Filmnotes – November 2006

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Attitude – Many of us who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s (the post-Baby Boom, pre-Gen X generation) became politically aware through the music of punk rock – and libertarianism (which is after all no more than being politically and economically aware) and punk music go hand-in-hand.

Punk was a rebellion. In the U.S. it was an artistic rebellion against a staid and monopolistic music industry and an overtaxed and urban-decayed “downtown scene” in New York City in the mid-1970s. When punk was picked up in the UK a year or so later, it combined the New York do-it-yourself entrepreneurial aesthetic with rebellion against life on the dole in the English cities. The kids wanted to make something of themselves and for themselves, and grouping together around energetic, fun, lyrically-challenging music was one way to escape the growing welfare state.

“Punk: Attitude” (Fremantle Home Entertainment, 2005, 89 minutes) is the latest film by Don Letts, a black British DJ and filmmaker whose London flat was a hangout space for a group of UK kids who, influenced by the reggae music Letts spun, went on to form politically aware punk-rock bands. The film intersperses interviews of musicians, photographers, filmmakers, and journalists with live concert footage and still photography, taking the viewer through 35 years of the “punk” subculture with its various twists and turns and offshoots, its setbacks and small victories.

The chronology starts with 1960s garage rock bands in the U.S.: the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, and the Ramones, all the way through to Blondie, Television, and the Talking Heads, then on to England for the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Next comes the second generation in Los Angeles, with the band X (strangely absent from Letts’ film, even though X has proved to be the most popular American group from this generation), the Germs, and Black Flag; and in San Francisco with the Avengers (also absent, even though they were the best American political punk band, singing, “Ask not what you can do for your countr~ but what your country is doing to you”) and the Dead Kennedys. Washington had the all-black Bad Brains, who came from ultra-poor southeast D.C., and the straight-edge (no drugs or drinking) Minor Threat, from ultra-wealthy northwest D.C. Then the third generation arrives, with the grunge of Nirvana and the avant-punk of Sonic Youth. The now-popular Green Day are maybe the fourth or fifth generation, depending on who’s counting.

What I like best about punk is that it is inclusive. There were women who formed and played in important bands: Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, Siouxsie of Siouxsie and the Banshees, Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, and the all-girl Slits (whose lead singer, Ari Up, is one of the film’s most engaging interviewees). Gays were punk and punks were ga~ with Jayne (Wayne) County and the Electric Chairs and the Tom Robinson Band the most renowned. One of punk’s offshoots, the mixed-race British ska of the late 1970s (unfortunately also missing from the film), explicitly embraced the idea of black and white people living together in the “urban jungle,” and asked that people put aside their prejudices and pursue harmony.

Over time, the punk movement has become diluted and formulaic, and some subgenres are now unfortunately exclusionary, pessimistic, and self- righteous (a bit like free-market economics). But punk’s beginnings make for a story worth hearing – and, in the case of “Punk: Attitude,” worth seeing, too. – Cameron Weber

Sunshine daydream

Young Olive Hoover (Abigail Breslin) isn’t your typical beauty pageant contestant. She’s a little pudgy, her teeth are crooked, she wears big glasses (even on stage), and she doesn’t own a can of hairspray. In fact, she only entered the local “Little Miss Sunshine” pageant because she was visiting her aunt, and she only qualified for the national competition because the winner got sick.

But participating in the contest has become her dream, so when the call comes for the runner-up to step up, the whole family piles into a 20-year-old VW bus and heads to California. Along for the ride: her father (Greg Kinnear), a goal-setting motivational speaker who can’t motivate a dozen people to attend his workshops; her uncle (Steve Carrell), who can’t be left alone because he just attempted suicide; her grandfather (Alan Arkin), who reads girlie magazines and drops the F-bomb in every sentence; her teenage brother (Paul Dano), who hasn’t spoken a word in nine months; and her mother (Toni Collette), who is just trying to hold it all together.

A hit at Sundance, “Little Miss Sunshine” (FoxSearchlight, 2006, 102 minutes) embodies the best characteristics of indie films: talented cast, quirky script, tight editing, economical camera work, hilarious situations, and a human quality that lifts it above the typical ensemble road comedy. If you can handle Arkin’s foul mouth, this film is a home run. – Jo Ann Skousen

Abracadaver

“The Illusionist” (Yari Film Group, 2006, 110 minutes), an atmospheric costume drama set in 19th-century Vienna, has all the makings of a great film. It’s a hot pick at rottentomatoes.com, with a 73% approval rating from the critics. It sports two undersung talents in the lead roles: Ed Norton (“Fight Club,” “25th Hour,” “The Italian Job”) as a lovesick magician who conjures the dead, and Paul Giamatti (“Sideways,” “Cinderella Man”) as the police chief trying to prove he’s a fraud. (For the talented Giamatti, this is strike two for the year.) It also stars Jessica Biel (“Seventh Heaven”) as the aristocratic beauty who loves the magician.

Opening with a lush score by Phil- lip Glass, “The Illusionist” is an indie film with the sound of a blockbuster – when it is audible. But too much of the film is oddl~ noticeably quiet. I had to stop chewing my popcorn for fear of bothering my neighbors. And it’s slow. Ponderously slow. And cold. For what is supposed to be a passionate love story it is cadaverously cold. And predictable. It wasn’t just the ghosts who were transparent.

So let me save you some time and money. “The Illusionist” is sadly disillusioning.

– Jo Ann Skousen

Facing consequences

” A Scanner Darkly” (Warner Independent, 2006, 100 minutes), Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s 1977 novel, is a sleek, ultramodern comic book brought to life through computerized man~pulationof live-action filming. The technique allows Linklater to simulate the drug-addled paranoia of the characters, with images that constantly morph and blur. The simulated animation, while cool and interesting, distances the audience from the characters, however. I kept wanting to see the real Winona Ryder, the real Robert Downey Jr., the real Keanu Reeves, instead of their pseudo-animated copies. But that distancing from the characters is one of the main points of the story: in a world where everyone is do- ing drugs, no one is real. The film’s title comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “When I was a child, I understood as a child….Now we see through a glass, darkly.”

Keanu Reeves plays an undercover narcotics agent called “Fred,” who wears a “body scrambler” that prevents even his coworkers from knowing his true identity. He is actually a small-time drug user named Bob Arctor, who lives in a run-down house with several run-down friends. At one point he says of the house, which he used to share with a wife and daughters before drugs ruined his brain, “They ought to confiscate it and put it to better use.”

The film emphasizes the hypocrisy of a system in which agents must take drugs in order to catch people who are taking drugs, and in which a program designed to rehabilitate drug users must rely on a continuing stream of users in order to remain in business. When one of Arctor’s closest friends (played with hilarious frenzy by Downey) turns him in to the drug authorities, “Fred” is assigned to keep himself under surveillance. Already brain damaged by “Substance D,” Fred/Bob’s schizophrenic breakdown is inevitable.

Philip K. Dick faced his own demons as a drug user, and the film, like the book, is dedicated to a long list of Dick’s actual friends who died or whose brains were permanently damaged through drug use. When one character chooses to die with a copy of Ayn Rand’s “Fountainhead” on his chest, the message is subtle but clear: yes, you have the right to choose your own actions, but no philosophy of Objectivism or personal freedom has the power to free you from the natural consequences of those actions. And the natural consequence of drug use, according to PKD and this film, is misery, paranoia, betrayal, and death.

-Jo Ann Skousen

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