Scenes I Love: Dredd


Dredd

It’s been a year since Through the Shattered Lens lost one of it’s own: Semtexskittle.

In honor of his passing I’d like to share one of the films he and I share a love for. I think he may have been one of the few who truly wanted this film to be nominated as one of the ten films picked for Best Picture for the year it came out. While the Academy voters were sorely shortsighted for not nominating the film, it still remains one thing Chris shared with everyone at the site. Whether it was his love of sports, anime, video games and everything in-between.

We all still miss you, Chris.

Playing Catch-Up: The Stanford Prison Experiment and The Tribe


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The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir by Kyle Patrick Alvarez)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells a true story.  It’s important to point that out because this is one of those films that, if you didn’t know it was based on a true story, you would probably be inclined to dismiss as being totally improbable.

In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted a psychological experiment at Stanford University.  A fake prison was built in the basement of a campus building, complete with cells and even a room to be used for solitary confinement.  15 students volunteered to take part in the experiment.  For $15.00 a day, some of the students were randomly assigned to be prisoners while others got to be guards.  The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks but Zimbardo ended it after 6 days.  Why?  Because the students had started to the take the experiment very seriously, with the guards growing increasingly sadistic towards their “prisoners.”  Afterwards, many of the prisoner students claimed to have been traumatized while the guard students felt they were just playing a game.

(As one of the guards says in the film, “Am I still going to get paid?”)

The Stanford Prison Experiment tells the story of that controversial experiment and it is, at times, quite a harrowing experience.  Interestingly, when the film begins, the focus is on the prisoners.  I immediately noticed that Ezra Miller was one of the prisoners and, being familiar with his work in Perks of Being A Wallflower and We Need To Talk About Kevin, I naturally assumed that the majority of the film would revolve around him.  After all, among the actors playing the prisoners, Ezra Miller was the “biggest name.”  And, when the film began, it did seem to be centered around Miller’s likable and rebellious presence.

But then something happened.  Miller faded into the background.  In fact, all of the “prisoners” faded into the background and the actors became almost indistinguishable from each other.  Instead, the film started to focus on one of the guards.  Outside of the prison, Christopher Archer (Michael Angarano) is a laid back and rather amiable California college student.  But, once he shows up for the night shift, Archer starts to talk about all of the prison films that he’s seen.  He starts to speak in a Southern accent.  He says stuff like, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”  And soon, Archer is making the rules inside the prison.

In much the same way that Christopher Archer takes over the experiment, actor Michael Angarano takes over the film.  While Zimbardo and his colleagues watch Archer’s actions with a mix of fascination and fear, the film’s audience becomes enthralled with Angarano’s intense performance.  Wisely, neither Angarano nor the film allow Archer to turn into a cardboard villain.  He’s not a bad guy.  Instead, he’s playing a role.  He’s been told to act like a guard and that’s what he’s going to do, regardless of whatever else may happen.  The most fascinating part of the film becomes the contrast between Archer the likable student and Archer the fascist authority figure.

It’s frustrating that more people didn’t see The Stanford Prison Experiment when it was released in 2015.  Considering the blind trust in authority that is currently so popular in certain parts of the American culture, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a film that a lot of people really do need to see and learn from.

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The Tribe (dir by Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy)

Anyone who says that they truly understand everything that happens in the disturbing Ukrainian film The Tribe is lying.  Taking place at a school for the deaf and exclusively cast with deaf actors, The Tribe is a film where everyone communicates in Ukrainian Sign Language and there are no subtitles.  However, the actors are often filmed with their back to the camera and occasionally, their hands are out of frame so, even if you do know Ukrainian Sign Language, there’s still going to be scenes where you have no idea what anyone is saying.

And it’s appropriate really.  The Tribe is a film about alienation and, by refusing to give us either an interpreter or subtitles, it forces the audience to feel the same alienation that the film’s characters have to deal with on a daily basis.  It quickly becomes obvious that these permanent outsiders have created their own society and the least of their concerns is whether the rest of the world understands it.

What can be learned about the film’s story largely comes from the body language of the actors and the audience’s own knowledge of gangster movies, which is what The Tribe basically is.  A new student at a boarding school for the deaf is recruited into a gang that deals drugs and pimps out two female students as prostitutes at a truck stop.  When the new student falls in love with one of the girls, it leads to some truly brutal acts of violence, all of which are somehow made more disturbing by the fact that they take place in total silence.

(The talkative criminals of most gangster films allow audiences to focus on something other than the violence.  When people talk about the opening of a film like Pulp Fiction, they talk about John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson talking about Amsterdam.  They don’t focus on the guys getting gunned down in their apartment.  In The Tribe, there are no quips or one-liners before people are hurt and we are forced to pay more attention to the consequences of brutality.)

The Tribe is made up of only 34 shots.  The wide-angle lens forces us to consider these alienated characters against the barren Ukrainian landscape and the camera constantly moves with the characters, tracking them as closely as fate.  Intense and dream-lie, The Tribe is a hauntingly enigmatic film.  It’s not an easy film but it is a rewarding one.

Back to School #68: Juno (dir by Jason Reitman)


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(SPOILERS BELOW)

Even though he’s a likable actor and has appeared in several films that I enjoyed, I am always a little bit uneasy whenever I see Jason Bateman on screen.  To me, he will always be Mark, the seemingly perfect husband from the 2007 best picture nominee Juno.  Mark and his wife Vanessa (Jennifer Garner) are unable to conceive so they agree to adopt the unborn child of pregnant teenager Juno (Ellen Page).

At first, Mark seems like the nicest guy on the planet.  Unlike his wife, Mark appears to be laid back and friendly.  Whereas Vanessa tries to maintain a polite distance between herself and Juno, Mark quickly befriends her.  It’s a familiar dynamic.  Vanessa is the one who keeps the household running.  Mark is the one who keeps the household fun.  Vanessa is the adult and Mark is the guy who is young at heart.  It’s not surprising that Juno finds herself feeling closer to Mark than to his wife.

Much like Juno, those of us in the audience are initially fooled into preferring Mark to his wife.  For me, the first indication that Mark was not quite the great guy he seemed to be came when he attempted to convince Juno that Herschell Gordon Lewis was a better director than Dario Argento.  But even that could be forgiven because, as Mark made his arguments, he revealed that he had a pretty good library of DVDs from Something Weird Video.

(Seriously, at that moment, I really hoped that the movie would just spend five minutes letting us see every title in Mark’s movie collection.)

But then there was that moment.  After telling Juno that he was planning on leaving his wife, he looked at her and asked, “How do you think of me?”  And I have to give Jason Bateman a lot of credit.  He delivered that line with just the right amount of needy selfishness.  It’s rare that you see an actor — especially one who has essentially built a career out of being likable — so fully commit to playing a reprehensible character.  When Mark reveals his true nature, it’s shocking because we were so ready to like Mark.  With that one line, we’re forced to re-examine the entire film and we realize that, much like Juno, we allowed ourselves to be fooled by Mark.

Juno is a film about growing up.  Vanessa is a grown up.  Mark refuses to grow up.  And, by the end of the film, Juno has grown up enough to know that she’s not ready to be a mother but Vanessa is.  Juno has grown up enough that she can allow herself to get close to the baby’s father, sweet-natured track star Paulie (played by Michael Cera).

For many people, Juno seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it type of movie.  There rarely seems to be a middle ground.  It seems that for every person who appreciates Ellen Page’s sardonic line readings, there’s another one who finds her character to be abrasive.  For every one who enjoys Diablo Cody’s script, there seems to be another one who finds it to be overwritten.  The same holds true for Jason Reitman’s direction.  Viewers either respond to his quirky vision or else they dismiss him as being far too showy for the film’s own good.

As for me, I’m firmly and unapologetically pro-Juno.  I think Juno is one of the best films of the past ten years and I think that, eventually, both the character of Juno and Ellen Page’s performance will be viewed as being iconic.  When future historians are watching movies for clues as to what it was like to be alive during the first decade of the 21st Century, Juno is one of the films that they will watch.

And when they do, hopefully, they will understand that Jason Bateman was just an actor giving a good performance as a bad person.

Quickie Review: Dredd 3-D (dir. by Pete Travis)


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“Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos: The men and women of the Hall of Justice. Juries… Executioners… Judges.” — Judge Dredd

In 1995 there was a little sci-fi/action film called Judge Dredd that was one very anticipated film by fans of the title character. Judge Dredd was one of those comic book characters who was beloved by the hardcore comic book fans (and British readers worldwide). When news broke that the character was going to get his own film adaptation there was rejoicing but then the first shoe dropped. Sylvester Stallone will play the title character and worse yet he will have a sidekick in the form of one Rob Schneider. Even with this casting news there was still hope the film will at least do the property justice. I mean how can one fuck up an ultra-violent comic book that was tailor-made to become an action film. Well, let’s just say that the filmmakers involved and everyone from Stallone to Schneider all the way to the veteran Max Von Sydow failed to deliver a bloodsoak look into a dystopian future with a no, nonsense lawman to police the streets of Mega-City One.

So, it was a surprise when there was an announcement that the character  will get another film but a reboot instead of a sequel. It seems everyone who had a stake in the Judge Dredd property wanted to forget the 1995 Stallone version. I couldn’t blame them for this decision. Out goes Stallone in the title role and in his place is Eomer himself, Karl Urban to don the iconic Judge helm. He would have a partner in the form of Judge Anderson (who’s a rookie in this reboot and it’s through her eyes that we get to learn the rules of the Dredd world) as played by Olivia Thirlby. The reboot was to be helmed by British filmmaker Pete Travis using a screenplay by Alex Garland (28 Days Later and Sunshine) and was simply titled Dredd and would be filmed in 3-D.

There was trepidation about the film and rumored on-the-set differences between Pete Travis and Alex Garland marked the reboot as a troubled film at best and a dead-on-arrival at it’s worst. When the film finally made it’s premiere at San Diego Comic-Con 2012 the reaction from attendees who saw the film was a near-unanimous praise for it. The same could be said for the reaction of those who saw it two months later at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was being called a film that was a throwback and homage to the violent action films of the 80’s and early 90’s. This was high praie and one reason I decided to go see it.

I was very glad that I made the decision to see it when it made it’s worldwide release. Dredd 3-D was exactly as those who praised it turned out to be.

The film opens up with a fly-over of Mega-City One (looking like the location shoot of Johannesburg expanded to a 1000x through the judicious use of CGI and matte backgrounds effects) and the world which created the massive hive city of 800 million whose borders stretched from Boston in the north to Washington, D.C. in the south. It’s Karl Urban’s voice as Judge Dredd who we learn all this from right before the film segues into a fast-paced and violent action scene. One that shows just how violent Mega-City One is (people in malls and on the streets who get gunned down by stray fire get collected by automated garbage droids who also clean the pools of blood) and just how good Judge Dredd really is at his job.

Dredd 3-D is a simple story of a veteran cop who must evaluate a rookie whose psychic abilities would make her an invaluable member of the law enforcement group known as the Judges. The story brings these two disparate individuals into a massive apartment complex called The Peach Trees to investigate a triple homicide which brings them into conflict with the film’s villain in the form of Lena Headey as the brutal head of the gang called the Ma-Ma Clan. The film moves from one violent set-piece action to the next as Dredd and Anderson must find a way to escape the lockdowned Peach Trees and take out the Ma-Ma Clan in the process.

Yes, Dredd 3-D was a very good film and despite the story being so barebones that at times it resembled a video game with the way each sequence was a way to move from one floor to the next with the danger getting worst by the floor. It was the simplicity of the story that was also it’s major advantage. We got to know Dredd and Anderson (more of the latter than the former) and their actions throughout the film made for some very good character development. Even the tough, nigh-indestructible Dredd gained a semblance of sympathy for those he was very used to executing on-sight if the law deems it not whether it’s true justice.

Even the use of 3-D in the film was one of the better uses for what many still call a gimmick and a way for theater-owners to charge a higher ticket price for. The film was done in native 3-D and when it was paired with the super slo-mo sequences when characters where under the effects of the reality-altering drug Slo-Mo it literally created scenes of art. I suspect that we might see more films which uses this 3-D slo-mo effect in years to come. It was just that well done.

Now the big question is whether Karl Urban has erased the abomination that was Stallone’s performance in the same role 17 years past. The answer to that question would be a resounding yes. Urban never once takes off the iconic Judge helm and must act through his body language, dialogue delivery and, literally, the lower half of his exposed face. He made for a convincing Judge Dredd and not once did he go against character with one-liners and witty quips to punctuate an action scene. Not to be outdone would be Lena Headey as Madeleine Madrigal (hence Ma-Ma Clan) as the clan boss who was a mixture of reined in violence and psychopathy who was also going through a level of ennui that she made for a great villain. This was a woman who was so feared by the vicious and violent men in her command yet we never doubt that she was still the scariest of the whole bunch. There’s also Olivia Thirlby as the rookie Judge Anderson who brings a semblance of compassion and sympathy to the proceedings yet still able to kickass and take names not just with her psychic abilities but also with the Lawgiver (as the Judge’s firearms were called).

Dredd 3-D doesn’t try to explore the nature of violence that’s inherent in man or some other philosophical bullshit some filmmakers nowadays try to put into their action films. This film just decided to tell the proper Judge Dredd story and knew that ultra-violence would be a necessary component if the story was to remain true to the source material. In the end, the film did it’s job well and, even though it was by accident, it was still able to lend a level of thought-provoking themes and ideas about violence and its use.

The Case for Dredd 3-D


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I don’t know that many people who, in the thrall of a weak September, dished out the $5, $10, $12, to see Dredd 3-D. This is curious, because I saw it the day that it came out, and I sang its praises til… wait, when am I writing this? I suppose the singing goes on. If you’ve seen Dredd 3-D, you probably had the same initial reaction I did – that this movie is much, much, much better than you ever thought it would be. But, having seen it three times in theaters, and roughly one billion times since the DVD release… there’s more to this movie. This is a truly great film. And since we’re in the season of handing out awards, and because movies like Dredd 3-D know from the moment of their inception that they will never sniff a nomination, it seems like a fine time to extol the virtues of what might be the best action movie made since the calendar flipped over from 1989.

If you’ve seen the film, I can probably spare you most of this song of praise. Of the few people that I know who have seen the film (most of them forced to see it by me), I have heard very few complaints. Of course, I have targeted the film’s audience amongst my own friends, and I’m not trying to win it the support of the Academy. But for a film to be so universally heralded amongst fans of a certain genre is actually fairly impressive in 2013, let alone for that very same film – a gritty B action film, by all accounts – to command a startling 77% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, is nothing short of incredible.

For the uninitiated, let’s start at the beginning. What is Dredd 3-D?

Well, it’s an exploration of a dystopian future that is the primary subject of the long-running Judge Dredd comic strip, an American hero who has been published almost exclusively in the United Kingdom. Dredd is a living metaphor, he is blind justice, the implacable and unrelenting arm of the law. He is fearless, he is formidable… he is the law. In a desolate future, North America is a nuclear wasteland. Outside of the boundaries of the incredible Megacity One, all is irradiated desolation. The Megacity runs from Boston to Washington DC, and contains twice as many people as lived in all of North America in 2012. Within the city limits, only one organization is still fighting to maintain order… the Judges of the Hall of Justice. They are judges, they are juries, and if necessary, they are executioners.

In Dredd 3-D, this is effectively all of the exposition we need. Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is the merciless reality of a law that is actively losing its struggle to serve and protect. Megacity One is falling apart day by day. But if Dredd himself is dismayed, he does not show it. Our opening sequence is a bloodbath of a high-speed chase through the streets of Megacity One that is given all the feel of a totally average day on the job. Innocent people die, vehicles are destroyed, drugs are consumed, and assault weapons are in abundance. So routine does the film make the bust feel, that it drew me into the world of Judge Dredd. Once I was there, and once the action started, the film never released its talons.

From there, Judge Dredd hauls rookie Judge-Candidate Anderson (Olivia Thirlby) out into the real world. As befits an assessment, Anderson takes the lead, committing herself and Dredd to respond to a multiple homicide at Peach Trees, one of the massive megastructures of Megacity One, a single tenement that houses over 75,000 people. Upon arrival, the Judges determine that the corpses – skinned and thrown off the balcony of Peach Trees’ level 200 – were executions, intended to send a message. From there, we’re off. The Judges fight their way up the megastructure and toward survival, battling against the savage druglord Ma-Ma (Lena Headley) and her minions. Most of the effects are practical, most of the dialogue is minimal, and while the story does have its emotional aspect, the action is the centerpiece of this film.

So, given that, why would I prop this film up as one of 2012’s best? Why would I, had I an Academy vote, have nominated Dredd 3-D for Best Picture (and probably Best Direction and Best Score, but probably nothing else). Because Dredd 3-D understands its genre, and its audience, and it attempts to be a perfect film within that framework. There is no pretension here. There are no regal accents, timeless proclamations of love, or elaborate Victorian costumes. That probably disqualifies Dredd from an award this year, but it shouldn’t. Because Dredd is a better film than Les Miserables (which, earnestly, has been done better more than once before). It is a better film than Lincoln (no one has ever claimed that they felt Dredd 3-D’s length)… because Dredd 3-D is a perfect action movie. If we do not ascribe any deeper motivations or requirements to a film than it be relentlessly entertaining and that it fill the basic requirements of its genre, there are few films ever made that will fill this criteria better.

Dredd 3-D sets up its scenario expertly, in a handful of scenes, and without much in the way of dialogue. Karl Urban has proved time and again that he is both versatile and talented (and criminally underrated, but that’s neither here nor there) but he is not asked to do much here. Dredd delivers his lines in the same tone of voice regardless of the situation. Where Dredd’s catch-phrases seemed campy and over-wrought in the 1995 adaptation starring Sylvester Stallone, Urban seems to have the better measure of his character. He is mercilessly deadpan, transforming one-liners into either tiny morsels of dry humour or vaguely ominous threats. Because Dredd’s persona is so unvarying, it never seems like he’s delivering a line. He is simply stating facts, as he observes them, and we are reacting in turn. Throughout the film, Dredd delivers roughly three facial expressions – a default look of grim severity, a look of significant disappointment (when a particular misfortune befalls rookie Judge Anderson) and one that I would not describe otherwise than grim fury (when a particularly more unfortunate misfortune befalls rookie Judge Anderson).

Dredd 3-D doesn’t demand much from its audience, but it outputs entertainment at an almost unvarying rate. The action scenes and set-pieces are actually remarkably varied (such as they can be) despite the confined nature of the film’s locations. As we watch, Dredd’s relentless implacability, and the sense that he literally cannot be stopped, actually become a fun part of the story. There is literally nothing to recommend the villains of the piece to us, despite a fairly layered performance by Lena Headley, who manages to be savage, determined, exhausted, and regretful basically all at once. This is one circumstance in which we very much want “the law” to prevail… and if what you hunger for is watching the law burn gang-bangers to death with incendiary ammunition, this film will grant you your fondest wish.

So, while Dredd 3-D may not have been nominated for any prestigious awards this season, please do it the favour of checking it out. It is a nearly-perfect action movie, and it is that way in spite of, not because of, its source material. Show it some love, and hope that the who’s-who of Hollywood realizes why this film is worth our time – and that they make many more films just like it.

SDCC 2012: Dredd 3D Exclusive Clip


One of the things which seem to have gone over well over at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con was the screening of the upcoming British sci-fi film Dredd. This film looks to reboot the 1995 travesty that was Judge Dredd and fix everything Stallone screwed up with that version.

The response from the audience during the screening of this reboot (directed by Peter Travis from a screenplay by Alex Garland) was very positive. Some called it a very violent fun time to be had with others describing the film as a throwback to the violent action films of the 80’s with emphasis on the Verhoeven-style of over-the-top violence. From the clip which premiered a couple days ago the description of the film’s violence wasn’t just normal Comic-Con attendee hyperbole.

Dredd 3D may just be a fine way to end the summer blockbuster season of 2012 if this clip is any indication.

Trailer: Dredd 3D (Official)


In 1995 Sylvester Stallone put up on the big-screen a film adaptation of a sci-fi property that has a fan following as rabid as any sci-fi franchise there is. I am talking about the character of Judge Dredd which calls the British comic book anthology series 2000 A.D. it’s home for the past 35 years and counting. The Stallone production was just awful from start to finish.

It’s now 2012 and we have what one can only call a reboot of the Judge Dredd film from 1995 but with screenwriter Alex Garland (28 Days Later, The Beach) writer the script and Pete Travis behind the director’s chair. Instead of Stallone reprising the role of the iconic Judge Dredd the job goes to genre vet Karl Urban (Lord of the Rings trilogy, Bourne Supremacy, Star Trek). We even get Lena Headey as the film’s main antagonist in drug crimelord of Mega-City One called simply by the moniker of Ma-Ma.

The first trailer shows some interesting design choices that veers away from the neogothic dystopian look of the comics and the overly comic book feel of the Stallone production. The look of Mega-City One and the film in general seems to be more akin to District 9. Another good thing the trailer shows and hopefully the film will follow through on is Urban never once taking off the Judge helmet his character wears in the film. Never once has Judge Dredd removed his helmet in the comics and if there was ever one heresy fans of the property would cry foul over it’s the character being seen helmet-less.

Here’s to hoping that this grittier take on the Judge Dredd property goes a long way in erasing the abomination that was the Stallone production.

Dredd 3D is set for a September 21, 2012 release in the UK and soon after everywhere else.