Saturday, 9 February 2013

THX 1138 (1971)

THX 1138 is a strange and rather unique sci-fi movie directed by George Lucas, his first feature film.

The story is set in the distant future in a city populated by shaven headed individuals, clad in white robes and tunics. Sex is outlawed and the administration of psychotropic drugs is compulsory in order one presumes to take the inhabitants' minds off their joyless existence and keep their libidos at bay. The stringent laws are upheld by cyborgs who are dressed a bit like motorcycle cops with metal masks. All inhabitants of the city are referred to by a series of letters and numbers, and our focus is drawn to the THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) of the title who's menial job involves the dangerous manufacturing of the law enforcing robots involving plutonium and explosives.

THX has a roomate LUH (Maggie McOmie), whose job is to maintian CCTV monitoring of the city's population, basically to make sure they are taking their drugs and not copping off with each other. However LUH herself hasn't been taking her medication and consequently forms a crush on THX. When she substitutes his pills for dudds her feelings are reciprocated and the two begin an affair. But LUH's superior SEN (Donald Pleasence) realises something is up and thows suspicion on the couple alerting the authorities to their misdemeaners.
Although there is a fair deal of hi-tech gubbins going we are mainly in the realm of a dystopian future with many references to sex crime and Big Brother. And like Orwell's classic novel 1984, the many powers and committees that oversee THX's world aren't exactly infallible. Bureaucratic errors are made on a daily basis. Many of the city's inhabitants are imprisoned wrongly for the most minuscule of crimes. And health and safety would have a field day with the lack of preventative measures in place to keep the dangerous workplaces accident free. This is not a wealthy society either. Fighting crime and punishment is on a definite budget with law enforcers instructed to give up the chase once finances go over a certain amount.

Religion also plays a big part in THX 1138. The city is littered with tiny uni-chapels where unhappy citizens can repent, confess and seek advice to the ever-watching, ever present deity OMM 0910. These portatemples resemble phone boxes and give out automated advice such as "Work hard. Increase production. Prevent accidents and be happy." Shades of Radiohead's mantra from OK Computer... "Fitter, Happier, More Productive"?
THX was released at the turn of the 70s but it was actually conceived as a student project by Lucas in the late 60s along with his friend and Hollywood sound guru Walter Murch (who provides a curious soundtrack of machines, cars, intercoms and computerised noises). It very much has the feel of a student film with a lot of art house, anger and politics as well as a strong scent of the revolutionary times from whence it was borne.
As a result it's also a bit pretentious and slightly unfathomable at times, a bit like Last Year at Marienbad set in the future. What saves it is Lucas's original vision of a world set mostly in stark, pure white. In fact you'll rarely see so much brilliant white lovingly photographed on the screen as you will in THX 1138, and for that reason it's pretty unique and worth sticking with.

It's also one of a handful of films made in the 1970s that depict future dystopias. The Planet of The Apes series set the bar for post-apocalyptic civilisations throughout the decade and Soylent Green and The Omega Man followed suit to varying degrees of success (all starring Charlton Heston strangely enough). Logan's Run also takes a lot from THX thematically and in concept.
If Orwell is a major influence on the themes at the heart of THX, then Philip K Dick is another sci fi writer who's mark is there to see. The idea of hallucogenics and pharmaceuticals being dished out by authorities to keep the public's minds sedated is an idea used in Dick's classic novel A Scanner Darkly (published after THX was released). Surveillance and levels of reality are also prevalent motifs in Dick's work, although he instills a lot more humour into the darkness than Lucas does here.

George Lucas's name has been in the movie news a lot recently but I'm trying to work out what exactly it is he does these days apart from earning pots of cash from the Star Wars franchise (although passing on the baton to JJ Abrams is a good move). Makes me wonder though what happened to the fresh faced ingenue who was at the forefront of the 70s US Brat Pack along with Coppola, Scorsese, Speilberg and all those other legendary filmmakers.

Don't get me wrong, you can't really knock the man who created the ultimate cinematic cult and revolutionised the way we look at technology in movies. But a look at IMDB shows that creative output as a film director over the years has been low and even on his more prominent production side, George Lucas's name sits next to a fair few turkeys (Howard the Duck anyone?)

THX 1138 is no turkey. It shows an original vision on a large canvas. I just wish that we'd seen more of that vision over the last 40 years.


Saturday, 19 January 2013

Hard Eight (1996)

Happy January people! I went to see The Master the other day, Paul Thomas Anderson's new film. I have to say that I found it slightly disappointing. Sure it's a very theatrical film with an amazing feel for period and costume (all those amazing neck ties, suits and print dresses!) and unsurprisingly it's top heavy on the method acting and dialogue. However for all it's style, symbolism and cinematic flourishes I thought it was lacking a little in substance and intensity... a bit like one of Lancaster Dodd's overwrought speeches, full of colour, sound and fury but signifying a bit less than that.

It got me thinking about Anderson though and his movie trajectory. His films, although sharing similar themes, have changed so much over the years. They seem to be getting more and more extreme in style and substance which can only be a good thing. His previous film There Will Be Blood was a perfect marriage of passionate film making and original vision... helped a bit by Daniel Day Lewis. I guess that's why I was a bit disappointed with The Master. I just felt it didn't have a strong enough narrative or resolution, despite an interesting left-field approach.
Anyway with all this in mind I thought now would be a good chance to revisit Anderson's first feature Hard Eight, an engrossing tale of winners and losers set around the gambling halls of Vegas and Reno.

Drifter John is sitting destitute outside a diner on the outskirts of Las Vegas when old timer Sydney chances across him and offers him a cigarette and a cup of coffee. Over coffee it turns out that John has been trying to gamble his way to $6000 so that he can bury his mother, but only has $50 left for a stake. Sydney, apparently motiveless, offers to help John by lending him money and teaching him a few tricks of the trade in how to make a little stake go a long way. Suspicious at first, John slowly lets himself get taken under Sydney's wing and before long the pair are fast friends with Sydney taking a paternal role in the relationship.

Fast forward two years and John has followed Sydney to Reno where the pair are regular faces in the casinos. He's befriended by waitress Clementine and "security" man Jimmy who Sydney takes an instant dislike to. But events are about to spiral out of control as fatal flaws in all four characters are revealed.
The stunning opening sequence in the diner sets the tone for this intimate epic. The camera work and framing are on point as is the use of music, both soupy background FM schlock and then the louder sweeping horns as John makes his decision to take up Sydney's offer. Hard Eight, like all of Anderson's films, is a character piece first and foremost and a chance for the actors to flex their muscles with some meaty roles.
The main man here is Philip Baker Hall who proves integrity personified as old timer Sydney (an role written specifically for him). On the other side of the table is baby-faced John C Reilly as John, all boyish charm and puppy dog eyes. Supporting the two leads are Gwyneth Paltrow as the vulnerable Clementine and Samuel L Jackson as the sleazy and somewhat threatening Jimmy. Jackson obviously relishes playing the bad apple in this fool's paradise and there is always a sense of unease when he is on screen. Look out also for an entertaining cameo from Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman as a drunk gambler trying to outwit Sydney at the crap table.
Anderson really has a feel for how people talk in certain situations and all the actors convincingly convey base emotions of fear, desire, love and hate with help of a great script. Indeed dialogue is king in most of the director's movies and here the scenery is fairly chewed up as the screenplay crackles off the screen. Coupled with the writing and first rate performances is Anderson's keen eye for a camera angle. He knows exactly how to use his lens, when to track, when to zoom, and when to stay put - all in service to the actors and the script. It makes Hard Eight a riveting film to watch.
Once in Vegas, Anderson's eye for realism doesn't let up. This is a Vegas with very little glitz or glamour, inhabited by characters going nowhere in some kind of ever decreasing gambling circle of hell. The Hangover it ain't. What we do have in abundance is a strong sense of morals between men, even in the face of some pretty immoral behaviour. Friendship, chivalry and selflessness are strong themes here, mostly personified by Sydney. From the outset Sydney comes across as a font of knowledge and good advice, proclaiming homespun pearls of wisdom like "Never ignore a man's courtesy." If Vegas is the wild west of gambling the Sydney is the old gunslinger rolling his last dice... obviously his old fashioned morals are set to be challenged by younger pups.
Sydney obviously sees himself as a father figure in this respect. Families, patriarchs and offspring are recurring themes in Anderson's films. Think of Jack Horner and Dirk in Boogie Nights or the fathers and sons/daughters in Magnolia who are haunted by their sins. Even Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love comes from an overbearing family of sisters.
Hard Eight has all the components of a late night movie - gambling, smoking, drinking, broken hearts, lost lives and dark secrets. The Hard Eight of the title refers to an ultimate impossible bet when shooting craps. A few characters go for it throughout the film, ironically the one who succeeds in winning on it ends up dead. Well Shackalaka-dooby-doo.
Watch Hard Eight here...