Monday, February 17, 2014

2014 Movies: I don't know what the link is between all of these, so I'll just go ahead and say "FREEDOM"

Hi everybody! A little bit longer this week since I finally got around to writing about The Apartment and Drug War, two movies I had watched on New Year's day, before I started writing about movies I was watching this year. Hope you like these things!

The Apartment (1960) Billy Wilder

After finishing this movie, I just could not believe that it gets filed under the Comedy section.  I suppose it does end on a sweet note, but man.  I just have a rough time with movies where a mostly good person just spends the entire time getting dumped on (see also: Synecdoche New York).  I liked this movie a lot, though I guess things like this, where pretty much everyone is an asshole, are just frustrating to me.  Jack Lemmon is funny and sympathetic, but I spent the entire movie just wishing I could step in there and tell every one of his bosses to fuck right off.  He eventually gets around to it, but it’s not the big spectacle we’re hoping for.  He finally stands up for himself, then quietly walks out, getting ready for a move to another city and another job.  Fran runs to his apartment and they end up playing their card game and they’re friends now, so it ends up a win for the good guys, but they really drag you through the mud to get that happy ending.  Makes you feel like you’ve earned it, I guess.

Drug War (2013, North America) Johnnie To

I haven’t really been exposed to a lot of these Hong Kong crime-type movies, but I’ve liked what I’ve seen so far.  It seemed like for a while everyone in my circle of internet friends was just raving about this one, so I figured I had to check it out, and this one was good, I liked it.  However, with the way that everyone had been talking it up I guess I was expecting something with The Raid: Redemption levels of crazy, and it’s my fault I guess for having those sorts of expectations and being let down that Drug War just couldn’t meet those expectations.  It’s not even really that fair to compare the two as they are both trying to offer up a different experience.  The Raid: Redemption is fast-paced and gleeful fighting and action, while Drug War is very slow and steady, with less of an emphasis on high octane action in favor of a more deliberate look at clever Police work and investigating.  Drug War’s got action, don’t worry (the shootout with the deaf brothers and the final fight in front of that school were particularly exciting), but I think the thrills that I got with this movie came more from watching this relentless detective sticking with the case and the Mission: Impossible-style operations he pulls off with his crew.  It’s a pretty straightforward crime story, and while it may not be doing anything all that different, Drug War is still a solid, confident movie that excels on the well-tread ground of Crime Thrillers.

Bernie (2011) Richard Linklater

This one’s based on a real bummer of a true story.  Jack Black plays the nicest guy in town who ends up befriending and then murdering Shirley MacLaine, the meanest old woman in town.  The movie’s divided up with interview segments from some of the actual people in the actual town of Carthage, Texas where all this happened, and they’re all great.  I could’ve sworn some of them were like lesser known character actors or something, but they were all real people and funny and excited to tell their take on the story.

Jack Black takes the titular role in this one, and I think he’s amazing.  He’s a dude who has his shtick, sure, but over the years it seems as if he’s refined it and he’s found a way to make it work with his roles (it also helps that some roles are specifically for him and his shtick).  Bernie is a sort of weird vehicle for Jack Black, but it speaks to his ability that he can inhabit a more subdued role like this one and still manage to make it his own.  He pulls off big friendly guy in any of his roles pretty easily, but this one feels like it has an added layer of real tenderness and kindness, maybe even a touch of loneliness.  

Bernie is a look at a good man who loves his life and the people in it and how he is slowly broken by a hateful person.  It’s almost unreal how good and generous this guy is.  I’m not sure how much of this is my own view and how much of this is the movie’s intent, but it felt to me like Bernie, despite all his involvement with the people in his community, was a lonely person.  Maybe I just feel like living a truly selfless life seems lonely and I’m projecting my own biases onto this movie.  (Is that messed up?  Am I messed up to think that?)  In any case, if we’re going with the idea that there’s some loneliness in Bernie, it adds another dimension to examine in his murdering Marjorie, namely that perhaps their relationship gets started both out of Bernie’s generosity as well as their shared loneliness.  Sort of related: Was Bernie gay?  I think the movie kind of suggests that, and it would certainly supplement my idea that Bernie was a lonely person.  Being secretly gay in a small Texas town would bring about those sorts of feelings, I’d imagine.

Anyway, watching Marjorie slowly take away Bernie’s joy and freedom is difficult and heartbreaking, and Jack Black does a wonderful job of finding the bits of humor in this bleak situation while still being respectful in showing Bernie’s struggle to keep his dignity intact.

Airplane! (1980) Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Jerry Zucker

It’s probably exaggerating to say this movie changed my life, but I don’t know, maybe it did?  I remember for a couple of years when I was a kid my mom would take my sister and me out to Blockbuster to rent movies, and I guess my mom decided it was time to rent something funny that didn’t have the Power Rangers on the cover, so she picked up Mel Brooks’s High Anxiety for us, and that just got us going.  I don’t really remember much about High Anxiety but I remember my sister and I loving it, so within the next couple of visits to Blockbuster my mom introduced us to History of the World, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, And Now For Something Completely Different, Young Frankenstein, and Airplane!, among others.  We were big on dumb movies, and watching Airplane! now I understand some jokes a lot better than I did when I was like ten or whatever, but they’re all still such dumb jokes, and that’s what makes movies like this charming for me.

The jokes in Airplane! are all so tight and varied.  It’s mostly all dumb jokes, but they come at you from all angles, at all speeds, so you have to pay attention.  Dumb visual gags, dumb wordplay, and jokes that were only relevant to America in 1980.  They’re all there and they’re all fun.  There’s no sense of self importance, no high minded attitude about changing the comedic landscape, it’s just a movie that has a lot of good dumb jokes trying to get a laugh out of you.  Airplane! probably took such a hold on me when I was a kid because it was what I wanted to be -- something funny and silly and unafraid to be itself.

A movie brimming with dumb jokes isn’t always everyone’s cup of tea (sometimes it’s not even my cup of tea either), but I think there’s a particular sweet spot you have to be in when you first watch these movies.  You have to be young and dumb and receptive for these sorts of things to take hold in your brain, but I think it’s possible to watch and appreciate these dumb joke movies as an adult.  The key as an adult is of course being open and receptive, but also taking these movies in context.  It helps make dated topical references funny again in a sort of repurposed way; like the humor comes in the joke you see, but it also works when you think back like “Ah, this joke about Reagan being a whatever movie star was what was funny to people in 1980.”  I don’t know, I think the instinct is to just throw those topical jokes away as irrelevant products of the past, but I think they can still be funny in a time-capsule-y sort of way.  Ask me again when I watch Scary Movie or some shit in twenty years.

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) Sean Durkin

I don’t think I’ve been more relieved for a movie to be over.  But even by the end of the movie it’s still not really over, is it?  I’m getting ahead of myself, sorry, but what a harrowing movie.  It’s a very slow, quiet thing, and it’s difficult to watch because you can just feel that something bad is about to happen.  John Hawkes does an excellent job at instilling a sense of dread in every scene, and we feel a genuine sense of concern for Elizabeth Olsen’s character even though she never comes off as someone very likeable.  You just know that no one should be put through the sort of manipulation and abuse that she’s experiencing and you fear for her.  She’s difficult and closed off and it’s not entirely her fault.  From the way her sister interacts with her after she escapes from the commune she’s been living on, we get the sense that Martha wasn’t the ideal sister or friend to begin with, but after witnessing the flashbacks to her life on the commune with Patrick and the rest of them psychologically/emotionally/sexually abusing her, it’s tough to hold her aloofness against her.

Compounding all of this trauma is that Martha has no way of expressing the abuse that she’s been through.  It seems that she came to Patrick’s commune when she was the most vulnerable and receptive to his brand of manipulation, and by the time she makes her escape she’s still unsure about what’s happened to her.  She needed a purpose, a direction, somewhere to belong, and Patrick gave what seemed like all that to her.  That she doesn’t even have a vocabulary to express what she’s been through is one of the more frustrating things.  Weren’t those people her friends?  Couldn’t she have left any time?  She escapes to her sister, the only family she has, but she still can’t find acceptance, and whether that’s due to her traumatic experience or the fact that she and her sister never really got along to begin with is unknown and confusing to her.  Martha’s experiencing a great deal of conflicting emotions and and confusion, making it difficult for her to tell which of her thoughts and feelings are even her own, which in turn further distances her from her estranged sister’s hospitality.

The ending was interesting to me.  Martha sees someone watching her taking a swim.  Later, when she is being driven to the city to see some sort of doctor or therapist, we see maybe the same person get into a car which begins to follow the car she’s in, and then that’s it.  That’s the end of the movie.  There’s no resolution, and it’s one of the more scary endings I’d ever seen.  The camera stays focused on Martha throughout that final sequence, and we never really see the face of this man who’s following her.  The tight focus on Martha and the uncertainty about who this person is and what’s happening bring us in closer to Martha, making the space almost claustrophobic, crowding the backseat with Martha’s palpable fear and distress.  The quick cut to the end credits means she’s disappeared from our lives and we will never know what happens to her.  With Martha gone, the only thing we have left is fear.

The Addams Family (1991) Barry Sonnenfeld

We’ve all seen this one, right?  I love this movie, bad jokes and all.  I love the Addams’s weird bizarro speak (unhappy=happy, that sort of thing), I love all the dumb hand jokes whenever they talk to Thing (“Thanks for lending a. . . hand!”), I love the obvious “we’re all pretty weird if you think about it” ethos, I love the fuckin’ Mamushka, I love Raúl Juliá, I love all of Gomez and Morticia’s very quick and dry throwaway punchlines.  But what I love most is how loving and supportive all of the Addamses are.  It’s a movie about a family who just loves each other so goddamn much in spite of everyone around them, and it makes me so happy to see that.

Tessa told me that they had originally shot two endings.  The one we get is that Gary was Fester all along, which I appreciate because it just fits with the zaniness of this movie, but the other one had no secret reveal, it was just Gary all along, deciding he would stay and live with them as Fester.  I like this supposed alternate ending as I think it fits better with this character Gary, an outcast who finds total and pure acceptance in this family of outcasts.  It fits with Gary/Fester’s character arc as well as the overall message of love and acceptance.  Anyway, what we get is nice too, and it’s silly, so, whatever, it works.

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