A Star was Born

A Star was Born

This past December wasn’t a very good month for me. I’ll spare you the details, and just say that, generally speaking, I spent the Christmas season cultivating a pretty good forest of melancholy, depression, and uncertainty about the future. However, I’ve learned over the years that it’s normal to feel these things sometimes; it’s a natural part of life. You can’t feel the ups of life, if you don’t feel the downs. It’s not natural to always be walking around in a perpetual state of bliss and contentment. And it’s so easy to forget this when you plug into the matrix every day and are greeted by hundreds of smiling happy faces that are always on vacation, or falling in love, or having babies, or eating in the best restaurants on earth. I’m all for those things, and maybe these are, after all, the best things to share with each other in the public square type of environment that we have online. But, we all know of course, that in reality there’s just as many moments full of sadness and loss and failure and heartbreak. And sometimes the only real medicine is just feeling the pain, letting it wash over you, and giving it some time to pass. Anyway that’s what my December was like. It seems like ages ago now, but somewhere, back in the middle of it, I watched A Star Is Born.

I didn’t feel like writing about it at the time. It’s pretty heavy subject matter. And of course I’ve seen a handful of other movies since then, but this one has stuck to my insides in a way the others have not. I didn’t know what this movie was about beforehand. I was drawn to it mainly because I think Bradley Cooper is a great actor and I wanted to see how he did with his directorial debut. If I had read a plot synopsis ahead of time I might have avoided it. I’m not sure it’s the best kind of movie to watch if you’re feeling down.

It’s good storytelling though — dramatic, intense, cathartic, tragic — all the stuff you need for a film to be entertaining, emotionally engaging, and still relatable to those of us who aren’t out saving the world with Steve Rogers, Peter Parker, and Will Smith. I like those kinds of movies too, but I guess what I’m trying to say is that this film made me FEEL something in the midst of its realness and grittiness.

I think stories that portray self sacrifice (even in such a brutally heartbreaking way as this one) tend to generally have this effect. But when the sacrifice is unexpected, painfully explored, and woven together with love, it hits the heart strings with a hammer. That’s what this movie did to me anyway. That’s why I’m still thinking about it three months later. Correction: That’s why I’m still feeling it.

A Star Is Born is not a new story. It’s been done before. Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have retold a story that Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson retold back in ‘76, which was a story that Judy Garland and James Mason starred in before them in ‘54, which was one that was previously portrayed by Fredric March and Janet Gaynor in 1937… I haven’t seen any of those, and I don’t know how well they all line up with each other, or how much they reflect this most recent iteration. But none of these are the original story anyway. There’s a much older one…

The one where God descends from Heaven to mingle among the common folks here on Earth. Then he claims a Church for himself, gives her a new life, makes her his Bride, shows her that she is loved, tells her to speak the truth, tells her to be real, and then gives himself up for her—because it was the only way—the only way for her to shine as brightly as possible.

A Star Is Born is proof that the best stories are still the oldest ones – even when they’re wrapped inside new garments.

Even when they reveal themselves inside the unlikely framework of a Hollywood film in 2019.

The music is good too.

Predator

Predator

Well, in an effort to make my movie reviews somewhat relevant to current box office trends (not that I’m overly concerned with this) I’ve decided to jot down some reflections on an old childhood favorite that has continued to inspire periodic sequels from time to time – the most recent of which was just released into theaters this weekend.

Full disclosure: I did rewatch the original Predator a few weeks ago, mostly because I was just in the mood – and maybe also because Arnold was 39 when he filmed it, and I’m 39 now… and I needed the abstract motivation of watching a 39 year-old man at the top of his game.

At any rate, this is one of those movies that’s heavily steeped in nostalgia for me personally – and probably a lot of other dudes who saw it as a kid. And listen, I’m not sexist at all, but this is definitely a dude film. It’s unashamedly packed with bros, huge bicep close ups, magnificent explosions, guns that almost never seem to run out of ammo, blood, guts, cigars, Jesse Ventura, and profuse sweating — all elegantly wrapped in a fine veneer of exaggerated grunts, yells, and other various ape sounds. What can I say? It’s a product of its time, it’s pure 80s Schwarzenegger, and you can literally smell the testosterone on the DVD cover.

I have very vivid childhood memories surrounding this movie. But lest you gasp with inward incredulousness, don’t worry — my dad wouldn’t let me watch Predator until it came out on TV – edited of course. And he had actually provided a second layer of censorship by recording it from the TV onto a blank VHS tape so he could edit out the parts that were too gory for me. I was utterly dismayed by this due to the fact that Dad took my older brother Chad to see it when it first came out in 1987. I had never waited so long to see a movie that had been out for three years. And I made up for it by binge re-watching that VHS tape until it fell apart, disintegrated into tiny pieces of plastic, and was absorbed by the earth. It captured my imagination so completely that I would go into the woods near our house with my squirt guns and pretend I was one of the commandos in the movie. But don’t worry, I finally quit doing that a couple of years ago. Everyone has to grow up eventually.

It’s interesting to watch this movie now, and to think about it on the level of analysis. I really wasn’t watching it this time around with the expectation that it held anything deeper in its story, but it actually does, and I was surprised by this fact.

On the surface Predator is exactly what you’d expect it to be – a typical 80s action film. It’s about an elite special forces unit traipsing through the deep central American rainforest in search of political hostages. They’re led by Schwarzenegger and Apollo Creed – old friends who find themselves at odds over the ethical dilemmas of combat. Schwarzenegger’s character, named Dutch (probably a subtle nod to his accent which was still thickly European at the time) is struggling with his identity throughout the film. He is, essentially, the perfect hunter leading a group of other hunters in an effort to find and extinguish the lives of his enemies. We know from carefully placed exposition that he’s been doing this for a long time, and that, along the way, he’s developed a sense of righteous justification to provide a moral anchor for what he does. Dillon (Carl Weathers) gives personification to Dutch’s conscience, reminding him that his self-righteousness is only a flimsy illusion, and that underneath it all, he’s nothing more than a professional killer.

The backbone of the plot involves Dutch being slowly and methodically stripped of his illusions and forced to embrace his true identity completely. In this regard, the alien monster who hunts and destroys all the other men is only a mirror reflection of Schwarzenegger’s character. The Predator is doing the same thing that Dutch and his men are doing – only for different reasons, and with greater ability. We see this theme most clearly displayed near the end when Dutch asks the creature what he is – and the creature only responds with the same question. They’re both the same thing.

Now, I’m sure there’s probably some deep psychological meaning to all this, and it’s probably ripe with Jungian archetypal imagery and what not… but what I take away from it is the idea that all of us have a dark side, we all have a monster on the inside – it’s something we usually hide and cover up with layers upon layers of protection and armor. But if we are willing to be honest about it, calling it what it is – then we’ve taken the first step toward confronting it. And confronting monsters is what heroes do.

I think that’s what the movie is saying. I could be wrong, but I’m going to go with this interpretation… because it’s my movie review.

And remember folks, if all else fails, just take Arnold’s advice and, “get to da choppah!”

Southpaw

Southpaw

~~Originally posted on August 11, 2017~~

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

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

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

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

Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite

~~Originally posted on August 18, 2017~~

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

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

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

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

The Green Mile

The Green Mile

~~Originally posted on July 9, 2017~~

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

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.

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.

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.