Sunday, January 14, 2018

Winter's Bone

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

This 2010 film mirrors what Truman Capote wanted to achieve with In Cold Blood, which was to show an underside of America that most citizens don’t know much about, and would rather not see. Director Debra Granik adapted the story for the screen from the novel by Daniel Woodrell, and she presents life in the Ozarks of Missouri as an impoverished, isolated place, whose adult residents become savagely tribal, and drug dependent, to survive.
Yet, the first scene in this movie shows children at play as they jump happily on a backyard trampoline while a lullaby is sung in the background. And as the story unfolds, having babies, despite the lack of financial resources, appears as a source of happiness in a life almost devoid of that attribute, and possibly the only hope for the future for these otherwise sad folks. Ree (Jennifer Lawrence, playing a seventeen year old when she was nineteen in her first Oscar-nominated role), visits a class where young pregnant girls learn how to take care of their future children. However, the harshness of the surroundings force the younger population to grow up fast in order to face the adversity around them. Ree must take care of her mentally ill mother and her very young brother, Sonny (Isaiah Stone), and sister, Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson). Their father, Jessup, who cooks meth, has been absent for a while. It is not an easy task for Ree given the lack of resources. The house is dilapidated, and the children sleep on a couch and a sofa. When Ashlee wants to feed the dog, Ree searches for something out of the refrigerator, smells it to make sure it’s still good, and announces what amounts to all that they can expect out of life when she says, “Better than nothing.”

Ree is a responsible surrogate parent as she teaches her siblings basic mathematics and spelling. She shows them even at an early age, because the surroundings demand learning these grown-up skills, how to use a rifle to hunt and protect themselves, but also how to be careful around the weapons. When Ree shows her brother and sister how to skin a squirrel, Sonny asks about the animal’s organs, “Do we eat these parts?” Ree’s answer is, “Not yet,” a minimalist answer that carries great meaning as to how precarious their world is. Ree must also chop wood so that they can stay warm. There is no reliance on the outside world here, so one must rely on others living there. Ree brings her horse to stay with her neighbor, Sonya (Shelley Waggener), who lives a little higher on the poverty spectrum, for food since the horse has not eaten in days. Sonya brings food over to Ree’s house, and lets Ree use her wood splitter. However, Ree tells Sonny, “Never ask for what oughta be offered.” Among these people, that rule maintains the recipient's pride, since they are not seen as beggars, and places responsibility on the residents to help others; if they have to be asked for what they should offer, they would incur embarrassment.

To make matters much worse, Sheriff Baskin (Garret Dillahunt) comes by saying Jessup put up the house and the land as collateral for his bail, and if he doesn’t show up for his court date coming up soon, they will have to give up their home. Despite the fact that the law has not found Jessup, we see Ree’s resolve when she convincingly says to the sheriff that she will find her father. When Sonya comes to her house and asks Ree if she’s sure she doesn’t know where her father is, Ree gives her a “how dare you ask that” look as if insulted to think she didn’t tell her the truth. Sonya says then Ree didn’t have anything to tell the sheriff. Ree says she wouldn’t tell the cop anything even if she did know. Sonya’s response is, “Honey, we know that.” This exchange shows the code of silence among the people living there that see the rest of the world as outsiders who only enter their lives to do harm.

At one point we hear the radio in the background which predicts more cold temperatures and freezing rain. The withering weather reflects the dire life the inhabitants must endure, and the hostility of the environment is palpable, so that the title of the film helps one understand how the coldness of the weather and of those living here penetrates to the bone. However, IMDb also says that the title refers to an Appalachian expression that compares a person who is searching for something and will not give up to a dog digging up a “winter’s bone.” Ree is like that dog as she is relentless in trying to find out what happened to her father in order to save her family’s home.
There seems to be more of a bond between the women living in this community than with the males, since the females share the child-rearing experience, and have to contend with the savagery of the men. But, that sisterly help doesn’t always come easily. Sonya delivers, but, as we saw, with a note of uncertainty. Ree goes to her friend and asks for the use of her husband’s truck. He refuses. Ree’s independence can be see in her admonishing her friend when she says, “It’s so sad to hear you say he won’t let you do somethin’ and then you don’t do it.” Ree reminds her that at one time her friend “never used to eat no shit.” Soon after she does secure the truck to help Ree with her search for Jessup.

Even though Ree fears her father’s brother, Teardrop (John Hawkes), she goes to his house to see if he knows what happened to her father. By the way, many of the names in the story are interesting. Ree’s last name is “Dolly,” which shows a nostalgic yearning for the innocence of youth, when a girl could escape into an imaginative world, playing with her doll. Ree has the nickname of “Sweet Pea,” and she is caring toward her family, but it is also ironic because Ree can be tough as hardwood. “Teardrop” sounds sentimental and sympathetic towards those that suffer. But, Ree’s uncle is one mean fellow. For instance, he tells his wife to shut up and when she keeps talking, he says,”I said shut up already, with my mouth,” implying the next time it will hurt. He also takes an axe to a man’s truck who gives him a hard time when Teardrop questions him about his brother. However, it can refer to how much family suffering he has had to endure, and currently points to what he feels about the loss of his brother.
Teardrop, with a gun in his hand, as if that is a normal thing to have even at a discussion at the kitchen table, warns Ree to not ask about her dad. He grabs her by the hair and the throat to emphasize his point, but then seems to soothe her with his hand as he lets go. In his rough way he is actually trying to protect her. He also voices the feeling that her choices are between the lesser of two evils when he says if she keeps asking questions she’ll become food for the hogs, “or wishin’ you was.” Again we see female support from Teardrop’s wife, Victoria (Cinnamon Schultz), who pleads Ree’s cause to Teardrop. He tells her to give Ree some money and send her on her way. Victoria gives Ree a marijuana cigarette to calm her on her walk, because she knows Ree won’t give up. Drugs are used to make money here but also as a means of self-medication to get through difficult times. It has become a lifestyle, but Ree refuses to take them. Later, Teardrop says to her that she hasn’t developed a taste for them yet, as he snorts some powder, which implies that living there creates the need for it.
Ree goes to the home of Little Arthur (Kevin Breznahan) who has another cutesy name which does not fit his character. He is Ree’s cousin (Ree keeps wanting to now why people who are her “kin” aren’t helping her) who used to cook meth with her father. Here, as everywhere else, the property is run down, with partially wrecked vehicles in the yard along with trash cans, old tires, and other refuse, showing us how the lives of these people are in shambles. In his house, a gun in the corner, always ready to be used, Little Arthur says he doesn’t know where Jessup is. Once again, a woman helps Ree. Little Arthur’s wife, Megan (Casey McClaren) tells Ree to ask Thump Milton (a more appropriately tough name) about her father. Ree confesses that he is one man she does not want to talk to. He is Megan’s grandfather, and she is afraid of him. Fear rules in this place.
Ree goes to to see Thump Milton (Ronnie Hall), but is told by one of the women living on his compound, Merab (Dale Dickey), that he will not see her, despite Ree’s argument that she isn’t looking for “trouble,” that is, she is not going after who might been involved in her dad’s disappearance, and that she and Thump’s people share some “blood.” But Merab says that she should leave because Thump doesn’t want any witnesses. Ree starts to realize that her father is dead, and those involved in his death don’t want any loose ends that could lead to who killed Jessup. While waiting for this information, Ree sees a small statue of a boy and a girl riding down a slide. The inclusion of this object makes one again think about the the loss of youthful innocence. Childhood has a short span in these circumstances, and all that’s left is an artistic resemblance of it.

Ree does go home, but Little Arthur shows up and takes her to a place where a meth lab blew up and where he says Jessup was killed. Ree says she is not stupid because she knew her father was careful and would not make a mistake that would result in an explosion. In addition, there are tall weeds at the site which would mean the explosion took place way before her dad went missing. Ree knows that Little Arthur was sent to give her an explanation for her father being missing which would end her investigation. Little Arthur says he knows how rough it will be for Ree if she loses her home and offers to raise her children. Ree defiantly refuses the offer, seeing it as an insult concerning her ability to take care of her siblings. She does not want to give up her search for Jessup. If she finds proof of his death, then there is no defiance of the order of the court to appear for trial, and her house and property will not be forfeited. Along the way of Ree’s quest we see people playing music and singing. The songs are mournful, with references about “flying away.” They express the sorrow of these people and how they wish for an escape.

Teardrop visits Ree and tells her that the law found Jessup’s car which was burned, but no body was found. Ree sees that evidence is being destroyed which would lead to her father’s killers. Teardrop advises Ree to sell the land and get some money for the timber before it is confiscated. But Ree instead again goes to see Thump Milton. Merab and the other women at the compound beat her as punishment for showing up again (their code does not permit the men to hit her). When Thump and his men arrive, Ree explains the situation to reassure Thump that she is not out for revenge or to expose anyone involved in her father’s death. Teardrop shows up, says his brother went against the ways of his people, and he assures Thump that he will take responsibility for Ree, promising she will not squeal on anyone. On the way home, Teardrop tells Ree that her father couldn’t handle another stretch in jail, and he made a deal with the law to provide information about the drug dealings of those men in his community. Teardrop believes that the sheriff then let it be known that Jessup had talked so he would get the Jessup’s information and not have to make good on the deal with Jessup, knowing Ree’s father would be killed by those he betrayed. Teardrop tells Ree that if she finds out who did kill Jessup that she shouldn’t tell him. Then he would feel compelled to go after the killer, which would probably lead to his death, or as he puts it, he will be “toes up.”
When Ree returns home, Sonya again is the female helper who gives Ree some pain killers to deal with the results of her beating. Ree accepts the drugs now after having experienced how punishing it is to defy the ways of her community. While she recuperates we see a show on the TV depicting the chopping down of trees as Squirrels scatter as their homes are destroyed. The inclusion of this footage points to how the outside world will decimate the home of Ree’s family. She becomes despondent, thinking that she may have to give up her brother and sister to other family members to take care of them. There was talk earlier of her desire to “fly away,” by joining the Army. She now goes to the recruiting office in order to get the $40,000 sign up bonus. But, she is too young to enlist without parental approval, and her mother is incompetent to give consent. The recruiter also tells her she can’t take her family along, so Ree would be abandoning them.
Teardrop comes by again because he feels the need to find his brother’s body. On their drive, the sheriff stops them, but Teardrop knows that there is no reason for being pulled over. He also has a great deal of animosity toward the sheriff because of how he probably assisted in the death of Jessup. Teardrop refuses to exit the vehicle and he makes sure that Sheriff Baskin can see in his truck’s side view mirror that Teardrop has a rifle in his hand. The sheriff backs off and lets them go. This scene stresses that although the ways of Teardrop and others in this place may be threatening, the law and others from outside their way of life can be just as destructive. Teardrop tells Ree that her father loved them very much, which ironically, in this uncivilized pace, made him weak, not wanting to go away from them to serve a long jail term, and this weakness made him susceptible to danger.
Some women from Thump’s place, including Merab, now join the list of other women who help Ree. They take her to where Jessup’s body is. They put a sack over Ree’s head so she can’t reveal where her father lies. That way, Ree can’t ever tell the police, which would lead to an investigation. They go on a boat to where Jessup rests in some shallow water. Merab says Ree must cut off her father’s hands to prove that he is dead (Merab says one hand might imply that Jessup is alive and tried to prove he was dead by cutting off one hand, which shows how violent is the logic in these parts). Ree breaks down and although she can lift up her dad’s hands, she can’t do the cutting. Merab uses a chainsaw, adding to the gruesomeness of the scene, to cut off the hands. Ree brings them to the sheriff, saying someone flung them on her porch. The sheriff doesn’t want Ree to spread it around that he backed down from Teardrop, saying he was just trying not to have a shootout that might harm Ree since she was there. Ree tells him that’s not the way she saw it, not giving him the satisfaction of his lie. She shows her contempt for the man who helped bring about her father’s death by telling him she wouldn’t say anything about him because she didn’t talk about the sheriff, “ever.”
Teardrop pays a visit to Ree’s home, and brings baby chicks for Sonny and Ashlee. This act may seem to show a gentle side of the man, but he probably is being practical, providing a source for future food, either by way of chicken dinners or eggs. He picks at Jessup’s banjo, and remembers fondly how much better his brother could play. Bree offers to give him the instrument, but he says that she should hold it for him. He then says that he knows who killed Jessup. So, his leaving the banjo may mean that he will seek revenge for his brother, which would probably get him killed. Ashlee picks up the banjo and starts strumming it. This action may seem like a sweet tribute to her father, but it also could imply that she is on the same road to disaster as her parent.
Sonny asks Ree if she is going into the Army and leaving them. Ree’s poetic response is, “I’d be lost without the weight of you two on my back.” The life here may be exacting, but the love of children makes bearing the burden of family responsibility worthwhile.

The next film is The Bride on the River Kwai.

Sunday, January 7, 2018


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

An important historical note which helps to appreciate this 1981 film directed by Peter Weir is that Australia had just become a united country in 1901, just 14 years before the WWI events depicted in the movie. The Australian engagement in the war was the first national enterprise on the world stage for the country. So, there was a general feeling to prove itself in battle, sort of a trial by ordeal. An example of how there was this sense of proving the strength of its nationalism can be seen in the fact that the country had the only volunteer army fighting against Germany and its allies.
The titles of the film are in red, possibly pointing to the blood that will be spilled later at Gallipoli in Turkey. (The Turks were allies of the Germans). The story starts in May of 1915 with a youth practicing for a running competition. Archy Hamilton (Mark Lee) is a fast sprinter, and his uncle, Jack (Bill Kerr) is a loving, but demanding trainer. Archy’s youthful desire to compete successfully symbolizes the young nation of Australia wanting to prove itself. Some of the locals tease Archy about how men prove themselves by fighting, not running. It is possible that this needling is one of the reasons Archy feels he must fight for his country. A bully, Les McCann (Harold Hopkins) makes a wager with Archy, saying he can beat him if he runs and Les rides on horseback. Les says that Archy must be barefoot, to which Archy agrees, as long as Les rides bareback. Les falls off of his horse and loses, but Archy pays for the struggle with bleeding and injured feet. His wounds are a foreshadowing of what can happen in war.
We have a scene during Archy’s recuperation where his Uncle Jack reads from Kipling’s The Jungle Book. The section he reads is significant because it deals with leaving behind the sheltered protection of childhood and testing oneself in order to become an adult. Again, Archy’s journey mirrors Australia’s path to seasoned nationhood. Archy is later seen with local men who want to enlist, but there is one who sees the danger in this bravado, and tells the others that they are signing up to die. There is a large wooden horse at the town where the race takes place, and it reminds one of the Trojan horse, a symbol of how the urge for heroic conquest make one susceptible to deception. Archy competes against Mel Gibson’s Frank Dunne, who is a laborer that wants more out of his life. Archy beats him in the race, gives the prize money to his Uncle Jack, keeps his medal, and says he is enlisting. Jack is upset, not expecting his nephew to return from the war. However, Archy is underage, and is denied entry into the military.

Archy runs into Frank, who says if they go to Perth, nobody there will know Archy, and he can fake his age, and enlist. The travel to the city is a sort of journey to test Archy's survival skills because the two men hop a freight train are left off in the desert. (The desert is always a place of trial in the bible, and there is a shot downward from on high to show the immensity of the land versus their small size, which emphasizes the difficulty of their struggle). And the movement from a rural place to a city shows the transition from innocence to worldly experience. The two men quarrel along the way, and their differences reflect the growing pains of Australia itself. Archy feels that he must fight for his homeland, while Frank, being of Irish descent, sees the war as having nothing to do with him, it being a British conflict. On their way they encounter an old camel rider who gives them directions. The man seems to represent the isolationist attitude that Frank espouses, as he knows nothing of the world war, and says he “can’t see what it has to do with us.” Archy argues that if they don’t stop the Germans and their allies in Turkey, then they will eventually take over Australia (an argument that may have been sound in a world-wide struggle, but which was used later in the Communist domino theory used to justify America’s presence in Vietnam).
Archy and Frank arrive at a ranch, and Archy says he is going to join an elite fighting outfit called the Light Horse Brigade. The owner’s daughters say how much they love the uniforms the soldiers wear. The talk of patriotism and glory in battle, and the admiration of the young women, start to pressure Frank, who wants to improve his lot in life, into changing his decision to stay out of the conflict. However, Frank can’t ride a horse, which shows how idealism collides with reality. Archy tries to teach him how to handle a horse, and in return, Frank makes up a fake birth certificate for Archy. Another old man questions why Frank would want to fight for the British, who would just as soon hang Irishmen (these old guys are like Shakespearean soothsayers, warning of bad future events). When they go to enlist, Archy makes it into the Light Horse Brigade, but Frank can’t pass the riding test, and winds up in the infantry, the most dangerous fighting outfit. There is a big town send-of for the departing soldiers, making it seem like they are going off to participate in a sporting event. It’s as if they will bring back awards that will glorify their feats of accomplishment, instead of embarking on a voyage leading to brutality and death. Frank becomes separated from Archy, but he is glad to reunite with some old mates he used to work with.

The soldiers arrive in Cairo for training. They are still viewing the conflict like a sporting competition as Frank and his friends play ball near the pyramids. One man says that the Pharaohs buried their wives and their belongs with them in the ancient tombs, and says it was “man’s first attempt to beat death.” The point here is that even the great ancient kings, with all their power and wealth, could not escape their mortality. So, what chance do these foot soldiers have in defeating death? Instead of hearing about how slim their chances are of surviving combat, the officers dispense information about the dangers of drinking the local alcoholic beverages and contracting venereal diseases. There is a drill practice battle with the Light Horsemen, where Frank reunites with Archy. However, the mock encounter is  worthless as most of the men lie down and act dead so they can be carried off as opposed to doing the carrying of the supposed casualties.
There are scenes which show mistreatment of the Australians and the local people. Frank and his mates meet some British officers riding on horses, their elevated positions physically reflecting their superior attitudes toward the Australian men, who should be respected for risking their lives to help them.There is an encounter that illustrates how the local inhabitants suffer as they are caught between the warring factions. One of Frank’s friends says he was cheated by a local shopkeeper by selling him a fake relic at a high price. The soldiers harass a man and damage his goods, and he isn’t even the right merchant, as the victim keeps telling Frank and his mates.

Frank, to the disappointment of his fellow infantrymen, gets a transfer to the Light Brigade, which now will fight with the infantry without horses. He can now be with Archy. There is an elegant party which Frank crashes, and at which Archy delivers a note to their commander, Major Barton (Bill Hunter), that says they will be fighting at the strongly defended Gallipoli position. Barton shows his apprehension at the order. The brightness and merriment of the celebration contrasts with the darkness of the following scene where the men will be fighting, and where the only light comes from explosions. The soldiers must restrain from smoking and and making noise as to not give away their presence. There follows a scene in daylight where the soldiers swim naked and during their underwater dives they find ancient shipwrecks with rusted rifles. The images suggest the theme that wars are endless, dating back to antiquity and continuing to the present. Bullets zip through the water, and one man is wounded. The whole scene of youthful nakedness floating in water defiled by weaponry seems to symbolize a demonic baptism into the horrors of adult warfare.
Those men who have been there before Archy and Frank have already started to deal with their situation by engaging in dark humor. For instance, they shake the hand of the corpse of a dead soldier, and say, “G’day, Mate.” A seasoned infantryman shows them that just by poking a little above their trenches, bullets come flying in, ready to cut them down. There is a sign close to him which says, “Abandon hope past this point,” which sound like the words that appear before the gates to hell in Dante’s “Inferno.” They go about their business while there is constant shelling in the background. Frank receives a package from a women’s auxiliary at home which, although meant to be morale boosting, contains articles more fitting for a picnic, and which does not show an appreciation of what those at home have sent their men off to do. He also gets a bill from a man who fixed his bicycle, which is especially insulting giving Frank’s circumstances. Frank once again joins his old mates, and before they engage the enemy, they frequent some local prostitutes. One man tells another that it is okay to indulge, since God turns a ‘blind eye” before every battle. This can be taken two ways - one, that God cuts soldiers some slack before they face death, or it also can imply that the deity has forsaken them, as he “turns” away from them. One of Frank’s infantry friends is killed, another wounded, and yet another suffers from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There is a briefing among the officers that basically orders Barton’s men to be sacrificed at the Battle of the Nek as a diversion so that British troops can land elsewhere. Barton is promised that there will be heavy shelling of Turkish trenches to protect the advancement of his men.

Barton wants to use Archy, because of his running speed, to convey messages to command headquarters since communications will go down during the battle. Archy tells Barton to use Frank, who he says is just as quick a runner as himself, thus sparing Frank from becoming involved in the fighting. According to IMDb, before the fight, Barton plays some classical music by Bizet, which turns out to be a bad omen, as it is a duet between two men who swear to remain as friends, and who will be reunited in death. On the day of the battle, Barton is to send three waves of troops over the top of the trenches. Unfortunately, the Turks are able to regain their trenches after the British shelling and before Barton sends his men. The first two waves are almost immediately slaughtered by machine gun fire. Frank is sent to have the orders reconsidered, but is told they are to proceed by the colonel in command (who in reality was Australian, not British), and who is misinformed that there were British markers in the Turkish trenches, showing that they have persevered. Information comes down that the British troops have landed easily, are enjoying tea on the beach (as the Australians are being killed), and thus, there is no need for the continued losses. Frank Suggests to Barton that he go over the head of the local commander, and ask the general to reconsider. Frank dodges bullets and delivers the message. The general tells him that he will take some time to reconsider. But, Frank can’t get back in time before Barton must send the last wave over the top.

Death is now palpable for these young men. One looks at a letter and picture of his child for the last time. Archy embeds his running victory medal in the trench as a sort of memorial. Barton knows he is sending his soldiers to certain death, and sacrifices himself, too. The last image we see is that of Archy running, remembering the encouraging words of his uncle. It is not enough, and he is shot.

Weir leaves us with the frozen image of Archy’s body after being hit by bullets, a chilling reminder of how war, sold as an opportunity for glory and patriotic duty, many times strikes down the youth of a country, thus damaging the hope for the future.

The next film is Winter’s Bone.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

2017 Films

For the last couple of years I have posted some remarks about a few films that I have seen in the past year that I felt were noteworthy. Because this blog deals mainly with films that are several years old, I haven’t always had time to view too many new ones when they are released. I hope to catch Lady Bird, The Post, Call Me By Your Name, and Darkest Hour in the upcoming weeks. Here are some that I have seen:
Dunkirk - Christopher Nolan, who has given us enigmatic films such as Memento and Inception, provides us with a fairly straightforward story here about the evacuation of British troops from the beaches of Dunkirk during World War II. There were hundreds of thousands pinned down there by the Nazis. The story, which has very little dialogue, but telling images, focuses on the soldiers of varying ranks. The cinematography emphasizes this viewpoint, and is amazing. The camera presents the men at ground level as it follows their movement on the beach. It also shows the actions and views of the pilots in the air, and the soldiers and civilians on boats. Nolan depicts a full spectrum of human behavior: those who just care about their own survival; those whose individual spirits were casualties of war; soldiers and civilians making sacrifices for others; and commanders who must make decisions about who must be rescued first. The film is a remarkable piece of work.
The Big Sick - I probably enjoyed this film most of all the 2017 ones I watched. It is not easy to fashion a story that combines serious and funny elements, but this movie does so successfully. There is very funny dialogue along with great observations of families of different backgrounds, particularly an Islamic one which shows the clash between the older and younger generations. I thought Ray Romano was particularly funny here, along with Kumail Nanjiani (who wrote the script).
The Florida Project - This was a heart-wrencher. The story smartly tells its tale from the viewpoint, mostly, of some children living in a rundown apartment complex just outside Walt Disney World. Although some of their behavior is questionable, and dangerous at times, the youngsters mainly do what kids who come from any social class do - they use their imaginations to help them enjoy playing together. Unfortunately, some adults have found that the only way to survive is through prostitution and thievery, which threatens the quality of life of the children. Willem Dafoe is moving in an understated performance as the beleaguered apartment superintendent who tries to run the place at the same time as he protects the children from outside predators and their own parents. The ending is great, showing the resilience of children who use their desire for imaginative playfulness to escape the negative aspects of their environment.
Get Out - Basically this is a horror story, and an effective one as it escalates the creepiness in the situation surrounding the visit of a young white woman and her African American boyfriend to the community where her parents live. The movie satirizes that segment of the liberal population that tries too hard to show praise for minorities, while actually embracing stereotypical aspects of the black population to the point, here, of instituting a kind of forced biological integration that amounts to a new kind of slavery. Funny and scary at the same time.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri - Here is a film that is subversive as it first sets the audience up to sympathize with an establishment-fighting mother, played by Frances McDormand, who is angry because the local police have not found the perpetrator who sexually assaulted and killed her daughter. She uses the billboards to publicize her disdain for the local authorities. We also initially hate the violent, intimidating deputy played by Sam Rockwell. But, the film then rounds out these characters as the story unfolds, and we start to be repulsed by the mother’s anger and actions, and begin to understand how the deputy became who he is. The movie becomes a metaphor for the angry partisanship that has torn our country apart, and suggests that finding a meeting ground is the only way to move forward.
The Zookeeper’s Wife - A difficult film to watch if you are an animal lover, as I am. However, Jessica Chastain’s performance draws one into this story about the Nazi invasion into Poland which almost destroys Chastain’s beloved animals in her Warsaw zoo. She must manipulate a Nazi zoologist so that she and her husband can turn the animal sanctuary into a human one as they help Jews escape persecution. The zoologist stretches the scary Nazi desire to create a master race beyond the human element as he tries to breed a German super animal population. A lesser achievement than Schindler’s List, but still a thoughtful film worth watching.
The Shape of Water - This fairy tale for adults has a lot going on in it. The story has elements of Beauty and the Beast, Splash, and Moby Dick (with Michael Shannon’s character as a sort of Ahab). Water is used as a symbol for life, crying associated with sadness, and sex. It especially deals with how a prejudicial society marginalizes outsiders (in this case a mute woman, African Americans, and gays in America in the early 1960’s). As I exited the theater, couples commented on the movie, with the men calling it weird, and the women saying it was romantic. I had to side with the women. A marvelous movie.

The next film to be analyzed is Gallipoli.

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Natural

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Yes, this 1984 film is corny and has a fair dose of sentimentality, both of which can usually prevent a movie from being taken seriously. However, this work, directed by Barry Levinson and adapted from the Bernard Malamud novel, has mythic themes, good dialogue, and interesting characters which make it a meaningful movie. And it’s entertaining.
The first shot we see is that of the main character, Roy Hobbs (Robert Redford), waiting to take a train, early on in the twentieth century. He looks dejected, unsmiling, almost beaten down. But the fact that he is traveling somewhere suggests that he has not given up. We eventually see that what he really wants is to find a home, and trains have been and will be positive and negative means of transportation in his quest.

The next scene goes back to Roy’s childhood as he plays catch with his father. He lives on a farm, and the pastoral setting comes to represent the purity of the human heart that unscrupulous individuals can undermine. Roy is a “natural,” someone with an innate talent for baseball. Even as a youth he can fire a fastball that can shatter a fence. But his supportive father (Alan Fudge) warns him about the limitations of his abilities when he says, “You’ve got a gift, Roy. But it’s not enough. You’ve got to develop yourself. If you rely too much on your own gift, then you’ll fail.” With the father and son as they practice is Roy’s childhood sweetheart, Iris (her name places emphasis on sight, and in this case she has the right moral vision that can keep Roy’s eyes on the ball concerning what’s the right thing to do), and she watches over him like a guardian angel.

Roy’s father has a heart attack later and dies while working in the field. This scene reminds us of the way Clark Kent’s dad meets his end in the movie Superman, which suggests that Roy has heroic powers, too. There are also references to Arthurian legend suggested in the movie. Lightning strikes a tree close to Roy’s house, leaving a chunk of wood jutting in an upright position. Roy cuts it off and forms it into a baseball bat on which he burns in the words “Wonderboy” followed by a lightning bolt. The name sounds like a comic book superhero.The bat is the equivalent of King Arthur’s Excalibur. The lightning bolt could be considered a reference to the gods, specifically Zeus, bestowing a gift to a mortal to make him rise above other humans.

Years later the Chicago Cubs call Roy for a tryout. He goes to the grown-up Iris (Glenn Close) to tell her the good news. He says he wants to marry her after he is signed up. They appropriately consummate their relationship in the sanctity of the heartland represented by the barn on her farm, and the intimacy feels justified given that the two are soulmates. He tells her he never has been on a train before, which means he has not gone out into the world to test his strength of character.
On the train, we find a Babe Ruth-like baseball player called The Whammer (Joe Don Baker) and the reporter traveling with him, Max Mercy (Robert Duvall), whose last name is ironic, because he shows none of that attribute. He actually uses the power of the press to make others beg for his mercy. Fame and success have corrupted The Whammer, who is boastful and materialistic. There is a foreshadowing of what’s to come when Max reads aloud about how someone shot two famous sports figures with silver bullets. The Cubs scout, Sam Simpson (John Finnegan), a sort of father figure following the death of Roy’s dad, plays up Roy’s accomplishments in high school baseball, but the two men scoff at him. After Simpson leaves, The Whammer flashes his ring at a pretty woman in the car, whose name is Harriet Bird (Barbara Hershey), and who turns out to be the shooter, stalking her next victim.
The train stops for a while at a carnival. Simpson makes a bet with Max that Roy can strike out The Whammer on three pitches. Max assures Harriet that The Whammer is the best the game has ever seen. However, Roy strikes out The Whammer and is cheered by the crowd. We see Harriet move her gaze from The Whammer to Roy, as if adjusting the sights on her gun. In her conversation later with Roy, he is taken with her, and his move away from Iris on the train physically and spiritually causes his life to become derailed. She asks Roy if he has a girl in his life, but he ignores the question, and this denial of Iris shows his frailty and seals his fate. She makes allusions to Homer, and how if he were writing about baseball, the poet would have had a mind to write about Roy (whose first name sound like a shortened version of “royal”). But Roy’s only knowledge of Homer is in baseball when you get to run the bases to get to home plate. Homer has “home” in his name, and his character, Odysseus, also wants to get home after the Trojan War, but he must go through trials by ordeal before that happens. The same can be said of Roy, as he must go out in the world and survive before returning home. Roy tells Harriet that he will break all the records. She asks, “And then?” He says then people will say there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game. She asks isn’t here more than that, something greater. But Roy has the fatal flaw of Greek heroes, the one of hubris, overweening pride. Harriet then disappears in the flickering lights, like an otherworldly entity blending into the darkness (symbolic of the frightening realm in which she resides).
In Chicago, Harriet stays at Roy’s hotel and calls him to her room. She is dressed in a black negligee and pulls a veil down over her face, as if in mourning for what is to happen. Her outfit symbolically joins sexuality with tragedy. She asks him again if he will be the best in the game. When he affirms the boast, she shoots him in the left shoulder, near his pitching arm, and then we see that she no longer is in front of the window, having jumped to her death, her mission completed. She flies away, like the “Bird” her last name implies. Harriet plays the role of the “femme fatale,” or “fatal woman” who seduces the male and drains him of his power, like a vampire. This sexist archetype appears in many stories, including that of Eve and her apple, and Delilah cutting Samson’s hair in the bible. In Greek mythology, the Sirens try to destroy Odysseus with their alluring voices. Harriet is a cautionary figure who metes out punishment for those who take their gift for granted and adopt too prideful an attitude. God may giveth but he may also taketh away what he has bestowed if the recipient is undeserving.
It is after sixteen years have passed that we join up with Roy on that train platform, trying to make up for the failure of the previous trip. He has been signed to play for the New York Knights (an appropriate name given the references to the Arthurian legend) after only being with a minor league team for a couple of weeks. New York can represent the corruption that occurs in the eastern part of the United States, where moral decay has taken hold in the cities as opposed to the “New Eden” of the unspoiled American west. This theme shows up in many stories, including The Great Gatsby. The manager of the Knights, Pop Fisher (Wilford Brimley), who is another father figure, has a name which implies that he is a “fisher of men,” like St. Peter in the bible. Thus, Pop’s allegorical role is to help Roy redeem himself. However, when Roy first joins the team, Pop is dismissive of him, saying that a guy retires at his age instead of trying to make it as a rookie. Pop mirrors Roy’s journey, because he, too, was supposed to work on a farm, as his mother wanted, but went to the big city, substituting the playing field for the farm field. Later, coach Red Blow (Richard Farnsworth) tells Roy that Pop gave his heart and soul to the game, but fell on hard financial times. His nemesis is the Judge (Robert Prosky), who became the majority shareholder of the team when Pop had to sell off some of his shares to him. If Pop can win the pennant (a sort of Holy Grail quest) this year, then he can get the team back. But if he doesn’t achieve his goal, he is out and The Judge takes over. Pop depicts The Judge as a “snake,” bringing to mind Satan in the Garden of Eden.
Pop sees the quick signing of the older Hobbs as part of a conspiracy led by The Judge to undermine the team’s success. Not that the Knights need any help in losing. They look pathetic on the field, committing numerous errors. Roy’s uniform number is 9, the same as Ted Williams, arguably the greatest hitter in the history of baseball. Despite his attempt to try to recapture his dream of playing in the big leagues, Roy still has the flaw of being attracted to the femme fatale, in this case, Memo Paris (Kim Basinger), who happens to be Pop’s niece. It is especially treacherous that Pop’s own relative conspires with The Judge, Max Mercy, and the bookie, Gus Sands (Darren McGavin) to bring Pop down. Pop believes in luck and jinxes, which makes him in tune with the magical realism of the story. He warns Roy that although he loves his niece, he believes Memo brings bad luck, since he thinks her involvement with another ballplayer, Bump Bailey (Michael Madsen), turned him into an under-performer. We later find out that Bump, too, is on the take to sink the Knights, his first name implying he is a hindrance on the road to success.

Pop finally gives Roy a shot at batting practice, and Roy hits the ball out of the park a number of times. We can see Pop is starting to warm up to him when he starts calling Roy by his first name. Pop takes Bump out of a game when the right fielder misses a fly ball on purpose. Bump says he lost it in the sun on this cloudy day, prompting Pop to look up at the sky and say, “blinding.” Pop sends Roy to bat, and tells him, in exaggerated baseball lingo, to “knock the cover off of the ball.” The gods speak in the form of lightning in the sky again, and Roy literally does knock the cover off of the baseball. Gus is in the stands with Memo when it starts to storm, the downpour implying that Roy’s heroics will be raining on Gus’ parade. The amazing hit puts Roy on the major league baseball map. Max Mercy approaches him. Roy remembers Max from the Whammer episode, but Max can’t place Roy after all of these years. Roy is secretive about his past because he doesn’t want the incident with Harriet brought up as a scandal. In his column, though, since Max is in league with The Judge, he accuses Roy of using a “loaded” bat. Wonderboy passes the size and weight test, though.

Pop threatens Bump with replacing him with Roy, so Bump starts to field and hit better. In what is a bit of exaggerated contrivance, Bump gets eliminated because in an overzealous attempt at trying to catch a ball, he busts through an outfield fence and dies from the injury. Roy is now the right fielder and he goes on an amazing hitting streak. He shows up now on baseball cards and magazines. Iris now lives in Chicago, although she never gave up her farm, which shows she is still connected to her upstanding roots. She has had no contact with Roy after all of these years and she is surprised to hear talk of Wonderboy and Hobbs at the cafe she frequents. One of the players likes the lightning bolt on Wonderboy, and wears a patch with the image on the arm of his uniform. He starts to hit better at practice, and someone says it’s like “Samson with the hair,” another reference to divine intervention. Eventually all of the players wear the lightning bolt insignia, which indicates how Roy’s heroics inspire the actions of others. The bat boy, Bobby Savoy (George Wilkosz), admires Wonderboy, and Roy promises to help the youngster make a bat of his own. In this way, Roy rediscovers the idealism of his youth, but also now acts as a father figure himself, playing the role of his dad forward. We see Roy in newsreels talking to young boys and a girl, as he appears as a positive role model. Levinson uses black and white footage in the newsreels to lend authenticity to the time period of the film. But they also make the audience buy into the almost miraculous accomplishments of Roy because the rest of the story is grounded in reality.

The Judge summons Roy for a meeting. His office is very dark and Roy says it could use some light. The Judge says that as a boy he was afraid of the dark and now has taught himself to actually prefer darkness. The absence of light associated with The Judge here becomes a metaphor for his acceptance of treachery. He is so used to being deceptive that he knows different words for a lie such as “canard” and “prevarication.” His employment of unfamiliar words is devious in itself. He says to Roy that he can see The Judge in the dark, to which Roy replies, “Maybe I do, and maybe I don’t.” With these words Roy shows that he understands that there can be false appearances hiding evil below. He learned this lesson with Harriet Bird, but is still susceptible to the pretty exterior of Memo. In this meeting, however, he stands his moral ground, and refuses to be bought by The Judge to undermine Pop and the team. (The Judge could remind one of the Wall Street men who made money by betting against their own organizations to prosper, bringing on the recession in 2008). When Roy leaves the office he turns on the lights, symbolically revealing the true unsavory nature of The Judge. The Judge says “Turn off that infernal light!” “Infernal” is the adjective for “inferno” which stands for “hell.” For a fallen soul such as The Judge, heavenly light is an enemy, as sunlight is to a vampire. Gus now appears out of the darkness of the room, like a demon, saying they will have to get Roy to comply with their demands through other methods than greed. That means using Memo.

Max is at a batting practice and observes Roy, who, after being encouraged by other players, pitches a ball so fast that it embeds itself in the netting of the batting cage. The camera points back at the seat where Max sat, which is now empty. We now know Max remembers his first encounter with Roy and The Whammer. Max confronts Roy with the recollection and convinces him to meet with him to give the reporter his story. They meet at dinner, but Roy is surprised to see others present. Memo is there, and Max introduces Roy to Gus. The bookie says he lost money betting against Roy’s performance. Gus always seems to bet against actions, showing an acceptance of the failure of human beings, and a desire to exploit it. This fact identifies him as an antagonist, a person who tries to stop the protagonist from reaching his goal. Max urges Gus to demonstrate his “magic eye” that he uses to see the outcome of his bets. Gus then covers one eye with the other bulging out. He looks like a monster, similar to the cyclops in The Odyssey, a creature who also tried to stop a mythic figure from getting to his home. He bets Roy that he has within a dollar only ten bucks in his pocket. It looks like he has won the bet, and Gus says to Roy forget about paying him, and says maybe Roy will do him a favor in the future instead. But Roy recognizes Gus’ scheme, and says, appropriately given the wager, “Don’t bet on it.” He then does a slight of hand and appears to pull silver coins out of Memo’s hair, showing that he actually did win the bet. This scene shows how Roy’s benevolent magic can defeat Gus’ evil powers.
Roy dances with Memo and she seduces him with her feminine charms. While in bed while he is sleeping she touches his shoulder where the bullet left a scar. Roy wakes up from a nightmare involving Harriet. This image shows how Memo is connected to the femme fatale persona. However, Roy is blind at this point to  seeing Memo’s power over him. Her debilitating effect on Roy, like kryptonite on Superman, causes him to go into a prolonged hitting slump, and the team falters. Levinson presents us with the image of a photographer’s light bulb slowly burning out, telling us that Roy’s fame is fading, and his allegiance to the forces of goodness are diminishing. Memo is actually caught between two worlds, one represented by Roy, and the other consisting of Gus, The Judge, and Max. She wanted Roy to win the bet with Gus, and has true feelings for him. But she has sold her soul to the devil, in this case, Gus, who provided for her when she was down and out.
Iris has followed Roy’s failing performance and goes to a game when the Knights come to Chicago. She wears white and stands up as Roy is about to strike out. The sun illuminates her hat, and it looks like a halo. Her guardian angel influence (she too exerts magic) brings the light of benevolence back to Roy, who feels it as he holds and looks at Wonderboy. It’s as if the bat is a lightning rod conducting heavenly power. He hits a ball so hard on the next pitch that it shatters the scoreboard clock. He has stopped the current downward timeline on which he has traveled and now can start a fresh, uplifting one. He gets a note from Iris to meet her at the soda shop. Their reunion is awkward. Roy says he hasn’t married, and Iris says, innocently, “How did the girls miss you.” Harriet didn’t “miss” with her gunshot, a demonic version of Cupid’s arrow. Roy doesn’t want to reveal what happened to him out of shame. He does convince Iris to attend the next game, where he hits four consecutive home runs. They walk after the game and he tells her the whole story about Harriet. He was in the hospital for two years, lost his confidence, and did various jobs before trying baseball again. They go to her apartment where Roy sees a boy’s baseball glove on the sofa. Iris says it belongs to her son. Roy at first is taken aback, but smiles when she says what a great kid he is. She says his father lives in New York, and unless you are dense, which apparently Roy is when it comes to women, you realize that it is his child. Iris says maybe her son needs his father now. Roy says, “Sure. A father makes all the difference,” as it did in his life. Iris realizes that Roy would leave the game to be with his son, so she says he has to leave to catch his train for the next game.

Roy is cold toward Memo on the phone, now that he has reconnected with the woman who is his moral compass. Memo, though, pretends for Gus’ sake to act like she still has “control” over Roy. The Knights stage a miraculous comeback, echoing the New York Giants of 1951, and need just one more game to win the pennant. Roy goes to a party at Memo’s new apartment. Gus is there and he again tries to bribe him to help the Knights lose. Gus says what guy wouldn't want to be in Roy’s shoes, having a girl like Memo. Roy utters a great line about Gus’ pushiness: “You’re standing awful close Gus. I can’t tell if it’s my toes I’m feeling, or yours.” After Roy walks away, Gus grabs hold of Memo and says to her that he doesn’t like being disappointed. She feeds Roy some food that turns out to contain some poison. Roy is rushed to the nearest hospital, which is a maternity medical facility (possibly indicating he needs to be reborn after his brush with death delivered by the fatal woman?). While he is unconscious for a few days, the Knights lost games, and can only win the pennant by winning a playoff game. The doctor says they pumped his digestive track and retrieved Harriet’s silver bullet, which has been deteriorating the lining of his stomach. The doctor says if he plays now his insides could explode, killing him on the spot.

Roy has visitors while hospitalized, all bringing different messages. The fellow ballplayers offer their good humor and support. Memo shows up, still trying to get Roy to quit so Gus will stake them to a lot of money, but she also shows that she has genuine feelings for Roy. He confesses his lack of insight to Iris in not seeing the trouble that Harriet would bring. Their conversation echoes the one earlier in the story between Roy and Harriet. He laments that he could have broken every record in the book. She uses Harriet’s line by saying, “And then?” He again says then people would say there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was in the game. Roy still seems to harbour that destructive hubris. Iris tempers his pride by saying that people live two lives, “The life we learn with and the life we live with after that.” She tells him despite not breaking records, he will be remembered for what he has accomplished and his inspiration will live on in the hope he has given to scores of young people. He moves away from his own fame and sees the bigger picture when he says, “I love baseball.” She is about to tell him about his son, but they are interrupted by a nurse. The Judge visits him at night (in the dark, of course) and tries to bribe him one last time, dropping $20,000 on his bed to make sure that if he does play, he will fail to hit a ball safely. Max has also dug up the news story about Roy and Harriet, and The Judge threatens to expose the information as a scandal. He also hints that he has another “key” player that he has swayed to help insure a loss. Once the decay of morality and optimism takes hold, it can easily spread.

Roy shows up at The Judge’s office, where he is accompanied by his co-conspirators, Gus and Memo. Good dialogue ensues. Gus says to Roy that he seems lost. Roy accurately says, “I’m not.” He is on the righteous path, as is affirmed when The Judge says he was relying on his honor, and Roy says “you’re about to.” When asked what are his intentions, Roy says “to hit away,” showing he is going to use whatever strength he has to defeat their plans. The Judge again threatens to reveal Roy’s past, but Roy doesn’t care about what people think about him anymore, putting the hopes of others ahead of his own pride. Gus says they won’t use the story because he likes the “action” of the gamble. Memo grabs a gun and fires it in her frustration with Roy. He disarms her, showing he now recognizes her danger by saying she was right, “we have met before,” since she is like Harriet. Gus then basically repeats to Roy what his father told him, that he has a gift, but it’s not enough. But, unlike Roy’s dad, Gus offers no encouragement to use the gift wisely, and only labels Roy, “a loser.”
Roy goes to the team locker room and hears Pop say if he wins the pennant he will walk away from baseball and buy a farm, basically mirroring Roy’s journey to survive the corruption of the world and return to a pastoral home. Roy praises farm life, where it’s great to be around the greenest (implying innocent and unspoiled) things you’d ever see. Pop says Roy is the greatest hitter he ever saw, so he should “suit up.” Roy struggles in the game, but Iris gets a message to him that his son is in the crowd. At his last at bat he hits a foul ball that shatters the glass in front of Max’s news booth, showering divine wrath on the compromised reporter. Another foul ball breaks Wonderboy. Bobby gives Roy the bat they made together, the Savoy Special. This bat symbolizes a return to the hope and potential that Roy had as a youth. But he must face a young farm boy left-handed pitcher with a powerful fast ball. In a way, the opposing pitcher represents the future that Roy forfeited, and Roy must find redemption by triumphing despite his past mistakes.

When Roy hits the next pitch, it sounds like a cannon going off and the subsequent fireworks that occur as the ball destroys the stadium’s lights show how Roy has destroyed the dark plot of The Judge, Gus, Memo, and Max. We see the ball traveling through the sky and it turns into one that Roy throws to his son as they play catch back in the fields of the farm, with Iris standing next to them, in her role as guardian angel. The hero, like Odysseus, has faced his challenges and has returned home.
For the holidays, I will post a few comments om films I liked this past year.