#ThrowbackThursday – Thir13en Ghosts

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Original US release date: October 26, 2001
Production budget: $42,000,000
Worldwide gross: $68,467,960

Released in time for Halloween in 2001, Thir13en Ghosts was, at that time, the latest in a string of horror films in the late-nineties and early-naughts (or “noughties” as I like to call them) capitalizing on a craze that was spawned by 1996’s Scream and then fully ignited by 1999’s The Blair Witch Project.  Studios had caught on to the fact that horror movies were by-and-large cheap and popular – an excellent combination for anyone looking to offset the risks of more expensive projects.  If executed correctly, horror movies are as close to a sure thing as exists in Hollywood and they continue to populate cinemas today, if not quite with the frequency that they did at that time.

Feeling confident in the genre, Warner Brothers developed Thir13en Ghosts (Agh!  It hurts just to type that!), a remake of the 1960 film 13 Ghosts (much better) by prolific horror director of the fifties and sixties, William Castle.  (Another of my #ThrowbackThursday columns focused on a remake of one of his other films, and you can find that here.)  Warner Brothers handed the reigns of this remake to director Steve Beck, who was not prolific in horror films, as Castle was, but was instead a prolific commercial director.  There’s nothing wrong with that, per se, as many directors have made that transition, but it was very obvious that Beck had trouble getting commercials out of his system as Thir13en Ghosts seems to constantly go overboard as if it’s trying to sell us a story instead of tell us a story.

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Here’s the premise: eccentric millionaire Cyrus Kriticos (F. Murray Abraham) dies and leaves his entire estate to his nephew Arthur (Tony Shalhoub) and Arthur’s children Kathy and Bobby (Shannon Elizabeth and Alec Roberts).  What Arthur, Kathy, and Bobby don’t know is that dear old Uncle Cyrus has a collection of angry and vengeful spirits locked up in the basement, just waiting for their chance to get free and exact revenge for their imprisonment.

The premise itself is fine, and different from what viewers typically see in a horror film.  But director Beck has trouble reining himself in.  The film is absurdly loud, brash, and over-the-top . . . just like a commercial.  One of the keys to effective horror is restraint.  Revealing too much too soon quashes any semblance of suspense, and suspense is the foundation of great horror.  Not only that, but the movie is so cacophonous that the suspense couldn’t build even if the pacing were to allow it.  The movie plays as much like an action film as a horror film, if not more so.

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A great horror film should put the audience in the shoes of the sympathetic protagonist(s) so that the viewer feels as if the on-screen terror is happening to them.  Think back to the times you’ve been frightened at night.  How often is it loud and how often is it quiet?  The absence of sound is itself frightening.  Thir13en Ghosts is an assault on the two senses that are used to watch film and it’s counterproductive to the perceived goals of any horror film.

I wish the advertising approach to Beck’s filmmaking stopped there, but it continues.  Beck assembles a capable cast, but he directs them to oversell everything (although that’s par for the course for Matthew Lillard) as if he expects so little of his audience that he doesn’t believe they can follow subtlety.  The most casual lines of dialogue are practically shouted.  Every physical movement is an unnecessarily wild gesticulation.  Even the newspaper headline announcing the death of poor Uncle Cyrus is punctuated with an exclamation mark, which is simply ridiculous.  And the script is full of unnatural conversation that doesn’t sound like any actual people I’ve encountered throughout my lifetime.  It’s stilted, it’s awkward, and it’s disingenuous.  I’m not asking for Tarantino-esque wit and charm, but at least give your actors a chance to portray characters who approximate real people, thereby giving your audience a chance to empathize with them and subsequently fear for them.

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If that’s not bad enough, the story gets bogged down in too much side-questing, forgetting why the audience is there to begin with.  There are crazy contraptions, giant machines, shifting hallways, magical spells and it’s just too much.  Most of it exists solely to explain away the ghosts and their predicament, and that leads to another issue where the spirits are presented as victims and it’s therefore relatively easy to feel sympathy for them.  As I said, it’s just too much.  Horror should be kept as simple as possible.  Character complexity is always desired (see films such as The Conjuring and its excellent sequel) but narrative complexity should be handled delicately with the eye never taken away from the goal of establishing clear-cut admirable heroes and terrifying villains (such as my personal favorite horror movie of all-time).

In spite of its flaws due to being mishandled by an inexperienced director who wasn’t ready for this sort of project, Thir13en Ghosts is still entertaining at times and a pretty easy watch.  It doesn’t hurt that the film clocks in at a brisk 91 minutes.  But the movie is in no way “good”, with the exception of the work by the entire production team who made the film look great.  But is that enough?  If you like anything horror or if you (still?) have a thing for Shannon Elizabeth, then maybe.  Otherwise, you may find yourself constantly shouting things like, “What?” or, “Why?” or, “Huh?” or any other number of monosyllabic vocal exclamations.  Ultimately, the film has a charm or two, but there are many better options out there for those who are looking for a fun fright night at home.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Thir13en Ghosts

Review – Wonder

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When I was in ninth grade, I took a Biology class.  I was one of only a couple of freshmen in the class, as it was considered a sophomore course and most freshmen took Earth Science.  I expected my classmates to be of a more mature and respectable nature than most of my fellow freshmen.  Our teacher was an affable guy.  A little goofy, but nice, well-meaning, and good at his job.  One day, someone came to the door and asked him to step into the hall for an irrelevant reason still unknown to me.  While he was out of the room, one of the upperclassmen ran up to the board, grabbed the chalk and, on the board, wrote something very profane and insulting about our teacher.  When he came back into the room and saw it, the look on his face was so full of hurt that I still get sad thinking about it, to this day.  He proceeded to leave the comment up on the board for the rest of the class, writing around it without any sort of verbal or physical acknowledgement . . . except for the look on his face.  I wish I could say that I stood up to that upperclassman man-child in the making – that I put him in his place – that I let our teacher know he wasn’t alone in the room on that day.  I didn’t.  I was a freshman and I was intimidated.  But I never forgot that moment.

Kids can be so mean.

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Then there was one time I was at a WWE Raw in Charlotte, North Carolina.  My friend and I were in the third row.  Next to me was a man who was there with a mentally handicapped child.  Behind us was a mother with her son who was approximately seven or eight years of age.  We had chatted a bit, and he was a sweet kid.  It was his first time at a WWE event.  This man next to me was a huge fan of a wrestler named Santino Marella – a silly, lower-card comedy act.  But when Santino came out, this guy wouldn’t sit down, even after the bell to begin the match rang.  The kid behind us couldn’t see.  He politely tapped the man on the back and asked him to sit down.  The man ignored him.  The mother then also politely asked.  The man turned around and said (and this is an exact quote), “Shut up, bitch.”  The boy tapped him one more time.  The man turned around and piefaced this little kid, shoving him back down into his seat.  Unlike when I was a freshman, I didn’t let that one go.  I made sure that kid and his mother knew they weren’t alone in that arena of 16,000 people.  But that’s not the point of the story.

Adults can be so mean.

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Stephen Chbowsky’s Wonder is the movie of the moment.  It’s outperforming all expectations and now I understand why.  For those who are unfamiliar, the film is an adaptation of R. J. Palacio’s novel of the same name in which ten-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) makes his first leap into public school after a lifetime of being homeschooled by his mother due to being born with severe facial deformities.

I’m going to spend exactly one paragraph talking about Wonder from an objective filmmaking perspective.  The cast is fantastic.  Tremblay soars, just as he did in the outstanding Room from two years ago.  The rest of the cast aren’t challenged as much, playing mostly within their comfort zones, but they play their roles perfectly.  The movie is funnier than I expected and the story is more than sufficient, if a little clichéd and predictable.  The dialogue is sharp and attention-grabbing, though occasionally comes off as slightly unrealistic when the younger children are interacting with one another.  There are some issues with focus, caused by some interesting but questionable structural choices, but the narrative does a good job of communicating the entire story.  After all, there are always two sides.

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So, technically speaking, from a purely critical viewpoint, Wonder is a very good film, though maybe not quite great.  But, as I’ve said many, many times, filmmaking is art.  And the entire purpose of art is to make the beholder of it think and/or feel.  And on that level, Wonder is unmatched.  This is the rare sort of film that transcends silly little critiques of structure or of brief moments of unnatural dialogue.  Because, while watching this film, I never stopped feeling.  There are many films that have powerful, moving moments when a character finally finds the hero within themselves during the climax, sending the audience home with the renewed belief that “maybe the world isn’t so bad, after all”.  Wonder has one of those moments approximately every five to ten minutes.

That’s the effect that Auggie has on those around him.  And that’s the effect Auggie is having on audiences around the country.  At first glance, on the surface, this is a film about love, kindness and bravery.  But Wonder takes it a step further.  It’s not only about love, kindness, and bravery; it demonstrates how to love, be kind, and be brave.

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As with the real world, there are good and bad people in the film.  But, in the face of everything we see on the news and in the streets and, yes, in the schools these days, Wonder chooses to believe in the good.  Auggie’s family (played by Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, and Izabela Vidovic) are flawed but genuine people who sincerely love one another and who each do the best they can to help and support the others, even when it causes their own lives to be more difficult.  This love infects the people around them, breeding more love and making their immediate world a better place.  There is much to be learned from their example, not the least of which is that giving up on the good in the world is the quickest way to ensure it’s expulsion.

Some will say the film panders.  Some will say it takes the easy road.  I say that love is never the easy road.  I have been disappointed by so many people in my life that I rarely let anyone new in.  I very much appreciate the few who have never let me down and who have chosen to let me in.  This movie made me appreciate them more.  And there are people who aren’t around in my life, right now, for any number of reasons, who I miss terribly.  This movie made me miss them more.  So, maybe it panders.  But it won me over, and that’s all I really care about.  Shame on me for getting behind a film that rightly declares that we should all treat one another with care and respect.  Perhaps I’m a sap.  Perhaps I’m a “snowflake”.  But Wonder is easily one of my favorite films of the year, despite its minor-to-moderate flaws.  Sometimes it’s not all about technical or artistic achievement.  Sometimes it’s about reaching people in the right way at the right time, and that’s what Wonder does.  So, maybe I let my humanity supersede my objectivity.  I’m okay with that.  To those who aren’t, all I can think to say is . . . snowflake and proud, a-holes.

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Review – Wonder

#ThrowbackThursday – Raging Bull

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Original US release date: November 14, 1980
Production budget: $18,000,000
Worldwide gross: $23,383,987

I make no secret of the fact that Rocky is one of my all-time favorite films.  For me, it’s tough for any other boxing film to truly compare to that undeniable classic.  However, legendary director Martin Scorsese released his own boxing movie, Raging Bull, towards the end of 1980.  The film was nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and won two Oscars, including a Best Actor award for lead Robert De Niro.  In the decades since, Raging Bull has stood tall beside Rocky as a classic boxing film, so I decided to take a look at it for an edition of #ThrowbackThursday.

Unlike RockyRaging Bull is explicitly based upon a true story: that of boxer Jake LaMotta.  Adapted from LaMotta’s autobiography, Raging Bull follows LaMotta from the burgeoning days of his career until its end and somewhat beyond.  It’s not an uplifting tale.  Truth be told, LaMotta is as unsympathetic a lead as I can recall in a major motion picture – at least as far as leads who are supposed to be protagonists are concerned.  He pursues underage girls, has a hair-trigger temper, treats the people around him like trash, and generally only cares about himself.  For me (and I would many assume others, as well), LaMotta’s repulsive personality and demeanor make the film rather difficult in which to become engaged.  I had no interest in seeing LaMotta succeed in his personal or his professional life and struggled to stay invested in his journey.

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Scorsese made the call to shoot the film in black and white, reportedly to differentiate the movie from the aforementioned Rocky, to keep the blood from being too vivid in full color, and to better represent the time period in which the film took place.  That second reason seems a little suspect to me as Scorsese has never shied away from blood and violence in his films.

Something else stuck out to me, however; the makeup and prosthetics job on DeNiro for LaMotta’s later years is quite remarkable, particularly for a film released in 1980.  Had the film been in color, the authenticity of that particular visual effect would have been severely diminished and may have even caused irreparable harm to the film as a whole (think American Sniper‘s fake baby).  I can’t speak to whether or not that played a part in the decision to film in black and white, but it certainly didn’t hurt.

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What truly stood out to me was how full of Scorsese’s hallmarks Raging Bull is.  The main character is beyond being an alpha male – overflowing with toxic masculinity – who is loud, boorish, and quite frankly a horrible person.  Scorsese also directs his actors (as he often does) to alternate between shouting at the top of their lungs and mumbling almost unintelligibly.  Characters talk over each other (both while shouting and while mumbling) and it sometimes becomes a bit of a chore to try to listen to the dialogue.  As I mentioned earlier, DeNiro won Best Actor at the Oscars for this performance but I wasn’t feeling it.  I’m sure he did exactly as he was instructed, but much of it was over-the-top and unnatural, taking me out of the film even more than I already had been due to the unlikeable LaMotta.  DeNiro was very obviously acting and it just didn’t work for me.

Scorsese was also not a sports or boxing fan before helming Raging Bull and it shows.  The fights play out in ludicrous fashion, with athletes regularly taking a dozen or more clean, square, rapid shots to the head and then dancing away on their feet.  Staying upright after more than three hard consecutive shots to the skull is just silly.  Combine that with the tight shots and lifeless presentation and Hollywood boxing has never been so dull.  I understand that the film isn’t supposed to be glorifying the fighting, yet it certainly felt to me as it LaMotta’s behavior outside the ring was being glorified.  He was never angled as a villain who was due a comeuppance.  So, if Scorsese was determined to challenge the audience’s very moral foundations, he could have at least struck a balance by recruiting some assistance in making the boxing scenes relatively exciting.

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Raging Bull is considered an all-time classic, but I just can’t get on board with this one, even without comparing it to Rocky.  LaMotta is unappealing, the boxing is spiritless, DeNiro tries too hard, and Scorsese strays outside of his comfort zone.  The film looks nice, but I much prefer Scorsese’s later works (such as The Departed, Shutter Island, and Hugo) to Raging Bull.  Still, to each their own, and for the many, many others who love this film, I look at you with jealousy.  I wish I could feel the same way.  I really tried to.  Heck, I even expected to.  Having said that, I can’t in good conscience suggest to anyone that they shouldn’t see Raging Bull.  Chances are good that most will love it and, even for those like me who don’t, at least you can be in the conversation and maybe get a “Jeopardy!” question or two correct in the future.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Raging Bull

#ThrowbackThursday – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

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Original US release date: December 25, 2011
Production budget: $40,000,000
Worldwide gross: $55,247,881

There have been a number of films to tackle the topic of the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11 of 2001 and the perpetual efforts of the people of the United States to deal with the losses resulting from those attacks and attempt to move forward.  Based on Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel of the same name, Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close deals with the subject matter from a unique perspective.  While often, stories look at those events through the eyes of the direct victims or the common, everyday citizens who became heroes during the rescue efforts, this particular story looks at the aftermath of that day from the perspective of a young boy named Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn).

Oskar and his father Thomas (Tom Hanks) have a strong relationship and a close bond that is expressed by their shared love of puzzle-making and -solving.  They toss brainteasers and mindbenders at each other and both relish in the challenge of taking the other’s best shot.  Thomas uses these exercises to help build Oskar’s intelligence, confidence, and social skills, but that all comes to a tragic end when Thomas is killed during the events of September 11.  Left behind with his mother and Thomas’s wife Linda (Sandra Bullock), Oskar yearns for the lost connection with his father.  When he finds a clue accompanying a mysterious key in his father’s closet, Oskar sets out with adamant determination to discover what the key unlocks and hopefully receive one final message from his father.

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I remember first seeing the film upon its original release and despising Thomas Horn’s performance as Oskar.  I thought he was unnatural, wooden, and he took me out of the film.  I have to say, I don’t really understand where I was seeing that.  I’m not going to proclaim Horn one of the all-time great child actors, but with this re-watch, I think he did fine.  Oskar appears to be somewhere on the spectrum and Horn plays it well.  So, I’m not sure what my problem was, back in the day.  Hanks is great as always, though his screen time is limited.  Bullock has more time than Hanks but is also firmly entrenched in supporting player territory.  This is Horn’s film.

Many people loved this film and many hated it.  I can see both sides, as there are both good and bad components of the film.  As mentioned, the cast is good (along with Max Von Sydow, who gets to play a different sort of role, almost as if he’s in a silent film), as is the premise.  This is a story about coping with unfathomable loss when one isn’t old, mature, or experienced enough to know how to do so.  The idea of Oskar searching for the lock that goes along with his father’s key is a clever one and certainly compelling (adding mystery to a weighty drama provides a unique twist to the presentation), but the execution is often lacking.

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The dialogue is unnatural and forced.  Characters don’t respond believably to each other, instead sounding like they are waiting to deliver lines that real people wouldn’t typically say.  And not only is the dialogue overly contrived, but many of the scenarios in which the characters interact are strange and even occasionally off-putting.  The narrative offers an explanation as to why so many adults in New York City would so eagerly and willingly open their arms to a young boy who knocks on their doors with no forewarning, but it doesn’t exactly explain why they would so eagerly allow him to witness their most personal moments or share their most painful and intimate memories.

I’ve seen some wonder how or why Oskar’s mission would help him cope with his father’s death, but I dismiss that question as I find it illegitimate and inappropriate.  Everyone deals with loss in their own way, and movie critics are not psychologists.  And they are certainly not child psychologists.  And they are even more certainly not experts on children with emotional development issues.  So, I’m not about to question Oskar’s motivations.  But I do have a hard time buying that this story could have actually played out in the way the film presents it.  I suppose it’s technically possible, but most everything is possible.  That doesn’t make it plausible.  And, as well meaning as this film is, any attempt to deal with such a raw, real, resonant happening needs to do so in a way that is equally raw, real, and resonant.

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The film is resonant to a degree, but that’s more due to the subject matter than the effectiveness of the storytelling.  Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close has its heart in the right place but needs a little more filmmaking experience behind the camera in order to reconcile it in a more appropriate manner with the real-world events by which it was inspired.  I wouldn’t say it’s not worth watching – especially for fans of Hanks and/or Bullock who both do good work, despite their limited screen time – but be prepared to feel somewhat perplexed by the events as they play out, even as they lead towards a somewhat touching conclusion.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

#ThrowbackThursday – Mamma Mia!

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Original US release date: July 18, 2008
Production budget: $52,000,000
Worldwide gross: $609,841,637

Before watching the film for this column, I had more knowledge about Syrian Aramaic than I did regarding the plot of Mamma Mia!.  I knew who comprised the majority of the cast and I knew that it was an adaptation of the musical stage play that was based on the music of Abba (I suppose there’s really no reason not to have one of those, right?).  But I had absolutely no idea what it was actually about.  And I never would have guessed it on my own, either.

When Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is approaching her wedding day, she sends invitations to three men – Bill, Sam, and Harry (Stellan Skarsgård, Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth, respectively) – one of whom she has deduced must be her father.  After they show up for the ceremony, Sophie’s mother Donna must reconcile her past loves and losses while trying to determine what – and who – may lie in her and her daughter’s future.

Film Title: Mamma Mia!

In general, I like musicals, as nonsensical as they are.  But there are different styles of musicals.  Some musicals are crafted in such a way that nearly every line is delivered in song.  Others are a mixture of spoken dialogue and musical pieces, and that’s the category under which Mamma Mia! falls.  I personally prefer that style, though that’s a matter of preference.  Yet, the validity of my preference is supported by this film as dialogue is much easier to understand when spoken than when it’s being sung.  While Mamma Mia! isn’t exactly Lost in terms of narrative complexity, I still like to be able to listen to dialogue without straining or sustained effort.  Here, the important dialogue is spoken clearly and advances the plot while the songs from Abba’s catalogue are used to support the themes and emotions.  If one misses the lyrics, it’s not a huge deal.  That makes for a more relaxing and easygoing viewing experience.

The cast is of an impressive pedigree, as noted above.  They do a fine job and seem to be having fun.  They’re in a musical, so singing talent is preferred and they mostly deliver on that front with good to great vocals, depending on the performer.  Only Pierce Brosnan is truly lacking in that area, and director Phyllida Lloyd (that’s a lot of consecutive Ls, there) compensates for that by making sure that his singing is generally drowned out by the score or blended in with a chorus whenever he gets to a particularly difficult or tricky passage.  And despite what modern music “connoisseurs” would claim (why do so many people only consider their own era’s entertainment as “good”, especially when it comes to music?), Abba’s product is actually lots of fun.  I was familiar with some of it – the biggies like “Dancing Queen” and the title track – but even the ones I hadn’t heard before were catchy enough to be entertaining.  All in all, the presentation was a fun little ride.

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The narrative is fun, as well, with plenty of twists and turns to keep the audience on their toes.  In some regards, it’s predictable.  And it’s also somewhat formulaic when looking at the larger arc.  But the story excels in the small things – the little character moments and interactions, the pacing, and the quirkiness of it all.  It isn’t groundbreaking cinema in any sense of the word but it is consistently bright, cheery, and attention-holding from beginning to end.

Speaking of “bright”, the cinematography as well as the direction by Lloyd are largely responsible for establishing and maintaining the uplifting, energetic tone throughout the duration of the film.  The sparkling color palette almost single-handedly exudes a perpetual sense of joy and lightheartedness.  It’s actually a bit disappointing when the story takes a brief detour at the end of the second act in order to indulge in some token drama.  It’s out of place and feels a bit forced when contrasted by the constant rainbow of hues, up-tempo Abba songs, and all-enveloping hopefulness that defines the film otherwise.  Lloyd also pulls delightfully cheeky performances out of her cast.  All of the principles receive equal development and screen time and each does their part to contribute to the overall production and deliver a fun, escapist 100 minutes of entertainment.

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I didn’t necessarily expect to hate Mamma Mia! but I enjoyed it more than I anticipated.  The film was recently featured as a selection in the nationwide Flashback Cinema program that runs classic films in theaters.  I didn’t catch it then, but I found it to be a surprising choice and that was when I decided to catch it when I could.  I don’t regret that decision and, while I’m not going to be naming it as one of my all-time favorite musicals, it is certainly a good time that can help get one’s mind off of the daily grind for a couple of hours.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Mamma Mia!

#ThrowbackThursday – Machete

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Original US release date: September 3, 2010
Production budget: $10,500,000
Worldwide gross: $44,093,316

The origin story of Robert Rodriguez’s Machete is an interesting, yet simple, one.  In 2007, Rodriguez and fellow director Quentin Tarantino teamed up to release a self-contained double-feature called Grindhouse with each director helming their own film and then combining them into a single theatrical experience.  The idea was to replicate the days of the seventies when audiences would head to the movies, pay a single admission with the benefit of being able to stay as long as they wanted, and catch the campy sci-fi exploitation flicks that permeated the industry decades ago.  Rodriguez created a film called Planet Terror for the project while Tarantino gave us Death Proof.  To further enhance the authentic grindhouse theater atmosphere, they also created phony trailers for upcoming films.  One of those trailers was for a film starring Danny Trejo called Machete.

Fast-forward to 2010 and Rodriguez has decided to actually make the film and give it a nationwide release.  Machete is at once an homage and a parody of the low-budget Cabrito Western “Mexploitation” films of the 1960s and 1970s – although it is certainly much more of a parody than an homage.  Co-directors Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis go the extra mile to increase the illusion of authenticity.  For the opening segment and continuing through the opening credits, they add a veneer of dirt and scratches, much like audiences were used to seeing on prints of films back in those days.  That illusion is abandoned once the credits conclude, but the authenticity is retained in other ways.

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Just like the Mexploitation films of that bygone era, Machete features hyperstylized violence, sex, dialogue, characterization, relationships, and plot developments.  However, those were simply hallmarks of the genre, forty years prior to this film.  They presented themselves as serious entertainment, giving their target audience all of the depravity that they desired.

On the flip side, Machete has its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, relying entirely upon its audience’s awareness of the content and practices of those earlier films and using that assumed awareness as a source of comedy.  And, make no mistake, in the face of all of the beheadings, dismemberments, bare skin, curse words, political commentary (more on that in a moment), and grandiose dramatic speeches, Machete is a comedy above all else.  It even features one of my favorite humorous lines of all-time, delivered in a deadly serious deadpan by Trejo.  But I won’t spoil it for you, in case you haven’t seen the film.

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It had been a number of years since I’d watched Machete, and while I remembered the highlights and certain moments, I had very little recollection of the actual story.  As it unfolded and it revealed itself to be centered around illegal immigration, it was impossible to not draw parallels between the film and today’s American political climate.  I even half-seriously wondered if Donald Trump once saw the film and used Robert DeNiro’s Senator McLaughlin as the blueprint for his campaign and eventual presidency.  McLaughlin takes a hard stance against illegal immigrants, threatening to build an electrified fence along the Texas/Mexico border and even gunning them down in the desert, himself.  Now, Trump never went that far, but the mentality and McLaughlin’s policies and ideas are close enough to Trump’s to make anyone paying attention wonder at least a little bit.

But McLaughlin isn’t the only aspect of the film that is exaggerated for comedic effect; literally every component of the movie is approached in this way.  And it works.  It’s all too over-the-top to take any of it seriously – including the politics.  Political commentary is not really what Rodriguez and Maniquis are attempting to accomplish, here.  It’s all about a loving parody towards a genre of film that clearly had a place in their childhood and their then-burgeoning love of film.  The violence is too cartoony to be disgusting.  The sex is too silly to be erotic.  The dialogue is too convoluted to be affecting or impactful.  It’s all about entertainment.

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And Machete is also the kind of film that many general moviegoers won’t understand and will therefore mock, as though the movie truly guilty of the very things that it’s parodying.  In spite of its bombastic silliness, the film is actually fairly sophisticated just by nature of its being a satire, a storytelling device which often goes over many people’s heads.  In spite of that, the film was a financial winner and spawned a sequel, Machete Kills, three years later.  That one wasn’t as successful, neither creatively nor financially, but the original still stands tall as a unique piece of filmmaking that managed to stand out in a crowded marketplace with a small budget.  It has developed a bit of a cult following (and rightfully so) and I really hope more people continue to discover it as time goes on.  Everyone should take the time to meet the blade-wielding luddite, Machete!

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#ThrowbackThursday – Machete

#ThrowbackThursday – Platoon

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Original US release date: December 19, 1986
Production budget: $6,000,000
Worldwide gross: $138,530,565

#ThrowbackThursday returns with the second Oliver Stone film in the last three weeks, with Born on the Fourth of July being the first, two weeks ago.  Much like that film, Platoon is also set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.  However, where Born on the Fourth of July addressed the effects that the war had on its veterans in the aftermath of the conflict, Platoon takes place entirely during the combat, tackling the experience that the soldiers had to survive in order to get back home to the United States.  What results is a complex, sometimes uneven, always disturbing look at the horrors and controversies of the Vietnam War.

Told from the perspective of Charlie Sheen’s recruit Chris Taylor, the film follows Taylor and the rest of his platoon as they fight for survival in the jungles of 1967 Vietnam.  This probably isn’t going to be a popular or well-received observation, but Sheen actually does a nice job in the role.  It’s his responsibility to guide the viewer through this harrowing journey and he does an admirable job in presenting himself as relatable and sympathetic.  This is in spite of the fact that Chris is the only one of the bunch (of which we are aware) who is there by choice, having volunteered to fight after growing up immersed in a privileged lifestyle.

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Outside of Sheen, only Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger truly stand out among the cast (at least for positive reasons).  Both of them display range and nuance in their performances that each garnered both of them many award nominations during the early-1987 awards season, and deservingly so – particularly for Dafoe.  The others are all relegated to Donald Trump-esque “locker room behavior” that does nothing to endear them to audiences.  Most of them do fine with their parts (though said roles are hardly challenging), with the exception of John C. McGinley.  McGinley may well be a very fine gentleman and I mean no personal offense but he has managed to craft an entire career for himself based solely on his unique face.  His performance in this film is no exception as he constantly waffles between overacting (anytime he speaks) and not acting at all (when he’s tasked with physically emoting).

The rest of the issues with the performances can likely be laid at the feet of Stone’s script, as he asks nothing of them aside from the previously referenced alpha male trumpeting.  I’m not so naïve nor egotistical as to imagine that this was lost on Stone; the only question is why he chose to present these characters in this way.  It may be for realism.  It may be to make a statement about the American government’s attitude towards the war at that time.  Or it may even be a reference towards the American people’s overzealousness towards applying military force to settle disputes.  Choose your favorite.  Regardless, it creates a divide between the majority of the cast and the typical moviegoer who wants someone to root for.  But that may have been the goal as Stone’s writing and directing makes it very clear that there is almost nothing and no one to be proud of in this scenario.  The American soldiers are cruel towards Vietnamese citizens, children, and even animals, taking pleasure in their destructive actions.  Only Dafoe’s Sergeant Elias approximates heroism in the face of daily death, making him the film’s lone anchor for the audience.

Willem Dafoe Platoon

Once the horror and tragedy begins to unfold in earnest, it’s still easy to feel for the characters in spite of their flaws, but mostly in the broader sense in which one cares for humanity in general, rather than the more personal sort of caring in which the viewer is invested in each character’s individual plight.  It’s also obvious that these people are being partially shaped by their wartime experiences, and that helps their cause, but most of them still aren’t resistant to their darker natures taking over.  If Doctor Jekyll welcomes Mister Hyde, why care about either?

Clearly an antiwar film, while aesthetically and cosmetically appealing and excellently staged (featuring plenty of wartime action), Platoon never quite ventures into the territory of glorifying war, even if most of the characters seem a little too happy to be there.  But, for me, where the story structure falters is in its lack of a narrative hook.  All too often, films will have no central focus – no goal in sight for the characters or the audience, leaving the viewer wondering what the ultimate destination is supposed to be.  What essentially results from this omission is the total elimination of a beginning, middle, and end to the story.  Instead, the story starts, meanders around without any direction or natural crescendo, and then eventually just concludes.

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This is something that has always bothered me in film and Platoon shares this dubious distinction with another highly-regarded war film in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.  I wasn’t crazy about that film for this very reason.  On the other hand, both films won Best Picture at the Oscars, so maybe I’m the only one who cares about that sort of thing.  I’m not about to say that a compelling film can’t be made without that standard format in tact, but I will maintain that it’s sufficiently more difficult to do so.

I’m of two minds about Platoon.  Stone’s message isn’t quite as clear as in Born on the Fourth of July and I found it somewhat difficult to become invested in the characters as presented.  Still, there are some solid performances, excellent set pieces, and the torture of the Vietnam War is easy to comprehend even to those with their heads firmly buried in the sand.  This is the story of soldiers who only wish to fight for their country, but have no idea who they are actually fighting or what they are fighting for.  This is the story of the dangers of nationalism over patriotism.  Platoon isn’t my favorite war movie, and it may have some structural and character issues, but the film has its value and I would recommend a watch for anyone who hasn’t seen it.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Platoon