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The University of Hartford

Culture Dog Kevin's 2004 Wrap-Up!
With Kevin O'Toole

Wow. The ride through 2004’s cinematic scene has been wild and hairy. As usual (well, this side of Lord of the Rings, anyway), there were works of fantastic beauty, thoughtful imagination and forward thinking vision on our movie screens this year. And then there was Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.

Yes, 2004 was the year that Red State/Blue State divisiveness invaded the multiplexes. It was a year where the stupidity the goober sitting next to you was yelling back at the screen was actually of the same tenor as much of the political debate. Was it reflecting the politics or magnifying it?

How should I know? What do I look like, Robert Novak?

(A pause here to reassure the reader that I do not look one bit like Robert Novak. I merely grabbed randomly at his name from a hatful of political commentators, and in no way meant to suggest that I resemble Gollum, without the charming voice but with a suit and a tie.)

A fellow member of my (raised as) Catholic family recently told me they felt compelled to see The Passion. I know why. Gibson effectively exploited religious feeling and religious folk, right AND left (but ESPECIALLY right), playing up the Mel and Jesus as victims aspect, trying to make it seem like criticizing his art was equivalent to a critique of faith in general.
Mel’s a BIG Catholic, and he wants a BIG crucifixion. This angry and needlessly gore engorged exercise in misuse of religious imagery called to millions as evidenced by over $600 million taken in international box office since the end of February.
To settle a few misconceptions: Mel’s version is only slightly more truthful to the New Testament than Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ (which was a much superior film, and one I recommend everyone see before Mel’s angry, petty little film). On top of that, Gibson owes stylistic props to that very same more speculative Scorsese film; that very film that seemed to so revolt the religious right in its’ assertion of the mere possibility that Our Lord and Saviour was a sexual being.

So enough about Mel. The filmic story about a heroic sacrifice in the name of peace that you should really check out is Zhang Yimou’s 2002 Chinese import Hero. Easily hundreds more people die in the course of this film, yet, strangely, there’s so much less blood than Mel’s horror show take on spirituality. Now why would this happen? Could it be the filmmaker found something better of worth to concentrate on? YES! BEAUTY! HOPE! IDEALISM! ACTUAL FAITH! Hey, how about that?

Making the success of The Passion (and a few other films farming the religious right market) that much stranger, was the success of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and the rafts of like minded documentaries like Bush’s Brain and The Hunting of the President. Stranger still were the “answer films” spawned in Fahrenheit’s wake, like Celsius 41.11 and Fahrenhype 9/11. One wonders if Ray Bradbury will also consider suing the makers of that last one.
With Fahrenheit 9/11, the modern documentary has arrived as a viable entity with moneymaking muscle in American commercial film. More importantly, Michael Moore’s over $200 million success means that the modern commercial doc need not be an IMAX or large screen spectacle about mountains or ocean creatures or migrating birds. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
And for all that, W still won. I’ll bet you Michael Moore is glad that Diebolt doesn’t count up box-office receipts.

So politics was the big story of this year at the movies. Of course, there were some less political films that made their mark on my list, although The Fog of War and Saved are among the other more political films on my list of favorites, and are well worth renting. Somewhat political, but mostly disturbing is Charlize Theron’s performance as “female serial killer” Aileen Wuornos in Monster. Less political, but finishing a cinematic epic this year was Quentin Tarantino’s great Kill Bill Volume 2 with Uma Thurman. And there’s always Takashi Miike’s bizarre, memorable, challenging and ballsy Gozu.

One unqualified happy event in my movie going year was the long delayed Hartford arrival of Stephen Chow’s hilarious Shaolin Soccer, and I highly recommend you renting it tonight to help shed those wintry blues. Also blasting those blues away on video will be another favorite from my cinema year, Jared and Jerusha Hess’s hilarious and geeky Napoleon Dynamite. Jon Heder is the perennial high school geek in this “Revenge of the Nerd” for the 21st Century… or was it the eighties? And hey! You can even share this one with the family!

Then, of course, there’s always a Pixar film. The youngest kids might not enjoy The Incredibles that much, but all ten and up will dig it the most! More great Pixar stuff to make Disney cry bitter tears during their forthcoming separation!

The best of this year for me, however, was, easily, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind! Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet lead a great cast in this fantastic, and soon to be timeless, Charlie Kaufman scripted, Michel Gondry directed gem of a film. Carrey is Joel Barish, shy, withdrawn and insecure, and bait to the strange, creative and brash creature that is Winslet’s alcohol-dipped Clementine Kruczynski. From the beginning, most anyone could guess that their relationship would not last. When the couple breaks up and Kruczynski hires memory erasing company Lacuna to do away with her memories of the relationship, Barish feels compelled to do the same.

And thus begins a mental chase movie with Joel on the run from memory erasers (Marc Ruffalo, Elijah Wood, Kirsten Dunst and Tom Wilkinson). Moving back through his memories as they disappear one by one, Joel is slowly reminded of why he loved Clem, and begins a desperate gambit to hold on to her memory. Add into this stew, a slew of real world romantic entanglements, including Wood’s Patrick and the memory erased Clem, and a third act turnaround that is truly unexpected and heavily resonant, and you’ve got one beautiful and wildly imaginative film.

It’s daring visually and thematically, and, in now typically Charlie Kaufman fashion, pushes the limits of linear storytelling, warping those borders to fit the very human souls of his characters. Sound like hi-falutin’ talk? Please see the film, then get back to me.

Make sure and listen to Culture Dogs every Sunday night, your weekly video and movie news and review program from eight to nine on UH Radio for the latest on what’s playing! Oh, and Sam Hatch will also keep you abreast of the latest on video! See you on the radio!

Copyright©WWUH: January/February Program Guide, 2005

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