Within the myriad of downbeat human experiences attached to the movies in the past twelve months, none was more heartbreaking than the loss of a Hollywood clown. On the day that Robin Williams was found dead of suicide, unrelated lives seemed to collectively unite in a pass of grief that also served to highlight the tragedy of the times: not only were we all inching ever so closer to the gates of mortality, but the journey towards it was losing its comic edge. His loss was echoed just a mere month later when Joan Rivers also passed on, and the conscious acknowledgment that we are now growing older in a world without either of them seems to create unnecessary shadows in peripheral hindsight.
The sudden entrance of a majestic white German Shephard in the first minutes of “White Dog” at first seems like a drastic respite in the life pattern of a simple but struggling movie actress. She leads the kind of detached existence ordinarily reserved in the movies for those boring office secretaries everyone always overlooks – complacent, dead-end and almost suffocating in the paralyzing grind of a day – but when this animal aimlessly wanders into the road and is hit by her car, a necessity rises within her heart to become his surrogate owner and protector. What for? Guilt is not the isolated emotion. Early observations emphasize traits of a loyal companion; he is attentive and eager, and in a perilous moment when a rapist breaks into her house on the hill and attacks her, the determined canine leaps into action as if her self-appointed protector. Though theirs is a connection roused from accidental circumstances, it is as true to the essence of the human/pet dynamic as any of our own positive experiences with our trusted four-legged friends. But then there is a moment where the image is shattered quite drastically, and the movie enlists a harmonic implication so sobering that it doubles as a very critical psychological revelation – for us, for the characters, and certainly for any viewer reckless enough to make a knee-jerk assumption that the material might deviate into the foray of Stephen King-style antics.
Was it just a minor coincidence that a downtrodden movie like “Gremlins” crept back into my awareness at the onset of the holiday season? Were there indeed universal energies that acted as a gravity in pulling my notice towards a film so clearly about the brutal shattering of lighthearted nostalgia? Just as the reality of adulthood acts as a decaying influence on the recesses of our youthful memories, so do the movies remind us that the innocence in all things must, yes, come to an abrupt end. That is not cynicism; that is reality. And as overpowering as the silliness may be in a story about gremlins that terrorize a small town at the onset of Christmas cheer, it nonetheless mirrors a universal sentiment in those scarred by the blast: we don’t get any younger, and fate does not get any kinder.
“The Forbidden Dance” is the most unpleasant dance movie ever assembled, a film that defies all sense of merit by intercutting an endless array of pelvis gyrations and Latin-inspired grooves with a tone so inconsistent and downtrodden that it left me wincing in discomfort. As an experiment of genre sensibilities that follows the successes of “Dirty Dancing” and “Footloose,” the movie also undercuts the formula with even more offensive impulses – namely, the opportunity to use the one-note setup as a mask for pushing a shameless political agenda, and a rather flimsy defense of one at that. What were these filmmakers thinking? Were they genuinely concerned about the issues they raised beyond the ordinary dance movie clichés, or were they (as I suspect) simply using them to add phony dimensions to a premise of stunning simplicity? Their antics seem to be orchestrated by a hand of fate that constantly keeps one of its fingers on the bad taste trigger, and when the movie reaches a point where it forces us to endure a scene in which a scared South American native is leered over by a switchblade-wielding woman who encourages her to undress in a hallway while feigning voyeuristic pleasure, I wanted to scream out in protest.
The early moments of the latest “Hunger Games” picture are about nightmares: specifically, those that belong to Katniss Everdeen, who often stirs from slumber in violent fashion as if escaping the clutches of a brutal adversary. The camera does not show too many details of their content, and that’s remarkable given the nature of our cinema to reveal the most gruesome aspects of our imaginations; instead, the scenes are used to cast underlying vulnerability on a character that must become the face of an impending revolt, and her uncertainty drives the direction of a wide array of critical decisions leading up to an agenda that will (hopefully) overthrow a bunch of overdressed fascists from power. Our inability to observe the entirety of those dreams is irrelevant; because they are hers and hers alone, they add a touch of almost emotional mystery to the material. Indeed, what is left for her to fear, especially in a society content to sacrifice kids for the sake of entertainment? Is there really anything remaining that could compare to the tragedy of participating in not one but two battles to the death with a bunch of innocent peers? Hers is the trauma that often turns the youngest of minds into the most cynical, and if there is to be any relief at the end of this gloomy world of death and oppression, one hopes she is able to reconcile some of it before drowning in the inevitable depression that follows.
Childhood joys often settle in the eyes of little fluffy creatures that capture our hearts, and for me no greater instrument for such possibilities resonated more than a small gremlin named Gizmo. As a child of the ‘80s, there were certainly ample opportunities to find comfort in the company of sympathetic movie creations – including Spielberg’s famous E.T. and George Lucas’ misunderstood Ewoks – but something about a cute furry beast with long ears and big brown eyes bypassed all others as a source of visual comfort. To me, he embodied every trait necessary in creating youthful wonder: innocence, clumsiness, fear of the unknown and a certain gutsiness that spilled over when a plot insisted a level of danger onto those he cared about. The adorable factor was the most minor of those facets but no less critical, and when one brought all of those qualities together in the figure of something so delightfully endearing, there was scarcely a moment where we could walk away from the experience not wishing he was real (or better yet, actually part of our lives). And that’s the truth even after one acknowledges the bizarre anatomical characteristics he comes cursed with.
To separate Michael Keaton from his performance in “Birdman” would be to undermine an essential insight into the parallels of a shared existence. Much like the conflicted actor he plays, here is a movie star whose success in front of the camera was clearly diminished by the overreaching shadows of one prominent role in the distant past: that of a very popular screen superhero. For Keaton, that came in the form of Batman; for Riggan (the man he plays), it was a giant avian crusader aptly named, well, Birdman. Throughout the course of events of the film, random eyes often meet Riggan not with respect or chemistry, but with an almost detached sense of nostalgic fascination; once upon a time this was a guy who was at the center of a very ambitious spectacle of costume and action, and few are able to separate the mask from the one who first wore it. So effortless are Keaton’s own subtle scoffs to these realities that one never wonders if they truly originate from a place of empathetic recognition. Some have said that to play a superhero in a movie forever damns you to the professional prison of the alter ego, and if that indeed rings true, than there is no denying that Keaton’s career trajectory is a textbook example of that unfortunate curse.