POSTED ON APRIL 25, 2012:
Bullies, real and intergalactic
Starting with a "when I was a kid" parable about how things were different in the old days -- the '80s -- at school is tempting where it concerns Bully. They really weren't. Often, kids are cruel and vindictive, and that will never change.
But the times have changed. The rise of a more connected, virtual society has amplified the real life consequences of what can happen when someone is ritualistically shamed and abused. When Ja' Maya Jackson, a put-upon black student in a Yazoo City, Miss. middle school brandishes a gun on a her bus -- a Drudge Report-ready reason for white people to be afraid -- her treatment by the system winds up being far more harsh than the unpunished, unnamed white kids that convinced a 17-year old Georgian, Tyler Long, to hang himself in his father's home office.
Long's father starts a movement, taken up by other parents in what would be considered traditionally rural states -- thanks Facebook -- that ultimately brings their stories, and other crushingly complex issues of hate, ignorance, parental responsibility, political fecklessness and the buckling norms of American society to light, in Director Lee Hirsch's compelling, Bully.
Following the lives of several kids in small towns across the Midwest and South, Bully opens with a sucker punch as David Long describes his son and the downward spiral that led to his suicide. It's a crushing scene -- their family is clearly still mourning a year later.
Then we meet a Sioux City, Iowa tween, Alex. Born 30 weeks premature, the gawky outcast is convinced that his abusers are his only friends. Becoming more introverted, his parents are unaware of the solitude he endures, cemented when his younger sister tells him she's getting picked on because no one likes him.
When Push Comes To Shove. Bully offers insight to a problem that has always been around but has been brought to the forefront of concerns, perhaps through our highly connected society , to teens and adults alike.
By contrast there is Kelby, a sage, teen lesbian from Tuttle, Okla. whose entire family is more or less ostracized due to her sexuality, and their unapologetic acceptance of it. The bullies of Bully aren't necessarily other kids.
Later we meet another Oklahoman, Kirk Smalley, whose own son's suicide inspired him to get the internet and a Facebook page that ultimately leads many of these families, and their thicker-skinned kids to Oklahoma City for a rally at the Capitol steps. It seems a fitting place -- a state bent on making sure that government has no place in (or working mechanism for) social justice.
Decrying anti-bullying legislation as unneeded has become a cause de rigueur in conservative circles, the barely unspoken motive being anti-gay rights activism. And that fits right in, too.
But aside from shedding light on the individual stories, Bully's heart is equally in its own activism. It's a great example of that on a couple of levels, be it the publicity generated by producer Harvey Weinstein's very public pleas that the MPAA keep this film a PG-13, and thus accessible to its intended audience, or the crowdsourcing element that Bully engenders through social network awareness. The same crowd that fixates on Kony might be better off applying their efforts closer to home. And they just might. That's the hope of Bully.
Director Hirsch concentrates the rawness of the issues, often powerfully, through his lens. The seeming ambivalence of school administrators, the dereliction of parents in making sure their kids aren't assholes -- apples never fall far from their trees -- and hypocritical ideologues whose breathless rhetoric for the deification of kid's safety guarantees nothing to insure it, are writ large against their children's desperate pleas for happiness and acceptance.
Bully has the annoying visual predilection of not leaving the auto-focus off while shooting. It's only rarely pretty, but the lack of visual chops doesn't undermine its affecting message, or its hopeful coda -- one that might be less naïve if America in 2012 didn't seem so intent on saving itself from itself.
John Carpenter's weirdly prescient 1988 film, They Live, is pretty much his last great movie. What began with the cultural icon of Halloween gave rise to a series of films that genre geeks love -- though having as much to do with the times they were made as Carpenter's talent in their making.
Carpenter used his initial success to reinvent ways to skewer conservative ideology and ape Howard Hawks -- at once, if possible -- to incredibly entertaining heights of genre escapism. The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China (which doesn't really fit in, but is still great) Escape from New York and They Live are amongst his loftiest successes.
They're all a blast and wear the stamp of Carpenter's style at its height, often helped by the signature cinematography of Dean Cudney and Gary Kibbe. But it's They Live that rings truest to his dystopian worldview and love of anti-heroes. Plus, it's a ridiculously fun movie that wears its Twilight Zone admiration on former WWF wrestler, Rowdy Roddy Piper's flannel shirt sleeve.
Carpenter Constructs... a goofy genre flick, They live contains a biting critique of capitalism and inequality, ugly-ass aliens and Roddy Piper's classic line about chewing bubble gum and kickin' ass.
Nada (Piper) is the Man with No Name, who wanders onto a Los Angeles construction site looking for work. It's the '80s, and by contrast to 2012 the economy sucks.
The soft-spoken nomad, perhaps still disillusioned by Vietnam, falls in with Frank (Keith David), a migrant father looking to keep his head down and send what little he earns back to his family. They wind up taking shelter amongst other homeless souls in a metropolitan shanty-town, where the human debris of a trickle down economy are tended to by Gilbert (Peter Jason), a community organizer in more than one sense of the term.
Turns out Gilbert works for an underground network fighting to expose the masses to their slavery by an industrialist alien race that live amongst us unseen, due to a signal buried in the transmissions of a local TV station that blinds humanity to their enslavement by what amounts to intergalactic free-marketers. Nada, already the suspicious type, becomes a full-on jihadist when he puts on a pair of special sunglasses that reveal the insidious system of greed and avarice that keeps the masses mindlessly consuming and unmasks the ugly-ass aliens -- and their well-heeled human enablers -- who secretly control everything.
From the biting critique of capitalism and inequality at its core to the goofy genre joys of seeing Roddy Piper and Keith David go at it in a hilariously long alleyway fight scene that borders on homoerotic, They Live has a strange energy unique to itself. It's different, right down to a cast that might have been filled with Carpenter regulars -- Kurt Russell would have been a natural fit for Nada, while Adrienne Barbeau would have likely played Meg Foster's role as Holly, the icy eyed hostage who is more than she seems.
But Piper is a perfect replacement for Russell and the film gives him some iconic lines ("Brother, life's a bitch. And she's back in heat" or most famously, "I'm here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubble gum.") which Piper makes all his own.
The near pulpy plot is deftly unspooled and it really feels like Carpenter still gives a shit here -- something that would change almost immediately afterwards with Memoirs of an Invisible Man. The sense of fun he invests in what could have been an uneven action film sets They Live apart from not just his oeuvre up to that point but every film he made afterwards. A high-water mark that Carpenter never rose to again.
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