#185: Stand By Me. It seems there is a group of people who have been born gifted storytellers. Whenever they pick up a pen, an incessant torrent of narratives starts pouring out of them almost on its own, and where I might only see a squirrel snatching a biscuit from a coffee table, one of them would immediately get the inspiration to sit down and write a book about the exploits of the audacious Rodent King. Gordie, the protagonist of our next film, belongs to this group (while I apparently do not, for what it’s worth, given the time I had to spend on fleshing out these five hundred-odd words).
Gordie is a middle-aged writer during the onset of the story, and our first view consists of him reading a newspaper while sitting in his car, which is a very impractical and cumbersome thing to do, but the guy is a gifted eccentric so why would he read at a table? The headline tells of a man having been stabbed to death at a fast food restaurant which Gordie, being the swanky braggart that he is, uses as an opportunity to weave a complex narrative from his childhood as if it took him no effort at all, about the summer during which he and his three friends first laid eyes upon a dead human being. They hear of a train accident far from their home town and about a supposed victim beside the tracks someone claims to have seen. However, no body has yet been found and the youngsters set out to officially discover it and enter the newspapers as local heroes. You see, this is why no one is ever going to make a film about my childhood. The most exciting prospects I could hope for were scattered showers, after which I had the opportunity to stir a root brew inside the rain-filled tree stumps next to our house, while the average American youth was engaged in carcass-hunting a several days’ hike away from home. Unfortunately for them, each of the kids also has older siblings, the meanest of which are organised in a gang similar to theirs and are also intent on being the first to claim the discovery of the missing dead body. To make matters worse, this second gang is old enough to drive, which leaves Gordie and his friends with some serious time management issues. Unlike most other coming-of-age films which are ruined by their cast Stand By Me serves a pretty solid story. I am still of the opinion that almost every child actor ever is a bit rubbish (let’s face it, most children can’t act) but this film makes up for it by turning out to be so much more grown-up than I had initially expected. On their own, the events of the summer of ’59 are just another childhood adventure: crossing forbidden junkyards, wading through rivers, sleeping in the forest, telling stories around the campfire, walking sticks, guns, corpses. The last two are still ordinary, because these people live in the States. But then having the old Gordie narrating breaks this isolation, and Stand By Me appropriates refreshing themes like estrangement, evanescence, and, most of all, death, just as we would expect from an ostentatiously melancholic, wannabe story-telling prodigy such as him.
#184: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Quite a few of my review entries bear testimony to how irregular and weird my taste in films turns out sometimes, and this one in particular serves very well to illustrate the way in which that can happen. There are various reasons why anyone might like or dislike Butch Cassidy and, since those strengths and weaknesses are all very pronounced, they are quite tangible: The film mixes a wide array of genres from Western to comedy, road movie, romance and drama and can seem more or less aimless, consequentially. The comic relief and delivery of lines especially from Paul Newman’s Butch are almost always on point, the chemistry between him and Sundance feels perfect, even though the pacing of the story seems all wrong. These are all valid points, yet I will happily disregard them for the sake of one single aspect which I enjoyed so much that I stopped caring about the rest, namely how much value the directing puts on the imagination of its audience. Our imagination will always try to fill in the blank spaces left in the screenplay, and if you allow for any blank space to exist your imagination will usually do a much better job at filling it than even the most finely tuned CGI could. Is this an invitation to stop watching movies altogether because you might just sit down and conjure one up on your own, in your own mind? Possibly, if we wanted to bring reason into this argument, so let us not do that. The point is, utilising your audience’s imagination is both simple and usually underestimated. Butch and Sundance rob trains for a living, but in the same way as the United States get more civilised the railway companies become more resourceful and the two criminals soon discover that a group of hitmen has been sent on their track whom they cannot for the life of them get rid of. The events on screen are limited to how they are barely able to dodge their pursuers, including their eventual flight to Bolivia, and a significant part of the background story is spatially and temporally dislodged. Butch soon realises that the hitmen are not only paid contract killers but baggage from his and Sundance’s past. Most of them hold a personal grudge against the duo, for mischiefs we never witnessed and that are only alluded to. I would normally call this lazy character development, were it not for the fact that the killers remain faceless throughout the entire movie. They are absolutely relentless, always in sight, yet we never get a proper look at them. Butch and Sundance’s amazement about who they are and why they never lose track translates directly over to the other side of the screen, and the longer their presence is held in suspense the more intimidating they get. This is a method I would usually only expect from a very cunningly done horror movie, if at all, and encountering an approach like this in a comedy Western thoroughly surprised me.
#183: Le salaire de la peur – The Wages of Fear. If you ever get the feeling life is demanding too little of you, you can spice up your viewing experience significantly by taking up the “diplomat’s challenge” of Le salaire de la peur and switch off the movie’s subtitles. The cast is a motley crew of European expatriates stranded in an isolated part of Central America. The locals speak Spanish but two of the protagonists are from Paris, there is a Texan drifter, a British doctor, a Dutch engineer, and various others who push the language spectrum to also include French, German, English and Italian. Most frustrating for all of our egos: Everyone seems to be fluent in any of these languages. Most frustrating for them: They are free to go anywhere they might like but given how poor the region’s infrastructure is, their only option to leave the place lies in the purchase of a prohibitively expensive plane ticket. Starved for opportunities they throw themselves at the first lucrative job offer that comes their way. The explosion of a nearby oil well requires the immediate transport of two truckloads of nitroglycerine to cap it, and not even the oil company’s complete disregard for safety measures is enough to spoil the promised reward of 2,000$ per driver. There are, however, two major hints the characters could have taken heed of in order to foresee the inevitable disaster. First, the only one to cop out after hearing the job description is the Texan. And if a Texan does not want a potentially dangerous job, neither do you. The second reason is even more straightforward. This is a French film. Terrible things can happen to you if you are a character in a French film. Suffice it to say that I have never been held in more suspense while watching some men driving around in trucks for over two hours.
#182: Network. Some solid advice for anyone running a company: Your working hypothesis should always be that the older your employees get the more headstrong and wayward they will become. Trying to sack them might cause a costly backlash, which is a lesson the fictional news network UBS learns the hard way. Due to bad ratings in their news department they inform their tried and trusted head anchor Howard Beale that he would host his last show in no more than two weeks. Having taken to heavy drinking in recent times, this notice reaches Beale while in a particularly jaded and cantankerous mood and, small wonder, the deranged alcoholism and his longstanding professional expertise make for a fatal mixture. Much to UBS’s chagrin, Beale knows exactly how to generate public interest and announces that the main feature of his last show would be his suicide, live on air. Completely washed away by the consequent public uproar, the network executives profess themselves unable to cancel the broadcast at that point and Beale is allowed to make one last appearance, which he utilises with such an efficiency that it not only prolongs his own career but also severely alters the network’s business strategy, in the worst way imaginable. When talking about Network as a piece of satire, it is certainly easy to end up in grand dimensions of comparison, since Network probably is to the television industry what 1984 meant to our idea of a surveillance state. And speaking of dimensions: If you let the rank and raving madness of the upper UBS management elite become the benchmark of morality, then recent and related movie characters such as the bloodless Louis Bloom from Nightcrawler suddenly seem like the friendly co-worker you would not mind inviting to tea and biscuits.
#181: Mad Max: Fury Road. This might rather surprise you, but I am not currently consulting a therapist. However, if I had one, they would probably advise me to always consider the positive aspects of life. So as a bit of a challenge, I will try to make this review as favourable as I possibly can! Mad Max: Fury Road is the forceful impression of a gritty alternative world where violence and raw, animalistic human nature hold sway, a place habituated by people oblivious to mercy or remorse… The story? Not too complex, to conserve brain energy. Several people of varying character but with a shared interest of putting as much distance as possible between themselves and a tyrannically ruled enclave in the middle of a desert wasteland set off in search of some sort of oasis. Said tyrant takes up pursuit with his motorised war machine and his camarilla of freakshow blood relations, which comes very close to what I imagine the cast of The Hills Have Eyes going out on a road trip must look like. The turning point of this road movie, then, is where our protagonists’ road trip takes a turn. The promised land they were seeking no longer exists and, lacking alternatives, they simply drive back the way they came, debone their pursuers, and put up their banners in the enclave. Most of the action scenes were done with practical effects, and whenever they do involve CGI it is always to the viewer’s benefit, such as in the case of the sandstorm that is, maybe unrealistic to our expectation but comfortable to our eyes, not entirely impenetrable with sand flying everywhere, but rather has sections of several smaller sand tornadoes with clear air in between. This way, nothing obscures our view of all those explosions when, maybe unrealistic to our expectation but comfortable to our eyes, a desert truck drives into them and immediately goes up in flames. Does that not sound like a fascinating movie? Sure does!
current #242: Deadpool. Year of publication: 2016… In an ideal world I would always dish out my reviews for the most recent comic book-based movies as fast as possible because their rankings share the volatility of radioactive waste. And strictly speaking, this comparison is not even a rhetorical device or any kind of hyperbole, because the 138 days it takes for Polonium-210’s radioactivity to fall to half of its original value are still undercut by Deadpool, which lost more than half of its ranking in a plummet from #68 to the 180’s in barely over 100 days. On the bright side, this means Deadpool is now certifiably hotter than Polonium. As we should be used to by now, the transformation of Wade Wilson into his superhero alter ego takes up significant screen time. Basically, Wade starts out as a monument to handsome manliness but is then diagnosed with cancer and joins the shady treatment program of an organisation that specialises in offering the promises of both a cure and a set of superpowers to the terminally ill. It seems as though superpowers did not draw enough volunteers on their own. Their intention, of course, is to mould their patients into an army of submissive mutants. Wade is finally cured of his cancer but the treatment also cauterises his skin and leaves him with such an ugly mug that he feels the need to hide it behind a mask for the remainder of the movie. However, there is a bright side again, because he has also acquired the ability to almost instantaneously recover from wounds and can even regenerate severed body parts, which is something that pretty much overqualifies him for the challenges he has to face. You see, Deadpool’s nemesis is the sadistic doctor who oversaw his treatment. We are given to understand that this guy’s superpower is the ability to not feel pain, which you could also rephrase into “the inability to receive those helpful signals telling you that touching the glowing stove top is a horrible idea”. Either way the man does not have superpowers, he has a medical condition, and he is trying to fight a guy in a costume who can grow back his limbs. Whatever happened to movie heroes having to overcome impossible odds? Instead, Deadpool faces comfortably bite-sized tasks and saunters through an equally bite-sized, not overly complex plot about his abducted girlfriend. Because even though the movie sports original and hilarious dialogue (also gore, which somehow fits in surprisingly well) the story itself is fairly run-off-the-mill. Like in a sitcom. A kinky, gory sitcom.
Writing this article took quite some time because Niklas was in Miami when someone came Knock Knock-ing on his door.