The Buzz: RIP Gene Wilder and the Top 5 Underseen Films of the Summer
It has become a consistent narrative from all media sources that this summer has been a terrible movie season. But, that narrative is not exactly true. So, in the spirit of positivity, let’s celebrate all the good movies that have hit American cinemas that was buried beneath the excess of tentpoles, CGI capes and whatever you call that Ben-Hur remake. These are the movies that were not bombarding air time with advertisements and filling Facebook feeds with stories of actors masquerading borderline psychopathy with the Method (last Suicide Squad dig I will do this year). These are the Top 5 films this summer that proves the medium of film is still strong.
Also this week on the Buzz we pay respects to Gene Wilder who passed away earlier this week. We then look back at one of his most famous films directed by Arthur Hiller who also recently passed. With the summer over, that also means that we are now reaching Awards season soon enough. We look at one film from the director of Sicario, that can possibly a contender.
Film: Top 5 Under-seen Movies of the Summer
5. Documentaries: Already this list has a cheat (the first of two cheats) but this has been a great summer for documentaries. First there was Weiner about the Anthony Weiner’s run for mayor which could have been an episode of Veep in its crazed absurdity. What is crazier is how relevant this whole film has become in the recent week. Then there is Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine which is the ultimate meta film about an actor’s process into embodying a real life person who committed suicide on-air in the 70’s. As a viewer you never forget that you are watching something staged in a way that would make Rene Magritte proud. Documentaries about ranging from an old Korean couple who have been together for 60 years (Don’t Cross the River My Love) and the systemic problems of Indian reservations (The Seventh Fire) have all shown that non-fiction filmmaking is strong.
4. Don’t Think Twice: At one-point comic books was the symbol of nerdom. But, now it has reached an ugly place of mainstream acceptance. Well, in the face of the nerdiness of comics, I offer up the extremely niche world of improv comedy, which at times could be more cultish than it is just simply entertainment. This year saw veteran comedian Mike Bribiglia reteaming with This American Life’s Ira Glass make an intimate drama about funny broken people. While Bribiglia is not breaking anything new, the specificity of the world makes all the problems and anxiety from the members of this improv troupe feel resonant. The film also stars Keegan Michael-Key and Gillian Jacobs.
3. The Fits: Buildings exploding, aliens from the sky and cities destroyed are all big and scary. But, nothing is scarier than being a pre-teen, going through puberty, and not feeling like you belong with everyone else. The Fits is the assured debut Anna Rose Holmer about a tomboy girl who decides to join an all-girl dance troupe when a mysterious disease begins to hit all the members of the troupe. The description promises more of a genre film than the final product which seems to owe more to Francois Truffaut and the French New Wave than it does The Thing. This film was made as a representation of a certain mood rather than a conventional story and coming from a first time filmmaker, that requires a lot of nerve. Yet, Holmer is able to tackle adolescence in a way that feels like real adolescence without ever becoming condescending.
2. Asian Films: The best horror movie of the summer was from Korea (Wailing). The best romantic movie of the summer was also from Korea (Right Now, Wrong Then). The best action film of the summer is from Hong Kong (Three). The best long take of the summer was half an hour long from China (Kaili Blues). The best film based on a comic book (technically manga) was from Japan (Our Little Sister). These countries have been producing interesting works that denies cinematic expectations and often times end up as some of the best films of the year. These films are released all throughout the year and it needs to be found and appreciated.
1. Hell or High Water: British born filmmaker, David Mackenzie has been able to weave through genres in his career. Hell or High Water is his take on the western and for a British filmmaker, it is distinctly astute on American idealism. Set in modern day Texas, Chris Pine and Ben Foster plays brothers who are robbing banks in order to pay for the mortgage that is on their mother’s house. Jeff Bridges plays the Texas Ranger trying to chase these outlaws down. This film is a testament to extras casting. You get more story and background by the people who are surrounding our main characters than you can from pure exposition. The film follows the pacing of the recent wave of revisionist westerns more than that of John Wayne. Instead of the idealized version of the west, this Texas is dusty, dirty and poor. These are the economically downtrodden people that movies often do not show but are intrinsic in America. These are the people who seek refuge in misplaced areas because media do not care to represent them. This film gives them a voice.
RIP Gene Wilder: It has been nearly fifteen years since Gene Wilder was in show business. He had been known to say, “I like the show but I don’t like the business.” But, when it was announced last Monday that Wilder had passed away at the age of 83, I didn’t want to believe it. In my mind, any day now, there was going to be an announcement that Wilder was making a comeback into films. Maybe Judd Apatow would cast Wilder as Seth Rogen’s elderly neighbor or imagine how perfect Charlie Kaufman’s absurdist, melancholic males dealing with existential crisis would work with Wilder’s soul-piercing blue eyes.
I first encountered Gene Wilder’s work in one of his lesser collaborations with Richard Pryor in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, a ludicrous film in which Wilder plays a deaf person who teams up with Pryor as someone who is blind. Even in something that was not great, Wilder was able to invite the audience in. He is often shown as calm or anxious with something lingering inside. It can be sadness, anger or anything else but it was unpredictable until suddenly Wilder would explode with frenzy.
That unpredictability informed what was Widler’s most recognizable role as Willy Wonka. When Johnny Depp played the character in the 2005 adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Depp’s Wonka was outwardly crazy and bizarre. In what world would any child trust this pale madman? Wilder’s Wonka, with his boyish face and wild blonde hair, seems normal and approachable. So, when things become absurd, they come as a surprise and is frightening. Wilder was known to have created the sequence in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in which Wonka was introduced. Wonka in his grand reveal, comes from his factory with a cane, limping his way to the crowd of excitable children The film takes its time, drawing out anticipation so that the viewing audience like the crowd in the film is just waiting for this seemingly old man. Then as he comes closer, all of the sudden, Wonka does a forward roll and jumps right back up. This is an encapsulation of Wilder as an actor. His presence onscreen is defined by these actions. He subverts expectations and lingers on anticipation until a false sense of serenity befalls you just to throw it back in our faces.
His cerebral approach to acting and comedy made him the perfect pairing with Mel Brooks, with whom they had made three of the greatest comedies of all time; The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. They were not just a director and actor. No, they were collaborators. Their collaboration was almost a yin and yang relationship. Brooks is a gag comedian who is fond of bits to an id-like level while Wilder’s humor was always more subversive. Together they made magic.
The same theory can be applied to Wilder’s four film collaboration with Richard Pryor, who coincidentally who supposed to co-star with Wilder in Blazing Saddlers before his drug problems made him too costly to insure. Pryor represented wildness with Wilder being his straight man but Wilder was just as crazed as Pryor was. In a sense, Wilder is a precursor to Will Ferrell in the heights of his manicness. And like Ferrell, what allows these performances to never drown on its own crazy is a sensitivity. While Ferrell’s is that of a child, Wilder’s felt like something genuine and heartbreaking.
It is no secret that Wilder would go on to face heartbreaking moments in his life. His wife, the just as talented and funny, Gilda Radner struggled through bouts of bulimia, miscarriages and eventually succumbed to ovarian cancer. Wilder would only make two more films after her death. Instead, he founded Gilda’s Club in her honor to raise awareness and fund research on ovarian cancer. Wilder also had to witness to Richard Pryor, a performer whose trademark was his physicality and movement begin to struggle with multiple sclerosis, a disease which is evident onscreen in their last film together, Another You, which would be Wilder’s last appearance on film.
Only after his death was it revealed to the public that Wilder himself was suffering through Alzheimer’s. As is often the case with the irony of the world, a man known for his wit began to lost it. According to his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, it was never announced publicly because it would sadden a lot of his young fans.
And just like that Wilder leaves us with us in his heart when really it is the other way around.
Rewind: Silver Streak: Last week saw the death of Gene Wilder and two weeks before was the death of the much underappreciated Arthur Hiller. Coincidentally, the two worked on the most famous of the Pryor-Wilder collaborations, Silver Streak. The film is a play on the old Hitchcock formula of an ordinary man who knows too much that finds himself in a caper. The only reason this is a must watch is to see the immense chemistry that is already there between Wilder and Pryor. Pryor never really worked onscreen with anyone else in comedy other than with Wilder. That is because they struck the right cord balancing each other’s personas. Any scenes not involving the two felt sorely lacking.
Coming Soon: Arrival: The festival circuit is coming soon which means that the movie awards season is right upon us. One of the contenders, sight unseen, is the newest film from Denis Villeneuve called Arrival. Scheduled to make its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival (good news for its Oscars chances), Arrival seems to be trying to strike the right balance of science fiction to satisfy genre fans and stuffy Oscar voters who only wants serious drama. Villeneuve is a director on the rise in the critical sphere especially after Sicario last year made a big splash with critics and had some ardent supporters. The film can also boast to having the always wonderful Amy Adams in the lead role as a scientist that is trying to communicate with a newly arrived group of aliens.
Arrival is scheduled to be released November 11th.