Tag Archives: Social Commentary

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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Political ignorance. Emotional disconnect. Reality television craze. No wonder butthurt educational administrators have tried to ban and censor ‘Fahrenheit 451’ in schools. This book predicted the 21st Century!

Guy Montag is a regular joe, occasionally prone to  sporadic bouts of philosophizing, who happens to live in an appallingly dumbed-down futuristic America where books are confiscated and burned. He should know; he’s a ‘fireman,’ whose job is not to stop fires but to start them. Guy has very rarely questioned his place in the world, his role being to destroy literature and condemn errant readers to death by the lethal injection of the deadly robot dog ‘the hound.’

One day Guy meets free-spirited teen Clarisse McClellan, and their burgeoning friendship is the beginning of an eye-opening but dangerous transformative experience for Guy. He sees what a shitty façade the so-called comfort and prosperity he lives in entails. In Bradbury’s America, people (including Guy’s brainwashed, reality-TV addicted wife Mildred) sit glued to their interactive, inane programs, people are spoonfed political rhetoric and propaganda like blind, deaf infants, and teens and adults alike express their rage and ennui by getting in a car and running over anything- man or animal- they can find.

There are definitely some similarities between the discord making up ‘Fahrenheit 451”s pages and today’s overly social conscious yet utterly socially ignorant world. It’s a quick read, lovingly written, with mind-boggling precursors to modern technology. The society pictured here takes anything stimulating or challenging from people’s ready access, and the sheep-like civilians don’t even put up a fight. Instead, people who like to read or even explore the world and themselves beyond instant gratification and inane excess are considered freaks, abnormal. and subhuman, and thus worthy of extermination by ‘the Hound.’

Everybody is unhappy, but nobody knows they’re unhappy, or why. In the style of something like “Fight Club,” violence is the only conceivable release from boredom and empty consumer culture. I loved this book mostly because of the writing. I found myself inwardly nodding to myself while reading the incisive prose, and wanting to jot down some of the things written within the slim, but potent little novel.

The world-building is also fantastic. Bradbury creates a bleak but instantly recognizable world riddled with violence, apathy, and drug addiction. People are so fixated on the devices and happy pills they have forgotten what makes them happy, much less human. They’ve certainly forgotten each other, so focused are they on their flickering, opium-soaked electronic worlds.

Although Guy is the protagonist of ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ Beatty, Guy’s maniacally evil boss, may be the most interesting out of the cast of characters. For a man who hates books and reading, Beatty is certainly well-read, and belies his disgusted attitude toward knowledge with a plethora of classic literary references and quotes. I kind of wish they had gone into Beatty’s past a bit more, a backstory that Bradbury himself goes into a bit more depth about in the afterward of the edition of the book I read.

Don’t let the fact that “Fahrenheit 451” is a ‘classic’- a double-edged term often associated with dusty bookshelves and interminable boredom get in the way of reading what is surely one of the best dystopian novels of all time, loaded with spiritual and social significance without being wordy or a drag. Teachers and parents who try to withhold this book from teens’ hands  are certainly barking up the wrong tree (though if I’m not wrong, teenagers will find a away to acquire those books and videos which are kept from them.) This is great discussion material, and much more substantial than most young adult books on the market today.

Disconnect (2012)

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Every day, untold millions of people will use the worldwide web to chat with friends, watch vines and videos, and reconnect with family. Whether Facebooking, Tweeting, or Skyping, most of these people will not see the truly bent side that sometimes lingers behind the web’s glossy facade. “Disconnect” is a movie featuring a trio of loosely interconnected stories casting the spotlight on three characters  who get a chance to experience the internet’s unsavory dark edges.

Cindy (Paula Patton) is a neglected wife who’s just suffered an unthinkable tragedy. Ben (Jonah Bobo) is an Emo teen who gets Catfished by two mocking schoolmates. Nina (Andrea Riseborough) is a reporter hungry for a story, who finds her pitch on the ‘net in a handsome male sex worker Kyle (Max Theirot.) All three people are, among other things, looking for a way to bond with their fellow man, but they all at once find themselves caught up in dysfunctional, emotionally hurtful situations.

In the wake of disaster, Ben’s father Rich (Jason Bateman) looks for the faceless perpetrator behind a devastating prank, while Cindy and her Ex-Marine husband Derek (Alexander Skarsgard) face a failing marriage and a potential identity thief (Michael Nyqvist.) Nina balances her desire for fame with her need for forgiveness, but when it comes to betrayal, how much can be forgiven?

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Sometimes didactic yet relevant, real, and so well acted, “Disconnect” might do for the vast, mysterious internet what “Psycho” did for showers. Just when you thought it was safe to log into a chatroom… The key element here, though, is not fear, but human tragedy. The cast is uniformly good, even Jonah Bobo as a bullying victim (the annoying little kid from “Zathura”- who knew!) and Alexander Skarsgard, known best as sexy vampire Eric, who- I must admit- was wooden as usual, but in this case his inert acting style fit the character.

The characters here aren’t super well-developed, but they’re portrayed with steady enough brush strokes that you find yourself liking and sympathizing with them. These are people you know. These are people you’ve chatted with, worked with, gone to school with, occupying a mundane and instantly identifiable world but fighting for their sanities, their reputations, even their very lives- their sufferings coldly recorded in the dark halls of cyberspace.

The message presented here is clear- the internet does not fill the void of a life half lived. Also, watch out, you never know who you’re sharing your secrets with in a chatroom or on a message board. It is implied by the three sad yet somewhat hopeful ‘stories’ that we are living in a society that barely notices each other, that passes over meaningful human interaction for conversations with people we’ll most likely never meet, who might not be who they say they are (unlike actual people, who are always %100 legit :P) It’s a message you might not agree with, but the movie is worth watching and pondering.

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Scarfies (AKA Crime 101) (1999)

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Take this film for what it is (an uneven and extremely low budget thriller and morality play) and you may find yourself enjoying the effective acting displayed within and bruising social commentary concerning the self-absorption and sometimes outright shittiness of humankind. It’s Danny Boyle’s “Shallow Grave” meets “Lord of the Flies” meets early Quentin Tarantino with a distinct lack of the technical verve Tarantino showed even early on into his career.

That said, this is one of the more psychologically harrowing and disturbing ‘black comedies’ of recent times. Dark humor, or just plain dark? When the douchebag college kids glue their weed-peddling captive’s lips and hands together and force him to squat with his pants pulled halfway down and shit into a bucket, I was struck by the indignity of it all. “Scarfies” remains relatively compelling despite the almost nil production values and contemptuous cast of characters because it starts out with a somewhat sympathizable ‘what would you do?’ scenario until it takes a sudden plunge into the darkest of places, where sadistic mind games and senseless violence overtake rationality and basic human decency.

The film follows a group of college students who squat in an abandoned house that incongruously has electricity. Initially they are relatively carefree, partying and drinking like there’s no tomorrow, bonding and making love and getting high. Impulsive frat boy-type Alex (Taika Waititi) uses a monumentally awful pick-up line on the object of his affections, straight-laced Nicola (Ashleigh Seagar) and coaxes her into his bed, while Scott (Neill Rea) and Emma (Willa O’Neill) make moon eyes at each other but don’t act on their mutual attraction. Graham (Charlie Bleakley) has a crush on Nicola, but waffles around it and acts generally irritating.

It’s all fun and games until the five students open and jammed-up door in the basement of the squalid building and find a collection of pot plants, all primed and ready to smoke. After a fierce debate, they sell the lot and blow the entirety of their drug money on various electronics and personal vanities. So when the dealer (Jon Brazier) shows up volatile and royally pissed at the loss of his crop, they lock him in the basement. And that’s when the real fun begins.

Movies and literature continually show that kids are scary as hell. So why shouldn’t a group of well-groomed, outwardly innocuous college youngsters be any different? It is Alex (Waititi,) however, who makes me suspect that his brain is made of bits and bobs and cogs that render him not quite a person, at least not in the spiritual sense. Despite being good-looking, calm, seemingly ordinary, and well-liked, Alex possesses the heart of killer, a sense of apathy and sadistic glee at his misdoings, and the self-confidence to coerce his frightened roommates into obedience and stunned silence.

Graham, however, while initially appearing to be a ineffectual innocuous type (pining pitifully for Nicola and crying at the slightest provocation,) proves to be the kind of guy who held your hands behind your back as you got punched in the gut in high school. He enjoys the high-stakes excitement of having a prisoner to heckle and hurt, so he follows the smugly cruel Alex’s lead in what is essentially torture, culminating in a electronic device to control the prisoner’s behavior through electric shocks.

“Scarfies” is not really a comedy, except in the sense of ironic human indecency. However, it is an interesting study of human behavior and the innate sense of self-interest exhibited by people everywhere. “Better him than me.” How many times have we innately said that to ourselves, believing that it would be ultimately preferable that someone else take the fall for us? The acting and the story are better than you might expect, and there are a few laughs to be had among the dark sense of foreboding and transgression.

If nothing else, you’ll watch to the end hoping the ‘protagonists’ get what they deserve. Taika Waititi definitely shows early promise in a precursor to his work as a director. His not only smug and self-satisfied, but (in this reviewer’s humble opinion) downright sociopathic character’s face needed punching. Make no mistake, this movie is no masterwork of cinema, but if you like cynical social commentaries that pull no punches in regards to how they view people (superior to apes? I think not!) you’ll probably enjoy this movie. Just don’t expect a laugh riot or a glossy Hollywood film.

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Scum (1979)

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“Scum” is an important and controversial example of harsh British realism charting incarcerated teen Carlin (Ray Winstone)’s transformation from wayward kid to brutal thug with the help of a “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” style correctional institution. Only this place makes the hospital ruled under the iron fist of Nurse Ratched in the classic film (a mental hospital, not a Borstal, as portrayed here) look like a trip to Disneyland paired with a ride in the spinning teacups.

The movie might as well be called “You Wouldn’t Want to be a Kid in 70’s Borstal.” It’s grimmer than grim. The facility is a horror show that includes sadistic guards with collective hard-ons for harsh discipline (i.e. abuse,) rape, despair, and suicide. The only thing worse than the “Lord of the Flies”-esque ‘Daddies’ that terrorize and sodomize the weaker children are the cruel, hypocritical, and astonishingly uncaring guards. One such ‘screw’ regards a boy of about thirteen getting gang-banged with a look of smug enjoyment on his face.

These guards, ironically, are ‘upstanding citizens’ in the eyes of the public. They go home, kiss their wives on the mouth, play with their kids and sleep easy, unaware or unconcerned that a massive crime against humanity has been  committed. Because who cares if the ‘scum’ get their human rights violated? But if the boys are scum, what does that make the men? These remorseless cogs in a system that spits out it’s incarcerated youth crueler and more disaffected than before.

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Alan Clarke directs “Scum,” and it’s a harrowing experience. No humor to speak of, few scenes of goodwill or humanity, no soundtrack sporting the latest tunes to remind us that we’re watching a movie… there’s only one scene that contains any warmth whatsoever. Resident  wiseass Archer (Mick Ford) reads a note from home to the illiterate Woods (John Fowler,) who is completely obsessed with the pet dog he left behind and her litter of new puppies. Over the moon, Woods begs Archer to read the note again, a lone relic from the outside world.

That’s it. That’s the extent of the sentiment. The psychological torture combined with the physical violence and cruelty make “Scum” a singularly harrowing experience. The lead performances are incendiary, the most impressive turn not coming from Winstone, but from Julian Firth, who plays the ill-fated Davis. Firth is simply outstanding, especially considering his youth and the emotionally painful rape scene and the resulting fallout the director subjects him to. He doesn’t break character once, and he and Toyne (Herbert Norville) are the emotional heart of an unremittingly bleak picture.

“Scum” isn’t a perfect film. It’s point (that a bleak and hopeless prison system is ultimately more destructive to Britain’s youth than just leaving them on the streets to do what they will,) seems to lack subtlety at times, especially in a scene where Archer shares a moment of philosophical discussion with a guard and in the process pretty much provides him with the entire message it’s director is trying to push. But it gets points for being fearless in it’s portrayal of a broken system, gritty as Hell, and carefully researched by Clarke, who interviewed hundreds of guards and prisoners of Juvenile Detention Centers for this film.

In many ways, “Scum” is a historically important film, and it will definitely put your life in perspective for you when you’re filled with unwanted ennui and angst. Yeah, the kids in this film screwed up, but they’re paying for it tenfold in a system that will either destroy them or release them as half the people they were before, hard and lifeless imitations of people unleashed on a world that suddenly seems much crueler and devoid of hope than it did before they went in. The director sometimes flaunts an obvious political agenda, but also has a natural ability with his actors and behind the camera. It’s a dark, dark journey, but also a valuable one.

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Benny’s Video (1992)

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Benny is fourteen years old. As you can guess from the title, he loves watching videotapes. He is the kind of quiet kid of whom his friends’ parents would say, “Benny’s so polite, Benny’s so well-spoken.” He is also a glib sociopathic killer with no mercy or compassion for anyone, a state of mind that is exacerbated by his constant barrage of violent movies. When Benny does the unthinkable, his well-to-do intellectual wannabe parents (especially his dad) treat the crime as the equivalent of a C- in algebra.

Mom and Dad are willing to protect their cretin son at all costs for the sake of their all-important reputation, but Benny ensures that he will have the last laugh in this chilling psychological horror film. “Benny’s Video” is typical Haneke; if you’ve seen any of Michael Haneke’s films, you know that means disturbing violence, static shots of absolutely nothing happening, and pointed social commentary about the effects of continual media consumption with no regard for reality.

I did find this to be significantly better than “Funny Games,” it seems to me it was a little less obvious than that film, and has more of a black humor element as Benny’s parents act bewilderingly blase about Benny’s shattering act of violence. They’re rich entitled douchebags that would implode if they acknowledged Benny had a problem, let alone that he was a remorseless killer who attributed no value to human life.

The actors do an amazing job, especially Angela Winkler as Benny’s conflicted mother. Arno Frisch ratchets up the dark and twisted as a good-looking and outwardly ordinary boy without a human bone in his body. The strangest character, though, proves to be the father played by Ulrich Muhe, who initially seems to be an ineffectual nerd but inside has the heart of a killer not unlike his son’s.

“Benny’s VIdeo” is chock-full of deeply unnerving imagery and sound effects- a woman’s hysterical sobbing as her son lies calmly on the bed next to her, stripped down to his underwear, the thrashing and screams of a pig being slaughtered in a tape watched again and again for the viewer’s enjoyment, and a young girl’s ear-piercing cries as she is shot repeatedly with a bolt gun. The images are provided not to titillate, but to depict what a existence without love and remorse might be like, and the consequences of such a half-life.

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We are also provided with commentary about media violence and how children without stability or natural empathy can be sucked in and seduced by gruesome celluloid images. Benny falls asleep to such stimulus every night, and although the bloody entertainment isn’t the only thing that’s driving him bonkers, it doesn’t seem to be doing him any favors.

Haneke has an extremely unique way of shooting his scenes. Take the part where Benny murders a girl his age who was ill-advised enough to follow him into his apartment, for instance. Most of the scene is shown through a television within the film filming the act as the onlooker watches. You can see hardly anything, and the majority of the killing occurs teasingly outside the frame. But it’s ten times more disturbing than most Hollywood violent sequences that are exponentially more bloody.

Listening to the girl shriek and kick her legs while Benny mumbles almost pleadingly, “Quiet. Quiet” is horrific, while Haneke proves you don’t have to show close-up shots and zoom in eagerly on the violence taking place to provide a truly unnerving scene. In the process, he shows that showing more of a sadistic murder taking place can actually have a desensitizing effect, rather than one evoking power or emotion.

I like Haneke’s movies but I wouldn’t want to meet him in person. I think I would be intimidated by him. “Benny’s Video” is a lot better than “Funny Games” because it doesn’t make you feel like you’re being hit over the head with a message (the message of “Benny’s Video” is much more nuanced than you might expect, considering the fervent commentary on media violence and it’s adverse effects on our youth.)

You have no characters breaking the fourth wall, no villains actually rewinding the scene to change the outcome- just a bleak, unsparing look at human evil and it’s consequences. Note the scene where Benny shows his victim the video of the pig being slaughtered. Rather than be disgusted or morally offended, she states flatly, “It’s snowing.” By painting a picture of disaffected youth at their most horrifying, Haneke also casts a lingering look into depravity and the contemptuous entitlement that exists within the upper middle class.

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The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey

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Oh, will someone think of the (zombie) children? 😛

“The Girl With All the Gifts” is about twice as good as you’d expect a novel about a wide-eyed, sensitive, lesbian zombie child with an off-the-charts IQ to be.

At first the premise threw me off- call me a traditionalist, I but I think of zombies as shambling wrecks of people who moan and groan and have absolutely no qualms about eating human flesh. They do not think, reason, and enthuse about Greek mythology. A precocious zombie tyke with a nagging conscience? Puh-leeze (to be fair, there were some of the voracious mindless variety of undead in this book too.) But further on through this odd but innovative book, I’ll be damned if I didn’t fall in love with little Melanie and her benignly waffling ‘should-I-shouldn’t-I ‘ approach to cannibalism.

Melanie isn’t like other kids, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to make connections as she navigates a cell block where she is kept prisoner in post-apocalyptic Britain. During the breakdown, millions of people died from a rampaging fungal infection and were suspended in a middling state between life and death, These ‘hungries’ soon wiped out the majority of the population, and the remaining British population has either holed itself up in the crime-ridden city of Beacon, escaped to a large research facility, or become a vicious, feral ‘junker.’

Then there are the ‘others,’ children who incongruously are neither Hungry nor human, but straddle both worlds and are used as experiments by the cure-seeking government. Enter Melanie, a bright, clear-eyed girl who loves her kind, lovely teacher, Miss Justineau (although this infatuation is less lust than hero worship.) In truth Justineau is there to gauge the children’s intellectual capabilities to prepare them for dissection, but she has grown to quite like her zombified, studious little pupils, especially Melanie, a strange child whose intelligence is only matched by her eagerness to learn.

Melanie dreams of saving Mrs. Justineau and whisking her away from the awful research facility, but it is Justineau who saves Melanie from going under the knife on the cold operating table of evil scientist and uber-bitch extraordinaire Caroline Caldwell- just in time for a devastating junker attack. On the run from junkers and hungries alike, Justineau, Caldwell, Melanie to two military men named Parks and Gallagher escape in an RV, intent of staying away from the evil that has consumed their base. Meanwhile, Melanie tries her hardest not to succumb to her cannibalistic desires.

Even Miss Justineau would be on the menu, and nobody wants that, least of all Melanie. While Parks and Caldwell seem to be somewhat archetypical (Parks is a hard, brutal military man, while Caldwell will do anything in the name of science- even dissect zombie children without anesthesia,) Justineau comes off as just plain naive at times, balking at the idea of Melanie being restrained despite Melanie’s intense yearning to devour human flesh (you can’t do that! She’s a child! How would you like to be tied up if you were a homicidal cannibalistic zombie child?”)

The book is pretty well-written, with a handful of decent metaphors and a rich vocabulary, and Melanie herself is a compelling character, once you get past her distinctly non-zombie-like affect. The science is studied- a little too studied, in my opinion; the passages on the contagion get a little long winded- but the upside of this is that the virus and it’s effects are frighteningly and acutely believable. Despite the fact that several of the main players are slightly stereotypical, “The Girl With All the Gifts” has fairly good character development, especially considering it’s genre (sci-fi/horror) and the author’s background (mostly comic books.)

Most of the novel is exciting and fast-paced, with lots of fight sequences and scenes of horror and gore, but it ultimately has it’s heart in the right place as well as teeth bared at your throat. Containing scenes of both touching tenderness and biting social commentary about those who are only considered worthy as far as they can help us move forward in society- in the name of science and otherwise, “The Girl With All the Gifts” is an easy read, but by no means a brainless one (no pun intended.) It’s intense, compelling, and sometimes scarily plausible.

A note on the movie- Hearing that Paddy Considine (“Dead Man’s Shoes,” “My Summer of Love”) was going to be in the film adaptation is the best news I’ve heard all week. But I’m a little puzzled as to why Miss Justiineau (portrayed as a black woman in the book) will be played by Gemma Arterton (“The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” “The Voices,” a lily-white actress. I like Arterton, but cannot fathom her playing a character that was written to be African-American.

Likewise, Melanie (who was described as ‘very fair’ within the first few sentences) and Gallagher (who was supposed to be a ginger) are played by African American actors. I mean, what the fuck? I know I’ll get flack for this (mix it up and all that,) but can’t the characters stay within the races the author assigned for them? Just a thought. Nevertheless, I eagerly anticipate this movie and hope it can live up to the the potential the book established. She-Who-Brings-Gifts-2

Vera Drake (2004)

Mike Leigh’s 2004 effort, Vera Drake, is sure to be controversial, but not for the reasons you might expect. Instead of providing shock value (and the blood and guts of franchises such as Saw and Hostel,) Vera Drake takes a hot-button topic and views it from a much-maligned perspective. It may make you uncomfortable or angry, but the well made status of the film is hard to deny. The eponymous Vera is a jolly 1950’s housewife who lives in post-war Britain and works cleaning other people’s homes. She is the proud mother of two adult children, sarcastic Sid (Daniel Mays) and excruciatingly shy Ethel (Alex Kelly) and wants to find a eligible bachelor for her isolated daughter. She is happily married to mustached mechanic George (Richard Graham).

In secret, Vera is an abortionist, terminating women’s pregnancies for no pay. She uses the same soothing rhetoric for every incident and is never caught. The procedure is relatively clean and safe, and as far as she is concerned she does no wrong. I didn’t always like Vera. She was blind to the implications of her acts and cheery to a fault. Yet she always tried to do the right thing. I think something horrible happened in her past, but it was never fully explained. Yet, life goes on. Vera and George find a possible “eligible bachelor,” Reg (Eddie Marsan), an introvert highly affected by the war. Vera continues her operations with women who have been  put into contact with her friend Lily (Ruth Sheen), who has untrustworthy motives. But when a near tragedy occurs, Vera is put out in the open and ages ten years in a strenuous couple of days.

Possibly more interesting than Vera are her kids Ethel and Sid. Ethel holds herself hunched and quiet, with zero self-esteem. She meets her match with Reg, who seems as unsure of the courtship as she is. I wasn’t quite sure where their relationship would go. Sid and his friend Ronny (Leo Bill) discuss post war issues and try to score a dance at a party, and Sid is the one to reasonably question his mother when the doody hits the fan.

The film has a strong sense of place. A rape scene occurs, and it is handled tastefully (as tastefully as a rape can be). Imelda Staunton gives a great performance, going from a cheery, confident woman to a slumped person who can barely drag her feet across the floor.

Vera is not a liberal Wonder Woman, a superhero who keeps her powers of cheerful strength no matter what. She is vulnerable and fallible, and she can be and will be broken.  But somehow, I wasn’t as involved the second time I watched it as I could have been. I think the director was pushing me too hard with the tragedy of it all and what a great person Vera is. That never helps. You’ve got to hand it to Sid though. With everyone else referring to  the center of the operations as “trouble” and “problems,” Sid is the first to offer the humanizing word “babies.” (Rated R.)