Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mask

I like to coordinate themes between Eye of Polyphemus with Apocalypse Cinema whenever possible, so when The X-Files episode “The Post-Modern Prometheus” came up over there, I knew I should review mask over here. The episode features a deformed young man who is obsessed with Cher because she loved a deformed child in Mask. If you are an X-Phile, please check out my thoughts on the episode. Here are my thoughts on Mask.

Mask gets high marks from me. It is a blatantly manipulative film in terms of tugging at your heartstrings, so much so that if the actors could not sell the material as well as they do, Mask would wind up no better than some sappy Lifetime movie of the week. But Cher, Eric Stoltz, and Sam Elliot are all wonderful. If Mask does not stick with you for days after watching it, you have no heart.

Stoltz plays Rocky Dennis, a teenager afflicted with the rare disease Craniodiaphyseal dysphasia, which causes the growth of calcium deposits in the head and face. We are informed right off the bat the growths are putting pressure on his brain, so Rocky is not expected to reach adulthood. All right, he is definitely not going to survive the film. See what I mean by emotionally manipulative? Rocky has a close knit support network, including his free-spirited, though drug addicted mother, her biker friends, and his best buddy with whom he plans a motorcycle tour of Europe after high school graduation.

Rocky is nothing but virtuous. He is smart, kind-hearted, and patient with a sardonic, but still gentle sense of humor that wins people over when they give him a chance. The problem is most do not. Rocky is met with fear and pity. The only new relationships he makes during the film are with those who want to pick his brain for their schoolwork and blind kids who cannot see his physical appearance. More manipulation, that. Rocky is nigh perfect; everyone else is so shallow, they cannot get passed his face to value anything else.

There is a lot of truth to that. We live in a beauty obsessed culture. Someone like Rocky would likely hide himself away from most people, particularly if he indulged the inevitability of his short life expectancy. It would be easy to fall into the mindset of thinking it is not worth suffering through what is, unfortunately, the natural reaction of people to things we do not find aesthetically pleasing in spite of whatever virtues it may have. Call it one of the inherent cruelties of life.

What elevates Mask beyond a preachy film about a completely without other fault deformed kid abused by the bigoted masses is the realistic way his small circle of associates handle circumstances. Though depressed and drug addicted, Rocky’s mother goes the distance to see to his physical and emotional well-being. At one point, rocky is depressed because he sees his classmates having fun in romantic relationships, so she finds him a pretty hooker. He does not indulge, but the act demonstrates his mother does her best to see to his normalcy, even though her flawed nature often makes her go about it all wrong.

As the film progresses, so does the gulf between Rocky and the people around him. He feels the need to get away from his mother as she becomes more overwhelmed by her demons. He is motivated by tough love. Rocky becomes the most popular member at the camp by helping all the kids who cannot see his appearance. He falls for a girl, Diana, played by Laura Dern. Diana, of course, can appreciate Rocky’s inner beauty because she cannot see his outer ugliness. His mother considers rehab, but his best friend moves away, ending their plans for a trip to Europe and Diana’s father forbids him to see her. Just when things look the bleakest for rocky, he dies in his sleep.

You can see most all this coming from the very beginning, but it still sucker punches you in the gut as you watch it unfold. Fate can be very cruel when one is born, and life is not any more merciful as it goes along. It is nice to see a film in which a character struggles against the poor hand life dealt him, without much hope of better things to come, because of the flawed, but genuine support of a small circle of those who love him unconditionally. Mask is, ironically enough, a lovely movie about ugly things. I strongly recommend it.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Happy Gilmore

Why do I keep doing this to myself? I must be some sort of masochist to go back to the bone dry well that is Adam Sandler comedies for a drink. Surprisingly enough, Happy Gilmore holds up much better than most Sandler films. I am trying to be nostalgic about in my review. In 1996, his anger management impaired man child routine was still relatively new. Any comedian in his nascent movie career is bound to start with low brow efforts which are guilty pleasures. The big problem with Sandler is the poor hack is a one trick pony. Fortunately, Happy Gilmore is the best time he performed the trick.

Sandler plays Happy Gilmore, a blue collar loser who dreams of playing professional hockey, but lacks the skill. He inadvertently discovers he has a knack from driving a golf ball when he takesa bet with some movers who kicking his widowed grandmother out of her house. Gilmore begins taking driving bets with other golfers to earn money to save his grandmother’s house. He catches the eye of former pro golfer Chubbs Peterson (Carl Weathers) who convinces Gilmore to go pro.

What we have is a square peg in a round hole plot in which the immature Gilmore, fantastic knack for driving the ball he has, does not fit in with the PGA tou. He does bring in the young crowd, so the powers that be reluctantly tolerate him. He makes an enemy in the smarmy Shooter McGavin (Christopher McDonald) McGavin is an amusing antagonist, though one who engages Gilmore too often in the sarcastic remark department in which he is outclassed. The conflict of Gilmore improving his golf game in order to beat McGavin would have been sweeter had Gilmore not already gotten the best of him in other areas.

Happy Gilmore mixes a lot of vulgar sex jokes and slapstick humor with some incredibly absurd elements. It is the absurdity which saves the film. His grandmother is trapped in a slave labor nursing home run by the hilariously sinister unaccredited Ben Stiller playing the mustache twirling villain to a tee. The famous fist fight with bob barker is the biggest highlight, but it is followed closely by Gilmore’s ’Happy place” featuring the lovely Julie Bowen in her underwear.

Happy Gilmore is a predictable brain cell killing romp that could have been written by a thirteen year old. The movie rests on several hilarious scenes and the hope that sandler’s shtick has not worn thin on you yet. A little of said shtick goes a long way, indeed. Happy Gilmore is better than you probably remember, but still only for when you feel the need to go comedy slumming.

Rating: *** (out of 5)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dead Poets Society

I have been incredibly rough on the recent films I have reviewed. To avoid the reputation of a grumpy reviewer writing with poison pen, I am going to review one of my favorite films of a all time, Dead Poets Society. it was a joy to watch again on a sleepless night.

Dead Poets Society qualifies as personal favorite in what is a formulaic genre. You have seen the story a hundred times before. Rich, uptight kids at a prep school get a new teacher who inspires them to rebel against conformity so they can find themselves. Their rebellion, which we are supposed to cheerr, leads to tragedy as one kid cannot escape the path laid out for him and makes a drastic choice. The teacher is blamed for the consequences of the kid’s action and fired. The students stand up for him in solidarity as he is forced to leave. The end.

If I sound dismissive there, I am not. Dead Poets Society may be one of many films of the type. It is probably not the best, either. But it is the version of the story that is foremost in my mind. There, it is better to me than it probably is to other fans of the genre.

I think it is a generational phenomenon. Every generation of kids has their coming of age films about teenagers in love, struggles with authority figures, and finding their place in the world. Viewed cross generationally in comparison, those films are bound to be up and down in quality. But on a personal level, this is my movie about finding my own voice. It speaks to me. Therefore, it is good, even if it is a paint by numbers story in which events are products of the drama rather than drama itself.

Sure, it is a given the new teacher, Mr. Keating, played by an unusually subdued robin Williams, is a free spirit who will run afoul of the powers that be. Of course his students will slowly grow to rebel against the expectations of the school administration, their parents, etc. most definitely said rebellion will lead one kid to decide he would rather die with the slight taste of freedom he has experienced than go to military school like his father wants. Yes, Keating will pay for the boy’s suicide. Yes, his students will stand up for him anyway.

Also assured is that I watch Dead Poets Society, predictable as it is, as hypocritical as it is with the students conforming to Keating’s style of rebelling against conformity, with as much enjoyment as I did back in 1989 as a child stuck in a fundamentalist Christian school with very little encouragement to find my own voice. That is the baggage I bring to the film, and that is why I love it.

I realize Dead Poets Society is idealized to the point of melodrama. It is not true that there lies within all of us a Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Yeats, Wilde, or any other writer or artists whose work will be immortal. Most of us could not pen an episode of Two and a Half Men for that matter. What happens when you have gone too far down that road and finally realize it? To put it bluntly, there ain’t nothing wrong with being an accountant or selling real estate and yes, even practicing law like I eventually chose to do. Every now and then, it is good to be reminded there was once a time when much more seemed possible.

Rating: **** (out of 5)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Fight Club

I am a later comer to Fight Club. I did not see it until buying the DVD on a whim in 2003. Somehow, I also managed to avoid the spoilerr of Tyler Durden’s true identity-- how I managed that is a mystery in itself--but it came as a total shock. Said shock made the movie a novel experience. I had to watch again to look for clues for the truth laid throughout. They were indeed. But after scouring the film to find the pay phone accepted no incoming calls and a bus passenger bumped into Durden, but did not apologize like he did after bumping into others, I find the repeat viewing value of Fight Club lacking.

Let us get something straight right off the bat: I do not relate to Fight Club in the slightest. I do not feel trapped by the middle class notion of manhood. I am not angry that I am not a rock star or famous baseball player. I do not believe God has it out for me. Chuck Palahaniuk, upon whose novel the movie is based on, rages against the inherent cruelties of life--other people pigeonhole you, getting the necessities of life means getting a job you likely hate, and bad things happen regardless, among others--and comes across looking like a whiny child, as do many of his characters in Fight Club.

There is a certain awareness of that fact. There are several instances after a fight in which the combatants look at one another as if to ask, ’What were we fighting about again?” But there really is not enough of that to save the film from its inherent philosophy that destruction is liberating.

We are talking about destruction on all levels. The Narrator, who is not given a name, breaks himself down indulging his insomnia, faking deep personal problems so he can finally cry at 12 step program meetings, form Fight Club rto beat up other men and eventually become a terrorist movement to satisfy his need to ’destroy something beautiful.” Marla, played by Helena Bonham Carter, is a severely damaged, suicidal woman who still maintains a stark air of self-abuse even when her death wish subsides. Then there is Durden, played by Brad Pitt. He is the Narrator’s unrestrained id. Everything the Narrator would like to be, but his pesky ego keeps restrained. Durden is the ultimate destructive force.

What that can best be defined as is nihilism. The notion that these enlightened souls have found nothing as meaning in this dehumanizing consumer society. They congratulate themselves for achieving this intellectual epiphany that appears to have escaped the rest of the sheep, and declare an all out war on society as a result. It is done in a celebratory tone, as well. The Narrator is a mild mannered white collar worker who used to spend time thumbing through catalogues until the excitement of Durden’s free spirit attitude captivated him. As Durden’s schemes become more violent, the Narrator still goes along even though he clearly has moral issues. In other words, the ego is not surpressing the id. Let immorality reign, people, because life has been unfair!

While I assume I am going against conventional wisdom Fight Club is great as an earnest study of the suffering of modern masculinity, I think it fails on that level because masculinity is not suffering that brutally. Or, at the very least, not suffering because of the consumer culture. Political correctness and feminism are more likely culprits. Nevertheless, adopting an anti-materialistic philosophy, then morphing it in a violent crusade for no discernible no purpose is an incredibly dumb message.

Conversely, if you take Fight Club as a farce on the rebellion of men against consumerism--considering all parties wanted the movie to be a hit, it is not a stretch--then it is passably entertaining. Yes, I am killing it with faint praise. The self-aware looks certain characters give each other at the absurdity of their own actions are too far and few between to consider Fight Club a satire rebellion against society.

Fight Club is, however, a masterfully made film. I praised director David Fincher for the far superior Se7en. He utilizes the dull, shades of blues and grays in Fight Club as effectively as in Se7en. The script by Jim Uhls is tight, progressing at a steady pace in spite of the pretentious material. Norton turns in a brilliant performance as a somnambulistic cubicle drone caught up in something far beyond his control. I am not a big fan of Pitt or Carter. Both their reputations as sex symbols are not well earned as far as I am concerned, but they do not ruin it for me, either.

Fight Club should definitely be seen at least once. Once will go along way unless you buy into the film’s pseudo intellectual message. Lord help you if you do. The characters go from the polar opposites of anti-materialistic free spirits to storm troopers ready to tear down all that is sacred within the space of an hour without the slightest hint of self-awareness on behalf of any of the players involved. I need to call that satire in order to give it a decent rating, so I am. Though I am being generous in doing so.

Rating: *** (out of 5)