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.

Clear and Present Danger

Clear and Present Danger

I’ve been getting a little backed up on my movie watching lately. I know that doesn’t sound like much of a problem, and it’s really not—I’m just making a general observation, not a complaint. There are, of course, more serious things to be all backed up about; like actual work, or a busy schedule, or like that time in college when a guy in our dorm was dared to eat an entire block of Velveeta in one sitting—he was so backed up he had to go to the emergency room. I’m very fortunate to only be backed up on my movie watching time.

I only bring this up to explain why I’m now reviewing a movie that I didn’t even intend to watch this week. I actually intended to write something about a movie I watched last week, called Double Indemnity—and I’ll get back to it eventually, but a couple of nights ago I found myself randomly selecting a film that I haven’t seen since I was in high school: Clear and Present Danger. I’m still not sure what drew me into watching it again after so many years. As previously alluded to, I literally have a stack of movies and shows sitting on my desk that I’m intending to watch and eventually write about; Clear and Present Danger was not in this stack. Maybe I just needed a night of random spontaneity and this is what passes for living on the edge at age 39… or maybe it’s because I’ve been missing my mom recently, and this was one of her favorite movies—that probably has something to do with it.

Actually, this film was a favorite for both of my parents. They took my sister Emilie and I to see it in the theater when it came out, and it’s one of the movies that occupied a place of importance in their VHS collection. I never asked them why, but I was thinking about that when I watched it this time. I know they were both interested in the Jack Ryan films, and Harrison Ford was one of their favorite actors… but I couldn’t help thinking that there must be something more to why they loved this movie so much.

There are, as far as I know, five movies that center around the character of Jack Ryan, all of which are based on the books by Tom Clancy. In these five movies, the role of Jack Ryan has been played by four different actors: Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Captain James T. Kirk… I mean, Chris Pine. In the first movie with Alec Baldwin, The Hunt for Red October (1990), Ryan is more of a side character, but in the other four movies he’s the main dude. These movies are, in order of release: Patriot Games (1992), Clear and Present Danger (1994), The Sum of All Fears (2002), and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014). It can all be a little confusing due to the fact that in each movie Ryan gets younger and younger, while the technology and political arenas get more up to date. There’s a sort of adaptable mythology surrounding this character, which means he’s the kind of hero that can be updated and modified to fit with current events. He’s kind of like a Batman or Superman in the sense that different filmmakers can choose to emphasize different aspects of his story based on their own perspective, while keeping the general guidelines of the character intact from one iteration to the next. In all of these films, Ryan is basically, as best I can sum him up, an honest ‘boy scout’ working in the CIA. That pretty much makes him completely fictional as far as I can tell.

In the two Harrison Ford films Jack Ryan is older, in his early 50s, and well established in his career with the CIA. In Clear and Present Danger he’s the Deputy Director of Intelligence, reporting directly to the President. The plot of the movie is very well constructed. It’s essentially a spy movie, a political drama, a murder mystery, and an action flick, all well balanced and baked together just right to form the perfect casserole of 90s flavor. I think when I first saw it as a teenager I was disappointed that there wasn’t as much action, but when I watched it now, I had a much deeper appreciation for the various elements being woven together.

Just to give you the highlights— The President, the National Security Advisor, and the CIA Director of Operations—or as I like to think of them, George W., Don Rumsfeld, and Dick Cheney—all decide to conduct a secret, covert war against the Columbian drug cartels. When things start to get out of hand, they decide to cut communications and support to their troops on the ground and give away their positions to the enemy — all to cover up what they’ve been doing. Jack Ryan is inadvertently thrown into the middle of this mess when his boss is overcome by cancer. The process of him picking up the pieces, gathering evidence, figuring out what’s been going on behind his back, and taking action is a slow build up to him eventually finding Willem Defoe (reprising his Oscar nominated role as Elias from Platoon) and flying into the Columbian jungle to rescue the abandoned troops. But the real icing on the cake, and the thing that gave me the chills this time around, is when Harrison Ford marches into the oval office at the very end, looks the President directly in the face and tells him he’s a bastard. This all may seem a bit overdramatic and passé to younger audiences today, but in the 1990s covert wars were still illegal… nowadays they’re a dime a dozen, and the President doesn’t have to cover them up—he can brag about them on Twitter—and a hundred thousand people cuss him out before he eats breakfast. But back in good ‘ol 1994, this was really something special that didn’t happen in real life.

Anyway, this all brings me back to surmising on what my parents found so interesting about this film. I guess I’ll have to ask my dad the next time I talk to him to get some more insight. Whatever the case may be, one thing’s for sure—It’s a great movie, there’s no doubt about that, and it has some important points to make about government, politics, and power. The overall impression that this story leaves me with—whether it was designed to do so or not—is the idea that the truth is a higher authority than the highest office in our land. And for the record, I don’t think this has changed. The truth is still the higher authority—and everyone still appeals to the truth, and people still demand honesty—the problem, however, is that no one really knows what the truth is anymore. And Jack Ryan doesn’t exist.

And the clearest and most present danger is not a Columbian drug cartel.

Cobra Kai

Cobra Kai

I guess everyone eventually reaches an age where they start looking back through their life, wondering how exactly they became the person that they see in the mirror, and thinking about which decisions led them to where they are — whether that place is good or bad, whether it’s where you want to be or not. I don’t think we really learn from our mistakes unless we’re willing to re-visit them from time to time, not to dwell on our failures, but to pick them apart, and to sift out the small nuggets of gold inside the clumps of dirt and mud. The hard part, I think for many of us, is that in order to have any success at this kind of mental, emotional, and spiritual excavation, time has to pass us by — sometimes a great deal of time — before we can see the lessons that had value inside all the crap that didn’t. For Daniel Larusso and Johnny Lawrence, it’s taken 34 years for this kind of self examination to happen… and by extension, 34 years for us to see it happen to them.

During my childhood, there were precisely three occasions in which the entire tribe of Coffmanites made a collective pilgrimage to the movie theater. On three occasions, and only three occasions, did the right circumstances, schedules, and planets align in order for these seminal events to occur. And in July of 1984, one of these three sacred adventures found us all in Greenwood, on the south side of Indianapolis, packed into a crowded theater as we beheld, for the first time, The Karate Kid. If you’ve never seen this movie, then I must say now, without hesitation: shame upon you. I’m just kidding, and I know it’s just a movie, but there really isn’t any other film that has resonated with me on such a personal level as this one. Maybe seeing it for the first time at such a young age has had something to do with this, but I think it goes beyond that. I’ve re-watched it many times over the years, and each time there are things that resonate with me in new ways, and that deepen my connection to the story. So, when I first heard that they were making it into an actual show all these years later — needless to say — I was very interested.

Cobra Kai takes place in today’s world, but it revolves around two of the characters that made the original story so memorable — Johnny Lawrence and Daniel Larusso. In the original movie they were high school teenagers going to fisticuffs over a girl they both liked, and finding surrogate father figures in their martial arts masters; Johnny with an evil sensei, and Daniel with a good one. In this current series, which premiered on YouTube’s subscription service last week, Daniel and Johnny are now in their 50s, both with kids of their own, but still living in the San Fernando Valley. Daniel is the owner of an extremely successful upscale auto dealership, complete with a beautiful family and huge mansion in the hills — it’s obvious from what we see, and what we know of his character, that he has worked hard throughout his life, putting the discipline and moral grounding he received as a teenager to work in building the kind of life he wanted. Johnny, on the other hand, is alone, estranged from his kid, struggling with an alcohol addiction, and unable to hold down a job. The lessons that Johnny’s sensei taught him as a teenager — “Strike first, strike hard, and no mercy,” didn’t really work out for him in real life, though he still clings to them as the mantra that embodies his most sacred belief system. The show is very clear about where these two characters have ended up, how they got there, what it means for their families, and how all these things bleed into the new generation of students under their teaching. It’s very real in this regard. It all feels completely authentic, and nothing really feels contrived or forced (aside from one very tiny story element which I won’t spoil for you if you haven’t seen it). Regardless, it still has a way of paying homage to what has come before – in all three of the original movies. The show is divided into 10 parts, each one being 30 minutes long, which is the perfect amount of time to tell us a new story while crafting and carefully injecting small doses of nostalgia throughout the 5 hours. For anyone who has enjoyed the movies that have come before, I will say, that there is a sequence in the middle of the story that pays tear-shedding tribute to Daniel’s sensei Mr. Miyagi, portrayed by the late great Pat Morita. Moreover, they use the same Bill Conti score from the original movie with emotionally charged, surgical precision – and it totally devastated me when it began playing.

As with any good story, whether it comes in the form of book, show, or film — the strength is in the characters, how they are written, and if enough care has gone into them to make us care about them. Cobra Kai deserves an A+ for this. They’ve taken everything that was great about the original characters, and treated them with sacred honor while adding more depth to them. Even more, they have introduced us to new characters that make sense in regards to the world they live in, how the culture and society of 2018 is different from that of 1984, and which lessons provide a timeless bridge between these two generations. As Miyagi would say, it “must have balance.”

But I’ve now said enough. If you want to watch Cobra Kai for yourself, the first two episodes are completely free – I will post the links below. If the story grabs you, and you want to continue with the rest of the episodes, you’ll have to sign up with YouTube Red, which is YouTube’s (and their Google overlords’) attempt to wade into the streaming market that is dominated by Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and HBO. However! Fear not, because the first month of YouTube Red is completely free, and as long as you cancel your membership within 30 days, you will never be charged one cent. I signed up with them, watched Cobra Kai, and then immediately canceled my membership, all within a week. So, if you’re a cheap Sam Batch like me, you can still watch Cobra Kai.

Cobra Kai Episode One:

Cobra Kai Episode Two:

Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War

There are no spoilers in this review!

As you have probably surmised already, I decided to take a small break from reviewing classic films this week in order to take a look at a new movie that has just opened in theaters across the world – Marvel’s Avengers, Infinity War… I don’t know if you’re supposed to put a comma or a colon after Avengers, so please forgive my janky grammar usage. That’s not the point. The point is, that 39 year old Adam has been waiting for this movie since 12 year old Adam first read the comic book. As a kid, I loved reading, and I loved making up stories, so when I discovered comics it was like striking gold. During that phase of my childhood, Dad would take me to the comic book shop almost once a week, and I would excavate my way through the giant white boxes like I was pick-axing through a mine. I loved it. And even though that time eventually passed, I will always remember it with a deep appreciation for my dad who took the time to drive me into town and buy those comics for me. Thanks, Dad.

Back in the early to mid 90s, Marvel had been going through quite a financial crisis. The comic book market had reached a place of astronomical sales in the few years prior, and then all the sudden, with little warning, came crashing down in a tremendous implosion that crippled the entire industry. I think there were a few factors that contributed to this – nerds and geeks have been speculating on the causes ever since, but my opinion is that it had something to do with the perfect storm of full market saturation of home PC usage, the internet coming online in millions of households across the U.S., and The Simpsons reaching the height of their cultural influence. I’ll concede, that last one is probably a bit of a stretch, but there is a character in The Simpsons known as ‘Comic Book Guy,’ who made us real comic book guys (and gals), look bad – and no one wanted to be THAT GUY (or THAT GAL). Anyway, the result, when you put all these things together, and remember that the Seattle grunge scene was also blowing up at the time – was that comic books were no longer universally cool. They burned brightly at the peak of their coolness for a few moments, being enjoyed by millions, and then like MC Hammer and Milli Vanilli, their coolness cooled out. And like those cultural phenomenon, they were once more relegated to being enjoyed in secret by a faithful few.

When the comic book market finally did crash, Marvel was hit the hardest, and having significantly over-extended its supply, they were on the brink of complete bankruptcy. So, in a last ditch effort to salvage what was left, they began selling the movie rights to their characters, one by one, pimping out their most sacred heroes to the all consuming, ever greedy movie industry in Hollywood. Spider-man was sold to Sony Pictures, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four were sold to 20th Century Fox, and several other deals were made as well, including one which involved the Incredible Hulk being temporarily leased to Paramount. They were carved up and served like Christmas hams, and when it was all over, Marvel was left with the bones in the center that nobody wanted. Those bones were the characters who were left – the rejects, the outcasts that the studios had decided were unprofitable and useless on the big screen. And what did Marvel do with these leftover bones? They did the only thing anyone can do; they made soup beans. And the result was something that few expected. Characters that were previously considered un-filmable, like Captain America (a poor attempt at making a Captain America film in 1990 only strengthened the conviction that he was doomed on the big screen), Iron Man, and Thor, were given complete cinematic overhauls, and made into movies that connected to contemporary audiences (unfamiliar with the source material) while remaining true to the deep historical and cultural roots of the characters that had given joy to their fans across several decades. They were made the right way, by the right people, and the box office success has since been reverberating long afterward with the same gusto and jolly goodness with which a good bean soup reverberates through the night and into the next morning.

At the helm of Marvel’s renaissance has been a man named Kevin Feige. When Feige became the head of Marvel Studies in 2007, he crafted a plan that was long-term. He didn’t just want to make a few movies about a few characters, he wanted to create an entire cinematic universe, involving several characters, each with a handful of movies, all tying together into one over-arching story, leading to one grand finale. This began 10 years ago, with the release of Iron Man, and has since continued with an astounding 19 films. Avengers Infinity War (split into two parts) is the culmination of this decade long endeavor. The success of Feige’s plan cannot be overstated. He not only helped to rescue Marvel from bankruptcy, but he has slowly re-built its reputation, and introduced these characters to a new generation of young fans, while satisfying old fans (like me) who dreamt of seeing these movies when we were kids. Along the way, and with the help of Disney who bought Marvel in 2009, he has given Marvel the clout and financial ability they needed to re-acquire most of the licensing rights to characters they had sold off – including the amazing Spider-man, a cornerstone of the Super Hero genre.

As for the actual story of Infinity War — with a few twists and turns, and minus a few dozen characters, it was taken almost directly from the pages of what was originally a 6 part mini-series of comics released in 1991 called Infinity Gauntlet. Written by Jim Starlin, this was a special run of comics, made with the primary purpose of gathering as many characters as possible into one storyline. Marvel had done this before with its Secret Wars series, so the concept wasn’t entirely a new idea, but instead of having all the heroes square off in a royal rumble with all the villains, it had all the heroes square off with one super duper ultra mega-villain of villains called Thanos. In order for the writers to outdo all previous attempts at creating a super duper ultra mega-villain, they made the Devil (the actual Devil, known as Mephisto in the comics) Thanos’ lackey side-kick, and the destruction of half the universe the mission that he’s trying to accomplish in order to impress his girlfriend, who is Mistress Death. I’m not sure how much pot they were smoking back in that writer’s room, but it must have been the good stuff, because they came up with some ideas that were beyond the realm of bonkers.

The movie takes many of these ideas and makes them slightly less fantastical, and more grounded in reality – as much as that is possible anyway. But the real strength is the characters, and the care that has gone into developing them. If they had tried to release Infinity War in 2008, or even after just a few years worth of Avengers movies, I don’t think it would have worked at all, and the outcome would have been drastically different. But because they took their time, and slowly introduced audiences to these characters one bean at a time, the result is a well-seasoned soup that brings together many flavors that we’ve had time to grow accustomed to and appreciate. However, if you haven’t seen any of these Marvel films, Infinity War will seem like a stitched-together mess of over-bloated madness and a confusing jigsaw puzzle of chaotic battle sequences (in which case, I do not recommend watching it first). If you have been following the films since 2008, then I’m sure it will have its intended emotional impact. I found myself being pushed and pulled all over the emotional spectrum while watching it. I laughed, I shed a few tears, my heart sank, and I had to get up and pee twice because of adrenaline rushes… or the Diet Coke I was drinking… not sure which it was. Either way, and even with my familiarity of the source material, it still left me feeling shocked at the end, and having no idea how it will all be concluded a year from now when part 2 is released.

This story, in general, is a difficult one for me to analyze. I find it tricky to do this with any story or character that I was introduced to when I was a kid. They were planted in the soil of my young brain at a time before my critical and analytical thinking was developed. I just enjoyed them. I didn’t give them much thought. I knew they were stories about good versus evil, and (unlike the newer stories of today) it was easy to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys. But time has changed things. We need our fantasy stories to be more real these days, and in real life, the lines between good and evil are all too often blurred in the chaos of human existence. In the Infinity Gauntlet comics it was easy to see Thanos as the cut and dry bad guy that he is. We didn’t get much insight into his thought process. But the version of Thanos we get in the Infinity War movie is slightly different. We’re given a full explanation for why he seeks to gain power, how he plans to use it, and the logic behind it. We know he’s still the bad guy, but we’re made to sympathize with him just a little bit – and we’re given the information we need to see from his point of view. He’s not portrayed as an angry madman trying to blow up New York City or take over the world, but as a broken, grizzled soldier, who has experienced immense tragedy, and is responding the only way that seems reasonable to him. Along the way, his conviction and resolve to complete his chosen task is sufficiently tested, and he is forced to weigh the consequences of his actions. The good guys, on the other hand, are bitterly divided, shattered by their own weaknesses, their own failures, and the harm they have done to each other unintentionally. They are forced to face their enemy as a fractured team, without the strength that they could bring to bear if they were united. Even though it’s an epic fantasy, with millions of dollars worth of special effects, computer conjured backdrops, and creatures that don’t actually exist, there’s something painfully real about that sentiment.

I sometimes wish I could go back to being a kid again, before these stories were so complicated… before they were so real.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

A long time ago, in an America far far away…

A gifted director made a film about a greedy, imperial machine that was threatening freedom, and wielding its power over the innocent, the helpless, and the downtrodden. In the way of this immoral juggernaut stood the courage and the tenacity of one man—a man who grew up as a simple farm boy from the outskirts, suddenly finding himself thrust unwittingly into a struggle for truth, justice, and hope.

The director was Frank Capra, the year was 1939, and the film was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

1939 was a great year for movies, giving us The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind among others, but it was a tumultuous year for planet Earth in general. The world was shuddering as millions of white men began slaughtering each other in Europe, and eventually roping the rest of the world into the carnage with them. The United States had not yet entered the conflict, but tensions were high as the doom of its European allies looked certain. Only a month and a half after Germany invaded Poland, Capra’s film blitzkrieged its way into American theaters with a Washington D.C. premiere. It was not well received by the local establishment. Though it was eventually banned in German occupied territory, the powers that be—in our nation’s capitol—were afraid that the movie was too un-American, at a crucial time, when anything but unquestionable patriotism was unacceptable. Thankfully, none of the unwarranted denunciations produced any real fruit as more serious and credible movie critics defended the film’s integrity. Through the lens of time, it has become clear that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is not a film that criticizes Washington, democracy, or the political process—on the contrary, it’s a film that seeks to provide education on how Washington functions, defend pure democracy, and shine a light on elements that would seek to destroy the political process from the inside. And it’s meant to inspire hope. As Capra himself stated: “The more uncertain are the people of the world, the more their hard-won freedoms are scattered and lost in the winds of chance, the more they need a ringing statement of America’s democratic ideals.” History agreed with him, and 50 years after its release, having come full circle, the Library of Congress deemed it worthy of a place in the preservation vaults of the United States National Film Registry.

As for the plot… I’ll give you the overview. The ultimate villain of the story is a corrupt business mogul who has bought influence in the Senate by extracting the loyalty of those who are only concerned with maintaining their seats in Congress. The hero is Jefferson Smith, played by a young Jimmy Stewart; he’s the down to earth country boy that is appointed to the Senate by the Governor of his home state when the previous senator dies unexpectedly. The central conflict of the film revolves around a land appropriation bill that Smith introduces without knowing that the other senator of his state (an old family friend who he looks up to as a mentor) has already introduced legislation dealing with the same parcel of land—land which will profit his corrupt business mogul partner. As Smith is slowly drawn into a position where he is at odds with those he admires, and eventually threatened by them, we see him age from a wide-eyed, innocently naive, good guy, into a distraught, desperate, pariah who has had the wool pulled from his eyes. Jean Arthur plays the role of Clarissa Saunders, Smith’s secretary and aide who has spent enough years in Washington to know how things actually work. The relationship dynamic between her and Smith is on point, as she helps him to see the reality of his situation and understand the struggle in which he’s embroiled, while he, in turn, helps her to shed her cynicism and recapture some of the hopeful idealism that she has lost along the way. The two of them genuinely need each other as the main battle ensues on the floor of the Senate, before eventually spilling out into the realm of public opinion—public opinion that is bought and paid for by big business and the press outlets it owns.

As I watched this movie, I found myself becoming more and more sad as I realized the terrible truth embedded in its plot—Capra’s film is highly satirical of course, but it contains a warning that our government and political process might be in jeopardy by immoral forces seeking to buy it, own it, and sell it at their leisure. The story that Capra told was ultimately a hopeful one. As Stewart collapses like a sacrificial lamb on the floor of the Senate after a marathon filibuster, the corrupt senator who has been accusing him becomes overwhelmed with guilt and confesses that he has been compromised and is morally unfit to maintain his seat in the government. This brings the story to a satisfying ending… that would never actually happen in real life. While Capra’s film has a positive, redemptive conclusion that should leave one feeling hopeful, it did not leave me with this feeling. Because it was made in 1939—at a time when there was still a chance to prevent what was happening, and to salvage American democracy from the hands of greed, corruption, and indifference.

Maybe I’ve become too pessimistic about this subject… Maybe I’m just tired of hearing everyone talk about it, when most people have no clue what they’re saying… those are two very good reasons for me to end this review right here, lest I begin spilling my thoughts out into the open as well. I don’t want to be that guy. So I’ll just end with this final thought:

We are now living in a time when even the echo of Capra’s warning has long since faded away, and in the wake of its passing, we have exactly what he imagined could happen if corruption was allowed to mature and thrive.

Or maybe it’s just a really good movie.

Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard

A few weeks ago I resumed my ongoing mission to explore films I haven’t seen before, primarily of the classic genre, with a viewing of Sunset Boulevard. This one, admittedly, threw me a few mental curveballs on its own accord, but with an unexpected bought of pneumonia to go along with those curveballs, the accompanying fever, and the inevitable cold medicine inebriation that followed, it’s taken me awhile to recover enough to feel like writing a review.

I guess I should say, before getting into this, that Sunset Boulevard is an excellent film. It’s listed on IMDb’s ranking of movies as #54 of all time—which is pretty significant. Likewise, it won three Oscars in 1951, while being nominated in just about every category that existed at the time. With that said, this is not a light-hearted film. It does have some wit to it, and a sprinkling of charm here and there, but it’s also deeply introspective of some subjects that are not very pleasant to think about, and whatever humor does exist, I believe it only serves as a bit of sugar to mask the horrible taste of the medicine it offers.

Set in the world of early 1950s Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard opens with the narration of the main character, whose body happens to be floating upside down in a pool. We’re told right from the beginning how the story will end, before being transported back six months to watch as this tragedy slowly unfolds in front of us. It’s not really fair to pin Sunset Boulevard down into any one particular genre; it dabbles in several. However, from my personal point of view, this is most definitely a horror film. Like many of the classic horror films from the 40s and 50s this movie tells the story of a monster, made hideous by circumstances beyond its control, desperately seeking a redemption that is just out of reach, and falling in love with its inevitable victim. From King Kong, to Frankenstein, to the Wolf Man, to the Mummy, to Dracula—all the classic horror films follow the same general pattern. What makes Sunset Boulevard shockingly different is that the horror is real, not pulled from the pages of archetypal fantasy and fairy tales, but instead culled from the bones of early Hollywood, specifically the silent film era of Hollywood and the phantoms it left behind as the shift was made to talking pictures. The Monster is Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson), an aging has-been of the silent film era, living secluded in her mansion, running on the fumes of her once profitable stardom that has since faded into the past along with any meaningful relationships she may have once had. She has no family, no connection to reality, and spends her days lounging in opulence surrounded by portraits of herself as a young star. Her only companions are her butler and a pet chimp. Our introduction to Norma finds her in the midst of extravagant funeral preparations for the chimp who is subsequently laid to rest during a midnight ceremony in an ivory coffin in the backyard. Yes, this movie is very strange, and it is very creepy. As I said, the horror is uncomfortably real, though it presents Norma almost like a giant spider, her mansion a black burrow of death and dust, with an insatiable need to feed on the worship of fans who have forgotten she even exists. Into her web stumbles the doomed protagonist, Joe Gillis (William Holden), a struggling screenwriter who is down on his luck. As mentioned, we know the story isn’t going to end well for him—he’s the corpse floating in the pool at the beginning, narrating the tale of his demise from beyond the grave. Did I mention this is a horror flick? It’s definitely NOT the kind of movie anyone should watch while running a high fever.

While the movie itself has gone down in history as Billy Wilder’s indictment of Hollywood’s dark underbelly, hidden away by all the glamor and lights, I think it holds something much darker in its depths. The questions that are being silently asked of the audience throughout the film, are questions we all must ask ourselves at some point in our lives—what is integrity, and is there a price for which mine can be bought? Joe falls into Norma’s web because she needs a writer to edit her script. She’s produced it for the sole purpose of trying to grab back a piece of the fame and stardom she has lost in the years since she faded from the spotlight. It’s a terrible script, and a terrible waste of time and effort for Joe. We know from hearing his internal narrative dialogue what Joe really thinks, what he really believes, and how he really feels. But we watch haplessly as he deliberately ignores his own thoughts, goes against his own judgment, and allows himself to become Norma’s slave—because doing so means he doesn’t have to worry about paying the bills. Joe has many opportunities to escape Norma’s web, but in the end, he’s willing to give up his freedom, his artistic integrity, and even the love of a woman who is much more suited to him, all for financial security. By the time he realizes his mistake, that it wasn’t worth it—it’s too late, and he pays the cost with his life. The spider doesn’t let him leave the nest without blood being spilled.

The moral of the story is something worth thinking about—however uncomfortable it may be: If you know what the truth is, but you act in such a way that denies that truth, you are, in effect, killing yourself on the inside. There’s nothing more horrific than sacrificing your integrity. I think our society, as a whole, must have had a better grasp on that concept in 1950. Nowadays, I’m not so sure.

 

Modern Times

Modern Times

The second film in The Professor Lunsford Educational Series (after the previously reviewed It Happened One Night) is none other than Modern Times, written, produced, directed, edited by, and starring the legendary Charlie Chaplin.

Modern Times was released in 1936, and was the last of Chaplin’s films to feature “The Tramp” — a vaudeville style character that he conjured up in 1914. History has woven Chaplin so closely together with his character that if you run a Google search on Chaplin, images of The Tramp will dominate the results. By the time of the character’s final appearance in Modern Times he was a fully fleshed out representation of Chaplin’s comedic presence, entrepreneurial rebelliousness, tireless resilience, and carefree spirit.

I first became interested in Chaplin about 5 years ago after seeing the 1992 biopic starring Robert Downey Jr. That film served as a much needed time bridge of sorts to connect me with the world in which his films and characters were created. There was something about seeing him portrayed by a recognizable actor, in color, with full sound that prepared my Generation X Series Brain to make the quantum leap backwards a hundred years into the petri dish of cinematic history. The trip was well worth it. His movies are not only interesting because of their place in film history, but their comedic value is timeless and universal. If, like myself, you were weaned on Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies then you will find Chaplin’s wordless, visual humor every bit as satisfying as an early Mickey Mouse or Tom and Jerry cartoon. Moreover, as is the case with Modern Times, if you dig just a little below the surface of his meticulously delivered comedy, there is a rich layer of social commentary to discover and analyze.

If I could briefly attempt to describe The Tramp character (at least in this movie) I would say there are two things that fundamentally define him. The first is the fact that his environment is something that’s actively happening to him. While he does of course interact with other people, the main “dialogue” that’s taking place is between The Tramp and the inanimate objects that are constantly attempting to maul, maim, and kill him—or at least make his life a living Hell. And the second thing that defines him, is his superhuman ability to glide effortlessly through his environment and continually escape impending doom without really trying to do so. When something goes wrong, he just brushes it off and moves on.

In the context of Modern Times, the villainous environment takes on the guise of a greed fueled, over-automated factory line that drives the lovable Tramp insane. After a brief respite in the mental hospital he is released into the street only to be unwittingly swept up by an angry unemployment mob protesting the lack of jobs that has occurred due to factory automation. This gets him arrested as a communist, and lands him in the big house where he accidentally ingests a huge amount of cocaine (nose powder as it’s called here) that less reputable inmates hide in the salt shaker. The cocaine seems to function a lot like Popeye’s “spinach,” and gives him the power to single handedly thwart an attempted prison break, garnering the favor of the guards and warden, and earning him a speedy release. The irony is palpable. He protests his release from prison because it means he has to go back into the uncertainty of trying to find a job and foraging for food. Eventually his escapades land him back in the slammer a couple of more times, but in the process he meets a kindred spirit played by the beautiful Paulette Goddard (Chaplin’s real girlfriend at the time). The two of them learn very quickly that they have a much better chance at defeating their environment if they work together. In an immediate sense they fail to do so, but it doesn’t leave them without hope, as they set off down the open road, into the California mountains, arm in arm. They’re kind of like an early 20th century version of Adam and Eve – trying to return to the Garden after doing their time in the dark wilderness of “civilized” society.

The most interesting thing about this film, to me at least, is the subtle parable it contains about machines taking over society and eroding the safety, security, and fundamental rights of human beings. I find it amazing that Chaplin called this sort of thing 82 years ago. It’s not science fiction, but the general theme has been consistently handed down to us in literature and film ever since then. I first encountered it as a young lad through James Cameron’s first two Terminator movies. But this is also the parable of my favorite movie—The Matrix. Even though Chaplin’s malevolent automation was before the time of computers, and before the concept of artificial intelligence, the warning was the same — machines will replace us and harm us if we bow down and worship them, and give them the power to do so.

Modern Times, though generally lighthearted, does carry the weight of this warning in the midst of its warmth and charm. It’s a warning that deserves a much louder echo than we can hear in the midst of our modern times today, when we’ve already sold so much of ourselves to technology’s indifferent grasp.

It Happened One Night

It Happened One Night

Well, guess what? This week I watched a movie. I know, I know, this is unbelievable news. I don’t know how, but it just happened one night… after dinner.

Sorry for the lame joke. That was just a warm up paragraph. It’s good to do a quick warm up before writing something. It’s especially important if you haven’t written for awhile. You don’t want to hamstring your cerebral cortex or have a neurological blowout – which happens all too often these days.

I have, of course, seen a few movies over the past couple of months—just nothing I really felt like writing about—not even the new Star Wars movie. It’s going to be awhile before I get to that one. But this week a friend from my church let me borrow one of his favorite movies on the condition that I write an official review. So I gladly accepted his challenge, and honestly, it was the exact kind of motivation I needed. This movie really surprised me. I admit that I am terribly ignorant of most film history before the 1970s—and anything in black and white has never really been on my radar. I do like Charlie Chaplin, but I only first started watching his films about five years ago. The point is, when Mike (or as I like to think of him – Professor Lunsford) suggested I watch It Happened One Night—a black and white film from 1934—I was interested, but not overly enthused about setting an evening aside to watch it. I don’t know what I was thinking, but it was something along the lines of, “how can a movie made so long before I was born have anything interesting to say to me.” I know that’s a ridiculous sentiment, and not something I believe of course. Any kind of art, especially good art, transcends generational boundaries. But this was personal… this involved setting down a good book, and not picking up the XBOX controller for an evening with those two old folks that go by the names Monochrome and Monotone.

Well I’m glad I spent some time with them because this ended up being the most transfixing film I’ve seen in a good long while. I don’t think I physically moved an inch the entire time, and yet it moved me emotionally so far beyond myself that by the end I was left with nothing but a face full of tears and a confused dog trying to console me. Although, to be fair, he might have just been angling for the Pringles can that was also occupying the couch with us.

I’m not sure how far back the film genre of Romantic Comedy goes, but given its age, this must be one of the originals. And I don’t want to be that old fart decrying the supremacy of things from the past – especially since this was only my first real foray into the ancient chronicles of movie history – but this story puts the rom coms of today to complete shame. It’s pure and it’s beautiful in ways that are difficult to find in the films of our time. Moreover, It Happened One Night was the first film to win in all five major Academy Awards categories, and one of only three to ever do so in 89 years. In other words, this film really cuts the mustard.

As in all the best stories, the characters in this romance are archetypal and cross generational – like in Beauty and the Beast. It’s about a strong, independent woman meeting a stubborn, independent man, and the two of them breaking each other into interdependence.  Those are the baseline ingredients for the tale as old as time… as far as I can tell. I don’t know if that’s how it always works in real life, but in the movies it translates to gold if portrayed well.

This movie is also really fun. It’s a love story disguised as a comedy, disguised as a road trip. Without giving away all the details (because I really hope you’ll watch this movie yourself) Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert are just two strangers who happen to end up traveling in the same direction together long enough to realize they need each other, struggling with the vulnerability that realization creates in them, and then going through the process of dealing with the reality that they have to do whatever it takes to stay by each other’s side. And then… they have to deal with the mess that this creates in the lives of the people around them—because without a mess (and there’s always a mess), the story isn’t nearly as interesting.

One of the things that’s mesmerizing to me is how interesting and moving this story is while remaining firmly clothed in the garment of a time that has long since passed away, in an America that no longer exists. While it might have an element of the classic fantasy love story, it also has something real about it that many films in this genre do not have today. There’s something noble and innocent about it that’s hard to describe. For instance, Gable’s character actually cares enough about the woman he’s falling in love with not to dishonor her, take advantage of her, or make her uncomfortable – even if conducting himself this way means he might lose the chance to be with her. Likewise, there’s something graceful yet dignified about Colbert that inherently repels the need for her to appear over-sexualized or naked (although she does show some risqué calf muscle during the hitchhiking scene). I know this movie was made long before that kind of stuff began showing up in movies, but the best Romance films don’t need the nudity and the sex, as this movie proves. The films of today struggle to portray this kind of attraction between people without resorting to the cheap crudity of a sex scene. I guess it has become old fashioned (it probably became old fashioned a long time ago) to cling to the notion that truly falling in love is about two hearts touching each other long before it’s about two bodies coming together. And real intimacy is about harmonization rather than sex.

Lastly, and most importantly, with all of the many differences between them, the one primary value that the couple in this movie share with each other is that of integrity — it’s the thing that defines both of them, drives their actions, seals their love for each other, and ultimately, “brings down the walls of Jericho.” This film got it right. It celebrates integrity from beginning to end. And if you watch this, and think to yourself how peculiar it seems to be… that’s because this kind of integrity is scarce in our society.  What else can I say… It’s an elegant story, for a more civilized age.

The Grinch

The Grinch

It was early in the morning hours of Saturday on November the 18th, in the year 2000. The Regal Cinema at Shiloh Crossing in Avon, Indiana was completely deserted. The front lobby was dark, and the doors were all locked. I was alone, tired, and I smelled like a mixture of stale popcorn and bleach. Just before dawn was beginning to break I reached the final theater in the 18-screen cineplex. I had purposely waited until I was done with everything else before tackling this last one. I knew it was going to be bad. I had been working there as the night janitor just long enough to know that cleaning up a theater after the opening night of a family feature was the closest I would ever be to Hell itself. As I propped open the double doors and pushed the dumpster up the corridor, I mentally braced myself for what I was about to see. And there’s only one word that can describe the scene as I flipped on the lights and beheld the full scope of the disaster laid before me: loathsome. Family features… they never failed to generate an overgrown pile of disgust in the wake of their passage. But this was the worst I had seen—even worse than ‘Meet the Parents‘ which had featured in that same theater just weeks before. After opening night of that movie I had been forced to use a leaf blower to push all the trash to the front, and then a snow shovel to get everything into the rolling dumpster. I had filled that dumpster half a dozen times, with each load requiring me to go empty the contents into the main dumpster outside. I thought that it could never be worse than that. But as I stood there in the aisle on this particular night, starring into the depths of western civilization’s ultimate display of affluent depravity… I knew the end was near. Ron Howard and Jim Carrey’s adaptation of ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ had premiered in there the night before. And it took me the next three and a half hours to get that final theater room back to working order. I quit not long after that night. The Grinch may not have succeeded in stealing Christmas from the Whovillian townsfolk, but he had made short work of any Christmas spirit I was in danger of feeling that year.

I silently swore to myself that night that I would never watch that horrible abomination of a film. What can I say? It was a traumatic experience… I was young… and in my heart at the time there was only room for one Grinch movie anyway—the animated classic from 1966—narrated by Boris Karloff and officially sanctioned by Theodor Geisel himself.

But I guess we all have to grow up eventually. I realize now that I judged this film’s right to exist on the fact that the neanderthals who had patroned the theater that night all those years ago didn’t know how to put their trash into the trash containers.

It took 16 years, but I finally gave in and watched it. I needed help though. I could not have done it alone. Sometimes we need friends to help us see things in a different perspective. Thank you, friends. You know who you are. And now, just over a year later, I’ve seen it twice more.

I can say, without hesitation, that this is one of Jim Carrey’s finest performances. His portrayal of Andy Kaufmann and Tony Clifton in 1999’s ‘Man on the Moon’ are the only thing that top it in my opinion. More importantly, the atmosphere of the film, the set designs, the costumes and makeup, are all faithful representations of both Dr. Seuss’ original artwork from 1957 and Chuck Jones’ animation from ‘66. And Ron Howard can do no wrong in the director’s chair (fingers crossed for the Han Solo movie he just finished shooting). But aside from all that, where this adaptation of the Grinch really excels, is in the story elements it adds to fill out the characters—the Grinch’s backstory in particular. Without taking a single thing away from the character in the original book, we find out that he wasn’t just some scroogy hermit living in the Swiss Alps. He was an orphan who ran away from his adopted family after being ostracized by his classmates during a Christmas party for a botched attempt at shaving in order to impress the girl he loved. That’s backstory gold right there. Being humiliated in front of the girl you love is enough to turn anyone to the dark side, Christmas or no Christmas.

I mean, look, here’s the deal… We all know how the story turns out. We all know the moral that it’s trying to communicate to us. And year after year, we continue to read, watch, and re-tell the story of the Grinch, because year after year we are in danger of forgetting that Christmas doesn’t come from a store—that “Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

The Postman

The Postman

It was Christmas Day 20 years ago when movie theaters across this great land opened their doors to Kevin Costner’s trinimatic masterpiece—The Postman. Yes, I just invented an adjective to describe this film, because inventing new words like “trinimatic” is one of the things I’ve had to do in order to properly survey and review this man’s career. I call The Postman a trinimatic masterpiece, not because it’s a great film, but because it took Costner the Producer, Costner the Actor, and Costner the Director in order to create it—a trinity if you will—three in one. What makes this even more interesting is the fact that, aside from being released on December 25th, it’s also a film with a very specific “messiah” themed allegory running through its many plot holes. It’s not a pure messianic theme. It’s very awkward, very clunky, and it contains some extremely odd story elements that I won’t go into here, but at its core, it has an undeniably obvious “Jesus” flavor to it all. There’s an unlikely hero, a dramatic villain (named General Bethlehem… not sure where to go with that), a ragtag band of disciples, Tom Petty playing himself (may he rest in peace), a mule, a revolution, and at the center of the whole shebang: a pregnant woman with an assault rifle. This movie recipe can work quite well if done with enough tact and cleverness—poor a glass of sci-fi, add a little Jesus, sprinkle in some good old fashioned American patriotism, stir until blended, and serve. The problem with the messianic theme in The Postman is that it’s much more cumbersome than it is clever. But I mean look, this movie is about a mailman who saves humanity by DELIVERING THE MAIL. They had to do something to make it interesting. Still, it’s a good recipe—and this storytelling pattern works pretty good with a variety of different genres.

Side-note: Someone should make a movie called “The Grillmaster,” about a guy who brings civilization back from post apocalyptic destruction by wandering from town to town instructing his disciples on how to properly make barbecue.

I don’t have much else to say about this one. I like to keep things as positive as I can, and the more I try to dig into this, the less positive it’s going to be. It’s clearly not the man’s best film. But at the end of the day, I really think Costner was trying to make a movie about hope. It may come across as pretentious and awkward, but I can’t fault the man for trying to inspire people with a little bit of hope. Know what I mean?

And with that…

We have finally arrived at our destination. We’ve reached the end of the line on this journey down the Costner Trail. I haven’t done these reviews in any specific order, and I’ve obviously only done a selection of Costner’s most notable films. Likewise, I didn’t plan on The Postman being the last film to review in this series, but this is just how it came together, as anti-climactic as it may be. There’s plenty more where this came from though, including a few more westerns, a few more sports dramas, a film with Ashton Kutcher called The Guardian that’s pretty decent—and there’s also 3000 Miles to Graceland where the two Wyatt Earps Costner and Kurt Russell joined forces to play the long lost gangster sons of Elvis Presley–I can’t in good conscious recommend that one, but I just wanted to point out that it exists. Thirteen Days is probably the best movie of his that I haven’t written about—it’s a very interesting look into the Cuban Missile Crisis in case you’re interested.

On a personal note, this whole endeavor has been a good writing exercise for me. I don’t really watch a lot of TV, unless someone recommends something to me. I generally prefer to watch movies. I like to watch at least one movie a week just to unwind a little bit. I also like to write, so writing something about the movies I watch is a great way for me to combine my hobbies I suppose. If you’ve kept up with my reviews, I really appreciate it. Thank you for reading my stuff.

In the words of Kevin Costner: “You just do the things that you love and see if other people can like them too.”