In Memory of Robin Williams

I’ve become a fan of many actors and actresses over the years, but Robin Williams was the first.

Williams was moving into a new stage in his career when I became a fan, but I didn’t know that.  I knew him as Mork from Ork because Mork & Mindy played on Nick at Nite at 8:30pm, and I was allowed to stay up that late.  And then I knew him from Mrs. Doubtfire and the voice of Genie and then Peter Pan.  He was making movies for my demographic, and he was making me laugh.  I didn’t know about his stand-up comedy or the rainbow suspenders or his drug addiction or his Oscar nominations or that he had more hair than a werewolf.  He was warm and funny and willing to be goofy.  He was a live-action cartoon but never felt false.

Then I got older, and naturally that came with being more critical.  Not everything Robin Williams did was genius.  He followed his Oscar-winning role in Good Will Hunting with a string of cloying pictures that all flopped.  He was trying too hard.  And then he took his career in a new direction by being dark.  And then he became harder to pin down.  He moved to supporting roles or family comedies and played a string of forgettable parts except for one.

There are many powerful performances in Williams’ career.  Ranking them would be a disservice and a fruitless endeavor.  But when I learned of his death earlier tonight, and after the initial shock followed by the deep sorrow–a sorrow I feel now and one that compels me to write this–I started thinking of his performances, and the one that rushed to the front of my mind was World’s Greatest Dad.

Being the critical snob that I am, I had managed to pigeonhole Robbins’ career, file it away, and be proud of myself that I had so quickly summed up his talents and abilities.  He was no longer my idol; he was my subject.  And in my summation, he was an actor who was at his best when he thought no one was watching.  Sure, he had inspired people with touchy-feely stuff, but FUCK THAT.  That’s not serious.  No, he was a real actor when he was in World’s Greatest Dad because he knew it would never go mainstream.  He was free and in that freedom he gave a performance that tapped into his biting comedy and his raw emotions like no other picture.

Of course, I was (and am) an idiot.  I just watched The Fisher King for the first time tonight, and I see the same kind of amazing performance.  It’s incredibly funny and painfully moving.  I thought I had outgrown Robin Williams, and it turns out I still don’t know shit.

I’m not going to pretend he was the greatest actor of his generation of every one of his films was a gem, and as World’s Greatest Dad teaches us, honesty is a greater virtue than cloying sentiment.  Emotions have to be earned, not manufactured.  Time and again, Williams earned those emotions, and I’m sorry I wrote him off.  And I’m even sorrier that I’ll never have the opportunity to tell him how much his comedy influenced me and what it meant to me.

He meant so much to millions of people, and yet it appears that his depression was  so overwhelming that he couldn’t recognize such widespread acclaim.  If you need proof that depression is a disease, look no further.  Robin Williams was revered worldwide by millions of fans not to mention loved by family and friends.  Depression doesn’t care.  What’s most insidious about depression is that it puts you in a box where everything beautiful disappears, and all that remains is despair.

And I’m sure there will be those who suffer from depression, and as that depression sinks its fangs in deeper, it will distort reality and cause the victim to say,  “Robin Williams was loved by millions and a huge success!  If he can’t survive depression, what hope do I have?”  That’s what depression does.  It changes reality to where everything is inescapable pain and suffering.

I’m so sorry Williams saw no escape.  I’m even sorrier for those closest to him.  My pain seems trivial in comparison to those who lost a man who, by all the anecdotes I’m reading, was a lovely human being.  Perhaps he felt their lives would be better off without him or that even the world would be better off without him.  They’re not.  We’re not.  We miss you terribly, Mr. Williams.

If you suffer from depression, please, please, please find help.  Don’t be ashamed to tell your loved ones.  They love you and they want to help you.  If you feel uncomfortable talking to them, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.  Even if you’re not feeling suicidal, they will still talk to you.  They want to help you.  And for the long haul, please find a doctor.  It may take time to find the right medication, but once you find it, it will make you feel better.

I don’t have all the answers, but I swear to you there are answers.  Suicide is never one of them.


Monday, August 11th, 2014 movies, personal No Comments

Historical and Cultural Musings on DEATH WISH and CHRISTMAS VACATION


Last night, I had an odd double feature of Death Wish and Christmas Vacation.  It was my first viewing for both films, and while I found Death Wish the more entertaining of the two, both movies left me with some thoughts regarding their cultural commentary and the historical context that commentary was made.  I posted my thoughts on Letterboxd (a fantastic site for keeping a movie journal), but in case those comments were to vanish for some reason, I wanted to keep them here as well (my site is indestructible).  Keep in mind that these are not reviews but simply a collection of disorganized thoughts that I wanted to put down before I went to bed.

[Note: minor spoilers ahead]

Death Wish

An absolutely fascinating film. If the Bernie Getz shooting hadn’t happened 10 years later, I could have sworn it would be the influence for Death Wish. The film is borderline unapologetic in its values, although there is an awkward moment where a background character has to explain why Paul Kerney (Charles Bronson) is killing so many black people isn’t racist (she has a fair point, although it ignores the larger social issues, which falls in line with the rest of the movie).

Death Wish is an angry fantasy for anyone who has ever been a victim of a violent crime or known the victim of a violent crime. It reaches deep into the futility having crime seep into our safe worlds and show us how powerless we truly are. And the only solution comes not from the police, but down the barrel of a gun. It also helps that in the world of Death Wish, most criminals carry switchblades and not guns.

Oddly enough, the police aren’t seen as ineffective as much as allied against the individual rather than supporting the community. An entire department seems to mass around stopping Kerney, but they shrug their shoulders when his wife was murdered and his daughter was raped. There’s media sensationalism to the vigilante, but no character ever brings up the point that the cops are now investigating the murder of a criminals rather than the murder of an innocent women.

Of course, this all plays into the notion of the One Man Against the World fantasy Death Wish (winkingly?) embraces. The movie makes sure to position Kersey not as the outlaw, but as the noble gunslinger. He’s always looking for trouble, but he’s righting the wrongs the law can’t or won’t stop.

It’s also strange that the criminals gravitate towards Kersey; in one scene, a couple punks go through multiple train cars just to get to him even though there are other people on the train and he’s just some guy reading the newspaper. Bronson may not be intimidating (although we see at the beginning of the film that he’s absolutely ripped), but he’s also doesn’t convey weakness. Why would criminals target him as a victim?

It’s tough to tell if director Michael Winner is playing it straight, but either way, it’s a damn interesting and entertaining film. It’s heavy-handed as hell, and I honestly don’t know if it’s satire or preaching. Personally, I would like to see it as satire since I think that makes it a smarter movie. Then again, the film could also be played as a tragedy. Kersey is an honest, hardworking man and violence consumes his life and becomes his addiction. At the end, rather than give up his gun, he gives up on his family and moves away so he can kill more street punks.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

Billed as a “Christmas classic”, I was a little underwhelmed by Christmas Vacation. It wasn’t as funny as I’d hoped it would be, nor was it particularly memorable. The family dynamic felt like The Ref but with all the hard edges rounded off to a PG-13 rating. More often than not, the movie relies on slapstick and rarely finds a satisfying build-up and pay-off to its farcical elements. The best moments are when the Griswolds continue to unintentionally ruin their neighbors’ lives.

Where Christmas Vacation caught my attention wasn’t so much in its comedy, but in its values. Coming out a year after the Reagan administration, it’s a movie that champions the pursuit of the middle-class becoming the upper-middle class while still retaining good, old-fashioned American values. The Christmas miracle isn’t getting to keep the house. It’s getting to keep the house AND get a swimming pool. If your house has a swimming pool that not inflatable, then congratulations: you’re upper-middle class.

Meanwhile, Uncle Eddie (Randy Quaid) and his brood are the disgusting poor. They’re not necessarily bad people, but they’re uncouth, dumb, and most importantly, they mooch off the goodwill of the Griswold clan. Uncle Eddie may be good for kidnapping the wealthy, but he’s also the guy who expects you to open your wallet and pay for his kids’ toys because he’s too lazy to get a job.

Meanwhile, the film also doesn’t want to alienate the aspiring middle class by saying the wealthy (Clark’s boss) are inherently good. But they’re certainly not bad. They’re just misguided, and if they could only see how much a middle class family like the Griswolds appreciate Christmas, then the rich folks would realize that maybe they shouldn’t slash the bonuses of hardworking Americans. This dream scenario would truly be a Christmas miracle.

It’s also important that the Griswolds are a very specific kind middle class family. They live next door to the Chesters–a horrible, selfish couple who may be in the same income bracket, but they’re not REAL Americans. They don’t have kids, they don’t celebrate Christmas, they’re not friendly, and they simply don’t share the Griswolds values.

While I would like to give screenwriter John Hughes credit for crafting a ridiculously subtle satire of the American dream, his screenplay for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off shares the same kind of me-first values of the Reagan era. When the characters sing the National Anthem at the end, it’s not ironic. It’s taking national possession of the holiday. It’s not “Happy” Christmas, you British bastards. It’s “Merry” Christmas. If you don’t like it, you can get out.

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012 criticism, movies No Comments

I’m Positive I’m Not Negative

I’m going to put this to bed once and for all:

I’m not a negative person.

That seems to have become my reputation.  I know part of that comes from what I say about upcoming movies and my comments on trailers, posters, and other aspects of a marketing campaign.  My coverage of movie news is part-mockery and part-criticism.  I can’t go back through every single news story I wrote in 2011, but people get defensive over minor things.  The trailer for The Dark Knight Rises didn’t change my life and I made fun of the collapsing football field because it’s funny.  I don’t think the movie will be bad.  It’s a criticism of a trailer that shows a football player who doesn’t realize that everyone behind him has fallen into a pit and died.  Also, the quake ended when he scored a touchdown, so it worked out well.

But I also get excited by good trailers.  I do a Top 10 list at the end of the year to prove it.  And most importantly, I don’t let any piece of marketing lock in my opinion.  Marketing on major movies is a non-stop assault, and I can’t avoid it, but I can try to stay objective before being subjective.

However, I can go back through my reviews and try to empirically prove that I’m not negative.  I’ve come to the point where I almost want to stop using a letter grade.  The reason I keep using them is because hopefully it will serve as a hook.  Readers will scroll down to the bottom, see the letter grade, and then read the review to see why I gave that grade.  Sadly, the rating tends to dominates the content.  We’re in the Rotten Tomatoes age where people want to see a percentage and take that as the final word on the film’s quality.  Keep in mind that RT works on a binary-system.  A film is either “fresh” or “rotten”, so a B- has the same weight as an A+.  Even as a shorthand, Rotten Tomatoes is imprecise.

But since people are so fixated on grades, and then they want to turn around and say that I’m negative, I’ve provided the following chart, which breaks down how many As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs I gave out in 2011:


As you can see, the highest percentage of my reviews were either a B+, B, or B- (the exact number was 56).  “B” means “good”.  “A” means excellent.  I have seen enough movies to understand the difference.  Hollywood and even indie films don’t hit a grand slam every time they go to bat.  “A” is a high standard and when a movie meets that high standard, it should mean something.

The next highest percentage was “C”, which means “mediocre”.  I hate to say it, but there’s plenty of mediocrity in the world.  Not everyone is a superstar and a lot of movies just get by.  They’re forgettable or they’re a wasted opportunity.  I don’t hate these movies.  I just don’t get much out of them.

Perhaps this disconnect is that my critics want my film criticism to be “one higher”.  Cs should Bs, and Bs should be As.  But I demand more from my movies.  I see the flaws not because I’m “negative” but because criticism is my business and it’s my job to break down movies and see how they work and how they don’t.  I don’t “turn off my brain” nor would I want to.  It seems ungrateful considering it got me to where I am today.  I don’t like subjecting it to Sucker Punch, but we’re in it together.

There’s no agenda for me.  There are movies I look forward to and movies I dread, but I give them all a fair shake.  And if you don’t think I do, then look past the letter grade and read the actual review.

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012 criticism, movies, personal No Comments

Final 2011 Reviews and Year-End Lists

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Rating: B-)

Young Adult (Rating: A-)

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Rating: B)

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Rating: A)

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Rating: C+)

The Adventures of Tintin (Rating: C)

We Bought a Zoo (Rating: C)

War Horse (Rating: C-)

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Rating: B)

Top 10 Posters of 2011

Top 10 Trailers of 2011

Best Performances, Directing, and other Miscellany of 2011

Worst 5 of 2011

Top 10 of 2011

Sunday, January 1st, 2012 criticism, movies No Comments