Classic Review: the Firemen’s Ball

the fireman's ball

Last month, we lost one of the greatest living filmmakers: Milos Forman. Well-known in the US for masterpieces like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, he was also a groundbreaking filmmaker and social commentator in his home country of Czechoslovakia, which he was forced to flee due to his too-honest depictions of the political realities therein. I have thus decided to spotlight my favorite film from this early period, which I recently had the pleasure of re-watching: The Firemen’s Ball. Fans of Forman’s Hollywood work will recognize his provocative voice all over this masterwork of satire, making it an ideal film to revisit as we reflect on the man’s life and body of work.

Clocking in at an hour and thirteen minutes, The Firemen’s Ball is the kind of film that says its piece and then bows out as gracefully as a movie this deliberately inelegant can. The firemen in question belong to the volunteer force of a small town in Czechoslovakia. They are throwing a ball to commemorate their retired chairman, a man in his eighties and dying of cancer. While ideally the ball is meant to be a celebration of a man they admire, little time is actually spent memorializing the man, as the firemen never seem all that interested in doing such, something that they have in common with the attendees. No, the party falls apart rather quickly due to the selfishness and avarice of everyone involved. Guests, including one fireman’s wife, steal the prizes for the raffle. Attempts to hold a beauty pageant end in disaster. Everyone is, simply put, looking out for themselves, which is where the film’s sharp social commentary comes into play: like the ball, the socialist system under which it is held is doomed to fall apart in the face of the selfish impulses of the citizenry that it fails to account for.

The firemen themselves are no exception to this. They are as impudent, incompetent, and self-centered as the townspeople, if not moreso. In fact, these qualities essentially make up their entire personalities, and Forman treats them that way, framing them in his shots so that none of them really stand out or retain any real sense of individuality. The script also maintains a similarity between the characters, encouraging us to jeer at them as a group rather than examine them as individuals, which is appropriate considering the Soviet-influenced collectivist society that the film seeks to mock. The cinematography and writing thus highlight the fact that this kind of collectivism serves to create a hive mind driven by the members’ worst impulses rather than the greater good.

Parts of Forman’s critique resonate a lot more today, particularly with regards to how they perceive women. The firemen are all, for lack of a better term, dirty old men. The idea for the beauty pageant is entirely theirs, and it is held exclusively so that they can objectify the young female participants, many of whom are pressed to compete against their desires. Before the show starts, they lock themselves in an office with the contestants, making sure that none of their mothers are their, and essentially have themselves a show. One cannot help but think of the recent Me Too movement when watching this scene, for Forman was ahead of his time not just in its conception, but in its execution. The scene is long and slow, building up discomfort in the audience as the firemen grow from incompetent buffoons to odious reprobates with more power than they have any right to handle. The unfortunate position of women in this political system is evidently not lost on Forman. Yet he does not simply wallow in their social impotence, but allows them to have a comically rousing moment of rebellion near the film’s conclusion that reminds us that they, being more than simple objects of pity, have agency of their own.

As the film progresses, there’s a big question, both frightening and comical, that begins to emerge: how do these buffoons, inept as they are, actually extinguish fires? After all, the entire film involves putting out figurative fires that threaten to engulf the disastrous ball. Inevitably, during the film’s climax, they are called to fight a real fire, and fail spectacularly, choosing to save some of the objects inside instead of actually trying to extinguish the flames within. There is perhaps no image that better captures the essence of the film than a group of elderly firemen desperately pulling furniture out of a burning building while uselessly assuring the old man who lives there that everything will be alright.

Forman was a leading figure in the Czech New Wave, which, like other European “new waves,” sought to break down the conventions of cinematic storytelling that were prevalent at the time. Given the oppressive political environment in which Forman was working, this iconoclasm was more than just an aesthetic rebellion. This is what I hope that people remember most about him. Yes, he directed some of the greatest Hollywood films of all time, but we must always keep in mind that it is his willingness to take the most highly regarded social institutions to task, and his acute insight into the way that people behave both as individuals and as members of a larger society, that makes his films so special.

Classic Review: A Clockwork Orange

a clockwork orange.jpg

Anthony Burgess’ landmark 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange was most likely considered unfilmable by many when Stanley Kubrick released his 1971 adaptation. Yet if there is any director who can film the unfilmable, it is Kubrick, whose film preserves a surprising amount of the language and atmosphere of the novel, while shifting the focus to meet Kubrick’s desire to give the work a more overtly political edge. Yet while the focus of the narrative may be slightly different, the ideas that emerge from this remain the same, bringing up uncomfortable yet necessary questions about the nature of change and free will.  While the novel suggests that change can only occur of one’s own volition, Kubrick goes to existentially darker places, saying that sometimes, the change never occurs at all.

To say this is to play with our most fundamental, longest enduring assumptions about stories – that the people in them grow and evolve over time. The protagonist of A Clockwork Orange, Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell,) never does. He starts the film as a violent, lustful psychopath, and he is exactly the same way by the end. Over the course of the story, we are teased with the possibility that he might change, and Kubrick gives us room to root for that outcome, or for a merciless reckoning. Yet this story does more than simply present us with an example of a character who refuses to change his ways. It makes us ask ourselves whether anyone can change at all. Are the cathartic stories of self-improvement that we gleefully consume just an optimistic, delusional lie? Is it even possible to change someone whose very nature rebels against the notion? The film offers little comfort as it explores these questions, yet the result is nonetheless rewarding, though darkly so.

At the onset of the film, Alex is obsessed with, as he puts it, “the old ultraviolence”. He and his “droogs” spend their time mercilessly beating random strangers until they are dead or otherwise irreparably harmed. Violence for Alex serves a number of functions: it is a way to posture in front of his friends, a way to pass the time, and in some ways a physical need. Even though Alex narrates the film, we never hear from him what sort of pleasure he derives from these actions, but we see in his twisted smile that he does receive it, and Kubrick’s tendency to hold the camera on this smile leaves little room for uncertainty in this regard. The violence itself often plays out in slow motion, allowing us to soak in not just the pain being inflicted, but the pure joy that Alex gets out of it. The cinematography always favors Alex in these moments, making it clear that the violence is more about him than with any particular hatred for those he perpetuates it against. His belligerence is not the result of a political ideology or twisted set of principles, like many of the dark cinematic antiheroes who emerged during the same decade. He hurts people because he likes it, and, for all his sophistication, he seldom considers the subject at any great length.

This sophistication is one of the more anachronistic aspects of Alex’s personality. He speaks in his own invented language, which, surprisingly, isn’t a modification of an English dialect, but rather a synthesis of English and Russian, which makes him seem more worldly than crude. There is also a stark contrast between how other youth gangs dress in the film, with their grubby appearance and patchwork of clothing that seem to be chosen at random, and Alex’s droogs, whose all-white outfits and black bowler hats feel deliberately chosen, a sick perversion of the trends of high society. Indeed, Alex flavors his bellicose nature with a decidedly aristocratic taste, which is more than a mere reminder that Alex comes from means. Rather, Alex’s high-class posturing reminds us that the idea of aristocrats violently assaulting the lower classes is not exactly an anomaly, nor is it new, especially in Europe. Alex’s old-fashioned style of dress is placed deliberately at odds with the postmodern furnishings of many of the locations he visits, including the homes of several of his victims and the milk bar that we see him in at the beginning, which sets the tone for the film and establishes an additional correlation between these postmodernist sensibilities and Alex’s sexual deviancy (note, for instance, the nude statues out of whose breasts the milk is poured, evoking both Freudian ideas of sexuality and emerging 20th century artistic principles.) The real horror of A Clockwork Orange, at least to many of its characters, is the fact that Alex’s violence is not directed solely at the dregs of society, but rather becomes a real threat to the new, artistically and morally progressive aristocracy, whose being threatened by him leads to his confinement.

The film was incredibly controversial upon its initial release due to its extreme violence. Yet violence alone fails to explain it. The controversy stems rather from the fact that Kubrick makes violence look fun. Alex is a psychopath, but he is also charming in his own twisted way, and his crimes are at times darkly funny. To a certain extent, this is indeed problematic, but there remains a difference between acknowledging the appeal of something horrific and outright endorsing it. A Clockwork Orange is told from Alex’s perspective, not just in that he narrates it, but visually as well. The music accompanying scenes of violence sounds like it could have been selected by Alex himself, and the use of slow-motion allows us to soak in and revel in his sinful excesses. There is an uncomfortable truth hidden here – that deep down, we understand why Alex enjoys behaving the way he does. Yet unlike the fascist power fantasies that started to gain popularity around the time of the film’s release, Kubrick never attempts to morally justify these actions. They may be pleasurable to watch, but it’s a pleasure we should be ashamed of, and part of the horror of Alex’s character is that he has no such shame. Alex is not on some righteous moral crusade; in fact, he never even gives us a real reason for his actions. That the film is controversial is part of the point, yet we must always keep in mind exactly what is the nature of the controversy.

The moment that perhaps best exemplifies the discomfort that this film causes in an audience is the iconic scene in which Alex assaults an elderly writer and brutally rapes his wife. Most admirers of the film know that the choice to have Alex sing the title song from Singin’ in the Rain was an improvisation by McDowell, who did so in response to Kubrick’s desire to have the character sing something that would add to the eeriness of the scene. Kubrick is one of the most deliberate auteurs in the history of American cinema, so his willingness to allow this kind of improvisation speaks to its effectiveness. It also exemplifies Kubrick’s employment of tonal and aesthetic contradictions in order to create A Clockwork Orange’s specific mood. I have already mentioned the contrast between Alex’s high-class mannerisms and his psychotic disposition, but here we also see the jubilance of the song he is singing set against the pain he is inflicting on others. The film forces us to associate the traumatic with the innocuous in a way that makes it even more difficult to make sense of the narrative or the character at its heart.

This practice is eventually turned against Alex when, while in prison, he is forced to watch videos of death and destruction in the hopes that these things will become repulsive to him. Many of these videos are set to Beethoven’s 9th symphony, one of his favorite pieces of music, and once the procedure has ended, he finds that Beethoven, sex, and violence all make him sick in equal measure. They have successfully robbed him of all the things that once brought him pleasure, his greatest flaws and his most sympathetic quality. In short, they have stripped away his humanity. Indeed, while harmless as a person, Alex isn’t much of a character once he has been reformed. Yet those who performed the procedure on him are proud of their work, going so far as to show him off in front of a large crowd. Though the desire to change Alex is an understandable one, it becomes abundantly clear that the motivations behind this desire had more to do with instilling conformity than with eradicating evil. Yet Alex, we soon find, cannot be tamed so easily, and the entire process of changing him is later proven to be a futile, arrogant endeavor by a sociopolitical system that cares only about maintaining a submissive  public.

It is perhaps problematic to use someone as morally reprehensible as Alex as subject with which to explore a theme like this, yet it has its perks. Alex in many ways mirrors the worst parts of all of us, the parts we wish we could simply do away with. Yet as awful as any of us may be, we choose to be that way. It is this choice that, according to Kubrick, defines our humanity, and the system’s attempt to strip it from us is a threat to that humanity. Furthermore, there is the additional question of whether or not Alex deserves absolution if the decision to reject violence is not his. By the end of the film, Alex is still a monster, not simply because the procedure didn’t work, but because he never voluntarily repented for his crimes.

Many of his old acquaintances recognize this, as they shun or persecute Alex upon his release. Most memorable among these is the writer whom Alex assaulted earlier, Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee,) who, as if to emphasize his similarity to Alex, shares a name with him. Ironically,

Frank happens to be an activist who is in the process of protesting the treatment of criminals like Alex. Magee gives one of the film’s best performances as he becomes aware that Alex, whom he takes in and nurses to health after a beating at the hands of police officers. Realizing who it is that he has in his possession, he decides to torment Alex as much as he can. This emphasizes the cyclical nature of the film, which sees a supposedly morally upstanding riter reduced to the same level of cruelty that victimized him in the first place.

For those who are still uncomfortable with A Clockwork Orange, that’s perfectly understandable, even healthy. The questions that it raises are as dangerous as they are necessary, regarding the fundamental nature of humanity. Almost half a century later, the film still feels as viscerally gripping as it likely did when it was first released. It deserves be seen, studied, and critiqued, yet these things must be done responsibly. A Clockwork Orange is not meant to be enjoyed as a simple piece of escapism, but something more akin to a horror film, one that confronts us with the horror that resides within us, and entreats us to hold onto it.

Classic Review: Grease

grease

The opening of Grease somehow both sets the tone for the film without resembling anything else in it. It is an animated vignette about a greaser set to a Frankie Valli song of the same name. It promises one thing only: that the film, regardless of its quality, will be as slick as the substance from which it derives its name. If this feels superficial, it’s because it is, and the film makes no secret of that. Unlike Rebel Without a Cause or other films about youth culture in the 1950s, Grease is concerned with the fashions and trends of the time rather than the reasons young people might have had for looking that way. It is a film about delinquents in gangs that makes no effort to explore their motivations or the pain that lies beneath their snazzy exteriors. That said, the film isn’t a total loss. It tries to be cool and cool it is, at least when it isn’t embarrassingly funny. But Grease still can’t help but feel like a missed opportunity, one that squanders its chance to say something interesting about the nostalgia for the 1950s that was so prevalent during the 70s, especially considering the popularity of films like American Graffitti, which had come out a few years prior. Had the film used this chance, it might be an interesting parallel to our current wave of nostalgia. Instead, it is simply a flashy, empty-headed musical, though by no means a bad one.

Though Grease features a large cast, there are really only two characters who matter – and no, they aren’t Danny Zuko (John Travolta) and Sandy Olsson (Olivia Newton-John). Instead they are the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies, who, though groups rather than individuals, feature members so similar in personality that they may as well be considered a single character. They are all vapid and self-absorbed, as teenagers tend to be, yet here their similarities with actual young people abruptly end. The Pink Ladies, with their exaggerated femininity and theatrics, exist solely to chase men and manage their image. The T-Birds, meanwhile, think only of cars, sex, and breaking the rules, and the film is more than willing to romanticize all of these pursuits, no matter how useless or dangerous they are.  When Danny falls in love with Sandy, he must outwardly reject her and maintain his pathetic veneer of disaffectedness, not because his friends will disapprove of Sandy, but because they will disapprove of any sincere display of emotion. The screenplay is smart enough to make fun of the characters for this short-sightedness, but it’s never smart enough to delve any deeper into their problems.

As shallow as it is, I can still understand why so many have a fondness for this film. The design elements are top-notch, with the costumes in particular standing out so much that they have more personality than the characters who wear them. It’s no surprise that the sets and costumes are so vivid, as all of the attention goes into them. The filmmakers, like the characters, are immensely concerned with how everything looks, and not much else. The result is an idyllic version of the 1950s that certainly never existed, but remains fun to look at.

The main draw of the film is, of course, the music, and to the film’s credit, the songs are all catchy, and most of them follow the rules of 1950s musical numbers, though some do feel temporally anachronistic. Newton-John and Travolta both have musical talent aplenty, so they are more than capable of leading the various song-and-dance numbers. Newton-John is by far the better singer, while Travolta is the better dancer and actor, so it is no real surprise where their careers would take them after this film. Considering the low bar we have recently set for singing and dancing actors in musicals, some of the bits in Grease are surprisingly refreshing. The choreography isn’t terribly sophisticated, but at least it showcases the talent of the participants, while the songs never feel like they were written for actors with limited vocal ranges (looking at you, La La Land). It is a musical that, for all its lack of substance, is perfect for sing-along screenings, as long as the attendees are aware of the extent of the film’s stupidity.

Though I’ve written at length about the emptiness of the film, I haven’t yet touched on the parts where the film goes from refusing to say anything interesting to actively saying something morally repugnant. Danny and Sandy are clearly in love, yet they cannot be together due to the social pressures that prohibit Danny from making any expression of sincerity. The solution? Have the sweet, demure Sandy change everything about herself. Problem solved! The issue here isn’t simply that she succumbs to peer pressure, but that the film celebrates this transformation. Grease actually does a fairly decent job of setting up the major themes of the narrative, and then completely fumbles the ball when it comes to following through on them. It is a bafflingly moronic film in nearly every sense, as fun to watch and as devoid of substance as any of its characters.

Review: Ready Player One

ready player one.jpg

Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One might be the worst film I’ve seen all year. Not because of the performances or direction (though both fail to impress,) but because of everything it stands for. It is millenial wish fulfillment at its most insipid, treating as heroic that which should be critically investigated. It is permissive of its characters’ gaping flaws to a fault, offering nothing but empty reassurances that the things they enjoy are important, revolutionary even, for the simple reason that they enjoy them. It celebrates without examining, condemns without sympathizing, and tells its audience exactly what it wants to hear, not a word more.

The plot concerns a virtual reality video game called the Oasis, where you can be whatever you want to be. People use the Oasis to escape their everyday problems, though conveniently we never learn what those problems are. The Oasis is populated by stunted man-children, who all adore pop culture despite never once manage to formulate an original or compelling opinion about the things they profess to love so much. There is also an evil corporation named IOA trying to take over the Oasis by hunting down three keys that the game’s creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance) left behind after his death. We are meant to hate IOI, as well as its CEO, Noran Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), on principle due to their greedy, parsimonious natures, which is odd considering the fact that the film itself is nothing but an empty-headed two hour commercial.

Opposing this corporation is one of the most by-the-numbers protagonists to grace multiplexes – Wade Watts. Wade checks off every box in the boring lead checklist: he’s an orphan, lonely, living with abusive or negligent relatives, and is prodigiously talented at the only skill that seems to matter in the universe of the film, which, conveniently is playing video games. To the film’s credit, it makes several attempts to develop his character, but he nevertheless comes across as an empty vessel for equally empty wish fulfillment. He is not particularly compelling outside of his blind devotion to geek culture, yet inexplicably, he is constantly told, explicitly or implicitly, that he is somehow special. This is a comforting idea for those who share Wade’s introversion and geeky obsessions, but it’s also a dangerous one, since it encourages passivity and self-indulgence over intellectual rigor and self-improvement.

Such a character would be grating enough if he didn’t also represent every vapid adolescent cliche possible. At one point, Wade unironically calls his abusive uncle a “noob” for having died in the game. Said uncle is violent, capricious, and crude, yet the worst thing the film or its protagonist can possibly say about him is that he is untalented at videogames. Elsewhere, Wade finds himself face-to-face with Sorrento for the first time. The corporate mogul offers to team up with Wade, to which he replies “a fanboy knows a hater.” This quote essentially sums up the film’s entire conception of morality. Wade is the hero because he likes things. He doesn’t intellectually probe the things he likes or ask himself if his obsessions are healthy; he simply likes them, and that seems to be enough. In the world of Ready Player One, enjoying media as cheap escapism is tantamount to a heroic act, in one of the most blatant, masturbatory forms of fan service I have ever witnessed.

Sorrento, on the other hand, hates everything but money, which the discerning viewer might recognize as the defining character trait of practically every corporate villain of the last century. Yet there is an extra layer of malignancy to his character: he’s not a real nerd (the horror!) Indeed, for a film about underdogs and outcasts, Ready Player One is concerningly obsessed with establishing its own social hierarchy, with geeks and gamers at the very top. Sorrento’s crimes are many, but the one the film considers to be the most egregious is not his belief that the universe revolves around money, but that he believes that it doesn’t revolve around geek culture. No other culture seems to matter, in a world that is tailor-made for insecure video game enthusiasts who seek to have their hobbies, as well as their mediocrity, blindly validated.

The Oasis’ creator, Halliday, is a geeky amalgam of Howard Hughes, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg; or rather, he is what those men would likely wish to be remembered as. As of the start of the film, Halliday has been dead for five years. Upon his death, instead of ensuring that his money would help enrich the world in the same way that he is supposed to have done throughout the life, he designs an elaborate challenge within the game to determine who will inherit control of the Oasis, which, as one character says, is the most valuable economic resource in the world at this point. In essence, Halliday, whom we are told was a selfless, benevolent figure, leaves the fate of the financial world up to an elaborate, skill-based game meant only to serve his own narcissistic whims. Even worse, the other characters do nothing but sanctify the man, never pausing to consider the fact that they have based their entire sense of self-worth around their knowledge of his specific cultural tastes. Wade casually mentions the fact that The Shining is Halladay’s 11th favorite horror movie as if it is a useful piece of information to have in anything but a world that is designed solely to grant the wishes of those who do nothing but accumulate useless facts. He is also one of the few people with an awareness of the only date Halliday ever went on (Halliday, a morose introvert, panders in his very construct to antisocial geeks who perpetually fail with women.) The date never went anywhere, and we’re never led to believe that Kira, the other participant, ever had feelings for him, yet the “what if” questions surrounding the date become central to the plot in a thread that is played as sweet rather than creepy. We are tellingly never told how Kira felt or if she ended up happy, and why would we be? She exists solely to fulfill the desires of the maladjusted man through whose gaze we see her.

While we’re on the subject of women, let’s take a moment to discuss the female lead. Her name is Artemis (Olivia Cooke,) and she is something of a legend in the Oasis, where, once again, one’s social status is determined solely by their ability to play video games. Artemis is remarkably skilled, but never skilled enough to overshadow or threaten Wade, as this would interfere with the male-centric fantasy that is the film’s core appeal. Wade falls in love with her almost instantly, and tells her so shortly after, indicating that this film possesses an understanding of love that is about as sophisticated as a Twilight novel. She initially rejects him, expressing understandable reservations about entering into a romantic relationship with a man who has never met or seen her, and who really only loves the idealized version of her that he has created in his loneliness. It is a refreshing moment that promises a subversion of one of Hollywood’s most troublesome tropes, but this is quickly undone when Artemis, for no discernible reason, begins to reciprocate his feelings (because heaven forbid that the shameless audience stand-in ever have to cope with genuine failure or rejection.)

Another reason why she initially rejects him is because she believes he will find her unappealing if they ever met in real life, and several other characters reinforce this notion, particularly Wade’s virtual best friend, Aech, who warns him that she could be an overweight man for all he knows. This is sound advice, and it drives home the notion that Wade is delusional and dangerously obsessed with the manufactured idea he has turned Artemis into. As a plot device, the fact that Artemis is a man or otherwise incompatible with Wade could be a sobering reminder to audiences that, while fantasy and escapism is fun, it often isn’t what the real world looks like, and acting as though it is typically leads to disappointment. But of course, she turns out to be absolutely stunning, her insecurities about her looks deriving mostly from a birthmark over her eye, one that fails to sell the idea that no one finds her attractive. Even those that do find the birthmark off-putting need not worry, as Spielberg often favors the unmarred side of her face, while the side with the birthmark is at times strategically covered up by her perfectly styled hair. Despite her laughable insecurities about her ugliness, all it takes is Wade’s awkward professions of attraction to her in order to convince her otherwise. She is, in short, everything he wants: gorgeous, insecure enough to fall for him despite his lack of outstanding qualities, and able to hold her own in a tough situation as to be worthy of envy without overshadowing him.

Many have defended this film on the grounds that one should simply enjoy the film as big, dumb, empty spectacle, the kind of film that invites viewers to, as the saying goes, “turn their brains off.” This is precisely why this film is so problematic – it encourages, even endorses, a catatonic viewer. Yes, the movie is big and loud, but why should that be inherently fun? All the empty spectacle the movie has to offer means nothing if there isn’t something interesting going on beneath it, and on this front, Ready Player One has nothing to offer. It gives the audience exactly what they want without pausing to consider whether it is responsible to give it to them. I am not simply being cynical, but rather pointing out that, while large-scale blockbuster filmmaking is a necessary part of film culture, it is never too much to ask for it to have something of passing intelligence to say, especially considering the amount of money that often goes into these projects.

As for the action itself, it isn’t nearly as impressive as one might hope. The final battle in particular involves excesses of special effects and camera movements that are more synonymous with Michael Bay than with Spielberg. It involves countless pop culture icons mindlessly fighting other for what feels like an eternity. Just prior to this, Wade gives a rallying speech that is so mawkish, cliche-ridden, emptily optimistic, unimaginative, and tragically sincere, that by the end I was writhing in my seat out of sheer discomfort. It sounds like any battle speech in a post-Braveheart world, only somehow even more melodramatic and full of meaningless platitudes. The battle itself has little impact on the characters or their journeys and is mostly nauseating to look at due to all the visual clutter. Even in the one place where the film is supposed to excel, it falls on its face.

Yet the chief flaws of the film are the narrative ones. Ready Player One is a film of contradictions. It presents geeks as noble, misunderstood outsiders, yet builds a world in which their talents and hobbies are at the center of the universe. It makes various connections to the real-world iteration of the subculture while outright ignoring the toxic, immature or otherwise negative elements of it. Its main priority seems to be avoiding anything that might shatter the illusion of nerds as anything but affable underdogs who deserve to win. In the world of this film, being a good or heroic person essentially boils down to liking the same things the writer likes.

Of course, what is a two-hour cinematic advertisement without a large number of manipulative appeals to nostalgia? Rather than deconstructing or investigating our obsession with our childhood media, it attempts to persuade us that our consumption of this media is an end unto itself, encouraging us to live in the past rather than learning from it. In doing so, Ready Player One inadvertently exposes a number of troubling trends in pop culture, namely our blind adoration of the things we enjoyed as children with barely a thought given to why or how those things shaped us.

At one point, Wade says of Halliday “he showed us that we could go somewhere without going anywhere at all” This might have well be the film’s slogan. Ready Player One is vapid and dangerously superficial, but no more than most other blockbusters. Why, then, is it so much worse? The answer is simple – most blockbusters don’t wear their shallowness on their sleeve quite like this film does. The positive reaction the film has received is equally troubling, with many fans praising it for evoking the mirth of their childhoods. Spielberg should know better than to become complicit in this kind of media gluttony.  His new film, which could have been a compelling exploration of our relationship with the fiction that shapes us, instead devolves into embarrassing wish-fulfilling pablum, in a film that epitomizes everything concerning about how we are consuming media.

Review: I Feel Pretty

i feel pretty.jpg

The first joke in Amy Schumer’s new comedy I Feel Pretty arrives at about the ten minute mark. It isn’t funny. Nothing in this film is, and the film’s attempts to make us laugh feel half-hearted and pathetic. Even so, the film might be saved if the dramatic element were handled with any sense of grace, and it isn’t. The plot, focusing on a woman named Renee (Schumer) who, lacking confidence in her plain appearance, attends a spin class, where she sustains a head injury that convinces her that she is drop-dead gorgeous. Driven by a newfound sense of confidence, Renee achieves a myriad of things that she would’ve been too scared to even attempt previously. The script is uninspired and embarrassingly on-the-nose, while the characters are flat and boring. Watching it, I began to wonder why this was even marketed as a drama, as it feels more like a particularly irritating Lifetime film. Then it hit me: we’re supposed to find Renee’s displays of confidence funny. We’re supposed to think that Schumer, who doesn’t exactly inhabit the unrealistic beauty standards to which women are held, is acting humorously when she shows off her body or tries competing with thinner women. This is a movie with precisely one joke to its name, and it isn’t a particularly good one. Rather than making us laugh, Renee’s antics are off-putting and mortifyingly unfunny, placing the film barely above the likes of Jack and Jill and The Love Guru only by virtue of the fact that it isn’t deliberately mean-spirited or willfully stupid.

As uninteresting as the jokes are, this movie’s flaws all come back to the character of Renee. Early on, we learn two things about her: that she is obsessed with fashion, and that she is insecure about her looks. If this amount of character development isn’t enough for you, too bad; it’s all we ever learn about her. Her biggest ambition is to be the receptionist for the high-end fashion company at which she works in a far less visible role. It’s fine that Renee cares about her looks; the problem is that this is the only thing she cares about. We never get a sense of her other interests or desires, and she doesn’t seem to have any. The movie, written and directed by Abby Kohn and Mark Silverstein, never seems to realize how sad it is that Renee’s entire life revolves around appearances; even at the film’s end, when she learns to accept herself, her life is still focused on the notion of beauty, even though her conception of that beauty has evolved. Renee’s lack of a compelling personality makes it achingly difficult to sympathize with her, and Schumer’s one-note performance doesn’t help. She spends most of the early parts of the film complaining incessantly, while the middle act is largely spent flaunting her “new look” everywhere she goes, even putting down her now “less attractive” friends. Speaking of her friends, they elicit far more sympathy than Renee does, as they have to put up with her; scenes featuring them see them constantly forced into discussions about beauty and cosmetics by Renee, who will trigger anyone who has ever had a friend who could only talk about one thing and can work any conversation towards it. The biggest problem with Renee is how utterly self-centered she is; for most of the film, she doesn’t really acknowledge the fact that she’s far from the only person to be insecure about her body, and indeed, she’s far better off than some. A last-minute attempt to walk back this character flaw feels dishonest and lazy. The film pretends to be about the pressures placed on women as a whole, but it’s really only about one specific woman dealing with this problem, and a vapid, self-absorbed one at that. How much more interesting would it be if Renee were a lawyer or a college professor? If she had a job that was more about brains (or personality, or any of a number of qualities) than looks, yet she still couldn’t escape the stigma of not being unrealistically thin? These minor changes might have given the film some added depth, and would’ve made Renee feel more like a real person who has more than beauty to offer rather than the one-dimensional human allegory that she in fact is.

That last gripe might feel like a nitpick, but it really isn’t, as it’s symptomatic of a much bigger problem with this film. In the world of I Feel Pretty, beauty and confidence are the only two qualities that really matter in women. The notion of inner beauty is all fine and good, but it still leaves little room for other admirable traits that are glossed over entirely. Hard work? Forget it. Intellectual curiosity? Nope. These qualities, along with things like moral conviction, emotional intelligence, bravery, and honesty, are nowhere to be found in this film or any of its various female characters. For a film that talks a big game about all women having the same worth, it pays strikingly little attention to women who don’t particularly care about their looks, or who excel at something other than having copious amounts of confidence about nothing in particular.

And what does this confidence allow her to do? Apply for a lower-paying job, enter a bikini contest, and romance a tall piece of white bread named Ethan (Rory Scovel). The tragic thing about I Feel Pretty is that all of this is supposed to somehow be endearing. The aforementioned bikini contest is played for laughs, as though the idea of a woman with a fuller figure in a bikini contest is somehow gut-bustingly hilarious. Her relationship with Ethanis just as uninteresting as both of its participants, and it never really goes anywhere. We’re told that Ethan doesn’t really care about her looks, but he also says that he doesn’t date much, so it’s just as likely that he’s dating her out of desperate inexperience as for her fearless confidence. Besides, this confidence was gained through a magical head injury, so he never really falls in love with her “just as she is”. Indeed, all of her accomplishments lose their impact as we realize that Renee herself does not really accomplish any of them, but is rather fooled into doing so. The more I think about the film, the more I realize that the head-injury angle is completely unnecessary, and in fact hurts the overall narrative by stripping Renee of any trace of agency she might have had left. It feels as though the filmmakers could not possibly fathom the idea of a conventionally plain-looking woman having confidence without supernatural intervention, a notion that is frankly insulting to both the subject of the film and its audience.

Though most of the film is focused on Renee’s specific problems, it does attempt to give voice to the insecurities of other women, yet here, too, it stumbles. Michelle Williams plays Avery LeClaire, the CEO of the company Renee works at; her high-pitched voice means that no one really takes her seriously and people often think she’s unintelligent despite her extensive education. The problem is that she’s written in such a way that we can’t help but think of her as dumb. She lacks basic knowledge about her industry and must be constantly told what to do, say and think, never once making a competent business decision. Emily Ratjakowski plays Mallory, Renee’s more attractive friend, who deals with her own self-esteem issues with regards to her intelligence, but the film never goes into any detail on them, caring little about what it feels to be these kinds of women. There is a subtle suggestion that Renee’s problems are more important than those of the women around her, a problem that becomes even more worrisome when one thinks about the morally questionable elements of the fashion industry that the film conveniently fails to address. Consider, for instance, the emergence of plus-size models, a category that includes Renee but excludes the likes of Aidy Briant, who plays, for lack of a better term, the plucky fat friend. Also unacknowledged are the racialized nature of beauty standards, with all of the film’s black characters aligned with the beauty industry when reality shows us quite a different set of circumstances.

In a recent interview with Vulture, Schumer fired out her own defense of the film after receiving accusations of body-shaming, saying the following: “I heard the comment, ‘Why does she have to think of herself as skinny?’ a lot. But you never see how I see myself! That’s a guess, that Renee thinks of herself as skinny. In the scene after the head injury, the assumption is that the woman I see when I look in the mirror is skinny, but I’m just seeing my same self and perceiving my body as beautiful. She doesn’t say, “I’m so thin!” She just says that she’s amazed by her jawline, and her boobs, and her ass. If anything, that sounds like a more voluptuous woman to me”. These claims are preposterous for a number of reasons, regardless of where one stands on the issue. For starters, all of the women who embody the aesthetic ideal that Renee strives for are remarkably thin; we’re never shown any alternative forms of beauty, or anything else that might indicate an expanded definition of beauty on Renee’s part. Furthermore, when Renee first wakes up after sustaining her head injury, she marvels at her “rock-hard” abs and “toned” body; the absence of these things is part of the joke. Elsewhere, she is made to feel ashamed when none of the clothes at a store she visits fit her. All of these scenes, and many others, broadcast Renee’s obsession not just with her figure, but with her weight. While this is a minor element of the film, Schumer’s response is an example of how tone-deaf this creative team was, both in the production itself and in their attempts to defend the film in the face of the negative press coverage that the film has received.

The film ends as any creatively bankrupt film like this would: with a big, boring speech about self-empowerment. While Schumer’s lack of screen presence doesn’t do the speech any favors, its real flaw is related to its context. It is delivered during the unveiling of a new line of product for Renee’s company, and is thus inextricably linked to corporate marketing, in a scene that sets a new standard for tasteless commercialism in film. It wants women to feel empowered and independent, but only through a specific set of products. Many have already pointed to this scene as one that undercuts the message of the film, but the problem is set up far before this moment. The very fact that Renee works with and worships this company makes it nearly impossible for the film to escape the harmful influence of the body industry, making the climactic scene feel inevitable, though no less uncomfortable.

Classic Review: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

the good the bad and the ugly.jpg

The Good , the Bad and the Ugly takes its time getting the plot moving. It opens with three different vignettes, each of which is designed to introduce one of the film’s title characters. As one would expect from Sergio Leone, these scenes start slowly and gradually build to a cacophonous climax, establishing the three characters played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach as the most lethal men in the world they inhabit. While they are eventually given a shared goal, the achievement of which becomes central to the film’s plot, Leone is more concerned with them as characters than he is with the story, which is why the film often feels so episodic. From the moment each of them walks into frame, they cement themselves as three of the most iconic characters in the Western genre.

The one who most fans of the film remember most vividly is Clint Eastwood’s “Blondie,” the eponymous “Good.” Blondie isn’t “good” in that he is particularly morally righteous; at the film’s outset we see him springing a murderer from the hangman’s noose so that he can continue to collect the bounty on him in every town he visits. Yet the film still refers to him as good, if only because he is less vile than his co-stars. Indeed, we are clearly meant to root for Eastwood, even though he doesn’t conform to the standards of the upright heroes of John Ford’s American counterparts. Leone himself saw this film as a parody of sorts of the classic American western, and this is perhaps most evident in the fact that the film has no clear hero. Blondie is, at best, an antihero, one who has a moral code but seldom allows it to interfere with his quest for personal gain. Interestingly, we never do find out what he, or any of the men for that matter, intend to do with the vast fortune they are all fighting over, and it doesn’t really matter. We may not know much about his motivations or past, but we are nevertheless intimately acquainted with his mannerisms and personality by the film’s end.

As any Leone aficionado will tell you, this film is the end of a trilogy that began with A Fistful of Dollars, all of whom star Clint Eastwood as a mysterious laconic drifter. Yet, much like the mythic heroes of ancient oral storytelling traditions, the details about the character change with every iteration, as if someone else is telling the story and remembering different details. In each film, he is called by a different nickname. In For a Few Dollars More, he only uses one arm, and Lee Van Cleef appears as a completely separate character. In all of the films, he wears his iconic poncho, and nearly always has a cigar in his mouth. As if to acknowledge the inconsistent continuity of the series, Eastwood does not don his poncho until the very end, reinforcing the widely held theory that The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is in fact a prequel. Frankly, the order of the films does not really matter, as they are all standalone adventures, but it is clear that Leone is aware of the links between his films, which is why he adds just the barest traces of connective tissue. In doing this, Leone goes farther than almost any filmmaker in cementing the Western as an extension of ancient myth, one that shares mythology’s tendency to change as the story takes different forms, and that is filtered more through the storyteller than history itself.

When Eastwood was offered the chance to star in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, he was hesitant to take the role due to the requirement that he share the spotlight with two other actors. It would appear that his fears were well-founded, as it is Eli Wallach’s Tuco who steals the show. Tuco is a creature of impulse, killing and stealing as it suits him without any regard for the victims. While Blondie usually limits his murderous tendencies to other violent men, Tuco does not discriminate in this fashion. All the same, Tuco is in many ways the most sympathetic of the protagonists, as well as the only one whose backstory we learn. The latter occurs in one of the film’s most touching scenes, in which Tuco is reunited with his estranged brother, a priest who strongly disapproves of his lifestyle. Here Tuco learns that his parents have both died while he was away on his escapades, and, withering under his brother’s harsh disapproval, lashes out, calling his brother a craven for not having the courage to live as dangerously as he. According to Tuco, there are only two ways to escape the poverty that these brothers were born into: priesthood and crime. The brothers exchange some more harsh words and then part, each clearly regretting having wounded the other but unable to apologize. Tuco rejoins Blondie, who secretly overheard everything, and tells a lie about how his brother, who loves him dearly, begged him to stay a few more days. Blondie says nothing. It is a scene that is often overlooked, but it serves to highlight two things: that Blondie, who keeps Tuco’s secret and allows him to tell his lie, is more sympathetic than he perhaps lets on; and that Tuco is an emotionally wounded man. Tuco is the only character with something akin to an emotional arc, and this gives a thin layer of poignancy to a film that is otherwise mostly about thrills and laughs. In many ways, Tuco is the main character of the story, as he is the only one whose psyche we are able to penetrate, while we see the other two characters as he does – from the outside, their thoughts and motivations uncomfortably unclear. We learn that Tuco is a lonely man, as he admits in a speech to himself meant to attract his “friends” to help him track down Blondie. Shortly after, all of these friends are dead, having been sacrificed by Tuco to gain an advantage in the conflict. With no friends or family to speak of, Tuco turns to the only things that make him feel alive: violence and greed. While Tuco may evoke pity and provoke laughter, there are a number of things that we are still always reminded of. The first is that, although he may appear outwardly to be a buffoon, he is just as dangerous as Blondie or Angel Eyes, able to dispatch multiple foes with ease. It would be too easy for Leone to have Tuco constantly be outsmarted by Blondie, but there are several points where Tuco gains the upper hand, and is on the verge of winning until a happy accident prevents him from finishing off his opponent. The other important fact about Tuco is that he is utterly ruthless, having no problem turning against friends or sadistically torturing his enemies (a scene where he purchases a gun stands out in particular for this). Near the beginning of the film, an executioner recites a list of Tuco’s crimes; they are many and repulsive. By the end of the film, we believe not only that he committed them, but that he took pleasure in the acts.

While Tuco’s evil is driven by reckless impulse, Angel Eyes is almost clinical in his cruelty. Like Blondie, he has his own moral code, though his is far more twisted and sinister. Early on, he carries out a bounty on a farmer, killing his young son in the process. The farmer offers him a sizeable bribe, and Angel Eyes collects it, but only after killing the man. Returning to his employer, he collects his fee and kills him as a service rendered to the dead farmer for his bribe. It is this inverted yet rigid sense of morality that makes Angel Eyes so dangerous from the onset of the film. He casts a long shadow; the other characters seem to know him well, either from experience or by reputation (we never really learn). The fact that he receives the least screen time helps immensely with this, as every one of his appearances feels like a monumental event. Though all three characters frequently team up and betray each other, it is Angel Eyes who is most often the odd man out, teaming up with Blondie only once, and briefly. He is a villain in the most basic sense, remorseless and single-minded in his goals.

The dialogue in this film is sparse, for reasons that are as pragmatic as they are stylistic; other than the leads, most of the cast did not speak English, and thus had to be dubbed. Even so, the writing is sharp and lethal, much like its characters. For a film with so little dialogue, there are quite a few memorable lines, from the oft quoted “there are two kinds of people” to Tuco’s brilliant acknowledgement of a tragic flaw in many movie villains (“when you have to shoot, don’t talk!”) The script, written by Leone in collaboration with three other screenwriters, is equal parts witty banter and thinly veiled threats, with just a pinch of emotional sincerity, particularly in scenes demonstrating the tragedy of the Civil War. It is a screenplay that has influenced countless imitators, most notably Quentin Tarantino, who has referred to the film as one of the greatest ever made.

Tarantino might be Leone’s most prominent disciple, but he is far from the only one. Indeed, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly has had an immeasurable influence on nearly every Western that followed. Leone’s long, tense standoffs have been replicated time and time again, as have his taciturn antiheroes and their curt exchanges. Leone set out to deconstruct and disrupt the myth of the west as an idyllic frontier where the morally inscrutable ubermensch tamed the wilderness and maintained order. In Leone’s West, there is no order, only greed. Even the Civil War, a romantic conflict in so much film and literature for a century, is stripped of its nobility. The soldiers who fight it do so reluctantly, and think of going home rather than winning glory or seeing their country triumph. It is an explicit rejection of the sugar-coated frontier we see in the works of John Ford and Howard Hawks, one that has inspired countless filmmakers to re-evaluate the genres they work in and the history they engage with in similar ways.

I’ve said before that it is nearly impossible to discuss Sergio Leone without at least mentioning Ennio Morricone, who here gives us his most iconic score. It’s catchy and alluring as any of his other work, but what separates it from anything else in his career is the main theme, and how it communicates so much about its characters. The score uses the same letmotif for each of the three protagonists, except with a different instrument to distinguish their personalities. Blondie’s is played with a flute, which gives it the smoothest sound and reflects his calm gruffness; Angel Eyes gets an ocarina followed by a guitar; the lower pitch of the former perhaps reflects his lower moral standing, while the biting edge of the guitar reminds us of his remorseless deadliness. Tuco’s is delivered by a yodeller, which sounds as silly and buffoonish as he is. Note that Morricone never employs a full orchestra; his compositions were made on a budget, which often forced him to improvise and do more with less. The title theme exemplifies this more than anything, as he uses a minimal amount of resources to communicate information sonically that other composers would require Wagnerian symphonies to accomplish. Even without such an orchestra, Morricone’s score never feels lacking, as he often gets the fuller sound that we typically associate with orchestral scores.

This is especially the case with “Ecstacy of Gold,” my personal favorite track from the film. It plays near the film’s climax, when Tuco is desperately searching a graveyard for the gold he has spent the entire film seeking. It is fitting that, considering how meaningless and devoid of glory Leone has rendered war and death in this film, its ending should take place in a massive graveyard, with some of the graves not even bearing names, as if to emphasize the point. None of the characters have any real compunction about grave robbing; after all, the dead don’t need gold, do they? The characters in the film are willing to do anything to get rich, and Tuco’s mad scrambling around the graveyard, set to ever intensifying music, reflects this perfectly. Soon, of course, Tuco’s gold-induced frenzy comes to an end as the other two characters arrive, leading to one of the greatest climaxes in film history.

At the center of this climax is the now-iconic shootout between the three characters. Leone’s trademark style is on full display here, intercutting stunning wide shots with extreme close-ups of faces and gun holsters while Morricone’s score intensifies. It gives us time to think of the characters and their long conflict up to this point, and we slowly build up anticipation to see which one of them to finally triumph. The shootout lasts for what feels like an eternity, and only a single shot is fired. Most of it simply features the three men staring each other down and sizing each other up. It reminds me of a scene in the more recent film Hero, where two warriors fight a hypothetical battle completely in their minds to determine which of them would win. I imagine something similar happens in the minds of these peerless gunmen during this fateful showdown. By the end, it has been resolved brilliantly, and the winner does so in the most pleasantly surprising fashion. It is a perfect ending to one of the great film trilogies, one that elevates it from good to legendary.

Review: Rampage

rampage.jpg

I’ll keep this review short, because it’s what Rampage deserves. The film is based on an arcade game about three giant monsters terrorizing a city: a giant wolf, a giant gorilla, and a mutated alligator. That’s really all you need to know in order to properly evaluate this film. The game it is based on has no plot, and this film might as well have followed suit, for all the interest its narrative manages to garner. Some may be attracted to the film due to Dwayne Johnson’s natural charisma or the strong supporting cast, including Naomie Harris, Joe Manganiello, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan. Yet these are few in number; most of those who go to see Rampage simply want to see chaos and destruction rendered in as cinematic a fashion as possible.

It is this wanton destruction that is the real star of the movie, as the aforementioned monsters run amok in Chicago. We are meant to be thrilled to see them fight each other and destroy the city, but it is something that we have seen so many times that it becomes difficult to care anymore, especially considering how uninteresting the human characters in the middle of this conflict are. The action is incomprehensible, as is the plot, and it is far too easy to get lost in the action scenes, which are shot with far more emphasis on what might look cool to a particularly underdeveloped teenage boy over what might make for an interesting or clever story. Though it centers around the destruction of one of America’s most populous cities, the tone is, true to form, fairly upbeat, and Johnson has his fair-share of jokes to crack while he goes toe-to-toe with the monsters. I say “jokes” when perhaps I should say “one-liners,” because jokes have the obligation to be funny, while one-liners are limited only by their length.

There are many for which this description makes Rampage sound even more compelling, and I completely understand this sentiment. We need stupid movies to remind us of the immature impulses that we all share. But I do not think it is too much to ask that, even in a deliberately unintelligent movie such as this, there be something that is unironically interesting. As anachronistic as it sound, there is a way to do stupidity in a clever way. Rampage fails at this, and not all the charm in the world can save it from being more a disaster of a film than a disaster film.