Being There: A Masterclass in Buffoonery (1979, Directed by Hal Ashby) English 10

Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, Melvyn Douglas, Jack Warden, Denise DuBarry, Richard A. Dysart

(10-Masterpiece)

Profound. Brilliant. Moving.

Peter Sellers, one of the great film comics of all time, built his persona on being the versatile fool. The bumbling French detective. The sage foreigner crashing a Hollywood party. Whatever the premise, whatever the accent, the joke was on him, and he was loved for it. But he saved his best performance right up until the end as Chance the Gardener in Hal Ashby’s Being There, released in 1979, just one year before his death. While the role is somewhat of a departure for Sellers, it still works largely because of our knowledge of his star image going in. The big difference is that this time instead of us laughing at Sellers’ foolishness, we are laughing at everyone else for not recognizing it.

Being There, adapted from a novel by Jerzy Kosinski, concerns Chance, a man we gather who has worked as a gardener for a wealthy man his whole life. Who his parents are, we’re not told. We also learn pretty early that Chance is unintelligent. After his benefactor dies, Chance is forced out of the house and onto the street. He apparently has never left the house, and we hear from a maid who also worked in the house that he cannot read or write. How can he survive in the world with no skillset outside of gardening, no intelligence, and advanced age? Fate puts Chance in the home of another wealthy man. A woman’s chauffeur hits the simple gardener. As an act of decency or perhaps just to avoid a lawsuit she, Eve (MacLaine) takes him to her mansion and has her doctor look at him. Eventually, he meets the influential Ben Rand (Douglas), the head of the house, the woman’s much older husband, an adviser to the president. Suddenly, Chance, the Gardener, becomes Chancey Gardiner and an instant star in the political world. His common advice about gardening is perceived as profound statements about the United States political landscape. This premise is the basis for Peter Sellers’ best performance and the most personal project he ever worked on. He fought for years to get this film made.

It sounds like a premise for anyone of Seller’s previous broad comedies. An idiot becomes political adviser to the president; a perfect setup for buffoonery. But Being There is not that film, and Peter Sellers does not give that kind of performance. Instead, we are given a profound and gentle satire. There are layers to it.  One level on which the film works is similar to say The Party, another film in which Sellers starred in. A sincere if simple-minded fool earns the respect of his peers through no effort on his part. The deeper level and the great thing that happens in the movie to me (and not everyone may feel this way as the film is very much open to interpretation) is that it sets Chance up as a comic figure- we laugh at how the sophisticated, brilliant upper-class society is taken in by a simpleton, believing him to be a wise man-but eventually I came to view him as a wise man myself. He does not pretend to know things he doesn’t. He only talks when he has something to say. When, in the end, Chance walks on water, I am surprised and then not surprised. Again there have been many interpretations of this scene, but my feeling is that because he doesn’t know that human beings can’t walk on water, he just does it. He almost literally knows no limitations.

So what drew Peter Sellers to this character? Why did he feel he had to play this character? He once said, “Most actors want to play “Othello”, but all I’ve really wanted to play is Chance the Gardiner. I feel what the character, the story is all about is not merely the triumph of a simple man, an illiterate. It’s God’s message again that the meek shall inherit the earth.” I think there is a general feeling of comedians being part of the meek. It is not the popular, great looking men or women who make us laugh in film typically. I can see why Sellers would be drawn to that aspect of the story. He said of himself, “I writhe when I see myself on the screen. I’m such a dreadfully clumsy hulking image. I say to myself, “Why doesn’t he get off? Why doesn’t he get off?” I mean, I look like such an idiot. Some fat awkward thing dredged up from some third-rate drama company. I must stop thinking about it, otherwise, I shan’t be able to go on working.” Also, and this idea was probably not conscious on his part, but there is somewhat of a parallel between Chance, apparently an unfeeling fool who proves to be incredibly sensitive and wise, and Peter Sellers, seen as just a clown and rumored to be a hard, cold personality. Sellers gives Chance a very bland appearance and plays him like a blank slate that slowly becomes a beautiful mystery. Again Sellers said this about himself, and I see it manifested in Chance, “If you ask me to play myself, I will not know what to do. I do not know who or what I am. There used to be a me behind the mask, but I had it surgically removed. To see me as a person on screen would be one of the dullest experiences you could ever wish to experience.” As the last film of his career, while he was alive, Sellers gets to play the Scaramouche for a final time, and then leave us thinking he wasn’t what he seemed, as he walks across the water, more than just a buffoon.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(618)

Batman and Robin: So Terrible, it’s Amazing (1998, Directed by Joel Schumaker) English 3

Starring George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle

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(3-Horrible Film)

Campy. Goofy. Idiotic.

1998’s Batman and Robin is, simply put, a joke. They notoriously gave Bruce Wayne’s suit nipples, they chose for their lead villain, Mr. Freeze, played by a blue painted Arnold Schwarzenegger, spouting one bad ice-related pun after another (“let’s kick some ice”), and made Poison Ivy look like Divine from a John Waters movie (google it). I’d like to catalog for you, the film’s many shortcomings and harebrained moments, though it’s a Herculean task to try and catch all of them, but it’s also important to note and preface this with the truth, which is that I love this film. Definitely falls within the “so bad, it’s good” variety. I think it’s hilarious. I laughed out loud on more occasions during the length of this superhero flick than, let’s say, 95% of the straight-up comedies I’ve seen.

Technically the fourth entry in the pre-Christopher Nolan series of Batman films. It’s amazing how silly all of the Batman movies before Bale and Nolan seem now that I’ve seen their grittier, more realistic take on the material. Batman and Robin stars George Clooney as the billionaire playboy slash caped crusader. It’s incredible, and not enough is said about how Clooney was able to have a career after this film, let alone the Oscar-winning, lifetime achievement award receiving career he has had. Bat nipples should have been career ending. I will say that among the cast, who should all feel embarrassed, Clooney comes off the least foolish. He gives the role some gravitas, granted, masked behind layers of inanity, bad dialogue, and bat nipples (I’m going to keep coming back to bat nipples; they color the entire film). I would even go as far as saying that Clooney could make a great Bruce Wayne in a much better, more competent picture. Now, if you think I’m being over dramatic about bat nipples being potentially career-ending, take a look at the rest of the cast of then-stars. Chris O’Donnell returns as  Batman’s close ally, Robin. O’Donnell, who’d given a very strong performance six years earlier in Scent of a Woman (1992) with Al Pacino, never recovered from this dud. Neither did Alicia Silverstone, at the time of the film’s release, still riding the waves off of her early success in Clueless (1995). Here, she plays Barbara Wilson, grand-niece of Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred. She appears to be a nice, wholesome girl, but is later revealed to be a hardcore, action adventure heroine, and dons the ready-made Batgirl suit Alfred leaves her. Together, Batman (having trouble trusting his young sidekicks), Batgirl, and Robin take on Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and Bane (3 on 3) who team up, rather improbably, to take over the world (or at least Gotham) with a telescope Mr. Freeze turned into a freeze gun. The villains are where the film really reveals its suckage. I’m going to address them one by one.

I’ve already referenced Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze, and you probably got the point, but not enough can be said about his puns:

Cop #1: Please show some mercy!

Mr. Freeze: Mercy? I’m afraid my condition has left me cold to your pleas of mercy.

See too, a scene where he sings along to the snow miser song from A Year Without Santa Claus (1974), while his henchman, who dress in fur coats and talk like they’re from the Bronx, provide backing vocals. Where does he get these guys? Honestly? He goes to New York and posts hiring notices? It’s insane. And they help him, why? Then again, Ted Bundy had followers. Perhaps, it’s one of those things that defy explanation. Like when Mr. Freeze zaps Robin with his freeze gun, and Robin’s cemented in a block of ice. The solution: Batman picks Robin up and puts him in hot water, and Robin’s perfectly fine. Science! What’s the point of Mr. Freeze’s gun if it doesn’t even kill anybody? It looks cool on an action figure?

Poison Ivy, as portrayed by Uma Thurman, is, against all odds, even worse. She escaped this travesty thanks to Tarantino casting her in his Kill Bill saga, otherwise, I’m certain this would have been career curtains. Let’s start with her “origin story.” The origin stories in the old Batman movies were the worst/most hilarious parts. She’s working in some kind of lab, minding her own business one minute. She opens a door, and all of a sudden, she’s in some weird underground cult room, complete with evil experiments. That’s it. All she did was open a door. The mad scientist in this new room goes, “how did you get in here? Now, I’ll have to kill you. You know too much.” What do you mean, “how did you get in here?” You didn’t even lock the door. His attempt to kill her somehow imbues her with the power to manipulate plants and toxins, and the sexy ability to kill men with a kiss. Almost lost amid Mr. Freeze’s bad puns are Poison Ivy’s equally lame lines: “They replaced my blood with aloe.” “Animal protectors of the status quo.” Worst of all: “My garden needs tending.” Smh. Uma’s performance is bad too. The dialogue is horrible and does her no favors, but her delivery only compounds the terribleness. She talks like a bad theater actress. And then there’s the striptease she does while wearing a gorilla costume. Has to be seen, to be believed. Yes, someone thought that was a good idea.

Bane, while equaling his compadres in stupidity, has far less screentime, thus leaves far less of an impression. Still, in his rare moments to shine, the filmmakers turn him into a Frankenstein figure; like a campy Frankenstein figure. He starts off as a scrawny child molester or something and is then given serum that makes him jacked. How to defeat him? Robin simply pulls the rather large tube from the back of Bane’s head and he disintegrates. So, so bad.

There isn’t much logic to Batman and Robin. Instead, there are pointless cameos from Elle MacPherson and Coolio. I’m sure the filmmakers were convinced their target audience wouldn’t notice (their target audience being 8 year-olds), and they were right. There was a solid 3 year period when I legitimately thought it was the greatest film ever made. Now, I see clearly. It’s in my exclusive top ten worst movies ever made list. So many poor choices, lapses of logic, head shaking moments, and bat nipples. Never forget bat nipples.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(604)

Bowling for Columbine: When Form Defines Content (2002, Directed by Michael Moore) English 4

Starring Michael Moore

(4-Bad Film)

Slanted. Distasteful. Heavy-handed.

Is the goal of documentaries to educate or entertain? Can a film do both? Maybe. But in documentary filmmaking one of the two unavoidably takes precedence. In Michael Moore’s films, entertainment wins out. In Bowling for Columbine (2002), Moore uses cartoons and Chris Rock clips among other things as an approach to the documentary. Just look at this film as it contrasts with Night and Fog (1955, Alain Resnais), which, in my opinion, represents an infinitely more honest and effective way to approach documentary filmmaking. Specifically, look at how Resnais’ formalist approach to filmmaking allows the content of his documentary to dictate the film’s progression while with Bowling for Columbine, Moore’s filmmaking style shapes the content.

Bowling for Columbine opens with a montage. Montages are interesting because you can often take and analyze them outside of their film. Moore’s opening montage is bolstered by a strong, very gung ho, pro-American song. He moves between an image of a teacher directing her smiling young students outside to a harmless clip of bowling to some blonde bimbo playing with an assault rifle in what looks like a cheesy 80s ad format to an image of the Statue of Liberty. What is Moore saying? For me, he is painting a picture of pre-Columbine America in hopes of affecting a new post-Columbine America. He wants gun-control. In this montage, what seems out of place? The narration is very matter of fact, very ‘it’s just a normal day in America.’ What is clear from this opening is the film’s focus on subversion. Michael Moore is a master of subversion, which to me is a key component of comedy; not documentary filmmaking. But, the fact remains, Moore is a documentary filmmaker and this film is a documentary, so rather than dismiss this film, I am going to press forward and view it on its own terms.

The next scene demonstrates what becomes a staple of Moore’s brand: the undercover investigation. He seems, in the scene, to be playing a character for the people he interacts with. In Michigan, there is a bank (North Country Bank and Trust) which offers a free gun in conjunction with the opening of some account. Moore investigates by assuming the role of some random putz who’d like to open an account and get a free gun. Two things are at play here as Moore goes through the motions of acquiring the gun. At a comedic level, I believe the scene works from irony. The audience knows Michael Moore and knows that he has no interest in the gun. Borat and Bruno sell the concept of a clown and a ridiculous (staged) situation getting real reactions from real people. But Moore is not clowning. His situations are real (some measure of suspended disbelief is required), which make them seem more ridiculous. Life is stranger than fiction in this scene and his movies. At a serious, political level, the point is that it is much too easy to get a gun in America. They’re handing them out at banks. I guess we are supposed to be alarmed.

Fast forward to a clip of a famous Chris Rock bit. “You don’t need no gun control. We need bullet control. Bullets should cost $5, 000,” Rock quips and I guess, because no more is made of the clip, Moore agrees with him. Besides being very funny, what is the clip’s function in the film? The film, and this points back to Moore’s style, works with a very broad canvas. More than this, Rock and Moore, while addressing the topic with humor, both are talking about a form of gun control. Moore, at least in the film’s first half, points to the ease in which a person can have a gun. Rock suggests a means in which to make the process more difficult.

The next scene is where-even though I understand Moore’s style- Bowling for Columbine regresses for me. This scene, and it is not the only scene in the film to do it, loses much of the seriousness a documentary in exchange for laughs. The scene follows some gun strapped militia in Michigan, while Moore talks with its members. Others may disagree with me, but I just felt they all seemed really dumb. I say this not as a criticism of them but as a criticism of Moore. It is not difficult to make anyone look dumb with a camera and editing and leading questions. My problem though is that a documentary should make a genuine attempt to understand its subjects. You do not have to agree with a person, but you should allow for some understanding. A superficial look at one of the subjects of Hoop Dreams (1994, Steve James), William Gates, might show a kid with a lot of God-given talent who forsakes his academic career and hard work only to flake out in basketball. Perhaps this level of understanding requires more time than Moore’s film-which contains so much already- can afford, but no one can convince me that these people come off well, and for Moore to cozy up to and then set up these people strikes me as underhanded and exploitive. To my larger point about his form directing the content, look at the conversation with one of the militiamen talking about, “a level of sophistication” they all have as the camera shows scantily clad camouflage wearing, gun-toting women in a calendar the man organized. It is not hard to see the irony Moore sees. These are not sophisticated people.

Next, we meet James Nichols. Brother of Timothy McVeigh co-conspirator, Terry Nichols. Again we are left to determine the point of this episode. Is there a link between guns and the McVeigh inspired Oklahoma City bombing? Maybe James can give some clue. Moore asks about the federal search of Nichols land, to which, James replies a shrug, “Yeah, I had blasting caps, dynamite fuses, black powder, muzzleloaders, diesel fuel. Sure.” Now the audience knows for the rest of this scene that he is a crazy person. Moore then moves to the kitchen where they have a casual conversation about law enforcement and conspiracy theories. We never here Moore’s question leading to this rant, but perhaps, as the film has us believe, he started on the topic himself. Without the context of the conversation, the audience is left to play catch up with this insane psychotic rant. By the end of this conversation, Moore brings up Gandhi. On the one hand, you have the pro-gun lunatic ranting about ex-wives and tyranny, and on the other, you have Gandhi. We do not need guns, because Gandhi did not use guns. Late Nichols provides this quote, “I use the pen. Because the pen is mightier than the sword. But you must keep a sword ready in case the pen fails.” By this point and from the absence of logic in this quote, we realize Moore is not dealing with rational people. Later, once more, on the subject of gun control, Nichols finally concedes to some measure of control, because after all, “there’s whackos out there.” End scene. Let the irony sit as that is the last we hear from Nichols. Does Nichols represent pro-gun America? The form Moore chooses for his documentary makes that case.

Cue the Beatles. The second montage of the film is accompanied by a popular Beatles recording. This montage scatters together a host of images including kids playing with toy guns and a blind man having target practice to demonstrate a love affair between America and guns. Why does a blind man need a gun? He doesn’t. America’s right to bear arms is not about the need we gather but about love. The montage moves to clips of gun accidents and then into acts of violence. It is apparently a slippery slope. This montage could stand on its own as representing the point of the entire documentary (at least the first half as the second raises some new questions). Moore further spells out his perceived connection between weapons and culture and the Columbine tragedy. This short scene at Lockheed Martin serves no other purpose in the film but to make the director’s point.

The third montage is my favorite. The song is Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” No one ever accused Moore of subtlety. Again his mastery of irony and subversion is on display as we get clips of various U.S instigated atrocities. Remember the scene before ended with the Lockheed Martin guy explaining how in matters of foreign affairs, the United States has to act appropriately. The justification for his company manufactured weapons of mass destruction was that it was a defensive measure counter to other aggressors. This montage shows: United States interference in Iran, assassination in South Vietnam, coup in Chile followed by a dictator being installed, 70,000 murdered in El Salvador, CIA training Osama Bin Laden, weapons distribution in middle east, invasion of Panama, massacres in Southeast Asia, and a mistake in Sudan, capped off by the events of 9/11. What goes around comes around I guess. Moore’s scheme is much larger than just gun crazy civilians. It goes all the way up to the top which he argues creates a culture of violence.

Finally, I would like to discuss two of Moore’s most frustrating and unconvincing methods. They are his use of statistics (which I never trust) and what I call the bum-rush interview. They mark two ways in which the director flagrantly leaves his prints on the material rather than letting the material tell the story. His use of statistics will seem like a small grievance from me but it is because he uses numbers so superficially with zero regards for lurking variables. The statistics he gives for the number of gun-related murders for each country are worthless. Of course, we have a great many more gun-related murders than Germany, because we have a great many more people. Our murder rate (number of murders per 100,000 people) is right there with all of the countries he named, and that includes other types of murders as well. His style of interview (interrogation) is equally unsatisfying. Who, when caught off guard, is going to be at their most eloquent? You may argue that when people are unprepared, they are more honest and revealing, but I do not see it that way. Charlton Heston thought he was going to be interviewed for one thing and was ambushed by something else. He was largely ridiculed for his response. Roger Ebert called his answers “pathetic,” but I thought his “mixed ethnicity” answer reasonable and misunderstood as racist. Regardless of any of this, I call this bullying interview exploitation of an unprepared subject. It is far from ethical.

John E. O’Connor’s essay, with its title, asks the question, “Michael Moore: Cinematic Historian or Propagandist?” Obviously, I would say propagandist. To be clear, propaganda has value, but is, in my opinion, unworthy of being under the documentary category. Resnais’ Night and Fog is devoted to history. It puts the camera on the subject and follows. It recounts the horrors that took place in its concentration camp. The narration is stately; unexpressive and matter of fact. O’Connor references a 1930s idea of documentary as, “productions that would move audiences to social or political action.” But I call this view a reduced image of the documentary. It was reported that after Finding Nemo in 2003, kids started flushing their live fish down toilets. A documentary should shine a light on and make clearer a truth, which is where I think Moore falls short because of his non-salient points and self-important film techniques that obscure the good ideas he does sometimes have. Lynn A. Higgins in her essay, “Documentary in an Age of Terror,” asserts that documentaries, “are the news.” How often have we heard what a propaganda spewing machine the major news outlets have become? Perception is nine/tenths of the law which works with what Higgins finds a difficulty in Documentary filmmaking, when she states, “Despite efforts to define and circumscribe it, however, the documentary has never been as distinct as one might wish. A fictional image has the same reality status (or lack of it) as a documentary one, and both are signifiers whose relation to meaning is subject to interpretation (23).” A documentary should then work to circumvent perception and get at the truth rather than simply creating a new perception. In the same essay, she later writes, “In a world of images so out of control that a bipartisan website during the 2004 election campaign was dedicated to debunking “spin” and what it called “simulated reason,” the public always risks becoming consumers of a semi-fictional spectacle of power (37).” I feel that during Michael Moore movies we are merely consumers of a semi-fictional spectacle of Moore’s power.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

(495)

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

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(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

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(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-

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Fletch Lives: and Subversion (1989, Directed by Michael Ritchie) English 7

Starring Chevy Chase, Hal Holbrook, R. Lee Ermey, Julianne Phillips, Richard Libertini, Cleavon Little

Image result for fletch lives

(7-Very Good Film)

Irreverant. Subversive. Messy.

Comedy star Chevy Chase, for the second time portraying Irwin Fletcher, the quick-witted investigative journalist from Cali, reclines on the porch of his newly acquired Louisiana plantation. Sitting next to him is his black servant, Calculus Entropy (Cleavon Little of Blazing Saddles fame). In the distance, the Ku Klux Klan form on his lawn, in full regalia. Their leader toting a bullhorn prepares to read his unholy sermon. “Friends of yours,” Fletch asks his black sidekick. Calculus shakes his head. This is not Mississippi Burning, though Fletch makes a reference to Gene Hackman later in the scene. This is not a drama. It is a comedy, and so the Ku Klux Klan is not to be feared but to be laughed at. In fact, the Klan is not even there for Calculus. Their leader starts his oratory, “The white race will not allow any kind of alien infection to invade our beloved land,” as some lackey in the background asks if anyone remembered to bring a cross. The alien infection he’s talking about is Fletch, the Californian upsetting their way of life. Fletch disappears from his porch and becomes a new Klan member in white bed sheets. He apologizes for being late and introduces himself as Henry Himmler. The Klan seems to accept him as one of theirs without a further inquest. This scene unfolds in the 1989 comedy Fletch Lives ( directed by Michael Ritchie); a film that can easily be discounted as fluff, a silly comedy, or as some moderately successful Chevy Chase vehicle back when he was a star, but there are scenes such as this one which is special. They are exemplars of subversion, reducing powerful institutions to absurdity. I believe we see a similar scene in the dramatically more successful and revered Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012), where the Ku Klux Klan debate whether they should wear the hoods during a raid. I think there is a more than fair chance that Tarantino has seen this movie and this sequence considering his stated admiration for the director Michael Ritchie.

Ritchie routinely employs satire and subversion in his films, and his ability to make commercial films while not sacrificing that satirical bite deserves admiration. Bad News Bears (1976) dealt with competition and children, Smile (1975) with beauty pageants and small-town hypocrisy, and The Candidate (1972) with politics. But with Fletch Lives, I believe he outdoes himself in terms of ironic expression. He demonstrates not only how comedy can address important social issues which have been greatly evidenced throughout film, but also how comedy can avoid moralizing, easy solutions, and lessons that dramas seem to demand.

One thing that Comedies seem more adept at performing in a meaningful way is acknowledgment; acknowledging a social or political issue. There is a substantial amount of baggage that comes with race and its role in every issue. And comedy depends so much on truth. There is a throwaway line in a far from great film Evolution (2001)  where Eddie Jones (a black man) refuses to thrust himself into danger because, as he states, “I have seen this movie, and the black man always dies first.” That quip is easy to laugh at and move on, but if you dwell on it, you might begin to remember various horror films, Hitchcock films in which the black man does indeed die first, and that could lead to an uncomfortable question. Why is that? Why is the black man expendable? Is he worth less?  Much of the cathartic (or perverse depending on who you ask) pleasure that is derived from those films comes from the imaginative ways that characters are killed off. So when the first person dies, it is supposed to be that moment of catharsis; of excitement, or even joy in experiencing the horror that you chose to experience. But it is hard to attain full catharsis in these older movies where I know the black man dies first and I know why he dies first. Discomfort enters into the equation. So back to Jones’ line, I find it funny not just because he says it with comedic gusto, but also because there is an inequality of value he is pointing to that up to that point had not been expressed. That was only fourteen years ago that someone said hey, it is kind of ridiculous how useless so many black people have been in horror or disaster movies. Now, whatever inequalities still exist, we can say at least black people fare much better in those genres, and we can point to that line as an early example of society recognizing the problem. Soon afterward, black people’s fate in old horror movies became somewhat of a common joke to the point that I would call it a cliché now. When dramas, even great ones such as The Outlaw Josey Wales (Eastwood, 1976) acknowledge injustice, there has to be something to take away. In the aforementioned film, when an Indian tribe leader laments the treatment of his people, it is followed up with Josey Wales’ profound statement, “That’s true. I ain’t promising you nothing extra. I’m just giving you life and you’re giving me life. And I’m saying that men can live together without butchering one another.” It is almost like comedies can get away with not having that moment by operating under the surface. In Ernest Hemingway’s iceberg theory, you had 1/8th above the surface and the rest below. If you imagine the joke, the comedy as the 1/8th above the surface, and the social satire below, I think you will come to the truth of how many comedies operate, and why comedies can often be more fearless in how they attack issues; think of The Daily Show, To Be or Not to Be, or The Interview (regardless of its quality). The Outlaw Josey Wales has its share of sermonizing, but its comedic moments are the ones that I found most provocative, moving, and excoriating. Consider this memorable exchange between Clint Eastwood and Chief Dan George :

JOSEY WALES

It ain’t supposed to be easy to sneak up behind an Indian.

CHIEF DAN GEORGE

…they call us the “civilized tribe”. They call us “civilized” because we’re easy to sneak up on. White men have been sneaking up on us for years.

Looking again at our film, Fletch Lives, I find one of the promotional posters particularly inspired. Deliberately evoking old Gone With the Wind posters, Chevy Chase in the role of Rhett Butler carries an objectified Scarlet over an image of a plantation burning. This poster marks the territory the film attempts to traverse. Gone With the Wind (Fleming, 1939) is an all-American classic; one of the most popular films of all time. Unfortunately for someone who cannot help but get wrapped up in its grandeur and storytelling, it is a film that blatantly perpetuates backward race mythology and makes the old south look like heaven on Earth-slaves and their white masters were best friends of course. Fletch is aware of this great southern fantasy and has fun with it in what might appear to be an innocuous poster.

There is another scene featuring Fletch imagining himself at his newly inherited southern plantation. The sequence floats in with old gospel music and a scenic shot of the sun glaring through the drooping poplar trees. Fletch, dressed as Colonel Sanders, receives a nice glass of lemonade from his buxom mistress as he gazes upon his white workers across his land. Echoes of the southern paradise myth offered to us by Gone With the Wind. “Give me that boy,” Fletch barks at the man shining his shoes; a white man. His workers are not white out of political correctness in my opinion but as a visual departure from what is considered decent. White field slaves appear at once ridiculous until we remind ourselves that slavery of any kind is of course ridiculous. Fletch is not a kindly master by modern standards. He spits on his shoe-shiner’s head which is received with a “thank you master” which in turn is given a “quiet down boy.” I like this detail because it once again plays on the myth of subservient black characters somehow happy in their role. It is not enough for them to be in the role of servant, they also need to be happy. Next comes a truly brilliant moment in what is mostly merely a decent film. Fletch stands up and walks across his land followed by field hands as he sings “zippity-doo-da.” The song is a reference to the now defunct Disney film, Song of the South, about a jolly negro named Uncle Remus. During the “zippity-doo-da” scene in Song of the South, Remus interacts with cartoon characters like Br’er Rabbit and his young white masters. The song itself won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1948 for its apparently spirited innocence, but actually was based on a civil war song called “zip coon.” The sequence signifies Fletch Lives as no great respecter of classic movies, classic songs, or of regional stereotypes.

Finally, the last great aspect of Fletch Lives is in the character arc of Calculus Entropy. He oscillates between the proud servant whose only dream in life is to be of use to the white man, offensive Amos n Andy caricature, and magic negro (the old black type with infinite wisdom). In the end-spoiler alert- we find out that he was an FBI agent all along. I feel this points to a great deal of intelligent, articulate black men and women subjected to those roles in early cinema. Butterfly Mcqueen of “I don’ know nothin’ bout birthin babies” fame in Gone With the Wind had a college degree for example.  Fletch and Calculus, by the end of the film, aren’t just equals because of political correctness but because they are both investigating the same thing, it turns out. Racial progression in dramas, for example Mississippi Burning, always manifests itself above the surface. Gene Hackman solves the case. He gets the perpetrators. We can go home and sleep soundly knowing the bad guys were caught. I believe this moment in comedies can go unrecognized since they are not as obvious. But comedies by changing what we find funny can change what we find acceptable.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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The Dark Knight Rises: Batman’s Apex (2012, Directed by Christopher Nolan) English 9

Starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

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(9-Great Film)

Epic. Satisfying. Austere.

When relatively unknown, at least in mainstream circles, filmmaker Christopher Nolan took on the Batman reboot all those years ago, who could have predicted what came next? I don’t recall any significant anticipation for the first film, Batman Begins, leading up to its release, but, for those who saw it, we knew it signaled something different. The first part of Nolan’s epic trilogy went beyond just a, “darker take on the material,” as it is so often billed and as it was promoted then. It was an intelligent action picture, an ensemble character drama, a crime epic. I didn’t realize how incredibly ridiculous the previous four Batman films were until Christopher Nolan’s Batman; especially Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Can you even explain the plot of Batman Forever? What is The Riddler’s (played hilariously by Jim Carrey, the film’s saving grace, ) master plan? To put televisions on people’s heads? I love Michael Keaton’s take on the Batman, an almost unexplained, enigmatic man. Batman gets more screen time than Bruce Wayne it feels like in the first version, 1989’s Batman, but even that picture with Jack Nicholson dancing around to a hot new Prince soundtrack submerged into goofiness at times. Christopher Nolan grounded his take on the Batman in reality, or as close to as possible with the material. Gone are the half-human, half-penguin antagonists of yore, and in come the very human, philosophic villains of the Dark Knight Trilogy. Every villain in the series has a philosophy, a compelling one to boot, and one of the main struggles is for Batman while being seduced by this philosophy, to stand up and prove it false. Each villain’s philosophy essentially came down to, “humans are inherently bad,” and Gotham is not worth saving. Watching these films, seeing the level of corruption and depravity the city is immersed in, I’d be inclined to agree, but Nolan’s Batman never does, and this is the foundation of the new Batman (now, the benchmark Batman’s) heroism. As played by Christian Bale, considered a strong actor with a cult following before the series made him an A-list movie star, Batman is the brooding, thoughtful hero we deserved.

So, anyways, Batman Begins hits theaters in 2005 and changed everything. The late great Roger Ebert declared, “This is, at last, the Batman movie I’ve been waiting for. The character resonates more deeply with me than the other comic superheroes, perhaps because when I discovered him as a child, he seemed darker and more grown-up than the cheerful Superman. He has secrets.” Ebert gave the film four stars, an anomaly at the time for superhero movies, a genre of film that had not yet reached its prime. Batman Begins ushered in the new, now seemingly never-ending, wave of superhero flicks. It showed that superhero movies could be serious.

Next came, The Dark Knight, and it was as if the world shifted on its axis. I can recall some of my feelings leading up to that film. Heath Ledger as the Joker? Really? Yes, I remember questioning the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker, as incredible as that seems now. He died before the film’s release, but as soon as we saw the first trailer, the excitement was at a boiling point. It released to rave reviews, another four-star review from Ebert and became the second highest grossing film domestically of all time. When it failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, complaints were made, and many feel its snub is the reason the Academy switched from five nominations for Best Picture to ten.

Finally, four years later, Christopher Nolan is now the biggest director in the world, and The Dark Knight Rises releases. After the colossal heights of The Dark Knight, still considered the best of all superhero films, how could The Dark Knight Rises not be anti-climactic? For some, that is, because I consider The Dark Knight Rises the best of the trilogy, despite its conspicuous flaws (Marion Cotillard’s unconvincing death, the mystery of how Bruce gets from the weird prison back to Gotham). The Dark Knight Rises is the best film about Batman. It’s his movie. The Dark Knight, while an excellent film, saw its title character dwarfed by Heath Ledger’s greatness. The Joker is one of film’s greatest villains and he owned that movie. The Dark Knight Rises introduces a new villain, Bane, played by Tom Hardy, but his character is more like a foil meant to enrich Bruce Wayne’s mythology. He’s stronger than Batman. He’s faster than Batman. He wants to destroy everything Bruce Wayne loves.

When the film starts out, we get a spectacular sequence showing off impressive stunt work in the air as Bane and his cronies demolish a plane and set their mysterious plot in motion. Cut to Gotham, and we learn while on the surface this once chaotic city is now at peace, that peace is rather tenuous and comes at the expense of truth. Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Oldman) have propagated the idea that Harvey Dent was a hero who died for the city at the hands of Batman, which somehow is responsible for the current state of the city. It’s been eight years since the events of the Dark Knight. No one has seen or heard from Batman or Bruce Wayne in that time (or put two and two together apparently). It’s no longer young Batman as it was in Batman Begins. He’s older now, physically old. We see the toll Batman’s taken on Bruce Wayne. We’re introduced to Catwoman (played by Anne Hathaway) as she steals from Bruce, and flirts a little. She later warns him that something huge is coming, something bad. She knows about Bane. Bane has taken over leadership of the League of Shadows, picking up where Ra’s al Ghul left off in his determination to destroy Gotham, or really to purge the city. In essence, playing Old Testament God, wiping out civilization, to start over again anew.

To stop him, Batman is physically tested beyond anything he’s ever experienced before. In the best scene of the film, around the middle point of this 3 hour epic, Batman runs into Bane for the first time. It’s a trap, set up by a desperate Catwoman. Batman and Bane begin a brutal fistfight, in the leaky sewers, which ends in the latter breaking the back (and the mask) of our hero. Batman destroyed, a broken Bruce Wayne begs to be killed. Bane responds diabolically, “You can watch me torture an entire city and when you have truly understood the depth of your failure, we will fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny… We will destroy Gotham and then, when it is done and Gotham is ashes, then you have my permission to.”

This sets up another great sequence. Broken Bruce Wayne is held in a bizarre underground prison where escape is nearly impossible. Again, where The Joker tested the people of Gotham, Bane tests Bruce Wayne. The best scenes in the film are between Bane and Batman. Their two boxing matches framing the arc of Bruce’s story. This is a long film with much going on to fill its running time, but I mainly cared about Bruce. Like previous entries, this is an ensemble drama with plenty of characters getting their moments. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a new character named John Blake (later becoming Robin), Bruce has two love interests in Miranda Tate (Cotillard) and Selina Kyle or Catwoman, and old stalwarts Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return in their roles helping Bruce.

The film ends echoing another great epic, the classic A Tale of Two Cities, with Bruce making the ultimate sacrifice like Sydney Carton in Dickens’ tale, who was, himself, a sort of Christ figure. I found it to be a fitting end, and though you could make a case for the penultimate scene being ambiguous or part of a character’s imagination, I’m fine with the happy ending. A great end for a great film in a great trilogy.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

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