‘Detroit’ a true-life horror story

Director Kathryn Bigelow is perhaps the greatest tension-creating filmmaker today. From “The Hurt Locker” (2008) to “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) and now to “Detroit”, her work is taut, precise and involving. While “Detroit” does not quite measure up to her previous achievements (classics in my mind), it is still a harrowing and personal story of race, crime and corruption.

The film begins as the city of Detroit is rocked by riots in 1967. The National Guard is called in, looting becomes rampant and buildings go up in flames as racial divisions peak. The Algiers Motel is raided by police in search of a sniper and what transpires is a tale of abuse, torture and murder.

After the initial set-up of the riots, the film focuses on the characters of Dismukes (Johnny Boyega), a security officer caught up in the police raid, Krauss (Will Poulter), the main cop responsible for most of the carnage, and Larry (Algee Smith), one of the men caught in the house that night who aspired to be a singer with his team, The Dramatics.  Each becomes representative of the racial divide in a way, from the immovability of a bigot to the irreparable trauma of racial abuse to the realization that perhaps no matter how you function in society, you can still be viewed solely by the color of your skin.

While the film is told in a thrilling and horrifying manner, it doesn’t have much depth going for it nor is it’s lesson one that is original. While the story it tells is important and  worthy of remembrance, in the current political and sociological climate, it doesn’t really add anything to the discourse on race relations. It’s more a simple story on police brutality and bigotry. The ending also doesn’t wrap anything up much thematically, not giving our characters strong emotional conclusions. The film therefore is strong, but not essential viewing.

“Detroit” is a gruesome story and it examines a topic that continues to haunt the world to this day. It is important to remember not only the history we are proud of, but also that of which we are ashamed, and stories like that told in “Detroit” are necessary.

Movie Essentials: Lawrence of Arabia

“They won’t come for Damascus,” Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) proclaims near the film’s climax. “They’ll come for me.” T. E. Lawrence’s exploits in the Arabian desert during World War 1 as the British fought the Turkish empire are now the stuff of mythos. Director David Lean’s film Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is both epic and yet also touchingly intimate.

T. E. Lawrence is tasked with investigating the progress of the Arab rebellion against the Turkish Empire at the film’s opening. That rebellion however is in shambles, the result of an indigenous people fighting amongst themselves and against a much better supplied foe. For the next two years, he helps organize the different clans of the desert into a unifying force and win critical battles against the Turks. As his exploits continue, and as the war effort against Austria-Hungary and Germany continues to flounder, he is promoted to hero status in the British and American press, helping turn the morale of the war for the Allied powers. Lawrence eventually leads the Arab people into Damascus in the hopes of creating a true Arab nation for the Arabs. But the conniving ruling classes in France and England make sure that their stakes in the new region will be well-managed and the infighting between the various Arab factions (Sunni, Shiite, Kurds) prevents the dream of a true Arabian state from coming to fruition. Lawrence leaves the desert a broken man.

Lean filmed the nearly four hour epic on location in Jordan, Spain and Morocco over a period of more than a year. The film is one of the most spectacularly shot spectacles in history. The brilliant cinematography captures the vibrant colors and texture of the Middle East. The viewer can practically smell the desert breeze and feel the heat and the sand.

The scope of Lean’s vision and the re-enactments of climactic battles would alone make the film memorable, but where Lawrence of Arabia really surges is with the characters and their inner dilemmas played out on such a global scale.

Lawrence is an incredibly complex and dynamic character. Is he British, Arab or something else? With his fame, is he a god of the desert, a hero of war or just a confused man thrust onto the world’s stage? Everyone seems to have a different opinion of him. The British think he is crazy. The Arabs think he is a being of divine power, a gift from God. The press thinks of him as a hero. Prince Faisal (Omar Sharif), perhaps his one true friend after an initial distaste for each other, considers him a potential leader of a great cause and grows to love him, hints of homoeroticism latent throughout the film (there are no women in the movie at all). As the war takes its toll and Lawrence’s identity changes from British intelligence agent to war hero to Arab inspirational figure, Lawrence loses more and more sense of who he is. With the ultimate defeat of the cause he put so much blood and sweat and soul into, he is left to the conclusion that perhaps he is no one at all.

There are also so many parallels to current events in Lawrence of Arabia. One need only look at events in Syria, Iraq, Israel, the UK and the United States to see just how much things have not changed in nearly 100 years. The sectarian violence, the revolutions against oppressive regimes, the suspicion of the East against the West and the subsequent fascination of the West to colonize the East are all at play in the film. The events at the conclusion of the movie illustrate the state of the modern world, with rival Islamic factions unable to coexist and the Western powers dividing up land for their own benefit regardless of centuries old cultures that reject their beliefs. The reverberation of events continues to haunt us to this day.

The viewer cannot help but see a bit of themselves in Lawrence, a sense of wondering who we are and what our destiny really means. The film opens in Arabia with a mirage, the sun dimly exposing just something over the horizon. Is it real or just a figment of our imaginations? No one knows. The same can be said about ourselves. What is truth? Are we real or just mirages?

Movie Essentials: The Rules of the Game

The Rules of the Game (1939) was a critical and box office disappointment upon its release despite the fact that it was the most expensive French production ever at the time. In fact, the French censors banned it on the grounds that it was “having an undesirable influence over the young.” It wasn’t until after World War II that the film was rediscovered and a more modern audience could see it for it was: a masterpiece.

Aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) has just completed a record setting flight, but when he lands, the only thing on his mind is his disappointment that Christine (Nora Gregor), the wife of aristocrat Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio), is not there to greet him. Despite her marriage, he is in love with her. Robert himself in involved in an affair with Geneviève de Marras (Mila Parély) though he is trying to get out of it. André gets an invitation to Robert’s home from his good friend, Octave (Jean Renoir), where there is a large hunting party gathering. However, Octave himself is in love with Christine. More and more characters come into play: aristocrats, maids, servicemen, each involved in an intricate love web that all comes exploding in on itself at this weekend gathering. At the end of the night, André is dead, shot by a jealous groundskeeper who thought he was the man sleeping with his wife, and Christine belongs to no one.

The film stands as a commentary of the upper social class of Europe at the time. The aristocracy looks down on their servants and thinks little of them, using them for their own games, while that same lower class flails in a crumbling society, the lure of an outbreak of war pending. The director, Jean Renoir, had remarked that he believed it was the film’s candor about the social lives of the economic classes that drew such heavy criticism, that audiences were not ready for the truth presented in his film. The truth of the narrative is that the rich ignored the qulams of the lesser people, so indulging themselves with their own frivolous romances, that they failed to see the rising seeds of conflict that erupted into another world war.

Octave, played by Renoir himself, often remarks during the film, “Everyone has his reasons.” There is no central antagonist in the film. Indeed, the viewer is able to relate to just about everyone. All the characters have motives and goals against which they must compete within the rules of their society. They are all trapped in the rules of the game, a game of social hierarchy where the poor stay poor, the rich become richer and desires and lusts are structured according to placement. The Rules of the Game may hold many parallels to modern times, maintaining its relevance.

What the film ultimately gives the audience is a wide tapestry of European social existence. There are moments of comedy and drama and action, the dialogue is witty and the multitude of characters are interesting and involving. Much like his father, Auguste Renoir, a leading impressionist painter, Jean Renoir utilizes his canvas and presents an intricate glimpse into a timeless story.

At the film’s conclusion, André lies dead, the result of mistaken identity. He is a victim of someone who tried to transcend social ranking and become something more. He sought a married woman, a woman of higher class and even flew across the ocean to prove himself to her, but it does not matter. He is a victim of the rules of the game, a game that was rigged in Europe at the time and, with its eerie parallels to modern times, may still be to this day.

Movie Essentials: Persona

Ingmar Bergman has always been cinema’s great existentialist. His work delves into musings about life and death and love and sex and the mystery surrounding all of it. Watching one of his films is equivalent almost to a church confessional, as if he is whispering to us all his deepest thoughts.

Filmed during the height of the war in Vietnam, Persona (1966) begins with a series of seemingly random images: corpses, spiders, a young boy waking up, hands nailed into a cross, a reel of film spinning out of control while showing old cartoons.

We then meet our principal characters: An actress, Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann), who falls into a silent state suddenly during a performance and her young, soon-to-be married nurse, Alma (Bibi Andersson).

The two spend the summer at a doctor’s summer house. Throughout their stay, the audience learns about each woman, one through talking (Alma), the other by silence (Elisabet). Alma relates a lucid sexual excursion she and her friend had at the beach and the subsequent abortion. Her guilt afterwards festers and makes her wonder if she could be two people at once. Afterwards, in a dreamlike state, both women meet in the dead of night and seemingly blend together. Upon discovering that Elisabet has been condescendingly humoring her during their stay and seeing her as a case study, the two fight. Their fight escalating into surrealism, Elisabet’s husband arrives and confuses Alma for Elisabet, further drawing the two characters together. It is revealed that Elisabet hates her child, and Alma is terrified of their strange connection, seemingly trying to convince herself that she will not end up the same way. In a state of near vampirism, Alma cuts her wrist and Elisabet drinks her blood before Alma repeatedly slaps her. Alma leaves Elisabet as the audience views the film projector spin to a stop.

Bergman described the film as a poem in images. He came up with the initial idea after an operation and the process of waking up from unconsciousness. The film seems to imply that consciousness is something unnatural. Both Alma and Elisabet suffer from delusions about what they should be feeling, but can’t. Love is a mystery to them and even harmful in respects. Elisabet is hiding from confronting her fears about humanity, and Alma tries to convince herself that she won’t end up like Alma, a vessel of emptiness. Hands are a visual key throughout the film, always reaching, searching for connection. When both characters realize just how similar they are, they see that they are both deluding themselves.

The camera stays on the two women’s faces during the pivotal conclusion. We see every movement in their expression, their lips trembling, their eyes watering. Through this deep inspection, the audience understands that both characters are open to us despite what they hide from themselves. And then the faces merge.

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Perhaps Bergman was making a comparison between the character of Elisabet and us, the audience. We sit back and view the film silently as Elisabet does, watching Alma pour herself out to us, telling us her story, but, like Elisabet, we watch with amusement rather than investment, and Bergman resents our condescension.

Or perhaps Bergman was insinuating the decline of structures themselves. Featuring shots of Nazi concentration camps and a monk burning himself in protest, the 1960s were a time when societal structures were viewed with rancor. By deconstructing the film process and showing the film reel in his film, perhaps Bergman implies that all structures, whether they be social or sexual or governmental or cinematic, are false compared to the allure of unconsciousness and the peace that entails.

Alma eventually convinces Elisabet to say one word. “Nothing.” Perhaps that is the meaning of the film, a desire to return to nothingness when confronted with both halves of our personality, one ready to admit the truth and the other trying to hide it.

Perhaps Bergman’s seminal work, “Persona” continues to haunt and entrance those who view it. It will always be one of the greatest works of cinema.

Could it have been saved?- Ghostbusters 2 and Ghostbusters (2016)

The first “Ghostbusters” (1984) is a classic. It’s iconic, funny, sometimes scary and features strong characters, a great script and of course, an immortal theme song.

“Ghostbusters II” however, is not perceived in nearly the same light. While I am a personal fan of the film, it is easy to see the flaws in comparison to the original.

And then there’s the recent remake. Between all the feminist hoopla and controversy surrounding it, what seems to be lost is that the end product was just terrible.

So could superior sequels/reboots have been made? The answer is, always, of course.

Ghostbusters 2

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  1. Come up with an original story

“Ghostbusters 2” is a fun movie. It feels almost exactly like the original. That’s because it pretty much is exactly the original.

The biggest single problem with “Ghostbusters 2” is that it follows the exact same plot as the first film. They both go like this: Some schleps that no one believes in investigate a paranormal phenomenon surrounding Dana Barrett that ends up with them busting a ghost and going on a musical montage. A plot to destroy the world is uncovered and is only exacerbated by a public official prick. The mayor needs to believe enough in the Ghostbusters to let them do their thing. The Ghostbusters work together and the power of the common love of New Yorkers saves the day.

The general rule with a sequel is “be the same, but different.” The film focuses too much on the same and fails to do anything new. The plot needs to be different. It is too much of a coincidence to have another supernatural global threat surrounding Dana. You need to build themes rather than retread prior ground.

Another global threat is fine, but rather than use a very similar plot structure to the previous film, perhaps have the Ghostbusters in another locale. Rather than a big city, perhaps a rural area or a foreign country.

And rather than have the Ghostbusters need to get together and prove themselves to the city once again, the film should start right off the heels of the last film and expand on a new story, with new characters and new themes. Perhaps the Ghostbusters try to franchise and set up other ghostbusting agencies. Perhaps by saving the world they unleash another paranormal demon they need to track around the globe. Perhaps, like the Beatles, their newfound fame creates tensions that force them into breaking apart and they need to come together to save the globe.

2. Advance the characters

In conjunction with a new plot, “Ghostbusters 2” spends too much time retreading similar character developments from the previous film. In the first film, the Ghostbusters seek recognition from the world in regards to their paranormal investigating, and Peter must prove himself to Dana. In the second film, the Ghostbusters seek recognition from the world in regards to their paranormal investigating, and Peter must prove himself to Dana.

The sequel needs to pick up where the original left off and develop those themes towards their next step. It should go deeper.

Rather than having the whole world forget about the events of the first film (seriously, how does no one remember a giant stay puft marshmallow man walking down the street?), the sequel should deal with a world that fully believes in ghosts and paranormal activity. Perhaps the Ghostbusters are overworked and need to hire more and more people to keep up with demand as people freak out more and more about the upcoming apocalypse. Or since Gozer was defeated, there are less ghosts for them to investigate and the Ghostbusters charge more and more for their services to meet up with service costs and people look down on them for being less than their glory days.

The same with Bill Murray’s character. The relationship between him and Dana is pretty good in the second film. It shows that they had a relationship, had some problems and now are thrown together for the sake of saving her child. It could just go a little deeper. Perhaps Dana is kidnapped and Venkman is forced into a father role for Oscar. This would prove his ability as a parent to Dana and reconcile their relationship.

3. Raise the stakes

Sequels also must raise the stakes. If your film deals with the destruction of a city, your sequel should deal with the destruction of a country. If it’s a country, the world. If it’s a world, the universe. Or deeper, it could escalate from the relationship with a loved one to a family.

So in the original “Ghostbusters”, you deal with an apocalyptic god who creates a giant monster and threatens to destroy everything. The stakes are already pretty tall, but “Ghostbusters 2” deals with more of the same: a demon who tries to destroy the city.

So instead of another destroy the world plot, perhaps focus on an entirely different angle. Maybe you harken back to Dan Aykroyd’s original idea and have the Ghostbusters traveling in alternate dimensions to catch ghosts. Or have a stricter challenge from the ultimate baddie at the end, pushing the Ghostbusters towards the ultimate sacrifice.

Or go deeper internally. Focusing on the idea of a Ghostbusters breakup, maybe the test at the finale will force the Ghostbusters to band together as they once did and their reconcile gives the film a deeper emotional impact because not only do they have to overcome a supernatural force, but also their own deficiencies (an example of this would be the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy where the heroes have to save the galaxy again, but the emotional journey is more personal this time around).

4. Don’t make a sequel

This almost goes without saying, but given the success of “Ghostbusters”, don’t bother making a follow-up film. Comedy sequels are nearly impossible to pull off. Sometimes it is just better to leave well enough alone.

It is well-known that Bill Murray can be difficult to work with and his involvement with the second Ghostbusters film was cantankerous. Maybe just leaving the film franchise on the rocks and focusing on the cartoon would have been just fine.

How it Could Have Been

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So how could a second Ghostbusters film have looked?

We pick up at the end of the original movie. The Ghostbusters are now celebrities. They have saved the city and quite possibly the world.

Venkman is on talk shows and does any hack job that gives him a check. He is so wrapped up in his celebrity that he shirks his Ghost-busting responsibilities.

He has started a relationship with Dana, but she breaks up with him as he becomes a prima donna. She starts dating a stiff, stuck up musician, someone so annoying that it’s hilarious. This plays off Murray’s comedic sense perfectly.

Meanwhile, Winston, Ray and Egon continue the ghost hunting responsibilities, but are out of sorts with Venkman’s departure. Perhaps Louis, after his possession by Vince Clortho, has become a sensor for paranormal activity, able to sniff it out and occasionally possessed by spirits randomly. He becomes a Ghostbuster but is so inept that you wonder why they bother keeping him around.

Through Louis, they discover a connection with the ghosts they catch and an ancient Carpathian demon. They travel to Carpathia (comedy ensues through their journey). Egon keeps pushing the limits of the ghost busting technology, giving the team stronger and stronger technology that Louis uses to blow things up. Ray is trying to broaden public knowledge about the dangers of alternate dimensions, but nobody will listen to him as he attempts to tell others that the danger they faced previously is still out there.

Winston is just looking to keep his job and is offered a better opportunity with his sister’s brother’s company. He doesn’t tell anyone, but he contemplates taking it.

In Carpathia, they discover that the evil demon dictator Viggo is planning an invasion from the netherworld. They try to confront him, but are sucked into an alternate dimension. In the ensuing chaos, Louis is killed, turning into a ghost.

On the road, Venkman feels lost. Perhaps he has an assistant (Janosz from the second film) who he bosses around and they quip off each other. He tries to get Dana back, but she confronts him with the accusation that all he cares about is himself.

Then Louis’ ghost shows up, warning him of what has happened and the impending doom that awaits the world. As demons and ghost start to invade the planet, Venkman is presented with a chance at redemption.

He suits up in his Ghostbuster gear and saves Dana from a monster that swallowed her boyfriend. He kisses her before going off to save his friends.

He makes Louis take him to the other dimension using his ghost powers. In the crazy, spiritual realm, he faces off against Viggo who rules the spirit world and hurls everything he has at him. The three Ghostbusters are possessed as slime creatures and Venkman has to fend them off and reach their inner selves to break them free of the curse placed on them.

Together, they take down Viggo and return to the normal world. With the world saved once again, the Ghostbusters reach a crossroads.

Venkman marries Dana, free of most of his ego and his need for fame and fortune, retiring from the Ghostbusters. Winston, realizing his connection to the team, turns down the other job offered to him to remain. Egon is taken back to the netherworld by Louis to investigate the supernatural further. Ray takes lead of the Ghostbusters to recruit the next crop of paranormal fighters.

Ghostbusters 3

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  1. Tie into the first two movies

The first real issue with the 2016 “Ghostbusters” film is that the film has no ties to the first two films. When you are dealing with a property as beloved as “Ghostbusters”, you can’t create a straight-up remake. It is sacrilegious to ignore the work done by Reitman, Aykroyd and Ramis. Much like “Jurassic World” and “The Force Awakens”, you need to soft reboot, returning some of the original cast and continuing the story already set in addition to having new characters.

2. Don’t reintroduce everything

The other major issue with studio remakes today is that they for some reason believe that audiences need to be re-introduced to everything. They feel the need to go through what a ghost is, how the technology to catch them works, what they are up against, etc. I would imagine that most people going to see “Ghostbusters” 2016 have seen the original. It would be better not to waste everyone’s time by replaying the exact same movie.

3. Make a good movie

Harold Ramis is gone. Dan Aykroyd is a pretty strange fellow. Bill Murray is as cantankerous as ever. What they created together with director Ivan Reitman is lightning in a bottle, something that only they could have done. So in approaching a third film in the series, it is imperative for newcomers to realize their limitations. To recreate what those men had would be foolhardy. You have to take their bare bones and realize what you yourself can do. That’s why an entirely different approach was needed. Ramis, Aykroyd, Reitman and Murray did Ghostbusters their way; in making future films, make it to your strengths.

Director Paul Feig and stars Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon rely too much to what had come before. And their attempt at humor is the lowest common denominator (fart jokes, sex jokes, chuckle gags). There is no wit, there is no charisma. When faced with creating a new Ghostbusters film, it seems as though they panicked, churning out the easiest, cheesiest jokes and plot to satisfy the masses. In that, they greatly undervalued what made “Ghostbusters” work. It’s not just a comedy. Its story, its characters, its plot twists and its heart all made it more, and Feig and co. never really understood that.

How It Could Have Been

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So how could a “Ghostbusters 3” have gone? Ignoring my own personal interpretation of “Ghostbusters 2”, if a third movie were released about 27 years later from the latest movie, it should follow in the footsteps of past soft reboots and incorporate pieces of the original while branching off on its own adventure.

The Ghostbusters are on their last legs. There haven’t been ghosts to hunt in years. Many believe that the fight against paranormal activity is over.

Venkman and Dana have gone on to live their life. Egon is gone. Ray has retired. Winston runs what is left of the shop, checking in on old housewives who hear spooky noises in their attic.

A young paranormal investigator (let’s call her Sarah) grows up idolizing the Ghostbusters. Her parents tell her that the paranormal threat is over, but this doesn’t stop her from pursuing parapsychology. Her paranormal hunting leads her to a house out in the country that has reported some sort of ghostly activity. Sarah goes to investigate and discovers a gateway to Hell.

She tries to tell everyone, but no one believes her. She finally gets in touch with Winston running the downtrodden Ghostbusters, but he doesn’t believe her either; he has no confidence in what he does anymore.

Sarah finds some way to convince him and Winston puts out an ad for a new team. They run through several candidates to hilarious effect and add three more members (let’s call them Greg, Alice and Paul). Each of these members has their own personality quirks and personal journeys they must embark on throughout the film.

The newly-formed Ghostbusters consult Ray who tells them that what made the Ghostbusters special is their belief in their destiny together, and they embark on a quest to the supernatural destination. They are put to the test as a team (fighting amongst each other, issues with ghosts), but in a huge display in front of the world, they believe they defeat the supernatural threat.

The world believes in ghosts again and the new Ghostbusters go out to work in this new world. They follow the advances in technology (ghosts in cell phones, ghosts using Facebook and Twitter) and hunt down the supernatural phenomena that have sprouted in the world once again. Winston runs the department from the confines of the studio, basking in the Ghostbuster fame once again as he retires from the field.

What the team doesn’t realize is that the entity they thought they eliminated back at the farm is actually inhabiting Paul, controlling him. This ghost learns all the secrets of the team and works to destroy them from the inside out. With the team broken up, the evil spirit unleashes demonic entities across the world, with a central hub deep in New York City.

Sarah has to bring the team back together. She uses the knowledge that Winston taught her and the team overcomes their deficiencies to defeat the evil spirits. The Ghostbusters are back.

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“Ghostbusters” will always be a classic and nothing can change that. Its sequels do not detract from its strength. They only prevented it from franchisement. But it’s fun imagining how those sequels could have been better.

 

Movie Essentials: Casablanca

There are some films that not only stand the test of time, but that should be saved for all-time. There should be a collection stowed in a time-proof box or sent into space for other species to view, a representation of the medium, films that give a glimpse of our world, displaying different types of characters, different themes, presenting the human condition in a way that feels more real than life itself does sometimes. These are movie essentials.

In looking at some of these essential films, it is important to remember that what is paramount to the essence of cinema is first and foremost: story. Without an interesting, involving, heartfelt story, all the effects and cinematography and acting amount to nothing. Or, to put it more in line with Rick Blaine, they don’t amount to a hill of beans in this world.

Casablanca (1942) may indeed be the finest screenplay ever written. It is the work of a number of writers including Julius and Philip Epstein, Howard Koch and potentially Casey Robinson off the play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Allison. The characters, plotting, locations, resolutions and dialogue are all timeless treasures that have transcended the film itself into popular culture.

The film, directed by Michael Curtiz, produced by Hal B. Wallis and starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains and Paul Henreid, has survived nearly eight decades based on its timeless story.

Rick Blaine is trapped in Casablanca, Morocco, the owner of a cafe in the midst of World War II. Everyone in the city is trying to get out, Casablanca being the last port to potential freedom away from the Axis powers, but the town is essentially a prison where no one can escape. Cynical and tough-minded, Rick’s world comes crashing down when the woman he thought he had lost forever, Ilsa Lund, walks into his gin joint and upsets the balance of his self-proclaimed exile. Faced with a choice of helping the fledgling freedom cause or wallowing into irreparable self-pity, Rick must confront his past and decide what to do with his future.

One of the greatest things about Casablanca is its ability to genre-morph. It contains elements of the dramatic, comedic, romantic, action-packed and musical genres. Its ability to balance all of these elements without falling apart is a tribute to the strength of its narrative which keeps the film chugging along. These different genres also give the film a more comprehensive feeling of completeness; we feel many different aspects of life throughout the course of one story.

The score, the song (As Time Goes By) and the cinematography, a high-contrast black and white palette that emphasizes bars seemingly on every character to represent the nature of their prison environment, all contribute to create the ambiance that the story serves. Supposed bit players such as Peter Lorre’s Ugarte and S. Z. Sakall’s Carl are given interesting character arcs and dynamics that make them memorable and further add to the emotional appeal of the movie. All of these elements (lighting, casting, sound) contribute to the story rather than distract from it.

At the heart of the characters of Casablanca, and specifically Rick, is a sense of mystery as to who they really are. Rick thinks he is one thing, a reclusive drunk who just wants to be left alone, but his heart tells him he is something else, a man dedicated to virtue and sentimentalism. Ilsa thinks she is one thing, the wife and inspiration of a freedom fighter, but her heart tells her she is a renegade in love with another man. Even Captain Renault believes he is one thing, a corrupt, woman-hoarding goer with the wind, and reveals himself to be a caring sympathizer.

It is this recognition of who we truly are and choosing to be that person despite the pains of that choice that makes the film feel more honest and dramatic than most films dare to recognize. At the finale, Rick chooses to be the freedom fighter that is true to himself at the expense of a potential life with his love. It is that moment of realization and action that has kept the film alive all these years, that recognition of true inner self, a universal theme that transcends time.

Of course, that is just one interpretation of the film. The film could also be interpreted as a story of unrelenting love against oppressive times, the necessity of personal sacrifice for the greater good, latent homosexual longings in times of crisis or the unending patriarchal power over feminine will.

One of the greatest things about cinema is the ability to interpret individually what films mean to us. The best films not only reveal themselves to us, they continue to do so every time we watch them, bringing us new interpretations that we had never experienced before and illuminating new aspects of the human condition. Casablanca continues to enlighten with each additional viewing. That is the mark of an essential film.

‘The Peanuts’ just a retread of previous material

Everyone loves Charles Schulz’s “The Peanuts.” We all have our favorite character: Sally or Lucy or Schroeder or Linus or Peppermint Patty or Snoopy or, of course, everyone’s favorite loser, Charlie Brown. They’ve entered into the public consciousness with cartoons, comic strips, amusement parks, an iconic musical score and several beloved animated shorts to their credit. They’ve been around for almost 70 years. So it is only natural that 20th Century Fox want to capitalize on their appeal with a full-length motion picture. When dealing with such a beloved franchise the decision to take risks becomes muted and the desire to ramp up the nostalgia becomes bloated. And “The Peanuts Movie” suffers mightily, not so much a film as much as an attempt to sell the nostalgia of years past into profit for the here and now.

Charlie Brown has been a loser his entire life. All of his classmates know it. He’s reminded of his incompetency everyday. His own favorite star at night drops out of the sky away from him. And then a new student moves in, a little red-haired girl, someone who has never met or heard of Charles before. Here’s his chance for a new start, to make a good impression. And on top of that, he immediately falls in love with her.

Now, it is commendable for the filmmakers to not stray as far from the source material as other adaptations (i.e. “The Smurfs” movies). Snoopy has his own adventure, but he doesn’t dance to a pop song or take up the majority of screen time simply because he’s cute. There are no fart jokes or belch jokes or pop culture tie-ins (Justin Bieber does not appear as a Peanut-ized version of himself). Everything stays true to Schulz’s original work for the most part and that in itself, in this day and age, is a major accomplishment.

Having said that, the animation is peculiar, a mixture of 3-D graphics done in a 2-D style, meant to harken back to the original cartoon shorts. It is obvious that the studio felt that audiences would not go to see a 2-D movie done in the Peanuts style anymore, but didn’t want to abandon the look of the shorts completely. It is a shame, because it is undeniable that audiences would still go to a movie based off the original animation. Part of the charm of “The Peanuts” is their simplicity, captured perfectly in the hand drawn style of the shorts, and this hybrid 3-D and 2-D animation feels manufactured, unnatural and overly colorful for the material.

Another flaw (and it is a continual flaw that keeps rearing its ugly head in animation) is the inherent sexism of the film. It is not as flagrant as other films of this nature (i.e. again, “The Smurfs”), but do audiences really need a pink, female Snoopy dog? Does the little red-haired girl need to be so pristine, white and perfect, and does she need a bright, fluffy and shiny pink pencil? And given such limited screentime, Lucy appears more of a bitch than a bossy little girl for being proactive and demanding. Sexism (and racism) continue to plague most major Hollywood productions with its continued insistence on what constitutes femininity and after years of such social progress, it is incredibly disheartening to keep seeing it again and again in film.

The ultimate issue with “The Peanuts Movie”, however, is not that it is a bad movie, but that it is such a safe movie. There is virtually no new material. Everything is piggy-backed from the comics or the animated shorts. It is amazing how afraid the filmmakers were of attempting to add anything new to the Peanuts mythos. One might as well watch the shorts again at home.

Now, the argument will be made that the movie is meant to be an introductory film to the characters for a new generation, that this is a “kid’s movie” and should not be held to the same standard as an adult film. You will see this critique mentioned by a lot of critics (as justification for a positive review which explains why the film has an 86% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes). But by lowering these expectations, we diminish the demands of the children’s genre and our appreciation of the quality animated film.

In many ways, it is a cycle of ineptitude where the studio underestimates the audience and comes out with a film like “The Peanuts Movie” that is unoriginal and rooted in nostalgia over creativity, and then critics justify the studio’s laziness with the refrain that it is only meant for children, and it isn’t as terrible as other films. The industry deserves better.

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