Iron Monkey

Iron Monkey (1993)

Dir. Yuen Woo-Ping

Written by: Tan Cheung, Tai-Muk Lau, Pik-Yin Tang, Tsui Hark

Starring: Rongguang Yu, Donnie Yen, Jean Wang, James Wong

 

I picked up Iron Monkey on DVD in 2003, sight unseen, at my local Circuit City. I’ve written my high school interest in kung fu movies to death, but that isn’t the only thing that led me to grab a copy of this particular movie that day. The final deciding factor between me grabbing Iron Monkey and yet another bad English transfer of a Bruce Lee classic was the phrase “Quentin Tarantino Presents” above the film’s title on the DVD cover. At that time, Tarantino was the major cinematic gatekeeper and influence in my life, and an endorsement from him was enough to get me to plunk down $15 on a random kung fu flick that I didn’t even realize was already ten years old. When I got home, I found the movie to be an exciting and delightful addition to my little collection of martial arts movies. It was fresh, and seemed thoroughly modern; in fact, I don’t think that I even realized it was made in the early 1990s until after I had watched it several times. Once again, I had trusted QT, the cinephile’s director, to lead me to an influential classic, and once again, he had delivered.

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Set in Imperial China, Iron Monkey is a sort of Robin Hood tale. The kind Dr. Yang (Yu) and his assistant, Miss Orchid (Wang), care for the poor and sick, while a corrupt provincial governor, Cheng (Wong), hoards both wealth and food, keeping his citizens in poverty and squalor. By night, the governor and his wealthy courtesans are menaced by a masked ninja, known as the Iron Monkey, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Cheng attempts to employ a squad of disgraced Shaolin monks to capture the Iron Monkey, but to no avail. Meanwhile, a stranger, Wong Kei-ying (Yen), arrives in town with his son, Wong Fei-hong (Angie Tsang) in tow. The governor’s guards believe him to be the Iron Monkey, so they arrest father and son, but the real Iron Monkey arrives to free them. While Wong Kei-ying initially fights the Iron Monkey to a draw in an attempt to clear his name and prove his devotion to the governor, the two eventually join forces when Wong Fei-hong is captured. When a new governor, the disgraced Shaolin monk, Hin-Hung (Yen Shi-kwan), is sent from the emperor, Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-ying have to fight with all of their strength to defeat him and restore power to the people of the province.

The plot of Iron Monkey is fairly typical, borrowing as it does from traditional Chinese folk history, as well as from the archetypal history of figures in the popular imagination such as Robin Hood. Of course, few viewers are looking for nuanced, layered storytelling when they sit down to enjoy this type of action film. Fans of the kung fu genre will appreciate the film as an origin story for cult hero Wong Fei-hong, as well as for its nods to Chinese folklore and history. Western audiences will likely be attracted to the film’s quick pace and light tone, with the American release being edited both for content and for length. Everyone can likely agree that it’s a film that delivers on the promise of well-choreographed and well-executed action set pieces, and that it mixes in plenty of comedy and intrigue, which is a signature of the Hong Kong studio style. Though it’s obviously stylistically very different that these films, Iron Monkey has the same sort of crossover appeal that Jackie Chan’s action movies were experiencing in America in the mid-1990s, although I can understand why it wasn’t released domestically until after the kung fu craze of the early-2000s that was kicked off by the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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I think the biggest takeaway I had from watching Iron Monkey again for the first time in many, many years, was how much I enjoyed watching Donnie Yen’s fight performance. He’s such a versatile and smooth performer, incorporating many different styles of martial arts into his fight scenes. I think that the last thing that I saw Yen in was Star Wars: Rogue One, in which he plays a blind Jedi who is able to move through the world guided by the Force, and this sort of natural flow is on display in Iron Monkey. Yen is also aided by performing in scenes directed by the venerable Hong Kong veteran, and eventual famed Hollywood fight choreographer, Yuen Woo-Ping. The film’s final fight scene, in which Iron Monkey and Wong Kei-ying battle Hin-Hung held up perfectly to my memories of it. The final fight takes place atop bamboo poles, which the combatants have climbed to escape a raging fire that has broken out in the town square. Yen and Yu perform acrobatic stunts, lithely leaping from pole to pole, dressed identically, while Yen Shi-kwan appears impossibly big and powerful, stalking across the poles as the battle arena drastically shrinks while the poles are engulfed in flames. It’s a study in contrasting styles, as are so many climactic fights in these types of movies, but the setting, the charisma of the performers, and the excellent direction by Yuen add up to make it an all-time classic. It’s a fitting ending to for a movie that is the embodiment of a certain brand of Hong Kong studio action films of its period.

I’ve been looking forward to this post for a while now because Iron Monkey is an old favorite of mine, and, like the majority of the kung fu movies in my collection, I’ve neglected returning to it for too long. It was just as good as I remembered it being, and there were a handful of elements of the movie I had forgotten that enriched my enjoyment of it. I didn’t remember at all that it was a Wong Fei-hong origin story, and I suppose that I wasn’t aware of the fact that through its association with Tsui Hark, who is a producer and credited writer on the film, Iron Monkey operates as an adjacent film or even prequel to the Once Upon A Time in China series. I don’t know about Iron Monkey’s availability in America before its 2001 limited theatrical release and this subsequent DVD release, but I would imagine that it might have been available at some point on premium cable, and almost certainly it was available on a bootleg VHS somewhere. I know that I might not have encountered it were it not for a push from one of my favorite filmmakers at the time, and I’m glad that I did because this is definitely one of the superior martial arts movies of the 1990s.

Inside Man

Inside Man (2006)

Dir. Spike Lee

Written by: Russel Gewirtz

Starring: Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, Jodie Foster, Chiwetel Ejiofor

 

No Crooklyn or Clockers. No 25th Hour, which is likely my favorite Spike Lee joint, and no Do The Right Thing, which is a glaring omission in my collection. The only movie directed by Spike Lee that I own (aside from his excellent four part Hurricane Katrina docu-series, When the Levee Broke) is Inside Man, and while it might not be as iconic as some of Spike’s earlier work, watching it again served as a reminder that he’s a filmmaker with an instantly recognizable style that has proved to be perfectly malleable to different genres and modes of filmmaking. Inside Man finds Spike working from an original script that largely eschews politics or issues of race, and delivering a top-rate thriller that stands up alongside the classic heist movies that influenced it. The casting is excellent, the script provides a roller coaster of twists and turns, and Spike’s direction proves as deft as ever, brilliantly capturing the action in a way that feels immediate and artistic. I hadn’t watched this movie in a long time, but I remembered it being a favorite of mine the year that it was released, and the rewatch reaffirmed my suspicions that this should be a sneaky entry into the best Spike Lee movies conversation.

Inside Man doesn’t set out to reinvent the wheel when it comes to the heist genre, but it does provide enough twists and turns along the way that it should keep even attentive first time viewers guessing until the very end of the movie. The movie is really quite simple, with a group of bank robbers, disguised as a painting crew and led by the charismatic thief Dalton Russell (Owen), descend upon the First Manhattan Bank. They set about rounding up the tellers and customers, and force all of their hostages to put on matching painter’s jumpsuits, effectively erasing the distinction between hostage and thief. Detective Keith Frazier (Washington) is the hostage negotiator assigned to the bank robbery, and when he and his partner, Detective Bill Mitchell (Ejiofor), arrive on the scene, the action begins in earnest. The cat and mouse game between Dalton and Frazier plays out as expected, with Dalton seeming to maintain the upper hand nearly throughout. The dynamics change, however, when Madeleine White (Foster), something of a fixer for the very rich and powerful, enters into the negotiations on behalf of the bank’s founder, Arthur Chase (Christopher Plummer). The trio circle around one another, each attempting to broker the best deal for his or her chosen side, until the hostage situation ends dramatically with Dalton releasing his hostages immediately before a SWAT unit bursts through the bank’s front doors. Dozens of people tumble out of the bank and into the street, all dressed identically, and from there it’s up to the police to not only determine the “who” and “what” of the robbery, but also the “why.”

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Right off the bat, one of the biggest things that Inside Man has going for it is its phenomenal cast. Denzel Washington and Clive Owen are perfect foils, and although they only share one major scene in the film, the polar opposite energies in their performances are a driving force behind the film. Detective Frazier is a vintage Denzel role, and the officer’s cocksure style and verbose nature provide ample opportunity for Washington to chew the scenery and put his signature perfectly delivered line performance on display. He’s completely in his element in Inside Man, and the back-slapping, bullshitting, charismatic performance is a pleasure to watch. It’s matched by Owen’s quieter, less embellished work as the film’s antagonist. He plays Dalton Russell as the literal embodiment of the platitude, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” While he maintains control of the hostage situation through immaculate planning and execution, he also engages in well-timed bursts of violence to keep his hostages frightened and confused. Owen is convincing as both the mastermind of a perfect crime and as a madman willing to kill anyone who would stand in the way of the completion of his goals. As the third lead, Foster doesn’t get quite the screen time that her male counterparts enjoy, but she makes the most of her big scenes. She matches the gravitas of legendary actor Christopher Plummer, conceding nothing in her steely performance. I’m not a huge fan of the way that Madeleine White is written as a character, because her lack of backstory and depth kind of makes her seem like a career-focused automaton, but Foster is adept in the role, and she brings a hard directness to her negotiation style that well complements both Washington’s conversational style and Owen’s more reticent, intellectually guarded position.

The larger lesson of the film Inside Man is that a story is truly in the telling, and both the film’s form and content support that position. Spike Lee lends his visual panache to an already well-written crime film from first-time screenwriter Gewirtz. He moves his camera restlessly to mirror the disorientation that the blindfolded and bound hostages must feel. He features some masterful tracking shots both inside the bank and in the street outside of it. While Inside Man might not be as formally inventive as Do The Right Thing or The 25th Hour, Spike includes a few strange moments where he harkens to some of his more experimental and independent roots. One brief tracking shot where Detective Frazier appears to float directly at the camera springs to mind immediately. The directorial choice to tell the story out of order, interspersing the presentation of the robbery and negotiation with interrogations of hostages and robbers after the fact, also leads to a richer telling, maintaining the audience’s lack of narrative surety and keeping them strung along until the very end. The film’s ending, which plays out like a prophecy and is somewhat reminiscent of the ending of The Usual Suspects, never fails to leave a smile on my face. It’s a perfect bow on this present of a movie that begs to be unwrapped more than once.

Film Title: Inside Man.

Inside Man was well received when it was released, both commercially and critically, but it isn’t a movie that immediately pops into my mind when I’m thinking about movies from that period in time, or about Spike Lee movies. I really should consider it more, because it’s an enjoyable experience every time I watch it, and even though I’m more than familiar with the movie’s myriad plot twists, it doesn’t seem any less satisfying rewatching it several times. I have to accredit this to the cast’s perfect embodiment of their respective roles and to Spike Lee’s impeccable direction. Even though he came onto the project essentially as a hired gun, he reportedly relished the opportunity to direct a modern take on Dog Day Afternoon, and his enthusiasm shows. Even working from someone else’s source material, the telling of the tale is all Spike Lee. The movie’s tone and visual style, its subtle references to American racial politics, its essential “New York-ness,” are all signature elements of a classic Spike Lee joint. If you haven’t seen Inside Man, I’ve tried to avoid any real spoilers here so go out and track it down for yourself. If you have seen Inside Man, don’t hesitate to give it another shot because it’s a richly rewarding and engaging film.

 

POST SCRIPT

I missed my deadline on this post for the first time in a while with this project. While I typically try to work 2-3 weeks ahead of time, my months of October and November have been hectic, both personally and professionally, and I’ve been left with less and less time to work on this project. I’m hoping that in the next few weeks my schedule will be more accomodating and that I’ll be able to continue working up to the standard that I hope to uphold for this writing.

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Dir. Quentin Tarantino

Written by: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz

 

Despite him being my favorite filmmaker when I was in high school, and despite the fact that engaging with Tarantino’s cinema was one of the most important and influential developments in my early introduction to the movies, I really fell off of Quentin Tarantino almost immediately after high school. The Kill Bill movies were released at the beginning and the end of my senior year of high school, and I remember spending much of the ensuing summer under the thrall of their pastiche of cinematic influences, continuing my love affair with Hong Kong action cinema and getting more seriously interested in Sergio Leone. When I came to Pittsburgh for college, however, I found myself with access to a wealth of movies to explore, and I was eager to explore the texts that had informed the post-modern cinema of my favorite director. Somewhere along the way, revisiting Tarantino’s actual films seemed less and less important. Death Proof, released the summer before my senior year of college, didn’t move the needle for me, and I don’t think I saw Inglourious Basterds until as much as a year after its initial release. Missing it on the big screen is a big regret of mine, since I’ve seen every other Tarantino since Kill Bill: Vol 1 in the theater, and because after nearly a decade of returning to Inglourious Basterds, I’ve found it to be my favorite 21st century Tarantino movie. It might be the quintessential Tarantino film, perhaps more so than even Pulp Fiction, and the more I watch it, the closer, and more comfortable, I get to declaring it my favorite Tarantino movie ever.

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Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s revisionist history of World War II, framed through the lens of Italian B- action movies, American Westerns, both classic and revisionist, and the European New Wave cinemas of the 1960s. It finds Tarantino at his most appropriative, and at his most original, weaving a tapestry of these disparate styles to create a pattern that’s distinctively unique, while fabricating from whole cloth a compelling narrative worthy of a 1940s dime store pulp serial. Set in and around occupied Paris, Inglourious Basterds introduces the audience to a cast of misfits – American soldiers, defected former-Nazis, English spies, and one vengeful French Jewish cinema owner – who are brought together by their fervor for killing Nazis. The titular Basterds are a renegade squad made up primarily of American Jews and led by Lieutenant Aldo Raines (Pitt), feared throughout Europe for their penchant for ambushing and murdering entire Nazi units. Shoshanna Dreyfus (Laurent), is a French Jew hiding out in Paris and posing as a cinema owner, whose whole family was killed by an infamous Nazi interrogator, Hans Landa, nicknamed The Jew Hunter (Waltz), who also happens to be on the trail of the Basterds. Through a chance meeting with an over-eager Nazi war hero, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), Shoshanna’s cinema is chosen to host the propaganda film that Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has made about Zoller’s military exploits. This screening is to be attended by much of the high brass of the Third Reich, including Hitler (Martin Wuttke) himself, which prompts Shoshanna to launch a plan to burn down the theater with the Nazis inside. All of the involved parties are put on a collision course culminating in the film’s literally explosive climax during the film’s premiere.

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I’ll be writing about two of the movies that Tarantino directed in between Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds within the next couple of months, so I won’t delve into either Jackie Brown or Kill Bill, but after watching Inglourious Basterds for the sixth or seventh time, I feel more assured than I ever have that this is Tarantino’s best work post-Pulp Fiction. It’s tough for me to take any of the credit away from the latter film, as it has rightly gained a classic status for its role in shaping post-modernism in cinema, its announcement of Tarantino as a major influencer and voice in independent film, and its radical reinvention of visual and narrative cinematic language. That being said, I am really starting to think that Inglourious Basterds does everything that Tarantino’s earlier film does while also improving upon some of Pulp Fiction’s rougher edges. Simply put, Inglourious Basterds is the work of a more mature filmmaker. By 2009, Tarantino had already fully established his signature style of cinematic collage, wearing his wide set of influences on his sleeve, and often straddling the line between homage and plagiarism, but Inglourious Basterds is the movie that sees him mastering his style and seamlessly meshing his own visual aesthetic with the visual and storytelling styles of his influences in service of a tight narrative, creating a sharp film in which form and content are perfectly complementary. It’s a blend of the artistic modernism embodied by the French New Wave and the exciting, slapdash postmodernism of the New Wave of American independent film that established itself in the 1990s.

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Inglourious Basterds also features the single best performance in a Tarantino film in Waltz’s truly terrifying turn as The Jew Hunter. The film’s masterfully suspenseful opening scene is the perfect introduction to Waltz’s truly villainous SS Col. Hans Landa. He plays the Nazi interrogator with equal parts sophisticated charm, savage brutality, and ruthless cunning, creating a layered villain who is as fearsome for his silver tongue as he is for his abject viciousness. In the scene, Landa is interrogating a French farmer, M. LaPadite (Denis Ménochet), who is suspected of hiding a Jewish family in his home. The Jew Hunter begins his investigation by complementing and cajoling with the farmer, but of course this is a pretense, as both parties are well aware of the deadly consequences that will befall LaPadite and his family should his wards be discovered, or if he resists the line of questioning in any way. The two actors circle around one another verbally as Tarantino allows the scene to play out languorously, tension building by the second. There’s no doubt as to the outcome of the scene, but this doesn’t make the moment when Landa calls in his goons to machine gun the poor family hiding beneath the floor boards any less shocking or viscerally horrible. The violence isn’t what makes the scene so particularly horrifying, but rather the fact that Landa has been building to this particular climax with a smile pasted to his face, relishing the discomfort he is causing in LaPadite. The character’s erudition and charm are insufficient to mask his inner monstrosity, and Waltz is perfectly cast as an actor who at once can embody the exterior of societal niceties, as well as the flinty interior of a cold-hearted, remorseless killer.

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Inglourious Basterds also finds Tarantino drawing from a broader set of influences than in many of his earlier films. While Jackie Brown drew its inspiration solely from the world of Blacksploitation films and Kill Bill operates in a Western milieu, with dashes of Hong Kong action and Wuxia thrown in for good measure, Inglorious Basterds is a beautiful pastiche, borrowing liberally from the works of John Ford, Sergio Leone, Leni Riefenstahl, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Howard Hawks, as well as featuring homages to famous films such as The Wizard of Oz, The Dirty Dozen, and Unforgiven, among others. The film is a love letter to classic cinema, and it’s the Tarantino film which most explicitly highlights his cinephilia, placing films and their exhibition at the core of its narrative. I’ve heard a criticism of Tarantino and of post-modernist filmmaking in general that it offers up great style with little substance, essentially functioning as a checklist of “in” references to be discovered by fellow movie nerds, but I’ve always felt that that criticism is hollow and really doesn’t stand up to the actual experience of watching a Tarantino film. The director might bear his influences proudly and obviously, but his frequent liberal borrowing from film texts always serves as a complement to original and engaging narratives, and this is truer than ever in Inglourious Basterds. Certainly Tarantino has lifted some settings and motifs from earlier films, but they serve as the window dressing for a revisionist history fable that is thoroughly modern and original and that, at the same time, couldn’t exist without being informed and influenced by its predecessors. In this way Inglourious Basterds forms a feedback loop, or an Ouroboros, a B-movie that achieves actual prestige, propped up by a host of earlier texts while also informing those texts and imbuing them with new meaning and life. It’s the perfect Quentin Tarantino movie.

I reserve the right to reevaluate this judgment when I soon write about Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, but I don’t expect that I will. While those are both movies that I love and that I relish the opportunity to engage with in a more critical manner, I think that I am familiar enough with them all that at this point my mind is made up. Inglourious Basterds achieves levels of meaning and critical engagement with its influences that those movies fail to, and it’s a better movie for that reason. It lacks the shock factor that must have accompanied Pulp Fiction’s initial release in 1994, but only because it takes a similar, and already accepted, template and perfects it. Tarantino followed up Inglourious Basterds with two films that I enjoyed, but that I felt were more style than substance and which I haven’t had a lot of interest in going back to in the way that I have with all of his other films. As a fan for life, I’ll turn up with interest for any new Tarantino project, but it will difficult to top the high water mark that Inglourious Basterds holds in my mind.

Identity

Identity (2003)

Dir. James Mangold

Written by: Michael Cooney

Starring: John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, John Hawkes

 

Identity has been quietly resting on my shelf for a decade, unwatched. It’s a disc that got mixed into my collection from a previous roommate at some point, and I have never had the urge to watch it. I saw Identity in the theater, with this same eventual roommate, no less, and I can remember both of us being wholly unimpressed with the movie, and with its prominent plot twist. In the years following up the success of The Sixth Sense and M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent couple of movies, it seemed like the game-changing plot twist was the flavor of the month for Hollywood studio thrillers, and I think that some fatigue from the overwhelmingness of the trend led to my total dismissal of Identity. I largely forgot about the movie until discovering it in a box of DVDs when I moved into the house that I’ve been living in for the last six years, and in the time between then and my decision to start this project, I only thought of Identity, cursorily, as a real-life version of “The Three,” Donald Kaufman’s asinine screenplay from Adaptation. in which all three principal characters are revealed to be the same person. Since starting this project, however, Identity has loomed large in the back of my mind as a movie that I was both anticipating and dreading screening and writing about. I fully anticipated Identity to be, at best, a generic and predictable thriller not worthy of the collected talent that it assembles, and, at worst, a derivative and implausible B-movie driven by a third act plot twist it doesn’t earn. Maybe it was the low bar that I had going in, but I was pleasantly surprised by Identity, and I found most of my remembrances of it from 15 years ago to be incorrect.

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Identity begins by introducing Malcolm Rivers (Pruitt Taylor Vince), an inmate set to be executed for several brutal murders. Rivers’s legal team and psychologist, Dr. Malick (Alfred Molina), file a midnight appeal for a stay of execution, arguing a legal defense of insanity citing new evidence that has come to light in the form of a diary. The midnight hearing is assembled during a tremendous storm, and begins without Malick, who is being transported from prison. At the same time, a group of ten strangers become stranded at a roadside motel, forced to bed down for the night due to the storm. They include a former cop, Ed (Cusack), who is now working as a limousine driver, a Nevada state trooper, Rhodes (Liotta), who is transporting a convicted murderer, a prostitute on her way to a new life in Florida, Paris (Peet), and the hotel’s manager, Larry (Hawkes). The group have come together in spectacularly coincidental fashion, which is shown in a flashback, involving a family getting a flat tire from striking a loose high heel that flew out of one of Paris’s suitcases. The mother, Alice (Leila Kenzle), is struck by Ed’s limousine when he is distracted by his passenger, the actress Caroline Suzanne (Rebecca de Mornay). Ed brings the injured woman to the motel in search of a working phone, and while he is trying to get help for her, the rest of the group assembles at the motel. As they realize they are stranded for the night and begin to bed down, a killer starts to pick them off one by one, leaving motel keys with the bodies, counting down from 10 to 1. The group begins a paranoid hunt for the killer, and the bodies continue to pile up in rapid fashion, while at the same time the survivors begin to discover more inexplicable coincidences, such as the fact that they all share a birthday. Meanwhile, as the competency hearing continues, and Rivers arrives, the extent of his multiple personality disorder is revealed, and it becomes apparent that the events at the motel are the representation of the psychic trauma of Rivers’s multiple identities being dragged to the surface and vying for primacy in his mind. Dr. Malick makes contact with the Ed personality and urges him to save Rivers’s life by eliminating the personality that drove him to commit the murders, and the action returns to the motel for the film’s climax.

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While Identity certainly owes a massive artistic debt to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, even going so far as to obliquely reference one of the novel’s many film adaptations, it still managed to feel relatively fresh to me. While the film’s revelation that all of the characters at the motel only exist inside of Rivers’s mind is a little bit predictable, Identity still managed to largely keep me interested and on my toes. The movie brings in the twist a little too early, but it leads up to it with a series of McGuffins and red herrings that I actually found to be pretty satisfying. It’s a movie that strives towards prestige, and though it doesn’t quite achieve the level of a top thriller, it’s a workmanlike effort that I found to be much more enjoyable than I ever would have imagined. Mangold turns the desert motel into a disorienting funhouse maze, utilizing canted angles, tight shot framings around corners and down narrow hallways between the buildings, and the persistent rain and gloom, to disrupt the audience’s sense of visual continuity of space. While the mystery isn’t particularly compelling after it’s revealed that the characters are all psychic projections, up to that point, the film’s visual style and a few well-timed surprise killings had me heavily invested in discovering the killer’s identity. I had the knowledge that Ed, Rhodes, Paris, and the others are all just manifestations of Rivers’s psyche tucked away in the back of my mind, but the taut editing and brisk storytelling of the first segment at the motel all but made me forget that the reveal was coming.

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The film’s cast, which is surprisingly stacked for a movie of this sort, also does a lot of heavy lifting in making Identity a more successful film than it otherwise might have been. I don’t think that either Cusack or Liotta, who are the leads of this deep ensemble, are particularly inspired in their performances. Both of them are as solid as they typically are, but neither really brings much new to the table, either. The supporting cast, however, comes on strongly, with Peet doing a nice job of maximizing her role as the film’s third lead. She’s steely and resilient, managing to give some depth to a character that is probably a bit underwritten. We don’t get many specific details about Paris’s back story, but Peet’s performance gives hints towards the type of life that she’s running from. John Hawkes, who I had completely forgotten was in the movie, is the real gem in the supporting cast, though. While his character seems at first to be relegated to a comic relief role, his story is fleshed out and given a surprisingly dark makeover halfway through the film, and the shift in how the audience perceives his character from that point is a testament to Hawks’s versatility as an actor. He goes from being agitated and put-upon to eluding a quiet menace after it’s revealed that he isn’t actually the hotel manager, but that he found the manager dead one day and assumed his responsibilities while hiding his body in the freezer. All the while, though, he imbues Larry with the sympathy-evoking beaten dog qualities that are so common in Hawkes’s characters. The strong assemblage of veteran character actors that round out the cast, and the A-list stars in the film, help lift it above genre material and convincingly sell a movie that might otherwise have collapsed under the weight of a less-than-novel structure and narrative contrivance.

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I was actually really satisfied that I found myself to be a bigger fan of Identity that I had expected. I’ve written before that I don’t particularly enjoy writing about movies that I don’t like and that I find it difficult to produce quality writing about films that I don’t think are of a very high quality. I was totally psyched up to write about how much I hated Identity, but, luckily, I was able to avoid that and instead write about what a pleasant surprise it was that this movie wasn’t total trash. Of course the movie has its faults. It really is fairly predictable, with its major twist being telegraphed from the beginning, but it packs in enough genuine surprises along the way that it makes up for the larger lack of mystery surrounding its central narrative. I don’t see myself returning to Identity anytime soon, and I wouldn’t really recommend that anyone go out of their way to see it, because it really is a pretty paint-by-numbers example of a thriller, but it’s a decent enough diversion. It’s the sort of movie that if I caught it on basic cable in another decade I would probably have forgotten about all over again, but I guess that could make the rediscovery that much more satisfying. There’s not anything being offered here that hasn’t been done before, and probably done better, as well, but the cast is solid and the atmospherics are actually quite well done. Identity isn’t the sort of twist movie that requires a lot of active thinking or reflection on the part of its audience, but it’s an entertaining enough ride if you want to turn your brain off for a while.

Hot Fuzz

Hot Fuzz (2007)

Dir. Edgar Wright

Written by: Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg

Starring: Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Jim Broadbent, Timothy Dalton

 

I can remember the anticipation surrounding the second installment in Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy” (though I doubt it was referred to as such at the time) leading up to its release in the spring of 2007. The trilogy’s first entry, Shaun of the Dead had been a cult hit upon its release, and it had become a favorite of mine in the few years after its release. Of course my friends and I were eagerly awaiting the sequel, and Hot Fuzz definitely did not disappoint. The comedic team of Wright, Pegg, and Frost shift their sense of humor and aesthetic from the horror genre to the action blockbuster and they don’t miss a beat in the process. I don’t think I felt this way at the time, but I think that they managed to improve upon Shaun of the Dead in every way with Hot Fuzz. The film is bigger in every way, and Wright starts to really come into his own as a visual filmmaker as he attempts to ape the style of Michael Mann and Michael Bay. I love all three movies that make up this oddly-named trilogy, but Hot Fuzz has always been the standout for me. Despite that fact, it’s the entry in the trilogy that I had watched least recently, probably not having watched it since shortly after I purchased The World’s End. As always, it didn’t disappoint.

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In Hot Fuzz, hotshot cop Nicholas Angel (Pegg) finds himself transferred from the London police department to Sandford, a sleepy, rural town in the English countryside. Upon arrival, Angel has trouble adjusting to the slower pace and lack of crime in Sandford, as well as to his slovenly, unskilled partner, Danny (Frost). The town elders, however, including Danny’s father, Frank (Broadbent), who is the chief of police, and the local grocer, Simon Skinner (Dalton), hope to keep Sandford quiet and crime free to boost their image in the upcoming Village of the Year competition. When villagers start dying in a series of unlikely freak accidents, Angel begins an investigation that threatens to damage Sandford’s reputation and standing in the competition. He and Danny continue their inquest into the deaths, despite the protestations of the village elders, and discover a secret that Sandford has been keeping under wraps for generations.

As I mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to pick a favorite out of the three films that make up Wright, Pegg, and Frost’s feature film collaborations. All three films feature a perfect blend of cheeky parody and reverent homage to the genres that they’re working in. All three films feature perfect casting, with a collection of characters that are both outlandish and utterly relatable. And, finally, all three films use the shield of adherence to genre sensibilities as a Trojan Horse for a heartfelt story about the development of a relationship, whether it be romantic or platonic. Shaun of the Dead laid out the template for the Cornetto Trilogy, and established its creative brain trust to worldwide audiences. The World’s End felt like something of a victory lap, with the whole gang getting back together for one last romp through the familiar landscape that had been established in the first two films. Hot Fuzz, the second entry in the trilogy, stands head and shoulders above those two as the crystallization of the Cornetto aesthetic and as Wright’s ultimate parodic achievement. It broadens the scope of Shaun of the Dead while maintaining its independent feel, and stops short of pulling out all of the narrative stops that The World’s End is determined to barrel right through. It introduces a more complex story with better and more interesting supporting characters that Shaun of the Dead, and the blockbuster milieu in which the film operates gives Wright full license to start branching out and developing as a visual filmmaker.

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When I first saw Shaun of the Dead in 2005, it seemed like a perfect answer to the glut of studio comedies that had been clogging American theaters during the beginning of that decade. While I enjoyed, and still rather do enjoy, the comedic stylings of Judd Apatow, Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, and Will Ferrell, I was quickly starting to age out of their more sophomoric movies, and discovering the offbeat humor of Pegg, Frost, and Wright felt like a breath of fresh air. That sense was only expanded upon when I saw Hot Fuzz, with the film packing in more memorable supporting roles for great British character actors, more reverent, humorous genre send ups, and more perfectly-timed asides and one-liners. Pegg playing against type as the uber-competent Nick Angel is a great wrinkle in Hot Fuzz that adds to its comedy quotient. Frost expands on his fairly dim everyman best friend character from Shaun of the Dead, ably providing both physical comedy and a broad foil for Pegg’s frustrated cop. The scenario that the three dreamed up for Hot Fuzz, involving a shadowy cabal of village elders who have been engaging in a decades-long covert war against petty crime in Sandford, is more involved and audacious than the simplistic narrative pleasures afforded by Shaun of the Dead. It’s a sublimely absurd conspiracy that’s played totally straight throughout the film, and the principal antagonists being a malicious group of Boomers dead set on maintaining their own standards of proper decorum rather than a gang or a drug cartel is a perfect send up that turns a foundational trope of the action genre on its head.

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November will have to be a month of shorter posts by necessity for me, so I won’t get too much more involved with Hot Fuzz. It’s a movie that I think most people should have seen by this point because, while it hasn’t necessarily gained the cult following of its predecessor, it was more widely successful upon its release than the other two entries in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy. That success is well deserved and reflective of Hot Fuzz’s impact on a big screen. It deserves a spot in the canon of early 21st century comedies, but it is every bit as entertaining and valuable as a meta-action movie. Wright, Frost, and Pegg have created a love letter to the genre more compelling, more thoughtful, and more nuanced than any Expendables sequel could hope to be. Though I haven’t had a cable subscription in about five years, I wonder if Hot Fuzz has ascended to the once-vaunted status of TBS weekend afternoon movie. I’ve written before about the existence of these movies in the 1990s and early 2000s, when I was a pre-teen and teen, that aired on cable on the weekends and gained an iconic, populist-classic status, despite, or perhaps because of, their lack of prestige trappings. Popcorn fare like Point Break, Con Air, Bad Boys, movies that if they were on, I’d more than likely just stop and watch through until the end if I didn’t have anything else to do. I think that Hot Fuzz is a better movie than all of those, but it would be in perfect company among their ilk, because those are exactly the movies that Hot Fuzz is celebrating. It’s a perfect, fun, funny, movie that can be just as satisfying for a mid-afternoon partial watch as it is to dissect for a tenth time, picking up on clues to the film’s central mystery and sly jokes along the way.

Holy Motors

Holy Motors (2012)

Dir. Leos Carax

Written by: Leos Carax

Starring: Denis Lavant, Edith Scob

 

I’ll never forget my initial attempts to see Holy Motors, a movie that I knew nothing about from a French filmmaker whom I’d never heard of, at the Three Rivers Film Festival in 2012. The film festival, organized by Pittsburgh Filmmakers every October, is an event that I look forward to as an opportunity to catch up on the year’s small indies, arthouse releases, and foreign films that didn’t find their way into wide distribution. I often go into these movies blind, choosing from the three dozen odd films based mostly on their paragraph-long blurbs on the Pittsburgh Filmmakers’ website, and this was certainly the case with Holy Motors. The promotional image chosen, of Edith Scob’s Celine donning an unsettling mask meant to be a direct homage to the French horror classic Eyes Without A Face, was enough to sell me on Holy Motors as the one movie that I absolutely had to see at the film festival that year. I tried twice to make that happen, and twice my screening had to be aborted due to projection issues. Each time, I got far enough into Leos Carax’s surrealist fairytale for it to fully sink its claws into me, and, each time, I was disappointed when I couldn’t experience the ending of this one-of-a-kind cinematic experience. I had to purchase Holy Motors on DVD a few months later when it was released just so I could see the movie in its entirety, and it is one of the most satisfying movie purchases that I’ve made in the last decade. Holy Motors is nothing short of a masterpiece of absurdity, with Carax proudly bearing the surrealist torch. It’s a unique movie experience, and one that might not be easily digested by many or most audiences, but it is, nonetheless, one of my favorite films of the 21st century.

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Holy Motors begins in a place of incoherence, with its opening scene featuring a character named “The Sleeper (Carax),” who rises from his slumber, approaches a hidden door in his bedroom wall (which resembles a forest), and opens it, stepping into a crowded cinema. The Sleeper looks down from the cinema’s balcony, where he stands alone, observing a small boy and a giant dog who prowl the aisles, as the film begins. We then meet Mr. Oscar (Lavant) who exits his home, a brutalist compound patrolled by armed guards, and is picked up in a stretch limousine driven by Céline (Scob). As the two drive away, Céline reminds Mr. Oscar of the number of appointments he has that day, and refers him to a dossier which contains the details thereof. When he arrives at his first appointment, Mr. Oscar emerges from the limousine wearing heavy prosthetics, dressed like a crone, and walking, stooped, with the assistance of a cane. On this assignment, he begs for a while, lamenting the status of the old beggar woman, forgotten and ignored by all who pass, and then returns to the limousine where he removes the false nose and teeth, preparing for his next assignment. In this assignment, Mr. Oscar accesses a high security facility, donning a motion-capture suit, and performs a seductive dance with an actress, which is revealed to be the basis of a computer animation that has turned them both into water dragons. The film continues in this way with Mr. Oscar going from assignment to assignment, assuming various roles and performing a series of vignettes, many of which are absurdist or surreal in nature. While the film continues to defy strict narrative continuity, a thematic coherence begins to emerge, with Mr. Oscar’s assignments standing for film genres and his job emerging as that of the actor and audience surrogate.

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I’ve written before about my love for movies about movies and movie-making, but Holy Motors is a tour de force of meta commentary and heady, involved film theory. This is a movie made for those who love to speculate about the role of art and media, and film, specifically, in the life of the individual and within society. It’s a veritable buffet of sumptuous imagery and provocative narrative posturing. Carax, who is importantly positioned as The Sleeper in the film’s first scene, seems to be casting his gaze across the spectrum of visual media and casting a judgment upon society’s use of film as a distraction and as a communication medium. It’s a movie that I didn’t completely understand when I first saw it, and one that I still don’t claim to have mastered. I could go to its deep well of philosophical import a hundred times and find myself drawing new insights. I think that this mystery is what made me want to go back after my initial screening cut the film off before its end, and then made me want to purchase the film after my second screening experience was botched, as well. I didn’t need to go back to Holy Motors to gain some sense of narrative completion, but rather to wash myself in its utter strangeness time and time again, and to see how Carax would tie all of these disparate, surrealist threads together in the end. I was less interested in figuring out the film’s story as I was in exploring its philosophical home base. Carax’s film opens itself up to a wide number of interpretations from a film theory standpoint. It’s just as easily read as a treatise on screen theory and the role of the spectator as it is an examination of film genres, or on post-modernism and the role of the traditional film in 21st century society, at all. As a critic, I love to wrap myself in the film’s layers and feel its all-encompassing content engulfing my brain.

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Holy Motors is an invigorating and rewarding deep dive for theory nerds, but it still retains the pleasures of watching a breezy, if sometimes inscrutable, piece of entertainment. While the film’s structure and loosely-plotted nature might turn off some casual viewers, I think that most people would find quite a bit to like about Holy Motors. For starters, Lavant puts in a great, understated performance. Though he doesn’t have a great deal of dialogue, he provides a blank template upon which the various “assignments” that Mr. Oscar acts out can exist, and those “assignments” leap into life on the screen. One early role, M. Merde, stands out as particularly memorable, with Lavant ditching the elegance of his choreographed motion capture lovemaking in favor of the animalistic, gestural M. Merde who arrives into the film as an agent of chaos. Clad in a shabby green suit, his skin and shockingly orange hair covered in filth and grime, M. Merde crawls out from a sewer, and shambles his way through a cemetery, where he feasts on graveside flowers and assaulting mourners before stumbling upon a fashion shoot. He crashes the photo shoot, kidnapping the model (Eva Mendes), and secrets her away to his subterranean lair where the two smoke cigarettes, and M. Merde eats various non-food substances, including money and the model’s hair. He then fashions her dress into a burqa and leads her deeper into the cave where he strips naked, climbing into her lap and reclining in a pose that is not dissimilar to Michelangelo’s “Pieta.” The scene is profane, perverse, and purposefully obfuscates meaning, but there is obviously some deep theological and artistic significance to this reference, and it is also absurdly comical in its trashy nature.

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Contrast this moment with one later in the film in which Mr. Oscar meets up with a former scene partner (and perhaps lover) on the way to one of his last assignments. In this scene, Lavant plays Mr. Oscar naturalistically, free of any of his previous affections. He has been aged up for the role, but otherwise isn’t heavily made up. He and Eva Grace (Kylie Minogue) reminisce about their work and time together as they leisurely explore an abandoned and crumbling hotel. The faded opulence surrounding the characters reflects the maudlin song that Eva Grace sings, the refrain of which, “Who were we when we were who we were back then?” in turn reflects the shifting nature of these characters’ identities. Who, indeed, were they when they were important to one another, and what weight does that importance really carry if they were only playing out roles. The camera largely follows Eva Grace with Mr. Oscar following behind her, somnambulant, reticent. It’s a far cry from the aggression and grotesquery with which Lavant played M. Merde. It’s fitting, though, and shows off his range well. Though little is made explicit about their relationship in the scene, the tenderness with which Mr. Oscar holds Eva Grace, and the devotion in his eyes when he watches her perform the song tell the tale well enough.  Minogue’s windswept performance is every bit as dramatic as something from a Hollywood musical, and the brief scene gives the film its heart, without ever delving into the details of the pair’s history. Carax is able to create a swell of feeling by manipulating a combination of these great subdued performances, Minogue’s expressive singing voice, a beautiful swell of well-timed strings, and a deeply evocative setting. It’s movie-making 101. Coming near the end of a film that has so wildly veered into experimental territory, this conventional scene surprisingly doesn’t feel out of place, but on the contrary provides the film with its emotional climax.

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Though its surrealist veneer and artsy trappings would likely prove difficult for many viewers to overcome, Holy Motors is the type of varied movie experience that anyone who likes movies should be able to draw some enjoyment from. It contains a handful of moments of high drama, a lot of absurdist comedy as well as sharp satire, and it borrows liberally from science fiction, horror, and action films. It’s a broad and multi-faceted piece of art that seeks to examine why people choose the distractions and the entertainments that they do, and whether film as an entertainment has the hold on the collective imagination in the 21st century that it did in the century before. In addition to being so rich with meaning for cineastes, the film is well-acted, visually sumptuous, and thematically engaging. While not every viewer might respond to the film’s metaphor of the cinema as an aging and dying art form, surely most can relate to Mr. Oscar’s concerns about his own obsolescence as he transitions into middle age, or to Céline’s obvious care and concern for Mr. Oscar, a man who she can never really know. If nothing else, its individual vignettes provide brief moments of engagement that, when taken separately, don’t add up to much, but prove that even the most esoteric of films is an entertainment, because the process of engaging with movies is fun. What makes Holy Motors successful is that even its most absurdist moments are grounded in a bedrock of strong realism, and that as convoluted as its structure and narrative might become, it continues to draw inspiration from the familiar tropes of genre films. It’s a reach for me to say that Holy Motors is accessible, because it really isn’t, but it’s so richly rewarding that I just want more people to see it. It’s the type of movie that reminds me why I fell in love with movies to begin with. It’s a big, all-encompassing, genre-bending work of art, and I want it to get as much admiration as possible.

High Plains Drifter

High Plains Drifter (1973)

Dir. Clint Eastwood

Written by: Ernest Tidyman

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Billy Curtis, Geoffrey Lewis

 

I was introduced to High Plains Drifter when it was described to me by a professor in film school as “the movie in which Clint Eastwood paints a town red and calls it Hell.” While this curt description leaves out some of the nuance of the plot, it is, at its essence, what the film is about. Though we didn’t screen High Plains Drifter in the Film Westerns class during which it was first mentioned to me, the attitude of that particular professor did a great deal to help form my own viewpoints on movies, and watching this particular film always reminds me of him. Prof. Best was as likely to recommend a Kaiju movie as he was Kurosawa, and was more interested in comics than he was in literary classics. His open-minded approach to movies and to art helped to open up my own thinking on what could or should be considered valid as a subject of academic study. If Prof. Best could champion Star Trek, Godzilla, and anime, then why shouldn’t I seek to explore the artistry in whatever text I might see fit. Breaking out of the ivory tower mentality of academia was freeing, but it was also a development that likely pushed me away from continuing to pursue my education beyond my undergraduate studies. When I entered into a graduate program at Pitt, I found that the canonization and attention to classical theory completely turned me off, and I longed for the freedom that I had found studying under Prof. Best. I’m always reminded of him when I watch High Plains Drifter, not just because he was the person who first introduced me to it, but also because it is typical of the type of B-movie that he would have found artistically valid and criminally under-considered.

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High Plains Drifter opens with a lone stranger (Eastwood) riding into the mining town of Lago. Upon his arrival, The Stranger is warned by the town’s saloon keeper that range types such as himself don’t often stop in Lago, finding the town to move too quickly for them. He insinuates that The Stranger ought to keep moving, and a trio of rough types in the saloon follow him across the street to the town barber shop, where they menace The Stranger. He takes the three by surprise, spinning out of the barber’s chair with his pistol drawn, and quickly dispatches of the trio. After having witnessed his lethal capacity, the town’s sheriff offers The Stranger the job previously held by the three roughriders that he killed, defending Lago from Stacy Bridges (Lewis) and his gang of outlaws who previously menaced the town and who are soon set to be released from prison. The Stranger learns that the town’s previous marshal was whipped to death in the street by the Bridges gang, and he is plagued by dreams of the marshal’s torture. The Stranger reluctantly accepts the job of defending the town, with the caveat that if he protects the town that the townsfolk must give him anything he wants. He takes full advantage, buying rounds for the whole bar at the saloon, loading up on supplies at the town store, and appointing Mordecai (Curtis), a dwarf, to the position of sheriff and mayor of Lago. The Stranger begins to devise a plan and instruct the townsfolk on how to defend themselves from Bridges’s gang. The Stranger’s plan involves painting the town red and staging a welcoming party for the gang, during which the townsfolk will ambush them. However, when Bridges and his outlaws are about to arrive in Lago, The Stranger rides off, leaving the townsfolk to fend for themselves, and the gang overruns the town and begins to burn it down. The Stranger returns to the town, emerging from the flames, to stalk and murder the Bridges gang. The next day, The Stranger rides out of town as Mordecai is engraving the previously unmarked grave of the murdered marshal.

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That plot summary of High Plains Drifter is a bit more involved than the one-sentence summary that had first piqued my curiosity about the movie, but its essence can really be boiled down into the fact that it is a movie in which Clint Eastwood paints a town red and calls it “Hell.” When I eventually got around to seeing the movie sometime in my early 20s, I found the pervasive strangeness and otherworldly tone of that abstract but powerfully evocative summary informed the film completely. High Plains Drifter seems equally influenced by Eastwood’s directorial mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, and by Italian horror masters Dario Argento and Mario Bava. The film initially seems to hew close to the blueprint that Leone and Eastwood had established in the “Dollars” trilogy, but it quickly adopts a rather unsettling tone and it contains supernatural elements that are rare in the Western genre. It contains a level of violence, gore, and nihilism that would have been thought unseemly for the All-American film genre just five years prior. This is a revisionist Western, through and through, and it establishes Eastwood as a director who would continue to be interested in exploring and shifting the boundaries of the Western genre. Though it’s a bit of an uneven effort, High Plains Drifter is only Eastwood’s second feature in the director’s chair, and it deserves special commendation as a wholly unique vision of the West and of the Western film.

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High Plains Drifter isn’t a great movie; in fact, I think many people would say that it isn’t even a very good movie. It doesn’t really feature any standout performances, as Eastwood is essentially reprising his Man With No Name role, and the rest of the cast suffers from sorely lacking character development. These are stock Western characters, meant more to stand in for types than to differentiate themselves from one another. The movie’s production value is also fairly low, although its sets are decently impressive, featuring full buildings rather than false fronts, which gives the town of Lago some sense of depth. Rewatching High Plains Drifter, I was struck by the sense that some of the scenes weren’t finished, featuring abrupt endings, seeming extraneous to the plot, or just not quite matching up with the tone of the rest of the film. However, I still find this to be an incredibly enjoyable viewing experience. While it isn’t perfect, High Plains Drifter nails the right balance of pulp, action, and horror, even peppering in moments of levity. It’s schlocky and campy, but I’ve always found something intriguing about Eastwood’s injection of the supernatural into a Western revenge story. It’s a fresh take on the Western and one that I’m pretty happy to explore whenever the mood strikes me. For a movie that was introduced to me in such an inauspicious way, it’s one that has become a go-to Western, despite its obvious flaws.

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I don’t know if High Plains Drifter is underseen, or if I just don’t know that many people who like Westerns, generally, but I think that it’s a really fun movie that deserves a little more attention. It isn’t as iconic or groundbreaking as Eastwood’s work with Leone in the 1960s, or as paradigm shifting as something like The Wild Bunch, but it continues the revisionist ideas of the West that those films started to explore. It’s a refutation of the idyllic vision of American society in the Old West, and despite its supernatural overtones, it’s a position that rings true to me as a viewer. Watching this movie and High Noon in succession for this project, I was struck by the honesty that the townsfolk of Lago who would stand by and watch their Marshal whipped to death in the street are a natural extension of the cowardly townsfolk of Hadleyville who abandoned Marshal Kane, leaving him to face his fate alone. The major difference is that in a classic Western such as High Noon, the basic decency and virtue of the hero is assumed, whereas in Eastwood’s savage vision of the West, decency has been stripped away in favor of vengeance. I think it’s also interesting that both of these films drew the ire of none other than John Wayne, who posited that they both misrepresented the good, honest people of the Old West. I don’t bring that up to paint Eastwood as some sort of progressive in contrast to the virulent, reactionary Wayne. I think that Eastwood is presenting the same sort of paranoid, cut-throat world view that was on display in Dirty Harry, but something about the transposition to the Western setting makes it easier for me to stomach as a viewer in 2018. There are a couple of other Eastwood films that I’ll be writing about for this project, and I’m sure that my relationship and consideration of him as an actor, star persona, and director won’t get any less complicated, but I think that High Plains Drifter is a movie of his that I can pretty wholeheartedly endorse. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s a really fun Western that inverts many conventions and traditions of the genre, and it offers enough stylistic variance to please fans of other genres, as well.

High Noon

High Noon (1952)

Dir. Fred Zinnemann

Written by: Carl Foreman (from the magazine story by John W. Cunningham)

Starring: Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, Lloyd Bridges

 

It’s a bit surprising to me how few Westerns I’ve written about so far in this project. There will certainly be more upcoming, but, for a favorite style of mine, the Western genre is somewhat underrepresented in my collection. High Noon is one of the most classic examples of the golden age of Hollywood Westerns, and it stands out in contrast to the later Westerns of Sergio Leone that I’ve already written about, and even to the contemporary output of Western auteur John Ford. High Noon is something of a morality tale, and an allegory for the HUAC hearings led by Joseph McCarthy, with the film using the quintessential American film genre to subvert conventionally understood “American values” of the time. It’s one of the most important movies of its time, both for its content and message, and for its unique presentation of a story unfolding in real time. Watching it for this project, however, I was left wondering how a movie like High Noon might connect with modern first-time viewers.

High Noon takes place in the span of a couple of hours on the morning that Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) is married to his new bride, Amy (Kelly), and is preparing to leave the town of Hadleyville for a new life on the frontier as a storekeeper. However, that afternoon brings the news that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a murderer whom Kane had jailed, has been released and is set to arrive in Hadleyville on the high noon train with a score to settle. The town elders, along with Amy, a Quaker pacifist, urge Marshal Kane to flee the town and Miller’s gang, but he finds himself duty-bound to protect his town until the new Marshal arrives. In the short amount of time that he has left until Miller’s train arrives, Kane tries to round up a posse of deputies to head off the gang, but one by one, the townsfolk turn their backs on him, including his deputy, Harvey Pell (Bridges), and his new bride. When high noon comes around, Kane is left alone to defend the town he swore to protect, despite their unwillingness to fight alongside him.

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Taken on its own merits, High Noon is a pretty great Western. It features Gary Cooper in a signature performance, one that would codify the trope of the stern, virtuous lawman. The cinematography is beautiful black and white, and it captures the essence of the stock frontier town perfectly. In fact, I think when most people picture a town’s main street from a Western movie, it’s the main street of Hadleyville that they envision, complete with Marshal Kane striding across the boardwalk towards his fateful confrontation. The film’s theme, “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,” is featured throughout the film, echoing its plot points, and kicking off a trend of Western films featuring country theme songs. The film builds suspense throughout, delaying the gratification of its central conflict until the final few minutes, but constantly teasing its villain’s arrival through the highlighting of clocks and other markers of the passing of time. This device of a film playing out in (almost) real time must have seemed incredibly novel at the time, as the audience is put into the same mindset as Kane, counting down the minutes and seconds until Miller arrives, bringing with him vengeance and destruction. In short, High Noon is one of the most influential and innovative Westerns of its time period. Though there are a handful of other 1950s Westerns that could stake claim to this title, it’s not hyperbole to mark High Noon as the archetype of the classic Hollywood Western film.

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Digging below the surface of the film’s production, and exploring its historical context, one in which cowboys became culture warriors, reveals a deeper level of significance and importance to High Noon. Screenwriter Carl Foreman, a one-time member of the Communist party, had been called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and had refused to implicate others, resulting in his blacklisting from Hollywood. The incident resulted in the dissolution of his partnership with Hollywood mogul Stanley Kramer, and in Foreman’s eventual expatriation to Britain along with a handful of other blacklisted screenwriters and directors. Though High Noon was currently in production when Foreman was called to testify before the HUAC, it isn’t difficult to read between the film’s lines and see it as a critique of the Red Scare, generally. Like those accused of Communist sympathies and associations in McCarthy’s witch hunt, Kane is abandoned and disowned by longtime friends and family. Though she returns to his side in the end and plays a pivotal role in Kane’s defeat of Miller’s gang, even Amy abandons her husband. Kane is forced, largely, to stand on his own, defending his values and principles in the face of unpopular public opinion. The film’s political allegory was publicly acknowledged at the time, and John Wayne famously turned down the role of Marshal Kane because he thought that the film was un-patriotic, later publicly relishing his role in chasing Foreman from the industry. In films like High Noon and Wayne’s response film, Rio Bravo, the frontier provided a historical context for a debate over modern American ideology.

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High Noon shows further progressive leanings in its treatment of the character of Helen Ramirez (Jurado). Helen is the only Hispanic character in the film, and, though it isn’t made explicit, she is clearly a prostitute. Despite this, she is granted a position of great importance in the film’s narrative, and also within the hierarchy of the town. Helen has been romantically involved in the past with both Frank Miller and Marshal Kane, and when High Noon starts, she is with Deputy Pell, however her promiscuity isn’t judged by the film or the characters in it. She’s a source of wisdom and strength within the community, and she’s respected as a businesswoman by the town’s elders. When contrasted with Kane’s wife, Amy, Helen is shown to be more loyal and pragmatic, reminding Amy that if Kane were still her man that she would stand by his side. By choosing her battles, Helen remains above the fray, and, from this vantage point, she seems to have the best perspective on the town’s conflict. I’m not exactly sure what to take away from High Noon’s treatment of its only ethnic minority character, but I think that it’s an honest and unusual characterization for the time, and I appreciate that the filmmakers made it a point to include a character this complex in a film that is otherwise fairly straightforward.high noon 8

It was nice to have an excuse to go back and rewatch High Noon, because it had been at least a decade since the last time I really watched it all the way through, and I doubt that the urge to pull it off the shelf would have otherwise presented itself anytime soon. For Western fans, I think that the movie is still pretty enjoyable, but I imagine that many other audiences might have a bit of trouble getting into it. Although it’s briskly paced, clocking in under 90 minutes, there is little action to speak of. I think that most modern audiences might find the film’s central conflict to be boring, rather than fraught with tension, and that the subtext of the Hollywood blacklist might be less interesting to viewers not already invested in film history. Still, though, it’s difficult to underestimate the importance of a film like High Noon at the time it was released. It introduced progressive ideologies into what was, to that point, a fairly reactionary and conservative film genre. High Noon also transformed film style and introduced a radical new storytelling device by letting its story unfold in real time. However, I think that these stylistic innovations would probably be lost on most modern audiences because we’re so far removed from the film’s initial release. I enjoy High Noon, and I was glad to have the opportunity to watch it again, but it will probably be another ten years before I decide to revisit it. It’s a great movie, and deserving of the praise that it’s received throughout the years, but there are other Westerns of this period that I just enjoy a bit more.

High Fidelity

High Fidelity (2000)

Dir. Stephen Frears

Written by: D.V. DiVencintis, Steve Pink, John Cusack, Scott Rosenberg (From the novel by Nick Hornby)

Starring: John Cusack, Iben Hjejle, Lisa Bonet

 

“Which came first, the music or the misery?” This maudlin bit of dialogue opens High Fidelity, and it came to be something of a mantra for me in my teen years. I imagine that there were quite a few young, nerdy, socially maladjusted misanthropes who took Rob Gordon’s words and neuroses to heart after seeing High Fidelity. It seemed like the perfect movie for me at 15 or 16 years old, justifying my obsessive interest in music, movies, and pop culture ephemera. Though Rob is certainly meant to be seen as a shallow, narcissistic protagonist, one who can even identify those qualities in himself, I consistently misread the film’s message as a young person. By my late teens, I think that I started to understand the film’s third act, in which Rob starts to accept some responsibility for his own shortcomings and becomes a better person and partner, but I still saw more of myself in the Rob of the early film, who is so wrapped up in the minutiae of collectorship and curation that he fails to fully form a personality for himself. Watching High Fidelity in my thirties is almost cringe-worthy, as it reminds me of my early attempts at romance, of the person who I was nearly twenty years ago, but it’s also a powerfully nostalgic trip that does provide some wistful smiles and laughs.

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The movie opens with Rob Gordon (Cusack), fresh on the heels of a break up with Laura (Hjejle), trying to take stock of his life and his failed relationships. On the cusp of middle age, Rob is more grown child than man, defining his personality and interpersonal relationships through his encyclopedic knowledge of music and pop culture. Rob has parlayed this knowledge into a job running his own record store, Championship Vinyl, where he spends his days trying to impress customers and one-up his fellow music-nerd employees, Dick (Todd Louiso) and Barry (Jack Black). Rob’s self-examination takes the form of an exhumation of his loves and losses, Top Five style, as is his wont throughout the film. We see Rob grow from an immature, elitist, young hipster, into an immature, cynical, older hipster and along the way meet some of the women who he blames for turning him into the self-loathing, but still self-obsessed, ball of neuroses and music trivia that he is. Eventually, Rob’s soul searching brings him back to Laura, and the two reconcile as she tries to rekindle not only the spark in their relationship but in Rob’s personal life, as well. High Fidelity finishes up with a conventionally happy ending, but its always struck me as fraught with uncertainty, much like the ending of The Graduate.

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I’m probably being unfair to Rob as a protagonist, but that’s only because I can sometimes see so much of my younger self in his character. As I mentioned, High Fidelity was an early touchstone for myself, and I embraced its esoteric hipster-dom. It was the movie that made me feel ok to be as wrapped up in music and movies as I was as a 15-year-old kid, but I think that it also gave me a pass to become too maudlin and too self-involved for a while in that period of my life. There’s only so long that you can substitute depression, teenage alcoholism, and a record or movie collection for an actual personality. Rob is a prick when we meet him, a prick in his own remembrances, and he remains at least a bit of a prick until the movie’s end, when he does manage to, at least partially, redeem himself by embracing a more healthy, positive outlook on life. I think that I stopped watching High Fidelity almost entirely after my high school years simply because it was too difficult to stomach Rob’s elitism and moping. His attitude reminded me of a phase of development I was desperately trying, and often failing, to grow out of. Ironically, if anything, I probably became more of an ivory tower elitist in college than I had been in high school, although I couldn’t see that particular forest for the trees of academia that were surrounding me.

But still, uneasy self-revelations aside, I found a lot to enjoy about High Fidelity watching it for the first time in at least a dozen years. While Rob might not be an easy guy to root for or sympathize with, High Fidelity is an easy movie to settle into and enjoy. It’s light and funny, it has a fittingly great soundtrack, and the grand gestures of love depicted in the movie seem perfect to its target audiences of young people and hopelessly romantics. I’ve never been a big fan of traditional romantic comedies, but High Fidelity injects enough pessimism and cynicism into its saccharine core that it avoids turning my stomach. The movie walks the line between loathing and loving, and it depicts the balance between the two sentiments as existing within all of Rob’s relationships, including the one that he has with himself. That seems like a much more honest depiction of love to me than most romantic comedies of the early 2000s were peddling. By the film’s end, Rob and Laura are in love again, and, while it’s not difficult to envision a future where they really do share a fairytale happy ending, it’s more likely that their relationship will continue to be defined by the careful balance of their very different, but complimentary, personality types. Throughout the film, Rob’s relationship with Laura was shown as having elements of humor, affection, contention, and understanding, depths that clearly aren’t represented in any of the previous relationships that he posthumously examines for clues as to his failings. That depth is what builds a strong and lasting relationship. I like that High Fidelity depicts this sort of relationship as a continuous work in progress. It feels genuine and affirmational, especially when that work leads to an ecstatic moment such as the one depicted in the film’s musical finale where Rob proposes to Laura. It’s a really good scene and it feels like a great payoff for the cast of characters who have all grown in some way.

high fidelity 8I’d also kind of forgotten what a pleasure the supporting cast of High Fidelity is to watch. Jack Black’s performance in the movie always sticks out in my head, and certain line deliveries of his tend to pop up in conversation for me still, but I had forgotten how much of his humor is drawn from the perfect interplay between his character, Barry, and Todd Louiso’s Dick. The two actors are perfectly paired, with Louiso embodying the introverted, nerdy stereotype of the record obsessive, while Black’s Barry is the brash, know-it-all music nerd. I’ve known several people who fit into both sides of this stereotype, and the actors chosen are perfect for their roles. Louiso lurks quietly in the background of scenes, mumbling lines both pithy and sincere, and, seemingly in compensation, Black’s mania is ratcheted up to 11, with the actor dancing and bouncing through the record store, while bursting into gleeful song. Both characters are genuine and fun, and it’s a pleasure to watch them grow a little bit throughout the movie, with Dick finally getting a date with his crush and Barry finally getting to sing in a band, by the film’s end.

On a similar note, Lisa Bonet deserves acclaim for her role as Marie de Salle, a musician whom Rob develops a crush on while he and Laura have split up. Bonet also feels genuine, tapping into her sensuality and performative streak when Marie is on stage, but revealing a natural, fun side to the character when she’s off it. Marie feels real in a way that none of Rob’s previous girlfriends have, and I attribute much of that to the inherent warmth in Bonet’s performance. She exudes coolness, but also caring, seeming to develop a real connection with Rob in just a short period of time. She also nails her performance scenes, and the cover of Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way,” still sticks in my head sometimes. Overall, I think that High Fidelity shortchanges most of its female characters because they’re being imagined through the prism of Rob’s post-breakup mindset, but Marie de Salle is allowed to exist fully on her own terms as a character, and Bonet brings that character to life vibrantly.

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I found this rewatch of High Fidelity to be something of a mixed bag, which is a fairly common theme among the movies in this project. Sometimes art that we love when we’re young doesn’t age so well, but High Fidelity is largely as I remember it, for better and for worse. I suppose that it’s fitting for me to have such a nostalgic affection for a movie that is so obviously steeped in nostalgia already. The laughs and the funny characters are just as I remember them from so long ago, but part of those characters being just as I remember them means that I’ve also largely outgrown them. A movie that I used to strongly identify with has become one that I merely enjoy, and even then I doubt that High Fidelity is a movie that I’ll be pulling off the shelf again any time soon. When it’s good it’s really good, and it still brings a big smile to my face, but the movie also feels incredibly dated, not just in its content but in its style, as well. High Fidelity has more in common with studio romantic comedies from earlier than it does with newer, more interesting movies like Her. This isn’t a terrible thing, because High Fidelity largely delivers on the promises of its genre, and, as I mentioned, I think it presents a realistic and relatable portrayal of romance, but it does mean that the movie was far less influential than I probably felt like it was, or should be, when I was 15 years old. That’s probably a good thing, though.

Her

Her (2013)

Dir. Spike Jonze

Written by: Spike Jonze

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara

 

Her is one of the most recent movies in my collection, and it’s one of the very last movies that I ever purchased on home video. By the time Her came out on DVD in May of 2014, I was already primarily consuming all of my media through streaming services. My DVD collection had seldom grown in the past couple of years, but I was compelled to add this particular movie to my collection. Despite knowing that with the breadth of streaming services and premium channels available to me, I could likely dial up a popular, recent movie like Her at any time, I needed to own it. Such was the impact that this movie had on me when I saw it in the theater in early 2014, after having just experienced a recent minor heart break. I clung to the movie after that first viewing, declaring it one of my favorites of 2013, a year in which I made it a point to see a great many of the critically-acclaimed films. In the weeks after seeing Her, I played over small moments from the film in my head, comparing them to my own experience of loss. Admittedly, nearly five years later, watching the movie again I realize how short-sightedly maudlin my initial appreciation of it might have been, but I still find Her to be a richly evocative movie that plumbs emotional depths and treats the audience to a sumptuous imagining of a tech-driven near future. Spike Jonze crafts a heartbreakingly beautiful love story in his first solo script, and he further explores the nuances of modern love that he explored in his early collaborations with Charlie Kaufman. It’s a lovely movie that I’m glad to have fallen in love with, even if it was for the wrong reasons.

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The titular Her is Samantha (Johansson), an operating system on a tablet with whom introverted, romantic, lonely poet Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) falls in love. Theodore lives in Los Angeles, sometime in the not-too-distant future, in a world in which people have become even more enamored with their PDAs and other screened devices. Theodore is adrift in this impersonal world, still reeling from the dissolution of his marriage over a year ago, working a dispiriting job in which he pens happy couples’ love letters for them. He has alienated his few friends, including his close friend, Amy (Adams), preferring to spend his evenings alone with his personal assistant and his video games. That all changes, however, when Theodore’s, and everyone else’s, computers are updated to feature a new artificial intelligence-based operating system that will function as a personalized virtual assistant and colleague. Theodore’s OS names herself Samantha, and, within a matter of weeks, the two have sprouted up first, a friendship, and then, an uneasy romance. Though it lacks the physicality of a traditional romantic relationship, the bond that Theodore and Samantha form is emotional and real, and the affections that the two share for one another are, too. Samantha is the coolly unattainable, but imminently approachable woman who Theodore desires, and Theodore provides a human outlet for Samantha to begin to experience the world. Inevitably, though, Samantha, with her computer brain’s limitless ability to expand and process experience and information, begins to outgrow Theodore. He is left devastated, trying to pick up the pieces of a relationship that, on the surface, seemed so immaterial.

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The premise of Her would be laughable if we weren’t in a pervasively digital era, in which people are free to meet and bond online, sharing mutual interests and experiences. In the age of online dating, long distance relationships, and catfishing, meeting someone on the Internet and allowing a friendship or romantic relationship to bloom has become extremely commonplace. Jonze simply takes this idea and stretches it to its most extreme iteration, essentially crafting a love story in which a man falls in love with a personification of the Internet itself. It’s conceptually daring and high-minded, to be sure, but at its root, Her is a fairly conventional love story. Theodore and Samantha form an unlikely pair, but the stages of their courtship would be familiar to anyone who has ever fallen in love, and the ups and downs of their relationship are blissfully and painfully real. Jonze is careful to depict their love as being rooted in deep and true emotions, rather than some tech fetish, as he allows the audience to contrast Theodore and Samantha’s relationship with Theodore’s unsuccessful attempts at connecting with real humans through virtual means. Their relationship is certainly untraditional, but it seems almost quaint in its simplicity and earnestness, and in the unabashed love that the two exhibit for one another.

This central relationship wouldn’t ring as true, though, without the stellar performances of Phoenix and Johansson. I don’t know that I had really recognized Johansson for the great actress that she’s become until I saw Her. I had often enjoyed her performances in movies that I’d seen her in, but her performance as the disembodied voice of Samantha elevated her status as an actor in my mind. Through a purely vocal performance, Johansson is able to fully flesh out Samantha’s character and personality. Her vocal inflections and expert timing lend a layer of humanity to the OS that feels slightly unnatural, at first, but then becomes unmistakably warm and inviting. She gives Samantha sass, feeling, and depth. Her performance is memorable, and it made me realize just how unmistakable her voice is. She plays Samantha as coy and playful, but also vulnerable, searching for meaning and identity. Jonze’s excellent script helps to provide Samantha with some of her layers, but its Johansson’s performance that truly brings the character to life and turns her into a relatable, sympathetic presence.

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Theodore is a somewhat thornier character, not entirely sympathetic, but played to excellent pathos by Phoenix. I’ve long felt that Phoenix was a great artist, and I think that in time he’ll be recognized as one of the best actors of his generation. He is able to shift seamlessly from character to character, channeling different facets of the human experience for each role. The change up in demeanor that he shows from a signature performance in The Master, released just a year before Her, is indicative of the range that he possesses as an actor. Gone are the outbursts and the primal, animalistic rage that he displays in the latter film, replaced here with a gentleness and a reticence previously unforeseen. There’s a bit of the everyman in Theodore, but his social development is stunted just slightly from the trauma of his failed marriage, and Phoenix displays this interiority subtly and masterfully. Though he spends much of the film closed off, watching Phoenix unfurl his easy smile as Theodore’s world begins to open up through his relationship with Samantha is one of the film’s small pleasures. Once his walls begin to come down, Phoenix plays Theodore with a weightless, if nerdy, charm. Theodore is a somewhat unlikable character, prone to self-defeat and neurosis, but it’s hard not to be won over by Phoenix’s nuanced performance.

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Jonze creates a sumptuous visual world for his characters to inhabit. The Los Angeles that he imagines is familiar, maybe a decade or two advanced beyond our world, but filled with just enough technological advances and novelties to give it a sense of whimsy and wonder, placing the film squarely in the realm of speculative fiction. Technology in Her is pervasive but never insistent. Jonze uses screens and virtual reality to give us a glimpse of life in his near-future, but they are merely the window dressing on the human love story that he wants to tell. Technology exists all around, and as such, its presence doesn’t hamper Jonze’s desire to explore a breezy, sun-splashed world. The exteriors of Her are bathed in warm light, and Jonze uses a summery color palette full of warm hues that reflect the film’s inherent romanticism. A love story between a man and an operating system could certainly be an interiorly-focused film, and one without many humanistic touches, but Jonze’s direction and mise-en-scene breathe warm life into Her. Much like in his work with frequent collaborator Charlie Kaufman, Jonze’s visual work provides a grounding and inviting element to a script that could otherwise become esoteric and inaccessible.

Her is a movie that still feels incredibly real and raw when I watch it. I’ve watched and rewatched it a half dozen times in the last few years, and though I’ve grown past the disappointment that I was feeling from a rejection on my initial viewing, it’s a movie that manages to make me feel emotions that few others can. A beautiful relationship, whether it be romantic or platonic, should be about growth and learning, and supporting a partner as they grow and learn, too. The only thing constant in life is change, and as humans we are always changing and growing through experiential learning. In Samantha’s awakening, Her depicts exactly the sort of growth that we should all hope for our partners, but it also accurately depicts the pain that can be caused when one half of a partnership outgrows the other, or grows in new and different directions. Love can be scary, and it can be beautiful, and it can feel immensely overpowering, opening up new experiences and ways of being, and I think that Her captures all of that perfectly. It’s a movie that calls into question what it means to feel, what it means to be human, and it finds the core of humanity in the desire and ability to connect. That connection can be physical, emotional, intellectual, or spiritual, or, at times, all of the above, as we see in Her through Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. It’s an earnest and honest movie, one that isn’t afraid to wallow in the depths of sadness and explore the dizzying heights of euphoric love, and it’s a movie that I likely won’t ever tire of returning to when I’m looking to feel affirmed of my own humanity.