8 posts categorized "Dystopia"

March 11, 2014



Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

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Taxi DriverSo much of American popular culture, and modern Cinema’s urban aesthetic, owes a debt to Martin Scorsese’s groundbreaking fourth feature film that it is impossible to imagine a world without “Taxi Driver.” From Bernard Herrmann’s haunting score to Robert DeNiro’s unpredictable anti-hero character, everything about “Taxi Driver” was innovative.

A 26-year-old Paul Schrader famously wrote the audacious screenplay for the film in less than a month after a period of living in his car in Los Angeles, when his love and professional lives had fallen apart. Schrader has described the script as a piece of “juvenilia.” Which works fine. Indeed, the seething narrative carries a quality of introspective desperation that seeps from the pores of a young testosterone-overloaded male who sees trouble in every direction he turns.

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Constructed in the popular vigilante mode of ‘70s-era American Cinema, the gritty story follows a deeply conflicted ex-Marine-turned-hack who is all too suggestible to Manhattan’s rampant culture of crime, violence, pornography, prostitution, and drugs. Robert De Niro’s repressed, racist war-veteran character Travis Bickle gets off on the disgust he feels for the pimps and drug dealers who clutter and defile every inch of 1976 Manhattan. Latent homosexual leanings lurk at the edges of Travis’s actions around women. Here is an avenging angel who wants to defile the Madonna and liberate the whore.

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Travis fantasizes about “a real rain” that “will come and wash all the scum off the streets” during his bouts of chronic insomnia, which allow him to work insanely long shifts for days, and even weeks at a time. Although there was no “post-traumatic-stress-disorder” diagnosis when the film was made, Travis Bickle clearly has what was then called "shell shock."

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Scorsese introduced the world to the underbelly of mid-‘70s Manhattan at a time when economic collapse and garbage strikes left the city covered in trash. This reality shocked audiences unfamiliar with New York’s distressed state. In actuality, New York’s violent atmosphere of crime and degradation was even worse than Scorsese’s version. For New Yorkers at the time, every journey outside their tiny apartments offered a constant threat of confrontation, mugging, or worse.

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The film’s political commentary hides in plain sight. Travis is a right-wing reactionary intent on assassinating a Democratic Senator running for President. Travis accepts his fate as a suicide mission. Travis trains obsessively for the assassination, working out in his small Hell’s Kitchen apartment and constructing a mechanism that will slide a pistol into his hand. He tests his tolerance for pain by holding his arm over an open flame.

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Practicing his moves in front of a mirror boosts his confidence. The movie embeds the viewer so deeply inside Travis’s conscious and subconscious mind that we can’t help empathize with him, regardless of how messed up he is. Here lies the genius of the film. Objectively, Travis has good qualities too. He also wants to rescue a child prostitute named Iris (Jodie Foster), though it's not his priority.

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Paul Schrader addressed the confusion regarding the film’s oblique ending as a way of returning to the beginning of the film. The epilogue “could be spliced to the first frame, and the movie could start all over again.”

Rated R. 113 mins.

5 Stars

Cozy Cole

Cole Smithey on Patreon

October 22, 2012



Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

This ad-free website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

Get cool rewards when you click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon. Thanks a lot pal! Your generosity keeps the reviews coming!

Cole Smithey on Patreon



Minority ReportSteven Spielberg's 2002 treatment of author Philip K. Dick's dystopian short story is a visually arresting murder mystery as prophetic about the obliteration of personal privacy as the story’s “precog” characters are at predicting murders before they occur.

For the film’s neo-noir look Spielberg employed a bleach bypass process to create a washed-out monochromatic appearance. The method has since been repeatedly copied as a kneejerk visual style for many other film genres.

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The year is 2054 in Washington D.C., where murder has been eliminated for the past six years thanks to a Justice Department program called "PreCrime." Think Patriot Act.


In a high-security government facility, three carefully guarded psychic humans — called precogs — prophesize murders from their semi-conscious states. Agatha (Samantha Morton) is the female precog endowed with the strongest sense of foresight.

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Floating in a saline pool, the trio’s brains are wired to computers, thus allowing the PreCrime unit — lead by Captain Jon Anderton (Tom Cruise) — to apprehend murderers seconds before they commit their would-be crime. Since the film’s release, of course, the American government has initiated preemptive wars, arrests of terror "plotters" who never got past the talking stage of their future crimes, and drone strikes that make a “PreCrime”-styled approach to domestic law enforcement seem prescient.


Anderton joined the program after the disappearance of his young son tore apart his marriage. His emotional Achilles’ heel serves as an ideal tool for the powers that be to set him up as a poster-boy killer in order to obfuscate other illicit secrets.

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In a trope recognizable to fans of sci-fi movies like "Logan's Run," precog-based evidence that Anderton will kill a victim within 36 hours sends him on the run from the same team of enforcement agents he once led. The “minority report” of the film’s title refers to conflicting intelligence among the precogs regarding their hive-mind premonitions. If there is such a conflict in the precog’s report on Anderton, it resides inside Agatha’s mind. In order to infiltrate his former workplace and retrieve the potentially vindicating information from Agatha, Anderton undergoes a gruesome eye-transplant procedure performed by a doctor he formerly helped imprison.


U.S. District Attorney detective Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell) is also hot on Anderton’s trail, as part of an investigation into potential flaws in the PreCrime program.

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Spielberg borrows elements from films as diverse as “The Big Sleep” to “Don’t Look Now” to “The Man Who Fell to Earth” to articulate his vision. The movie's combination of old and new influences energizes its believable futuristic elements. Targeted advertising follows citizens wherever they go — addressing them by name at each point of contact.

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A highly conceptual “maglev” system allows computer-controlled cars to travel vertically as well as horizontally. 3D holographic — anticipating today's Apple-created "pinch screens" — recordings of Anderton’s son and ex-wife allow him to revisit his past during a melancholic episode that resists the film’s otherwise noir aspects. Such thoughtfully designed features contribute to the film’s success as a pioneering achievement in the dystopian genre.  

5 Stars

Cozy Cole

Cole Smithey on Patreon

October 02, 2012


MasterJack of All Trades — Master of None

Paul Thomas Anderson Tries Too Hard and Not Hard Enough

For all of the over-exaggerated attention – read publicity ploy — given to “The Master’s” loose narrative ties regarding the Church of Scientology, Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic dog lacks any amount of storyline, arc, or likeable characters. The movie is a riddle not worth solving. As a high-budget experiment in avant-garde filmmaking, “The Master” is barely tolerable if not entirely watchable. Anderson’s ballyhooed process of shooting the film in outdated 70mm comes off as a needless gimmick. The look of the film might be pristine, but what’s being shown leaves much to be desired.

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The cinematic sleeping pill features an all-in performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a rudderless PTSD-suffering World War II Navy veteran who makes Mickey Rourke’s alcoholic version of Charles Bukowski in “Barfly” seem like a lightweight. Freddie has a knack for drinking anything with alcohol, including torpedo fuel and paint thinner. The year is 1950. Freddei’s Freddie is like a character right out of Lou Reed’s iconic song “Street Hassle.” To paraphrase the song, He can never find a voice to talk with that he can call his own. So the first thing he sees that allows him the right to be; he follows it. It’s called bad luck.

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In San Francisco, Freddie stumbles onto a moored yacht inhabited by L. Ron Hubbard alter ego Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The boat is headed for New York via the Panama Canal. Onboard are Dodd’s group of faceless cult followers and his loyal collaborator wife Peggy (Amy Adams), and two young adult sons — probably from another marriage. Dodd catches Freddie with a freshly made concoction of questionable hooch — Freddie poisoned some poor soul with the last batch he made while working on a farm picking cabbages. Dodd befriends the helpless scoundrel. Dodd appreciates Freddie’s animalistic nature and utter desperation. He may harbor homosexual feelings for the wacked-out stowaway. Freddie is a perfect test subject for Dodd to try out his “process,” a ritualized survey of repeated questions. “Have you ever slept with a member of your family?” Dodd asks. For Freddie, the answer is yes.

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It’s evident that Anderson is evoking a time in American culture when people had limited access to information. Wartime propaganda created a strange kind of isolationist psychology that adventurous people sought to escape. An impromptu religion based in science-fiction fantasy just might do the trick.

“The Master” is all theme and no substance. A modicum of social context and gratuitous sex hardly distract from the parlor game Anderson plays with his audience. Joaquin Phoenix’s damaged character reflects his own troubled behavior over the past half-decade so much that you wonder how much of it is just Joaquin playing himself. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s portrayal seems trapped in amber. Lancaster Dodd is such a huckster and a shyster that you can’t get on either side of him as a protagonist or an antagonist.

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As with Lou Reed’s notorious album of over-modulated feedback (“Metal Machine Music”), the audience is left to decide if the movie is some kind of bad joke, or an artistic project gone horribly astray. If you’re the kind of person who likes anti-narrative movies made up of barely connected scenes that defy all rules of dramaturgy, then you might get something out of “The Master.” All I got was bored, sleepy, and hungry.

Rated R. 138 mins.

1 Star

Groupthink doesn't live here, critical thought does.

This website is dedicated to Agnès Varda and to Luis Buñuel.

Get cool rewards when you click on the button to pledge your support through Patreon.

Cole Smithey on Patreon

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