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February 2020
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Looking at movies

Most weeks we are pretty serious in this space and try to stay local with subject matter. But it seems with the turmoil slackening at the school’s central office involving the change in superintendent and Jasper City Hall getting used to new faces, things are a little slow around town.

So, if our readers would indulge us, we’d like to offer a few thoughts on the Academy Awards coming February 9th.

1917 – This World War I film is considered the top contender for Best Picture. Some members of our staff have seen it and it’s a cool picture to see on the big screen, kind of like Saving Private Ryan but for the earlier war. Echoing other critics, one thing missing is the history behind the story. There are soldiers in trenches who are obviously British judging by the accents. But the movie offers nothing about why they are fighting, who they are fighting and how the battle figured into the larger effort.

The movie-makers went to elaborate and successful lengths to show the horrors of trench warfare – you just wish it delivered a little context.

Similarly, we had historical qualms about Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. This Quentin Tarantino movie, like all Tarantino movies, is too long. Without giving away a plot twist, those of our staff who have seen the movie, left a little concerned about alternate history involving the Manson family murders that the climax of the film centers on. Younger fans of Tarantino, unless they do some research before or after, may be left with a drastically inaccurate account of the Manson family killing spree of 1969. Even in fiction, you need some kind of warning or disclaimer that you are doing a 180-degree rewrite of history.

The Irishman, another Best Picture nominee, also takes a genuine historical figure and makes another ludicrously long movie drawn from real events. Including the disappearance of teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa into the script, Martin Scorsese does a better job of indicating this film is from one person’s account but there are many different theories on Hoffa’s disappearance and officially it’s unsolved. 

Interestingly, like the fellow Oscar contender, Marriage Story, you didn’t have to go to a theater to see The Irishman, as it moved straight to Netflix streaming and you didn’t even have to wait on a DVD to arrive. This is really convenient and saves a bundle not shelling out big bucks for soft drinks and popcorn. But, it’s still fun to see things on the big screen.

One of the more interesting movies to ponder and to watch this year was Joker. It certainly doesn’t have to worry about accuracy to history, though hardcore Batman fans may find points to quibble over.

Where this movie created controversy is with the relatively sympathetic portrayal of an anti-hero who goes on a shooting/violence spree. There were concerns that this movie might be seen as condoning or even inspiring violence and those concerns aren’t off base.

Joker explores the backstory, showing how childhood abuse and mental illness turned the want-to-be standup comedian into a psychotic killer. The film didn’t glorify his actions, but it did present excuses. In a typical Marvel blockbuster, the bad guys are simply bad (and so are many of the movies). Here, with DC’s lead villain, he is bad, but the film dwells on why he got that way and it makes for a much more complex movie – who are we supposed to cheer for?

These movies and the other selections (and especially some not selected) make news, and, the discussion is not generally on film-theory or acting styles. Movies are where social/political commentary blends into mass culture, at least more so than other art forms – when was the last time someone got riled up over a painting?

Let us hear your thoughts on these movies with a letter to the editor. And most likely something will come up locally deserving comment soon.