Friday, June 25, 2010

It Is That Hard To Make An Apolitical Movie Without Politics?

In my entire lifetime, I would have been content without seeing any Tom Cruise movies. Being a film critic does have some drawbacks.
I have always thought of Tom Cruise as a hopelessly romantic actor- romantic in the sense of Jane Austin rather than Fabio. His acting is rich and crowd pleasing, but so is Mrs. Buttersworth and she is no less syrupy. Even in his most emotional moments, I always feel like I am watching a figure skater perform, it can be beautiful, but still showy. Perhaps I am being overly critical, but I just can’t warm myself to an actor who is supposedly still wearing those underwear from “Risky Business.”
His performance in “Born on the Fourth of July” is an entirely different story, one in which he plays Ron Kovic, a real-life Vietnam vet.
Ever since he was little, Ron couldn’t wait to become one of the war heroes he idolized marching(or being wheeled) in the Fourth of July Parade. In a small town where the greatest thing a person could do was serve their country, a boy who always wanted to be his best could only learn life’s lessons the hard way.
And so he joins the Marines and goes to fight in Vietnam. He soon learns that going to war is not the glorious deed he was brought up to believe it was. He begins to question his morals, religion, and particularly his humanity. Ron was fully prepared, as many were, to die for his country; but what he hadn’t considered was his haunted life after the war.
He returns home in a wheelchair, the decorated hero he wanted to become, but paralyzed from the chest down. He is confused and out of place in a country that is revolting against him and a body that is just as tormented. He is angry and frustrated, feeling that he has lost everything that made him a man.
The psychological anguish and physically inhibited fury that Cruise’s character demands is unequivocally challenging, and he meets it with fervor. For a man who has absolutely nothing left in life to hold on to, why does he go on living? Cruise understands that through all Ron goes through, he never loses his desire to make something of himself.
“Born on the Fourth of July” is a very good movie, but it is not great. In what is almost a perfect story about triumph of the spirit, the plot makes a decidedly political turn. Ron pulls himself up from almost complete self-destruction and takes on a completely new outlook on life. But instead of being about human transformation, the story looks rather one-sidedly upon a man’s painful transformation from a conservative to a liberal.
But what I believe the film was trying to ask is, who is right when everyone is wrong? When it comes to that, you know it is time to question your humanity.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Would You Like Some Arsenic With Your Tea?

Nowhere will you find more scandal, gossip, back-stabbing, unrefined passion, and cold-blooded murder than in the quaint old-fashioned English village. It is the home of the world-renowned Miss Marple, among other characters with a nose for problem-solving. So often it is represented as a haven in a world torn-apart by war, but its own tribulations are never quite so obvious.
Behind their flower beds and the walls of their vicarages, evil lurks in the most unsuspecting places. But the old woman at the head of the garden society can sniff it out, as can the vicar’s parlor maid, usually to dire consequences.
All year, I await that glorious announcement of the latest PBS “Mystery” series’ advent. Many a drizzly evening I have spent with a mug of cocoa and a cat on my lap, trying desperately (and frequently in vain) to untangle that enigma that is always a blend of logic and human nature. One episode that aired in 2005 stuck with me even more so than the others, and I recently turned to Netflix to obtain it.
Perhaps the reason I was so intrigued by “Malice Aforethought” was that it wasn’t a mystery at all. Set in the quintessential English village, the cast of characters are all the usual suspects. There are the gossiping pepperpots, the sultry “new girl in town”, the highly respectable doctor with a particular interest in his female clients, his martinet of a wife, and their trusty housekeeper.
Our antihero is Dr. Bickleigh who can treat his patients, meet with his numerous lovers, chat with the locals and still make it home in time for afternoon tea. In an attempt to juggle one less woman, he decides to “knock off” his dear old wife by putting his extensive knowledge of drugs to work.
The unique appeal of “Malice Aforethought” lies in its innovative spin on the classic whodunit. Utilizing the appeal of the quaint English village, with all of its buried emotion and characters who are never what they appear to be, it is more drama than detective story. The climax of every TV mystery comes when the logical minded deducer spins round and points their finger at the guilty party. This is usually followed by a short soliloquy on the means and motives of the convicted. The whole of “Malice Aforethought” is this admission.
We see our lovely doctor as he hatches his fatal plan, and as he snuffs out just one more victim in order to pin down just one of his infatuations. We see the frustration as he gets deeper into his wicked game. I was reminded of Hitchcock’s “Dial ‘M’ for Murder” when I found myself inside the cunning mind of a killer, halfway wanting him to triumph despite his wickedness.
The malevolent charm of these murder stories is their ability to find evil in even the most innocent of places. They are often referred to as “cozy” mysteries, but there is never anything cozy about merciless, cold-blooded murder. It’s like the unsettling movie scene where a crime is committed on a bright, sunny day, rather than a dark and stormy night. We don’t expect evil in such a comforting setting. One thing’s for sure, you’ll never look at a tea sandwich the same way again.

Monday, June 21, 2010

All The Good Writers End Up In Hollywood Or Hell

If you have an eye for symbolism, allegory, subtle historical parallels, philosophy, and devious humor, “Barton Fink” is your goldmine. If not, you are likely to be more than a little confused.
Set in a stylized world of art deco and martinis, Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a New York writer complete with owl-eyed glasses, an Underwood Universal Typewriter, and a hairdo to rival Cosmo Kramer’s. During the after-party of his latest Broadway hit, Barton’s agent informs him that a big-shot Hollywood production company is willing to pay him a pretty penny to write movies. Tentative to leave the grimy reality of New York City, Barton is eventually lured into the glamorous world of 1940s Tinseltown.
Once in Hollywood, Barton sets up camp at the sickly “Hotel Earle” where he befriends Charlie (John Goodman), a beefy insurance salesman residing in the room next door. After meeting with the boisterous boss of Capitol Pictures (Michael Lerner), Barton is assigned to write a script for a wrestling picture. But back at the Earle, he finds himself with a nasty case of writer’s block.
Barton is not a people person, but has strong beliefs about the plight of the common man. He thinks of himself as an intellectual and dreams of pulling the average working man into the spotlight through his own creative brilliance. But in Hollywood, nothing is as it seems. Barton is tempted by lucrative success and finds himself facing the consequences when Hollywood turns out to be pure hell. Literally.
The heat in the hotel is so great, even the walls are sweating. Charlie appears to be the only other resident. He is a friendly enough guy, but behind his teddy-bear exterior lurks a violent inner torment. When he leaves to go to New York, Charlie gives Barton a box filled with all his worldly goods for safe keeping. Though his body is elsewhere, his soul stays in Hollywood.
Although Barton wishes to generate a social equality through the acknowledgment of the lower classes in the arts, he finds in his Hollywood brethren a longing to cling to superior authority. If you really want to read into it, many have likened this to the rise of fascism and found it to be a strong undercurrent in the movie. There is no right or wrong interpretation of this, but I feel that there is more to be said about humanity than politics in this metaphorical maneuver.
As the movie speeds into a surreal world of mayhem and murder, our wild-haired hero is dragged into oblivion with it. He is not a bad person and hasn’t really done anything wrong. He consciously made the choice to abandon mankind in pursuit of what we all long for--success. What he gets is insanity, but does he deserve it? Perhaps we can play a hand in determining our fate after all.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Nature Of Opinions- CAUTION: SATIRE

During my not entirely inconsiderable time spent on this planet, I have gathered enough knowledge of the world and its inhabitants to form a rather complex opinion on several different topics, the nature of which I will not bore you with. Along my journey as a student of life, I have met a significant number of people, many of whom had opinions. (For example, one woman became violently distressed when she discovered a roll of toilet paper looped under rather than over). However, no matter how many opinions I encountered, I never allowed myself to adapt to others personal beliefs.
I found it enormously upsetting when, upon cross-examination, the afore mentioned toilet paper woman disclosed that she acquired her phobia because her husband had the same dread of underdone paperwork. This was shocking to me that a perfectly normal individual with a capable head on her shoulders could be so easily manipulated by the ideals of those around her.
It was at this point that I (rather exasperatedly) told her that God had placed within our skullular orbs something that is called a brain, with the full intent that we use it to the best of our own ability. The woman looked rather taken aback before she proclaimed that she would rethink her position on the toilet paper issue.
But my point, dear reader, is that when one expresses one’s own opinion, it is all together too often taken as fact. It is not criticized, nor is it expanded upon. It is simply taken comme est by our fellow man and lodged into his or her cranium without any auxiliary consideration. To further dissuade this mass brain-washing, I personally believe that all expression of opinion should be discouraged within the boundaries of this great country of ours.
It is my humble belief that as humans, we are unable to extricate ourselves from this eternal cycle of reused ideas therefore making our existence nonprogressive and pointless. (Feelings which have been supported by a Nihilist doctor acquaintance of mine). I have been so providential as to have removed myself from this perpetual merry-go-round through the use of deep meditation and aroma therapy.
Alas, many of my fellow homo sapiens are simply not capable of opening their proverbial umbrellas against a virtual torrent of opinions, thoughts, and beliefs that are thrust upon them in their every day lives. I feel it is my duty to do my utmost to prevent this deluge of outlooks from being unleashed onto my brethren thereby soiling their independent minds.
I feel that the great Norbet Platt summed my rationale in its entirety when he said the following: “The act of putting pen to paper encourages pause for thought, this in turn makes us think more deeply about life, which helps us regain our equilibrium.”

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What's Your Damage, Freddy Krueger?

A friend once told me that we should only read books that are over 100 years old. When I asked why this was, he told me that they all had to be good if they had lasted that long.
I tried to apply this philosophy to movies, but with the advent of Netflix and the DVD in general, almost anyone can gain access to even the corniest of B-movies. In addition, books cannot be rewritten (and no, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies does not count) but, as we all know, movies can be remade. If a film begins to fade into the pits of obscurity, someone will come along sooner or later to breathe new life into it.
The latest in a long line of 1980s remakes is “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” The 1984 slasher flick has been subject of no less than six sequels, and has now come full circle when a remake of the original hit the theaters in April.
I can imagine a cluster of mulletted teens squealing with terror as Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), the original slasher villain, came shredding onto the screen in the ‘80s. Who cares about underdeveloped screenplays and two-dimensional characters when a blood-thirsty zombie is on the loose, disemboweling suburban kids?
Although it isn’t great cinema, the original “A Nightmare on Elm Street” has taken its place in the history of the horror genre. It is the quintessential slasher movie, and Krueger is the quintessential “slasher.” And, if for no other reason, filmgoers still rent it to catch a glimpse of Johnny Depp in his first film role as the laid-back jock who doesn’t seem to care that his girlfriend is being chased by a man with razors on his hands. Don’t get any ideas Johnny.
Film is a definitive element in shaping an era. When we look back on that swirl of pastel colors that was the ‘80s, we see the Cold War, Madonna, shoulder pads, Richard Simmons, and the slasher flicks. Just about every child of the ‘80s remembers the first time they saw “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” And while the rest of us complain about the corniness of it all, they look on with a wistful nostalgia in their eye.
True, there are some movies that only gain momentum over time. But—for better or for worse—at the genesis of the ‘90s, all those slasher villains stepped back to make room for Forrest Gump and Quentin Tarantino. They were not forgotten, they just didn’t make it into the 21st century.
Time will not pick out the “bad seeds” of film, as it has done with literature. We can bring Freddy Krueger back to life as many times as we want, but just like the rest of us, he ultimately starts to age. Has he lost his frightening appeal over the years, or do we just have thicker skin? I guess the question is how thick would our skin be without him?

Published in the Chillicothe Independent in Mid-April, 2010

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Who Knew Bucky Badger Was A Xenophobe?

I am a Wisconsin native, and so I have a special appreciation for the Wisconsin-based independent film “Feed the Fish” in a way that Minnesotans appreciate “Fargo.” But like “Fargo”- or any other regionally based film for that matter- you don’t have to be associated with the location to value its charms as they play out on the screen.
The hero of “Feed the Fish” is Joe Peterson (Ross Partridge) a childrens’ book writer who has hit rock bottom. His only friends are his pet goldfish and his fiancé’s tubby brother JP (Michael Chernus.) He sports a hairstyle unofficially titled the “writers ‘do” (acquired by exasperatedly running fingers through hair while staring at a blank computer screen.)
In a last-ditch attempt at creative inspiration, Joe leaves his home in sunny California to stay with JP in his family cottage in Northern Wisconsin. Joe plans to write while JP readies himself for a time-honored tradition of jumping into the icy waters of Lake Michigan during the annual “Polar Bear Plunge.”
A lot of the film’s humor lies in writer/director Michael Matzdorff’s ability to poke fun at both sides of the cultural spectrum. Joe is a fish out of water (if you’ll pardon the pun) trying to cope with life below freezing. When he sees a group of orange jumpsuit clad men carrying rifles, he calls the cops convinced that they are a gang.
The locals are certainly not without quirks of their own. To them it is perfectly normal to name children after Norse Goddesses or to equip their cars with toasters. JP is the unfortunate victim of an allegorical clash of the cultures when he suffers a badger-induced injury that is, in actuality, surprisingly uncommon in Wisconsin.
Tony Shalhoub of the TV show, “Monk” plays Anderson, the hard-boiled local sheriff complete with the quintessential moustache and patriarchal protective instincts. He makes it very clear that he does not like outsiders invading his home turf-especially when one is dating his daughter. Even though the plot centers on Joe’s fresh outlook on life, I felt as though Sheriff Anderson’s journey of acceptance was at the heart of the movie.
But through all their quirks and eccentricities, the characters never become objectified. Matzdorff uses humor to develop his characters rather than create caricatures of them. Instead of giving them blatant northern accents, he relies on subtleties of character to present their diversity.
Although “Feed the Fish” is a lighthearted feel good flick with a generous helping of dry wit, the underlying message of acceptance is quite poignant. Just like you don’t have to be from Wisconsin to understand why a groin-chomping badger is funny, you don’t have to be from in-town to appreciate the generosity of others.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Romance And Food- Does It Get Any Better Than This?

There is a scene in “Like water for Chocolate” where the characters sit down to eat a meal of quail in rose petal sauce. As soon as the food touches their lips, the air is filled with beautiful piano music and the diners fall under the romantic spell of the sumptuous dish. It is through the food that the chef transmits her secret desires and all the diners are feeling its effects. The atmosphere is bubbling over with invisible sensuality- the kind that is felt rather than seen. It is the sexiest movie seen I have ever viewed and almost nobody ends up naked.
“Like Water for Chocolate” is a romantic fairy tale about two people- Tita (Lumi Cavazos) and Pedro (Marco Leonardi) - who are passionately in love, but separated by tradition. Set on a ranch in turn-of-the-century Northern Mexico, Tita and her sisters are kept under the thumb of their domineering mother. Tita’s stifled emotions become infused in the food she prepares, causing anyone who eats it to experience their own hidden longings.
With echoes of “Babette’s Feast”, “Like Water for Chocolate” explores food’s ability to nourish the soul as well as the body. Tita finds that she can heal and destroy by using the powers of food. As she cooks, the spirit of her former housekeeper whispers advice and encouragement into her ear.
Like many Mexican stories, ghosts are ever-present in “Like Water for Chocolate”. The characters are haunted by the past- literally in some cases. Tita learns from the wisdom of her elders, but in contrast, feels tied down by their tradition. Indeed, the story it’s self is something of a ghost. It is narrated by Tita’s great niece (Brigida Alexander), as she cooks from her great aunt’s cookbook, passed down through generations.
After reading the novel, “Like Water for Chocolate” by Laura Esquivel, I immediately rented the movie. At the time, I found subtitles a nuisance, and not speaking a word of Spanish, I played the DVD in dubbed English. It was not ten minutes before I switched back to subtitles, for the English voices were dreadfully nasal and took away from the Mexican Ambiance considerably. If you do not speak Spanish, I would recommend doing the same.
In some parts of Mexico, hot chocolate is made with water instead of milk. The water must be at its boiling point in order to melt the chocolate. The phrase “Like Water for Chocolate” is a metaphor for this and is used to describe a state of passion or anger. All the characters in this film are “like water for chocolate”. They may try to hide their longings behind the guise of tradition and modesty, but all it takes is a meal of quail in rose petal sauce to bring out the chocolate within.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

I May not be Into the whole Brevity Thing, But at Least I'm Housebroken

All the cinematography, snappy lines, and Hollywood glamour in the world would not amount to the value of a single engaging character- something the Cohen Brothers’ 1998 comedy “The Big Lebowski” has in abundance. Fans of the film annually converge in bowling alleys across America for what is known in the world of cult films as the “Lebowski Fest.” You know your movie has made waves when people are willing to dress up as marmots in its honor.
The hero of this saga is a man named Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) who prefers to be identified by his moniker, “The Dude.” He lives up to his title by spending his days guzzling white Russians and bowling. He is the kind of person who will write a check for 72 cents rather than go through the trouble of counting out change. His best friend is a guy named Walter (John Goodman) who is a Vietnam Vet with anger issues and a deep regard for the rules- especially when it comes to bowling.
This not-so-dynamic duo suddenly finds their laid-back lifestyles disrupted when the Dude’s rug is urinated upon by an aggressor who later discovers that he had soiled the wrong carpet. And so begins the bizarre and complex story of a ransom gone wrong involving a millionaire, his trophy wife, a severed toe, Nihilists, and lots of Kahlua and half and half.
It is the kind of story that could have been a lot of things from innovative to inane but finds its self in both extremes. Here is a film that places its elaborate plot in the bowling gloved hands of an oddball cast of characters. They are so out of their element that what could have been a sophisticated con film turns into a turbulent character piece about a guy who just wants to lay on his floor and listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival and manages to save the day in the process.
It is hard to explain why “The Big Lebowski” is more than just a screwball comedy about slackers who turn out to be unlikely heroes because it really isn’t any more than that. What makes it so funny is that even though they are over the top, the characters are still the type of people you’d expect to see hanging around the bowling alley or working for a handicapped millionaire, or in your bathroom late at night with an “amphibious rodent.”
Everyone knows someone like The Dude, who rarely takes off his bathrobe or cuts his hair. Who doesn’t aspire to do or care about anything. And we can laugh because he is the last person we would expect to see in the middle of a high-pressure million dollar fraud deal.
But sometimes there’s a man who is forced into a tricky situation and all he can do is hope for the best. Sometimes there’s a man. Sometimes there’s just a man.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

And I thought Writers' Block Drove ME Crazy

Kubrick’s 1980 horror film “The Shining” begins, as so many horror movies do, with a perfectly normal family. The father, Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is a writer, or at least he wants to be. As the film begins, he gets a job working as caretaker to a giant, secluded hotel, prone to getting snowed in during it’s off season. He hopes that this will give him time to focus on his writing, but our danger sensors begin to beep when the hotel manager warns Jack of a tragedy that occurred some time ago involving a former caretaker and an axe.
Nevertheless, Jack and his family settle into their new winter home. But as the days go by, we begin to sense that this is not the coziest of families. As Jack recklessly pounds away at his typewriter, his son Danny (Danny Lloyd) begins to see visions of the hotel’s morbid past. Only Jack’s wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) appears to keep a level head as the people around her rapidly descend into various states of madness.
Usually we are drawn to movies that absorb us, that draw us in and make us feel as though we are “right there” with the characters. But “The Shining” holds us at arms length. When the film was first released, it was criticized for under-developing its characters, thereby blocking any empathy the audience could feel for them and stripping Stephen King’s original story of its terror.
However, Stanley Kubrick was a director who tried to connect with the audience on a psychological rather than an emotional level. As we watch “The Shining” we are witnessing, from a distance, the disparaging affects of isolation; of being trapped within one’s self, while coping with those around us. And in a strange way, we start to feel claustrophobic. We are cut off from the characters, but we internalize their madness.
As with “2001: A Space Odyssey” and other Kubrick films, the “true meaning” of “The Shining” is left unexplained. We sense that there is more to the story than meets the eye, yet Kubrick leaves that to be interpreted by the viewers.
Is it an allegory about the genocide of the Native Americans? Is it about humankind’s inability to cope with solitude, even when surrounded by beauty and luxury? Is it simply a clichéd horror flick that serves no purpose other than scare the living daylights out of us for two and a quarter hours? Theories about the story behind the story are not hard to come by, who knows if any of them are right? Kubrick wants us to make up our own minds...or else we may lose them.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Nazis Weren't the only "Basterds"

Riveting, engrossing, and dripping with delicious, dark humor, is not a common description of a World War II film. Yet, I feel I can make an exception, as director, Quentin Tarantino’s newest film, “Inglourious Basterds” is no more about World War II than “Brazil” was about a soccer-loving South American nation.
The plot calls for a suspension of all knowledge in regards to World War II, and instead takes us deep into that strange and fantastic world that is Tarantino’s imagination.
Brad Pitt plays the hero, Lt. Aldo ‘the Apache’ Raine, a hard-talking Tennessee born leader of a Nazi-extermination group known as “The Basterds.” The character is meticulously drawn out, as all Tarantino characters are. I have a feeling that, if asked about him, Tarantino could tell you exactly how he acquired that ominous scar on his neck.
However, Pitt’s performance is hopelessly overshadowed by the talents of the little-known foreign actors who co-star in this brilliant ensemble cast.
Christoph Waltz gives a performance with Academy Award stamped all over it. He is deliciously evil as the sardonically cruel SS officer known as ‘The Jew Hunter,’ sliding effortlessly between the four languages his character is required to speak without losing his ironic touch.
The visual style of the movie is very rich and deep. Everything from the evocative soundtrack to the profound, flavorful colors makes watching the movie feel a bit like drinking espresso- intense, complex, and satisfying.
I have always admired Quentin Tarantino’s ability to put himself into his movies in a way that most other directors cannot. In “Inglourious Basterds” he combines his love of cinema with characters that have obviously been crafted with immense care so that they appear larger than life.
Tarantino films have a very distinct flavor. Some will like it, and some will not, but the point is, he does. Like any artist, he crafts his movies as an expression of himself, rather than for any lucrative or croud-pleasing ends. He is a writer and a director, but when you get right down to it, he is a movie watcher with an imagination. Give a person like that a camera, and you never know what you will get.

Monday, June 7, 2010

What Did Martin Luther King Jr. and Atticus Finch have in Common?

The American South in the 1930s was a place where people were friendly, air was sweet, and pie was homemade and always delicious. It was a time that is sure to conjure up wistful feelings in the hearts of many people who feel as if it were only yesterday that their mother was dishing up big plates of her ‘world famous’ peach cobbler.
And yet, it was also a time when racial inequality was not an uncommon conviction and the Ku Klux Klan was in full swing. How could an era that produces such nostalgia and fond memories also harbor some of the darkest hours of American racism?
This epoch is the backdrop against which the film “To Kill a Mockingbird” is set. The story is told through the eyes of 6 year-old tomboy Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch (Mary Badham) whose father Atticus (Gregory Peck) is a lawyer defending a black man accused of assaulting a white woman.
At the beginning of the story, Scout and her brother Jem (Phillip Alford) befriend a bucktoothed know-it-all kid named Dill (John Menga.) The trio spends their summer days playing on a tire swing and relating horror stories of a reclusive neighbor who supposedly stabbed people with scissors and ate cats.
It is through this veil of childish innocence that we see such harsh issues as racism, injustice, and inequality. Yet Atticus is a powerful mediator between the worlds of children and adults. Although he deals with society’s worst imperfections on almost a daily basis, he has not lost faith in the goodness of humanity. He has a strong sense of justice and tries to instill his principles of fairness in his children. He encourages Scout not to judge someone “until you’ve climbed into his shoes and walked around in them.”
I first read Harper Lee’s book when I was in the fifth grade. As soon as I had finished the final chapter, I was convinced that I did not want to see the movie. Not because I hadn’t enjoyed the book, but because I knew that there was no way the film could ever come close to capturing the emotion that the book so powerfully portrays.
I think it was my dad who talked me into giving the movie a shot. I was astonished by how beautifully it accomplished what, at the time, I thought to be impossible.
It explores the blinding effects of racism and wide moral spectrum of humankind with the same unflinching yet somehow gentle courage that made the book so powerful.
Most of the weight from the story comes from Atticus, who though he recognizes the human capacity for evil, still believes that no person is entirely bad. He sees that badness comes from those who try to abuse others who have done no harm. Yet, although we all have the capacity to ‘kill mockingbirds,’ with that aptitude comes the ability to protect and care for them.