Dave

Dave (1993)

Dir. Ivan Reitman

Written by: Gary Ross

Starring: Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Ving Rhames, Frank Langella

 

Dave is one of the movies in my collection that I have the least amount of personal history with or connection to. I’ve only owned it on Bluray for a few years, having purchased it for a few bucks to get an Amazon order above the purchase threshold for free shipping. I can vaguely remember the movie being released when I was a young kid, seven or eight years old, but I had never seen it until I was an adult. This fish out of water story is definitely an “adult” comedy, with little that would have appealed to me when it was released. It isn’t a landmark film or a masterpiece, but Dave is a better than average studio comedy, the kind of feel-good, family-friendly fare that Ivan Reitman was known for throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Solid comedic performances from a deep, star-studded cast and a somewhat fresh take on a very old narrative trope make for a pleasant viewing experience. Dave doesn’t offer any profound platitudes on the state of American politics, and it isn’t the most memorable viewing experience, but it’s a perfect light comedy to put on in the background of a lazy weekend afternoon.

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Dave takes a classic story trope, the everyman thrust into a position of great power, and modernizes it. The titular Dave is Dave Kovics (Kline), who runs a temp agency in Georgetown and who is the seeming embodiment of human kindness. Dave is well liked and respected by everyone in his community, and is presented as a genuinely kind-hearted and well-meaning person. He also happens to bear a striking resemblance to the President of the United States, Bill Mitchell (also played by Kline). As such, Dave is tapped by the Secret Service to pose as the President’s body double during public events. However, when the President suffers a massive stroke while having sex with a member of his staff, White House Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (Langella) hatches a plan to replace the President with Dave, avoiding the sex scandal, and possibly setting himself up for a run at the presidency. Dave is initially, understandably, overwhelmed by his new position, but he eventually begins to acquit himself to the job. He brings his natural charm and kindness to the seat of power, befriending the First Lady (Weaver) and the head of the Secret Service (Rhames) along the way. While Dave tries to use his power to help people, he is beset by beltway insiders like Alexander, who wish to use this fortuitous situation to depose the neophyte and gain power for themselves.

Though it’s become more and more common, in 1993 the idea of a complete outsider to the political system being placed in the seat of ultimate governmental power must have seemed unusual. There are examples of course: the sitting President at the time of the film’s release, Bill Clinton, and before him Jimmy Carter, both emerged from outside the established Washington scene, but both had also served as state Governors leading up to their runs for the Presidency. Billionaire H. Ross Perot had emerged as an outsider’s voice in early 1990s Presidential politics, but he was widely viewed as a joke candidate, only afforded the legitimacy of a platform due to his extreme wealth, and rarely considered outside of the context of how many votes he could and would syphon from Republican candidates, allowing Clinton to upset incumbent George H.W. Bush in 1992. But of course, we’re talking about a pure fantasy, and, as such, Dave’s outsider politician is cut from a different cloth. He is a true everyman, more reminiscent of the protagonist from a Frank Capra film than any actual Presidential hopeful. He’s imbued with inherent goodness and a sense of patriotism that is devoted to the idealized American values of basic decency, hard work, and kindness. Dave Kovics is portrayed as a good man who is doing good work in the shadows, and positively affecting his community in ways that aren’t recognized by those who influence and enact policy. His politics are populist rather than partisan, and the film is careful to create a political fantasy where actual politics and party affiliations are largely ignored in favor of vaguely humanistic “Good vs Bad” arguments. Dave’s greatest political strength is that he spends the majority of the film steadfastly refusing to engage in actual politics. In this fictional government, Dave is able to balance the budget and save a critical human services program not by reaching across the aisle to fellow politicians, but by inviting his CPA friend, Murray (Charles Grodin), to the White House to crunch the numbers. It’s a quaint vision of a national government being run like a small business, and it’s quite at odds with the reality of American politics some 25 years later.

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Of course the overwhelming optimism that the film presents is largely the product of Kline’s performance as the wide-eyed, grinning Dave. Kline plays two roles in the film, but he really doesn’t have much screen time where he’s portraying actual President Bill Mitchell. Instead, he devotes his energies to fleshing out the character of Dave Kovics, and in a way that role is a dual role in and of itself. Kline subtly adjusts his performance as the film goes on and Dave becomes more comfortable in his role as impostor President. Initially presented as outwardly emotive, expressive, and gregarious, Kline reigns in his energy as the film goes on, and Dave’s impression of the more reserved President Miller gets better and better. Still, though, Dave can’t hide his infectious goodness and sense of wonder, and Kline allows these qualities to shine through his character’s attempts to appear more professional. He keeps a small smile lingering at the corner of Dave’s lips, ready to burst wide open at the first sign of a joke. Typically better known for his comedy, Kline certainly brings a bouncy physicality to his role, and he plays up Dave’s initial discomfort with his new job as President, but he also slots in comfortably as a leading man. By film’s end, he cuts an imposing figure that communicates authority, while still maintaining the soft kindness that had earlier defined the role. I’m not overly familiar with Kline’s body of work as an actor, but in Dave he reminds me of some of Hollywood’s classic leading men. It might just be the Capra-esque qualities of the film, but watching it I was reminded of Gary Cooper.

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The rest of the film’s cast is also very enjoyable to watch. Ving Rhames’s no-nonsense Secret Service agent, Duane, is hilarious as a foil for Kline’s Dave. His deadpan line delivery and massive physical presence are used to great comedic effect as he observes and silently judges the impostor President. Langella’s scheming Chief of Staff and his underling, Alan (Kevin Dunn), are appropriately slimy. Langella is the cast’s elder statesman and his characterization of Bob Alexander is reminiscent of some actual shadowy, older political string pullers who would emerge. Unfortunately, both Charles Grodin and Sigourney Weaver aren’t given a lot of material to work with. Grodin is only in a couple of scenes, but I would have appreciated more of his trademark manic anxiety as a counterbalance to Kline’s more laid back characterization of Dave. Weaver is the film’s second lead, but she’s largely reduced to a love interest for Dave. I don’t expect her to reprise her alpha-female role of Ripley in Alien, but I would hope to see some more of the verbal sparring that she’s been so adept at in her comedy work. She does get a handful of fun scenes that allow her to show some range, but it’s a shame that such a great actress doesn’t get to show off her chops in what could be a potentially meaty role. Laura Linney, Ben Kingsley, and Bonnie Hunt all show up in small roles, and have funny moments, particularly Hunt as a White House tour guide. The film is certainly not an ensemble cast, but a comedy is largely built on the performances and chemistry of its supporting cast, and Dave’s delivers admirably.

With the type of news coverage and media access that the public now has to political figures, I don’t think a movie like Dave could be made today. Its tone of wonder and whimsy definitely seems retro when compared with the modern political landscape. I don’t see very many contemporary studio comedies, so maybe the prevailing cynicism I’ve witnessed in so many people lately hasn’t crossed over into light entertainment, but I still feel that Dave is a relic from another time. It feels warm in a way that the comedies that I have seen over the last decade don’t, lacking their bite and acerbic wit. Dave’s humor is broad but also intelligent, and though it’s a movie clearly pitched towards adults, there’s almost nothing risqué in it that would make it inappropriate for kids. It’s a product of a rapidly dying monoculture. Still though, Dave’s enjoyable two hours. It will never be a go-to for me, but I like having it on my shelf. It’s a great movie to put on when you want to have a few laughs and feel good for an afternoon. Dave probably won’t make you think too hard, but it will certainly make you smile. Sometimes that’s enough.

Dancer in the Dark

Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Dir: Lars von Trier

Written by: Lars von Trier

Starring: Björk, Catherine Deneuve, David Morse, Peter Stormare

 

It isn’t exaggeration to say that Dancer in the Dark is the most impactful film that I’ve ever seen. When I first introduced myself to the movie around 2002, at the age of 16, I hadn’t yet experienced a film that could be so heart breaking, so emotionally overwhelming. I had seen brutal horror films that inspired revulsion and fear, and a handful of films that were dripping with pathos like Roberto Benini’s Life is Beautiful, but nothing that had left me feeling as hollow and tired as that first time I saw Dancer in the Dark. The film is a portrait of human suffering, but it also examines the desire of the human spirit to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds and the desire of a mother to provide a better life for her son. Even though that first viewing was an emotionally devastating experience, the film very quickly became a favorite, and a film that I have returned to over and over again through the years. From Lars von Trier’s unique vision of a musical fairytale, to Bjork’s riveting, one-of-a-kind performance, I was fascinated by the film. Its soaring moments of fantasy and its sobering examinations of cruelty drilled their way into my brain, opening my mind to new possibilities of film style and of filmic representation. I’ve since seen films that more thoroughly or accurately examine emotion through cinematic art, but you never forget your first one, and Dancer in the Dark is a film that I owe a debt of gratitude to for changing my expectations of the cinema.

Dancer in the Dark is the final film in von Trier’s “Golden Heart” trilogy, and it operates as a fairy tale, similarly to Breaking the Waves. Another period piece, this time set in Washington State in the early 1960s, the film follows a similarly naïve protagonist, Selma (Björk), a single mother who emigrated from Czechoslovakia hoping to find better opportunities for herself and her young son, Gene (Vladica Kostic). Selma suffers from a hereditary vision condition, in which her eyesight has worsened to the point of near-blindness, and her only concern is saving up money so that her son can afford an operation that will reduce his chances of succumbing to the same dark fate. Selma’s devotion to her son is such that she is willing to work double shifts in a stamping plant and put together sets of bobby pins that she then sells for extra money, forgoing any creature comforts, simply on the hope that Gene will be able to enjoy a normal life with perfect vision when he grows up. Selma’s only pleasure in life is music and dancing, and she enjoys going to the movie theater to see classic musicals, which her friend, Kathy (Deneuve), must describe to her because her failing vision doesn’t allow her to see the screen. Selma wishes that her life were a musical, and is prone to childish flights of fantasy in which her friends and coworkers join her in elaborate musical numbers, bringing light into her dark existence. Selma’s pitiable fate is worsened when her neighbor and landlord, Bill (Morse), takes advantage of her disability and steals the money that she had been saving for Gene’s operation. Desperate, Selma is forced to go to extreme lengths to try to recover the money, and she pays the ultimate price for her devotion to her son and his future happiness.

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Being bookends of a trilogy, it’s natural that Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark should explore much of the same thematic ground. I’m not particularly interested in comparing the two films or discussing the merits of one versus the other, but watching them close in succession for this project, it’s difficult for me not to think of them together. When I wrote about Breaking the Waves, I wrote that it was a film that, although I admired it, I didn’t watch frequently because of its difficult and depressing subject matter. I have never had that problem with Dancer in the Dark. Though it could be considered a bleaker, more unforgiving, viewing experience than the earlier film, it’s one that I’ve returned to every couple of years, actually searching for the visceral emotionality that the film imparts upon me. I don’t know if it’s Björk’s performance as Selma, full of life and vivacity in the face of extreme hardship, that helps me to connect to this film in a way that I don’t with Breaking the Waves and Emily Watson’s more staid performance. Perhaps it is von Trier providing his take on a classical Hollywood musical through Selma’s fantasies that helps to break through the heaviness of the film, giving us glimpses of light throughout, while Breaking the Waves has the structure of a descent into Hell. Maybe it’s simply the fact that Breaking the Waves arrived on my radar much later in life, whereas Dancer in the Dark was a seminal film for me, and one that I discovered shortly after its initial release, allowing me to approach it in a much fresher context. Whatever the reason may be, I’ve clung to Dancer in the Dark for some 15 years, re-viewing it when I want to be broken down by art, when I want to feel deeply and painfully, when I want to be reminded that even though the world is a savage and cruel place, the love that we choose to hold inside of us is only extinguishable if we allow it to be so. It’s one of my favorite films ever made and a testament to the power of the cinema as an art form uniquely capable of depicting and inducing profound emotional and psychic experiences.

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That being said, Dancer in the Dark is not a film for everyone. I have showed the film to friends over the years, and often I’ve been met with the same response: “Why would anyone want to watch something so unrelentingly depressing?” It’s a criticism that I can only partly understand, because I don’t really feel that Dancer in the Dark is a depressing film. It’s a heavy film. It’s packed with moments of genuine trauma, and it doesn’t shy away from depicting human suffering and cruelty of a heartbreaking magnitude, the whole time inviting the viewer to engage with it on a similarly heightened emotional level. It asks its viewers to cry and feel along with the characters, using techniques of suspense, pathos, and spectacle to produce immense waves of feeling, and I understand that that can be a difficult experience for some. Many people would rather see films that help to distract them from the pressures or troubles of their day-to-day lives, and I like to enjoy light entertainment, as well, but more frequently, I would like to engage with art that challenges me and helps me to explore facets of myself that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to engage. Art can and should be a means towards self-reflection and it should also help to build empathy. I have written often about using films as a window into life experiences and cultures that I don’t have firsthand knowledge of and I think that the same can be said for emotional experiences. While it might be difficult to watch a two hour film in which the protagonist is conned, robbed, commits a murder, and is, ultimately, executed, all while rapidly and tragically losing her eyesight, I find it to be a valuable experience as it helps me to learn about and engage with that suffering, ultimately becoming a more empathetic person. Watching the film is a traumatic experience, but I feel that having vicariously lived through Selma’s suffering, I come out of the experience as a better person.

Of course, empathy is only generated if the art is true and if the artists involved are pouring a great deal of themselves into the project. If this weren’t the case for Dancer in the Dark, it truly would be a depressing slog, akin to exploitative emotional pornography, however, largely due to Björk’s powerhouse performance as Selma, the film rings true and proves emotionally relatable. I can’t imagine anyone else but Björk in this role. I know that she is a divisive persona, and that her music and public image are often hard for people to digest, but I am an unabashed fan of her work and I wish that she would do more acting because her work in Dancer in the Dark, while unconventional, is devastatingly raw and true. von Trier takes advantage of Björk’s idiosyncratic voice and performative style in the film’s musical scenes, but he also draws an unforgettable dramatic performance out of her. As a nonprofessional and largely inexperienced actor, Björk’s performance is more defined by intuition than by technical acting chops, but that allows her to fully tap into the range of emotion that she has to portray as Selma. There is no critical distance between the actor and the role, and it’s clear that Björk is pouring every bit of her emotional self into the work. It’s obvious that she is fully invested in the performance, and, in fact, she found the experience of working on the film to be so traumatic that she has largely sworn off acting since. This is truly a shame, because the range that Björk shows in Dancer in the Dark hints at a natural aptitude for this type of performance, with her obviously shining in the film’s uplifting and uproarious song and dance numbers, but also nailing scenes of intensely personal emotional distress when von Trier chooses to strip away the film’s artifice and present us with a glimpse at a character truly in crisis. Björk is equally dynamic when portraying Selma’s quiet determination and her histrionic emotional responses, whether they be of fear, joy, or sadness.

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The rest of the film’s cast is admirable as well. Their relationships to and with Björk’s Selma help to further audience identification and further heighten the sense of emotional empathy that the film strives for. Deneuve is a natural foil to Björk, providing a stability that is critical for both Selma and for the audience. Her Kathy is matronly, strong, and determined to protect her friend at any cost. In many ways, Kathy acts as an audience surrogate, informing the way that the viewer should react to Selma’s idiosyncrasies. She recognizes and celebrates the inherent goodness in Selma, looking beyond the unusual persona that she projects onto the world, and encouraging the audience to empathize with her, as well. Peter Stormare’s Jeff is another fount of empathy towards Selma, though his romantic desires for her largely go unrequited. Jeff is stoic and dedicated, showing up to pick Selma up from work at the factory each day, despite her repeated refusals of his offers for companionship. Though Selma is never cruel to him, it’s hard not to feel badly for Jeff, as Stormare’s typical hangdog performance style grants the character a great deal of pathos. Because he and Kathy so openly show a great deal of love and care for the unusual and sometimes inscrutable Selma, the audience’s bond with all of the characters is heightened. The film creates a web of emotional relations between these characters that feels real. It isn’t falsified, romanticized, or cheapened.

Dancer in the Dark is also the film that awakened my interest in the films of Lars von Trier. I wrote briefly about my relationship to the filmmaker when I was writing about Breaking the Waves, but I don’t feel that I really did justice to the way I feel about him as an artist. von Trier is frequently referred to as an “enfant terrible,” but I don’t think that this moniker really does his work, or his persona, justice. The director often makes headlines for his films’ perceived sadism and misogyny, or for his frequent controversial statements or gaffes in interviews, but I think that often these claims overshadow the true provocation that he provides through his art. I take the accusations of misogyny by his leading women very seriously, including by Björk shortly after filming Dancer in the Dark, however, more often than not, his actresses are the first to defend the filmmaker’s passion and vision, and even Björk has since walked back her stance. The superficial controversies in which von Trier often finds himself embroiled only serve to obscure the fact that though his art is challenging and controversial, he is one of the few filmmakers who seems interested in deeply and meaningfully exploring mental health, sexual power dynamics, and female identity through his films. Whether it is his place as a man to devote his work to these themes is a valid question, but I do think that his films are true, at least to the extent that I can personally relate to them. It’s important to remember that von Trier does not depict only female suffering, even in the “Golden Heart” trilogy. In Dancer in the Dark, Selma’s rich interior world, devoted friends, and boundless love for her son all serve as reminders that her existence is not just one of suffering. In fact, Selma’s death is even more heartbreaking because she is a fully formed character whose demise is snuffing out a vast world of potential beauty and love. von Trier’s treatment of his female characters may be somewhat problematic, but I do think that his representations are almost always respectful, and I truly believe that he feels with and for his protagonists, being far from the sadist he’s sometimes portrayed as.

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I had a conversation recently with a coworker about movies in which the topic of favorite films came up. This is always an impossible question for me to answer. I have a stock answer, which we’ll eventually get to in this project, but really picking a favorite film, for me, would be like picking a favorite child. Instead, I gave him a list of a handful of films that I would be really interested in screening and giving a lecture on. I didn’t mention Dancer in the Dark, but it was in the back of my mind. Aside from Au Hasard Balthazar, it would be my obvious choice for a class or lecture on film and emotion. The films are radically different, although there is a bit of Bresson’s minimalist tradition in von Trier’s modified Dogme aesthetic. I’d likely have to give the nod to Balthazar if I were choosing, simply because of Bresson’s ability to muster the heights of human empathy in a film about an animal, but Dancer in the Dark remains the most emotionally moving film I’ve ever seen. Even after 15 years and more than a dozen screenings, it’s shockingly frank final scene never fails to leave me utterly devastated. I think that Björk’s performance as Selma should be remembered as one of the most unique and emotionally affective performances by an actor ever put to screen. It’s my favorite musical, and despite its imperfect fit alongside the other great films of the genre, it deserves a mention whenever classic musicals are brought up. It’s a film that I know not everyone will enjoy or appreciate, but I do think that it’s an indispensable film that anyone who wishes to educate themselves in the cinema must see at least once.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Dir. Ang Lee

Written by: Wang Hui-Ling, James Schamus, Tsai Kuo Jung (from the novel by Wang Dulu)

Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi

 

Ang Lee’s wuxia epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a film that I feel should be more foundational in my early film-watching history, but upon some reflection, I’m realizing that I don’t have nearly as intimate a connection to it as I do to some other martial arts films that I was getting into around the same time. Released in 2000, when I was just entering high school, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came into my life as I was just starting to discover classic martial arts cinema. I believe that I saw the film for the first time at the West Virginia International Film Festival in 2001, after its initial release to universal acclaim and subsequent nomination for 10 Academy Awards. I remember being impressed by the fight choreography and, obviously, the film’s incredible visual beauty, but it lacked the viscerality of the Bruce Lee films that I was starting to watch. At the time, the film’s deliberate pacing and intricate plot weren’t what I was looking for in a martial arts movie, and I’m pretty sure I even dozed off for sections of the film on that initial viewing. Of course, at the time I didn’t have the cultural or filmic context to understand the differences between the wuxia genre in which Ang Lee was working and the more straightforward kung-fu action films that I preferred. Eventually, I’d come around on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon after expanding my knowledge and experience with martial arts films, but I think that my preference has always led me to gravitate more towards the classic style of the 1970s kung-fu action films. However, for wuxia, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is probably the gold standard.

The film is set in a fictionalized historical China, during the period of the Qing Dynasty. At the film’s opening, retired Wudang master swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow) has asked his friend, bodyguard Yu Shu Lien (Yeoh), to deliver his sword, the Green Destiny, to their friend Sir Te (Shihung Lung), as a token of his service to Sir Te. Shu Lien’s visit to Sir Te coincides with the arrival of the provincial Governor, whose daughter, Jen Yu (Zhang), is betrothed to be married. Shortly after Jen’s arrival, Green Destiny is stolen, and Shu Lien tracks the thief to Governor Yu’s compound, which leads she and Mu Bai to discover that Jade Fox, a female warrior who murdered Mu Bai’s Wudang master, has been posing as Jen’s governess and training her in the teachings of Wudang martial arts. Though Shu Lien and Mu Bai attempt to stop Jade Fox and Jen, with the help of local police and Sir Te’s private security detail, the thieves are able to escape, and Jen leaves the city with Green Destiny, posing as a man and challenging townsfolk to duels. Shu Lien and Mu Bai pursue Jen, hoping to regain the Green Destiny, avenge Mu Bai’s master’s murder, and also to prevent Jen from going down a path of destruction. The film’s final duels between Shu Lien and Jen, Mu Bai and Jen, and Mu Bai and Jade Fox are thrilling and beautifully shot, with its denouement providing both satisfying narrative closure and a few genuinely touching emotional moments.

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My plot summary doesn’t do justice to just how well written and densely-plotted Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is. It’s mostly remembered for its breathtaking visuals and wire-assisted fight choreography, but the film’s script contains deep symbolism, nods to classical Chinese legends and proverbs, and two believable, naturalistic love stories. I think that on my initial viewing as a teen, I had trouble reconciling the film as a martial arts movie with the film as a fully realized motion picture. My experience with martial arts movies to that point was largely limited to seeing the “beat ‘em ups” of Jean-Claude van Damme or Steven Seagal on Saturday afternoon television. I didn’t have a concept of a martial arts film that could go beyond the basic “good guys beating up bad guys” tropes that I was familiar with, let alone one that had the narrative scope of a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As I’ve written before about other movies, I just wasn’t ready for this one on my initial viewing. However, I did enjoy the film’s fight scenes and I filed it away as a movie to revisit, which I would often as I continued to indulge my interest in Asian cinema throughout my teenage years.

Watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as an adult, I’m struck mostly by the very things that I was turned off by on my initial viewing. The fight choreography as still incredible, especially when compared to the slate of early millennium wuxia offerings that were inspired by this film, but what I was able to appreciate more on this rewatch were the film’s deep emotional themes and the extraordinary, nuanced performances from its principal cast. At the heart of the film are its twin love stories, that of Jen and Lo (Chang Chen) and of Shu Lien and Mu Bai. Jen and Lo are youthful and headstrong, with Jen running away from her arranged marriage to be with the man she truly loves. Shown mostly in flashback, their relationship is innocent and playful, with Zhang playing Jen as coyly enigmatic, both pursuing Lo and allowing herself to be pursued. Though she’s always had the upper hand in the relationship, she depends on Lo’s devotion to make her whole. This power dynamic is revealed subtly in the film through small gestures and glances, with Zhang allowing for small slivers of vulnerability to break through her performance when she shares scenes with Chang. Similarly, Chow and Yeoh portray the complicated, frustrated relationship between Mu Bai and Shu Lien beautifully. Though he doesn’t openly admit his love for her until his dying moments, Mu Bai’s affections for Shu Lien are expressed through the soft way that Chow looks at Yeoh and the gentle way that they interact in their private moments. Both characters are warriors who are honor bound, and they know that to give in to their love could potentially put both of them at risk, but they can’t truly hide the feelings that they share for one another deeply. Their history is only hinted at in the film, but Chow’s and Yeoh’s performances make it clear that they have a long and deep connection. These subtle performances ring true, emotionally, and help to elevate Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon above standard genre fare. Ang Lee is well known for culling heart wrenching performances from his leads, and he certainly does that in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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Of course, the true calling card of any martial arts film is its combat, and, as I’ve alluded to, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The fight scenes were choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, a legendary Hong Kong film director with credits that rank among the classics of the kung-fu genre, but who was perhaps best known to American audiences at the time for having choreographed the fight scenes in 1999’s The Matrix. Aided by the use of wires, Yuen and Lee, craft some memorably exciting and beautiful fight sequences, featuring both hand-to-hand and weapons combat. Although he had been a huge action star for some time in China, this was Chow’s first actual martial arts role, and he acquits himself admirably to the genre. His Mu Bai is graceful and powerful, appearing capable of dealing great damage with relative ease. All of the actors performed most of their own stunts, with Yeoh suffering a torn ACL during filming. The dedication of the cast to faithfully and accurately performing their movements must have made for a grueling and difficult shoot, but the end result is an exhilarating blend of combat, dance, and sheer visual splendor, provided by Lee’s shot choices and fantastical settings. No one who has seen the film can forget Mu Bai’s pursuit of Jen through the bamboo forest, as they lithely leap from tree to tree, stopping only to exchange a few quick parries before making their next graceful bound. Though it may stray from the kung-fu film traditions that I am a bigger fan of, there’s no denying that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a martial arts classic.

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I’m not really sure why I haven’t revisited Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in such a long time. Before watching it for this project, I probably hadn’t seen the film in its entirety in a decade, although it is a film that I had grown to enjoy quite a bit after the mixed reaction I had it initially. In general, I don’t watch the martial arts films in my collection nearly as much as I used to, with Enter the Dragon being the only martial arts DVD that I own that I have watched within the last two or three years. I haven’t lost my fondness for the genre, and when I get into the mood I like to seek out modern kung-fu movies on Netflix, but as my tastes have evolved and grown, martial arts films have become something of an afterthought. I don’t know that I’ll return to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon any time soon, but I am very glad to have taken the time to rewatch it. It’s a film that can be enjoyed by a wide audience, as evidenced by its near-universal appeal, and it really has something for everyone. Lee’s careful treatment of the film’s emotional love stories, breakthrough performances from its principal cast, and incredibly memorable combat and visuals are all contained herein, and add up to a uniquely rich film viewing experience.

Cries & Whispers

Cries & Whispers (1973)

Dir. Ingmar Bergman

Written by: Ingmar Bergman

Starring: Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann

 

By and large, the works of Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman are a pretty large cinematic blindspot for me. For whatever reason, his films were sparsely taught at the University of Pittsburgh, at least by the professors I had when I was in film school there. I saw Persona in a class my first year of college and really loved it, although I found it fairly inscrutable, and I sought out a few other films of his on my own. For the most part, however, I haven’t given this challenging filmmaker his proper attention. I briefly attempted a deep dive into his filmography around 2012, shortly after purchasing Bergman’s career-spanning autobiography Images: A Life in Film, but his filmography is so deep that I didn’t put much of a dent in it. I still haven’t completed the book, nor have I progressed much further in my exploration of Bergman’s cinema over the last half decade, but even attempting to explore his massive body of work gave me a better appreciation for this master’s art. Though his films are often extremely personal, investigating his own life, history, and relationships, at the same time, they explore universal themes of death, faith, and identity. Bergman’s is a challenging, cerebral cinema, and I think he often gets a reputation of being a cold filmmaker, but his work also plumbs the depths of human emotion, attempting to portray the full scope of human existence. Cries & Whispers bridges this gap somewhat, providing an emotionally stirring narrative that explores the nuances of human love and familial relationships while also holding its subjects at arms-length. It’s a study of the limits of human love and also the propensity of humans for cruelty, a rumination on the meaning of a life.

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Cries & Whispers, set at the turn of the 20th century, is the story of three sisters, Agnes (Andersson), Karin (Thulin), and Maria (Ullmann), who have been brought together in their familial home because Agnes is dying. As her illness progresses, Agnes’s sisters find themselves unable to provide her with any comfort or empathy. Instead, they sulk and pout around the isolated mansion, leaving Agnes’s care to the family’s dedicated servant, Anna (Sylwan), who is Agnes’s only source of comfort in her final days. A series of flashbacks, one focusing on each woman, explore the incidents in their interconnected lives that have brought them to this place of resentment and have shaped them into the women they’ve become. Being in the family home also seems to bring these feelings of jealousy and malice to the forefront for the women as Maria and Karin begin acting increasingly hostile towards each other, and particularly towards Anna, whom they intend to fire once Agnes dies. Upon Agnes’s eventual death, Karin and Maria are forced to recognize their callousness and their failure as sisters, but they are ultimately too driven by their own selfish desires to allow for proper reflection, and they choose to return to their bourgeois lives, forever closing the door on their past.

Like the other Bergman films that I’ve seen, Cries & Whispers is richly symbolic, its narrative and visual compositions both densely packed with information. Unlike other Bergman films that I’ve seen, which seem to purposefully hold both their subjects and their audience at arm’s length, Cries & Whispers is an enveloping experience. Bergman has said himself that all of his films “can be thought of in black and white, except for Cries & Whispers,” and it’s true that the film’s distinctive red color palette is its defining quality, creating, to me, a womblike atmosphere in the film that makes me feel totally ensconced in its chamber drama. This is a film of suggestion, hinting at states of heightened emotion through its rich swaths of color and Bergman’s impressionistic direction. The title is perfect, as the text communicates with the audience in sharp, startling cries through its memorable visuals, while the characters therein are able to communicate with one another only in whispers, if at all. Maria and Karin find themselves totally cut off from any emotional response, unable to connect with one another on any meaningful level, although they attempt to feign concern for their dying sister. Though it provides only sketches of backstory for its four central characters, with its flashbacks feeling purposefully elliptical, the scant details the audience is granted allow for a deep understanding of the various women’s psyches. All three sisters suffer from a deep-seeded repression, and the film’s refusal to fully unleash all of its mysteries is a perfect mirror of that denial. The film’s structure makes for a beautiful suture of form and content, as the its setting of the familial mansion forms a hermetically sealed environment made up of disparate rooms, reflecting the sisters’ detached relationships and closed-off natures. Its red walls, at the same time soothing and intimidating, are representative of the storm of emotions bubbling under these women’s calm surfaces. The white dresses that Karin and Maria wear during the early parts of the film stand in stark contrast to the overwhelming red interiors of the home and serve as visual reminders of their attempts to maintain their states of emotional detachment. Both women have reasons for retreating into themselves, each having experienced traumas in her marriage, and though the film is largely observational, refusing any ambitions towards melodrama, watching Karin’s and Maria’s emotionally stunted state is heartbreaking.

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The performances across the board are superb, with Ullmann and Thulin as Maria and Karin, respectively, bringing differing motivations to characters who have ended up in similar emotional and psychological places. Both characters are icily cold, but Ullman’s Maria is more manipulative and active, while Thulin plays Karin as defeated and reserved. Karin’s emotional repression manifests itself in a self-destructive tendency, while Maria’s is more outwardly cruel and harmful to others. Regardless, both actresses perfectly portray the agonizing reality of being unable to express the host of human emotions that are raging internally. Their resentment for each other, as well as for their dying sister, is apparent, and it is only magnified by the film’s intense color scheme. Bergman often chooses to focus closely on his actresses’ faces, leading into each character’s individual flashback with a lengthy facial close-up, lit by alternatingly naturalistic and artificial red light, and their blank expressions staring directly into the camera are memorable, but it’s the tiny tics and attempts at human connection that Ullmann and Thulin bring to their roles that stick with me after multiple viewings.

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Sylwan’s Anna is the film’s emotional core. Her obvious goodness is the natural counter to the contempt that Maria and Karin exude. Unlike the sisters, Anna is deeply in touch with her emotions and her faith, providing genuine love and care to the dying Agnes. Sylwan’s performance lends Anna the quiet dignity of the meekly pious. As a servant, her role often relegates her to the background, but she has an important role to play in the dynamics of the household. We see that Anna has suffered as much, if not more, than Maria and Karin, having lost a child. However, Anna’s faith is strengthened by her suffering, and rather than turning inwardly, she has devoted her life to loving service. Anna is the only character in the film who offers any genuine kindness to Agnes, and it is implied that through this kindness, Agnes is able to finally experience some of the beauty of life in her final days after years of being deprived of the familial love that she has craved. Anna shares a strong religious faith with Agnes, and in the end, it is their optimistic point of view that is reinforced by a coda that features Anna reading from Agnes’s diary, negating the staid, emotionally repressed viewpoint of Karin and Maria. All of the performances are naturalistic and haunting. When combined with the film’s overall visual aesthetic and tone, they create an atmosphere of mystery, with small gestures containing monumental significance and personal character history only vaguely implied but easily perceived and understood.

Cries & Whispers is a profoundly challenging film, representing, as it does, extremes of human emotion and suffering. It’s a painful watch, and the cold indifference with which the characters hurt themselves and one another, with Maria and Karin waging cruel psychological warfare, can be tough to watch. For viewers who choose to wade into the claustrophobic examination of trauma that is Cries & Whispers, though, there are rich cinematic rewards. I feel similarly about this film as I do towards Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, which I have written about as one of my favorite films and one of the most important films to me. Though my personal affections for Cries & Whispers are not as strong, I feel that it is a similarly prescient look into the emotional human experience, although perhaps from a more cynical viewpoint than that of Bresson’s film. While Bresson was, admittedly, a man of strong religious conviction, Bergman was possessed of no such religious faith, opting instead to approach the questions of God and the universe through close examination of the human psyche. Bergman used the tools of the cinema to delve into the depths of human psychology, seeking to use the filmic image to create a language to express not just tangible reality but also the psyche, identity, and emotion. It is this examination that informs the masterpiece of modernist filmmaking, Persona, and this examination which Bergman expands in Cries & Whispers, visually representing emotional states and transmogrifying them into vibrant color, sound, and, importantly, silence. With its elliptical flashback structure, Cries & Whispers mimics the patterns and functions of memory, creating a textual representation of the very workings of the psyche. The film is great enough simply as a narrative film, but as a formal experiment in expanding cinematic language, it is brilliant.

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I watched the film twice closely and once distractedly in preparation for writing this post, and each time, like every other time I’ve watched Cries & Whispers before, I was struck with the desire to watch more Bergman. His filmography is daunting in its depth, with well over 50 features made, and his style is not the most accessible, even when judging by the standards of international art house cinema, but I want to make further inroads into viewing his films. The handful that I’ve seen have left me stunned by their visual beauty, their formal and narrative audacity, and their ability to tap into universal truths about the human experience. I’ve written many times that I feel great art should always give its audience cause for introspection and there is no way to come out of the experience of viewing this or any Bergman film without doing serious soul searching. Art should be used as a tool to reveal real, human truths, and Cries & Whispers insists on doing that. The film’s style is decidedly modernist, but the emotions and human truths that it speaks to are something primal. It might not be a comfortable watch for everyone, but it’s a powerful piece of art that demands thought and attention, and that rewards careful viewers with deep insights.

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange (1972)

Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Written by: Stanley Kubrick (from the novel by Anthony Burgess)

Starring: Malcolm McDowell

 

Some months ago, when writing about 2001: A Space Odyssey, I indicated that Kubrick had been my favorite filmmaker throughout my teens and early twenties. Some recent reexamination and rumination on other major films from that time in my life has probably revealed that though he may have seemed to stand head and shoulders above all other filmmakers in my formative years, it’s likely truer that he was one among a handful of filmmakers that have come to make up my personal pantheon. Regardless, the influence of Stanley Kubrick on my early film viewership is undeniable. I was an instant fan of 2001, and came to hold Full Metal Jacket and The Shining in equally high regard. I became familiar with his earlier work, including masterpieces such as Dr. Strangelove and Paths of Glory, after I came to college. I was a full devotee, and I sought out all of Kubrick’s films in my first couple of years of college, learning to appreciate each one of its own merit. Some I enjoyed more than others, but overall my opinion of Kubrick as perhaps the greatest master filmmaker was more or less cemented. It is probably a bit ironic, then, that the only film of his that still resides in my collection, besides 2001, is one of the few that I truly feel ambivalently about: A Clockwork Orange.

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Set in a not-quite-dystopian future London, A Clockwork Orange is a look into a world defined by violence and nihilism, where street gangs are free to brutalize the public. Our window into that world is Alex (McDowell), teenaged leader of a gang of droogs, whose favorite pastimes include rape, murder, and listening to Ludwig van Beethoven. Alex wields his authority over the gang through physical intimidation and takes advantage of the crumbling societal structures to wreak havoc. When the droogs get sick of Alex’s mistreatment, they decide to set him up, leading him to break into the home of a wealthy woman whom he subsequently clubs to death. When he tries to make his escape, the droogs turn on him, smashing a bottle over his head and leaving him to be caught by the police. Alex is charged with murder and sentenced to prison, where he learns of an experimental psychiatric treatment that might reduce his sentence. Alex submits to the Ludovico treatment, in which his eyes are held open by a machine, and he’s forced to watch video of horrific acts of violence and warfare. The treatment leads to a physical and psychological change in Alex wherein he becomes physically ill at the thought of engaging in any of his previous behaviors. Finally deemed sufficiently neutered and reprogrammed, Alex is released back into society. The world that he had left just two years ago seems as different as Alex is after his Ludovico treatment, but have either really changed that much?

Though it is probably one of my least favorite Kubrick film, I can’t deny that A Clockwork Orange is a cinematic work of art. As is every Kubrick film, this is a beautifully rendered and thoughtful film. Its art direction might be my favorite in his whole filmography, with vibrant color splashed across the screen and set designs that are both retro and futuristic at the same time. When I picture the swinging 70s of London, it’s really the design of A Clockwork Orange that I’m envisioning. Kubrick is at the height of powers, using striking visuals to set the tone of his film and also to imply subtle narrative details about the characters and the world.  Early on, the film’s visuals evoke its mood so perfectly, the setting of the Korova Milk Bar oozing sinister dread when we first meet Alex and his gang. The bar’s stark black and white color pattern signify a world that is broken down into dualities: black and white, good and evil, peace and chaos, rule and anarchy. Alex’s worldview, too, is dominated by a duality, chiefly that of the hunter and the hunted. Of course these simplistic visual and narrative points of view belie a layered examination of power dynamics and the inherent role of violence in human nature.

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This examination is at the heart of A Clockwork Orange, as we see domination played out in three different ways: initially, individually through Alex’s physical intimidation and domination of his gang, his family, and those around him, subsequently, domination by the State after Alex is imprisoned and subjected to a mind altering experiment, and lastly, a reactionary sort of violence from the townsfolk who exact revenge on the newly humbled Alex. This is an important and continuously prescient line of inquiry for a piece of art to make, but I feel that the ideology of the film gets a bit muddled. Its attempts to be critical of violence as an institution are undercut by the fact that Alex is the film’s ostensible hero, and the fact that the audience is often led to sympathize with and even root for the murderous, rapacious Alex. Malcom McLaren has often claimed that the film was not better received upon its release because people weren’t able to understand that it was intended as a dark comedy, and I can understand where he’s coming from with that comment, because there are certainly elements of satire to the film, but I can’t say that I agree that A Clockwork Orange should be read as a comedy. The film’s gleeful sadism should be repulsive and horrifying, not amusing. I think presenting A Clockwork Orange as a comedy of any sort is a dangerous proposition. I have defended violent, bleak films in my writing before, but I find A Clockwork Orange difficult to defend, its obvious artistry notwithstanding, due to the misconstrued fandom of the film that I have observed, and to the cult of personality that has sprung up around its hero, Alex.

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I’ve noticed that most of the fandom surrounding A Clockwork Orange seems to be driven by young men who are enamored with the film’s violence. To these men, Alex has become a counterculture icon, snubbing his nose in the face of authority and daring to live out his most extreme fantasies. I personally find this fandom disturbing, and, unfortunately, I can’t separate the film from its fandom because it seems as if the film does very little to avoid glorifying Alex and the deplorable behavior that he displays throughout. I’m often able to separate art from its creator, or from its fan base, but I have always had a difficult time reconciling my love for Stanley Kubrick with this particular film. I recognize that A Clockwork Orange is an important cinematic work of art, and I appreciate its sumptuous visual palate and its attempts at social critique, but I can’t bring myself to really enjoy the film. Kubrick was never a filmmaker who seemed interested in creating relatable, sympathetic characters, but his characterization of Alex is an anomaly even in a filmography peopled by depraved, morally empty figures. Alex’s entire raison d’etre is violence. He has little depth as a character, and even as a symbol or a metaphor for youth gone wild, he falls entirely flat. Kubrick attempts to make up for this lack of character depth with an emphasis on style and superficial details, but they don’t ring true and Alex is ultimately proven to be hollow. I work for an independently owned craft brewery and we offer a seasonal beer called Milk+, which features tap handle and label artwork inspired by A Clockwork Orange, and any time I have the beer on tap I invariably have customers who order it simply based on the name and artwork because A Clockwork Orange is “their favorite movie.” Sometimes I really wonder if they’ve thought about the implications of the film’s mixed messages.

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Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but I feel that A Clockwork Orange is a film that tries overly hard to make its audience sympathize with a totally abhorrent protagonist. More than simply asking its audience to consider the ramifications of Alex’s actions, by not wholly critiquing these actions the film tacitly approves of them. Although all forms of dominative violence seem to be viewed equally in the film, whether they be State sanctioned or individualistic, Alex is clearly presented as the film’s hero and, as a result, his actions are championed, and even justified by the severity of the trauma that is inflicted upon him during the Ludovico treatment. The film masquerades as a critique of violence and authority, but in actuality it seems to be a reactionary fantasy, with Alex’s final rapacious daydream supplying an orgasmic triumph over the film’s moralizing forces. A Clockwork Orange is a film that I wish I could enjoy more thoroughly because it contains some of my favorite moments of Kubrick’s visual genius, but I just can’t get over the hump of the film’s treatment of its subject matter. There’s a reason that the copy of the film that I currently own was still in its shrink wrap when I took it off the shelf for this post, nearly four years after picking it out of a BestBuy bargain bin: A Clockwork Orange is an impressively beautiful film, but I almost never want to watch it.

Clerks

Clerks (1994)

Dir. Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

Starring: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti

 

Mallrats might have introduced me to Kevin Smith and hooked me on his brand of humor, but Clerks literally changed my life. Not only did the film deepen my appreciation for Smith, who was one of my youthful film heroes, but it totally opened up my eyes to the possibility of a different kind of cinema. Of course I knew that there was such a thing as “independent cinema,” but it existed more as a nebulous concept than a concrete entity in my mind. I had seen a handful of movies on Independent Film Channel when I was 11 or 12, over a month when my parents’ cable offered a free preview of the channel when it became available in our area, but, for the most part, these movies just seemed like slightly less glossy versions of what I could see in the local multiplex. It wasn’t until I saw Clerks that I think independent cinema really clicked for me as something that could be radically different from the mainstream. Clerks turned me on to the idea of filmmaking existing outside of the Hollywood system, and the idea that anyone can make a movie if they really want to. At that time in my life, I really wanted to.

Even at 14 years old, I was an aspiring filmmaker of sorts. Most of my friends were getting into skateboarding and I became a de facto cameraman because my parents had recently bought a video camera, and I was also too uncoordinated to skate with any proficiency. At first, our videos mostly consisted of poorly shot and executed skateboard tricks and stunts, modeled after the MTV show Jackass, but I got more interested in learning how to edit the footage and add music. Seeing Clerks around this same time further cemented my interest in filmmaking and led to me trying some very basic narrative experiments in addition to the skate videos that I was shooting. What were once strictly stunt videos started becoming slightly more narrative with the addition of loosely scripted sketches and parodies. The “humor” contained therein was still overwhelmingly physical, but we were striving towards a more cinematic vision of our silly videos. My friend Mike introduced a distinctively performative aspect to the videos with his incessant mugging and rapping for the camera, and his various alter-egos, many of which were clearly influenced by Jason Mewes’s performance as Jay in Clerks and Mallrats. Our videos never really advanced beyond the most rudimentary experiments, and all of the tapes have been lost for over a decade, but I remember those days that we spent filming ourselves hurting each other with great fondness. I continued to dabble with filmmaking throughout high school in various forms, but it was largely something that I abandoned until I moved to Pittsburgh.

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Of course, while my interest in making my own films waned in high school, my interest in watching them and consuming the medium was only beginning to peak. I don’t know if I used Kevin Smith and Clerks as a jumping off point, per se, but at this time in my life, I began to more fully explore the American independent film movement of the 1990s. I truly discovered Tarantino around this time, I saw Do The Right Thing for the first time at 15, Richard Linklater started to bubble into my consciousness through his comedies. Through these filmmakers I started to branch out, discovering their influences, and laying the groundwork for my later formal education in Film Studies. Even though it was a period of great exploration and discovery for me, I always came back to Kevin Smith. As I wrote last week in my Chasing Amy post, I was obsessed with the View Askewniverse all throughout my late teens. By the end of high school, I’m not sure if I would have mentioned Smith as my favorite filmmaker above Tarantino or, perhaps, Kubrick, but that would have likely been youthful posturing. In retrospect, I was always watching more Kevin Smith than anything else. That changed somewhat after I came to college and my expanding tastes and more crowded viewing schedule put an end to the ritualistic repeat viewings of Smith’s films. That time in my life also, coincidentally, dovetailed with an artistic low period for the filmmaker, whose post-2000 output has been of varying quality, at best. Clerks, however, has been the one film in his filmography that I’ve come back to over and over again, year after year. I still revisit the other 1990s Smith films, but Clerks is the only one that has become truly indispensable for me.

Clerks has been different things for me at different points in my life, but it’s always been a film that I watch once or twice a year. I’ve definitely seen it over 50 times in my life, and maybe even close to 100 times. When I was first introduced to it, it was inspirational, challenging in its simplicity. It was a film that dared me to want to make something of my own. In college, even though I often found myself thumbing my nose at Smith’s current films, Clerks was still the high water mark that my film school friends could all agree on. When I started my bartending career after college, Clerks gained a professional relevance that I wouldn’t fully appreciate until I started managing bars in my late-20s. I don’t know how many times in the last five years I’ve found myself repeating Dante’s (O’Halloran) catchphrase from the film, “I’m not even supposed to be here today.” It’s become a mantra to get me through the long nights and weekends. The beauty of the film to me is a malleability belied by its overall simplicity. I can appreciate a different aspect of Clerks every time I watch it depending on my mood or how my week has been going, and even though I’ve seen it dozens of times, it never gets old. Smith’s ambitions as a filmmaker have certainly grown since Clerks, and his technical prowess has greatly improved, but Smith has never made a better film than Clerks, and he almost certainly never will.

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Famously shot on a self-financed budget of just under $30,000, Clerks follows a day in the life of register jockeys Dante Hicks, who works at the Quick Stop convenience store, and Randal Graves (Anderson), Dante’s friend and erstwhile employee of neighboring RST Video. The two clerks deal with annoying customers, drug-dealing loiterers, and Dante’s romantic foibles as he tries to decide between his current girlfriend, Veronica (Ghigliotti) and his ex, Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer). He’s not even scheduled to work on this particular day, and Dante just wants to get through his shift and get home, but life keeps throwing obstacles in his way as he’s forced to live out his mundane, hellish existence. It’s a depiction of existential nothingness, and a perfect expression of a frustrated sense of arrested development. Clerks is the end result of a person deciding that they have a story to tell so important to them that they have to get it out there by any means necessary. Clerks is filmmaking by necessity, which makes it great.

The film is based on Smith’s actual job at the time, and was primarily shot in the convenience store that he actually worked at. It’s decidedly lo-fi, shot on 16mm black-and-white, and featuring almost exclusively non-professional actors. Rather than being hampered by the constraints placed upon him by his limited budget and lack of experience, Smith uses his technical simplicity and idiosyncratic cast to his advantage, and plays to his strengths. The film is conversational, broken up into nine vignettes (in reference to the nine circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno) that consist primarily of lengthy passages of conversation between Dante and Randal, or between one of the two and his customers. These dialogues are shot simply, often consisting of a lengthy master shot, broken up by a bit of shot/reverse shot, with the occasional reaction shot of an eavesdropping customer thrown in. The simplicity is surely due to circumstance and to Smith’s limited filmmaking experience, but it isn’t incompetence. Instead, the lack of edits and the largely static camera work to highlight the script, forcing the audience to pay close attention to the cascade of pop-culture references and vulgarities that the two protagonists exchange throughout the film. The languid visual style also exhibits Smith’s already developing sense of comedic timing. When he does make cuts for comedic effect, they work more often than not. Smith doesn’t over extend himself as he sometimes will later in his career, and it pays off. The film also gets some of its most memorable moments from the unusual shooting requirements. Because the film could only be shot in the middle of the night, after the convenience store closed, Smith had to fabricate a reason for the store’s steel shutters to be lowered. In the film, vandals have plugged the shutters’ locks with chewing gum, forcing Dante to write a sign on a bedsheet with shoe polish that reads, “I assure you, we’re open!” It’s my favorite running gag from the entire film, and it’s the result of forced ingenuity.

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Clerks also manages to bring out the best in a cast made up chiefly of Smith’s friends and other non-professional actors. The performances in Clerks are not necessarily good, in fact, sometimes they’re not very good at all, but they are perfect for the film and for the script. Though it very much feels true to life, Smith’s dialogue is often somewhat off-kilter and affected, especially early in his career as a screenwriter. O’Halloran and Anderson manage to internalize those affectations and their line delivery feels completely real. I think that often when Smith employs non-professional actors, such as in Clerks or in the case of Jason Lee in Mallrats, they give more naturalistic performances and are able to translate the idiosyncrasies in Smith’s dialogue into speech patterns that read as familiarities between the characters. O’Halloran and Anderson, as Dante and Randal, speak in the language of close friends, which drives home the film’s realism. The rest of the film’s characters, who could broadly be described as the customers, with the exception of Veronica and Caitlin, provide a counterpoint to the chummy, laid back nature of Dante and Randal’s relationship. They’re shown only in glimpses but could largely be characterized as manic and reactionary, outsiders who are imposing their neuroses on the Quick Stop. As Randal says, “This job would be great if it weren’t for the customers.” This type of characterization of the retail customer and the sometimes antagonistic relationship between customer and employee will likely ring true for many who have worked in service.

I don’t know if there will come a time when I get tired of the movie Clerks. It’s certainly a film that is aimed towards people of a certain age demographic, which I am rapidly approaching the tail end of, now that I’m in my early thirties. Clerks is definitely a product of post-adolescent fury, and it speaks to concerns of youthful rebelliousness, but I think its anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian message transcends age demographics. It was a seminal movie for me at a time when I was starting to discover my own anti-authoritarian streak, and it’s adherence to DIY principles was inspiring to me. It’s stayed with me through the years as a reminder of one of my youthful obsessions, but also as a movie that has remained relevant and changed in meaning for me over time. Sometimes I sympathize more with Dante, a tired man clinging to a scrap of professionalism and optimism in a town full of savages, and sometimes I’m more of a Randal, openly antagonistic and despairing for the state of humanity. Clerks is an important movie in the history of independent cinema, and it set Kevin Smith up to be an important and influential filmmaker throughout the rest of the 1990s. For me it’s an important film because it’s a reminder of who I was when I first started getting serious about movies and filmmaking, and because it provides a symbolic throughline from the kid I was then to the adult that I’ve become.

Chasing Amy

Chasing Amy (1997)

Dir. Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

Starring: Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee

 

From age 14 to age 19, I was obsessed with Kevin Smith and his View Askewniverse, the interconnected film universe that was made up of his first five features. I discovered the king of 1990s raunchy, independent comedy when a friend of mine rented Mallrats on VHS when I was staying the night at his house. I’ll write much more about that film later in this project, but we watched that tape three times over the course of the weekend and I was totally hooked, itching to track down more of Smith’s movies. This would have been 1999 or 2000, and Dogma was fairly new, although I hadn’t seen it in the movie theater. My first experiences with nearly all of his films, at least until me and my friends went to see Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back in the movie theater, was via rental tapes from my local Blockbuster Video. My friends and I would take out both Mallrats and Smith’s debut, Clerks, routinely, memorizing the lines and inserting the catch phrases and odd character mannerisms into our everyday banter. We were totally enamored with the broad comedy, the esoteric nerdy callouts, and the laid-back stoner vibe that Smith’s first two films represented, but Chasing Amy was something different. Eventually, at least for a while, the film would be my favorite Kevin Smith movie and, at least briefly, my favorite movie, period, but it took time for me to get there. It was a movie that I had to grow into, and mature a little bit to really understand, but it was also a movie that I quickly outgrew when I moved into my adult life.

Smith’s third feature, Chasing Amy, marks the first turn towards more dramatic storytelling for a filmmaker who was to this point best known for his crude sense of humor. All of Smith’s first three films, at that point loosely grouped together as a “Jersey trilogy,” could be described as some sort of love story, but Chasing Amy is the only one that I would really describe as a romantic comedy. The film presents the quasi-love triangle formed by best friends Holden (Affleck) and Banky (Lee), creators of the popular “Bluntman & Chronic” comic book series, and Alyssa (Adams), author of the feminist comic “Idiosyncratic Routine,” whom they meet at a convention. Holden immediately falls for Alyssa and he initially believes that his affections are reciprocated, until Alyssa invites him out to a bar, which he slowly realizes is a lesbian bar. Although she isn’t interested in him romantically, Alyssa and Holden strike up a friendship, which eventually becomes a deep emotional bond. Eventually, Holden reveals to Alyssa that his romantic feelings haven’t subsided and that he is more in love with her than before. Initially, Alyssa is resistant and justifiably angry at the assumptions that Holden makes that she can just turn her sexuality on and off, and recontextualize her entire identity to suit his whims, but she eventually accepts that she has real feelings for him, as well, and they begin a romantic relationship. This new relationship pushes an already strained relationship between Holden and Banky to the breaking point, and Banky begins to try to sour Holden’s feelings for Alyssa by dredging into her past. Banky’s digging eventually causes Holden to question Alyssa about her sexual past, and while she tries desperately to reassure him, Holden’s insecurities ultimately torpedo their relationship. At the same time, his resentment of Banky for meddling ends their friendship and all three characters are left at a crossroads, deciding to move on alone.

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When I first saw Chasing Amy, probably sometime freshman year of high school, my response was mixed. I wasn’t prepared for the sharp left turn that this film represented, especially after having seen Clerks and Mallrats a dozen times each. Smith’s characteristically intelligent, rapid-fire dialogue was there, but it wasn’t being used in the service of comedy most of the time. He was exploring emotions that I wasn’t really experiencing yet in my life, and I didn’t find as much to grasp onto with Chasing Amy at first. I was, however, able to glean some enjoyment out of the film even early on before it really sunk its claws into me. I remember being a big fan of Banky, as his character was the most “comedic” element in the film, and because Jason Lee has an innate understanding of Smith’s dialogue that often seems to elude other actors. Smith’s writing has a naturalistic feel, but the dialogue is often peppered with unusual slang and portmanteau, and Lee manages to get inside the words in a way that makes the sometimes strange phrasings feel familiar. In Chasing Amy, he delivers one-liners and acerbic quips with off-the-cuff regularity. Moreover, even though the romantic bits of the film didn’t connect with me on an emotional level yet, I could recognize that the turn towards more dramatic storytelling was producing some of Smith’s best writing. Chasing Amy feels real, in a way that Smith’s earlier and later output never has, and after I had had an opportunity to have some real romantic relationships and experience a few breakups, it felt even more real and relatable to me. By the end of high school, I picked up my own copy of the movie on DVD (probably my first Criterion Collection disc) and it became one of my go-to films, and one of the cultural treatises on romantic love that I clung to as gospel.

A lot can change in a decade and a half. Watching Chasing Amy again in 2017 was a much different experience than the one that I remembered from the last time I watched it. As I mentioned, Jason Lee’s Banky was one of my favorite parts of the film when I was younger, but watching it again now, his casual misogyny and homophobia is cringeworthy. The film as a whole tries to walk a tightrope between opening up the View Askewiniverse to new, diverse characters and points of view, and doubling down on the male-centric humor of Smith’s other films. Even though the film portrays Banky’s views as regressive and small-minded, it still culls much of its humor from his putdowns and insults of Alyssa and her sexuality, in a way trying to have its cake and eat it, too. I don’t know if there are viewership statistics available for this film, but Smith’s core audience was male dominant to this point in his career, and even though Chasing Amy was a breakout hit that connected with the mainstream, I would imagine that Smith was hesitant to fully alienate his teen male following by fully embracing the potential of a more progressive script. I think that Chasing Amy is, on the whole, a good film for representation, but I think some of its condemnations are a bit too light for me to wholly endorse it as a progressive or positive representation of modern sexuality.

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As a straight man, I don’t know that I truly have the depth of insight to comment fully on the sexual politics at play in Chasing Amy, so I will make an attempt to stay in my lane and not step out of my own role as a film critic. The film’s unfortunate homophobia aside, it portrays nuanced, realistic gay characters, but sometimes undercuts their agency. Hooper X (Dwight Ewell), is a codeswitching gay, black comic author who is a friend to Holden and, to a lesser extent, Banky. In public, Hooper adopts an aggressive, militant demeanor to better match the persona put forward in his comic book, “White Hating Coon.” He feels that the book would lose authenticity with his readers if they knew that he were actually an effeminate gay man. This speaks to the sort of passing that many gay men and women feel they have to go through every day in order to succeed in their social or professional lives, and it’s an issue that deserves to be addressed fully, but, unfortunately, Hooper is often reduced to comic relief. Instead of exploring the nuances of a character like Hooper, I felt like that character was often being set-up as a stereotype for a punchline. I can forgive Smith for not exploring the full ramifications of Hooper’s character because, ultimately, he’s a rather small character in the film, but I can still wish that Chasing Amy would go there.

Even in its portrayal of the central romantic relationship between Alyssa and Holden, Alyssa isn’t given equal footing to stand on. While Holden’s sexuality and sexual desire are presented as simple and pure, and are the catalysts for the film, Alyssa’s sexual desire is summed up as a confusing problem that can be solved by just meeting the right man. The film’s approval of Alyssa’s sexual past and the fluidity of her sexuality are progressive, and they’re ideas that certainly weren’t often presented as positively in films of the time, but the ultimate romantic goal in the film is to form a male/female couple. Even though Alyssa very clearly is a lesbian and identifies as such throughout the movie, Chasing Amy largely still plays out as a “straight savior” story, and implies that some gay women may just need to meet that right guy in order to “fix” their sexuality. Again, I try to tread lightly when I’m considering representation of groups that I don’t belong to, but something about the portrayal of Alyssa’s sexuality felt off to me. Of course, maybe I’m asking too much from a filmmaker like Smith, and I appreciate the attempts that he did make in this film simply to include gay characters and people of color. I think Chasing Amy wants to be a more progressive film than Smith necessarily had the vocabulary to make at the time. It comes close, but its insistence on clinging to straight male points of view hampers its ability to fully explore some of its ideas.

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That being said, watching Chasing Amy is still a pretty enjoyable experience. While it probably doesn’t go as far as I would like in exploring its characters sexuality and desires, it presents ideas about romantic love, friendship, and sexuality that are progressive and valuable. Joey Lauren Adams gives a memorable performance as Alyssa, and this film is the reason that I continue to be a Ben Affleck apologist. Both actors portray real, raw emotions as they try to work out the dynamics of a new relationship. The movie is still funny, and it still probably represents the high point of Smith’s screenwriting. Watching a film that was impactful on you in your youth after years of growing up is an interesting experience. Chasing Amy is a film that I was so familiar with, but changes that I’ve made in my life have left me viewing it very differently in my thirties than I did as a very young man. While it had seemed monumental and profound then, now I enjoy it as a realistic, if not totally relatable, romantic comedy. In real life, romantic love can take myriad forms, and that’s one of the important lessons in Chasing Amy. Don’t close your mind off to other possibilities or exist within rigid structures if you want to chase happiness.

Casino

Casino (1995)

Dir. Martin Scorsese

Written by: Martin Scorsese & Nicholas Pileggi (from his novel)

Starring: Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, Sharon Stone

 

Despite the fact that he is often associated with films about the mafia in the public imagination, Martin Scorsese has actually only made a handful of films that deal explicitly with organized crime during his lengthy career. Although there has often been an overarching interest in vice and corruption throughout his filmography, the only true mafia films that Scorsese has made are Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, and The Departed. Out of those four films, three stand out as highly significant in the filmmaker’s career, with Mean Streets being his first major film and the arrival of Scorsese as a generational talent, Goodfellas widely being acknowledged as one of his best films, and The Departed being the film for which Scorsese was finally rewarded with an Academy Award. However, Casino tends to get lost in the shuffle among those other milestones, perhaps due to its close temporal proximity in release to Goodfellas, or perhaps due to the perceived similarity of the two films’ subject matter and style. While I wouldn’t say that I’ve been dismissive of the film over the years, I have fallen into the trap of passing it over for other Scorsese films because of its perceived redundancy. People often tend to discuss the film as a Goodfellas-lite, and, to be sure, it isn’t the masterpiece that that other film is, but Casino is an interesting film and worth examining on its own merits. While it shares kinship with many other films from Scorsese’s corpus, it stands out as a distinctive and divergent take on a familiar story. In a lot of ways, the film is a deconstruction of the gangster genre, and while it isn’t totally successful in breaking out of the established mold of the genre, it contains plenty of interesting wrinkles.

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Not surprisingly, Casino concerns itself with the mafia’s interests in Las Vegas in the 1970s. It follows Sam “Ace” Rothstein’s (De Niro) rise from being one of the top sports handicappers in the country to one of Las Vegas’s biggest movers and shakers as the manager of the Tangiers hotel and casino. Sam is put into his role by a Chicago crime family who is secretly behind the Tangiers’s operations, and his role is to initiate a complicated skimming operation that will funnel a portion of the casino’s profits directly to the mafia. Profits are soaring at the Tangiers and Sam is doing well until twin road blocks are placed into his life in the form of Ginger (Stone), a high class escort whom Sam falls in love with, and Nicky (Pesci), a mob enforcer whom he knows from back home. Though Sam might not be squeaky clean, compared to Ginger and Nicky, he’s a straight shooter, and their negative influence on his life begins to bring down unneeded attention on the operation. Sam finds himself in trouble with the gaming commission, and as Ginger falls deeper into substance abuse, and Nicky begins to careen further and further off the rails, the stability of the entire operation starts to crumble. The tenuous façade of normalcy that everyone in the film is operating under begins to disappear, and the law and regulating agencies eventually come to call and run the mafia influence out of town. Ultimately, the tragic tale of Sam, Nicky, Ginger and their associates is shown to be a microcosm of the Disneyfication of Las Vegas as a whole, as the film’s final scenes show the implosion of the old casinos like the Tangiers in favor of the thoroughly modern, corporately-owned, and family-friendly playgrounds that dominate the Strip today.

When compared to the sprawling mob epic that is Goodfellas, Casino feels tight and controlled, focusing in on its subject with laser precision. The film displays a similar authenticity and attention to period detail with its spiritual predecessor, but the presentation of these gilded worlds is very different. The first hour of Casino plays out very much like a documentary, giving the audience access to the inner workings of the Tangiers while extensive voice over from Sam and Nicky provides the context for the swirl of images. Typically, I am a very vocal critic of voice over in films, but it has become one of Scorsese’s directorial signatures and Casino is built around an extensive voice over structure. Often when it is overused, voice over is a crutch for the audience to follow narrative through receiving exposition dumps without having to make critical leaps or fully engage with a film, but there are always exceptions to that rule, and in Casino the voice over works to lend the film authenticity by linking it with documentary traditions. Particularly early in the film, the audience takes on the role of a visitor to Las Vegas, overwhelmed by the spectacle of the place, which Scorsese presents with his typical cinematic bravado, utilizing voice over to insure that the audience gains access to a place of privileged knowledge that tourists would obviously never have. The voice over puts Sam and Nicky in a place as the gatekeepers of the knowledge for the audience, although they are also under surveillance. Scorsese establishes a series of looking relationships between the casino employees in the film that is predicated on overarching surveillance, and even Sam is under the scrutiny of the eye in the sky. All of these details are important in creating the dense tapestry of Casino, and by so carefully establishing the proper day-to-day functions of the business as a delicate equilibrium, Scorsese allows the audience to appreciate just how fully the operation goes off the rails later in the film.

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Casino begins with a car bombing and then uses a flashback structure to tell us how things have unraveled to the point that someone would betray and attempt to kill our protagonist, Sam. As established early in the film, Sam has created a perfectly functional ecosystem at the Tangiers and when outside elements are introduced to the mix, things begin to fall apart quickly. Sam’s personal life starts to unravel when he puts too much trust in Ginger, but the biggest element of chaos in Las Vegas is Nicky. Initially sent by the bosses to assist Sam and provide muscle for the operation, Nicky quickly sees an opportunity to go rogue in Las Vegas and he assembles a crew that operates with near impunity. Even in a filmography that is rife with cold blooded killers, Nicky Santoro stands out for his savage brutality. Pesci plays him as someone who takes great delight in killing and who does it with a gleeful efficiency. Aside from enriching himself and his crew, and gaining more power, there is little end to Nicky’s violent means, but Pesci doesn’t play him as a mindless killer. He’s ruthless, but Nicky is scariest in the moments when Pesci allows the audience to see the wheels beginning to turn in his mind. Though his bursts of violence are often sudden and explosive, they’re usually preceded by a brief moment of consideration and calculation which Pesci portrays subtly in his facial expressions. There’s a moment late in the film in which Nicky decides to fully betray Sam and begin an affair with Ginger that puts this quiet calculation on full display. The most dangerous thing about Nicky is that he is unpredictable, but not out of lack of consideration; he’s already weighed the outcomes and potential consequences of his actions, but he simply doesn’t care.

Pesci’s portrayal of the homicidal maniac Nicky is the most readily memorable aspect of Casino for me, but it isn’t the strongest performance in the film. As I mentioned when I was writing about his performance in A Bronx Tale, De Niro puts in a strong performance that serves as the bedrock of the film and allows Pesci’s manic energy to reach dizzying heights by comparison. He’s a great actor and his role in Casino might have been one of the last truly great roles and performances that he turned in before sliding into the more comfortable niche that he’s occupied in his late career, but he’s still overshadowed by Sharon Stone. I had forgotten just how much range Stone demonstrates in playing Ginger. Her character is sad, broken, an addict, and requires the actress to portray a full range of heightened emotion. Her performance charts the full descent into addiction, and she imbues Ginger with the type of manic energy so typical in cocaine addicts. Though she’s surrounded in the film by violent, manipulative men, Ginger is never a victim of anyone but herself, and even in the full throes of addiction by film’s end, she retains a sort of cunning agency. It’s a performance that is both maddening in its depiction of an individual’s capacity for harm to others, and heartbreaking in its revelation of an addict’s capacity for self-destruction. If Sam is the closest thing in the film to a hero, then Ginger is ostensibly a villain, and her actions throughout the film certainly cast her as such, but she is still pitiable. Although Scorsese wouldn’t allow a character like Ginger to fall into the trap of being a stereotype or trope, Stone’s performance is the linchpin to fully humanizing her and giving her character arc a strong sense of pathos. In a different year she very well could have won an Oscar for this performance rather than simply being nominated.

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Casino regularly gets short changed when it comes to assessing its place in Scorsese’s body of work or in the subset of crime films about the mafia in which it exists, but it is overdue for a critical reevaluation. The film isn’t a masterpiece, but it should be ranked favorably among the second tier of Scorsese’s deep filmography. While it’s most frequently remembered for its excessive, gratuitous violence, the film offers an insightful character study of its protagonists and also a stylish, informative look behind the curtain of the casino industry in its heyday. It explores one of the overarching themes that Scorsese has returned to often in his films, the introduction of an element of chaos into a pristine, closed system. That chaos takes different forms in different films. Here it is Nicky and Ginger’s destructive capabilities, in The Aviator, Howard Hughes’s mental illness plays a similar role, and in The Departed, chaos is personified by the moles in both the mafia and the police department. Scorsese has often chosen to investigate organizational structures and the forces that bring them crashing down like a house of cards, and Casino is a great example of that narrative. It’s a film that deserves to be examined within the context of its director’s greatest works, but one that also represents some interesting stylistic diversions and that can, and does, stand up on its own as a work of art.

Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness

Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness (1992)

Dir. Sam Raimi

Written by: Sam Raimi, Ivan Raimi

Starring: Bruce Campbell, Embeth Davidtz

 

As will become apparent later in this project when I review the first half of the Friday the 13th series, a few Nightmare on Elm Street films, and, eventually, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I had a soft spot for horror movies growing up, particularly slashers and gore-fests. This obsession with the macabre goes back to my early childhood and my introduction to the classic Universal monster movies of the 1930s and 40s. I came to love Dracula and the Invisible Man, but particularly Frankenstein’s monster, and I would search the weekly television listings for classic monster movies and record them off of cable late at night. When I was a little older, I’d sneak glances at the Friday the 13th movie marathon that ran every, well, Friday the 13th on the USA Network, and my tastes in scares began to mature and get a little darker, a little gorier. It wasn’t until probably my early teens, maybe 13 or 14 years old, that I first encountered the uniquely weird horror offered up by Sam Raimi. I saw Army of Darkness on television and it was immediately intriguing to me. It satisfied the gore and gross-out component, although it wasn’t really a true horror movie, and it added a strong comedy component that I wasn’t expecting. I liked the movie a lot but I didn’t really come back to it until my later teens. During high school my friends and I would start seeking out more and more hardcore and taboo horror films, often turning to Asian cinema and the emerging torture porn genre to provide these cheap thrills. The first two Evil Dead movies, providing some legitimate scares along with their moments of campy comedy, were acceptable to my friends’ deviant tastes, but the lighter, goofier Army of Darkness was more of a stretch to some of them. Eventually, sometime in high school, I picked up the director’s cut (officially titled Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness, the film’s original title), and would occasionally share it with friends, particularly around Halloween. By my early twenties, this movie, along with most of the horror movies in my collection, had gotten largely shelved. My tastes were changing rapidly and I didn’t see much value in the schlockier elements of my collection at the time. I still don’t go for horror movies too often, but I’ve enjoyed the later films from Raimi and I was happy to go back to one of his classics for this project.

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The film picks up immediately after the events of Evil Dead II with Ash (Campbell) being transported to the year 1300 AD. After arriving in the middle ages, Ash finds himself in the midst of a conflict between Lord Arthur (Marcus Gilbert) and Duke Henry the Red (Richard Grove). He is captured by Arthur’s knights who believe him to be a spy of Henry the Red, but Arthur’s Wise Man (Ian Abercrombie), believes Ash to be a hero promised in a prophecy. After being taken prisoner, Ash is taken to Arthur’s castle where he is thrown into a pit to be executed. Ash is able to escape the pit, killing a Deadite with the help of the Wise Man who returns his chainsaw to him. When he climbs his way to the top, he regains his “boomstick,” which he uses to quickly dispatch of another Deadite that attempts to escape the pit behind him. Ash is celebrated as a hero and he garners the affections of Sheila (Davidtz), a beautiful maiden. The Wise Man agrees to help Ash return to his own time, and tells him he must seek out the Necronomicon in order to do it. Ash’s quest for the Necronomicon leads him to battle demons and Deadites, but he finally persists and makes his way to the graveyard where the evil book is stored. However, Ash has never been one for attention to detail, so he has forgotten the magic words that will allow him to open the Necronomicon, and when he attempts to open the book without reciting the words properly, Ash unleashes an army of the dead on the land. Now in order to return to his home, he must defeat the Army of Darkness to save the castle and Sheila, who has been captured by the Deadites.

If that doesn’t exactly sound like the description of a horror movie, that’s because Army of Darkness really isn’t one. Although it does contain a few unsettling or scary moments, for the most part it’s a fantasy movie that leans heavily on slapstick comedy set pieces. The first two installments of the Evil Dead trilogy have their tongues firmly inserted into their cheeks, but they still fall distinctly into the horror genre. For the third installment, Raimi wanted to go in a different direction by getting Ash out of the cabin in the woods and into the larger world. He incorporates the influence of classic fish out of water tales like A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and Gulliver’s Travels, and the end result is a film that is distinctly different from its predecessors while retaining the same attitude and tone. Though he’s traded in the familiar setting of the first two films, plenty of Raimi’s filmmaking tricks are still on display in Army of Darkness. He returns often to the low tracking shots and queasily fast zooms that defined the Evil Dead films, implying the presence of spirits chasing Ash through the woods. He also retains his fondness for jump scares, and the few that show up in Army of Darkness might be the only moments in the film that could induce real terror in the audience. But, of course, Raimi’s most familiar tool is the star persona of Bruce Campbell in his signature role as Ash.

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A close friend of Raimi’s, Campbell helped him finance and create the original Evil Dead and has gone on to use his appearances as Ash to launch a career for himself as one of the most recognizable character actors currently working. As the film’s original title would suggest, in Bruce Campbell vs. Army of Darkness, as in the other Evil Dead films, Campbell is asked to essentially carry the load from an acting standpoint. He is the most heavily featured actor in the series by far, and in many of his scenes he is paired with shrieking, nearly nonverbal demons. Luckily, Campbell very easily has the chops to entertain on his own for the film’s 90-minute run time. Campbell plays Ash as a spoof of the hyper-macho action stars of the time, and he delivers his punches as readily as his punchlines, never at a loss for words as the film spawned many catchphrases among horror fans. He is the engine for both action and comedy in the film, as Campbell possesses both the bravado of a traditional leading man, and the rubber-faced, physically performative gifts of an expert slapstick comedian. Raimi knows how to perfectly capture Campbell’s expressive face to render emotions ranging from confidence, to fear, to hysteria and he uses this malleable mug to great effect throughout the film. It’s impossible to imagine the Evil Dead series without Campbell as Ash; another actor just wouldn’t feel right in the role.

Raimi is able to do a lot with a little as a filmmaker, and that economy is on display again in Army of Darkness. Though the film was made well into the beginning of the CGI boom, he chose to use practical effects throughout the movie, employing miniatures and stop-motion animation to create the army of the dead. Though the effects do look a bit dated, they don’t necessarily look bad. In fact, there is a sort of nostalgic charm to the skeletons, as they recall the groundbreaking stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen. Raimi uses sharp, quick edits to propel the action in the film’s climactic battle between Ash, Arthur’s army, and the army of the dead, led by a reincarnated Evil Ash. These edits allow Raimi to mask the fact that he is employing a very small cast, and maintain the level of action at a fever pitch. Army of Darkness definitely feels like a throwback to a time when film genres weren’t as rigidly codified and swashbuckling heroes could coexist with supernatural demons and beautiful damsels in distress. This is decidedly a B-movie, but it’s a rather well-made one, and an entertaining one to boot. Campbell’s charisma carries over to the entire production, with even some of the animated skeletons delivering throwaway lines that are laugh-out-loud funny.

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Army of Darkness is a very fun movie experience, and it’s one that I would probably go back to more often if it weren’t for the terrible quality of the video transfer on the DVD copy that I own. I don’t know if the image quality has degraded over the years, but it’s really difficult for me to imagine myself watching this disc as a teen. There are times when the image becomes so grainy and dark that it’s almost impossible to see what’s going on on the screen at all. This is particularly the case during the film’s final battle, which was entirely shot at night. I’ve watched Army of Darkness on streaming services and it doesn’t seem to suffer from this lack of clarity, so I’m assuming that it’s just a bad transfer on this particular Director’s Cut edition of the DVD. It’s really a shame, because I think the Director’s Cut, with the film’s alternate ending (which is something of an homage to Planet of the Apes) is the superior version of the film, but I just can’t see myself sitting down to watch this particular DVD again anytime soon. I will, however, likely be revisiting this cult classic, along with its predecessors, sometime around Halloween this year, just on a streaming platform. Although my taste for straight horror movies has somewhat diminished, I’ll always enjoy the humorous horror that Raimi offers up here and in his later films, which are equally as good at blending the genres of horror and comedy. I probably enjoy the Evil Dead films a bit more than Army of Darkness, but it’s great in its own right for taking the series in a totally new direction while still maintaining that distinctive early Raimi feeling.

A Bronx Tale

A Bronx Tale (1993)

Dir. Robert De Niro

Written by: Chazz Palminteri (based on his play)

Starring: Chazz Palminteri, Robert De Niro, Lillo Brancato, Jr.

 

It surprises me somewhat that A Bronx Tale doesn’t have a bigger following among movie fans. I think that it’s probably well known among people who came of age in the early- and mid-90s, and among big fans of the gangster movie genre, but it’s not a film that I hear very many people talk about. Often as films come up on significant anniversaries, they receive a sort of critical reexamination or reevaluation, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article or think piece written on this film. Maybe it isn’t as remembered because it arrived at a time when there were an unusual number of Hollywood mob movies being released, or because it was sandwiched in between De Niro’s more well-known work in Goodfellas, Cape Fear, and Casino, but I think A Bronx Tale deserves a bit more credit than it seems to get. While it wouldn’t make a list of my favorite gangster movies and I definitely have some problems with the film as a whole, A Bronx Tale is worth a watch because it provides a different take on the typical gangster movie. It isn’t as good a film as the commonly accepted genre classics, but it often rings truer than some of the more touted gangster movies and the obvious care that the cast and crew, particularly Palminteri, have in bringing the story to the screen makes for an entertaining watch.

Based on his one-man show, A Bronx Tale is Palminteri’s semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s. The coming of age tale uses Calogero (played early in the film by Francis Capra, and later by Brancato, Jr.) as a surrogate for Palminteri. Calogero is a bus driver’s son, and his father, Lorenzo (De Niro) tries to instill a sense of morality in him and teach him the value of an honest day’s work. However, the boy is drawn to another father figure in the neighborhood, Sonny (Palminteri), the local mafia boss. From Sonny, Calogero learns the art of the hustle, and he begins to learn the complicated code of ethics that exists on the streets, and he earns the nickname Cee. As he grows up, Cee is caught between two worlds, the straight world, peopled by working stiffs (or suckers, as Sonny calls them) like his father, or the more glamorous life of crime and luxury that Sonny represents. To further complicate matters, Cee is coming of age at a time when the Bronx is beginning to change, with racial integration beginning in earnest, so he must also learn to navigate a world that will soon be vastly different than the one that either of his father figures came up in.

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The most compelling thing about the film, unsurprisingly, is Palminteri’s portrayal of Sonny. When he’s first introduced, the audience isn’t given much insight into his character. We first see Sonny as the young Calogero is introducing the neighborhood figures, and he points out Sonny holding court on the street corner, but he appears to be an average mobster. We learn early on that Sonny is capable of delivering lethal violence at the drop of a hat when Calogero witnesses him shoot a man over a dispute over a parking spot. After Calogero clams up and doesn’t identify Sonny as the shooter to the police, he begins to take the boy under his wing and other aspects of his personality begin to emerge. Initially, Cee is a sort of mascot and good luck charm for Sonny, serving drinks to Sonny and the other gangsters, and playing dice. In these scenes, Palminteri plays Sonny with a sense of humor and geniality, but he also gives the character more than a little undercurrent of manipulation, as it seems very apparent that he is grooming Cee for a life of crime despite the objections from Lorenzo. Sonny’s worldview is informed by an Old World code of ethics and respect and a quasi-capitalist dog-eat-dog view of economics where the strong survive by any means necessary and if the weak can’t do for themselves then they’re suckers. Despite this approach to life, however, he is capable of genuine emotion and in the later parts of the film Palminteri reveals Sonny to be a fully nuanced character, as he begins truly mentoring an older Cee. While their relationship is inherently complicated, Sonny’s motivations seem to become clearer towards the end of the film. He sees promise in Cee and tries to steer him in directions that will lead him to have a better, happier life than either Lorenzo or Sonny have had. Usually relegated to supporting or character roles, Palminteri shines as the lead in a role he created for himself. I can’t picture anyone else playing Sonny, and this is definitely Palminteri’s signature role.

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De Niro puts in a good, if unspectacular, performance as Lorenzo, a role which was out of character for him in a period when he was still best known for playing mafia figures and psychopaths. Lorenzo is definitely a supporting role in the film, but De Niro brings a presence to his scenes, creating a worthy foil to the dynamic Sonny. Sparks fly in an early scene that pairs he and Palminteri as Lorenzo furiously returns the money that his son brought home from working at the bar for Sonny. Lorenzo tells Sonny to stay away from his son, and Sonny threatens to hit him, as the two men fight over who should have the bigger influence over the boy. Lorenzo isn’t a violent man but he can’t back down as he tries to protect his family from the influence of the mafia. De Niro plays him as poor but proud, principled and hardworking. As they leave the bar, and the money, Lorenzo explains to Calogero that the only money worth having is money earned justly through work. “It don’t take much strength to pull a trigger, but try to get up every morning, day after day, and work for a living. Let’s see him try that!” he shouts at his crying son, explaining his worldview succinctly. This is probably De Niro’s best scene in the film, rising to the occasion when paired with Palminteri, but the rest of his performance is fairly workmanlike. He’s actually very good in the film, but he doesn’t stand out, nor is he intended to. His steady performance does provide a bedrock for the film, though, and it’s also likely that his focus was diverted due to his responsibilities behind the camera as the director of his first feature.

Like most directorial debuts, A Bronx Tale is a bit hit or miss, but De Niro wasn’t a neophyte to filmmaking, having been one of the most famous and successful actors of the last 20 years. Overall the film is strong, and while it does certainly owe a debt of influence to other mafia films, it has a unique tone and approach to the genre. Visually, the film is reminiscent of early Scorsese, although the camerawork isn’t as virtuosic, but the way De Niro chooses to shoot the neighborhood and the people in it feels familiar. The Bronx, particularly the street corner that houses Sonny’s bar and Cee’s home, becomes a central character in the film. De Niro does some of his best visual storytelling tracking along with cars and up and down the avenues, capturing the essence of the neighborhood. The film also features a great soundtrack, using classics of the 1950s and 60s to establish a sense of place and period. It’s a shame that De Niro often forsakes these obvious strengths in visually and cinematically interesting storytelling for an overreliance on redundant, needlessly expository voiceover. I don’t know if this is another influence of De Niro’s mentor Scorsese or maybe just a lack of confidence in his visual storytelling ability, but the film would be better off without much of its voiceover. Overall, though, De Niro makes strong directorial choices and I’d be interested to have seen him return to this role more frequently, although he’s only directed one other film, 2006’s The Good Shepherd.

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One thing that stood out to me while watching the film again for this post was its somewhat ambivalent treatment of race relations. The film’s second half introduces the topic of neighborhood integration as Cee meets and instantly falls in love with a black classmate, Jane (Taral Hicks), at the same time that his friends from the neighborhood are taking umbrage with the presence of young black men beginning to move into their neighborhood. The film’s depiction of racism is frank and, I’m sure, real for the time period, as name-calling and shouting eventually escalates to physical violence as Cee’s friends attack a group of black teens riding by on bikes. While Cee tries, halfheartedly, for fear of losing face with his friends, to intervene, his friends savagely beat the other teens and then leave them for dead when the police start to show up. Shortly thereafter, Cee is supposed to pick Jane up for a date, but when he meets her, he finds out that her brother was the one who was beaten up by his friends and has told her that Cee was involved. He pleads his case with her but she won’t believe him and leaves, but not before Cee shouts at her brother, calling him the N word. Though the film ultimately supports the interracial relationship of Jane and Cee, and Cee’s racist friends are burned alive in their car, getting comeuppance for their increasingly violent and sadistic actions, that moment where Cee shouts a racial slur is jarring and out of character for him up to that point in the film. It’s meant to be understood that it’s uttered out of frustration, and doesn’t represent Cee’s true character or beliefs, but it’s a real moment and it barely gets acknowledged with Jane’s forgiveness coming too quickly and seeming unwarranted. Overall I think that the film has a positive outlook and message on race relations, and I applaud the frank, realistic depiction of racial tensions, but the resolutions might be just a little too convenient for my taste. That scene keeps sticking out to me as unresolved, but it doesn’t detract from the quality of the film in general.

On the whole, A Bronx Tale is a mixed bag. There’s enough originality to the film to help it stand out from the glut of similar crime movies released around the same time, but the film also wears its primary influences on its sleeve. Palminteri is excellent, and although I’ve always had a problem with Brancato, Jr.’s portrayal of the older Cee, the rest of the cast is very good. There are the building blocks of a better film here, but much of the time, its theatrical roots show through too much and cause the film to feel distinctly uncinematic. When the film tries to get more serious and address social issues, it largely drops the ball, but at least A Bronx Tale doesn’t fall into the same trap of romanticizing Italian racism that I’ve felt from other gangster films, including some classics that I really do love. A Bronx Tale isn’t a forgotten classic or a must see film. It falls squarely in a category of films that I call “hangover cinema,” familiar movies that are good enough to keep one’s attention on television while nursing a hangover on the couch, but not necessarily good enough to pick out off the shelf and watch frequently. It has its flaws, but for fans of the genre, it will be satisfying enough entertainment.