It’s Not a Wonderful Life

It's a Wonderful Life
I’m convinced many Americans – Donald Trump among them – think Frank Capra’s famous film, It’s a Wonderful Life, was a documentary, not entertainment. It has all the elements of Trumpist utopia: a white, Christian, unquestionably patriotic, male-dominated, patriarchal culture where the bad guy gets away with stealing from others, and making himself rich at everyone else’s expense. No one stops him and everyone still lives happily ever after.*

Married women in the film are mostly housewives; those women who work are secretaries and clerks while men are the bosses. There is little traffic: no hopped-up cars, no street racing, no motorcycles or biker gangs. Streets are broad and tree-lined; no apartments or highrises. The pretty downtown would be a heritage district today, frozen in time against modernization and change.

You don’t see teenagers loitering around coffee shops obsessed with their cell phones. Younger kids have jobs and even run businesses. There are no unions. Everyone dresses modestly, clothed from neck to ankle to wrist. Children appear in families without the messy, distracting business of sex (although there is a suggestive kiss in the film). There isn’t even a honeymoon for the newly married couple.

People of colour appear in it only as polite servants, employees or entertainers. From my count only five black people are in the film: the family servant, a couple in the high school dance scene (possibly the same couple who appear on the street in the background of a scene where George and Violet flirt), a delivery person who appears only in the final scene and a piano player in a honky tonk a la Fats Waller. Only Nora, the black servant, has any lines. The rest are mere background.

No Mexicans, Asians, Indians or other ethnicities. No Thai food restaurants or Chinese or Indian, no fast food drive-throughs. The downtown has no graffiti, no litter, no stray dogs or homeless people. You can drink and drive without consequences since the police are aw-shucks-just-folk torn from the set of Andy Griffiths’ Mayberry. There are no drugs, no drunks, no social housing. No strip clubs.

And of course it is watched over by a jovial, benevolent god who appoints a happy, somewhat feckless angel to make sure things go right.** George Bailey, secular at the start, learns to pray by the end. Every time you hear a bell, an angel gets its wings. No place in Bedford Falls for the unbeliever. Or the Jew. Or the Muslim. George prays, muttering his own version of Oh, Father, why hast Thou forsaken me? And he gets results. God is always on hand to absolve the faithful of their folly, just as long as they ask nicely. You don’t even need to believe, just make a show of doing so.

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Wrinkles: a review

WrinklesAbandon all hope, ye who enter here. It’s the phrase that highlights the entrance to Hell in Dante’s Inferno. It could just as easily by carved above the entrances to many nursing and retirement homes. I recalled that phrase as we watched the 2011 animated film, Wrinkles, last night.

Susan thought it the most depressing film she’d ever seen. I rather liked it: it was honest and artistically interesting. But not uplifting, I’ll agree. There is a sense of redemption at the end, but it is not the happily-ever-after sort of ending that most film redemption brings. It’s more of the shake-hands-with-reality sort of acceptance that things don’t change.

From Wikipedia:

The story is set in a retirement home and revolves around the friendship between two elderly men, one of them in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

There aren’t many happy endings in any film about dementia or Alzheimer’s. The 2006 Canadian movie, Away From Her, captured it beautifully and poignantly. The 1981 film On Golden Pond did too, from another angle. But no matter how artistically rendered, it’s an uncomfortable, sad story in any situation.

Then there’s the whole matter of people putting their aging parents into nursing homes. Even when done for the best of reasons – care, safety, oversight, concern, love and the inability of modern, working adults to cope effectively with the demands of an ill or aging parent- it still feels to many of the elderly that they have been abandoned. Shuffled off to wait out their inevitable death away from all the people they knew, the places they knew and the daily routines of their lives to a place devoid of romance, of passion, of familiarity.

Is this what we live our lives for? That question haunts the film.

You can’t feel the same depth of emotion with an animated film, so perhaps it’s the better vehicle for exploring the theme. It doesn’t wrench the tears from viewers the same way human actors can. Still, it has its moments.

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Transcendance

TranscendenceIt’s not surprising that AI replaced the biological form in the popular Frankenstein monster trope. In fact the smart-evil-machine scenario has been done so often this past decade or so that I’m more surprised any film writer or director can manage to give it some semblance of uniqueness that differs it from all the others.

Transcendence tries, tries very hard and almost makes it. But the brass ring remains out of reach. Still, it’s worth watching if you’re a scifi buff because, well, it’s scifi.* And even bad scifi is better than no scifi at all. Well, maybe not the Transformer franchise, but pretty much the rest of it.

More than that, while it doesn’t tread a lot of new ground, it does use a lot of nifty sets and special effects, even if the topic isn’t all that new.

The evil robot has been with us in film for a very long time. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis was the first to portray a sentient robot (the ‘Maschinenmensch’). That robot was created to “resurrect” the creator’s former lover. In Transcendence, the character of Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is similarly “resurrected” but in virtual space: inside a computer. And of course he/it evolves/develops within those confines to something more than human.

Angry non-techies storm the castle with pitchforks and burn the whole place down. Well, okay it’s an underground data centre in the desert and they use artillery, but it’s basically the same thing. It’s a monster movie with CGI lipstick. And better yet, it’s in the $8 bin (with both Blu-Ray and DVD editions in the case…) at Wal Mart. But be prepared to question the premise. And a lot more.
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Mildly Angry Max

Mad Max: Fury RoadThe latest Mad Max movie isn’t so much about Max as it is about the political-feminist message of the film. Max himself seems somewhat perturbed, sometimes cross, but not really mad in the sense of going berserk. Mildly angry most of the time. Grumpy Max.

Not like the original, fast-quipping, fast-shooting, troubled character played by Mel Gibson in the B-flick that went viral back in the late 1970s. The new Max is more phlegmatic. And not nearly as good a shot. Despite some great effects and photography, Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t hold a candle to the originals, mostly because of the thin characters.

Well, Mel Gibson is too old to reprise the role, and his subsequent anti-Semitic outbursts and rabid, fundamentalist Christianity have put him into the “no-film” zone for Hollywood these days. Or at least relegating him to modest roles in films of great mediocrity. But as the original Max, he was pretty damned good in the first three films of the franchise.

Mad Max was a story about a loner trying to survive in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic world. Sort of like the Conan series of films, set a few millennia in the future, with guns instead of swords. It was a wild, exciting, scary place.

The new Mad Max is set in an even harsher version of that world, but one that begs more explanation. And the plot is thinner than a corn tortilla.

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Cowboy Noir

John Wayne

I hadn’t previously considered western movies as film noir – I always thought of them as crime dramas – until I watched The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance over the holidays, perhaps my third viewing of the 1962 movie. The gloomy shadows, the dark sets, the agony of the characters. And then it struck me: cowboy noir.

But why not? Noir is, after all not a theme as much as an atmosphere. As one reviewer of cowboy noir put it,

Noir is like a disease. Its symptoms are moodiness, despair, guilt, and paranoia… The tropes of the Western—sunlight, open spaces, nature—would seem to immune to the noir disease. But make no mistake, the Western caught the disease. A genre that seemed to be the quintessence of American optimism, a genre that seemed to embody the notion of moral clarity, slowly gave way to darker themes and more neurotic characters.

Yet among his eight films chosen, TMWSLV isn’t to be found. In one IMDB list of 100 western noir films, it squeaks in at number 99. In this one and this one, it doesn’t even rate a listing.

Imogen Sara Smith, writing in Bright Lights film journal, 2009, noted,

…westerns have always encompassed more complexity than the simplistic “oaters” made for children’s matinees,2 and after World War II some westerns took on a new tone, borrowing the themes, plots and look of film noir.

For me, it’s a classic, close the being the classic, western and certainly I think John Ford’s best western. Others differ (The Guardian, for example, doesn’t include it in its list of top Western films). Some dismiss it as a failed attempt. Me, I enjoyed it more this time around than any viewing in the past.

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The Last Case of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes. Iconic detective, 93 years old. Tending his bees in bucolic self-exile near the Dover coast. Mycroft gone. Watson gone. Mrs. Hudson gone. Even the band of villains and criminals who made him who he was are gone. All he has left are his memories and his bees. And his memories are failing.

It’s 1947 and the countryside still bears the visible scars of the recent war. Holmes (Ian McKellen) has just returned from a trip to Japan to see a mysterious contact who promises a rare, native plant will help him with his senility. In England, Holmes raises bees to harvest the royal jelly, then touted as a miracle cure, but so far it hasn’t worked. He travels to the far side of the planet to find another cure, but instead is confronted again with his past. A past he cannot clearly recall.

Holmes returns from Japan to tackle his final case: wresting the truth of his last case from the vault of his own brain. It’s a story made famous through Watson’s tale, itself turned into a popular movie in the 1930s (and you get a brief view of that film, with Holmes in the audience smiling wryly at his fictional self onscreen…. the fictional character watching another fictionalization).

This isn’t a film about a new case, or even about an old case with new evidence. It’s about Holmes trying to tell the truth about a case long since solved and almost forgotten. To tell the truth about a case that touched his heart, not just his brain.

Tell it to whom? To himself.

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