100 Movies … 100 Posts: #84. Easy Rider (1969)

MV5BMTkxMjc0MTQyMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDc5MjMyMDE@._V1_SX214_This is post #17 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, #84 “Easy Rider”

——————————————-

I’ve heard people say “Easy Rider” is just some dudes riding around on motorcycles doing drugs.

That’s not totally true.

Though, yes, Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) do spend much of the movie’s 95-minute running time either riding motorcycles or going on (sometimes not so pleasant) drug trips, to say that’s all this film is about is to miss the point entirely.

Once the dudes embark on their journey from Los Angeles to Mardi Gras, the entire experience conveys the era of freedom they went in search of. Riding through the majestic beauty of the American southwest reminds the viewer that these sacred places with gorgeous natural rock formations exist, as well as the fact that they are riding free. That is, they are free of the tethers of society. There’s no responsibilities, no rush-hour traffic, no police. After all, there’s nothing that gives you the feeling that you’re on top of the world like a road trip. You are the master of you’re own ship, and the world is your ocean for your epic voyage.

It's a nice ride.

It’s a nice ride.

Of course, by the end, we realize we are the masters of very little. Every vacation must come to an end. Work awaits to be caught up on at the office on Monday. Besides, even if you ditched work for good, what would you do? How would you get money, and what would you do for food? The gas tank gets thirsty after a while. Eventually, the highway gets old anyway.

So, when Captain America tosses his watch and rides off into the desert at the beginning of the film, although he truly believes he’s above even time, he’s reaching for an ideal that isn’t attainable. When he and Billy stop at a farmer’s ranch, Cap expresses his admiration for the farmer’s ability to live by his own means. But they quickly realize that even though they’ve left the city, they now have to rely on the kindness of strangers to get by. Though it might be wonderful if everyone could have it so well, it’s not exactly a realistic ideal.

And that was the problem with the hippie movement as a whole, and that’s why for the most part, the idea has died out. I’m sure pockets of drifters and communes still exist, but this isn’t a dream that most of society holds. In fact, the idea of taking a motorcycle where ever the wind takes you and roughing it isn’t exactly something most people in today’s nonstop digital world would be interested in. Taking it slow would be too much of a barrier to productivity.

Today's version of a motorcycle ride through the American Southwest. That's all we need.

Today’s version of a motorcycle ride through the American Southwest. That’s all we need.

Still, most people can identify with the stranger the duo meets on the side of the road who says it doesn’t matter which city he’s from, “all cities are alike. I’m a long way from the city, and that’s where I wanna be right now.” In a capitalist society, we can relate with Jack Nicholson’s lawyer George Hanson when he says that “it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace.”

When Captain America and Billy get shot down by two rednecks who don’t like the way these guys look, their ideals die with them. It’s 1969, and the decade is over. Though the ideals were flawed, they were beautiful. It’s reasonable to mourn them, but they are dead and gone, as they should be.

As the bikers learn at the hippie commune the stranger on the highway takes them to, it’s wonderful that these people have set up a community where they can live, free from the rest of society. But Captain America and Billy realize that they probably won’t last, because it’s going to be hard to grow food in the desert. Still, the commune shares what little they have with the travelers. Eventually, these people will all have to move back to the city and get jobs.

The movie’s portrayal of the South seems to be somewhat accurate, but somewhat off-base. George purports that the Southerners are afraid of their freedom. Although that may be true, it certainly wasn’t the South that killed off freedom (well, in a different way it did and continues to do so), but the whole goal of being self-sustaining is just a pipe dream, and life just doesn’t work that way. And the Yankees up North are just as bad in many respects.

"Here's the first of the day, fellas! To old D.H. Lawrence."

“Here’s the first of the day, fellas! To old D.H. Lawrence.”

Anyway, it’s a wealthy man’s luxury to just be able to drop everything and strike out on your own. Who can afford to do that? Even if a common person in the U.S. wanted to go start a farm on their own, there would be so many barriers to doing that. For one thing, no one can afford a plot of land, unless they”re already rich. Though a life of taking one’s own responsibility like Captain America seeks is a nice idea, who even has that option? In this country, citizens are dependent on one another, for better or worse. The poor are dependent on the rich, and the rich are dependent on the poor, and everyone between. No one has the ability to supply themselves with everything they need.

When Cap finally admits, “we blew it” to Billy, after a bad LSD trip, who knows what he’s talking about? It’s quite vague. But perhaps it sums up the Hippie Movement of the 60s at large. For all the freedom they searched for, they only aspired to spend it on themselves, as even Billy himself was just looking for his next fix the entire journey. Though it’s tempting to want release from society and an oppressive culture, maybe we should be spending our energy on fixing it for the people who don’t have the same opportunities we do and for the generations to come, so they don’t have to deal with the same problems we have. That would be groovy.

Though it’s not out of the question that Hopper, Fonda, and Nicholson may have just used making this film as an excuse to ride motorcycles out in the desert and get high (Fonda admits they actually were smoking weed in several scenes), perhaps they felt they had something to say with it as well. It’s an elegy for the 60s, but also a plea to future generations to do better.

——————————————-

Next up, #83 “Titanic”

MV5BMjExNzM0NDM0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzkxOTUwNw@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_

100 Movies … 100 Posts: #85. A Night at the Opera (1935)

MV5BMzkxNjA5OTA0Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTYzMDU2Mw@@._V1_SX214_This is post #16 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, #85 “A Night at the Opera”

——————————————-

Nothing says comedy like the Great Depression. You know why? Because none of us is old enough to remember it.

Who better to mine deep, widespread poverty for laughs than the Marx Brothers? Their film, “A Night at the Opera,” besides serving as a showcase for their timeless comedy, offers a glimpse into that era, where work was scarce.

The collective feeling of the time can likely be summed up in a conversation between Chico’s Italian drifter, Fiorello and a mailroom attendant. Fiorello asks,

“You got mail for me?”

“No, you don’t work here.”

“Well, where am I gonna get mail? I don’t work anyplace.”

There’s nothing like comedy to lift the spirits and help remind you that you’re not the only one who’s down on their luck. It doesn’t put food on the table, but maybe it makes today a bit more bearable.

At least in times like that, it had to be gratifying to see guys like the Marxes insulting rich people to their face without them understanding it. The brothers were always at their most on-point when they were tearing down the elite class.

Groucho plays Otis B. Driftwood, an employee of the opera back in the U.S. For now, he’s trying to woo a wealthy financier in Italy, just for her money, which he makes plainly obvious. Fiorello (Chico) stumbles onto a guy named Ricardo (Allan Jones) who dreams of singing in the opera, and he’s in love with Rosa (Kitty Carlisle), a young lady who unfortunately also happens to the object of desire for current opera star, Lassparri (Walter Woolf Kin), who naturally is a complete ass. Beyond being possessive of a woman who isn’t even into him, he’s also abusive to his manic assistant, Tomasso, played by Harpo. Lassparri beats Tomasso for no reason really. The mute Harpo with his curly locks is so lovable that it’s hard not to feel sympathy for him with the punishment he takes. Of course, that makes it all the better when Tomasso finally turns the tables and gets to whack his boss on the head a few times. The brothers eventually run into each other, as you’d expect, and they get on a boat headed for the U.S.

So poor, Groucho's about to lose his spot on that bench.

So poor, Groucho’s about to lose his spot on that bench.

 

On a side note, it’s unintentionally funny how “Italy” is portrayed in this film. Half the cast doesn’t even bother with an accent, let alone try to speak Italian. Yet, they all have Italian names. It wasn’t until they said they were taking a boat to America that this writer even realized they weren’t in America already.

Plenty more bits referencing poverty follow, including Fiorello, Tomasso, and Ricardo smuggle themselves aboard the boat in Driftwood’s luggage, only to realize Driftwood’s been booked in the smallest room on the ship, and they all have to stay there to avoid getting deported. Of course, they don’t stay there. Being the Marx Brothers, of course they have to throw in a gag where all the various attendants on the boat come to service the tiny cabin at once and try to squeeze inside together. Eventually, there’s around 20 people crammed into a 10′x10′ square room.

Rough voyage

A rough voyage

It’s impressive (or not) how producers of the film managed to wring a 90-minute film out of about 60 minutes worth of material. As the three guys stuck in the tiny room eventually get bored and wander above deck, they find  a festive crowd dancing and eating spaghetti. What better time for Chico and Harpo to bust out some piano? They’re both great performers, but they take about a 10 or so minute time out right in the middle of the film to get their solos in. This is the very definition of movie filler. While it’s enjoyable, the jaunt breaks up the film and takes the viewer out of the moment. The piano doesn’t really have anything to do with either’s character, so the performances are just there.

That comes after Ricardo and Rosa had their own duet earlier in the film. While it gets the point across that Ricardo can sing, and deserves to be in the opera, it goes on a few minutes longer than it needs to, and besides, aren’t we here to see the Marx boys, not these other folks whom we’ve no reason to care about?

If there is a problem with this film, it’s this tangential story about these two hopeful young lovers. At some point, the film becomes about them, and it turns out the Marxes are just here for comic relief. Whenever the Marxes are on screen, they’re fantastic and the movie is great. They all bring so much energy and synergy through their well-rehearsed act that they are absolutely electric whether they’re working off of each other or the other actors in the film. But their fellow cast members aren’t strong enough to hold interest. It’s hard to see why Rosa is so infatuated with Ricardo when all the audience knows about him is that he can sing and he’s blond and clean cut. That’s his entire character.  At least that’s more than Rosa gets, as she’s just a pretty face who, as it so happens, can also sing. Lassparri is a fun slimy villain, and some of the other characters are alright, but only when they have Groucho, Chico, or Harpo to play off of.

Who's this guy? I thought this was a Marx Brothers picture.

Who’s this guy? I thought this was a Marx Brothers picture.

The Marxes finally extract their full revenge on those snobby elitists when they start tearing apart the opera house, as an opera is attempting to play. From replacing the orchestra’s music with “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” to Harpo tearing up one of the backgrounds as the manager chases him about, it’s great to see them ruin the gallery audience setting with their antics. Perhaps this was a precursor to the modern rock ‘n’ roll show. Maybe the Marxes were further ahead of their time than we realize.

“A Night at the Opera” was a bit of a departure from the typical fare for the jokester siblings. For once, they tried to make an actual movie with drama and a love story. It was an interesting try, but if you’re looking for 90 minutes of slapstick, witty remarks, and satire, you might feel a bit shortchanged. The Marx Brothers’ antics are as great as ever, but trying to tame them with a dry love story and a wicked opera star was the wrong way to go, even if it made their comedy more palatable to general audiences.

But it is always interesting to catch even a small glimpse of that era. Even though the U.S. had its recession a few years ago, and it was a rough stretch for some folks possibly losing a job or having their work hours reduced, it didn’t reach the level of poverty America did in the 30s. Let this film be a friendly reminder that this was an era our country does not ever want to revisit.

——————————————-

Next up, #84. “Easy Rider”

MV5BMTkxMjc0MTQyMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDc5MjMyMDE@._V1_SX214_

100 Movies … 100 Posts: #86. Platoon (1986)


MV5BNTU3NzY4ODY5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTkzNzE1NA@@._V1_SX214_This is post #15 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, #86 “Platoon”

——————————————-

If there were ever a single movie that would make a good case for taking a completely anti-war stance, it would be Oliver Stone’s “Platoon.” Hollywood has had a history of pumping out patriotic pro-war propaganda. This one should dispel any notion that war is a glorious endeavor.

In his opening voiceover monologue, Tiger Blood himself, Charlie Sheen, playing a young soldier in Vietnam named Chris Taylor pronounces that “Hell is the impossibility of reason. That’s what this place feels like, hell.” Meanwhile, we watch him, sweat dripping from every pore on his body, digging a trench in the oppressive heat of tropical Asia. Then later, he gets attacked by ants. His fellow platoon mate tells him that red ants are the worst. He’s lucky that these are only the black ones.

Cox

It must have been the cigarette that made him so evil. Who could be less trustworthy than a doctor who smokes?

Sharing his troop are Willem Dafoe and Tom Berenger, or Sgt. Elias and Sgt. Barnes, or God and the Devil. The war these two wage is not just for the sake of a mission or staying alive, but it’s a man who’s fighting to keep his own soul intact, as well as those of the soldiers he commands (Elias) and another who’s already given up on caring about his fellow humans (Barnes). Taylor sees the good in Elias, who seems to have retained his sense of morality despite having been stuck here for years. Barnes also has his allies, specifically, his parrot, Sgt. O’Neill played by John C. McGinley, whom “Scrubs” fans will know as Dr. Cox. It’s pretty funny how he’s basically still playing Dr. Cox here, and in fact, it wouldn’t be surprising to find out that this was the doctor in another lifetime. Working in a hospital and in a war zone aren’t all that different.

 

It’s also funny how Dafoe bears the closest resemblance among the cast to a Christlike character, considering he would play Jesus a couple years later. O’Neill even says “Guy’s in 3 years, and he thinks he’s Jesus fucking Christ or something.”

The audience follows the platoon through several incidents where the soldiers have to fight to stay alive and keep their sanity. Of course, it’s war and not all of them make it. It’s such hell that some of them even wish for death at times, as it would at least mean an end to the paranoia and terror they face every day and night. Or at least, if they get shot and survive, they get to go home. Anything is preferable to being stuck out there in the jungle. Sheen gets nicked by a bullet early in the movie, which means he gets to go back to base camp for a few days to recover. Fellow soldier played by Forest Whitaker is happy for him.


The film comes to a head as the full horrors of war are revealed when the group comes upon a village. In the previous scene, the soldiers had indulged in a bit of the wacky weed and they were very happy (way before Sheen started bangin’ seven-gram rocks). They were all about peace and singing songs and enjoying life. But now, in a village full of Vietnamese who don’t speak or understand English, fear and survival instinct kick in. Searching the village for enemy soldiers, Taylor finds a one-legged mentally disabled man and his mother hiding in a barn. In a sickening display of power, Taylor fires at the man’s feet, forcing him to do a dance to avoid being shot. Then fellow soldier Bunny, played by Kevin Dillon, bashes the man’s head open with the butt of his rifle, as his mother cries out. Bunny then shoots her, and coldly says that they should just kill all of them.

After a few more atrocities, the commanding officer tells the soldiers to burn down the village and send the people away. Stone highlights the hypocrisy of the American soldiers showing one guy with “GRACE” written on his helmet as he sets fire to one of the huts.platoon-burning

After the village has been set ablaze, Taylor stumbles onto members of his troop attempting to rape a girl, and he tells them to back off, leading the girl away to relative safety as the other soldiers call him a homosexual for breaking it up. Quite a bit of controversy surrounds this scene. The rape is very much muted, as the girl isn’t even shown onscreen, except for the top of her head. It plays out so quickly, as the viewer is still reeling from the horrifying events that took place in the village, that it would be easy to miss what’s transpiring in this scene. I had to watch it a second time and consult Google to affirm that I was seeing what I thought I was seeing.

Stone probably did this for a number of reasons. The most likely being he was probably trying to avoid an “X” rating with the movie being so violent. It might have been for artistic reasons, as he might have though it would be too vile for audiences to handle at this point in the film, considering the disturbing scenes in the village. It’s hard to say whether this was handled properly. Showing the rape in detail would have been sure to get across the specter that it was a common occurrence for American soldiers in Vietnam to rape village girls. But, on the other hand, that sort of act is an awful thing to show on film, and it’s not something that anyone needs to see. At least that was addressed in the film, but it might have been better if it wasn’t so rushed.

It also feels wrong because, as Stone himself is a Vietnam veteran, it’s likely that Taylor was representative of himself and his own experiences. Taylor shows in the barn scene that he’s losing his sense of morality, as he’s cracking under paranoia and fear of the situation he’s in. He’s starting to revert to his survival instinct, and it’s not entirely misplaced, but he’s now taking it out on the people he perceives to be his enemies, even though they’ve done nothing to harm him personally. Breaking up the rape is Stone’s way of showing his moral compass is still somewhat intact, at least relative to the other soldiers in the troop. Still, it’s difficult to accept Taylor’s relative morality. He hates the “gooks” as much as everyone else in the platoon, but the audience is still supposed to see him as a good guy? Or maybe they’re just meant to sympathize with him as a human who’s been thrust into nightmarish situations. Either way, it makes war a seem entirely undesirable.

Barnes is a terrifying man, but at least he's honest about it.

Barnes is a disgusting man, but at least he’s honest about it.

Barnes, on the other hand, has completely given up on relative morality. He’s doing what he has to do to survive and to keep the platoon together. He doesn’t care who he has to kill. He’s fine threatening to kill a villager’s young daughter to get him to talk. He’s OK with killing fellow soldiers because he perceives that they’re weak. He’ll give his commanding officer hell because he doesn’t seem to have his head in the game when the group needs his attention the most. Berenger is tremendous at creating this character who is completely contemptible, but admirable for his strength and sense of duty. Despite his terrible flaws, he’s the most respectable of the group. Most of the guys are beset with this wishy-washy sense of relative morality, when they have no qualms with taking out as many Vietnamese people as they can, be they fighters or innocent villagers. As much as you hate Barnes, you have to respect him, because at least he’s consistent and honest with himself and his soldiers. As much as Elias is admirable for trying to maintain dignity in the way the group handles things, you almost wish he would stop pretending and just be honest. These men are trained to be killing machines, but they’re really just a bunch of scared guys staring death in the face every minute of every day. They’re just trying to hold out long enough to get injured so they can go home. How fucked up is that?

Berenger would continue to haunt Sheen as he followed him into another film, “Major League,” where they were both members of the Cleveland Indians baseball team. That would have been even more hellish than Vietnam.

Just as terrifying as Vietnam.

Cleveland: More terrifying than Vietnam.

Through a series of conversations between white and black soldiers interspersed throughout the movie, Stone is deftly able to convey matters of race and class and how people end up in the military. In once instance, Taylor admits to Keith David’s character, King, that he came from an affluent family. “Why should the poor kids go off to war and the rich kids always get away with it,” Taylor says. King rebuffs him, saying, “Shit. You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that. Everybody know the poor are always being fucked over by the rich. Always have, always will.” It’s good to see someone address the white saviorism in movies like this. Usually if there are black characters in war or action movies, it’s done out of tokenism, and the black guy usually dies first.

“Platoon” is more than a literal battle between the Taylor’s platoon and the Vietnamese. It’s about more than just the soldiers’ struggles to survive. After its success in World War II, the U.S. was ready to take on the world. We were trying to demonstrate our dominance to Russia by asserting ourselves in this small Communist country that was no threat to us. Stone shows that the soldiers are losing their way. On a different level, it was the U.S. that had lost its way morally by putting the soldiers in this position. Not only by putting its soldiers in harm’s way, but in attempting to colonize Vietnam. As Taylor felt the need to assert his power over the man in the barn, and as the soldiers did with the village, the U.S. was trying to assert its power in the world by taking over this country. The U.S. succeeded at neither and just got a lot of people killed. Many veterans of this war are still suffering from it because the U.S. tried to downplay its own follies after the war had ended, and those soldiers still aren’t receiving the care they need.

It’s a message that is still relevant today, nearly 20 years after this movie was made and 30 years after the end of the war. Since this film was released, we’ve had multiple incursions into the Middle East with varying degrees of success. At least now, we’re invading countries that have things we want, namely the oil trade. It comes at the cost of thousands of our own troops’ lives and tens of thousands of the locals’ lives. With the gap between the rich and poor at its widest since the 20s, poor kids continue to face the brunt of it with subversive recruiting tactics and a lack of options due to their families’ lowly statuses. Even Hollywood is getting in on the recruiting. Look at recent movies like “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Act of Valor,”  “Captain Phillips,” and “Lone Survivor.” They all make being a Navy SEAL or a Marine look pretty awesome. It’s good to get kids interested while they’re young. And the attempts to find profitable conflicts will continue.

“Platoon” is one of the few anti-war war films that actually gets the message across that war is bad for everyone involved. That seems to be Stone’s entire goal with this film. He succeeds in making an engrossing movie, but it’s so disturbing that it would hopefully remind pro-war people that these kids we’re sending out into who knows where are suffering for it. If we can’t have sympathy for the “enemy,” then we should at least care about our own. Every war isn’t like Vietnam, but if you want a movie that might hit closer to home, watch “Jarhead,” as it has a similar message, but with a look at a more recent war.

Though Oliver Stone’s recent history hasn’t been the greatest, this movie is something everyone should watch, especially those who think war is all about glory. Though the film is strikingly compelling in its artistry, it’s hardly what anyone should call entertaining. This is true terror. It’s not just some liberal agenda set forth by someone who’s never set foot on a battlefield. This is a movie written and directed by a veteran, so it should be believable.

It would be difficult to argue that the U.S. hasn’t lost its way.

War: where morality dies.

War is where morality dies.

——————————————-

Next up, #85 “A Night at the Opera”

MV5BMzkxNjA5OTA0Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTYzMDU2Mw@@._V1_SX214_

100 Movies … 100 Posts: #87. 12 Angry Men (1957)

MV5BODQwOTc5MDM2N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODQxNTEzNA@@._V1_SX214_This is post #14 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, #87 “12 Angry Men”

——————————————-

I’ve never been called for jury duty. I’ve always thought it would be interesting to listen to a trial and have to make a judgment based on the case each lawyer presents. But I wouldn’t want to have to work anything major like a murder. I wouldn’t be able to handle having to choose whether to sentence someone to death. I’m against the death penalty anyway.

But in “12 Angry Men,” director Sidney Lumet allows his audience to be a fly on the wall for an afternoon in a jury room during a murder trial. A young Puerto Rican man is accused of murdering his father, and the evidence, as we learn from the jurors as they discuss the case, is pretty damning.

Good ol' Henry Fonda. So just.

Good ol’ Henry Fonda. So just.

But Henry Fonda, being the bastion of justice that he is, isn’t so convinced. He’s alone, as the 11 other jurors are all ready to send the boy off to death row.

Over the course of the discussion, the audience gets to witness 12 unique individuals, each with their own motives and biases play against one another trying to work together to come to a unanimous decision. None of them are going anywhere until they do. It doesn’t help that they’re sequestered in a small room on the hottest day of the year. And one of the jurors has a Yankees game to get to.

M-m-m-m-m-m-maybe this guy isn't guilty after all P-P-P-P-P-P-P-P-P-Pooh...

M-m-m-m-m-m-maybe this guy isn’t guilty after all P-P-P-P-P-P-P-P-P-Pooh…

Lumet does a great job here of creating characters that sound like people you’ve met.  Most of their names are never revealed, but that’s fitting as all the men are strangers to one another as well as to the audience. They’re stereotypes, but for a movie that’s exploring the differences between people, they serve their purposes. You’ve got your loudmouth; your by-the-book accountant; your guy from a poor family; your sports fan; your middle-aged European immigrant; your nice old man; your racist, bigoted old man; and your guy who voiced Piglet in Winnie the Pooh. And, of course, what some would call your white knight (Fonda). When he stands against the other jurors, he gets treated like someone labeled a white knight on Twitter might experience. The other guys question why he’s trying to keep them there so long, why he’s trying to be a hero, and one even calls him a bleeding heart. But he picks away at the witnesses’ statements and eventually, one-by-one, the others begin to agree with him until they do finally come to a consensus, but not without a long, hard fight, of course.

It was interesting to see how the jurors came around to Fonda’s side and started to believe what he was saying. Even as he’s explaining it, it seems like the logical gaps he gets at are kind of nitpicking. The others even refute his arguments pretty easily at first. But given the environment, one could see how the others could get worn down by the heat, the desire to be elsewhere, and even out of sympathy for the defendant, who has reportedly lived a difficult, short life.

With the racial aspect of this trial, it’s difficult to not make comparisons to trials we see today. It’s interesting how several of the jurors were distrustful of the boy because of things unrelated to the case. The racist one goes on and on in several different about how he knows “these types” of people and that they can’t be trusted. He says the boy’s a slob because “he don’t even speak good English” (he’s corrected of his grammatical error by the immigrant, who speaks with an accent). The loudmouth says “It’s these kids, the way they are nowadays. When I was a kid I used to call my father, ‘Sir.’ That’s right. ‘Sir.’ You ever hear a kid call his father that anymore?”

"How dare you say I just wanna see someone fry?! I'll kill you!!

“How dare you say I just wanna see someone fry?! I’ll kill you!!

The loudmouth also gets so upset when Fonda suggests that he is bloodthirsty and just wants to see someone get executed. The loudmouth is so offended by this that he lunges at Fonda, shouting “I’ll kill ‘em!” It’s funny that people today still react with the same indignation when it’s suggested that they might be bigoted, instead of considering the possibility that they might be blinded by their own privilege.

It’s frightening that in so many cases, especially cases involving race, gender, sexual orientation, or even age, that these same types of prejudices come out among the public viewing audience. Even when a white man is on trial, the viewing audience treats the ones whom the injury was committed against as if the victim is the one on trial. Look at the George Zimmerman trial. The ones whom the public attacked were Trayvon Martin and Rachel Jeantel, even though one was dead and the other was a witness. It was the exact same language the racist juror in “12 Angry Men” used. The defense attacked the character of the victim. Look at the case in Florida where the white man shot a black teenager because he felt “threatened” by the young man’s music. Though, unlike in the Zimmerman case, there was a conviction in the music shooting, even that was on a lesser charge. Meanwhile, in the Jodi Arias case, the defendant is treated as if she is insane after killing her boyfriend, supposedly in self-defense. Deliberations for sentencing in that case have been set for September.

The American legal system is a wonder because it is meant to allow parties uninvolved in a case to listen to the evidence presented and determine the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Even so, it seems as though most people are unwilling to check their own prejudices at the door. So, this system, though possibly well-intentioned, is far from perfect in rendering a proper verdict with great consistency.

Fonda is right in the movie when he is talking about reasonable doubt and that it’s better to let off a criminal because the evidence against them is not good enough than to send an innocent person to die. That’s a good enough case for the death penalty being a bad idea altogether. But in these high-profile cases, it always seems like white, straight dudes get off much more lightly than people of color, women, or LGBT people. It’s bad enough that prejudice creeps into this system at all, but in a death penalty case, sending someone to the gurney without being sure they committed the crime doesn’t seem like a sacrifice we should be willing to make.

MV5BMTM1NTM1ODM0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTMwMzQyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_This issue is explored similarly in another Fonda movie that could be considered a companion piece, released 14 years prior, “The Ox-Bow Incident.” That film takes place in the Old West, but is also about sentencing men to die without being certain of their guilt. It’s a bit less literal than “12 Angry Men,” with it’s colorful setting, but it’s mostly overlooked. It also has a vastly different outcome. If the subject matter of “12 Angry Men” is of interest, then “The Ox-Bow Incident” is also strongly recommended.

“12 Angry Men” is still quite relevant today, as the U.S. justice system hasn’t changed that much in the last 50 years. It’s a film with a simple story, but the complexities of the interactions between people from different spheres of life make it a fascinating watch. If nothing else, if you ever get called for jury duty, hopefully this movie will convince you to take it deadly seriously.

——————————————-

Next up, #86. “Platoon”

MV5BNTU3NzY4ODY5MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTkzNzE1NA@@._V1_SX214_

Your opinion, sir, is irrelevant!

Fellow blog site, A World of Film posted a poll this week asking whether film criticism has become less important. As per usual, I can’t answer a simple question “yes” or “no” and so I decided to answer it in essay form rather than multiple choice.

The simple answer is both “yes” and “no,” but that doesn’t inform anyone of anything.

Let’s look at the highest grossing movies since 2000. In that time, only four of the highest grossing movies were also the best reviewed films out of the top ten for that year by Rotten Tomatoes’ measure. Two of those were Harry Potter movies, then “The Two Towers” and “Toy Story 3.” By another measure, four of the highest grossing films were also nominated for Best Picture that year (The second and third Lord of the Rings films, Avatar, and Toy Story 3), and only one of them won, “Return of the King.” Three of the movies got the “rotten” tag from RT, that distinction going to “Mission Impossible II” and the “Pirates” sequels.

Of course, most people with a great interest in film and film criticism would probably argue that the best films don’t do well in the box office anyway. But that could also just mean that those people are out of touch with public sentiment. Then again, boiling a film’s quality down to a simple number is not going to be particularly informative, helpful or accurate.

That last sentence is an important statement in itself. Does the average movie-going person really care what some person they never met thinks about a Harry Potter movie? Probably not. Whether they’ll see the Harry Potter movie will be based on how much they like Harry Potter, regardless of how well it’s reviewed. Will most people go see a critically acclaimed movie like “Her” because it was nominated for Best Picture or because critics generally liked it? Most people won’t see that movie because it doesn’t appeal to them. People who pay attention to things like movie reviews might see it based on the reviews. Again, that’s not most people.

The average person probably doesn’t see a movie based on how well it’s reviewed. Did people see “Fast & Furious 6″ last year because it got decent reviews? No, they went to see it because they like cars or action movies. The same people will probably go see “Need for Speed” this weekend despite bad press.

But that doesn’t mean criticism has no effect at all on the public. In general, even today’s blockbusters have improved since the ’90s. Just look at some of the big budget movies that came out that decade. “Independence Day,” “Armageddon,” a “Die Hard” sequel. Audiences don’t put up with the likes of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich as much as they used to. Imagine if “The Avengers” was made 20 years ago. What a mess that would have been. That shows that regardless of whether audiences listen to movie criticism, movie studios do. We still have to put up with a Bay film here and there, but for the most part, studios do seem to listen. Also, they all realized they needed to catch up to Pixar because that studio was putting out top notch films every year for most of last decade. The movie gods do hear the prayers of the intercessor critics, and the masses are blessed for their efforts.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are movie snobs, like myself, who see the value of criticism, but still think we are even smarter than A.O. Scott, or Peter Travers. It’s nice to hear an early consensus of people in-the-know whose opinion we respect, since only so much of my hard-earned money can go to the movie theater, but I still like to form my own opinion of everything I see. For people like me, although the traditional critics are helpful, the blogs I read are more personal, and therefore more meaningful.

If I have any criticism for critics (dear Lord, I sound pretentious) I think it’s that they put too much emphasis on trying to quantify a movie’s quality. I know the goal of traditional movie criticism is to provide an objective value system for judging movies. I personally appreciate academic, film school style criticism, but I’m not sure that it actually means anything.

The biggest problem I’ve encountered with that sort of thinking is something I’ve always meant to write about concerning journalism. Objectivity is an illusion. Sure, there are some things that are objectively true, but just about anything that is written or said is filtered through some sort of personal bias. It’s not done maliciously or out of ignorance, it’s just that covering all sides of an issue is nigh impossible for a single person to do. So, instead of attempting “objectivity,” we should instead strive for balance. Balance means we do our best to represent all sides. Maybe we can’t cover everything in a single piece, but we can write multiple pieces or at least defer to someone else who has a different angle on things.

Movies, or any form of entertainment, are similar. Simply, what I find entertaining is not the same as what my coworker or my wife finds entertaining. So for me to tell people that “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” is a great film, doesn’t mean anything without those people taking into account the types of things I like. Most people would not find that movie entertaining at all, and would have fallen asleep or left the theater or decided to switch to an episode of “Parks and Recreation.” That doesn’t necessarily mean the movie is good or bad, but it shows that people are drawn to certain qualities in their entertainment, and not everyone shares that point of view. I didn’t like “Lost in Translation,” but I know so many critics adored it. That doesn’t mean I’m necessarily right or that they are wrong, but we should respect each other’s point of view, to a degree at least. And that’s why discussing opinions is fun.

Since I’ve become a film enthusiast, one of my favorite critics has been Roger Ebert, mostly because I’ve agreed with his philosophy, “it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” I find I agree with his reviews more than others I’ve read, so his opinions have held a lot of value for me.

I appreciate that philosophy, but in my writing, I take that philosophy a step further in trying to talk about representation in movies. It’s still the same philosophy, but I try to add another dimension to his point of view.

To that effect, I can’t tell you what you’re going to think of a certain movie, but I can discuss what message that movie is sending (I don’t care if it’s “Do the Right Thing” or Indiana Jones, every movie has messages, whether they’re intended or not). And in that way, I’m trying to spur this sort discussion with people (who are probably much more well known than me) to try to add a positive influence to the culture of cinema. Knowing that movie studios do listen to critics with a certain amount of clout, I’m hoping the movie gods will hear my prayers and make Hollywood a more welcoming place for everyone. I don’t have some delusion that I have that much influence, but it’s possible someone out there will listen. And there are people whose media presence is both more important and more widely read than mine, and that’s a good thing.

Because there are groups of people who are vastly underrepresented in Hollywood. People of color have made small gains, as evidenced by the success of “12 Years a Slave.” But there’s still a long way to go before there’s actually fair representation. And women are still horribly underrepresented. It seems like there was more opportunity for them 80 years ago than there is now. And then there’s Jared Leto winning an Oscar for playing a trans woman, when there are trans actors out there who could use the exposure much more than he could. It seems like there are more LGB (and even T) people in Hollywood, but they don’t come out of the closet until they’ve already established themselves. The point-of-view all these people offer could be quite valuable to the movie community, and it would be great if they had equal opportunity to display their talents.

So, in that regard, criticism is very important, and we need to welcome as many voices to the table as we can. Though I appreciate intellectualism, and the entertainment industry especially needs it, what it doesn’t need is elitism. It is good to be critical about a film’s technical qualities, such as acting and cinematography because that’s what makes it interesting. But as an intellectual community, it has to go beyond sheer entertainment and begin grappling with the issues entertainment presents.

As TV journalist Edward Murrow said about television, “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.” I think that certainly should apply to movies as well. In that way, critics can be the watchdogs of the movie industry, trying to make it better and preserve the freedom to create as creators see fit.

Criticism is changing, no doubt. Many people won’t pay it much attention, but on the whole, it’s necessary to keep the ship steering straight.

100 Movies … 100 Posts: #88 Bringing Up Baby (1938)

MV5BNzI2ODA0NTUwOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODE3Njk3OA@@._V1_SY317_CR8,0,214,317_This is post #13 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, #88 “Bringing Up Baby”

——————————————-

“The point is I’ve got a leopard. The question is what am I going to do with it?”

And with these words, Katharine Hepburn kicks off a madcap comedy of feline exploits in 1938′s “Bringing Up Baby.”

It can be difficult to talk about comedy, when it’s highly regarded, but you just don’t find it that amusing.

That’s the case with this film for me. I’m not saying it isn’t funny. I am saying I didn’t think it was very funny. That’s not to say that nobody would enjoy it, because everyone has a different sense of humor.

An approximation of Katharine Hepburn's character in "Bringing Up Baby"

An approximation of Katharine Hepburn’s character in “Bringing Up Baby”

And it’s not that I didn’t understand the humor. I understood it perfectly, it just didn’t work for me. Everything Hepburn’s Susan says is incredibly witty, and I wanted to laugh at it. But the way she said things and the situation she said them in and her entire character were so clueless and as we would call it today, ditzy, that it came across as grating rather than humorous. Perhaps she intended to come across as irritating, but she did her job a little too well for my taste, to the point where I found it difficult to enjoy the movie. If I slapped myself in the forehead as many times as I wanted to, I would have given myself a concussion.

And the problem isn’t so much that ditzy characters exist, it’s that they are invariably women, when in reality, men can often be just as dense. It just doesn’t play out that way in most movies.

It goes beyond mere annoyance in this case, because it appears the film was an attempt to be progressive in the subject of gender roles, but as a whole failed on the execution.

To explain, I guess I should tell you what the movie is about.

Cary Grant plays David the anthropologist who is getting married tomorrow to Alice, who is not for the creature comforts of marriage. As she says, “I see our marriage purely as a dedication to your work.” She doesn’t want the “domestic entanglements” that traditionally come with matrimony. She doesn’t want children, but declares that their research and work will be their children. They won’t even have time for a honeymoon, they’ll just come right back to work the day after the wedding. David suddenly doesn’t seem so sure about this arrangement.

But on this day, in a development that’s sure to trigger horrifying memories in academics, David has to play golf with their main sponsor to convince him to continue funding their work.

During the golf outing, David is so bad that he hits his ball onto the 18th fairway from a different hole. It’s there that he meets Susan who walks right up to David’s ball, assuming it’s her own and takes her own shot and finishes her game with it. Of course, the fact that she can’t understand that it’s not her ball no matter how much he tries to convince her drives David crazy. Then she drives off with his car thinking it was her own.

Later they run into one another at a function after the golf game, as Susan is trying to learn bartending tricks and accidentally tosses an olive onto the floor, which David slips on and falls right on his ass. Susan bumps into a psychiatrist, who tells her that because she and David are having constant conflict must mean he has a fixation on her. Great advice, doc. Regardless of how stupid it sounds, that’s effective foreshadowing, which is much more than you can expect from any modern romantic comedy.

The party ends with Susan accidentally tearing apart David’s dinner jacket and David accidentally ripping off the back of Susan’s skirt. So they have to go home early.

Taking a leopard in the car is probably not the best idea. In fact, it might be the worst.

Taking a leopard in the car is probably not the best idea. In fact, it might be the worst.

The next day, Susan calls David to tell him (why he gave her his phone number is beyond me) that her brother sent her a tame leopard named Baby from Brazil to take to her aunt. Somehow she manages to convince him to go on a trip in a car with her and a leopard. Along the way to her aunt’s house, they crash into a chicken truck because Susan was paying more attention to the cat than the road.

Later, covered in feathers with a leopard who’s had his fill of free fowl, David and Susan arrive at her aunt’s house. David wants to have a shower to clean the chicken off of him, so he does. Susan takes his clothes and sends them to the cleaners, and tells them to take their time and there’s no hurry. She does this because she wants David to stay with her.

So now having no clothes, David puts on Susan’s aunt’s frilly robe.

I have read that there is symbolism in this. Susan is taking on the typically more aggressive, masculine role because she took David’s clothes, a sign of his masculinity. David reciprocally takes on the generally more feminine, passive role, at least in terms of the way Hollywood operated back in the ’30s. This makes some sense to me, and it would seem like a movie that intended to challenge the way people think about gender roles in their romantic relationships. Perhaps audiences’ refusal to accept such a role reversal was one of the reasons the movie bombed when it was released in theaters.

Could someone explain to me what the hell Hepburn is wearing around her neck in this cap? Because I just have no idea what it is.

Could someone explain to me what the hell Hepburn is wearing around her neck in this cap? Because I just have no idea what it is.

Susan takes the lead in this film and she’s the one who drives things forward, which shows remarkable strength for a female character, even by today’s standards. She doesn’t have to learn to be aggressive, like many women do in similar films, she just is from the beginning. So, it’s a very interesting and challenging idea, especially for the time in which this was released.

This would be great, except for one line, which halts much of the forward momentum the film tried to achieve in the area of reversing the gender roles. When Susan’s aunt asks her why she sent David’s clothes to the cleaners, Susan says she did it because no one else will love her. There’s not even any evidence to this point that David even does love her, as he mostly seems exasperated at every turn, being taken out of his element and having to deal with a person who constantly confounds him. Even though neediness and insecurity and longing against difficult odds are all innate human qualities, if director Howard Hawks wanted to present a strong, independent woman going after what she wants romantically, then that clinginess seems rather out of character in a way that undoes much of what the film set out to achieve. That combined with the general cluelessness of Hepburn’s character is what made this movie so frustrating to watch. She might be the original manic pixie dream girl.

Of course, at the end of the movie, despite all evidence to the contrary, David declares to Susan that he loves her, and he calls off his wedding. Granted, that is kind of how human romantic relationships often work. Sometimes people see something in a person that they can’t explain, but they can’t deny their attraction to that quality. But it seems somewhat of out of the blue when he says he had never had so much fun in his entire life than when he was with her though the day before, he appeared to be at his wit’s end trying to keep up. So, that didn’t really seem to make much sense. It’s more like Stockholm Syndrome rather than true epiphany.

In my demented mind, it makes me wonder if we can take a different approach than the usual in reading these formulaic romantic movies. That is, these films demonstrate the fickleness with which people approach romantic relationships. In other words, people just go for whatever feels good at the time. For instance David begins the movie with a woman who clearly does not want the same things out of their relationship that he does. But at some point in their history, they must have been attracted to one another enough that they were willing to get married. The ’30s were a much different time than now, but you would have thought they must be attracted to one another for some reason. Then David spends one day with a woman who drives him up the wall, and the next day he realizes he’s in love with her. Even though the credits roll as they embrace, the audience doesn’t know what happens after the story is over. David and Susan don’t seem anything alike, and one would assume such a relationship would be a short, tumultuous one. Thus continues the long-suffering saga of people trying to find someone else they can stand enough to spend an extended period of time together. Though it’s also true that it is difficult to find someone you love enough to stay with, especially for the rest of your life. Basically, I’m saying all romantic movies should be be like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” So, that’s my thought, but perhaps Hepburn has just driven me insane as well.

But as much as Grant and Hepburn might just not be my cup of tea, I have to give props to Nissa the Leopard in her role as Baby. I was completely convinced that I was in fact watching a leopard on the screen. Cats in general are awesome, but this is a fucking leopard. And Nissa had to play not one, but two leopards. There was a part where the cat had to also play a leopard who escaped from the circus, because of course, Susan let it out of its cage thinking it was Baby. Though Baby was tame, the circus leopard was not. That was great range displayed by Nissa. It was truly a performance for the ages, and one that has not been matched by cinematic leopards since. The leopard might have been the best part of the movie, no joke. I can’t gush enough about it.

In another historic moment for cinema, “Bringing Up Baby” is believed to contain the first utterance of the word “gay” in reference to homosexuality. That’s not totally confirmed, as Grant ad libbed the line, “Because I just went GAY all of a sudden!” while he’s wearing the frilly bath robe. Grant himself is rumored to have been bisexual, so it’s pretty likely the word was what today’s audiences would understand it to mean.

A different kind of quack psychiatrist. Get it? Duck. Quack. Ha.

A quack psychiatrist. Get it? Duck. Quack. Ha.

The movie also spoofed several institutions, including those stuffy anthropologists, quack psychiatrists (though the man depicted in this movie would actually be a psychologist, as the writers flubbed the terms), and inept police. In a society in which those professions were burgeoning and underdeveloped, it doesn’t seem like they needed ridicule at the time, as today those sciences still struggle to be seen as credible. In the case of psychology, patients bear most of the brunt of that struggle, though so do fledgling psychologists who have to work to get people to take seriously their very serious profession. Of course, the “quack psychiatrist” speaks with some weird foreign accent like all quack psychiatrists do, especially in these older movies because that’s supposedly funny. With the major problems police forces promote in today’s racial climate, ridicule for their “ineptitude” would seem to be taking the matter much too lightly. So this film’s attempts to skewer those fields seem quite a bit off base.

For a zany, screwball comedy, there’s actually quite a bit here to digest and think about. It moves so quickly that a viewer could easily miss much of what’s happening. People who enjoy films from that era and this style of comedy will lap this up like a kitty with a bowl of milk. But if you’re like me, you might not find it a very pleasant experience.

On a positive note, leopards are the shit.

——————————————-

Next up, #87. “12 Angry Men”

MV5BODQwOTc5MDM2N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwODQxNTEzNA@@._V1_SX214_

United States of Nebraska

MV5BMTU2Mjk2NDkyMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTk0NzcyMDE@._V1_SX214_On Imdb, I saw a thread asking if there were really places in the U.S. like Hawthorne, Nebraska, as pictured in Academy Award Best Picture nominee “Nebraska.”

Let me start from the beginning.

“Nebraska” is about an old man named Woody who received a letter in the mail from a company similar to Publishers Clearing House, saying that he was the winner of $1 million. As we all know, and everyone in the movie knows, this is basically a scam to get people to sign up for magazine subscriptions. Woody doesn’t seem to understand this, despite his wife and sons telling him repeatedly it isn’t real. But one of his sons, David, says he’ll drive him from their home in Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska, where the office is located. He knows his dad is no millionaire, but David is bored of Montana and his job selling stereos at one of those dying home entertainment stores you see in strip malls that you wonder how they stay in business. And he wants to do something nice for his dad and also just get him to shut up, so David decides to take him on the half-day’s drive to Lincoln.

On the way, they stop in Woody’s childhood hometown of Hawthorne. It’s a sleepy little aging farming town that you might pass if you ever take a long road trip, that to you is just one name out of hundreds you’ll pass on the freeway. It might have been a hotspot for industry at some point in its history. Now it’s reduced to the older folks who moved there for the work and then retired, and it’s filled with family diners and the chain restaurants and retail stores that for some reason decided it might be profitable to have a branch there. Their children have all moved away, because they wanted to find a place a bit more lively, except those certain kids who never found their way to college or the military. Mostly nothing happens, but the people there like it that way.

Poor, poor Woody. He's not a nice guy, and would hate to know someone felt sympathy for him. He still has a sharp wit though. In this scene, he's gone and lost his teeth again.

Poor, poor Woody. He’s not a nice guy, and would hate to know someone felt sympathy for him. He still has a sharp wit though. In this scene, he’s gone and lost his teeth again.

When they hear about Woody’s prize, they get excited because mostly nothing ever happens there. Eventually, all the family decides they want to vulture his supposed winnings away from him, though even they probably realize that it’s too good to be true.

But yes, these little towns do exist. Despite what the media and entertainment worlds will have you believe, there is life between New England and LA, and not just Chicago. Maybe that life has a fading pulse, but it’s out there. No, these people don’t care what happens in your big cities. They’re content to know the news around town. Forget MSN and CNN (and the Internet altogether in some places), these folks want to know if the town is going to keep doing leaf collection in the fall. But they might check out the local Fox News station to see if they can mine some material to hound the newspaper about. The most read pages in the paper (yes, they still read newspapers) are the obituaries and police logs. They’re interested in whether anyone they know has died or been arrested.

I know this because I’ve lived in it, and in my road trips, I’ve dropped in on a few these small towns. I currently live in apartments in a college town, where half the population is the students. Most of the businesses where I live are bars and clubs because it’s a college town in the middle of nowhere. There’s also a lot of restaurants. And that’s about all there is. Located next to my apartments is abandoned farm land.

But these small towns do have the most colorful names. Forget Chicago or Philadelphia or Detroit, that’s weak sauce. Check out Horse Cave, Kentucky. That’s a real place. Or New California, Ohio. I wonder how it got that name. Did someone really stop in Ohio and think it reminded them of sunny Cali? They obviously weren’t here in the winter. There’s also Coxsackie, N.Y. I don’t think I want to know why they named it that.

Watch the film. It’s in black and white, which I know is a turn-off to many people, but it really helps capture the dullness and mundaneness of most people’s real lives.

But Bruce Dern’s turn as Woody is pretty awesome. He’s one of those old guys whom you wonder how much of him is even there most of the time, but he’s still got such a sharp wit when you get him to open up.

It's interesting to see Will Forte do something different. "Nebraska" could never be confused for a companion piece to "MacGruber."

It’s interesting to see Will Forte do something different. “Nebraska” could never be confused as a companion piece to “MacGruber.”

Will Forte is a revelation as David. I thought his comedy on “SNL” was mostly hit or miss (with emphasis on “miss”). Here, he plays the straight man very convincingly, and this is a good environment for his dry as a drought-addled desert sense of humor. It’s great when he tells his relatives he’s stuck working at the entertainment center because of the recession, and you just know that isn’t true. This is a breakout role for Forte, as he’s moved on from big, commercial, cornball comedy to obscure, indie, boring comedy. But boring in a good way in this case, if that’s even possible. It would have been nice to see him recognized in this awards season, as odd as it feels to type that.

And don’t forget about June Squibb. As Woody’s wife, Kate, she’s the sassy, dirty old lady, whom all the guys wanted back in her day, taken to a whole new level of wit and raunch. It’s truly brilliant, and it’s great to see her recognized with an Oscar nomination this year.

The comedy here is so dry that it might require a beverage to soothe your parched throat as you watch it, but if you enjoy that sort of thing, this is quite a gem director Alexander Payne has farmed up. It’s slow as a day working retail in a small town, and it’s certainly not for everyone. But personally, I think it’s a shame that it came out this year with such strong contenders for Best Picture, and I don’t want to see anything but “12 Years a Slave” take that award this year. I don’t know that this would ever be a winner, but looking at the winners from the last few years, I think it could have topped them.

If you’re truly adventurous, stop in one of these towns sometime and eat at the local diner. Then just drive around town and check out the scenery. It doesn’t matter which town, they’re all basically the same. But you might just come away with a better appreciation for what you have in the big city.

There’s a whole world out there beyond the metropolitan areas. These little places don’t dot the landscape of America’s heartland, they blanket it. The big cities are the real few and far between spots on the map. Does living in a small town really compare to big city living? No, but the people living there like it that way.