Review: The Imposter (2012, Layton) [IFFBoston 2012]

Originally posted on CriterionCast on April 29th, 2012 as part of IFFBoston 2012 coverage.

Warning: There are spoilers contained within this review for those who do not know this story.

There are certain films that provoke an externalized reaction that at some point you become conscious of. It is safe to say that I spent the majority of The Imposter, a stranger than fiction true-crime documentary that evokes a combination of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and Tabloid, with my jaw hanging open in utter disbelief.

San Antonio, 1994: 13-year old Nicholas Barclay goes missing. 3 years and 4 months later, he is miraculously found in Spain. Except it is not Nicholas Barclay. It is a 23-year old Frenchman named Frédéric Bourdin.

Bourdin does not belong anywhere. He pretends to be an adolescent in order to be accepted into a shelter for children. Desperately in need for a false identity, Bourdin infiltrates the shelter’s office at night, makes some phone calls and stumbles across Nicholas Barclay’s name. He decides to make a go of it, astoundingly convincing officials that he is in fact the missing teenager. But that is just the beginning of this peculiar tale.

The situation reaches the point where Nicholas’ sister, Carey Gibson, travels to Spain to meet her supposed brother and bring him home. Bourdin’s luck has seemingly run out. He looks nothing like Barclay and speaks with a French accent. Improvising, he quickly manages to dye his hair blonde, receive identical tattoos and cover himself up with sunglasses, a hat and scarf. Surely Carey Gibson will immediately recognize that this is not her brother…

This covers roughly a third of The Imposter. What happens next is pretty wild and Layton gives the tale an appropriately sensationalistic spin. The director displays a careful control over facts as well as imperative speculation, making it the film equivalent of a page-turner through the precise hierarchy and ordering of revealed information.

Frédéric Bourdin is at the story’s center and Layton allows for him to seemingly control the telling of his own story. Bourdin knows how to spin a tale, relishing his time in front of the camera. Looking like a young and in-shape French version of Joe Pesci, the man has a snake-like charm and undeniable smarts; the fascinating spell he casts makes it easy to forget that the man is a cruel and duplicitous liar. Bourdin is very upfront about his motivations for his actions and is even able to manipulate a drop of sympathy from his audience. Layton withholds his actual identity, and the context that comes with it, until close to the end, so that we have a blank slate of an imposter with no strings attached to contend with.

The Barclay family, which includes a mother, sister, brother-in-law and a deceased brother who overdosed, do not go far in disproving any Southern stereotypes. At times their comments inadvertently lend humor to the proceedings. Charlie Parker, a private investigator who is quite the character, speaking of ears and hotcakes, enters the story when he begins to notice discrepancies between Barclay and the imposter who has replaced him.

Cinematically produced reenactments are dispersed throughout the film. They often provide the right atmosphere that narratively situates the film and the actors who portray the real-life participants are freakishly uncanny doppelgangers. But in the first third these reenactments threaten to distract as events are meticulously tracked, paving the way for overuse of Layton’s techniques.

The Imposter ponders the impenetrability of truth with its outlandish story. The entire situation makes it clear that perception, denial and lies replace whatever factual reality once existed, becoming an irreplaceable artificial truth. The film leaves us with far more questions than answers, not unlike Capturing the Friedmans.

Did Barclay’s family actually believe that they had Nicholas back? Were they so desperate to believe that they accepted this stranger into their homes? Or were they actually dim enough to truly believe this man was Nicholas? When Bourdin is taken in as Nicholas what did I feel? A speechless pity to be sure, but also the realization of the impossible coincidence in Bourdin matching up with the one family who could be duped to this scale.

The Imposter takes a turn late in its runtime as it suggests a much more disturbing and haunting Southern Gothic twist to this true-crime scenario. Layton pushes his angle as far as he comfortably can without any actual evidence. He introduces the notion by having one of Bourdin’s statements inserted as fact. The film then pulls back and reassesses the statement, clarifying its speculative nature, but the point is explicitly made. I am not entirely sold on the suggestion, but the introduction of the mere possibility of it made my hair stand on end.

On the one hand, Bourdin is a pathological liar, making it is impossible to believe anything he says that substantiates suspicion. On the other hand, there are other people (an FBI Agent named Nancy Fisher, Charlie Parker, neighbors) who clearly suspect some level of foul play. The film touches on the troubling domestic dynamic of Nicholas, his mother and drug-addict brother Jason. The cops were at the house 2 or 3 times a month. Jason and his mother did drugs and Nicholas frequently got himself in trouble. At 13 years old, Nicholas had 3 tattoos, something that is not touched on but is certainly troubling. The Imposter gives too little investigative time to Nicholas’ home life and the film returns its focus on Bourdin when there is a craving for any other information on this family.

Everyone involved is duplicitous in some way and the film turns the supposed victims into seriously questionable folks. Either way, despite their enormous suffering, they become objects of bewilderment, whether that is because of their foolishness or their possible horrific actions.

That there are no answers is perhaps most unsettling of all and The Imposter ends in a way that leaves us wanting. Where is the line between unconscious and conscious denial? Going further, where is the line between conscious denial and hidden motivations for knowingly accepting the most ludicrous of situations? We will never know for sure if the second question even applies. No matter the case, the power of delusion is strong at hand.

In the end, we return to Frederic Bourdin, whose manipulative scheming brought us into this mess. Ending with transfixing footage of a younger Bourdin dancing, as Layton inserts Johnny Cash’s “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”, an image that visual representative of how bizarre these real-life events were. Yet it all starts with the actual disappearance of 13-year old Nicholas Barclay, a child whose unknowable fate looms over us. The Imposter is a stranger than fiction tale that will have you aghast on the edge-of-your-seat; it is truly mind-boggling to watch unfold.

Screening Log: April 15th-30th, 2012 – Films #104-123

Note: All grades are entirely subjective.

105. Man Hunt (1941, Lang): B-/C+

106. Dark Passage (1947, Daves): B-

107. The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946, Milestone): B+

108. And Then There Were None (1945, Clair): B+

109. Secret Beyond the Door… (1948, Lang): A-/B+

110. Criss Cross (1947, Siodmak): B

111. The Wolf Man (1941, Waggner): B-

112. The Woman in the Window (1944, Lang): B+/B

113. Green for Danger (1946, Gilliat): A/A-

113. Tales of Manhattan (1942, Duvivier): B

115. Moontide (1942, Mayo): B/B-

116. The Thief of Bagdad (1940, Powell, et al): A

117. Pursued (1947, Walsh): B

118. The Imposter (2012, Layton): A/A-

120. 2 Days in Paris (2007, Delpy): B+/B

121. Day of Wrath (1943, Dreyer): A-/B+

122. 2 Days in New York (2012, Delpy): B+/B

123. Wuthering Heights (2012, Arnold): C+

List of 1940’s Films to See

I’m embarking on decades throughout the year; I am currently making my way through the 1940’s. At first I was sad to leave the 1930’s; too sad. I went into the 40’s resenting them, a patently ridiculous sentiment. Quickly though, my hesitancy washed away. Of the films I have watched so far, a handful of them would already be placed among my admittedly large group of all-time favorites. I tried to narrow the list down to 20 but this never seems to work. So I’m watching as many of these as I can before mid-May. I did the 20’s and 30’s earlier this year watching from each about 15 and 35 films respectively. I won’t be able to make it through all of these but I hope to keep this as a reference guide. I feel like I’m pretty well-viewed, especially for being 24, so if a film does not appear it may be because I’ve seen it already.I have a 70-page Word Document chronologically chronicling every film I have ever seen (this was a huge project for a while) and I have seen roughly 120 films from the 1940’s

I have no idea what will happen when I get to the 70’s and 80’s, two decades I’ve seen a lot from, but comparatively speaking to how much there is, I haven’t even scratched the surface from those s in particular.

Note: I had a lot of amazing help on this list from Andreas from Pussy Goes Grrr. She was kind enough to make a post for me in which she brought together five ‘obscure-ish’ films from each year that were recommendations from her to everyone. Luckily I had only seen a little over 10 of them. Her picks were a wonderful combination of films that were either on my brainstorm list (that she had seen and recommended them provided further incentive to see them) or were films I had not heard of and was delighted to come across.

The goal here was to have a mix of well-known canon films and obscurities or at the very least films that may not be universally known amongst film buffs.

So here is the list. In bold are the films I have watched since making the list. Please comment and tell me which ones I would be crazy not to miss; I will not have time to watch all of these in a mere 3 weeks!

Whisky Galore!
The Man in Grey
They Live by Night
The Man Who Came to Dinner
Night Train to Munich
The Thief of Bagdad
City for Conquest
The Flame of New Orleans
Man Hunt
Kings Row
Day of Wrath
The More the Merrier
Henry V
National Velvet
The Children Are Watching Us
The Lodger
Green for Danger
No Regrets for Our Youth
The Red House
Thieves Highway
The Seventh Veil
The Small Back Room
Oliver Twist
Act of Violence
Blood of the Beasts
On the Town
La Terra Trema
Tales of Manhattan
Miracle on 34th Street
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
Foreign Correspondent
Ivan the Terrible Part I
Dark Passage
Odd Man Out
Meet John Doe
Cabin in the Sky
The Clock
The Woman in the Window
The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry
Secret Beyond the Door…
A Canterbury Tale
Brighton Rock
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
The Shanghai Gesture
The Suspect
My Favorite Wife
The Set-Up
The Devil and Daniel Webster
Criss Cross
The Big Clock
The Wolf Man
The Dark Mirror
The 49th Parallel
And Then There Were None
Pride of the Yankees
Spring in a Small Town
Stray Dog
Drunken Angel
The 47 Ronin
Meshes of the Afternoon
Listen to Britain
Fires Were Started

List: Film Characters I Have an Irrational Hatred Towards Part 4: The 1970’s-1980’s

After having taken a detour for my full-length barrage of hate against Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Joe, we are back to covering the 1970’s and 1980’s. I am realizing that 4 posts in is testing my ability to say different things for each character and I feel like I am retreading a lot. Hopefully I can manage to keep this list interesting considering that we have 2 more posts to go after this one.

Jennifer Cavalleri – Ali MacGraw – Love Story (1970)

We kick off this installment with easily the most infuriating character within this select bunch of dodo birds. I despise Love Story; every ounce of it. One of the worst films these two eyes have ever seen, this piece of idiocy is headlined by the all-time least likable romantic lead. What is meant to be a tearjerker quickly morphes into an shameless countdown to MacGraw’s much-deserved demise.

Literally the entirety of my memories from watching this crap film consist of Ali MacGraw’s unrelenting love for the words ‘preppie’ and ‘bullshit’. I have nothing else to offer except that I found her to be unendurable. There are no words for how painful watching this film became due to her onscreen presence.

This is the only film with Ali MacGraw I have seen. My question is this; is this the way she is in every film? Do others find her across-the-board annoying? I just want to get a sense of whether or not this is what could be expected from her in any eventual outing I choose to watch her in. If this kind of performance is what MacGraw usually brings to the table, I may have to avoid her at all costs for the sake of my sanity.

Note: If I had to pick out five characters from all the installments combined (including the characters in later posts), she would be in the Top 5.

David Mann – Dennis Weaver – Duel (1971)
This entry is less hatred and more the simple fact that Spielberg’s Duel, and Dennis Weaver’s performance within it, had me irrationally rooting for the death of our protagonist at the hands (and wheels) of an anonymous semi truck-driver. There are horror films, which I submit that Duel loosely falls under, that thrive on the audience secretly wishing that tragedy would befall the folks onscreen. But this is Steven Spielberg we are talking about; clearly he wants us rooting (at least a little) for our increasingly powerless hero, even if we are meant to see him as a doofus.

Weaver’s David Mann is the domestic emasculated everyman; a plight I have no sympathy for. His grossest offense is that the guy is lame. Just look at him. I’m not talking about the character, but the actor. Anyone else playing David Mann would have elicited sympathy from me despite the whole ‘poor me; I’m not the head of my house’ malarkey. Dennis Weaver is not helped by such superficial detractors as super-70’s sunglasses and a mustache that time cannot make transcendent. Plus, his voice will never not sound like incessant nagging. Dennis Weaver is just not someone I can bring myself to care for; he is the quintessential unappealing leading man to my apparently picky senses.

Paul – Jean Pierre-Leaud – Last Tango in Paris (1972)

I finally got around to seeing Last Tango in Paris for the first time last year and was immediately taken by it. It fully embraces its own art-house proclamation complete with steamy sex and grief-ridden angst. I have no problem tolerating any of the content in this film (including the infamous butter scene), except for one painfully unwanted appendage; Jean-Pierre Leaud.

It aches me to make that statement about an actor I consider one of my favorites. But its true; his scenes are agonizing to sit through. Bertolucci is making a sort of joke out of the hip French New Wave devotee, but it is a joke that goes overboard, with the director overindulging to an extreme. It takes time away from the central relationship, so much so that the film comes to a screeching halt during Leaud’s screen time. It is clear that Paul has clouded his relationship with Jeanne in a self-enclosed world of superficiality; Bertolucci successfully gets his point across. These scenes seem to go on for ages in order to make a point that feels unworthy of the time it takes to put it there. In this case, the end did not justify the means. Paul is insufferable; end of story.

Dr. Everett Scott – Jonathan Adams – Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Why do I hate Dr. Scott? This is a vague entry to say the least because I have no concrete answers. He is the only character whose entrance semi-deflates the film. “Eddie’s Teddy” is my far my least favorite song in the film; the only one I do not care for.

There is one moment that is really the tipping point. Its such a minuscule thing but it is enough to be a random personal buzzkill to everything else happening in the scene. The scene is the “Wild and Untamed Thing” portion of the Floor Show. So Frank, Brad, Janet, Rocky and Colombia have got this delightful post-pool orgy choreography happening. Then there is Dr. Scott sitting in his wheelchair, with his high-heel-and-tights combo that he revealed during “Don’t Dream It, Be It”. While the simple Follies-like choreography continues, Dr. Scott needlessly wheels behind the group, kicking his leg up like the idiot that he is. Then there is this saxophone solo, with this one shot of Dr. Scott with his legs out, awkwardly clicking his heels together as his face goes….cross-eyed? I hate everything about it. Everything. It fills me with a rage I didn’t think possible with something so innocuous. And I cannot explain it; the irrationality of it reaches an incomprehensible apex. There may be no random moment that pisses me off more than this one.

Sandy Olsson- Olivia Newton-John – Grease (1978)
Does anyone like Sandy? Danny Zuko has the undeniable late 70’s Travolta charm that makes him incredibly endearing. Sandy has a gift for sucking the fun right out of the room. She represents the goody-two-shoes archetype that is constructed to be immediately recognizable. Grease, and the Broadway musical it was adapted from, make Sandy innocent to a fault. Who would want to hang out with this killjoy? While her reactions to some situations are entirely justified, her character type is hammered in too deep. “Hopelessly Devoted To You” is atrocious despite Newton-John’s wonderful vocal performance.

I could have picked many characters from Grease for this list; Doody, Sonny, Patty Simcox, Jan, the list goes on. I really do not care for about half the characters despite liking the film a lot (the songs, Travolta and Channing do it for me). I chose Sandy though because she is the co-lead and her purity is a suffocating display.

Cousin Eddie – Randy Quaid – The ‘Vacation’ Movies

Outside of National Lampoon’s Vacation, I get limited enjoyment out of the Vacation series. The humor just is not what I tend to gravitate towards. Cousin Eddie in particular is the antithesis in what I look for in comedy. Randy Quaid fully inhabits his role which, it cannot be denied, is perfectly performed. Clark (a character that also tends to annoy) is vexed to the high heavens by Cousin Eddie; his behavior is supposed to be irksome.

Yet there is meant to be a disconnect from Clark and the audience in what they get, or don’t get, out of Eddie’s presence. Where Clark feels displeasure for his unwelcome guest, we should be delighted by Eddie’s unconventional way of life. The audience is ultimately meant to be amused by Eddie’s wacky antics. But I never am. Without fail, I just want him to walk out the door he came in from and never come back.

Kyoami – Pîtâ – Ran (1985)

Ran spends a decent amount of time focusing on the ‘humorous’ but telling songs, tales and dances of the fool. Where others tend to feel he adds an idiosyncratic touch to Ran, for me it only took away from the proceedings. I cannot recall if the fool’s screen time comes close to the parallel character in King Lear or if Kurosawa expanded. Despite preferring most of the other Kurosawa’s films I have seen, Kyoami did not ruin Ran. Yet unfortunately he almost does.

Kathryn Fairly – Lea Thompson – SpaceCamp (1986)
Jinx – voiced by Frank Welker – SpaceCamp (1986)
I like to think that I am alone in having a film list that goes from Kurosawa’s Ran to the 1986 guilty pleasure extravaganza SpaceCamp. Some people may not think this is something to be proud of, but I certainly do. Despite enjoying this film in all its addictive absurdity, there are two characters that are grating to the point where I have to remind myself ‘Katie; calm down. You are getting angry….at characters from SpaceCamp…”

Lea Thompson plays Kathryn ‘I’m going to be the first female shuttle commander’ Fairly, an All-American over achiever whose persistence prevents her from being in any way likable. Her self-righteous attitude is there for a reason; she has to learn that all members of a team are important; not just the frakking shuttle commander. But for characters as unsurprisingly archetypal as those in SpaceCamp, Thompson plays one starry-eyed note of oddly dazed enthusiasm for 2 hours and it is painful.

Jinx. Is there a more annoying robot that came out of the 1980’s robot-character trend? To start with, Jinx is freakishly accommodating. He overhears Joaquin (then Leaf) Phoenix say he wants to go to space and single-handedly makes it happen by hacking into NASA’s mainframe. Whoever programmed this thing sure as hell made his voice creepy as fuck. Surely a robot with this kind of agency could be given a less dangerous-sounding voice. Not that his voice has an ominous quality to it; far from it. But watch the scene(s) where Jinx creakily draws out his pledge to Max; “Friends…..foreeeevvvvvvvvveeeeeerrrrrrrrrrrrrrr…..”. Tell me that Jinx doesn’t suddenly attain a slightly foreboding quality.

All in all Jinx is responsible for setting this preposterous scenario into motion. While SpaceCamp is too goofy and cheesy to hate, Jinx is dripping in earnest ‘let’s make an iconic character’ ambition; it does not pay off. Jinx remains the true shake-your-head-in-shame embarrassment element of SpaceCamp.

Review: Cabin in the Woods (2012, Goddard)

IMDB Summary: Five friends go for a break at a remote cabin in the woods, where they get more than they bargained for. Together, they must discover the truth behind the cabin in the woods.

Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon clearly have a love-hate relationship with horror. In Cabin in the Woods, affection for clichés and tropes linger even as it lambasts every last one of said formulas. They get that when characters make bad decisions, it never feels organic. The genre forcefully places stupidity and bad judgment onto placeholder characters that are trapped in an unoriginal scenario that never derails off-course.

Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the slasher film, the most repetitive of horror subgenres. In recent years, a push towards meta-horror has already outstayed its welcome, despite several worthy entries. This is mainly because meta-horror rarely goes beyond exclamations of ‘hey we’re being self-referential, get it?  Wink wink!’ Cabin in the Woods takes things into uncharted territory.

But to simply label Cabin in the Woods as meta is reductive. The film works on several different levels, fully committing to its ideas with an admirable audacity. It carries a fondness for its underdeveloped characters; an immediate deviation from the norm. It refuses to conform; every time you think it has, director/writer Goddard and producer/writer Whedon have another trick up their sleeves. Every cliché it takes on serves the film’s larger purpose. It places an additional layer of onlookers/stakeholders who are central to the story (Richard Jenkins, Bradley Whitford, and the incomparable Amy Acker) between us and the victims, forcing the audience to dissect how we interact with horror films and what we really get out of them. It does all of this without the false sense of superiority Michael Haneke insists on seeping into every frame of Funny Games (love the director though I do). Goddard and Whedon fully implicate themselves into the genuine curiosities the film ponders.

Is it self-congratulatory? Of course it is. Is it scary? Not really. However, neither of these minor quibbles can detract from the whole. It is almost mind-boggling to think what Cabin in the Woods accomplishes in a tightly-packaged 95 minutes. Goddard and Whedon are freakishly on-point every step of the way.

Cabin in the Woods sounds like a fictionalized essay; but it manages to deconstruct an entire genre while being one of the funniest, entertaining and genuinely involving films to come around in quite some time. And it manages to go into surprisingly off-the-wall directions to boot. It is surreal to have finally seen this after years of anticipation stemming from the three-year gap between filming and release. I am happy to say that Cabin in the Woods was worth the wait.

Screening Log: April 1st-14th, 2012 – Films #83-104

Note: The letter grades are entirely arbitrary, and merely reflect my own subjective interest and response to the film on a first viewing.

83. Land without Bread (1933, Bunuel): B-

84. A Day in the Country (1936, Renoir): B

85. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933, Capra): B+

86. The Raid: Redemption (2012, Evans): B+/B

87. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012, Hertzfeldt): A-

88. Sadie Thompson (1928, Walsh): B+/B

89. Monkey Business (1931, McLeod): B-

90. Madam Satan (1930, Demille): A-

91. October (1927, Eisenstein): C-

92. Street Angel (1937, Yuan): C

93. Beggars of Life (1928, Wellman): B+/B

94. Earth (1930, Dovzhenko): B-

95. The Passion of the Christ (2004, Gibson): C-/D+

96. Désiré (1937, Guitry): A

97. Quadrille (1938, Guitry): A-

98. Miss Bala (2012, Naranjo): B

99. Carnosaur (1993, Simon): F

100. The Rape of Europa (2006, Berge, Cohen and Newnham): B

101. Project A (1983, Chan): B+/B

102. Vicious Lips (1986, Pyun): C/C-

103. The Heroic Trio (1993, To): A-/B+

104. Cabin in the Woods (2012, Goddard): A-/B+

List: Film Characters I Have an Irrational Hatred Towards Part 3: Charlie Bucket & Grandpa Joe

An unexpected installment this week. I found myself incapable of summing up my thoughts about these characters in a few paragraphs. So here is a whole host of rambling nonsense that hopefully sums up how I feel about these folks. I am also convinced that this post may prove as evidence of my insanity.

The next installment will cover the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Charlie Bucket, Grandpa Joe and the Entire Bucket Family (yes, even the bedridden grandparents) – Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

On the surface, Charlie Bucket sounds like a poster child for generosity, innocence and honesty. Sometimes casting and performance can muddle up the transfer from page to screen. This is exactly what happened with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The Charlie Bucket of the Roald Dahl book and vastly inferior 2005 Tim Burton film convey the proper Dickensian poverty-stricken empathy. This kid deserves the best there is; what a selfless creature! A bad performance has the power to make even the noblest characteristics seem like a pile of overreaching piety and incessant defeatism. Ladies and gentlemen; Peter Ostrum:

It is not a coincidence that Charlie Bucket was Peter Ostrum’s only performance. He left acting at a very early age and rightly so. Nobody can call this performance good. It is a catastrophe. Overly strained and entirely one-note, Ostrum inspires a special kind of irrational hatred. Case in point; the amount of time I have spent rolling my eyes at innocuous lines like “It’s payday Mr. Jopeck” proves Ostrum’s ability to annoy with even the simplest of dialogue. It also proves that I may be a little insane.

Then we have Grandpa Joe; a source of never-give-up enthusiasm. He always believes in Charlie and in his heart knows he will go places and rise above the cards he has been dealt. He is always looking out for his grandson and encouraging him to never give up. An incident of miscasting takes all of these lovely traits and spits them out as across-the-board selfishness. What a flibbertigibbet wackadoo, and I do not mean that as a compliment. At one point he says “If she’s a lady, then I’m a Vermicious Knid”. No Grandpa Joe; that would be an insult to Vermicious Knids. Ladies and gentlemen; Jack Albertson:

Jack Albertson is a fine actor, but his portrayal never roused my sense of spirit. The man stays bedridden for decades, even though Charlie and his mother are left to scramble together any scraps of pittance pay in order to stay in their broken-down abode. Yet when Charlie wins the Golden Ticket, he is suddenly able to stumble out of bed? By the end of “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket”, Grandpa Joe is jumping and springing and leaping around like a total asshole, not to mention showing off way more Grandpa Joe leg than I never needed to see:

Way to prioritize. Apparently a desperately impoverished family is not enough to get your ass out of bed, but a visit to a freaking chocolate factory is? How can I like someone this selfish? Grandpa Joe is clearly supposed to be quite flawed yet ultimately endearing; but he isn’t here. The lyrics to the song do not generate sympathy; he sounds like a person who gave up on life very early on, and is now using Charlie’s ticket to give himself an entirely falsified sense of purpose. But that’s just me.

In case it is not clear at this point, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is completely engrained in me. The thing practically runs through my veins. Some films you see enough times to carve out an individualized connection with it. What makes my relationship with this film so distinctive (in comparison to my relationship with the other films I love), is the dissonance between what I get out of watching it. The second half of this film, which sees Gene Wilder take center stage, is legitimately great. In fact, there is no performance I cherish more than Wilder’s work here. Yet the first half is wildly uneven as it sets up Charlie’s woeful predicament and his unlikely journey to the gates of Willy Wonka’s factory.

On the one hand, the slightly absurdist scenes depicting how far adults will go to find the tickets are one-minute nuggets of darkly comedic gold. The frenzy that the Golden Ticket fiasco ensues is supposed to be funny; except when it comes to Charlie. Charlie and his decrepit bunch of relatives are supposed to be taken seriously. They live in a hole of their own self-perpetuating misery entirely outside the comedy going on around them. Between the sad attempts to play this storyline completely straight, and the bad casting and execution, everything involving the Bucket family becomes unintentionally funny.

Charlie’s mother swishing around nondescript blue sheets in dirty water with a big wooden paddle: hilarious. Charlie being derided by his teacher and classmates because a Wonka-related math problem forces him to announce he has only opened two chocolate bars: hilarious. Charlie silently sobbing in his bed after hearing news of the soon-to-be-revealed fraudulent fifth ticket: hilarious.  Remember when Charlie pitifully tricks his family into thinking he got a Golden Ticket in his birthday chocolate bar, only to say – “Fooled you didn’t I? You thought I really had it” (yeah Charlie; you showed them), with that always-present expression of his that suggests his dog was just hit by a car? That scene makes me laugh harder than most comedies.

It would be entirely possible for me to do a list of least favorite Charlie Bucket expressions. They would all be variations of the same thing. I could do this; but even I have my limits. But here’s a sampling:

There are certain lines of dialogue that are so overly saccharine and self-deprecating, how is anyone supposed to do anything but laugh?

Charlie: [to Grandpa Joe, after opening the Wonka bar they think has the last Golden Ticket in it] “You know… I’ll bet those Golden Tickets make the chocolate taste terrible.”

Charlie’s Mom: (about a loaf of bread) “A real banquet”
Grandpa Joe: “When a loaf of bread looks like a banquet, I’ve no right buying tobacco.”

The above is pretty much the representative example of Grandpa Joe’s selfishness. You know what? You are right; you have no right buying tobacco. He is all talk and no action. His words mean nothing.

To this day, I skip the “Cheer Up Charlie” scene. Leave it to Charlie Bucket to be the subject of quite possibly the worst song in a musical.

“You get blue like everyone
But me and Grandpa Joe
Can make your troubles go away
Blow away, there they go…”

Someone get me a paper bag to hurl into.

When they gulp down the Fizzy Lifting Drinks, I always hope the fan annihilates them, but this unsurprisingly never takes place.

As I mentioned earlier, their so-called saintly characteristics have the opposite effect; they are either funny or infuriating or both. Here is an onslaught of examples (I have so many things to say, I have resorted to bullet points):

“The Candy Man” song features Bill freely tossing out candy to a crowd of children. The song ends and the camera cuts to this face:

Seriously? Charlie; he was literally throwing candy to all the children. You could have walked in and joined the party, but no. That would be Un-Bucket-like of him. The film’s first shot of Charlie shows him as he will appear throughout the entire film; with his trademarked sulky ‘my dog just died’ face.

-Grandpa Joe trying to give Charlie supposedly false hope feels needlessly cruel as opposed to well-meaning.

– Why does Charlie choose Grandpa Joe as his guest to the factory? I realize he is the clear favorite of the bunch…but surely Charlie’s long-suffering and hard-working mother deserves it by default.

– Grandpa Joe’s seemingly throwaway line during “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” in which he exclaims, “It’s ours Charlie” is maddening. Way to steal the thunder Joe. Last time I checked, it was Charlie’s ticket. You’re just along for the ride.

– When Willy Wonka walks out with his slow limp, everyone seems disappointed, including Charlie and Grandpa Joe. Really? He is limping people. Are Charlie and Grandpa Joe really that shallow? Of course they are.

The climactic verbal throwdown that takes place is what takes the cake for me. It is separate from the rest, which I have mostly turned into a mock-fest across time. To this day, the end of the film never fails to piss me off. Charlie and Grandpa Joe are incapable of taking the blame for what they have done. They knowingly broke the rules with the Fizzy-Lifting Drinks and at no point do they apologize for their sorry excuse for a mishap. Wonka understandably yells at them, letting them know that yes, their random absence from the group did not go unnoticed and uninvestigated. That gaping silence where Grandpa Joe’s incessant quips usually are was probably the tip-off.

Grandpa Joe then unleashes an undeservedly moralistic speech about crushing a boy’s dreams and smashing them to pieces. He is really overcompensating for his own fault in the entire situation, but somehow this is supposed to be seen as an old man heroically taking a stand for his grandson. Charlie in the meantime, crushed and oozing ‘my dog just died’ face seems disappointed in Wonka the man. Really? Think this through Charlie. I know you have no brain cells and that all your energy is spent moping, but surely you are capable of seeing the situation for what it is? Grandpa Joe is the one that goaded you into taking a sip. If something had happened, Wonka would be held responsible and his life’s work would be down the drain in an instant. They signed a contract! But no; Charlie only has enough energy to mope on over to return the damn Everlasting Gobstopper, a cheap reverse psychology ploy that Wonka falls for.

My hatred for Charlie, Grandpa Joe and the rest of the Buckets has become a major factor in what I get out of this film. I love hating them. I have seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory so many times that an evolution has taken place over two decades. A comforting familiarity has surrounded the film, and that includes my loathing for half the cast. Making fun of these characters has become almost a pastime over the years. Time and time again watching it with various family members has turned into a collective mocking of line deliveries, gawking at how unbearable these fucking characters really are.

The irrational hatred I have for these characters does not ruin Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; far from it. In fact the opposite is true; it has become entirely essential to my viewing experience.

List: Film Characters I Have an Irrational Hatred Towards Part 2: The 1940’s-1960’s

Have you ever watched a film and found yourself thinking “My God, but that character is getting on my nerves”, when said character is not necessarily meant to? There are plenty of onscreen characters throughout the years who are meant to be vexing or obnoxious. But at what point does that frustration transform into something a little more intense?

What do I mean by intense? Here are two possible definitions. First is that the hatred extends far past what is meant to be felt, becoming a somewhat preposterous fixation. The second is that the ‘irrational hatred’ for the character overflows to the point where you begin feeling adverse effects to the entire film itself.

Of course, these are more extreme side effects of the topic in question. For one thing, there are plenty of characters on this list that get on my nerves, but have never jeopardized my willingness to rewatch the film they are part of. For another thing, some of the characters on this list are supposed to get on your nerves; to a point. When you cannot move past it, when it grates on you beyond normalized reason, then it counts for this list, whether one is supposed to be annoyed by the character or not.

Something else to note; it does not have to be the character. In fact, many of the lists inclusions irritate me because of the performances attached to the character.

This is not the type of list I see around too much and so I thought it would be a fun and harmless road down which to venture. I like these kinds of lists that really have nothing to do with being the end-all be-all of anything, and focus more on ones personalized relationship with a variety of films. And anyone that reads this blog with any regularity knows I favor embracing the subjectivity of lists and somewhat resent (at least for myself) any attempts for a list to speak for anyone but myself.

The idea for this list came about from reminiscing about Apollo 13. In a management class for my graduate school classes for Library Science, we watched a few clips from the film. We had to discuss the various methods of group collaboration taking place and insert all the terminology we had been discussing about teams and groups into examples from the scenes (most featuring Ed Harris). I had been thinking about how much I truly like Apollo 13, and was lamenting about how long it had been since I watched it.

I then started to think about the one glaring downside to that film; Kathleen Quinlan. I flat-out do not like Kathleen Quinlan in this film. I realize that she was stuck with the obligatory ‘wife’ role and that it’s a pretty thankless part (although not thankless enough; she was nominated for an Oscar). There are a lot of similar thankless roles that actresses get saddled with, but none really got on my nerves the way she did. My memory recalls one worried facial expression throughout, and distractingly garish late 60’s/early 70’s wardrobe and makeup. At a certain point the negative feelings I have become inexplicable.

And thus the idea for this list was born.

There are some questionable choices here; I realize this. Some of the irrationality can be argued. I have a few characters on here where my reactions could be argued as being completely rational.

There were many that came to my head and I decided not to put them on. I felt either that my feelings were entirely too justified or that too many people hate the character for it to really feel ‘irrational’. How can it feel ‘irrational’ if so many others hate them as well? So no Jar-Jar Binks will be found here.

I hope everyone enjoyed the first installment of “Film Characters I Have an Irrational Hatred Towards”. It is now time for installment to, which will be covering three decades; the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. I wish I were able to come up with more for this 30 year span but alas.

Someone I decided not to put here is Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The reason for this is, though I physically am unable to watch his scenes, I feel entirely justified in my hating him. I don’t find it to be irrational. I think we can all agree that performance is as bad and offensive as it gets.

What would you have put for these decades? Hopefully you can come with more than I was able to.

Pinocchio – voiced by Dickie Jones – Pinocchio (1940)

This installment kicks off with another major Disney character. I have a stronger fondness for this film than I do for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It attains a majestic quality at points and its certainly one of Disney’s most beautiful pieces of animation. Pinocchio is a naive wooden being; he does not have any life experience to guide him. He is a child, a selfish and foolish wooden child, who gets himself into a host of perilous situations.

Overcoming this selfishness and naiveté is embedded in the parable of this story. The journey is about him overcoming this near-fatal flaw. Still though; it is difficult to get past just how idiotic Pinocchio can be. His shockingly devil-may-care attitude is pretty staggering for someone who has only been in existence for a mere day.

The reasonable part of my brain keeps saying “but Pinocchio has no idea how the world works”. And the sillier, far too heavily involved part of my brain says “with the equally bothersome Jiminy Cricket at his side he has no excuse. Screw him; I hope he ends up a donkey slave”. It’s a bad sign when you want a cherubic character like Pinocchio to get his comeuppance.

Charlie – Teresa Wright – Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Over the years I never had a problem with Teresa Wright as Charlie. I thought her character was relatable and refreshing; a bored small-town girl who is just waiting for something exciting to happen.

The last time I watched it her incessant enthusiasm and refusal to see a situation for what it is got on my nerves. She is far too happy in the beginning and far too stubborn in the end. She plays these two emotions in every single scene and uses restlessness as a go-between throughout. And I realize how unreasonable it is to expect Charlie to see the situation for what it is. We as the audience have the advantage of omniscience.

I don’t hate Charlie; but as I get older, I just don’t like her very much. She strikes a high-pitched note that gets a little too under the skin. Every time she says “Uncle Charlie” all I hear are nails on a chalkboard.

Uncle Billy – Thomas Mitchell – It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Is there a bigger snafu than Uncle Billy’s misplacement of $8,000 in It’s a Wonderful Life?

It was an honest mistake. The guilt Billy feels as a result turns him into a far more tragic figure than George Bailey at his worst. In the end, it all turns out all right. We can forgive Uncle Billy right? Wrong.

Why anyone would ever trust Uncle Billy with that much money is beyond me. In a sense this whole thing is George’s fault too. Yet Uncle Billy will always remain an irrational source of aggravation for me. His nonexistent ability to keep track of large sums of money effects how I see him from the get-go. Uncle Billy and his stupid goddamn crows are the pits.

I don’t know how many times I have seen It’s a Wonderful Life; lots. One would think my fury would die down, but no. It doesn’t. Not even close. The tradition of watching Capra’s masterpiece every Christmas season is coupled with yearly shouting matches I have with myself. Without fail I always end up hurling insults at a lit-up box that projects Uncle Billy’s dimwittedness. Without fail I always end up shaking my head in shame, smacking my hand to my forehead mumbling “He’s so fucking stupid. Why is he so fucking stupid?”

It is safe to say my feelings got out of hand long ago.

Uncle Billy is cinema’s biggest hooplehead.

Richard Sherman – Tom Ewell – The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Tom Ewell gets the distinction of playing the only character from the 1950’s to appear on this list. Sad isn’t it? But just look at that face. Ew. Ew. Ew.

Part of it is that I rather superficially don’t like his face.  He has that vibe that suggests he belongs on a 1960’s sitcom destined to forever be accompanied by a laugh track. His performance, which is admittedly good, is shadowed by his experiences performing the role on stage. He plays the part as if for a live audience, hence the laugh track vibe. The incessant ongoing monologue isn’t exactly endearing either.

He belongs to a class of bumbling overzealous male characters. His character and Ewell’s performance are exactly what they are meant to be; but that does not mean I have to like him.

The Jets – played by various – West Side Story (1961)

It was a long time ago when I realized I side with the Sharks in West Side Story. There is a sympathetic quality there as well as a laid-back ‘cool’ factor that The Jets lack. The Jets may have the song ‘Cool’ (the film’s best scene and the most exhilarating musical number I have ever seen onscreen), but that song is about harnessing rage and anger and not about actually being cool. Because they aren’t cool; they are lame.

By ‘The Jets’, I mean everyone excluding Riff and ex-Jet Tony. Tony is a massive sap but at least he possesses a modicum of common sense. And Riff is Russ Tamblyn and there will be no hating on Russ Tamblyn.

The ‘Daddio’ speak allows staginess to emerge in their dialogue scenes where every Jet takes turns shouting random words. It is painful.

The gang is really all The Jets have; their downtrodden lives suggest they have little to look forward to in life. I get it. I’m supposed to care. But I don’t. I care about the Sharks.

Action is by far my least favorite Jet or as I like to call him, Matt LeBlanc’s doppelganger.

Did I mention the part where they humiliate and assault Anita? Unforgiveable.

John Linden – Sidney Berger – Carnival of Souls (1962)

Sidney Berger knocks Carnival of Souls down a couple of notches with his insufferably lecherous skeeveball character. He detracts with his presence, taking away from what is otherwise a fabulously unsettling film. It feels like a glaring waste of time to use a subplot to showcase him. Berger is gross, slimy and the definition of obnoxious. I could not figure out the point of him when I first saw it and looking back, I am still perplexed by his presence.

Emeline Marcus-Finch – Dorothy Provine – It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1964)

There are few films I have seen more than It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,  which is odd because it does not represent the kind of comedy I like at all. By all accounts the film’s humor should annoy me but it doesn’t. It is one of my favorite comedies and I can quote it back to front. But Emeline will always be a major thorn in my side.

Emeline is supposed to be the innocent character. She is the poor soul who is dragged on a wild goose chase while everyone around her becomes increasingly obsessive over massive wads of cash. We are supposed to see her as the one uncontaminated character in the ensemble cast.

When you play Ethel Merman’s daughter and you are the more insufferable of the two, you know it’s bad.

Where the film sees unselfishness, I see an unendurable superiority complex. The ensemble cast’s desire for the money is not the problem. The problem is their inability to be reasonable people and come up with a method of equally distributing the money to everyone’s satisfaction. That is their downfall.

Call me unethical, but even though the money belongs with authorities and they have no right to it, I completely sympathize with their initial cause to get the money. Emeline’s haughty disapproval with the whole endeavor shows her as a stick-in-the-mud to the extreme; a nagging, prudish, bitch of a woman who is supposedly the film’s only moral character. If that is what moral looks like, then hand me a shovel so I can go look for the big W.

Blanche – Estelle Parsons – Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

What is unfortunate about this is that I cannot get past her shrillness to appreciate Parsons’ work as a performance. I have no idea if her work here is extraordinary or painfully overdone. Is every beat her acting hits purposeful? Am I supposed to find any redeeming qualities in this person? Should I feel remorse or compassion? I honestly can’t tell. If I am supposed to feel these things I am sorry to say I didn’t.

Parsons falls into the headache-inducing category here. It has been years since watching Bonnie and Clyde, but I remember wanting to jump out the nearest window in regards to Blanche. My hatred for her extends to the point where when I first saw it as a teenager; she became my most hated character in any film I had seen up to that point.

Barbara – Judith O’Dea – Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Showing a more realistic depiction of what would likely happen after a traumatic experience, such as the one Barbara has at the beginning of Night of the Living Dead, may not always be a good call. In the case of Judith O’Dea, she represents the archaic idea that women are useless shrieking creatures who are incapable of action in the face of danger. She bogs down the picture with her frenzied pouting recollections. When Ben slaps her across the face, hitting a woman actually comes a triumphant moment as a viewer, which as a woman is a really depressing confession to make.

Review: The Raid: Redemption (2012, Evans)

A future goal of mine that I will try to intermittently work on over the year is being able to write reviews that are a bit shorter and more concise. The two reasons for this are that I would be able to get a slightly higher quantity of reviews up and it is a skill I have yet to attain that I feel I should. This is not because I have oh-so-much to say, because I rarely do; it is just a skill I have never been able to master. If I can write one short review a week I will be satisfied.

IMDB Summary: A SWAT team becomes trapped in a tenement run by a ruthless mobster and his army of killers and thugs.

The value of standout choreography (whether that be hand-to-hand combat or choreography of a car chase or giant set-piece) in an action film cannot be overstated. It is the make-it-or-break-it element of this genre. A critical synergy must be reached between how the scene is conceptualized, what is shot, and what is shown through the editing process. If any one of these is subpar in execution, which happens in most cases with editing, the scene collapses.

Then a film like The Raid comes along and pulls the rug out from under us, soaring above a primarily low precedent. When action choreography is this spectacular, it has the power to ruthlessly trample over any glitches the film may have had going against it. This is applicable to The Raid.

Let me make this clear; there was no point when I truly cared about anything plot-related going on here. Welsh director/writer/editor Gareth Evans tries to give us reasons to care but they don’t gel. Star and martial arts expert Iko Uwais has an undeniably empathetic quality to him which he maintains even when obliterating everyone around him. But that only goes so far. The film stays on one wavelength throughout its entirety and the story is so simple it is barely worth mentioning.

But the action scenes featuring hand-to-hand combat are, in a word, awesome. Evans features the Indonesian martial art called Pencak Silat, with stars Uwais and Yayan Ruhian (to say Ruhian is a force of nature is an understatement) largely responsible for choreography. All of this gives The Raid a leg up. Audiences get to see a type of fighting unfamiliar to them which is immediately refreshing. Having experts like Uwais and Ruhian acting allows for the circumvention of stunt doubles. Consequently, Evans’ main editorial priority is not splicing together stunt doubles and actor footage, but figuring out how to best showcase Pencak Silat and the stellar choreography on display. The edits Evans makes are frequent but logistical and energizing; miraculously not an ounce of visual translation is lost in post-production.

This is the reason to see The Raid. It drowned me in brutal and extremely grisly violence and managed to place a big appreciative beaming smile on my face. It may be all the film has to offer, but the rarity of these exhaustive and thrilling action scenes is more than enough. It deservedly has a lifetime of cult followings and midnight showings in its future.

Review: King of Devil’s Island (2011, Holst)

Originally posted on Criterion Cast April 1st, 2012

There are a considerable number of films featuring adolescents driven to the far reaches of suffering in reform schools, correctional facilities, institutional homes or rigid private schools. At this point, many stock characters have been established; the newcomer who shakes things up, the stern and unwavering headmaster, the martyr and of course the ultra-evil authority figure.  All of these and more can be found in King of Devil’s Island, director Marius Holst’s bleak as bleak can be tale of what happens when power goes awry.

Like several others in a similar vein (such as The Magdalene Sisters to name a more recent one), King of Devil’s Island is based on a true story. It depicts Bastøy Island in 1915 Norway, a reformatory secluded from the rest of the world where it housed wayward boys from the ages of eleven to eighteen. The environment is hopelessly desolate and frigid. One can feel the sharp stinging chill of the air while watching. There is no escape. It is frighteningly simple to get shipped to Bastøy; one character is sent for stealing out of a church donation box. Once there, it is exceedingly difficult to obtain release, taking many years. The workload is dire and labor-intensive and they are underfed. The punishment and abuse are dealt out at a moment’s notice and retain the status quo of cruelty expected in films of its kind.

In short, you would not want to find yourself here. But inmate newcomers Erling (Benjamin Helstad) and Ivar (Magnus Langlete) sadly do. Erling, a harpooner who is rumored to have killed, immediately starts plotting an escape plan. Ivar, who is much younger, experiences the worst possible form of welcome by unwittingly attracting the attention of house father Bråthen (Kristoffer Joner). The admission procedures strip them of their clothes and name. They emerge naked in front of their fellow students, part of the nomenclature with their new identities C-16 and C-5.

Bestyreren (Stellen Skarsgard), the school’s governor, is far too resolute in his misguided sense of reform to consider how damaging his methods are. Finally, there is student leader Olav (Trond Nilssen), who emerges as the heart of the film. He is inches away from being released after six arduous years. But as tensions rise, he must question whether or not securing his release is more important than standing up for the injustice he witnesses.

Stories of justified adolescent uprisings are always going to be engaging, to me at least. Marius Holst’s paint-by-numbers film is entirely predictable yet still manages to be a justly moving experience. Holst moves beyond the empathy implicit in the basic storyline, emphasizing the stark environment and the human elements buried deep within the struggle. Almost every frame is entrenched in hollow blues and grays. This may seem an obvious aesthetic choice but, again, Holst moves beyond the obvious with his execution. It is a rich film to look at, but the environment is never glamorized. This is a truly miserable place, and the visuals all support this.

Unfortunately, there is not much room for the actors to wiggle around in their archetypes. Unsurprisingly, Skarsgard manages quite a bit with a character that is so deeply mired in stern self-denial, that the film does not allow him even an honest moment with himself.

It is the child actors though who come through strongest. The governor says early on that at Bastøy “the past and future don’t exist. There is only present”. The film follows this proclamation relatively closely, focusing on the youths roles in the here and now of their predicament. Even without learning much about him, Helstad always makes sure we see Erling’s motivations come from immediate and tacitly sensed injustice.

Trond Nilssen’s Olav lends the film its most humanistic element. He has spent six years adapting to life at Bastøy. He has obeyed and proven a faithful inmate. There is a sort of reliance he has on the way things work at the school. Sure it is brutal and harsh, but if something were truly aghast, appropriate action would be taken; right? Surely he can expect his word, after six loyal years, to be worth something. From the moment we set our sights on Olav, we know where his arc is headed. Nilssen cancels out any negative effects of our awareness; the arc is all in his eyes and he is heartbreaking in the film’s successful through-line.

The strength of Helstad and Nilssen also force the friendship between Olav and Erling into the forefront of the film’s memorable aspects. The final ten minutes are inescapably emotional.

Filled with somber strings and heavy-handed and repetitious symbolism to drive home this grim tale of rebellion, King of Devil’s Island never feels substantial but is never less than entirely involving. When the uprising arrives it is shown as desperate and humanized rage. These kids do not turn into monsters and Holst smartly never allows that to come across. Holst is less interested in what happens when the breaking point is reached and more interested in the journey to that moment. The King of Devil’s Island is about unmonitored hierarchies of power and the disturbing results that can yield from a sharp schism between those in control and the unlucky defenseless.