Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Secretly Awesome - The Escape Artist

Release Date: May 28, 1982
Director: Caleb Deschanel
Writer: Melissa Mathison, based and a novel by David Wagoner
Cast: Griffin O'Neal, Raul Julia, Desi Arnez, Teri Garr, M. Emmet Walsh
Box Office: $143,369
Rotten Tomatoes: N/A

The Escape Artist is like a well-executed magic trick: It pulls you in with its oddity and charm, and though you walk away pleased with what you saw, you don't really know exactly what happened. Of course the analogy breaks down when considering that a film thrives on clarity of narrative and purpose. It's not a perfect film, but its flaws are minor when compared to its triumphs.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sucker Punch - 1/2*

There is a scene late in Sucker Punch in which a guy running a fancy whorehouse/dance studio/prison describes what it's like to save virgins for the "High Roller"..."It's like I'm in the corner of the sandbox watching everyone else play with my toys." Watching Sucker Punch, a live-action manga nightmare, one can't help but think of writer/director Zack Snyder seeing his actresses in much the same way, as dolls to accessorize and play dress-up with, outfitting them with crazy weapons, and contorting them into sexy poses. I wouldn't really have a problem with that if there were a payoff, but Snyder keeps all of the fun for himself while boring the rest of us with a poorly-conceived story of a fight for freedom inside of a girl's head... inside of a girl's head.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Paul - **1/2

Paul, both the character and the film itself, is kind of a one-trick pony. Paul is an alien who crash-lands on Earth in the 40s and escapes from the government in present day into the hands of two British nerds (Simon Pegg and Nick Frost), in from England for Comic-Con and a road trip to all of the extra-terrestrial-related sites in the American Southwest.

It's a pretty nice little movie until Pegg and Frost actually meet Paul, who essentially just acts contrary to most on-screen aliens have in the cinematic past, which would be refreshing if it didn't mean simply swearing, getting naked, and getting high. That still might sound satisfying enough, but it honestly just gets old really quickly. Aside from a few random inserted jokes, like a flashback to 1980 that has Paul giving Steven Spielberg some advice on what E.T. should be like, Paul doesn't really offer up much that is worth your while. And aside from a handful of top-notch Star Wars references, Pegg and Frost don't really do too much either. There are some great supporting performances from Jason Bateman, Joe Lo Truglio, and Bill Hader, as well as an amazing cameo by Jeffrey Tambor as an asshole of a sci-fi novelist doing a signing at Comic-Con... "Did you buy a book? Well, then get the fuck out of here."

Paul really isn't a bad movie; it's enjoyable enough, but it's just kind of bland. It's not that the jokes fail, so much as the jokes are not even there to begin with, and there isn't enough plot, character depth, or just general originality in the film for it to be lacking in humor.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Secretly Awesome - Breakdown

Release Date: May 2, 1997
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Writers: Jonathan Mostow, Sam Montgomery
Cast: Kurt Russel, Katleen Quinlan, J.T. Walsh, Jack Noseworthy, M.C. Gainey
Box Office: $50,159,144
Rotten Tomatoes: 79%

Breakdown is something of a rarity. It's pure suspense. The plot is thin, the characters are pretty much two-dimensional, and the motivations are always clear from the start. Simply saying that the end justifies the means wouldn't do Breakdown any justice, nor would it give writer/director Jonathan Mostow the credit he deserves, because Mostow makes such perfect use out of these means that adding depth or backstory, or sub-plots would just screw the whole thing up. It's sharp, concise, and always gets right to the point; dialogue is only spoken when necessary, but most of it is just a high-wire act set at top-speed on moving vehicles.

I sat down several months ago expecting a dirt-ball action movie to have on in the background while I surfed the internet, but ended up watching the film for ten or fifteen minutes at a time, until I finally gave up trying to surf and closed my laptop about forty minutes into the film. When I looked it up on imdb earlier today, I saw that I had rated it a four out of ten, based on my memory of seeing it when it came out. Ashamed, I quickly changed it to a ten. It is that good. I turned it on to refresh my memory while I write this, and had to pause it at the 42:20 mark because I hadn't even logged into the site yet. It is completely absorbing.

The plot is this: Kurt Russel and his wife, played by Kathleen Quinlan, are moving out West, and their car breaks down in the middle of the desert. A trucker offers to take Quinlan to a truck stop to call a tow-truck and kidnaps her. The rest of the movie is a frightened Kurt Russel running around frantically through the desert looking for her. It's not concerned with twists and turns, no big shocks or revelations; it's all laid out pretty simply in the first fifteen minutes, and the rest is watching Russel unravel as he becomes more and more desperate, isolated in a world he knows nothing of, amongst truckers and red-necks who don't care about him or his situation, with nowhere and nobody to turn to. It's beautiful.

And when I say that these characters are two-dimensional, I don't mean that it doesn't take any skill to play them. On the contrary, there are some brilliant performances not only from Russel and Quinlan, but also from J.T. Walsh, Jack Noseworthy, and M.C. Gainey as the group of seedy truckers who prey on his initial trust. Nobody in the late 90s played a shady villain like J.T. Walsh, and nobody played the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances like Kurt Russel, who has the right physique and the perfect blend of intelligence and naiveté to pull of the everyman who gets in further and further over his head.

Mostow's direction is near-perfect. It's not showy or overly stylized, and he doesn't hide behind fast cuts when it comes to the action. He's more interested in bleeding a scene or situation dry of its inherent tension. At the 42:20 mark there have really only been a handful of scenes, which are dragged out to achieve their full potential. It's full of scenes that make Russel seem crazy to anyone who could help him, or long shots of him against an empty desert to highlight his isolation. That's the type of pace Mostow sets. It's not a typical action film, with a big set-piece delivered every twenty minutes. It's slow, it takes its time. There is a sequence later in the film that is just Russel climbing from the bottom of a moving truck's trailer to a safer spot in-between the truck itself and the trailer, where he can stand until the truck stops. It lasts for three full minutes, and it's just him struggling and grunting, trying not to be seen by the driver... and holy shit is it tense. And as I believe all great 90s action films should end in a crazy location, so ends Breakdown, but I won't give it away. See it for yourself.

Sorry for the awful trailer quality. It was the only one I could find.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Drive Angry - ***

Drive Angry is a quick redemption for Nicolas Cage from the more-horrible-than-you-can-imagine Season of the Witch, which was released about one month prior. It's all of the awful ridiculousness you hope for in a non-legitimately-great Cage film, all of the silly fun you used to get out of such an in-between Cage film, back before people associated him with pure shit, which really isn't fair, even after garbage like Bangkok Dangerous or The Wicker Man, back when his "in-betweeners" were more like National Treasure or The Rock. Pure, unabashed fun, with no point or reason for existing other than entertainment, Drive Angry has the goods.

Drive Angry is essentially what Grindhouse and Machete and anything like that released in the last few years was trying to be, except it succeeds. It features a lot of the same things as those films, hot girls, fast cars, crazy weapons and extreme violence, so why is it better? Because, unlike those films, it's not trying to be cute. It's completely sincere in its mayhem. There's no winking at the camera, the images weren't made to look grainy and scratched in post-production, and I actually get the sense that the filmmakers think what they are doing is legitimately cool, not just kitschy and ironic. It takes a particular combination of talent and lack-thereof to pull off this kind of film, and I'm sorry to say, but Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez are simply too talented to waste their time trying (though "too talented" doesn't account for Inglorious Basturds (or however the fuck it's not spelled)).

So what is Drive Angry? Well, Cage breaks out from Hell, steals the "God-killer" from Satan, which is a big gun that blasts any living thing, divine or not, into nothingness (but for reasons unknown only comes with three bullets), teams up with Amber Heard on a road-trip to track down the leader of a Satanic cult, who intends to sacrifice Cage's new-born granddaughter after raping and killing his daughter, all while being chased by the Devil's Accountant, played to brilliance by William Fichtner (watch for the greatest delivery of "Come here, fat fuck" you could ever hope to see). And it delivers on everything that description promises, which includes a fist-fight in the midst of a gunfight inside of an RV that is in the middle of a ten-minute-long car chase. Among other things. It'll certainly do until Cage's next Bad Lieutenant.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Secretly Awesome - Event Horizon

Release Date: August 15, 1997
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Writer: Philip Eisner
Cast: Sam Neill, Laurence Fishburne, Jason Isaacs, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Richard T. Jones, Jack Noseworthy
Box Office: $26,673,242
Rotten Tomatoes: 21%

Event Horizon follows a rescue team on a mission to investigate what happened to a portal-jumping space-ship that has just re-appeared after it was missing for seven years. It turns out the ship has been to some Hellish dimension and brought back some kind of energy force that drives people insane, and when the rescue team arrives, they find the bloody remains of the ship's crew. What may sound like a routine B-movie turns out to have some top-notch production value, a cast of under-used character actors, and some surprisingly reserved direction from none other than Paul W.S. Anderson, the man responsible for the Resident Evil franchise, which is anything but reserved.

The first hour of Event Horizon is all tension build-up, and surprisingly effective build-up at that. Sure, we learn all of the things we expect to learn, and quickly realize that the crew members will be separated through a strange sequence of events and picked off one-by-one in the end, but what makes Event Horizon different is its amazing set design and art direction, as well as some eerie lighting effects. There's something creepy in every room and every corridor that sets a very unsettling tone that the rest of the film keeps pace with for a while, as the crew explore the ship, and come across places like the hatch that opens up into the green ventilation shaft maze. As this goes on, we start to see the crew's waking nightmares, which cause them to do some crazy things until the whole thing devolves into a big, bloody death-trap. And I say "devolve" there with love, because the last half hour is actually pretty satisfyingly gory.

A lot of this could have been terrible (I'd be interested to read the screenplay to see how bad it might be), but it was really well-cast. The actors take the material seriously enough and deliver the expository dialogue with enough gravity for me to be more than willing to suspend disbelief. And Anderson's direction is pretty subtle at times; he lets a lot of moments play out slowly, sometimes almost painfully slowly, like a scene in which a possessed crew-mate goes into the cargo bay with the intention of opening the hatch into space. The scene lasts for minutes as the powerless crew try to talk him down. It's pretty intense. And of course, Event Horizon ends like a 90s action film should, with a showdown in a random location. In this case, Fishburne faces a demonic ripped-faced Sam Neill in a literal bloodbath at the base of a spherical room which holds a spinning orb-like multi-dimensional portal, which is on fire. Not to be missed.

Battle: Los Angeles - **

I have recently noticed that I am much more critical of a movie I see in a theater than one I watch at home, where I seem to be a lot more willing to suspend disbelief in favor of enjoying the movie. With that in mind, I think I was a little bit self-conscious while watching Battle: Los Angeles Well, that or it really was is as uneven as I experienced it to be. My opinion of it changed about every fifteen minutes, as did my outlook on how the rest of it would turn out.

Battle: Los Angeles isn't full of bad things so much as things that don't necessarily fit. It offers nothing new, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it just strikes an odd balance. I was never sure if I should be thrilled by the situation of the film, or invested in its characters; it seems to want both, but doesn't pull of either very thoroughly. Though there are some good scenes, there is never any real wow moment, no big awesome explosions, and nothing really moving emotionally, partially because its approach to character development is simply showing a dramatic situation each is going through prior to the alien invasion. One is about to get married, another is the best man, one is about to have a baby, one is a twenty-year military veteran who puts in his resignation because he is haunted by an operation that went bad, another has a brother that died in that operation gone bad, and so on. We never really get a sense of who these people are, and these back stories are doled out so quickly that I forgot who was who.

The one thing that I didn't waver on at all was the thought that Battle: Los Angeles looks twice as good as a lot of movies that cost twice as much. It cost around $70 million, which is pretty modest considering that it is essentially a disaster film. But that also has its disadvantages, because in the end it comes off more like diet Independence Day, without the spectacle that made that movie what it was. There is no shot of the White House blowing up, or anything nearly as memorable. Hell, there isn't even a shot of the Hollywood sign blowing up. I wish I could say this movie was up and down, but it was really just all middle.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Secretly Awesome - Virtuosity

Release Date: August 4, 1995
Director: Brett Leonard
Writer: Eric Bernt
Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Kelly Lynch, William Fichtner, Louise Fletcher, William Forsythe
Box Office: $24,047,675
Rotten Tomatoes: 34%

What better way to start of this series than with Denzel Washington himself? 90s Cyberpunk doesn't get much better, or much worse than Brett Leonard's Virtuosity. Okay, it probably gets a lot worse, but not while maintaining such a high level of enjoyability.

The plot of Virtuosity is nonsensical at best, though it is the best kind of nonsensical, revolving around a computer training program for police to track down serial killers that is given corporeal form and set loose on a killing rampage around L.A. Fittingly crude CGI effects involving Russell Crowe's limbs regenerating when he touches glass, silly demonstrations of predicted futuristic technology, and a mess of hokey computer interfaces are just a few of the wonderful things you'll find in this film. And that's not even mentioning the symphony of human screams scene, in which Crowe's Sid 6.7 terrorizes a nightclub and tries to orchestrate screams into music. It's twisted and bizarre, and played with a wink, as pretty much all of Crowe's scenes are.

People might just see a lot of this movie as being so bad that it's good, and they wouldn't be totally wrong; but it's also just a brilliantly strange film, and I always love to see a fully-realized Hollywood production of something that is this bizarre. That said, the one thing that is genuinely great, and the reason Virtuosity deserves to be called "secretly awesome" is Russell Crowe, who turns in what had to have been one of the most enjoyable performances of 1995. It needs to be added to the cannon of the the all-time great over-the-top screen performances. Sid 6.7 is an attention-craving, cocky cyber-bully synthesized from the personalities of two-hundred notorious serial killers, who goes on a creative kill-spree in L.A. And Crowe just feeds off of the ridiculousness of it, playing Sid with a swagger and a gorgeous comically demonic laugh. It's beautiful to watch. As for Denzel... well, he pretty much phones it in. But even a phoned-in Denzel can be entertaining. According to the imdb trivia page, he accepted the role because his son asked him to. But honestly, Crowe more than makes up for it.

In addition to Denzel and Crowe, Virtuosity also boasts a nice supporting cast, which includes Louise Fletcher, William Fichtner, and William Forsythe, who gives the greatest delivery of "Anybody using this chair?" you could ever imagine. Seriously. And Virtuosity ends how all 90s action-thrillers should... with the good guy squaring off against the bad guy in a random, inaccessible-under-normal-circumstances location. In this case, on the rooftop heating combines of a skyscraper which houses the television station in which Sid 6.7 is broadcasting live murders to the world.

Brett Leonard also directed The Lawnmower Man, another 90s techno-thriller and surely a candidate for a future post, as soon as I can track down a copy of the out-of-print DVD. But for now, Virtuosity will definitely suffice.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

2010 Films that You Probably Missed...

I abandoned my post last year some 50 reviews behind with maybe 50 more films left to see. Though I quit seeing literally everything, I did manage to see quite a bit of what was left, and thought I'd share a few of the overlooked highlights of the last few months of 2010...

Marwencol - Follows Mark Hogancamp, a man who suffered severe head trauma, and copes by building an elaborate miniature fictional town in WWII with action figures based on people he knows. Creating story arcs and photographing them, he develops his own form of therapy and regains his imagination. Features one of the best lines of the year: "I was like an elephant left in charge of the peanuts." Check out his website.

Buried - One of the most impressive cinematic achievements in recent memory. It takes place entirely inside of a coffin, over the course of a few hours, with one guy and a cell phone. I saw this a few hours after catching the IMAX 3D presentation of Tron: Legacy and was amazed that though Tron was a $150 million exploration of a computer gaming universe, and Buried is essentially a guy in a box with a flashlight, it has more going on narratively, emotionally, and believe it or not, visually! Boo Tron. Rent Buried.

Catfish - Bizarre documentary about an online relationship. The filmmakers would wish I say no more, and trust me it's better if you hear nothing more. Just check it out.

I Love You, Phillip Morris - In the strangest way, this is probably the most romantic film of the year, however deceiving and conniving its characters may seem. Their motivations are always true, constantly endearing, and undeniably hilarious. And if you're unaware, it's about a gay con-man in the 90s who meets his soul mate in prison. Watch for Jim Carrey in a BUM Equipment sweatshirt... one of my favorite wardrobe choices of the year.

Exit Through the Gift Shop - Fascinating, highly entertaining, poignant, and maybe hoax documentary about graffiti artists. It will leave you pondering its ending, and its meaning longer than just about any thriller released last year.

Rabbit Hole - The third film from John Cameron Mitchell, and maybe his best. Dark subject matter treated with honesty creates subtle moments of humor and heartbreak.

Somewhere - To all of you who think that movies have to have a clear plot and structure in order to be good, here is a collection of scenes of an actor hanging out with his daughter that combine to make one of the best films of the year.

The American - Slow and subtle pacing, ridiculously beautiful cinematography, and George Clooney. Also features an amazing chase sequence.

Due Date - Entirely passed-over by everyone, this was actually very funny, and even a little heartwarming if you let it. And that's coming from somebody who was dreading the thought of seeing it.

Carlos - Epic, 5+ hour saga of an international terrorist, originally developed as a miniseries but released in America as one long film. My brother watched as I fumbled my slice of pizza in the intermission for what must have been something like 4 full seconds without trying to catch it himself, so I was starving for the lat two hours, but I almost didn't notice at all. It's completely absorbing.

Enter the Void - Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Enter the Void is told completely in first person from the perspective of a guy on a fatal acid trip as he floats out of his body and over the neon chaos of a gritty Tokyo underground and recalls vital moments in his life, one of which being his own fertilization inside of his mother. It's trippy, bizarre, confusing, visually stunning, and an altogether amazing experience. Worth seeing, even if it sounds like something you'd hate.

Conviction - Marketed to look like nothing more than a Lifetime Original, Conviction turns out to be a whole lot more. Mature direction and stellar performances from a superb cast, including Sam Rockwell in one of the best scenes of 2010 (where he takes some basketballs out of players' hands in a prison yard) make this one of 2010's hidden gems.

Morning Glory - Formulaic chick flick? Absolutely. Smart, funny, extremely enjoyable, perfectly cast, and brimming with charm? Fuck yes. Worth a watch even if you're a single guy.

Get Him to the Greek - Who would have guessed that this character would work in another movie? Not I. In fact, I was even kind of dreading the thought of sitting through a two hour spin-off Aldous Snow film. Lucky for me, it actually makes a character out of him, rather than continue the one-dimensional version of him in Forgetting Sarah Marshall a few years ago. And don't get me wrong, one-dimensional was all he needed to be in that film. But here he gets deeper, and it works. And surprisingly, it remains funny, especially when combined with a skillfully over-the-top performance from Sean Combs.

Lottery Ticket - Surprisingly funny, quirky, and sweet. Even more surprising: well-made. I went in expecting a tolerable film at best, walked out having loved every minute. Universally panned by critics and audiences alike, Lottery Ticket offers style, warmth, and a fair share of quotable dialogue.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

New and Old...

Well, as you may have guessed, I failed in my quest to see every theatrical release of 2010. Failed is a strong word; quit is a lot more accurate... and fair. There was a night when I was faced with the decision to drive some one hundred miles or so to see the second(!) Tyler Perry film of the year, and I really just couldn't bring myself to do it. There was a little bit more going on, which I might explain in a future post, but that was what made me seriously think about quitting the endeavor. If you've ever seen one of his films, or a Meet the Browns clip on TBS, I trust you understand my decision. More on that later, and maybe a continuation of this blog in some form, but for now, I was just rereading an old essay that I wrote in college, and thought I'd put it up here.

I did this for a Comedy in Film class that I took as a second-semester senior. It was taught by an incredibly laid-back professor whose lectures were casual and anecdotal, and often a little bit vulgar, which matched my style of written argumentation at that time. Unfortunately the TA that graded our papers was really dull, and wanted a more academic writing style, which bored me. So when our third paper on the semester was assigned: "Write about two films that are not included in the syllabus that should be," I wanted to make writing it interesting, if only for me. For some reason this is the challenge that I set for myself. I realize now that it is a bit flawed, and the central idea is somewhat dorm-room stoner fodder, but I still appreciate it. Here it is, as I turned it in...

Anybody who watches television is probably somewhat familiar with the Windows Mojave Experiment: a group of people was asked to rate their satisfaction with Windows Vista, and then asked to use a new operating system codenamed "Mojave" (which was actually Vista) and then asked to rate their satisfaction of the "new" system. 94% of the respondents rated the "new operating system" higher than they initially rated it under the name Vista, with the average pre-demo score for Vista being 4.4 out of 10 and the post-demo score for "Mojave" being 8.5 out of 10 (“Mojave”). Though probably not the most scientific experiment, it does show how preconceived notions can dominate one's perception of something, be it a computer program, an exotic food or even a film.

Film theorist Thomas Schatz describes "film genre" as "a sort of tacit 'contract' between filmmakers and audience" and is probably the most common form of preconceived notion for viewers of films (Schatz 178). It is hinted at in almost every trailer and is branded right onto the package of most DVDs: "THRILLER;" "DRAMA;" "COMEDY..." Video rental stores are divided in respect to genre and so when people go to rent a film they are constantly aware of what they are about to watch and probably even decide what to rent based on how such classifications correspond to what kind of mood they are in at the moment. The problem is that genre classifications can be unreliable. Everyone perceives a film differently; it is possible that I have a different sense of humor than the majority of audiences and so if I rent a film classified as a comedy I may find it unfunny and it could be torture for me to watch. This film could possibly be a brilliant thriller, but because I watch it looking for comedy, I will fail to be entertained and therefore unfairly disregard an otherwise great film completely.

With that in mind I feel that Trading Places and Schindler's List are two of the most misunderstood films of the past thirty years. Both examine race relations and both are kept down by erroneous genre classifications. Putting them into dialogue with each other, we get two conflicting perceptions of how to regard racism.

There is an idea that comedy is tragedy plus distance, and this is the fundamental concept in Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg's comic masterpiece of the unexpected, about a group of Jews that are taken from their comfortable homes and thrown into a completely different setting in which they face situations so bizarre you almost don't believe what is unfolding before you. We are later told that it is based on true events and are left with proof that reality is indeed stranger than fiction! Though the real life story is tragic, the film was made some fifty years later and thus we get our distance. We are also given a selective presentation of the events, which give us people who banded together to undermine and dodge the forces of oppression with the help of an unlikely hero, an archetypical character in most comedies (i.e. Deuce Bigalow in Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, Corky Romano in Corky Romano).

Throughout most of the film we are shown the attempt of a political party, led by a wacky mad scientist-type, to eradicate a group of people based on their race. We see this in boring black-and-white, a worn-out method of presentation which had been outdated for more than thirty years upon the film's release, but in the end Spielberg wows us with his masterstroke: we see the real-life survivors in the present saying goodbye to Schindler in a color sequence. This is no accident; recognizing the tendency of people to dwell on the past, Spielberg knew that black-and-white would evoke that past, and by showing the goodbye sequence in color he jolts the viewer into hisview, which is that nostalgia is for the birds. With this juxtaposition of color in the present after so much b+w in the past, it is basically saying that, "that stuff was a long time ago, so get over it already! We have!" and one almost imagines that all the survivors went out for a beer afterward and had a laugh.

Trading Places on the other hand, takes the opposite view. In this scathing critique of conditions in contemporary America, racism is no laughing matter. I can understand why it could be misunderstood as a comedy, but in reality it simply toys with the audience and in the end it is a brilliant indictment of the viewer's own tendency toward racism. The film sets us up with the same comedic archetypes as Schindler, but then tears them down. The Dukes, two rich white men, make a bet to see if they can turn a poor criminal into a successful businessman and a successful businessman into a poor common criminal, thus we get the displacement of people from their comfortable situations and the rise of the unlikely hero. Only here we see that the "comfortable" situation of a black man is poverty, homelessness and jail, whereas a white man is a successful, rich stock broker with a large and lavish mansion in the middle of the city. The black man is immediately recognized by the audience as the "unlikely hero," but the film points out our own discriminatory ways as we come to see that the "unlikeliness" of the black man being a hero is completely unsubstantiated by the film, but is an assumption constructed purely by the audience based on skin color, for this man is possibly the smartest, most "likely" heroic character in the entire film.

In direct opposition to Schindler's insistence that people should stop worrying about racism and leave the painful memories in the past, Trading Places says, "It's still happening!" In one scene toward the end, even after Eddie Murphy's Billy Ray Valentine proves his extreme competence to the Dukes, they refuse to even entertain the idea of letting him stay at the company: "Do you really believe that I would have a nigger run our family business?" one says to the other, to which the other replies, "Of course not... neither would I." Herein lies the genius of the film: everyone in the film experiences a change in attitude toward race and circumstance, except for the people that matter the most, which is those in power. People in power have the ability and the means to control public perception, as the Dukes do in the film. If they choose to marginalize a certain group of people based on something completely superficial, then the public will follow, because they will never be given the chance to see the marginalized group in an honest light. When this film opens we see Billy Ray rolling around on a skateboard pretending to be a Vietnam amputee to inspire sympathy from wealthy people and we can assume that this man has never been given a fair chance to succeed. Once he is simply given the chance, he proves to be very intelligent and successful.

Film theorist Christian Metz argues that our experience in watching a film is shaped by our knowledge prior to entering the theater and that it is simply our perceptions of what is happening that give the images any meaning to us. He says that "The spectator identifies with himself, with himself as the pure act of perception..." (Metz 823); in other words the same film is perceived differently by me than it is by any other person, because my knowledge of and past experiences related to what is shown are completely different from everyone else's. Thus we come upon the problem of interpretation: a hundred people could watch the same film and each come away with a different interpretation, none of which would be less valid than any other. If I see a red convertible in a film I might associate it with a bad memory and be put off by the image, whereas someone else may have a memory of impressing girls in a red convertible and be therefore excited by the image. Likewise, if one watched Schindler's List unaware of the Holocaust, would he be more or less likely to perceive it as a drama, as the marketing suggests, or would he be more open to the comedic archetypes on display throughout the film?

What happens when a genre label is attached to a film is that it leads people to the same interpretation instead of letting people experience it individually. This is possibly what happened with Schindler; the studio probably saw it and figured that the comedy would be lost on people because of the negative connotations it raises with the Holocaust, and the studio assumed that people would take it as drama and therefore marketed it as one. People that went to rent a movie, in the mood for a drama, found the film in the (in)appropriate section and watched it as a drama, not being open to the comedy infused within. I'm sure something similar happened with Trading Places.

Though one is a comedy and the other a drama, I still feel that these would be an excellent inclusion to the syllabus, given the unique circumstances of their perception. Two differing views of racism: one makes people laugh, the other makes people cry. Watching these films together leads us to ask the most obvious, fundamental question: What is comedy? There is no concrete definition for what comedy is; the Wikipedia entry states that comedy is "any humorous discourse generally intended to amuse" (“Comedy”). Likewise, most attempted definitions use "humor" to define comedy, which prompts the question: What is humor? If we follow this string of definitions we can never truly get an objective definition of what comedy really is. Therefore I suppose my analysis of these two films could be called into question; perhaps Schindler really is a drama and maybe Trading Places is indeed a comedy. There is no truly objective way of proving either position; both of these films provide us with two differing examinations of racism, a topic which I would guess very few, if any people would find funny, and yet one of them is regarded as one of the greatest examples of comedy in all of film, while the other is taken very seriously.

In Biology, scientists classify different life forms, grouping those with similar traits together under one heading. Likewise in Cinema, people classify different films based on similar traits. Thus we get the comedy genre, which is simply a set of conventions that are commonly used in films that make people laugh. When one watches a comedy, he expects to see some of these conventions played out in the film. The problem is that everybody does not always agree on these classifications. The tomato is classified by scientists as a fruit due to the fact that it is developed from the ovary in the base of the flower, and contains the seeds of the plant; however tomatoes are generally considered vegetables due to their common culinary usage in savory dishes, as opposed to the use of fruits in sweet dishes (“Tomato”). Technically, neither view is incorrect. Like the tomato, films can also defy their classification, or be misunderstood as comedies or dramas, just as the tomato can be misunderstood as either fruit or vegetable. The difference is that people do not eat a tomato with the classification in mind; they simply enjoy the dish for what it is without expectation, whereas people watching a film are constantly burdened with expectations of what it should or should not be.

What is comedy? I guess it's something that makes you laugh. Are Schindler's List and Trading Places comedies? Only if your perception of them makes you laugh.