The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli

This is one of my top 5 favorite films of all time.

~~Originally posted on August 6, 2017~~

Sometimes, really good movies aren’t just something you watch – they’re something that happens to you. The first time I saw this past week’s movie it was quite an experience – mostly because it was a spontaneous decision, and I had no clue what it was about as I walked into the theater. It was a cold night in February of 2010, and I had gone to the movies to escape the rest of my life for a couple of hours. I used to do that more often when I lived around a lot of people. I couldn’t explain why, but sometimes I would just feel a need to get away, to be alone, to not have to talk to anyone, to rest and think. I’ve since learned that this is normal introvert behavior. That particular night my house had filled up with so many people that I couldn’t move. I was standing in the kitchen, watching as wave after wave of college students began devouring the meal I had spent half the day preparing. I was glad for my part in feeding them, and felt a deep satisfaction in my soul – and also an intense urge to quietly exit through the backdoor that I had been slowly pushed up against. So I did. And 10 minutes later I was sitting in an almost empty theater waiting to see what in the world The Book of Eli was about.

The movie pulled me in really slowly as it introduced me to Denzel Washington’s character (Eli) – a man walking alone through a post apocalyptic wasteland, bedding down for the night in some old shack as he carefully stokes to life the remaining juice in a scratched and scarred generation one iPod. He’s listening to Al Green’s – How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, and it contains the first words you hear in the movie, providing the background chorus to the drama about to unfold on the screen. It tells us what is going on inside this strange character we’re being introduced to – it’s a very sad lament – the honest prayer of a man who has had his heart ripped out, and is desperately crying out for a reason to keep going. The song reflects the scarred over wounds we see on Eli’s body as he changes his shirt and settles in for the night.

Eventually you learn that Eli has been carrying something of great value for the past 30 years – the last remaining Bible to exist in North America. There had been some kind of war in the past that ended with the victors destroying all the rest of them. Conflict ensues when Eli encounters the villain of the story, a crafty warlord named Carnegie – played by Gary Oldman – who just so happens to be in search of a Bible. Every day he sends out raiding parties to scour the surrounding wastelands in the hope of finding one. When these two characters meet each other, all Hell literally breaks loose.

I won’t venture into much more detail about the plot, but at the core of this film is the examination of something that Christianity has had to wrestle with since the 4th century when it became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and something it’s still dealing with today – the clash between genuine religious experience and the perversion of it by political entities that seek to use religion as a tool of manipulation to gain or maintain power over people. At the time, I was getting my Master’s Degree in Church History (which is also an examination between these two opposing forces), and I found it very impressive that the history of Christianity was so elegantly captured and personified through the drama unfolding between these two movie characters.

Carnegie’s christianity is political. Eli’s is personal. Carnegie wants to use the Bible to gain more power over people. Eli wants to find a place where people have the freedom to discover the Bible on their own terms. Carnegie wants to use it like a weapon to manipulate the masses. Eli wants to preserve its integrity as a beacon of hope. In the middle of this conflict is Solara – the adopted daughter and slave of Carnegie. It’s her character that brings hope and brightness into the story as she escapes the abusive confines of her home to follow after Eli and eventually latch onto the same almighty power that drives him.

When the credits rolled I couldn’t believe what I had seen. I think it’s very very difficult for filmmakers to make a religious-themed movie that is not only well done, but that doesn’t come across as cheesy, or that doesn’t entirely miss the point of what faith is even about. I shudder inside when I think of all the bad – and I mean terrible – Christian movies that elevate mediocrity and overall suckiness to an art form. And thankfully, the twin brothers Allen and Albert Hughes made one that rises above that kind of canned nonsense.

I didn’t just watch their film that night all those years ago – I felt it.

And that is why I give The Book of Eli 5 Coffstars , 4 Coff-buds , 2 Coff-tickets , 2 hallelujah amens , and 1 cat-kabob

 

Southpaw

Southpaw

~~Originally posted on August 11, 2017~~

Karlie Crouch’s pick for our group’s Thursday Night Film Time this week was Southpaw. I had not yet seen this one, but Antoine Fuqua has been one of my favorite directors since Training Day back in 2001, and his follow up – Tears of the Sun in 2003. His most defining characteristic is being able to deftly genre-jump his way from project to project, each time applying his craft to an entirely different category of film. He’s dropped a few stinkers along the way for sure (2004’s King Arthur with Clive Owen for instance), but Southpaw isn’t one of them. Released in 2015, it’s a recent entry into his catalogue, and with the writing chops of Kurt Sutter (Sons of Anarchy), he’s brought all of his accumulated film experience into the boxing genre.

Of course, when it comes to making a boxing film, any director and screenwriter has to, at some point in their process, honestly contend with the fact that they’re treading on sacred ground that was long ago bought and paid for with Stallone’s blood, sweat, and tears. Sutter seems to have made a career out of trampling on holy ground, but in this case he’s much more careful with his screenplay. He doesn’t completely abandon the classic elements that made the Rocky saga great, but pays subtle homage to them while also injecting his own brand of tragic realism into the genre–and Sutter’s realism is very dark. Combined with Fuqua’s vision, the result is an experience that drags you down down down into a pit of despair as you watch the main character spiral into a black hole. But it doesn’t leave you there! (Manchester By The Sea, I’m looking at you – 😫)

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Billy Hope, the reigning boxing champ who is on top of the world. Without giving anything away, something happens to him about 20 minutes into the story that is the sitting-comfortably-in-your-home equivalent of receiving an unexpected uppercut to the jaw. It’s in that moment when you realize, ‘Oh, this isn’t Rocky.’ Thankfully, the story doesn’t end at this point, and you get to watch as this damaged character is slowly dismantled, re-arranged, healed, and put back together – mostly by Forrest Whitaker – the aging trainer/mentor figure. Whitaker (Tick Wills) is at his finest as he ambles from quiet discourse to energetic pep talk to loud bustling exclamations of woe and regret – all punctuated by an array of facial expressions that say more than his actual words. The meat of the story is the process by which Tick steadily hammers away at Billy’s hard outer shell in order to fully reveal the chaotic mess that’s inside him. Once this happens, Billy Hope is able to piece together a redemption story that can only really begin with his full acceptance of his own mistakes. He has to learn how to embrace responsibility for his own downfall, his own weaknesses, and how he has played a role in hurting those closest to him. The enemy he fights in the ring is a reflection of the enemy he fights inside his own heart and mind. Both fights are brutal, both fights are desperate, and both fights are metaphors for the kinds of battles that we all, as human beings on this planet, must face every day, in our own ways.

I give Southpaw 4 Coff-stars , 3 Coff-curls , 6 bowls of Coff-corn🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿🍿, and 1 knockout 💥

Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite

~~Originally posted on August 18, 2017~~

It was sometime in the middle of 2005 when the name ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ began registering in my brain enough for me to actually devote energy into finding out what it meant. Released the previous summer, the film had already become an independent cult classic, and as more and more people were talking about it, I became curious. Everyone else I knew had already seen it. Good grief, even my own parents had seen it by that time. And then, one night, I found myself sitting in the home of my old pal Christopher Jones, being forced to watch it. I’ll admit, I didn’t entirely get the humor during that first viewing. There were parts that I found really hilarious, but just as many that made me cringe with awkwardness, or feel genuinely sad for the characters. Watching the movie is almost like experiencing a symphony that hits these three notes over and over again. Hilarious, Awkward, Sad… Hilarious, Awkward, Sad… Hilarious, Awkward, Sad… But something has happened to me in the years since I first watched Napoleon Dynamite – something that has made me unable to watch it now without a huge, unquenchable grin on my face the entire time.

Napoleon Dynamite takes place in the rural town of Preston, Idaho – a place that feels like it dropped anchor in about 1987 and was then dragged kicking and screaming through the 90s before washing up in 2004. The story centers around the lives of three high school misfits who find friendship in each other. Napoleon, Pedro, and Deb have a variety of mild antagonists to deal with. These include the ‘popular’ crowd in their school, Kip – Napoleon’s older brother who spends most of his time chatting online with his internet girlfriend, and Uncle Rico – that sleazy relative who shows up unannounced and wreaks havoc in the lives of his family because he peaked in high school and is miserable that life has been nothing but a downhill slide ever since. Together, the unlikely trio of heroes form a bond that allows them to overthrow the established social order of high school politics. When we first meet Napoleon he’s the archetypal teenage loner, constantly over-exaggerating in order to impress those around him into liking him. He’s the guy that (if we’re honest about it) we all would have made fun of, laughed at, and generally avoided if he was a real person that we knew in high school, regardless of whatever social pond we were swimming in at the time. But Napoleon has a pure heart, and in his innocence he attracts the affection of Deb who accepts him for who he is. As his confidence gathers momentum he’s able to let his guard down, shrug off discouragement from his family members, stop bragging about his imaginary ninja skills, and clinch Pedro’s run for class president by channeling Jamiroquai in a public display of dance moves that brings the entire school roaring to their feet in applause.

And I’ll be completely honest with you. Even though I’ve just done my darnedest to give a brief, satisfactory summary of this movie – nothing I’ve said or could say about it will truly do it justice. It’s in a genre of its own. It completely defies all attempts at standard categorization. It laughs at professional critical analysis, and it scoffs at conventional comedic movies. If you’ve never seen it before, gather the whole family (it’s safe for all ages), make some popcorn, and let Napoleon Dynamite transport you to the most familiar-feeling parallel dimension that you’ve never been to.

I give Napoleon Dynamite 4 Coffstars , 2 Coff-steaks 🥩🥩, 3 Coff-jams , 1 pocket full of Coff-tater tots , and 1 (tamed) wild honeymoon stallion

Sneakers

Sneakers

For those of you who don’t know me, I was born at the tail end of 1978. I guess 39 years really isn’t that long ago in the grand scheme of things, but from a technological point of view, it was prehistoric times. The first video games I played were on the Atari 2600, my family didn’t own a phone that wasn’t attached to the wall until I was in middle school, and we didn’t have a cell phone until I was 18. The first computer we had (a top of the line custom desktop) could have held about 50 songs on its entire hard drive, if mp3 files existed at the time—and they didn’t. Our second PC was able to connect to the internet after a few minutes of the modem making screeching and scrunching sounds, and no one else could use the phone while someone else was online. And then things started changing. They changed really fast. And now, 20 years later, it takes only a few seconds to see what people are doing on the other side of the planet. The barriers of global communication—which at one time included things like oceans, and mountains, and long-distance fees, no longer exist. Information availability is nearly without limit.

And 26 years ago, a quaint little film called Sneakers predicted this would happen. Three years before, Phil Alden Robinson had directed Field of Dreams, which is essentially a parable about Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones building a sacred temple in the form of a baseball field. Sneakers was Robinson’s follow-up, and even though it’s basically a heist film veiled in several other genres, it’s also a parable—a parable about the power of information in the digital age. It definitely has some fantastical plot elements, but in the two and a half decades since its release, it’s proven to be remarkably prophetic in regards to some of its ideological warnings concerning information technology. As the villain of the story, played by Sir Ben Kingsley states so eloquently to his protagonist Robert Redford: “The world isn’t run by weapons anymore, or energy, or money. It’s run by little 1s and 0s, little bits of data… there’s a war out there; a world war. And it’s not about who’s got the most bullets, it’s about who controls the information—what we see and hear, how we work, what we think—it’s all about the information.

Side Note: James Earl Jones makes a cameo appearance in this movie, and he has the best lines…

But all heaviness and ideological gravitas aside, Sneakers is just a really fun movie. It reminds me a lot of Ocean’s Eleven—it has a similar feel to it. And like Ocean’s Eleven, what really makes it a great film are the characters, their uniqueness, and how well their personalities ping-pong off each other. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me break down the team dynamic for you: There’s Sydney Poitier, the ex-CIA operative who functions as the co-leader of the team along with Robert Redford. He’s often roped into verbal sparring matches with Dan Aykroyd, who plays a technical genius obsessed with conspiracy theories. The heart of the team is David Strathairn who plays a blind computer hacker named Whistler. I’m not going to tell you why he’s the heart of the team—you just have to watch it. Then there’s Carl, played by the late River Phoenix in one of his last roles—he plays… well, he plays a kid named Carl. And finally, last but not least, is Mary McDonnell (Stands With A Fist), playing the intelligent, quick-thinking, quick-witted, token female who’s obviously just had enough with all these dudes running around getting into trouble.

Movies about teams of people saving the world are pretty common these days, but if you want to watch something different, look no further than Sneakers—a film about a group of small business entrepreneurs (without superhuman abilities, without guns, and without Denzel Washington), that end up saving the world all the same. If you’ve never had the chance to behold this forgotten treasure from 1992, it’s currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

The Green Mile

The Green Mile

~~Originally posted on July 9, 2017~~

I’m of the opinion that you can’t go wrong with a movie that has Tom Hanks on the cover – whether it’s Forrest Gump, Saving Private Ryan, or The ‘Burbs – and that’s definitely true of the one Seth Dickey brought to our Thursday Night Movie Time this past week. The Green Mile (1999) was a collaboration between Director Frank Darabont and Stephen King. Five years earlier, the pair had brought The Shawshank Redemption to the screen, and this was their follow-up. Both films have a very similar tone. The main difference between the two is that Shawshank has a very subtle, biblical undertone, loosely based around the Old Testament story of Joseph, whereas The Green Mile has a plot that is overtly and undeniably based on the New Testament story of Jesus Christ. The Green Mile takes place down in Louisiana during the time of the Great Depression, and revolves primarily around the interaction between Tom Hanks’ character Paul Edgecomb – a death row prison guard, and his prisoner John Coffey – an extremely large black man (portrayed by the late Michael Clarke Duncan, may he rest in peace) who has been wrongly convicted of raping and murdering two young white girls. Throughout the course of the film we see that Coffey has a variety of supernatural abilities which include healing disease, prophecy, sensing the good and evil in other people, and even resurrecting a dead mouse. He also has a genuine concern for other people, including strangers, as well as a childlike sense of wonder. His conviction as a child rapist and murderer is based entirely on outward appearances and racism. We don’t even see the trial, because whatever trial he had was irrelevant – he’s an eight foot tall black man and a stranger – his guilt was assumed the moment they found him holding the dead bodies of these two little white girls. The reality is that he found them after they had already been killed, and was trying to heal them. This film doesn’t just touch lightly on an important issue – it presses firmly on a deep and open wound that our country is still grappling with today. And it does so by reminding us that the qualities which make someone a genuine child of God cannot be seen with the eyes. This is what Hanks’ character learns in the film. It’s what we, as a society, still have not learned. I give The Green Mile 4 Coffstars 🌠🌠🌠🌠, 3 Coff-tears, 2 Coff-cones, and 1 Mr. Jingles .

The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps

Many years ago, when I was just a young lad with a high-pitched voice that still sounded like my sisters’ … mom and dad read me the ancient story of one of the most mightiest of manliest of men to have ever existed – King David. Of course, due to my age, they were reading from an extremely abridged and docile version of the Bible with lots of pictures… that obviously contained none of the sex and violence that’s in the real Bible. If you’ve never read the sacred tomes of the Old Testament, and in particular the books of First and Second Samuel, they are more graphic and explicit than any episode of Game of Thrones. And that is not an exaggeration, but that is another review for another time. At any rate, what those fluffy 80s picture Bibles did not leave out, was the amount of running, chasing, and hiding that dominates so much of King David’s story. David was, quite literally, in regards to Judeo-Christian literature and culture – the original ‘man on the run.’ In his early years, before he became king, David was a hunted man. He was always on the move, unjustly accused, pursued by his enemies, pursued by the reigning authorities, hiding in caves, scrounging for food, ‘making his way… the only way he knew how…’  David’s early story is about how God protects him, guides him, and empowers him during this time in his life. It’s the story of how he remained faithful under constant duress, and how he waited patiently for the day when justice would be done, and he would finally become the king. This is one of the stories I found fascinating as a kid. And it’s one of the oldest stories in existence that is still being re-told to this day, and has been re-told, re-imagined, and re-worked over and over again so many times, in so many different ways. David’s journey from shepherd to king has been extrapolated, carefully pulled up by its deepest roots, stripped down to the core of its DNA, and transplanted into so many different stories that it’s probably impossible to list them all – I’m not even going to try. It’s the original seed from which so many other orchards have been cultivated.

As an example of what I’m talking about – I first encountered this re-grafting of David’s story when I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. The character of Aragorn has a story arc, throughout Tolkien’s sprawling epic, that is taken completely from David’s early life. Aragorn’s story is an example of what I would call a pure distillation of the source material. It’s essentially the same general premise, with fantasy elements, names, and places substituting for counterparts in the original story. And of course, because it’s a fairy tale – not real life – it leaves out all the uncomfortable parts that the Biblical narrative isn’t afraid to show us.

Now, as I’m sure most of us are aware, The Lord of the Rings was eventually made into a landmark cinematic trilogy that was released between 2001 and 2003. But way back in 1935, at around the same time that Tolkien was crafting The Hobbit novel into its final form, another Englishman by the name of Alfred J. Hitchcock was releasing a film called The 39 Steps. And just to give credit where it is due, this film was an adaptation of a book written in 1915 by John Buchan, not an original work by Hitchcock. We can, however, give credit to Hitchcock for making (as far as I can tell) the very first masterpiece that translated the ancient literary example of the hero who is hunted down, on the run for his life, trying to find justice – The King David Motif, if you will – into a cinematic formula that has since been copied, tweaked, adjusted, and re-adapted many times over. Here’s a brief list of movies that I’ve seen, which employ some variation of this formula:

Running Man, The Fugitive, Enemy of the State, Waterworld, Mission Impossible, The Jason Bourne movies, Shooter, The Island, Minority Report, and Mad Max: Fury Road… just to name a few. There are many more of course, and the whole “Spy” genre itself, as we know it in movies today, is mostly an overgrowth from that indigenous sapling planted by Hitchcock so many years ago.

Side Note: Hitchcock himself used the same formula again in his later film, North by Northwest in 1959 – one of his most successful films.

In The 39 Steps, the hero is Richard Hannay, a Canadian traveling in Britain who is unwittingly caught up in an espionage conspiracy, accused of murder, and chased up into the Scottish countryside by both the criminals and the police. Along the way (just to make things interesting) he jumps off a train, meets some odd characters up in the moors, is almost fatally shot, accidentally propelled to the front of a political rally, forced to give a public speech, and gets handcuffed to a woman named Pamela who hates him, and then eventually falls in love with him… at least, I think she falls in love with him… I mean they’re holding hands at the end, and this was 1935, so… you know. I guess, in Hitchcock’s mind, if you’re handcuffed to the same person long enough, you just eventually go with it. Actually, the relationship between Hannay and Pamela reminded me a great deal of the relationship that forms between Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Capra’s It Happened One Night. But that’s another review.

Perhaps most interestingly, as is often the case with these kinds of tales, there is usually either some small flourish, sweeping gesture, or over-arching plot element that indicates the presence of the divine in the midst of the hero’s struggle. These act as clues; small trails of crumbs that lead back to the original loaf of bread that started it all. If the early story of King David really is the ancient progenitor of this literary genre, and Hitchcock’s film a true echo of that, then we could expect to find the same kind of evidence in The 39 Steps. And Hitchcock, who was trained by Jesuits in Catholic school to analyze art at an early age, does not disappoint. In this case, we see the divine presence most clearly on display in the form of a church hymnal; it’s conspicuously situated snuggly in the left breast pocket of Hannay’s coat where it stops the aforementioned bullit that would have otherwise killed him. Bullseye.

Believe it or not, this was the first Hitchcock film that I’ve ever watched, and aside from the plot, which is interesting enough on its own, the thing that really makes this old movie shine is how much anxiety it’s able to convey through the screen. This is where Hitchcock’s talent as a filmmaker becomes apparent. He really makes you feel like you’re the one handcuffed to Richard Hannay as he frantically trots from one place to the next. Moreover, it’s extremely frustrating to witness how no one believes Hannay when he tries to tell them what’s happening to him, leaving him with no choice but to lie in order to get help from people! Hitchcock is indeed the legendary master of suspense that he’s been made out to be.

I’ve known about Alfred Hitchcock, and been aware of his impact on the history of filmmaking for most of my life – even having never seen one of his films. But after watching The 39 Steps, I now know why he’s considered one of the greatest directors of all time. In this movie at least, he took an ancient, timeless story that had been distilled into something that fit the time in which he was living, and crafted it into a cinematic formula that we can still appreciate 83 years later.

Stand By Me

Stand By Me

~~Originally Posted on July 16, 2017~~

The movie that EB Dickey brought to our Thursday Night Movie Time this past week is a timeless classic in every way that a film can be – set in the 50s, made in the 80s, and just as relevant today – Stand By Me (1986) is one of Rob Reiner’s best. Of course he has several other classics in his filmography, including A Few Good Men, When Harry Met Sally, Misery, and my personal favorite of his – The Princess Bride. Richard Dreyfuss plays Gordy Lachance, a middle-aged writer reminiscing about his last weekend of Summer Break in 1959, just as he and his three friends are about to enter Junior High. His narration unfolds the quest they embark upon to find a young man from their town who has gone missing and is presumed dead. On the surface, Stand By Me is about the playful, honest, and pure bond of friendship shared among four 12 year olds growing up together in the same small town. But underneath it’s about the looming cloud of adulthood that is slowly settling over them as they’re forced to grow up. The magic of this film (based on a Stephen King story) is in its ability to capture that moment in time when a kid takes a genuine look into the distance, and perceives, for the first time, that their life is inevitably leading to the same place as everyone else – the grave. The spirit of death hovers over the entire story from beginning to end in a way that doesn’t leave us feeling hopeless and gloomy, but nostalgic for those last days we all experienced just before having the curtain of innocence rolled back on us. I think most of us, like Gordy, have some point in our past that we wish we could return to – and if we could only just get back there – we would hold on to it for dear life. Likewise, we all have friends and loved ones that we’ve lost along the way – either because death took them away from us, or because life took us away from them. This film cuts deep into the core of our hearts with such tact and precision that it’s almost unnoticeable, but there it is – in plain sight, in the very title of the movie, soulfully woven into the narrative with Ben E. King’s beautiful song – nudging gently at one of the deepest longings that any human being can yearn for: that when our time comes, we will have someone to stand by us too.

I give Stand By Me 4 Coffstars 🌠🌠🌠🌠, 3 Coffclouds ⛅️⛅️⛅️, 3 loaves of Coffbread , and 1 choo-choo train 🚂.

The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers

~~Originally posted on June 16, 2017~~

The Blues Brothers (1980) was on tap for our Thursday night movie this week. Presented by Chet Dickey. This is a movie I had previously seen only in small pieces throughout the course of my life… a chunk here, a segment there, but never the whole thing. Every time it was on TV as I was growing up, if I was within earshot of William J. Coffman (my dad), he would make sure that I knew about it. So of course I was somewhat acquainted with Jake and Elwood, and I knew they were “on a mission from God.” What I did not know, was that James Brown was the one who inspired them to undertake said mission, and that Carrie Fisher was like the devil trying to murder them the whole time! Holy moly, I cannot believe how much of this film I had never seen before. Not only does it star John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd as the iconic duo, but it contains musical cameos from Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, Ray Charles, and others – and it showcases a final car chase that is the longest I’ve ever seen… and the most insane. Additional appearances by John Candy, a pre-Pee-wee Herman Paul Reubens, and Frank Oz (the puppeteer and voice behind Jedi Master Yoda) earned big bonus points in my book. But my favorite part of this movie is that it’s about two dudes saving an orphanage while the whole world tries to stop them. And at first glance it might be tempting to just write them off as hoodlums because of their drinking, smoking, cussing, and excessive parking violations… but shining through all the haze, just a couple of layers deeper, permeating the entire story, are those old words by the Apostle John: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” 

And that is why I give ‘The Blues Brothers’ 5 Coffstars , 4 orders of Coff-fries 🍟🍟🍟🍟, 2 Coffcakes 🎂🎂, 2 Bluesmobiles 🚓🚓, and 1 penguin 🐧.

Dead Poets Society

Dead Poets Society

Last Summer, on Thursday nights, I watched a series of movies with my Sunday school class – asking each person to pick a movie they wanted to share with the group. And just as an after-thought I began writing little mini-reviews on each film. These eventually developed into a full blown hobby, as is obvious by now. But that original set of reviews were only shared on Facebook, and now that a year has gone by, they have begun popping up in my memory feed. So, to better preserve them, I have decided to re-publish them here.

Originally from June 23, 2017 —

We took a contemplative dive into some deeper waters this week for our Thursday night movie (courtesy of Jalen Brower). The first time I watched the movie ‘Dead Poets Society’ I was a sophomore in high school. If I’m being honest here, I have to say that, at the time, the message in the film flew completely over my head. I knew I was supposed to be learning something because it was my English teacher who was showing the movie to us in class, but other than the fact that it was about guys who were close to the same age as me, I couldn’t relate to the struggles the characters were going through, or their environment. A few years later I saw the movie again in college, and this time, it made a little more sense. The young guys in the film were struggling to figure out who they were inside an institution that only seemed to be concerned with their conformity. THAT was something that I could connect with at the time. And this is a major theme in the film -non conformity- but it’s secondary to what I now see as the main message all these years later; and that’s simply the idea of pursuing what you love – no matter the cost. This is what’s happening with most of the characters. Robin Williams’ character Mr. Keating is the kind mentor, pursuing his passion of teaching the way he knows best, even when it could cost him his job. Knox Overstreet is the hopeless romantic, pursuing the girl of his dreams, even when it costs him a beating by her boyfriend. Charlie Dalton, a.k.a. ‘Nuwanda’ is the rebel who pursues non-conformity itself at the cost of being expelled from school. It’s Ethan Hawke’s character Todd Anderson who is meant to stand in our place inside the movie, who embodies the message of the film, and learns by watching the other characters pursue what they love, that this is what defines us as individuals. We all have to struggle with “seizing the day,” and we all have to deal with the consequences of what that ultimately means, especially when our passions come into conflict with the passions of those around us. And love doesn’t always win. Sometimes it loses. Sometimes it has to lose in order to remain love. I won’t venture into spoiler territory, but this idea is most fully expressed through the character of Neil Perry, and his inability to pursue what he loves without hurting the people he loves. To its credit, the film doesn’t try to give us a nice, fairy tale answer to this tragic dilemma. But it does give us an answer that is tragically real. And this makes ‘Dead Poets Society’ a timeless classic in my book.

I give it 5 Coffstars🌠🌠🌠🌠🌠, 3 Coffburgers 🍔🍔🍔, 3 Coffbars🍫🍫🍫, 2 Coffpoems✍️✍️, and 1 saxophone solo 🎷.

Double Indemnity

Double Indemnity

I’m back into the Lunsford Educational Classic Film Series for my movie review this week on Double Indemnity (1944) starring Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, and directed by Billy Wilder. This was my second Wilder film, after seeing Sunset Boulevard a couple of months ago. The term “dark” would be a good adjective to describe the general feel of these two films by Wilder, but if we were looking for more specific descriptors, then Sunset Boulevard would be “cloudy with a chance of rain,” while Double Indemnity would be “pitch black at midnight during a new moon.” I’m not sure what happened to this guy, or what his life was actually like – although I did find out that he was a Jew who escaped Germany when Hitler came to power in the 1930s… but whatever the case may be, Wilder was obviously well acquainted with the darkness and depravity that humans are capable of inflicting on one another, and he wasn’t afraid to express it in his chosen art form—even when faced with the threat of censorship—which was much more strict back in those days. I appreciate the fact that he stuck to his guns and made this film the way he wanted to, even though it probably wasn’t easy at the time. Never the less, by today’s standards, this movie is extremely tame. What might have been considered nearly too violent or graphic in 1943, wouldn’t even get a PG13 rating in 2018. Actually, the genius of the movie, is how uncomfortable, anxious, and on edge it can make you feel just by using extremely intelligent dialogue and creating mystery without showing or explaining every little detail.

If you’re like me, before watching this movie, then you most likely have no idea what the phrase “double indemnity” means, so… it’s basically a term used in the insurance industry to denote a particular kind of life insurance policy that deals with accidental death. Indemnity means that the insurance company is responsible for compensating the grieved party, and double indemnity means they have to pay out twice as much—if specific, highly unlikely, circumstances are what results in the accidental death. The plot of the movie involves a woman named Phyllis Dietrichson who wants to get rid of her husband, and an insurance agent named Walter Neff who wants the husband out of the way—working together to devise a plan in which they can both get what they want, through murder, while tricking the insurance system into paying them for their efforts. In other words, they figure out a way to whack this guy and make the insurance company think it was a freak accident so they can get rich. The only thing standing in their way is Barton Keyes, the veteran investigator who has a sixth sense (which he refers to as “the little man living in his chest,” giving him heartburn) that won’t let him rest, telling him something isn’t right, and creating an insatiable need in him to dig until he gets to the truth. It’s this character, and Robinson’s performance that really kept me locked into the story, despite a few spots where I was beginning to nod off. But that wasn’t really the fault of the film—my stomach was full of Indian curry, and my air conditioner was having trouble keeping up with the 90 degree heat. But even when I felt like succumbing to my haze of weariness, Keyes would appear on screen and instantly bring me back to life with his intensity and determination. That’s good movie making right there – when the story, or the characters are so compelling that they can reach out to you through a black and white screen from 74 years in the past, tap you on the shoulder, and say, “wake up you idiot!” I really can’t say enough about these characters. I like new movies just as much as most people, and I’m not someone who thinks everything from the past is superior or better—but most movies are just made differently now, and it’s very rare nowadays to find characters, especially like Keyes, who are this well constructed, and that use dialogue this effectively.

Now, I actually watched this movie a couple of weeks ago with my girlfriend Anna, and we had a nice chat about it afterwards, but it has been difficult to take some time and get my thoughts about this film into the keyboard. I think one of the reasons for this, other than it just being kind of depressing and sad, is that it flips the hero and villain motif on its head – and that kind of threw me a bit of a cinematic, storytelling curveball. The protagonist in this story is the criminal, committing murder, and trying to cover it up, while the antagonist is the good guy trying to figure out what happened. By flipping the storytelling devices around it leaves you with a sense of not knowing exactly who to identify with or root for—your brain is telling you to connect with Keyes who is an extremely adept investigator trying to piece together this puzzle and see justice done. But the film is designed in such a way that it causes you to create an emotional connection with Walter the murderer—and you’re sort of hoping deep down that he gets away with it somehow. You know he doesn’t, because in the opening scene he’s sitting in a chair with a bullet wound in his shoulder, confessing everything into a tape recorder—but you still kind of want him to find some sort of redemption in the end. And I suppose he does find a little bit of redemption, realizing that he’s been horribly manipulated by his own evil desires, attempting to set the record straight before he is arrested, and scrambling at the end to keep some of the innocent people involved from becoming collateral damage… but even so, it made me kind of sad to watch this guy take his life and, to quote Biff Tannen, “flush it completely down the toilet.”

I’m not sure I would watch this movie again, but I can’t deny that it is extremely intelligent and well crafted–a classic in every sense of the word–film noir at its finest.