Countdown to Liftoff: “Batman Begins” (2005)

MV5BNTM3OTc0MzM2OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNzUwMTI3._V1_SX214_AL_“Batman Begins” and its sequels became Christopher Nolan’s new calling card. Although he’d received critical acclaim for “Memento” and “Insomnia,” this film put him on the map with casual moviegoers as well. By taking on a well-known franchise (and at that, one in severe need of repair), while not sacrificing elements that make his work unique, Nolan set himself up for commercial success that comes with wide public recognition for his art.

And it didn’t just feel like Nolan simply lent his presence to the superhero genre with another action-packed, substantially empty entry. To the contrary, “Batman Begins” is a great movie in its own right, rather than just being a better version of superhero flicks. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy kicked comic book movies into a new gear, and one that would influence similar movies to come.

It’s a strong statement to say that this is a great movie, rather than just comparing it to other similar films, because let’s face it, there wasn’t much competition pre-2005. “X-Men” kind of kicked off the new wave of comic book-based movies, and it was a pretty good entry, which showed that both technology and writing were finally up to snuff enough to make such films that were actually good. Then there were the “Spider-Man” movies, which ranged from terrible to pretty decent. After that, there was a wave of shitty Marvel movies, like “Fantastic Four,” “Daredevil,” “The Punisher,” “Ghost Rider,” etc. It was getting to the point where those movies took over for the typical summer blockbusters with so much source material to mine that was already written with graphic representations even. So, calling a movie “good, for a superhero movie,” doesn’t really mean much, especially a decade ago.

But then, came along this Batman movie that dared to question the very nature of these tights-clad heros, with a darker, grittier presentation that seems more true to life than its predecessors. Unlike the Adam West “Batman,” with its cheesy costumes and hammy acting, or the Tim Burton/Joel Shumacher era of movies featuring be-nippled batsuits and corny villains, this movie dared to take Batman seriously. If there’s any other Batman property this movie could be compared to, it’s the animated series from the ’90s, which was rather dark, but also very smart, for being a children’s cartoon show. But, of course, there are things directors can get away with in film that they can’t show on Saturday mornings.

Look on my nipples ye mighty and despair!

Look on my nipples ye mighty and despair!

The trilogy of films taken together could be seen as the “Citizen Kane” of superhero movies. The timeline of events spans from Bruce Wayne’s formative years through his retirement/death. In terms of quality, it’s one of the best films of its genre, if not the best.

The thing that sets this movie apart from other cape flicks is how realistic it feels. If a young billionaire decided to carry out his own form of vigilante justice in real life, this is probably about how it would go. It also paints the character of Bruce Wayne as more morally complex than the traditionally simple heroes versus villains dynamic seen in other superhero movies. In fact, his decision to go under the mask seems rather questionable, considering his flimsy explanation for why he’s doing it.

One of the interesting themes for modern Batman movies and shows is that the supposed villains usually are aware of real societal problems and that becomes their driving reason for whatever their dastardly plot may be. The problem is their means for solving social issues usually involve sending Gotham city into frenzied chaos and panic or mass murder. But if they were to channel that energy into positive solutions, the city would be much better off. Batman, on the other hand generally represents maintaining social order and the status quo, which puts him standing in the way of real reform. “Batman Begins” starts with Bruce, played by Christian Bale, learning from the League of Shadows how to defeat corruption in the city. Leaders Ducard (Liam Neeson) and Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe) try to teach him how to destroy evil. Bruce says that his desire is “to fight injustice, to instill fear in those who would prey on the fearful.” Unfortunately the League of Shadows’ solution for that goal is to send the city into chaos, which Bruce ain’t goin’ for.

Instead, Bruce decides the way to solve his city’s problems is to throw on some military gear, load it up with gadgets and terrorize the seedy underbelly of society. Being filthy stinking rich thanks to the inheritance of megacorporation Wayne Enterprises because his parents were killed by a petty thief when he was just a boy, perhaps you’d think there could be a more practical solution to the city’s problems, like the monorail his dad built to provide cheap transportation to those in need. But, of course, practical solutions would make for a rather boring movie. A guy running around in a bat costume and scaring the shit out of mob bosses is easier to get into.

His inspiration for change comes from his sleepy-eyed childhood friend, Rachel, played by the sleepy-eyed Katie Holmes, who takes him to the ghetto of the city to show him there are real problems that are more important than moping about his parents being dead. Most of Bruce’s inspiration comes from Rachel, as Bruce is prone to making poor decisions, such as decking himself out in a bulletproof suit, stocked with experimental military-grade weaponry. She has a knack for lecturing Bruce on morality, basically acting as the conscience he never had, telling him to get his life straight and stop being selfish since he is the most powerful man in the city. She reminds him that his parents left a great legacy, and he has a lot to live up to.

Meanwhile, a psychologist who likes to freak people out with a fear-inducing agent and a weird mask, is collecting convicted criminals in his asylum, which is basically just a base of operations for his plan to cripple Gotham. The plan is a bit convoluted, as it involves pouring that fear-inducing substance into the ground water and then vaporizing it. But Cilian Murphy, most known for playing weird, creepy guys, makes for a fun villain. It also makes for a good argument against the privatization of prisons, which is a huge issue in the U.S.

The cast is a huge bright spot, and it was Nolan’s first attempt with a large ensemble cast full of talented actors. Gary Oldman works well as future Commissioner Gordon. Tom Wilkinson makes for a good manic but powerful crime lord. It’s good to see Rutger Hauer as the new CEO of Wayne Enterprises. Michael Caine is always fun to see, and he’s fun to watch as butler-and-more Alfred. Then there’s also Morgan Freeman as Agent Q Lucius Fox, the gadgetmaster, who basically serves as Bruce’s version of Q from the James Bond franchise.

Freeman and Caine both naturally add a bit of levity in the form of banter with Bruce that shines some light in a rather dark film. If there was anything Nolan’s previous films could have used a bit more of, it’d be something to lighten the mood a bit. It’s always fun to watch either of those actors, and their presence is more than welcome here.

And then, a 10-year-old King Joffrey shows up and you didn’t know what a nasty little shit he’d become on “Game of Thrones.” He still looks so innocent though.

This is the one we really needed Batman to save us from.

This is the one we really needed Batman to save us from.

As Nolan’s previous films revolved a bit around certain devices to get the plot moving (short-term memory in “Memento”; sleeplessness in “Insomnia), “Batman Begins” feels like a more realized film with more socially relevant commentary. The only gimmick here is Batman, but people probably expect to see Batman in a movie about Batman. The plot evolves a bit more organically with so many intersecting characters that it’s more well-rounded overall. The cast makes a big difference too, as there are so many great actors involved that it was bound to work. It’d be easy to call this Nolan’s best movie at the time, and possibly the best in his entire catalog. Whereas the previous movies he’d directed almost feel like comic books, being fairly simple crime stories with a twist, “Batman” is much more complex, intelligent, and realistic (ironic, considering it’s based on a comic book) compared to his previous work. On the other hand, “Batman” does feature more loud action sequences, but Nolan works those into the story so they don’t ever feel completely pointless.

One thing that is pretty stupid about the movie, which would continue in the sequels, is the silly growly Batman voice Bale puts on when he’s in costume. Seriously, Bruce Wayne is possibly the most recognizable figure in the city, but no one realizes it’s him in the batsuit? If anyone was around him when he had a cold or a sore throat, you’d think it would be a dead giveaway. If he can afford a giant state-of-the-art armored vehicle to roll around the city in, he should be able to find a decent voice-masking device he could install in the suit or something.

The segue into the final battle with Ra’s Al Ghul does feel a bit rushed and that kind of diminishes the ending, but up to that point, the film is clicking on all cylinders, so it’s a flaw that can be overlooked.

It seems a bit wrong to see the white Bale taking down dozens of nationally ambiguous Asian guys with some form of martial arts. It is interesting to see the philosophies Ducard espouses during Bruce’s training. There’s a lot said about learning to center one’s self and overcoming fear by embracing it, which seem to be based on Zen Buddhism. Maybe it would have seemed more authentic if Ken Watanabe would have played the character explaining all of this stuff to Bruce. Liam Neeson is great and all, but he doesn’t really look the part.

Bruce Wayne about to take down all the Asians at their own game.

Bruce Wayne about to take down all the Asians at their own game.

Though Marvel probably wouldn’t want to admit it, “Batman Begins” was very influential in revitalizing the superhero film genre. Superhero movies started to up their game after this, as there was now a quality standard. Marvel started casting bigger names to star in its movies, started its own film studio, and created plans for upcoming movies lasting into the next decade. Whether or not those plans were already in the works, the company had to be aware that it now had big competition. There was a noticeable jump in quality in post-2005 Marvel movies, which is relieving considering they release a few movies every summer now. Also, movies like “The Watchmen” (which was a success because of its source material and performances rather than direction) would not have stood a chance of being made until “Batman Begins” showed that dark superhero movies would sell. So, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the movie industry is what it is today for better or worse because of this film and its sequels.

Giving Nolan the reigns of a superhero franchise in need of revitalization was solid gold. Still, this film sits in the shadow of the next film in the trilogy for a few obvious reasons. But before “The Dark Knight,” Nolan would go in quite a different direction, exploring the lives of rival magicians in 19th century England. Next we’ll take a look at “The Prestige.”

MV5BMjA4NDI0MTIxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNTM0MzY2._V1_SX214_AL_

Countdown to Liftoff: “Insomnia” (2002)

MV5BMTM5Nzk2NDY3MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzI5MDgxMTE@._V1_SX214_AL_With the indie hit “Memento” under his belt, Christopher Nolan’s next effort would be “Insomnia,” a remake of a 1997 Swedish film. Without question, it’s Nolan’s most conventional, straightforward film, but only because the rest of his films are so twisty (except “Batman Begins,” maybe). That’s not necessarily a knock on the director, as it’s very coherent, and aside from a couple missteps, is a tight but complex movie with bigger stars than he had worked with previously.

For this one, Nolan got to work with Al Pacino who played the lead role of Detective Will Dormer, an agent from Los Angeles who has been called to a small town in Alaska to help the local police solve a gruesome murder of a high school girl. Here, he plays the old, grizzled veteran who commands the respect of his peers, as the local cops stand in awe of him. He’s like a god among police, and he knows it. He marches into the station and starts barking orders and as far as he’s concerned, he could probably have this thing wrapped up by lunchtime.

Except that he forgot that this is Alaska, where at 10 o’clock at night in the summer, it’s looks like midday. If you’ve ever been to Alaska in the summer, you know that the sun only goes down for about 3 hours a day. Hotel rooms come equipped with thick curtains. But it can be rough for people who need darkness in order to sleep. As experienced as he is, Dormer’s toughest foe might not be the scumbag he’s looking for who murdered this young girl, but the rotation of the earth. As sleepless days and nights pass, his mind starts to play tricks on him, and he looks progressively more disheveled and weary, hence “Insomnia.”

As far as crime movies go, it’s amazing that more of them haven’t been set in Alaska. Sure, trying to depict winter might get pretty boring, as the temperatures would be too cold to do much. But it’s the perfect place for unhinged individuals to do their vile work or at least a place of escape with all that open land out there. There’s so much forest and so few people around who will give a shit what you’re up to in your cabin out in the woods. “Insomnia” makes great use of the surroundings, and especially as a foil for Dormer, the frigid state takes center stage as its own living (slowly) character in this movie.

If the never-ending daylight weren’t bad enough, even though Dormer has seen it all in his days on the force, the bad guy he’s trying to catch is no dummy. It’s actually Robin Williams, which is a brilliant casting choice, and it’s actually weird that he didn’t get his first role as a psycho killer until he was past 50. How did no one come up with something like this sooner? It’s no spoiler to say that Williams’ reclusive novelist, Walter Finch, is the villain, as that was one of the main draws for the film in its advertising. Granted, an evil Robin Williams probably wasn’t something too many people were interested in seeing, but he does a good job playing unstable, but mostly calm, and always one step ahead of Dormer.

Could Robin Williams pull off the psychotic killer role? Please, it's surprising he didn't do it more often.

Could Robin Williams pull off the psychotic killer role? Please, it’s surprising he didn’t do it more often.

Complicating things for Dormer, beyond not being able to sleep, are his history and a development in the movie. Early on, there are hints that Dormer and his partner, Hap (Martin Donovan), are in some kind of hot water with the agency, and Hap reveals that he wants to turn himself in, to put it simply. One of the weak spots of the film is that this conversation comes off as a bit of standard but necessary cop talk that viewers might overlook, but it’s background information that is very important to the development of the film. Maybe Nolan was trying to lure viewers into a false sense of understanding, like he’d done in his previous films, or maybe it was just bad writing. But it is an important scene, because the next day, while they’re chasing a man who they believe to be a suspect in the girl’s murder, while running through the fog (always a warning sign), Dormer plugs Hap as he’s standing off in the distance.

Who knows what was running through Dormer’s mind as he pulled the trigger? Was it an accident because of the fog and confusion or lack of sleep? Did he do it on purpose to keep Hap quiet or was it just a convenient accident? It’s never really made clear. Though the viewer wants to trust Dormer with his vast experience and charisma, as the movie moves along, it becomes abundantly clear that Dormer is no golden boy. Instead of being intelligent, but by-the-book, it turns out he’s willing to get his hands dirty to get the job done. In his mind, the end always justifies the means. In his reports, Dormer lies and says it must have been the suspect who shot Hap.

So, the film actually serves as a nice character study for the old, grizzled veteran cop archetype, and a deconstruction of the brash and macho sort of masculinity that usually comes with those types.

Contrasting Dormer is the young, plucky Officer Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank), who practically announces her fangirldom for Dormer as soon as he steps off the plane. He’s apparently something of a legend in cop circles, and she’s his number one fan. But once the shit hits the fan between Dormer and his parter, Ellie is moved off the murder case and onto the investigation of Hap’s death. With all the spirit of Nancy Drew, she sets out with her magnifying glass (not really, but basically), going about what she initially believes to be a routine cleanup report. But as she finds more information and Dormer’s case progresses, she starts to deduce that Dormer might not be telling the truth.

Eventually, Dormer and Finch meet, as Finch has Dormer in a blackmail situation, being the only other person who knows how Hap died. So, they strike a highly tentative deal to get Finch off the hook. Finch doesn’t beat around the bush in admitting that he killed the girl, but he has a plan to keep himself out of jail by blaming someone else the girl knew. As there’s no way for one to trust the other, so ensues a cat-and-mouse game between the two, with Finch generally holding the upper hand over the ailing Dormer. Nolan would revisit the one-upmanship game a few years later in “The Prestige,” though that would be about two turn-of-the-century magicians rather than cops and killers.

The complexity of Dormer’s predicament with his killing of Hap and the many troubles that come with it keeps the movie from being a one-note crime thriller with a side of sleep deprivation. Nolan deftly weaves all of these elements together to create a smart tale about morality and doing the right thing that makes for a great … middle of a film. The setup is a bit clunky with revealing the backstory and Dormer coming into the town the attitude of getting ready to kick ass and take names seems like it’s setting up for your run-of-the-mill crime drama (thankfully, it doesn’t continue that way). Again, perhaps this is purposeful in setting up Dormer for his gradual fall from his perch. Then the ending feels a bit rushed with a fairly standard shootout and awkwardly placed exposition with Ellie interrogating Dormer after figuring out what he did, as the murder suspect flees to a safe spot where he can take point and start firing away at them. Though Dormer’s story wraps up well, Finch’s ends abruptly. Though that may have been more realistic than a dramatic farewell, it still feels a bit flat for such an interesting character. Despite those problems, the evolution of Dormer’s and, to a lesser extent, Ellie’s characters is interesting enough to hold one’s attention.

Not being able to sleep because it's too bright outside is the worst.

Not being able to sleep because it’s too bright outside (and because you killed your parter) is the worst.

In what might have been Pacino’s most recent great performance (12 years ago!), Dormer’s arc could be seen as an allegory of Pacino’s career. He still comes in kicking down doors acting like he owns the place, but as far as many of his recent performances go, he’s kind of shit the bed. He’s been in some great films with some great performances, but with so many shitty, mediocre crime movies coming out every year, the ones plastering Pacino and De Niro and whichever big stars from the past all over their advertising, like “Righteous Kill” or “Stand Up Guys” come off as money-grabbing and desperate. Granted, actors gotta keep working, but it’s sad to see these huge names are all a lot of these types of films have to offer with nothing new or interesting for their talented stars to do.

The dead woman trope crops up again as the setup for the film. It won’t be the last time. It is a common plot device, but you’d think such an inventive writer could come up with something else to drive the protagonists. At least Ellie is a more well-rounded character than any of the women in Nolan’s previous films, it just would have been nice to see her have a bit more to do.

This is the Nolan feature film people talk about the least. Though it is straightforward, it is more focused than any of his other movies. Despite a few missteps, it’s a very well-put together film that’s smartly written with the novelty of seeing Williams in his first outright bad guy role. 2002 would prove to be the year of dark Robin Williams with “Death to Smoochy” and the incredibly creepy “One Hour Photo” also being released. As far as it relates to other films, “Insomnia” somewhat overlooked and underrated. It was well-received by critics, but as it’s wedged between one of his signature films and what would be the beginning of his push toward bigger things, this movie is kind of forgotten. But with its three stars doing among the best work of each of their careers, this isn’t one to sleep on. Nolan fans who haven’t seen this film should do so, and people who don’t like Nolan should check it out too, as it’s the least Nolany film in his catalog. Don’t skip this one.

A few years after doing “Insomnia,” Nolan would get the call to revitalize a franchise in desperate need of revitalization, and in doing so would reinvent a genre for all who would try to sell it short. Next time, we’ll take a look at “Batman Begins.”

MV5BNTM3OTc0MzM2OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNzUwMTI3._V1_SX214_AL_

Countdown to Liftoff: “Memento” (2000)

MV5BMTc4MjUxNDAwN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDMwNDg3OA@@._V1_SY317_CR12,0,214,317_AL_Before there was the Dark Knight trilogy, “Memento” was Christopher Nolan’s calling card. It worked its way into film lovers’ hearts with that trademark panache of Nolan’s first seen in “Following.” Again, he uses a clever editing style to give the film its unique charm.

“Following” showed events out of chronological order to raise viewers assumptions about what the story meant and where it was heading, then smash them by advancing the story in unexpected directions. Quentin Tarantino was known for playing with chronology in his most popular film, “Pulp Fiction” and again in “Jackie Brown.” But Nolan would take it a step further in “Memento,” by essentially showing the entire film backwards. Nolan integrates this technique as a feature of the protagonist’s character, i.e., short-term memory loss.

Leonard is a man whose wife was killed by burglars, and during the attack, he took a blow to the head, causing him to lose his ability to form new memories. He still remembers everything that happened before that day, so he still knows how to function and has his own personality and his goal in life, which is simply to find and kill the men who murdered his wife.

In somewhat of a breakout role, Guy Pearce gives Leonard the gravitas the character needs for such a story, but with his charm still manages to make the character likable and at times, even fun. The viewer feels some sympathy for Leonard because his condition makes him prone to being taken advantage of. At the beginning of the film, the viewer is just thrown into the story with Leonard shooting a man in the head and taking a photograph of him before any explanation is given. So, it’s a bit of a feat that Pearce is able to keep the audience on his side. Of course, as the story moves along, Leonard is revealed to be not such a nice Guy anymore, but the viewer is invested enough to stay for the outcome.

As other characters appear throughout the film, they’re introduced so that they seem as if they’re trying to help Leonard, but they prove to be only taking advantage of his disability, as they manipulate him into trusting them and doing what they want him to do. They even tell him to his face that they are using him, knowing that with his condition, he won’t remember them saying those things. It’s a harsh world Nolan has dragged the audience into, but still fascinating.

Fans of “The Matrix” should instantly find Joe Pantoliano’s Teddy an untrustworthy fellow. But they might be surprised at how blatantly evil his “Matrix” costar, Carrie Anne-Moss is as Leonard’s friend or love interest or whatever (it’s really complicated) Natalie. Neither is the greatest actor, but they both serve their purpose fine.

Maybe Leonard's just stuck in the Matrix and that's why  he doesn't remember anything. He should learn jujitsu.

Maybe Leonard’s just stuck in the Matrix and that’s why he doesn’t remember anything. He should learn jujitsu.

Leonard tries to keep everyone and everything straight by taking notes on polaroids he’s taken of the people around him. It’s a system that seems doomed for huge mistakes “Arrested Development”-style, and of course, he gets all confused. Seeing a polaroid camera in 2014 is strange, and it makes the film seem really old. It’s interesting how quickly technology has changed, and it’ll be something to see how the next generation of people who watch movies like this will react when they discover this film, having never been aware of such a contraption. If the movie were made today, Leonard would probably store all of his photos and data in a smartphone, and it would probably be much more manageable and better organized than his system.

The really important bits of info Leonard finds he has tattooed onto his body. This doesn’t seem like a particularly wise move, as it complicates his memory system and could and does lead to many more mistakes, in addition to being really expensive. But he saves money by doing some of his own body art using pen ink and a needle, which also sounds like a bad idea. Supposedly, the permanence of the tattoos will help him recall important information, but without context, those phrases could mean anything and there’s only so much space he can use. Perhaps this was intended to be a metaphor for fragmented human memory.

The scenes of the main story are interspersed with black and white cuts of Leonard talking to someone on the phone in his hotel room, which are shown in chronological order. It certainly forces the viewer to engage their mind while watching the film to try and keep everything straight. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it might take some viewers a couple or three watches to understand what’s going on.

Although the film sounds gimmicky, it doesn’t really feel that way, in large part because of the way it unfolds. Leonard’s disability combined with the structure of the movie makes for a whole that’s much greater than the sum of its parts. If the film were shown in proper chronological order, it would feel incredibly gimmicky, especially with the way Leonard has to pause periodically to regain his bearings. Instead, the beginning of each event shocks the viewer as Leonard is often stuck in the middle of a precarious situation and has to figure out where he is and how he got there, often to humorous effect. As it is, the film plays out like a gritty noirish mystery with the storytelling serving to help the audience understand what it would be like to live with Leonard’s condition.

“Memento” again employs the dead woman trope with Leonard searching for the people who killed his wife. On the other hand, at least Natalie is given more to do than die. She has her own agenda and her own reason for using Leonard. But she’s such a mean character and without any real explanation why. Perhaps Nolan has a natural distrust of people or believes in the total depravity of humankind or whatever because he often seems to write incredibly nasty characters for his movies.

The ending is a bit confusing and rushed with its big reveal(s) all coming from one character’s explanation of the reality of the situation. Of course, with what the audience knows about that character at that point, he’s hardly trustworthy, and the real truth is left to the audience’s interpretation. But Leonard’s response to learning the “truth” is incredibly satisfying. His “scheme” does seem a bit convoluted, but it does make for a good story (people who have seen the film will understand this). But overall, the finish is a bit of a weak spot in an otherwise fascinating and creative yarn. It’s all about the journey, not the destination, right?

Don't try to remember and drive.

Don’t try to remember and drive.

The film does make some interesting points about memory. Leonard is a man whose memory is in question, and it makes one wonder why he’s so invested in his quest when he knows it won’t give him satisfaction and he won’t even remember that he completed it. But who has a perfect memory? In many ways memories do make us who we are, and nostalgia is powerful. We might remember important events and people, but details might be hazy. On the other hand, sometimes we remember certain random details clearly and misremember or forget more important things. Our past might be part of who we are, but we still live in the present, and who we are now isn’t necessarily who we were. Leonard living without being able to form new memories makes it difficult for him to live in the present, as he’s perpetually stuck in the past. And using the past as an excuse for why he’s on his present course but refusing to change it is a sign of weakness, not strength or resolve. There is a time for wallowing when horrible things happen to us, but eventually the time comes for us to move on toward recovery and healthy closure, which probably shouldn’t involve plotting to kill anyone. Then again, sometimes the memories themselves are just as or even more painful than actual traumatic events. This is why there are psychologists in the world.

In many ways, “Memento” was a huge leap forward for a young director still cutting his teeth really. Here, he shows that his concepts and editing and storytelling prowess can be compelling enough to overcome any weaknesses in his writing. This isn’t a perfect film, but it’s so unique that it demands to be seen and attempts at interpretation to be made. Nolan proved himself to be a great creative mind here, and set himself apart from the pack. What could have been a standard crime flick he transmuted into a film that reimagined the way films of its ilk were told. A few years later, he would reinvent an entire genre by trying to turn comic books into cinematic art.

But before that, he would direct a remake of a Swedish film with one particularly inspired casting choice. So next we’ll take a look at “Insomnia.”

MV5BMTM5Nzk2NDY3MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzI5MDgxMTE@._V1_SX214_AL_

 

 

Countdown to Liftoff: “Following” (1998)

With Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” on the horizon, I’ve decided to take a retrospective look at his work. Nolan has arguably seen more success this century than any other director, both critically and at the box office (maybe you could make a case for Peter Jackson, but that’s about all). Nolan got an interesting start in the film world releasing “Memento” to critical acclaim and “Insomnia,” which wasn’t quite as universally accepted, but still generally viewed positively. Then, he would make the leap from big potential up-and-comer to a somewhat enigmatic challenge with “Batman Begins.” That was the make or break film for Nolan, as he took on a franchise that was in dire need of a change. But with such a high-profile property, success was bound to propel Nolan into the stratosphere, but failure may have relegated him to the art house theaters for life, where only those that “really understood” his work would still claim him as a hero. Well, with “Interstellar” not far off now, and with the Dark Knight trilogy behind him, it’s obvious which result he got.

But Nolan has become a somewhat polarizing name recently, as his popularity has earned him a backlash of naysayers in the film community. So it seems like a good time to take a look back at what he’s accomplished in the past, and work our way up to the present culminating with his new film’s release in November.

In 1998, “Following,” both directed and written by Nolan was released, and is by far the least visible film he’s done. Let’s take a look…

—————————–

MV5BMTkxNTkyMTY0M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTgxMDIyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR5,0,214,317_AL_Looking at “Following” now, it does seem a little strange that Christopher Nolan has become a major player in Hollywood. There’s no denying the talent on display in his first film, but there’s nothing to indicate he would attain the level of success he’s had since 2000. That’s not to say the film is bad, it’s just kind of small compared to his other work. That’s probably true of any director’s first movie, but Nolan made quite a leap in every possible way going from this to “Memento.”

“Following” employs many themes people familiar with his later work would recognize. The most common of those would be that appearances are deceiving. He uses that idea to great effect in this effort.

The film follows a man who calls himself “Bill,” but is listed in the credits as “the young man.” In turn Bill follows others. He’s not so much of a creeper as he is just has a strange curiosity of trying to figure out who people are by following them around for a day. Of course, he doesn’t tell them he’s following them, so that might cause some issues. He sets some rules for himself, like not following women down an alley, and not following anyone twice in order to keep himself from getting into trouble. But for a guy whose hobby is basically stalking random strangers, it seems to be in his nature to break those flimsy rules.

Things change when “Bill” (Jeremy Theobald) gets caught in his spying by a man who identifies himself as Cobb (Alex Haw). Cobb immediately comes off as a highly intelligent individual, and by comparison, “Bill” is not too bright. Cobb informs Bill that he is actually a petty burglar, which is surprising to Bill because Cobb is a well-dressed man whom Bill had followed into an upscale cafe. So, immediately the audience knows that appearance doesn’t mean anything.

As Cobb takes Bill out for an outing of thieving, Cobb displays his intuition for understanding other people by looking through their stuff. He makes a good observation that when the people he’s stolen from get their insurance check, they’ll have to think about everything that was stolen before they rebuy it, to ponder if it was something they really cared about enough that they’d miss it or if it was something they realize they didn’t want anymore.

Of course, it’s not certain whether Cobb is really making good observations or just spouting intelligent-sounding ideas to lull Bill into trusting him. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. That’s more for the viewer to decide for themselves.

That concept of giving audiences something to watch and then decide on their own what they just saw and what it means is one of the hallmarks of thoughtful, artistic films in this postmodern world. That Nolan was able to eventually work his way up to making blockbuster, big-budget films is somewhat of a marvel, especially considering he’s continued to use the same technique in all of his movies, just applying it to different worlds and different stories.

In “Following,” Nolan tells the story uniquely through his editing. Though he’s certainly not the first to do it, the events of the story are shown out of chronological order, but as a master editor, he is able to manipulate the viewer’s assumptions and ideas the viewer might hold about what they are actually experiencing, forcing the viewer to continually shift their thinking throughout the film.

For instance, Nolan throughout the movie repeatedly shows the same shot of Bill with a bruised lip, as he surveils a club across the street. Every time the audience sees this shot, more pieces of the story have been revealed, so the viewer might find later that the assumptions they had about why Bill has a busted lip have changed over the course of the movie. At the beginning, one would assume someone whom Bill was following might have understandably become upset about it and roughed him up. After more of the story unfolds, you might find that your assumption was correct in a way, but the circumstances are not at all what you’d expected previously. This makes for a much more involved viewing experience. This sort of editing can sometimes be used to make up for a story that is lacking, but here it only adds to the rather original premise.

Throughout the film, Cobb’s scheme reveals itself, as Bill, assuming he’s in control of the situation (again not too bright), just stumbles through it oblivious that he’s being played. Oddly, it turns out Bill has a Batman sticker on his apartment door. It makes you wonder if Nolan had an idea of where his career was headed.

following2

The real mystery of the movie is, of course, which of these guys is Batman?

Unfortunately, a common problem in Nolan’s canon peeks up its head in his very first movie. There’s only one woman in the film, played by Lucy Russell, who is basically expendable. She’s really only there as a pawn in the strange game between Cobb and Bill, and she’s more of a love interest/sex object than a full-fledged character. This isn’t the only film of Nolan’s where this is the case. It’s obvious that he doesn’t really understand how to write women or simply doesn’t care about writing good women in his films. The film is still quite interesting, but throwing a woman in there basically as an object is lazy writing.

The open ending will leave viewers wondering what they just experienced, and leave them trying to unravel its mysteries for a while. It’s the mark of a good director when you’re left wanting more at the end of the movie, and this one definitely whets the appetite for more. I don’t want to reveal too much, because the movie is certainly better knowing as little as possible going into it. A second watch would still be great since the finish might leave people turning it over in their heads trying to make sense of it, but a first viewing without any preconceptions of what’s going on is recommended for the full experience.

At a mere 70 minutes, “Following” is a tightly made film, where Nolan has the opportunity to tease his talent a bit and gain his footing before really getting the chance to show off what he can do with a real budget and a real cast. That’s not a dismissal of the movie, as it is worth a watch on its own merits, as it’s very entertaining to try and keep up with the film’s twists and turns. It will be interesting to watch the director’s development over the decade in which Hollywood arguably belonged to him.

Next time, I’ll take a look at the film that would be Nolan’s first real break in Hollywood, in which Guy Pearce stars as a man who tries to unravel a personal mystery while dealing with short-term memory loss, “Memento.”

MV5BMTc4MjUxNDAwN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDMwNDg3OA@@._V1_SY317_CR12,0,214,317_AL_

 

100 Movies … 100 Posts: #74 “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)

MV5BMTQ2NzkzMDI4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDA0NzE1NA@@._V1_SX214_AL_This is post #27 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry. 

Without further ado, #74 “The Silence of the Lambs”

——————————————-

Nothing says “Oscar” like a deranged cannibal psychologist, right?

No, that’s not a reference to “Good Will Hunting” (RIP Robin Williams), it’s “The Silence of the Lambs,” the Best Picture winner featuring everyone’s favorite human flesh eater, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, played delectably by longtime British theater actor Anthony Hopkins, who would go on to play Hannibal Lecter and also Hannibal Lecter, but not on TV.

Although Hopkins threatens to steal the show with his incredibly unique role, the movie really belongs to Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling, the soon-to-be minted FBI agent, whom her superiors toss out there as bait to see what information they can catch from the not-so-good doctor.

It’s great to see a woman take the lead in a film like this one, as it’s a rare sight. Up until now, the only movie this site has looked at that could be considered to have a female lead is “Sophie’s Choice,” which despite featuring a career performance by Meryl Streep, still was told through the lens of a male character. There were some films where a man shared a female actor as a costar, such as “The Apartment” and “Titanic,” but in all three of those films, the woman still served as a love interest to a main male. This year, Hollywood has offered lead parts to women in a few big budget box office hopefuls, but it was pretty rare to see a female lead outside of romantic comedies prior to this year.

Many years before the world learned that she was “single,” Foster got her moment in 1991, and she ran with it, all the way to the Academy Awards. It’s great to see a film that not only has a female protagonist, but is also told from her perspective. It also does an excellent job of showing the types of struggles women might experience in male-dominated workplaces.

 

The film doesn’t hesitate to throw the audience into her world, by showing the diminutive Foster getting on an elevator with a bunch of burly male FBI recruits, all at least a foot taller than her. From the beginning, it’s clear that one of the obstacles Clarice will have to overcome over the course of the film will be men. When she walks past men, all the heads turn, and it’s not as if she’s dressed in some flashy, attention-grabbing outfit (which would be no excuse anyway). She’s wearing modest, professional attire. When she’s in a room full of badge-and-gun officers, her superior has to talk to their superior before they’ll listen to her, or at least that’s what he assumes. It’s not as if he consults her before the fact. On the contrary, he only asks her about it after they’ve left the scene. She politely but sternly tells him off saying “Cops look at you to see how to act. It matters.”

Jodie Foster is short.

Jodie Foster is short.

Clarice and Hannibal share a swirling duel, or perhaps a dance, over trying to track down the serial killer Buffalo Bill. Clarice gains his trust then brashly makes offers she knows she isn’t good for, while Hannibal picks his battles carefully, and enjoys toying with her as the clock ticks down to Bill’s claiming of another victim. It’s an interesting way to tell the story, as typically, the point of conflict between the protagonist and antagonist is mostly direct. But in this case, Clarice has her direct conflict with Hannibal, whom though dangerous and evil in his own ways, is not the enemy at the moment. As Clarice and Hannibal do their dance, Bill operates on his own, unaware the FBI is even tracking him.

All of Clarice’s success comes from her taking advantage of men underestimating her. Even her superior, who actually seems impressed with her from the start is skeptical of her abilities and plainly states that he doesn’t expect great results out of sending her to talk to Hannibal. Lecter actually gives her more respect than anyone else in the film. She’s able to gain his trust to the point where he takes the offer at a better situation in prison (which turns out to be false) in exchange for information, which otherwise he doesn’t owe her. Even Bill underestimates her in the end.

One other important detail is that Clarice doesn’t have a love interest. There appears to be no man in her life. So, the audience gets her story and hers alone. It’s an affirming angle for a female character to have, as she’s able to be truly independent, and the focus can be on her and her work. For once, a woman’s story doesn’t have to revolve around her appearance. Though she is attractive, she doesn’t look like a fashion model.

Both Foster and Hopkins give masterful performances. Foster subtly conveys the plucky Clarice’s strengths as capable, intelligent, and determined, but also her greenness as a rookie in her field and overconfidence at times, as she deals with Hannibal. Dr. Lecter is such a bizarre character that in less capable hands could have been way over the top and campy, but Hopkins in his masterful talent is able to ground the character with a calm, peaceful demeanor that actually underscores how dangerous and deranged Hannibal really is.

"Don't worry, I'm a doctor."

“Don’t worry, I’m a doctor.”

Director Jonathan Demme imbues the film with a sense of unease. The film is not so much gritty as it is grimy. When Claire goes searching in Hannibal’s storage unit in the middle of the night in the rain, there’s something gnawing in the pit of your stomach knowing that things are not right (besides all the popcorn you just ate). There are few things in film as revolting as one of Hannibal’s neighbor prisoners flings his semen on Clarice. This is the type of film where about halfway through you’re already thinking about taking a shower afterward because you’re afraid you might have contracted an infection of some sort while you’ve been watching. It’s slimy and gross, but in the best way.

The only real problems in the movie all have to do with Buffalo Bill. Though it’s cool that Clarice is able to get her big heroic moment at the end, the showdown between the two is a bit standard. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but her finish pales in comparison to Hannibal’s.

The bigger problem is with Bill’s gender issues. At one point, Hannibal informs Clarice that Bill is a “transsexual,” which is kind of an outdated term, but was probably correct for its time. It’s cool that Clarice defends “transsexualism” as not being inherently linked with violent behavior. But Hannibal continues, saying that Bill isn’t a “real transsexual,” he just had a rough childhood, or something to that effect, which is an incredibly problematic thing to say, though that might have also reflected gender studies or lack thereof at the time. Gender is complex. The scientific world just can’t be allowed to encroach on societal construct in such a way that it doesn’t allow people to identify as themselves as whomever they are in terms of gender. And today, the scientific world seems to agree, if you read up on your gender psychology.

Worse, the character of Buffalo Bill (Ted Levine) as a “transsexual,” despite not being inherently violent, is going to be remembered as a violent “transsexual.” Images speak louder than words. People see a person keeping a woman locked up in their house and skinning women to make a skin suit out of it and then a person tucking their penis between their legs, and the negative association is made, regardless of what characters may say about “transsexuals.” Transphobia is older than this film, and even as LGB people have gained some measure of acceptance recently, trans people are only barely starting to make any progress in the public eye. Jokes about trans people are for the most part still fair game, even as homosexual jokes are beginning to become taboo. It’s lazy comedy at this point especially, but you’ll still get a bit about trans people in nearly every comedy movie or sit com at some point. Most people have likely said or laughed at ignorant jokes about most groups of people at some point in their lives, myself included, but that sort of thing needs to be phased out in society, especially in pop culture. There’s no excuse for it now, and it doesn’t help anyone.

It seemed like Thomas Harris, who wrote the novel, was trying to write as dark of a story as he possibly could, but gender identity issues shouldn’t be considered dark material, that only serves to stigmatize. Anyway, it wasn’t bad enough that Buffalo Bill made flesh suits out of women’s skin?

Other than that, “The Silence of the Lambs” is a tightly well-written movie about a serial killer with one of the most original characters in the history of cinema, and one of the strongest female characters. This is a great psycho-thriller, with some horror elements as well. It might be a little too gross for some, but others really enjoy that sort of thing. It seems odd that this sort of movie was anywhere near Best Picture at the Oscars, but that’s a testament to its artistic quality and its portrayal of a woman trying to break out into a male-dominated profession. A win for the cannibals!

——————————————-

Next up, #73. “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

MV5BMTkyMTM2NDk5Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzY1NzEyMDE@._V1_SX214_AL_

100 Movies … 100 Posts: #75. “In the Heat of the Night” (1967)

MV5BMTk3NjkxMDc1MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDIwMjI0NA@@._V1_SX214_AL_This is post #26 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry. 

Without further ado, #75 “In the Heat of the Night”

——————————————-

Earlier, I wrote that it was disappointing that the AFI included “In the Heat of the Night,” on its 10th anniversary list rather than “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” If there was only going to be one Sidney Poitier film on the list, then “In the Heat of the Night,” which was described as a buddy cop film about a black officer and a white officer who learned to put aside their differences to solve a crime, sounded like it dealt with less poignant subject matter than a movie about an interracial dating relationship. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” still sounds more interesting, as the world is flooded with police dramas, but “Night” is an excellent entry for the list. Then again, why isn’t there room for both?

“Night” does hold an important place in history, capturing the strong racial tension in the Deep South during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in 1967. Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated the next year on the day the Academy Awards ceremony was scheduled, so it would actually take place two days later. Despite taking place in Mississippi, no filming was done in the South because Poitier feared for his life after several incidents in which he was targeted because of his race, according to an article on Slate.

The film delves into racial issues like few others did for its time. That’s not just social taboos, like the issue of blackface or awkward interactions between people from vastly disparate cultures (like in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”). This movie dove headfirst into racial profiling and death threats from Confederate flag wavers.

Friends? Not exactly.

Friends? Not exactly.

In fact, the film doesn’t waste any time in getting to those issues, as Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs is introduced after the local police of the small town of Sparta, Mississippi, (a real town, though obviously fictionalized here) arrest him shortly after they discover a murder had been committed in town. The cop who finds him sitting at the train station waiting for a train pats him down and sees that he has about $100 in his wallet, which he must assume no black man could ever have earned. So, of course, Virgil immediately becomes a suspect and is arrested. Chief Gillespie (Rod Steiger) assumes he’s guilty once he’s been delivered to the station and begins interrogating him. It’s only when Gillespie asks “Where the hell’d you earn that kind of money?” that Virgil gets the chance to explain that “I’m a police officer.”

Virgil tells Gillespie that he makes $162.39 a week, which must have been a lot back then, but sounds like nothing today. Virgil’s not just a cop, he’s a homicide expert, and he was at the train station to catch a ride back to the North. Back where he’s from “They call me Mr. Tibbs.” So Gillespie gives Virgil’s chief a call and explains the situation, and Virgil’s chief decides he wants Virgil to stay in Sparta and help the department solve their murder.

The Sparta Police Department seems to be about as well equipped to handle a case of this magnitude as the Mayberry Police Department, but no one in Sparta has quite the machismo of Barney Fife. There’s no forensics expert there near the caliber of Virgil. Having just been detained by the police for no reason, and already sick of the town’s racism, Virgil can’t be faulted for just wanting to go home, but the chief insists he stay and help. Gillespie knows full well that he is in over his head without Virgil, which he takes as an attack on his pride, as he is already butthurt over the fact that Virgil both makes more money than he does, and is also black and has already made him look bad for issuing a false arrest. He takes a lot of shit from the town over the department’s ineptitude, so the ingredients are not there for a good working relationship between these two. But seeing Virgil work, Gillespie can’t help but begrudgingly show the least bit of respect for Virgil, even through back-handed remarks.

Some things never change.

Some things never change.

And make no mistake, Virgil demands respect. He doesn’t want to be here in the first place and threatens to leave every time Gillespie gives him shit or questions his authority. Virgil has nothing to gain from this, and he knows that Gillespie needs him, so he uses that to his advantage whenever he’s challenged. As Gillespie makes one false arrest after another (including an unrecognizably young Scott Wilson of “The Walking Dead” fame), he becomes more and more frustrated with Virgil’s determination to legitimately work the case. Virgil makes the white cops look like fools again and again.

But Virgil runs into instances where he nearly lets his own prejudices of white people and the South get in the way of good detective work. In one instance, Virgil’s investigation takes him to a cotton farm, where the audience is shown black people in the fields picking cotton, much like on a plantation, as if nothing had changed over 100 years. After he confronts the owner about the murder, and a brief physical altercation takes place, Virgil understandably wants to “pull that fat cat down,” and the world might be a better place for it. But some chiding from Gillespie makes him come to his senses, that this isn’t what he’s here to do, and he can’t let his disdain for the cotton farm’s owner cloud his work.

As the case progresses, Virgil gets into some trouble from the locals because, you know, he’s a black man in the South, and an accomplished one at that. Gillespie offers back up for him, and tells him he should leave for his own safety, but now that he’s committed to the case, Virgil’s pride won’t let him return home until his work is done. But by coming to Virgil’s aid, Gillespie is able to prove to Virgil that he can be of use. Look at that, a white cop has to earn the respect of a black cop, who woulda thought?

From the moment Virgil appears, racial tension drips from every frame of this film, and it’s spectacular. No punches are pulled. The complex dynamic between Virgil and Gillespie is riveting to watch, and the pair of Poitier and Steiger pull off a masterpiece. The supporting cast is great too. It’s good to see that the townsfolk of Sparta are presented realistically, rather than how racist Southerners are often stereotypically presented as stupid rednecks or hillbillies as they are in “Easy Rider.” The depiction of racism isn’t always overt in this film, but the power struggle between Virgil and Gillespie is often boiling beneath the surface rather than in strong outbursts. That’s important, as that’s how subtle racism often plays out in real life.

Yes, the two of them eventually get to a place where they can almost come to respect one another, which seems kind of silly, considering Virgil has every reason to distrust Gillespie from the moment the chief accused him of committing murder. But it’s not like they go out to karaoke together or anything like in “Rush Hour.” The two men do come to a point where they can understand the similarities between them and at least learn to respect one another on a professional level, but it’s obvious the tension between them would take a long time to heal. And once Virgil’s finished the case, there’s no reason for him to stick around that long.

The tension is so overpowering that the crime itself comes off as weak in comparison. It really only serves as a reason for Virgil to interact with the people around town through the investigation and demonstrate those social issues that exist between people of different races in society. The case even ends somewhat abruptly in an unsatisfying and anticlimactic manner, but it’s an adequate catalyst to push along the relationship between Virgil and the townsfolk.

For all the positives the movie accomplishes in telling the story of a black man trying to navigate a racially hostile environment, it seems wrong that Steiger won Best Actor that year, and Poitier wasn’t nominated. Poitier was the first black man to win Best Actor, but it was for “The Defiant Ones” in 1958.

In the wake of Michael Brown being gunned down by police in a different state that begins with “Miss-“, “In the Heat of the Night” is still of great importance, as it depicts the dangers black men and women face  not just in the South, but everywhere in the U.S. Racial profiling by police continues to be an all too common problem. If cops were even as civil toward black people as they were in this movie, it would be less of an issue, but it’s scary out there right now.

The film serves as a great history lesson for those who weren’t around during the Civil Rights Movement and also as a reminder to those of us who don’t have to worry about police harassment that we are quite privileged.

——————————————-

Next up, #74. “The Silence of the Lambs”

MV5BMTQ2NzkzMDI4OF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDA0NzE1NA@@._V1_SX214_AL_

100 Movies … 100 Posts: #76. “Forrest Gump” (1994)

MV5BMTQwMTA5MzI1MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzY5Mzg3OA@@._V1_SX214_AL_This is post #25 in my series, 100 Movies … 100 Posts. In this ongoing series, I’m watching and writing about each film on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies from #100 to #1. I’m not just writing a review of each movie. I am going to write a piece about whatever I find most pressing, as a critique of the film, an address of the issues it brings up, or my own experiences with the film. It will serve as an examination of the list itself and of political issues in Hollywood and the film industry. 

Without further ado, #76 “Forrest Gump”

——————————————-

“Gump sat alone on a bench in the park
My name is Forrest he’d casually remark
Waitin’ for the bus with his hands in his pockets
He just kept sayin’ life is like a box of chocolates”

-“Weird” Al Yankovic, Gump, 1996

When “Weird” Al makes a reference to something, that’s when you know for certain that that person or work has become part of the Zeitgeist.

In the mid-’90s, “Forrest Gump” was everyone’s favorite movie. To prove it to you, they’d tell you “Life is like a box of chocolates” in their best Gump Voice. An actual Bubba Gump Shrimp Company serves food in coastal states. There may not be a more beloved entity to Gen-Xers than this film.

The first time I saw this movie was probably a year or two after it was released. My family got a copy of the VHS (that’s right) from the library, and it was rare when a movie you actually wanted to see was available off the shelf. Usually for movies that everyone wanted to see, you would have to reserve it and wait at least a few months before it would arrive. But the library is a great resource for families on a budget, since you can get everything for free.

The copy we got included descriptive audio for the sight impaired. This meant that a narrator would describe everything that happens on the screen. Again, this was a VHS tape, which meant you couldn’t just turn off the narration. It’s cool that that service exists, but if you’re not impaired, it makes for a trying watch.

For instance, in the opening scene, the narration went something like this:

“A feather blows across the screen. It flutters around a busy area of town, down to a man sitting on a bench.”

For those of you who are fortunate enough to have your eyesight, imagine sitting through 2 1/2 hours of that. Believe me, if you had, you would have a newfound appreciation for your ability to see.

“Forrest Gump” stars Tom Hanks in his iconic role about a man who goes by that name who has a different disability. Forrest has an intellectual disability. He’s lacking in intelligence so much that his mother, played by the likable Sally Field, has to sleep with the superintendent in order to get him into a normal school. Not only that, but as a child, he also had trouble walking without braces. He has a friend named Jenny (Robin Wright), who shows up intermittently throughout his life. The movie encompasses the life of this man born in the mid-20th century and shows how he interacts throughout the recent history of the United States.

As you can see, this isn’t the most politically correct film, which is somewhat ironic given it was made in the supposedly “PC” Clinton era of the mid- to late ’90s. Right off the bat, casting the able-minded Hanks as a man with an intellectual disability is rather problematic in itself. Yes, acting is about portraying someone who is not like yourself, but there’s no way to get inside the mind and understand what it’s like to be someone else who is disadvantaged in this way. It’s nearly impossible to play this sort of role without it coming off as something of a caricature. Most well-respected actors don’t take roles like this anymore. Insulting people who are disabled has become somewhat of a taboo, but in many circles, it’s still socially acceptable, which is kind of sad. Using the word “retarded” was cool around the time this movie came out, and although you probably won’t hear it in public, it will still get thrown out there in close company. Now that Breaking Bad has reached a zenith in pop culture, it’s shown that using actors who share their disability with the character they play works very well. So, if the script calls for that type of character, it’s not necessary to get an able-minded actor to play them, which is great. But in the ’90s, no one gave it a second thought, it just made for easily accessible comedic situations.

A semi-accurate representation of mid-'90s United States.

A semi-accurate representation of mid-’90s United States.

Much of the movie’s humor comes from Forrest’s involvement in many important U.S. events that took place throughout the mid-1900s, but most of the jokes are based around his disability in some way. He pronounces things oddly and whenever he’s given a task by an authority figure, he takes it literally and performs to the letter exactly what he’s told to do. This makes for some tragic moments, as he’s easily taken advantage of, especially by the military.

The reasoning for this character being the protagonist of the film seems to be for the sake of showing a person with either a blank slate or a child-like view of the world, to show how a person with a certain innocence reacts to heavily politically charged events. If this is in fact the point, then that’s also insulting to people who share Forrest’s disability.

Poor deadbeat legless Lt. Dan.

Poor deadbeat legless Lt. Dan.

But he does care about people, especially his friends, and he’s a loyal friend. There are positives to take away from this problematic character, and there are some clever moments in the film, despite the flaws. When Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise), Forrest’s former commanding officer from when they served in the Vietnam War, asks him if he’s found Jesus, Forrest replies “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for him, sir.”

It wouldn’t have been much of a deviation to have made the character a man with just simple tastes a simple outlook on life. Being from Alabama, there are a lot of people from that area of the country who take pride in that sort of world view in a positive way. That sort of character would have served the same purpose, but without going for that cheap, offensive humor this film so strongly features.

For those who haven’t seen the movie since the ’90s, they might be surprised by how dark the film is. As mentioned earlier, Forrest’s mother has sex with the school superintendent so that Forrest does not have to go to a special needs school. But being told from Forrest’s point of view, that bit could easily go over people’s heads without them realizing.

Forrest is named after an ancestor of his who was a high-ranking officer in the Ku Klux Klan. The film doesn’t go into what the KKK represented, but Forrest, in his simple understanding, just believes they rode around on horses wearing funny masks. There’s nothing wrong with insulting that horrible organization, but to treat it as something silly without acknowledging the reasons they did what they did and what they actually stood for seems rather irresponsible. Although the group no longer holds the power or public view it once had, it does still exist even today, and their beliefs are still very prevalent in society, as evidenced any time the subject of race comes up in the news, such as the recent events in Missouri.

But the character who gets it the worst is Jenny. Early on, the film hints that her father, who doesn’t appear onscreen, had a history of abusing or molesting her in some way. It’s not clear exactly what he does to her, as the only evidence the audience is given is Forrest’s misguided explanation, and it’s clear that he’s unaware anything harmful even occurs between them. Pedophilia until very recently, similar to intellectual disability, and especially in the ’90s somehow was considered a joking matter, just something to be laughed at. It’s only been within maybe the past decade, when the scandal within the Catholic Church came out that some people began to treat pedophilia as a serious issue, probably because many people discovered that they knew people who had been molested as a child. But it’s somewhat ridiculous it’s taken this society so long to even consider it a legitimate issue, rather than comic relief fodder. Thankfully, the film kind of lends that issue the gravity it deserves more than most pop culture of the time.

As the movie follows Forrest throughout his life, it checks in on Jenny whenever the pair’s paths happen to cross. Forrest ends up (mostly by accident) joining the military, starting his own company, and stumbling onto investing in then fledgling company, Apple (Forrest must be a billionaire by now if he held onto that stock), all “highly regarded” positions. By contrast, Jenny becomes a stripper and a hippie, and she takes a lot of drugs and has abusive boyfriends. By the end, she contracts AIDS and dies. They both came from simple means, but Forrest was the more successful of the two. Though one would think this would make Jenny a sympathetic figure, instead the movie mostly treats her as though she’s one of those “bad girls” who sleeps around and gets herself into so much trouble because she likes the bad guys, and she’d be so much better off if she would just love Forrest, because he’s such a good guy, but she doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. It’s not until she learns to give up on her anger toward her father that she realizes she should be with Forrest, and that’s when she finally finds peace in her life. It’s a pretty ugly message that’s sent to women through this film.

Jenny's not ashamed of being a stripper, but we know that's because she's a "bad girl."

Jenny’s not ashamed of being a stripper, but we know that’s because she’s a “bad girl.”

It looks especially bad, as one of the film’s main themes is the whole “box of chocolates” thing. That is, you don’t know what you’re going to get out of life, you just have to be like Forrest and make the best of whatever you’re given. But if that’s true, then Jenny has mostly herself to blame for putting herself in so many bad situations. Her problem is that she holds on to that anger at her dad.

But anyone with any sense of compassion would agree that not only is Jenny not to blame for what her father did to her, but that she has every right to be pissed off at her dad and at the world in general for being so vilely violated at such a vulnerable age. She had no one to rely on early in life, other than Forrest, who wasn’t exactly in any position to support her in the ways she needed.

For some people who are in unfortunate situations, knowing that you don’t have much control over the hand you’re dealt in life, but all you can do is make the best of it, can be a comforting, empowering, and even hopeful message. It is true that the circumstances of one’s life are mostly out of their control, and they have to learn to be resourceful with what little they are given. It’s important to stay positive in life, even though it can often be difficult for many. That positivity can make the bitter pill that is life go down easier. But for others, having a chip on their shoulder and a healthy amount of “fuck off” for the forces that are trying to hold them down can be much more inspiring and rousing to action.

The “box of chocolates” idea is only true to a certain degree. A majority of people have relatively little control over the circumstances of their life. But people who possess more wealth or power have unlimited options. Not only do they have control over their own lives, but they often have control over the lives of many people. They might not do anything “meaningful” with those vast resources, but at the end of the day, even if they feel “unfulfilled,” the fact is they still have near-total control over their own lives. Less affluent people who don’t hit the right path, whatever that is, can find their lives passing them by because they missed out on something early in life. It’s not too late to make a change, but it’s much more difficult to do now. For the people who were telling this story, who were already at the point where they could do most whatever they wanted to with the rest of their lifes, to send this kind of message to us plebeians, is kind of condescending.

There’s nothing wrong with a “positive” movie, especially if it offers real inspiration. So often, however, the perhaps “well-intentioned” message rings hollow. If it rings hollow, that’s because it is hollow. The audience doesn’t have to be happy with whatever it’s given. Happy endings can be great and satisfying when they are earned, but if you’re going to insult them, then making them happy is going to be tough. “Forrest Gump” came out at a time when opportunities were plenty and the U.S. was trying to turn the corner on issues of poverty and racism (though those issues were really just swept under the rug). The U.S. was out of the Cold War and the war in the Middle East was on hold. Perhaps this movie made a lot more sense back then when the average American might have had more control over their life. There’s no question of its popularity, but perhaps its time has come and gone.

Asian sighting: Although one of the key scenes in the movie takes place in a combat zone during the Vietnam War, no actual Vietnamese or Asian or anybody actually appears onscreen to represent the Viet Cong military. There’s just a lot of bullet fire and explosions. Lt. Dan’s fiancee Susan (Teresa Denton, although in the credits, the character is listed as “Lt. Dan’s Fiancee,” rather than her actual name), whom he introduces at the end of the movie, is of some uncertain Asian descent, possibly symbolizing that he’s made his peace with his experience in Vietnam. Losing your legs and nearly dying isn’t enough of a reason to be angry either, apparently. You gotta find an Asian lady to make it all better.

They searched, but apparently the U.S. military didn't find any Vietnamese in Vietnam, only lots of gunless flying bullets.

They searched, but apparently the U.S. military didn’t find any Vietnamese in Vietnam, only lots of gunless flying bullets.

We don’t often reflect on pop culture from earlier in our lives enough to really think about how those things helped form the worldview we hold now. “Forrest Gump” was an influential movie for a lot of people. Many of the ideas espoused in this film that perhaps were meant to inspire are now used by those with greater means, like libertarians for instance, to shame people in less fortunate positions who are upset about their situation. Those who find themselves victims of heinous crimes are more likely to find themselves scolded for “playing the victim,” and told that they are too bitter. Sometimes, we need to take a look at things we have enjoyed in the past and examine them more closely, and sometimes, we might find we don’t like what we see the way we used to.

Some movies are ageless, and they’ll stand the test of time as long as people are watching movies, others become outdated and are looked at as a relic of their time. Having celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, “Forrest Gump” is already outdated, which is disappointing considering some of the classics that came before it that still continue to shine brightly.

A man who’s actually experienced a bit of a resurgence lately, “Weird” Al will carry us out:

——————————————-

Next up, #75. “In the Heat of the Night”

MV5BMTk3NjkxMDc1MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDIwMjI0NA@@._V1_SX214_AL_