Archive for November, 2015

First off, I want to preface this by saying that I always loved this movie, making it a unique choice for a movie that settled, since it was always good in my estimation (and also, apparently, for its director. M Night Shyamalan cites it as his favorite of his movies, as well.) Even as a lapsed comic book fan in 2000, I understood the hero/villain dynamic that Shyamalan was going for, and I really dug it.  The cool thing about this is that I’ll talk about a movie that was great in 2000, and see how it looks now after all these super-hero movies that have come since then.

So, here’s the skinny on Unbreakable, if you haven’t seen it (which is ludicrous.) David Dunn, played subtly by Bruce Willis, is a down-on-his-luck everyman. We learn immediately that his marriage is on the rocks and his life is kind of in the gutter. However, things take a turn when the train he is on crashes, killing every passenger on board (That sounds awful, but bear with me.) Miraculously, Dunn is not only alive, but he emerges without a scratch. This makes Dunn’s wife, played by Robin (Wright) Penn, feel sort of bad and come around a little bit, and his son to start hero-worshipping him like crazy.

Dunn soon receives a mysterious message from Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), asking him if he’s ever been sick. Elijah was born with a rare and unfortunate disease called Osteogenesis Imperfecta, which is smart-people talk for “his bones are like glass.” Elijah, who has had 54 broken bones in his lifetime, believes that if there is someone like him in the world, then there must be someone on the opposite end of the spectrum, someone who can’t be hurt, and he has been on a quest for this person. Elijah also is obsessed with comic books, even owning an art gallery comprised entirely of original comic book art. This obsession is what inspires his quest.

Mr. Glass is not in Near Mint Condition

Mr. Glass is not in Near Mint Condition

Jackson even has paragraphs of dialogue in the movie about how comics are our modern-day mythology, which is ironic considering the pivotal role he would later play in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When they meet Elijah tells David that he is more than an ordinary schmoe. That he survived the trainwreck because he is, in fact, the person he has been looking for. David obviously thinks that he’s crazy, but Elijah drives his point home, asking him if he’s ever been injured, and David’s son reveals that he was injured in a car accident in college, which derailed his professional football career. Dunn also works as a security guard at the local stadium, and Elijah points out that he wanted to protect people. The injury is the maguffin, however. Elijah pushes the matter further after Dunn’s wife becomes his physical therapist, and it comes out that she didn’t see herself with a pro football player, since the violence of the sport is contradictory to what she does.

Meanwhile, David starts to believe Elijah while lifting weights in his basement, when he realizes he can lift hundreds of pounds, and asks his boss when was the last time he had taken a sick day (He even gets a raise out of it, since he never has.) After analyzing all of the pieces of the puzzle, and stumbling upon a Sentry-Man comic, Elijah realizes that Dunn faked the injury he had in college to get out of going into professional football, because he wanted to stay with his future wife. The only other time David was sick was that he once almost drowned, and Elijah chalks that up to water being his kryptonite.

Eventually, Elijah convinces David to go to a public place where there are lots of people, and see what happens. He goes to a crowded train station. and it is dramatically revealed that David can detect criminals when he is near them. A vision of a janitor leads David to a home that the janitor has invaded. David subdues the criminal and frees the children he had taken prisoner. It is true. He is a hero.

Of course, Shyamalan always has a twist at the end, and in Unbreakable, the twist comes when Dunn shakes Elijah’s hand and discovers that Elijah himself is an arch-criminal. Turns out, Elijah had been creating tragedies in search of his counterpart, the person who is his exact opposite. It was Elijah who caused the train wreck that brought David to his attention in the first place. In the one part of the movie that’s a little disappointing, Dunn calls the police and has Elijah arrested for his crimes… off-screen. In a total Joker-esque moment, Elijah is happy to finally know his place in the world, as David’a opposite, because in all comics, you always know who the villain is, because he is the exact opposite of the hero.

Of course, that is just one instance of the comic similarities in this movie. Elijah is most definitely patterned after The Joker. The end title screen even says that he was committed to an institution for the criminally insane. They might as well has said Arkham Asylum. Even Elijah’s distinct purple color palette, and the way his hair is cut kind of askew point to the Clown Prince of Crime, and there is a line in the movie that says that old-school comic book villains are always drawn slightly disproportionate than normal characters, to better illustrate their skewed perspective. Let’s face it, though; if you had broken that many bones in your life, your perspective would probably be pretty messed up, too.

Elijah’s color palette isn’t the only one that stands out, as every person in the movie who is revealed to be a criminal is shown in vivid color, while the rest of the movie is rather muted. The janitor wears a bright orange jumpsuit. The fan who has snuck drugs into the stadium that David pats down (played by Shyamalan) is wearing a bright blue jacket. And the fan who David thinks is sneaking a gun into the stadium is wearing a bright green camouflage jacket. This is meant to reflect comic book coloring, which use distinctive colors to call attention to the action in a panel.

David Dunn is also reminiscent of a comic book hero. Even his name is a reflection of many comic heroes’ real names, which use repeated consonants at the beginning (Peter Parker, Matt Murdock, Bruce Banner). He also wears a green rain poncho with “Security” on the back with a hood, which is meant to resemble many comic heroes, like Green Arrow or The Spectre.

I'm Pseudo-Batman!

I’m Pseudo-Batman!

Nothing in a movie is by accident, and beyond the characters, the movie itself is reflective of a comic book. There are a lot of long tracking shots (almost all of them, actually), to mimic comic book panels, which are supposed to have one action per panel. There are a lot of shots, like Elijah’s birth scene, that are shot at mirrors or through windows, or reflections in the glass frames at the art gallery, to bring home the “Mr. Glass” aspect of Jackson’s character. These are the kinds of things that pop out when you let the movie settle and watch it again (or do some research on IMDB, if you’re interested.)

The thing that I find really interesting is that this movie says more about comic books heroes and villains than any one that Marvel or DC has made. I get that they are trying to make blockbusters and Shyamalan was trying to make something a little more thought-provoking, but why can’t we have a bit of both? Maybe that’s what they were going for with Man of Steel, because clearly they were trying to do… something, but whatever it was, they failed. And as much as I like most of them, Marvel’s movies don’t really try to get very deep, especially with the villains. Loki gets a little character development, with the whole “I was adopted and my dad didn’t tell me” thing, but mostly because he was given three movies to do it in (and Tom Hiddleston is pretty awesome). Other than that, HYDRA is bad, the Chitauri were bad (and pretty useless), and Ultron was really bad (in so many ways.) At least they got The Joker right in The Dark Knight, and it really makes me wonder if Christopher Nolan is also a fan of Unbreakable.

“Marvel-porn” is a slang term I have heard in some circles in comics (Do NOT Google that, by the way), mostly by people who prize independent comics over all other forms of art in human history who think that Marvel books are heavy on action and big boobs and light on anything meaningful. As an indy creator myself, I sort of understand where they are coming from, and you definitely need to take what you do seriously, whether it’s creating comics or saving lives, Still, we are talking about comic books, and they are just entertainment. Even so, entertainment doesn’t need to be quite so vapid. I love the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but as far as comic book movies, Unbreakable nailed it better than any Marvel or DC movie, and it’s as true now as it was 15 years ago.

Be a real super-hero out and buy or rent Unbreakable on Amazon and help keep this the Dursin-est site ever.

Last week, I wrote about a movie that settled very well, like a meal you think about a few hours after you’ve eaten it and thought, “Mmm-mmm, that’s good eatin’,” while rubbing your tummy. Occasionally, however, as we all know, meals don’t settle very well. Unfortunately, movies are like that, too. I call these Burrito Movies!

So, for this blog post, I am going to write about a movie that didn’t settle well at all: Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. Unfortunately, this is the quintessential Burrito Movie, because I loved it while I was consuming it, but got mild indigestion when I watched it recently.

Let me preface this rant by saying that I feel kind of bad thinking this way. When I was an upstart college student, I loved Kevin Smith and all he stood for (which wasn’t much outside of his small New Jersey circle of friends, but still…) I loved that this guy put all his money and worked his ass off to make Clerks, a movie that gave hope to fledgling filmmakers everywhere in 1994, but its bad acting somehow seems so much worse twenty years later (And the less said about Clerks II, the better.) But as a freshmen in Film school in 1994, and one who had spent a lot of his prime high school dating years making goofy movies with his friends, I definitely respected what Smith had done. If nothing else, Clerks was a symbol of what could be done with hard work and some friends who were willing to humiliate themselves a little for you. I also felt a bit of a kinship towards the characters, as I was also a video store clerk at the time, and knew their pain all too well.

Three years later, Smith had the money and notoriety to make a “real” movie and hire “real” actors, like Ben Affleck and Smith’s girlfriend at the time, Joey Lauren Adams. While Clerks and its follow-up Mallrats were kitschy, little teen angst-y, 90’s rom-coms, Smith used Chasing Amy to get a little more serious. He tried exploring the dynamics of the male-female-male relationship when the female is not only a lesbian, but also has a somewhat shady past, and when the other male is the first male’s best friend and business partner. This was apparently inspired by a scene in Guinevere Turner’s Go Fish, where a lesbian falls for a man, and is shunned by the lesbian community. This ends up as one scene in Chasing Amy, but still, it was supposedly the inspiration.

When I first saw Chasing Amy, I was a college junior, and you would be hard-pressed to find someone filled with more 90’s angst than me, so I thought this movie, and especially Jason Lee’s Banky, was speaking directly to me. When his best friend (Affleck) falls in love with a lesbian (Adams), Lee is not only suspicious but downright anti-gay. I couldn’t see his problem with Adams being gay (maybe because I didn’t know any gay people at the time, it just never registered one way or another), but I could identify with Lee being overly annoyed at “losing” his best friend to a relationship that he didn’t agree with. I have had many friends that got involved with someone who I deemed bad news, and it was only in my advanced years (and after being the friend who was involved with the bad news girl) that I realized that you can’t, and should never try, to get involved, because no good will come of it. Your friend either has to come to that realization on their own, or be condemned to a life of misery. Or, just maybe, you are wrong and your friend is as happy as a clam. No matter what, the bottom line is get over it.

Lee does not. In fact, he gets right into it, digging up dirt on Adams, uncovering her high school yearbook(!) and discovering that her nickname was “Finger cuffs,” a sexual reference that indicates that she had a threesome. So, even though most guys may think that this is pretty cool, Affleck (and I assume, by proxy, Smith) is taken aback, as he arrogantly thought that he was the first man that Adams had ever been with. The real question is, who puts that in their high school yearbook?

downloadIn one of the movie’s funnier scenes, Affleck awkwardly tries to bait Adams into admitting to the Finger-cuffs story while they are at a hockey game. She begins blowing the incident off as high-school silliness, but when Affleck persists, she climaxes it by standing up and admitting to all who can hear that she did indeed have a threesome. The young man next to Affleck hilariously points out that even he saw that one coming.

This leads to the other interesting scene in the movie where Affleck asks his gay friend Hooper how to handle this situation, and Hooper tells him to forget about it. Basically, it is only the ego of a straight man that doesn’t allow for his lesbian girlfriend to have had sex with other dudes. It is certainly good advice. I mean, no man is going to get very far in life if he only wants a girl who is pure and chaste. I understand that wonderful Catholic boy Kevin Smith thought that a girl having a threesome in high school would be scandalous, but seriously? I don’t even care about what I did in high school, let alone anyone I’ve ever dated.

Still. in the world of the movie that Smith has created, this is a no-no. So, where does Affleck turn to for help next? The neighborhood drug lords, of course. Smith (as the affable Silent Bob), tells Affleck a story of a girl he dated, Amy, whom he loved but felt weird about her more-adventurous sexual history. He eventually ended the relationship, and has spent the ensuing years trying to find one as meaningful, or “Chasing Amy,” naturally.

I guess Affleck decides he doesn’t want to end up an overweight drug dealer like Silent Bob, so he calls both his ex-best friend, and his ex-girlfriend together and proposes a way to save both relationships, and I believe it’s pronounced “menage a trois.” This baffled me then, and it baffles me now. As I mentioned earlier, I have had points in my life where my friend was in a bad relationship, or there was a strain on the friendship, and never did I entertain the notion that I should have sex with that person. Not even a female friend! I’m not sure if Affleck thought that this would allow him to experience stuff like Adams had, or if she would maybe somehow enjoy this solution, or why he thought Lee would enjoy it, but that’s exploring the friendship/relationship dynamic a little too much. And even more baffling is that Lee does agree to it! It’s never explained if this is just something he wants to check off his bucket list, but it is insinuated that the two friends basically love each other (They do kiss.), so it’s s’ all good, regardless of the fact that they are both apparently straight (Well…) Thankfully, Adams, the smartest person in the room, says no way, rightfully pointing out that this will not solve anything, and leaves, telling Affleck she will not be his “whore,” which in a roundabout way, is exactly what he was going for (“Hey, baby, why don’t you come over and bang me and my best friend? Trust me. It’ll be so cool! And it’ll bring us all closer together. Really.”)

The final scene is supposed to be the kicker, where a year later all three parties are at the same comic book convention but have gone their separate ways. Apparently Bros before Ho’s wasn’t a thing back then, because Afflack and Lee haven’t spoken in a year and have dissolved their business partnership, as well, and they have a pseudo-conversation across the room, where Lee wordlessly wishes Affleck luck, and nods his head at Adams’ table, encouraging his old friend to go talk to her. Which is really stupid because she probably wants nothing to do with him, but he does it, anyway. He gives her a comic he has written about their time together (titled “Chasing Amy,” of course) They exchange pleasantries, and after Affleck leaves, Adams’ new girlfriend asks who that was, and she replies it was “just some guy I used to know.”

I think as a viewer wecamy are supposed to believe, because of the knowing glances exchanged, that it actually meant more and she misses him, but really, if this were real life, it probably wouldn’t. I’m sure if we could check in on Adams’ character now, Affleck would probably be blocked on Facebook. Hell, I’ve been through weirder stuff than that, and I barely think about it at all now. But that was the 90’s, man. We cared a lot, sometimes unnecessarily so. That’s probably why Nirvana was so popular. We cared so much about things that all we wanted to do is complain about them, and we didn’t even have internet message boards to do it on.

Now, let’s break it all down as to why this movie didn’t settle almost twenty years later. First of all, this isn’t a gay or straight thing, but a relationship thing. And it’s not even a romantic relationship thing, because we’re also talking about the relationship between Lee and Affleck. This is about people getting along. I am not anti-gay, like Lee’s character, but never in my life have I thought that having sex with a friend will save the friendship. And I’m a big Seinfeld fan. But the idea that he would be so bothered by his girlfriend’s past that he would propose a threesome to try and patch things up is not only kind of weird, but also out of left field (I get that she had had a threesome, so he wanted one, too, but really? He jumped right to that? What if she had pierced her genitals?). Now, you could say that Affleck was grasping at straws at that point, so I’ll let him have that one. But this was something that had come up in Clerks, as well, when Dante got extremely upset when he found out his girlfriend had given oral sex to 37 guys. Granted, that’s a lot, but why does Kevin Smith keep going back to sins of the past in his movies? Did he have some unresolved issues or what?

Now, I’m going to throw this out there, too, and I am sorry if this is offensive, but one of Smith’s unresolved issues may be some latent homosexuality, because as much as he likes to hide behind the veil of “Two guy friends can be in love and not be gay,” he tends to take it a little too far. Even in his Batman writing, he pretty blatantly put out there that Batman and The Joker were in love. He’s certainly not the first to do that, but he was definitely the first to just “out” the Joker in a DC comic. And not for nothing but that was a pretty terrible comic.

But back to the topic; Smith’s movies almost always have two male protagonists who are almost too close. I mean, there is someone I have been best friends with since I was in diapers, and once he went to a psychic and she said that he was my soulmate. While I do kind of believe her, because thirty-plus years of friendship will do that, I have never thought about this guy in a sexual way. Because he and I are not gay. And that’s all there is to it. But again, this was the 90’s. Gay marriage wasn’t even a real political debate yet. It would be seven years before I would go to my first pro-same sex marriage rally. The fact that Kevin Smith liked to write sexually-ambiguous male characters in all of his movies was just a charming little distraction. But now it jut seems woefully uninformed.

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It should be noted, I guess, that Kevin Smith’s Twitter was hacked last year, and the hacker sent out a “Coming Out” tweet to the world. The director later regained control of his account and said it wasn’t him, but that he was “bi-curious, not brave enough to commit.” You don’t say. You’ll commit to naming your daughter Harley Quinn, though?

I would also be remiss if I didn’t discuss the comic book backdrop of the movie. This in itself is a cool setting for any movie, because not that many movies have explored this world at all. The problem is that it’s just a backdrop and not much more, other than a convenient way for Smith to display some of his nerd cred. Affleck and Lee play comic book self-publishers who have struck it rich and have “sold out” to a major publisher, and have a TV show in the works based on their comic. This is obviously years before Robert Kirkman “sold out” and made himself millions by signing off on The Walking Dead TV show, paving the way for thousands of other comic book hopefuls who will never, ever get that kind of rich. As a comic book self-publisher, the very idea that someone would scoff at me for “selling out” to a major publisher is ridiculous, since the only way to not lose money in comics is to be with a major publisher (And sometimes, even that doesn’t work). Plus, in 1997, digital comics were a long, long way off, so the only way to get your book in front of anyone was to literally hand it to them. Adams definitely has a point when she rags on Affleck complaining about his success. And I quote:

Oh the cry from the heart of the real artist, trapped in commercial Hell, pitying his good fortune. I’m sure you can dry your eyes on all those fat checks you rake in.

It’s funny what sticks with you sometimes, and this quote, and the debate surrounding it, always struck a chord with me. On one hand, she’s right. Shut up and take your money. I’m sure Jewel never said, “Damn, this success is pretty nice and all, but I sure did love living in that van.” Affleck then asks if there is a hint of bitter envy, and her response is that if she sells two issues she feels “like John Grisham.” Another good line, followed up by the old “Comics books are just spandex and big tits” argument. But the one thing that this whole scene seems to be forgetting is that we are talking about the very small world of independent comics. Sure, I’m guessing there are a few artistes out there who wouldn’t “sell out,” but if the whole point of writing a comic is get it read, sinking thousands of dollars of your own money into one issue and sending it out into the world with your good intentions isn’t enough (believe me, I tried.). People have to hear about it before they buy it, and that is pretty hard to do unless you are with a major publisher. Adams also makes a comment that maybe she should “just sign one of those exclusive deals,” as if Marvel Comics was just banging down her door begging her to work for them, but she was ignoring them. This is when you realize that Kevin Smith really didn’t know what he was talking about, because a few years later, he did, in fact, have Marvel banging down his door asking him to write Daredevil, but, y’know, he didn’t have to sink any of his own money into that, because he’s Kevin Smith. At least he didn’t have Daredevil and Foggy Nelson fall in love with each other.

It should also be noted that we are talking about comics, and probably only a few thousand people in the entire world (at least, in 1997) even gave a shit.

Even all of this tomfoolery is not enough to make this movie not settle well for me. The real problem for me is the characters are completely unreal and actually kind of bad people. Adams, portrayed as the unrepentant slut, is actually the voice of reason in the film. Affleck comes across not only as an uber-pretentious artist who wants to write a meaningful comic book, but also as a prude who likes to think that he had converted his girlfriend, and is angry when he discovers that he’s not her first male partner (I don’t recall the movie ever really declaring if he is more upset that she had a threesome, or that he wasn’t her first. Either way, get over it, man. It was high school.) Affleck is also severely whipped by his lesbian friend, even before the relationship started, which causes tension between him and Lee, and even though Lee comes across as a total jerk in that instance, he kind of has a point.

Lee himself is just an angry asshole, and yet his is the performance that Smith’s fans seem to remember most, because he was probably speaking to them just as he was speaking to me. Despite the raunchy conversation he and Adams had in the bar, comparing sex injuries, Lee is portrayed as the sexless, joyless, sad-sack sidekick, who constantly and un-ironically throws around the word “dyke” to describe his friend’s girlfriend. Lee even humorously draws out a scenario, showing a nice, easy-going lesbian, a “man-hating dyke,” Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny, and asks Affleck which will get to the dollar in the center first. Affleck, either knowing his friend all too well or actually buying into his way of thinking, correctly replies “the man-hating dyke.” Lee’s reasoning is that the other three are just figments of his imagination. Jason Lee’s performance in this scene is about the only thing that makes it slightly less offensive, but it’s a wonder that homosexuals weren’t stoning Kevin Smith’s house for writing this kind of crap. Lee did this either to illustrate how blinded by love Affleck is, or how much of a prejudicial jerk he is. It’s too close to call, really.

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I must admit that I had this T-shirt once.

Like I said, I was an angry dude in the 90’s too, and even I would have only said that kind of stuff behind my friend’s back (y’know, like a real pal would.) He really just acts like a jealous lover when Affleck goes off and openly has an affair with another person on him. It’s pretty ridiculous to envision two men having such a strong bond that it elicits such emotion, and yet the whole friendship crumbles over this incident in the end.

But here’s what really gets me. When Affleck gives Adams a copy of his new self-published, non-commercial, starving artist-created comic, the audience doesn’t really get to see what’s inside. On the very last page, he writes, “In love, you have to put the individual ahead of their actions. It’s comprehension of the past, not condemnation, that neutralizes insecurity.”

Well, duh! That is maybe the best line of the whole movie, and it’s not even in the movie. Instead, the movie is stuffed to the gills with Smith’s signature, 90’s-staple, “This is how real people talk” dialogue. If this line was somewhere, anywhere, in the actual movie, and a few of the less racy lines were cut out, I would probably still really like this movie. Instead, the line of dialogue that comes up when you Google “Chasing Amy meme?” This nugget:

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Thanks, Kev. Proud to know ya.