Sunday, March 25, 2018


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Those stories that fit into the category of “film noir” usually have a twisted mystery at their centers, but these movies also contain a hard-boiled, cynical view of society, and there is usually criminal activity involved. Many times, there is a “femme fatale” who acts as a seductress, and who appears more innocent than she really is. The main character may be trying to figure out the scheme and the schemers, but he is not a typical “good guy,” and, instead, has his own dark side. Just a few examples are The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Chinatown. The unique twist in this 2005 film is that all the players are high school students and very young adults. This unusual take on the genre allows for some comic contrast between the age of the characters and the activities in which they are engaged. But, don’t let that fool you. There is real danger here, and the jarring takeaway is that we live in a broken society which has corrupted the innocence of its youth.
The movie (written and directed by Rian Johnson) begins with an out of focus shot that resolves into clarity, which is the journey of both the main character, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and the audience. We immediately know we are in a precarious place since there is a body of a young girl on the ground and Brendan is slumped against a wall, as if his feet have been knocked out from under him, as he stares at the corpse. Behind the dead girl is a dark tunnel (suggesting the mystery and foreboding road to travel on to understand what has happened). The body lies in a small stream of water that flows through the center of the scene. For me, it suggests the shower scene in Psycho, where a young woman was also killed in a place where water flowed, and we saw her life drain out of her. The soundtrack reminded me of an electrified version of the one in the suspense movie Experiment in Terror, starring Glenn Ford and Lee Remick.
The story then shifts to two days earlier. Brendan finds a note in his locker to go to a public phone booth, where he receives a call from his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin). She hasn’t been seen for a few months, and she sounds distraught. She rambles about “Poor Frisco,” “Pin,” “brick,” and “Tug,” none of which makes any sense to Brendan. He knows she is nearby because she mentions something about seeing him. A car zooms past Brendan, and someone flicks a cigarette out the window as Emily screams. The cigarette has a blue arrow on it (pointing to the person who is behind what is going on?). Brendan consults with his smart friend, Brain (Matt O’Leary), who appropriately holds a solved Rubik's Cube. Brendan wants to know who Emily has been having lunch with, which calls attention to Brendan being a high school version of a private investigator. Brain says that Emily had been hanging out with the football player, Brad (Brian White), and his girlfriend, Laura (Nora Zehetner), a cheerleader. Brain, referring to the high ranking in the student body of these two, calls them, “the cream on the upper crust.” (In “film noir” works, the language is often stylized, with a wisecracking, metaphorical style present).

Brain apparently has locker numbers memorized and he tells Brendan the one that belongs to Emily. Brendan breaks into her locker and finds a ripped piece of a picture, colored red, of a woman, and also one of Kara (Meagan Good), a former girlfriend and drug dealing partner of Brendan’s. (This reveal shows Brendan’s dark past, which he apparently wanted to leave behind). Brendan finds the rest of the woman’s picture in Kara’s dressing room at a theater (which implies she knows how to put on a fictitious show for others, and thus is someone who is not to be trusted. This mistrust is confirmed when Kara says she doesn’t know Emily). The missing part of the photo suggests the need to put pieces of a puzzle together, an aspect of the film noir form. The photo is an invitation to a Halloween party in January (suggesting how things are out of sync here, and the use of costumes implies that we are dealing with people who are not really who they appear to be). Brendan calls the phone number on the photo and Laura answers. What follows is a good example of the sarcastic banter that permeates this script, and which highlights the discrepancy between the age of the characters and how jaded they have become in so short a time. Laura asks who is calling. Brendan says, “I won’t waste your time. You don’t know me.” Laura says, “I know everyone, and I have all the time in the world.” Brendan then quips, “Ah, the folly of youth.” He gets an invite to the party by dropping Emily’s name, who had an invitation. Brendan knows he does not travel in the realm of the “upper crust,” but what he eventually learns is that those privileged inhabitants sometimes descend into his world to wreak havoc (shades of The Great Gatsby?)
Brendan shows up at the party, and he is not in costume, which makes it look like he is someone not putting on a how, and is genuine, at least at this point. Laura’s place is the size of a mansion, confirming her upper crust status. Brad is there, drunk, complaining about how the coach isn’t putting him in the game. Laura and Brendan talk alone, and they drink alcohol like grown-ups, again inconsistent with their age group. The dialogue continues to be in that wisecracking style as Laura tells the quiet Brendan, “Quit your yapping.” Laura acts like she understands Brendan, and his feelings for Emily. She says, “You think nobody sees you. Eating lunch behind the portables. Loving some girl like she’s all there is, anywhere, to you. I’ve always seen you. Or maybe I liked Emily. Maybe I see what you’re trying to do for her, trying to help her, and I don’t know anybody who would do that for me.” But Brendan has seen how she has played Brad, who he considers a “sap,” and says to her after her speech, “Now you are dangerous.” It is a line that comes from The Maltese Falcon, and hints at Laura’s femme fatale role. Brendan tells her that he can’t trust her. He smartly says, “With you behind me I’d have to tie one eye up watching both your hands, and I can’t spare it.” Laura leaves him to talk to someone, but Brendan spies on her as she meets up with a guy who turns out to be the Tug (Noah Fleiss) that Emily mentioned on the phone with Brendan. Tug looks angry while talking with Laura.

Laura does point Brendan to a cafe called Coffee and Pie, Oh My, where he encounters Dode (Noah Segan). He is a stoner, who has several fellow dopers with him. Brendan pressures him about Emily’s whereabouts, and even starts beating him up. (Brendan looks like a disheveled nerd with his glasses on, but he takes them off when he knows he’s going to get physical, which seems like a humorous version of Clark Kent turning into Superman). Dode says that Emily is his girlfriend now. Brendan tells Dode he wants to hear the truth from Emily herself, and that she should meet him where he eats lunch. The young guys with Dode appear to want to stop Brendan’s interrogation, but he wittily stands up to them when he says, “Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you.” They back off. Dode runs off, and Brendan follows him. Unhappily, Brendan does see Dode meet up with Emily, hug her, and he gives her a slip of paper.

Emily does show up where Brendan eats lunch. He sits on a wall at school during lunch break, as if straddling the line between childhood and adulthood, innocence and a world of crime. He’s tried to rescue her before, and in a flashback, we see them arguing. He had turned his drug partner, Jerr, in because he felt that Jerr and Emily were developing a relationship that would harm her. She says now that she does not like that he wants to run her life. Despite her calling him earlier for help, she says that he should forget about her. She has made her choice as to those she wants to associate with. She tries to assert her separateness from Brendan when she tells him, “Stop getting angry because where I want to be at is different from where you want to be at.” She tells Brendan that she loved him but now the only way to help her is to let her go. While they hug goodbye, Brendan takes a notebook from her. He sees a symbol on the note that Dode gave her. It looks like the letter “A” but with a curved top. Brain doesn’t know what it means but says it could be a symbol for a meeting place. Later, Brendan wakes up with the realization that the symbol represents the place in front of the tunnel. By the time he gets there, he finds Emily’s dead body, and we have returned to the first shot of the movie. Now we hear footsteps in the darkness of the tunnel and Brendan runs after the sound. He is knocked down and we don’t see the person fleeing the scene.

Brendan is now desperate to find out what happened. He goes to Brain but does not tell him about Emily’s death. He hides her body in the tunnel and we have a flashback where Emily accuses Brendan of not loving her. Brendan, almost in tears, says “You’re the only thing I love! You’re the only thing I love.” We see here that there is an emotional side to Brendan that he covers up with a tough exterior to survive in this strange world to survive. But it also shows how empty his life is now that the only person he cared about is dead. When Brain asks if Brendan can “raise her,” Brandan says no, but the line takes on added significance because he can’t “raise” the dead, except in memories. Brendan wants Brain’s help to figure out what Emily was referring to when he talked to her on the phone two days earlier. Brain says “pin” can refer to the “Kingpin,” who is the local head of drug traffic for young people, including rich clients, like Brad, the football player. He also says that “Frisco” could be a boy who was a sophomore the previous year, “real trash.”  
Brendan wants to talk to Pin (Lukas Haas), so he picks a fight with Brad in the school parking lot where Brad is still whining about how he hasn’t been named as a starter on the team. It is a funny scene at the beginning as Brendan says he was impressed by Brad’s outburst and is actually a scout who wants to sign him up. Brad just keeps saying “Yeah,” and Brendan tells him, “There’s a thesaurus in the library. ‘Yeah’ is under ‘Y.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.” After a bloody fight, Brendan knocks Brad out. The Pin’s muscle, Tug, shows up, but instead of taking him to see the Pin, Tug beats up Brendan badly. We then find Brendan in the office of Assistant Vice Principal Trueman (Richard Rountree). He is the first adult we see in the film. For that matter, we never find the students in classrooms, which emphasizes how far removed these young people are from what we would consider the average safe world of teenagers protected by grownups (although based on the current armed attacks on schools in the U. S., maybe Brick’s dangerous world view is more accurate). In keeping with the teen noir feel of the film, this school official sounds more like a police lieutenant who has made deals with Brendan in the past, such as when he squealed on Jerr. Brendan says of that, “I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.” Even Trueman is impressed with how well Brendan can turn a phrase, and says, “very well put.” We then get the only time an adult is shown as a good influence, because Brendan attributes his verbal skill to an English teacher, who was “tough but fair.” In Brendan’s hard world, that is what he respects. Brendan says he is not Trueman’s “boy,” and is not on anybody’s side but his own (sounding like Bogart in Casablanca). So, he isn’t there to rat on a list of people Trueman wants to run by him. He and Trueman make a deal to give Brendan some time so that he can deliver some wrongdoers.

Brain informs Brendan that Dode is missing, and he is involved with Kara. Brain also says that Laura has been asking about Brendan. While walking through the parking lot, Brendan sees Tug’s car and is ready to break into it with a piece of cinderblock. Tug approaches quickly, in his white wool cap and white T-shirt, his muscles bulging (white is usually associated with a “good” guy, but just the opposite here). Tug again pounds Brendan, but the latter keeps getting up and says he wants to talk to the Pin. Tug, grudgingly starting to admire Brendan, puts him in his car trunk, so Brendan won’t know Pin’s whereabouts. Brendan is able to pop the trunk and sees that they drive to a suburban house, and he notices the address.
Pin also dresses up (like those at the Halloween party). He wears a cape that makes him look like a vampire, and he uses a cane (but we find out later that he has problems walking, which hints at his underlying vulnerability). He is very cool and steady in his speech, and unblinking, which results in a sort of intimidating presence. (His nickname sounds like he might “pin’ you down, like an insect in a collection). Brendan says he knows where Pin lives and could divulge the information to Trueman. Tug starts beating on Brendan again, but Laura is there (cementing her association with these criminal types), and she stops Tug.
When Brendan can speak again, they go into Pin’s kitchen. We now have the second adult in the story, Pin’s mother (Reedy Gibbs). This scene is the best one in the film that shows the contrasting worlds of the innocent child and the corrupted young adult. Mom offers Brendan cereal and milk and Pin has a cookie in front of him, which he later munches on like a kid as he talks of his criminal business. Mom is very maternal, but although she doesn’t acknowledge her son’s activities, she obviously knows about them, as she discreetly leaves so that business can be discussed. Pin warns Brendan, wittily, that Tug is “only a fist away.” To gain credibility, Brendan admits to seeing Trueman and that he had given up his old partner for personal reasons, but can now inform Pin of the authorities’ plans, and can feed disinformation to Trueman. Pin says he will check out Brendan’s tale, and will then either hire him or turn Tug loose on him, depending on the results.

Laura gives Brendan a ride back to school in her vintage Ford Thunderbird (the car is something a person in an old film noir story would drive, not a 21st century student). She tells Brendan that Emily wanted to be with Pin, Kara, and the rest of that gang, but she didn’t fit in. (Emily was a tortured soul who was caught between the worlds of, as William Blake would call them, innocence and experience). Laura says that Emily stole a “brick” of heroin because of her addiction. Dode calls Brendan and says he saw Brendan moving Emily’s body, and he threatens to expose Brendan for his involvement in Emily’s death. Pin hires Brendan. When the two of them walk on the beach together, Pin says he was recently involved in a very lucrative deal, but he won’t say anything else. Pin admits to liking to read Tolkien’s Hobbit books. He says, “His descriptions of things are really good. He makes you wanna be there.” This admission on Pin’s part shows how there is still a part of him that yearns for a child’s enjoyment of an imaginative story, and maybe how he wishes he could escape from his scary reality into that other world. His cape and cane suggest he still enjoys playing dress up.

Brain tells Brendan that the boy Frisco was found in a coma after taking heroin that was poisoned with laundry detergent. Brendan sneaks into the Pin’s house and finds stacks of money hidden behind a desk drawer. He goes into a dark room with no electricity. He uses a mirror to reflect sunlight so he can see. He literally and figuratively shines a light on the dark deeds being carried out. He finds a brick of heroin. He encounters Tug, who appears distraught. Brendan gains his confidence because he says he thinks that Pin is holding information back, which he needs to protect himself. Tug says there were ten bricks, and eight were sold. The ninth went missing, but it was later anonymously returned. It was the one that Frisco sampled, and which poisoned him. The tenth one is the one Brendan discovered. When Brendan says he heard something about Emily being involved with the missing brick, Tug pretends that he doesn’t know Emily. But, Pin shows up and lets it become known that Emily and Tug were romantically involved.

Pin says someone has information about the missing Emily and that they are going to meet him (Brendan knows it’s Dode). Before the meeting, Brendan, who is sick from all the blood he has swallowed from his beatings (he may be symbolically ill from how violent his life has become), encounters Dode. He tells Brendan that he believes Brendan killed Emily when he found out that she was going to have Dode’s baby. Of course, this is shattering news to Brendan. Dode now wants to expose Brendan and get money from Pin for the information. The meeting with Dode, Pin, Tug, and Brendan takes place at the tunnel. Tug’s rage is evident as he pulls apart a piece of rope as Dode starts to talk about Emily and her being pregnant. Before Dode can try to implicate Brendan, Tug, who is in a jealous rage at the thought of Dode impregnating his girlfriend, shoots and kills Dode.
Brendan was so sick he passed out and wakes up in Tug’s home. Pin already admitted that Tug was getting out of control, and his killing Dode was the last straw. A war between Tug and Pin is looming. Tug basically admits to killing Emily in anger over the pregnancy. Laura comes into the room where Brendan is resting and the two become intimate. But then, Brendan notices that Laura was smoking a cigarette with a blue arrow on it. He finds out that Tug doesn’t smoke cigarettes. Brendan starts to carry out a plan. He asks to borrow Tug’s car to throw off anybody who might be following him. He says he will mediate a peace between Tug and Pin. Laura says she doesn’t want Brendan to go to this meeting because she thinks it will be dangerous. Brendan tells Brain to call the cops to have them show up at Pin’s at the end of the meeting and that there will be drugs in Tuck’s car. At the meeting, Pin thinks that Tug poisoned the 9th brick and wants proof that the last one is okay. Brendan offers to try it, but the last brick can’t be found. A battle breaks out between Tug’s men and Pin’s, each accusing the other group of treachery. Tug and Pin begin to struggle, and Brendan does not answer Pin’s pleas for help. Brendan escapes, and we see that he has placed Emily’s body in Tug’s car trunk as the police arrive.
Six people died at Pin’s including Pin and Tug. Brendan sees Laura on the school’s playing field (where opponents do battle, referring to what has and will take place). Brendan tells her (and us) about her involvement in the crimes committed. She was the one in the car, tossing her cigarette, when Emily screamed after catching a glimpse at the person that set her up. It was Laura who stole the 9th brick and poisoned it so that Pin’s reputation would be undermined, and which caused Frisco’s coma. She set up Emily as the one who took it. Once she learned that Emily was pregnant she urged her to meet with Tug and be honest about the baby. Laura knew about Tug’s temper, and figured that he would kill Emily, thus eliminating any chance that she would incriminate Laura in the theft of the brick. Laura even took the last brick to start a war between Pin and Tug. That is why she warned Brendan not to show up at the meeting. Brendan has already written a note for Truman telling him of Laura’s crimes, and we see Laura’s locker being opened and the last brick discovered.
Laura has a parting shot of her own to fire off. Emily was ready to abort the baby, but didn’t. It was three months old, so it was really Brendan’s child. In a noir story, although wrongdoers may be punished, so are the innocent, and there is no happy ending, no matter the age group of those involved.

Next time, a special post on favorite movie lines.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Thank You for Smoking

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Christopher Buckley, on whose novel this 2005 film is based, has no love for the tobacco industry because of personal reasons. His father, conservative writer and television personality William F. Buckley, Jr., died of emphysema, and, despite his political leanings, the elder Buckley wanted smoking eliminated. However, screenwriter and director Jason Reitman’s movie sees everything as fair game here, and satirizes Hollywood, the press, corporations, and politicians in his story.
The credits are written on cigarette packs, obviously referring to the subject of the film, but also stressing packaging. Much of the film is about spinning arguments, or packaging them, to steer the population away from the facts toward the tobacco industry’s viewpoint. The main character, actor Aaron Eckhart’s Nick Naylor (cigarettes as “nails” in a coffin?) provides a great deal of funny narration. He announces that it is not easy being the most “despised” man on the planet. He doesn’t blame people because he fronts “an organization that kills 1,200 people a day … I mean, there is Attila, Genghis, and me.” There is a shot of Nick flicking his lighter in front of the American flag. This image emphasizes freedom, which includes the liberty to make irresponsible, destructive decisions, such as smoking. Nick’s job is to “educate” the public concerning the findings of the Academy of Tobacco Studies. Nick says this “Academy” is run by a German scientist, Erhardt Von Grupten Mundt (you can almost goose-step to the sound of that name). This scientist’s job was to show that there was no direct evidence linking smoking to illnesses. Nick says of Mundt’s deniability talents, “The man’s a genius. He could disprove gravity.” We see Mundt experimenting on a rat as smoke fills the animal’s cage. There is a dark reference here to the Holocaust, and the Nazi gassing of Jews in concentration camps. The analogy here is that what Hitler did to the prisoners, big tobacco is doing to the populace. We have a shot of Nick speaking in fast motion, his mouth moving rapidly, accompanied by the sound of a machine gun in the background, implying that his warping of the facts can be lethal. He confesses that he gets “paid to talk” in order to maintain “spin control.” Nick says that the cigarette companies needed lawyers, so they recruited Ivy League lawyers, fresh out of law school, so they could corrupt them early, offering them cash and sports cars. We see twelve motionless lawyers smiling behind a table filled with books, a demonic version of The Last Supper, only all of them are Judases, and here they are betraying the public.
The story begins with a Joan Lunden talk show on which there is a bald teenage boy who has taken chemotherapy for his cancer. Nick is there to defend his employer. His capitalistic argument is that it is not in the interest of big tobacco for anyone to die, since they would be losing customers. He thus changes the argument by not addressing whether smoking does kill people, either through primary or secondary inhalation. He also omits the fact that as long as more people are born, there is always a fresh crop of clients. Nick pledges to initiate a fifty million dollar campaign to stop kids from smoking. His boss, BR (J. K. Simmons) is outraged, because Nick was supposed to only offer a token five million. But, the move worked, as the “Cancer Boy” shakes Nick's hand on television, as Nick peddled the idea of freedom to smoke for adults, despite its dangers, and avoided the issue of an outright ban on smoking.

This story takes place before the tobacco industry was found to be secretly addicting its customers, thus making one’s decision to stop smoking more difficult. So, at this point in time, Nick’s platform rests on the libertarian ideal that there must be no government restriction on an individual’s freedom of choice. However, he is on shaky ground when he talks about his work on parent career day in front of the class of his son, Joey (Cameron Bright). He tells the children that they should question their parents authority if they tell them that cigarettes are bad for them, and should make up their own minds. He is sneaky by saying they wouldn’t automatically believe their parents if they said chocolate was bad, introducing something desired and known to them, and not illegal to have as a child. It’s one thing to peddle his poison to consenting adults, but it’s quite another when he tries to influence grade schoolers. (This scene also undermines Nick’s argument at the end of the film that parents and teachers should guide their children about the dangers associated with smoking).
Nick meets for lunch regularly with the M.O.D. (Merchants of Death) Squad. Given what they call themselves, they definitely have an acknowledged dark sense of humor about their professional lives. Nick continues using his wit of exaggeration, as he did in describing Mundt, when saying that Maria Bello’s Polly Bailey (“poly” means many, which fits with her drinking a lot, and maybe she likes “Bailey’s” Irish Cream), as a “casual drinker by the age of 14” who “quickly developed a tolerance usually reserved for Irish dockworkers.” Appropriately, Polly is a lobbyist for the alcohol industry, and works for the Moderation Council. Like the tobacco academy, her employer has a beneficial sounding name meant to deceive the public. Ditto, the other M.O.D. member, actor David Koechner’s gun advocate Bobby Jay Bliss (“bliss” is not what he is dispensing, at least not for his product’s victims). Nick shows how warped this guy is when he says that Bobby Jay, after seeing the National Guard shootings at Kent State during anti-war protests, wanted to sign up so he, too, could shoot college students. He works for “S.A.F.E.T.Y.” (another deceptively positive sounding name), which stands for “The Society for the Advancement of Firearms and Effective Training for Youth.” Just as in Nick’s pitching smoking to kids, we have here the association of guns with young people, which is especially scary right now in the aftermath of firearm assaults at schools. These three represent and advocate the unencumbered use of alcohol, tobacco, and firearms, which is what the law enforcement ATF agency tries to control. The film gives us mirror images to show the tension that occurs when freedom runs up against responsibility.
Another darkly humorous aspect of this movie is Nick’s mentoring of Joey. Nick is divorced from his son’s mother, Jill (Kim Dickens), who has taken up residence with her boyfriend, Brad (Daniel Travis). After dropping Joey off, Brad (wearing a white lab coat, implying he has some scientific knowledge) tells Nick that he hopes he is protecting Joey from second hand smoke. Again, changing the argument, Nick says he is the father, and Brad is just having sex with Joey’s mom, as if that point invalidates Brad’s justifiable concern. When Joey asks Nick, for a homework assignment, why is the U. S. government the best, Nick half-jokingly says, it’s “because of our endless appeals system.” This remark shows gratitude for a slow judicial system that prevents average people from getting justice for wrongs committed by conglomerates like big tobacco. Nick goes on to question what is meant by “best” which is a “bullshit” term, because of its vagueness. That uncertainty can be exploited by a person like Nick, who knows how to argue, and Nick cynically tells Joey that “if you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.” He basically is telling his young son that you can spin anything to your own advantage (fake news anyone?). Later Joey shows how he has learned how to alter an argument when he presents his essay about American government in class. He says it’s great because of “love,” which of course is not relevant, but the word has such a warm, sentimental feel to it, that it’s vagueness and irrelevance don't stop him from winning over the audience (and he later is considered the best debater in his school).
Nick later tells Joey that in his job he has to have “a certain moral flexibility.” He says just like child murderers deserve a legal defense, so do multinational corporations. The association between these two implies that the companies are just as scary as other predators. Instead of qualifying whether his “moral flexibility” is a good thing, he proceeds to show how he works his magic. He poses the question of whether chocolate or vanilla ice cream is the best. Of course, nobody can really argue that point, because it comes down to individual taste. Joey takes up the position that chocolate is the best, and Nick says “I need more than chocolate, and for that matter I need more than vanilla. I believe that we need freedom. And choice when it comes to our ice cream, and that, Joey Naylor, that is the definition of liberty.” Joey rightly says that was not what they were talking about. Nick says, “Ah, but that’s what I’m talking about.” Nick is showing his son how to change the argument to one he can win. He obviously impresses Joey with his “moral flexibility” that can be used to scam people, because they are seen on a ride eating vanilla ice cream.

Joey is a quick learner because he convinces his mother to let him go on a work trip with his father. Like Nick he reaches his goal by changing the argument. She doesn’t want Joey exposed to Nick’s line of work. Joey says, “Mom, is it possible that you’re taking the frustration of your failed marriage out on me? … If you think it’s more important to use me to channel your frustration against the man you no longer love, I’ll understand.” He changes the discussion to one where it looks like he is the victim in his mother’s relationship issue, and does it with a facade of understanding and willingness for self-sacrifice. How could she not let him go?
Nick has a revelation while watching an old John Wayne war movie, which was made when smoking was seen in most films. His idea is that they will sell more cigarettes if they put smoking into films with attractive movie stars in romantic situations. It’s always about selling the product by using attractive packaging. He wants to make smoking sexy again, as it was in old Bogart and Bacall films. He flies to Winston-Salem, North Carolina (the home of tobacco) to pitch his plan to the big boss, The Captain (Robert Duvall). While on the plane, Nick says he likes to fly in the economy section to be with the common folk. He appears to be a man of the people, but he says if he can convince one young person (making him a life-long customer) to start smoking, he has paid for his flight. Again it’s packaging. Nick on the surface looks like a regular guy, a pal, but he’ll sell his poison to you so he can make a buck.

The Captain is a take on the self-made man, which is the the symbol of capitalist achievement. Only, this guy has made his money by killing his fellow citizens. He shows Nick how to rub mint leaves to make a mint julep, and says he was taught by Fidel Castro. He also says that he fought against the Chinese in the Korean War, and now they are their best customers. The thrust here is that making money transcends politics and ideology. He says to Nick that his grandchild asked him if cigarettes are bad. The Captain doesn’t feel guilty about the deaths he has caused, he only worries about how things “look” to his grandchild. He wants to improve the “image” of smoking, not the substance of the health problem associated with it.

So, Nick gets permission to go to Los Angeles. He flies home on the Captain’s plane, “Tobacco One,” which is sort of the evil version of Air Force One, implying that business  has just as much to say about the country as does government. Before going to Hollywood with Joey, Nick has a lunch with the M.O.D. Squad, where Booby Jay offers some arguments against blaming their respective companies for subsequent negative outcomes. He says we don’t blame Boeing for a pilot error or General Motors if a an individual causes a car accident. The argument is a sham of course, because their products can have direct cause-and-effect harm to individuals.
Packaging is also on the mind of government. Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy) wants to put a skull and crossbones on every pack of cigarettes. He is unhappy about the way Nick turned the audience around on the Joan Lunden show to his side. He tells his aide that the cancer victim they present should be in a wheelchair and have difficulty speaking. Just like Nick, he wants to sway opinion, and is not above exploiting another person’s misery to reach his goal. He also has numerous bottles of Vermont maple syrup on his desk. The senator obviously doesn’t care what all that sugar can do to one’s health; he only fights a cause that doesn’t conflict with his own interests.
Nick and Joey the fly to Hollywood. They go to the offices of Jeff Megall (Rob Lowe), who is a motion picture facilitator. His whole enterprise is a deception. The building is steeped in an Asian, Zen-like feel to promote a sense of peace and well-being. Joey and Nick, while waiting in the lobby, watch a Blue Planet segment on a huge TV screen. It is supposed to promote a concern for the environment, but that feeling is undermined by the shot they watch which is that of a killer whale devouring its food, suggesting the survival of the fittest feel of Hollywood, and corporate America. Jeff’s assistant is Jack (Adam Brody), and he too contrasts with any sense of tranquility. He non-stop talks, quickly jumping from subject to subject without pause. He first offers Joey some juice, but then escalates to coffee and then Red Bull, which he apparently gulps. Jack also tells the Japanese worker who is raking sand in a display to speed it up since, “that sand’s not gonna rake itself.” He makes some violent comment that’s supposed to be a joke to a co-worker about impaling his mom on a spike and feeding her body to his syphilitic dog. The laughter of the two men is supposed to make their exchange “appear” funny, but the reality is that there is a nasty undertone in the the business world. When Jack takes Nick and Joey past a pond full of fish, his emphasis is not on the beauty of the animals, but on how expensive they are, which shows the true priority of corporations.

Jeff, who according to Jack invented product placement, wants to put cigarettes in the future, in an outer space movie, with Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta Jones. They will make love while smoking. By placing smoking in the future it shows that it will endure, and any health problems in the here and now are forgotten by being distracted by the beauty of the movie’s stars. When asked by Nick if he has concerns about the health issues surrounding cigarettes, Jeff says he is not a doctor, but a facilitator who brings artistic people together. He says whatever information is out there and it’s not his role to decide for people. To do so would be “morally presumptuous.” Nick admits that he could learn a lot from this man. Jeff’s argument is a good libertarian one, but what Jeff leaves out is how presenting a hazardous product in a positive light does, in fact, try to influence the decisions of others. Jeff’s world is an edited one, as is the case with recommending Nick to co-invest with a foreign tyrannical dictator, because his personal dealings with him have been fine. He says he’s “fun,” probably just as fun as Idi Amin was when he wore Scottish clothes.
While out in California, the Captain gives Nick an assignment to buy off the ex-Marlboro Man, Lorne Lutch (Sam Elliott), who is dying of cancer, so he won’t slam big tobacco. Lorne is angry because after he became ill, the tobacco company turned its back on him, because he tarnished their image, and they even said that he never worked for them. He asks Nick why does he work for these terrible people, and he says he’s good at his job. Lorne, says, “Aw hell, son. I was good at shooting VC. I didn’t make it my career.” He makes a good point, since there is a difference between having to do something awful and choosing to repeat doing it, especially for profit. Nick is a good salesman, though, and tells Lorne he can get back at his former employers by showing the blood money they offered him to the press and then donating it to charity. Nick empties the suitcase full of cash on the floor that he has brought, supposedly to show how Lorne should display it to the reporters, but he really wants him to see how much money there is. He tells Lorne that the bottom line is he can’t accept the money and denounce big tobacco. Of course, Lorne takes the money. Joey asks his father how did he know that Lorne would accept the cash and agree to shut up. Nick says he saw that a person would have to be crazy to refuse all that money, and he saw that Lorne wasn’t insane. Joey asks his dad if he would have accepted the payoff, and Nick says yes. Joey then says he would, too. The irony here is in the presentation. The scene between father and son is shot as a warm, bonding moment where Joey shows admiration for Nick, who responds with a grateful smile. Again, the packaging says one thing, but what is really going on is that Nick is showing his son that greed comes before one’s morality.

Nick and Senator Finistirre appear on a Dennis Miller TV show. The senator says he wants Nick to appear before his congressional committee, but Nick points out that he receives mixed messages from Finistirre, who says he cares about farmers, and then calls for the slashing and burning of tobacco crops. There is editing in the argument again, since there are many crops that can be grown that do no endanger the citizenry. During the call-in section of the program, Nick receives a death threat. A very dark comic scene follows where Nick meets with his fellow M.O.D Squad partners, and they actually argue as to who is really worthy of “vigilante justice” based on the mortality rates associated with their companies. It is pretty upsetting when workers take pride in how many deaths their merchandise causes.
Nick is abducted and his captors place numerous nicotine patches on him, as a sort of divine retribution. He has a nightmare after passing out about inhaling deadly smoke in a burning building. Perhaps the toxic overdose of nicotine triggers a subconscious feeling of guilt for what he does for a living. The irony is that he had built up such a tolerance for nicotine that his smoking saved his life. However, the doctor says his body can’t tolerate any more and he must stop his cigarette habit. BR says they have public sympathy for once on their side since Nick is seen as the victim this time around. Senator Finistirre again shows the nasty side of government as he complains about Nick’s new popularity, saying it was a shame he didn’t just die. So much for the sincerity of his compassion for the health of others.

That public support doesn’t last long. Nick had allowed an interview with reporter Heather Holloway (Katie Holmes). Her pleasant first name is deceptive, whereas her last name shows her to have a center that is empty of professional journalistic ethics. She seduces Nick, who reveals his meetings with the M.O.D. Squad, his jokes about smoking helping with population control, his idea for selling death-delivering cigarettes in a sci-fi film, and his grooming of Joey. He even says to her that the reason he does what he does is because “I just need to pay the mortgage.” (Nick calls this “The Yuppie Nuremberg defense,” which is another time the movie equates cigarette industry with Nazis). Heather includes all of this dirt in a published article, even though Nick had turned off her tape recorder. BR lets him go to put distance between tobacco and his now negative image (showing once more the importance placed on how things appear). The Captain has died of a heart condition, ironically probably brought on by smoking, turning himself into a victim of his own doing. In any event, he is no longer there to have Nick’s back.
Nick begins to despair, but due to an emotional speech delivered by Joey, calling his dad “The Sultan of Spin,” we have a deeply satiric, sentimental, inspired response from Nick, regaining his purpose. He says his job is protecting the disenfranchised companies, such as the “logger destroying forests, the sweat shop foreman, the oil driller, the land mine developer, the baby seal poacher” (with accompanying image of a guy with a club ready to do in the critter). Nick apologizes to Polly and Billy Ray, and at one of their lunches he gets an idea as to how to testify before Congress. Billy Ray orders a slice of apple pie, covered in cheese, and the dish has a tiny American flag stuck in it. Nick says it’s disgusting, but Billy Ray says, “It’s American.” There is that idea of freedom to choose, even to one’s own detriment.
Before showing up at Senator Finistirre’s committee, Nick outs Heather for using her unscrupulous ways for acquiring her information. At the congressional hearing, the senator says that the tobacco academy is biased because it receives its funding from tobacco companies. Nick effectively counters that the academy is no more swayed than is the senator by campaign contributions, implying that maybe the senator isn’t the right one to be throwing stones. Nick admits that cigarettes are associated with disease, but why single it out as the entity to have the skull and crossbones on it. Nick says the biggest killer is heart disease, and Vermont cheddar cheese increases cholesterol, so why not place the poison label on it, as well as airplanes and cars, since all of these things can lead to death. Nick makes a good libertarian argument that adult individuals should make up their own minds as to how to live, and parents and teachers, not government, have the job of educating children about safety. But, Finistirre takes Nick up on that point, asking him what will he do when his son turns eighteen and wants to smoke. Nick sticks to his argument and says if his son wants a cigarette when he is of age, Nick will buy him his first pack.

Even though BR says he did great at the hearing, Nick, perhaps because he finally feels guilty that he may send his son on the road to illness, won’t take his old job back. It turns out that the decision worked out, because after the cigarette companies had to make a huge payout for deceiving the public about addiction manipulation, BR and others lost their jobs. There is another shot taken at the government as Finistirre proposes editing out cigarettes in old movies, replacing them with silly objects such as party favors. He says he’s not altering history, but “improving” it. Shades of 1984.
The last scene has Nick now representing cell phone companies, assuring them that all they have to say is that “there is no direct evidence that links cell phone usage and brain cancer.” He has just moved on to a new product, but he is still spinning. Nick says, “Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. Everyone has a talent.” But, if it's is a destructive one, should you, as Lorne said earlier, make a career out of it?

The next film is Brick.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Frozen River

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Similar to another cold-titled movie previously discussed, Winter’s Bone, we have in this 2008 film a view of how those living in oppressive poverty may turn to illegal means for relief when there is no legitimate help on which to rely. The story here distills this theme down to the lives of a struggling wife, Ray (Melissa Leo), and a single Mohawk mother, Lila (Misty Upham).
The first shot is of the frozen river of the title. It provides a means of crossing over the border between New York state and Canada. The idea of connecting is presented here, as the two main characters must eventually span the cultural divide between them. As Lila says later, there is no boundary when it comes to Mohawk territory, and that statement takes on metaphorical meaning, as borders between people must be obliterated in order for them to help each other out, since poverty knows no ethnic or cultural boundaries. We see a new trailer home on the road, which suggests the happy arrival of a new house being delivered, and on which Ray has pinned her hopes for her family. We have a sign that announces the location as Messina, “The Gateway to the Fourth Coast,” implying that we are not in the pick of the litter of locations. The next shot is that of a child’s merry-go-round, but it is not a happy sight, since there are no children playing on it (we in fact find out that it is broken), and the area appears cold, snow-laden, and pretty much inhospitable. We see Ray’s run-down trailer home and Ray is outside , in the cold, alone, crying. She has put a deposit down on a new double-wide, but her gambling-addicted husband took the money for the first installment and ran off.

When the trailer delivery man arrives, Ray tries to get him to leave half of the trailer. It is the second time he has come out and his frustration and Ray’s mirror each other, only, literally, from different sides of the “coin.” The struggle for money is the consuming preoccupation of these people living on the edge of America’s physical and fiscal outskirts. Even the name of the store where Ray works, the “Yankee One Dollar,” emphasizes the importance of the need for a bargain to save some cash. Ray has been employed there for two years, and she was promised that she would be given full-time status after six months. But her boss, despite her the length of time there and always being on time, considers Ray to be a short-timer who is not commited. Her employer just wants to exploit her. For Ray, living by society’s rules has only short-changed her. When Ray stops for gas, she can only find $2.74 in her pocket, and is thrilled when she discovers an extra $5 in her clothes. For dinner, her children eat Tang and popcorn. She rummages through the sofa to find loose change for her boys’ lunch money. Her young son, Ricky, (James Reilly), asks what will happen to their old trailer once they get the new one. She tells him that it will be flattened, sent to China, and made into toys that she will probably sell at the Yankee One Dollar. This little tale shows how Americans are exploited in the world of commerce as they will wind up paying for the same objects twice, once when they are new and again when they are discarded. It also points out how marginal is their existence. Such is the deprived world in which Ray and her family live.

Her son, T.J. (Charlie McDermott) tries to fix the merry-go-round, not so his brother, Ricky, can enjoy playing on it, but so that he can sell it to make money. He is fifteen-years-old, and wants to get a job to help out. But his mother refuses because she doesn’t want him to have to grow up too quickly and lose the chance at enjoying his youth before taking on the burdens of a grown-up. T.J. uses a blowtorch to try and fix the children’s ride, but Ray chastises him about the danger involved (a bit of foreshadowing of what is to come). The runaway dad gave the torch to his son, and he wants to use it, because it is his way of holding onto the hope for the return of his errant father. T.J. yells at his mother for getting on his father too much about turning over his paycheck to her and going to rehab meetings. She reminds him that her husband is an “addict” when it comes to gambling, but his affliction also points to an attempt at finding alternate means to get money when it is so difficult to get ahead financially.

Ray goes looking for her husband and finds his car at a Mohawk bingo parlor, where Lila works. Lila has poor vision which makes it difficult to read the playing cards. She can’t do a good job taking phone messages at a Mohawk reservation office because nobody can read her writing. This physical problem infringes on her ability to earn a living and thus limits her independence. Ray does not find her husband at the bingo tables, but sees Lila drive off in her husband’s car. Ray follows her to Lila’s home, which is also a trailer, one even more dilapidated than Ray’s, since Lila’s doesn’t even have heat. (We hear the man on her radio talking about how it is going to get much colder, with a new storm coming in, which basically stresses how dire her world is). Ray wants the keys to her car, and threatens Lila, shooting a hole in her trailer. Lila gives her the keys, and when Ray says how her husband left his family, Lila tells Ray she saw a man abandon the car and leave on a bus. After Ray is unable to tow the car, Lila says that she can take her to someone who will buy the automobile. It is a trick, because Lila wants to use the car to smuggle illegal Chinese workers into the U. S. Lila gets a hold of Ray’s gun, and forces Ray to go along with the scheme, but offers Ray half of the money she receives. Ray asks what if the police stop them, but Lila says, “They’re not gonna stop you. You’re white.” And, sure enough, they drive right past a trooper, who ignores Ray’s car. These scenes stress the racial profiling in the law enforcement system.
Lila shares the fact that she lost her husband, who drowned (people say they are “drowning in debt,” and perhaps, given the emphasis on the lack of money here, Lila’s husband symbolically died of poverty). Lila’s baby son was taken from her by her mother-in-law, which shows Lila’s sense of helplessness. Her dependence can be seen in the fact that she needs Ray’s car, and her good eyesight to count the money. When they cross the frozen river, and Lila tells Ray not to worry about crossing illegally into Canada, because the whole area is Mohawk territory, we are reminded how the whole continent at one time belonged to Native Americans. But, the whites came and divided the land up, confining the original inhabitants to small reservations. Driving over the river now implies crossing the line between legality and unlawfulness, and when we see the sign that warns of “Danger,” it not only indicates the possibility of cracking the ice, but also of breaking the law. Despite the fact that Lila echoes Ray’s lack of money, and loss of a husband, the two do not get along at this point. Lila has taken her husband’s car, and fooled her into committing a crime. Lila says she isn’t used to working with whites, so the historical animosity divides them. After they conclude their journey, Lila doesn’t pay up, and they struggle, with Lila escaping.

Christmas is coming and Ray doesn’t have enough money to put gifts under the tree. T.J. warns his mother about how their TV is going to be repossessed. (He later runs a scam on an elderly Mohawk woman on the phone, stealing her credit card number, hoping to pay the installment on the television. The company only accepts cash, sparing him the “crossing the line” scenario. But, the scene shows how poverty can corrupt young people, forcing them to lose their innocence, and initiating them into a life of crime). Ray tells T.J. to put up the Christmas tree, because she is going “Christmas shopping.” Ray wants what many American families want, but the irony here is that the only way she knows how to get it is to become a criminal. She again confronts Lila, and this time volunteers to be her smuggling partner.
The people that they are bringing into the U. S. are looking for a better life. But, in order to get to America, they become indebted to people Lila calls “Snakeheads,” (a Satanic reference?), people who pay $40,000 to $50,000 to get them into the country. The illegals basically become slaves, working seemingly forever to pay off that debt. (The nasty Canadian smuggler takes the illegals’ shoes from them before they hide in the car trunk so they won’t run away). Instead of being a land of opportunity, their new country becomes, instead, a place of bondage. So, America, in this film, impoverishes and thus restricts the freedom of original Americans, those who descended from immigrants, and new arrivals who are unable to afford the time and money to become legal citizens.

Ray gets enough money from the smuggling to stop the repossession of the TV. But, T.J. is suspicious. Ray, who is trying to keep her son on the straight and narrow, ironically, get the money illegally, and then lies to her son, saying she got a promotion at work. She says she will get them their “double-wide” home for Christmas, but she says to T.J. not to say anything to his brother, “just in case.” T.J. cynically repeats those words, stressing how he expects nothing to turn out alright. So, despite his mother’s efforts, he has become jaded, having been disappointed so many times before. But, Ray does acquire enough money to get the trailer park dealer, Versailles (Jay Klaitz), to schedule another delivery. There is a brochure for the trailers that says, “Live the Dream,” which seems like an enormous compromise of the American Dream. However, when Ray describes the new home as having several bedrooms, a Jacuzzi, and most of all, insulation to keep the literal, and figurative, coldness at bay, for these people, it is a wish they want to come true. That is why Ray, on the phone to her son, Ricky, says Santa Claus is coming, because the hope is still there, even if it derives from her criminal actions.

On one of their runs, Ray and Lila smuggle a Pakistani couple, who have a bundle that is placed in the back of the car. Ray, who already showed her prejudice when she judged the Mohawk harshly for not celebrating Christmas, now fears that the Pakistanis could be terrorists. On their journey, she throws the bag out of the window, just in case it contains explosives. When they deliver the couple, the woman is screaming, saying her baby was in the bag. Ray and Lila, both mothers, race back to find the baby, who does not seem to be responding. Lila is immediately pessimistic, mirroring the loss she feels about her boy being taken from her. However, they bring the baby into the car, turn on the heat, and revive the child.
T.J. uses a friend to get Ricky the toy he wanted, but when Ray returns, she chastises him for associating with his friend, who she believes stole the gift. It is ironic that Ray tells her son to steer away from criminals when she is one herself. Earlier, T.J. used the blowtorch to defrost frozen pipes, but started a fire in the process, that he was able to extinguish after damage was done. The blowtorch represents how the son, in a way, is carrying a “torch” for his father’s affection, but it also shows the destructive effect of his father’s gambling and absence. He finally breaks down and acknowledges how his father has hurt him, saying what kind of dad runs off and leaves his family right before Christmas, a time when people come together to celebrate their families.
Lila now has glasses, and is able to work at the bingo hall again, which shows how she now wants to be independent. The incident with the baby has shaken her up, and she does not want to do any more smuggling. But, Ray wants to do one more run, and she promises Lila that she can have Ray’s car and gun afterwards. This job goes badly. When the Canadian tries to shortchange them, Ray pulls out her gun, and gets the money from him. But, she is nicked by a bullet as they escape. Troopers chase them, and Ray and Lila must abandon the car as it cracks the ice when they try to cross the river, literally and figuratively ending their crime spree, and signaling the climax of the story. Lila, Ray, and the illegals flee to the Mohawk reservation. The troopers follow them there, and say they need the return of the illegals and Lila, who was known to them before for smuggling cigarettes. The council decides to expel Lila for five years, which means she will not be able to see her son start to grow up. At first Ray says she has to leave, and is sorry about what is happening to Lila, but says at least someone is taking care of her child, while she is the only one who can provide for her kids.

On her way home, Ray looks at the river. The temperatures have moderated and that is why her car fell through the ice. Symbolically, now she must “break the ice,” that separates her culture from that of the Mohawks. In the end, just like in the the TV series Big Little Lies, despite differences, the women here share their sisterhood, and must help each other out. Ray is white, with no criminal past. She offers herself up as the smuggler so that Lila will not be exiled from the reservation and sent to jail. The trooper says that Ray will probably only receive a sentence of four months. Liberated by Ray’s action, Lila now feels empowered and marches into her mother-in-law’s house and takes her child (and her confidence in herself) back.
Ray not only takes the fall for Lila, she entrusts her children to her, saying she can live in the new trailer with her child and take care of Ray’s sons while she is in prison. The two women have broken down the barriers, geographical and historical, that separated them, and have embraced inclusiveness, as they are linked by their common needs and wants. The ending is hopeful, as T.J. has fixed the merry-go-round, allowing the “merry” to be prefixed to this Christmas, as we see the children ride together, with the grim Lila finally smiling, and the new trailer home being transported to its destination.

The next film is Thank You for Smoking.