Another case of “Does the End Justify the Means?”

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In the Cider House Rules, we see, behind the curtain of controversy and hot-button issues, a discussion about a very foundational part of human social life: rules. When are they good? When are they harmful? Can they be abandoned or broken in order to bring about good (or, what seems to be good)? The film considers all of these questions, but posits very few clear answers.

I must admit, it is hard to take a very critical stance, especially one in opposition, to the message that the film makers may be trying to send. The cinematography and sound track (though not ground-breaking or innovative) are gorgeous and really lulled me into feeling the warmth of the Maine countryside or the cold stench of physician’s ether. The vivid scenery, delicate music and lively actions of the children at St. Cloud’s severely contrast the wretched internal conflicts taking place in each character. Much of it, I would say, centers on the question of rules: when may they be broken, when must they be followed? In the case of Dr. Larch, following the rules is not a real concern. Abortion is illegal, but he performs many abortions in order to bring about what he thinks is good, the ability for women to choose if they want to have a baby. (Now, all reading should know that I find this sort of mentality deeply disordered and wrong. All life has value, not just ‘convenient’ life; still, the debate is not about abortion but rules.) Dr. Larch found it all right to ignore the rules because, as he says, “What has the law done for anyone around here?” To Dr. Larch, everything is about utility. Whatever is around must be useful, must provide some useful function. To him, Homer was a useful assistant and useful student to train in medicine, because no one was ever going to adopt him. The rules, for Dr. Larch, are optional.

We can see a similar trait in Arthur Rose. Arthur, the leader of the apple-picking crew, questioned the rules posted in the cider house. In fact, no one ever cared to look at the rules, and Rose never knew what they were until Homer read them aloud. The cider house workers, upon hearing the rules read by Homer, were either appalled that such common sense was written down, or amused that they had already broken other rules every day. For Arthur, cider house rules made by people who do not live in the cider house are nonsense. The workers will make their own rules each day, not somebody from outside trying to take control.

Dr. Larch and Arthur have much more in common, however: both are afraid of facing personal pain. Dr. Larch, when Fuzzy died, changed the story for the young man digging the grave: Fuzzy was adopted, and that is what we must tell everyone. In Dr. Larch’s mind, it would be far too difficult for the children to face the reality of death, so twisting the truth becomes the only option. Again, consider when he forges Homer’s medical resume: it would be too difficult to face a change in leadership at St. Cloud’s, so dishonesty is chosen instead. In Arthur’s case, having his daughter prosecuted for the death of her incestuous father would be too much trouble and too disgraceful; instead, Arthur changes the story to make it seem that he committed suicide.

I understand the position from which these people are making dishonest choices against the law, but I still cannot agree with them. I disagree not so much because “it’s illegal” or “against the rules,” but because breaking these rules requires the characters to sweep a lot under the rug. Arthur says, “Sometimes you gotta break the rules to set things straight.” Yet, is life set straight by keeping secrets? Is acknowledging the truth, even though it may be painful, not a better option than constantly covering one’s own tracks? It is true that Lt. Wally may never find out about Candy and Homer’s affair, but does that erase it from history? These characters must face the truth about themselves, that they mess up at times, and that not everything can be covered up and hidden away. Honesty is the best policy, and I really think that, while bearing many good intentions, the characters in Cider House Rules lack that key quality.

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Brits in the Buff

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NOTE: I don’t condone the topic of this film, male strippers, especially ones with indecipherable British accents who use too many British idioms. Below is what I tried to pull from the wreckage of what I think is a very weird movie indeed. END NOTE.

Some movies, such as The Full Monty, despite their rather strange topics—in this case, male strippers—do manage to somehow communicate a deeper message or theme. In The Full Monty, it is apparent that the film makers are trying to communicate a message about men trying to be men, attempting to redeem themselves and prove to those around them that they can stand on their own two feet. For the most part, we see this struggle in each of the main characters, although each is fighting a different battle.

In Gaz, the main protagonist and instigator of the Chippendale imitators, we see a multitude of conflicts. In his attempt to find work and make money, Gaz is not only trying to climb out of unemployment, but he is also trying to prove himself to his son, who is not always so proud of his father (frankly, I too would be a little freaked out if my dad took me to a Chippendale’s—I am on Nate’s side). Additionally, Gaz is trying to show his estranged wife (and her boyfriend) that he is not a worthless father, and that he can provide for himself and his family. Yet, Gaz is a proud man who will not settle for a job that is handed to him, that is just like everyone else’s job: he wants to climb straight to the top in a stunning effort of manliness and courage. It is really an impossible task, and, as we see with Dave, it’s much easier to settle for the cookie-cutter minimum wage job than to put your pride and personal reputation on the line.

Now, with the character Dave, we see not so much a battle to overcome the obstacles that others put up, but the barriers that he himself has constructed. Dave is a man who doubts himself—his worth, his ability, his image. Because of his chubby stature, he is self-conscious of his ability to dance. He doubts that anyone would want to see his body, either. As a result of all these self-conscious doubts, he believes (without good cause) that his wife is fooling around with another man more attractive than he. He says he’s been on diets over and over again, but then one night we see him sneak away to the shed to eat a candy bar and try out the miracle “cling wrap fat burn.” Embarrassed about his body image, Dave is determined to hide from his buddies and avoid going back on stage. Only a word of affirmation from his wife would get him back on stage with the rest of the team.

The other members of the team show similar stories. Gerald cannot bring himself to tell his wife that he has been laid off, and lies to her about it for six months. After she finds out, and many of their possessions are claimed by the bank, Gerald, as the rest of the gang, must prove himself to his wife and dig himself out from a financial pit. Lomper, the man whom Dave saved (eventually) from suicide in by carbon monoxide poisoning, has a very low self-esteem, and deems himself worthless. Successful at pretty much nothing except playing the bugle, he must prove to himself that he has worth and can make it on his own (and make friends as well).

Behind the weirdness and oddities of this film is a story about down-and-out men proving their ability and their worth to themselves, their families and their spectators. The Full Monty, though a funny movie about amateur male strippers, is really about the proving of one’s self after a hard fall, overcoming the obstacles (some from others, some from oneself) and being able to put away shame and comfort in the name of success.

Roeper: “This Article is Top-Notch”

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In the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, we are introduced to Thierry Guetta, also known as “Mr. Brainwash,” an odd, though sincere character who, in spite of himself, merits a measure of respect for his achievements in the realm of street art.

The movie itself is a thesis documentary, although finding the message behind the eccentric characters is a challenge. As a foundation, we must look at the film’s topic—street art—and how it is treated.  In this film, street art (graffiti, to most people) is considered as legitimate an art form as any other more professionalized trade, despite its obviously illegal nature. Consider the opening scenes, which feature various artists leaving their marks across the city: some are caught by police, most sneak away unharmed, but all are projected as enjoying themselves and truly creating an artwork. The upbeat ballad “Tonight the Streets Are Ours” by Richard Hawley makes it difficult to see these people as vandals; instead, the viewer is taken into the world of street art as an insider, as someone who can look at the lives of the artists from a perspective that ignores rigid compliance with the law. This initial set-up removes any obstacles the viewer may have with the illicit nature of the artists’ work.

What thesis is Bansky trying to make about Thierry? From the beginning, viewers are introduced to Thierry as one of their own, a common man with perhaps a bit of an obsession with home videos; still, what father has not taken countless shots of his family? Thierry’s sincerity and curiosity with filming make us appreciate his “normalness”.  In short, he’s a lovable guy, though maybe a little bit annoying at times. Thierry is a fanatic, a fan-boy for all things street art, and (later on) an artist himself. Yet, throughout the film it is never his art that is in center focus, as we may expect: in truth, Thierry (as “Mr. Brainwash,” MBW) was a terrible film maker and a mediocre artist. He made many original works, but a good number seemed to be of the same style as his contemporaries. He was hardly an innovator: Thierry was simply following in the footsteps of the artists he admired. What is really in focus is the way in which Thierry took his place in the world of street art. According to his fellow artists, he basically skipped all the years of mastery and “training” that a normal artist would undergo, and instead jumped right into a premier spot as a budding world-class artist. In a normal world, Thierry should have failed miserably, but his years of watching other artists, including Bansky, made him fearless in his efforts to go all-out. In reality, much of his success was accomplished through ‘hype’, giving homage to his code name, Mr. Brainwash. Repetition, confidence and the appearance of a world-class art show (as well as publicity from his famous friends) made Thierry’s exhibition a success.

But, is that the end of the story, that one man became a celebrity overnight through publicity and hype, despite his ignorance on how to run an art exhibit and his reputation as a bit of an idiot? Perhaps Bansky is trying to send a deeper message about the nature of consumerism and fashion trends. If one man, who really is just a mediocre artist, can become a sensation overnight, selling a million dollars of art in one week, who is the real idiot? Is the value of a piece of art only as much as its demand? Do we consumers reduce “good art” to that which is most popular, most sought after? If this is the case, then anyone can make great art, with enough publicity and hype. If good art is determined by the “buzz” around it, then artists are nothing but celebrities in a popularity contest. I think Bansky is pushing us away from the publicity act that street art has become, pointing back to its roots as an underground movement. True street art is done in the night in order to make a statement, even though the artist will never make a dime for his work.

Thierry Guetta took his passion and made thousands of dollars from it by convincing people that his art really was worth thousands. Is the joke “on” anyone? Is there a grand joke behind it all? Whether he was a master mind or a lucky idiot, Thierry really does deserve respect for what he accomplished, all of it starting with curiosity and a camera.

Dun-na-nu-na-nu-na-nu-na BATMAN!!

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“You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

The sights, sounds and excellent acting in The Dark Knight make for an extraordinary movie that rises far beyond the expectations put toward a DC comics story made into film.

First of all, the sounds in The Dark Knight: the orchestral music serves to match and instigate mood during much of the film. Sad, morose sounds accompany tragedies in Gotham City, while moving, quick-paced music synchronizes with fight scenes, even matching beats with punches or other actions. When the music falls from harmony and begins to create cluttered sounds which make heartbeats race and muscles tense, trouble is sure to be around the corner, ready to surprise. In this film, I did not notice a lot of background or ambiance noise that would make the story realistic or available to audience experience in the same way that The Breakfast Club or Little Miss Sunshine do. Rather, the powerful sounds of explosions, guns and punches serve to keep the movie moving at a pace much faster than anything in real life. Still, the presence of punches and gun fights do not take away from the intimacy and the delicate treatment of sound. Batman’s growl is clearly heard and nicely contrasted with the quiver and trembling lip smacks of the Joker. The Dark Knight is by no means a drama; yet, it retains enough gracefulness in regards to sound to keep it from the realm of “shoot-‘em-up” films.

 

Second, the colors in The Dark Knight provide an absolutely stunning visual masterpiece. Consider, first of all, the difference in colors between Bruce Wayne’s time spent as Batman and his time spent as Bruce Wayne, billionaire playboy. As Batman, the landscapes take on an especially dark tone, perhaps representative of the dark nature of Batman’s work. The dark blues and blacks are broken only by dreary street lights and flashes from guns and explosives. Even as Batman sweeps away crime, the scene is grim and almost despairingly dark. But then, when Bruce Wayne returns to the normal world, light again fills the rooms he occupies, and white lights illuminate Christian Bale’s features. Still, it is a serious world he lives in: blue tones and black and white make many scenes serious and thoughtful. The Joker and his men are another consideration. The color schemes assigned to them do wonders in representing the inner thoughts and moods of these characters. The Joker wears a deep purple jacket, indicating his seriously disturbing mental state. His sickly green hair matches his sick actions and personality, and the white and red face paint he wears are the marks of a man not only interested in disguise, but in presenting himself to the world as irony incarnate: what man does so much evil, but presents himself as a clown, something to be laughed at?

“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Taking this further, we must ask: Who is the Joker? What does he want? Clear answers to these questions escape me as I consider Heath Ledger’s presentation of the Joker. The Joker in The Dark Knight is not merely a crook after money or power, but a seriously corrupt individual, a psychopathic terrorist. Why does the Joker do so much evil, and why does he hate Batman so profoundly? Ledger’s performance as the Joker really prevents us from seeing into the mind of the Joker. I do not mean to say that the Joker is not realistic; on the contrary, he is too realistic. Ledger does such a thorough job impersonating the Joker that I have trouble relating to the clown-criminal on any level. In short, I never see Heath Ledger, but only the Joker. In this respect, Ledger successfully completed his goal as an actor. I really do think his performance is worth the praise he received. The sinister look, the sickening speech pattern, and the brutish way he walks all suggest the totality of an actor who has ‘transformed’ himself into a character. For that, Ledger deserves much praise.

All these factors combined help to make up an extraordinary film. The sounds, sights and acting in The Dark Knight make up a wonderful film worthy of praise and careful study.

Stop, Look and Listen Carefully

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In The Breakfast Club, the amazing use of sound and color bring the audience into the story in a deeper way than most other movies.

First of all, the sound: the sound in this movie is incredible. I am really most amazed at the completeness of the ambiance sound. Every click of a jacket button, every crinkle of paper is heard, sometimes so much that the sound causes a reaction in the listeners. I cringed each time Allison chewed her fingernails, or took a bite of her strange Captain Crunch sandwich. I think the presence of these “background” sounds—papers, shoes, chairs, head scratches—are not merely products of good recording, but elements that add a sense of realism and dimension to the film. By hearing all of the sounds that would naturally occur in a real-life situation, Hughes has recreated for our eyes and ears what this experience would be like, as though we were sitting at the table with the five students. He avoids the use of special sound effects, and thus keeps the aural dimension of the film within reality. In addition, Hughes made certain that the dialogue (so terribly important in a film such as The Breakfast Club) was always clear and audible, never dominated by the background noises, a move that (in my opinion) really saves the movie and sets it apart from many of its contemporaries.

The Breakfast Club takes us into not only an aural experience, but also a visual one through the choice of colors and textures. The use of contrasts especially stands out to me: Claire fine light pink and delicate lace color contrast against Bender’s rough and ragged deep red flannel and faded jean jacket. Andy’s cool blue blazer and zip-up stand out against Brian’s conservative green sweater and khaki pants. Finally, Allison’s mysterious and dark personality is clearly evidenced by her black hair and black clothing. Look also at the setting: the library is gray, pale brown and tan, with a bright, garish blue neon light circling the upper railing, giving us the feel of an expansive, but empty, prison. Also consider the bright, fire-engine red lockers: what is Hughes trying to suggest with such blaring colors? Perhaps he is communicating that there is more life and vibrancy among the students (even the troublemakers) than the assistant principal, whose clothes are drab and bland. Hughes’ use of color in the film really does help to tell the story.

What really amazes me, though, is the acting throughout the film. As in Little Miss Sunshine, no one actor in The Breakfast Club really stands out among the rest, but all function together to form an unforgettable ensemble. True, the students are divided by their stereotyped roles—the brain, the athlete, the princess, etc.—but they are also united by their common characteristic as troubled kids. I think it is this combination of unity and diversity that help to make their roles work well together. I was also really surprised that, despite the spacious setting of the library, the crew was able to achieve a real sense of intimacy, sometimes comforting and sometimes really awkward (the use of long silences). Their use of the space was impressive: most of the opening action takes place in one small space, the desks and chairs where they first sit down, yet the scene keeps moving and does not become boring or drag on. They are able to use the small space as an advantage, showing how they are confined physically as well as socially. In like manner, Allison is seated in the back, showing her separation and role as observer. Likewise, Bender moves around the most and often takes a seat more unique or higher than anyone else, showing his sense of superiority and role and judge over his peers. Later on, we find the crew perched above the library in the upper-level, slowly opening up to each other and finding that they have much more in common than they once thought. I see this change in setting representative of the perspective each one of them is gaining: opening up to other people, each one is able to see his life through a different set of eyes, in a new way. The acting in this scene is superb, but the physical cues and setting certainly help to tell the story as well.

All in all, The Breakfast Club utilizes a number of different media—aural, visual and dramatic—to tell the story and communicate a message. It is the combination of these media and these actors that create the whole picture and tell the whole story.

You Are My Sunshine, My Only Sunshine…

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“Life is one beauty pageant after another.”

Watching Little Miss Sunshine, I cannot help but think that Olive, despite getting kicked out of the contest, truly is “Little Miss Sunshine.” Her optimistic demeanor and childlike innocence proved to be a contrasting feature to the rest of the family. At times, her innocence proved to be thorny, as when she bluntly points out to her heartbroken uncle that falling in love with another boy is silly. Still, most of the time I noticed that Olive’s innocence softened hearts and made those around her come out from self-pity, such as her brother who discovered that he was color blind and would never be able to fly in the air force. Therefore, I think it was very appropriate that Olive was always wearing some shade of red. Whether it was her red head band, red head phones, or red jersey, Olive stood out from the more subdued tones of her surroundings, just as her personality stood out from everyone else’s.

Contrast Olive’s bright red attire with the tired blue shirts in which her parents are first seen, and one can begin to see the visual message that the director is trying to send. Olive is young and vibrant, her parents are tired and jaded, and her brother and uncle (both dressed in black and white) are pale and emotionally bland. Through the use of color, the director is showing us at the beginning of the film the different planes of development (emotional, character…) on which the different family members reside. Olive and Grandpa, who is always seen with his black fanny pack, are at completely different ends of the spectrum: young and old, innocent and experienced, kind and crude, sweet and salty. Still, they complement one another very well. Likewise, Uncle Frank and Dwayne seemed to be paired with their shared room and similar color coding: black and white. Both intellectual, they appear to be at the same level of introversion, looking inwards at themselves, not enjoying the people around them. In addition, the parents are pictured in the opening scenes in the same shade of blue, both tired and distressed by the many oddities of their life. Finally, the van: bright yellow, it contrasts (somewhat ironically) the tense and somber mood of many of its passengers. Yet, the yellow provides a breath of fresh air, a sense that there is hope for this very dysfunctional family.

Truly, I think that no one character stood out as greater than the rest, and no character could really stand alone without the rest. Together, the total sum of the characters made up the family, however strange and dysfunctional. We only notice how optimistic Olive is when we see how depressed and gloomy Uncle Frank is. We only notice Grandpa’s crude mind when we see the oblivious innocence of Olive. The acting was fairly well done in this movie, though it really was an ensemble role. Each person had a part to add to the whole, and no one person bore the weight of the whole story. Rather, each person had oddities to add to the family’s dysfunction: mom is a closet smoker, grandpa uses cocaine, Uncle Frank is depressed, dad is failed entrepreneur, Dwayne does not speak, and the van has a broken clutch and an annoying horn.

One thing I really liked about this movie is that it did not sugar-coat the rough parts of life, but reflected them as ugly and garish as they really are. Sometimes, annoyances and garish colors make us cringe, and it is no different in the movie. Grandpa is far from an ideal character: he is a drug addict and promiscuous old man, yet can speak the sweetest words of encouragement to his granddaughter. Dwayne says he hates everyone, and yet he has a heart for others, as when he tells his sister (through writing, of course), to hug and comfort their mother after Grandpa passed away. Drugs, depression, suicide, teenage detachment, homosexuality, fast food dinners, broken cars, stressed marriages: Little Miss Sunshine seems to take all the irregularities of family life and roll them into one messy family. There is no doubt that the Hoovers have problems, and lots of them. Still, there can be room for laughter and even joy. Working to start the car together, we actually see a smile on Frank’s face. Dwayne actually has a conversation with another person, and apologizes to his parents.

As our everyday life, there are some really ugly colors (the van…) in Little Miss Sunshine, but there are also really beautiful ones (the scenery during their travels). “Life,” says Dwayne, “is one beauty contest after another.” For many people, this may be the truth, and perfection may be the only way to live happily. Still, for the Hoovers, as for most of us, life is a mix of beauty and ugliness, joy and sorrow, bright colors and drab. Little Miss Sunshine demonstrates well how to capture a snapshot of this mixture.

“Now where was I?”

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WARNING: MEGA SPOILERS AHEAD!

How do I even begin to describe my reaction to Memento? Memento takes the viewer on a brain-bending sequence of scenes, showcasing a masterpiece of editing. It also showcases a tragic hero unlike any other, Leonard Shelby, a man on a mission to find a killer. The story of Leonard Shelby shows us the place that memory has in one’s life as a record of the past and a director of the future.

Leonard is a tragic character, first of all in the saddening condition he is in: unable to make new memories, he is a man stuck in the past, continually reliving the same day over again: no matter what progress he makes in the world, it does not exist in his mind. As he himself describes, it is like waking up, and the last thing he remembers is his wife dying before him. Leonard Shelby thinks he knows himself, but in reality he only knows the man he was before the incident. His life is locked in one never-ending moment of seeking revenge. Even if he gets it, he will not be satisfied, because he won’t remember it.

Leonard is a man of self-contradiction. He claims that memory is subject to manipulation and fading, and thus is unreliable, but he himself takes his memories from before the incident as gospel. He claims that facts and evidence are sure ways to draw conclusions and discover the truth, but he deceives himself when he writes “TATTOO- FACT 6 : LICENSE SG137IU” as a note to himself, setting up yet another chase in hopes that this time when he kills John G., it will stick. Leonard is not a man who clings to the truth, nor to hard evidence or facts. He is a man who wants to set things right, as he says, but also regain the satisfaction of remembering it.

Why would Leonard trick himself, why would he write himself a false note that would lead him to kill another John G.: because, as he says, he wants his actions to have meaning. He wants to be able to do something to repair his life, to fix the damage, rather than wake up each morning and remember his dead wife, only to look at a picture and trust that he really did find the killer, though he has no memory of it. Without his memory, Leonard’s life has lost meaning. He is adrift, unable to hold on to fulfillment but also unable to quite the search. Memory truly is essential, foundational to human self-identity. Without it, a man knows neither where he came from, nor where he ought to be going, but only a steady, meaningless stream of here-and-now. Suffering this disease, Leonard is truly a tragic hero.