American Honey

american honey

Popular culture is deceiving. Perhaps it is no fault of its own, since massively consumed entertainment has to provide diversion for audiences; the deceit is implicit, so it is not meant to be taken too seriously. A quick glance at the current social landscape, however, indicate that celebrities and songs and Netflix originals hold as much sway over the cultural conversation as they probably never had before. Popular culture doesn’t become an escape, but a pep talk; something that inspires, teaches and sells dreams that will never come true.

In American Honey, as sultry and hypnotizing as films can be, the teenagers selling magazine subscriptions door to door across the American Midwest have more in common than just a fractured home life and a penchant for booze and sex. It seems that while their parents, or parent surrogates, were passing out drunk in couches and overdosing on crack, they were left in the care of movies and music, which proceeded to raise them. It is through these media that the itinerant life of mag crews acquires such seductive glow.

Not once does the film lay blame or judge the teens for the behaviors and actions they engage in. Just like Star (Sasha Lane) joined the crew to escape an abusive father figure, so does every other member in the team has a reason that makes their decision to join rational instead of delusional. And yet there is no happiness in the business. Everything the camera captures for close to three hours reeks of sadness and destruction; the decaying state of things mirrors the hopes of Star and everybody else. It is a document not only of the near depressing conditions of the hidden America, the segment that supposedly led Donald Trump to victory last November, but of the last throes of youth. Teens abandoned by everybody but popular culture, which instilled in them the idea that what they are doing is liberating, and that money is the ultimate indicator of success.

I mention this because the mag crew sings along to every single song that comes on during every leg of their journey. No matter the time or day or genre, everybody knows the lyrics to everything. But it is not only homeless teens whose dreams have been influenced by outside forces. The first house that Star visits is hosting a birthday party for a girl who cannot be more than fifteen years old. She is with three of her friends and a dance song begins blasting through the air, and the teens start to move along with the music, eventually putting their bodies in poses that are inappropriate for children their age. She is just following along with the song, she reasons with the screams of her God fearing mother.

“I hope He comes all over your car!”, shouts Star to a passerby vehicle that has “God is Coming” sticker plastered over the rear window, after it refused to slow down for her and her two half-siblings.
The anthem of the movie is “we found love in a hopeless place”, which works wonderfully with the hopelessness that infects the entire film. I really hope the sticker the car announced comes true, for I don’t see any other way for teens and adults to have real hope again.

A-

The Breakfast Club

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One of the students that sat with me yesterday had doubts on how to proceed with an essay prompt assigned to her by the professor. The prompt read something like, “Can children overcome the negative influence exerted on them by their parents?”

This student wanted to argue in favor of children being able to free themselves from their parent’s burdens, but was not sure the reasons that would lead to such liberation.
Had I seen The Breakfast Club, I would have told her to go watch the movie instead, and would have saved us both half an hour of conversation.

Complaining about parents is always a tricky thing to get compassion for, since every teen seems to be naturally predisposed to object to their parents behavior once they reach a certain age, no matter how saintly mom and dad are. Some mothers and father however, are truly the stuff of nightmare. While physical violence may be the first thing to pop to mind, it is not the only one. Infidelities, lack of respect, poor financial responsibility, extreme demands, are only some of the things parents can ruin their children with. It is certainly the case with the five kids at the heart of this comedy. But just like my conversation with the student yesterday ended on a hopeful note, because our own personal choices can move us past the mess our parents left for us, so it is here. So we lift our fists up to the sky, victorious.

B

Logan

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Superhero movies adapted from comic books have had such a tremendous impact on popular culture during the last decade that they’ve even received their own grading curve.
“Good by superhero movie standards”, or “terrible even by comic book adaptation standards” has become the de facto response to this kind of product. Whether this is harmful or beneficial to cinema as a whole is a topic that demands its own blog post (maybe when Wonder Woman opens?), so this entry will not approach Logan as another superhero comic book movie, but rather as simply another slice of cinema.

I note this disclaimer out of fear that I will be doing this movie a disservice by calling it the best superhero movie since The Dark Knight trilogy. A quick glance into the past reveals that in the intervening years there have not really been that many memorable movies of the kind, which would take away some credit from Logan.
So instead I will say that Logan is the most memorable film I have watched since Silence; it reminds me of the greatest television series I have ever watched, Spartacus: Blood and Sand; and features a performance by Hugh Jackman so magnificent that if I cared at all about awards, I would hope against hope he’d be nominated for something.

“That was not Wolverine”, a friend lamented upon exiting the cinema. “I hated the movie.”
“I hoped that character from the other movie showed up”, the other friend said. “That would have been cool”.

I kept quiet, pondering their words. How many people spend fifteen dollars hoping to see something cool on the big screen? Is that why superhero movies are so popular, since they feature a CGI infused extravaganza of explosions and shiny costumes? Why do so little people pay mind to the human element, and the pains and the joys of life on this earth?

Logan might be the story of a 200 year old mutant who cannot die, but his tale is agonizingly human. Hugh Jackman inflicts Logan with so much sorrow that a mere glance is enough to break your heart. I would say that Logan is a man battling his demons, but it would be a misreading of the film. Logan lost that conflict many years ago. What’s left is a man who is in constant agony every waking hour, considering death a welcome change to the life filled with regret and loss he’s led up until that point.

That the script for this was approved is some sort of miracle. Consider the scene in which Laura (Dafne Keen) is riding a mechanical horse, and Logan approaches to call her back to the car. She looks at him asking for one more ride, so Logan pulls out a quarter from his pocket and says “One final time okay?”, before inserting the coin into the mechanical box next to the contraption. Logan pulls away and Laura starts to ride again.
A moment like this, lasting about thirty seconds and meaningless in the grand scheme of things, becomes beautiful not only because it survived executives overseeing it making sure they made every penny back, but because it speaks volumes about the world we all inhabit. This is real life. A kid riding a mechanical horse; an old man lifted from his wheelchair and into a public toilet; a young man saying he will drop from college to go travel across the country.
Small, fleeting moments are what make up our lives, and small, fleeting moments are what Logan is incapable of grasping. He says the adamantium inside his system is slowly killing him, but that’s only partly true.
Logan has been dying since the day he let his sorrows overtake any glimmer of hope for a better future he might have had.

Again, Hugh Jackman delivers the performance of a lifetime. It will take me a while to get rid of the images of a bruised and battered Logan out of my head, his gaze lost somewhere where the camera cannot reach. Watching it in the dark in a packed room, I felt knots in my stomach, and I wondered if my neighbors felt the same. I wanted the movie to be over and go home imagining Logan living his remaining days somewhere happily ever after.

While not a perfect movie, mainly because the quasi generic bad guys keep reminding the audience that they are watching a Marvel adaptation every time they are on screen, it reminded me of the immense power cinema holds whenever a story is well told. It reminded me that even in the midst of all the deafening noise and chaos resounding that has been ruling our world for the past year, there is still room for the intimate, and that hope should not be given up on. But most of all, it reminded me that true heroes don’t wear capes after all.

B+

Brooklyn

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On May 13th, 2015, as I made my way through the sea of people flooding the too narrow aisles, I thought to myself “It will be okay.”
Having found my seat, next to the window, I looked out of it but my family was beyond the reach of my eyes. I thought to myself, “It will be okay.”
As I wandered the vastness of an airport I’d never been to before, surrounded by a language not my own, trying to make my way to the exit and the promise of a better life, I thought to myself “It will be okay.”

Months later, lying in bed, tears still warm upon my cheeks, I tried with all my might to stop myself from calling my mom and telling her how I missed her and my sisters and my dad and my dogs and my room and my friend and every insignificant and great thing that is my home. I didn’t when I remembered that it was going to be okay.

And it has been. I may have not fallen in love or gotten married, but I go to work each day, head held up high, smile upon my face; I go to school and I am not ashamed of who I am nor where I come from.
I want to make my home proud. And build one here.

B+

Boogie Nights

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A long time ago, I received a call from my then best friend. He was back in town for Christmas break, and wanted to know when we could see each other, as it had been a year since our last encounter. I responded that we could hang out at his earliest convenience. There was just one thing he needed to hear. I was no longer doing the things I used to do-the things Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) is so fond of at one point-, and wanted to make sure that was okay with him. He said absolutely, and that he’d stop by my house at the end of the week. He hung up, and I haven’t seen him since.

I bring this up because I think it’s something that’s at the heart of Boogie Nights.

When Kurt Longjohn (Ricky Jay) asks Little Bill (William H. Macy) if anything is amiss, Bill replies that he just discovered his wife sleeping with another man. Visibly distraught, he mumbles some more until Kurt says “Yeah, I understand”, and starts to talk about the next day’s shoot. Bill leaves and Kurt heads over to watch a naked couple on the driveway.

Now, consider the following scene. The Colonel (Robert Ridgely) has been put behind bars and he is talking on the phone with Jack (Burt Reynolds). After a while, Jack, disgusted, gets up and leaves.

Yet the camera is not on him, but on The Colonel’s face. He looks at the phone, then at the glass in front of him and cries out. But no sound is heard.

The moment is one of the saddest in the picture because The Colonel aches for somebody to listen to him, but there’s nobody there, the implication being that this is how everybody at Jack’s residence might eventually turn up. Trapped not in an iron cage, but in one of loneliness, in which the people who say they care are just going to give you a drink and a pat on the back until the moment you stick a gun in your mouth.

And if Paul Thomas Anderson understands our need to be heard and to belong better than any other current director (what is The Master if not a father figure embracing a lost man?), he also knows that you got to keep on rocking and rolling.

So he gives us a chance at love, and freedom and the greatest equipment store that ever was.

He’s right. A year after that phone call, I met someone. We’ve talked every day since.

He’s my best friend

 

B+

Magnolia

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It is perhaps telling that the one character who constantly mentions the need to forgive and the importance of second chances is the one who, on his first scene, is shown kneeling by his bed in prayer, a wooden cross hanging on his wall.

Magnolia is one of the most perceptive films on regret and the importance of healthy parenting I can remember. While one could be forgiven for viewing the coincidences purely on the surface level (What Do Kids Know? produced by Big Earl Productions) since the opening narration so states, the underlying thread that joins all the disparate characters together is how each one of them carries something toxic and how it can be traced back to a certain moment in time in which they were hurt beyond any measure of cure or redemption.

On the last days of his life, as my grandfather laid in bed nearly comatose, the sorrow I felt was not because he had become a shell of his former self or could no longer speak. “How can he possibly deal with his regret?”, I asked myself.
When married to my mom’s mother, my grandpa had had a flurry of mistresses, and after his wife passed away, he married twice and had six more children. At the top of his life, the man possessed multiple properties, businesses and could afford months long journeys abroad. At the end of his life, nearly 30 years later, he had not a penny to his name nor even a place to eternally sleep in, as he had gambled his cemetery lot away.

It would have been beautiful to know my grandpa did the same thing Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) did on his deathbed, but real life is rarely like the movies. But then again, as one character says as God rains frogs down on sinners, “this is something that happens”. Maybe that is why from the first to the penultimate frame, everything seems so sad. Because even if we are the ones who learned how to forgive, our hearts have still been broken when we heard someone cry out “I have so much love and I don’t know where to put it.”

And yet, as bleak and despairing as the 180 minutes are, Paul Thomas Anderson wants us to take comfort. We might carry our scars with us forever, but we do know what we are doing. And so, we are able to forgive and let go, and, as the beautiful final shot demonstrates, redemption is just a smile away.

A+