Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Some Thoughts On Django Unchained

So, I got this interesting email today. It came from a college student who had read my article on why Blazing Saddles couldn’t be made today and she asked if I thought that Django Unchained was an effective racial satire. I thought I would share my answer with you folks and see what you thought. Here goes.

As a general rule, I've found Tarantino's work to be brilliant. He has both a gift for dialog (particularly seen in Public Fiction) and a gift for figuring out how to take things that should shock and disgust us and instead turning those into funny and often enlightening moments. Unfortunately, I think these gifts failed him in Django Unchained, and rather than making a clever racial satire, he ended up making what really amounts to a revenge film.

Where Brooks and Pryor succeed so brilliantly was in pinpointing things that a lot of people still believed were true either out of fear, stupidity or ignorance. They then twisted these stereotypes to expose how silly they were. A great example is when the "superior" white cowboys running the rail crew tell Clevon Little and his friends to sing a black "work song" and they sing "I get no kick from champagne." This mocks the white stereotype that poor black people sing spirituals, and it does so by showing them singing a high-class elegant song sung by Cole Porter. Basically, it shows that black culture has aspects that are very high class indeed, and it thereby disproves the stereotype. Then Brooks goes further and has the white cowboys proceed to make fools of themselves trying to explain what they perceive to be black culture as the blacks laugh at them. This mocks the intelligence level of the people who bought into the stereotype in the first place. The end result is that everyone laughs and the white audience feels ashamed if they had thought like the cowboys did.
Prior's satire is similar in the sense that he points out stereotypes that obviously aren't true and then he essentially says, "we're just humoring you dumb people." Again, everyone laughs and the people who bought into the stereotype feel stupid and ashamed to re-assert it.

The keys in both cases are (1) stereotypes which are the result of ignorance, (2) and which clearly are not true or which can be debunked easily, and (3) turning the joke so that anyone who claims to believe the stereotype will feel stupid and ashamed for doing so.

Tarantino doesn't do this.

First of all, the characters Tarantino uses are not unintentionally racist because they are ignorant. They are intentionally racist because they are vicious and hateful and they view blacks as less than human. No one sitting in the audience will identify with those characters. That limits the ability of the film to make people re-evaluate themselves. By comparison, there are many characters in Blazing Saddles or in Pryor's routines that anyone can identify with. Moreover, it changes the film from being a satire about race in our culture to being a satire of hateful racists.

Secondly, Tarantino doesn't really expose modern stereotypes. Instead, he attacks an entire era. So whereas Brooks and Pryor picked out things modern whites may have wrongly believed about blacks, Tarantino really doesn't address modern themes. Hence, while Brooks and Pryor are saying, "Wow, does anyone really believe this anymore?" Tarantino is saying "Wow, were the people in the post-Civil War South rotten." That's a big difference.

Third, rather than showing us the error of our thinking, as Brooks and Pryor did so well, Tarantino just has the main character brutalize the racists. So rather than having a film that constantly asks us, "You weren't stupid enough to think like this, were you?" Tarantino instead gave us a film where the hero runs around killing everyone whose views he doesn't like. And while this may be satisfying for some people, it doesn't ultimately change any minds. To the contrary, I would suspect that it actually is more likely to go the other way by confirming to people that they should be afraid because "those people hate you." (With "those people" being both the whites who hate the black hero and the black hero who gets revenge against the whites.) In other words, whereas Brooks and Pryor told us that we better change our thinking because everyone is laughing at us, Tarantino is telling blacks "whites are racist" and telling whites "watch out or blacks will start killing you."

So ultimately, I don't see Django Unchained as being an effective satire about race.

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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Film Friday: CHAPPiE (2015)

Though I doubt Director Neill Blomkamp would admit this, but his latest film CHAPPiE is Robocop 2. Robocop 2 was a fun, though flawed movie. CHAPPiE, on the other hand, sucked. In fact, they should have called it CRAPPiE. Skip this one.

The Plot

Robocop 2 is the story of a man who has been turned into a robot and now works as a police officer in Detroit. The evil corporation that built him decides they need to destabilize Detroit so they can sell their new combat robot the ED-209. They want to give the ED-209 a chance to show what it can do in terms of restoring order. To do this, they corrupt Robocop’s programming and make him useless, letting crime run rampant. Eventually, Robocop frees himself from the programming and he takes on the evil ED-209 robot built by the evil corporation and destroys it.

Now tell me if this sounds familiar.
CHAPPiE is the story of a robot who works as a police officer in Johannesburg, South Africa who gets turned into a man, or at least becomes sentient. A key employee (Hugh Jackman) at the evil corporation that built him decides he needs to destabilize Johannesburg so he can sell his new combat robot (let's call it, hmm, how about the ED-209a?). He wants to give the ED-209a a chance to show what it can do in terms of restoring order. To do this, he corrupts all the police robots and shuts them down, letting crime run rampant. Eventually, CHAPPiE’s friends teach him morality (or at least a sense of revenge) and then he takes on the evil ED-209a robot built by the evil employee and destroys it.
There is a twist at the very end which is meant to "elevate" the film, but honestly you won’t care. Basically, CHAPPiE is a police robot which gets destroyed by the evil gang from The Road Warrior. Rather than scrap him, the Indian scientist from Short Circuit realizes that in death, CHAPPiE has become alive. Don’t ask the film to explain it though, because it won't. Dr. Short Circuit tries to take CHAPPiE home to work on him, but he gets kidnapped by the Road Warrior gang who want their own police robot. Dr. Short Circuit gives them the robot and they name him and feed him and teaching him how to be white trash. Soon, he’s garbling his lines in ghetto South African, he’s wearing rapper gear, and he’s jacking cars. Isn’t that cute? Anyways, at the end, CHAPPiE figures out how to transfer his consciousness into another robot. He does the same for the dying Dr. Short Circuit and for the dead white trash chick who taught him nothing redeeming. Gee.
Oh, and he brutally beats Hugh Jackman to near death after Jackman kills the Road Warrior gang, including the white trash chick, and Dr. Short Circuit.

This Film Sucked

I’ve said for a long time that Neill Blomkamp is a leftist. Even as other conservatives bizarrely thought that District 9 was somehow conservative, I noted the standard leftist anti-white, anti-male, anti-police, anti-military, anti-corporate, and anti-capitalism themes and undertones. Then came Elysium with its nonsense anti-white, anti-police, anti-corporate, anti-capitalism, and pro-universal healthcare themes. Now we have this. This time, you have evil white capitalist ex-military types who want to destroy a sentient robot who is so gosh darn ghetto cute. The evil Road Warrior gang is entirely white, of course.
Still, I could overlook his politics if his films didn’t suck. District 9 was sloppy and uncreative without any appealing characters. It also felt a LOT like the miniseries V. Elysium was derivative nonsense that substituted propaganda for plot. None of its characters were appealing either. This one... this one is a poor rip-off of Robocop 2. This gives the film an uncomfortable “I’ve seen this story before” feeling. Add in all the not-credible moments that go unexplained – like how CHAPPiE comes alive, why he would have no programming when he did but would quickly get all the programming he needs, why Dr. Short Circuit randomly visits the robot but the Road Warrior gang don’t kill him, etc. – and what you get is a movie that feels like nonsense. And finally, add in the utter lack of appealing characters once again.
Seriously, these characters are impossible to like. Obviously, you’re not supposed to like Jackman or the Road Warrior gang or the corporate president (Sigourney Weaver). The people you are supposed to like are Dr. Short Circuit, the white trash couple, and CHAPPiE himself. But Dr. Short Circuit is a random character whose motives are unclear and who feels like a plot convenience. When he dies at the end it’s hard to remember that he was even in the film anymore. White trash chick ostensibly wants to raise CHAPPiE as if he were a child, but she’s white trash with an ugly accent and the values of a gang banger. Listening to her “mother” a robot with the Religion for Dummies take on a human soul is hard to take. Then her boyfriend trains CHAPPiE to use the same pigeon English they do, to carry himself like a drug dealer, to carjack people, and to hurt people (but it’s funny because they’re rich!!). That makes them and CHAPPiE super hard to like.
In fact, by the time Jackman shows up with his evil capitalist military ED-209a robot, it seems pretty clear that killing off all the characters would be best for society... and probably for them too. It’s hard to like a movie like that, especially when the director doesn’t seem to realize that the characters he offers as the good, likable heroes are all rotten sh*ts who need a delousing and a serious prison-yard beating.

Honestly, this movie felt like an insult. Blomkamp insulted my intelligence by trying to do a hidden remake of Robocop 2, and playing the robot as childlike. He insulted my political and moral beliefs with his themes. He insulted my cultural sensitivities by trying to shove this gang banger culture in my face. And he insulted my time by not doing anything interesting or original at any point during the movie.

I’m glad I didn’t pay to see this turd.
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Thursday, April 14, 2016

Film Friday: The Boys From Brazil (1978)

Imagine a film starring Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, James Mason, Denholm Elliot, a dozen other people you know, and Steve Guttenberg. Imagine I told you it was a thriller with a very original idea that involved Nazis. Boo hiss! Imagine it was made during the same time period when Star Wars, Close Encounters, The Godfather and a dozen other classics were made. Sounds like a heck of a film, doesn’t it? Yeah, no.


The Boys From Brazil involves a secret plot by escaped Nazi war criminals now living in Brazil. The man coordinating the plot is the infamous Dr. Joseph Mengele (Peck). As the film opens, Mengele’s scheme is uncovered by a young Nazi hunter (Guttenberg). He learns that Mengele and his team are planning to kill 94 men in several different European and North American countries. The reason for this is not clear. Guttenberg calls the famed Erza Lieberman (Olivier) to get his help. Lieberman has become discredited and cynical and refuses to help, however. Then Guttenberg is killed by Mengele.
Lieberman realizes that Mengele is behind the murder and decides he must take action. He begins to investigate the leads Guttenberg gave him before he died. While investigating, Lieberman runs across something strange. Each of the men slated to be killed has a similar profile (middle-age civil servant) and each has an identical, adopted son. Realizing very quickly that this cannot be a coincidence, and that the boys cannot be twins, Lieberman realizes they are clones.

We, of course, know that these boys are clones. What’s more, we know they are clones made from Adolph Hitler’s DNA. And the reason the 94 men have similar profiles and are being killed is that Mengele hopes to recreate Hitler by re-creating him genetically and then making each boy go through a similar childhood to the one Hitler had. He believes this will lead to a reincarnation of Hitler.
Meanwhile, the other Nazis order Mengele to stop his experiment, which is drawing too much heat. They also tell him to avoid Lieberman. Mengele violates his orders, however, and goes to kill Lieberman. This results in an odd showdown in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where one of the clones lets his dogs kill Mengele.

Why This Was A Turdburger

On paper, this film has amazing potential. Seriously, it offers Nazis, a sinister global plot, and tons of potential action. And best of all, the casting was top notch! Is Mengele’s plan a little weak? Sure, but in a well-done film you won’t have time to think about it until well after you’ve left the theater. So what went wrong? The failure of this film is a classic example of what happens when a writer/director thinks the set up is so strong that it sells itself. In fact, that idea permeates this film time and again leaving unsatisfied potential everywhere. Consider this...

The idea of a group of Nazi war criminals hatching a global plot that will ultimately lead to the rebirth of a new Nazi German under a cloned Adolph Hitler is a strong idea... at least on the surface. There are some definite problems with this. For one thing, Hitler took advantage of unique circumstances. So you can make all the clones you want, but unless you find another Germany in the Great Depression, they won’t be able to do anything. Further, history tells us that Hitler made as many ruinous mistakes as he made brilliant decisions. And by the end of the war, he had become such a drug-addicted mental case that he was ordering around phantom armies, shooting loyal subordinates, and abandoning hundreds of thousands of soldiers to fruitless deaths. Why recreate him? Recreate Stalin if anyone.

Anyways, that issue aside, the real problem is that once we know the scheme, there’s no sense of urgency to it. The film never once convinces us that the societies where these Hitler²s live are looking for a Hitler, nor does it suggest that the Nazis have political connections that would let them place these Hitler²s into power. So at best, this film tells the story of a plot that could one day evolve into a genuine scheme for power. That’s weak. Nor does the director substitute action to generate tension. There are a couple murders, but they are quite dull. There are no chases, no lucky escapes, and no fights. In each case, we’re supposed to be shocked by the fact of the murder rather than how it gets carried out. And that’s just the beginning.
Lieberman is meant to be the lone hero who still fights for justice when the rest of the world no longer cares. That’s a great character. But once again, the writer/director seem to think the existence of the character is enough. Indeed, he never really does anything throughout the film. He doesn’t trick the villains or defeat them in any way. All he does it travel to meet people Guttenberg has identified. Even when he finally seems to put together Mengele’s plot, he does nothing with it. He just waits until Mengele comes to kill him, then someone else kills Mengele, and then the film ends.

In fact, throughout this film, both the Mengele character and the Lieberman character underwhelm. Lieberman is meant to come across as noble, tenacious and resolute. But Olivier seems to think that his being a Jew who spends his life hunting Nazis is enough to give the character life, so he just stumbles around meekly as the plot magically plays out for him. Mengele, on the other hand, is a Nazi who did cruel experiments on death camp victims. Just like Olivier, Peck thinks this is enough to make the character. So he swaggers around and barks orders and he shoots people casually, but that’s about all he gives you to feel his evil. There’s never anything to let you into this guy’s mind or to explain his actions. In fact, neither actor does anything to give you any more insight into the character than you would get from knowing their background. It’s like being given a sports car and then letting it sit in the driveway.
The ending is another example. The ending involves a one on one battle of wits between Mengele himself and Lieberman for the soul of one of the Hitler² boys, with the loser to be torn apart by dogs! Sounds exciting doesn’t it? What’s more, when Mengele loses, there is the delicious irony that he is killed because he made these boys evil. Sounds great, right? Well, once again, the writer/director thought the setup was enough. So when the scene occurs, almost nothing happens. Mengele has a gun and wounds Lieberman at the outset. Then they both sit down and say things to the Hitler². Neither one is particularly convincing. There is no discussion of the kid’s destiny. There is no battle of philosophies or moralities. There’s no ticking clock to add urgency to the moment. They both just kind of say, “pick me!” and the boy decides. Yawn.

This problem repeats itself throughout. At every turn, the film relies on the setup itself to hold the audience’s interest and it does nothing to develop interest independently. Even the presence of the Nazis is done lazily. You see one brief moment where you have some people in Nazi uniforms at a ball, but there’s no sense that these people truly have an ideology, a goal, or an organization that is capable of doing anything more than holding a ball in Brazil.

The end result of this is a film filled with potential which never once lives up to that potential. And that makes the film boring. This film failed scene by scene.

[+]

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Film Friday: The Trouble With Harry (1955)

A couple weeks ago, I spoke about Topaz and how unsatisfying it was. Today, I want to talk about a Hitchcock film that I love and lament the fact that this film wouldn’t be made today. The film is The Trouble With Harry. What is the trouble with Harry? The trouble is that Harry’s dead.

The Trouble With Harry was one of Hitchcock’s few genuine comedies and it was, sadly, a financial failure. It then disappeared for a while, but is now available and has quite a strong following.

At its heart, this film is a romantic comedy that takes place against a sort of murder mystery where several characters believe they may have killed a man named Harry. The story takes place in Highwater, Vermont, and it begins with the discovery of a corpse on a hill top. The corpse is Harry, and it’s not clear who has killed him.
In fact, three of the main characters each think they may have been the one who killed Harry. Retired sea Captain Wiles (Edmund Gwenn) thinks he shot Harry with his rifle when he shot at a rabbit and missed. Harry’s estranged wife Jennifer Rogers (Shirley MacLaine) thinks she killed Harry by hitting him with a milk bottle on the head after he showed up at her home. And retired naturalist Miss Gravely (Mildred Natwick) thinks she killed Harry by striking him with her hiking boot after he came at her while still groggy from the blow he received from the milk bottle.

Bringing them all together is Sam Marlowe (John Forsythe), a proto-hipster artist. He is looking for something to paint when he stumbles upon these people trying to figure out what to do about the body. The problem is that none of them knows who actually killed Harry, and none of them knows what to do next – particularly as no one is going to miss Harry. As they sort this out through a series of missteps, love blooms between a few of the characters. Meanwhile, they need to avoid Deputy Sheriff Calvin Wiggs (Royal Dano), who seems intent on finding some wrongdoing.
So what makes this film so enjoyable? For one, it is a beautifully shot story that gives you a sense of how great Vermont can be when the leaves change. To me, this is a Fall movie, just like Something Wicked This Way Comes. For another, the actors are all fantastic in this. They have tremendous chemistry, which makes you want to spend time with them. For yet another, the film is exceedingly funny in a dry-wit sort of way. You won’t ever laugh out loud, but you will smile a lot and chuckle repeatedly.

Indeed, the humor is quite subtle. The humor in The Trouble With Harry comes from the setup itself, which is quite funny, and the group’s missteps in handling the body. It also comes from the indifference with which they are treating the death. Mostly though, it comes from the quirkiness of the characters.

What I like best though is the sensibility of this comedy. This film is good-naturedly pleasant. You just don’t see that anymore. Indeed, modern comedies are all about flying bodily fluids, absurd characters, and trying to shock the audience with the level of nastiness in which the characters engage. This is so different.
This film wins you over with the exact opposite. This film is about very normal set of people who find themselves in a bizarre situation and yet refuse to abandon their normal sensibilities when trying to figure out how to solve this. Modern comedies, by comparison, are about weirdos imposing their weirdness on the normal world. To me, this is the difference between Shakespeare and an internet novel. Hitchcock has taken on a truly difficult task and has masterfully given you a story you will enjoy and keep enjoying for years. It is complex, subtle and beautiful. Apatow and Sandler and their types give you shock that wears off often times before the film is even over. All they need to do to write their films is come up with something gross or offensive.

What’s more, Hitchcock avoids cynicism. Sure, on the surface it seems cynical, but the story quickly proves itself sentimental and hopeful. That is hard to write without the story becoming saccharine and phony. Hitchcock walks that line. Apatow and Sandler don’t even bother: they traffic in cynicism, which is the ultimate writer’s crutch.
Hitchcock also does something else you don’t see anymore: there’s no villain. I’ve mentioned this before, but most of the greatest films of all time actually don’t have a villain to oppose the protagonist. That is something you simply don’t find anymore, however. These days, all films have villains because they are an easy way for bad writers to create conflict. Compare that with this film, where the conflict comes from the consciences of the characters who each think they killed Harry. Could you image an Apatow film being about three characters genuinely struggling with their own consciences? Hardly. If this film were done today, one of them would be trying to frame the others and it would end in a shootout, and that would wipe out everything that makes this film special.

Ben Kenobi once described a lightsaber as “not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilize age.” That is this film. It is not clumsy or random as the comedies of today, it is an elegant film for a more civilized age. I highly recommend this film.

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Monday, April 4, 2016

Guest Review: Dope (2015)

by tryanmax

Dope is a low-key, coming-of-age comedy about a misfit black high schooler from a bad neighborhood who wants to go Harvard. It’s also a great example of how to squander audience goodwill with a single sentence. All-in-all, it was a decent film which I enjoyed watching, but would probably not comment on except that, with one line near the end, the filmmakers managed to destroy all of the goodwill they had built up over 90 minutes. I’ll tell you what that line was in a bit.

First, about the movie. Malcolm is a geek. So we are told by the film’s opening narration. It’s a bit patronizing, given that we soon see for ourselves that Malcolm doesn’t fit in to his rough, Inglewood, California neighborhood. He’s obsessed with 90’s hip hop and Bitcoin, he gets good grades, and he is picked on by the thugs who run the block.

Malcolm is cajoled into going to a party hosted by a known drug dealer. At the party, a deal goes south and a shootout ensues. Malcolm believes he has escaped unscathed, but discovers the next day at school that someone has slipped the drugs and a gun into his backpack. He wants to dump them as quickly as possible, but he finds himself caught between rival gangs as well as the everyday tribulations of high school.

What follows is a wild goose chase through a series of outlandish scenarios and a few minor twists. Conceptually, it’s all funny, but less of it is played for laughs than one might expect. The vein that runs through everything is the idea that, as an outsider, Malcolm sees the world differently, and so he finds unique solutions to the problems he encounters. This is true to a certain extent and also serves to highlight the character’s darkest moment when, in a decidedly unoriginal move, Malcolm solves a problem by pointing (but not shooting) a gun. It’s a pivotal scene that illustrates how even a resourceful individual can succumb to making base decisions in trying circumstances.
If all the film set out to do was to give audiences a view of different lives, that would be enough. At the point where Malcolm backs away from a potentially ruinous decision, the audience has seen enough of his world to appreciate the gravity of it. Even if the filmmakers wanted to inject a more pointed message, the audience is now primed for it, so long as the message makes sense.

Instead, it goes for an easy zinger.

As loose ends are tied up on screen, Malcolm reads his Harvard entrance essay in voice over. It’s an abstract retelling of the preceding film, which is fine until the closing line: “Why do I want to attend Harvard? If I was white, would you even have to ask me the question?”

Where did that come from?

“If I was white—” is a very loaded phrase. Black audiences may hear a conversation-stopping “gotcha!” while white audiences will hear it as a familiar accusation. It’s quite the sucker-punch, being pulled into caring about someone’s problems only to be blamed for them.
Throughout the movie, Malcolm is keenly aware that he doesn’t fit the mold of what a black man is “supposed” to be. In fact, it’s basically the root of all his problems. But those expectations, stereotypes and problems come from people in his own community, 99% of whom are black like he is. Malcolm doesn’t throw this back in the faces of the people trying to keep him down. Instead, he saves that ire for Harvard, the one entity that is offering him a way out.

Even as a metaphor it’s unclear who Harvard stands for. On one hand, it could just stand for whites. But the whites in the film are mainly props, and the most prominent white character is a friend and confidant to Malcolm. On the other hand, the main representative of Harvard in the film is a corrupt black businessman with drug ties who actively keeps other blacks down. But if this is Harvard, why does Malcolm want to attend?

More problematic still, the answer to Malcolm’s question would of course be “yes,” which opposes the notion of blacks having different expectations placed on them. As a response to a common admissions question, it reinforces notions of blacks seeing everything as racially charged and expecting to be exempt from ordinary requirements.

Like I said, I chalk this up to a desire to end on a sharp note. Unfortunately, it undermines the pathos of the movie and likely reinforces ideas it was intended to dispel. What do you think?
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