Expert film discussion from completely unqualified people


February 27, 2016

In a new column, Rob watches every major American release of 1991. God help him. 

Directed by Oliver Stone

There is a mad paranoia permeating through Oliver Stone's JFK that makes the validity of its claims completely irrelevant. Regardless of the outcome of Jim Garrison's real-life crusade to bring Kennedy's killers to justice, Stone is preaching the importance of skepticism and the moral imperative we all share to challenge every Official Story fed from every government in every nation. His film celebrates the intangible and the enigmatic. It celebrates the weak and the normal, the disenfranchised and the strange. It celebrates that nagging, persistent buzzing we hear when we can't shake the sense that something is wrong.  

JFK is so fast and fericoius that it's hard to imagine it laid out, scene by scene, on index cards on a wall in a production office somewhere. Stone and his editors have accomplished something masterful here, and when combined with DP Robert Richardson's harsh and invasive cinematography, the film morphs into an angry and bombastic diatribe far greater than the sum of its parts. It washes over us with a kind of religious fervor and, regardless of our politics, we have no choice but to hear a call to action. Somehow, though, its best moments are its quietest and most reflective: In one, Garrison (Kevin Costner) takes a moment with his children to explain his struggle with bravery and perseverance. In another, X (Donald Sutherland) lays out a vast conspiracy with such grace and obvious ease that we feel like fools for not seeing it earlier. 

There's a kind of crazy meta-textuality going on in the casting of Hollywood's best and brightest (Sutherland, Joe Pesci, Jack Lemmon) as whispering informants refusing to be named but knowing the truth of the Machine all along. Stone uses these famous faces and comforting voices to help his audience cope with the gravity of what he is presenting. He seamlessly combines now-familiar footage with a restaged Dealey Plaza scene to create a fluid through line from one damning detail to another. Finally, he asks us to listen as Garrison hangs himself out to dry in front of a jury. He pleads with us not necessarily to believe him, but to listen closely, ask questions, and not forget our dying king. 

Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey
Directed by Peter Hewitt

It takes a warped genius to imagine a scenario in which, in a twist on Bergman's The Seventh Seal, a pair of recently deceased dimwits challenges Death to a game of Clue for ultimate redemption. It's another thing entirely to have a defeated Death turn around and insist of a round of Twister to even the score ("Best three out of five!"). It's in moments like these that Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey draws the line between dumb comedy about smart people and smart comedy about dumb people. It's at once a slapstick farce and a sci-fi fantasy. It's German Expressionist horror by way of Valley Girl. It's well-made, well-acted, and as optimistic and good-natured as its two most excellent heroes. 

Good-natured is worth repeating. It's notable that the film goes out of its way to victimize exactly no one, even when suggesting near-rape scenarios and repressed childhood traumas. Often buddy comedies will revel in schadenfreude and teach their doofus protagonists lessons on Fine Moral Behavior. Neither Bill nor Ted ever concedes the righteous high ground, and each always has the other's best interest at heart. Fascist dictators, evil, life-ruining robots, hell, even Death Himself is redeemable in the Bill & Ted universe. Yet amazingly, the film doesn't lack in stakes. The guys want to live up to the promise of Excellent Adventure and make honest women out of their medieval babes. Indeed, the fate of the future utopian society we'll all soon share rests in the outcome of the San Dimas Battle of the Bands. 

It's no small compliment to call Peter Hewitt's direction "classical." He has a nice sense of comedic timing and allows jokes to breathe without lettings things get silly. There's a fun visual style here often overlooked in most comedies. William Sadler (fresh off of Die Hard 2) has never been better as Death. But none of it works without Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves' gleeful and whole-hearted investment in their characters. They're the kinds of roles that would be so easy to look down on, especially in a comedy sequel. But Bogus Journey is just fun enough to take seriously and just smart enough to earn their respect. It's most non-non-non heinous. 

Rob DiCristino writes and podcasts for The Ugly Club (@UglyClubPodcast). Follow him on Twitter @RobDiCristino. He mostly tweets about Ben Affleck.


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