Monday, December 26, 2011

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks. 1953)

"Diamonds are a girl's best friend..."


Most of the musicals from the 1950s are a ton of fun to watch. This was the decade when actors were real triple threats with immense talent in singing, acting and dancing. The 1950s was a decade when movie stars were golden and billing was the most important thing for an actor. In Gentleman Prefer Blondes the billing is split between the sultry Jane Russell and the radiant Marilyn Monroe. And though one of those names will be more familiar with readers, this classic golden-age musical takes two to shine.

Russell and Monroe play American showgirls and best friends with almost completely polar personalities. Powell’s Dorothy is a levelheaded, yet wily, young lady with legs that last for days. Though she is certainly man-crazy, she is far more interested in the prospect of falling in love. She makes it very clear that lack of money would not be a deal-breaker and that flattery will “get you anywhere”. Dorothy is the realistic sexuality that keeps this campy balloon from drifting too far away from earth.

Monroe’s Lorelei may seem like a gold-digger (or diamond-miner may be more appropriate) at first, but the character is actually a lot deeper than that. Lorelei understands how attractive she is and uses it to work her way to the top of the world. She has found an extremely wealthy, though by all means nerdy, man (Tommy Noonan.) who will treat her nicely and shower her with expensive gifts, yet still uses her excruciatingly good looks to seduce men into buying her diamonds and other expensive gifts.

WARNING: This is the obligatory paragraph about Marilyn Monroe’s beauty. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes may not be where it originated, but the movie does a lot to bolster the current legend of Ms. Monroe. She wears the nicest clothes and sparkles from the luminous expensive diamonds that differ in each scene. It is plausible to believe that Marilyn was born to be in pictures. Her lips are a deep red that cut through her otherwise pale face and do wonders to bring out the humanly unachievable blondeness of her bobbed hair. Her hourglass figure brings an almost instant comparison to the sexiest symbol in earlier decades, Mae West, but Marilyn was smart enough to remain safe for a much wider variety of audiences. Her sex appeal was just as apparent and she knew all about it, but her personal character was more understated and seemed less dangerous. Of course, a lot of that is the myth of Monroe.

These two beautiful performers sail across the ocean to Paris where they expect to meet Lorelei’s future millionaire husband. Unfortunately, a private detective has been hired to make sure that Lorelei does not cheat while at sea. She meets a much older man who runs a diamond mine and instantly starts an innocent relationship that is filled with mindless flirting. She has no interest in the man himself (Charles Coburn), but rather only interested in shmoozing away a few of his precious rocks.

While all of this is happening, Dorothy is starting a relationship with the private detective, played by the under-appreciated Elliot Reid, which ends when she realizes his intentions to out Lorelei. It is said in the movie that Dorothy and the detective make love while at sea – a phrase that may seem controversial in the 50s context, but this is actually one of the least wild lines in the movie.

Russell, Monroe and (especially) Howard Hawks knew exactly the type of movie they were making with Gentleman Prefer Blondes. The entire concept of the movie is a shot at conventional gender ideals. Monroe’s character seems to be so shallow, but she later admits to being a product of a world where men want her to act a certain way. She is only serving as the filling in a chauvinistic world. Gorgeous and intelligent women intimidate men, so Lorelei happily fills just one of the roles in order to succeed. The dialogue is rich with hip sexual innuendo that managed to slip through the strict censors of “code-following” Hollywood. Russell’s character is displayed in a scene around the swimming pool that may be so homoerotic that it would make Nicolas Ray blush. That is the genius of Howard Hawks. He knew how to make middle America unknowingly watch the things that they so adamantly damned.

This is why the Monroe legacy is so frustrating to me. She was not a stupid person. She was interesting enough to keep Arthur Miller enthralled. Monroe did never want to be known as the peak of class and ladyship. It was an act; it was a joke that very few people were smart enough to grasp. She mocked the people who thoughtfully acted like Lorelei. Marylin knew she was gorgeous and she used it to her advantage. She was sex. But why? Because she knew it would sell.

Gentleman Prefer Blondes is a musical film that features some catchy, but ultimately forgettable, numbers and one classic tune. The aforementioned homoerotic camp-tune “Is Anyone Here for Love” is probably Russell’s finest moment. But of course, Marilyn steals the show with the flamboyantly goofy “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. In this song, Monroe cements her current status. Her pink dress and long gloves stand out from the literally faceless supporting cast. With women literally strapped in leather and attached to chandeliers, the scene has been criticized as chauvinistic. It’s a joke. And it is actually a pretty funny one.

Russell is the only post-decent acting that the movie has to offer, but Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is still a fun and comical exception to the buttoned up feel of many 50s musicals. Monroe is beautiful and parades her remarkable ability to glow and her unfailing knack for subtle humor. If you are in the mood for a musical, I am still forced to recommend Singin’ in the Rain or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. If you want a classic look into the mythos of Marylin – you cannot do any better than this.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: B

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Dogtooth (Lanthimos. 2009)

"Soon your mother will give birth to two children and a dog."


Dogtooth is a movie that manages to take everything to the unrelenting extreme. Everything in the movie is stylized, haunting and creepily symbolic of society. It tells the story of a family in modern day Greece who live in exile from the rest of the world. We all knew at least one kid in school who seemed to be overly sheltered and unprepared for the real world. We wondered, as peers, what it would be like to spend one day in that kid’s shoes. Dogtooth runs with that notion and shows us one of the strangest families ever depicted in film.

Exile may not be a strong enough word to use in this case. The family lives behind a giant fence and are never allowed to leave the premises. The children are taught to speak in a strange vocabulary that gives new meanings to any word that is outside the realm of their home. For example, the mother tells the children that a “zombie” is a little yellow flower, and that the “sea” refers to a comfortable armchair. No family member is given a name. The teenagers are referred to as eldest daughter, younger daughter and son. The parents created a fictional “older brother” who was thrown outside of the fence because he refused to behave. He is now forced to deal with the monsters on the outside. The parents rule their children by making them afraid of the world. They can only leave their home after one of their dogteeth falls out. Obviously, that will not happen.

The father is the only member of the family who is allowed to leave the home. He supports his family by managing a nearby factory. Christina is a security guard at the factory, and she is the only person allowed in the isolated home. She is used to relieve the son of his “male urges”. I mean, she has sex with him for money. And their sex is awkward and graphic. Eventually, Christina gets bored with the son and makes advances on the eldest daughter. She offers the eldest a sparkly headband in return for having her “keyboard” licked. Can you guess what a “keyboard” is? It is a vagina.

Having never felt any kind of sexual contact, the eldest is quick to recreate the feeling by trading the headband to her younger sister in return for having her shoulder licked. No worry, a shoulder is just a shoulder. This leads to a strangely sexual moment between the two sisters that ends with the audience feeling ashamed of themselves. Dogtooth does not apologize for these feelings. It is an extremely erotic movie. The problem is that the majority of the sex happens between siblings.

Christina’s second visit to the eldest is not nearly as successful. She offers hair gel in return for sexual acts, but her offer is rejected. The only way the eldest will lick her is if she gives up two videos that are in her bag. The eldest has seen videos before, but she thought that all videos were family home movies. Christina gives her two of the greatest movies ever made, Rocky and Jaws. Both movies have a significant influence on her mind. She begins quoting scenes from the films and acting out famous moments in the swimming pool. Her father finds the tapes, beats the eldest with one of them, and bans Christina from his home.

Without Christina, who will pander to the son’s sexual urges? The mother and father decide that the son can choose one of his sisters to replace his former “lover”. He picks the eldest and continues into one of the most visually disturbing sex scenes I have ever seen. Erotic or not, Dogtooth does a fantastic job at making sex look unappealing. Each sex scene is framed in a way that forces the audience to watch. Every disgusting, awkward and unforgiving moment of the incest scene is also visually captivating. It is almost like a trap for your eyes. Your mind cannot take what is happening, but your eyes cannot look away from the screen.

Everything in Dogtooth is sickeningly pale. The skin of the mother and three teenagers is as white as snow. The colors on the walls do not vary far from light peach and milky-white. The costumes are simple and every dark-color is so faded that it is hardly noticed. There is something disturbing about this simple aesthetic choice. It is said that children’s imaginations are sparked by colors. If that is true then the kids in Dogtooth must not have any imagination. Their world is almost colorless.

After being forced to have sex with her brother, the eldest daughter realizes that she needs out. She goes into the bathroom and bashes her face with a barbell – knocking out her dogtooth in the process. She then hides in the trunk of her father’s car and waits for him to leave in the morning. She does not think this through. Though she does make it out, she is stuck in the trunk until somebody opens it. I think the movie implies that she dies in the trunk of her father’s car after being just inches away from the freedom she craved.

The story may seem off-putting, but this really is an entertaining movie. The concept is so strange and disturbing that it will easily make the viewer think about what they are seeing. The acting is eerie, yet the audience can be sympathetic to everyone besides the father. Giorgos Lanthimos does a great job taking the bizarre subject matter and turning it into an incredibly thought-provoking and demented science experiment. What will happen when two parents strangle their children’s ability to learn anything about the world? They will start having sex with each other. Lesson learned.

It may not make very much sense for the reader, but Dogtooth is very close to being a masterpiece. Every moment in the film works in the same fashion as a car wreck. The morbid entertainment value may not outweigh the guilt you feel from being entertained, but you still zoom your eyes directly at the madness.

Dogtooth: B+

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (Peckinpah. 1973)

"Comes an age in a man's life when he don't wanna spend time figuring what comes next."


If you are at all familiar with the history of the American old West then you at least know the ending to one of Sam Peckinpah’s forgotten classics. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid is a movie that had to deal with a significant amount of battles behind the scenes. MGM wanted it to look a certain way; Peckinpah did not agree with their vision. It had a total of six credited, and Lord knows how many un-credited, editors who were hired by both the studio and the director before anyone could agree on an actual final cut. Peckinpah famously tried to cut all ties to the movie, but I think he would recant that desire if anyone were to ask him today.

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid does not feel like your typical western film. It features a score written by the music icon Robert Zimmerman. If you do not know already – that is Bob Dylan. I tend to like anything that Dylan touches. I even own one of his least successful albums, “Self Portrait” on vinyl. But sadly, the music in the film is awkward and off-putting. The title song is void of any tangible musical maturity and Dylan’s vocals are probably the worst that I have ever heard from him. I wish that this was not the case, but it sticks out pretty vividly throughout the movie.

With that being said, Dylan was able to garner a hit from the soundtrack. Now considered a classic tune, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” is decently used in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. It is featured in the death scene of Sherriff Baker (Slim Pickens) while his wife (Katy Jurado) watches and cries. It is nice to see Pickens in something that is more dramatic than Blazing Saddles. Do not get me wrong, I love that movie. But his voice, appearance and ability practically call out to be used in a dramatic role. Jurado is also nice to see, though it is interesting that the title characters are the exact opposite of the protagonist in her most famous movie – Will Kane in High Noon.

On the other hand, we have the almost unwatchable acting of Bob Dylan as Alias. Simply put, Dylan has no screen presence whatsoever. Because I thought that the music in the movie was silly I wanted to like his acting, but he looks to be shell-shocked when he is on camera. I highly doubt that the great Bob Dylan was camera shy during filming. Maybe, and I know that this may be a shocker, Dylan was pushed on Peckinpah by the studio and actually had no business being in a major motion picture.

But even with his extremely noticeable flaws in music and acting, Bob Dylan does not ruin Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. In fact, the movie is still rather good. It follows the story of an outlaw turned lawman, Garrett, who was given a badge by the governor for one reason; it is Garrett’s job to rid his territory of Billy the Kid.

James Coburn is perfectly cast in this role. There is wisdom in his voice that immediately tells the audience that this man has been around the block a few times. In his first scene he warns Billy to leave the country. He does not want to kill the Kid. They used to run together as outlaws. But Garrett needs this job to stay relevant. “This country’s gettin’ old and I intend on gettin’ old with it”. He uses that line multiple times in the movie to explain his actions, but the audience knows he is not happy as a lawman. He regrets hunting the Kid, who may be the younger embodiment of what Garrett wishes he still was…

The highlight of the movie is the witty, charming and unobtrusive performance by singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson as Billy the Kid. The audience knows that the Kid is a bad dude, but goodness is he charming. His banter with Garrett is wickedly sarcastic and Kristofferson delivers each line with a perfect combination of timing and believable wryness. In one of the more bloody scenes in the movie, the Kid shoots a shot gun filled with coins at one of his initial captors. As the coins rip through flesh and leave the victim dead in a pool of cheesy-looking blood, Kristofferson delivers a line that could have ruined his character’s mythos. He says “Keep the change, Bob!”, and the corny jokes keep coming when a he offers to pay a man for providing him with a horse: "There's a buck-sixty in old Bob if you can dig it out."

But those lines do not hurt the Kid’s bad-ass-er-y because they are delivered with a masterful sense of irony and jest. Kristofferson is not a great actor, but he is able to make himself into Billy the Kid. He initially decides to run from Garrett and escape over the border to Mexico, but after he sees how violent the manhunt has become he rides back into town intent on killing Garrett himself. Again, he is the opposite of the hero I am used to seeing in western movies, Billy the Kid is NOT Will Kane. Technically, Pat Garrett is the good guy in all of this, but the Kid had charisma. Give charisma to a villain and he turns into an anti-hero. That seems to be the American way.

My favorite scene in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid happens right before the final showdown between the two main characters. Garrett has found the kid, who is busy making love to a scarcely-developed love interest. He knows that he has finally found his outlaw and is about to make a major name for himself. The problem is that he will have to kill his friend in order to accomplish it. Torn, distraught and full of pain – Garrett sits on the porch swing and holds his head. It is impossible to know what he is thinking at the moment, but the audience can see that this is not an easy thing for him to do. He allows Billy to finish his love-making and then proceeds to the final gunfight.

I will not spoil the movie by telling you who wins at the end, but like I said before, if you are familiar with American history you should already know how it all turns out. Peckinpah tells a thin version of the actual story, but he does get the ending right. My biggest issue with the final fight is that there is absolutely no blood. Leading up to this point, gunshot wounds were accompanied with a virtual fountain of red, but the final gunshot is a major letdown. I am not saying that I need to see blood to be entertained, but a bloody ending would have fit the feel of the movie in a better way than what is actually shown.

Even with its flaws, I found Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid to be an extremely pleasant viewing experience. Dylan was all-around awful, but it is still fun to see the legend as a young man who is obviously goofing off. Kristofferson has written some of my favorite songs including “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, but I think I will remember him more now as an incredible Billy the Kid. I cannot see why Sam Peckinpah would want to take his name off of a film this entertaining. I may lose my already small audience, but I liked his work on this far more than I like him on Straw Dogs. There, I said it…..

Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: B+

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Moulin Rouge! (Luhrmann. 2001)

"You'd think that people would have had enough of silly love songs..."


Before I get too far into my next paragraph it may be important for me to admit that I have not ever been to Paris. I am not particularly interested in going to Paris. It is not the type of place for me. I am merely using information that I have gathered from many reviewing sites and personal accounts.

It sort of makes me giggle to think that people actually have a romanticized vision of the Moulin Rouge. It seems to have become a bit of a dive-in tourist trap with horrible acoustics, crowded seating and sub-par performers. Roger Ebert claims that the biggest issues with the theatre are the ticket prices and the quality of entertainment. He says – “The tragedy of the Moulin Rouge is that by the time you can afford a better seat, you've outgrown the show”. To me, though windmills are neat, it looks like the place where Emil Jannings loses his dignity in the tragically funny film The Blue Angel. I am forced to wonder how many performers have lost their dignity at the Rouge.

So what creates this undeserved aura of upper-class romanticism? The outer-aesthetic appeal of the building has to be somewhat responsible, but I think a lot of people chalk the Moulin Rouge’s significance up to the concept of romance. Tourists want to go to a place like this to find a completely new definition of love. Or at least that is what they have heard they will find. It is THAT concept that makes a movie like Moulin Rouge! work. It is not worried about staying accurate, but rather it shamelessly exploits the reputation of the famous burlesque theatre. And the audience believes the completely ridiculous mythos because….well…the movie makes it seem believable.

A lot of that is due to the brilliant, Academy Award nominated, cinematography by Donald McAlpine. The camera creates a postcard-like frame for the action that whirls and twirls almost exactly like the human imagination. The audience is taken on a (highly-saturated) colorful rollercoaster ride that seems to only stop to push the plot. The film, which was shot on sound stages in Australia, does everything on a grand scale. The camera catches everything – even if it has to be frantic in order to accomplishing it.

The story is extremely straightforward and easy to follow. That may be the biggest flaw in Moulin Rouge!. A love-obsessed poet (Ewan McGregor) comes to the Moulin Rouge and madly falls for a dying dancer/hooker named Satine. Played by the Academy Award nominated Nicole Kidman, Satine is a famous dancer with a secret. The audience finds out very early in the movie that she has tuberculosis and is dying. The Duke (Richard Roxburgh) is also in love with Satine and disallows her from seeing the poet.

Each character in the movie is decently defined, with Nicole Kidman standing alone as the only incredible performance. She is sexy, smart and compelling as Satine. It is a performance that perfectly embodies how a person would act, in this outlandish circumstance, if they knew that they were dying. In her final moments on the screen she is so tender, heartbreaking and relatable that it almost forced a tear to my eye. Sadly, the ending was so obvious and abrupt that I was not fully involved enough to cry.

The storyline in Moulin Rouge! is empty and a bit weak, but I do not think that narrative is what Baz Luhrmann was trying to rely on with this movie. It features some of the most stylized costumes, sets and color schemes that have ever been in popular film. Everything is over the top, extraordinary or fantastical. It is almost as if the audience is supposed to be captured in the surrealist aspects of the main character’s surroundings. Why not? Moulin Rouge! is set in France – the country that adopted the father of surrealist cinema, Luis Buñuel. Maybe this was Luhrmann’s form of homage to the great director. Or maybe he just wanted the movie to look neat. Either way, I think he succeeded.

Moulin Rouge! is most famous for its use of several popular songs that were rewritten and performed by the characters. There is a very famous medley of songs, “Elephant Love Medley”, which made it onto the pop charts in 2001. It features a complex mix of songs by artists spanning from The Beatles to Kiss. Though it is a neat selection of songs, I was not particularly fond of a number of the renditions that were written for the film. “Roxanne” and “Like a Virgin” stand out as two of the more grueling numbers.

I suppose that I enjoyed Moulin Rouge! on a visual level, but the movie itself is not very entertaining. People did and still do go nuts for the musical numbers, but (like Glee) when you mash-up a bunch of already popular songs – you will probably get a popular song out of it. Nothing besides the artwork is particularly memorable outside of Kidman’s performance. I feel like this must be a polarizing movie. It is probably much more popular with women who yearn for the fake, pre-packaged romance of Paris.

“It is perfectly appropriate that it was filmed on sound stages in Australia; Paris has always existed best in the minds of its admirers.”

Moulin Rouge!: B-

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Carrie (De Palma. 1976)

"They're all gonna laugh at you!"


Edgar Allen Poe wrote incredibly effective horror stories because he was able to weave in and out of what was even scary in the first place. His characters were ultimately familiar, yet unpredictable. The reader picked up on the strong hints of underlying damage in each antagonist. Two common themes in some of his best writing were revenge and religion. These by themselves are scary because they grow from completely human desires – the desire to break even or to understand humanity.

This is the exact type of horror that is seen in Carrie. Brian De Palma is able to weave a Poe-like web of basic human feelings that eventually grows into something far more terrible. Though the characters are based off the novel by the famous horror writer Stephen King, it is De Palma’s sinister shooting style that spins the movie out of our control. He uses the camera to tell the audience when they should be afraid. This is not an unsophisticated horror flick; there are no cheap startles or suspenseful tunnel-shots. Rather, De Palma chooses to use perfectly framed human emotions like fear, anger and maybe even love.

Of course, he is helped out by two brilliant, Oscar nominated, performances from Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Spacek plays the title character, Carrie White, with such shrill and fragile body language that the audience is surprised that she never shatters on the floor. Her skin is as white as porcelain and her smile is practically nonexistent. Carrie has long, straight blonde hair that she uses to isolate herself from her classmates by covering her face. She is quiet, shy, afraid and honestly quite creepy.

The movie begins with Carrie getting her first period while showering after gym class. Unaware that this is a normal thing, she reaches out and desperately begs for help from her classmates. Rather than understanding, the girls taunt Carrie. They heartlessly throw tampons at her while mocking her inability to understand what his happening with her body. It is unusual that a high school senior would not know anything about starting her period, but Carrie is scarred by it. She thought she was dying. And what if she had been? She probably still would have been mocked by her classmates.

When she arrives home from school everything begins to make sense. Her mother (Laurie) is a religious fanatic who believed that if Carrie remained sinless she would never have gotten her period in the first place. She reads from the Bible: And God made Eve from the rib of Adam. And Eve was weak and loosed the raven on the world. And the raven was called sin. The first sin was intercourse. Eve was weak. And the Lord visited Eve with the curse, and the curse was the curse of blood! She forces Carrie into a small, dark closet and demands that she beg Jesus for forgiveness. Mrs. White has been deeply damaged by her husband leaving her for another woman. She has over–indulged herself in the aspect of sin to the point that she has almost created a religion of her own. She disallows her daughter to have any personal friendships and refuses to allow Carrie to attend the senior prom – even though she was invited by a nice, popular boy.

But she cannot keep her daughter from attending the prom because underneath her fragile manner, Carrie can move things. She has the gift/curse of telekinesis – the ability to alter things with her mind. It is hinted that her mother knows about the powers. Carrie looks into a mirror and it shatters. Her mother rushes into the room to find the mirror reassembled. After being confronted with Carrie’s power, Mrs. White assumes the work of the Devil. She begs Carrie to not go to the prom. “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” she says. And that is almost exactly what happens.

Most of us already know what happens in the final twenty minutes of Carrie. The popular couple, Chris (Nancy Allen) and Billy (John Travolta), rig the prom queen election to have Carrie win so that they can dump a bucket of pig’s blood onto her head. It is important to note that her date, the popular boy, was not in on the joke. He was legitimately giving a previously hopeless young girl her first feelings of acceptance and beauty. That does not mean he does not pay for the crimes of others. It is impossible to know whether or not Carrie chose to kill all of those people or if her powers become uncontrollable due to her rage, but the final moments hint that she is no longer in control.

Carrie is a tragic tale of a young girl who never stood a chance. She does not feel normal because she is not normal. The horror in the movie is not realized through anything other than the audience watching her lose control. Even in her, brief, finest moment Carrie is never beautiful. The audience knows that she is something much more terrifying. I do not think De Palma would say that he was trying to make a “treat people nicely” statement with the movie, but it may scare some people into thinking twice before throwing tampons….

Carrie: B

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Do the Right Thing (Lee. 1989)

"And that's the truth, Ruth!"


Do the Right Thing is a movie that terrifies me, but not for the reason that you may be thinking. Race has nothing to do with a person’s ability to become enthralled in Spike Lee’s best movie, but the film’s entertainment value does not outweigh the consequences of watching it. If you have a heart, this is a film that will make you very angry. It is a confusing, concise and polarizing look into race issues in American culture. Though it was made in the 80s, a shot-for-shot remake could be made in 2011 and the message would remain clear.

After first watching Do the Right Thing, I was convinced that Spike Lee was an angry, aggressive “reverse” racist who was trying to make an anti-white person statement. It took me a few days of thinking to realize what he may have actually been trying to do with the movie. The action takes place through the eyes of Mookie (Lee), a pizza delivery boy in a slummy Brooklyn neighborhood. He works for the only eatery in town – Sal’s Famous Pizzeria – that just so happens to be owned by an Italian family.

Throughout the movie he walks the streets and passively sees what is happening on his block. It is a poor neighborhood that is populated by mainly black people; African-American may be a misstatement in this case. There are three elderly black men who sit on the corner and gab about the neighborhood goings-on, a watcher from her window, Mother Sister, played by Ruby Dee, and a loveable street drunk named Da Mayer who sweeps Sal’s sidewalks for one dollar a day.

Much to his disliking, Mookie is often brought into the middle of the issues brought on by the people who surround him. He is asked to boycott the pizzeria by his friend, Buggin’ Out. Sal’s son, played immaculately by John Turturro, is constantly berating him for his color and the mother of his child is desperate to make him more present. Mookie makes it very clear that he is only interested in “making that money”, so he idly works for Sal and does not get involved in any other person’s business. Spike Lee could have made Sal’s character into a horrible villain, but there are no villains in Do the Right Thing. Instead, he presents Sal the same way he does Mookie or any other character.

In an Oscar nominated role, Danny Aiello plays Sal as a man who is clearly proud of his livelihood. He makes an honest living helping the people of the black community stay fed. They have been raised on Sal’s pizza. He is also in no way a racist silhouette of a Brooklyn business owner. He is happy to serve the people in his neighborhood, and they are happy to eat his pizza. The relationship is good until Buggin’ Out looks up at his “Wall of Fame”.

“Why aren’t there any pictures of Brothas up on the wall”? Sal answers by saying that it is his restaurant and only Italian-Americans are allowed on the wall. This answer should make sense – it is perfectly reasonable. But racism is so deeply ingrained in our culture that, no matter how you shake it, the issue creeps into the back of your mind. Does Sal have something against black people? He should not HAVE to put any picture on his wall that he does want there, but he very easily COULD appease his all-black customers. It becomes a matter of racial principle. Who wants to back down and admit that race is the issue? Do the pictures make Sal a racist? Probably not.

But that does not mean that racial frustration is not the issue in Do the Right Thing. Race is the ONLY issue. In one scene we have a white cop, Korean shop owner, black man and an Italian-American spewing racial slurs until Samuel L. Jackson defuses the situation with his hysterical radio commentary. Everything in the movie is tense, and it cannot help that it is the hottest day of the year. Everybody is irritable when the temperature hits three digits.

John Turturro’s character (Pino) is a racist. He uses horrible words and acts aggressively to any person of color that comes into the restaurant. In a funny moment, Mookie points out that Pino’s favorite athlete, musician and movie star are all black. But they are “bigger than black” to Pino. No matter what the issue, skin color is the divider.

The heat continues to scorch and tempers continue to do the same thing, but Mookie is always able to remain calm. He is far more concerned with Sal hitting on his sister than he is with the boycott of Sal’s Famous. Buggin’ Out continuously reminds him to “stay black”, but this is just as bad as an Italian-American-only Wall of Fame. It is making race the dividing line between the people on the same block. It makes no sense. Nobody is telling anybody to sell-out their culture, but people would get along better if they tried to accept that other people’s experiences are different. It is not about “staying black” or sticking to your Italian roots. It is about cherishing the concept of understanding and empathy.

This brings us to the wild card of the movie, Radio Raheem. Bill Nunn plays Raheem and is an intimidating figure that towers over most of the other actors in Do the Right Thing. His ever-present boom box only blasts one song – “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy. Radio is offended by anyone who tries to lower the volume of his stereo, especially Sal. If race is the spark that starts the fire during the climax then the stereo can be called the firewood. That is what makes Lee’s screenplay so perfect – he does not leave Raheem without blame. He storms into the pizzeria, music blasting, in support of the boycott and is loudly warned to shut his music off. After all, he is in Sal’s place. It is nobody’s fault but Raheem’s when his blaster is smashed by the baseball bat behind the counter.

Throughout the movie, Sal may be the only considerable voice of reason. He loves his neighborhood and is deeply saddened by his son’s racist behavior. Sal wants to stay on that corner forever. He says that Mookie is like a son to him, and that there will always be a job for him and Sal’s Famous. That all changes after Sal smashed that boom box and utters the worst word in the English language. When Sal says “nigger” it is all over. This initial conflict had very little to do with race. Sal wanted the music off, and Raheem wanted his people to be fairly represented in his community’s most frequented eatery. All of this is fair, but when the n-word is used the situation loses its footing. A fight breaks out that culminates in a white cop choking and killing Raheem.

This moment has been criticized as being racist against white people, but people need to look deeper into the scene. Yes, a white cop does kill a relatively innocent black man, but the cop is not the “bad guy”. Like I have said before, there are no villains in Do the Right Thing. If anything, the villains are fear, ignorance and sweltering heat. There is a Hispanic cop who is trying to play the voice of reason. He shouts “that is enough” to the murdering cop. The other white cop is in charge of riot control. Does a black man get uncomfortable when he walks into a room of all white people? I assume that he does, and it works the same in reverse. These cops are the outsiders and race is, like always, in the back of their minds. Not only are they the only white people in the room, but they are the only cops in a racially combustible and violent room.

Raheem’s murder leads to a riot where Sal’s Famous is burned to the ground by the crowd. Sal did not do anything wrong in this movie, but neither did Raheem – in reality, neither did the cops. But everyone is to blame because they allowed things to get this far. The people on the street are frustrated, confused and angry. It becomes about race only because race is the apparent issue. Even the all-black mob is racist – they come within an inch of putting the Korean man out of business for no other reason besides his skin-color.

Nothing is solved at the end of Do the Right Thing. Sal loses his pizzeria, Mookie gets paid and Radio Raheem remains dead. It is doubtful that the officer who killed him will be punished for what he did. Everybody wakes up the next day just as angry, confused and overheated as they were the night before. What questions does this movie answer? None. It is not meant to answer anything because race may not have an answer. One of the worst things a person can do is say that they are racially “colorblind”. In summation, that means that they choose to ignore the differing backgrounds and experiences that each race has endured throughout history. But remaining separate, “staying black”, led to nothing but anger and violence.

Nobody does the right thing in Do the Right Thing. Not the black people, nor do the white people. As long as race divides us – we are all bad people. Do not expect to leave this movie fulfilled or uplifted. It will make you angry. That may be the point that I was initially missing.

“Violence as a way of achieving racial justice is both impractical and immoral.” – Martin Luther King

“..I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don't even call it violence when it's self-defense, I call it intelligence.” - Malcolm X

Do the Right Thing: A

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky. 2000)

"Anybody wanna waste some time?"


Drugs are bad. Like, they are really really bad. Hard drugs are some of the most frightening things on the planet. With Trainspotting, there was a debate over whether or not the movie was pro-heroin. In Darren Aronofsky's second most famous film (behind Black Swan) there is no debate whatsoever. Requiem for a Dream says that drugs are bad. It uses horrifying imagery and well thought-out scare tactics to prove a point that few movies prove with any success.

The movie is primarily centered on three characters: Harry, Marion and Tyrone. Harry and Marion are a couple who seem to be madly in love with each other. Tyrone is their friend and business partner. They are three young adults living in a drug-infused utopia. They mainly do the big no-no of hard drugs, heroin. They will do anything to get more of it. In fact, the movie begins with Harry (Jared Leto) stealing and selling his mother's television to a pawn shop in order to afford more drugs.

This might not be such a bad thing considering his mother is practically addicted to daytime television infomercials. The ads star the charismatic, but mysteriously, creepy Tappy Tibbons. Played by the always solid Christopher McDonald, Tibbons is a strange addition to the Requiem stew. His infomercials are almost as campy as his name, but consumerism does not seem to be what he is on screen to represent. I think he might be a representation of obsession. The more you watch him and his crew on the snowy television screen the more you become enamored by the parasocial relationship that he is able to form with Harry’s mother. He does not add a considerable amount of plot to the movie, but his character IS what the movie is all about.

Harry’s mother, Sara, is the character that really steals the show in Requiem. She is played hauntingly by one of my all-time favorite actresses, Ellen Burstyn. She is a lowly old widow who has, like mentioned, become obsessed with watching infomercials. As her obsession with television grows, we see Harry become concerned for her well being. Though the small family may have their problems, it is apparent throughout the movie that they do deeply care for each other. It is never said that Sara knows about her son’s drug using, but I am not sure that it would be possible for her to not realize something is going on. Either way, she sticks with him through his troubled times, but eventually she hits her own…

Sara receives a call that tells her she has been chosen to be featured on a televised game show. Already knowing about her obsession with television, the audience can sense her excitement upon hearing the news. After stumbling across a picture of her at her son’s graduation, Sara realizes that she is not in the same physical shape that she was in during her more youthful years. She digs up an old red dress (one of her dead-husband's favorites) and does whatever it takes to fit her body back into it. With disapproval from her hypocritical son, Sara begins a strict regimen of weight-loss amphetamine pills for every meal. It leads to the question of “what actually is a drug?” These were prescribed by a doctor. That means they cannot be unsafe.

All of this is happening while Harry, Tyrone and Marion are working in the Coney Island drug trade. They all have their own reasons for selling drugs and each reason is something much bigger than good feelings. Harry wants to be able to provide for his mother. Marion (Jennifer Connelly) is trying to open up a fashion store in order to sell her designs. Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) is simply trying to reverse the curse of his family by escaping the dangerous streets of New York and making something of himself. Sadly, Tyrone is caught in the middle of some kind of drug skirmish and the trio has to spend most of their money on posting bail. They now have to start over from the beginning.

Taking a break from the story, Aronofsky’s direction in Requiem for a Dream could not be any better. He is able to introduce an extremely unique style of filmmaking while still getting the best out of his entire cast. Maybe everybody was on board with the anti-drug message of the film. Maybe the cast knew that they had a fantastic screenplay on their hands. Either way, you could not ask for a more emotion-driven piece of cinema. Every frame is put together with amazing incoherent precision. It is the visual definition of organized chaos.

Jared Leto as Harry is a great example of perfect casting. He is brooding, but pathetically desperate throughout the movie. He may be relatable enough to cheer for him, but the audience never really likes him. His arm has become deeply and grossly infected from his unclean heroin habits, but he still insists on sticking the needle in the same spot. He is addicted in the worst way. This is not the heroin addiction depicted in Trainspotting. The audience does not laugh at this type of thing. Rather, the need to reach out and protect or help the poor addict is felt in their hearts. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes from the movie, Harry convinces Marion to have sex with her psychiatrist for money. She loves him so much that she cannot help but agree. This agreement was not for drugs, but for unadulterated love. It is a terrifying thought that one person could love another person that much.

When Harry and Tyrone leave to find more successful drug trafficking in Florida, Marion is left in Coney Island to fend for herself. She is forced into working for a pimp who forces her to have sex with him and displays her in degrading and humiliating sex-shows to support her drug habit. The culminating scene in the movie features a massive amount of perverted men throwing money at a crying, scarred Marion as she commits vulgar acts to herself and another stripper. She will never recover from this experience. And she did it all for drugs, love and money.

Harry’s arm eventually becomes so infected that he and Tyrone are forced to stop at a hospital on the way to Florida. They are put in jail for skipping out on their bail. Tyrone is forced to do hard labor in an extremely racist southern prison while Harry has his arm amputated due to the infection.

Meanwhile, Sara never again hears from the television studio and begins to believe she is too fat to be on television. She becomes addicted to amphetamines and begins to suffer from serious hallucinations and delusions. In one of the most interestingly acted scenes, Sara believes that her refrigerator has become a horrible monster that is trying to attack her. She eventually marches down to the television studio where the police are informed of her addiction and dementia. She, wearing her red dress, is then committed to the psychiatric ward where she is forced to endure unsuccessful electroshock treatment.

Dreams play a major role in creating emotion in Requiem. Harry dreams on many occasions that he and Marion are engaged and living a successful life in Manhattan. After his final dream, he awakens to find himself alone and in prison – with only one arm. Tyrone dreams that his mother will be proud of him. Sadly, he is beaten by racist prison guards. Marion wants Harry to save her from her life. She dreams that she is waiting on a pier by the ocean when Harry appears, clean from drugs, to take her away from everything. Sara’s dream is the most emotional. She dreams that she finally made it to television, and that she is there, in her red dress, with her son and his wife. They hug and say that they love each other. The movie ends with these dreams being slashed as each character balls up into the fetal position and cries. This is the life that drugs have created for them.

I understand that I have given away the ending, but Requiem for a Dream is not a movie that is concerned with the plot. Aronofsky is much more concerned with leaving an impression on the audience. He does this successfully by actively driving a forceful message. Drugs are not a game. They are not a joke. They ruin lives.

I have heard people say that the unrated movie should be shown in health classes in middle schools. I personally disagree with that statement. This is not a movie or message that is appropriate for children. Show it in high school – it will work just as well.

Requiem for a Dream: B+