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Tuesday, 12 January 2010

My 10 Misunderstood Movies

Scum (film)Image via Wikipedia
It is a little difficult to title this list. I thought about calling it "Ten Most Challenging Movies", but this is not really true. The Woodsman and Casualties of War are perhaps the only really challenging films listed here as far as I am concerned. I have settled for "Misunderstood" because of the way I have witnessed either the general public or the general consensus of critics go in their reception of a particular film. I am also quite prepared to take an objective and self-depreciating step back, and consider that I might have missed the pain point of the film gone the wrong way too. What I am saying is that I might be mistaken as well, which still goes to show how great these particular films are in that they make the viewer think.

1. Scum

A film set in the brutal borstal system still in operation in the 1970s. Often considered to be the breakout movie for director Alan Clarke, this signalled the beginning of unresolved rift between him and regular writer, Roy Minton. The problems occurred over changes made by Clarke without Minton's consultation when the BBC TV play was turned into a TV movie for Channel 4. Clarke would go on to prove himself in his later work, but Minton should be considered the unsung hero of the piece and his comments regarding the responses the film got are very interesting.

Minton was horrified when he heard a cheer go up in a cinema as Carlin (the main protagonist) dispatched his opposite number, "Baldy", in another wing of borstal cementing his position as the "daddy". This is the notorious "Where's ya tool?" scene. All of Carlin's fights are won using complete street savvy, with him armed and his opponents unarmed (for the purists, I count smashing Pongo, the previous Daddy's head into a wash basin when attacking him from behind as use of a weapon). The scenes are some the best dramatized versions of the strategies of the philosopher samurai, Myomoto Musashi. When Carlin takes out this particular inmate he does so by using the element of surprise and finishes him with a torrent of racial abuse calling him a "coon" and a telling him to "rub some coal dust over those bruises you black b*stard". Now, I am not saying that Carlin in a hate-filled bigot. Few people make that mistake. His language is just realistic for a 1970s inmate of a high security offenders' institution and is used like a weapon - nothing personal, just survival. However, this move that hardly represents the fall of a tyrannical regime by a philanthropist. Carlin is definitely a more sympathetic character than his predecessors and even shows signs of kindness to others - the intellectual rebel, Archer, in particular - but there are examples that he is no better than any of the other thugs and puts his own selfish survivalist agenda ahead of everyone else.

2. Doubt

Doubt is perhaps one of the most intentionally thought-provoking films I have ever seen. Set in a Roman Catholic school for boys it starts as a battle between tradition and change. Then it shifts our sympathies back and forth between one character that might represent coldness and discipline, but might also hold the actual moral truth, and another that although represents openness and kindness, might be responsible for sexually abusing a boy in the school. Sister Aloysius is the severe principle of the school and sees all agents of change from ballpoint pens to secular Christmas songs as signs of the decline of morals. As far as she is concerned the newly arrived Father Flynn is embodiment of change, wishing to move the school and the Catholic Church with the times. Between the two we have Sister James, a young novice nun and teacher, who seems to represent the audience.

Doubt is perfectly titled, using a very uncomfortable subject to throw us into a position directly between the state of belief and disbelief. The nature of scepticism is at its heart and, interestingly enough, this scepticism has nothing to do with the film's religious setting. Sister James works well as a conduit for all feelings related to this middle ground. She questions Sister Aloysius's obvious prejudices that might influence a confirmation bias regarding Flynn's guilt. Having said this, it is Sister James who is first suspicious of Flynn's relationship with the new boy and when she happily accepts his explanations, Aloysius is quick to point out that she is exhibiting wilful belief without sufficient evidence.

Doubt is one of those films that won't let you rest. Like Sister James, when you feel comfortable you are suddenly hit from a different angle. This is best illustrated in the scene where Aloysius confronts the mother of the child she suspects is being abused. I won't spoil the film for you, but the mother's argument adds a completely new dimension to the whole story.

John Patrick Shanley, who wrote the play the film was based on, said that his intention was to produce a story where audiences would be left creating the final act for themselves. This is what makes Doubt so effective.

3. Once Were Warriors

Jake "The Muss" is an even less likely heroic figure than Carlin. And yet, like Carlin, he is regularly quoted around beer tables by men who fanaticize about being tough as if Jake were another Dirty Harry or Rocky. Sure he is the alpha male through and through, a position many males instinctively aspire to, as he easily physically beats any man who challenges him, and he might be the life and soul of most parties, playing his guitar and cracking jokes. However, he is no success story. Jake can see no further than the self-imposed stigma of his racial caste. He is the descendent of slaves, married to a descendent of slave-owners. He is an alcoholic and one of the worst types of alcoholic. He has no time for any of his children. Because of his deficiency as a farther, one will end up in a juvenile detention centre, another joins an infamous street gang and his daughter will be raped by one of his drinking cronies, leading her to commit suicide. Meanwhile Jake beats and rapes his own wife. The one opportunity Jake gets to be a family man is short-lived as soon as he spots a bar and goes in for a drink. In the end his only use is as blunt instrument of violence primed and pointed by his long suffering wife to inflict retribution on his daughter's rapist.

4. The Woodsman

The most ignorant criticism this film received was that it, in some way, mitigated or created sympathy for paedophilia. What it does do is bring some realism, some maturity and some undeniable humanity to this darkest of issues. As a father and a self defence coach the film challenged me to face some very uncomfortable facts. Paedophiles are not faceless monsters that strike from the shadows. When they are discovered they may be loathed and feared by the masses, but they are also friends and relations to good people and good people befriend them after discovering their terrible crime.

The Woodsman offers no potential solutions and refuses to allow either soft-soaping liberal types or narrow-minded conservatives to have their way. There is the glimmer of redemption in the character of Walter, but equally the argument that paedophiles can never be truly be "cured" is also implied. Walter is a sympathetic character, but his past crimes are never played down in any way.

5. Swimming with Sharks

On the surface it's a black comedy about a young P.A., Guy, who suddenly snaps and starts torturing his sadistic boss, Buddy Ackerman (played by Kevin Spacey). Below the surface many have seen the film as a sharp critique of Capitalism at work in Hollywood. Given Kevin Spacey's political leanings this is a fair observation. However - and perhaps I am being perverse - I see it more as a hard lesson in life, particularly the showbusiness life. As the film progresses Buddy reveals the truth about success as opposed to the naïve idea presented in the movies that Guy has been inspired by. Buddy may be a tough, self-centred and cruel boss, but given the environment and the dream that Guy really wants he is the best teacher he could have.

6. Casualties of War

Set during the Vietnam War and based on true events, this is a hard-hitting story about peer pressure and courage. When an over-worked and vengeful squad of soldiers led by an out-of-control sergeant decide to kidnap and gang rape a Vietnamese girl, only one man is brave enough to oppose the decision. It is clear that the film is about a lone individual who defends what he believes is right no matter how much he fears for his own life. However, what grips me is the character of Diaz. Diaz is essentially a good person who does cave into the peer pressure and goes along with the whole terrible crime. He asks very uncomfortable questions of the everyman.

7. Made in Britain

Alan Clarke's other classic film. It frustrates many by being another example of a picture that doesn't present "a proper ending". There is no resolution, no conclusion and no twist. A brilliant early role for the great Tim Roth, it tells the story of a nihilistic skinhead and his life of antagonism and violence against authority figures. This is a classic case of "telling it how it is" without trying to push across a straight message or preach a moral. It is uncompromising, brutal and relentless.

8. Robocop

Merchandising didn't help matters, but the original Robocop was never intended to be a superhero movie. Director Paul Verhoevan did his very best to make sure it did not end up in this territory. Robocop is a product of fascist consumerism, where a person's life becomes a corporation's property. It is a dark tale of corruption and surviving within that corruption. Throughout it we get the reoccurring line "I'd buy that for a dollar", putting across the idea of a time where everything and everyone can be bought or traded. Sadly from Robocop 3 onwards the idea became pretty much all that the original opposed, finally ending up as a child-targeted cartoon.

9. American Psycho

Based on the cult novel, American Psycho is not a horror film. It just superficially resembles one. Patrick Bateman represents all that wrong about the 1980s. Everything is about image and "fitting in", with Bateman explaining all this along the way as if it were a precise science. He has everything down pat, saying what he feels is the right thing to say about charity, clothes, music and food. Sadly its sequel clearly ignored the main crux of the film and decided it was all about a snobby serial killer.

10. Starship Troopers

Paul Verhoeven again and yet again many people infuriatingly missed the point of this film. This time the director seems to have been even more subtle than he was with Robocop. By not making this a dark film but equally as violent and gory as Robocop, many movie viewers just assumed it was an over the top science fiction movie and even felt it was patriotic. It seems odd to say this, given the genre Verhoeven chose, but this is perhaps too subtle. The whole film is a blatant satire on American militarism. The humans in the film end up just as thoughtless and animalistic as the giant bug aliens they fight.

A Final Thought

I grew up watching videos as the exciting new medium. The appeal to my generation and subsequent young generations with DVD and Blu-Ray is that we can watch films again and again. As we grow up many of us find films we still enjoy re-watching. Often these are favourites from our youth or films that we associate with a certain time of year and have become part our traditions. However, we often like to re-watch a film with a new audience to show them something that moved us in some way or other. I can't think of a better reason to re-watch a film than when it really made me think. Great films, like the Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction or The Omen, are worth re-watching because of their twists or different interpretations we may have missed on a first viewing. The films I have listed here are pictures that really prompted me, challenged me or dared not to follow a comfortable formula.

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