Fences

This would be the last film we would see in 2016, and I was really, really on the fence (ha!) about it. (We were actually planning to see Manchester by the Sea first, but it was sold out!) The trailers make it look like fairly typical, grim, end-of-year Oscar-bait. And in fairness, it is. But in more fairness, it’s a lot more than that.

Good stories told in bad chairs.
Like…sitting! There’s a lot of sitting!

Denzel Washington directs himself as the primary force, Troy Maxson, in August Wilson’s play Fences. This movie never shakes off its stage roots, which isn’t something that bugs us, but which some have criticized it for. One reviewer has said that the cinematic form isn’t exploited, and only serves to weaken the intensity of the original play, to which I say: Fine, it was plenty intense.

Troy is a garbage man, who rides with his pal on the back of the truck in 1956. He’s got some stress because he raised hell that black men weren’t allowed to drive the truck, only to haul the garbage.  Troy’s got a bit of an issue on this subject, feeling robbed of a glorious sports career because coloreds weren’t allowed to play the majors back in the…I think it was the ’30s. But the beauty of this film is that it doesn’t let the characters rest on the (brutally unfair) treatment they got in a truly structurally unequal society. They are the architects of their own destiny for good and ill, and there’s no rest for the viewer who wants a simplifcation.

Greedy.
“No, I won’t share my Oscars with you, woman!” “But you have two!”

One is entirely inclined to side with Maxson, as a likable, larger-than-life character—at least at first. But he’s not great with his sons. But then, he’s a pretty stand-up guy in a lot of ways. But in a lot of ways, he’s not. And it goes on-and-on like this, down to a backstory that’s just brutal (though not atypical for many turn-of-the-century poor kids).

The Boy, who was gung ho about this on the way out said, “That was some [expletive deleted] acting!” And he’s right. This is an actor’s movie and it’s chock full of acting from end-to-end. Washington and Viola Davis make you feel for these characters to where they vanish as stars and become truly three-dimensional. When Denzel gives his heart-breaking speech—he’s done wrong, he’s gonna keep doing wrong because it’s all he’s got—it’ll rip your heart out. But Viola counters with her own speech that reverberates twice as hard, because wrong is wrong, no matter the circumstances.

The two of them carry the film, by-and-large, but not because the supporting actors are not also great. Stephen Henderson is Maxson’s wiser-than-he-might-seem co-worker. Russell Hornsby is the older son, a seemingly shiftless musician, while Jovan Adepo is the younger son. Both look for approval from Maxson, who’s got none to give. Saniyya Sidney is the picture of innocence and forgiveness. And if Mykelti Williamson’s performance doesn’t rip your guts out, we can’t be friends.

Guts. Out.
Hornsby and Williamson.

My only sense of the story’s weakness is that it doesn’t have what would traditionally be considered a main character. It’s clearly Maxson, in terms of screen time and struggle, but he never actually changes at any point. Ever. His character (realistically enough, mind you) doesn’t even admit he’s wrong, no matter how wrong he is. It could’ve been Cory (Adepo), the younger son whose final confrontation with Maxson should be the turning point for him as a character, but it’s not really—whether or not he sees the wisdom in his older brother’s final words is pretty up in the air.

But, no point in being slave to a formula. This movie delivers real and sympathetic characters and tons of unabashed drama in a way I don’t expect to be equaled this award season. If some serious statuettes aren’t handed out to this near masterpiece, I’ll begin to suspect the whole thing is, as we say in the closing days of 2016, “rigged”.

Intension.
An especially tense moment amid 2-and-a-half hours of tension.

Die Hard

TNow I have a machine gun: Ho. Ho. Ho.

Ho. Ho. Ho.
Alan Rickman reading this is what makes it work.

Setting aside the issue of whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie, much less the best Christmas movie ever, it’s almost indisputably the best of the ’80s action films, edging out classics like Lethal Weapon, or anything with Stallone or Schwarzenegger. (To de-controversialize this, I’ll say it’s the best “Buddy Cop” movie of the ’80s, since one could quibble over Aliens or perhaps First Blood.) It is also one of the slickest movies ever made, and epitomizes the ’80s in a way no other movie does, except perhaps its sassy sister flick, Working Girl.

The hair is large. The cocaine plentiful. Rich douchebags, incompetent law enforcement, and unscrupulous media personalities nearly get everyone killed. No one will listen to the man (or woman) doing the actual work. Good and evil are plainly delineated, and violence is the answer to virtually every problem.

Or boobie, if you prefer.
Hans! Bubbeh!

The Flower contends that not only is this the best Christmas movie, it’s the Best Movie. (Although she may have been exaggerating for effect.) The Boy (and his girl) liked it, though they both had seen it before. I probably liked it more than I did in the ’80s, when we were driving by the Nakatomi building on our way to school.

The Boy remarked on how much love went into the proceedings, and he is truly correct there. Not a scene passes that doesn’t develop character, provide exciting action or suspense, advance the plot, or just generally ramp up the sense of peril. Classic touches include things like:

  • the vacuous anchorman who says “As in Helsinki, Sweden”
  • actually that whole running dialogue between the guy hawking the book and the news woman talking about how the hostages were growing to love their captors is priceless
  • Asian terrorist’s love of Nestle Crunch and Mars bars
  • Alan Rickman’s awful American accent
  • Alan Rickman’s everything
  • Michael Kamen’s glorious score which, of course, references Beethoven’s 9th, but also a minor key “Winter Wonderland” as a theme.
  • McClane’s clearly hetero affection for the pinup girls on the construction walls
  • Bonnie Bedelia, who tears up the screen for the few scenes she’s in
  • “This is agent Johnson. No the other one.”
  • Reginald VelJohnson reciting the ingredients of Twinkies
  • The Rolex Ellis wants to embarrass John with is the very one he unstraps to send Rickman to his death (I never noticed this before)
  • Alan Rickman

And on and on. The thing that makes the whole movie work in a way that most action films did not, at the time (and probably still today), is that McClane isn’t really an action hero. He becomes one over the course of the movie, naturally, but he’s really just a regular guy (plus a cop). He doesn’t really know what he’s doing. And he does some really dumb and improbable things out of desperation, which makes him less cool—I think Schwarzenegger turned the role down because he saw McClane as a wimp—but infinitely more relatable.

Crunch bars are good, too.
Mars bars appeal to the child inside every terrorist. And vice-versa.

Much like the troubled relationship he has with his wife makes him somehow more relatable than, say, a Liam Neeson finding his daughter or a Stallone rescuing a perfect wife or new girlfriend. Also, there’s something wonderful about the sense that John and Holly are going to make it work because this little episode in their life has given them a new perspective on what’s important. (This is one reason the sequels suck.)

Also, Alan Rickman. He sets the stage for all the awesome villains to come, leading to the classic, horrible ending of Under Siege, where the not-nearly-charimsatic-enough Steven Seagall kills the far superior Tommy Lee Jones.

A few things rankle. I still find the “TV dinner” line too close to the “Come out to the coast. Have a few laughs.” line. And VelJohnson’s “Call it a hunch” speech seems a little too forced. But these are quibbles. There’s a reason this film launched its own genre and for the next few years nearly every action film was “Die Hard on a Plane” (Passenger 57) or “Die Hard on a Boat” (Under Siege) or Die Hard in an Office Building (Hard To Die…wait, what?). They were everywhere, and the basic formula still acts as a template today.

To say nothing of the lasting impact on how we celebrate Christmas.

Ho. Ho. Ho.

Perfect for warmth and self-defense.
Now available in sweater form.

Rifftrax Holiday Special Double Feature: Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, Selected Shorts

They call him S-A-N-T-A! C-L-A-U-S! Hooray for Santy Claus!

It is common for B-movies to pad out their length in some scurrilous fashion, such as by adding confusing and/or irrelevant stock footage, or a dreary montage to a not-quite pop song, but Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is perhaps the only one that envisions kids sitting in a theater (or around a TV) singing the theme song for about 20 minutes after the movie is over. And, yes, I know at least one kid who did that—not me!—in those entertainment starved times of the ’70s, so they were perhaps not entirely wrong in a practical sense, even if they were 100% wrong in an aesthetic and, verily, even in a moral sense.

Aw, it's not that bad. Well, it is that bad but it's endearingly bad.
Pictured: People with no moral compass.

Heh. Nah. It’s a cute film. It has been riffed many times that I know of: First on the original “Mystery Science Theater 3000” TV show, then by “Rifftrax”, then by “Cinematic Titanic” and now, again, by “Rifftrax”. It was part of the “Rifftrax Holiday Special Double Feature” which clocked in at nearly four hours, which is a lot of riffing, even for the riffiest fans. In fact, after “Santy”, I sort of left it open for us to leave the theater after any of the shorts, but we were not actually inclined to leave. That’s pretty impressive.

That said, the original MST3K riffing has never been equaled in terms of outright laughs. We watched again a couple weeks after this to see if it would hold up, and it did. Besides a good heaping helping of “lentils” jokes, the show features some of the best sketches that show ever had, including the unforgettable “Patrick Swayze Christmas” (written by our very own Michael J. Nelson, and performed by Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and Kevin J. Murphy). This version doesn’t live up to the sublime riffing Mike, Bill and Kevin did on Santa Claus, and the few sketches, while funny, have a sort of awkward feel to them.

Fleischer's cartoons are underrated.
Like Santa explaining why he has his reindeer sleep in beds.

Still, it’s darn good. Four hours good, right?

The highlights included: old TV toy commercials, for such not-quite-classic toys as Jimmy Jet, Gaylord and Dingalings; “Parade of Aquatic Champions” which was some sort of post-war short where celebrities (including Joan Leslie and Buster Crabbe!) hold a swimming exhibition in Beverly Hills, because apparently you can do that on Christmas in Beverly Hills (you really can’t, you’d never schedule such a thing, and only a passing reference is made to “winter” or “Christmas” at the beginning of the short); guest riffer “Weird” Al Yankovic; and a good Max Fleischer “Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer” cartoon that, nonetheless, is ripe for the riff.

And the boys.
Pictured: Tiny Al Yankovic

All this stuff’s available on the Rifftrax site, so if you like riffing, you can (and should) check it out!

The Handmaiden (2016)

Nothing says “Christmas Eve” like some rather explicit Korean lesbian eroticism, apparently, and so The Boy and I trundled down to Santa Monica to see The Handmaiden, the latest from Chan-wook Park, director of Oldboy and producer of Snowpiercer. One of Mr. Park’s other films is I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK, and  I think you can probably infer from this what sort of films he makes. That is: Balls out, unapologetic, I-do-what-I-want films.

And that’s okay.

Heh.
It’s nearly explicit enough to make it on Talking Points Memo!

The Boy and I had been wanting to see this for a while but it was not playing at any convenient times or places, and the relative lack of traffic on Christmas Eve made it possible for us to catch an evening show, down in the People’s Republic of Santa Monica, where I heard words that have possibly never otherwise been spoken: “One for Miss Sloane, please.” Heh.

This movie has a great opening scene that is immediately flipped on its head when Part One proper begins. Part One ends on a twist and Part Two fleshes that twist out in believable, but sort of chilling way. Part Three, having all the strings strung out, ties everything together in a way that makes sense and gives a satisfying conclusion.

I can't even.
Speaking of strings.

I don’t want to reveal too much, because it is a fine film, artfully done and fun. I will say that it is, essentially, a caper film, taking place in ’30s Korea and Japan, whilst the Japanese were oppressing everyone in sight. The central element of the caper requires that Lady Hideko be seduced, and this involves both the titular handmaiden Sook-Hee and the scurrilous Count. The Lady has been raised by her perverse uncle from childhood to ultimately become his wife so that he can inherit her fortune. The Count has other ideas.

The perversion and seduction “requires” some fairly explicit sexual elements. Lady Hideko has also been raised by Uncle to conduct readings of erotica in front of a bunch of creepy Asian dudes. (Well, of course they’d be Asian. Come to think of it, they’re probably all supposed to be Japanese, because the Koreans haven’t ever really forgiven the Japanese for their atrocities.) Uncle has an impressive porn collection, basically.

Not a lot of male role models in this film.
The Count’s not exactly a gem, either, though.

Meanwhile Hideko and Sook-Hee are strongly attracted to each other, and this is also fairly explicit in its realization. It’s not gratuitous; it all serves the plot. But it’s not for the bashful.

It is, however, beautiful. And I don’t mean because Tae-Ri Kim and Min-Hee Kim (no relation, one hopes) are beautiful and lithe and, uh, well, no need to carry those thoughts on any further. But Koreans have an aesthetic that goes beyond the color coding we see in Hollywood films, and is on full display here. Besides vibrant colors, The Boy particularly noted that the camera was very selectively focused. Things were sometimes gauzy or blurry, but all to create a deliberate effect.

In short, it’s a clever, pretty, funny, and even romantic film. Probably one of the best of the year (along with the Korean horror flick The Wailing come to think of it). But maybe not one you take your mom to see.

Raunchy.
Pretty.

Trading Places (1983)

This was one of those movies from my youth that I’ve been somewhat hesitant to take the kids to go see. For example, we skipped Ferris Beuller this year because, well, it’s okay, it’s fun, but I don’t know if it’s as great as it’s made out to be. I am breaking down and taking the kids to the next showing of The Breakfast Club, though I’m reserved about how well it will play to the kids. And while I consider myself a John Landis fan—aficionado, even, of his early work—I remembered this movie fondly but not as “a classic”.

But it actually still works really, really well. In fact, I think it’s aged far better than Landis’ Animal House, perhaps because it relies much less on shock value. I mean, it’s a preposterous film in that ’80s way: The rich guys are no different from the poor guys, except through circumstance and a trivial amount of education, and the really rich guys are, of course pure evil, while the regular rich guys are shallow and faithless.

Even though they only did it once!
There was a time when putting Aykroyd and Murphy in a film together was like printing money.

But everyone’s so gosh darn likable. Including the evil Mortimer and Randolph, who are caricatures of the worst sort, but ever so charmingly played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy. Our heroes are in their respective primes, too: Dan Aykroyd as the callow young investor, doing the schtick he’d honed to a fine point on “Saturday Night Live”, for example.

What can you say about young Eddie Murphy, following up his smash hit 48 Hours—back when Nick Nolte was more than a mug shot!—with this, another smash hit? Well, the kids probably said it best: “He was so funny!” Yes, he certainly was, and this was really their first experience with that. The take he does to the camera when Bellamy says “And this is bacon, like you might find in a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich” is priceless. (Classic Landis mild 4th wall breakage, as in Animal House.)

Perfect expression.
Perfect timing.

Jamie Lee Curtis. I remembered she took her top off for this—also classic Landis—but I don’t remember thinking it was such a big deal. When she did it in this showing, the audience actually gasped, that’s how perfect her body is. And of course, she’s funny and smart and charming on top of being The Body. I mean, she pulls off being The Hooker With A Heart Of Gold, for crying out loud.

By the way, pretty topless gals were a common feature—a requirement even—for comedies in the late ’70s/early ’80s. Now, this sort of exploitation is a hate crime. You’d just never see it. The fashions are so bad, though, that the real hate crime is having the women not naked.

CUNW?
Awful dress, and not the worst by far. (Also, see you next Wednesday.)

Speaking of hate crimes, Dan Aykroyd wears the worst blackface in this movie since Gene Wilder’s in The Silver Streak. But the real offense today, I think, would be Eddie Murphy‘s disguise late in the film as a Muslim African exchange student. Along with Denholm Elliot’s drunk Irish priest and Curtis’ Austrian/can-only-do-a-bad-Swedish-accent disguise, the whole thing would just be problematic today. And it was so goofy and over-elaborate at the time—we used to call it comedy—that of course nobody took offense to any of it.

John Landis at his peak. He would follow this up with the tragic Twilight Zone episode that would basically cave in his career (though he’d continue to do some fine work up until even a few years ago—his two “Masters of Horror” episodes were among the best and really had his style and sense of humor. Best output of screenwriting team Harris and Weingrod (Twins, Kindergarten Cop). Oscar nomination for Casa ‘gique favorite Elmer Bernstein (To Kill A MockingbirdAirplane!). Gratuitous James Belushi. Al Franken when he was part of Franken & Davis, and not a damned Senator.

'cause: Hilarious. I guess.
Also, “guy being sodomized by gorilla” was a standard Landis trope back then.

Arleen Sorkin, who would go on to have a TV career in the ’80s that wound up with her being the voice and inspiration for Harley Quinn. Gratuitous Bo Diddley. In a nice twist, Dan Aykroyd’s upper-crust girlfriend is played by Jamie Lee Curtis’ sister Kelly. Gratuitous Frank Oz, a staple in Landis films. Paul Gleeson as the heavy, who would go on to be the doofus deputy chief of police in Die Hard, and the hardass principle in Breakfast Club.

It’s good stuff. And it features Dan Aykroyd wandering through the city of Philadelphia in a santa suit, drunkenly waving a gun around. So it’s a contender to challenge Die Hard as the Best Christmas Film Ever!

 

It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)

I do not know how many times I have seen this film. It was a holiday staple growing up. For years, it was a Christmas Eve staple to boot, on while we wrapped gifts. I can recite lines of dialog, and do, sometimes unconsciously. “Out you two pixies go, tru da door our out da window” being one of my favorites. So, what was I thinking going to see it on The Big Screen?

Well, I’ve never seen it on the Big Screen. The Flower never at all. And The Boy? Maybe part of it a long time ago.

Things are bleak...but wait!
I’ve failed as a a parent.

And the Big Screen makes a difference. People who don’t like this movie (or, as they’re known in the scientific literature, monsters) tend to not like it because it’s schmaltzy. And on the Big Screen, the opening seen is, well, it’s a lot. Zuzu is a lot. Almost too precious.

I said almost. And the thing about It’s A Wonderful Life is, it earns its sentiment. In the first 90 seconds, the movie tells you exactly what’s going on: A beloved man is going through a hard time and people are praying for him.

But then each frame of the film is designed to make you like George Bailey. He’s a decent fellow. He’s courageous, resourceful, imaginative and basically kind, though Lord knows, life gets him down. But the thing is, life doesn’t get him down for very long, it’s just this one moment in time where it looks like his life is really going to be over because of a mistake and an evil man, and he forgets in that moment how blessed he is.

Plastics. Ground floor.
One of the sexiest scenes in movie history.

A remarkable thing about people who meant to commit suicide and are prevented by some external, unexpected reprieve: They almost universally say they changed their mind at the last second. When, by all rights, it should’ve been too late. This movie is kind of a window on that, I think: That moment where you’re ready to end it all, and how a shift in your point-of-view can change everything when nothing in the universe has changed except you. (This is a common message in this era, and in Christmas films like Miracle on 34th Street.)

The kids loved it. And seeing it in the theater, I noticed things I never had before. Like on Potter’s desk, when he’s offering Bailey a deal, there’s a skull attached to a chain. (Reference to A Christmas Carol, maybe?) I never noticed that after Mary tells George she doesn’t like coconut, and he calls her “brainless”, he follows up by spooning tons of coconut on to her sundae. I never noticed that the Baileys have an old model-T (or possibly model-A) even into the post-war period. I never noticed how many wrinkles 22 year old George Bailey had. (Jimmy Stewart was 35, I think) Heh.

From a defunct site.
I’m not the first to notice the weird desk stuff, apparently.

In my imagination, when the post-War prosperity really takes off, George gets to be pretty well off. Not too well off, because he’ll always be a bleeding heart. But well enough to spend his golden years travelling with Mary while kids run the Savings and Loan. Until the government shuts them down in the ’80s.

Anyway. Still an American classic, and now one a new generation is enjoying. So there, haters.

White Christmas (1954)

Another classic film I had never seen, and another film—seen just a few days after From Here To Eternity—that had a positive view of the American military. No big surprise, I suppose: Post-WWII America was pretty high on its role as saviors of freedom. (The current narrative, apparently, is that we were the good guys in WWII, and then we flipped around to being the villains in the ’50s. Because Communist propaganda is that good.)

But in this film, our heroes Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, decide to “put on a show” to help out their retired general, whose Vermont inn is floundering because there’s no what? You guessed it: No white Christmas. They stumble across it when Kaye decides to try to fix up business-minded Crosby with the delightful Rosemary Clooney, while the ridiculously cute Vera-Ellen sets her cap for confirmed bachelor Kaye.

Like the plot matters.

Though, honestly, the big scene which—I am not making this up—features enlisted troops singing a song of love for their general? Choked me up.

You’d think I’d get tired of saying it, and you’re probably sick of reading it but: Couldn’t be done today.

Funny, tho'.
Much like THIS hate-crime scene.

As for this movie, I wasn’t sure where I was gonna fall on the whole liking it/not liking it thing. (I’m prejudiced against ’50s films, I admit. This may have to do with them being on TV all the time when I was growing up, and me not liking TV.) But it is delightful. The Flower loved it, of course, but I was surprised at how much The Boy liked it, too, not being that musically inclined.

But back in the day, they made these movies to be funny and frothy and life-affirming and not too serious. Like classic romantic-comedies, you know that the guy and the girl are going to end up together, and it’s all going to work out—that’s why you go! The journey is the thing. And the journey here is a lot of fun.

Smooth moves.
Bing and Rosemary in the dressing room.

A lot of great song and dance numbers, though the original songs are not really great. The songs that really stand out, like “White Christmas” (which had already won Berlin an Oscar in ’42—that he presented to himself!), “Blue Skies” and “Heat Wave” were already classics. “The Old Man” brought a tear to my eye, for sure, but that was contextual more than the song itself. “Sisters” is another fun one that I don’t really remember much. And “Snow”—The Boy and I didn’t think that one worked well at all. I kind of liked it because it felt sort of experimental, but I’m not sure the experiment was a success.

The principals have buckets of star power, though, that still carries through to this day. Dean Jagger is utterly believable as the retired general—though he was the same age as Bing Crosby. The delightful Mary Wickes, who worked to the last days of her 85 year life was, always, a wonderful screen presence.

Don't start none, won't be none.
Mary Wickes about to start something.

I was unaware of Vera-Ellen prior to this movie. Beautiful and talented, I kept thinking “Oh, wow, she’s so skinny.” And the blessing/curse of the Internet is that I could look her up and see how she was anorexic and suffered terribly after her short career. But here? She’s remarkable. (Also, as with everything on the Internet, the whole “anorexic” thing maybe just a poorly sourced rumor.) Holds her own with Danny Kaye just fine, singing and dancing and matching his frenetic comic energy perfectly. And so, so cute.

The sum, I think, is greater than all the parts, and you end up walking out of the theater happy, which is not a bad thing to say about any film.

What more could you ask for?
Glamour, tunes, laffs and gals…

Arrival

This “first contact” type movie seems to polarize viewers with many loving it and many others hating it, or at least looking at the ones who are loving it with an expression that says “What are you? Stupid?” So, who’s right?

Trick question: The people who are right are the ones who agree with me, and since I haven’t told you what I think yet, you can’t answer the question.

But you knew that. Or will.
Hey…I’m just kidding. You don’t have to take it so hard.

There were some warning bells here before going to see it: You never know if the people liking it—well, critics, particularly—like it because it panders to a particular worldview. My dad used to argue that “widespread critical approval” meant the movie would be awful, but that’s a bit extreme, unfortunately. (What a handy rule that would be!)

It’s “talky”. It’s literally “talky”, in the sense of it’s all about how to communicate with aliens who are really, really alien. And whose really, really advanced technology does not include a way to communicate very effectively with verbal sorts, like humans—although keep reading for more on that. So maybe it’s not literally talky after all, since the aliens don’t talk at all in the conventional sense? I dunno.

Must be women. (Don't hurt me, please.)
Blah-blah-blah, these aliens just WON’T shut up!

It’s broody. It’s not what you’d call a “fun summer alien flick”, e.g. Neither E.T. nor Independence Day, here. It’s definitely “serious” and “arty”. The terrible death of a child, while not exactly portrayed, is a central element of the plot.

These are all things that might warn us off a film. Or at least the combination of “talky” and “broody” might, when mixed with critical adoration. On the other hand, it’s directed by Quebecois Denis Villeneuve, whose films (Incendies, PrisonersSicario) I have never regretted seeing, even when I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them to others. And I would recommend the three linked films most reservedly, not because I didn’t love them, but because they are not what you’d call “easy watches”.

The story is this: Aliens show up on Earth’s doorstep, and so Forrest Whitaker (Ernest and Celestine) shows up on super-linguist Amy Adams’ (Sunshine Cleaning Company) doorstep to help communicate with them before the Russkies or the ChiComs (amongst others) do. She meets up with nerd Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy) and leads a bold and desperate attempt to get what the aliens are up to. The U.S. Armed Forces are not really super-concerned about what the aliens are all about, beyond security fears, and certain misunderstandings (or are they?) lead to increasing tension as the need for security overwhelms common sense.

By which I mean the same thing that overwhelms commons sense in every aliens-come-to-earth movie, to wit: Any aliens species who could command the forces of the universe sufficiently well enough to cross the vast distances of space needed to reach us would be so far beyond us as to make any invasion or genocide plan unstoppable by us.

But, man, what boring movies that would make for. Every film would be, “Welp. Hope they’re friendly or we’re screwed.”

Okay, walls...whatever.
Oh, what a feeling…when we’re dancing on the ceiling.

That aside, it would be nice if someone acknowledged the issue once in a while.

Anyway, the MacGuffin here is (interestingly enough) time. The premise of the film (a popular, if incorrect, linguistic idea) is that human beings are hampered in their thinking by their language. It’s a dumb idea—people invent thousands of words a year in various technical fields and for fun so they can express concepts they don’t have words for—and I hate how popular it is in real life, but it’s actually used very cleverly and subverted here: The key to understanding the alien language becomes a key to understanding the aliens who think in terms that are way broader and deeper than humans do.

This sets you up for a hell of a gut punch. It’s not even a bad gut punch. It’s a good one, if that makes sense.

As for the people who didn’t like this film, I don’t want to say they didn’t get it—though most of the ones I’ve talked to didn’t—but there’s a fine line between “didn’t get it” and “didn’t buy into it”. The Boy and I both were favorably impressed, less by the artifice of the alien language and its potential, but more by the way it was used to tell a story of human experience. And not at all the one we were expecting.

So, as with all Villaneuve films, we recommend cautiously, but less so than his other films (which have tended to be unflinchingly violent), because he’s turned his acuity toward something a little less dark, and a little more affirming, even if it is still bittersweet. (Must rain a lot in Quebec or something.) This probably doesn’t help you decide whether or not to see it, alas, but that’s not always an easy call.

Can you imagine?
Er-NEST, er-NEST, my name is Er-NEST… Not really but that’s about the expression she’d have if he started singing that.

TCM Presents: From Here To Eternity (1953)

The TCM Big Screen Classics for 2016 closed out with this film which, not only had I never seen, I’d never had any interest in seeing. I mean, what does it even mean, From Here To Eternity? I guess it could be said for any point in present time (the time remaining stretches from here to eternity, right?) but as a movie title, wotsit? Actually, having seen the film, I still don’t know.

Nonetheless, as almost all the classics have been, this is a great film. It’s an unromantic, but not unkind, look at US military service around the time of the second world war, and it is, in a very real sense, soap opera and melodrama. Monty Clift arrives on a military base in Hawaii after transferring out of another base that had an inferior bugler promoted ahead of him, only to find that his new commander has selected him because of his boxing prowess. But Prewitt (Clift) doesn’t box any more on account of he blinded this guy in a match once. The pig-headed Captain Holmes (Philip Ober) figures he can coerce Prewitt into boxing, and begins a campaign of terror against him.

Menawhile, Holmes’ wife Karen (Deborah Kerr, whom we just saw in The King and I) is a sad woman with a bad reputation, none of which puts off Sgt. Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), who is the guy actually running the base as Captain Holmes run around seeing women in town. The affair between Karen and Milton leads to a famous scene, one that I’ve seen parodied so much that I assured The Flower the film was in color. It’s not, but every time it’s parodied, it’s in a color show, so…

Soggy smooching.
It’s in Black & White!

When Prewitt’s not getting the tar beaten out of him by his fellow enlistees and instructors, he’s falling in love with hostess Lorene (Donna Reed) whose cynical outlook on life doesn’t prohibit fooling around with a soldier, but whose life view is all geared toward being “the right sort”. And that takes money.

George would have a fit.
Oh, Mary! What’s become of you!

Rounding out our doomed cast is the “little spic” Angelo Maggio (Frank Sinatra) who’s a faithful friend, a terrible drunk, and prone to picking fights with the larger, meaner Sgt. Fatso (Ernest Borgnine, looking less avuncular than usual).

The beauty of this film is how the little threads get all wound up in a typical dramatic way, and then as Warden is lecturing on some big plot point right around the bend, a calendar in the background reads “December 6th”.

Well, hell. You thought you had problems. Your problems don’t amount to a hill of beans, to quote another famous war time flick.

I never liked the nickname "Fatso".
Oh, McHale! What’s become of you!

The movie works well the whole way through: The characters are flawed, to be sure, but they’re likable. (Except Fatso. He’s just psychotic.) The events that unfold are interesting, funny, revealing of character. The focal point is Prewitt’s refusal to box, to the point of having to beat the crap out of someone to prove his point. There’s also the lesser focal point of Warden and his affair with his boss’ wife, which is both romantic and dangerous—although not, to my modern, and perhaps jaded eyes, particularly erotic. (The kissing on the beach scene would barely have even registered with me if I hadn’t seen it referenced so often.)

The army itself is not romanticized either but—and this is the key point—it’s not really demonized either. The women aren’t crazy about it, but Warden and Prewitt, in particular, feel something for it. Prewitt seems to feel like he owes it, and there’s a sense of similar responsibility in Warden, though very much more clearly devoted to the men who serve in his battalion. And this feeling they have will trump even the feelings of the women they love.

So, we could certainly see why it was edgy for the time. According to Ben Mankiewicz, the other studios thought Columbia threw it’s money away when they purchased the rights to this film, since this wasn’t the sort of war film anyone in Hollywood was making. This is true, at least in the sense that the Army didn’t like it. But it was a film audiences wanted to see, ending up as one of the top grossing films of the ’50s. It’s edgy today because the service and its members are treated pretty decently.

I’ve heard that in Japan, schoolchildren aren’t taught that Japan was the aggressor in World War II. This’d be a good movie to show them.

We all liked it. As the Flower says when a movie gets her hyped up: “So good!”

But not in Japan. There they think we just dropped A-bombs on 'em 'cause we're jerks.
A day before a day which will live in infamy.

Deepwater Horizon

Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg have found their own niche. And it’s a doozy. Following up on Lone Survivor, a movie about soldiers in hostile territory that tells you, right there on the label, how it ends, is Deepwater Horizon, about the amazing engineers—they used to call them “roughnecks”, I think—who make the floating oil rigs go. This is to be followed up by Patriot’s Day, about the police work around the Boston Marathon bombing.

While anyone could have their takes on any of these stories, the niche is unambiguously presenting all of the main characters as heroes. Just as Lone Survivor didn’t cover the politics of wars in the Middle East—and I’m willing to bet money that the same will be true of Patriot’s Day—this oil-based movie spends nary a moment on climate change, nor on any hand-wringing over whether or not it’s “worth it” to drill for oil. (It is. And if you don’t agree, GTFO your computer made of petroleum products and powered by burning oil, or by some product made drastically cheaper by the burning of oil.) In fact, our hero, Mike Williams, is presented as a hero because he slays the dinosaurs, as his daughter puts it.

You monster.
Yeah, you’re going to be able to not worry what happens to this little moppet’s daddy.

This makes a huge difference in one’s enjoyment of the film, especially if that one is me (or The Boy). It allows one to take the (correct) perspective of admiration for the amazing engineering behind these mobile oil rigs* which—this cannot be repeated enough—are really, really amazing. And, if you need to hate some greedy corporate types, a movie like this gives you the opportunity to do some deserved hating on the short-sighted middle management (played by John Malkovich).

Which is itself kind of amazing.
I figured it was CGI, but apparently they actually built this set.

Wahlberg has proven to be very effective as an Everyman, like a more masculine, blue collar Tom Hanks. Meanwhile Berg shows himself to be adept at giving us characters we care about before all hell breaks loose, so that we care that all hell is breaking loose (beyond the ‘splodey stuff). Kurt Russell plays guy-in-charge Jimmy Harrell who is the actual owner (I think) of the rig. Russell has achieved nearly iconic status for this kind of role at this point, and he’s great at it. Wives have a hell of a time in this niche, because they’re not in the action, but they carry the tremendous burden of keeping things going while never knowing if their husband is coming back, and Kate Hudson does a marvelous job at it.

This is the sort of role that gets denigrated and, indeed, is no longer allowed in mainstream movies, which is a shame because it’s both dramatically poignant and socially relevant, to say nothing of admirable. You can’t see movies like American Sniper without feeling a debt toward the women (and children) in these men’s lives. Most of the survivors of the fire, if I recall correctly from the closing credits, got out of the business—a perfectly understandable reaction to the horror.

So, Hudson represents an Everywoman, and does a great job. As does everyone in the little parts that Berg and screenwriters Matthew Micheal Carnahan and  Matthew Sand take care to invest with real character. People have lives, families, interests—they’re courageous under fire. Much like Eastwood’s Sully, you can’t see this without feeling like the director likes people.

Still pretty cute, tho'.
Worried.

A standout performance is delivered by Gina Rodriguez (“Jane The Virgin”) as Andrea Fleytas. I loved this role—and I’m sidestepping for the moment that Ms. Fleytas is a real person, who suffered a serious trauma, and I have no idea how accurately the movie reflects her part—because it felt real to me. She’s kinda bad-ass, reconstructing a Mustang in her driveway and being the only woman we see on the rig (there were three, apparently, in real life) and dealing with some complex machinery pretty confidently. But when the time comes to, uh, well, let’s say plunge to almost certain death (to avoid certain death) she needs a little help from the hero.

I would call this “believably bad-ass”, as opposed to the “women never show weakness” which seems to be the standard for competent women in movies these days. It’s weird: It’s not enough to be good or even great, you have to be flawless to be a movie heroine any more. You have to be the best at The Force or eagle hunting, or a demigoddess or whatever. It feels a bit like the “magic negro” ’90s, where black folk couldn’t just be folk—they had to have magical powers. I know lots of bad-ass women; none of them are demigoddesses.

Not invulnerable.
Bad-ass.

I assume this scene is contrived, as (like the entirety of Eddie The Eagle) it’s just too perfect. I’m going to say that the movie spends enough time on attention to detail—which, by the way, is not simple, what with the mechanics of oil extraction—that it gives itself room to take dramatic license.

The Boy and I both liked it. And we’re looking forward to Patriot’s Day.

 

*I’m using the term “rig” which may be inappropriate for these vessels.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

I showed The Flower this 1947 black-and-white film a few years back and it instantly became one of her favorites. We both agreed that the best decision the filmmakers made when casting this was to get the real Santa to play himself. Oh, the studios covered it up well, arrange an Oscar for stalwart actor Edmund Gwenn, who would go on to have notable roles in The Trouble With Harry and Them! but whether St. Nick filled in physically for him here (a body switch not noticed because of certain similarities between the two) or whether some Christmas magic invested the spirit of said right jolly old elf into the character actor’s physical form, this film is definitive proof that there is, indeed, a Santa Claus.

Poor Natalie Wood.
And can do a pretty good “monkey”.

George Seaton (who directed the first Airport film in 1970) directs from a screenplay he wrote based on a story by Valentine Davies (The Glen Miller StoryThe Benny Goodman Story) and this is the first time it occurred to me while watching that there isn’t a single miracle (in the traditional sense) in the movie. Literally nothing that happens lacks a “logical” explanation, except for Kris speaking Dutch to the young girl at Macy’s, which is remarkable but hardly inexplicable—it’s just not explained. Even at the end, where he seemingly engineers a family and home (on Long Island!) for little Natalie Wood, every thing that happens has a perfectly reasonable explanation you can make for it.

Even the marriage of Fred (John Payne) and Doris, because who in their right mind wouldn’t want to marry Maureen O’Hara?

The Christmas cards alone would be breathtaking.
I mean, just look at her.

But this is just rationalization. And the movie is full of rationalizations as to how a man could be found to actually be Santa in a court of law. And while there are plenty of cynical excuses one could make—lazy postal workers, cowardly politicians, etc.—the movie makes them all with a wink and a nod. Because we know the truth.

And one of the truths we all know—or should know, anyway—is that the real miracle is consideration: The point of view we take on things in the world which imbues the ordinary with magic. The real miracle, of course, is taking a broken-hearted woman who has fallen into a materialistic, joyless mindset, and getting her to believe. Because the good things happen when you believe in good things and then act on those beliefs.

As simple as it is, we forget it to the point of sheer stupidity, and get trapped in our glamorous Manhattan careers throwing parades and the like, and just mechanically move through life.

Dammit.
Next to our ridiculously handsome neighbors with impossibly good views.

And that’s my holiday rant. Which, even if you don’t buy into, doesn’t change the fact that this grainy black-and-white film is one of the best. Funny. Touching but not schmaltzy, in a way very much in the style of Thurber or Preston Sturges, that hadn’t yet given way to gritty ’50s cynicism. Natalie Wood’s journey of faith is pretty brutal, at face value: She demands something akin to absolute proof before being willing to believe. And even Santa balks at such a tall order, while merrily presenting himself to the court to be vetted, after a mean, little psychiatrist plays up a well-deserved clonk on the head.

When Santa clonks you on the head, you have it coming.

Truth.
Coal is too subtle for some people.

The other journeys of faith are also good and fun. Doris believes, ultimately, because she must: she can’t let little Susan (Wood) grow up in such a joyless world. Meanwhile, Fred’s belief is entirely tongue-in-cheek—at first. There’s a fine line, he discovers, between pretending to believe and believing, but by the end, we’ve reason to believe even he’s won over in heart.

The camerawork is fine, and gets better as the movie progresses. The acting is top notch. Even the smaller roles, like Thelma Ritter as the beleaguered mother and a pre-Lucy William Frawley as a “campaign consultant” all sing. Perfect score by Cyril Mockridge (The Man Who Shot Liberty ValanceThe Ox-Bow Incident) with musical director Alfred Newman.

This is one of those Christmas movies that makes you remember why they keep trying to make Christmas movies, over and over again. A must-see. The Boy, who had not seen it before, loved it. The Flower and I loved it all over again.

 

Kubo And The Two Strings

The Boy had run off to see this with his girlfriend, and it was gone so fast from theaters that I only managed to get the Barbarienne to it through “heroic measures” on the last day. But he was pretty insistent that This Movie Be Seen. His point, which I think is valid, is that people bitch about movies being the same and Hollywood being bankrupt of ideas, but then when something different comes along, they don’t go see it. Which, as I frequently point out, is why Hollywood churns out the same crap over and over again. It works.

And Kubo isn’t really that different. It has Laika’s look (as seen in The BoxtrollsParaNormanCoraline and The Corpse Bride), though, refreshingly, they use enough of a different palette and style that you might not notice it’s them. In addition, the story is a little rougher, much like The Boxtrolls, and maybe a little more boy-oriented than most (though not more than Boxtrolls). Some of the tropes are drawn from Asian folklore, too, which is nice: It’s less like Mulan, with it’s pseudo-historical-presentation-plus-talking-animals, and more like an animated juvenille version of the Zhang Yimou films House of Flying Daggers and Hero.

Which, box-office-wise, they didn't have.
With a little paper Toshiro Mifune thrown in for luck.

Also, the traditional fairy tale’s dead-parent-or-parent trope is subverted rather cleverly (though I figured it out pretty quickly, if I say so myself). And it has a bittersweet ending, which was also refreshing.

On the other hand, it wasn’t alien or anything. Kubo’s on a Hero’s Journey to gather the artifacts of his (missing or decesaed) father. These will allow him to go against his demigod grandfather (momma fell in love with a mortal) and—actually, I forget what the upshot is supposed to be. Minimally, if he can kill his mother’s family, they’ll leave him alone. As it is, he has to be inside before it gets dark, or his aunts and grandfather will find him and steal his remaining eye. (Pop-pop already took one eye.)

Pretty metal.

Harrrdddcorrrrreee!
Mama is hardcore.

And good stuff. Liked the score by Dario Marianelli (Anna KareninaJane Eyre). Chock full of stunt casting, like Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) as Monkey and Ralph Fiennes (Hail, Caesar!Coriolanus) but not annoyingly so. Matthew McConaughey caught my ear because I recognized his voice, but it didn’t have his usual drawl. First time director Travis Knight (animator on the three most recent Laika flicks) does a fine job, working off a script in part credited to one of Paranorman‘s screenwriters (Chris Butler).

I guess Laika films have never been really popular, and Kubo has made only slightly less than Boxtrolls, but I guess the difference (for me) is that I would put Kubo at the top of animated films this year. (Caveat: We have not seen Moana yet.) Certainly better than the awful Secret Life of Pets, and much more poetic than the frantic (#1 film this year) Finding Dory. But I think it also transcends, emotionally, the fine Zootopia and has as an advantage, a completely apolitical, non-relevant (in terms of current fascinations with trivial offense) story.  And what’s frustrating (or would be for me, if I had made the film) is that, while critics rate it in the top 10 for the year (per Rotten Tomatoes), audiences—those who actually saw it—seem to rate it comparably to Finding Dory and substantially higher than (the much more financially remunerative) Kung Fu Panda 3.

Franchises. Sequels. This is why they get made. To say nothing of mediocrities like Troll and Sing—which are “original” but also distributed by the powerhouses (Dreamworks and Illumination, respectively). It’s almost like the system is…dare I say it?…rigged against the littler guys.

But maybe not. It’s hard to know what people like—and in our age of special snowflakes, the issue may have been that the movie didn’t have an unambiguous “they lived happily ever after” at the end—but I guess it’s not too hard to see what they will and won’t try. Nonetheless, this is a film worth seeing.

Nobody even knows it's supposed to be "ayes" any more.
The eyes have it.

The Big Sleep (1946)

As I was watching the classic 1946 movie based on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, I found myself thinking, “Well this is all really straightforward and easy to explain.” But immediately afterwards, as I was trying to explain it to The Flower, I realized the logic of it had all slipped away from me, like a dream.

So fuzzy.
And when I awoke, I realized I had witnessed a murder. Or maybe killed someone myself. I’m fuzzy on the details.

But the amazing thing about this film is how little one’s ability to make sense out of it matters. It’s especially amazing because, as you’re watching, everything—every scene seems to follow logically, indeed, inexorably to the next. This is probably a credit to both the source material, awash in style, and screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman. Bracket and Furthman would go on to write Rio Bravo, just for example, and Bracket wrote the first draft of Empire Strikes Back which George Lucas claims he threw out. And you know this is true because Empire Strikes Back is such a great film, like the prequels and Jedi.

The story, starts with private dick Marlowe (Bogart, duh) being called in to help an old man, General Sternwood (silent movie veteran Charles Waldron, in his last film) who wants to handle a sensitive matter with discretion. Seems he’s being squeezed to pay for his wild daughter Carmen’s (Martha Vickers, who, sort of amusingly, we saw shortly after turn up in a Rifftrax short, showing a Hollywood Christmas where celebrities were swimming in Beverly Hills) gambling debts. But his usual man for handling things, Sean, has gone missing, and his older, less wild daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall), who also has gambling debts, thinks her father has hired him to find Sean.

Baby!
Still pretty wild. And world’s greatest side eye.

Well, in the course of sleuthing, Marlowe encounters a murder, a scam involving rare books, and a hot bookstore girl (future Oscar winner Dorothy Malone), and just when things are heating up, the General pays him off and takes him off the case. But now Marlowe’s got an itch, see? There are too many loose threads and just what the hell did happen to Sean anyway?

Well, damned if I know. Before it’s all over, people who are supposed to be missing aren’t missing at all but some are dead, and some other people end up getting murdered, and there are double-crossed, backstabs and, it all sort of works out the end in a way that makes sense, even if you can’t explain it. More than any specific details—like the old man in the wheelchair, the wild daughter with the more conservative older sister—it is the head fakes that make this seem like the real inspiration for The Big Lebowski. (In fact, I’ve often said that the plot for Lebowski mirrors Murder, My Sweet, the Dick Powell 1944 turn at playing Marlowe.)

Loved it. The kids loved it, too, despite the fact that it was the second feature (after High Sierra). Howard Hawks directs. Max Steiner does the score. Lensed by Sidney Hickox, who also did Bogie & Bacall’s To Have and Have Not and Dark Passage. Edited by Christian Nyby, who would go on to direct The Thing, which most people would go on to believe Hawks directed.

Classic cinema.

She knows the score.
I think Dorothy was my favorite film femme here.

High Sierra (1941)

I probably would’ve given this Humphrey Bogart double-feature (High Sierra along with The Big Sleep) a miss, as it wasn’t one of our scheduled days for movies and required accommodations be made, but we did basically start our old-time classics streak with The Maltese Falcon, and The Flower loves the era, the style and Bogie to boot, so I could hardly dampen her enthusiasm. Also, The Big Sleep is part of the inspiration (along with, I believe, Murder, My Sweet) for The Big Lebowski, and you know how we are about that particular flick (in the parlance of our time).

Too, I hadn’t actually seen High Sierra which sees Bogie in the last of his 2-bit gangster roles—the one that made him such a hit that he didn’t want to do Casablanca. He had to fight for this role, with director Raoul Walsh seeing him as a supporting player and the studio wanting big shot (of the time) Paul Muni in the lead. But Muni hated the script and demanded a rewrite, after which he still hated the script and after everyone else in the world  turned it down, Bogart entered movie history.

And the poorly received prequel "Low Sierra".
Followed by the sequels “Higher Sierra” and “Highest Sierra”.

The thing about this movie is that it’s like a ’40s version of, say, The Girl on the Train, where a popular novel has hit it big and the studios line up to make a movie about it. Or maybe it’s more like a Michael Crichton story. I don’t know any more which writers Hollywood is lining up to produce these days. But back in the day, it was W.R. Burnett, who wrote bestselling novels (with a crime or urban feel, back when “urban” meant Italian, probably) and award winning screenplays, and was a script doctor to boot.

Burnett had written the novel High Sierra, and worked on the screenplay with John Huston. He also wrote the novel The Asphalt Jungle, which ended up being made into a movie by John Huston, and Little Caesar. No lightweight, dude.

And, perhaps predictably, this movie is an amalgam of many of the gangster clichés of the ’30s. Bogie plays a guy who’s just gotten out of prison. He’s thinking about going straight, but it doesn’t last long, because his boss Big Mac’s got an idea, see, a good heist set up, but he needs a seasoned pro managing the twerps, the soda jerks, the screwballs and the young jitterbuggers he’s gotta deal with today.

Those jitterbuggers are the worst!
From left to right: Bogie, screwball, screwball, jitterbugger, screwball.

Heh. Yeah, this movie is jam packed with ’30s movie-gangster talk, and as we all know: the cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter.

Playing opposite Bogie is the great Ida Lupino who was quite dishy in her day. (We know her best around here for her ’70s TV work on “Columbo” and the “classic” The Devil’s Rain.) She plays a desperate dime-a-dance girl who’s hooked up with one of the new twerps that don’t know no better than to bring a dame on a heist. The twerps are Alan Curtis (who died at 44 from complications after a routine kidney surgery, alas) and Arthur Kennedy, who would go on to be nominated five times for Academy Awards, all of which he would lose. They end up fighting over Marie (top-billed Lupino) who ends up crashing with the much stabler, good-guy gangster Roy (Bogie).

But the real fly in the ointment is Mendoza, the greasy Spaniard, played by the Hungarian-Mexican Cornell Wilde. (I’m joking about the Mexican part, obivously.) Wilde would go on to remake Apocalypto some 40 years before Mel Gibson directed it, in an under-rated gem called The Naked Prey. (When I worked at Paramount, one of the ladies had a full-sized Wilde cutout from that film, in which he is mostly naked and, yes, even in his 50s he was a handsome, handsome fellow.)

That mutt could act!
Bogie, Lupino, and Bogie’s actual dog.

So, Bogie’s got his hands full wrangling the idiots, the backstabbers, and the dopey dames, all the while pining for a good farmer’s daughter (the gorgeous Joan Leslie who, like Wilde, would close out her career on Angela Lansbury’s “Murder She Wrote”). The farmer’s daughter is one clubbed-foot operation away from a floozy, though, and our sensitive, murderous gangster ends up settling for his second best.

The Hays Office would not! could not! allow the book’s happy ending, though, and the movie actually finds its way into the titular High Sierras for the final shootout.

And BAM! Floozy time!
Sure, she looks sweet now, but fix that club foot…

This movie is just dripping with essential ’30s-ness. The only thing really missing is that Bogie doesn’t have a brother or childhood friend who joined the priesthood/police force. But it’s one of those things that sort of laps itself: If it might have been (I’m just guessing) perceived as hokey by the ’50s, we’re far enough away to enjoy the pure action/suspense/romance angle of it by now.

We all really liked it.

Universal Horror fans will recognize “Doc” as Henry Hull in what some would say was the best werewolf film, 1935’s Werewolf of London. (And his hair looked fabulous!)

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

As a child, I received a boxed set of books. Four, I believe: The Martian Chronicles, The Big Sky, The Red Pony (or maybe Where The Red Fern Grows) and To Kill A Mockingbird. I read Martian and Red and Bradbury and Steinbeck became huge influences and my “go to” reads for years. I still have in my bookshelf the other two books, but I have not read either of them (yet). Which is, I suppose, bad enough.

Duvall!!!
Yeah, I’m disappointed in me, too.

Worse still, though, I’ve never seen the movie with Gregory Peck and Brock Peters and, goodness, lots of great actors young and old. Or I hadn’t, until recently when it rolled around to our new “classics” joint, The Regency. (Regency is a chain, so if you’re interested in classic films, you might be able to check some of these greats out, too!) And?

Well, we were all kind of surprised. The impression one would get from listening to, well, everyone, is that this is a movie about an unjustly accused black man in the South. But it’s not: It’s a slice-of-life story which features, as one of many elements, the story of the unjustly accused black man. Granted, that’s a big part of it, and the hub of the action, but the movie is really about Scout, the daughter of Atticus Finch (Peck), and how she views the world (and herself) over the course of about 15 months.

I haven't seen THAT movie, either.
What’s a “Tatum O’Neal”?

In fact, the trial itself threatens to go on too long. The movie kind of stops when Finch is there defending defending Tom (Brock Peters), taking our attention off Scout (Mary Badham, little sister of the great director John Badham!), her brother Jem (Philip Allford), and their trouble-making summer pal, Dill (John Megna). And let me pause for a moment to note how incredible these child actors are. You can really see why Badham got the nod for acting Oscar (losing out to Patty Duke’s Helen Keller).

I couldn’t quite tell how while it was happening, but as the trial progressed, I got more drawn into it. I like Gregory Peck, of course, but why he’s great here is that he has to stand back and dial things down. Brock Peters (maybe best known to “kids today” for his voice work on shows like “Johnny Bravo” and “Samurai Jack” or his performances on “Deep Space 9”), kicks ass. William Windom (who, like Peters, worked like crazy for the next three decades, before getting a big boost from his recurring role on “Murder, She Wrote”) also does a standout job. The acting really is great, and it draws you in. The accuser (played by yet another stalwart TV character actor, Collin Wilcox Paxton) is so transparently unbelievable that you wonder how—but then, that’s the point, isn’t it?

They say women never lie.
What a great shot, too.

And then, all of a sudden: Bam! There’s Robert Duvall.

The black-and-white photography is a little grainy and, at first, I was worried the film wasn’t going to exploit the great set and lighting potential to its fullest, but the cinematography sort of sneaks up on you. It starts very simple, even pedestrian, but builds to some fine dramatic uses at important points.

Elmer Bernstein’s score is good. Not, like, Airplane! good, but still.

We all liked it, needless to say.

Boo!
And another great shot.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1960)

I’m just going to come right out and say it: Mickey Rooney as I. Y. Yunioshi saves Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I didn’t like the TCM presents aspect of this film, not because Tiffany Vasquez is bad, particularly. (She’s new and a little stiff but that’s understandable.) But she looks like they hired her based on some arbitrary checkboxes (non-white, non-male, non-old), and it doesn’t help that she makes the tired, predictable trek through running down Rooney and director Blake Edward’s stereotypical Japanese character, but papering over it with “Well, they felt bad about it.”

So sorry!
Nobody can take a joke any more.

Maybe. I think Rooney would’ve said anything at various points in his career, and you can check out his Wikipedia entry (just for this role!) where he talks about people, especially Asians, loving it. Which, frankly, makes sense, since it’s an Asian stereotype, i.e., not one invented by The White Man, but one you can see in Japanese and Chinese films (and manga, come to think of it) going back decades. It’s a particularly egregious kind of White Man’s Burden to say that only White Stereotypes Are Acceptable. (As a full-blooded Indian I knew once pointed out to his radical mother fuming over Warner Bros. caricatured Indian characters, “Look at Elmer Fudd”.)

Anyway, that aside, there are a couple of points in this movie where it is in danger of bogging down under its own hipness, its own ironic tragedy, its own cleverness that Yunioshi’s appearance brings it back down to earth. Without that, it would’ve gone straight into melodrama, iconic performances from Audrey Hepburn and that guy from “The A-Team” notwithstanding.

The acting is perfection, however. One can certainly see why writer Truman Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe for the movie, and his own novella’s more ambiguous ending, and while that certainly would’ve been different and interesting in its own way, there’s about zero chance of it having become the iconic film that this one is. Note that, whatever the source material’s merits are, it doesn’t stand out in the annals of literature like this film does in the annals of cinema.

She didn't invent it, but she mad it (and orange cats) popular.
To say nothing of “the little black dress” of fashion.

And that’s largely due to Audrey Hepburn, who manages to play a much younger character—Marilyn would’ve only been three years older but less believable—and who manages to make the sort of hip superficiality of the character more endearing than tragic. The tragic element is still there, of course, just not as overwhelming as it would’ve been with Marilyn, who always brought a note of sadness to even straight comedic roles.

Another element she brings that few actresses (most especially the wonderful Monroe) could, is a sort of pre-sexual innocence. Shortly after meeting Paul—whom she insists on calling “Fred”, which is something few people can do without being irritating—she crawls into bed with him and spends a platonic night sleeping on his naked chest. One doesn’t have to believe that Golightly is virginal—she is married, after a fashion, as it turns out—but one has to feel like she might be. It’s not really an acting thing so much as a persona thing.

Can't see it.
He’s naked. She’s nearly naked. And this is platonic. Marilyn?

George Peppard is solid, of course, and a believable-if-too-stock-for-Capote Paul, who has his own drama going on with sugar momma Patricia Neal (pre-stroke), who is also great in this. Peppard’s character is very stock, versus the more sensitive, wounded artist portrayal that some (including Neal, apparently) would’ve preferred. But once again, I gotta go Hollywood: Holly is close to insufferable, and in her chaotic, helpless state, the last thing she needs is a whiny pajama boy.

Buddy Ebsen’s career got a two decade boost from his little bit here, and it’s not hard to see why. He’s rustic, sure, but there’s an element of both menace and vulnerability that’s remarkably endearing. John McGiver, a warhorse of TV and movies for three decades, absolutely steals his little scene from the ridiculously cute Paul and Holly, as the understanding Tiffany’s clerk. Allan Reed is—holy crap! It’s Fred Flintstone! (I say that every time I see this picture.)

It's a nice bit.
High class, while be warm and not condescending.

It all works, in glorious Technicolor. But you can see how fragile it all is, too: A little tweak here and there would utterly wreck its structure, its character, its charm. It’s so edgy (for the time), it really needs that anchor to the past, that Hollywood magic, which was sputtering to its death by this time. The Boy liked it a lot. The Flower loved it. We all loved Mr. Yunioshi.

So there.

I assume she's smiling at Audrey here.
And who DOESN’T love Beverly Hills?

 

Elle

I warned The Boy in advance that this movie would be weird and weirdly sexual. Knowing nothing about it other than it was directed by once mega-director Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls), that little bit of information was enough to—well, look, his first American film was Flesh + Blood (where Rutger Hauer rapes Jennifer Jason Leigh who then falls in love with him) and his last film was the Nazis-aren’t-even-the-bad-guys where a Jewish girl spy and a Nazi fall in love.

I’m not saying he has issues, I’m just saying he’s Dutch.

Even I don't know what I'm saying with this.
Isabelle Huppert with the director on set.

Anyway, the story here begins with Isabelle Huppert being raped in her home (a scene that plays out, I think, a total of three times) and then just going about her business as if nothing had happened. Her business is being a high-powered successful game company CEO (whose games are rife with sex-like-violence), having sex of various sorts with the husband of her best pal/business partner, and setting up awkward social situations where she can humiliate her ex-husband—something she seems to do for sport more than out of cruelty, though she’s certainly cruel as well.

She’s also hated by the public-at-large, for something that happened 40 years prior, when she was 10. (Isabelle Huppert is 63, and while she doesn’t look young, she’s got that French thing going where she makes “mature” work.) This is why she doesn’t involve the police in her rape which, frankly, doesn’t seem very traumatic to her. And, in her pursuit to discover who her attacker is, she enlists the talents of a young programmer with the hots for her to spy on all the private computers of her employees. (Something which probably isn’t within the power of a game programmer; just because you can program a computer doesn’t mean you can crack into someone else’s. But it’s too much to ask for a movie to get that distinction correct.)

As nerds will.
And then he takes her shooting.

At the various points in the film where most narratives would crank things up and close them down, this film…does not. It just gets weirder. Like, discovering who made a distasteful computer animation of her reveals nothing about the rape mystery and a lot about her ethical “freedom”. A failed later seduction of the Christian neighbor’s husband, which might also have gone into a typical “twist”, does not. Even discovering her rapist—that actually happens fairly early on, and is not really the point of the proceedings.

There’s nothing normal about it. It’s just very Verhoeven. I’d say “very Dutch” but I haven’t noticed that other Dutch films are like this at all. But I often get the Danes, the Belgians (Frisians, I think?) and the Dutch mixed up. I actually can’t think of any non-Verhoeven Dutch films. Which says something about them or me, or both of us. Also, I think this movie is technically French, Verhoeven notwithstanding.

Tough negotiator.
“Look, just sign the contract and I’ll stop smashing dinnerware over your head.”

There’s a scene where Huppert starts arming up, and you think maybe this’ll turn into a day-of-the-woman style revenge picture (but only if you don’t know Verhoeven) and while it was odd to see self-defense positively depicted in a European film, it was not as odd as seeing someone say grace at the dinner table. First time I’ve seen that in a French, Dutch, German…any European film I can think of, actually.

Of course, the religion thing has a twist on it, too, ’cause, y’know, Verhoeven.

Getting the idea? If you liked Black Book, you’d probably like this. Maybe even Flesh + Blood would be a good indicator. If you like weird sex, rough sex, violent sex, this is probably the film for you. And it is well done, no doubt. The Boy and I liked it, but part of that has to be its sheer difference. This, like The Lobster, is not for everyone.

Jazz hands! Er, tongues!
The most normal scene in Verhoeven’s most normal movie.

IFF: AKA Nadia

As mentioned, repeatedy, numerously, and probably ad nauseum, Israeli films tend to be a little bit different because while they can be very western, there’s this element of constant existential threat in them which tends to give them a different flavor. In fact, last year’s films were sort of remarkable in that a few didn’t have that (like Ibiza and Galis, which are straight up teen sex comedy and teen escapist fantasy, respectively). But while it’s interesting to look at the ways this “distorts” traditional formulae, when it’s used as the hook, it can be heavy handed to the point of boring.

The dance stuff is modern, yo.
Enjoy my ten hour dance cycle: How the Jews Are Just Like Hitler

Beyond Hills and Mountains, e.g., had a lot of verve added by the Palestinian threat. Being a “rebellious teen” in Israel can take on terrifying dimensions you don’t get as a snowflake in a safe space. In A.K.A. Nadia, however, the situation is used as the hook, and doesn’t add as much as you might think to the proceedings.

The story is that of a 17 year old Palestinian girl who runs off to London with her fiancee, in defiance of her parents, and knowing that she can never return. If you go to London, apparently, you’re only going for terrorism training, and Israel apparently isn’t super-keen on re-importing trained terrorists. As you might imagine, things go south and the young girl finds herself alone in a city where she doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t know anyone, and from which she cannot get back home.

So, she works. And through others in her situation, she finds a guy (John Hurt, no less!) who can get her papers back to Israel, approximately. The catch is that the only papers he can get her are Jewish. So if she wants to go back at all, it has to be as Nadia who was killed in a car accident with her parents a few months earlier. (And I guess has no other interested family. I don’t know, that could happen.)

I crack me up.
“Welp. Guess I’m Jewish now. Moozel taupe. Wait, what do they say again?”

It’s not a bad hook, but the bulk of the movie takes place 20 years later, when she’s married with two kids, and living as a choreographer in a life which, if we’re being honest, is so much better than any she could’ve had as a Palestinian woman, it’s one of those blazing examples of “This is not a story with two sides.” This is barely touched on, though, which became an issue, as I’ll discuss further on.

Nadia meets with her real mother maybe once a week, and otherwise juggles her busy life as mom, wife and choreographer when, one day, an envoy from Palestine arrives on some sort of culture mission and who should be there but boyfriend-from-twenty-years-ago. He vanished, she didn’t know what happened to him, and she ignores her mother’s warning to leave the guy alone since he brought her and her family nothing but misery.

Her actions end up creating suspicion in her marriage, increasing agitation at her work, and ultimately chaos to her entire life.

o/~All o' my exes live in the Gaza strip~\o
Exes are like that, or so the country songs tell me.

This is one of those movies, though, where the circumstances and events seem plausible (even down to the destructive pursuit of the terrorist ex) to the movie’s detriment. It’s as though the author wants to shy away from drama so hard that much is left out. And much, also, is left in, which is to say there are long scenes of acting, where nothing is said or done, just emoted. Including a gratuitous shower scene which, normally, I’m for but which does a poor job of preparing us for what I think is meant to be the character steeling herself against (I think) the possible fall-out of incorporating part of her history in to the Big Show.

It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just low key. And it feels to me like it’s resting hard on the cultural situation, the audience’s awareness of it, and their sensitivity to same. Which, hey, these guys’d starve if they made their movies catering to the American audience.

I did think, though, that it also felt a little bit of a cheat in the sense that Nadia had to lie, repeatedly, over and over again, to her husband, her children, etc. And we see very little of that. We just get the “20 years later…” which is going to tend to make the protagonist one-sidedly sympathetic and the sense of betrayal seem unreasonably extreme. Which is how I felt, actually. Like, sure, she lied about everything (except maybe how she felt about her family) but the things she was honest about were the most important.

I think maybe the film could’ve better served the audience by giving us a taste of that pre-climactic life, which it only does in brief flashbacks which are sometimes confusing because the actress can’t really pass for 17. (The Boy missed the final flashback as a flashback, for example.)

Broody. Well acted, sure. And the ending wasn’t as horrible as it might’ve been, which is actually no faint praise, since it could’ve gone a lot of really awful ways. But tough to recommend.

And you know there MUST be some out there.
Unless you are a John Hurt completist.

IFF: Beyond the Mountains and Hills

Film festivals are, necessarily, crap shoots. Often, they’re crap shoots with really bad odds. No matter what sort of film you like (or even love), if you’re picking out of the film fest hat, you’ve got a really good shot of seeing something that makes you rethink your tastes. We’ve had such good luck with the Israeli Film Fest that The Boy is a little spoiled. Two years ago was so good, he’s more or less forgotten last year’s disappointments. This year, however, schedules were such that we were lucky to make the three films we did: the shorts (The Mute’s House, Anna, An Average Story), A.K.A. Nadia and this one, Beyond the Mountains and Hills.

Right.
Well, this looks like fun.

This movie is, basically, a mid-life crisis movie. I forget when the midlife crisis was invented, but I think it was in the ’70s, with the mainstreaming of the concept beginning in 1980’s Middle Age Crazy (Bruce Dern, Ann Margret). This would make sense as the Boomers were hitting their 30s (35 used to be “middle aged”, I remind the young folks today who are still “finding themselves” in their 30s) and the previous two decades of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll had to have given way to something more like a mundane lifestyle.

But the thing is, this is an Israeli mid-life crisis movie and the constant presence of an existential threat tends to focus the mind in ways that is largely unknown, for example, to average Americans and Europeans. In this film by Eran Kolirin (who directed The Band’s Visit, one of the earliest reviewed films here at the ‘gique), our hero is David, a guy who’s just retired from the military—protecting the home front—for the past 22 years and is now at loose ends, trying to find a purpose in life. The movie gives us a bit of a taste of that, as he ends up in a multilevel marketing scheme which, hey, might be good for some, but is really, really not good for our hero. (He sells one package by extorting a sleazy co-worker who is using him as cover for his affairs into a buying it.)

This picture bears no relation to the caption or the text, but I couldn't find a picture of Alon Pdut firing his gun into the hills. So deal.
What? In the MLM world that’s called “business as usual.”

Meanwhile his wife, Rina, is succumbing to the attentions of one of her literature students, his daughter is a radical activist and his son—well, his son seems to be pretty okay at first but he finds out about his mother and is tormented regarding whether or not to tell his dad, and this ends up bringing on the unexpected climax of the film. The daughter, Yifat, actually ends up being the focus of the picture and, if you like, a metaphor for Israelis generally.

Yifat has a radical activist boyfriend, who’s too cool to take a ride to the demonstration with David because it’d be like visiting concentration camps with Hitler. (No joke, that’s the analogy used.) But Yifat quickly discovers that Israeli leftist boyfriend has pretty clear limits of commitments, and she finds herself attracted to a Palestinian. The Palestinian is sketchy as hell, but when she demurs on his invitation to come to a little party with his pals in the hills, she feels guilty and probably racist. Later, she finds out he’s dead, and goes into Palestine to attend the funeral where she is abused by the dead guy’s wife.

Realizing she’s in trouble, she begs a ride from dead guy’s friend, and finds herself once again open to his sketchy advances.

And this is basically your movie: Our characters commit a variety of sins, and they also commit a variety of actions which might or might not have tremendous import, and the characters never know. But they are burdened.

It won't end well.
Sometimes, the burden is the sudden realization of what a moron you’ve been.

Gladiator (2000)

Are you not entertained? ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?

Yeah, no matter how many times I say it, it never gets old. For me, I mean. I pity my children. Or I would, except The Flower just responds with:

CAN YOU COUNT, SUCKERS?

SUCKERS!
Which is silly. Cyrus was Greek.

The latter being a quote from The Warriors, which she also had not seen, but which she had confused with Ridley Scott’s Sword-and-Sandals classic Gladiator. And, given that The Warriors is based on the Ancient Greek Anabasis, it’s not as far-fetched as it might initially sound. It probably will sound even less far-fetched to see so many echoes of the recent political season portrayed in this 2000 film—and practically banal when you consider so much of this year’s drama was like so much of 2000’s election drama.

But the beauty of this film isn’t its political message, assuming it can be said to have one of any tremendous specificity. The beauty of this film is its beauty—and that it thankfully transcends the cheesy adventure genre from which it sprang. Scott, in the early days of digital post-processing gives us the muted gray palette that dominates the superhero genre. But because he’s not a hack seeking “credibility”, he doesn’t use it for every damn second of the film. He’s not afraid of colors, or he hadn’t learned to be back then. (I don’t recall being wowed by Prometheus‘ visuals, frankly.)

Color!
We got a gold tiger, and some gold gladiator shorty skirts, red banners…

He’s not above the tired lectures of “bread and circuses” and “rule the mob” and “we love violence”—but he’s also not above having lots of really entertaining violence in his film, either. Violence interspersed with melodrama and political intrigue. And lots and lots of crap floating in the air, in the Scott-ian style.

It holds up really well, this movie does. Every cheesy line delivered with utmost earnestness by Russell Crowe, Connie Nielsen (The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden, and playing Wonder Woman’s mother in the upcoming film), Oliver Reed in (I think) his final performance, Derek Jacobi and so on. Some people didn’t like Joaqiun Phoenix’s over-the-top performance as the weaselly Commodus, but it holds up better than I remember it, as is often the case with the Big Performances.

WHO NEEDS IT?!?!
Here, Phoenix comments on the use of “subtlety” in acting.

The action shows a really good command of space, something we note in a lot of ’80s films. In fact, this may be one of the latest examples of a director really commanding space in his action sequences. You could say, “Well, it’s the arena, Blake,” but Lucas would go on to use an Arena in “Attack of the Clones” and it was just decoration. The arena amounted to nothing, in terms of limiting or controlling the actions of the characters. What’s more, Scott’s command of the space extends from the opening battle scene to the climactic confrontation between Commodous’ troops and the gladiators.

There’s also considerable suspense here. We are carried along by the emotional arc of Crowe’s character (Maximus!), seeing his personal plans for vengeance rise to the level of potential restoration of the Republic of Rome, and his expansion from a single-minded revenant to possible Hero of the Republic means we start really caring whether or not his plans come to pass. The love story between Crowe and Nielsen is even a bright spot among bright spots of the film, containing as it does the most recognizable characteristics of Judeo-Christian ethics (monogamy, fidelity, respect between the sexes, etc.).

It’s a really fine film that manages to not collapse under its own weight. And at nearly 3 hours long, that’s not an inconsiderable feat.

The children were entertained, if perhaps not overwhelmed by the experience.

Lotta crap. In the air.
In related news, extras from Scott’s films have filed a class action suit against him alleging that he has created a “hostile work environment for lungs”.

The Eagle Huntress

This movie, about a young girl who defies Mongolian tradition by learning how to hunt with Golden Eagles is beautifully shot, but quickly leaves the alert viewer with the sense that this is not at all a documentary, but a slickly packaged and edited “message movie” with a tenuous connection to any sort of reality. And then the credits roll and the name “Morgan Spurlock” comes up and confirms all suspicions. Or at least adds to the mountain of circumstantial evidence.

The movie begins with Father releasing his Golden Eagle to the wild. This scene was necessary because otherwise a person (even an indigenous one) who enslaved a wild animal to hunt other animals could be problematic. This is followed by us learning about his lovely pubescent (and soon to be married, at least theoretically) daughter who wishes to be an eagle hunter, as is common among the men of the tribe’s people. (This is a nomadic tribe, or quasi-nomadic, I suppose, since they live in yurts until it’s too cold to live in yurts, at which point they switch to houses.) We then cut to the old men of the tribe advising us that, well, she can’t be an eagle hunter because, y’know, she’s a girl and girls can’t be eagle hunters. Or at least shouldn’t be eagle hunters.

Then we see her father take her to kidnap an eagle. Then she trains the eagle. Then it’s time for the eagle competition, which she not only wins, but breaks records for “fastest eagle” or something. After which we see the elders once again talking about how, well, that’s nice for tourists, but she’s not an eagle hunter till she, y’know hunts with an eagle. So we see her hunting with an eagle. Which, after three tries (the magical three of narratives), she manages to succeed at. Her eagle kills a fox and her mother will make her a jacket out of it, or something.

Rocky IV was less stagey.

Now, I don’t know. I haven’t researched this people or their customs at all. But for a documentary, this film was remarkably unenlightening. We learn literally nothing about the people this family is supposedly a member of, except that they hunt with eagles (and I’m guessing most of them don’t, in fact, hunt with eagles) and they get married young by modern standards. This is probably true, though it looks a lot less horrible than the life of the Bedouin girls. I don’t think the people were Muslim, and they certainly weren’t the sort of strict Muslim of the Bedouin but the point here is that we never find out.

Like we never find out what they do for a living. At all. Are they just…nomads? With public schools?

Like we never find out what the significance of the eagle competition is. We’re told that our heroine will be competing against 70 other eagle hunters. But how are they picked? How is it that she (and maybe her father, it’s not clear) are the sole competitors from her area? Is it just one family from every tribe? If they’re the representatives for their tribe, exactly how much pull do these village elders who say “girls can’t hunt” have?

And when she gets there, people seem more enchanted than offended by the little girl, and the judges—apparently some sort of tribal elders themselves—do most of their scoring through a subjective 1-10 scale, so given that she wins, what sort of resistance is this girl actually facing to realizing her dream? Is it close to, I don’t know, zero?

Was this whole thing just a weak excuse for you-go-girl-ism? ’cause it really seemed like a weak excuse for you-go-girl-ism.

With an eagle.
The Eagle Huntress casually waits for the school bus.

I’m one of the few people who will actually defend Super Size Me, the “documentary” that made Spurlock famous. It is contrived, for sure, but there at least Spurlock says up front, “I am setting the rules for the game, and here they are.” You can say the rules are stupid. You can say they’re insulting (i.e., that Americans are so weak-willed that they will automatically “super-size” if a minimum wage employee suggests it). But you can’t say you don’t know what they are.

Subsequently, however, I think he discovered that your “documentaries” pack more punch if people don’t know the rules. And I feel like, in order to achieve a major feminist victory, the lede is buried. To wit: This is probably a practice few people care enough about to even get upset that a girl is doing it. Further, much like is suggested by the elders, it probably is a good selling point for tourists to have a girl do it. Just like it’s a good selling point for a documentary to have a girl do it.

Look at 'em. Ready to tear her apart.
The Eagle Huntress fights off the patriarchy.

Which is a shame. If it had gone that way (“Hey, this is a practice of a dying people and here’s a girl fighting to keep it alive!”) you could have had a much better—and much truer—story. At least, that’s my guess. As I said, I’ve done zero research. But I did see this movie, and it only makes its point weakly and in the most contrived way imaginable.

It is lovely, however. Lots of big, impressive landscapes, good-looking people, and truly majestic and formidable looking beasts. I would’ve loved it if it weren’t such a try-hard of a film.

The Boy felt similarly, though perhaps not as strongly. He was inclined to watch and dismiss, by-and-large.

Now THAT would've been a STORY!
The Eagle Huntress on her way to invade Europe.

Israel Film Fest: An Average Story (short, 2016)

Of the three shorts we saw packaged together, this one—An Average Story—was the only one we liked unreservedly. It’s an amusing premise: Our hero is told by a wild-haired statistician that he represents the “average” Israeli man. He’s average height, average weight, and has 2.3 children (his wife is pregnant). He’s sort of bemused, even a little pleased at first, but quickly becomes dismayed at the notion.

In a very Israeli moment, he asks his wife if she thinks he’s average, and she responds, “Only statistically.” This is a beautiful answer, even if our hero’s not sold on it. He’s even less sold on her plan to capitalize on his average-ness, but he ultimately capitulates, and soon they have a cottage industry trading on his “average-ness”.

You don't want to be mean.
A lot of work goes into being “average”.

But of course, with his newfound success, he ceases to be average, culminating in a warm and winning ending where he realizes that losing his extraordinary averageness leaves him extraordinarily appreciative of the very averageness that society at large no longer appreciates.

It’s not an “average” short but it is a very representative short, deeply invested with that Jewish philanthropy and humor that characterizes the best work of the IFF. Definitely worth checking out.

Just ask Fernando Sor.
The great thing about fame is that it’s permanent. Once you have it, you’re set for life!

Israel Film Fest: Anna (short, 2016)

The Boy felt this particular short was a waste of time. It really did seem like a piece of a larger movie which we probably would have regarded as a longer waste of time. The premise is that Anna, who works in a factory and lives with her 10(ish) boy finds herself at loose ends one evening when the boy’s father wants to have him over for the night. She wants to pull a double-shift to fill the time but that’s not allowed so instead she decides to try to get herself laid.

Well, you know.
Often, when choosing between working a double-shift in the sweatshop and sex…

This is kind of a sad effort—this one of a middle-aged woman sort of indiscriminately trolling for sex—and while the whole film is competently put together and the acting is fine and the camerawork (considering the limitations of the budget) has some well done aspects, we’re not really given much to hang on to here. Should we root for the woman’s promiscuity/empowerment? Are we supposed to be pleased that she doesn’t care if her lover is married, or particularly interested in her, or that her son wakes up to a strange man in the apartment?

I don’t know. Nothing makes me feel as old-fashioned as these European ideas of sex. (And they are, essentially European, as much of “liberal” Israel is.)

But literally we learn nothing about Anna except that she’s still reasonably competent at finding someone to have sex with her, which isn’t much of a feat for a woman.

This film does feature gratuitous nudity, though, which would turn up in other films in this year’s IFF. (We saw this short right after “The Mute’s House”.)

Still kinda sad.
Annas clean up pretty good, tho’.

Israel Film Festival: The Mute’s House (short, 2016)

Well, look, it’s a bad situation, this whole Israel/Palestine thing. The Israelis want to live in peace and the Palestinians don’t want them to live at all, and this is going to create some bizarre side-effects.

Nothing I could add would be in good taste.
Like little kids living in episodes of the Twilight Zone.

In this case, a house in an area (on the West Bank?) that has been evacuated (because the Palestinians kept using it as a way to attack Israel) is still being lived in by a woman and her son. The woman is deaf—not really mute from what I could tell, despite the title, or at least mute-by-choice. Like, I think her vocal chords work, she just doesn’t use them, because (surprise!) Palestinians aren’t particularly generous with regard to handicapped people.

She lives in the house with her son who has only one arm. Apparently, and sort of refreshingly, this is a congenital defect. That is, his arm was not blown off by an errant rocket or in retaliation for some perceived slight to Mohammed. He seems like a sweet kid. He (and maybe his mother) are the only ones allowed to cross from the evacuated area into Palestine. Palestinians, possibly including his father who lives on the other side of the wall, use him to smuggle booze into Palestine where it is, of course, forbidden.

The nerve!
None of this would happen if the Jews wouldn’t insist on, you know, being alive.

It’s a living.

As I say, it’s a messed up situation. The sort of thing that happens when one people is expected to share a country with people who wish to kill them. This short, one bundled with two others as part of the Israel Film Festival, was interesting without being particularly enlightening.

Back to the Future (1985)

You never know, you know? Movies that you loved at the time may, on a repeated viewing, turn out not to be as great as you remember them. Especially really hyped movies like, say, Back To The Future.

Fortunately, that’s not the case with Back To The Future. (Psych!)

Yeah, it's a long way for a lame joke.
Burn! Burned you like this cheesy composite shot didn’t come anywhere near burning Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.

Its not just comical, but laughable, portrayal of the ’50s has lapped around to become quaint, like those Judy Garland movies about the gilded age: A reflection of a sort of smug modernity that we’re far enough from to find charming. (OK, I wasn’t bugged by the representation of the ’50s at the time, though I realized how exaggerated it was, but my dad wasn’t amused. Though he did like the movie.) And its representation of the ’80s is also similarly aged, however sincere it was at the time. (Huey Lewis and the News was “too loud”?)

This was before we politicized everything, however, so we can look at this without having to analyze what they were trying to say about the patriarchy or white power (though, naturally, a big deal Must Be Made about the gag where Michael J. Fox invents rock-and-roll). And the upshot is: This movie is such a tight construction of action, suspense and comedy that it’s greatest sin may be that it’s just too darn slick.

Wilson's a workin' man.
As slick as Biff’s (Thomas F. Wilson) hair.

I mean, here we have a time travel plot: A device that would be utterly annihilated in the ’90s by “Star Trek: Voyager” and a bunch of other lazily constructed TV and movie crap to the extent where when you see a time-travel plot to day, you almost have to roll your eyes. At least I do, because it almost invariably mean that the writer(s) have an unlimited supply of deus ex machina and they’ll  use it in a way that would make Homer blush. But here, as in some other ’80s movies (Terminator, e.g.), it’s done right. Not because it makes sense (how can a time travel plot ever really make sense?) but because it sets up the rules and it plays by them.

To wit: Marty has accidentally prevented his parents from getting together, and he must repair that or suffer the fate of non-existence, as shown by a photograph he has of his siblings where they start to fade out. Of course, this makes no sense, since they’d just vanish entirely, instantly, along with him as soon as he caused the problem—which, if he didn’t exist to cause it, how could he un-exist himself?—but there’s no fun in that. The point is, there’s a rule, and the movie expertly trades on the suspense generated by this rule, taking Marty’s fate down to the wire.

I wish modern filmmakers would grasp that: There have to be stakes, obstacles and limits on getting around them. But they’re too busy counting their billions of dollars, I guess.

It...kinda looks like Trump.
Probably lighting their cigars with moneys. (From the sequel.)

Even though the basic outcome of the movie is assured from the get-go—there’s literally no chance that this film can have an unhappy ending—the film manages to play the suspense angle relentlessly and successfully. Marty’s mom falls in love with him, instead of his dad, and all of his attempts to redirect that go awry. We’re pretty sure that Marty’s not going to screw up his history, but the movie gives us a twist there. We’re pretty sure he’s going to “get back in time”, but the movie dares us to believe it as every thing goes wrong on the night when the lightning strikes the clock tower. Doc Brown’s fate. Biff’s fate. Marty’s dad’s fate.

This movie sells you on outcomes you know just can’t happen, and convincingly. There’s no padding in this film: If it’s not plot or character development, it’s comedy (and it’s probably comedy and plot or character development).

Anyway, Zemeckis (and constant co-writer Bob Gale) has never been better; it was as if Spielberg’s competence and childlike love of cinema was contagious. I could probably ask a bunch of people who have seen this movie to draw a map of Hill Valley and the Twin Pines Mall and get roughly the same map. It’s the command of space that predominates these films, that gives them a thrill you don’t get from CGI. Alan Silvestri does a serviceable John Williams impression for the score, which is still memorable (if not on the level of Jaws or Star Wars). The effects—actually pretty sparing!—hold up very well. Even the old age makeup works! (And that almost never happens!)

Really!
It works better than some of the stills would have you believe.

If there’s a weak part to the movie, it’s probably Michael J. Fox. Marty’s character is a two-dimensional ’80s high-school cliche—this is raised to ridiculous levels in the sequels—and there’s nothing terribly wrong with that for the purposes of this film. It just seemed to me that Fox’s mid-20s high-school senior was more annoying (and less endearing) than I recalled from my original viewing. Fox was at the height of his fame, of course, and there’s maybe a bit more crossover between his Alex P. Keaton and Marty McFly than makes sense. I don’t know.

The kids dug it. The Boy made pretty much the same observations regarding the command of space and suspense of the film, while The Flower commented on how impressed she was by the old age makeup. Perhaps amusingly, the only actor they know from the film is Crispin Glover—from his remake of Willard!

It’s always nice when a classic lives up to your memories of it.

Leah still looks great!
I guess Crispin Glover didn’t show up at the reunion.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

I like Mel Brooks, in theory. He seems like a nice bloke, his wife was the incomparable Anne Bancroft, and what’s not to love about a guy who taunted the Nazis in WWII? I mean, from close range.

It's a good bit.
In another life, I could’ve called him “buck and wing” friend.

But facts is facts, and the fact is, he’s never made me laugh much. The “Get Smart” TV show made me laugh, but after creating it, he had little to do with it. I listed the movies of his I had seen to my Twitter pal (and perhaps only compare to Bancroft) @Juleslaland—Twelve Chairs, High Anxiety, Silent Movie, History of the World, Robin Hood: Men In Tights—and she attributed my lack of laughs to my unfortunate selection.

I’m not so sure about that, but upon taking the kids to see Young Frankenstein (as part of the theater’s remembrance of the late Gene Wilder), I did, in fact, laugh. Mel Brooks, of course, makes no appearance in the film. But even when Young Frankenstein doesn’t make me laugh, I have loved its devotion to the original five movies (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man).

As glorious as it is silly.
They got some of the original equipment, even.

The incredibly broad humor—which is what I associated with Brooks—still doesn’t make me laugh, and I almost can’t comprehend how it was a hit in 1974, but it at least now has a kind of charming quaintness to it. The movie, for me, seems to peak in the build-up to the iconic “Putting on the Ritz” scene which is, perhaps, somewhat dampened by its own iconic-ness. The kids are well familiar with the scene from its “Family Guy” riff. (“Family Guy” motto: “Why write an original joke when  you can stealreference someone else’s?”) The Flower was elated to discover this was the movie it came from. (She hadn’t realized until that moment.) For me, I think I have some reservations about it because it stops being Frankenstein and starts being King Kong. (Hey, my taste doesn’t have to make any more sense than anyone else’s.)

There are a lot of good bits here, and the movie is pleasing over all, though what stands out most prominently are the performances. Feldman (whom I didn’t much like as a kid) is amazing. Even when the jokes he’s telling are older than the 2,000 year old man. Wilder is the perfect combination of charming and goofball. Teri Garr is adorable and also funny—not just a generic cutie. Nothing need be said about Madeline Khan, I trust, except that her role as the uptight fiancee is too small. Peter Boyle channels just enough Karloff to give his monster sympathy along with laughs. And Cloris Leachman was already hilariously playing mean old ladies over 40 years ago.

And all you can see is Teri's boobs.
They’re all worth watching at once.

That’s a lot of big names in one movie—Gene Hackman! Prime Gene Hackman!—and it’s become easy to forget (until you rewatch) the great performance of the late Ken Mars as Inspector Kemp. Mars worked for another 30+ years after this role as voice actor for decades as well as tons of character roles. (You may recall him as “Malcolm in the Middle”‘s Otto, on the ranch Francis inexplicably finds himself in latter seasons.) In a town full of mostly English accented people, he’s inexplicably German accented.

Or was it the other way around? It was seemingly random who would speak how at any time. But that is probably my favorite aspect of this film. The little unexplained touches like Frankenstein taking a train to New York City, and staying on the train to Transylvania. (Frankenstein was no more in Transylvania than his assistant was named “Igor”, but that’s missing the forest for the underwater trees.) The fact that as he moves east, he moves back in time.

Oh, Madeline.
KHAAAAANNNN!

It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t try. But it hangs together as a story, and this leads to the other thing I like most about it: Wilder has said that he loved “Frankenstein” but he wanted a happy ending, and so he wrote this. And above all, there’s a good-natured feeling throughout. Like Blazing Saddles, Brooks’ other big 1974 hit (though not as obviously), it’s nigh impossible to conceive of this movie being made today. And yet, it’s so benign: There’s not a mean bone in this monster’s body.

It’s not surprising that, when asked, Wilder said he didn’t act in movies for the last decades of his life because nothing good came along. (Well, that and he really enjoyed writing his novels.) But outside of kid’s movies—something that must be considered a missed opportunity for Disney/Dreamworks/Pixar, never having enticed him into a role—and not always even in kid’s movies, you seldom see a comedy that isn’t at someone’s expense.

But I like to think that will one day change, and then?

I know it's not this scene, but I'm on a roll.
At last, sweet mystery of life, I’ve found yooooou!

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

In a typically contrarian manner, I did not like the original Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was okay, as I often explain, right up until the submarine ride across the Atlantic. To which most people say “What sub trip?” And I remind them, in pursuit of the Nazis, Indy jumps on a German sub in the New World (maybe New York or Florida or something) and then rides on top of it all the way across the ocean. This is a good way to win bets, so few people seem to remember this scene.

They even say "DIVE!"
The appropriately named “Overthinking It” site has an article on this very thing.

Suspension of disbelief lost. I kept thinking, “What happens if the submarine submerges at any point in its 3,000 mile journey?” (Per this site, the Germans are actually saying “Dive!”) It’s one thing to engage in improbable (or in the case of climbing under the truck, impossible*) activities, and another to just figure you’ll get lucky on your  month long trip across the ocean. I forget how long it was actually supposed to take, but it really wouldn’t matter. All that would have to happen is for the boat to submerge halfway through the trip.

I had basically gotten over it by the time the Temple of Doom came out, though, having gained some appreciation for the silly serial antics of the genre, and so Doom came to be my favorite of the series, even while others particularly disliked it. I forget who, but someone described it as the longest five-minute movie ever, which is pretty accurate in the sense that the two hours flew by because you don’t get a lot of chance to breathe.

It’s fast enough, in fact, that it doesn’t seem slow even by today’s standards, though it doesn’t seem as frantic as it did 30 years ago.

The ride was actually in the script for Raiders.
What movie DOESN’T have a mine ride these days?

Upon reflection, Doom feels like it might have been an attempt to outdo the original. For example, the original features Nazis. You can’t go wrong having Nazi villains, but it’s hard to top and if you don’t want to repeat yourself, what do you do? Well, you make your baddies a brainwashing thuggie death cult that kills villages, steals children to work in their iPhone factories, and literally pulls people’s hearts out of their chests.

Said scene being the reason we have PG-13 now. The heart-pulling scene is so comic book, though, so bloodless—not only does the guy’s chest close up afterwards, he doesn’t even suffer from the lack of a heart—that the notion of it warranting an R-rating seems as unlikely as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre warranting a PG because of its relative bloodlessness. The tone of Doom is fantastic from the get-go.

HMOs, amirite?
I mean: Sure, he’s upset—what with having his heart ripped out and all—but he’s otherwise pretty hale until they lower him into the lava.

This may be another reason I liked it more than the first. If it had come first, you’d be prepared for the silliness in Raiders. The opening scene, while not mystical, is wonderfully over the top. It’s a masterful ballet that shows Spielberg’s command of space, and whereas anyone might have one MacGuffin, Spielberg has two: A priceless gem and a lifesaving serum.

A lot of people voiced complaints about Short Round (later seen in The Goonies) and Spielberg’s second wife, Kate Capshaw, but the former is not as annoying as one might think and the latter actually does a lot of good physical comedy. Interestingly, the kids objected to any characterization of Capshaw as annoying, which suggested to me (not surprisingly) that one’s exposure to the news surrounding a film can influence one’s idea of the film.

The special effects largely work, although the composites are sometimes shockingly bad. The mattes are obvious but, as mattes usually do, serve their purpose despite their fakiness. The mine/rollercoaster is still good, even though it has been done to death since the movie came out.

All-in-all, it’s a perfect movie for a grade-school boy, and the grade-school boy within all of us. I’m sure such a shockingly colonial representation of other cultures would not be allowed today, sadly.

Anyway, we all liked it.

Although I don't think the kids are allowed to work shirtless.
This movie also anticipated Apple’s iPhone factories.