Watching Ourselves and the Oscars – Part 2

Why Beasts of the Southern Wild should have won Best Picture

By Craig Joseph

(Quvenzhzé Wallis)

When Tim proposed that we each post about the film we feel should have won Best Picture, I realized I was woefully behind in my current movie viewing.  But who needs to spend $25 on a ticket and popcorn when I have free nostalgic movie dates with a hunky Minnesotan each week from my own sofa?  Thus, I sped to the store and grabbed the first nominated film I could (I had seen NONE of them), so, by default, Beasts of the Southern Wild gets my vote.  And let’s be honest.  Did anyone expect me to choose other than the low-budget art film with a child star whom no one’s heard of?  C’mon.  Thankfully, I’m spared embarrassment; it didn’t suck.

Most impressive is how the film reflects on the term “beasts,” serving up an extended metaphor, visually and conceptually.  Initially, we’re inclined to believe that “beasts” refers to animals with whom Hushpuppy connects in her bayou community; a coterie of creatures inhabits the impoverished backdrop of her life, yet the ways she examines, handles and interacts with them suggest a compassion for and connection with nature.  In fact, this kinship is powerfully underscored by editing that links her outburst against her drunken father, Wink, with the unleashing of a terrific storm that destroys the community – and liberates more fearsome beasts, the aurochs, who speed toward the Bathtub with fierce intentions.  With little dialogue, actress Quvenzhane Wallis conveys both Hushpuppy’s wonder and horror at the notion that she has these creatures and elements at her behest.

An extended central sequence encourages us to see the denizens of the Bathtub as “beasts.”  Wink is certainly no charmer; he likes his drink and is borderline abusive, verbally and physically, to Hushpuppy.  His closest neighbors recover from the flood by drinking themselves into a stupor and almost drowning.  No one seems to mind the squalor in which they live, and they take an almost foolish pride in living on the “wrong side of the levee,” which they – like savages – bomb to draw salt water away from their homes.

Just as we’re hoping Hushpuppy escapes, though, the Bathtubbers are evacuated to a clinic and subjected to betterment and socialization efforts.  In a brilliant sequence, we’re left wondering if the good, clean folks from the big city aren’t the most bestial and brutal we’ve encountered yet, removing Hushpuppy and kin from a life of harmony with nature, interdependence and community spirit – squalid though it may be – and engendering conformity, disconnection and muted spirits.

The film comes full circle with Hushpuppy – escaped from the clinic – facing down the aurochs, who’ve arrived at the Bathtub.  Again, her connection with beasts serves her well, as she telepathically intuits that they mean her people no ill.

It’s a beautiful scene of peace, coming as it does only minutes after the two human communities fail so miserably in their attempts to understand and live alongside harmoniously.  In this way, the film poses interesting questions (not without resonances to Hurricane Katrina) about our obligations to the natural world and one another.  Where do our efforts at civility actually make us less human?  Is there a wildness to human nature that actually enables us to live more in accordance with the way we’re designed to live?  And where is the line between being a human and devolving into a beast?

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Reaction to Police Academy 3

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By Craig Joseph

I really tried to like this movie.

I knew that my dislike would be chalked up to film snobbery, but that argument doesn’t really hold water, given some of the barely B-level horror films I claim as my friends.  Others might assume that I was lying in wait, hoping to exact revenge for Tim’s lackluster impression of the Oscar-winning Network, but retaliation isn’t really my bag (not publically and consciously anyway).  And a small minority of you may have suspected that I – per usual – would be unkind to any sequel, but come on; I can rattle off several sequels that were better than the originals: The Godfather, Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Babe: Pig in the City. Enough said.

In the end, Police Academy 3 dug its own grave.

First off, any film that gives its special “and starring” credit to Bobcat Goldthwait is doomed from the start.  The movie suffers from the “Steve Urkel” syndrome, allowing a barely amusing, but highly annoying character (who – in this case – is not even understandable) to hijack large amounts of screen time while leaving several other characters undeveloped.  The filmmakers were already trying to do too much, bringing back the original gang AND trying to introduce us to a new class of trainees.  I wasn’t looking for Chekovian inner complexity but, for example, time that could have been used to develop Fackler and his wife’s conflicts at the academy was given over to one more scene of Zed tormenting Sweetchuck (and me).

Second, I assumed that maybe – just maybe – Tim was recalling the series as a whole, remembering this installment glowingly based on the strength of its predecessors.  So I watched the first two as well (see, I tried – I really did!).  They are marginally better movies, but the franchise is tired on its third run around the track.  Jones still makes cool noises.  Check.  A few obligatory Callahan boob jokes.  Check.  And the little Black one.  Ha ha. Yes. She’s still loud and commanding even though she normally has a squeaky little voice.  But we still don’t remember her name.  In the end, Back in Training really has nothing new to offer.

Third, still trying hard not to be predictable, I assumed that maybe the movie had nostalgic value for Tim, so I pulled out Airplane, a similar-genred favorite from my youth.  “Perhaps,” I thought, “this isn’t as funny as I remember it – and then I can forgive Tim for having the cops on his list.”  The problem is: Airplane IS funny.  Still.  It’s got slapstick, screwball, a Lassard-type doctor, cameos by several stars and a great ensemble cast.  BUT, it’s also a trenchant satire of disaster films, full of brilliant wordplay and actually has a few dramatic stakes.  At no point in time did I ever believe – or care – that Lassard’s academy was going to be closed.  And the academy doesn’t have the Beaver’s mom speaking jive.

So, yeah, I don’t like this movie. And applaud Tim’s choice not to watch it again.

 

Police Academy 3: Back in Training

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By Tim Barlow

When I was a kid, my Grandpa would call the house, and when he got on the phone with me, he would pretend he didn’t know my name.  He would say, “Why hello there, George, how are you?”.  My name is not George.  And I would say inbetween uncontrolled giggles, “Oh hello to you as well, Sam, I’m great!”.  His name was Ed.

During the summers growing up, my younger sister and I, would go to my Grandparents house to stay for a week.  They lived about 6hrs from us, and so we would meet my Grandparents half way, and then they would drive us back to their old, run-down ranch house on Gunn Rd., the same house where my Dad and Aunt grew up.  I would spend that week exploring their huge backyard filled with wild blackberry bushes and old rusted out cars and tall grasses, perfect for staging elaborate battles between the army men they kept around for my visits.  I loved that big backyard; stray cats, wild chives, even when it gave me my first bee sting, it was nothing a cold piece of steak to reduce the swelling couldn’t fix, and I’d be back out back again soon.  But after dinner, when it was too dark to play, there would be a nightly movie, accompanied by ice cream, and the pick would always be a slapstick comedy – Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and on more than a few occasions, one of the Police Academy movies.  I loved watching those movies.  But after a few more years the week-long visits stopped.

For one Christmas my Grandparents got me mine own VHS copy of Police Academy 3: Back in Training.  It was rated PG, and I remember there being a little controversy around it not being G.  But I watched my movie anyways.  A lot.

I still laugh at stupid slapstick humor.  I still laugh a lot, when people get hurt, not badly, just a sting. I play soccer in an adult league on Saturday mornings, and last week, one of the other guys took a shot to the nuts, I was keeled over dying of laughter while the other (more adult) players tended to their fallen comrade.  My Dad is the same way.  Watching the Home Alone movies during the holidays is a spectacle to behold.  Don’t even get us started on Jackass, we cry, we get the hiccups, our sides hurt – love of physical comedy, love of slapstick, it’s as a part of my heredity as high blood pressure.

For this week’s movie, I actually broke the rules and decided not to watch it.  I know, I know, that’s kind of the whole point, but I just couldn’t do it.  I justified the decision at first by arguing that all the plot points are seared into my brain so there was no need to rewatch, which is true, but the truer truth is that deep, nope not even deep, mid-way down, I know that Police Academy 3 is about as terrible a movie as I could have picked. I’m absolutely sure that Craig will eviscerate it during his review, partly because he told me so, but also because that’s probably what it deserves.  But I need this one to stay whole.  I need Mahoney to always be charming, and Jones’ voice sound effects to always be incredible, for Bubba Smith to still be a Goliath, and Callahan to still be a babe. I need the scene where Commandant Mowser gets his eyebrows ripped off to still be hilarious.  Or where Jones uses his hand as a periscope.  Or when Cadet Sweetchuck discovers his roommate is Bobcat Goldthwait.  All of them.

I don’t want to remember that house and time spent on Gunn Rd with my Grandparents as anything other than magical.  I don’t want my mind to try to to figure out all the possible reasons for why it was run-down or why I stopped going – I don’t want those memories to be anything other than golden, just like those of the great cinematic triumph, Police Academy 3: Back in Training.

 

Watching Ourselves and the Oscars – Part 1

We at Watching Ourselves are not so enveloped in our own personal trips down memory lane to completely ignore film’s big night.  So, and with the full acknowledgement that this is publishing a good two weeks late, here is our version of a response to the Academy Awards.

Why Zero Dark Thirty should have won Best Picture.

By Tim Barlow

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Zero Dark Thirty deserved Best Picture because it didn’t patronize the audience.  But I’d like to start by briefly discussing why (I believe) it did not win.  After its initial screenings and release, Zero was receiving a lot of praise and Oscar buzz, including assured predictions of future Best Picture glory.  But then something happened.  Politicians began to decry the film’s vivid inclusion of torture.  They began issuing press releases about these scenes and the film’s indirect assertion that it was through information initially gathered during such interrogations that eventually (after many years and being combined with other, non-torture derived, intelligence information) led to Bin Laden.  And this in turn created quite a bit of fodder for our 24hr news cycle, right about the time when academy members were casting their ballots.  A vote for Zero is a vote for torture, so let’s all put our heads in the sand.

Politicians weren’t denying that the U.S. did torture detainees, they just don’t want it to seem like relevant information to Bin Laden’s killing came from torture, as if taking away the effectiveness, suddenly makes it less repugnant.  As if getting Osama in the end would justify torture.  Maybe some information derived from water-boarding and other methods, led to Osama, maybe it didn’t, but the bigger question is whether getting Osama was worth the means to get there. That is what this film asks both of the country and the individual, and does so without showing its cards; it’s just a shame that some felt they had to protect the public from asking such questions.

Zero Dark Thirty deserved Best Picture because it didn’t allow a story to be turned into legend.  When I first heard about this movie, it seemed too soon, didn’t it?  The operatives involved are still alive and working.  Most people who would see the movie in theater, can remember where they were when they heard about a plane crashing into The World Trade Center.  Even the administration behind the actual mission was still in the White House.  It just felt too close, still, and for that reason not appropriate.  But in the end, the opposite turned out to be true.

Argo and Lincoln both examined bright spots in America’s past. Even Django essentially rewrote a portion from our country’s darkest chapter and turned it into something we can more easily digest; at least those racist rednecks got theirs. But Zero’s recency shines a light onto the here and now.  No time has past for the uglier parts to gradually be forgotten.  Memories haven’t faded or stories tweaked each time they’re told, softening the edges over the years into a warm glow.  Targeted killings don’t deserve to have lily white heroes and stark clear lines between right and wrong, the kind we so often need for memories to make sense.  Zero, because of its recency, and therefore its necessity for gritty honesty, is a (much needed) tour of the sausage factory.

Zero Dark Thirty deserved Best Picture for convincingly depicting individual determination, realized.  This year’s films largely featured driven, self assured, protagonists, moving the plot along whether others were with them or not.  For Lincoln it was passing the 13th amendment. For Jean Valjean, it was living a life worthy of the 2nd chance he had been given.  For Tony Mendez it was getting the hostages out alive.  For Georges, it was taking care of his dying wife.  Individual determination. Perseverance. Passion.  You can rest when you’re dead, kinda stuff. But the scene that actually sealed my pick for Zero is actually its last scene, where our protagonist, Maya, is sitting alone in a plane, after spending 12 years completely focused on her mission to find and kill Osama.  The pilot says “You must be pretty important, having this whole plane to yourself”.  He then asks, “Where do you want to go?”. Maya, doesn’t respond and just sits looking forlorn, and lost.  There may have been a single tear, but honestly I don’t remember, and it’s really not necessary anyway, because the point has already landed with the subtlety of a sledgehammer.  Where can you go?  What can you possibly do, now?  Shouldn’t anyone else be here with you?  What do you even know how to do, besides what is now, done.  This scene happened to focus on someone who had made their life’s work, killing a terrorist.  But maybe it could have been about a guy who finally gets the business recognition he’s been working towards.  Or a successful athlete who retires.  This scene, with its haunting simplicity, perfectly captures the feeling when the only door you’ve been knocking at for so long, finally opens.

Zero Dark Thirty deserved Best Picture for reminding me of the power of the individual.  I haven’t had a lot of hope in America lately with our drone attacks, a politicking well-lobbied congress, endless wars, etc… but Zero reminded me that we are a country made up of individuals.  Maya unflinchingly pursued with dogged determination her goal of finding Bin Laden.  The movie paints a clear picture that without her, we would still be looking.  America is the result of our combined individual passions and drives, and our country’s values mirror our own.  I may not believe in torture, but I believe in safety and freedom from fear.  I may not believe in targeted killings, but I was pretty scared and angry after 9/11, and I’m not sure what I would have done if you had put me in a room with Bin Laden and a gun in my hand.  So when I feel trapped and hopeless, it will be important to remember and ask how much do I care?  Is it enough to change?

So that is why Zero Dark Thirty was robbed.  Also, I kind of have a crush on Jessica Chastain.

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Reaction to A Room with a View

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By Tim Barlow

Let’s cut to the chase, I enjoyed A Room with a View, a movie I had never seen (or even heard of) before it showed up on Craig’s list.  But I liked it.  Filled with quirky odd, almost Dickensian characters, whose eccentricities seem to operate independently of any back story we, the viewer, are privy.  And these characters are brought to life by a cast chock full of bona fide legends:  Dame Judy Dench, the dowager, the countess of Grantham herself, Maggie Smith, Denholm Elliott (Marcus Brody in the Indiana Jones series), a deliciously dandied Daniel Day Lewis, a not-yet-ruined by Tim Burton, Helena Bonham Carter, I could go on, but suffice to say, this cast is deep…and British; I half expected a young Hugh Grant to show up at some point serving tea and stammering on (charmingly of course) about a carriage ride.

And this VERY British cast delivers what can only be described as a classic Shakespearean-inspired romance plot, filled with missed connections, changes in heart, will they/won’t they glances, knowing flirtation, a current fiance (who is just all kinds of wrong), pleads to follow your heart, and so and so forth.  And all this seems to take place in between Italian holidays and waiting on the staff to bring tea ‘round.  On the surface there’s no, or at least there doesn’t appear to be any political agenda.  There’s no controversy.  Nothing which could cause an argument in the car on the way home from the theater.  Just charming English innocence, the kind that would have a scene where three men (including a priest) swim naked and wrestle like carefree Greeks in a hidden forest stream.  You just don’t get movies with that level of innocence, anymore.

But this surface innocence, again, delivered flawlessly with well-timed (extra-dry) Queen’s-grade wit, hides a commentary far more stirring, and every bit appropriate to life today.

There are several societal mores showing up in this movie’s cross hairs,  but the one that hit home most for me (and perhaps for Craig as well), is our tendency to not only act with our head rather than our hearts, but to hold such analytic and pragmatic reasoning as a more valuable condition.  As if to say, that to act with impulse and desire and earnestness is for the heathens or the naive, not a proper gentleman or lady of good upbringing.  Within the film, George Emerson discovers this truth (after witnessing, what can only be describe as, a truly odd Piazza murder sequence), and it drives him to evolve from mopey to passionate in the first act.  This same struggle of the heart eats away at our heroine, Lucy Honeychurch more slowly, causing complications right up until the end.  Here it is summarized with clairvoyant purpose by George’s father, in a line delivered to Lucy early on: “At the side of the everlasting “why?”, there is a “yes.”  I love that.  Not only does it serve as a direct challenge to my need to know and evaluate all the outcomes before making a choice, but it places positive action on equal footing as analysis.  Beside the “Why”.  Not after, not because of, beside it, there is a “Yes.”

Maybe that’s not really what he meant at all, and more research is required to truly know if I’m doubling down on a point that was never intended.  But I think, for this once at least, I’ll leave it there.  So, no further questions, gov’nor.

A Room with a View

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By Craig Joseph

I encountered this gem during an E.M. Forster reading binge as a junior in high school.  (The fact that I had an E.M. Forster phase explains why I had no girlfriend, leaving more time for obsessions with obscure novelists.)  This was my first brush with a comedy of manners and, besides codifying my desire to act (thanks to the brilliant characterizations turned in by Maggie Smith, Daniel Day Lewis and the cast), the film also instilled a love of anything clever enough to mock society’s foibles and still remain instructive.  Identifying with almost every character in the movie, I found A Room with a View to be a cautionary tale, one that still makes me laugh at the TV screen – and my own reflection in it.

What I Learned From:

Cecil Vyse: “People are more important than things.”  I remember a late-night conversation with a buddy in which we bemoaned the fact that we had walls lined with art, dressers lined with trophies, and accolades for all of our achievements – but that we had no friends.  The priggish and disdainful Cecil reminds me that one can’t love the products of humanity without loving individual humans – in all their crudeness and frailty.  When I’m tempted to turn my nose up (as those who accuse me of elitism know I can do), I’m reminded of Cecil’s brilliantly inept first kiss with Lucy, hampered by his damned prince-nez, and encouraged to seek out true intimacy and connection with others, rather than hiding behind books and art. (Note: my own first kiss was tragically similar; her earlobe has never been the same.)

Charlotte Bartlett: “Martyrdom gets you nowhere, and it’s annoying as hell.”  My biggest laughs still come whenever the dowager cousin proclaims how unimportant her own needs are, while guilting everyone into fulfilling them.  I love the extended sequence seeking change to pay a driver, which results in the moneyed folks borrowing from the servant just to shut Charlotte up.  I’m ashamed to admit I’m like her (though there are worse fates than being Dame Maggie).  I act as though it’s not polite to ask for what I want, but that it’s then acceptable to passive-aggressively resent others for not being able to read my mind.  I know.  Crazy.  Paging Dr. Freud.  This movie chastens me.

Lucy Honeychurch: “My brain lies to my heart.”  The sequence of “Lucy lies” in the last half hour is an acting tour de force, with Helena Bonham Carter’s every look, gesture and sigh working counter to the words coming out of her mouth.  It forces me to ask how often the same is true of myself.  I’m my own worst enemy where following passion – be it romantic, vocational or otherwise – is concerned, and the rationale I use to “talk myself down” from what I intensely desire is often laughable.  But it’s also destructive; the less I heed the passions inside me, the less realized I am as me: a bad friend, an inattentive lover, a grumpy family member and an uninspired worker.  And so, it’s sometimes important for me to turn my thinking faculty off and get carried away by Merchant Ivory films in lush locations with sumptuous costumes and happy endings.