Saturday, June 15, 2013

Movie Reviews-The Purge, Parker, Luther Season One

The Purge
directed by James DeMonaco
I was born in, well never mind, but fortunately I missed the more explicit and violent eruptions of racism. One of my parents grew up under Southern segregation. Earlier generations had to watch their step very carefully because at any second the white Americans they lived around could with virtual impunity harm them or start a pogrom, riot or lynching. Law enforcement and the justice system would usually ignore any crimes committed against black people. Such actions weren't uncommon from the 1880s through the 1940s and only subsided recently, historically speaking. I tend to be a vibrant - some would say tiresome - defender of the right to keep and bear arms because of this history. But today the greatest danger doesn't come from a majority tyrannizing a despised minority but rather from individual criminals of all races, who, filled with self-hate, anger or greed don't mind taking their frustrations out on each other and any law abiding citizen, regardless of race, who either has something that they want or is unlucky enough to take a wrong turn in a bad neighborhood. If you ever read the comments on any Yahoo news story featuring a black subject, you will realize that the sort of eliminationist and supremacist rhetoric that  was once openly expressed in American society hasn't left. It's just not publicly acceptable. But if some had their way, we'd have death camps for criminals, particularly non-white ones. 

The Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson argued in his book Rituals of Blood, that the various atrocities which black people once endured had almost religious sacrificial overtones for the white racist community. Socially sanctioned violence gave them unity and provided a societal scapegoat. This was also true of the Jewish community in German and European society. Without such scapegoats, the majority society would turn on itself. Believe it or not this reasoning is not as far fetched as you might think. In a book I recently reviewed, The State of Jones, a postbellum southern white politician made a serious argument that without the ability to use black women as concubines, prostitutes or rape victims, white men would be forced to slake their lusts on white women, thus leading to more white prostitution, which would be a bad thing.

The Purge is not explicitly about race but it definitely makes some slight allusions to the sordid history I've referenced above. I think that it didn't want to make a specific "race" story but the undertones are all there just the same. The Purge would have been a stronger film had it fully embraced the racial/class underlying framework.

In 2022 America crime and unemployment have fallen dramatically. There seems to have been either a coup or new constitutional convention. People speak of "Our new Founding Fathers". A new law is that once a year, for exactly 12 hours, anyone can commit any otherwise illegal act, and not be arrested, sought after, convicted or sentenced. This called "The Purge". It is something looked forward to by those who seek to settle scores or just engage in morally dark behavior. The Purge is legally race and class neutral but in practice it may hurt the poor and non-white more than the rich and white as those who fall in the second group can more easily protect themselves with gated communities, top notch security systems and lots and lots of guns. There's a hint that The Purge is not designed so much as to release individual frustrations as it is to be a hunting season on undesirables. Perhaps the reason that crime and unemployment have fallen so much is that there are fewer undesirables. See Bill Bennett's comments.

James Sandin (Ethan Hawke) is a happily apathetic home security salesman who has made a fortune selling home protection systems to his upscale neighbors. He has a wife Mary (Lena Headey) and two children Zoe (Adelaide Kane) and her younger brother Charlie (Max Burkholder). His children lack appreciation for the good life that James provides. I found each child somewhat annoying. Charlie is a creepy kid who constantly voyeuristically sends his automated camera throughout the house checking on everyone. Charlie, you're looking at your Mom's behind. You might have some issues, kiddo. Zoe is feeling her oats as a sexually liberated teen who thinks she's grown. Mary has noticed that their Stepford Wife looking neighbor Grace (Arija Bareikis) seems a little put out by James' success. Grace has the ability to threaten and insult while smiling. It's unsettling.

James and Mary reluctantly support The Purge as necessary though each says they would never kill anyone. Neither of their children agrees with The Purge. As they are each convinced they know better than Daddy each child makes a mistake that allows the family home to become compromised during The Purge. Charlie acts from moral concerns while Zoe acts out of lust but hell, good intentions and all that. The film then veers into Straw Dogs/Death Wish territory as the competent but hardly intimidating James is forced to deal with some Purge participants who are highly upset with him and by extension his family. He also must make some very hard moral decisions. The film gives a muddled critique of utilitarianism.

This is a pretty tight film running just around 85 minutes. The film works because of the short running length and limited location. It does a great job at ramping up the paranoia and fear. How hard is it for people to get into your home? How many entrances/exits are there? Are there any secret exits or panic rooms? What would you do were someone trying to get inside against your will?

You may think you know what you would do in dangerous times but the reality is unless you're a trained professional or have been through some serious stuff before you don't really know. Could you really kill someone to protect your family? If you were a non-Jew during the Holocaust would you really hide a Jewish person in your home? Would you risk your life to stop a lynching back in the 1890s? Would you put your life at risk to do the right thing? What about your family's lives? Well some of us would and some of us wouldn't. As I mentioned before, with the exception of a few hints (the man slated for termination is black while his white chief tormentor reeks of preppy privilege and speaks in Social Darwinian terms), the film avoids open race/class issues. By staying neutral The Purge can simultaneously appeal to both right and left fears of interventionist government and crime. It can also be enjoyed solely as a home invasion movie. Is James a class traitor liberal who needs to stick with his own people or is he a brave one man majority standing up against fascism?

If nothing else The Purge will make you check that your doors are locked, your guns are easily available and your kids do what the **** you tell them to do. Were I the sort of person who yelled at movie screens I would have yelled at the Sandin kids. If you are into conspiracy theories you might argue that the principles of The Purge are already being adhered to in the blase indifference to the slaughter that is going on in some inner cities. 


directed by Taylor Hackford
Okay, this is not a remake of Mel Gibson's Payback though you might be forgiven for thinking so. It is however an adaptation of a similar story featuring the same character in Payback by the author (Donald Westlake) who created the source material for Payback. I like Westlake though it looks like I haven't gotten around to sharing my impressions of his work here. Too many books to discuss and not enough time. Anyway he was a famous crime fiction novelist. If you're interested you can read more about Westlake here and here. Parker, the titular character and Westlake's most famous anti-hero is not really a nice guy. He robs and kills with no remorse. The one thing he doesn't normally do is kill for fun, unnecessarily or kill someone who doesn't have it coming. He has a code which he lives by and insists that anyone working with him does as well. This is emphasized slightly more in the Parker movie than it was in the Payback movie but in either version, you don't want to deal unfairly with Parker. Stick to the deal and you'll be okay. Break the deal and God help you. And Parker couldn't really give a flying f*** who you're related to, who your friends are or with what organization you're affiliated. If those people know what's good for them they'll stay out of his way. The best way not to get hurt and hurt badly is to stay out of Parker's way. Obviously if more people took that wise advice there wouldn't be much of a movie so here we are.
Parker (Jason Statham) has masterminded the robbery of an Ohio fair. The take is good, a little over a million dollars, but since the team included five guys who all get equal shares, it's not exactly going to put them all on easy street. Parker is also annoyed that one of his team members bungled an assignment and caused some people to get hurt and to die. Parker doesn't like it when things don't go according to plan. In flashback it's revealed that this robbery was a deal Parker undertook on behalf of his father figure Hurley (Nick Nolte). Parker is in a long term relationship with Hurley's daughter Claire (Emma Booth). Claire knows what Parker does and would prefer he didn't live that life. But she's long since given up trying to change Parker's mind about anything.

So Parker is ready to split the cash and say adieu to his erstwhile comrades. One of them, Melander (Michael Chiklis) says he has another heist planned but that he needs everyone's cut to invest in it. Evidently he's already spoken to the other goons and they've all agreed. They just need Parker's buy in. Showing the stubbornness which is both his greatest strength and greatest weakness, Parker declines. He does so even though he is sitting in the back seat of an SUV with armed men. He's just that tough you see. Parker doesn't break his code for anyone. Of course fireworks break out and even though Parker leaves some wounds for the group to remember him by he is shot multiple times and left for dead.
In something of a running gag throughout the movie it'll take more than being shot and jumping from a moving car to stop Parker. He survives. He leaves the hospital, robs some people to get some seed money and talks to Hurley to find out what happened. As it turns out the group that robbed Parker is planing a heist in Palm Beach. One of the group members is also connected to the Chicago Outfit, which sends some people looking for Parker AND anyone who likes or loves Parker. The Chicago Outfit doesn't play by the same rules as Parker. If kidnapping or killing his girlfriend is the most effective way to make Parker back off, or better yet, come in from the cold, then that is what they will do.

Undeterred, Parker heads for Palm Beach to track down the people who stole from him. There he is assisted, at first unwillingly and unwittingly but later enthusiastically by Leslie Rogers (Jennifer Lopez) a ditzy real estate agent who evidently is not a very good saleswoman. She is only a few weeks away from having her car repossessed. She's getting over a bad divorce. She lives with her mother. Lopez is comedy relief here. I thought her a little stereotypical as she does just about everything but scream "I don't know nothing bout birthin' no babies, Miz Scarlett!!!". I think Lopez and Booth should have switched roles. Anyway there is equal opportunity for male and female ogling as the camera lingers lovingly on Statham's musculature and Lopez's curves (which seem to have gotten fuller). The movie is violent, but mostly in a cartoonish way. I have never been shot but from what I understand, it hurts a LOT and can make a grown man scream in pain. Shooting Parker MIGHT slow him down a bit and grimace but that's about it. Shoot him, stab him, beat him, kick him but you'll never stop him or make him cry. He's like the Energizer Bunny with roid rage.

If you like Statham movies you know what you're going to get here, as I've described elsewhere. So it's consistent. If you like action movies, check this out but don't expect anything special. If you don't like action movies, then you won't watch this and won't miss much. Bobby Carnavale, Wendell Pierce, Clifton Collins Jr. and Patti Lupone also star.

Luther Season One
created by Neil Cross
The most interesting thing about Luther is not that it's a detective procedural with a black man as the lead but rather that Idris Elba, who was probably initially known to many American television viewers -especially black ones- as the tall, dark, handsome and deadly Stringer Bell on The Wire, is indeed, despite his name and his unimpeachable American vocal stylings on The Wire, a thoroughly British man. Watching Luther, in which Elba presumably uses his natural accent to play the titular character, is to be amazed that Elba ever could have convincingly played Bell in the first place. But that's why they call it acting. It's a minor point to be sure but it blew my mind. The other difference between Luther and some American crime dramas is the seeming realness of the actors. With some exceptions (Elba and Indira Varma) the actors who make up the world of Luther are not super attractive. Most of them are average looking with a few who are outright unattractive, just like in real life. There are no gods or goddesses slumming in this series. Regular looking and even ugly people get laid too you know. That's why there's ugly people in the world in the first place. This adds to the show's verisimilitude in my opinion. Let's just be real here. Not everyone wins the genetic lottery. Also the "good guys" don't always win in Luther. Sometimes they can't stop a killer before he strikes again. Sometimes they miss things. It's a testament to Luther's actors and writers that they can take pretty old tropes and find new ways to make you care about the characters. Lastly race is not an issue at all. That would never be the case in an American series would it?

Anyhow Idris Elba plays Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) John Luther. Luther is a complicated man indeed and no one understands him but two women. One of these women is his beautiful but estranged wife Zoe (Indira Varma). Zoe used to be excited by and attracted to Luther's single mindedness and intensity but feels that his work has stolen all of the joy out of their marriage. Luther is introduced chasing a pedophile killer. In a season long theme which grows and expands in some intriguing ways Luther has the psychological gift of being able to think like a criminal and outsmart many criminals. Unfortunately the flip side of this gift is that he is in constant struggle to keep the darkness in himself under control. Given the opportunity he could very easily become a vigilante or death squad killer. He also has a bit of a temper. Oh yes, about that pedophile. Luther has physically maneuvered/defeated him so that the killer is hanging on for dear life to a beam roughly 40 feet above ground. But Luther won't help him up until the killer tells him where his latest victim is. The scumbag is slipping fast and gives up the info. Luther waits for confirmation that girl is where the killer said she was (where Luther also surmised she was) before starting to help the killer to safety. Or maybe not. Luther watches (and nudges?) as the killer falls to what should have been certain death. This is deliberately left ambiguous so that the viewer may make up his own mind. The criminal is in a coma after his fall. Luther is temporarily suspended from his unit but eventually welcomed back by his no nonsense boss Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves) who has thus put her own reputation on the line. Her role is minor but needed. She's kind of like Captain Dobey on Starksy and Hutch. She yells at Luther and tries to rein in his determined rule breaking but will occasionally turn a blind eye. Luther knows which orders to obey and which ones to pretend he didn't hear.
Shortly after his return Luther meets the other woman who understands and accepts him completely, the sociopathic Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson). Alice is similar to Luca Brasi, if Luca Brasi were a slight redheaded British woman with genius level understanding of physics. Alice's parents are brutally murdered, along with the family dog and it is no spoiler to reveal that Luther strongly suspects that Alice did it. It may be the perfect crime as there isn't any physical evidence on first glance. The two spar, bringing all of their considerable intelligence to bear on each other. Alice is like Luther in that she doesn't have a lot of respect for laws or rules, considering herself beyond them. But the same intelligence that allowed Alice to become one of the country's foremost astrophysicists at an impossibly young age, has made it out of the question for her to feel empathy or sympathy for people, with the possible exception of one John Luther. With a great deal of effort she can fake emotions but she'd rather not do so. To her people are just meat. This core difference both attracts and repels Alice and Luther to and from one another.

Brought back into his unit, Luther re-establishes his friendship and working relationship with DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) and DCI Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh). Although these men are very different from Luther and each other, they are great friends with Luther. Ripley is younger and has more of a mentor relationship with Luther. But Ripley strongly prefers to operate aboveboard and by the book. He means to stay within the law where ever possible. Ripley doesn't appreciate some of Luther's actions which make him choose between friendship and the letter of the law. Reed is Luther's age or older. He also has a flexible approach to police work. He's been divorced on three separate occasions. Reed can usually be counted on to have Luther's back when the chips are down.
One person who does have a very strict approach to the law is DSU Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley) who has been given orders to watch over Teller's unit and investigate rumors of corruption or brutality. He is usually very quiet and polite. But don't lie to him and don't make him mad. As he tells Luther he thinks Luther is a good cop. But if Luther is brutal or dirty he'll put Luther away for decades and not miss any sleep because the law is the law. He may not be Inspector Javert but he's close enough. He notices things people other people don't. He's not a physically impressive man but his mind is relentless. He doesn't let things go.

Rounding out the major cast members is Mark North (Paul McGann), the new man in Zoe's life. Obviously he doesn't much care for Luther but confrontation and beating up people, let alone cops is just not his style. Luther is most definitely not ready to let Zoe go while Zoe herself might be willing to return. So North and Luther have tension throughout the season. 
Elba's Luther is a man viscerally sickened by major crimes and his ability to understand the people who commit them. He's eaten up by this. He may even be suicidal. His job obsesses him. This is not quite an action series though there is a normal amount of violence. It really is more about what violence does to people internally. The show's been nominated for and won a few Emmys/Golden Globes so there's that. If you decide to watch this though, please don't go in thinking there will be lots of shootouts and the like. Psychological drama. I was impressed with the story of failed love between an otherwise decent man who just happens to be a serial killer and his clueless but secretly adulterous wife. There's someone out there for everyone even if it may not be the person they're currently seeing. I really liked the theme music by Massive Attack. This only had six episodes but they are long.

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