Commu-NEED-ity

In a film, a protagonist must change in order to have a compelling character arc. This is most often presented through the transition from the protagonist chasing what they want, to discovering what they need. The wants are often superficial and materialistic, the needs more spiritual and virtuous, like love or humility. An example of this is the popular “workaholic dad who misses his child’s birthday and realizes his selfishness” storyline. It’s an easy character to write and an easy change to convey on screen. One minute he’s at his desk, then he’s brought to his senses by a magical being (Captain Hook, penguins, Buddy the elf, etc.) and he learns to treasure his family.

While there are many ways to show what a character wants and needs, one of the more subversive ways to do this is through the community the character inhabits. Taking the example above, if the protagonist is a workaholic, her workplace is the community she inhabits. But once the protagonist realizes she needs to be less selfish and love her family more, she can no longer inhabit that community. She has to find a new one that supports her new self.

This transition, from one community to another, is one way to show the change a character goes through. But what this community looks like varies, and can be found, I would argue, in any type of movie. To prove this versatility and examine the convention further, let’s look at three wildly different films.

First is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing from 1989, a pulsing, unique, intimate look at race and anger in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Second, Billy Wilder’s 1961 Academy Awards Best Picture winner The Apartment, a dramedy that pushed the edge of the envelope in Hays Code Hollywood. Third, The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s magnum opus and 2012’s only Best Picture nominee with dinosaurs and a gratuitous amount of tree shots. Each film has the protagonist start out wanting something and identifying with one community, to finding out what he needs and identifying with another.

do-the-right-thing

One of Lee’s first films, Do the Right Thing follows a handful of citizens of a Brooklyn neighborhood during the hottest day of the year. It is a racially diverse area, with Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), the Italian owners of Sal’s pizzeria; a handful of black residents including Mookie (Spike Lee), Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn); Latinas like Tina (Rosie Perez); a Korean store owner named Sonny (Steve Park); and two white cops that patrol the area (Miguel Sandoval and Rick Aiello).

It’s a film about race, escalating tensions, and what simmers beneath the surface. In the film, everyone thinks their community, the place they belong, is within their own race. People stick together and only cross lines in a friendly manner at intersections like the pizzeria. Every character wants to protect his own. That’s why Buggin’ Out wants “brothers on the wall.” That’s why the men on the corner want the Korean couple to be kicked out. That’s why the white guy in the neighborhood, representing gentrification, is harassed. That’s why Pino wants the pizzeria to move to an Italian part of town.

The only true exception to this is our protagonist Mookie, who does not live within his own racial lines. He’s a black man, fathering a child with Tina, a Puerto-Rican, and works at Sal’s. His own character embodies the diversity of the neighborhood as a whole. Sal to a lesser degree is similar, but he’s not our protagonist. Mookie is the only character who truly lives in a racial intersection.

What keeps everyone within their own race is what all of the characters want, which is to be heard. The core of every interaction in the film can be boiled down to each character feeling unheard by the other. Buggin’ Out wants Sal to listen and understand his reasoning for wanting black portraits in the pizzeria. When Sal doesn’t, Buggin’ Out tries to start a boycott. Pino wants his father to move out of the neighborhood, and in effect, understand his racism. Mookie wants to be paid. The three men on the corner want to express their anger at the Korean couple’s success, but they don’t listen to each other and instead cut each other’s ambitions down. Everyone’s desires keep them separated into their individual racial communities.

In the film’s fourth-wall breaking montage, everyone has something to say about another group. The characters don’t feel heard when they talk to one another in the film, so to be heard they have to talk directly to the camera, to the audience, to get their feelings across. Yet this does not produce the catharsis the characters desire. They still aren’t communicating with each other. So instead of dispelling the anger, it escalates it, spiraling the film towards the climax.

What the characters of Do the Right Thing need is to listen and to see where the other person is coming from. This is, in part, why Radio Raheem dies. Sal grows impatient and destroys Raheem’s radio in order to let his anger be heard, and the police don’t listen (or care to listen) to the people telling them they’re killing Raheem.

Mookie throwing the trash can is him finally being heard, as everyone reacts to what he has done by following suit, destroying Sal’s pizzeria. Everyone is listening to Mookie. This may not be the good kind of listening, as this is not a sustained solution and ultimately just hurts everyone involved. But the community does, for a few moments, come together (save for Sal) after hearing Mookie’s rallying cry. This is when the community unites and sees what it could be as a neighborhood, not as a collection of races.

Examining the riot scene only works when comparing it to the only other scene in the film where everyone in the neighborhood comes together, which is the earlier water-hydrant scene. This scene is not necessarily about the character’s wants and needs, but is a positive vision of the neighborhood coming together. These two scenes, that almost bookend the film, mirror each other sinisterly, with dramatically different tones but the same actions in both.

Both scenes start with a character destroying something- the two men opening the hydrant, Mookie throwing the trash can through Sal’s window. Then the movement of the scene is the same. Everyone joins in. There is yelling and frantic motion, a collage of bodies. Women are screaming as their sons and brothers push them into the water at the hydrant; women scream as the destruction rages. The two elements- water and fire- drench the scenes and backlight the faces of the characters. The water hydrant scene is overwhelmed with music, (“You Know You Can’t Stand It” by Steel Pulse), the destruction scene has a deafening void. Both scenes have the entire neighborhood come together, and the emotions in each one, while completely different (playfulness versus anger and fear) bind everyone together. That is where the real community is, not along racial lines, and it only occurs when everyone is listening to each other and having their desires aligned. Of course, in both of these scenes, there is a group not in on the action- the white man in the car during the water hydrant scene, and Sal and his sons during the riot. But I’m addressing the greater majority of characters, and it is a testament to Lee’s writing that this film cannot be described in absolutes.

In the last scene, Mookie goes to Sal and they, I would argue, cautiously reconcile. The reconciliation is not within racial lines, but outside of them. This reconciliation happens after Mookie is not only heard but listens and is listened to, the transition from want to need.

Do the Right Thing is a messy example of this convention because it isn’t obvious, nor is it particularly hopeful. The ending of Do the Right Thing, despite the characters getting a brief taste of getting what they need, is not magically optimistic. It’s a movie that sees race and racism with clear eyes. There are characters that are exceptions to a lot of the situations and conflicts I’ve outlined. But in broad strokes, Do the Right Thing still shows how a community in a film can change with the protagonist’s character arc.

The-Apartment

Now for contrast, let’s look at how a protagonist can completely change what community they are a part of as they change personally. The Apartment was written (with help by I.A.L. Diamond) and directed by the legendary Billy Wilder. It follows C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a “company man” of an insurance corporation, who rents out his apartment to his bosses and their mistresses, in exchange for promotions he doesn’t deserve.

The corporation is a hierarchy that rewards loyalty and silence. The men that fill the higher ranks operate with a Harvey Weinstein-level of assurance of their impalpable positions. This is best characterized by their extramarital affairs and the casualness in which they manipulate their women and wives. The environment of sleaze and privilege is alluring, and the drive for distinctly male success(and his wishy-washy personality) forces Baxter to continue renting out his apartment even when he no longer wishes to.

While Baxter is the protagonist, this environment even affects the actions of Fran (Shirley MacLaine). There’s clear misogyny in the workplace (the first scene with Fran includes Kirkeby slapping her behind) and a glass ceiling for women. She sees her future as a rejected lover in Sheldrake’s secretary, Miss Olsen, who rattles off a list of other lovers Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) has had. If Fran broke off the relationship, it’s clear she would be the one to suffer, both personally and career reputation-wise. It is ingrained in the office to have an attitude of easy love and common heartbreak, particularly for women.

Baxter wants the job, and Fran wants the man, both goals of which manifest in Sheldrake, who himself represents the company. This is what Baxter and Fran think they need, and the environment they think they want to be a part of.
It is only after their romantic suicide-watch date night, isolated from the corporation, that both characters are able to come to terms with what has been holding them back. Once detoxed from Sheldrake and the environment, it can be seen how the community was coaxing them into making the harmful decisions that led them to this situation.

They discover what they really need is each other, and to be free of their relationships with Sheldrake. Baxter has to lose his ambition, and Fran her self-destructive relationship.

After tasting this freedom, Baxter quits and decides to move out. He has to leave the community to assert his own autonomy and make the decision that feels right. Fran is able to finally make the choice to leave Sheldrake. While the ending is not clear about what will become of Fran and Baxter, their decision to leave a toxic environment is their final decision, and a good one at that. They are able to go from finding their wants in one community, to finding their needs within another one, the community they build together. Unlike the characters of Do the Right Thing, the characters in The Apartment are able to fully experience what it is like to leave a bad environment and join a new one.

tree of life

Finally, let’s look at The Tree of Life, an experimental, metaphysical film that strives to look like how a prayer feels, and you’ll probably interpret the film like you interpret that statement. Rest assured, though, there is a coherent narrative within the close-ups of Jessica Chastain and flowers.

It starts with a man named Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), who is disconnected in his life as an architect. His world is full of sleek and modern lines that imprison him. The voices of people around him fade in and out, their words meaning nothing. Everything is in direct contrast to his childhood in Texas, full of warm, natural colors and the soulful presence of his gentle mother (Jessica Chastain). However, haunting those memories of wonder is the presence of his abusive father (Brad Pitt) and the death of his brother. But Jack has to come to terms with his past to move on, so he dives deep into his memories.

In the film, there is a recurring theme of the “way of nature” and the “way of grace,” embodied by the father and mother, respectively. Jack as an adult is following the way of nature, the one he inherited from his father. But as he travels metaphorically through his life and grief, he comes to desire the way of grace, the way of his mother. With that change from want to need, comes the change of community. To be on the way of grace, he has to forgive his father and come to terms with his brother’s death, like his mother does.

The film ends with Jack on a beach with his family in their adolescent years and his childhood friends. This is his new community, most likely an image of heaven, but still an embodiment of Jack’s new priorities and community values. It comes through a rejection of the materialistic life he thought he wanted, and reconciliation, which is what he needs.

In each of these stories, Do the Right Thing, The Apartment, and The Tree of Life, the protagonist’s idea of community and where he belongs changes as part of his character arc. If this theme can be found in such uniquely different films, then it is ubiquitous. It can be sought out in any genre, in any type of story. There is a universal quality in the experience that filmmakers and audiences search to portray and describe.

-Madeleine D

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Movie Minute

Because I haven’t seen a new release in a couple weeks, I’m presenting for your consideration short reviews for a few films I have seen recently. These are not new releases, and vary in how old they are. Maybe one of these could be the perfect film for a sweltering hot summer day!

As you like it

As You Like It (2006) dir. Kenneth Branagh

As You Like It, an HBO movie from Hollywood’s favorite drama nerd director, has three things going for it. One, a marvelous ensemble cast, the majority of which is grossly underused. Two, a setting that distracts you from the oddly-paced story. And three, Bryce Dallas Howard, who has an energetic charm that keeps you from thinking too much about how terrible her disguise as a man is and how much of her role has been cut.

Those positives are about it. The biggest problem with As You Like It is that it doesn’t feel whole. Howard’s Rosalind does not seem to have the starring role she should have, and David Oyelowo does not get near his due with his Orlando. Branagh seems to try and make the minor characters have equal roles with Rosalind and Orlando, and in doing so creates a play that has no central storyline to hold on to. It is spread thin. Even similar plays like it, such as A Midsummer’s Night Dream, still have major and minor characters. This adaptation of As You Like It does not seem to have this distinction. And while the aesthetics of Japan are a unique addition, it is simply one more task the film cannot take. It buckles under the weight of its underdeveloped ambition and does not leave any strong impressions in its wake.

Bridge-of-Spies

Bridge of Spies (2015) dir. Steven Spielberg

A Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Coen brothers collaboration is no joke, yet Bridge of Spies was relatively neglected when it came out. While this story of an American insurance lawyer negotiating the trade between two Americans and a Russian spy during the Cold War did win Mark Rylance an Academy Award for his supporting role, it is nowhere within anyone’s list of favorite Spielberg movies. That makes sense when you take into account Spielberg’s resume, but does not when you take in its fellow movies of that year. Bridge of Spies is small and mighty, and it succeeds not only because of the talent involved, but because of its message. It might be one of the most patriotic movies ever made, while also being incredibly sympathetic to our country’s enemies. The film’s message is about everyday men and women who work hard and do their jobs. While these jobs might not always be noble, human dignity and the work we do are inseparable to many, especially in the context of our western ideals. It shows that our justice system is dependent on the people who run it, and when those people fight for ideals, we become more of the nation we inspire to be. A well crafted story with thoughtful themes makes a film worth watching, and maybe makes it worth being on a favorite list of some kind.

yoko_out

The Wind Rises (2013) dir. Hayao Miyazaki

Set in the early beginnings of World War 2, The Wind Rises is the loosely biographical story of aerial engineer Jiro Horikoshi, who designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, a plane used by Imperial Japan during the war.

It goes without saying that the Studio Ghibli work, lead by animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, is stunning. The film could be watched on mute, and the visual experience would be on par with its greatest contemporaries.

But don’t turn off the sound, because the story is just as worthwhile. There is something very disarming about being an American, watching the story of Japan’s entrance into World War 2 through the eyes of a civilian who just wants to make the world a more beautiful place. Jiro sees airplanes as one of the greatest achievements of mankind, and only wants to make them better. This intrinsic desire to make beautiful things is a message that should resonate with everyone. As a Christian, this desire is near the core of my belief, because it reflects on the nature of the greatest creator of them all.

More than what Jiro does, though, is who he is. Jiro is one of the best heroes I have ever met, despite what he creates being used in horrific ways. The love story between him and his wife, Nahoko, is a touching story of sacrifice and care, one of the best I’ve ever seen on film. Jiro is who we should aspire to be, and his personal integrity and strength defies all politics, all sides, and all situations we find ourselves in. If we all carried ourselves like Jiro, the world would be a better place.

-Madeleine D

Pete’s Dragon: A Rewatch

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I’m not reviewing the newest Pete’s Dragon remake.

Sorry. Here instead is a rewatch of the original!

I must confess, before anything else, that I am quite partial to this film. It’s been an important film to the Dorst family for a while. When my dad was a kid, he watched it with his family. When my sister and I were little, we watched it, too. We’re very defensive about it, and it gets quoted a lot in our household.

However, I’m going to do my best to put that aside and review the film for what it is- a heartwarming, wholesome and sweet film that, while it is no Citizen Kane, is too much fun to pass up.

The film begins with easily one of the darkest Disney scenes ever. The Gogans, a nasty family, have adopted Pete (Sean Marshall,) a young orphan, and are trying to find him after he runs away. They sing a lovely song about how they’re going to brutally murder him. You thought Bambi was bad.

This scene of the Gogans hunting down Pete and singing about working him to death is disguised with slapstick and mud-pits, so everybody wins. They eventually leave, and Pete comes out of hiding. We discover he has a dragon with him- an animated dragon named Elliot- who can turn invisible at will. He’s big, green, pink, friendly, and best of all, doesn’t act like a dog. That’s something I like. The filmmakers decided to take the time to decide what a dragon would be like, and didn’t just give it the personality of a dog, unlike more modern Disney fare where all the animals act like dogs (Maximus the horse from Tangled, Sven the reindeer from Frozen, etc…).

Pete and Elliot rhapsodize their love for one another in a song, then Pete decides to head to the nearest town, Passamaquoddy. There, Elliot causes mischief and scares the local drunk Lampie. Pete gets upset with Elliot, but later in a cave they make up. Meanwhile, Lampie (Mickey Rooney) goes around to the local bar, yelling about the dragon. His daughter Nora (Helen Reddy) comes and gets him. They go back to their lighthouse, where Nora finds Pete. She invites him inside, and she learns about his abuse.  Nora doesn’t believe in Elliot, but she wants to take care of Pete, so she humors him about his ‘dragon.’ About the same time, Dr. Terminus and his “intern” Hoagie, con artists pretending to sell miracle cures, arrive in Passamaquoddy. When they hear about a dragon, they get interested and team up with the Gogans to snatch Pete and Elliot.

Dr. Terminus’ first scene (and really, let’s be honest, every one of his scenes) is one of my favorite scenes in all of cinematic history. Jim Dale kills it as a whimsical, memorable, yet still subtly menacing villain. All the characters in the film shine, because they’re allowed to be big and bold. The film is a musical, and it has all the sensibilities of one.

Another standout in the cast is Nora, one of the most underrated film role models I have ever seen. Films today are so focused on making their female characters strong physically that rarely do they give these characters mental strength, and more importantly, acknowledge and appreciate that type of strength. Nora is kind, wise, compassionate, while at the same time also being brave, determined, and smart. She works hard and never lets people take advantage of her or the people she loves. Helen Reddy, who was mainly known as a singer at the time, is fabulous in the role, and her singing shines.

Pete’s Dragon is a movie all about love. The love between Pete and Elliot. The love between Nora and Pete, Nora and Paul, and Nora and Lampie. The film ends happily because all the characters find a home with love in it, and it succeeds, not in a Pollyanna way, but because it earns its happy ending. The characters go through hardships, but endure. The optimistic outlook on life is a nice reminder in an age that is obsessed with darkness and gritty realism, and it’s only accentuated with the bright settings, jokes, and of course, Elliot. The animation for Elliot holds up surprisingly well, and even if some effects are outdated, the timeless setting of Passamaquoddy makes up for it.

The film, however, isn’t without its flaws. The plot sometimes drags. The slapstick can get old. The musical numbers can feel long when the actors are just standing and singing them. In case you need to take a break during the film, I’ve helpfully listed the soundtrack below and what purpose each song serves, so you know what you can miss.

The thing is, Pete’s Dragon doesn’t need a remake. It doesn’t need a reality check because it uses its fantasy-reality mix perfectly, not only on the animation but the story. Real life magic is around us, and while in this story it takes the form of Elliot, in our world it takes the form of love. How can it get any better than that?

Soundtrack:

“Happiest Home in These Hills” – Child-labor laws song

“Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You Too)” – Actors attempting to interact with animation

“I Saw A Dragon”- The waste of good beer ft. Nora

“Passamaquoddy” – Before we had the FDA….

“It’s Not Easy”- Emotional bonding

“Candle on the Water”- Oscar please!

“There’s Room for Everyone”- Strangely timely song about how we should all just care for one another

“”Every Little Piece”- The PETA song

“Brazzle Dazzle Day”- This seems like a rather informal adoption, but okay

“Bill of Sale”- Don’t peeve off Nora

“Brazzle Dazzle Day (Reprise)”- Mary Poppins ending song

-Madeleine D