back.   Indeed, I think a good case can be made for TESB as the best science fiction film ever made, and for ROTJ as one of the worst.  Maybe it was the unsatisfactory resolution of the Star Wars trilogy that predisposed me to appreciate this goofy, well-meaning film that came out the next year.

There isn’t much to The Last Starfighter, but what there is is great fun.  If you can praise Breaking Away as the best film ever shot in Indiana (it is leagues better than the histrionic Hoosiers), you can similarly praise The Last Starfighter as the best film whose protagonist lives in a dead-end trailer park.  But what a trailer park!  there is community, romance, challenge, and galaxy-saving, all within the [terrestial] confines of a few scant country acres.

Alex Rogan lives in said dead-end trailer park.  All of his friends are going off to college, but he missed his chance at a scholarship and is stuck serving as a handyman for the Starlight Starbright Trailer Park.  His widowed mother and porn-addled little brother are no help at all.   The only bright spots in his dismal existence are his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart, my favorite among the Starlets Referred To By All Three Names), and the  Starfighter, a stand-up arcade game at the park’s office where the player defends “the Frontier” from “Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada”. Eventually he becomes the highest scoring player of the game. Thereafter he is visited by the game’s inventor Centauri (Robert Preston, basically reprising his role as Harold Hill from The Music Man).  Centauri whisks him away to Rylos, an embattled planet, where Alex learns that Xur and the Ko-Dan Armada are real, and a real threat.

The Rylosians attempt to recruit him as a Starfighter, an elite corps of fighters who maintain the Frontier against the a rogue Rylosian noble and his Ko-Dan handlers.  Alex begs off, and Centauri returns him to Earth, but when the Ko-Dan threaten people dear to him;  his mother, Maggie, and other people in the Starlight Starbright Trailer Park,  Alex mans up and saves the Universe.

Yeah, it’s a coming-of-age story, one of the oldest ever.  But The Last Starfighter accomplishes for Alex Rogan in one film what the Star Wars trilogy fails to deliver for Luke Skywalker in three.

4. Hearts In Atlantis (2001)   For a “fantastic” film, this adaptation of the Stephen King novella  “Low Men in Yellow Coats”, is unusually quotidian.  It is like Stand By Me without the body or like Children On Their Birthdays with a psychic neighbor.   Bobby Garfield lives with his widowed (?) mother and times are tight, even in the prosperous, confident early 60s.  His mother takes in a boarder, Ted Brautigan, played by Anthony Hopkins as yet another instantiation of the  Elder Gentleman With Impeccable Manners And A Secret (The Mask Of Zorro, Shadowlands, The Wolfman).

Bobby and Ted form a bond.  It turns out that Ted can see the future, read people’s minds, and move objects  around with his will.  These abilities rub off on Bobby, allowing him to impress a neighborhood girl.  Unfortunately, Ted is being pursued by the government (?), and Bobby’s mother betrays him.  When Bobby  has to choose between protecting Ted or the girl, he chooses the girl.  Ted is apprehended, Bobby regrets it,  and the movie ends.

There isn’t much more to the movie than that.  No beasties, no locusts coming out of a man’s mouth, no bloodbaths.  What there is is sentiment, not something often associated with Stephen King, but I maintain that Mr. King is one of the few writers writing today who has what CS Lewis would call a functioning chest.  There is  clear good and clear evil in the movie, and the line is drawn where an American of King’s (and my) generation should draw it; for the particular against the general, for the individual against the collective, for honesty and genuine affection against ambition and realpolitik.

Although the movie didn’t contain the references to King’s  Dark Tower myth that the novella did,  perceptive viewers would see how well it fits.  If you want to see Sir Anthony out of character, watch The World’s Fastest Indian.

5. Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji   –   This is a live action adaptation of one of the best anime series I have ever seen.  The anime series is set in the nineteen-nineties during the time of the great Recession in Japan, a time in which many young men found it difficult to gain traction in Japanese society.  The story arcs revolve around a young man in a tight financial situation who attempts to eliminate his debt by gambling, sometimes against overwhelming odds.  The anime series has a very retro feel to it, and the soundtrack is pure late eighties, early nineties Japanese punk; Blue Hearts, Cigarette Man, Street Beats, etc.  The movie moves the context into a dark, day-after-tomorrow, pre-apocalyptic Japan, pulls three or four of the more adrenaline-fueled story arcs from the anime series, then pumps up the volume.

It works.  There are emotions that the human face can register that no cartoon can render, and Gambling Apocalypse Kaiji  makes you feel every one of them.  In the end, the bad girl wins all the money, but Kaiji is allowed to keep his own soul, and the movie leaves you feeling that it was a risk well-taken.

…and earlier this month it was confirmed that Spanish actor Javier Bardem would be pursuing him, on the big screen, anyway.

I have a love-hate relationship with fantasy films.  Ralph Bakshi’s 1980 attempt at animating The Lord Of The Rings was deeply disappointing to me, so much so that I didn’t even bother to see the first film of Peter Jackson’s trilogy when it came out in 2001.    Despite my love of the genre, there have been fantasy films which have been so awful as to be unwatchable.  Eragon, for example.

I haven’t finished The Dark Tower series yet.  Even though the pace is slow and some of the episodes are gruesome, I am very, very impressed by it so far.  So impressed that I am ready to consider it the quintessential piece of American mythopoeia.    The Dark Tower  is American in a way that reworks our history.  For this reason it is violent and virginal at the same time.  There is a lot more I would like to say about King and The Dark Tower, but not now.

I hope Ron Howard is up to the task.  He is not the first director that springs to mind in adapting Steven King to the silver screen.  He is somewhat sentimental, but in this, he matches King himself.   The Dark Tower is awash with sentiment, despite its darkness.  Brian De Palma didn’t capture it in Carrie and Stanley Kubrick certainly didn’t capture it in his emotionally frigid The Shining.   Both of those films are technically superior to Hearts In Atlantis or The Green Mile,  but these two imperfect films capture King in a way that Carrie or The Shining do not.  I have to keep telling myself that Howard has some fantasy rep;  SplashCocoon, and Willow  were all good films.

It remains to be seen if the rest of the series is as well-casted.  May I suggest Ryan Gosling as Eddie Dean, and Isaac Hempstead-Wright (Bran Stark from A Game Of Thrones) as Jake Chambers?  I know Isaac is British, but isn’t Jake upper-crust New York?  It shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.

Brendan And The Secret Of Kells –

I don’t believe this little jewel got much exposure here in the United States.  Even after it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2009, it still only made it to about 100 screens.  It’s a shame, because it is breathtaking.

What I liked about the film, apart from the brilliant animation, was the seamless interweaving of Brendan’s Christianity and the pagan natural world that surrounds him.  Brendan is the orphaned nephew of an abbot, who continually warns him about the danger of the Wild Woods.  Naturally, Brendan escapes the first chance he gets, and he befriends Aisling, a nature spirit.

He is not afraid of her.

Brendan needs Aisling’s help to subdue a dragon spirit and obtain an eyepiece that will allow him to finish the magnificent Book of Kells.  Despite all the respect paid to pre-Patrician paganism in this film, I noticed that Aisling was terrified of the dragon spirit, and it fell to Brendan, the Christian, to subdue it.

Oh yes, Pangur Ban, the first among all the cats of Eire, plays an important supporting role as well.

7. Fantastic Planet (Le Planet Sauvage)  – I recently watched this film again after thirty-plus years.  I was impressed by two things; first by the overwhelming weirdness of the movie.  The animation is not crude or primitive but it owes more to Yellow Submarine and Métal Hurlant than it does to anything from Disney or anything the Japanese were doing at this time.  A lot of things happen that are not explained and leave you scratching your head and wondering what the director had in mind.

Second, this film is an excellent introduction to the world of francophone animation.  The French are great producers and consumers of comic books and graphic novels, as anyone knows who is familiar with Asterix and Obelix the Gauls,  Tintin the world-travelling boy journalist, or the guildpunk space operas of Jean Giraud (Moebius).  It was inevitable that they would make their mark in animation as well.  I decided to update my dusty memories of this film because of my recent enjoyment of The Secret of Kells and The Triplets of Belleville. It requires considerable movement outside the comfort zone to adjust to the lack of Hollywood pyrotechnics or Japanese anime conventions, but French animation rewards the effort.