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The Hangover and Taking Chance: Two very different movies

Recently I watched two very different movies.

The first was The Hangover. I had formed the impression from hearsay and news snippets that this would be a diversion, that it was one of the funnier films out right now. What I saw was by far one of the poorest movies I have ever seen (and I have seen quite a few). It appeared to be the product of a group of third rate screenwriters who had yet to move out of their dorm rooms. The direction was fairly innocuous but the characters were embarrassing to watch, mostly unlikeable, and though they were the same size as most grown ups they clearly didn’t qualify as such. Other than a couple of amusing scenes (the taser class), the only redeeming parts, the only real competence came from the supporting actors.

Let’s just say it was a piece of crap. (Actually it is worse; dogshit I can clean up and throw out but this has now colonized a few of my brain cells that could have been used for much better things).

And there is a sequel already planned (because this film was a big hit I hear). This film belongs to that subgenre which has regular people end up going through a bizarre and threatening experience and somehow against all odds coming out of it without a scar. In other words, the story in the film echoes the watching experience in that things happened but nothing really mattered.

I like many films that could be called pure entertainment but I believe that if you throw millions of dollars at a project, you should be able to still make them have some lasting value. Or are we not supposed to laugh and think at the same time? I think there are many comedians who would be quite insulted by that notion and yet many people defend their movie and book choices saying they do not want to think (“I just want something mindless”). I would conclude they don’t think the rest of the time either but I have heard smart enough people say this.

Of course, The Hangover received the Golden Globe for best film but then it was up against the only marginally better It’s Complicated, and the film that utterly demolished the little crush I had on Zooey Deschanel, 500 Days of Summer (I do still cherish her for her turn in Weeds though).

The second movie is a little more complicated and did very much make me think even if I did not find it all that substantial.

Taking Chance has Kevin Bacon playing an officer who accompanies the body of a fallen soldier to his family home and funeral. I cannot fault Bacon who has taken on some very challenging roles (and despite my not being bowled over by this film I do think he is very good in it). Among many other films, Bacon stands out most for me for his work in The Woodsman.

What this film made me realize was how very different American and Canadian traditions are. This felt like a window onto strange alien customs. Bacon’s journey with the body is a hymn to military culture and its centrality in the American mindscape, and that culture is portrayed without any exploration of its larger context, that of war. This is purely about the rituals of honoring the military dead and how across the country citizens almost telepathically sense his duty and spontaneously mourn the to them unknown soldier.

The film is quiet and perfectly suited to its subject and comes off like a good documentary. However other than just not having any empathy for this set of bizarre rituals, or because of it, I had to ask, if there was so much care taken for each of these, why not for those who did not die in the war? Why not such a ritual for murder victims, those dead of a horrible disease or of an accident? Why such care taken for a wasted life, someone who might have been forced by circumstance to serve, or even someone who joined and enjoyed being in a war?

This is not to mean that these lives are not important. They are as important as any others, but I don’t think they are more so. Perhaps the rituals are a response to the guilt that even authority feels for thrusting the more vulnerable, the younger and the poorer into the field to fight the battles of which the spoils will be shared by those who are too well placed to ever have to fight.

But whatever the reason for these films, it was one of those times when it was so obvious to me that our two countries have a vast separation between them. (Though I found it overall a little tedious, it at least had integrity which makes it ten times the film that The Hangover is).

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