Historical and Cultural Musings on DEATH WISH and CHRISTMAS VACATION

death-wish-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

Countdown to Debatepocalypse

We had the Olympics this past summer (where people seemed more focused on how NBC was ill-equipped to handle broadcasting time-delayed events in the digital age), but the real games begin this fall.  Baseball playoffs are about to begin (go Braves!), football is in full swing (go Falcons!), and we’re about to have the Presidential debates (go America!).

If you don’t think politics is a game, you haven’t been paying attention.  Policy is serious, but politics—particularly the way it’s covered—is a game.  It’s a game that has far-reaching implications for the future of our country, but we hear about it in terms of a game.  Who’s up?  Who’s down?  Who’s gaining?  Who’s losing?  Did Candidate X hit a home run with his speech?  Did Candidate Y fumble the response to the question?

And tonight, the first of three Presidential debates begin.  I hesitate to put the word “debates” into question marks because it seems too cynical.  The candidates are responding to each other in real time, but the time is so short.  Everything is condensed.  Points and counter-points have to be rapidly delivered.  But do these debates really tell us anything?  The candidates are simply reiterating points they’ve been making for months.  The format has changed, but the messages are the same.

But the debates matter for the small sliver of the population that somehow, for reasons that defy understanding, haven’t made up their minds.  We’re not talking about Jack Johnson and John Jackson.  Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have fundamental disagreements on the direction for our government.  If you believe that government has an obligation to help its people, then vote Democrat.  If you believe that unregulated businesses benefit the country, then vote Republican.  The differences regarding social issues couldn’t be clearer:  Pro-choice or pro-life?  Gay rights or discrimination?  Expansion of health care or go broke and die?  And on the issues where there’s no daylight between the candidates—war on drugs, prosecuting financial crimes—they’re not going to change their positions.

Nevertheless, the debates will dominate our media landscape for the next couple of weeks because that’s where the game is played.  For those who couldn’t be bothered to do research into the candidates, they’ll now get the biggest political ad possible.  And at the end, the punditry will squabble over who won.  Who was the most eloquent, who stumbled over a question, and who now has the edge.

Except there will be no edge.  Strangely enough, even though they’re designed to convince independent voters, debates don’t seriously sway presidential elections in the modern age.  The candidates enter at their current popularity and they leave at about the same level.  This is entertainment, and no one becomes a Texans fan simply because they played well on Sunday.

Looking at where the candidates currently stand, Obama wins the election.  The chattering class can go on about how close it is, but they’re looking at the nationwide poll, which would be important if Presidents were elected by popular vote.  But we use the Electoral College, and as you’ll see, Obama is almost at 270 electoral votes.  On election night, Obama may not have dominated the popular vote, but according to polling guru Nate Silver, Obama is likely to win the election.  Republicans will harp on the popular vote all day, but it won’t matter as long as Obama wins it by at least 50.1%.

So when you tune in for the debates, remember that we’re watching condensed stump speeches, and unnecessary ones at that.  The best thing that could happen is if Obama’s opening statement was “I killed Bin Laden, and Mitt Romney hates 47% of America,” drops the mic and walks away.  I’d vote for that.

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012 politics No Comments

I Suck at Shuffling Cards.

I know how dorky this looks.  I swear I wasn’t trying to look cool.  It’s just that everything looks cool when you slow it down to 2500 frames-per-second.  Now I know why Zack Snyder uses it ALL THE DAMN TIME.

Friday, September 28th, 2012 humor, personal, stupid No Comments

Chick-Fil-A and the Age of Slacktivism

A couple weeks ago, Dan Cathy, the President and COO of Chick-Fil-A, made the following statement on the Ken Coleman Show:

“We’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage. And I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude that thinks we have the audacity to redefine what marriage is all about.”

Dan Cathy is an idiot.  He’s a bigot, and he’s on the wrong side of history.  In 2004, George W. Bush was re-elected in part because Karl Rove was able to prey on homophobia and intolerance (and also by getting people to believe that a decorated veteran was less able to lead the country in a time of war than a guy who never saw a day of combat in his life).  Eight years later, more states have legalized gay marriage, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is no more, the President came out in favor of gay marriage, and a nationwide movement began with “It Gets Better”.

But refusing to eat Chick-Fil-A on moral grounds isn’t part of turning the tide.  Since Cathy’s statement, there has been an uprising on social networks chastising the corporation for its homophobic believes.  Somehow, people were surprised that a business that’s closed on Sunday to observe the sabbath had deep ties to Christianity.  This shock has led to not only Facebook and Twitter posts against Chick-Fil-A, but calls to boycott the business.

There seems to be a misunderstanding regarding the efficacy of boycotts.  It’s a throwback to the 1960s when civil rights organizations boycotted segregated businesses.  However, these businesses tended to be small, family-owned shops.  If your restaurant was located in a neighborhood that was half-black and half-white, and all the black people stopped eating there, then you’ve lost 50% of your revenue, and you were forced to consider whether how much money you’d be willing to lose because of bigotry.

Boycotting a corporation like Chick-Fil-A, however, doesn’t register to them.  While they obviously can’t ignore the media blowback from Cathy’s statement, there’s no way for them to measure how many people are boycotting.  Maybe profits are lower because people are eating out less since the economy sucks.  Maybe more competitive businesses are rising up around their locations.  And how will Chick-Fil-A fix this problem?  I doubt Dan Cathy will make an apology and even if he did, how many people would it bring back?  Isn’t it easier to lay people off or raise prices?  I assume if Chick-Fil-A’s profits dropped steeply, that would be their move because Dan Cathy’s convictions are stronger than the convictions of his detractors.

As I said, I think Dan Cathy’s views are despicable, but we should acknowledge that he’s willing to sacrifice millions of dollars for them.  Chick-Fil-A could be making 1/7th more money than it makes now by being open on a Sunday.   The bible says to take a day off for the sabbath, and Dan Cathy will abide by that commandment.   His opponents, on the other hand, can’t be bothered to do more than not spend money on fast food.

This isn’t to say that people haven’t gone out to protest.  If you picked up a sign, staged a sit-in, or did anything that required you to do more than sit at home, this post is not directed at you.  I commend you on taking action, taking time out of your life, and showing people that you truly care about this issue.  You have done far more than someone who posts a negative Chick-Fil-A meme on Facebook followed by a funny picture of an adorable animal.

Because we now live on the Internet, and are defined by how we share our beliefs and spend our money, then a simple post qualifies as protest.  “I’m so angry, I shared someone else’s link.”  We’re past the point of raising awareness (and again, if you weren’t aware that Chick-Fil-A’s management has Christian beliefs, then you weren’t really paying attention in the first place), so it’s really just to make yourself feel better.  You’re pro-gay rights, and you lifted a finger to do something by clicking on your mouse.  Well done.

I can’t stand that anymore.  I can’t stand this unearned self-righteousness and people refusing to truly sacrifice for what they believe in.  Honestly, I’m not that bothered by eating at Chick-Fil-A.  As I said, history’s inexorable shift towards gay rights is unstoppable, and it doesn’t matter how much money Dan Cathy and his ilk donate to anti-gay organizations.  They’re on the wrong side of history whether I buy an 8-piece chicken nuggets or not.  I’ll support gay rights right now and you can too: click here to donate money to the It Gets Better Project.

“But if you’re pouring money into Chick-Fil-A’s coffers, then you’re just negating what you’re putting into It Gets Better!”  a person I just made up might say.  Except Chick-Fil-A is on the wrong side of history.  I will happily give them money so I can watch them waste millions of it on a social issue they’re going to lose.  Their money is poorly spent.  It Gets Better’s money is wisely spent because they need momentum, and they will touch the lives of countless young people who will in turn support each other.  Chick-Fil-A can’t create homophobes, so unless they’ve concocted an anti-aging formula that runs off intolerance, then the company can’t change the fact that homophobic people are the past and  enlightened young people are the future.

However, if your argument is that you can’t in good conscience give money to a homophobic business, then that’s fine.  But what are you willing to give your money to?  In all likelihood, you own some piece of technology made in a factory in China.  In China, they work long hours for slave wages in factories that are so bad that one corporation, Foxconn, had to put up suicide nets.  Working conditions are so terrible, that they had to come up with a way to stop employees from killing themselves.  Nets are cheaper than higher wages and decent working conditions.

If this bothers you, then I encourage you to throw away any piece of technology that was made on the backs of this kind of harsh labor.  Chick-Fil-A might be against gay rights, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t any suicide nets on the premises (I guess an argument could be made for the ball pit on the playground).  Also, if you put gas in your car, then why do you support endangering our oceans?  As we learned a couple years ago, deepwater drilling is incredibly hazardous, and conditions have not significantly improved since Deepwater Horizon.

Except giving up your technology or your car is sacrifice.  It won’t stop tech companies from using cheap labor or oil companies from drilling, but you will feel that sacrifice every day because your life will be more difficult because of it.  Circling back to Christianity, the notion of tithing doesn’t have a bad premise.  If you were forced to give up 10% of your income to charity, you would most likely feel it.  That’s sacrifice.  That’s the courage of your convictions.  Refusing to eat a chicken sandwich: not courageous.

Friday, August 3rd, 2012 politics, stupid No Comments

We Could Have Had This Conversation Yesterday

This morning, the country woke up to the tragic news that a gunman had opened fire at a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises, and killed 12 people.  The number of injured was initially reported at 38, but new reports have put it at 59.  I want to say it’s “shocking”, but it’s not.  It feels inevitable.

But today, social networks are in an uproar about gun control and gun violence.  It’s the roar that comes every 6-12 months because it rarely takes longer than a year for another one of these massacres to occur.  And then the uproar dies down, and we move on to the latest news story.  It’s also a little strange that gun violence only seems to rouse people to action when it’s in a cluster.  Massacres make headlines, but I don’t hear an outcry on Twitter on a daily basis.   There were 12,632 gun-related homicides in 2007.  What makes those gun deaths less notable than those that happened at the Aurora Century 16 theater?

The question we’ve become forced to ask ourselves is not “Why does this happen?” but “Why doesn’t this happen more often?”

There’s no political will to make it stop.  If Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords getting shot in the head doesn’t spur congress to action on tougher gun control laws, then a bunch of Batman fans at a midnight screening isn’t going to register.  Just like a bunch of college kids at Virginia Tech didn’t register.  Just like the birthday party killings in Texas didn’t register (I didn’t even remember the one until The New Yorker mentioned it).  Taking on guns is a political loser because it means wasting a lot of money fighting the NRA, and stronger gun control doesn’t get candidates elected.  Americans don’t like being told what we can’t do and what we can’t have.

This post isn’t a call to ban guns, or a call for stricter gun laws.  This isn’t a call for anything.  It’s just an observation about how we could have had today’s discussion about guns yesterday, and we’ll probably be having this conversation a year from now.  The problem of gun violence in America never dies.

Friday, July 20th, 2012 culture, politics, stupid 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:

ratings-pie-chart

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

Reviews: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST 3D and CONTRABAND

Beauty and the Beast 3D (Rating: A+)

Contraband (Rating: B-)

Thursday, January 12th, 2012 criticism, movies No Comments

Hometeam

Falcons-Logo1Another Falcons season, another crushing disappointment.  This is how they’ll write the book on Atlanta sports teams.  It almost makes me envy hopeless teams like the Browns or the Cubs.  They don’t make it anywhere close to the playoffs but their die-hard fans love them all the same.  But when it comes to the Falcons, the Braves, and the Hawks, they’re nothing but (and forgive the following crudeness) cock-teases who give their fans blue-balls.  Eventually those fans get frustrated and find a team that might actually fuck them.

But I’m a sucker for punishment.  I’m already looking ahead to next season for the Falcons even though my team got butt-fucked on national TV less than an hour ago.  What changes will we make?  Who gets drafted?  Who gets traded?  Who on the coaching staff has to commit ritual suicide and can I watch?  And will the Falcons front office even figure it out?  Last season, we got trounced by the 6th-seeded Packers even though we were the first seed off a 13-3 record and playing at home.  The snap action from the front office: “explosive” plays.  It was a meaningless buzzword, but they did get an “explosive” player with Julio Jones and in his rookie season he’s shown he’s the real deal.

And yet that’s irrelevant.  We had a worse record this season, we played sloppy football where we either put ourselves in a hole or blew gigantic leads, and toyed with my fragile emotions. Something’s rotten in the state of Georgia.  If the players are talented (and the offense is, and there are some great guys on the defense although the secondary is garbage) then how come we’re so inconsistent?  I’d rather have solid, consistent victory over “explosive” any day.  (This is also my approach to bowel movements.)

This year, I started using a phrase that I’m sure irritated everyone I used it around: “Hometeam”.  Hometeam, by my definition, meant sticking with your team even when your team was making you cry.  You could criticize the hell out of them, but you never wrote them off.  You didn’t look at the score at the half and say “They’re going to lose.”  You held out hope for as long as possible and if you lost, you looked ahead to the next game and stayed positive.

Every passing season that gets harder.  For Atlanta sports fans, it becomes excruciating because our teams pretend like they have a chance.  They dangle their potential in front of us, give us a winning season or at least a wild card berth, and then they get demolished in the playoffs.  They don’t lose; they lose horribly.  It’s almost as if they’re trying to embarrass their fans.  They’re Lucy, we’re Charlie Brown, and the football is a championship.

I’m hometeam so I try to keep the optimism alive.  I’ll be a blockhead and hope that Arthur Blank and the Falcons organization see this kind of loss and will not only make adjustments, but adjustments that would actually improve the team on a fundamental level rather than building off some meaningless buzzword.

So yeah, I’m the idiot who’s forgetting the nationally televised shit-bucket of a game the Falcons played this afternoon.  I’m the sucker who’s dreaming of next season.  I’m hometeam.

Sunday, January 8th, 2012 sports No Comments

Funny Photos

Yeah, this blog can do that.  It shouldn’t, but it can, AND IT WILL:

Art by Chris Furniss via Super Punch.

 Via Uberhumor via Brother.

Wednesday, January 4th, 2012 humor, videogames 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
 

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