Monday, December 22, 2014

Grace's Pick: The Princess Bride (1987)

Hello again, jerks and jerkettes! Get used to seeing me around these parts, because apparently I’ve been drafted into the ranks as an official fourth member of this band of Merry Critics. Shall we sally forth then, what ho? Pip pip!

Brighid tasked us all with the choosing of a favorite film to review for the blog’s anniversary. She did not say, “Choose your favorite thought-provoking film,” or “Choose your favorite film most likely to earn you flannel-cred from the nearest gaggle of hipsters.” She said, “Choose your favorite film.” End stop. And my favorite film of all time and forever is The Princess Bride (1987) directed by Rob Reiner, because I am a female and shut up, this movie is genius!

Obligatory poster image is obligatory

 The Princess Bride stars Cary Elwes (which is in fact pronounced “El-wez”) in his first ever comedic role, having previously been a classically trained dramatic actor who was offered carte blanche to join the Royal Shakespeare Company by the director of the company himself. Playing the dashing and surprisingly snarky romantic lead, Westley, Elwes demonstrated phenomenal comedic timing and a dry delivery that managed to be at once charming and assholish, while also becoming an insane ambidextrous fencer along with costar Mandy Patinkin (Inigo Montoya) in his first film role that made any money. Beyond dialogue so memorable it will be quoted until the sun explodes, those swordfights are perhaps the thing people remember most about this movie, as all of them were meticulously and lovingly choreographed by the inimitable Bob Anderson. Wrapping all of this up with gorgeous set pieces, impressive location shots and a sympathetic score that might as well be its own character, there isn’t a whole lot in this film that someone could find complain-worthy. But more than just being clever, Princess Bride is smart. And that intelligence starts literally at the drawing board.

The two things this movie really has going for it are A). the author of the book that the film is based on also wrote the screenplay, and B). that author is William Goldman. Now obviously there are things that are different between the book and the movie, and I’m not going to get into all that because the book isn’t the point. The point is that William Goldman knows how to write a good screenplay. Where other book-to-movie adaptations fail in the clinch due to clunky exposition and mishandled priorities, Bride rises above all this because it’s free of the studio-bought screenwriter prat falling his way through a story he neither knows nor cares about, or an arrogant author-screenwriter trying to cram as much of his “vision” into the film regardless of its overall relevance to the plot. Goldman understood not only the central point of his own book but also the point Rob Reiner was trying to make and the way he was interpreting Goldman’s work for the purposes of film. In a move that may look like selling out, but to me demonstrates a realistic and self-effacing approach to one’s own art, Goldman trimmed away the embellishments from his novel to give Reiner the excellent screenplay that his movie called for and that we deserved to see. It’s that stroke of genius that makes me legitimately sad when I think of all the wasted potential in some of these book adaptations we keep seeing today.

To name a few...

What I always loved most about this film were the characters and witty banter, but as I’ve continued watching it through the years what I came to really respect about it was that tongue-in-cheek observation of the romantic story and all its inherent tropes. Upon watching it again for this review, I realized that Bride also presents us with a story about narratives in general and the way that, regardless of their original shape and direction, they can be edited by the “reader” to become something else entirely.

It starts by intermixing the classic storybook stereotypes (love inexplicably conquering all, the princess prepared to kill herself for this love, miracle potions that actually work) with the outright ludicrous (the impressive clergyman’s curious speech impediment, the hero’s physical impairment requiring the other characters to drag him around the climactic ending, the aggressive Jewishness of the mystical wizard character); a bit of funny satire on love stories and the absurdities they expect us to take at face-value. We are given a world in which True Love exists and happily ever afters are achievable and even with the good-natured holes being poked into that conceit, this is still the reality of the story. If we pay close attention, though, we start to realize that that is not precisely the story we are given.

The story we actually get is one that, while supposedly a romantic tale of true love, features very few actual scenes of love between the two romantic leads. These moments are glanced over or edited out by the Grandfather as he reads the book to his Grandson, because his Grandson is a whiny brat who doesn’t like “kissing books” and demands to get to the “good” or “cool” parts of the story. Even at the very start when the Grandfather is trying to convince the Grandson to the give the book a chance, he sells it to him as a story with, “fencing, fighting, torture, revenge…” and then all the way at the end of the list he sneaks in, “…true love,” like he’s hoping the kid doesn’t notice. He knows what the Grandson wants to hear, he knows what will catch his attention, and the actual point of the story gets buried under all the exclamatory, adrenaline-packed parts like a can of Surge washing down the acrid taste of cough medicine.

The chocolate coating makes puberty go down easier

The essential nature of this story is altered in the telling, presenting us with not just a satire on tropes and genre but a dramatization of the changeability of narrative as a concept. This is a truth that we’re all familiar with when discussing oral traditions and the passing down of tales by word-of-mouth like an elaborate game of Telephone that spans generations, but Bride shows us how we continue to bring this subjective reality to our written works. Even words printed on physical paper in black ink mean nothing to the human instinct of hearing what we want to hear and remembering things the way we want to remember them.

The movie, however, subtly begins changing tacks on this phenomenon towards the end. While the Grandfather has been editing the story for the Grandson’s benefit and sparing him all the “kissing parts,” the one thing the Grandfather doesn’t alter is the end of the story. Despite the Grandson’s protests that Westley can’t be dead and that if he is, then someone needs to get around to killing Prince Humperdink, the Grandfather very calmly tells him that that isn’t the way it works: Prince Humperdink lives. He doesn’t win, as the Grandson immediately interprets this revelation, but he does live. That part never changes because there are certain things that simply cannot and should not be altered regardless of our feelings on the matter and nowhere is this made more evident than Westley’s infamously grim explanation of To the Pain.

Humperdink proclaims they duel “to the death,” which in this context serves as a narrative end that allows the victor to choose how the final outcome is interpreted; history is written by the victor, as they say, and all of Humperdink’s evil machinations will be forgotten once all his enemies are dead. Westley’s reality of To the Pain is no less permanent than death would be, but it leaves Humperdink disfigured and alive, with no other way but one to interpret this fate. He can tell his tale whatever way he wishes but when all is said and done Humperdink must always come back to the unalterable truth that he is alive only because his enemies found him too cowardly and pathetic to kill. However he chooses to remember this battle, that is something he won’t ever be able to deny.

Then of course there’s the real ending where the Grandson realizes he’s matured enough over the course of a single afternoon to handle the last romantic kiss between Westley and Buttercup, and he decides he wants to hear the story again the next day at which point we can assume he gets the unedited version. And we the audience realize that we got tricked into watching a movie about literary theory without even realizing it. But it taught us to build up an immunity to iocane powder in case we ever come up against a Sicilian or a murderous cabbie in a London community college* when death is on the line, so when you think about it, aren’t we the real winners?

Obviously both of the pills are poison, come on Sherlock!*

Next: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Get Psyched!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Brighid's Pick: The Terminator (1984)

     James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) is a movie that has been a regular part of my viewing rotation since 1991, when I was on the cusp of age six. Usually I am incapable of having an objective opinion on things that entered my life before the age of ten, which is why I probably won’t ever review any of the original Star Wars films on this blog; they are just too deeply ingrained in me to have any sense of perspective. For whatever reason, that is not the case with this film. I’ve watched the film through many different lenses over the last couple of decades, but this time I’ve assessed the film as an 80s horror/slasher piece.

     How effective is Terminator as a slasher? If grouped with other films in that genre, it’s probably the best. By like, a lot. A Nightmare on Elm Street was held back by pedestrian acting, Hellraiser was stymied by a small budget, and most of the other iconic franchises were outright horrible or played purely for camp. Terminator is better funded, acted, paced, scored, and edited than those other films. Clive Barker and Wes Craven are delightful creators, but there’s a reason they are considered charming genre yarn-spinners while Terminator’s director has a license to do whatever the hell he wants.

     This is arguably the most derivative film in the Cameron canon. That statement seems to deflate my case considering the preceding paragraph, but let me explain: James Cameron is aping John Carpenter (Progenitor of the slasher genre!) here, and he does it to the hilt. I was very unsurprised when I learned that Cameron had worked in the special effects unit of Carpenter’s Escape From New York, because while this film lacks the snarky ur-libertarian message of Escape, it’s seasoned almost identically. Cameron makes great use of Brad Fiedel’s moody yet minimalist electronic score, peppered with gloriously ridiculous Pat Benatar-esque pop rock courtesy of Tané McClure. Even Cameron’s knight in shining armor, Kyle Reese, dovetails into the Carpenter ethos; before he’s on the screen for even five minutes we see him swiping pants from a homeless person, assaulting cops while appropriating their firearms, and plundering Nike Vandals from a department store. Somewhere, Snake Plissken is smiling.

Remain calm officer I'm the white hat in this film also have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moon light?

     Terminator-as-slasher holds up when the plot structure is examined: We have a girl next door in Sarah Conner who is unaware of the hidden strength she possesses, and she’s being hunted by an absolutely unstoppable, utterly nightmarish behemoth played by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Her sexually aggressive roommate and boyfriend (who is apparently the most badass human being in the world for lasting several minutes in a barehanded brawl with a Terminator) are brutally killed by the monster. Conventional institutions either can’t perceive the monster, or they are utterly incapable of stopping him. In fact, the Terminator’s one-man assault on a police station is one of the more horrifying things I’ve ever seen. Whether one sees the police as protectors of civility or dispensers of arbitrary brutality, it is universally accepted that they are the ultimate expression of the Establishment’s authority. The Terminator trudges into a station with over thirty officers and murders every last one of them because he knows his quarry is in the building.


     The slasher theme is reinforced by the increasingly inhuman transformation the eponymous cyborg goes through. Some alterations are subtle such as the loss of eyebrows. Others are more macabre such as the infamous scene where an animatronic Arnold carves a shotgun pellet-damaged eye out to reveal a glimpse of the machine beneath. At the end of the movie the flesh is burned off the Terminator entirely, and the protagonists have to face a gleaming and murderous fire-hot metal endoskeleton.

Beauty is only skin deep. So is your blood.

     The Terminator is more than just a slasher flick, though. It cross-pollinates itself with other genre flavors, including post-apocalyptic sci-fi, hard boiled exploitation, and noir cyberpunk. The mounting fear of a horrific cyborg’s methodical slaughter is broken up by electrifying car chases which see Reese and the machine trade shotgun fire while barreling down city sidewalks in the middle of the night, headlights off. And after all the carnage and destruction, Sarah is granted a bittersweet ending. She is left with absolutely nothing of her old life, pregnant with a child she will have to raise on her own, and armed only with the knowledge that it’s up to her to train this unborn child to possibly win a war against extermination after the whole world burns. Damn right there’s a storm coming.

I hate Mondays.

     There’s a reason this film is in every $5 bin and on AMC every other weekend; it’s a classic, meat and potatoes thriller. While the 80s were saddled with middling to bad action films (many of them starring Arnold Schwarzenegger), Cameron is able to simultaneously elevate, compliment, and explode the slasher paradigm. If you like your melodramas lean, mean, and with heart, this is mandatory viewing. A.

This review was published in a format that may or may not contain Secret References to both Batman and Doctor Who. 

Next: The Princess Bride (1987). Get Psyched!