Three Kings (1999)

three-kings

Three Kings is a war film that’s decent yet formulaic and easy to forget.

The film follows Archie Gates (George Clooney), Troy Barlow (Mark Wahlberg) and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) as they look for a stash of gold after finding a secret map lodged in a prisoner of war’s anus – the premise is removed from reality to an extent where it loses credibility as both a war film and a piece of drama. The synopsis on the Blu-Ray case says that Three Kings is ‘a surreal comedy and a powerful drama of human compassion’. That is the problem with the film, it strives to be two things at once and ultimately fails in succeeding at either.

The foundations of its trite, formulaic narrative are laid in the film’s early moments. Gates stresses that once they get their gold from the bunker they’re getting straight out of there, but naturally their swift plan goes awry when the men’s conscience throw them into a union with the noble Iraqi rebels and a bloody conflict with Saddam Hussein’s army. This is second-rate Rambo territory, yet it gets over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes.

There are moments of style and surrealism, for example there are several scenes that show what happens to one’s innards when a bullet passes through them, the effects are terrifically grisly and macabre. The first gunfight is also in a strange, choppy slow motion that’s silent apart from loud, single gunshots. However, when the tension, of which there is some I admit, is broken by the sound of American and Iraqi rifles, there is a palpable sense of safety amongst the Americans; despite the overwhelming numbers of Hussein’s troops, I never felt that the Three Kings were truly in any danger. Even when Troy is captured and subjected to moments of nasty torture, I wasn’t particularly bothered because I knew he’d be rescued. It is Troy’s capture that, with a few exceptions, signals the steady decline of the film.

Jean Baudrillard said that ‘the Gulf War did not take place’, referring to how the United States-led coalition engaged in a war of safe distances with vastly superior technology. Baudrillard also believed that the media coverage was mere simulacrum, a sanitised recreation of events that ignored Iraqi suffering and championed US objectives. Seasoned journalist Adriana Cruz (Nora Dunn) is a personification of this, she’s depicted as being self-centred and interested only in her career rather than her subject. There’s a scene where she cries at the sight of oil slathered animals, however it’s quite apparent that she’s really mourning the absence of a good story.

Baudrillard’s notions are corroborated in exchanges between Troy and Iraqi Captain Said (Said Taghmaoui) that serve as the film’s main moments of war moralising. With Troy bound to a chair and wired with electric cables, Said tells him that his son died in the bombing of Baghdad, asking Troy how he’d feel if his daughter was killed in similar circumstances, a thought that he acknowledges as sheer hypothesis ‘Very nice for you bro, she’s safe in Arizona without the bombs and concrete’. The impact of this scene is intensified by cutaway clips that visualise their dialogue of war and death; despite Said’s torture of Troy, the scene highlights fundamental similarities between the two men, giving Said humanity. Indeed, the film succeeds in giving many of the Iraqi characters a sense of identity. Despite of all this, I felt the film was following the well trodden path of Hollywood war moralising in a rather hackneyed manner.

After what feels longer than 110 minutes, the film confirms just how formulaic it is when its farcical story is wrapped up so very neatly, it sucks out any modicum of credibility that may have remained. What’s left is a film that is by no means terrible but a rather mediocre affair with the odd flash of political commentary and explosive spectacle that has been done better elsewhere. I shouldn’t be too surprised by its mediocrity, after all who talks about Three Kings anymore? It certainly hasn’t entered the pantheon of great war films, it didn’t make the impact that The Hurt Locker did. Many would forget that the director of Silver Linings Playbook (okay) and American Hustle (hideously overrated) once made a war film, and I may do too.

64%

 

Jesus Camp (2006)

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I objected to so much in Jesus Camp that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Jesus Camp follows a group of children as they’re indoctrinated by fundamentalist Christians at a summer camp;  it is a documentary that leaves one both angry and incredulous.

At the centre of it is Becky Fischer, a fat, obnoxious egotist who serves as the main speaker at the camp. We see Fischer preaching emphatically to these young minds, permeating their innocence with fear and guilt until they cry hysterically. So ridiculous and damn risible is her fanaticism that she even lambasts Harry Potter, spouting that ‘Warlocks are enemies of God! Had it been in the Old Testament Harry Potter would have been put to death! You don’t make heroes out of warlocks!’ – clearly, a religion of peace.

What is happening here is not religion, it’s child abuse. The children aren’t given the opportunity to think for themselves, they are inundated and imbued with bigotry, absurd reactionary values and a completely zealous devotion to God. Fischer and her creepy minions are quite open about what they’re doing, she even refers to it as ‘indoctrination’ in one instance, but they see nothing wrong in it, in fact she even says – ‘I would like to see more children indoctrinated!’ When asked why she targets children, Fischer replies candidly and without shame – ‘The reason that we target kids is that whatever they learn by the time they’re 7, 8, 9 years old is pretty much there for the rest of their lives.’ 

Much of what you see is deplorable, however it truly passes a boundary when the indoctrinators use the language of violence, speaking of things such as ‘God’s army’, ‘fighting’ and ‘war’. After many children have been driven slightly mad by the suffocating mania of Fischer and her misfits, they are encouraged to manifest their religious zeal into violence by smashing mugs that represent all things satanic with a claw-hammer.

It’s this ‘God’s army’ mentality that produces the most disconcerting behaviour amongst the children. One child speaks of how she feels like a ‘warrior’ and that she’s at ‘peace’ with death; children should not be forced to contemplate their mortality like this. Her point is expanded upon by 12-year-old Levi – ‘you know a lot of people die for God and stuff and they’re not even afraid.’ If the political landscape of the United States was to descend somehow into bedlam, I could see this pernicious, extreme devotion to God becoming very violent indeed. They claim that their cause is purely spiritual, but that is nonsense, the real purpose of their dogma is to create a Evangelical overhaul of the government.

All of this incessant madness and irrationality is interrupted sporadically by Mike Papantino, the Christian co-host of radio programme Ring of Fire. The camera captures Papantino in his studio as he articulately despairs of these people, highlighting the alarming scale of the Evangelical movement and how this affects the democracy of the United States. Although I disagree with his religious views, Papantino reminds the viewer that there are normal people of faith out there that believe in the separation of church and state just like the founding fathers of their country.

Despite the input of Papantino, the documentary is, to its credit, largely impartial; directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady just let the cameras roll on their unhinged subjects. To insert their presence into the documentary and make any judgement would be unnecessary. Ewing and Grady’s documentary offers an important insight that effortlessly captures the unnerving and dangerous Evangelical underbelly of the United States.

 79%

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange

That iconic wide shot of the flatblock marina.

‘A Clockwork Orange’ is a deranged piece of required viewing that has entered the annals of popular culture.

I distinctly remember the first time I watched ‘A Clockwork Orange’. I was only 11-years-old and it was a rainy, overcast afternoon – perfect conditions for watching a film. I was aware of the film’s notoriety; I remembered my dad’s excitement when he managed to find a copy of it in France in the late 1990s, telling me that it had been banned by the director in our country.

Stanley Kubrick died in 1999, and sometime between then and 2004 a newly released English copy had been bought, presumably by my dad. With a certain degree of espionage, I managed to find the VHS and slip it into my all-in-one television and VCR player.

As soon as the stark red and blue colouring of the opening scene flooded the screen, I was captivated. The strange aesthetic and Wendy Carlos’ haunting Moog synthesiser soundtrack was unlike anything I had ever seen, I was utterly compelled by it and I knew I was watching something really special.

The film follows Alex and his three ‘Droogs’, a gang of amoral young men who spend their evenings beating, stealing and raping. Since my initial viewing all those years ago, I have realised that it was the terrific energy of the film’s first hour or so that gripped me as an 11-year-old boy. Yes, you’re watching the Droogs ‘tolchock’ and rape, however Alex’s completely unhinged life unravels on the screen with such vitality; it’s a thrillingly deranged trip that swiftly grabs and immerses its viewer like few films manage.

There is no other film that is quite like ‘A Clockwork Orange’. It is riddled with idiosyncrasies, with its gaudy costumes, futuristic interior design and particularly ‘Nadsat’, the Droogs’ esoteric language, some of which has since entered common parlance. It is also a film that truly feels British, particularly in its humour, which comes chiefly through the comments and sometimes rather slapstick actions of the eccentric central character. One of its foremost merits lies in Wendy Carlos’ wonderful score. It blends classical pieces such as Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Carlos’ Moog synthesiser renditions of  Beethoven and Baroque music including Henry Purcell’s March.

There’s no doubt that the film aestheticises violence and indeed glorifies the central character Alex DeLarge. Malcolm McDowell gives Alex an undeniable charisma that charms you, making him an antihero that you find yourself very much rooting for. During all of his nastiness he is never hateful, not in the slightest; he has that infamous sideways grin that’s menacing and amusing in equal measure. I consider McDowell’s iconic, oddball performance to be one of cinema’s greatest.

All of this, of course, poses something of a moral dilemma. As the film progresses, our charismatic antihero who has both charmed us and appalled us finds himself up against the government. What ensues appears to be somewhat dubious and confused in its stance and meaning.

Some may think the film advocates delinquency, but I disagree. The key to the film’s success is that it doesn’t give any definite answers; instead, it explores the complexities and difficulties of crime and punishment, presenting us with this dystopian vision of sheer state control. While Alex is certainly a great character, those who idolise him are far too impressionable to be watching the film.

‘A Clockwork Orange’ is a spectacular synthesis of absurd aesthetic, striking cinematography, innovative music and an exceptional lead actor supported by a strong, interesting cast. It is a piece of required viewing that’s entered the annals of popular culture.

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