Reality Still Bites, And Still I Love It

Reality Bites

Edited by Bozant Katzakian

 

In 1994, the internet hadn’t been mainlined, cell phones were only for business and MTV still played music videos. At first glance, Reality Bites is a time capsule from the early part of that decade. The fashions and styles are dated i.e. the unflattering baby doll dresses but the dilemmas of these early 20-something characters still ring true in the 21st century.

The film’s focus is to grasp the sentiments of the time. People graduating from college with less of the optimism of the 80’s but still entrenched in the consumer culture. It’s tapping into what would be so prevalent now: the uselessness of a college degree that, unlike previous generations, didn’t secure a future. You’ve got Vickie (Janeane Garofalo) working at the GAP and Lelaina (Winona Ryder) after losing her production assistant job finds scarcity in anything involving her field. If we had more backstory for Sammy (Steve Zahn) we’d probably learn he’s a barista. From the beginning speech Lelaina gives at graduation, the foundation is laid that she is speaking for a generation whose answer to all the questions of life, career and relationships is “I don’t know” and this film is about navigating that question mark.

Reality Bites’ A- story line involves Lelaina caught in a love triangle between her long time friend and philosophical slacker Troy (Ethan Hawke) and a yuppy TV exec Michael (Ben Stiller). At first, the emotions feel one dimensional but these relationships are more symbolic than literal. The male personalities are supposed to signify the world’s she’s caught between, wanting to have a steady job, being part of traditional society or being the laid back, starving artist type. Lainey is enticed by Michael who on their first date takes her to a nice restaurant but following that date Troy looks deep into her eyes and says the things Lainey has been wanting to here. It’s done semi-mockingly but it shows the contrasts. Michael can present material things she wants but Troy personifies her real emotional desires. Troy is meant to be genuine because he functions on pure emotion while Michael is fake because he works for a corporation and in the film’s eyes can’t understand Lainey’s creativity.

The film is obsessed with the concept of consumerism and selling out. There is an outrageous amount of brand recognition from the classic line “Evian is naive spelled backwards” to the Big Gulp date in the back of Michael’s car. The camera is drawn to all these labels that just pop on screen. There is an emphases on all these brands because they’re inherently a part of our culture. These brands are such a familiar and integrated part of our lives. Much like the irony that Lainey does not know how to define, she shouldn’t be upset when Michael’s network In Your Face inserts abrasive product placement into her documentary.

While consumerism hasn’t waned in our time neither has the inability to live up to our parents standards. Lainey’s father criticizes her that her “generation lacks work ethic” which I can only imagined he’d say about me if he saw me staring at a computer screen all day. This line comes from the same father who gave her a car and a gas card for her graduation.Lainey never comes off as upper class, but it’s a  very nice gift that even her mother objects to. Also if you were wondering the brand of car, it’s a BMW.

Even with the older generation’s distain, these Gen X-ers are so nostalgic for the 70’s, a decade they would have been babies through. We see Vickie’s room plastered with Boston and Bee Gees records, the friends play drinking games with Good Times episodes and even Michael, the square has a treasured Planet of the Ape’s Doctor Zaius doll. No generation is immune to the power of nostalgia with that comes with the disdain of the decade they feel stuck in. Lainey and Vickie worry about their lives turning into a “bad episode of Melrose place with chokers and halter tops” they say while wearing vintage outfits. How easy it would be to label Lainey and Vickie hipsters by today’s standards.

Overall the film rails against selling out and the complaining of the older generation. Lainey gets back on her feet is utilizing that gas card to pump gas for customers and make tip off each purchase and in the end it is Troy, not Michael, who goes after her. The bohemian lifestyle fights for her affection and wins. The film ends with boxes packed and Lainey moving on to a future we don’t know and I doubt she does either but she’s happy.

I  love this movie because it’s still relatable. Aside from references and fashion, these characters deal with identical problems of life choices I deal with today. I am a college dropout like Troy, a nostalgia hound like Vickie and always questioning like Lainey, never sure where life will go or where I want to. Much like the title infers, life sucks but we find ways to enjoy it with the people around us. Five bucks and good conversation.

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Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts

The Oscar Nominated Shorts are a unique and vital part of the awards season experience. It’s an opportunity to explore short subject cinema, something we don’t view in our day to day lives unless you count cat videos on Youtube and also an outlet for world cinema as the shorts tend to include content from nations you would maybe wouldn’t otherwise encounter. I’m fascinated each year with not just the output but which shorts category comes out the strongest. This year the Short Documentaries prevail with the emotionally gripping A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness and animated narrative of Last Day of Freedom wherein 2015 they were the low point.

This year the roughest category was the Live Action Short which I all felt had interesting ideas, just not all well executed. They fall between not as heavy as the docs but not as light as the animation and god knows I don’t understand how the Academy picks them but I feel pretty bad for the shorts that couldn’t beat out some of these.

Ave Maria

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The shorts categories gives the most opportunity for comedy to shine amidst the prestige of the Oscars. Ave Maria is a Palestinian made film about a Jewish family whose car crashes in front of a silent nunnery on the West Bank. While just reading into the religious politics of all those items sounds detrimental, writer/director Basil Khalil finds humor in the cross culture communication that must take place between the parties such as the nuns vow of silence stopping them from initially helping the family to the husband refusing to operate machinery because of Shabbat. Their religious restrictions make it difficult to problem solve until they break their traditions to serve the greater good. The ultra proper nuns and manic Jewish family played well off each other’s energies making all equally charming in their flaws. The weakest aspect of the short was the filmmaking. The transitions were stilted as each fade to black felt like a TV show throwing to commercial. I wouldn’t discount the film entirely on this but the storytelling definitely outweighed the production.

Shok

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No audience member wants to feel like they are being emotionally manipulated because it makes the assumption that the audience can’t find the emotional connections on their own and must have their hand held as they are taken on the journey. Shok follows two childhood friends living in Kosovo amidst the Serbian occupation in the late 90’s where their friendship is tested as they face altercations with the Serbian forces. What bothered me aside from the poor performances from the child actors, was how much the writer/director Jamie Donoghue wanted you sympathize with the Albanian plight. The short begins with text informing the viewer that it is based on true events conveying that Shok is a personal story for this filmmaker but I believe that anyone making a short is doing so out of passion. You don’t get into short subject filmmaking for the money. Whether you told me this was a true story or not, I would have wanted the film to create the emotion on its own rather than falling back on its real world context of why you should care. The other reason I disliked the true events statement is that it comes off as a crutch that if I don’t like something storytelling wise, I can’t blame the writing because he’s just recounting events as they happened. I indeed found the short melodramatic at times and the grown-up version of the child visiting the village which bookended the film was too heavy handed. I respect presenting a real life experience that greater Western society may not have been a part of but I don’t need a film to tell me I should be more emotionally invested.

Everything Will Be Okay

E will be

This German short was the most cinematic of the five. From an eight year old’s perspective we watch a daughter who while spending the afternoon with her divorced father is possibly being kidnapped and taken out of the country. The disorientation of the story unraveling puts you right in this POV even if the camera isn’t forcefully putting you at her level. You can sense the slight uneasy of her father that we as an audience pick up on that she may not but when he turns and his frustration flares, we feel just as scared and stressed as this child who is unsure of what’s going to happen next. I slightly wish I understood the circumstances more but I realize the filmmaker is intentionally placing you a confusing situation because the complex reasoning for why a father would need to run away with his child is very advanced for this girl to understand. The short more feels like a piece of a larger story and where its ending seems incomplete. It’s a very harsh blackout where I would have preferred more closure or a softer let down coming right after the climax. Because of this I don’t love it as a short but is a great start to a feature.

Stutterer

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The British are somehow amazing at shorts because every year they present the most consistently well made products. Stutterer is a brief and sweet character study about a man struggling with a stutter that isolates him from society. The journey is him breaking out of his shell to meet with a girl he has been chatting with online. It’s charming, witty and sentimental but because it’s well crafted with it’s directing, sound design and acting it doesn’t come off as cheesy as it should. Putting us in this guy’s head where he can speak with ease contrasted with the challenges in reality makes him sympathetic and so likable. I’m putting my money on England winning this category again.

Day One

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My issue with Day One is I don’t understand why it’s telling this story. As an AFI thesis film it has all the qualities of a well made short with direction, cinematography and acting but it doesn’t seem to realize that when you present such an uncomfortable subject, you have to have good reason for doing so. The story is of an Afghani interpreter for the U.S. Army wherein her first day in the field she encounters a pregnant woman whose husband may have terrorist affiliation. The film centers around an altercation which leads to an emergency birth. There’s concepts for themes dealing with gender inequality in the middle east as well as within the armed forces but paired with almost seeing a baby’s arm cut off, the ideas never quite congeal. I couldn’t put my finger on what the film wanted to express and then in the credits where it states that filmmaker, Henry Hughes, served with an interpreter who inspired this story, it made me just believe this could be a recounting that has no answer. If Hughes is just replaying out something that occurred, I still think he could have found a way to clarify the intentions of his themes. Better than Shok but not by much.

The Cultural Politics of Philadelphia

Philadelphia-Poster

I was contemplating whether or not it was a good choice to start of this film retrospective pet project with Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. I’m a straight white girl who when this was released in 1993 was still learning how to speak so I wasn’t aware of the cultural climate and how that encompassed homosexuality and AIDS. But I do know where I was in 1993 and that was Pennsylvania so I’m pretty sure that makes me highly qualified on the impending subject.

It’s timely to reflect on Philadelphia after the release as such films as Freeheld and Danish Girl this past year. One being a landmark case in gay rights and the other containing a cisgender male playing a tragic transgendered figure. These films are less surprising or influential in 2016 than Philadelphia which was one of the first major Hollywood films to deal with the AIDS crisis head on. Also like these recent films, this movie feels like Oscar bait which can have a negative effect on any film’s legacy. I recently revisited Philadelphia, curious to see if its sentiments feel outdated and if it deserved the accolades it received as well as the ones it didn’t.

Just as a refresher, Philadelphia is a film inspired by a real court case where a lawyer was unjustly fired by his employer because he had AIDS. In this adaptation, the lawyer is Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) who hires the small time attorney Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) to defend him and in the process teaches Miller to be more accepting of the gay community that he dislikes.

I first wanted to note that Philadelphia was written by Ron Nyswaner who is openly gay which to me seems important especially in a time when a film like Straight Outta Compton can be written by two white dudes. I think it’s important to recognize that this film was not written by an outsider’s perspective because when I critique the script’s views, I realize Nyswaner knows more about what it was like to be gay in 1993 than me but in the same respect Mart Crowley’s Boys In The Band, equally groundbreaking, feels like a relic in the spectrum of cultural conversation.

Nyswaner has good intentions with his screenplay, I believe those intentions to be in the vain of wanting to humanize mainstream views of gay people and those living with AIDS. Miller is supposed to signify the populace who find the gay lifestyle disgusting and fear standing next to anyone with the illness. The objective of the movie is to show that Beckett while gay is an amazing man, hard working, lovable, compassionate, undeserving of how his company treated him and undeserving of his tragic death. By the end of the film Beckett and Miller are friends as Miller has become more accepting over the course of the trial.

Overall, this film isn’t completely obsolete with its viewpoints. They’re well intentioned and very palatable but you know why I’m writing and that’s to say that there are some problems. Mainly is that plot is too simple. This is a movie about a message, and in that, character’s complexities fall by the wayside. I don’t get a deep enough sense that anyone has a life outside of the case. Part of this comes from a too large and too underdeveloped supporting cast. I wanted more depth to the relationships Beckett and Miller had outside of each other. We spend some time with Miller’s wife played by Lisa Summerour but for our main character Beckett, the relationship with his partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas) is severely lacking. There are so few scenes of them together that I have little understanding of their love or closeness. We’re introduced to so many friends and family of Beckett but none that we spend quality time with, they’re all there to be supportive or concerned when needed.

I blame some of this on a problem that has plagued films in the past which feature gay characters is that they make them sexless. The only sex we know Beckett has in the film is the circumstance that gave him AIDS, but we don’t get to see a positive physical relationship between him and Miguel. In truth there was a scene of them in bed together that was cut and I’d probably be retracting some of this statement if it had been included but instead the finish product presents an empty relationship between these two.

ph cut scene

With all of this said, I reflect back on the 1993 Academy Awards where Philadelphia took home Oscars for Best Performance by Hanks but lost for screenplay. I’m very surprised this movie wasn’t nominated for Best Picture because it’s prime Oscar bait but at the same time I’m glad it didn’t for that same reason. It’s a wonderfully made film as Jonathan Demme always knows how to craft an engaging visual narrative but the film is too much message and not enough substance for me to side with it as a remarkable film. Hanks’ win feels cliche for how often Oscar go to performances of someone dying, I’d say Washington brings a lot more to the film considering his character is the one with the emotional arc.

The ending of the movie is the best summation of how I feel which is while not terrible is still slightly out of touch. The film ends with Beckett’s death, a mostly quiet scene of everyone saying their goodbyes in the hospital then we move to the funeral reception at his parents’ house. The camera zooms in on a TV screening home movies of Beckett as a young child, playing and having fun. We watch this for awhile before the credits roll. These unrelated home movies are being shown to convey that Beckett was just a boy who grew up like all of us. The movie is taking too much of the extra step to humanize him which by now in 2016 we don’t need to be shown that “gays are people too”. Because of these unnecessary emotional pulls it causes the film to end on quite a whimper making this film just slightly more forgettable.
Hopefully that’s not the same for this review.