Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Repo Men, Social Satire & How Reviewers Are Dumb As Posts


The other night I had the pleasure of being deeply disgusted by Jude Law removing a man's liver. Tonight I was disgusted to see that most of the reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes managed to completely miss the point of the film and give it a negative review.
I'm not surprised that a film that (literally) rips apart the brutality of private healthcare in the USA didn't do well. As a species we are more than a little squeamish about watching entertainment that speaks to us about contemporary concerns in a direct way. Witness the near total failure of recent war films about Iraq. The Hurt Locker may have won the Oscar but it didn't make any money at the box office.
But I guess I expect the film reviewers who watch a lot of films would enjoy the pleasure of the satire embedded throughout the piece, the self-referencing of action movies for the purpose of tearing them apart.
Peter Howell from the Toronto Star, for instance, writes: "The film is set in the near future, where a terrible thing has happened. There's been some kind of apocalypse, stripping Hollywood of new ideas. This leaves rookie helmer Miguel Sapochnik, as well as screenwriters Eric Garcia and Garret Lerner, with no choice but to make do with refried plot devices about heartless capitalism and mechanized humanity."
Is Howell dumb as a post? Hollywood has been making the same damn movie for thirty years. There's so little originality in Hollywood that we should shout for joy whenever something appears that isn't a remake of a TV series or film from the 60s or 70s or another Cinderella story. What's more, Repo Men stands in the tradition of satires of the caliber of Robocop. In other words, the action hero form is clearly intentional and satirical. Did these guys not pay attention to the last ten minutes of the film? It's about cultural fantasies of the hero who rescues us all as much as it is about the perils of American-style healthcare. And, frankly, I'll take "refried" plot devices about "heartless capitalism" any day over the usual horseshit about love conquering all or "try and you shall succeed." At least it attempts to engage with the lived reality of millions of people. Cinderella stories engage with fantasies that are meant to mask that reality in a way that is just insipid and stupefying.
Besides, you'd think reviewers would figure out that there was something deeper than a run-of-the-mill action film going on here by the presence of Forrest Whittaker; hardly a typical action hero. There's a strong echo of Gilliam's Brazil here, of the inside man who finds himself on the outside (and it's a reference in more ways than that but I won't spoil it). And the climactic fight scene, which was so over the top stylized and gory that only an idiot wouldn't figure out that it was meant to be a satire - and a set-up for the end of the film. It was a hilarious and beautiful send-up of The Matrix rescue sequence. Likewise the fairly erotic but absolutely bonkers sequence in which Jude Law and his kick-ass, sidekick girlfriend Anna Braga falsify the return of their overdue organs by cutting each other open and then inserting a barcode scanner.
And you can't help but laugh and shiver at the casual brutality expressed by the men whose job it is to physically retrieve the delinquent organs. The darkly comic brilliance reaches its peak when Forrest Whittaker's character borrows a kitchen knife from Jude Law during a BBQ at his house so that he can nip out front and repossess the kidney of a man in a passing taxi.
Somehow, the reviewers missed all this.
The Globe & Mail reviewer Liam Lacey was so asinine as to ask: "Surely an artificial organ could have a remotely controlled off-switch which would avoid the bloody splatter and the reason for this movie." Are you serious? Surely Alice would have broken her neck when she fell down the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Surely a man in red underwear and blue tights can't fly or see through walls. Surely the Marine operation in Avatar wouldn't depend on the ability and loyalty of one man to guarantee a resource upon which the entire earth is dependent. It's called a story as distinct from reality. And the brutal violence that made even a veteran action movie watcher like me wince and turn away was EXACTLY the point of it. It was meant to shock us into seeing the reality of privatized, corporate healthcare (or the real estate crisis for that matter). Newsflash: people die because of it and it ain't pretty. And while Lacey calls the film smirking and dully disgusting, all he betrays is that he is a sneering uptown snob with his title "Does the Hamlet set really want Saw-like gore..." as though such a film as this is beneath people with real cultural taste.
The script itself veers and bounces a bit - but for a good reason - and mostly it follows clear lines of development. The act changes are in the right place, the story is comprehensible and motivated. In the end it's a bit grim but it was so much fun getting to the grimness - wincing and all - that you're able to leave without needing a drink to dull its effects.
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