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.

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.

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.

The Blues Brothers

The Blues Brothers (1980)

Dir. John Landis

Written by: John Landis and Dan Akroyd

Starring: John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Carrie Fisher, Cab Calloway

 

When I was very young, I often felt like I was out of step with my peers. My interests didn’t line up with theirs and I rarely participated in the fashions and trends that the other kids at my elementary school were obsessed with. My mother made most of my clothes and she cut my hair in a Lennon-esque shaggy bowl cut until I was about 10 or 11 years old. When other kids my age were getting into sports, I was reading tomes about the history of the Civil War and writing my own short stories on my family’s ancient word processor. This isn’t to say that I didn’t have plenty of commonalities with my classmates; I was as into Cool Runnings and The Mighty Ducks as any American kid was in 1993, and I was an avid video gamer, cherishing the Super Nintendo that my sister and I received as a Christmas gift in 1992, even though we originally played it on a black-and-white television. I did have friends, and good ones, at that, but even amongst friends, I felt that some of my interests were outside of the norm. While my friends started getting into contemporary pop culture, borrowing rap albums from older siblings or sneaking into the room to watch the ending of a scary movie, my tastes stayed decidedly retro. Until the time her turntable broke in 1993 or 1994, my main source of music came from my mother’s record collection. My sister and I had kids’ tapes that we’d listen to in the car, but we weren’t allowed to watch MTV until a little later, so our only source of “adult music” was from these three dozen or so records kept on a shelf, collected from the late 1960s into the 80s. We listened to Rubber Soul and Dylan’s Greatest Hits, but it was the copy of Briefcase Full of Blues, the debut album by The Blues Brothers that most intrigued me.

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I don’t remember the exact first time I put that record on the turntable, and dropped the needle to hear the walking bassline of “I Can’t Turn You Loose” played by Donald Duck Dunne and the tight but raucous horn stabs from “Blue” Lou Marini and “Bones” Malone, but I do remember the impact that the record had on me. This was something far afield from the folk music I was most familiar with from her collection. This was party music. It was loud and celebratory, but it also had an edge that made it feel dangerous. There was something mysterious to me about the image of the Blues Brothers on the cover; their black hats and suits, and matching dark Ray Bans were the epitome of cool to nine-year-old me. I knew that the group was something of a novelty act, music being performed by comedians, but it didn’t matter. I knew Aykroyd well from having seen Ghostbusters roughly 100 times to that point, and I was aware that there was a movie called The Blues Brothers, but I was introduced to the group first through the music. To me, the Blues Brothers were a band, not characters from a sketch or a film, and they were the coolest people in the world. Seeing the movie around the time I was 12, long after the turntable was kaput and I was no longer able to hear the music, did nothing to diminish that image in my mind. On the contrary, it cemented their status as cool guy role models for a young kid who was still a couple years away from discovering punk rock.

The Blues Brothers expanded on the sense of raucous fun I got from listening to the record, and it gave the titular group a back story and an insane world in which to live. For the uninitiated, the plot is very simple. The film opens with “Joliet” Jake Blues (Belushi) being released from prison. His brother, Elwood (Aykroyd), picks him up in a decommissioned police cruiser that he bought after trading in the “Bluesmobile” for a microphone. Soon after, they visit the Catholic orphanage in which they were raised and find out that the orphanage owes $5,000 for a tax assessment or it will be closed. The Blues Brothers take it as their “mission from God” to raise the $5,000 and save the orphanage. They have to figure out a legitimate way to raise the money, so they decide to reassemble their backing band for a big performance that will help them raise the money. They meet some initial resistance, but they ultimately get everyone to agree to the gig, however, there are other roadblocks in their way as they are being pursued by Jake’s jilted ex-lover (Fisher), the Illinois Nazi party, a rival country band, and a cadre of law enforcement, up to and including the United States Army. The Blues Brothers is the rare musical comedy that succeeds in providing both great musical set pieces and genuinely funny scenes. It enlists a who’s who of Blues and R&B legends to join with The Blues Brothers for unforgettable musical cameos, as well as cameos by established and up-and-coming comedic actors. The Blues Brothers is a big, exciting blockbuster of a comedy and it ranks up as one of my favorites in the genre and potentially my very favorite musical.

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Much of the movie’s comedic success comes from the natural chemistry between Aykroyd and Belushi, and their combined charisma as performers. After years of performing together on SNL and after having taken their Blues Brothers act on the road, the two had honed their onstage personae to a razor sharp point. Their characters are perfect foils for one another. Belushi’s Jake is the larger than life, bellicose frontman of the band, while Aykroyd’s Elwood is the more stoically reserved sidekick. Their interplay is perfect and they bounce off of one another with aplomb, each one filling in the gaps of the other’s personality. Elwood doesn’t have a tremendous amount of dialogue in the film, but Aykroyd’s line delivery never fails to crack me up. He has a clipped, Joe Friday delivery that implies a level of simplicity belied by the mechanical ingenuity that Elwood often shows throughout the film. Aykroyd embodies Elwood with a sense of natural cool. He doesn’t say much because he doesn’t have to; he lets his persona do the talking for him. However, as good as Aykroyd’s performance is, it can’t match the scene-stealing force that is John Belushi as “Joliet” Jake Blues.

The Blues Brothers is Belushi at his unhinged best, dancing, jiving, and shouting his way through the film with no shame. If he gained mega-stardom through his portrayal of the dumb brute Bluto in Animal House, he showed off his full range in The Blues Brothers, using his physicality in both predictable and surprising ways. Belushi is a force of nature in the film, staggering and swaggering, but also unexpectedly lithe and graceful, showing off a great deal of athleticism as he dances and cartwheels his way through the performance scenes. Unlike Bluto, Jake is the brains of the operation, and as such, Belushi is given a great deal more dialogue to work with. Jake is lecherous and scheming, but he’s also good-hearted and devoted to his brother and their surrogate father from the orphanage, Clarence (Calloway). Belushi’s passionate performance in The Blues Brothers makes me wonder what he would have gone on to do had he lived just a little bit longer and made a few more films. This film was his first big opportunity to showcase his range as a performer, and, sadly, he would be dead less than two years after its release.

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While the stars of the film do a good bit of the heavy comedic lifting, their task is lessened by the hilarious odd ball world that Aykroyd and Landis’s script envisions for them to inhabit. The Blues Brothers is absolutely a celebration of the city of Chicago, but its version of Chicago is viewed through a fun house mirror. Like a handful of the other comedies that I’ve written about here, The Blues Brothers feels like it’s taking place in a world that is just adjacent to our own. This probably shouldn’t be surprising as more than most other genres, musicals require audiences to totally suspend their disbelief to accept a world in which the characters will break out in song in public at the drop of a hat, giving even the most “realistic” musicals a sense of artificiality. The world of The Blues Brothers is madcap and wacky, involving high speed car chases that employ impossible physics in their cinematic ballet of destruction, vengeful white supremacists and country groups, and a bazooka wielding ex. Jake and Elwood are repeatedly wrecked, blown up, and shot at in the film, and manage to take it all in stride and come out on the other side with nary a scratch. But beyond its larger scale weirdness, The Blues Brothers is simply packed with small, memorable moments that are patently absurd that form its distinctive comedic tone. From the brothers’ standard lunch order (four whole friend chickens and a Coke for Jake, dry white toast for Elwood), to the repeated impetus of their quest (“We’re on a mission from God”), Jake and Elwood have a magical, charmed quality about them that informs the whole film with a sense of lightheartedness. The weird, goofiness of the world of the movie underscores the absurdity of its stone-faced protagonists.

Fleshing out this strange world are a cast of characters comprised of some of the period’s best rising comedic stars. Carrie Fisher’s role as Jake’s unnamed jilted bride, who is hell bent on hunting he and Elwood down and killing them, leveling whole buildings in the process, is the only other role that I ever picture her in besides Princess Leia. She is a mysterious figure until near the film’s end, but her largely unexplained back story is hinted at by the glimpses that we get into her life. John Candy shows up as one of the detectives hunting down the Blues Brothers, and his ad-libbed “Orange whip” bit is one of my favorite lines from the whole film. Frank Oz has a brief cameo as the prison guard who returns Jake’s possessions to him when he is released from prison at the beginning of the film. But of course, the supporting roles that steal the show are the musicians who make cameos throughout the film. James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker all make appearances, alongside other famous blues and R&B musicians of the 1950s and 60s. Aretha’s performance of “Think” in the soul food restaurant is my favorite in the film, but the scene featuring James Brown’s portrayal of Rev. Cleophus James never fails to illicit a smile with its over-the-top choreography. Ray Charles’s performance of “Shake a Tail Feather” along with the Blues Brothers Band is the film’s central showpiece. The film’s final performance is great, but it doesn’t match the energy of the band really getting into a great dance number, alongside one of the greatest pianists of all time, with hundreds of extras dancing in the Chicago streets.

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Obviously, I have little but kind words for The Blues Brothers, but it does have a few technical shortcomings, some of which are glaring, such as “Blue” Lou’s saxophone solo during “Think.” The moment that Lou struts down the counter of the soul food restaurant during his solo should be his shining moment in the film, but unfortunately, he is framed from the neck down with his face not appearing in the shot. Landis isn’t the most visually innovative filmmaker, and I can forgive some of his more minor technical mistakes, simply because most of the film is shot very well. The car chase scenes are big and exciting, and, at the time, the film set a record for most automobiles destroyed during filming (a record that would later be broken by its sequel). Landis is able to balance these bigger scenes of spectacle with the smaller moments that provide the film its humor, and he successfully creates the rare musical comedy that nails both the performative, spectacular elements of the musical and the subtlety of perfect comedy. At the time of its filming, The Blues Brothers was one of the most expensive comedies ever filmed, and the pressure was on Landis and the film’s stars to deliver a hit. The film was a box office success, more than recouping its budget and actually grossing slightly higher box office in foreign markets than in the U.S., which was a rarity at the time. Although it wasn’t a smash hit, the film would go on to grow long legs in the emerging home video and cable television markets, earning itself new fans into perpetuity.

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I’ve seen The Blues Brothers so many times over the years that I can anticipate the jokes before they arrive, and I watch it with a permanent smile across my face, ready to break into a full laugh when the punch line hits. I think Belushi’s death shortly after the film’s release paints it in a slightly different light, but even if he had gone on to lead a long life and enjoy a storied career, I think that Jake Blues would still be remembered as his iconic performance. I do wonder how younger audiences respond to The Blues Brothers, without a more direct connection to its inspirations and its featured performers. Of its principal cast, only Aykroyd is still alive, and Aretha Franklin is the only living featured performer left. The film’s iconic Chicago setting is somewhat unfamiliar after 35 years of urban development. However, I think that the things that made me connect to the film and the music early on in life are universal. There’s inherent humor and cool in the line, “It’s 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses. Hit it.” The joy and beauty expressed in the film’s musical scenes ring true to any audience, and tap into a primal desire to dance, sing, and enjoy life. I think I love The Blues Brothers so much because it’s a celebration of so many of the things that I have come to love about life: humor, music, goofy black suits, stupid dance moves. It might look a little bit retro now, but for me, The Blues Brothers has never gone out of style, just like a black suit.

Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Dir. Mel Brooks

Written by: Mel Brooks, Norman Steinberg, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Alan Uger

Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Slim Pickens

 

Mel Brooks is one of the great masters of film comedy, and I was a fan from early in childhood. I don’t know if I saw Young Frankenstein first or Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but those were the movies that introduced me to Brooks’s brand of humor, both broad and witty, high- and low-brow, verbal and slapstick. Half of the jokes went right over my young head, but it didn’t matter because there were so many jokes. Some of the simplest jokes in Mel Brooks’s movies are the best, and thinking back on it, I think my love of comedy probably came from the “walk this way” gag in Young Frankenstein. It’s such a simple, stupid sight gag, but it works perfectly and it’s laugh out loud funny. From there, I started getting really into comedy. I became interested in comedy as a type of art, and in what really made certain things funny. Sometime in the mid-90s, Comedy Central was added to our cable package and I started watching stand-up and tons of classic comedies. Somewhere along the line, I must have encountered Blazing Saddles, but I can’t remember the first time specifically. I’m sure it was on some lazy morning or afternoon during my summer vacation from school while my parents were at work, but I don’t really remember watching Blazing Saddles until I was a little older, probably 14 or 15 and going into high school. It wasn’t until that age that I was really able to appreciate the movie for the kind of masterpiece that it was, anyways.

I know that I watched the movie at least a few times during high school, but it wasn’t until it was screened in a film class that I took my senior year of high school that the real comic genius of Blazing Saddles sank in for me. The class helped to put the movie into a proper context for me. It introduced me to some of the classic Westerns that Blazing Saddles was sending up, and also to some early classic comedies to help put the film into a historical context in that sense. Thinking back on it, it was pretty amazing that my public high school in West Virginia offered a film class at all, but I was lucky that it did because it would be a very formative experience for me. I have that class to thank for introducing me to so many great American films, as well as a handful of foreign classics, and for cementing my desire to pursue an education and a career in film. The class was a senior-only elective that was taught by an English teacher with a particular interest in movies, and she varied the curriculum, including silent films, art house, and classics both new and old from all genres. It was great.

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The film stars Cleavon Little as Bart, a railroad laborer who becomes the first black sheriff in the West. Bart is installed in his position by the corrupt Hedley Lamar (Korman), who is hoping to undermine the town of Rock Ridge and drive out its citizens so that he can buy up their property and profit in a land deal when the railroad passes through the town. Bart is in the unenviable position of being a black man in a frontier town full of white people (who all seem to be related), but he eventually is able to win them over just in time to defend Rock Ridge from Lamar’s schemes. Unable to shake the town’s confidence in Bart, Lamar decides to recruit an army and take Rock Ridge by force. With the help of Jim (Wilder), a once-famous gunfighter who is now Rock Ridge’s resident drunk, and his old friends on the railroad, Bart is able to conceive of a plan to save Rock Ridge from Lamar and his minions. In classic Western fashion, they construct a fake town, rig it with dynamite, and when the army attacks, they blow men and horses alike sky high. A chaotic brawl ensues with the characters spilling out of the film, over the fourth wall, and into the “real world.” Eventually, Bart and the Kid meet back up in the world of the film (after taking a break to watch a bit of it in the movie theater), and, in a closing act fitting for Western heroes, ride off into the sunset…in a limousine.

The film’s humor is all over the place, and it is one of the most jam-packed comedies that I’ve ever seen, with only Airplane! possibly packing more jokes into its scant runtime. Blazing Saddles, and nearly all of Brooks’s comedies, acts as a catchall for 20th century comedy. It embraces the shtick and musicality of Brooks’s roots as a Borscht Belt comedian, the physicality of slapstick, high-brow conceptual humor, and pointed social satire. It’s the kind of movie that can surprise you on repeat viewings with new jokes, because you missed them while you were busy laughing at the other jokes. In addition to acting as a repository of American comedic tradition, Blazing Saddles also acts as a deconstructive tool for traditional myths of Americana in general. Brooks takes the traditional American Western film and turns many of its tropes on their heads to provide a commentary on the false nature of those American creation myths. For him, the frontier was not a promised land, peopled by cowboy heroes conquering nature through sheer force of will and determination. It was, instead, peopled by white men too boorish or corrupt to recognize the basic human decency of another man simply because his skin is a different shade.

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Watching Blazing Saddles in school, in particular, felt somehow subversive. Not only was the film’s humor too cutting edge for a classroom setting, even thirty years after the fact, its social and political commentary felt progressive in a modern setting as well. The film’s take on race relations in America felt as fresh and accurate in 2004 as it must have felt in 1974, unfortunately. The film’s treatment of racism, while humorous, is rightfully complex. In Blazing Saddles, as in real life, bigotry is the mindset of the ignorant and the crass. The townsfolk of Rock Ridge, aren’t painted as cruel or unsympathetic people, but more as simpletons. They are uneducated, likely inbred, and fearful of anyone different than themselves because they have been fed a steady stream of misinformation about other groups of people. After they realize that Bart is a just, kind, and capable sheriff, they begin to warm to him, although only inasmuch as he is able to help them out of their own bad situation. For his own part, Bart has to prove himself doubly capable, just as many minorities today find that they have to work twice as hard in order to gain the same achievements as their white counterparts due to false biases against them.

I think that the great achievement of Blazing Saddles, however, is in pointing out the roots of bigotry and intolerance. While the townsfolk are ugly and crass, their racial hatred is stoked by the desires of the film’s true villain, Hedley Lamar. He attempts to use racism as a tool to help him achieve his political and capitalist goals, installing Bart as the sheriff in an attempt to destabilize the status quo of Rock Ridge enough that he can swoop in and profit from others’ losses. Bigotry is a tool that has been used by the upper class to fragment the working class for centuries, and Blazing Saddles depicts this truth subtly and perfectly. Race is a social construct used to divide people who should otherwise be working together for mutual benefit, and keeping people of different ethnicities and skin colors fighting amongst themselves has been key to maintaining a status quo in which the same wealthy land and business owners reap the most benefit. There is no room for equality in capitalism. While people are all, obviously, biologically the same, it is in the benefit of the ruling class to uphold the myth of racial difference.

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One of the best and easiest ways for people to step outside of their comfort zones, racially speaking, is to engage with art that is made by and about the lives of people who may come from a different ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic background than themselves. One of the greatest things a movie can do for an audience is introduce them to a new way of thinking or open their eyes to a different way of life than they might be accustomed to. I was lucky to grow up in an open-minded household where people of all shapes, sizes, skin colors, and walks of life were welcomed and celebrated. I had and have friends from many different backgrounds. I am happy to live in a world that is diverse and multicultural, because I think that experiencing other cultures and other types of people inherently makes me a better and better-rounded person. But for someone who is not as sold on the values of inclusivity and equality, seeing a movie with a strong or relatable black protagonist might be the first step to some sort of understanding. I’m in no way making apologies or excuses for people who hold racist or bigoted beliefs, because I don’t think there is any place for that sickness in a modern free society, but I do know that there are people who eagerly accept the information that is provided for them without seeking out counterpoint or clarification because they simply don’t know any better. Vitriol can be persuasive, but so can humor. Sometimes the easiest way to someone’s heart is through their funny bone. I think that maybe Mel Brooks had this in mind when he made Blazing Saddles.

Big Trouble in Little China

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Dir. John Carpenter

Written by: Gary Goldman, David Z. Weinstein, W.D. Richter

Starring: Kurt Russell, Kim Cattrall, Dennis Dun, James Hong, Victor Wong

 

Action films have been a popular genre throughout the history of cinema. Some of early cinema’s most widely-known and well-loved films could fall into the action genre in some form, whether they be crime films, Westerns, or chase films. As the genre developed, however, a certain type of pure action style started to develop. Westerns began to cede popularity in the 1970s to these more modern action films, and by the 1980s, the blueprint for the action film as we now know it was largely set in stone. Classic action franchises were born in this decade, including Rambo, The Terminator, and Predator, and those films would go on to influence the next generation of action filmmakers who would continue to evolve and grow the genre. A direct line can be traced from our modern action blockbusters to the over-the-top, bombastic thrill rides featuring Arnold and Stallone that were ubiquitous in the 1980s. During that decade, however, there was an alternative style of action film being developed, one that sought to blend genres in interesting ways, that borrowed from international influences, and one that depended more on its star’s charisma than his physique (although that wasn’t so bad, either). I’m referring to the action films created by the pairing of John Carpenter and Kurt Russell. These films, including Big Trouble in Little China, provide an interesting counterpoint to the more familiar action franchises of the time.

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The duo teamed up for three movies in the 1980s and, though they weren’t all commercially successful on their initial release, Carpenter’s and Russell’s films have proved enduring. While their earlier films, Escape From New York and The Thing, were modest box office successes, Big Trouble in Little China had trouble connecting with audiences. Perhaps its blending of science fiction and action with traditional Chinese fantasy and folklore was too exotic for audiences in 1986. Maybe Kurt Russel’s performance, combining the lone hero of the action film with the wise-cracking leading man of the screwball comedy, was too unfamiliar. Whatever it may have been, Big Trouble in Little China had to wait to reach the level of appreciation that its director and star’s previous efforts had enjoyed. I saw all of these movies at different times in my childhood. They were staples on cable television on the weekends, edited for content and to run in the time allotted. When I was young, the gritty apocalyptic dystopia of Escape From New York was my favorite, but as an adult, I’ve become more and more fond of Big Trouble in Little China and all of its B-movie charm.

In the film, Russell plays Jack Burton, a fast-talking, fast-driving trucker, who finds himself embroiled in a gang war in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When his friend Wang’s (Dun) betrothed, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai) is kidnapped by one of the local street gangs, Jack agrees to help him rescue her. Along with the help of their friends Gracie Law (Cattrall) and Egg Shen (Wong), they set out to retrieve Miao Yin from the Lords of Death street gang. Their search takes them first to a brothel where they believe Miao Yin is being held, and Jack is successful in freeing many of the women being held there, but the rescue is interrupted by the Three Storms, three supernatural ninjas who take off with Miao Yin and take her to their master, David Lo Pan (Hong). Jack and Wang are again tasked with infiltrating a building to rescue Miao Yin, this time Lo Pan’s office front. When they get inside, they are again waylaid by the Storms and are introduced to Lo Pan’s sinister plan. Though he appears to be an old man, he is actually an incredibly powerful undead sorcerer, who is thousands of years old. He was robbed of his true physical body by the first emperor of China who placed a curse on him. In order to break the curse and regain his true form and his full power, Lo Pan must marry and then sacrifice a Chinese girl with green eyes, which Miao Yin has. From there, multiple rescue attempts must be made by everyone in the group as Jack, Wang, and Gracie all keep getting captured and escaping, all while trying to locate Miao Yin and prevent the wedding ceremony from taking place. The film’s final battle is a combination of traditional kung-fu, Wuxia, and slapstick comedy, as the heroes fight off the Storms and Lo Pan, rescuing Miao Yin. After everything settles down, Jack chooses to hitch up the Porkchop Express and return to the open road rather than staying in Chinatown with Gracie. However, just as Egg Shen says he will always have China in his heart, it seems that a piece of Chinatown is staying with Jack as the film’s final shot reveals that one of Lo Pan’s supernatural monsters has stowed away on his truck.

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I didn’t know it at the time, but I likely have Big Trouble in Little China to thank for some of my later filmic obsessions. It was probably the first movie I saw that heavily featured Asian influences, despite having grown up in the ninja-obsessed early 1990s. I had seen shows like Power Rangers and even some Japanese anime when I was younger, but Big Trouble in Little China was probably the film that first introduced me to kung-fu and Wuxia, two genres that I would get into more seriously in my teenage years. I remember when I saw the movie for the first time, around the age of 11 or 12, thinking that it reminded me a lot of Indiana Jones, but more authentic and more exotic. The film was set in America, but it felt more immersed in Chinese culture. It seemed like a celebration of its influences, where the Indiana Jones trilogy felt more sensationalistic and exploitative. I probably didn’t give this a whole lot of thought at the time, but I now realize that the main reason the film feels so authentic is that it has an almost entirely Asian cast. Also, rather than relegating minorities to supporting and sidekick roles to a white hero, Carpenter places Wang and Egg Shen in the more traditionally heroic roles, while portraying Jack as, at best, a fish out of a water, but more often as a bit of a boob.

That’s another thing that I really appreciate about Big Trouble in Little China. While Jack Burton is definitely the main character of the film, he is far from the film’s hero. Carpenter deftly plays with Russell’s star persona, repeatedly placing Jack in positions where the other characters in the film have to come to his rescue. Russell plays Jack Burton as a swaggering man of action, modeling his performance on vintage John Wayne, but the film’s narrative often undercuts his heroism. Though he can more than handle his own in the film’s many fight scenes, Jack is frequently on the receiving end of punches that Wang is able to easily duck under or around. He’s inventive and unorthodox in his fighting style, but he’s also often a scene’s comic relief. This only works because of Kurt Russell’s natural charisma. He’s totally believable as an action star, but he also has a roguish sense of humor that is constantly on display in this film. Jack Burton is the ultimate cool guy, tough in a fight, but also able to be self-deprecating when the tilt doesn’t go his way. The wise-cracking tough guy was certainly a genre staple by this point, but mostly in the form of witty asides or scripted catchphrases. Jack Burton’s humor is inherent in his coolness, and it’s hard to see Schwarzenegger or Stallone being able to pull off the natural charm that Russell brings to the role.

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Russell and the rest of the cast are aided by some great dialogue. The script went through several phases and rewrites, beginning life as a period Western, but as I mentioned earlier, the final product bears a strong resemblance to a screwball comedy with regards to its dialogue. Particularly in the interactions of Jack and Gracie, but throughout the film, the dialogue is snappy and articulate. The verbal sparring in the film is as entertaining as the fight scenes, with Russell and Cattrall displaying good on-screen chemistry. It’s one of the few action movies that is also genuinely funny throughout, without resorting to the aforementioned witty asides. Its humor isn’t nudging or winking, it’s subtly woven through the action, helping to establish these characters. Even a character like Egg Shen, whose role is almost strictly expository early in the film, gets some great lines. When discussing the hodgepodge of various mysticisms that influence Chinese spiritual belief, he says, “There’s Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoist alchemy and sorcery…We take what we want and leave the rest, just like your salad bar.” It’s a genuinely funny line, but it’s also a window into Egg Shen as a character. He’s obviously wise and worldly, but who knew that he had been to a Sizzler? It would have been easy for Egg Shen to have been a stereotype, as many other action films of the time probably would have portrayed him, but Victor Wong plays him with a mirthful sort of mysteriousness and the script gives him several opportunities to step out of his box.

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I didn’t own a copy of Big Trouble in Little China until my late 20s. I grabbed it out of a bargain bin at a Best Buy one afternoon, and I’m really glad that I did. I hadn’t seen it in at least five years at that point, and I think I had forgotten just what a cool movie it really is. I think that all of the things that I really enjoy about Big Trouble in Little China are exactly the things that made it a flop upon its initial release. Mainstream American audiences just weren’t ready for an American movie that borrowed so heavily from Chinese culture. Obviously, Enter the Dragon had become a crossover hit in 1973, but martial arts pictures were still largely relegated to the grindhouse. Even the presence of emerging stars like Russell and Cattrall wasn’t enough to make the film bankable, as its deep dive into Chinese mysticism proved to be too confounding for its audiences. It wasn’t until home video really became a force in the late 1980s and 1990s that these types of films began to find an audience. Not surprisingly, Big Trouble in Little China found renewed interest in the home video market and has become one of the ultimate cult classics. It is the type of film that you can show a half-dozen different friends and each can come away enjoying something different about the film. Carpenter takes its series of disparate influences and mixes them up in a cauldron of 1980s action sensibility, churning out a wholly unique product that is more than the sum of its parts.

The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore

 

I wrote a good bit about how much I enjoy the Coen Brothers in general when I was writing about Barton Fink last month, so I’ll keep this post more limited directly to The Big Lebowski. However, I will say that the movie’s immense mainstream popularity undercuts the fact that it’s one of the brothers’ deepest dives into filmic nostalgia. Lebowski is a celebration of old Hollywood, a deconstruction of the detective genre and film noir mode of storytelling, with shout outs to classical Hollywood pictures throughout. The nuances of the film are probably overshadowed for a lot of audiences by the story of what has become one of the classic characters in all of cinema. The Big Lebowski is a film that is equally as quotable as it is esoteric, a film with many layers, and standing tall above them all is Jeff Daniels’s iconic portrayal of Jeffrey Lebowski, the Dude, an armchair philosopher and hero for the slacker generation, one of God’s own prototypes, too weird to live and too rare to die, out there taking it easy for all us sinners.

For those who may have not seen the film yet, The Big Lebowski centers on a case of mistaken identity, in which The Dude (Bridges) is mistaken for the identically-named Jeffrey Lebowski (the titular Big Lebowski, played by David Huddleston) an aging millionaire whose trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), owes money all over town, including to pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) who sends two thugs to beat the money out of The Dude. When The Dude fails to produce any money, pointing out that it’s fairly obvious a millionaire would not live in his tiny one bedroom apartment, one of the thugs proceeds to pee on The Dude’s rug. The Dude seeks out The Big Lebowski hoping for recompense for the soiled rug, which really tied the room together, and this sets the events of the plot into motion. After their initial meeting, The Big Lebowski contacts The Dude, telling him that Bunny has been kidnapped, and he needs The Dude to get her back. In turn, The Dude enlists the help of his buddies Walter Sobchak (Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Buscemi), who are happy to help out in between games of bowling. Along the way, The Dude encounters German nihilists, a militant feminist artist who wants him for his seed, and is forced to abide countless acts of aggression. The film takes a lot of its cues from The Big Sleep, a famously inscrutable noir, and The Big Lebowski certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to weaving a tangled narrative web of deceit and double cross.

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If that narrative seems somewhat complicated, that’s because it is. Raymond Chandler, who wrote the novel upon which The Big Sleep is based on, famously said that even he wasn’t sure who committed one of the murders in his book. The Coens take this idea and run with it in Lebowski, creating a stylized, contemporary noir in which the detective is constantly travelling through the world in a fog, unsure of which side of each uneasy alliance he finds himself at any given moment. The film is packed with subtle allusions to the films of the 1940s, containing oblique references to Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, but also to 42nd Street and other Busby Berkeley musicals. As much as they are filmmakers, the Coens are also film historians, with their films often referencing favorite classic filmmakers such as Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder. All of their films dabble in this kind of pastiche, using film references as a shorthand language, but Lebowski is probably the most overt. As in Barton Fink, the Coens suture a fantastical version of Hollywood onto an actual time and place, in this case the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War. In both films, the real life setting only serves as an anchor, and the action of the film is largely contained in its own world. The characters in the films occasionally reference actual events, but the Coens are largely free to create a universe of their own definition, and in The Big Lebowski, that universe is heavily filtered through the experience of American cinema of the 1940s.

Of course, this being a Coen Brothers film, those influences are scattered throughout The Big Lebowski, but they’re turned on their head, repurposed for a new generation and skewed in the process. The film uses many of the familiar tropes of the noir. It offers up two femmes fatales in Bunny and in The Big Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Moore). It’s Bunny’s disappearance that kickstarts the film, but Maude is certainly the more interesting character. She appears halfway through the film, introducing herself to the dude by having her henchmen knock him out and take the rug that he had chosen to replace his originally soiled rug. She asserts that her interest is in preserving the Lebowski Foundation’s money, one million dollars of which her father has put up as ransom money for his missing wife. However, in classic femme fatale fashion, Maude’s motives are more duplicitous than they might seem on the surface. Her real interest in The Dude is procreative. While most classic femme fatales attempt to ensnare the detective using their sexuality, Maude enlists the Dude to the case before seducing him. After gaining The Dude’s trust, Maude beds him and makes known her desire to have a child with a man who will have no interest in raising it, or in being a partner to her. She’s fingered The Dude as just the deadbeat for the job, interested in him not for his bravado or his cunning, but for his biological ability to help her conceive. While I do think that a lot of classic femmes fatales could be seen as feminist characters, or at least female characters with agency in an era during which there weren’t so many such roles, I think that Maude’s overall character in Lebowski very deliberately marks her as a feminist. The shift in power dynamics marks one of the ways that the Coens are playing with the tropes of the noir mode.

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Another modal shift takes place in the film’s style. Though its narrative is decidedly noir-influenced, the film’s visual style rarely quotes from film noir. They had already explored the visual aesthetic of noir in their debut Blood Simple and would return to the genre with a very explicitly noir-influenced aesthetic in The Man Who Wasn’t There, but The Big Lebowski is a much brighter, color-saturated film. Its hallmark visual sequence, the dream sequence that The Dude experiences after being drugged at Jackie Treehorn’s party, is an homage to the classic Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and 40s. The sequence is choreographed just like a Busby Berkeley musical number, with The Dude descending a black-and-white checked staircase to be greeted by a dozen beautiful dancers with tiaras made of bowling pins. He shares a dance with Maude and then floats down a bowling lane through the straddled legs of the dancers. The dream devolves into a nightmare after The Dude crashes through the pins at the end of the lane and cascades into blackness where he meets the three German nihilists, who are wearing red form-fitting suits, and who chase him through the nothingness with oversized scissors, presumably hoping to “cut off his johnson.” While this sequence marks just the most striking departure from the established visual style of noir, the film’s style overall is a bit more dreamy and subjective than a typical noir. That mode established the use of evocative chiaroscuro lighting and adopted the subjectivity of the canted angle, but the Los Angeles of Lebowski is characterized by bright lights, loud noises, and a slow-moving camera that often takes in the world through a gauzy filter.

The biggest departure of the film from a traditional noir detective story, of course, is in the character of The Dude. The prototypical noir detective is personified by Humphrey Bogart: serious, square-jawed, able to take and deliver a punch. The Dude is decidedly none of these things. He is a self-described pacifist who only gets caught up in this whole mess through a case of mistaken identity and a desire to get back a rug that really tied the room together. The Dude trades in Bogart’s ever-present scotch and cigarette for a white russian and a joint. He has reached a level of Zen that Bogart’s restless men of action could never hope to achieve. He treats the whole caper involving Bunny, the nihilists, his missing rug, and his perpetually battered car, as a cosmic inconvenience rather than a case to be solved or a mission to accomplish. The Dude would rather be left alone to listen to his tapes and bowl in the next round robin. If Bogart was the masculine ideal for a post-war generation, then Bridges’s performance as The Dude served as an inspiration and a rallying point for a certain type of counter cultural slacker in the late 90s and early 2000s. He is the Coens most enduring and endearing creation.

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I first watched Lebowski around 1999 or 2000, a couple of years after it was released in theaters. I was instantly taken in by the characters and the dialogue. The film is simply hilarious and Bridges, Goodman, and Buscemi have unbelievable chemistry as The Dude, Walter, and Donny. Their lines are delivered lightning quick, one on top of the other, just like the conversation of real-life friends who know each other intimately. The film is endlessly quotable, with many of its turns of phrase having entered the cultural lexicon, but it is so densely written that it’s also easy to miss off-the-cuff lines on the first couple of viewings. The humor and the characters were what initially drew me into Lebowski. The interplay between Walter and Donny was so funny, and The Dude was one of the coolest characters I’d yet to encounter. Over time and additional viewings, I found new things to enjoy about The Big Lebowski and if you had asked me 15, or even ten years ago, it might have ranked up in my favorite movies of all time. It isn’t up there for me anymore, but it’s still a film that I love and probably one that I watch more frequently than some that might be in my “top ten favorite” films.

Though it started out as a cult film, the influence of Lebowski has spread far into the mainstream. As I mentioned, many of its lines have become instantly recognizable lingo, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone in 2017 who hasn’t seen the film. Bridges’s performance is now iconic, and many people would probably most readily associate Goodman with his portrayal of the bombastic, Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak. Screenings of the film have taken on a Rocky Horror Picture Show sort of tenor, with audiences often attending in costume and bringing props with them. An entire religion has sprung up centered on The Dude as a spiritual figure, with proponents of Dudeism embracing The Dude’s laissez-faire attitude and rebel shrug. Over the last 20 years, The Big Lebowski has graduated from film to full blown cultural phenomenon and while I’m happy that a great film is getting the attention and fanfare that it deserves, I would still rather appreciate it as a film text, devoid of any of the larger cultural trappings that it has come to be associated with. As a progressively-leaning, cannabis-advocating bartender who can often be found wearing a robe until mid-afternoon, and who is trying his hardest to take a “first do no harm” approach to life, I understand that the Dudeist lifestyle is probably perfectly suited to me. However, I still watch The Big Lebowski once or twice a year because it is a film that I really love, not because I hope to emulate its style or glean life wisdom from it. It never fails to make me laugh and pick up my spirits, and every time I watch it I seem to find some new little homage or hear a throwaway line that I had forgotten about. I can understand why someone might choose The Big Lebowski as the cultural artifact upon which they model their personal ethos, but even for those who choose to just enjoy it as a film, it’s an undeniable classic.

Big

Big (1988)

Dir. Penny Marshall

Written by: Gary Ross, Anne Spielberg

Starring: Tom Hanks, Elizabeth Perkins, Robert Loggia, John Heard, Jared Rushton

 

No pun intended, but this is a big one for me. Big is the first live-action film that I can remember ever seeing as a child. I had definitely seen cartoons up to this point, and I had probably seen some other live-action movies, but I first saw Big when I was probably six or seven years old, and it’s definitely the first live-action movie to have made an impression on my memory. If my memory serves me correctly, my parents had recorded Big on VHS at some point and it was this copy that first introduced me to the movie. I also think that my mother had reservations about letting me watch the movie due to its abbreviated sex scene, but I was ultimately allowed to see the film, and it totally enthralled me. I understood the difference between movies and reality at that point, of course. My favorite film up to that point was a cartoon called Fluppy Dogs, in which a boy adopts a magical dog who can make his master’s bed fly when he gets scratched behind the ears. I watched the movie every day for an entire year, but solely because I thought it was cute and entertaining. I understood that it was divorced from any semblance of reality. Big was the first film that I saw that showed me how movies can bridge the gap between fantasy and reality, and open up the imagination to the possibilities of magic and wonder existing in the real world.

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Big is probably the perfect movie to introduce children to the magic of movies because its plot about wish fulfillment and childhood magic is so relatable to children. What child hasn’t, like Josh Baskin (David Moscow/Hanks), wished to be bigger? The movie takes that premise and explores its ramifications as 13-year-old Josh makes a wish on a carnival machine that he could be bigger, and then actually wakes up the next morning in the body of a 30-year-old man. With the help of his best friend, Billy (Rushton), Josh heads to New York City in search of the magical machine that turned him into an adult, hoping that it can also reverse the process. While in New York, Josh takes a job at a toy company, and is quickly promoted due to his unique insight into toys and games. He experiences life as an adult, meets a woman whom he falls in love with, and, ultimately, must make the decision to remain an adult or make another wish and become a child, returning to his life with his family in New Jersey. It’s an urban fairy tale that’s perfect for children and adults, alike.

I watched Big a ton when I was a kid. Until I was about 10 years old, there were several movies that I watched over and over again on rotation and Big was among them, along with The Flight of the Navigator, Newsies, and Hook. I stopped watching those other movies as I got a little older, but Big continued to be a movie that I would always stop to watch if I came across it while I was scrolling through channels. Even more than its wish fulfillment fantasies, I started to become really interested in the movie’s New York City setting. When I was an early teen, I was very taken with the idea of moving to New York and leaving the sleepy, small town that I grew up in behind me. I can certainly chalk a lot of that urge up to simply getting the itchy feet that become so common to those who grow up in a small town and strive to see the bigger world, but I think that watching Big as much as I did probably fed into some of those desires as well. I can remember thinking that the loft apartment (really a warehouse) that Josh moves into after he becomes a VP at the toy company was the coolest place I’d ever seen someone live. An apartment like that couldn’t exist in my town, it was reserved for denizens of the big city. I was equally as enamored, however, with the flophouse hotel that Josh lives in when he first moves to the city. It seemed dangerous and edgy in a way that my habitations certainly were not. In fact, when I finally got to travel to New York City, I was a bit disappointed that many of its pointy edges that I had seen in movies had been smoothed over.

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The other big draw for the film, of course, is Tom Hanks’s performance as Josh Baskin. Hanks is probably the most universally well-liked actor ever. He quickly became a mega-star, and by the 1990s, his presence in a film was a signature of a certain type of prestige and quality. Early in his career, however, Hanks was known mostly for his work in comedies, not big budget Oscar hopefuls. After transitioning from television and a co-starring role on Bosom Buddies, Hanks became a household name with 1984’s Splash and starred in other popular comedies throughout the mid-80s. Big is the culmination of this run, with Hanks providing both laughs and an emotional depth to his character. He slips seamlessly into the character of a 13-year-old boy, and watching Hanks react to the adult world with the enthusiasm, and also confusion, of a child is great. The party scene towards the end of the film always stuck out as one of the funniest in the movie. Josh shows up to the office holiday party dressed in a ridiculous white sequined tuxedo, which is funny in its own right, but his nibbling of baby corn on the cob and riotous reaction to trying caviar are the moments that I always lose it in the scene. It’s ridiculous, laugh out loud funny, and endearing all at the same time, and all because of Hanks’s wide-eyed, innocent portrayal of Josh. It’s also impossible to picture any other actor nailing the “chopsticks” scene at F.A.O. Schwarz the way that Hanks does. He and Robert Loggia jumping from note to note on the life-size keyboard while a crowd gathers around to watch has become an iconic scene in all of cinema.

As the film goes on, Hanks adjusts the way he portrays Josh as the character becomes more and more adjusted to his adult life. Early on, Hanks plays Josh as a naïve kid, scared, and often alone in the world. However, as he gains the acceptance of his peers and begins to spend more time with Susan (Perkins) and his other coworkers, and less time with Billy, Josh starts to act more and more like an adult himself. Hanks loses the pensive line delivery, modifies his body language, and becomes more assertive in general. The changes are subtle, but they come to a head when Billy confronts Josh late in the film after having found the Zoltar machine. After Josh is dismissive of Billy, telling him that he has work to do and he’s too busy to spend time with a child, Billy yells at him, “I’m your best friend!” and the illusion of Josh as an adult is shattered. He soon after makes the decision to go to the machine and wish to return himself to his natural state.

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The Zoltar machine has been stashed on a forgotten pier, left there after a carnival has obviously closed up for the season. When Josh arrives on the pier, his transformation back into a child begins even before he approaches the machine and makes a wish. Josh runs to the boardwalk, looking for the machine, and when he sees it, his posture changes. Hanks starts to crumble in on himself, folding his hands in front of him and shifting his weight from one foot to the other, when he sees the machine. The camera zooms in on his pensive face as he weighs the decision that he’s about to make. Taking tiny steps, Josh approaches the Zoltar machine and pulls out a quarter. He unplugs the machine to recreate the exact scenario from the beginning of the film, slapping and kicking the machine until it magically comes to life. Susan arrives on the boardwalk just as Josh makes his wish and drops the quarter into Zoltar’s gaping mouth. Although she can’t comprehend his decision, and doesn’t want to believe his story about the Zoltar machine, Josh shows an emotional purity and depth of understanding that belie his years when he tells Susan that he has “a million reasons to go home, and only one reason to stay.” She’s fallen for him because he is so unlike the professional men that she usually dates, but the innocence that sets him apart is precisely the reason that they can’t be together. Susan gives Josh a ride home and, in a great sequence, watches as he transforms from a man to a boy over the span of one shot/reverse-shot. Josh turns to wave, giving Susan one last glimpse over his shoulder. She looks down to hide a tear, and when she raises her head, she’s astounded to see the child Josh Baskin walking away from her in an over-sized suit. Josh gives her a sheepish smile, which she returns, and then runs into the house to greet his worried mother, leaving his adult-sized shoes on the sidewalk as the film ends.

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The ending of Big ranks up there with the ending of The Third Man and Casablanca as one of my favorites in all of film. In general, the movie is a favorite. I’ve seen it, literally, dozens of times but I still get caught up in the magic of it. Some movies I like to watch over and over again because I feel that there are nuances that I will discover with each renewed viewing. Some movies I like to watch over and over again because I know that they won’t offer me any surprises. Big is one of the latter. It’s a movie that feels like a well-worn baseball glove; it fits just right and it’s full of familiar seams and cracks. I often wonder how movies from my childhood will hold up, not just for my own personal viewing, but for new audiences estranged from the subject matter by time and distance. I really hope that there are new audiences discovering Big now, nearly 30 years after its release. As I said before, it’s a perfect fairy tale for the young and the young at heart. The universality of its themes and the performance of a young Tom Hanks coming into his full powers as a dramatic actor should keep Big fresh for the young viewers of today.

Better Off Dead

Better Off Dead (1985)

Dir. Savage Steve Holland

Written by: Savage Steve Holland

Starring: John Cusack, Diane Franklin, Amanda Wyss, Curtis Armstrong

 

It’s probably not surprising, as I did most of my collecting of movies as a teenager, but a good portion of my collection was, at one time, teen movies and teen romantic comedies. I was a devotee of John Hughes, even going so far as proudly displaying a Breakfast Club poster in my bedroom when I was in high school. I think it’s natural when a person is young and still trying to develop their identity to look to the teen archetypes that Hughes often traffics in and feel a kind of kinship. I also think that it’s natural that once one is a bit older they can look back at some of those characters and recognize that they’re fairly empty tropes. This isn’t to disparage Hughes’s output, as he’s made some classic films and I still enjoy watching many of them, but I don’t feel the sort of kinship to any of the young protagonists that I used to. The only Hughes-directed movie that I still own is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, copies of The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off having been lost or left behind somewhere along the line. Better Off Dead, however, is the one teen comedy from that era that I can still relate to as an adult, and it’s one of the few of its genre that have remained in my collection. I feel that Better Off Dead is such an essential part of my collection that, upon the initiation of this project, when I discovered that the disc for the movie was missing from the case, I felt that I had to purchase it again on Bluray, just so I could watch it again and write about it.

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The film’s plot is fairly generic at its core, but Better Off Dead has a pitch dark and quasi-surreal sense of humor that most other teen films lack. Lane Meyer (Cusack) has two great loves in his life entering senior year of high school, downhill skiing and his girlfriend, Beth (Wyss). Lane loses out on both at the beginning of the film, as Beth cruelly dumps him for the captain of the ski team, Roy (Aaron Dozier), at the ski team tryouts. Seeing his high school social life crumbling, Lane decides that he is probably better off dead, but finds himself hilariously inept, even at suicide. Since he’s unable to off himself, and encouraged by his friend Charles (Armstrong), Lane decides to ski the K-12, a treacherous, possibly even lethal, run, in hopes of winning back Beth’s affections. Predictably, Lane fails miserably at his attempt to conquer the mountain, and his life continues to be a cycle of disappointment and adolescent frustration. That all starts to change when Lane meets Monique (Franklin), a French foreign exchange student who is living with the Meyer’s neighbors. Monique agrees to train Lane to ski the K-12 and the two develop a friendship. The film ends with a climactic race between Roy and Lane, in which Lane finally triumphs over his rival. When he crosses the finish line on one ski, Beth rushes to greet Lane, but he brushes past her, choosing Monique instead.

If you take out the failed suicide attempts, the plot to Better Off Dead reads like a fairly typical teen comedy of its time. It even slots in to a strange subgenre of the teen movie that was popular in the mid-late 1980s that featured skiing and partying as a pretext for hijinks and romance to ensue. However, Savage Steve Holland’s unique comedic sensibilities make this film stand out from others of its era. Better Off Dead was Holland’s first feature, and it is based on an actual breakup that led him to a hilariously botched suicide attempt, a la Lane Meyer. In real life, Holland was able to see the absurdity of his situation as he was sitting under a broken pipe, from which he had tried and failed to hang himself, water cascading onto his head as his mother yelled at him for damaging the pipe. He took that experience and began collecting other humorously bad ways to try to kill yourself, as the concept for Better Off Dead germinated. The end result is a film that is darkly hilarious and that feels emotionally genuine without employing the types of schmaltz that teen films sometimes resort to. The film features memorably absurd side plots and a cast of characters too whacky to truly be real, but just barely so. The film’s unique humor and the perpetually set upon Lane’s struggle to cope in the face of the insanity that surrounds him are the reasons that the film still resonates with me when others of its genre have faded off.

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As I’ve mentioned before on this site, I was a big John Cusack fan in high school. High Fidelity and Say Anything were staples in my rotation, but I was unaware of the early Cusack film Better Off Dead until my friend Bill played it for me on VHS when we were probably about 16 years old. The film wasn’t as contemporary or as commercially successful as those others, but it’s the Cusack movie that I’ve watched the most as an adult by far. I was instantly enamored with the movie’s offbeat sense of humor. It was a totally different type of comedy than I was accustomed to at the time and I loved the unrepentant absurdity of the film. Better Off Dead is one of the few comedies that I’ve found to retain its humor despite at least a dozen repeated viewings. The film’s central comedic conceit, that Lane is so unbelievably inept that he cannot even find a way to properly end his own life, is funny, but the side plots and the supporting characters are probably the film’s most memorable comedic elements. Who can forget Lane’s younger brother Badger (Scooter Stevens), a deviant genius who constructs working lasers and rocket ships and seduces older women, despite never speaking in the film, or Lane’s mother (Kim Darby) who, throughout the film, makes creations from Better Housekeeping magazine recipes that look increasingly less and less edible? These characters, grounded as they are in recognizable reality, but spun out to the limits of plausibility, give the film its unique and memorable tone.

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Cusack, himself a teen when the film was shot, is solid as Lane Meyer. The charisma and chops that would help him become one of Hollywood’s most consistent and successful leading men of the last 30 years are on display here. Anyone watching the film as an adult can recognize the world-weariness that Cusack displays as Lane is humorous in its desperation, but to a teenage viewer it can feel relatable and real. Lane’s only beginning to experience life, but he feels he’s already seen its pinnacle. The maudlin, mopey performance that Cusack turns in feels like a template for many of the characters he would portray over the next decade, which isn’t really a criticism. Cusack was better at playing that sort of lovelorn sadsack than anyone else at the time, and Better Off Dead allows him to do so in a film that points a self-reflexive lens on that character and chooses to laugh. Lane may be a precursor to the more iconic Lloyd Dobler who Cusack would later portray in Say Anything, but he’s also a more interesting and realistic character.

Better Off Dead and its follow up, One Crazy Summer, would be the only features that Holland would direct. He has enjoyed a long career directing in television, mostly in children’s programming, with his animated series Eek! The Cat enjoying mainstream success in the mid-1990s. I do wonder if Holland wouldn’t have had a longer career in Hollywood had he not run afoul of John Cusack after they finished working on Better Off Dead. Reportedly, the two had a falling out after Cusack saw the final cut of the film which he felt made him look ridiculous, and the relationship has never been repaired and the film has enjoyed cult-classic status, but it has never garnered the mainstream recognition it deserves. I often find that there seems to be a generational quality to appreciating Better Off Dead. Most people my age or slightly older recognize and appreciate the film’s iconic quotes and characterizations, while I haven’t encountered many people younger than myself who seem familiar with the film. While it is almost universally fondly remembered by those who have seen it, Better Off Dead falls outside the pantheon of classic 1980s teen comedies. Despite that, it is well worth tracking down and checking out if you haven’t seen it.

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Addendum:

As I wrote, I felt so compelled to rewatch and write about Better Off Dead that I purchased a new copy of the movie to replace the DVD disc that had somehow gone missing from its case. That hasn’t been the case with every disc that has turned up missing in my collection. Since starting this project, I found out that my copy of American Psycho was missing. I had the case, but no disc in it. I decided that I wasn’t as interested in revisiting and writing about that movie, however, so I decided not to replace it, especially since the case that was on my shelf didn’t correspond with the original copy of the movie that I had bought on DVD in high school. Somehow, I had gotten my original copy switched up with a former roommate’s “Unrated Edition” copy. I don’t know why, but for some reason that made me much less inclined to include American Psycho as a part of this project. I loved the movie 15 years ago, and I still like it a lot. It’s an interesting satire and it features a star-making performance by Christian Bale, but it isn’t included in this project. Here are some films that I have owned in the past that I have since parted ways with that I wish I still owned so I could include them in this project. I will not be repurchasing any of these for inclusion.

A.I.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

I am one of the few proponents of this film that I know. I was probably just young enough to be taken in by this fairytale. Had I been any older, or had my cynicism been as fully developed as it is now, I likely would have scoffed at the film, but I saw it in the theater and loved it immediately. I bought it on DVD and I watched it a lot. A.I. is so stylish, and even if it doesn’t fulfill on all of its promise, it’s at least interesting as a historical artifact as it’s the last film that Stanley Kubrick ever worked on. He and Spielberg share directing credits on the film, and the blend of their unique visual and narrative styles is fascinating, even if Spielberg’s influence is the dominant mode. I haven’t seen this movie since probably 2005 and I wish I could reevaluate it.

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The Godfather (1972)/The Godfather II (1974)

The Godfather and its sequel are obvious classics of American cinema, and they’ll be noticeably absent from my reviews. I first saw The Godfather when I was 12-years-old on a double VHS copy that I borrowed from the library. I watched it three times in the week that I was allowed to keep it. Eventually, when I decided I wanted to more seriously pursue an education and, hopefully, a career in film, I often told people that it was the influence of The Godfather that had led me in that direction. I was obsessed with the movie as a teen to the point that I had memorized large chunks of dialogue from the film and could recite them on command as a sort of pathetic, nerdy party trick. I owned the DVD box set of all three films in high school, but I didn’t take it to college with me and it doesn’t seem to be at my parents’ house anymore. I suspect that my younger sister took over possession of it sometime after I moved out.

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Manderlay (2005)

The second in Lars von Trier’s still incomplete “Land of Opportunities” trilogy. Manderlay follows up Dogville, and continues with that film’s experimental, spare visual style. It also explores similar themes as the earlier film. I have a love/hate relationship with von Trier, and Manderlay was one of his more difficult films for me to wrap my head around. I first saw it with my friend, Ben, at the Regent Theater when it was released. Shortly after giving a presentation on Dogville in a class in college, I lent my copy of Manderlay to a classmate who hadn’t seen it, and I never saw it again. This is one that I’d really like to write about as I’ll be covering several von Trier films over the next few months.

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Say Anything (1989)

I don’t need to watch Say Anything again to be able to remember it perfectly. I watched this movie probably two dozen times while I was in high school. It perfectly intersected my filmic interests as a teen, and would have likely ranked up in my top five or ten movies at that time. I imagine my copy ended up with some girlfriend or another at that time, and that’s ok. It would be fun to go back and watch this movie as an adult, but it isn’t necessary.

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Upstream Color (2013)

Shane Carruth is one of my favorite newer filmmakers. Both of his features, Primer and Upstream Color have been favorites of mine, particularly Primer. When I first saw that movie, I watched it three times in one day, and insisted that each of my roommates sit down to experience it with me when they got home from work. Obviously, I was eagerly awaiting Carruth’s follow-up, Upstream Color, which took several years to materialize. I saw the movie twice in the theater and purchased it on Bluray as soon as it was released. It was one of my favorite movies of 2013, and I tried several times to write a short essay about the film, but I never got it right. I still have several pages of screening notes from that time, but I let a friend borrow the movie and he lost it.