Monthly Archives: December 2013

Getting Sucked Up

–A review of This Is The End

 

            The only problem I had was in not taking this film seriously, because I wasn’t supposed to, I guess. This Is The End, starring the latter day rat-pack of Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, and Craig Robinson, is a delicious comedy that moves so quickly and is so densely packed with ideas, it’s hard to believe it’s only 107 minutes long. Even the scenes that are gratuitously violent—and there are a few—seemed like breaks for my much taxed yet entertained concentration.

            The plot is as follows: Jay and Seth are old friends, actors/comedians or writers, reuniting in LA. At first Jay seems like a slacker visiting his more famous buddy (everyone is playing themselves), but really he’s an introvert: he craves down time, video games, weed and junk food. The last thing he needs is to hang out with Seth’s pretentious friends, headed by James Franco, the coolest kid on the block, whose party draws a who’s who of tweenie Hollywood. So, at the party, the likes of Michael Cera, Rhianna, and Emily Watson are present, being requisitely cool, yet patronizing Jay’s outsider vibe cuz he’s a friend of Seth. But the truth is they smell a hater. Craig’s Robinson’s (character?) calls him out, saying Jay is a hipster: someone compulsively “negative” about all the things one is supposed to like if attending parties like this. Actually, Jay is Holden Caulfield transported to the 21st century: he is sensitive, if self-righteous; brave, yet conflicted. Above all, he’s an alienated soul. In an ass-backwards sort of way, the cool people have him pegged.

            The initial drama (and it seems more like drama than comedy at this point) appears to be that of a friendship going south. Yawn. Not exactly a deep premise for a film about people who seem to still be in their twenties—reminds me of a novel I wrote, to be honest. At the party, Seth, a born politician, tries to make it all smooth, but to no avail. He introduces Jay to James Franco, who becomes insufferably pedantic when Jay fails to idealize his home’s artwork. A meeting with the unconvincingly “nice” Jonah Hill is similarly awkward, and before long Jay is looking uncomfortable, desperate to get away from all these sycophants, these successful people. Jonesin’ for a cigarette, he implores Seth to join him on a run to a convenience store. As they walk out, it seems like a friendship-tearing watershed is about to happen, and nothing but pre-movie hype, or leaks from the set or promo department would clue anyone in as to what’s about to happen.    

            Next thing we know a glass wall is being shattered, and fleetingly it seems like a movie cut from the cloth of Crash or Falling Down is about to unfold. Moments later, as a series of blue light beams spear down from above and “suck up” handfuls of extras into the sky, it seems more like The War Of The Worlds is the blueprint. Either way the yawning should stop. A chase is on, with explosions all around. Terrified, Jay and Seth rush back to the scene of the party to cue the film’s first real joke: the party’s still going while everyone is oblivious to the mayhem outside. As Seth jabbers about earthquakes, Jay’s mind is spinning, having noticed the cosmic elements of the attack. He tries to bear witness to what he’s seen, but inevitably, his weirdness is reinforced by his manic explanations, and everyone looks at him like he’s crazy. Predictably, Seth commits the film’s first act of betrayal, joining the others in their dismissing of Jay. But soon there is comeuppance as partygoers hear commotion, step outside and face the burning hills of Hollywood. While some may have thought a South Central revolution has occurred, such assumptions are quickly shattered as the earth opens up, swallowing up most of the film’s cameo stars. Most hilarious is Michael Cera, who seems to enjoy playing a tweaked out superjerk who gets impaled by a streetlamp. 

            Horror film rules: those who deny get wasted, except those who also deny but are meant to learn something life-affirming as part of the story. Next, as the rat-pack holes up in James Franco’s bachelor pad, reality testing begins. It’s OMG time, sprinkled with lots of LOL. First task is to gather food and other supplies, and argue about who gets what. The middle section of the film is a satire upon all things to do with Hollywood and actors, riddled with obscene improv. On the surface, the dick jokes, the homophobic play, and general grossness may seem tasteless or old hat, but the dialogue is inspired lunacy, not so much written as spoken on the fly, as if this was a film made during a slumber party, with the cameras rolling after the actors got high and then stayed up all night. Despite the chaos, a series of themes are insinuated. First is the self-effacing idea that actors are really pussies instead of action figures, and the first lesson observed by all these divas is the importance of not being a fraud. Several scenes follow in which the guys are portrayed as feckless and woefully un-resourceful—unable to share either water or even a Milky Way bar. 

            Jay is the voice of sanity and the film’s moral center, and Baruchel plays this role with remarkable freshness, even charm. He squints, bewildered as his peers flitter in and out of delusion. Jonah Hill says this drama is like a “sleepover”; he’s trying to stay positive, “make this fun”. Jay introduces to their consciousness the possibility that a Biblical “End of Days” scenario is occurring, and likens the blue beams he’s seen to events depicted in the Book of Revelation. The others scoff, all except Craig, who is the next character to manifest a heroic streak. A party/survival scene crasher arrives in the form of Danny McBride, who steals food, water, masturbates on the plants, etcetera. If this is hell, then he’s a devil’s helper, a Caliban taking his revenge on everyone responsible for his lifelong ostracism, about which he expresses self pity with grim, unapologetic delivery. Franco, whose home Danny is shitting on, is the most offended, so next a theme about how society expels the unwanted is played out. In the midst of this, one of the funniest and most clever scenes involves the return of a cameo star. Emily Watson breaks in, looking for refuge. Initially, she is relieved to find familiar faces, but when she overhears the guys talking about rape in the hallway outside her bedroom, she loses it and becomes something like Hermione on crack, taking out a phallic balloon model (of course) with an axe. On the one hand, this scene is an excuse for a few Harry Potter jokes, but it also depicts another aspect of Jay’s outsider morality. In truth, it seems misguided for him to raise the specter of rape, appealing for guys’ sensitivity in light of Watson’s outnumbered and vulnerable status. They, of course, feel accused rather than enlightened, and an important message is sent—albeit through humor—about empathy being lost amid the noise of defensiveness.

            Still, something has been sparked by Jay’s consciousness raising: namely, an attention to ulterior, if not unconscious motives. Soon guys are challenging Jay’s self-righteousness, questioning his self-proclaimed honor, pointing out that he’s been lying about avoiding Seth’s company in recent months. Losing his temper, Jay strikes Jonah Hill, whose “nice guy” quality Jay has always hated and distrusted, and storms out. There’s a nice, incisive moment wherein Seth turns away, hurt but also hapless, hiding. His habit of passivity is likewise being called out, and thereafter a comic drama about denied rage ensues. The comedy takes the lead, so it seems fitting that this theme is expressed through demonic possession, with Jonah Hill performing the parody, first of Mia Farrow from Rosemary’s Baby, and then, naturally, becoming the possessed creature of The Exorcist, hilariously mocking Jay’s Hollywood-taught attempt at an exorcism: “Is it compelling, Jay? Really? It’s not that compelling!”

            These guys have all seen too many movies. Save for Jay, movies are their religion, their only reference points for what is real. As the film nears a climax, Franco’s home is destroyed, and the guys are forced into the streets to survive. Craig plays the hero and attacks the “Red Dragon”, the ultimate villain whose appearance, Jay has foreseen via Bible passages he’s found, strangely enough, in Franco’s home. (side note niggle: is it credible that Franco would own a Bible?) But just as he’s being devoured by the beast, a blue beam appears, and Craig is saved. The others witness this and rejoice, now realizing how to survive this ordeal. But hasty attempts to “be good” aren’t gonna work, no matter how entertaining they may be for the viewer. Heroism, or goodness, must be spontaneous and real. To survive, one must no longer be fake. This leads to another hilarious, not to mention suspenseful finale, in which Franco’s pretensions, his arrogance, lead to his downfall. While being “sucked up” (to heaven, they presume), he gloats at Danny McBride as he begins to rise. Immediately, he is punished for this unsportsmanlike conduct, and is dropped back into McBride’s lap, left to his mercy. Meanwhile, in order to survive, Jay and Seth must resolve their conflict, their flat estrangement, with quick decisions, inspired action, and genuine brotherly love. Do they survive together, reunite for real? Or, do they go their separate ways? You know the answer. In the end of (the day), this is a movie, and togetherness—love—always prevails.

            This Is The End finishes on a cop out note, making a hipster joke out of Jay and Seth’s heavenly ascension to the tune of a Whitney Houston song. It’s a funny scene, successful in beating back tears that might—emphasize might—have been shed in watching this bit climax the film. Yeah, it’s a movie, but it’s a guy’s movie: in the end, what we do is drink beer, masturbate or fuck chicks (or try to, at least), take a hit of something, say fucked up things, and party til’ we drop. BFF.   

 

Merry Christmas Nick

   

 

 

 

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Sealed In The Memory

Now let me turn to another movie, similarly unconscious in its approach, but a movie that for me carries much fonder associations. 1971’s Melody (or Sealed With A Kiss–original UK title) is like a feral child scampering recklessly over its audience. The film paired then-child stars Mark Lester and Jack Wild, sort of fresh from their mainstream success with the oscar-winning Oliver, made three years earlier. Melody is set in contemporary London, as evidenced by an opening credits montage in which a camera pans over the Thames river, heading south towards a slumish neighborhood wherein the action will be set–probably someplace like Battersea or Lambeth. Viewers are introduced to the two male leads who are participating in something called Boy’s Brigade, a marching band. The character of Latimar, played by the angelic-faced Lester, seems sour and out of place. He mutters bitterly about his mother, who signs him up for activities like this without considering his feelings. At the end of the opening scene, said mother comes to collect Latimar and asks if he’s making any friends, at which point a boy named Hornshaw (Wild) opportunistically jumps into the back seat of their convertible. The characterization proceeds: the mother gives Hornshaw, a scruffy Jack The Lad type from the other side of the tracks, a sniff of class disapproval. Hornshaw winks precociously, begs a ride, and generally exhibits the rakish charm for which Jack Wild’s characters were briefly known in the sixties and early seventies. He is Mick Jagger to Lester’s John Lennon. The two boys later become friends, as it seems both are lonesome in their separate and wholly unexpressed ways. Meanwhile, back at the Latimar’s somewhat middle-class home, a rather contrived set of scenes follow in which social ambition, class snobbery, anti-Pakistani racism, and homophobia are feebly satirized. More successful, however, and certainly more fascinating, is the Oedipal drama that unfolds here. Latimar’s mother, who clings to her son in a manner that is subtly indecent, coos over his interests, especially his artwork, which include his debut efforts at painting a female nude. There is a hint of flushed response in the mother, who becomes tongue-tied and clumsy, breaking a model rocket her son has been working on. Young Latimar is passive and uncomplaining in this scene, yet he inexplicably shows his aggression when earlier lighting his father’s newspaper on fire.  

Hornshaw, on the other hand, is strictly working class, and as such–it is implied–is spared such neuroses as those which afflict Latimar. Unlike his budding friend, he is not concerned with individuation; the struggle to become his own person despite the self-serving needs of a parent. For Hornshaw, such dramas are past him, if they ever did exist. Apparently orphaned, he seems to be the caretaker for a grandfather figure who is referenced in the film but not shown. His are the demands of day-to-day life–cooking sausages for his grandfather, cleaning up–interspersed with seized freedoms away from home. Thus, at school Hornshaw is a rebel, and not just against common authority. Throughout the film, Wild’s character acts out an objection to modern education, questioning the utility of Latin instruction (favorite line: “I couldn’t speak to a dead Roman even if I knew the bloody lingo, Sir”); the condescension of student/faculty social activities; the arrogance of state-driven religious instruction. Many of his peers are like him: rambunctious, violent; ever dashing around looking for someone to hit, something to kick at or blow up with a cherry bomb. As a post-mod rocker deprived of a hippy milieu in which to protest, Hornshaw is destined to revolution, even if it’s only with a headmaster’s stolen cane, or a firecracker thrown into the seat of a teacher’s car.

Latimar’s revolt is gentler and more romantic. Thrown into the mix is Melody, played by novice actress Tracy Hyde, who is as beautiful and blank-slate looking as Lester. First, it is he that looks upon her like Romeo seeing Juliet for the first time. For several more scenes, we watch as the two children, both likely aged eleven, possibly twelve, meet each others’ eyes, gaze, and wordlessly fall in love. Significantly, their first proper scene together features them saying nothing to each other, but instead playing their musical instruments in tandem: a recorder for her, a cello for him. It’s also significant that Latimar appears to have abandoned home interests that might be intruded upon by his mother. There are aborted attempts by the two would-be young lovers to connect, but at first it’s the pre-teen peer group that blocks them. After all, the boys still think girls are stupid, school dances are fledgling, painfully awkward events, and as one of the female extras laughingly quips, “I thought kissing made babies!”

Today, this kind of ignorance, or sweet innocence if you prefer, would likely seem unrealistic. Kids of this age group today seem far more, uh, knowledgeable than perhaps their counterparts were forty years ago. Back in the early to mid-seventies, when I first saw Melody, I felt like the characters in the film: gleefully mindless, playful and wide-eyed…unknowing. Of course, I had no idea what to make of Melody‘s various subtexts, whether intended by the filmmakers or not.

The character Melody’s drama seems positioned somewhere between that of the boys. Socioeconomically, she seems aligned with the Hornshaw character, as her parents, a shrill, pedophile-fearing mother, and a beer guzzling, oft-absent father (played amusingly by Roy Kinnear), also seem decidedly working class. Not that Melody seems preoccupied with these curious and largely unexplained elements. Indeed, her character seems the most cheerful–that is, the least disaffected–of all the children in the story, which is perhaps one of the reasons Latimar likes her (“my parents are such a misery”, he later complains). That said, her cheerfulness transforms later in the film to cool defiance, and of the three main characters, she seems the most sexually mature, despite Hornshaw appearing to be older.

The ultimate rebellion is hers and Latimar’s decision to elope, which leads to the climax of the film: an impromptu wedding ceremony, Lord Of The Flies-style, under a railway bridge, with all of the kids in the film acting as witnesses. It seems symbolic, if silly from a practical standpoint, that this wedding takes place during school hours, nearby the school and with all of the kids wearing school uniforms, rather than on, say, a weekend, with everyone in plainclothes. Predictably, the forces of evil–sorry, the teachers–combine with one or two parents, like Latimar’s mother, to try and stop this institution and society-threatening event. The attempt of the baddies fails, naturally. The wedding comes off without a hitch. A great, iconoclastic battle between youth and establishment ensues, which youth sort of wins. Teachers get their comeuppance, and Hornshaw gets satisfaction. But the real victory belongs to young love, which is all Latimar needs. He and Melody escape the scene and disappear into the somewhere-in-London sunset, serenaded by a Bee Gees song on the soundtrack.

Melody is like a blissful dream born of sixties zeitgeist and pubescent wonder: one of my favorite examples of sweet, naive filmmaking that captures a bygone time and sensibility. Once gone from my memory except in fragments, I’d rediscovered the film in recent years on You Tube, and later purchased the DVD, complete with the scratched celluloid that betrays not only the film’s age, but also its discarded, forgotten reputation.

I wish I could be twelve all over again.

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Unconscious Heat

It would not have been understood. My Thanksgiving thoughts, jaundiced as they may be, would have sprinkled awkwardly over the All American ambiance: an afternoon of football, the latest video games, the turkey dinner; the Hollywood movie. I’d stopped by the previous evening for the initial gathering of the clan. My arrival was greeted with good spirits, good-natured yet somewhat edgy verbal jabs. My neo-Hobbit hairstyle would take a hit over the next day or so; so too would my age, now halfway through its forties, but getting an advanced estimate by reps of the younger generation in attendance. It was a loving if unknowing occasion, with tight hugs all around to replace words that might get in the way of the basics. We are all living disparate lives, in truth: there’s a sense that everyone is nurturing ambitious ideas inside while being passingly aware of each others’ trials. The exceptions are those events that become known through soundbites: the busy working life, the tough job, the grades from the last quarter, and most thankfully–the successful operations. We substitute games for conversation, and play it safe with our vanilla “what’s new” overtures. The rooms in which we bond have little room for intimate talk, and in its place we are becoming stranger and ever more bizarre and unconscious in our repartee.

The after dinner mint was the aforementioned movie, much hyped as a comic action film to have us rolling about, guffawing in concert with contemporary pop culture. “We’ve seen it three times!” boasted one viewer, apparently eager to give it a fourth run. The would-be gem in question, The Heat, received proselytizing laughter throughout from guests predisposed to its appeal. However, it was in my opinion an excremental cop adventure; an exercise in casual misandry disguised as light, if vulgar comedy.  As buddy movies go, this flick was not without its social conscience, though it is this very conscience that should cause offense. Sandra Bullock plays a nerdy (but quietly “hot”, of course) and careercentric FBI agent saddled with an obnoxious partner, played by Melissa McCarthy. McCarthy’s character is a cross between Jabba The Hut and Roseanne Barr, and aimed at audiences who have at least forgotten who Barr is. Bullock is a gifted light comedienne of Mary Tyler Moore pedigree, and the juxtaposition of her act against the antics of McCarthy are tolerably entertaining for about a half hour. After that, the movie’s attitude becomes harder to stomach. 

About two thirds of the way through, the movie sort of announces that it has something to say about the mistreatment of women, especially in the workplace. This from a script which features, by my rough count, about a half dozen scenes in which men’s genitals are either shot at, maimed, or plainly insulted. High minded morals/hypocritical low humor, coupled with staggering inattention to irony: sadly, this is a Hollywood tradition, though I can’t remember the last time I watched a movie in which such comic cliches were resorted to quite as often. Then there’s an incongruous scene in which McCarthy’s character callously brushes off a former one night stand after grabbing the man’s face and kissing him aggressively. The joke here appears to be that she is an unlikely manizer. But what else is the point, I wonder?

Now, let us pause. Had I given voice to any of the above opinions at any time during the holiday festivities, then two things would have occurred: firstly, my comments would have been drowned out by the teasing over my use of unnecessarily 50-cent words like misandry (BTW: merely the analogue of the popularly-known word misogyny); secondly, I would have been taken to task for being ill-humored and over-analytical. “It’s only a movie,” some say, implicitly disrespecting an entire medium. I obviously disagree, and I’d put it to my nay-sayers that if The Heat had instead made light of violence towards women, especially sexualized violence, then each and every one of them would have thought it the cinematic atrocity that it actually is.

But the blinkered political correctness doesn’t stop there. Also of note are the racial demographics depicted. By my observation, there are three male characters in The Heat (out of many) who are not portrayed as being either villainous, stupid, or feckless. There is the Latino supervisor of Sandra Bullock’s character, a more or less decent, if disapproving man; a charming, if benign African-American character played by Marlon Wayans, who appears to have a crush on Sandra Bullock (this plot point goes nowhere–an indicator of scenes being cut, maybe); and a comic, though street-smart drug dealer, also African American. All the other men: White, Irish, or at least European-looking, are buffoons or villains. Again, if those demographics had been reversed, I’m convinced that many would and should complain, light comedy or not.

Full disclosure: a backdrop of this latter reaction is that I have been largely unexposed to the opposite trends which have no doubt persisted for decades. Though I know from childhood that Westerns have traditionally given a raw deal to Native Americans, for example, I have not followed the racial-profiling trends of action or action/comedy films nearly as much over the last twenty to thirty years. This is mostly to do with taste. Since becoming a discerning viewer, I simply have not patronized action movies with any kind of regularity, so I have not observed the raw deal that minority actors have gotten through movies with titles like–come to think of it–Raw Deal.

Regardless, this issue is a beta element, as psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion would have said–it is meaning drawn from a thin pastiche of life. The bigger issue is that of fragmented discourse in all units of society: across social groups, between branches of government…within families. The first pair of arenas are big sandwiches to bite into. Closer to home, I have to wonder, if privately, what the rules are for the youngest and, in all probability, least conscious of observers. At some point over the holiday, the youngest member of the dinner gathering, an 11 year old who seemingly enjoyed The Heat, learned that he would not be allowed to watch Monty Python’s classic Life Of Brian (admittedly, not a “light” comedy) because–get this–it features nudity. I held my tongue. Not my place, and all that. I guess the biases of this society are reflected in such moments, or else implied by a ridiculous movie ratings system. So, imagine the memorandum from studio heads to producers, directors, and writers: “penises can be blown off as long as they are clothed during the process.”

 

 

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