Redbelt

Redbelt movie poster

 

Redbelt is writer/director David Mamet’s ode to jiu-jitsu, of which he himself is reportedly a purple belt. Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a struggling black belt jiu-jitsu instructor, one of the few remaining practitioners of martial art in its authentic Japanese origins. The professional combat sport association MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) has tainted the martial art with commercialism and spectacle akin to professional wrestling. In contrast, Terry is a noble warrior with an absolute code of honor, like Robert Scott (Val Kilmer) in Mamet’s Spartan (2004). Terry is a former special forces soldier, with a past in one or both Gulf Wars he does not wish to discuss. One of his favorite aphorisms becomes something that he realizes he must live up to himself: “There is no situation from which you cannot escape.” He’s a fearsome fighter, able to win a bar fight without throwing a single punch. But another of his aphorisms, “competition is weakening,” reflects his choice to teach self-confidence and reliance, not aggressive combat.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Redbelt“Competition is weakening”

Like many of Mamet’s films, Redbelt features many of his regular stable of actors: Rebecca Pigeon (Mamet’s wife, who also performed the music), Ricky Jay, David Paymer, Joe Mantegna, and a cameo from Ed O’Neil. Anyone familiar with Mamet’s films would know to suspect a character played by any one of these actors is up to some mischief, especially if the latter two are seen to be in any kind of collusion. Significantly for a playwright/writer/director known for his characteristically dense dialog, the last long sequence is mostly wordless.

Mamet states Redbelt is firmly in the fight film genre, singling out the two recent examples of Million Dollar Baby and Cinderella Man. Like the superb Spartan, it’s also something of a samurai movie. Just don’t call it a martial arts or action flick. It also includes healthy doses of two other Mamet obsessions: the long con and the corruption inherent in business. The most obvious advantage of the long con in storytelling terms is that it automatically provides a structure for a fiendishly complex plot, as it did for both House of Games (1987) and The Spanish Prisoner (1997).

Emily Mortimer and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Redbelt“There is no situation from which you cannot escape”

Mamet’s recurring theme of institutional corruption in the business world is probably best expressed in Glengarry Glen Ross (read The Dork Report review). But in his book Bambi Vs. Godzilla (2007) and movie State & Main (2000), Mamet reveals the one particular business that fascinates him the most: Hollywood. As he states in the electronic press kit included in the Redbelt DVD, moviemaking is a business like any other, but the particulars of its moral bankruptcy fascinate him. Terry is seduced by Hollywood as embodied by aging action star Chet Frank (Tim Allen). Frank first finds leverage in the fact that Terry is broke, but also recognizes that he is is secretly prideful, and seeks approval and recognition for the burden of honor he has been carrying for so long. These flaws make him manipulatable. Frank initially seems to provide the solutions to his problems, but turns out to be the precise inverse of his name: all empty promises, façades, scams, and pretense.

The two corrupt worlds of Redbelt are both hungry for meat: professional sports need fighters to run through the grinder, and the movie business eats up ideas as raw material for its product. They find both in Mike, and neither wants to pay for what they try to take from him.


Official movie site: www.sonyclassics.com/redbelt

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Children of Men

Children of Men

 

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men is absolutely one of the best movies I’ve ever seen. Two viewings have overwhelmed me with some of the strongest emotional reactions I’ve ever had to a movie. It is, at the very least, one of the best of 2007 (along with Pan’s Labyrinth and United 93), and everything the similarly-themed V for Vendetta could have been.

Children of MenThis coffee packs a wallop

The movie opens nearly two decades after the last human birth. Mass infertility is a terrifyingly plausible sci-fi trope in 2008, with looming climate catastrophe, increased rates of autism and allergies, and the imminent threat of a globe-spanning contagious disease outbreak like SARS (a fictional flu pandemic is alluded to in the film). As the infertility remains uncured, so too is it unexplained for the audience. The best science fiction avoids pedestrian pseudo-science that tends not to date well (2001: A Space Odyssey being the exception that proves the rule). The most detail we learn is that women are infertile, and we can assume that cloning and artificial insemination of frozen eggs have failed. So by the time the film opens, the harsh fact that the human race is doomed to slowly die out is a given, and has reduced the world’s societies into chaos. Only Britain has been able to survive, to a point, using only the harshest totalitarian methods. In propaganda commercials glimpsed throughout the movie, Britain congratulates itself for the fascism that makes it possible to carry on; but is this kind of survival worth the price?

Immigrants flood the only country with some semblance of stability, fleeing unspecified atrocities abroad. All we learn of the United States is of a vague catastrophe in New York creepily referred to only as “it.” Immigrants are demonized as “fugis” (for “fugitives,” perhaps punning on the derogatory British slang “paki” for any and all Middle Easterners) and penned in concentration camps. Many shots explicitly allude to infamous images of captive enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay. Several of the fugitive voices we hear are German, causing one to wonder just what exactly may have happened in Germany, and if it may have been something we have seen before in human history. My German is non-existent, but If I’m not mistaken, we overhear one captive German woman bitterly complain to her guard for being locked up in a detention cell with black people. It’s not a pretty picture of human nature, that at the worst of times, the worst of us comes out.

Children of MenAt gunpoint is one way to reconnect with an ex

The five credited screenwriters, usually a bad sign, have done an extraordinary job of adapting the original novel by P.D. James (who, according to IMDB, has an uncredited cameo in the café bombed in the opening moments of the film). I don’t know if I would go so far as to say the movie is “better” than its source material, but it is certainly more visceral and emotionally affecting to a post 9/11 audience. As an adaptation, the many changes are justified and benefit the translation to a different medium and time. Most significantly, the chronology is condensed from months to days, and the relatively polite insurrectionist group The Five Fish has become a full-fledged terrorist organization called simply The Fish. Theo (Clive Owen) is younger, and no longer living a life of wealthy ease. He’s a gambler and alcoholic, and his original motivation to help The Fish is raw money. His cousin Nigel (Danny Huston) is not the all-powerful Warden of England of the book, but rather merely the effete guardian of the Ark of the Arts. King Crimson’s dramatic Mellotron dirge “In the Court of the Crimson King” fittingly accompanies Theo as he visits Nigel, passing into a walled city that separates the privileged elite from the working masses outside (Naomi Klein predicts the future dominance of such places in the DVD bonus features). The Ark is a pointless quest to archive the world’s great works of art, including everything from Michelangelo’s David, Picasso’s Guernica, to Pink Floyd’s inflatable pig.

Children of MenCrying babies don’t usually have this effect on people

Several mind-bendingly impossible tracking shots grace the film, so fluid and justified by the action that the mind barely registers a lack of cutting. There is an incredible level of detail in the art direction, but as Cuaron declares in the DVD bonus features, the goal to was be the “anti-Blade Runner.” Two decades hence, technology has marched on only to a degree. What’s the point of innovation in fashion, automobiles, and consumer electronics when the human race is doomed to extinction? Eerie sights include fields of burning cattle corpses (possibly due to mad cow disease, or more likely the simple fact that the farming economy has collapsed), abandoned and crumbling schools, and the prominence of dog racing as the sport of choice in a world with fewer and fewer fit young people every day.

Children of MenThe Human Project is real

Children of Men may be a punishingly bleak vision of the future, but there is hope to be had. Theo is a broken man resolved to a slow death, both his own and of his species. But there is something special within him; his former lover Julian (Julianne Moore) trusts him over everyone else to do the right thing when presented with a gift of hope: the first human child in two decades. Even animals are drawn to him, including dogs, kittens, and deer. His friend Jasper (Michael Caine) praises the Hindu Peace Mantra, which also appears as an epigram after the credits (over the sound of children playing), and bears repeating here:

Shantih Shantih Shantih

Official movie site: www.childrenofmen.net

Must view: Daily Film Dose’s Greatest Long Tracking Shots in Cinema, including Children of Men.

Must view: a reel of fake adverts made for the film by Foreign Office Design (via Kottke.org)

Buy the DVD from Amazon and kick back a few pennies to The Dork Report.