There was, of course, no question, once the great reviews started coming in, that we would all go see Disney’s latest animated feature, Zootopia. In fact, with the Barbarienne around, reviews-be-damned, she and I, minimally would go see it. But we ended up going to see it on The Boy’s birthday, it being the best option of all available films we had not yet seen.
It has been interesting to watch the Lasseter-ization of Disney. Beginning with Bolt, which he apparently steered out of its mediocrity, and culminating, in a lot of ways, with Frozen, which owes its incongruous villain to him encouraging the team to pursue what, ultimately, was a better (and, of course, wildly successful) storyline.
Zootopia is, in short, better. The characters are well-developed. They’re flawed, but likable. Cute but not cloying. There’s a message of diversity that only a Social Justice Warrior could hate—and, indeed, the few negative reviews there are for this film seem to revolve around the movie not addressing the delicate social-message sensibilities of the critic just so.
Our heroes are a brave little rabbit cop and a cynical fox grifter who team up to solve the mystery of what’s causing various carnivores in the city to go feral. This is such an obvious set-up for ham-handed moralizing about differences of race and creed, that it’s easy to overlook that it’s also an amazing set-up for quality humor, such as the “Far Side” empire was essentially built on. The movie offers some (I thought predictable) twists and turns that keep one from comfortably indulging in a particular set of prejudices, and opts first to be funny and/or heart-warming.
This is good. Political movies suck and everyone hates them.
Full credit to directors Byron Howard (Tangled, Bolt) and the great Rich Moore. Moore directed Wreck-It Ralph, but also directed many classic episodes of “The Simpsons”, “Futurama” and “The Critic”, while they were at their funniest. (OK, “The Critic” was always funny, but it only ran for 23 episodes.) I think we can declare the man’s talent to be Not-A-Fluke. I would guess the cast was heavily influenced by Moore, as it gives nice roles to Maurice LeMarche (who was central to “The Critic” and played a multitude of characters of “Futurama”), John DiMaggio (“Futurama”), and Kath Soucie (“The Critic”, “Futurama”).
The face actors are good, too. Even if Idris Elba counts as stunt casting, he’s good (in a role that might have gone to the late Michael Clarke Duncan a few years ago). Ginnifer Goodwin (currently reigning as Snow White in “Once Upon A Time”) is really wonderful as Officer Hopps, and Jason Bateman was basically born to play the grifter fox. (I mean, his first sitcom as a teen had him as a kid sociopathically manipulating his mom. It’s nearly typecasting.)
Besides the solid story and characters, and a decent plot, the movie is jam-packed with love. Every scene is an opportunity for some gag or another, in true Pixar fashion, giving every moment an additional layer for the attentive, the OCD and their beleaguered parents. The sheer impossibility of the situation—a city where all animals live together in relative harmony—makes for some many jokes just involving scale. And there are a ton of jokes riffing on the animal versions of Disney properties, much like the end credits of Pixar’s Cars.
No songs. Great score by Michael Giacchino (The Incredibles, Up).
Maybe not as Amazing as a near perfect RT score might have you believe. But great, nonetheless.
Shane Black was, once upon a time, one of the hottest writers in Hollywood, having penned the Lethal Weapon series of films—and the famously disastrous Last Action Hero which committed an error I call “the Buffy factor”. It may not have been the relative weakness of those late ’90s films that accounts for his absence: He was also in Burn, Hollywood, Burn: An Alan Smithee Film which is the sort of film nobody but vengeful executives would actually watch.
He wrote and directed the well regarded Robert Downey Jr./Val Kilmer buddy picture Kiss Kiss Bang Bang about a decade ago, and then, with no other directing experience, ended up writing and directing Iron Man 3 (which is one of the many movies that we saw, but which I apparently forgot to write up, perhaps because when you’ve seen one Iron Man, you’ve seen them all). I don’t know how Hollywood works. Although, maybe the key element there is Mr. Downey, Jr., who has a reputation as a faithful friend.
Anyway, Mr. Black is back with this (apparent) semi-remake of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: The Nice Guys. Set in 1977, it concerns hired goon Russell Crowe, and cowardly detective Ryan Gosling, thrown together on a runaway daughter case. Our story begins, as it must, with a dead woman on a car (Murielle Telio, in a brief but spectacular entrance) and the disreputable Holland March (Gosling) being hired by the dead girl’s grandmother, who believes she’s seen her granddaughter (a porn star) post-mortem.
Gosling has taken the case, but primarily to milk the old woman for money—the lessons of private investigation he teaches to his daughter Angourie Rice (These Final Hours, whose American accent is impeccable, and who manages to be likable in a “sassy, precocious” kid role that might otherwise be awful)—but when the girl he’s tailing notices him, she hires a thug named Jackson Healy (Crowe) to beat him up.
It’s Black magic, if I may drop a Shalit-style pun here (and how are you going to stop me?).
It’s unassuming, clever (but not overly so), old-style mystery with a few head fakes and wholesome family values, despite all the porn references. Also a decent amount of suspense and action, but not really over-the-top. It feels like a throwback without the musty smell. It’s not exactly going to leave you pondering the Meaning of Life as you leave the theater, but that’s welcome in the same way the whole “we’re not trying to save the world” plot is, you know? At least it was to us.
Full disclosure: The Flower, whose birthday it was when we saw this, enjoys old mystery shows like “Quincy”, “Rockford Files” and (to a lesser extent) “Murder, She Wrote”, but above all “Columbo”, so she may not be the barometer for your average fifteen-year-old. (Holy cow! She’s fifteen!)
But the Boy also really liked it, as did I—and I was inclined to be the most critical, much as The Old Man was about ’50s movies. In fact, while I was entertained, I also had the additional entertainment of “spot the anachronism”. For example, at a critical point, someone says “Call 9-1-1.” Nuh-uh. No 9-1-1 in 1977. Not in L.A. Also, the Comedy Club showed a double bill of Tim Allen and Elayne Boosler (misspelled as “Boozler”) and an area code of 323 (which didn’t exist yet) which, while Boosler was in town at the time, I think Allen was in jail. Then there was the “Pina Colada Song” which hadn’t been released.
I’m not knocking it. These are minor details compared to the absurd plot. Which I’m also not knocking, except to the extent of its rather predictable villainy. The actual villains were cool: Keith David plays “Older Guy”, a heavy, which was kind of fun since his debut in the same approximate era (1982’s The Thing) he was also a tough guy. Kim Basinger, also of that era, plays a ruthless D.A. whose daughter is mixed up in the proceedings. She’s looking good, although there was something odd about the way they filmed her.
David Buckley’s score captures the era pretty well without getting obnoxious, as scores from the time often were. (So much cheap brass.)
As I said, we liked it, simple buddy cop movie though it was, and will look forward to Nice Guys 2: The ’80s, or whatever the sequel is called. If there is one. A bad sign for that is this movie’s inability to beat out the “juggernaut” that was the “Angry Birds” movie. That’s a shame. It felt way more personal than your average summer popcorn flick, and that’s a good thing.
It is utterly inconceivable, in this day and age, that a movie like Weiner would ever be made about a Republican. This is a remarkably intimate and sympathetic look at a guy who shot himself in the foot—twice—who might otherwise have gone on to win the White House. Certainly the mayorship of New York City was in his grasp. And from there, governor, senator and, yes, possibly President. Though, I guess the latter is far-fetched for anyone, even someone cozied up to the Clintons. Whether he could or couldn’t be President depends more on whether the Clinton Crime Family is actually called to account in the coming years than anything Weiner did or could have done.
The irony here being, he’s done nothing so grievous as the Clintons. Or Trump. Or Teddy Kennedy. Or Robert Byrd. Or any other Democrat heroes. What did he do? He talked dirty to a woman of low morals.
But, more importantly, he posted a public picture of his turgid genitals. Photo evidence trumps all. Then, after he was supposedly chastened, he took up with this aspiring porn star in a manner that could be easily reproduced digitally. And, my friends, he did not leave her to drown in a car where she would not be able to embarrass him later on.
The movie starts by showing Mr. Weiner out on the floor of the Congress, lying in the de rigeur way of our elected officials: By highlighting one part of a bill to cast political opponents as being opposed to things that “no decent person” could possibly be against. This is fodder for the crowd, who desperately needs for their political enemies to be monsters, so they can avoid confronting the real monsters of the world.
Then all my lefty pals who get their news from the Daily Show come to me and say “Those dirty Republicans voted against giving money to veterans!” because, of course, they didn’t hear about the “mandatory abortion” clause on page 25.
It’s a story, by necessity, of a fairly reprehensible fellow, because, well, he’s a politician. But is he any more reprehensible than any of the other politicians? That’d be very hard to prove.
So, let’s take a step back and look at it as a picture of a human being, with aspirations, who (by all rights, at least based on what’s shown here) should be pretty happy with his lot in life. And yet. He’s tripped up by what can only be considered a philosophy of “truth as the last resort”. This kind of makes sense. Being truthful is a good thing. It’s a necessary thing, even, despite the various stratagems people work out to avoid it.
Weiner is kind of interesting, in the sense that he’s really one of these guys you think “Well, he’s really just upset that he got caught.” I think there’s some truth to that. At the same time, he doesn’t seem to be completely able to drown his conscience like an inconvenient lover as some others have done. He’s a true believer. He thinks he’s fighting the good fight. And he figures that takes precedence over his own ignominy.
Whether it should or shouldn’t, whether it does or doesn’t is based more on the caprices of fate, and possibly some backroom engineering amongst the Vast Whatever Conspiracy. If you heard the story as I did (rather disinterestedly), Weiner’s mayoral bid was derailed by allegations of new bad behavior. But from the movie, it seems like the bad behavior was old, if not entirely revealed, and he was more done in by the opportunistic Vegas dealer he chose to consort with.
It’s tragic, in the sense that he’s there with Huma (right hand of the She-Devil Herself), who here is just a mother with two young children who is trying to keep her family together. But we don’t get a lot of insight into her, really. She’s enduring, as politician’s wives do, no matter how feminist they claim to be. Is it more opportunism? We can’t tell from this.
On the three-point scale:
It’s an interesting topic. No question. And, though it’s a small (heh) story, it’s reflective of our culture in many ways.
It’s well done, no question. Audio and visual is good and the editing is tight. No fat here.
Bias. Minimally, as I said up top, this isn’t the sort of thing we’d see about a Republican, whose sexual peccadillos are always, always, always a reflection of their political beliefs. Is it further biased, say toward humanizing a sociopath (or a pair of sociopaths)? No way of knowing. I’d like to think not.
It’s been a bit overpraised, I’d say, garnering a whopping 95% from critics on RT, and with a lot of people saying it’s the best political documentary ever. Eh. I actually don’t think watching a guy live through humiliation on film is particularly great as politics. Weiner presumably didn’t censor it, and so that gives it a more real feel than you’d perhaps expect. On the other hand, this documentary undoubtedly started as a way to praise him, and these people were probably going to give him the kindest treatment he was ever going to get.
In any event, it’s not really political: It’s personal. And that both lessens its importance in some ways and increases it in others.
There is a conceit going back at least to the ’60s where someone is essentially poisoned with marijuana (typically via a brownie) and their life gets magically better. Because, like, they’re not so hung up, man. I’m sure this was done with alcohol in the ’30s and earlier—it probably has roots in an Ancient Roman Vaudeville routine.
Although I never have been fond of it, this conceit is particularly dissonant in these days of marijuana legalization and the complications it seems to bring. (There’s a case in Colorado where a guy is claiming edible MJ sent him into a paranoid rage that made him kill his wife. And there’s these two kids sent to the hospital in Massachusetts from brownies. And these two fatalities.) I’m not a fan, as you might gather—though not, on principle, a fan of prohibition either.
Anyway, The Boy and I both watched this with the same viewpoint of “Well, it’s magical Hollywood marijuana that never makes anyone stupid or paranoid.” So, it didn’t bother us too much. The premise is this: Nat (Jonathan Pryce) is an old Jew in England who runs a bakery. Business is bad, and his apprentice is leaving him for a supermarket chain. His son, who decided to pursue law rather than baked goods, would like him to sell the place and retire on the money, but instead Nat gets a new apprentice—the son of his African cleaning lady, Ayyash.
Ayyash has different plans in mind. He wants to get his mom (and himself) out the state-supplied housing, and he can’t do that with bakery money. But the job provides him cover to deal drugs, and he ends up in a short time as a very successful weedmonger. The increased traffic brings in more business to the bakery as well, pleasing Nat.
Hilarity ensues when some reefer ends up in the dough by mistake, and demand for the cHappy Challah goes through the roof. (Because ganja makes everything better! And nobody’s ever allergic to it or made paranoid, or impaired while operating heavy machinery.) Meanwhile, Ayyash is learning the self-respect that comes from having a real trade, even if he is a bit squeamish at the thought of using the blood of goyim children in the bread. (Joking, of course, but he actually states this reservation up front and his mom slaps him. In real life, the odds she might also believe this would be pretty high?)
So, there’s your tension: Ayyash and Nat begrudgingly form a Muslin/Jew bond even as Ayyash is betraying him by poisoning his customers. Still, the proceedings are kept pretty light, and all resolve cheerfully with a silly caper.
Director John Goldschmidt hasn’t directed a movie since 1987’s Maschenka and went through the entire first decade without producing anything either (though with the Brits, especially, they’re busy doing stage work), but caveats aside it’s a fun enough film. Pryce is excellent, of course, and he has good chemistry with young Jerome Holder, so we can Buy The World A Coke And Ignore The Vastly Increasing Muslim Population That Threatens The Jews.
I mean, seriously: It’s hard to not notice that the moviemakers of the world seem determined to treat Muslim/Jew problems as if they were the same as black/white problems, delivering the same sort of “Can’t we all just get along?” message even as one of the main characters of the film sincerely believes the other uses blood to make his bread.
But, yes, get past the pro-pot message, and the moral equivalence message, and you’ll have yourself a good time. We did.*
It was a pleasure, particularly after seeing some less successful low-budget movies (South32, Timechasers) to see a movie that respected its budget and what it could do. So where Timechasers was too ambitious for a low budget film, and South32‘s creators seemed to “phone it in” on crucial plot and dialogue issues, Crush the Skull hits the sweet spot: A fun little caper—”It’s not a caper!” as they say in the movie—thriller that builds heavily on characterization and a fair sense of whimsy.
The whimsical tone is set up in the first scene, as we see a (by now) clichéd situation, where a mother tries to convince her far-too-savvy daughter that the dungeon they’re being kept in is like a game from “Survivor”. They go back-and-forth on it several times, even as the killer comes and does in the mother most gruesomely.
It’s a tricky tonal shift. You have to get the audience to care about the characters, even when the characters are semi-goofy and semi-idiots. But the “funhouse” nature of the film makes it work, along with writer/director Viet Ngueyen’s deft editing.
The story is that a couple (boyfriend/girlfriend) of thieves are going for “one last score” when Ollie’s (producer/co-writer Chris Dinh) better nature gets the best of him, and he ends up in jail. Girlfriend Blair (Katie Savoy) bails him out, but only at the cost of all their reserves, and then some, as provided by a Very Bad Loan Shark. So, they’re back in the saddle.
Blair’s dimwitted brother Connor (Chris Reidell) and his “crew” (a big dumb asian dude, Riley, played by Tim Chiou) are pulling a big job that the two now need to stay out of trouble, and that’s when things go bad. As it turns out, the target is a lair of a serial killer, and while they can get in, they can’t get out.
Although there’s about one hall and maybe two or three rooms (which I doubt are anywhere near the aboveground part of the house), the camera shifting, the darkness, the editing all conspire to make it seem like there’s a real maniac’s underground labyrinth, full of traps and remote-controlled doors and cameras and what-not.
It’s nicely done. And when the characters talk, even when they’re being goofy, we’re typically learning something about their character. And, while it’s silly, a lot of the reactions they have are the ones you or I or any regular person would have in a similar situation. So, the whole thing stays on the right side of “not taking itself too seriously” instead of “not respecting the time the audience is giving you”.
I think that’s my biggest beef with modern low budget flicks. 40 years ago, you needed something to make out to in the drive in, or to fill the time. Now there’s a near infinite list of choices, including incredible classics of cinema, and by far the scarcest resource people have to divvy up is time. I like it when a movie respects that and knows it has more to do than just get me in the door.
The Boy liked it a great deal. And even though it was only playing at 10PM, the Flower came, and also enjoyed it greatly.
It might be the lowest box office film we see this year, below even Wedding Doll, but it seems to have had no official release per BoxOfficeMojo.com, putting it in the South32category.
It’s time for Rifftrax! (Rifftrax!) And it’s not an easy job, they watch movies and they make up jokes about them. And tell those jokes to microphones. Or so the song goes. And this is true, except for the several times where they tell those jokes live to an audience (usually in Nashville).
As they did recently, revisiting a Mystery Science Theater 3000 “classic”: Timechasers.
In Timechasers, a scientist with incredible luck (one assumes) and a remarkably small amount of imagination, invents a working time machine out of a small prop plane and a Commodore 64, but then can’t think of anything to do with it, except sell it to Evil Corp (a division of Destroido!) who then—through means that are never adequately explored—sells it as a weapon, creating a hellish future of…well, the remarkably contemporary looking warehouses and back alleys of Burlington, Vermont.
We are, of course, sympathetic to the low budget filmmaker, who is often honing his craft at the same time he struggles with budgetary limitations. And if writer/director David Giancola never exactly “got good” at this movie thing, he did, apparently get better.
Here, however, we see a near Birdemic level of unsophistication, though without that movie’s sheer amateur incompetence. The acting is wooden, but it’s recognizable as acting. The plot is illogical, and much like Birdemic, tied into man’s inevitable destruction of the earth. There’s an attempt to try to incorporate the “multiple timelines” aspect of Back to the Future 2.
Look, that was ambitious and not very successful either, though lord knows it was a gratuitously abused plot device throughout Star Trek incarnations. (To the point where, I think, it was the entire powering device of Enterprise.) The real risk of these things is that: a) You confuse the audience; b) You can do whatever you want, no matter how magical, so the audience knows you’re cheating.
But what about the riffs? Well, the riffs are good. Very good. That’s why we go to these things. They’re fun. But on the scale of Rifftrax, it’s not the best. There are a couple of places where it’s very hard to hear what’s going on, and because the sound in the film proper is out-of-sync, it makes a lot of dialog-based-jokes impossible. (The timing’s been pre-ruined by the movie.)
The Boy commented that he preferred MST3K-style movies, where the dialog leaves enough gaps to make quips without talking over the movie. And it’s true that Rifftrax uses a lot more “talking over” which allows for some funny bits on the one hand, but breaks the engagement with the film on the other.
And you do have to engage with the film somewhat. A lot of the best humor comes from expectations, or from someone pointing out an absurdity that you half-notice but can’t quite put your finger on. As in episode 305 of MST3K, “Stranded in Space”, where the guy helping out the hero drops his vial of the medicine he must have to survive and Crow says, “Note to myself: Pack more life-saving liquid.”
You have to be engaged enough in the actual movie to appreciate the absurdity.
Anyway, it’s good. This stuff always is. It’s just no Santa Claus.
After writer/director Jeff Nichols’ first two features,Take Shelter and Mud, I was ready to go see his new film, Midnight Special, even if the reviews were somewhat weaker. The reviews are basically right: This isn’t as strong a film as the other two, but I was still very glad to have seen it.
There’s something about the Nichols aesthetic I find appealing. And even though this movie resolves, plot-wise, in a rather conventional way, the execution is rather non-conventional, for better and worse.
The story concerns young Alton (the very talented Jaden Lieberher, St. Vincent) who has been kidnapped, and is now the subject of a manhunt involving the US government and a bizarre religious cult out of Texas. The twist being that he’s been kidnapped by his father (Michael Shannon, Take Shelter, Mud) who’s trying to get him to a particular location, with the help of his mother (Kirsten Dunst, The Two Faces Of January, Melancholia) and a pal (Joel Edgerton, Black Mass, The Gift).
It turns out that Alton tends to speak in tongues, and sometimes those tongues include “coordinates of top secret military things”, which is what has attracted the government’s attention. It also turns out that, when he’s exposed to the light, odd things happen. Hence the “midnight special” of the title, as Roy (Shannon) and Lucas (Edgerton) drive around at night and hole up in motel rooms during the day where they can cover up the windows.
The other element here is that Alton is sick. Dying even. Roy figures his only hope is to get to that location at the right time, though he has no idea what will happen when he gets there.
If this is starting to sound familiar to you then you’ve probably seen Starman or Escape to Witch Mountain or maybe Close Encounters of the Third Kind, all of which have plot similarities to this film. Where this film differs is that Alton is essentially a MacGuffin, with no particular insight to offer on the topic of being human. By contrast, Jeff Bridges’ Starman is also a MacGuffin, but he’s a running commentary on human nature as well.
Alton seems to literally be a child, with a child’s insights, and not a lot of those, really. He’s just different. He becomes more a test of “would you do what is right, given circumstances very aligned against you?” This provides a good showcase for the other actors and prevents the film from falling into cliché.
Of course, clichés exist for a reason: Because they’re usually successful at conveying what needs to be conveyed. And at the climax of the film, Nichols splits up Roy and Alton because, logically, Roy needs to distract the bad guys. That leaves Sarah (Dunst) and Alton with the final emotional scene, and us without a real main character.
One trick these movies sometimes use is a “Is he or isn’t he?”, like with the sub-par K-PAX. Nichols, rather nicely, leaves no doubt about what’s what, in a bravura conclusion that is satisfying, even if we don’t get our dramatic character arc.
The Boy did not like it as much as I did, but he did like it. It’s definitely more Take Shelter than Mud, but if you liked the former, you’ll probably enjoy this.
Every year, despite my best efforts, there are a few films I forget to review. Not that you, dear reader, can’t live without my ramblings on any particular cinematic experience, but more that I presume, as always that you, dear reader, don’t actually exist, and this blog is merely my diary of moviegoing experiences. One that my children may one day stumble across and find amusing or fleetingly nostalgic. I don’t find out the film is missing until I later go to link it and realize…it’s not there. (Back in 2010, when I was working three jobs, I just gave up trying to keep up, and so even with far fewer movies in the queue, 2010 is full of holes.)
And so we come to Kung Fu Hustle, which we saw in February, and which I went to link to just now, only to find it missing.
And that cannot stand, man.
Kung Fu Hustle was Steven Chow’s follow-up to his amazing sports-fu comedy Shaolin Soccer, and it essentially perfects the ideas introduced in that film, enough to where you would think it could launch a genre, except it’s too hard an act to follow.
This is the story of a very bad tong that takes over Shanghai in the 1940s and finds itself in trouble when a couple of thug wannabes (Chow and his doughy sidekick) end up causing trouble in a little slum on the outskirts of town. The resultant escalation reveals a number of unexpected super-powered kung-fu masters with comic and tragic consequences.
This is a very broad film. Early on, you’ll see scenes that are literal reimaginings of Wile E Coyote chasing the roadrunner. Later on, there is comically extreme violence, as a man’s head is literally pounded into an ever deepening hole in the floor. (He’s okay, though!) Enlightenment leads to a state akin to that of a superhero—or, if you’re a child of the ’90s, Neo in the Matrix. In fact, Woo-Ping Yuen, one of the stunt coordinators on this film, served the same role for the Matrix trilogy.
It’s an odd experience, going from the absurd to the poetic in a matter of moments. In fact, it’s the very (objective) definition of “uneven”, which is usually a bad thing for a movie. But it all works, even when you think it shouldn’t, and for reasons I can’t really figure out.
There is a kind of fundamental truth underlying the proceedings. Our hero is, as a boy, someone with powerful heroic instincts that the world has taught him will get him nowhere, so he tries really hard to be a thug. But he’s no good at it. He can be an awful jerk and a bully, but he’s not really evil, and misery and misfortune follow him wherever he tries to take the path of villainy. This is a theme in Shaolin Soccer, as well, combined with a very pure sort of love story.
Comedy, action, romance, kung-fu, poetry…it really embodies the best elements of the chop-socky film. You could call it a “cult classic” but it was also very successful (for such a film), taking in over $17M in the US alone, and putting it at #10 on the top foreign film box office list. It may be too steeped in that Chinese cinematic tradition for some, but at the time I saw it in the theater, I had never sat through an entire Hong Kong action flick in my life, and I loved it.
Be excellent to each other, advises Bill S. Preston, Esq., to the puppy-dog-ish head-bobbing affirmation of his pal Ted “Theodore” Logan, in this epitome of late ’80s culture which was very well received at the time, but turned me off because it looked like stupid drug-humor celebrating the vulgarity of the era. And while it is dopey, it’s neither vulgar, nor does a single drug make an appearance. In fact, it’s so remarkably benign it’s hard to believe it came from 1989.
The premise is that none-too-bright Bill and Ted, while strategizing on their plan to be the most awesome band ever—which only peripherally includes acquiring instruments and learning to play them—are unable to grasp or retain anything being taught in history class. Their only way not to flunk is to come up with the best final history presentation, and as you might imagine, the boys aren’t real good at book learnin’.
Fortunately for them, the future (strictly of San Dimas, I think) depends on the two of them passing, lest they be split up by Ted’s strict father, who wants to send Ted to military school. The future sends an emissary (in the form of George Carlin), to make sure they succeed, rather improbably by lending them a time machine with which they can travel through history and bring actual historical figures to the present, to get their opinion of San Dimas in 1988.
They start with a trial run, fetching Napoleon and bringing him back. Since they need a lot more (apparently), they entrust the little dictator to the care of Ted’s (or maybe Bill’s) little brother. This allows cross-cutting of Bill and Ted’s hijinks in the past to contrast with Napoleon’s in the present. It also sets up the third act, when all the characters of history are running amuck at the San Dimas mall and water park—named “Waterloo”, naturally. (San Dimas has a famou water park called “Raging Waters” but all the actual water park shots were filmed in Arizona, sort of amusingly.)
As I mentioned, this is a dumb movie. Most of the jokes are pretty dumb. But it works. I can’t exactly explain it. One reason, I think, is that it stays out of the gutter. The most vulgarity we get is a nasty belch from Napoleon after he pigs out on ice cream. Napoleon also provides the primary swearing for the film, yelling out “Merde!” repeatedly after flubbing in bowling. There’s not a lot of historical accuracy here, obviously, but the screenwriters clearly decided that Napoleon was a dick. (There is one use of the word “dick” and, sort of shockingly, “fag”, by the way. I don’t remember the context, but it wasn’t anything about homosexuals.)
When Bill and Ted are trying to convince past Bill and Ted that they are them, as one does in a time travel movie, the answer to “Think of a number” is, of course, 69. There’s also a very modest down-blouse shot. Other than that, the only sexual part of the movie comes from Bill’s dad, who has married someone who seems to have been a classmate of Bill’s, a girl who really likes old guys. At one point, they kick Bill out of his own room so they can (presumably) have sex. Oh, and their secret number is 69, of course.
Meanwhile, Bill and Ted’s interaction with the distaff side, besides kidnapping Joan of Arc, is to rescue some princesses from unpleasant fianceés.
I don’t mention this to provide a catalogue for concerned parents: I’m just noting that, I didn’t go see it back then (in part) because I felt it would just be a big crude mess. This could actually be described as “corny”. Even sweet.
Having not seen this, I didn’t realize until now how closely this mirrors Wayne’s World. While not as loquacious Mike Meyer’s Wayne, Ted’s friendly puppy-dog-ish reactions to good and bad news could be considered direct rip-offs of Wayne. Of course, the way these things work, the movie could have been in development long before the firsrt “Wayne’s World” sketch aired, and Reeves may have never seen it before shooting. In any event, the future Neo nailed the part so well that he’d lament for years that “He played Ted” would be on his tombstone.
The Matrix, The Lake House and John Wick notwithstanding, this may be my favorite role of his. Alex Winter, who plays Bill, is also good, though he more-or-less vanishes from the movie scene after the cartoon series and sequel, and a few attempts to write and direct his own features. Although maybe “vanishes” is too strong a word: Maybe he just preferred to do his own thing and it just took years to get things done. He’s turned up as director for the Ben 10 cartoon series, and he’s behind the upcoming Frank Zappa documentary, which broke Kickstarter records and garnered the attention of “Mystery Science Theater 3000″‘s Joel Hodgson, who drew the attention of his record-breaking Kickstarter crowd toward the Zappa effort.
In any event, they’re actually talking about a sequel—a Bill and Ted 3—nearly 30 years later, and it’s a sequel I might actually see.
The Boy has a girlfriend, as noted in previous reviews, with whom he goes to see certain films that he discerns my lack of interest in, like The Force Awakens or Deadpool. Sing Street was one of those movies, surprisingly, since I hadn’t mentioned it one way or another. So, I guess he also just takes her to the movies because they want to go to the movies. I found myself by the theater with a couple of hours to kill, so I figured I’d check it out, too.
I was pretty much blind going in, and the first thing I noticed was that it starts with about half-a-dozen vanity plates, and I thought, “Jeez. This has as many production companies claiming credit as an Irish/French film.” Because European movies (and French and Irish films in particular) usually have a ridiculous number of financiers who insist on being seen at the front of the film. (Like the lottery commission or the official film board of the country.)
The next thing I noticed was that it was, in fact, Irish. The Boy had not mentioned that. The next thing I noticed was that it was a musical. (The Boy had mentioned that.) But the thing after that I noticed was that it was based in the ’80s—another detail The Boy did not see fit to mention. (The ’80s are kind of big around here. The kids like “The Regular Show” which is a very ’80s-oriented cartoon, and “Broforce”, which is a very ’80s-oriented computer game.)
It’s very ’80s.
It’s also very good. Although I wasn’t a big fan of ’80s music, I appreciated that the movie’s original songs were very ’80s sounding. (Contrast with the awful Dirty Dancing “big finale” which throws the movie out of 1960 and into 1987.)
The premise is cute enough: An Irish lad from a breaking home gets transferred out of his tony school into a much worse school in a tough area. He’s taken with a local cutie from the girls’ home nearby and convinces her to star in a video his band is making.
Now, all he has to do is form a band. And write some original songs. And figure out how to make a video.
Really good characterization, and performances by Aiden Gillen (“Game of Thrones”, my 2014 movie-of-the-year Calvary) and Maria Doyle Kennedy (“Downton Abbey”, Albert Nobbs) as the feuding parents, newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peero as the sensitive-but-not-too-nerdy-to-be-believable boy wooing the gorgeous girl (Lucy Boynton, Miss Potter and the 2008 “Sense and Sensibility”), and especially Jack Reynor (Macbeth) as the loser-but-wiser older brother who guides his little brother along to…well, potential success, anyway.
Writer-director Jack Reynor also wrote and directed the well-received musicals Once and Begin Again, and he could probably go his whole life doing nothing but writing love stories centered around musicians without me objecting. He seems to have a real knack for blending good songs into the storyline in such a way that they act as characterization or even, as in the prom in this case, plot points.
The Boy has no particular affinity for this type of film (except insofar as he likes good movies, as he says) but he really enjoyed it and recommended it. So take that as a very hearty recommendation indeed.
There is a saying that, if you can’t make up your mind, flip a coin. While the coin is up in the air, you’ll find yourself rooting for a particular outcome, and thus will know what you really want. The Boy has adopted this philosophy to a 20-sided die he carries around (because you don’t always have a coin) and he has applied it successfully to several difficult movie choices. So, a few weeks earlier, when this movie South32 (no space between “South” and “32”, at least some of the time), the Die of Fate had decided we should go see it. And it wasn’t easy. Things kept coming up. (Traffic, for example, ended up routing us to Remember, which led to us seeing First Monday In May.) Fortunately, the movie was playing all day for at least two weeks—which is a fairly long run for a film that none of us had ever heard of, starring nobody we knew, with no reviews anywhere, and still marked as “in production” on IMDB. (It’s still listed as “in production” on IMDB!)
Sometimes, of course, there are “Academy screenings”, used to make a film eligible for a particular year’s Oscars. But those are usually once-a-day shows, sometimes for a single day, but never more than a week. Sometimes, there are vanity showings. Arena of the Street Fighter, perhaps, was screened because somebody paid the Laemmle for one Sunday morning show. Or, I suspect, Scream At The Devil, which got a few days of one or two night shows. (Scream at the Devil makes a good contrast with South32, as I’ll elaborate on in a bit.)
What I’m getting at, though, is that I have no explanation for South32, except that it was perhaps a vanity showing from a very rich (or very indulged) person. The movie indicates that it’s a movie about bullying, which was definitely part of the reason we saw it. (We love bullying!)
The story is this: Delilah nervously arrives at a Malibu home, where three former classmates want to apologize for how they treated her sister. Apparently, they bullied her into suicide. Delilah sees through them as, apparently what they’re really concerned with is that she’s trashed them on Facebook, and this has had a negative impact on their lives. But, in the course of their discussion, it becomes apparent that they’ve drugged Delilah—who’s apparently a moron, having accepted their offer of a drink—fade to black. But when the scene fades in again, the three of them have been brutally murdered, and Delilah remembers none of it.
In those first moments of optimism, especially going in to a movie more-or-less blind, there’s a sense of, “Well, this could go any number of ways.” It could be a mystery, or a slasher, or a ghost story…well, it’s probably not a romcom, right? I mean, the detective seems unreasonably attracted to the…
OH, MY GOD! IT’S AN EROTIC THRILLER!
Now, if you weren’t going to the movies (or watching them on cable) about 20-30 years ago, you may not be familiar with the erotic thriller. It is a genre with its roots in film noir and hard-boiled detective stories that really kicked into high gear with the success of Fatal Attraction and Basic Instinct. It was a genre that took the thriller genre and added enough sex to be titillating in a pre-Internet world without the embarrassment of having to rent actual porn when you went to the video store. (Remember those?)
It was huge. It made Shannon Tweed the video queen. (For several years, an erotic thriller starring Tweed was like printing money. She was the #1 draw.) It was a draw for soap stars and, I suspect, actresses who wanted a turn as the femme fatale. (Basic Instinct made Sharon Stone a star.) Shari Shattuck (of Scream at the Devil) was the femme fatale in the third of the Body Chemistry series, for example.
It also was beaten to death. After all, you don’t need much more to make an erotic thriller than you do a porno. And so, many filmmakers made them with exactly that level of care, which is to say “none at all”. And even in their best cases, like Basic Instinct, they’re really not very good films. They generally make slasher films look like deep character studies by comparison, because at least in a slasher pic, the motivations (don’t get slashed!) are clear and understandable.
But in the erotic thriller, the detective investigating a murderer has to fall for the suspect (and this is the predominant trope over Fatal Attraction‘s someone-has-an-affair-with-a-crazy-woman) hard enough to set aside not just his common sense, but his will to live. And, often, to sell this, the movie has to try to convince the audience that She’s Not The Real Killer.
But She’s Always The Real Killer.
So, all of the things we see Her do when no one’s around make no sense. They exist solely to convince the audience that she’s not the killer.
I’m talking about erotic thrillers generally and not South32 in particular because there’s no reason to talk about South32 in particular. It’s just like one of those movies from 25 years ago, except that it’s poorly lit, poorly edited and the actors are from the few remaining soap operas that weren’t canceled when most were a few years ago.
Oh, and there’s not much sex in it. Yes, it’s an erotic thriller without the sex.
No, that’s not fair: There is sex in it, but it’s pretty tame. One of the things the ET genre did was exploit non-romcom sex. It wasn’t all missionary with mellow music. (And, in movies, the sweetness of the sex reflects the trueness of the love. Ever notice that? The “nice couple” never gets really down-and-dirty when they’re alone.)
But I guess it’s okay: If you really want to see sex, there are other ways, I’ve heard. The sex that’s here—the big scene between (“Days of our Lives”) Melissa Archer and Sean Kanan (“The Bold and the Beautiful”)—has both fully clothed quite apart from being completely unjustified in terms of observable attraction between the two. Poor Jessica Cameron supplies the other scenes, and the nudity, as she lies naked on the floor (dead) for quite some time.
The harsh lighting tends to make the actresses look fat. And everyone look old.
Another element of the erotic thriller, much like a “classic” episode of “Scooby Doo”, is the red herring. There’s one here. It exists solely for the purpose of being a red herring, though. (The trick in a good mystery is have the red herring be relevant to the story, not just something thrown in to distract the viewer, who isn’t going to be fooled.)
But that’s kind of emblematic of the whole film: The most interesting aspects of it are when it pretends to be something it’s not (but could’ve been). Except for the anti-bullying thing. That…well, that aspect of the story is really sad. I don’t mean “it makes you feel sad”. I mean, “you feel sad that anyone thought this was sufficiently convincing as a bullying scenario”. The deceased sister is tormented by a sorority. Tormented how? They give her ipecac as part of initiation.
“I threw up in front of everyone!”
Welcome to college, babe. There’s a stupid follow-up to this, but it’s really, really stupid. And even then, there’s no movie justification for the suicide. That is, you could see how someone might be driven to suicide, but we are shown nothing to back it up.
The acting was probably fine. It’s so hard to tell when the editing and writing is this random. I think the cast is pretty good looking, too, just not here. (We’re a far cry from Tweed and Shattuck.) And there were some good ideas that were toyed with, and apparently thrown out. It’s one of those movies that flaunts its low budget.
Which is why it makes a good contrast to Scream at the Devil. Far from a perfect film, it’s low budget done with extreme enthusiasm. You get the sense people cared at every step of the way. This movie feels like either they couldn’t decide what wanted, or they just gave up.
I asked the Boy if the Die of Fate had failed us, and he said no, because the film gave him a chance to analyze what makes a movie good and bad. But it’s probably the worst thing we’ve seen this year. Then again, they say the worst movies make for the best reviews, so…
I was almost entirely uninterested in seeing the new Star Wars movie. To be honest, my interest in the space opera began in 1980 when I saw The Empire Strikes Back—which won me over after my initial tepid reaction to the ’77 movie—and ended in 1983, when I saw Return of the Jedi. I did see the sequels (the Boy—who was 5-10 years old—was modestly interested in them), which I thought (I guess unlike most people) got progressively worse.
I had some vague hope that the second trilogy was so awful, we’d never see another Star Wars film, and it’s been a pretty blissful ten years, I gotta say. When J.J. Abrams was announced as the director, I figured that, like the Star Trek movies, the new Star Wars film would be pleasant (in the manner of a summer “blockbuster”) and utterly forgettable.
And that’s pretty much right. The Boy argued that it was enjoyable if you didn’t go in with a chip on your shoulder, which I didn’t. And the movie is enjoyable if you aggressively ignore all the stupid—I mean, like ’50s level low-budget space opera stupid—and/or you really need this to be a good movie. I think the latter explains the 90%ish Rotten Tomatoes score.
I mean, yeah, go ahead and enjoy it. But it’s not a good movie at all. It’s a professionally made muddle that’s so desperate to recapitulate stuff done (often poorly) in the original movies that it destroys all cohesiveness.
Think I’m kidding?
The movie takes 30 years after the Empire is defeated, but it’s still able to field a giant army and an Even Bigger Death Star. I guess being defeated by a bunch of stone age teddy bears didn’t hurt their tax base at all. Maybe Princess Leia was wrong about star systems slipping through their fingers in the first movie.
Years of training to be a pilot? Nah, our heroes Finn and Poe (Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis) outmaneuver the Empire with ease, never having flown a tie fighter before.
Years of training to be a Jedi? Nah. Rey (Daisy Ridley, Only Yesterday) can do just about everything without so much as a by-your-leave from a Jedi master.
In this movie, stormtroopers are not clones, but men taken at birth to be turned into soulless servants of the state. Think Kurt Russell in Soldier. Only, unlike the completely at-sea, emotionally repressed Russell character, except that John Boyega (the stormtrooper) is pretty much groovy after his defection. Which, I guess explains why he walked away so easily in the first place. Bad brainwashing skills from the empire.
And on and on it goes, compounded with Abrams’ continuing and apparently complete lack of understanding of the vastness of space. A weapon from solar system A is launched at the star in solar system B, and the effects are seen instantly. There’s no space-level scale that allows this to work. If the two systems are close enough to affect each other instantly, it’s close enough to be destroyed by its neighbor’s destruction.
The desire for immediacy—an obvious lack of faith in the power of suspense over spectacle—results in a very small feeling movie. In fact, the movies have been contracting since the first two, which at least had a semblance of mystery to suggest a much larger network of things behind them. Now we’ve seen it all, and none of it is very interesting.
Which is a shame, really, because a lot of good things had been done with the Star Wars property. I understand some of the novels are good, and develop the characters’ backstories quite well. Some of the games based around the universe really fleshed things out nicely. (Knights of the Old Republic developed a rich backstory that would’ve served better than the prequels that were actually made.) But Lucas, even more than Roddenberry, seems to have completely absorbed the notion that HE had created “Star Wars”—something that was never true, given the vast contributions of other writers, producers and the actors who (like Harrison Ford) came up with the best lines.
And the contributions of the fans, which are the sole thing that powers phenomena such as this.
Well, what the hell. It made him billions. And he earned those billions. Gotta be tough to keep perspective when you’re that ridiculously successful.
And this movie is–well, it’s not the sheer torture of the prequels. If you don’t care, or if you really care a whole lot about “Star Wars”, you can have a good time. But it’s just a shadow of its former self.
The last of the Laemmle’s “April Fools” films was the most recent and also probably the weakest: Ben Stiller’s Zoolander. (The previous films were The Jerk (1979), Raising Arizona and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.) Stiller directed, starred in, and co-wrote this movie about a dumb but affable male model who becomes the lynchpin in a plan to assassinate the Malaysian Prime Minister.
The original cut was 90 minutes, but this showing ran at least 15 minutes longer, and contained a lot more expository material which made things a bit more “logical” but also (it seemed to me) a bit less tight and funny. I can’t find any evidence of an “extended cut” (although there’s a lot of deleted material out there) so it’s possible I’m wrong about this and it just felt longer this time.
One of the things that I think was expanded was Will Ferrell’s “brainwashing” video, where he explains that bad people want to keep children in third world countries from having jobs. It’s a funny bit. It’s a little less funny when you realize that, without their jobs, children in those countries tend to be sold into sex slavery, but why let facts get in the way of a good gag/political message, right?
This, probably, is part of the reason Zoolander ages less well than the others: It has a message.
Owen Wilson is sort of a weak point, too. Not because he’s not enjoyable to watch, but because he’s the same character in every film. Even that’s not a problem per se—Wilson’s laid back, super groovy modern dude is a fun part of Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Noon and it almost saves Midnight In Paris. But while it’s a kind of spacey archetype, it’s not really a dumb one, which makes some of the “dumb gags” he has to do seem incongruous. (“The files are in the computer!”)
Nonetheless, it’s still funny. Will Ferrell is actually the straight man, here, and he’s pretty good at it. I miss him being funny.
The kids liked it. Not sure it’ll hold up another 20 years, though.
We were headed out to see South32, of all things, but realized we couldn’t make it to the theater on time. So we went to the closer theater to see Remember (or The Last Nazi Picture Show as I call it) and it was sold out! In the middle of the day! After having been out for over a month! So, we both had to see Remember at the next opportunity and figure out what to see that day, standing out there in front of the box office.
In other words, I had no intention of seeing The First Monday In May, a documentary about the travails of putting on a Big Fashion Exhibit at the Metropolitan—said preparations culminating in the famous Met Gala, which is sort of the ultimate cool-kids-lunch-table-in-the-cafeteria event, despite the glowing reviews. Because, honestly, it’s practically the epitome of things about-which-I-do-not-care. Even the potential for the draw of feminine pulchritude is greatly diminished because fashion models tend toward the repellant (and I’m not the target audience anyway).
But the first thing the movie cleared up for me was the whole concept of fashion shows. If, like me, your exposure to fashion shows is periodically seeing “news” stories trumpeting the most bizarre fashions exhibited on the catwalk, you just sort of shrug and think, “Well, that’s stupid. Nobody’s going to wear that.”
Which is obvious, if you think about it for even a second. So it makes sense that these shows aren’t about “clothes you wear” but a person who makes clothes attempting to make an artistic statement. Which, by the way, turns the prime joke in Zoolander—a line of clothing designed after homeless people, “Derelicte”—in on itself. That’s exactly the sort of thing a designer might do, but it would be to draw attention to the plight of the homeless, or somesuch. But I’d never thought about it because, again: Don’t care.
However, I do like stories of artistic struggle, and that’s ultimately what this is about. Our protagonist in this journey is Andrew Bolton, whom I swear turned up in the the last fashion movie we saw (which was Dior and I, and it’s not linked because apparently I forgot to review it) along with a lot of the other luminaries here (and why wouldn’t they?). Bolton’s issue is this: His first show was a huge smash with edgy fashion by a recently deceased (suicide) designer. All of his subsequent shows have been greeted with “Well, it’s good, but it’s no…”
A common artistic problem, all the more aggravated by the fact that Bolton isn’t some guy working out of his garage. He works at the Met. He’s got bosses. He’s got money men. He’s got people with opinions. Like, everyone has a damned opinion!
And the number one opinion, boiled down, seems to be something like: “Hey, don’t overdo it.”
Heh. It’s impossible for me not to empathize with the guy. My favorite variant of this comes from Chinese film director Wong Kar-Wai (who directed the confusing 2046, as well as Grandmaster, but who is here because of his early work on Days of Being Wild) who counsels (paraphrased) “Don’t show too much. Because seeing too much is like seeing nothing.”
How very true and very Chinese. And how very squashing to the guy who wants to GO BIG.
Anyway, the theme of the exhibit is China, and how The West has interpreted China over the past 100 years or so. And there’s a certain amusement for this viewer in watching the wheels of political correctness spin so hard as to potentially come off and decapitate the audience (which probably wasn’t using that body part much anyway). Anna May Wong, inevitably, emerges as a central character in the exhibit, epitomizing as she did the American notion of the exotic Orient.
And while much clucking of tongue is done at her presumed horrid treatment by Hollywood (unlike the many caucasian actors starring in Chinese cinema 100 years ago, or today, even) one fashion designer confesses up front that he has no desire to see the authentic Chinese garb. He wants the stereotype and the dream and the glamor, and that’s what he’s going to run with.
And why not? Real Chinese clothes are going to be pretty awful, as most people’s clothes have been over the eons. Why wouldn’t you take an impression, an idea, a dream, and run with that? It’s culturally insensitive or something? It’s “appropriation”? Of course, that’s all nonsense, but it’s a nonsense generally subscribed to and promoted by the sorts of people who are in and around this industry. (What is PC, after all, but the ultimate fashion statement?)
Then there’s the whole Mao thing. There’s little uglier than Communist clothes, but they get a little pocket, just outside the room with all the Buddhas. Bolton wanted to put them in the room with the Buddha, bot Wong suggests that doing so would offend both the Buddhists and the Communists. It was one point where I felt Bolton was gratuitously trying for controversy, and I really thought he should’ve had the Mao pocket filled with skulls instead. That’d be sufficiently provocative and both literally and metaphorically true in terms of fashion and actual corpses generated.
But—and this to me was the oddest thing—he actually flew to Peking (I’m not calling it “Beijing”, not ever) to get the seal of approval from whatever functionaries the totalitarian government has there to approve, I guess, foreign representations of Chinese culture. And her (the bureaucrat’s) feedback was just as banal as you’d expect: You’re looking to the past, what about China’s wonderful present and future.
The other fascinating thing was the actual gala itself, which Anna Wintour (She Who Wears Prada) puts on. There’s a little bit of time spent on her, which is probably off point, but I didn’t mind. She’s an interesting character. And, much like when I hear Paul Anka ranting, it makes me think “Well, I was never interested in her before…” I mean, seriously: You don’t throw a party for the most in-demand people in the world and raise tens of millions of dollars by being “nice”.
And she is good at it. She cuts down the size, lamenting the 600 or more at the previous gala. The people seem only to be useful for their status. Justin Bieber wanders around in his clueless way, for example. There’s probably too much of him. I mean, in the movie. (And life imitates art.)
Rihanna performs and, as The Boy commented, “the aristocracy is weird”. They are. They’re dressed in finery and surrounded by opulence, and the music they “dance” to is gutter stuff. It’s weirdly discordant. This isn’t meant as a comment on Rihanna’s music per se because, honestly, I don’t remember it much at all, except that it didn’t strike me as, you know, music. And it was followed on the soundtrack with Nat King Cole’s rendition of “Stardust”, which is so much more fitting of the tone of the exhibit and the whole movie that the “aristocracy” not only looks weird, they look degenerate.
A fascinating film on a lot of levels. And the final product, by Bolton, is truly a work of art.
Summing up on the three-point scale:
1. Subject matter. Superficially, rich people doing rich things, which isn’t super interesting. More centrally, though, about an artist’s struggle to create something big.
2. Treatment. Very professional. A few digressions (as with the Wintour stuff) don’t really detract from the proceedings, which is a neat trick. It’s only about 90 minutes, and only the very end seems a little dragged out.
3. Bias. Who knows? Did Wintour look more sympathetic than she should have? Is Bolton just self-indulgent? I don’t think so. And since both are pretty damn successful at what they do—and what they do brings dollars in to the museum—I’m going to say not.
We had to go see Remember the next day (after The First Monday In May) because, despite it being a pretty packed house for every show, it was going to close that week. The reviews were positive but far from unanimous (71% critic, 78% audience on Rotten Tomatoes), but the longer it hung around the more interesting it got to me. I was jokingly referring to it as “The Last Nazi Picture Show” because we are at the point where the youngest Nazis are in their ’90s, and hunting them becomes a sadder exercise than one generally wishes to see in a film.
But then I realized all the principles are actually already too young to have played significant roles in WWII, with Christopher Plummer and Martin Landau being teens (but under 18) by the war’s end, and the rest of the (older) cast being born during the war.
So I guess we can keep on making Nazi Movie Magic.
Anyway, this film is, believe it or not, a thriller. Obviously, it’s a drama as well, but while some found it depressing, I felt it really drove home the entertainment aspects of the story and didn’t get bogged down in the message. (Which, I guess, would be something like “Nazis are bad. I mean, like, really bad. You may think your boss sucks, but that’s just peanuts compared to Nazis.”)
The story is this: Christopher Plummer plays Zev. He lives in a home, and wakes up every morning wondering where his wife is. His wife has recently died, as he must be reminded, and he is done sitting shiva, finally. That’s when nursing home pal Max (Martin Landau) reminds him that they made a deal. You see, Zev and Max’s families were killed in the camps during World War II, and one of the camp guards by the name of Rudy Kurlander snuck into America on the basis of (apparently) “No, I wasn’t a Nazi. That was some other Rudy Kurlander.”
Honestly, I don’t think we had great records of who did what to whom. The Germans did a good job of destroying that stuff.
Max is too crippled to go himself, but he’s mapped out all four Rudy Kurlanders in America and Canada who might conceivably be the guy they want to exact their revenge on. And thus we go on a sort of road trip as nonagenarian, senile Zev goes out to murder a guy who wronged him 70 years ago. Only instead of buddying up with new folks he meets, he murders them. Sort of like a Jewish Terminator.
Actually, there’s not that much violence, especially for a revenge picture.
Which means, when there is, it tends to be very shocking.
As we’ve seen in recent years, there aren’t a lot of 80-something actors who can carry movies, but Christopher Plummer is one of them. The Man In The Chair—well, I guess he was still in his ’70s back then, and he had probably just turned 80 in Beginners, but he actually carries those films less than this one, where he is on screen in (I think) every scene. (Martin Landau literally but not metaphorically phones in his performance, as he mostly guides Plummer’s character from the assisted living home.)
Lotta twists and turns. Lotta old, senile guys buying deadly weapons. (OK, only one old, senile guy buying one gun, but it seems like a lot.) Some Canada-Fu.
This is one of those movies where, when they get to the final scene, I thought, “How are they going to get out of this one?” Seeing an old man murder another old man for crimes committed 70 years ago strikes me as a bitter thing. But can he just let the guy go? I mean, I was prepared to like the movie almost regardless of what happened at the end, because it had been a good ride—and serious props to director Atom Egoyan, who was kind of a critic’s darling in the ’90s but less luminous in the ’00s, and freshman screenwriter Benjamin August for pulling it off.
The ending—it makes a lot of sense. Though it raises a lot of questions as well. Neither The Boy or I saw it coming. Because even as it is supported by the rest of the movie, it’s also sort of preposterous, or seems to be, at least on a literal level. As a metaphor and as art, it works perfectly.
We’d rank it among the best movies of the year so far.
“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody.”
The funny thing about that iconic monologue is how wonderfully well delivered and, in fact, how understatedly Brando delivers it. You’d think—or at least I had thought—that it was on a par with “STELLA!!” delivered with torn shirt and long-smoldering passion erupting to the surface. But it’s not: It’s just the realization of a man who suddenly sees how much his “friends” have asked of him, and how much he lost by doing what they said.
Which makes it the perfect cri de couer for Elia Kazan, who would be more or less buried by the time I started going to the movies due to his cooperation with the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, which we all know is the most shameful thing to ever happen in any government ever. Worse than Hitler. Way worse than Stalin or Mao, who (we can all agree) meant well.
But it’s fair to point out—necessary, even, to point out—that, while anyone might be seduced by the notion of “helping out workers”, as unions and leftists always claim as their motives, anyone should also be able to recognize when that ship has sailed and the organization has long stopped serving anything but itself. Corruption being what it is, of course, we see nothing, and we take down those who insist that 2 + 2 really is four, no matter how much we want to use a given bathroom.
Am I diffuse? Very well, then, I am diffuse. I contain multitudes, spread very thinly.
Politics aside, it’s a great story, brilliantly acted. Brando, yes, obviously. Lee J. Cobb, the heavy of all heavies. Karl Malden as the sanctimonious priest who actually gets off his ass and down to the docks. Beautiful performance from Rod Steiger, whom I didn’t recognize because I only knew him as the old guy from the ’70s—and he wasn’t even that old back then, only in his ’50s, but he seemed to play old (rather than middle-aged) roles, like Max Von Sydow and Abe Vigoda. He really holds his own with Brando. Eva Marie Saint probably epitomizing the good girl/bad boy dynamic that fueled the whole Brando phenomenon.
Excellence all around. The direction and cinematography is clean and unsentimental, without wandering into being cold or unsympathetic. Leonard Bernstein’s score is rather insistent but occasionally it’s brilliant. (It lost the Oscar to Dmitri Tiomkin’s score for The High and the Mighty, which I haven’t heard, but if you’re going to lose a music Oscar, losing to Tiomkin is hardly losing at all.)
I have never seen a Kazan movie prior to this. (Although I walked out on East of Eden as a teen. It was on a double bill with Rebel Without A Cause and since I had just read the book, I really didn’t want to see it shoehorned into James Dean’s “rebel” schtick. I might be able to watch it now.) It’s worth a look, even if you’re not really interested in unions, or the struggles of the masses, or what-have-you. I think I know why, too, beyond the obvious matters of craft.
When we are lectured today, as we often are, about the plight of the poor, and of the working class, it is by someone who not only isn’t part of this group, they’ve never been part of this group, and in fact they seek to elevate themselves above the rest of us—including those they claim to represent—by virtue of their putative virtue. Even if Kazan (whose parents fled the Ottoman Empire when he was quite young) and screenwriter Budd Schulberg didn’t have impoverished upbringings, the last thing you get from either is that they feel a distance between themselves and the “lower classes”.
Schulberg also had the same disillusionment with Communism as Kazan, including an outspoken resentment that nobody talked about all the people Stalin killed.
It’s heartfelt. And it has some basis in reality. And that comes out on-screen. Check it out.