Straw Dogs: Peckinpah’s Thesis on Fragile Men (1971, Directed by Sam Peckinpah) English 8

Starring Dustin Hoffman, Susan George, Peter Vaughan, Del Henney, David Warner, Jim Norton

Image result for straw dogs

(8-Exceptional Film)

Elusive. Provocative. Raw.

Sam Peckinpah-director of such great films as The Wild Bunch (1969), Ride the High Country (1962), and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)-didn’t care about things most other filmmakers care about. Never very interested in character development, never bothering with subtlety, his films are primal. Supporting characters are paper thin. Plot is undemanding. Dialogue is filler. All that is generally associated with depth, in his films, is reduced to white noise. He makes his point with the superficial. The remarkable thing then is that he is still to this day recognized as amongst the most provocative and controversial filmmakers of all time. He doesn’t have a movie in his filmography that holds a universal opinion or that’s interpreted in the same way by all. The favored way of analyzing a Peckinpah film, judging by reviews and articles, is to head straight for film theory. None of his films can be considered dramatic character pieces in any traditional sense, but to dismiss them as insubstantial or simplistic is, in film circles, to go the way of the philistine.

In 1971, he released his most inscrutable and polarizing film, Straw Dogs, starring Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman plays an American academic, David Sumner, who resettles in his English wife’s hometown only to find the locals hostile and the outcome violent. On the surface, the story portrays Hoffman, a civilized male, and Susan George, his supermodel of a wife, under attack. Their lives, their house, their marriage, and their happiness are all under attack, because his prosperity and her beauty stand out amongst the local mundanity, and make them targets. Eventually, they are both besieged. First, she is raped, and then, his home is invaded.

The setting in a Peckinpah film is always crucial with the depraved west being his most common choice of location. In Straw Dogs, a picture that thematically and stylistically encompasses ideas the director explored throughout his work, Peckinpah sets his story in small-town England; in a village masked in fog and moors. The main thing here is that it’s unfamiliar; specifically, unfamiliar to the protagonist. Hoffman’s character is anomalous in his new residence. We don’t get a good look at anyone else’s home, but we know they’re not living as well as he is. Peckinpah also liked to work with stars, and instead of lengthy character development, he used precise casting; typage. Hoffman is a short man. At 5″5, he is towered over by the supporting male characters. Their threat to him is immediately rendered physically by their mere presence. The implication that he cannot protect his home or his wife, the film’s most evident theme, is clear.

 Straw Dogs’ narrative is brutal, and watching it unfold, is trying, but,  I believe what bothers viewers more, and what established the film’s controversial status, more than just the savagery on display, are the thorny questions underlying the action. There has been much written about Straw Dogs, various takes on the material, but no one can completely pin down what the film is meant to say. What is Peckinpah’s point? Even the leading actor’s opinion, that the character David Sumner was subconsciously provoking the violent conclusion-a valid and interesting take-was repudiated by the director. Much of the disparate opinions and controversy derives from the notorious rape scene itself involving Mrs. Sumner. Most of Peckinpah’s films depict violence and violence towards women, but never more uncomfortably than here, where the female victim is raped by an ex-boyfriend, and though a convincingly violent experience, appears to enjoy it. After the ex is through, she is raped a second time by his friend. Meanwhile, the scene is intercut with her husband wandering haplessly through the woods, holding a shotgun, looking useless. The next scene shows her crying in their bedroom while her husband walks around the room clueless.

The film’s climax revolves around their house being broken into, which is why Straw Dogs is considered a home invasion film. Hoffman gives refuge to a mentally retarded man who a group of local brutes-including the two rapists-desperately want hanging from a rope. They storm Hoffman’s house on the hill, and the calm, impotent milquetoast of a man he was at the outset of the film suddenly becomes a savage vigilante. He kills them all in true to Peckinpah fashion-blowing legs off, pushing a man’s neck to broken glass, decapitating a man with a bear trap. In the process, he slaps his hysteric wife around a bit and grows more violent than any of the men invading, who, in an easier film, would be clear cut villains. The home invaders are guilty of murder and two are rapists, but their reason for wanting the mentally retarded man? He murdered a girl who was one of their group’s daughter; one of their group’s sister. All the violence and guilt seems to run in circles and all the men are culpable, which is, ultimately, my view of the film’s themes. Straw Dogs was decried as a misogynistic fantasy, but I see a film where the two main female characters are the only sympathetic ones, and the men are complicit in violence towards these women. Critics point to the skimpy clothes Susan George wears as Mrs. Sumner. An early shot shows her walking out in public very conspicuously not wearing a bra. To me, her appearance and how it influences her attack critiques how certain women aren’t protected. Both Mrs. Sumner and the teenage girl who is murdered are, I guess you could say, coquettish women, and that factors into their victimization. I don’t think Peckinpah depicting how this happens means he’s defending it.

My last note in attempting to tie my thoughts about the film together is that Hoffman’s character clearly takes too much for granted. He fails to notice his wife and fails to notice his prosperity, which culminates in him being reduced to the surrounding barbarism. The film ends with him driving the mentally retarded man aimlessly, with the man saying, “I don’t know my way home,” and Hoffman replying, “That’s okay. I don’t either.”

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(491)

Unbreakable: Stagnant Superman (2000, Directed by M. Night Shyamalan) English 10

Starring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright, Charlayne Woodard, Eamonn Walker, Spencer Treat Clark

Image result for unbreakable

(10-Masterpiece)

Underappreciated. Thoughtful. Masterly.

A man with no purpose knows only stagnation, and to strive with no purpose is like running in place. Eventually, the heart runs out. It’s even worse if you feel that you have potential. Such a man might get existential. He might begin to distance himself from the life that he’s built and all the choices that he’s made. If he has a family, he might begin to resent each member. It’s a bleak reality for many people in society, but not one that’s often visited in film; certainly not in mainstream Hollywood cinema. But in the year 2000, off the heels of his massive, and to this day, greatest success in The Sixth Sense (1999), M. Night Shyamalan made Unbreakable, a film rooted in middle-aged angst made digestible by its comic book, superhero trappings. A film about David Dunne, a forty-year-old security guard unaware that he’s special- that he’s superhuman-and Elijah Price, a man who finds his purpose in showing David his.

When we first meet David, he’s aboard a train failing painfully to flirt with a pretty passenger in an adjacent seat. We see him remove his wedding ring, and think, this is our protagonist? Next, he’s sitting in a hospital bed talking to a baffled doctor. Shyamalan films this scene with David in the background and a patient in a more critical condition being operated on in the foreground. David is told that he’s been in a train accident, and only two people have survived. One is the patient that we see being worked on (minutes from death) and the other is himself, with no scratches or broken bones. Thus setting in motion his encounters with Elijah, a comic book dealer obsessed with the idea that super-humans are not just in comics, but walk the Earth as he does. Elijah suffers from a disease that makes his bones especially brittle and he believes that there must be people on the opposite end of the spectrum in that they are unbreakable. The film follows David as he moves from no purpose to having a purpose and examines the effect that has on his family-a wife that he can’t talk to anymore (played by a very moving Robin Wright) and a son who hero-worships him beyond what David feels he can deliver.

When you have the kind of success Shyamalan had with The Sixth Sense, you are in a position to do almost whatever you want. Studios want what you have, which could easily be an invitation to up the scale and indulge. Shyamalan, instead, works in the same milieu as his previous film. He takes a B-movie genre in the comic book movie and elevates it to a work of art, first by taking it seriously, and second by grounding it in the themes of disillusionment spoken of earlier. As for the comic book element, he explained his vision for the film as basically revolving around the first act of a superhero’s arc in his story. Every superhero story works in three acts essentially: one) the hero discovers their powers two) the hero uses and develops those powers three) the hero faces off against his nemesis. How can you make a movie about the first, and usually most boring, aspect of a hero’s story work with an audience? Many filmmakers have noted how sequels in hero franchises tend to be better because the origin has already been established and they can approach more interesting territory. Shyamalan does something no other filmmaker has done with an origin story by truly capturing how frightening, mysterious, and life-altering this realization can be. He does so by making it a process rather than an epiphany. David survives a wreck. David sees that he has never been sick. David tests his strength. Etc. David is a complete enigma. To himself and to us. The entire film is David and Elijah attempting to solve this enigma. Why when David wakes up does he feel this inexplicable sadness? Why has he never been sick? How did he walk away from that train crash totally unharmed when no one else even survived?

Bruce Willis, reteaming with Shyamalan after The Sixth Sense, gives his strongest career performance as Dunne. Shyamalan repeatedly frames David Dunne in the background or obscured. This style isn’t seen very often as actors love close-ups. This style adds to the effect that Dunne is a mystery. We cannot read him.  Samuel L. Jackson, with his crazy do, is perfect in creating sympathy for this mostly unrelatable character and delivering some very out-there dialogue. His performance is crucial, because if we don’t believe him, then the film becomes unintentionally funny as we’ve seen in some of Shyamalan’s later works.

Unbreakable is made up of what feels like ten scenes. Ten extended, involving scenes that make the hour and forty-minute runtime fly by. A recent development has come up that makes this great film-my choice for best superhero picture, tied with The Incredibles (2004)-worth revisiting. It wasn’t a runaway hit the way The Sixth Sense was, and it will never achieve mass appeal. Often when people go into a movie with certain expectations, they’ll be disappointed if those expectations aren’t met, affecting their opinion of that film. But sometimes on second viewing, they can realize that what the film reaches for is actually better. I think Unbreakable can be this way for viewers.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(482)

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970, Directed by Billy Wilder) English 9

Starring Robert Stephens, Colin Blakely, Christopher Lee, Genevieve Page, Tamara Toumanova

Image result for the private life of sherlock holmes (1970)

(9-Great Film)

Romantic. Colorful. Overlooked.

Years after his death, the letters of Dr. John H. Watson, one of literature’s most famous narrators and chronicler of the eminent Sherlock Holmes are found. In them, he relates a Sherlock Holmes story theretofore untold, deemed too private for the public. In Sherlock’s most personal case of his career, a strange and beautiful woman with amnesia winds up on his doorstep. Deducing that she’s looking for a missing husband, Sherlock sets out to solve the mystery, all the while falling for the woman. This is a later work from Billy Wilder, and probably his last great film. It’s beautifully, lavishly constructed sets, wit, and style belie the poignant sadness at its core which makes it a special take on the character. A late sequence featuring a Morse code message by way of an umbrella is an indelible, agonizing image.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(481)

Scarface (1983, Directed by Brian De Palma) English 8

Starring Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert Loggia, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, F. Murray Abraham

Image result for scarface

(8-Exceptional Film)

Operatic. Over-the-top. Iconic.

Antonio Montana (Pacino), a Cuban refugee arrives in 1980s Miami committed to making a name for himself. And, with the loyal companion, Manolo (Bauer) always at his side, the epic rise and fall of Tony Montana are chronicled in lavish, often explicit detail. Pacino’s Tony swaggers through the picture, snorting cocaine, making threats, spouting ridiculously quotable maxims at every turn, and his demise is as glorious as his road to power. Tony is an iconic and classic character that many will see as too much. Pacino eschews the less is more model he employed to perfection with his earlier characters like Michael Corleone, and instead devours the scenery. Director Brian De Palma is a wizard with a camera and manages to fill each frame with scenery that is suitably big enough for Tony to occupy and not overshadow. The supporting cast is good too, notably Pfieffer looking beautiful, unobtainable, and perennially bored.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(480)

The Deer Hunter (1978, Directed by Michael Cimino) English 8

Starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage, Meryl Streep

Image result for the deer hunter

(8-Exceptional Film)

Intense. Intimate. Epic.

The lives of working-class buddies in a small Pennsylvania town are interrupted when three from the group head to Vietnam with the Army. There, Mike (the most serious of the group), Nick, and Steven are forced into a game of Russian Roulette that scars them well after they manage to escape. Mike might be De Niro’s best performance and most compelling character (and yes, I have seen Raging Bull). Walken and Streep with the two key supporting roles also stand out. My problems with the film have been noted by others, and mainly concern its lack of complexity. It wears its emotions on its sleeve. The other side, the Northern Vietnamese, are foreign and brutal. Rather than condemn this aspect as racist, I simply saw it as an extension of the film’s simple-mindedness. This being said, the three-hour long epic was engaging and moving. The crap-shoot chance involved in the Russian roulette sequences plus the acting makes for two memorably brutal and sad scenes. I also admired the odd three distinct act structure that makes the film feel epic and not drag. The scenes between De Niro and Streep are some of the best in the movie.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(477)

Moonlight (2016, Directed by Barry Jenkins) English 8

Starring Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders

Image result for moonlight

(8-Exceptional Film)

Moving. Beautiful. Thoughtful.

3 acts. Three different stages of Chiron’s life as he grows from a scrawny child, running around in Miami, to an outwardly tough drug dealer trapping in Atlanta. We meet the people in his life: the kind drug-dealer (movingly played by Ali who won an Oscar), his crack-addicted mother (Harris), and his best friend Kevin, who he harbors deep feelings for, and who ultimately helps him come to terms with being gay, and with being himself in general. The film does three very difficult things: it follows the emotional journey of a single character as they approach self-discovery. That theme or subject is prime pretentious territory, but Moonlight pulls it off by being sincere. Secondly, it uses a number of amateur or relatively new actors and gets excellent performances from top to bottom. Thirdly, its climax, if it can be said to have one, is of an extended, slightly awkward conversation between two men. Not exactly what would usually qualify as exciting, but it happens to be perfect, and brings the Best Picture winner to a poignant finish.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(476)

The Karate Kid (2010, Directed by Harald Zwart) English 7

Starring Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson

Image result for the karate kid 2010

(7-Very Good Film)

Exciting. Triumphant. Enjoyable.

Reworking the original’s premise, this time with a younger lead and a foreign setting, The Karate Kid centers around Dre, a 12-year-old boy from Detroit who moves to Beijing with his single mother, and makes enemies with a gang of sadistic kids right off the back. His only friends are Meiying, the girl he has a crush on, and Mr. Han (Chan), a meek maintenance man. Eventually, as the bullying persists, Mr. Han steps in and offers to teach Dre Kung Fu. The deal: the kids will leave Dre alone as long as he shows up for the tournament at the end of the year. As far as remakes go, this one is remarkably successful. Captures much of the joy of the original, and still feels fresh much of the time. The locations are beautiful and are a major reason for this success.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(475)