Film & TV

Peppermint Candy for Conservatives

Jennifer Garner in Peppermint (STXfilms)
Jennifer Garner is a heroine right-wingers will cheer; the documentary Hal will satisfy few.

Peppermint might be the epitome of an action movie that conservatives can enjoy without selling out their principles. The plot about a Los Angeles woman, Riley North (Jennifer Garner), who gets revenge for the murder of her husband and child by a drug gang, brazenly replicates current political controversies: the illegal-alien MS-13 gangs; district judges who remake laws rather than interpreting statutes; plus the generic police corruption that now looks less corrupt than the partisanship of elected officials who ignore the well-being of half their constituency.

Riley isn’t exactly a Millennial Ethan Edwards (the John Wayne character who legendarily embodied regressive attitudes in John Ford’s The Searchers). She’s a modern young wife and mother shocked into action when social chaos destroys her all-American illusions. Riley becomes “woke,” as progressives like to describe their attention to social inequality. Conservative filmgoers usually have to look at movie characters and envy their glamorized social engagement. That vicarious pleasure contradicts the ideals that conservatives are committed to. Peppermint’s rampaging impudence makes Riley a rebuke to liberals’ sanctimony while she serendipitously sensationalizes conservative heroics.

Tall and athletic as in the roles Garner played in Elektra and TV’s Alias, Riley is also resourcefully lethal, leaving her victims in performance-art postures (three assailants hanging from a Ferris wheel like the one she and her husband and child had enjoyed at a carefree moment). Riley represents the post-9/11 consciousness special to European action directors such as Pierre Morel (Taken, From Paris with Love) from Luc Besson’s enlightened stable. Besson and his troupe complicated awareness of global terrorism during the time when “terrorism” was a forbidden word, while their films also held on to humane values. They skillfully transcended the political hypocrisy of Hollywood filmmakers who get rich from violent movies then, sheeplike, bleat anti-gun public-service appeals.

Back during the 1970s, critics blamed vigilante movies like Dirty Harry, The French Connection, Death Wish, and Walking Tall on Nixon-era law-and-order paranoia, but that easy assessment did not account for the films’ popularity (also evident in the era’s blaxploitation films Shaft, Cool Breeze, Cleopatra Jones, etc., which pleased the still-unacknowledged conservatism of black filmgoers). But, recently, action films have been pared down to killing machines — like Riley herself — tempting bloodlust through nightmarish video-game grotesques or using satire without social resonance.

Action movies are generally the only ones providing a semblance of the social problems affecting working-class life — such as Riley’s domestic financial stress coupled with awareness of the criminal world. The triumphant fantasy of action and crime flicks such as Taken have proved more satisfying for troubled moviegoers than have Hollywood’s issue-oriented flicks. The violence in Peppermint opposes Hollywood’s anti-gun agenda by making an emotional and kinetic appeal to the cleansing necessity of Second Amendment principles. Morel’s action set-pieces have an artistic efficacy not found in the current Jack Ryan TV series or Matt Damon’s brutal Bourne pictures that confused some conservatives by allowing them to cynically indulge liberal license.

Conservative moviegoers must decide for themselves whether principled storytelling about “justice” (Riley confronting her own humane contradictions) is a greater ethical breach than coarse-grained action films (feminist junk like Salt and Atomic Blonde) that simply seek to excite base reflexes in the popular audience. At least Peppermint raises these issues, if nothing else. Timing can mean everything when a routine genre film appears in the culture; it’s an amusing cultural coincidence that Peppermint plays like the action-movie as op-ed.

***

Hal (Oscilliscope)

In Hal, a documentary about the late filmmaker Hal Ashby, the Seventies zeitgeist is evoked as an idealized period. It’s when Hollywood’s basic art-vs.-commerce antagonism was resolved by the eccentricity of proto-hippie figures like Ashby. His now-revered films — The Landlord, Harold & Maude, The Last Detail, Shampoo, Bound for Glory, Coming Home, and 8 Million Ways to Die — are viewed nostalgically as examples of pop artistry that documentary maker Amy Scott likens to contemporary Ashby wannabes.

Scott enlists testimonies from a group with almost nothing in common: Allison Anders, Lisa Cholodenko, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Judd Apatow, Adam McKay. They also have little in common with Ashby, who functioned within the studio system before its collapse. Ashby was one of the directors who ushered a countercultural perspective into popular film, while Scott’s contemporary directors operate from a fragmented (indie) perspective. Looking wistfully at Ashby’s oeuvre sheds no light on the problems of modern film culture before its inevitable collapse.

The ever-changing mix of personalities that defined Ashby’s generally shapeless films is poorly explained. (This shapelessness — odd for an ex–film editor — fascinates the current film-smart mavens who are intimidated by formal aesthetics.) Scott’s talking-heads approach neglects the major collaborators from Ashby’s best films: Bill Gunn (The Landlord screenwriter), Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail star), Warren Beatty (Shampoo star and producer). Scriptwriter Robert Towne is on screen, but he’s not forthcoming enough.

Scott inflates Ashby’s legend to the same useless effect that the recent Brian De Palma doc deflated his artistry. De Palma’s superior filmography defined the great artistic contradictions of the Seventies — a fabled period that few documentary makers get right. So far, the best account is to be found in James Chressanthis’s 2008 film about Laszlo Kovacs and Vilmos Zsigmond, the era’s principle cinematographers: No Subtitles Necessary: Laszlo & Vilmos.

 

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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