Reaction to Time Bandits

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By Tim Barlow

Lets get one thing out of the way, this is a very creatively envisioned movie, from the script and plot to the sets and costumes, Time Bandits feels original and imaginative.  And despite dipping into some familiar waters: time travel, disenfranchised children escaping home, Sean Connery in a leather skirt, etc…, it still brought a lot of new and fun (and lets be honest, weird) moments to the screen. From the surface level like John Cleese’s take on Robin Hood to broader themes of theology and addiction to technology, Time Bandits is more than just a straightforward children’s adventure or late-night comedy.

But, and this is a Mix-A-Lot approved one, I didn’t really like watching it, in fact it took me two tries just to finish it.  And yet, I think I could like it, as in eventually, as in, I don’t right now.  Okay let me explain, so as someone coming into Time Bandits for the first time, and seeing names like Terry Gilliam, Michael Palin and John Cleese attached, I had certain expectations.  But Time Bandits isn’t Monty Python, or Holy Grail or Life of Brian.  The humor was more subtle.  There were underlying themes (or what I took to be themes) and they felt obtuse and nuanced.  Almost like Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal or Weezer’s Pinkerton album, Time Bandits shows elements of Gilliam and Palin, but seems separate from their other collaborations, unique, and a little darker.

And it was because of this nuanced layering that I struggled during my first viewing. But again, maybe I could learn to love this movie, to appreciate the subtler humor.  I could get better at recognizing and making sense of the underlying stream of themes.  For example, I knew while watching that this movie has more to it than just dwarves fumbling through periods of history using a map of creation’s loopholes.  I knew that it was more than just a kid escaping his boring life in the suburbs.  But I only got a taste, and that taste left me with more questions than answers.  Are they implying we’re all just dwarves fumbling around in a cosmic struggle we don’t really understand?  How come the kid seems to “get it?”  And what’s all this about the role of evil?  Is evil just an experiment?  Or is it a forgotten accident as is implied at the end?!  Goddammit!  My effing head hurts trying to understand this crap.

When you come across these efforts by creatives, the ones that just don’t fall in line with everything else, it can feel as though this is their true feelings despite being the outliers, this was the pet project, the one they had been dreaming about, the one they made because they wanted or needed to, not because it would sell. And that’s both the allure and the problem with these pet projects – I can’t stop my brain from trying to figure out the point.  What are you trying to tell me?  It has to be important or you wouldn’t have deviated from the system, so just tell me!  TELL ME!

So in conclusion.  This movie took me two tries to watch.  It seems like there is more to it that just adventures through time with a team of thieving dwarves.  Needs more viewing, but don’t want to.  Not Holy Grail. My head hurts. Sean Connery in a leather skirt.

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Time Bandits

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By Craig Joseph

There’s a moment in Time Bandits when Randall and crew are dressed as dragons, performing for King Agagmemnon, and robbing him blind.  As the music speeds up, they gather all the gold and jewelry in the room behind a huge tapestry of sorts that they’re draping over themselves and then – suddenly – disappear.  Robbery successful!  The guests applaud, but are soon befuddled; the “magicians” are not reappearing – and neither is the treasure.

When my younger brother and I shared a bedroom, we kept ourselves up many nights, playing imaginary games.  One of them was Time Bandits, which often involved Aaron (as Randall) crawling under the bed (our version of the time portal) and emerging to find what new epoch he’d entered, inhabited by some historical character that I’d concocted (the green-bearded witch was a favorite).  But every evening ended with Aaron re-creating the above robbery, except when the tapestry (his blanket) dropped, the time bandit was still there.  With his pajama pants down around his ankles.  Blowing a huge fart into his brother’s face.

Gross?  Yes.  But this is what we loved about the movie.  It was wild, chaotic, unpredictable, bawdy and ribald in ways that we probably didn’t even understand.  It was like someone had taken all of the crazy little boy energy and imagination that was bottled up in our room and turned it into a movie, one that we could watch over and over everyday on HBO.  A bad guy who blows up his minions, splattering their guts all over the camera lens?  Awesome!  A midget who bites the head off a rat?  Radical!  Shelly Duvall getting clobbered by people falling from the sky every time she’s about to kiss the guy from Monty Python?  She was just going to kiss him, right?  Right?

The problem today is that I’m watching this movie and my adult brain thinks there is more going on.  Before the bandits even appear, the script seems to be making a strong critique of modernity.  Delightful Kevin lives in his room, a shrine to the ancient Greeks, the Middle Ages, heroism and chivalry.  Meanwhile, his loutish parents are glued to TV game shows and measure life’s validity by their ability to have the latest gadgetry in their kitchen because the neighbors do.  I’m expecting to see something I missed as a nine-year-old: a trenchant satire of our addiction to technology.  Except for some ideas muttered by the villain, later, though, the idea gets lost.

I also begin to follow some thoughts on theodicy vis a vis the Supreme Being chasing after his beloved map.  But the initial complex questions that the film sets up about God’s motives toward humanity and God’s relationship with evil aren’t even given layered answers.  We’re asked to settle for a Ralph Richardson cameo (he’s great) and some clever quips and one-liners.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not asking Time Bandits to be a thought-provoking film.  But why put this stuff in there at all if you’re not going to see it through?  Why not let it be what I always thought it was – a bonkers kids’ movie?  Instead, it now seems only a partially successful hybrid beast of some sort.  It makes me disappointed.  And I want to fart in its face.

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Reaction to The Blues Brothers

by Craig Joseph

I’m not sure how I’ve made it this far in life without watching The Blue Brothers.  It’s a massive hole in my movie-viewing history, so I was surprised – upon watching it – at how familiar the whole thing felt.

Perhaps it’s because the film is – on one level – a love letter to the great city of Chicago, my cherished home for ten years.  As Jake and Elwood drive through the Maxwell Street market, eventually dropping in on Aretha Franklin’s soul food establishment, I recall my own days walking down those sidewalks, years after the market had closed, wishing I’d been around to experience the diversity the market played host to.  The film – unexpectedly – allows me to do that.  The brothers’ cop car careens past the Picasso statue in Daley Plaza, triggering memories of a much calmer evening when I sat under that sculpture in the rain, soliciting the attentions of a grad school crush.  Murals appear and I scream at the TV: “I rode my bike past that every day!”  John Lee Hooker strums his guitar and I’m back at a dive bar on the South Side, where I first heard him play.  My twenties – a formative season – come rushing back to me – and I realize how the geography of the Second City is tied to important moments, decisions and turning points in my life.

And yet the whole thing is unfamiliar, too, and frankly, a little weird.  It defies easy genre classification.  It’s sort of a buddy film, and not quite a musical, but also feels like 15 or so Saturday Night Live sketches strung together into a wildly coherent whole.  The humor ranges from slapstick to puns to satire and is punctuated with full-on action sequences and no less than three car chases.  And let’s not forget that Carrie Fisher keeps turning up with increasingly deadly weapons of mass destruction.  WTF, indeed.

But, come to think of it, Chicago is weird.  There was a nun at the rectory on my street whose scowl could make the toughest gang member slink back into an alley.  Mountebanks do drive their megaphone-outfitted cars down your street, advertising their latest humbug – and your whole neighborhood does pay a couple bucks do get in.  And I did live two floors up from a guy who collected Third Reich memorabilia – yes, that’s right, an Illinois Nazi.

If it’s possible for a film to do so, The Blues Brothers feels like home to me.  Sweet Home Chicago.

And it feels like a celebration, which, I’m guessing, is why it remains on Tim’s list years later.  A celebration not only of a city, but of great music, of a great comic talent now deceased, of all the things that make movies fun to youngsters – one-liners, lots of cars getting destroyed, singing and dancing, surprise celebrity cameos and the like.  It’s a really wonderful, still timely, piece of entertainment and – in an age where other films seek to pretentiously do more and fall flat on their face – that is not a bad thing at all.

The Blues Brothers

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By Tim Barlow

Blues Brothers is a childhood movie of mine, and (like Robin Hood) there was a period where I watched a dubbed to VHS version of it every single day.  If I had to guess, this was probably around the age of Kindergarten or 1st Grade, so a little later in life than my time spent with the Disney classic, but regardless of less unstructured time on my hands, as soon as school was over, Blues Brothers would be there waiting for me when I got home.  I loved it.  But in hindsight, Blues Brothers seems like a strange movie for a Kindergartner to like that much.  I’m not sure I really understood it, and a good amount probably flew right over my head.  Although, but in a completely different way, I’m not totally sure I get it now, either.  And maybe that’s a good thing?

Watching it for the first time in over 20 years brought back a lot of memories.  Scenes long-since forgotten coming right back to me.  Catchy songs where I still knew every word.  Patiently waiting for one-liners I knew would come eventually: “Did ya get my Cheez Whiz, boy?”  But it also found me taking a deeper look at what was actually happening.

In terms of comedic styling, Blues Brothers freely blends styles, often within the same scene.  Jake and Elwood Blues leading a police chase crashing through the inside of a suburban shopping mall (absurd) while making deadpan comments about the various stores and products (dry).  Jake and Elwood exchanging glances as they walk past a horrible statue of Jesus on the cross (dark), and then the next moment being slapped around by a nun with a ruler, eventually leading to Jake falling down the stairs (slapstick, and then physical).  And perhaps the most genius part of it all is that none of these moments seem to acknowledge or depend on each other.  There’s no wink, there’s no gesture to the audience, a bit happens and then it moves on.

Then there is the matter of the music and dancing.  All of which is executed flawlessly and genuinely.  Everything else in this movie, ranging from the police force to “Illinois Nazis”, are in this movie’s comedic crosshairs, except for the music.  The music is treated with reverence.  There are great songs from the Blues Brothers themselves.  Fantastic guest performances from the likes of Aretha Franklin, James Brown, John Lee Hooker and Ray Charles and a wonderful soundtrack running behind any remaining moments.  Looking at this now, it’s clear that the music was done out of a place of love.

The way these two pillars, the comedy, which in one form or another is almost constant, interacts, almost earnestly, with the music which is genuinely performed and thoughtfully curated, gives me the distinct impression of originality.  Not a musical.  Not a straightforward comedy.  And maybe that’s part of why I loved it as a kid.  Too young to bother asking why I liked something, or what genre it really was, or about the crazy plot or ridiculous car crashes, young enough to just sit back and watch a movie that had it all: dance sequences in city streets, buildings being blown up, and a nun hitting men wearing dark suits and sunglasses.  And this originality and resistance to being pinned down, this blend of sincerity and irreverence feels current, despite being almost 35 years old, leaving me with the lasting impression that time has been surprisingly kind to this classic movie from my childhood.

Reaction to Shattered Glass

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By Tim Barlow

I was watching a TEDTalk the other week, and the topic was “How to Spot a Liar”, and the speaker, Pamela Meyer, started off her talk by confirming that all of us lie.  Quite a bit, in fact.  She quoted one study that showed that people lied an average of 3x within one, 10 min conversation.  But what really stuck with me was something else she said: “Lying is a cooperative act – A lie has no power by its mere utterance; it’s power emerges when someone else agrees to believe the lie”.

So not only do we all lie, but we, all of us, enable each other to lie.  And this seems to be one of the core tenets for “Shattered Glass.”  Stephen’s coworkers, editors, and even his readers seem all too willing to engage in the lies, because why?  Because he entertained?  Because they felt sorry for him? Because he was socially awkward or seemed too innocent or too fragile?

Furthermore, something I noticed in myself while watching was how much I was hoping he would get away with it, that he would somehow wiggle off the hook even as it became more and more clear that his lies were crumbling around him.  So even I, in the audience, was enabling the lie to perpetuate.  But why?  Is it because it’s just so hard to watch a person be told that they’re not trustworthy?  Is it too difficult to call out someone’s flawed character?  To see their face as they make sense of what’s happening.  Is that what I was afraid of?

It’s funny how some of the messy things we all do, are some of the hardest to discuss.   We all poop, we all fart in public, we all get jealous and competitive with those we love, we all lust, we all lie, so why isn’t it easier to discuss these things if everyone can relate?  Is it an unspoken mutually symbiotic relationship?  I won’t tell if you won’t?  Or are we afraid that when we try to acknowledge the fact that we all lie, try to bring it out into the open, everyone else will deny it?  Oh, you lie?  Really, you go number 2?  No, I would never do that!  What’s wrong with you?!  So maybe it’s just better to pretend that we’re all lily white?

Of the many people I know, Craig is one of the best at speaking his mind.  Sometimes I’ve marveled at his ability to have the tough conversation, the one that most upper midwesterners would try with all their passive hearts to avoid.  Is it this trait that draws him to “Shattered Glass?”  A cautionary tale, warning him to stay vigilant?  Or does he envision himself as the editor, Chuck Lane, or the other journalist played by Steve Zahn, who valiantly cut down the web of deceit when everyone else is fighting to let it just go on rather than get messy?  Does Craig want to be the new star of “Lie to Me: Canton” only on Fox?  Or, like his reaction to “Capote” does this all appeal to him more from a motive re-examining, creative writing bent?

There’s something here.  I’m not sure what, but there’s a reason we all lie and help others lie while simultaneously claiming that honesty is the most important thing in a relationship.  There’s something ticking uniquely in those who want to stop the co-enabling cycle.  I’m not sure what.  But maybe I’ll just leave it there — I’ve asked a lot of questions and I don’t have the answers, so having you read on would really just encourage me…

Guest post – Shattered Glass

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By Beverly Joseph

When Craig invited me to write a review, I enthusiastically agreed.  And then I began to quake; I haven’t written anything for publication since shortly after my college journalism years.  Irony:  the movie is about journalism.

     “Shattered Glass” refers to the rapid rise and fall of Stephen Glass, The New Republic’s  reporter who was lauded for three years until it was discovered that he had fabricated 27 of his 41 celebrated stories.

     The movie’s opening scene finds Stephen wandering wide-eyed around a busy political memorabilia convention.  His “voice over” leads us to believe that Stephen is practicing the good observation skills every good reporter needs:  “I record what people do.  I find out what moves them, what scares them.  And I write that down.  That way they’re the ones telling the story.”

     Innocent enough, but notice the dynamic among the staff at TNR , who inadvertently become accomplices in the success of Stephen’s deliberate fantasies.  There is a certain subculture in a newsroom (as I remember from my days on The Daily Athenaeum staff) that is a curious mix of camaraderie, competition, and cooperation.  The crazy hours help nurture camaraderie, a meager supply of editorial positions foster competition, and the shared goal of getting it right/accurate/ true,/first necessitate cooperation.  The movie makes sure the viewer understands that triple-checking the facts is a driving force at a respected publication.  So how did these young hot-shot journalists, required to vigorously fact-check each other’s work, miss the unending stream of falsehoods that characterized Glass’ writing?  Alas, it was because they found him so entertaining.

     Thirty years prior, journalism curricula were just beginning to include ethics classes.  One of the motivating issues was the early blurring of the difference between news and entertainment.  Could anyone have foretold that in thirty short years, a very young reporter would  invent news by catering to “what moves them, what scares them?”  Irony #2.

     Back to the opening scene.  Stephen reflects that journalism is full of “showoffs, braggarts, jerks . . . always selling, always working the room . . .  The good news is:  reporters like that make it easy to distinguish yourself.  If you’re even a little bit humble, a little self-effacing or solicitous, you stand out.”  Irony #3:  Stephen isn’t proclaiming modesty; he’s describing his strategy for taking fellow staffers’ eyes off fact-checking and focusing them on how likable he is.

     There’s another scene that I hope is an accurate depiction of how things really happened when Stephen Glass was fired.  Chuck Lane, then TNR editor, is back in the offices at night to announce to Glass that he must leave immediately.  It has just hit him that Stephen wasn’t just sloppy in one article, and as Stephen leaves, Chuck goes to a wall displaying several years of the magazine’s monthly issues and begins pulling down the ones containing Stephen’s articles.  He realizes that most of the articles were not verified and he stoops down with a tall stack of magazines in his arms.  Stephen returns and begins to lie in order to gain Chuck’s sympathy.  Chuck stands firm and Stephen finally leaves.  I thought Chuck would leave the spaces in the display empty out of disdain for Stephen, but he begins to return the issues to their places.  Very soon, it becomes clear that he has taken a step of courage to own up to the magazine’s culpability, to recognize the three years of deception as part of the publication’s history, and to instruct his staff accordingly.  A bit of moral rectitude welcomed both then and now.

Shattered Glass

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By Craig Joseph

“He handed us fiction after fiction, and we printed them all as fact.  Just because we found him entertaining.”  Ten years have passed since I saw Shattered Glass, and still, Chuck Lane’s words in the film’s final moments prove fertile ground for my thoughts.

Back then, Lane’s indictment and Hayden Christensen’s disarming portrayal of Stephen Glass convicted me of my own duplicity.  I never deceived to the same degree, but I was pinned to my cinema seat with remorse as the credits rolled.  Like Glass, I’d been given a high level of responsibility at too early an age and I knew how to use my clout and perceived infallibility to skirt questions about how I did my job.  My eye for detail and reputation for moral-ethical fervor made me the last person anyone suspected of dropping a ball or cutting a corner.  My time in the theatre rendered me a “charmer”: I could be all things to all people and no one knew that the life I was living in one corner was completely inconsistent with what I was professing in another.  And I got away with everything, because I was so likeable, entertaining and dependable that no one could even conceive of me pulling any shenanigans.

The difference between Glass and I?  I never get caught.  So thank God for didactic movies and my capacity for remorse.

From today’s vantage point, Lane’s words still give me guilty pause (I am the world’s best non-Catholic Catholic).  Seconds after screaming at the television set (“How could they let him get away with this?”), I’m punched in the gut by the fist of complicity and I double over thinking of the many arenas in which I’ve participated in (and still allow) willful communal blindness.  The church in which our senior pastor got away with all sorts of bad behavior, chalking everything up to “God’s will” and painting any naysaying as “an act of Satan.”  Or the numerous workplaces in which we’ve refused to cut a person lose who wasn’t getting the job done because she’s everyone’s best friend.  And the community theater world!  A place where toxic and emotionally unintelligent volunteers can poison the water undeterred because everyone’s afraid that no one else will put in the same time and hours if they’re forced out.

I am part of the problem – guilty of harboring the Stephen Glasses of the world.  But why?  There’s a part of me – despite my bravado – that still hates conflict.  There’s another part – despite my self-protective cynicism – that still wants to believe the best of everyone.  And even when I do realize that we’re being duped, sometimes – embarrassingly – I don’t care enough about the larger organization or institution to speak out.  I just shrug my anti-establishment shoulder (with chip firmly entrenched) and mutter, “Dig your own grave, suckers.  If you don’t care enough, I don’t either.”

The problem is that I am now responsible for the very thing I grieve: the erosion of trust in the church, the media, the government and (fill in the blank here) among my generation.  I can’t very well blame “the man” for not policing those under him because – guess what? – I’m part of “the man” and I’ve been letting shit slide, too.

I suppose this is the beginning of an eloquent argument in praise of prophets and whistleblowers, but I’m well over my 500 words.  Thanks, Chuck Lane (and I love you, Peter Sarsgaard).