Movies That Are The Opposite of John Hughes Movies: American Beauty

Hello, loyal readers, and welcome back to the movie theatre concession stand of the Internet, where you can hear brief plot recaps of and under informed opinions about movies that you can’t believe people paid money to see while experiencing the feeling that you’re wasting precious time between the good parts of life in exchange for something that is sometimes, slightly enjoyable but completely without substance. In this tortured metaphor my ramblings about movies are both the conversations you overhear from annoyingly loud talkers in the line who are on bad dates and the junk food; my writing gets to be two things because I have an overblown opinion of myself, as conveyed in the previous, loving description of my blog. This week, we are not going to talk about a John Hughes movie (if you have a problem with that you can go start your own blog; me, I don’t enjoy them), but we are going to have a discussion that is inspired by John Hughes movies…if that makes any sense.

For those of you who don’t know, John Hughes was a film writer/director who was most prominent in the 1980s (in the US, I should clarify) and whose aesthetic and thematic choices, for many people, defined a generation of cinema. He is probably best known for the movies Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club; nobody seems to know that he was also behind the Home Alone series, but maybe that’s for the best. While his movies have pretty wildly different plots, they do seem to share certain subject matter and concepts (like that they’re all garbage; hey-yo!). John Hughes movies are typically about teenagers and tackle things that would be important to teenagers in a way that somewhat implies that they should be important to everyone else as well; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is about a high school student feigning illness so as to cut class (I’m sure many of us can remember similar episodes from our youth), but what he does instead of going to school can only be described as a wacky adventure that has him leading a choreographed dance in the streets of Chicago to a really mediocre rendition of Twist and Shout while narrowly evading his principle at every turn, and then his friend Cameron’s dramatic arc climaxes on a very serious note when he destroys his father’s 1961 Ferrari out of pent up frustration. The angst of feeling that your parents prize certain possessions over you can certainly be painful and the rush of getting away with something can, to a child, provide a dizzying high, but in this film those things are almost hyperbolic. The Breakfast Club is the story of a misfit group of teenagers who come together during their Saturday morning detention and become surprisingly close while working through their issues; again, being given detention is treated as the same experience as that of a political prisoner under a brutal dictator rather than, you know, kind of annoying.

Pretty in Pink is the story of…how Molly Ringwald likes to wear pink, I guess; I didn’t see that one, but I imagine she is attractive in many colors. The point is that these are all movies about teenagers presented in an overly dramatic, overly dignified way; when Ferris Bueller cuts class, he doesn’t do it the way that Bart Simpson might, the comedy doesn’t come from how childish and scamp-like he is, his methods for doing so are incredibly elaborate and well engineered and his plans for his day off are huge. The comedy, and furthermore the drama in each of these films is drawn from how real and how important these events seem to each of the characters, it’s almost as though John Hughes is reliving moments from his youth blown up to the scale of a major Hollywood production, and in doing so he grants himself and, by proxy, other young people a dignity and a strength in their struggles. I think the movie we’re going to discuss this week is the antithesis of a John Hughes movies, that it says to young people “there is not a strength or a dignity in your position and things are not going to be ok, but that’s mostly because you are going to grow up to be an adult who has overcome neither these inner and outer obstacles nor these flaws that you are currently facing.” That film, incidentally is American Beauty, a 1999 drama written by Alan Ball and starring Kevin Spacey as Lester Burnham, a suburban husband and father going through a mid-life crisis around which all of the rest of the story threads revolve. It’s been called a critique of the American, suburban middle class, it’s been called a critique of materialism, those are all fine (I occasionally permit others to have their own opinions, but strongly discourage it as it leads to thoughtcrime), but I rather view it as a rebuttal to the notion that we grow out of our flaws or even grow up much at all.

I guess it’s time for a recap, but this week’s recap will be EXTREMELY abbreviated; there is a lot of shit going on in this motherfucking classic masterpiece of cinema and I don’t want to get bogged down in the details because this movie balances an incredible number of complex characters, arcs and plot points and how can I, a mere mortal be expected to adequately recap two hours of such thick script in a concise paragraph? And furthermore, WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS HOLDING ME TO THE STANDARD OF GENIUS FILMMAKERS?!?! Wah!!!! Alright, enough of that: the Burnhams are a suburban, middle class family in 1990s America (back when movies could ask probing, troubling questions about whether or not we could ever be personally happy even as our surroundings became nearly idyllic, before 9/11 came and fucked that all up by forcing us to ask probing, troubling questions about the overreach of government and the justness of war; fucking terrorists) made up of two horribly flawed parents (Lester and Carolyn, for those keeping track at home) in a dysfunctional marriage and one awkward, teenaged daughter Jane. Lester develops a really unhealthy but surprisingly consuming crush on Jane’s friend, Angela that serves as a catalytic spark triggering his midlife crisis, which leads him to quit his job, seek out another job with no responsibility and spend his days working out and smoking weed that he buys from his teenaged neighbor, Ricky (played by Wes Bentley in what has to be the defining role of Wes Bentley’s career; he’s so motherfucking compelling in this). Again, being very concise: Ricky’s father (played by Chris Cooper, not to be confused with the evil lawyer from Puncture), here just called “The Colonel”, finds out that Ricky has been selling drugs to Lester buuuuuuuuuut that’s not what he thinks he’s found out. No, because this movie could serve as an argument about the process of film making (we’ll get to that in a future installment, there’s no time now), The Colonel thinks that he’s discovered that his son is in a gay relationship with Lester, which leads him to (again, being CONCISE) kill Lester and thus end the movie.

I feel like I’ve just absolutely butchered the story of this film to fit it into the allotted space, but if you want to know 100% of the plot details you should go and watch the movie yourself. Actually, I highly recommend that everybody reading this go and watch it right now, it will help with the ensuing discussion and even if it wouldn’t, the film is quite excellent. This time that’s not just my opinion, it won five oscars including Best Picture. But back to the discussion at hand: American Beauty does rather the opposite of a John Hughes movie; where the latter might glorify a teenaged perspective on the world for the purposes of a gratifying a younger audience, the former tears down the characteristics of youth so as to poke uncomfortably at an adult audience. There are two major ways the movie accomplishes this: first, by attacking romantic relationships as we understand and portray them, and secondly by attacking the notion of rebellion as brought to us in movies.

There are three romantic relationships the film follows, well four if you count those that are emotionally dead and hollow :-). Up front there is the Burnham’s marriage (that is, the relationship between Lester and Carolyn), which we are invited to discount from a romantic perspective because it’s in a state of utter ruin as the curtain opens, but it does draw interesting comparisons to the interactions between an overbearing mother and a troubled teenager that we’ll come back to later. For now, suffice it to say they pretty much to hate each other and move on to the more uncomfortable examples; as a result of the sorry (and mutually antagonistic) state of their marriage, Carolyn has an affair with a fellow real estate agent (did I mention that Carolyn’s a real estate agent? No, I didn’t, because this movie has so much plot and Tommy Wiseau doesn’t write this blog!) who is played by the bad guy from Mr. Deeds and is thus an utterly repulsive human being. Why then, does a woman as fine as Annette Bening stoop to his level? Let’s rewind the clock a little bit to high school (ok, a lotta bit for some of us; gosh I’m old): it’s a common trope at least in movies (and I think in real life, but I don’t know much about teenaged girls if I’m honest and I knew even less about them in high school) for young girls to be attracted to boys with some social status or other marking of success; boys who have cars, maybe boys who are good at sports, hell if the The Simpsons is anything to by (and for media tropes it most certainly is) even boys who are really good at debate club (for girls who are in debate club and thus value that), these are all indicators of social value that girls might respond to (possibly due to social conditioning, but fuck there isn’t time to really dig into this).

Ok, how does that relate to American Beauty? Well, the thing that Carolyn seems to find so attractive about the man whose eyebrows are about to crawl off of his face and come over and chew your eyeballs out (the actor’s name is Peter Gallagher, go look him up) is that he’s really good at real estate (the “real estate ki”–kkkglrk, sorry, I threw up in the middle of thinking about what this fucker calls himself, let’s try that again…the “real estate ki…deep breaths…king”), which is a thing that she clearly values, not only because she does it for a living but also thanks to some psychological damage that we’re shown early on during a montage of her failing to sell a house that clues us into the fact that she judges her self-worth by her ability to sell real estate. So he’s got some highly subjective, highly personalized measure of social value according to Carolyn’s incredibly specific and poorly judged metric for men, and this is sufficient to lead to their affair. It’s kind of pathetic, but that’s kind of the point: she has a romantic leaning left over from her youth, a childish taste that she never quite grew out of, strong enough to compromise her marriage. She is still making decisions about who to have sex with the way she did when she was an uneducated, unworldly high schooler, and it’s exactly as dumb now as it was then.

Lester also pursues an affair, but his is more of a slow burn and thus consumes more of the movie’s running time (largely because it drives more of the plot), but his is with a high school cheerleader roughly his daughter’s age. Trying to sleep with someone your daughter’s age is ALWAYS creepy, doing that when your daughter is a minor, on the other hand, is illegal to boot! Alright, I want to address something here: a lot of people took this subplot, combined with Lester being a somewhat sympathetic antihero to mean that the movie condones pedophilia, or at least asks us to empathize with and understand a pedophile. I disagree, I think the point is actually that we’re supposed to be disgusted, we’re supposed to think Lester is pathetic, I think we’re even supposed to think the movie is calling us dirty names. The film doesn’t condone pedophilia, it’s about pedophilia. A little bit. So, Lester falls kind of hard for Angela, and it leads him to have these elaborate fantasy sequences that befit a much more serious, much more aspirational romance; but it’s not serious, it’s not aspirational, it’s pathetic and gross at best and at worst is something that starts with “statutory”, so what gives? Well, remember how we rolled back the clock on Carolyn and speculated about what kind of boy she might have found attractive in high school? Let’s give Lester the same treatment, only it isn’t as sophisticated to come to a conclusion: a 17 year old boy is (at least in media, but also sometimes in real life) attracted to blond 16, 17 and 18 year old girls (I don’t want to discount gay people and the movie certainly doesn’t either but we’re talking about Lester right now) whose bodies follow a particular pattern of curves if you follow me.

It logically follows that grown up Lester would, as we’ve discussed, by and large not have grown out of that, and to some extent (as Lester is standing in for the everyman in this film) neither has the rest of adult, 90s society; the film seems to say “you, yes you, the 20 to 60 year old men in the audience watching this film; as far as we have observed you seem to like this kind of woman: slender, blonde, curvy, flirtatious, long haired….and 16! You creepy bastard!” And we in the audience snap awake and go “what? No! You got it all wrong! I mean the other stuff, yeah, but I’m not into children!” Then the movie would go “oh really? There isn’t an entire industry selling products to women to make their skin softer like it was when they were 16? Or dying their hair to be more vibrantly colored, like it was when they were 16? There isn’t an ocean of pornographic material featuring women cosplaying high school students? Hmmmm?” And we went “uhhhh, can we get back to you?” Anyway, shifting from the movie calling the audience on its creepy bullshit and back to something slightly less uncomfortable: the character, Lester, just like his wife, finds the same things attractive now as he did when he was in high school…the EXACT same things…et-hem. I genuinely felt that Carolyn’s torrid affair was off-putting and pathetic, but I have to admit that it absolutely pales in comparison to Lester’s. Holy shit this made me squirm around in my theater seat…which is what I call my couch. So that’s point two in this movie’s scathing review of adult romance, but you’ll be happy to hear that while the third point is no less childish it is less awful, destructive and distressing.

See the third relationship is actually between two children, so it can be forgiven for being childish and with that in mind the whole thing comes across as kind of heart-warming. However, great care is taken that this romance is never not seen as naive. What am I on about? Right, Jane and Ricky, two unlikely yet obvious lovebirds. This relationship is built less on people making dumb choices and more on two people whose damage each complements the other. Jane has low self esteem; early in the movie we learn that she’s saving up for a breast enhancement, she’s less conventionally attractive than Angela but the two have developed a friendship that seems to exist solely to make the former feel worse about herself while the latter feels better. She is down on herself in a very classic sense. Ricky is…awkward to say the least; he’s new in the school district, doesn’t have any friends and doesn’t seem to have ever had any, rumors swirl immediately that he was previously hospitalized for his insanity and that he is dangerous. All of this means that Ricky is alone most of the time, a sad fact from which he chooses to distract himself with the aid of a camcorder that he takes absolutely everywhere; see, he’s got a rather unique visual sense of the world (one of the many reasons that this movie could be about movies, but I digress) and he makes a habit of seeing a kind of beauty in absolutely everything. Are you starting to see how these two awkward teenagers fall together yet? What Jane needs is someone to see her as genuinely beautiful, and to communicate that to her as clearly as possible. This, Ricky is uniquely equipped to do.

What Ricky needs is a little less Saturday-morning-children’s-show, but it’s still pretty straightforward; see, just as Ricky can see the beauty in other things that other people can’t, he needs somebody to see the…him in him. He’s a bit closed up due to years of emotional neglect and physical abuse, and he’s been narrowed down until he can only experience the world in this one very specific way, but it scares others away. He needs someone who can see through the weirdness of his camera and understand that there is a person behind it trying desperately to connect, and to reach back in turn into his world. After spending some time with him, especially a very particular, now famous scene in which he describes a 15 minute recording of a trash bag blowing in the wind as beautiful using this really poetic language and comes to tears over it, Jane figures it out; by the way, that speech that Wes Bentley delivers (which he does with the utmost sincerity and gusto because he’s a great actor) is just ninth-grade-poetry-by-an-angsty-teen awful, but it works because it’s supposed to seem so childish and stupid even though it’s very important that Ricky means every word of it. Anyway, Jane cracks the code of the neighbor boy, figures out what she needs to do to reach him and does it in a really touching but kind of odd scene wherein she stands at her bedroom window, opposite his, and strips for him as he records it with his camera. Ok, it’s a really stupid thing, especially in the digital age where the internet exists, and all of this is technically illegal, and Ricky’s inability to interact with the world normally is ultimately unhealthy and childish, but…dammit, it’s just so unironically beautiful. Jane has determined what it takes to really get into Ricky’s world, and it’s silly but she’s willing to do it anyway and (as the movie seems to be shouting at you) what is that if not real love?

So that’s point three in the movie’s thesis that romantic love in the modern, adult world is somewhat fucked: it lays down this third romance next to the other two and says “yeah, it’s stupid and it’s childish, but what makes it any less meaningful or real than the other two? What is grown up about two affairs based on bad judgement and poor impulse control? They’re all dumb and ugly, at least this one has heart!” Damn right it does, movie! Et-hem. Moving swiftly onto the second major bullet point in this movie’s thesis: similarly to the romantic arcs, American Beauty also presents two “fight the power” narrative arcs and it does basically the same thing with them as it did with the love stories. Firstly, remember how I said it was important that Carolyn’s relationship to Lester is less “devoted lover” and more “ball busting mother from Malcom In The Middle”? See, they’re going somewhere with that (they damned well better be, because it gets old real fast); when Lester starts his mid-life crisis, its beginning is marked with simple acts of rebellion that eventually balloon into larger acts of rebellion. At first, they are reasonably cathartic and we can kind of get on Lester’s side (so as to be lured into a trap): his wife scolds him for masturbating, to which he replies, basically, that he can jerk if it he wants to! Ok, probably not going to end up on any picket signs in the near future, but sure, the freedom to masturbate is basically step number one on the road to owning your own sexuality and yourself. Fine.

Next, Lester quits his awful job and blackmails his boss out of a year’s salary in the process, which feels really good both for him and the audience because of an earlier scene wherein we learn that Lester’s bosses are assholes and his job is degrading. Ok, I’m still on board. Then comes an overt stand against his wife: at dinner, during a heated argument, Lester stands up and throws his plate against the wall, shattering it to pieces and shocking his horrible wife into blissful silence. In any other movie, this would be a stand-up-and-cheer kind of moment, marking the beginning of Lester’s victory over himself and his oppressors…but this isn’t other movies, now is it? In fact, it quickly occurs to the viewer that if we tilted our perspective a little bit this would cease to look like a moment of empowerment and begin to look like an angry child throwing a temper tantrums; ok, so the camera doesn’t zoom out, tilt and shift perspectives to illuminate that point for us, so maybe we’re supposed to still be on board with Lester thus far, but they at least crack the foundation of our support for our thus-far-hero by holding the shocked silence for a few seconds before resuming the angry shouting emanating from Carolyn as if to say “Nope! That’s not how that works in real life!” The rest of Lester’s rebellion comes in the form of his taking a low-paying job so as to shrug off responsibility and spending his large amount of free time working out and smoking weed in the garage. Not exactly a Malcolm X style vision of post rebellion enlightenment but whatever, the man is living out his nostalgic ideal…oh wait, that might have been the point, mightn’t it? Alright, let’s segue into Carolyn’s arc.

See Carolyn, as previously mentioned, is indulging in a…et-hem…steamy romance (oh god, it’s still the guy from Mr. Deeds, right? Do that guy’s eyebrows bother anybody else?) outside of her marriage and while we’re never led to hold her feet to the fire too much for cheating on a husband who doesn’t really seem to care much when he does find out, she is objectively doing a bad thing. When Lester does discover the two, he takes the whole thing gracefully and his major conclusion from it is that he doesn’t have to listen to his wife anymore, but Carolyn’s…hot piece on the side…ugh…decides he can’t risk their affair becoming public knowledge and breaks it off. She’s heartbroken but if you’re having trouble feeling bad for her, that’s kind of the point: she’s not entitled to shit, here, she did a bad thing, she got caught, and now as a consequence she can’t continue to cheat on her husband. Boo-fucking-hoo, right? Well she convinces herself that she deserved that relationship and that Lester ruined it for her, that he has wronged her and now she has to seek justice. She psychs herself up with some self-help tapes, chanting something about taking control of her life, and resolves to go shoot and kill her husband. This is, as far as I can tell, the film’s way of replaying the earlier plate-breaking scene but with the camera pulled back and watching from a different perspective and thus the curtain is pulled back to reveal, *dramatic drumroll*, Lester is not an empowered rebel, he is a naive, spoiled child who is lashing out in an inglorious, unsophisticated temper tantrum that threatens to destroy his family and their livelihood. He has, as we the audience might have, confused that for taking control of his life, just as his wife is now making a similar bad, naive decision out of entitled frustration that threatens to destroy their family.

It’s hard to do with this what I did with Lester’s attraction to children and tie it back to a larger, disgusting, social trend, but there is something to be said (for the 50th time on this blog) about how many large and small social movements of the 80s and 90s seem to have revolved around traditional American power structures seeking to “take back” some implicit birthright to run society, and how they usually seem to boil down to “I’m sick of having to share mainstream consideration with people of color, feminists and the LGBT community, I want it all to myself again.” But I may be stretching to connect American Beauty to groups like the Reagan administration or the Tea Party; I accept that I do that sometimes. Nonetheless, there does seem to be some degree of thought in this film that wants you, the next time you see a group in the throes of what they perceive to be a righteous revolution of some sort, to consider that Lester Burnham probably thought of himself in the same way as he destroyed his family on his quest to sleep with a 16 year old. Man, I hate to end on such a downer; I guess I can emphasize what I said earlier: this movie rocks and you should go and watch it immediately if you have not done so already. I can also say that, despite all of the heavy handed social criticism this movie has to offer, it has moments of real, undeniable beauty in it and its ending (which I won’t spoil no matter how much it would add to this discussion) is still one of my favorite, unironically hopeful endings in movie history. Goodnight, friends!

Real Life Doesn’t Matter: Puncture

Welcome back, friends, to the home of the least important and least informed pop culture observations on The Internet; it’s a high bar, but I think I consistently meet it. You know, when I first started this venture (I’m calling it a venture and you can just deal with it) it was mostly so that I could express opinions that I’ve had for a long time about movies that I really liked (or disliked, I guess) because my roommates and immediate family were getting sick to death of hearing them. But then a funny thing happened: I kind of ran out of those and in fact ran out of movies that I’d seen that were worth talking about at all (or at least those about which I had vivid memories), and since then I’ve been watching movies en masse to try and build up a back log in addition to the one movie per week that I need to keep this thing afloat. I’ve been waiting for one to come along in my stream that would allow me to stage a particular rant and this week I think I’ve finally found the thing, an indie movie called Puncture starring Chris Evans from way back in the distant past, that is the year 2011. I’m not one to waste an opportunity, or as the part of my brain that speaks only in movie lines would say “my dad always said, he said when you got a shot you take it”, so I’d like to announce a new, occasional series: Real Life Doesn’t Matter.

In this series we will explore a particular type of film: those that are based on things that actually happened in boring old reality, but which someone has been kind enough to dress up in cool, shiny movie reality so that we can all enjoy them. The film adaptation as a concept is a long and proud tradition with a lot to be said about it and it probably deserves its own series; it won’t be getting one because adaptations of one form or another constitute the majority of movies that are worth talking about in any given year and that series would quickly come to dominate this blog. However, a particular subset of adaptations rarely make it onto my radar and those are the kind where the material being adapted isn’t a dirty, dirty lie (also called “fiction” in some parts of the world) but rather an account of an actual event, but when they do get my attention they give me a blend of emotions that I seldom get with any other kind of film and it probably bears talking through. To get you in the right head space for this ramble, I’d like to ask you to think back to the first film that you remember seeing that was based on an existing property, that you not only knew was such but where you actually had intimate knowledge of the basis material, or maybe you were very close to someone who did. For me it was X-Men, I think, given that a.) I didn’t see Fight Club until I was much older and b.) was much less aware of the Fight Club book than the movie until relatively recently.

This exercise works better if the property in question is either for children or you (or your close friend) were a child when you got into it (X-Men, Spider-Man, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, etc.). Do you remember the complaints that you had about the movie when you finally saw it? Yeah, you were down on the director’s choice of lighting style and how you felt that the dutch angle was an overused relic of a bygone era of film making, right? Psych! If you’re anything like me you were appalled that they made one slight alteration to this or that character’s costume, or backstory, or Cyclops’s visor had a knob instead of just a button, or Wolverine’s claws were more like knives and less like fencing swords, or that Spider-Man is supposed to meet Gwen Stacy first and Mary Jane later, etc. We nitpicked every little superficial alteration made to our beloved property that, if we’re being honest, ultimately made for a better visual presentation. I’ve already done a whole rant (see my article about Serena) on why adaptations have to adapt, but I do want to put this instinct forward in a light that grants it some grace because it is born out of love; we have visceral reactions to any tiny alteration of a thing that we love because we feel like a.) it’s already perfect, and b.) all of it is really important. Now imagine for a second how you’d have felt if the thing being adapted actually had been important, like say, off the top of my head, if the movie that you obsessed over had been an adaptation of some of the most significant acts taken by the foremost civil rights leader of the 20th century, like the movie Selma was. Imagine how unbelievably nitpick-y you might have been then, when the canon on the line isn’t just the thing that distracted you from your mother’s drinking problem when you were 10 but the reason that you get to vote.

I’ve seen this either go in a movie’s favor (i.e. a movie becomes unassailable because it’s about something unassailable) or squeeze a movie into a place where it can’t win with certain critics (Selma, for instance, was criticized for not doing enough to portray LBJ as a hero, a complaint which is super lame in the grander context and probably born out of racism, but which is also representative of a common type of criticism leveled against this kind of film). Today, I’m going to argue that both of those instincts are dumb. God, I break a paragraph of seriousness with a single joke and that’s all I’ve got? Fucking hell; alright, how about this: if you go and watch Puncture after this, don’t be confused like I was. The bad-guy lawyer is being played by Brett Cullen (he was the dad who had lung cancer and then died in a motorcycle crash in Ghost Rider…and probably some other stuff as well) and is not to be confused with Chris Cooper (who played Wes Bentley’s angry, gay dad in American Beauty), even though they were both in a movie about Wes Bentley (who played the bad guy in Ghost Rider with Cullen and played the creepiest and most trite interpretation of a teenage romantic in the history of film making in American Beauty). I have trouble telling those two apart, in fact I have trouble telling all old, white men apart in movies and television, especially when a casting director depends on face archetypes to convey characterization because they’re lazy bastards. We who have been pushing for diversity in television since the 90s are not obsessive about PC culture, we just feel that we would have loved the X-Files a lot more had it been easier to keep track of who everybody was. Alright, is it time for the film’s recap yet? And for the hopelessly lost the film in question is Puncture, that’s the 2011 indie flick starring Captain America, I mean Steve Rogers, I mean Johnny Storm, I mean DAMMIT, Chris Evans!

Mike Weiss (played by Chris Evans) is a loose cannon cop who doesn’t play– wait, hold on, no, he’s the no-nonsense coach of a small town’s high school football team in West Tex– no, wait, that’s not right either. Let’s see, where did I mark him down on the spectrum of lazy clichés? Ah yes, he’s two clichés stuck together that one would normally not expect to be stuck together (a meta-cliché): he’s a crack-snorting, hooker-frequenting, hardcore party animal in between arguing personal injury cases as a lawyer in a private law firm that he runs with a high school buddy. That kind of sets up the premise of this whole film, then, doesn’t it? It’s clearly communicated in Evans’ first five minutes of screen time what kind of lawyer he is: passionately driven to right ethical wrongs with the power of the law by uncovering corruption and punishing it with a swift and terrible vengeance, so we can expect his story to fall into the mold of an Erin Brockovich. Ah, but there’s a twist: we’re also shown how Weiss doesn’t cleanly divide his work life from his personal life, and his personal life is a mess so we can also expect a story about drugs destroying someone slowly, a la Leaving Las Vegas (look, I know there are probably better reference points for that but I’m just not into that kind of movie and I don’t know them!). Well, hold onto those expectations because the movie pretty much delivers: Puncture is the story of Weiss and company trying to take on (and take down) a monopolistic, Big Pharma conspiracy to prevent Jeffrey Dancort (played by Marshall Bell, who is just visually distinct enough from Brett Cullen so as not to piss me off) from selling his patented safety syringes in hospitals, which he has designed to prevent needlestick injuries in nurses (which is how Vicky, played by Vinessa Shaw, ended up terminally ill, precipitating both the invention of the needle and Weiss’s involvement in the case).

Oh, and Michael Biehn is in it, but it’s hard to explain how or why; then again he’s good in anything so it’s best not to question it.

So the pieces are laid for the basic story beats that you all know by heart, wherein Weiss, his partner Paul Danziger and Dancort get progressively in over their heads against a dark, shadowy enemy in search of truth and justice and just when things seem darkest something crucial turns in their favor and the day is won. Only this time the movie is also about drug addiction, so Weiss gradually descends into his addiction, caught in a cycle of self destruction, self realization, shame and further self destruction that culminates when he dies of a drug overdose under suspicious circumstances to tie his story up neatly and also give Danziger the jolt he needs to go from the doubting Thomas to the inspired crusader hell bent on carrying out Mike’s work. As I hope you’ve all gathered from the pre-recap premise, Puncture is based on true events that really happened in the actual world to real people and so it’s tempting to judge this movie (as one might judge all movies of its ilk) by those events rather than the film itself. After all, Puncture doesn’t matter as a movie, what matters are all of those nurses dying of HIV contracted from dirty needles in the line of duty, saving lives; what matters is that a life saving, world changing invention can be stifled because hugely powerful corporate overlords put their annual profits before human dignity. Right? Wrong! And shut up.

Firstly, any time that you watch a movie that tells you it’s based on true events you should take a moment to come to terms with the fact that it’s a lying liar which is lying out of its lying hole. I say you should come to terms with it because it’s genuinely ok. See, as previously explained, the screenplay is a very restrictive form of media and it has a lot of rules (explicit and implicit) by which any story that wants to be put to film has to abide. See my frustrated tearing down of Serena for further details on that, but the point here is that no material that’s being adapted to film is exempt from the restrictions of the screenplay, even real life. The story has to go from conflict to resolution around three quarters of the way in, and if that’s not how the real thing happened then you’re going to have to lie about that; there has to be a clear, individual bad guy with a human face that we can learn to hate, and if no such person exists in real life because the bad guy is the nature of capitalism or the sharing of responsibility in corporate America then you’re going to have to make one up. If your story follows two protagonists (as this one does) then there has to come a point where they have an irreconcilable disagreement and there’s a resulting schism between them because all drama is conflict, and if those two characters never really had that kind of falling out then you’re going to have to invent such a clash or drop one of the characters entirely because he’s redundant. As a result, the end product (that is, the film) that comes out of the process of adapting real life to the screen has been really gruesomely altered and the original events only serve as a loose inspiration; the movie is almost a completely original work.

Really, if you think about it, it should be obvious how much movies get doctored from your day to day life: have you ever lived through something that you thought would make a good movie, or just a good story? A parents’ divorce, a traumatic injury, a family member going off to war? Hell, there exist real people en masse who lived through 9/11, or just think of any surgeon, cop or EMT that works in a big, metropolitan area, real life is ripe with movie adaptation material. Ok, so think about someone you know whose story could conceivably be a movie. Are they in any way prepared to be a movie’s protagonist? Is everything they’ve ever said clear, concise and relevant to the thing about them which is most interesting? Do they dress in a way that is sharp and cool, all the time? Is their house big enough to accommodate a film crew and the events of the story simultaneously? Probably not. Why would any other human being meet these criteria? So of course a movie about real life is going to lie a lot, real life is not a good movie and as such a movie is much more a reflection of the people who make it and their talents than the events it portrays. You can even see this if someone tells a good joke or a good anecdote badly: the material isn’t everything. As such, if a movie is bland, or lifeless, or the dialogue sucks, or the sets are distracting, that doesn’t mean anything about real life, it means that the story teller behind the movie fucked up, and you can fuck up anything. If you don’t believe me that you can fuck up anything, think back to any time you’ve ever fallen asleep in a history class, and then realize that the majority of those are cases where your teacher is telling you a story that is objectively interesting in a way that puts you to sleep.

The War of the Worlds is basically a retelling of the story of Columbus’s conquest of North America and it brought an entire nation to the edge of their seats over the goddamn radio, but did your history textbook give you a thrilling epic about a culture clash that wrought endless destruction on once-great civilizations? No! And shut up. And I’m getting off track, back to movies.

So even an adapted movie is really an original work of storytelling by a film maker (or several film makers); an original work of storytelling is an incredibly taxing endeavor, so let me ask you this: why bother adapting something that already happened in real life? To tell the story to people who weren’t there, of course, or more broadly to bring the story to people who aren’t already aware of it. That’s really who an adaptation is for: outsiders. I know fuckall about feudal Japan or where it went when I wasn’t looking, but after seeing a movie like The Last Samurai I have a new found empathy for the struggles that nation went through in order to adapt to a rapidly changing world and BAM! I get blindsided by my own interest in the Meiji Restoration, history is fun again, I’m a little better for the experience and it’s all because someone who was an insider, who had knowledge and interest about a historical event chose to bridge the gap with me. Wow, films are truly amazing, aren’t they? Yes they are! And shut up. So in this way a film that retells a real life story has a responsibility to represent that story faithfully, yes, but more importantly in a way that brings it across to outsiders. It’s not so much that I should ever care about a movie because, for instance, it’s about the life and times of Jesus and boy, don’t I love that Jesus; rather, I should be led to ask questions like “huh, I wonder what this Jesus guy is all about” because I watched a movie that was so well made and deeply impactful that it brought me into a whole new world. You know, like the Passion of the Christ absolutely didn’t at all even a little bit, for anybody. Et-hem. The point is that a historical film has to, essentially, pitch itself to me and a bad movie about something is a bad pitch for that something; the something itself has nothing to do with it.

This brings me neatly to my third and final word on this topic: in addition to bridging the gap between a thing and an unconvinced group of non-believers in that thing, a film adaptation is also kind of a time capsule about that thing. In the case of Puncture, this story is the legacy of a man; Mike Weiss is dead and the last thing he did on this Earth was try to protect the lives of an army of healthcare first responders, that is a huge responsibility and it does not rest on the viewer, friends, it rests on the film. Movie, you chose to bring me the story of a real human being with hopes, dreams and ambitions, who tried to do big things for the best of reasons, you’d better bring your A game. If you have flaws, if I don’t like you, not only is that on you, but it’s a disservice you’ve done to a real person who deserves better. Get your shit together!

Alright, that was a bit of a downer. Let’s shift gears a little bit and try to render a verdict on the specific piece, Puncture. Well, as the story of the legal battle that Weiss and his parter Danziger fought for years on behalf of the front line of medicine…eh, it’s alright. It’s not great, it lacks focus a little bit, some of the moments that should feel huge and climactic kind of fall flat and a lot of the information I need to have to feel things is dribbled out with minimal impact. It’s kind of problematic and that’s a shame because the whole incident really does have the makings of a thrilling drama but the movie never quite gets there. That said, this movie, like Heath Ledger’s Joker, has an ace in the hole: it’s also the story of the individual who was Mike Weiss. How does it hold up as a character drama/biopic for Weiss? It’s awesome. Weiss is a fantastic, deep character who is portrayed so well and with such a human touch you’d almost get the feeling that this story was put together by…wait a second, this story was written by Danziger? His legal partner? The one who was so inspired by his life and subsequent death that he took down the medical supply industry? Well no wonder! Seriously, this film is a great homage to the real life version of its central character, and the man in question comes across as flawed but admirable, downtrodden but inspirational, very cool but also relatable in a very human way. I don’t normally do this, but I really recommend that everyone reading this go check it out. Goodnight!

Your Movie Sucks, and Here’s Why: Serena

Welcome back, faithful readers, to the dark den of rambling nonsense into which I pour things that I have recently shouted at my television that is my blog. Some of you will remember that not long ago I officially granted myself permission to descend into nastiness aimed at movies that are particularly bad; you’ll also recall that I restricted my focus to movies that serve as teachable moments for how not to make movies. Basically, I wouldn’t write about a movie being bad unless it ruined several days of my life by burrowing deep into my brain and tormented me with the sheer level of incompetence poured into it. Guess what; I found another one. This time around, luckily, I get to focus specifically on the execution of the story, which is where 90% of the problems lie, as opposed to last time when the issues mostly revolved around how much Michael Bay hates me, so I hope to come out of this review a little less infuriated. The operative word there is “hope”.

The film in question is Serena, a 2014 piece set in the depression and follows the story of newlyweds George (played by Bradley Cooper) and Serena (Jennifer Lawrence) Pemberton, and after careful study of the script that’s all I’m prepared to say as far as what the film is about. Other things happen in it, surely, but none of them really seem to be the center of the story; but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Pembertons own a timber business and are struggling to maintain and harvest woodlands in North Carolina during the depression in the face of political interests that want to turn the land into a national park and the imposing threat of the Great Depression. Tensions mount when Buchanan, George’s closest non-J-Law friend and business partner, threatens to reveal that the latter has been bribing public officials if he won’t sell the land to the government. George murders Buchanan under the guise of a hunting accident and then…feels badly about it for a little bit. Serena, meanwhile, falls ill with that horrible disease most commonly called pregnancy but then she has to ride a horse to save a man’s life and the process induces a miscarriage after which her doctor informs her that she’s infertile and will no longer be able to bear young at all. Serena then goes coo-coo bananas and recruits the man that she saved (an employee of her husband’s) to track down and murder George’s illegitimate child and its mother and George has to stop him in a way that involves turning himself in for the bribing thing.

If that summary sounded a little bit like I’m 9 and have had too much Frankenberry cereal this morning and I lack focus and don’t know how to tell stories, you’re not imagining things and as far as I can tell it’s not me. The storyline of this movie is all over the goddamn place and the writers (or at least the writers and the director) couldn’t seem to agree on what the important through-line of the story was. Is this the tale of a depression-era timber magnate struggling to keep his empire together through economic and political turmoil? That would be a great movie, but that’s certainly not this movie because this one forgets about the timber business for the majority of its runtime right when it’s supposed to be heating up. Is it the story of a man so committed to a dream and driven by the need to provide for his family that he sours a long cultivated friendship by killing a man that he respects? That movie sounds really dark and compelling! It also sounds like it would time the transformation of the protagonist such that we really feel his inner turmoil and the act itself such that it felt climactic and also like it resolved the story. Yeah, that doesn’t sound like Serena; we’re going to have to rule that one out. Ok, well is it maybe the story of strong, independent woman in the early 20th century as the stress of such a monumental loss as her fertility and the social implications that are brought with it break down her once iron will and reduce to her a psychotic baby-murderer? I would watch that, especially if it starred Jennifer Lawrence! Yeah, you may be starting to notice a pattern; this film does not give nearly enough time to the development of the character of Serena, and doesn’t give us enough of her perspective for us to really understand how she makes that transformation and as such, when she does start the baby-murdering, it just looks like the movie has been waiting 90 minutes to inform us that Serena is batshit-on-toast insane.

Sorry, movie, you’re not about that either. Ok, well what the fuck is this movie about? Good question! Well, I guess you could say it’s about the relationship between George and Serena, but if that’s the case then she still doesn’t get enough screen time, he’s too much of a dick for me to have real, genuine emotions about the two of them, neither of them gets enough real character development, and the relationship itself gets pushed into the background for way too much of this film’s run time. Now when you combine these aspects with the fact that the movie wastes a certain amount of run time early on with a highly-compressed-for-time falling-in-love-and-getting-married sequence in which we actually see George and Serena meet for the first time, but which doesn’t really mean anything to the plot later on that we couldn’t have gathered from context and doesn’t really inform the characters in any meaningful way, I start to get the suspicion that this screenplay (which was adapted from a 2008 book, by the way) is trying too hard to faithfully reenact the book. I can’t say for certain that this is what happened, but all the hallmarks are there of a faithful adaptation gone awry. You see, a screenplay is a very restrictive form of writing, the audience is going to experience the entire thing in about two hours and they’re doing it while the part of their brain that is active is not the most sophisticated and they’re absorbing a lot of things unconsciously. As a result the story needs to be incredibly focused, it doesn’t get to meander very much before it starts unraveling. Other media can get away with a little bit more; books, for instance, are relatively long compared to movies both in length (the average screenplay is less than 128 pages of one and a half spaced text with lots of white space) and time the reader takes to consume them (usually off and on for several days at the very least compared to 120 minutes).

As a result, something like a book often gets to have a lot more going on, lots of subplots of relatively equal importance, things that go away for long periods and come back to radically shift the focus of the piece, lots of preamble that fills in the world with rich detail, etc. A movie does not get that luxury. If a book says “Tom and Dianne met in a field of Kentucky blue grass outside of the summer camp where Dianne was working as a counselor after having long suppressed her love of children so as not to confront the horrible tragedy of the car accident where she lost her only daughter and through a cruel twist of fate had become infertile, a tragedy that was compounded by her former husband, Bill, leaving her because he wanted another baby so badly and secretly blamed her for the accident, and was now periodically reliving the experience but was acting on the wishes of her half-sister, Lisa, who persuaded her that the activity might help her get over her recent divorce, a statement that turned out to be pure premonition when Tom, a big city lawyer who was taking the summer off to clear his head of the turmoil of the most antitrust litigation seen in a three year span since the era of Rockefeller and Carnegie and who suspected that his extreme work ethic and characteristic, all-business demeanor had kept him from finding love in the 30 years of life he had lived thus far after being born to a couple of dairy farmers from northern California shortly before they fell prey to one of the worst droughts in that state to happen since the territory was ceded by Mexico to the United States, walked onto the scene.”, the equivalent, well adapted movie says…nothing at all, this is a movie about how Tom and Dianne take a big pharmaceutical company to court after their adopted child contracts syphilis from an improperly produced batch of cough medicine and find that the system is immensely powerful and they’re in way over their heads 20 years after the scene I just described!

In the previous example, there isn’t time in a movie to do both the story of Tom and Dianne falling in love and the story of Tom and Dianne taking on big pharma, you have to pick one and go with it. Then you have to realize that the story you picked is still probably too long for a movie format so you have to trim it down as much as possible; you start the story at the last possible second, you combine or eliminate secondary and tertiary characters for the sake of efficiency, you cut whole sequences from the original material, many of which are very cool and you miss very much but they aren’t absolutely essential to the story at hand. This is why you’ll often see movies that convey something about the backstory of this or that character by showing us award ribbons strewn on a wall, or newspaper clippings on a fridge, or maybe there will be a scene where a character is doing two things that they wouldn’t normally do together just to tell the audience that they’re both important to him or her; you need to push establishing facts into the viewer’s brain as quickly and efficiently as possible. I was watching a movie recently called Puncture, where Chris Evans plays a lawyer who runs a law firm with a long time friend of his; they wanted to explain quickly that Evans’ character is a very good, very dedicated lawyer but that he has a drug problem, so what do they do? They show him snorting coke off of hookers while he’s preparing legal arguments, then they cut mid-sentence to him in court in a wacky-colored shirt and have him finish his sentence. Efficient. They want us to know what relationship he could possibly have with his comically mismatched partner, so they show a faded newspaper clipping on a fridge that reads “Bel-Air High School Alumni Found Law Firm.” Newsworthy? Probably not. But efficient.

This is the biggest way in which Serena falls short: it tells us its story inefficiently and as a result the viewer has a hard time discerning what the story is. It lacks focus. The reason this is such a problem for a movie like Serena is that we lose the drama. Drama comes, remember, from having well developed characters who want things in opposition to each other and the resulting struggle for everybody to get what they want. When Serena goes on the hunt for baby-blood, for instance, I don’t really have a sense for what she wants and I don’t really know her character all that well. Oh, I know lots of things about her character, facts have been thrown at me left and right, but I haven’t spent a lot of time with her so it’s all just kind of noise and I don’t have a lot of empathy for her. When George goes out to stop Serena and Co. from killing his illegitimate baby, I can kind of get why he wouldn’t want them to kill his baby, but he was totally willing to murder for his wife earlier and he doesn’t seem all that keenly interested in the baby and so the turn in his character arc is…lackluster. I would have felt a lot of things when Buchanan was shot, but as previously mentioned the film doesn’t dedicate enough screen time to that plot point to properly development the drama because it has to share the limited run time with two other movies’ worth of story.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this movie does have other problems. Like I said, I don’t like any of the characters, and that’s not strictly the fault of the story. Bradley Cooper isn’t great at this sort of human drama and it shows through very blatantly here, but it isn’t helped by the bad directing; I can tell the directing is bad by way of the Star Wars Prequels Principle, that is to say that Jennifer Lawrence is really, really bad and flat and lifeless in this, and she has never been anything but magnificent in any other piece, so the directing must have been monumentally bad in order to pull such a bad performance out of such a great actress. Seriously, she was the only remotely good thing happening in American Hustle, a movie that was otherwise completely unwatchable, even in that horribly mishandled wreck of a movie she shines like a cinematic jewel so imagine the awful debacle Serena must have been behind the camera to make me not care about what happens to a Jennifer Lawrence character. I accept that I may have just invited a torrent of hate-mail from the J-Law fan-boys and -girls of the internet who want to rub The Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone and Silver Linings Playbook in my face, not to mention the Oscar nod that Joy got; I can handle that, but I will outright reject commentary from the fans of Serena on the basis that they know fuck-all about good movies. Goodnight!

Movies That Are Obviously About Things: Three Kings

Hello, readers, and welcome back from my lengthy (1 day) hiatus. My official story is that I’m not lazy, but rather observant of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday; it seems weird to me (a non-Christian, non-white-supremacist) to celebrate repaying the generosity of the North American peoples with annihilation and a concerted effort to wipe their legacy from history (that would be Thanksgiving), and the historically fictionalized version of the birth of a figure whose contributions to humanity are questionable at best (that would be Christmas) followed by his gruesome death (that would be Easter), but also to not celebrate one of the greatest American heroes of the 20th century, whose legacy is both inescapable and unquestionable what with most of it being still fresh in the memories of living people or otherwise recorded on reliable media. Ask John Lewis how he got that scar on his head some time. But enough of the heavy stuff, let’s direct our focus to a topic of conversation virtually guaranteed to relieve the tension at any awkward social gathering: the Iraq war.

As if it wasn’t ethnocentric enough to use the term “the Iraq war” to mean “that time the United States invaded Iraq”, distinct from the laundry list of wars in which that country has participated that didn’t involve the United States (at least not directly anyway), we now live in an age where even “that war we had with Iraq” is no longer sufficiently distinctive. So to clarify: I mean the first one, back in the early 90s, under the first Bush. That one that was ostensibly about defending Kuwait but which I think we can all agree in retrospect was a naked attempt by the aforementioned president to boost his own popularity knowing that he was going to have a hard time winning a fourth consecutive GOP term in ’92. It didn’t work, but don’t judge him too harshly for trying, a lot of otherwise respectable presidents have done that. Astute readers will note that an obscure military action from over two decades ago is even less relevant than the type of blog fodder I’m known for, which usually falls uncomfortably close to the middle between “old enough to be a classic, cultural icon or generational touch stone” and “new enough to matter” on the scale of pop culture time waste-iness. Well to be honest I didn’t want to bring it up, I just wanted to watch a movie and the movie brought it up; that is, I just wanted to watch a David O. Russel movie from the 90s with Mark Wahlberg in it that is generally respected. I think I mentioned previously that I have a ridiculously specific taste in movies. This time around, the only movie that fit the bill was a piece called Three Kings, which also stars George Clooney and Ice Cube.

I sort of knew coming into this that the movie would fall into this category (unlike Snowpiercer, I did not see that shit coming), but I’ll admit that I had hoped for a little more subtlety. A vain hope, and one which was immediately dashed when they introduced a dumb character, played by Spike Jonze, whose only purpose seemed to be to prompt other characters to explain shit to him and, by proxy, the audience. That’s fine, I guess; a bit lazy, but I’ve long believed that if you want a movie to have a point, it should be your goal for everyone to get that point and to that end you should make it as motherfucking obvious as you can without cheapening the quality of the film, and Three Kings more or less pulls it off. Now there’s a lot to like about this movie, and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I didn’t entitle this post: “Movies That Are Really Good and You Should See Them: Three Kings”; I’m here to talk about how this movie obviously wants to be about things and while I normally commend any movie that has the balls to try to say something meaningful, today I think we’re going to deviate from formula slightly. But first, recap time!

Three Kings (which premiered in 1999) is set at the end of the first Gulf War, with its opening scene depicting US soldiers celebrating victory between “clean up” operations. While accepting the surrenders of Iraqi soldiers, US Sergeant First Class Troy Barlow (played by Mark Wahlberg in an uncharacteristically not-ridiculous role) discovers a hand drawn map that an Iraqi man had clearly been attempting to keep hidden. Troy, Spike Jonze and Ice Cube analyze the map and conjecture that it will lead the way to a stash of gold bullion that was stolen from Kuwait in the invasion; then George Clooney, playing the least George Clooney role of his entire career discovers their plot and instead of chastising them decides that he too would like to be rich and, presumably knowing that he will one day pull off the only successful casino heist in fictional Las Vegas history, goes with them. They find the gold after some pointless dicking around (by the way, that was a title that I considered for this blog), but they also find an anti-Saddam uprising being crushed in a very inhumane manner (as opposed to how oppressive regimes usually put down rebellions, with ice cream and puppy dogs) and they can’t turn their backs on the human suffering. This leads to a firefight, which leads to a dramatic chase, which leads to Mark Wahlberg being taken prisoner by members of the Iraqi (that is, pro-Saddam) army while George Clooney ends up bunkered down with most of the gold and all of the Iraqi refugees. Confronted with the immense human suffering on display, Clooney and company agree to find Wahlberg, escort the refugees to the Iranian border and then split the gold with them. And then, basically, they do that. There’s a whole thing at the end that was either supposed to be hilarious or super dramatic and wasn’t really either, but Clooney & Co. leave with a feeling of humanitarian accomplishment and no gold; you know, screwed.

Alright, with that out of the way, time to talk themes. There’s a bit of internal conflict running right through the heart of this movie because it presents two messages that are each a perfectly reasonable stance to take on matters of international politics but which can’t both be true. One is that everything that the US tries to accomplish by way of military action is horrible and evil and leads to the death of innocent babies and aren’t we the horrible, ugly monsters that everybody thinks we are; this, despite my use of sarcasm a second ago, I can countenance. To paraphrase John Goodman in The Big Lebowski: say what you will about the merits of pacifism, at least it’s an ethos. The other message is that there are horrible things happening in the world that no humane person can ignore and the US should use its immense military might to put a stop to those things by direct action because, as the man almost said, “with great power comes great responsibility, and chicks.” This…I find a bit misdirected, but I can also countenance as a world view, strangely; I can’t say that it has often done a great amount of good in the world, but I get the basic motive behind it as an ethos. Unfortunately, the movie kind of wants to have it both ways. Literally the first thing that happens in the movie is that Mark Wahlberg shoots a guy who is trying to surrender to him and everybody cheers; then we learn that among the US troops we’re shown, everybody’s primary motivation appears to be a combination of racism and a sociopathic desire for their fellow man to stop breathing in a glorious display.

Then later on Mark Wahlberg is “interrogated” (I use quotes not to cast judgement on the enhanced interrogation v. torture debate, but because in this instance Wahlberg has no useful information and his aggressors know this but are seizing the opportunity to take revenge on the invading American army) by one of a rare breed of movie villain who are definitely bad guys but also definitely stand-ins for the screenwriter who are used to pipe chunky theme-soup directly down the audience’s throat (I like Saltines with my theme soup, how about you?), and we are given a healthy dose of standard, Hollywood, anti-war sentiment, including pouring oil down Wahlberg’s throat alongside the line “here’s your stability, man”, pointing out that previous US intervention has only bred more problems, and accusations of nation-wide, culturally embedded racism that include a surprisingly on-point analysis of Michael Jackson. Before your minds get racing too far, the basic thrust of the Michael Jackson speech was that we (the American populous) should not be surprised when a person changes their skin color after being so immersed in racial hatred that they’ve internalized it and begun to hate themselves for being black. Anyway, back on topic: the movie has these clear moments where it thinks the Gulf War and most American wars in general are fought for the wrong reasons and the overall impact is generally detrimental, but then the central conflict of the movie is all about how the US should intervene in Iraq on behalf of the Iraqi people and oust Saddam Hussein. That’s incongruous at best.

I say “incongruous at best” because it’s also something else that’s not as good: overly simplistic and consequently stupid. I hate to be that guy who takes an idea that somebody worked very hard to present to me and rubs it in the dirt, especially when that idea has been streamlined by necessity to fit into the incredibly restrictive medium that is the American action film, but sometimes, as previously discussed, movies have subtext that really bothers me. This time, the movie’s subtext bothers me because it takes an incredibly complex issue (like geopolitics) and reduces it to look like a very simple issue with a very obvious solution that might be presented by an obnoxious teenager. Specifically, the film suggests that the obvious, right, moral thing to do at the end of the first Gulf War was to invade Iraq and depose the regime of Saddam Hussein. Ok, I get why David O. Russel would have had that opinion in 1999, a lot of people did (hell, a lot of people still do) but I think with the benefit of hindsight (having DONE THAT IN THE INTERVENING TIME) we can all agree that at the very least the issue is incredibly complex with no obvious, correct solution. Ok, so you’ve deposed a dictator; that’s a good thing, Saddam Hussein was a bad guy, I’m glad we’re all in agreement but now what? Did you think the country was immediately going to start sprouting candy trees and democracy flowers and become a bastion of free and independent thought overnight? Do you want to know what did happen? We created a power vacuum into which came a group (at time of writing) calling themselves the Islamic State and I’d say we’re right back where we started but in fact we’re much further back than that.

Not that we couldn’t have prevented this from happening, we’ve built nations before (think Europe and Asia after WWII, for some definition of “built”), but it would have been a monumental feat requiring decades of commitment, vast amounts of money, a constant military presence, unprecedented stability in domestic opinion, cultural sensitivity, clairvoyant, space brain intelligence and not least of all it probably would have required reinstating the draft in the US. Technical limitations aside, from a purely political standpoint this is something that is probably, currently not possible for the US to accomplish. I’m not going to enumerate all of the alternatives to direct military action (they are many and are often better) because I think it suffices to point out that first, this is a complex issue requiring a nuanced solution and secondly, in the realm of international politics you have to consider the long term consequences of every action and weigh the costs and benefits against the current situation (if it is stable) or what is likely to be the situation in the near future if you don’t act (if the situation is unstable), you can’t just make decisions based on what John Wayne is supposed to do in Act III of a movie to make the audience feel a satisfying closure and uphold their thinly justified world view and sense of morality. This is where and why Hollywood falls short when it takes on complex issues in this manner: any point that a movie wants to make has to fit into the pre-established narrative structure of a dramatic movie, and it’s damned hard to do that and still make room for nuance and sophisticated arguments. Books can do that, sometimes, because they get to be monumentally bloated; the Dune series, for instance, is unbelievably long and detailed because it has points to make and it does them intelligently and while Dune fans are all acutely aware of its length, nobody seems to be subtracting points as a result.

But it’s hard to adapt that kind of piece into a single movie and it’s hard to make a series of movies with a coherent point. I guess I can’t chastise a movie with one hand for making shallow arguments and then demonstrate that I understand why and forgive them for it with the other, but I do think that I can ask movies to stop pretending that things are simple when really they’re complex. I get that in a movie the hero has to act and react based on what is immediately in front of him because film is a visual medium and you grant a thing power by featuring it visually, thus the audience is compelled to feel more strongly about what’s on screen than what isn’t; for instance, if the hero can see that people are suffering under an unseen dictator then the movie is implicitly painting the dictator as a simple villain and those people as a damsel tied to some train tracks and it suddenly becomes very obvious what the hero should do.

I understand this decision, and I’m not asking for movies to get more boring or hard to empathize with, I’m asking for them to stop making those implicit comparisons in a way that undercuts the complexity of real issues for which the public really have to be able to understand in their nuanced reality in order to make good, informed decisions. I’m not even asking movies to stop being about things, I love when movies are about things, just to be about them a little more wisely. I loved Snowpiercer for taking on Capitalism, but it wasn’t a message that was hard to swallow because it efficiently fit a large argument into a small space through the heavy use of detailed visuals and metaphor, but even that brilliant film had to admit its limitations; it only had two hours to convey its overall point, so the most it could meaningfully say was “here are some quantifiable, observable problems with the way we do things; maybe there’s a better way.” To use an analogy, I don’t need movies to all be cake and for the public to get their vitamins from some place else, but if movies are going to be vegetables or meat, let them be vegetables or meat and actually be good for us instead of being carrot cake and pretending to be good for us while actually just being more junk food. Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I still have some delicious Three Kings in the fridge from somebody’s birthday party.

All Drama Is Conflict: Training Day

There’s a saying in the writing community: all drama is conflict, and yes, everything Syd Field says is in fact a saying. But it’s true, even for incredibly escapist works of fantasy; indulging in the fantasy of being Spider-Man is amazing, swinging around town on webs, having spidey sense, having the abilities of two Olympic level gymnasts glued together, but if they never got around to having Doc Ock show up and put Peter Parker in serious, physical danger then the piece would be boring. The life blood of a movie, therefore, is conflict, confrontation, a villain that threatens the hero or a circumstance that puts a relationship in jeopardy. That said, not all conflict (and therefore not all drama) is created equal, and today I’m going to classify movie drama based on a key distinction that I will enigmatically call “The Joss Whedon Divide” until I explain what it is. But first I think you, my adoring audience deserve and indeed have come to expect a few paragraphs of mindless chatter before I really dig into the movie.

Good film critics, when they review a movie research the piece in question from reliable sources and draw on a deep knowledge base of the history of culture and film making that they’ve cultivated through years of study. Long time readers will note that I am not a good film critic, and as such I mostly relay tangentially connected trivia about a movie that I find interesting and have learned through recent, surface level study. I see no reason to change that now; did you know that the movie Southpaw was initially going to star Eminem? The writer, Kurt Sutter claimed that the script was based on Eminem’s personal struggles and envisioned it as a metaphorical continuation of 8 Mile, but Mr. Mathers withdrew to focus on his music and Jake Gyllenhaal was brought in to play the lead in his place. I bring this up for two reasons: the first is that Southpaw and the film we’ll be discussing today have the same director, Antione Fuqua (having learned that, I might actually check out Southpaw). The second is that I hate Jake Gyllenhaal and I take great pleasure in knowing that he was the studio’s second choice to star in that movie after not-an-actor and was probably selected because Eminem is famous for his disdain for his audience; I know whenever I see a movie with the JG in it I get the feeling that the film hates me.

The film I’ve chosen to focus on today is Training Day, a 2001 production written by David Ayer (known for End of Watch), directed by Antoine Fuqua (known for Tears of the Sun, Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen, The Equalizer) and starring Denzel Washington as Detective Alonzo Harris (who won an Academy Award for the role) and Ethan Hawke (who was really good in Gattaca) as Officer Jake Hoyt. The story follows what is essentially Hoyt’s interview for a position on Harris’s narcotics team, and focuses on Hoyt’s loss of innocence as he learns of and then has to confront Harris’s corruption, introduced to us gradually as it grows from his brutal handling of street level criminals to a murder and subsequent robbery whose proceeds are used to pay off the Russian mob. Before the praise gets underway, the movie does have to be chastised for coming off racist; specifically, this is a film about the ugly and complicated nature of police brutality (which I commend) that has still decided that our villain must be a scary (violent) black man and our hero must be an idealistic, white suburbanite who bears (what reveals itself to be) an overly optimistic view toward law enforcement because, you know, it’s a crime drama. Then again the film quickly wins points back by illustrating that the primary victims of Alonzo’s corruption are minority communities that have been written off by the powers that be as “the place where all the crime comes from” and thus turned them into demilitarized zones, whom Harris is effectively allowed to rule over autocratically; indeed, Hoyt is hoisted out of a couple of tight spots by “winning hearts and minds” through the actual application of his idealistic notions of how law enforcement should be pursued. Still, it was something I couldn’t help but notice, but then maybe I’m overly critical of things like this.

Now, what about that weird phrase I turned earlier about drama being classified based on how it relates to the guy who brought us Buffy: The Vampire Slayer? Well you see, there are basically two kinds of conflict (and thus two kinds of drama) that you see in popular media (there are actually others but they all bore me to tears): the first is what I call “man punching man” conflict, which I admit is a bit man-centric but stick with me for a minute and I’ll explain. An example of this would be the movie Braveheart (pro-tip, whenever I’m about to put an idea down I use an example of a movie I didn’t like, and I hated Braveheart), which admittedly would only be more on the nose if I had called the idea “man stabbing man” but illustrative examples are illustrative; in this film, William Wallace is not confronting any complicated ideas, he’s trying to kill enough English people that their government will stop sending English people into his country and then, hurray, there won’t be any more England in Scotland. You know, war, and not even a complicated war. There’s an obvious good guy (that would be William Wallace, who wants the freedom to…well, let’s face it, live under a King of the same ethnicity as himself rather than a King from someplace else) and an obvious bad guy, their differences are irreconcilable and they’re going to solve their problems through murder. That’s all well and good and can certainly lead to some entertaining and thoughtful presentations (it doesn’t here, though), but for my money it’s…too simple. Too clean. I prefer a different brand of drama, which I call “family feud” conflict (no I’m not going to pretend that I invented that term, but I put the other one in quotes so this one goes in quotes too).

In this brand of conflict, there’s a clear good guy and usually another good guy that is also clear, their differences are irreconcilable and they have no idea how they’re going to solve their problems in a way that will make them happy in the end. A quick example of this would be Watchmen (the comic book adaptation from 2009): SPOILERS, but the villain of the piece is one of the costumed crime fighters having hatched a Machiavellian scheme to save the planet from its own geopolitical shortcomings by way of a staged attack by a being of unimaginable power that has the real consequence of killing millions of people, and the final conflict of the film is that of the other costumed crusaders deciding whether those actions are just or not. They line up on either side of that decision and then ultimately have to fight each other. You see, this form of drama is much more compelling than the other one; I am told early on in Braveheart that I don’t like the King of England and that gets reinforced in a very heavy handed way until I’m forced to hope that Mel Gibson will win this conflict and the only drama comes from an uncertainty over who will ultimately emerge victorious. That has a fundamental flaw in it: I know who’s going to win, and the outcome doesn’t really affect me. In Watchmen, by contrast, both sides of the conflict are potentially heroes, with potentially defensible positions, and even if I can conjecture about the outcome I’m first forced to answer for myself who I actually hope will win (which does little to assuage the tension I feel when that happens because I still like and sympathize with the character who is losing) and that brings the conflict home very personally for me, the viewer. The conflict is inside me, I can’t help but feel the dramatic weight of it.

Training Day, to state the obvious, falls on the “family feud” side of the “Joss Whedon Divide” (so named because Whedon’s work is often characterized by the heavy handed application of internal, viewer conflict), where the central conflict is actually inside of Officer Hoyt but which is brought out where we can see it by way of Alonzo, a symbolic character. Namely, Hoyt is torn between his longstanding world view, which is more idealistic in nature and is characterized by a clear divide between right and wrong (when bad guys do bad things, you arrest them and then they stand trial and possibly go to jail), and the world view espoused by Harris, which is more pragmatic and utilitarian (do “what you [have] to do” for the greater good). The former aligns more closely with Hoyt’s moral center and presents internal consistency, but the latter promises advancement and, potentially, the greater chance to affect positive change in the world. To enhance this conflict for the viewer, the film presents Harris as an out-and-out good guy for roughly the first half of the movie, and then when he moves into villain territory it is done out of necessity and it’s more of a gray area rather than outright evil. The specific sequence of events that carries us across the line goes as follows: we learn that Harris has crossed the Russian mob in the line of duty and can now expect to have attempts made on his life; to confront this specter he must come up with a large amount of money, which he accomplishes by leading a raid on the home of Roger, an old, retired cop who was initially introduced to us as Alonzo’s friend in which $4 million of Roger’s money is seized from which the crew each take a cut. Roger is then killed and the scene is staged in such as a way as to indicate that the murder was self defense. It is then revealed to us that Roger had been one of the largest drug dealers in the county, which is used as justification for Alonzo’s actions.

Shortly after this, Alonzo moves more firmly into bad-guy territory and it’s to the detriment of the point that the film appears to be trying to make, but nonetheless the bulk of the drama of the entire movie is squarely planted in Hoyt’s grappling with the morality of Harris’s continuing actions. The impact on the audience (that would be you and me, in this scenario) is that by the time the Act III resolution’s shootout rolls around, we’re deeply invested in both characters; we know what they each want (Harris wants the money he took from Roger to pay the mob, Hoyt wants to enact justice on behalf of Roger), we know what motivates each of them and can sympathize with it (Harris is just trying to stay alive, Hoyt is trying to hold together his entire conception of justice and morality), hell we even like both of them (Hoyt is played just right for us to project ourselves onto, while Harris, in typical Denzel Washington fashion, is cool, charismatic and even funny right up until the end of Act II). The final confrontation on screen mirrors the confrontation playing out inside of us as we realize that there can be no truly happy ending to this piece, and in fact the movie even takes the time to show us the ugly consequences of Harris’s way of life as he is gunned down in the street by criminals. In short, Training Day rocks because it knows the absolute best, possible way to make the audience tense.

I Got Your Cliché, Right Here: Filth

I think everyone who loves movies has a soft spot for a particular kind (or kinds) of movie, weirdly specific genres that we’ve put together ourselves out of some particular film fetish we have and I think for a lot of us, traditional media outlet categorization schemes do very little to help us. Some people are way into scenery porn and those people loved Peter Jackson’s LOTR trilogy to death, but will also sit through some absolute garbage like White Fang if it means they get to look at the Alaskan wilderness for a little bit because the video store doesn’t care enough about those people to neatly collect all of the films of that ilk into one place for them to find and they have to take what they can get. Some people like revenge movies and will put up with Steven Seagal’s appalling (Seagalling?) acting because they know that at some point he’s going to beat up somebody who really deserves it. Me? I like a genre of film that I call “movies that 10 year old me definitely wasn’t allowed to see but are also surprisingly smart.” This would be one of the reasons why I love Quentin Tarantino movies so much: there’s violence, there’s cursing, there’s drugs, there are explicit things of a sexual nature and as such 10 year old me is definitely not allowed to watch any of those movies, but there’s also crafty dialogue, high brow themes running just under the surface, weirdly non-linear storytelling and suspense that is crafted so masterfully that you’re practically being lectured on how to make thrilling films. Unfortunately, the Q-T has only ever made like 8 movies so sometimes I have to get my fix elsewhere (sidebar: I should probably get further into Robert Rodriguez’s work) and hits are hard to find.

Luckily for me, this week I found just such a film: Filth, a 2013 adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name, adapted and directed by Jon S. Baird. It’s got cursing, it’s got violence, it’s got drugs, it’s got gratuitous nudity and as the title would imply it’s pretty twisted in how it goes about all of those things; but it also has deep, rich characters–well, ok, a deep, rich character that is very deeply explored over the course of the piece. It doesn’t turn out to be a metaphor for compounding waves of feminism but, you know, nothing’s perfect…although it does have the young Charles Xavier from X-Men: First Class interrogating Fitz from Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the show runner from Moulin Rouge representing someone’s unforgiving, guilt-ridden psyche so I guess all is well. I choose to believe that the latter is playing one of the unseen reincarnations from Cloud Atlas or that this whole incident is an elaborate hallucination that Professor X is having forced on him by one of the Omega level, telepathic mutants, but that’s an entry of another kind for another day. This entry on this day is about how Filth takes a tired, boring, stupid movie cliché of which I and all of my colleagues are sick to death and breathes new life into it by way of a sickening, unwavering, religious devotion combined with an understanding as to what really gives depth to a character.

There’s a trope running around western films that’s probably as old as the art itself and you and I are probably going to disagree about who best exemplifies it because I am a child of the 1990s and you’re probably a little less insufferable than I am. It goes like this: there’s a guy who’s kind of bad in the biker gang stereotype and so we don’t like him and he’s mildly sexy in a dangerous kind of way; he thinks only of himself and his immediate wants and needs, he’s violent, brutish, unsophisticated and in classic literature he’d be considered a villain. But then he reluctantly saves a puppy from a tree or a baby from a burning building and we see a softer, slightly heroic, mostly non-psychotic side to him before he goes back to the violence and chaos. In literature this character (were the piece centered on him) would be what’s known as an anti-hero but I can’t in good conscience go on using that word for this particular film trope; you see, an anti-hero in literature is rather broadly defined and the idea is applied in wildly different ways from one piece to the next. Willy Loman was an anti-hero, Julius Caesar was an anti-hero, etc. What we’re talking about in film is a much more narrow category with a much simpler aim: we want to indulge our cultural fascination with “bad boys” without the shame of cheering for the villain of a piece and we seek to mollify the pain of knowing that we’re shallow with the illusion that we’ve created a complex character (we haven’t, by the way, most of the time we’ve just created a character that doesn’t make any sense or is unbelievably simple).

Examples of this are many, but a few spring to mind; aforementioned 90s kids who are awful might join me in identifying Wolverine (at least the version of that character brought to us by the movies and tv shows) as the foremost illustration of this concept. In the first X-Men movie (year 2000, played by Hugh Jackman), we’re introduced to him by way of a bar fight that escalates pretty seriously wherein he beats up everybody in the building and he spends a lot of the movie trying to nail Jean Grey (played by Famke Janssen, but still) but then later on he appears to be very seriously motivated by the desire to save Rogue (his “save a puppy” moment). Hell, The Wolverine decided to open with him selflessly absorbing the burn of a nuclear inferno in order to save some random dude he knows only as a guard in the P.O.W. camp where he is being kept, and they still try to pull off that troubled loner bullshit. Less comic-book-focused and probably slightly older members of the audience will likely cite Han Solo as the obvious prototype for this trope. In Episode IV: A New Hope, one of the first things (is it the absolute first? I can’t remember) we see him do is kill a guy to get out of paying a debt and then saunter off like he doesn’t give a shit, real gun-slingin’ Darwinist right there, and he only agrees to help the hero at all because he’s being paid. Then after being accused of being selfish by Princess Leia he returns inexplicably to help turn the tide in the final battle to destroy the Death Star (that’s his “save a puppy” moment).

Filth is a movie that has looked at those other movies and said “alright, Hollywood, you wanna play a trop to death so be it; I’m gonna show you how it’s done!” Then it took that concept of a classic bad guy with a surprisingly human wrinkle to his character, blew it up to the size of a whole movie, and filled in all the little gaps and details until that character was complete and sympathetic. Oh, and really importantly this film presents you with a reasonable explanation as to why the hell a character would ever behave like that. That character, by the way, is Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson as performed by James McAvoy; we’ll come back to the opening and the motivation it introduces in a moment but for now let’s focus on the action that kicks off the plot: a murder! In Scotland! But not just any murder, one that comes while the police department of Edinburgh is trying to pick someone to promote to Detective Inspector! Ok, so that’s our surface motivation: Robertson wants to get credit for solving this murder so that he can get promoted, but that’s really just a flimsy excuse to follow around a bastard and get a peek inside of a bastard’s head. Oh, and make no mistake, the movie wants us to know that Bruce Robertson is a bastard; the first thing he’s seen doing is joyously planning the downfall of his coworkers and then he walks outside and basically declares himself a Scotch supremacist. During the first act, the setup of the movie, mind you, not the late act two downturn of the character but part of his immediate characterization, he coerces a sexual favor out of a minor on threat of blackmail.

Then we cut to him having sex with an as-yet-unnamed character that we know isn’t his wife and shortly learn is married to one of his coworkers, after which he berates her sadistically and leaves. Most of the first act and a half are like this, Bruce doing horrible things to people and reveling in the cruelty of it all, but from time to time bits of humanity come through; for instance, near the end of act one he attempts to rescue a man who’s collapsed onto the sidewalk beside his wife and young son, and we see from Bruce’s perspective a brief hallucination where a small, blonde boy covered in soot takes the place of the victim. We see that Bruce is really affected by this and then its weight is compounded by a genuine desperation to save this man, then we see Bruce at a psychiatrist; these two sequences, however, come just after he’s taunted a homeless man and just before we’re shown that he makes harassing, sexually explicit phone calls to his only friend’s wife. We also learn that he’s a racist (in addition to the Scotch supremacism, he has a particular distaste for black people), that he’s openly homophobic, that he abuses his position in exchange for sex on a regular basis, that he’s violent whenever he can get away with it, that he goes to great lengths with elaborate schemes to make life worse for people who generally trust him, but also that he’s really, deeply, genuinely saddened by the tragedy of a family being torn apart by the father’s untimely death, that he is haunted by some boyhood trauma, that he suffers from bipolar disorder (I don’t know when we were supposed to find this out, I had to google one of his prescriptions because I couldn’t delineate symptoms of the illness from the affects of his persistent drug and alcohol abuse).

Now let’s cut back to the movie’s opening scene, which is…weird and then gets a little weirder later on. We open on Bruce’s wife, Carole, getting dressed and made up for an evening out underneath voice narration that I initially took to be characterization but we’ll see in a little bit why I was wrong. The character that they lay out for us is kind of…awful, and that would make sense with her being married to the Bruce Robertson described thus far; she’s also manipulative, also uses sex as a weapon, also is a crass social Darwinist, etc. She lays out a kind of external motivation for Bruce in addition to his internal drive to prove to himself and others how great he is: “We both know he’ll win. And when he does, the Robertson household is gonna be one big, happy family again. I kid you not.” Ok, smarter people than me are already seeing the red flags in this statement as it exists in a vacuum, but humor me for a moment and let’s pretend that it isn’t quite so obvious what’s going on here. The statement in and of itself indicates some kind of estrangement, but one of an emotional nature, that is until we reach the end of act two and have yet to see Carole interact with any of this story’s characters; in fact, we haven’t even seen her appear in a sequence whose validity we can rely on, what with Bruce’s loose grip on reality. Other characters have mentioned her, and he has home footage of her and their kid so we know she exists, thus we can intimate that she is really, physically estranged and has taken their kid with them (I can’t be asked to remember the gender of the child, children are genderless). Alright, that casts some very serious doubt on the opening sequence in addition to the musical number in which she appears in act two (yes, there is actually a musical number, I did not make that up for comedic effect), but at this point all that we can really assume is that Bruce thinks that he can win his wife and child back by getting the promotion.

But then, why was that line delivered in Carole’s voice…oh no, is this movie really about to go there? Yep, this movie is really about to go there: Bruce has taken to dressing in drag in a deliberate attempt to imitate his wife’s appearance and roaming the night, doing what is not clear but I think we’re supposed to take that he’s been selling himself. This is where I should clarify that I harbor no ill will or objections toward individuals who cross-dress or are transgender and I don’t think this film does either, but this character isn’t acting out of gender dysphoria or a general comfort he has after adopting the vestments of the opposing gender, he’s acting out of a desperate loneliness, mental illness and general shame; as he puts it, he’s doing this to “to keep her close.” Shortly after this revelation, we spot a glimpse of his wife (the real one) in a grocery store and learn that she has not only left him, but she’s with another man…a black man. Everything kind of clicks into place for this character. His racism is an anger he feels toward the man to whom his wife has gone after leaving him, blown up to be grand enough that he doesn’t have to think about that tiny reality that exists in his life. His misogyny, his tendency to use sex as a weapon and devalue the women he sleeps with are a way to channel the rage he feels at his wife for leaving him and himself for driving her away, taken to their logical conclusion. His homophobia is another expression of his self-hatred, this time toward the part of him that sacrificed his identity and reputation in a desperate and pathetic attempt to hold on to his wife’s memory. As the memories of the honest tragedies of his life fade into a haze of drugs, alcoholism and his overwhelming illness, all he can hold onto is the hate and the pain, embedding themselves into his life in ugly, base forms that are just vague enough that he doesn’t have to confront the monster that he is.

Man, that wasn’t funny at all. Enjoy this hilarious still of Jim Broadbent’s character from the film: http://cdn.pastemagazine.com/www/system/images/photo_albums/jim-broadbent/large/45-broadbent-filth.jpg?1384968217
Are you laughing yet? Good! Let’s move on.

Traditionally, the point of showing a character in pain and suffering in a film is to draw empathy, but in this piece I think there’s another game afoot. See, if the creator of this film had wanted me to feel badly for Bruce Robertson, then they shouldn’t have gone to such great lengths to make him a bastard in the first place and these tragedies should have been largely somebody else’s fault. But they did, and they aren’t, respectively. Bruce is still a bastard and as such we want him to suffer! And there you have it: boy is he ever suffering. So freaking badly. Hell, he is nearly murdered as a consequence of his cross-dressing; he is also demoted for it and the film ends on his suicide. I don’t know that we’re supposed to feel satisfied by the harsh consequences that befall him, and I don’t know that any film maker has ever wanted me to feel good that a character kills himself, but the way the piece ends kind of implies that we’re supposed to be at peace with it…which is odd. Anyway, the point that I take away from this film is that this is the internal, mental gymnastics that a character like Han Solo or Wolverine has to go through to present us with that trope as we’ve become accustomed to it. This is what it looks like when a person is unquestionably evil in their actions but feels sufficient empathy for others as to selflessly act heroically, the guilt of their actions and the consequences therein destroys them.

Your Movie Sucks, and Here’s Why: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Hello, my wonderful readers, and welcome back. I apologize for my brief hiatus, we had some server trouble; but it’s all been resolved and we’re back and better than ever! So please enjoy this week’s update about a certain set of heroes in a certain set of half-shells.

Long time readers will likely know that on this blog, I like to keep things generally positive; this is mostly a place for me to gush about movies that I loved so much that I can’t stop talking about them, and I do that on purpose because I like to surround myself with things that make me happy. I don’t even see that many movies that I outright don’t like because I’m pretty good at telling from a distance when a movie is going to suck and I steer clear, and I usually don’t mind that a movie sucks as long as it does so far away from me. This is especially true when I consider that 90% of the time that I don’t like a film it’s because I’m not part of the target audience. Case in point: you’ll probably never hear me talk about the Fast and Furious films; if I watched any of them I would probably get a pretty severe headache, but I’m grading those movies by the wrong rubric and they have the decency to advise me of that right up front before going in. People who like muscle car movies have informed me that those are the bee’s knees and that’s fine, those people would probably fall asleep watching What’s Eating Gilbert Grape while I took that film for a round on the happy-ending machine a few weeks ago, but they generally leave that piece alone because it doesn’t lie to them about what it is.

With that setup, I hope you won’t find it disingenuous of me to assert that sometimes you have to take a film that is bad in a special way, a film that represents everything that’s wrong with modern hollywood, and painfully dissect it so as to learn from its mistakes. It must be sacrificed upon the alter of critical analysis so that its blood might water the fruit of better movies, and lest the reader think I’m being melodramatic I’m inclined to remind them that some time in the early 1980s a bad video game called E.T. (for the Atari 2600) came along and CRASHED THE WESTERN VIDEO GAMES MARKET. Ok that’s an exaggeration, no one game can really bring down an industry like that and from what I understand the game wasn’t that bad to begin with, but as others on the internet have pointed out it forms a great case study for the kind of mistakes that the industry made over and over again until the market collapsed and almost did away with the medium altogether. I would argue that the whole fiasco could have been avoided (or at least mitigated) if someone had taken the initiative to critically analyze the industry’s failures and successes and ask hard questions about whether they were doing the right thing. Combine that with the knowledge that the film industry has already collapsed once due to incompetent management, and that it’s now staring at a lot of the same circumstances that led to its previous downfall, and one can see that the stakes are high and that it’s important to take time every now and then to make unpleasant statements about the industry’s missteps.

A few paragraphs ago, you’ll note that I hinted that one of the ways that a film can avoid misstepping is to be honest and up front about who the target audience is and then cater pretty strongly to that target audience and the more clever of my readers have surmised that a pretty good way to anger the movie gods is to draw people into the audience who simply aren’t into the kind of garbage you intend to put on the screen in front of them. Those readers would be absolutely correct, as above all else this gives the audience the sense that you hold them in some kind of contempt and while there are plenty of other, valid reasons to gut a movie this is as reasonable a criteria for selecting a film to ritualistically slaughter as any other. This brings us nicely to the movie that I have chosen to sacrifice today: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (that’s the 2014 Nickelodeon fiasco). See, I was a young child in the late 80s and early 90s and as such I was big into Ninja Turtles (everybody was) and the live action film from the early 90s is one of the first movies I can remember having seen at all (I loved that thing, by the way, and despite the flaws being more apparent to me now that I’m a critically thinking adult, I still really enjoy it), so as much as the reboot was clearly meant to draw younger kids into the franchise and thus breathe some new life into it (which is fine, by the way) it was also meant to shamelessly play off of the nostalgia of people like me in much the same way that the Transformers movies had (which is also fine, by the way). Alright, so the movie wanted my ass in a seat, big deal, my money’s as good as anybody’s, I hear you say, why wouldn’t they want me to come and buy a ticket? That’s not the point, I retort, the point is that they knew I was coming so they should have prepared for me, and they didn’t.

For those among my readers who aren’t deeply into Hollywood minutiae, this film was a joint project by three studios: Paramount Pictures, Nickelodeon Movies and Platinum Dunes, the latter having been founded by Michael Bay in the early 2000s, who was also signed on to this project as producer which is great because now I get to take a minute to clear up a misconception about what it means to be a movie “producer”. There seems to be a rumor floating around that a producer is primarily the financier of a piece of cinema, which is actually kind of puzzling to me because of this fact I know: almost no single individual has the financial security to fund a movie, even in collaboration with all of the other people listed as “producer” on any given movie. Movies are funded by studios (or groups of studios, which might help indicate how mind bogglingly expensive and risky it is to make a movie), which have pools of investors and other ways of getting seriously big piles of cash that they then use to create even bigger piles of cash, although one of a producer’s responsibilities is to secure funding (i.e. pitch ideas to studio executives in a way that makes them see dollar signs and makes their tongues roll out on the floor) so I can kind of see the confusion. The job of producer is, actually, aptly named: their job is to produce the movie which means getting funding, securing a script, getting writers to make necessary adaptations to the script, finding a directory, signing actors, etc. Why do I bring this up? Well, normally a film’s director is the driving, artistic force behind a movie so if you see that, for instance, Tim Burton is directing a new movie you can say pretty much with certainty that it’s going to look and feel like the 1989 Batman, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, etc. Even though Burton himself doesn’t usually write movies that he directs (or is known for), he has enough influence from the director’s chair that the film is going to come out covered in his scent, so to speak.

A producer, traditionally, is not given so much credit with regard to predicting how a movie will come out, which I’ve always thought was odd but I understand; there are, however, exceptions to this rule and 2014’s Ninja Turtles reboot is one of them. Michael Bay neither directed nor wrote that particular movie, but it reeks of him and the reason is that, while most producers lack a certain amount of artistic vision (hence the director having to provide most of it) Bay does not; for good or ill, Michael Bay knows exactly what he wants every single frame of a movie to look like and works incredibly hard to make it happen, and his role as producer (again, where he is in charge of every single decision in the course of making the film) allows him to push his vision into the final product. So over the next few paragraphs as I blame Michael Bay for doing stupid things with this movie, I want that nagging voice in your head that says things like “but he didn’t direct” or “but he didn’t write” or whatever other things excuse him to quiet down and understand that while I understand the kind of massive army of humans that it takes to make a movie, ultimate responsibility for this piece rests with Bay for good reason.

Alright, with that out of the way, let’s dig into this movie and all of its horrible mistakes. Well firstly, in typical Michael Bay fashion, this movie lies about who its subjects are; see, I thought I was coming to see a movie about the Ninja Turtles (what with their being in the title and featured heavily on the movie poster), but what I got was mostly a movie about the least interesting version of April O’Neill as portrayed blandly by Megan Fox, and her interactions with the almost-as-disinteresting villain Eric Sacks, who is not part of Ninja Turtles canon but rather was constructed for this movie presumably following a recipe drawn from the book “101 Ways to Make Bland Villains.” Oh, and let’s not forget that the big twist propelling us through the latter part of the film is that April’s father was killed by Sacks, which actually doesn’t involve the Turtles at all (well it does, but only peripherally and I get the sense that in the first draft it didn’t). This is the start of the long slide into awfulness for this movie, for you see with most movies it would be rude to lie about the subject because you’re tricking people into watching a film they’re not going to like, but when you do that with an adaptation (such as this one) what you’re essentially saying is that the property you’ve used is not interesting enough to merit being the focus of a feature length film and you’re saying that to a room full of people self selected to be huge fans of the property in question which screams of Bay’s utter contempt for the audience. If you went to see this movie, the movie hates you. How the fuck are you supposed to enjoy a movie that hates you?

Strike two for this cinematic misstep comes as we examine the characters that make up this movie. Why? Because good characters are at the heart of every good film, most of the time even mindless pyrotechnic displays with only enough plot to drive us from one action set piece to another have the decency to give us characters that, if not complex, at least are relatable, likable, maybe even interesting. The Iron Man movie franchise is wildly popular and would appear to be a certain type of pornography catering to explosion, CGI and power armor fetishes, but upon closer examination those films are all character dramas. It would seem, then, that no movie can get by without strong characters, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles disagrees, but don’t worry, it’s wrong! Let us accept for the moment that this movie’s protagonist is April O’Neill (I’m still angry about that, by the way, but for academic purposes let’s accept that it’s the case) and that this is her story (WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT WHEN THERE ARE SIX FOOT TURTLES WHO KNOW KARATE–et hem, calming down, goosfraba); fine, what is her goal? To be taken seriously as a journalist. I’m suppressing a laugh in real life right now because that is a motherfucking joke, she is a GARBAGE journalist. Seriously, she is so bad at her job in such a ditzy way that it’s hard to root for her. Then you realize that she’s not a real person, she’s what Michael Bay thinks is the best version (or at least, most aspirational version) of a young, professional woman and OH MY GOD HOW ANGRY DOES THAT MAKE YOU?!?!?! Then we move along to the part of the movie where the Turtles are actually introduced aaaaaaaaaaaaaand they’re all douchebags. Great. They’re classic bros in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity flavor whose first interaction with April is to threaten her and mess with her stuff. Oh, and they rewrote Michelangelo’s character so that he’s more…how do I put this? Well he gets “designs” on April pretty much right away and then proceeds to hit on her for the rest of the movie in what I’m sure Michael Bay thinks is a charmingly juvenile way but when combined with the previously mentioned threats and the physical disparity between her and the turtles it comes off way more rape-y.

This brings me nicely to the other thing I hate about all of the characters: they have shitty motivations. April is the exception in that, as previously mentioned, she wants to be famous and respected in her field and I can get behind that. Raph, on the other hand (the Turtle with the red bandana) is mainly motivated by how angry he is at everyone and everything all the time. Grrrr. Even when he’s on a mission to rescue the other Turtles it doesn’t carry the emotional weight that it should because his anger isn’t justified it’s preexisting, he’s always mad why would today be any different? Then there’s Mikey, who we’ve already established only ever displays one motivating desire and it involves April and a lesson on Turtle anatomy that isn’t going to go well, but he’s not alone! There is a side character brought in who is essentially Will Arnett’s character from Arrested Development transposed into this movie (who I’m sure was funny there, but he’s just annoying here) whose only motivation is also that he wants to sleep with April, only with him it literally drives him out of his way to risk life and limb and is the only thing that pulls him into the action of this movie. Sidebar: his character gets enough screen time and is just enough of a believable if cartoonishly goofy bumbling sidekick that it gives the impression to the audience that he is the character with whom we, the audience, are supposed to relate (Michael Bay always has one of those in movies like this, inexplicably). Ok, that’s fine, but why am I the least cool character on screen and why does Michael Bay think that I spend so much of my time ogling Megan Fox? This is a fantasy movie about man-sized amphibians who can do karate, let me have some fantasy! I want to get into Leo’s character and cut ninjas to ribbons with my katanas, or get into Donatello’s character and invent amazing robot gadgets, or at the very least I want the leading lady to think I’m cool!

Compare this to the first Ninja Turtles movie (from 1990), where, first of all I could relate to the turtles and didn’t really need a human stand-in! Besides that, the movie was cautious and gave me two humans whose place I could see myself in: one was Casey, a crime fighting vigilante semi-ninja who ends up with April in the end, and Danny Pennington, a former member of the foot clan (and therefore a ninja in training) who is converted to the good side by the compelling story told to him by Splinter and who also factors into the plot of his own volition and has complex motivations.

And while we’re at it, Mr. Bay, I do not share your enthusiasm for Ms. Fox; if you want me to bolt my eyes to a female character then do what Joss Whedon does and cast a great actress who can bring the character to life, then give her an interesting arc that humanizes her, and bonus points if she starts kissing girls or becomes a supernatural force. Maybe I’ve been ruined for that kind of thing because during the period of my life when I actually was being dragged around town by my libido I had Xena: The Warrior Princess and Buffy: The Vampire Slayer to work with and I only just now realized how important it was to me that attractive, female TV characters have titles like that. I’m getting off track, let’s close the discussion of the piss-poor cast of character motivations by talking about the villain of this piece, Eric Sacks. His motivation is that he wants to be filthy rich, which is fine as surface level motivations go; it doesn’t make for a deeply interesting or engaging character in the long run but at least it makes for a believable bad guy. Except that Eric Sacks is already stupid rich; whoops! Alright, so he isn’t even as interesting as the bad guy from RoboCop (I’m speaking specifically of Miguel Ferrer’s character, who was a rising business executive looking to cross the threshold into true wealth, prestige and success), but what really kills it for me is that his plan, which is to commit an act of terrorism in NYC to scare the government into dumping money into his defense contracting business, seems like it would have a pretty low return compared to the enormous risk. Oh, and wasn’t there already a terrorist attack on NYC that made all of the defense contractors in the US rich? Just sayin’. Anyway, that brings us pretty seamlessly into the plot, and at this point I think “plot” might be kind of a strong word for it.

In addition to the bad guy’s plan not being great, the film keeps throwing bullshit at us and it insults the audience while it sucks them out of the action. SPOILERS! We find out surprisingly early on that April cared for the Turtles when she was a kid and they were all regular turtles because her father was a scientist working on some sort of super soldier serum and the four turtles and a single rat were all test subjects which is an odd spread, but whatever. The important thing is that this kind of convenient bullshit is the lowest form of writing, and it gets worse because we find out that the study was being funded by Sacks industry, meaning that the Turtles origin story is part of the larger story of April O’Neill and Eric Sacks, or rather the story of April O’Neill’s father and Eric Sacks. And none of these people kept track of each other, by the way, they all just happen to intersect again when April is an adult. That is some acrobatic plot twisting that the movie felt it had to do in order to…accomplish something, I’m sure, but I don’t really know what. Did they think we wouldn’t buy that these characters would work together if they hadn’t all met as children? Because that’s stupid. Did they think kids wouldn’t buy into a story if the main character wasn’t predestined for something? I honestly don’t get it, and it’s a bunch of stupid, arrogant, plot convenience bullshit that insults my intelligence and boots me out of the action. On to more technical points, the movie looks awful; the Turtle design is cluttered and shitty, the CGI all looks crazy cartoon-y (and not in a good way), Shredder’s power armor is a mess, Splinter looks…just go look up stills of Splinter from this movie, they’re awful beyond words, as is the Turtle hideout, it’s all very upsetting.

Ricocheting quickly back to the writing, the script has this fundamental flaw hanging over its head which is that this plot didn’t need to be about the Ninja Turtles at all. The bad guys aren’t ninjas, the good guys don’t really save the day with their ninja prowess, it doesn’t take advantage of the Turtles’ origin to say anything interesting about mutation or science or regulatory oversight or anything, really, and the evil plot that the Turtles have to stop is a terrorist attack that would have fit more smoothly into a Tom Clancy adaptation. They don’t even tell a story that’s really about the Turtles. Compare this to the Iron Man franchise: it takes a lot of liberties as an adaptation, sure, but it’s a story about a challenging time in the life of an interesting character that can only possibly be told about Iron Man. Or The Dark Knight trilogy: even huge fans have criticized Christopher Nolan for neglecting the comic book stories so much, but even the biggest detractors can’t deny that the themes, tones and ideas that the movies play with fit best into Batman’s world. So tell me, Mr. Bay, why did you feel the need to do this to my beloved Ninja Turtles? Look, I get the kind of movie that you want to make, and I’m not even really opposed to it, honestly. I liked Armageddon, Pearl Harbor was perfectly fine, I really liked the Bad Boys movies and while I haven’t seen Project Almanac, I thought the idea was awesome, but you clearly want to make those kinds of movies and don’t really want to make movies that are faithfully and honestly about generation X nostalgia properties like The Transformers and Ninja Turtles, so why do you do it?!?!?

Moving on to other writing quibbles, this is at the end of the day an action movie and an action movie needs to be exciting specifically because we’re afraid that something bad might happen to the main characters. Look at Die Hard, wherein they made John McClane vulnerable and wounded and cast a tiny guy to play him, or The Terminator, where Kyle Reese was a badass, sure, but his rival was immensely scary and powerful. This movie, however, doesn’t feel the need to put the heroes in any kind of appreciable danger, not really; oh sure, there are bad guys shooting at them, but the Turtles turn out to be bulletproof. Sure, they fall off of a building, but they land at street level on their feet and they seem to be fine, not really a big deal for them. They have an exciting chase down a mountain at one point, but the action gets so cartoon-y and the good guys are all so invulnerable that I can’t be bothered to care. The Turtles even have all of their blood pulled out of them at one point and like twenty minutes later they’re fine. The action in this movie is plentiful, sure, but it has no stakes and so it’s all just so much noise. And on a final note, the grandest sin of this movie is that it’s racist. This could be part of my quarrel that this is an adaptation that doesn’t take anything from its source material, but it’s a little more sinister than that. You see, the TMNT canon is heavily inspired by Japanese culture, specifically by the feudal period in Japan’s history slightly tweaked by the sensibilities of modern Japanese media so as to be more fantastic. To that end, the Turtles’ teacher, Splinter, is a mutant rat of Japanese origin who has learned Ninjutsu from his former owner, and the primary villain (that is, the villain most likely to turn up in the first movie of a new TMNT series) is Shredder, another Ninjutsu master who leads a clan of ninjas originating in Feudal Japan.

This movie, however, has decided to fly in the face of tradition; remember those plot acrobatics I was talking about earlier? Well they’re twisted a little more to allow the whole cast of important and interesting characters to get whitewashed. As already mentioned, the main villain is a William Fichtner character named Eric Sacks, and while Shredder does eventually show up and fight the Turtles…well, they added in a whole backstory where Erick grew up in Japan and learned ninjutsu as a kid and then it never comes up and…*sigh* it seems pretty clear that the intent was for Erick to turn out to be Shredder. And then at the last second somebody reminded them how racist that would be and they hastily reedited the existing scenes, shot a few more and made almost no alterations to the plot to squeeze that bit of unpleasantness out of the finished product but they’ll get no points from me for doing that because this movie is still the most grossly insensitive form of cultural appropriation that this franchise has ever had to deal with. It wants to have all of the cool things that Japan has created over the centuries, but it doesn’t want to create work for any Japanese actors. I’m not saying that Michael Bay is racist, but this movie most certainly is.

Movies That Go Small In A Big Way: The Hunger Games

Readers, I have discovered that I have a super power: I can name an oddly specific style of movie (the kind that I would put into a post’s title on this blog) and then I’ll see a bunch of movies in a row that fit that description! Look, it’s not a great power but do you have any super powers? I thought not! Anyway, I’m back from my two week, Thanksgiving hiatus during which I ate enough to feed a village, drank enough to kill a bull elephant and watched exactly zero movies, some of which was really out of character for me. To celebrate my return, I’m going to do something even more out of character: talk about a recent movie…without shitting all over it. I’m also going to talk about an entire movie franchise, but avid readers (haha, it’s cute that I pretend that there’s more than one) will note that I’ve done that before and will be awarded points for spotting the previous entries I’m talking about.

Today we’re going to discuss The Hunger Games (you will be expected to present a rebuttal to the following argument and submit it within two weeks of the date of posting), a series of movies starring Jennifer Lawrence based on the similarly named book series by Suzanne Collins that recently concluded (that is, the final film is recent, the final book came out ages ago) and WE’RE GOING TO SPOIL THE SHIT OUT OF IT. I’m going to a put a big whitespace break below this paragraph and if you want to be genuinely surprised when you see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, and you haven’t seen it yet, get the french toast out of here and we’ll see you back here next week. I am considering this to be fair warning and anybody who’s upset with me after reading this post for having ruined the movie for them can f*** right off. Ok? Ok.

With that out of the way, let me say what we’re all thinking about this movie franchise: it’s pretty solid evidence that Jennifer Lawrence could put together the most kick ass body of work in film making history if she would just stop answering Bradley Cooper’s phone calls. Have you seen American Hustle? You don’t need to see American Hustle, just take my word for it that J-Law is fantastic in it and everything else about it is garbage, and it looks like Joy is going to follow pretty much the same formula unless Robert De Niro’s heavily featured part in the trailer is not a lie (it’s almost certainly a lie). Luckily for all of us, B-Coop is not in The Hunger Games, barring some hilariously misguided post-credits scene for which I did not stick around (honestly, would it surprise you?); now I’m wondering if it would have been better had there been a part for Robert De Niro…well, whatever, I’ll settle for Philip Seymour Hoffman no matter how sad it makes me that he won’t be making any more films. Let’s all watch a PSH movie this week and remember what a jewel that guy was; I recommend Pirate Radio, but I’ll be re-watching Charlie Wilson’s War (Capote would also be an acceptable answer).

I thought about putting this movie franchise into another, would-be novel category entitled “Movies That Aren’t Quite About What You Think They’re About” but I thought that would have been a bit too pretentious. Besides, this movie makes an interesting comparison (or maybe contrast, but words are hard) to our previous entry in this series (that was What’s Eating Gilbert Grape for those keeping score at home) that we probably won’t have time for; sorry, we ate up a lot of words rambling about Bradley Cooper. If somebody gets me started about the new TMNT movie it could eat an entire post’s worth of space and time, SO DO NOT DO THAT. This thing’s filler enough as it is.

Anyway, the reason I thought about putting this film series into the aforementioned, pretentious category is that it heavily features the story of the revolution of Panem and has the shape of a teenaged, dystopian future movie but is not really about that at the end of the day. This series spends two movies setting up a post-apocalyptic world run by a ruthless and militaristic police state, then two movies showing us the fight to tear that down and build a new image of it complete with the twist ending that would-be President Coin is as sadistic and power hungry as the regime she seeks to end which serves as a larger commentary on the nature of revolutions and it’s about a 10%/90% split between misdirection on the one hand and setting, backdrop and characterization on the other, all meant to serve the more important, personal story. That is, the story of a teenage girl, Katniss Everdeen trying valiantly to save the life of her sister, Primrose in a harsh and dangerous world and ultimately failing, and to a lesser extent how she recovers from and deals with that failure.

And now I have to explain why I feel that this setup is appreciably different from the setup for Saving Private Ryan before the Internet’s consistency brigade jumps down my throat. Well for one thing, rather than reveling in the spectacle of the larger backdrop of WAR (hoo-hah, what is it good for), this series seems to actively hate the whole business; they keep Katniss physically distanced from the revolution’s conflict by making her a bad planner and a PR figure for one side, and then they keep her emotionally distanced by making her a reluctant hero in the most traditional, literary sense. That last part (the reluctant hero) is pretty standard fair for full-hero’s-journey action pieces like this one, and it doesn’t usually cause some kind of schism between the hero and what is supposed to be the main action, but it does here basically because this series commits so intensely to it and never gives it up so by the beginning of the fourth movie it stops being a story writing trope and starts being a clue that we maybe shouldn’t lose our focus on Katniss’s personal story. Where a character like John McClane might get his initial motivation to save the day from a desire to protect the woman he loves and then grow into a personal confrontation with Hans that is much more macho, Katniss Everdeen is initially motivated by the desire to protect the people she loves from the harsh, totalitarian whims of the Capitol and then grows into a much stronger and more hopeless desire to protect the people she loves from the brutal chaos of war.

When you (meaning I) think about significant moments in this franchise, from both plot and emotional arc perspectives, they’re all about somebody getting hurt or narrowly escaping getting hurt either as the direct result of Katniss’s actions or from her failure to adequately protect them. Plot Point I of the entire series, the inciting incident that rolls us from the setup of the first movie into its confrontation (and ultimately into the confrontations of the entire series) is the now-famous “I volunteer as tribute” scene, wherein the writing staff spills a bunch of characterization of the protagonist onto the movie theater floor and makes us all tear up a little bit. The emotional weight of the Games (at least for the first half of Act II) comes from Katniss’s desire to protect Rue, the 12-year-old female tribute from District 11 who reminds her of Prim, and then after we’re completely crushed by Rue’s death (an incident that would spill over into the next two goddamned movies) the film realizes that it can’t carry on without that dynamic and the rest of the film is about protecting (hold on, checking IMDB for spelling…really?) Peeta which then becomes the emotional core of the rest of the freaking franchise.

The most climactic moment I can recall from the first movie (off the top of my head, without the aid of the film itself) is the one in which Katniss knocks Cato down into a horde of those mutant zombie dogs (I know what they’re called, but my way is more fun) that eat people in order to protect Peeta. It was dramatic because Cato dumped a ton of humanizing characterization on us right before his ungraceful exit and it left Katniss conflicted about the whole matter which foreshadowed the inner turmoil she would face in the future over the awful things that she would have to do to protect the people she loves. Remember how Katniss convinced Haymitch to volunteer in Peeta’s stead in the quarterquell because she was desperate to protect him at all costs? Remember how, to shake Katniss’s confidence and break her concentration, the Capitol had her costumer mercilessly beaten right before the Games started? And it worked, by the way. Remember when she made a deal with Snow where she would have an arranged marriage with Peeta and in exchange her family (and Liam Hemsworth, playing Liam Hemsworth) would be safe? Do you remember when Finnick was trying to earn her trust in the Games, and he did it by saving Peeta? Think about that, most movies would have had Finnick protect Katniss to earn the trust of Katniss, but not this movie! Or how about the third movie, where only a handful of things actually happened (at least that I can remember) and among them were: Katniss freaks out when she thinks that Prim might die during the bombardment, they stage a rescue mission to bring back Peeta, Katniss is emotionally crushed when she learns that Peeta has been highjacked. Oh, I lied, the third movie also had the arc about making Katniss into a PR figure that only works when Katniss is given the chance to react to Snow blowing up a field hospital just to get to her. And then the primary source of conflict for the entire fourth movie is her being confronted by Peeta’s trauma (presumably at her expense), which never pays off because it is, in fact, a misdirection to keep you from guessing that the climax of the movie is the death of Prim during the final invasion of the Palace.

So there, everything that happens in this movie that matters is about Katniss and her desire to protect Prim, Peeta and anybody who makes her think about Prim or Peeta. The war starts out as an obstacle she’d like to avoid, then moves into being an obstacle she has to overcome to save Prim and then becomes the thing that takes Prim from her, but never is it what the story is about. You can tell, I think, by the ending; you see, a movie about the Panem revolution would have ended after the revolution was won. Pacific Rim ended right after Raleigh and Mako blew up the Kaiju home world and won the Kaiju war, because it is a movie about the Kaiju war; Rocky ended right after the fight with Apollo Creed, because it is a movie about Rocky’s fight with Apollo Creed; Cinderella Man–well, you get the point. However, after the Capitol is conquered and you start brushing loose popcorn off of yourself in preparation to leave the theater, the credits are belated thanks to a sequence in which we see what Coin does after she takes power and the whole fight for freedom kind of falls apart. You think “ok, that’s fine, I guess this movie wasn’t about the war, it was about that revolution and by extension revolutions in general”, and you put your empty Reese’s Pieces box into your empty ICEE cup so that you can throw them out together on your way out of the theater. But then there still aren’t any motherfucking credits even after Katniss kills Coin and we get the speech by Plutarch delivered by letter, because then they show you what happens to Katniss after she goes back home, settles down with Peeta and has a couple of kids. Because that’s the actual resolution of the movie. What are they resolving? The story about Katniss’s trying and failing to protect Prim, and then eventually coming to forgive herself.

Movies That Go Small In A Big Way: What’s Eating Gilbert Grape

Series of Tubes, I hope that by now you’ve gathered that I like movies, and furthermore that I like movies with guramba (courage, for those of you without a pathological obsession with Star Trek). That is, I like films that are daring enough to approach big topics with big ideas; movies like Equilibrium, which has things to say about the nature of humanity and the impetus to go on living, or A Clockwork Orange, which is a commentary on the status and future of criminal justice in the western world, these are the kinds of films that grab my attention and convince me to sit in one place for 2 hours at a time. However, from time to time I’m grabbed by a movie of a much different nature, a very personal story about a very human set of characters with a very human set of challenges. Of course, for this to work the film has to really go all out on drawing human empathy for the protagonist and so a lot of them tend to paint the story into a larger, historical or cultural picture. For instance, Braveheart is at its heart a very personal story about the struggles of one man, William Wallace, who has lost everything to the unjust oppression of his homeland by a foreign kingdom; unfortunately, Wallace himself is a bit of an unlikable bastard who makes me look at Mel Gibson’s thighs a lot, so to endear him to the audience they had to stretch his character and his story until it was something much larger and more significant. To take a less Mel Gibson-y example, Saving Private Ryan is a very human story about a quest to save the last son of a family buried in the tragedy of the second world war, but whose staying power ultimately comes from the way the story reflects the conflict against which it is set.

Take a moment to note that I just implied that Steven “The High Priest of Human Drama Told Through Moving Pictures” Spielberg had to make Saving Private Ryan bigger than its characters and story to draw empathy from the likes of me; then consider what kind of wizard it would take to write a film that was intentionally small and character focused, that eschewed the distractions of grandiosity in favor of diving into a single person and their deeply personal struggles, and get me to care about it. Well it’s not much of a secret, is it? It would take Peter Hedges’ writing and Lasse Hallström’s directing to produce that film, and the film in question is What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. Based on Hedges’ novel of the same name, this film tells the story of one man, Gilbert Grape, and that is all it fucking tells. This movie is so focused on Gilbert and his immediate wants, needs and obstacles that it has nothing else going on and it definitely doesn’t have time for your piddly, asking-questions-about-the-world bullshit; I know it was adapted from a book, but this movie’s utter single-mindedness is like a lesson on screenplay writing, as Syd Field would say it “has no fat.” We go from Gilbert wanting a thing, to showing why Gilbert wants that thing, to showing why Gilbert can’t have it, back to why Gilbert wants it, etc. for most of its two hour running time and then BAM, he gets it right at the end of act III. Alright, I think it’s time for a brief recap of the plot.

Gilbert Grape, played by Johnny Depp in what I’m convinced is his only non-goofy-as-fuck role, lives in the small town of Endora, Iowa, has done so all his life and wants desperately not to; this is all established in voice over in the first minute or so. Also established in the first minute or so is reason #1 why he can’t do that (or rather, hasn’t done so yet): Gilbert is the older brother of, and caretaker for Arnie Grape, a developmentally disabled teenager played by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of his many non-goofy-as-fuck roles. Shortly thereafter we meet reason #2 why Gilbert can’t leave: his mother Bonnie, a woman so morbidly obese that she can’t leave or look after her home under her own power and requires the support and assistance of her children (Gilbert, Arnie and their two sisters Amy and Ellen), having sequestered herself in her home after her husband’s suicide, now so cemented in place that she sleeps in the first floor living room rather than making the trek to the bedrooms on the second floor. There exists a lot of plot, but for reasons a high level summary of each plot point would be dull and also eerily similar to just watching the movie so you just go watch the movie on Netflix (I should really start charging for that plug), and I will skip ahead to the resolution. See, a girl named Becky (Juliette Lewis) is passing through town as part of a road trip with…some older woman, I assume some elderly relation of hers when their vehicle breaks down and Becky is stranded in Endora for…basically the length of the movie. Becky brings perspective to Gilbert in a number of ways but more importantly brings an outsider’s perspective to his mother, and when Bonnie leaves her house for the first time in forever Becky, instead of laughing maliciously like everyone in town who knows her as a comedy fixture, sees the action as courageous. She asks to meet Bonnie and after doing so, and following a touching scene in which Gilbert tells his mother that he loves her and isn’t ashamed of her, Bonnie climbs the stairs to the bedroom that she shared with her husband to sleep, symbolically letting go of his ghost and confronting her present. In the morning, Arnie finds his mother dead in her bed (presumably from some sort of cardiac incident brought on by the task of ascending to the second floor). When they learn that their mother would have to be hoisted out of the house by crane, the children resolve not to let her go out as a joke and instead burn down the house that their father built with her inside, symbolically breaking the ties that bound them to their parents and to the town. Flash forward one year and we find Gilbert and Arnie waiting for Becky to pick them up for this year’s road trip, and the story is tied up neatly with a voice over by Gilbert explaining that the children have pretty much scattered to the winds and they couldn’t be happier because now they can go anywhere.

Well that was more of a wall of text than I had anticipated or wanted, please accept this amazing true fact as compensation: the actress playing Bonnie is not wearing a suit to enhance her size or indeed any sort of prosthetic; the role is played by Darlene Cates, who appeared on a talk show in 1985 to discuss the unique challenges caused by her weight, which at the time prevented her from leaving her house. I won’t say that she’s a real life Bonnie Grape, but in a lot of ways she at least can relate to Bonnie Grape. Whoever was in charge of casting this movie chose Leonardo DiCaprio for his ability to portray mental handicaps in an endearing way, Johnny Depp because he could embody the pathos needed to draw us into the story of a desperate man stuck in a painful situation, and Darlene Cates because only a handful of human beings on the planet could adequately enact the look, mannerisms and mindset of that character. You have to think that she was saying (or at least thinking) things like “you know, Johnny, you’re great and all but if push comes to shove, they can always get another douchebag with long hair to read lines; there’s one of me.” I mean, talk about being perfect for a role.

Alright, back to the film at hand. What I like so much about this movie (aside from how good it is and how well it’s acted) is that it does a lot of things and not one of them isn’t about Gilbert and his immense desire to be free of Endora. They bring in a symbolic love interest, Becky, a human stand-in for a greater idea, and what is that idea? The idea is the freedom that comes from moving as you please. Why is that important to the movie? Because Gilbert wants that freedom. They have a symbolic obstacle character, Bonnie, another human stand-in for an idea, what’s that idea? The idea of being too big to move freely. Why is that important to the movie? Because Gilbert wants to move freely and he can’t because of her. There is dramatic conflict on many occasions when Arnie repeatedly climbs up the water tower at the center of town and endangers himself. Why is that important to the movie? Because Gilbert is ultimately unable to stop this from happening because he can’t just take Arnie and move far away from the water tower and the town of Endora; you know, the thing that he wants so desperately to do. There is a very painful, very compelling scene where Gilbert, a woman with whom he has had a long running affair (Betty), her husband (whose name is unimportant), their children (something something, child actors suck, something something) and the husband’s overwhelming sense of futility and inadequacy (played by Sam Jackson, oddly enough) all collide in disastrous fashion; the writer chooses to nail this scene into our consciousness by having Gilbert’s truck fail to start, leaving him stranded in the middle of this catastrophe. He is literally unable to move, forcing him to endure this piece of small town hell (a microcosm of his entire life), and then the two of them have this exchange:

Betty: I could have had any guy — any guy — but I chose you. I chose you.
Gilbert: Why did you?
Betty: Because I knew you’d always be there. Because I knew you’d never leave.

There is nothing going on in this movie that isn’t about how Gilbert wants to leave and suffers because he can’t. There’s an exchange between him and Becky where she’s prattling on about a sunset and how big the sky is, then the next scene is him showing her where he lives, and we get this long shot of his house from the distance set against the sunset and looking tiny by comparison. Gilbert then takes a moment to remark on how small his house looks, especially considering how big the things inside of it are, and any other film would have taken this exact moment to instill a bit of metaphor that goes beyond the bounds of the film (a “it’s not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me” moment, to take Batman Begins as an example) and tries to make a comment that the viewer can take home. Not this film, instead what this shot encapsulates is very personal: Gilbert is thinking that his house is literally small in the larger context of the world contrasted by how big his mother literally is and seems to him, but the deeper metaphor is that his life as he has known it (the house where his mother and the ghost of his father live), as a prison, is not so big in the grander scheme and that his hopes of escaping it are maybe not so futile. I suppose the audience could take home the message that, generally, our problems are not so large in context and we should periodically step back and reexamine them with a stranger’s eyes, but I have trouble believing that this film means to be about anything other than the story of Gilbert escaping his past. And you know what? Good for this film. It doesn’t need a bigger picture, it’s better than that; this film buried its hopes, its writing and its audience in a bone simple story of man overcomes self and executed it flawlessly. Good on you, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.

Movies Whose Subtext Really Bothers Me: The Punisher

Hello, The Internet, welcome back to my nearly senseless ramblings about movies that are not all that recent and (for the most part) were not all that popular even when they were the most relevant. Today we’re going to talk about a movie that is not quite old enough to encapsulate a time and place that is foreign to most of today’s moviegoers and thus serve as a kind of snapshot of history, but is old enough that if it was going to develop some kind of cult following that would already have happened. In other words, it’s kind of a mediocre movie. Why then, you ask, am I going to waste your time and mine talking about a piece of cinema that we have already collectively decided isn’t worth anything? Because, while it isn’t worth much on its own, it is (or was, we’ll talk about that in a minute) the flagship in a movement of media that I think is very important for us to discuss. What the fuck am I on about, get to the point! Ok, the film in question is the 2004 rendition of The Punisher, written by Michael France and Jonathon Hensleigh with Hensleigh also taking the director’s chair, and starring Thomas Jane as Frank Castle with John Travolta playing a slightly more evil version of John Travolta.

This film features what is today a pretty cookie cutter plot: man A has family (of some, potentially non-traditional variety) that he loves, man B does something to hurt man A’s family, man A turns out to have been a superhuman, action movie star this whole time and goes on a vengeful rampage against man B and his organization. In The Punisher, man A is Frank Castle, who has a pretty standard nuclear family, beautiful, loving wife and a single son, their only apparent flaw being that Frank’s work minimizes the time that he can spend with the two of them. Castle’s occupation is top notch, undercover police officer and when he is introduced to us he is breaking up the sale of assault weapons to an organized criminal syndicate right before he retires and whisks his family away to Puerto Rico for a vacation/family reunion which is cut short when John Travolta (played by John Travolta), whose son was making the arms deal and was killed in a shootout with police, orders a hit on Castle’s entire, extended family. The hit succeeds and everybody, including Frank Castle, is brutally murdered by Travolta’s men and I want to stress that Frank Castle definitely died but by the power of movie magic he somehow pulls through and swiftly recovers from death. Act II, as one might expect, is Castle exacting his revenge on Travolta through clever schemes, brute force, and a unique set of skills that he acquired as a member of Delta Force’s counterterrorism unit (for the record, Travolta’s character did a full background check on Castle before ordering the hit, so this isn’t as much of a revelation as it would be in other movies). There are a number of moderately impressive action scenes wherein Castle survives further attempts on his life or goes after Travolta’s wealth, and a number of downright clever schemes to sow discord among Travolta’s family (which is oddly devoid of any Olivia Newton-Johns), culminating in Travolta’s murder of his wife and best friend before Castle kills Travolta and his remaining son in Act III.

This movie is based on a comic book character who first premiered in a 1974 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, and as much as I love comic books (especially Marvel comic books) for the purposes of this discussion I’m going to pretend that the comic books don’t exist and that The Punisher was created out of whole cloth in the writing of this film. Instead I choose to think of this movie as part of the Taken trend, which includes movies like Taken (unsurprisingly) and John Wick; for those of you don’t follow movies, what the fuck are you doing here? Also for those of you who don’t follow movies, those films have pretty much the same shape I outlined earlier: in Taken, Liam Neeson has a daughter that he loves who travels to France and then is kidnapped by an Albanian sex trafficking ring, and then we learn that Liam Neeson is a former CIA agent as he massacres his way across Europe on a quest to rescue his daughter. In John Wick, the titular character is recovering from his wife’s death (due to an illness of some sort, specifics are for chumps) with the help of an adorable beagle puppy (so cute! who’s a good doggy?!?) when some Russian gangsters home invade him and kill his puppy for refusing to sell them his vintage Mustang (you know, people who have nostalgia for the 90s are never going to have this problem, 90s Mustangs sucked). We then learn that Wick is a retired, world class hitman who then goes on a murderous rampage seeking vengeance for the loss of his puppy. You may be noticing the same trend here that I am, and if you are you may have already figured out that we’re about to have a very uncomfortable discussion.

As I’m sure we’ve already discussed (well I’m pretty sure, I don’t read this stupid blog), movies tell us a lot about the cultures that produce them; for instance, that we are getting a lot of generation X nostalgia turned into smash hit movies right now (Transformers, Ninja Turtles, The Avengers, all of DC comics, Terminator sequels, etc.) tells us not only that genX is now old enough to start dictating serious popular media, but that the culture that drives and defines them was mostly targeted at them when they were children. Now there’s a lot to unpack in the second part of that (which I promise to turn into a post at a later date, but for now just know that I don’t mean any of it to be negative toward genX-ers that might read this, except for Ron: fuck you, Ron!), but the point is that movies are a sort of crowdsourced fantasy and reading into an entire generation’s fantasies is bound to render up something meaningful about them and, I think, the more fantastical a piece of media, the more you can read about them. Which actually brings us right back to The Punisher, Taken and John Wick, because those three movies are more fantasy than the goddamn Lord of The Rings and the fantasy in all three cases is of an old white man being the victim of the most horrible tragedy the writers could think of and then turning out to be a superhuman violence machine. I don’t begrudge any group their fantasies, but I think it behooves us to ask why (especially with as high grossing a movie as Taken was) that fantasy resonates with so many people. Side note: I can already hear some of you warming up your typewriters to write me some angry fan mail (boy am I old) in which you point out that The Equalizer was basically John Wick but starred Denzel Washington (both an excellent actor and, incidentally, a black man), to which I would reply: you’re absolutely right and I honestly feel a whole lot better about the whole enterprise thanks to that movie, I’m really glad they made The Equalizer for a lot of reasons but that movie wasn’t going to get a sequel specifically because it starred a black actor so it doesn’t defeat my point entirely. Also, anybody who wants to talk about Quentin Tarantino’s fantasy revenge movies in this context can fuck right off: yes, Django: Unchained was a fantasy revenge movie, ABOUT SLAVERY, a horrible thing THAT HAPPENED to MILLIONS OF PEOPLE for HUNDREDS OF YEARS, yes, Inglorious Basterds was a fantasy revenge movie, ABOUT THE HOLOCAUST, a horrible thing THAT HAPPENED to NEARLY ALL OF THE JEWS, historical fiction fantasy is just an entirely different beast as far as I’m concerned. Yeah, Kill Bill was also a fantasy revenge movie that didn’t have the cover of history, but I group it in with Death Proof in that it’s partly allegorical with regard to feminism in the 20th century. I wonder if I can get through an entire blog post without talking about Tarantino movies.

I think it’s important to point out that in a movie the main character is supposed to be you, the viewer; that’s probably an oversimplification, but a movie asks us to get inside of the main character’s head and imagine ourselves in their situation, feel the pain of their defeats and the joy of their victories, to fear their fears and hate their enemies. If you’ve ever watched an ensemble piece with a friend and the two of you can’t agree on who the main character was, you may have simply found different characters to be the most relatable, the most like yourselves. Incidentally, this is (part of) why women and minorities are often so dissatisfied with American cinema and (as far as I can tell) is what led Alison Bechdel to present the “Bechdel test” in 1985: it can be frustrating when you feel like there aren’t any movies that consider your perspective to any significant degree, and American cinema is a pretty severe offender in this regard. In the 1980s, finding a popular movie that wasn’t about a white guy who is basically a walking penis (Rambo, John McClane, etc.) was difficult, and you could pretty much forget about getting movies that were about gay women (as Bechdel’s comic strip lamented). This is also, as far as I can tell, why so many of you thought that Pacific Rim was about Raleigh even though IT IS OBVIOUSLY NOT (seriously, go back and watch that movie again but while thinking about the story telling mechanics of The Great Gatsby). The other implication here is that you can often tell who a movie is for based on the characteristics of the main character, by which metric I have to conclude that Taken, The Punisher and John Wick are all for old, white guys (which might explain why The Punisher didn’t do so well, being a comic book adaptation targeted at a demographic that tends to look down on comic books).

So far we’ve established some things that aren’t exactly revolutionary: The Punisher and its ilk are capital F Fantasy revenge movies, and they’re specifically for old, white men. Where’s my Pulitzer? But what this really tells us is that (at least for Taken and John Wick, based on their commercial success) old, white men are doing the non-porn-movie equivalent of jerking off to these movies where somebody (just like the viewer) has certain things that are precious to them (just like the viewer), then for absolutely no good reason an army of criminals destroys everything that they have (just li–wait, what?), and they have to seek vengeance using the powers granted to them as the Avenging Angel Gabriel to send down their righteous wrath and burn the offenders to the ground (?!?!?!?!?!). Ok, I’m starting to think that this might not be the healthiest fantasy. Well, that’s not being fair; like I said, I don’t begrudge any group their fantasies, and being a child of the 90s and thus a fan of Power Rangers (not to mention a serious nerd) I’ve had plenty of fantasies play out in media that were, basically, child A gets bullied by child B, child B doesn’t know that child A is actually a child superhero, child A beats up child B. However, I do worry about the cultural implications of the grown up form of that and let me take a few minutes here to dance around the issue, la-di-da-di-da, tum-di-tum, hey, look, according to IMDB they’re going to have a black kid play the Blue Ranger in the 2017 Power Rangers, but then they’re going to have an Asian kid play the Black Ranger and I guess those two things together are probably the best way to address the racial issues people had with the original show? Probably. Alright, fine! I’ll stop dancing around the issue! Look, I get “if they don’t stop pushing us, they’re going to find out they messed with the wrong man!” as a viewpoint that particularly desperate people take in particularly desperate situations, it’s just that, what are you (white people, and I say this as both a dude in the most traditional gender sense and a white person in the most traditional burns-up-quickly-in-the-sun sense) talking about?!?!?! Who are “they”? Who is pushing you? What is going so wrong in your lives? White people in the US are less likely to be the victims of violent crime according to the FBI and according to Business Insider make more money than any other ethnic group (except for Asian people, which raises some very troubling questions for me but I guess I should just high five Asian people and move on), and there is a gender wage gap of about 20 goddamn percent favoring men! What the fuck are you so afraid of?

Even “life is great for white dudes” wouldn’t bother me so much as a state of the world, but I get the sense that the villain that is so drearily encroaching on these people’s lives is SOCIAL PROGRESS. Every time you hear a scoff at affirmative action, every time you hear a racial joke about Barak Obama, every time someone uses the term “Social Justice Warrior” as a pejorative, these are people who have looked at a group whose goal is to make life better for people who aren’t white men and decided “these are my enemies!” Those are the people who I can’t help but picture when I see Liam Neeson murdering his way across Europe, people who have decided “we’re not going to take it anymore!” except “it” is the trend for white people not to have such an advantage over everybody else anymore. It is entirely possible that I’m reading too much into a genre of movies that included Kevin Nash as a serious villain, but then again I don’t believe in reading too much into a movie. Besides, whether or not Jonathon Hensleigh or Michael France knew that they were writing the basis for modern white paranoia movies is immaterial, the fact is that when Taken came along and chose to make The Punisher but with an actor that white Americans respected and with Albanian villains, they made a boatload of money, not just on cool action scenes but on the cultural resonance of the premise.

This is the point where I’m obligated to state that I don’t think that anybody who liked those movies is necessarily racist, or that any of the themes are particularly racist, and to point out for the third time that I’m totally willing to let people have their fantasies. I’ve always been a defender of violent video games on the grounds that fantasy violence doesn’t necessarily turn into real violence and the numbers are on my side. What concerns me, as I’ve stated, is the cultural nerve that these films appear to tap into, exemplified in cases like the fatal shootings of Treyvon Martin and Jordan Davis (the latter of which was murdered for having the stereo in his car turned up too loud) where it appears that a lifetime’s worth of pent up rage and hostility was unleashed on an innocent (if bratty, but remember that brattiness does not carry a death sentence under US law and in fact isn’t a crime) child. In particular, this immense fury was directed from members of an advantaged and powerful group, to members of a disadvantaged, marginalized and often disenfranchised group, but when these explosions happen they tend to be justified by a reversed, imagined power differential. To be less of a vague bastard, consider specifically the case where Michael Dunn shot and killed Jordan Davis (Dunn was convicted of first degree murder and three attempted murders); Dunn is a middle aged, white, male software engineer (a middle to upper class profession in most parts of the country), Davis was a black 17 year old in a state with a stand-your-ground law (basically it’s really easy to get off the hook in Florida for shooting and killing someone as long as the jury doesn’t sympathize too strongly with the victim). The two encountered each other in a convenience store parking lot where Dunn complained about the teen’s loud music before (claiming to have believed that Davis was carrying a weapon) drawing a firearm and discharging ten rounds into Davis’ vehicle, killing him, and this moment encapsulates the occasional reality that forms a distorted mirror of the fantasy presented in a movie like Taken. From Dunn’s perspective, if these kids didn’t stop pushing him they were going to find out they were messing with the wrong man! In reality, he executed a teenager for the dual crimes of listening to loud music and being in an ethnic group that Dunn thinks is scary, and nearly got away with it.

I suppose the crux of the issue is that stories are subjective and in movies what we’re being shown is how a sequence of events looked from the perspective of the hero. Certain works have played with this concept, for instance the opening and closing scenes of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction depict the same event but have slightly different dialogue to reflect that memory is subjective and unreliable, and the book turned musical Wicked is the story of The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the wicked witch of the west, while the play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is essentially Hamlet told from the perspective of the comic relief characters. This is simultaneously fantastic in the way that it allows us to sink our teeth further into fiction that we love, but it is also occasionally troubling (for me, at least) in that it gives a “history is written by the winners” asterisk to certain stories. For instance, in the James Bond movie franchise (the old ones, think Sean Connery) we’re told that Bond is irresistible to women as he shags up a storm across Europe, but then….well, this is going to get uncomfortable and there’s nothing to be done about it: this is the story of James Bond essentially by James Bond, and we’ve seen him openly coerce women into having sex with him. Exactly how much of that action is what we think of as the admirable, “I’m so suave the ladies can’t get enough” kind of affair, and how much of it is of the “this is the 1970s, I’m a violent man and I can get away with anything” variety? That’s not to say that James Bond is actually the bad guy in that franchise, just something to keep in mind the next time a movie character is painted larger than life. Surely Frank Castle is the hero of his own narrative, but if that character were pulled from his reality and dropped into, say an episode of Law & Order, I wager he’d be depicted as more of an anarchic sociopath.