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.”

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp

Costner-athon Part Nine

This past week I went back to 1994 by way of 1881 for an arduous viewing of Costner’s sprawling epic on the legendary old west crime boss… sorry, I mean the legendary old west lawman known as Wyatt Earp.

Although a noble attempt was made to watch this as a teen when my parents rented it one time, I’d never actually seen it in its entirety before, and to tell you the truth, it never much interested me. There’s a few reasons for this; for starters, it clocks in at just over 3 hours, which isn’t a problem for a story that moves well and has a good rhythm—but Wyatt Earp is an extremely slow moving behemoth that at times engages one in their own epic struggle to stay fully awake. I did not need to see Wyatt Earp engaging in morning pillow talk with his lifetime collection of various sweethearts. I needed to see him chasing down bad guys, brooding darkly like Bruce Wayne over his terrible responsibilities, and riding like the fourth horseman of the apocalypse across the open prairie. This brings me to my second point—there was another movie about Wyatt Earp that came out only 6 months prior to Costner’s movie which shows him doing all the things just mentioned. Tombstone was not only a great film, but it was clearly the better of the two. It had a much more streamlined story, focused on a narrow section of Earp’s life instead of attempting to explain the entirety of his existence, and it sold the story with action sequences that were probably the best western style, carefully choreographed, and superbly filmed gunfights that had ever appeared in the movies up to that point. In Wyatt Earp, the infamous “gunfight at the OK Corral” is a confusing mess of closeups capturing quick snaps of men shooting guns followed by cutting quickly to closeups of other men falling down. In Tombstone it’s filmed with wide shots of the action that make it look like a dance performance—you can see where everyone is and you never lose track of what’s actually happening during the sequence. Tombstone was also first out of the gate, first to the finish line, and first to capture my imagination when my dad took the family to see it during the winter of ‘94. Lastly, in regards to why Costner’s version never really drew enough interest for me to watch it—our family had just gone on vacation to Arizona that Christmas break before, and I had actually walked through the streets of the real Tombstone—albeit the depressing leftover husk of a tourist trap that had been constructed amidst the bones of the original town. Even so, it was a memorable experience, especially walking through the cemetery connected to the old part of the town. All this to say, that in my mind at the time, watching the movie Tombstone was like the grand finale capping off the experience of seeing the place in person, and regardless of its historical inaccuracies and dramatic licensing, it cemented my perceptions of the characters. As far as I was concerned, Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer were Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. By the time Costner’s version of the story and characters hit theaters 6 months later I was too full. There was simply no room for it in the belly of my brain.

That’s not to say it’s a bad film. It’s just nowhere near as good as its competition. And there was a great deal of competition between these two movies. Costner was originally signed on to play Wyatt Earp in the Tombstone movie, but he clashed with the director’s vision of sacrificing historical accuracy for greater cinematic pay-off. Unable to resolve their differences, Costner jumped ship and began production on his own version of the film with his friend Lawrence Kasdan as the principal screenwriter. As a result, the Costner version does really well at presenting Wyatt Earp, his brothers, their wives, and Doc Holliday as real people, more closely rooted in historical accounts. But the result is that Costner gives us a portrayal of the man that is about as exciting as reading a description of him in a history textbook. On the other hand, Dennis Quaid gives us a version of Doc Holliday that is absolutely magnificent and unique in its own right. It would have been the best version of Holliday to ever be put on film—if Val Kilmer hadn’t already sucked all the wind from the character by disappearing completely into the role and giving the best performance of his entire career. In terms of the best Doc Hollidays to be portrayed in the movies—there can be only one. And (I have to mention this as well), Tombstone has one more thing that Wyatt Earp does not—Sam Elliot—the ace up the sleeve of any proper movie about cowboys and the old west.

As a footnote to all this, sitting silently in the background, is the actual history. And firmly planted just beyond the shadow of the actual history, is the legend. Both Costner’s and Russell’s Earps are based mostly on that legend, even with Costner making greater attempts to cut a path more in line with the history. And the truth is, the fiction of Wyatt Earp, American Hero, is much more interesting than who the guy really was—maybe that’s unfortunate, but it’s what we Americans do with our old west legends. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, Clint Eastwood… all of them have had movies portraying them as legends who were much more grand, noble, and righteous than they ever could have been. The same is true of Wyatt Earp. We know a great deal more about him from documented historical accounts than what our collective cultural identity has chosen to remember. The truth is that the gunfight at the OK Corral was just one small engagement in a larger war for control of Arizona’s mining, gambling, and legal prostitution businesses at the time. The Earp brothers were in the process of building their own family empire on these endeavors when they ran smack dab into the established interests of the local citizen’s co-op known as the Cochise County Cowboys. At the center of their “disagreement” was money, politics, and women—the same things at the root of just about every disagreement since the dawn of civilization. Just to give you an idea of how crazy this was—at one point, before things got really heated, and tensions completely boiled over between the two groups—Wyatt attempted to run for county sheriff against Johnny Behan (the de facto political leader of the Cowboys), but decided to forfeit the race when Behan offered him a deal that would make him deputy sheriff and cut him into a percentage of the Cowboys’ earning pool. After Behan won the race he reneged on the deal, and Wyatt responded by running off with Behan’s fiancé Josephine. Then after all that happened, dudes began firing bullets at each other. Anyway, that’s just a little side note if you’re interested in history.

In conclusion… While I applaud Costner for his commitment to making the film he wanted to make, and sacrificing box office success in the process—I can’t, in good conscience recommend that anyone intentionally set aside three hours of their lives to watch this film. If you want to see the best movie on the subject, just watch Tombstone. If you want to know the real history, well then you have to do something radical and downright revolutionary in this day and age—read a book.

Tombstone-Val-Kilmer

McFarland, USA

McFarland, USA

Something that I’ve found interesting about reviewing Costner’s filmography, and something I hadn’t thought about before entering into this endeavor, is how many of his films remind me of experiences I had while growing up. Sometimes it’s the subject matter that causes me to remember things from my childhood, and sometimes the movies are just a reminder of where I was when I first saw one of his films, and who I was with—either way, it’s been a really cathartic process—using his film career as a vehicle to process some of these old memories lying tucked away in the back rooms of my brain. I didn’t expect that to be the case with the movie I watched this past week. I had never seen McFarland, USA, and I honestly would have most likely overlooked it if a couple of friends had not given me a copy for my birthday (thank you, Jalen and Jordan). But true to form, this movie, which was only released a couple of years ago in 2015 still managed to stoke up some old memories.

You see, this particular Costner film showcases something that I’ve had a troubled personal relationship with throughout my life—running. I guess it all started back in the summer of ’91… well it probably started before that, but back in ’91 some buddies and I were hunkered down in a ditch next to State Road 75 in Coatesville, Indiana, arsenal of water balloons in hand, when without warning I was suddenly called upon to run for my life. I’m not sure who it was that landed a direct hit on the windshield of the passing Audi—but when we heard the tires screeching, and the sounds of a man exiting his vehicle with a slew of cuss words and phrases we had never dared to speak, the concept of trying to hide disappeared—running was the only option—running to avoid being murdered. Alas, to my eternal shame, I was the slowest that afternoon. Being the last to reach the perceived safety of my friend’s garage, and not quick enough to avoid the eyes of our pursuer, I gave away our position and put all of us in jeopardy. I won’t go into the details of what happened in that garage as violence ensued, but if it happened today that man would definitely have been arrested for assaulting and battering four minors. It honestly wasn’t that bad, but he did have two of us by our throats before we managed to reassure him that we were only throwing water balloons and not rocks. Eventually he calmed down, probably realized he would be in more trouble than we would be, and off he went. But we were all pretty shook up. We had suffered our first real defeat at the hands of a madman, and as we went home in shame that evening, it was my head that hung the lowest for being the reason we were caught. I wasn’t fast enough. Running wasn’t my thing. And I was reminded of this fact many times over the next several years, not by my friends, but by a rogues gallery of villains made up of rabid P.E. teachers, chowderheaded jocks, and draconian football coaches. (I know that not all gym teachers, jocks, and football coaches are bad people, but I certainly had to deal with some real jerks in my day). I was the ongoing butt of jokes for the duration of my entire 7th and 8th grade years—all because I was the last guy to finish running laps in gym class everyday. I was on display for the whole class to stare and laugh as I struggled to finish while they stood next to the bleachers and waited. It’s hard not to feel like a low-life in junior high when the entire class is laughing at you, and the teachers are encouraging them to do so. I guess I was just too young at the time to realize they were all morons. So I tried to do better. I even went out for the football team, pressured to do so by the coaches aforementioned, but I couldn’t handle the insane amount of running required during the practices, so—my failure was complete.

And then, a few years later, something really awesome happened to me—something life changing. During my Junior year of high school, my English teacher read some of my papers, noticed that I had a gift, and told me that whatever I chose to do in my life, writing was supposed to be a part of it. She didn’t just tell me that I was good at it—she told me I was the best in the whole class. And she helped me to see something about myself that I didn’t know was good. Every kid out there has something special, something good to offer the world—they just need a good teacher to see what it is, and tell them it’s ok to pursue it with everything they have… unless they’re a psychopath or a pervert, and in that case, maybe they need therapy or tranquilizers, I don’t know.

Now, if you’re still reading this, and I hope you are—you might be asking what this all has to do with McFarland, USA which is a sports film about a high school cross-country team that won the California state championship in 1987. The truth is, that’s only the description you’ll find on the back of the DVD case, or on the IMDb page. A passing first glance will give the impression that this is only another sports drama, but it’s not. This film has something much more rich to offer because it touches on an issue that many Americans seem to still be struggling with these days—cross cultural communication. Unfortunately, xenophobia is alive and well in these United States. I don’t understand why. Racism, nationalism, and the irrational fear and persecution of minorities and people from other countries and ethnic groups are clearly and openly condemned throughout the ENTIRE Bible. And in a country where the majority of people at least claim to be Christians, this type of behavior and these ways of thinking are irrational. But if you don’t read the Bible, and you just listen to the news, or to many Christians in this country, you would think the opposite is true. I don’t know all the reasons why Costner chose to be in this movie—he long ago reached the point in his career when he could make or be in whatever movie he wants to—but maybe it has something to do with what lies at the heart of this film. Costner has always been good at making movies which cut through the barriers of culture and ethnicity. Several of his movies do this. His co-stars are often people of different cultures than his own. In Robin Hood his best friend and fellow soldier is a Muslim warrior. In The Bodyguard he falls in love with a black woman. In Dances with Wolves he assimilates himself into the Lakota. In The Man of Steel he adopts alien Kal-El from the planet Krypton. In Message in a Bottle he becomes enamored with Forrest Gump’s wife. Wait… scratch that last one. You know what I mean.

In McFarland, USA Costner plays the role of Jim White, a real gym teacher and coach who moved his family into the predominantly hispanic and latino town of McFarland in the Central California Valley back in the late 80s. The film takes us through his journey of learning to understand and adapt to the fact that he and his family are the minorities in the town. It’s not an easy journey for them. The film doesn’t sugar coat this. It lays bare all the difficulties that arise when two different cultures have to learn how to live and work with each other. And it shows how beautiful this kind of thing can really be when humility and vulnerability take precedence over pride and ignorance. And as Jim White learns who his students really are, and what their lives are like, he begins to enter into their world. Once he does that, he’s able to find the things that make them special. It’s not just the ability to run quickly—it’s the ability to be relentless, to overcome difficulty, to spit in the face of adversity—and to do so without sacrificing their commitment to their families and friends. Like any good mentor, like any good coach—like my high school English teacher—he finds their gift, and he encourages them to throw everything they have behind it—body, mind, and soul.

Waterworld

Waterworld

Well, after last week’s foray into the dark world of JFK assassination conspiracies, I decided to keep it a bit lighter this week with a viewing of Waterworld. Released in 1995, almost a decade and a half into Costner’s movie career he finally reached his peak — and in the process went careening off the mountaintop in what could best be described as an atomic cannonball into the deep end of a 200 million dollar sea water tank — tank being the key word here. On record as the most expensive movie ever made at the time, Waterworld was a domestic box office disaster. Several months before it was released into theaters that summer, news reports were already decrying it as an inevitable flop; a shambling mess of cinematic production wrought with infighting between Kevin Costner and the director Kevin Reynolds, with a wildly overblown budget that smelled like the hubris of an actor and director who had no where else to go after winning the hand of Maid Marian, rescuing a tribe of Sioux from annihilation, becoming a Baseball prophet, putting Capone in the slammer, saving Whitney Houston from a stalker, and uncovering the plot to kill president Kennedy. I mean, what else can you do after all that?

Well, if your name is Kevin Costner, you can dump millions of your own money into recreating the Madmax franchise in the ocean, grow a pair of gills and webbed feet, blow up an army of chain-smoking numbskulls on jet skis, play it cool while Dennis Hopper calls you a “turd that won’t flush,” bungee jump from what looks like a hot air balloon straight out of the Flintstones, save a group of smug refugees from extinction by salt water, take crayons away from an orphaned 5 year old, and fall in love with Jeanne Tripplehorn before sailing off into the sunset like you just don’t care while on your way to make The Postman. The opening shot of the movie is Costner taking a whiz into a cup, running it through a make-shift chemistry set to give it some carbonation and then drinking it. Yes, folks, the first thing we see in this movie is Costner literally drinking his own urine. Is this a metaphor for the entire production of the film? No comment.

Critics gave Costner a lot of crap for this movie, for all the reasons just mentioned, but I don’t care — I think it’s awesome. Is it a brilliant film? Of course not. Is there anything in it to justify its ridiculous budget? Heavens no. Is this what happens when a man accumulates enough wealth and clout to put whatever he bloody well wants to on film? Heck yes it is. Is it pure 90s action extravaganza? Absolutely. In the same year that gave us Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, Sylvester Stallone as Judge Dredd, and Val Kilmer as the freaking Batman — Waterworld was right where it belonged, forever enshrined between Billy Madison and The Brady Bunch Movie, but inevitably eclipsed by such classics as the first Toy Story, Braveheart, and Apollo 13.

I’ve always had a soft spot for post apocalyptic dystopia… and Taco Bell. The two things go together quite remarkably. And like Taco Bell, which is great in small doses, but gastricly deadly when the object of overindulging, so these post apocalyptic movies and television shows have begun to leave a bad smell behind them nowadays. I apologize, that’s a really gross metaphor… I don’t know where I was going with that. The point is— I was lucky enough to see Waterworld when I was still a young guy, and back then, in the middle of the 90s, these types of stories still had happy endings for the most part. Waterworld, unlike many of the dystopian futures being conjured up in today’s market, still left us with some hope when the credits rolled. That’s good story-telling in my book. And beyond that, it’s just a really fun movie.