It Happened One Night (1934)

The Flower has been excited since this film turned up on the “flashback” schedule back in December. Years ago, I gave her a CD of Judy Garland’s first hits, and she fell in love with the “Dear Mr. Gable” song which was melded with the 1913 classic “You Made Me Love You”.

Dear Mr. Gable,
I am writing this to you
and I hope that you will read it so you’ll know
My heart beats like a hammer
and I stutter and I stammer
every time I see you at the picture show
I guess I’m just another fan of yours
and I thought I’d write and tell you so

And if you don’t wanna read this, well, you don’t have to.
But I just had to tell you about the time I saw you in “It Happened One Night”.
That was the first time I ever saw you, and I knew right then you were the nicest fella in the movies!
I guess it was ’cause you acted so, well so natural like!
Not like a real actor at all, but just like any fella you’d meet at school or at a party.

Besides becoming a Judy Garland fan, she really wanted to see a Clark Gable picture, and we got the opportunity two weeks in a row, this film and Gone With The Wind. And, the kids having recently seen It’s A Wonderful Life had come to learn of Mr. Capra’s work firsthand.

So much style.
On the road with Clark and Claudette.

The Flower had also come to see some of the more iconic scenes in the picture, like Claudette Colbert hitching a ride by hiking up her skirt a little bit and the classic “Walls of Jericho” divider—a blanket that Gable hangs up to demonstrate (however sarcastically) his good intentions with regard to Ms. Colbert.

The premise is familiar, even at the time, even with this film sometimes being considered the first “screwball” comedy: Colbert wants to marry a ne’er-do-well so her father has her locked in her room, she escapes and takes to the road in an attempt to reach her true love, and finds an unlikely assistant in a cantankerous, unlikable, and inevitable romantic partner (Gable). So, it’s a road picture, a romance, and a screwball comedy.

It’s also tremendously dated.

Women used be so much tougher.
“Racy” in 1934. But look at those heels she’s tramping cross-country in!

But it works. Oh, how it works. And I think it works because it never forgets that it’s there to entertain. More than anything, in fact, it wants to entertain. It has no aspirations—nobody involved in the making thereof thought much of it, including Gable (who was being punished by MGM for his affair with Joan Crawford), Colbert (who bitched the whole time and only did it because it was a short, four-week shoot for which she got a double-salary of $50K) and Capra (who wrote the script but realized there must be something terribly wrong since everyone turned down the parts).

You could say that it’s because Colbert and Gable were icons who worked well, somehow, together, and while that’s true, their later collaboration (“Boom Town”, helmed by the capable Jack Conway) is all but forgotten.

Besides each scene being designed to delight the viewer, there’s a peculiar Capra trait that stands out for me here, and I just realized it’s true of all of the Capra pictures I’ve seen: Every character, no matter how minor, is meant to be a real, relatable and also rather delightful, too. If you haven’t seen this picture, you can think of It’s A Wonderful Life: Apart from the evil Mr. Potter, the characters tend to be both relatable and likable, even when they’re being cranky. Just think of some very minor characters, like the middle-aged grouch goading George into kissing Mary, e.g., or Bert & Ernie, or Violet. Flawed, certainly, but having an almost realer-than-life feel, just by not feeling like they’re there solely to read lines or advance the plot.

Does look like Capra.
Like the bus full of people singing “Flying Trapeze”. (Allegedly the director.)

There’s also something so uniquely American about this: Gable is a rough, blue-collar guy while Colbert is a spoiled rich girl, and this movie manages to poke fun at both without making any real political statements. This kind of thing, come to think of it, was a lot more common. While Gable certainly shows up Colbert more than once, she gets in her licks, too. It’s almost as if they’re saying a person can be good even if they are rich!

Which is one of the ways, I suppose, this film comes off dated.

Another way is that Gable and Colbert act out a little dysfunctional domestic-abuse melodrama to hide from the private dicks her father has sent out to find her, and this is kind of played for laughs. I tend to see this as: Once upon a time, people understood that this sort of thing happened, and the fact that it was unsavory was no reason to pretend it didn’t or to turn it into a victim narrative.

Colbert, at right around 30, was rather old to play the role, but it doesn’t matter. She manages to ingenue her way through it. Gable, about 32, probably looks older than he was but he was Gable. Even if (or maybe because) their hearts weren’t in it, you can really see, and kinda buy, the whole wacky relationship. Which is after all the point.

We all loved it.

But perhaps he wore shirts susbequently due to the Hays Office, ey?
Gable’s lack of undershirt supposedly hurt T-shirt sales, so he wore them in his subsequent pictures.

Bitter Harvest

Well, golly, it’s been several months since I’ve asked the immortal question: Why is the New York Times allowed to exist? When not slandering the American public, they’re plumping murderous communists like Stalin.

Which is only obliquely related to today’s film Bitter Harvest, about Stalin’s purge of Ukrainians through starvation, that references the NYT’s perfidy with only a brief reference to a newspaper (printed in a font that looks an awful lot like Times Roman) which says something like “Things pretty swell in USSR despite some food shortages.” But any opportunity to remind the world that the Times is basically out to Kill Us All Morally, Spiritually and Physically should be taken, in my opinion.

She's a little touchy on the genocide thing, I think.
The Flower doesn’t like this one much.

But I digress.

Bitter Harvest is the story of Yuri and Natalka who fall in love as children, and come of age when the evil-but-lethargic Lenin is replaced by an evil-but-energetic Stalin. Stalin is collectivizing the farms where Lenin decided that would require more brutality than he was comfortable with. Stalin was not only comfortable with it, he greets resistance by gratuitously taking all the food in a deliberate plot to starve the Ukrainians.

I’ve read that it’s not certain that Stalin meant to starve all those Ukrainians, because some people feel that would make it better.

Lots and lots of vodka.
But only vodka makes it better.

After a scene where Yuri convinces Natalka that he loves her even if she is cursed to bring him misfortune, Stalin’s starvation policies drive Yuri to try to find work in the city. In the city he gets a taste of the increasing repression and finds his way back to the village, where Natalka and the villagers have been having a rough time of their own.

It’s not surprising that this has a HUGE Rotten Tomatoes split. What is surprising, perhaps, is that this has one of the biggest splits I’ve ever seen, with critics giving the film a 10% and audiences giving it a whopping 80%. That’s bigger than God’s Not Dead‘s 15/76! Which I think tells you that critics love Communism more than they hate Jesus.

So, what’s the deal with this? Like many films that don’t color inside the politically correct lines, it’s uneven. I could speculate that the Hollywood blacklist chases away talent or that the money guys decide to interfere when they shouldn’t, but whatever, there aren’t a lot of movies that in the Forbidden Zone that are well polished (see Heaven Is For Real and Miracles from Heaven for exceptions).

Hollywood blackists: Classic!
“There go our careers.”

In this case, this is an epic story that (minus credits) doesn’t clock in at much more than 90 minutes, so a great many things are not well-developed. Stalin, for example, makes a brief couple of cameos (played with scenery chewing Vader-esque evil by Gary Oliver). There’s a pro-Communist Ukrainian rally. There’s suppression of same. There’s an actual military resistance, immediately put down. And so on. In short, there’s a conflict between the magnitude of the film’s ambitions and its actual budget.

The movie also starts out rough, just in terms of editing. This makes the two leads look a little clunky.

There’s a kind of badass action scene in the beginning that made me almost think they were going to action-hero the whole film up, which could’ve been cool. But the rest is fairly straight, until the third act military resistance.

After the first act, the movie settles down a bit and seems better put together. The principles (Max Irons, Samantha Barks) are appealing enough though not developed as well as I’d have liked. And it definitely moves. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is pleasantly derivative and consistently good, as is Douglas Milsome’s cinematography (which has flashes of brilliance).

We all liked it, for all its flaws, including The Boy who was pretty sure the film was going to lose him up front. I don’t know if we’d say it was four-out-of-five stars but it’s sure not one-half-out-of-five.

This could be the cover of a romance novel!
Next up for Irons and Barks: A remake of Ridley Scott’s “Legend”.

John Wick 2

The thing about action movies is that when they’re done well, they look effortless. In fact, a common critical sneer against the genre is that anyone who can slap together a few car chases, gun fights and explosions can do it—and by implication, “serious” drama films are much harder, requiring “real” acting and “real” character development and so on. But this is exactly backwards.

Drama is easy. You put a recognizable character in a recognizable situation and you’re halfway to the goal line. Think about your own standards when watching a drama: A single actor can carry a drama, even if it’s not very well written, shot or scored. Comedy is probably the hardest. But action is a close second, since the cardinal sin of both is boredom, and if you’re not laughing—or thrilled!—the movie is failing.

Which roughly translates to "Haters gonna hate".
The original concept for this tattoo was “OSORES ODIET”

And if there’s any evidence of the truth of this, it’s that there just aren’t that many good action movies (by percentage). And this led to the pleasant surprise of John Wick: Chapter 2, widely regard as substantially better than the first (which itself was very well regarded).

I had snuck off to see the first one without The Boy, because he was a little too jaded by too many glowingly positive reviews of mediocre comic book films to be swayed, but both he and The Flower were with me for Chapter 2 because you really don’t need to see the first one to get this. (Plot summary for movie 1: Bad guys steal John Wick’s car and kill his dog. John Wick Kills All The People.) The producers found a loose thread from the first movie regarding Wick’s car to launch into the sequel, but this is more thankfully more of a catalyst to a new story than an attempt to keep the old one going.

In Chapter 2, someone Wick gave a marker to in order to get out of the underworld life, calls it in. Santino is an Italian mobster who wants Wick to kill his sister, who’s the head of the crime family, so that Santino can take it over. Complications ensue.

Or "ARF ARF ARF ARF ARF KEANU"
The dog looks nervous. “Complications? What complications?”

The thing that made the first movie so enjoyable was that beyond competent action sequences (including a command of the space in which the action takes place that is sorely missing from most modern action films), the film hinted at an epic underworld civilization with its own set of rules. An overeager assassin breaking the rules was a major plot point, in fact. (I credit this to a Hong Kong influence, though I haven’t researched it.) So, it’s not just 2 hours of Keanu Reeves shooting at people, which might get tiring no matter how well Mr. Reeves does it.

The second film fleshes this out in an almost Lankhmarian way: Besides Ian McShane reprising his role as the hotel owner, we’re introduced to The Bowery King (essentially the king of the beggars), played by Lawrence Fishburne in a nice Matrix callback. In this situation, Wick finds Santino leveraging the Underworld’s rules against him over and over again. (This movie reinforced my belief that everyone in New York City is a criminal. ) With someone skilled at manipulating the civilization’s rules, Wick is in a paranoid situation from which there is no apparent escape.

How does it go?
“Take the blue pill and your action franchise will suck. Take the red pill and…wait, I may have that backwards.”

There will be a sequel of course. Like many second movies in a trilogy, the end here demands it. It’s probably the fastest 2 hours I’ve spent in a theater since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom so I’m not likely to mind.

But beyond action (and lots of dead people) the movie is rich with characters that it draws better than a lot of dramas—and does so very succinctly. Claudia Gerini (The Passion of the Christ) has just a short time on screen, but it’s a memorable time. The Heavy in this film is played by Ruby Rose (in the latest installments of XXX and Resident Evil this year), who manages to not be a tired tiny-girl-heavy cliché somehow. You can just tell when a movie really cares—it uses characters to paint a picture, even when they’re small parts. (Think the candy-stealing terrorist in Die Hard, e.g.) It was nice to see house favorite Peter Serafinowicz (of the Cornetto trilogy and the recent “Tick” reboot), and of course Ian McShane just has to sit around and intone to make magic happen.

Speaking of caring, the cinematography is great. Just like a film can do more with characters than have them recite lines that advance the plot, and camerawork can do more than communicate one guy shooting or punching another, the right setting and lighting can do more than provide a place for said punching and shooting and talking to happen.

The kids enjoyed it. I also enjoyed it but I didn’t find myself quite as captivated as with the first film, perhaps because my expectations were lower for that. John Wick: Chapter 2 is one of those movies that makes action look easy.

What? It's the "OK" sign. What were you thinking?
She speaks sign language, but only one sign.

Sleepless in Seattle (1993)

Well, hell. I had gotten out of going to see When Harry Met Sally. And it’s not that I don’t like that movie, but I don’t find myself nostalgic for the “great” movies of the past—well, honestly, not for any of the movies released in my lifetime. I tend to assume I regarded them as better than they were, just because of them being au courant, which makes rediscovering films like The Jerk and Young Frankenstein all the more pleasant. But The Boy had taken His Girl had gone to see it and his verdict: “It’s funny. It’s good as a comedy. But the characters aren’t interesting.”

Harsh, but fair.

She didn't mean to wreck the romcom.
Misty-eyed Meg Ryan agrees.

On the other hand, When Harry Met Sally is considered something of a classic whereas Sleepless in Seattleisn’t, although it probably is the best film Nora Ephron directed.  Anyway, after seeing An Affair To Remember, it was sort of mandatory and we actually all rather liked it, with the references to the classic Grant/Kerr film giving the film a bit of a lift, as it was so fresh in our minds. Some random points of interest:

  • Unlike when I first saw it, I knew just about every single song in the film by heart—those are my jams now! Not those renditions, which were (and still are) hipper and more contemporary than what I listen to (which is pre-WWII recordings) but, hey, that doesn’t happen often at all.
  • Nora really liked “Somewhere Over The Rainbow”, didn’t she? She uses Ray Charles’ version here and I think she used Willie Nelson’s in You’ve Got Mail. At almost the exact same point in the narrative, if memory serves.
  • Holy crap: The cars in 1993 were ridiculously ugly. You see a lot of ugly cars in movies made since the late ’60s/early ’70s, but there are always a lot of pretty ones around as well, too, from earlier eras. In 1993, they’re all boxy crap. A reminder that Federal regulation (whether American or Soviet) ends up making cars like the Yugo and the Trabant.
  • Pretty sure Meg Ryan is nuts. Hard to believe, at this point, she was America’s sweetheart.
  • I don’t mean the actress. I’m agnostic there. But her character is a stalker who abuses the power of the Internet (just pre-web! so a high-tech stalker!) to hunt down her widower.
  • Cute to have a misunderstanding with Rita Wilson, considering she had been his wife for about 5 years at the time.
  • Holy cow! Tom Hanks has two kids from a previous marriage! (Previous to Rita.)
  • Tiramisu! Ha, I didn’t know what that was either! But when I found out I did love it!

But I digress.

I would, too. Wouldn't you?
Rita Wilson protects her man from a predatory Meg Ryan.

The movie works somehow. It probably shouldn’t. As I mentioned in my Affair review, the “Ephron Apartheid”, where romances and just plain romcoms end up being chick flicks, while not Ephron’s fault, probably, can be seen here—as Ryan’s character is objectively unhinged. Unethical. And really, really self-absorbed. This is a dramatic change over Affair, where the characters’ senses of ethics and concern for each other is the cause of their misery, here our characters are the guy who doesn’t really know what’s going on, and the gal who (at least rightly) realizes the perfect man isn’t the her perfect man, at least in part because she’s chasing unicorns.

It’s romance not just swept up in passion, but completely un-moored from reality.

It's a little weird, is what I'm saying.
“Let’s just let her keep the teddy bear and get out of here.”

Despite all this, it works. The gags are nice. And it does have that old-time feel, in the sense that it knows its job is to keep you entertained. A lot of recent movies—the ones that have really taking the “save the cat” thing to heart—seem to be padding in-between set pieces. This really wants each scene to say something. It does rely heavily on the charms of Hanks and Ryan, perhaps more than Affair relies on the charms of Grant and Kerr, but we shan’t be churlish about that: Romance movies (comedy or otherwise) can’t work without heaping helpings of charisma, and this movie fades out before any of the awkward questions need to be asked.

So, yeah, we all gave it thumbs up, which is actually pretty high praise.

One of the first people I ever chatted with online was the delightful Mary Ann Madden, who was good friends with Nora Ephron (and a lot of luminaries from the ’60s and ’70s, as I later learned). She had gotten cancer in the late ’70s/early ’80s and someone had set her up with CompuServe, so she could interact with people while recovering. How early an adopter was she? Her handle (’cause it was like CB-radio, so we had “handles”) was darling@aol.com. (Update: She was obviously an early AOL adopter, too. Her CS address was in that funky octal form they used, like 70303,373.)  She suggested to me that a certain “reticence” was wise, as far as divulging personal details online goes. (It’s good advice, even if I took it to extremes. Like, this blog being the first place I mentioned I had kids, even to online people with whom I had worked for over a decade. Heh.)

I think about her often and I could never track her down post-Compuserve. I thought about her again writing this review and discovered she had died last summer of a stroke. It’s sad, but she was 82 and the cancer never did get her, so I’m at least happy she beat that. Godspeed, Mary Ann.

An Affair To Remember (1957)

Sixty years later, a big part of the reason the Cary Grant/Deborah Kerr romantic flick is remembered is due to the 1993 Nora Ephron romance Sleepless In Seattle. The later film was not just an homage to Affair but part of Ephron’s apartheid: The idea that not only do men and women enjoy different movies, but that they must enjoy different movies. It’s probably not her fault but in her wake, the romantic-comedy became “chick flick” country whereas it had, in the past, been more for general audiences. Romances, too, used to be not the exclusive domain of women, unlike now, in what we might call the “Nicholas Sparks era”.

I mention this because I had never seen this movie before and I loved it.

Despite the ridiculous back projection.
That’s a lot of “charming”, right there.

Directed by Leo McCarey whose career spanned the silents before hitting such highlights as Duck Soup and The Awful Truth, this isn’t a screwball comedy or even a romantic comedy. It’s just a straight-up romance from a time when that meant keeping the audience entertained in-between the heavy petting (the audience’s petting, I mean).

Grant and Kerr meet on a cruise, the former playing a ladies’ man who’s finally (and famously) decided to settle down and the latter also being engaged to a staid character who has sent her on a cruise because, holy cow, who knew Cary Grant would be there? Our previously timid about commitment characters discover, however, that they are wildly (and deeply!) attracted to each other but also unwilling to do anything rash and stupid, and so decide to split up for six months to take care of their (ahem) situations and then, if they still feel the same way, meet on top of the Empire State Building.

It’s actually a pretty decent and sensible thing, and you find yourself liking our heroes because of it, and not just because they’re Deborah Kerr and Cary Grant.

Yep.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though: It’s a factor.

Well, things go wrong, of course, and our characters (now single in the world but pining for each other nonetheless) drift about in the second half of the film where misunderstandings and lack of information conspire to keep them apart.

A good romance has suspense, you know? This has suspense. One presumes that the conventions of the genre will get our characters together but it’s not safe presumption, and most importantly, it doesn’t feel safe. There could be a tragic outcome.

And I suspect, if I saw it again, I would still be unsure what the outcome would be.

I liked it. The Flower liked it. The Boy liked it. A good movie’s a good movie, folks. Don’t let your chromosomes define you. At least as far as what movies to watch. Maybe for what bathrooms to use, but you do you.

Looks like her, doesn't it? Maybe it's Tippi Hedren!
Love hurts. (The weird thing about this, though, is that Melanie Griffith is sitting behind them! (And she was born the month AFTER the movie was released!)

The Salesman

We’ve sung the praises of Persian director Asghar Farhadi before on these pages. A Separation was a truly fine film, as was (to a lesser degree, perhaps) The Past. The Boy doesn’t remember Farhadi’s last two films all that well, but he was game to see this new one on vaguely remembering that they were good. This film would go up against the bizarre Toni Errdman and a film that was in our all-around best for 2016, A Man Called Ove. Go up against and win, in fact—a situation The Boy would refer to as “bullshit”.

And he’s not wrong. The Salesman takes Farhadi’s penchant for low-key drama and dials it down into pusillanimity.

The premise is this, an actor and his wife move into a new flat where a sketchy former tenant had lived and, one evening, when the wife hears the front-doorbell, she buzzes her husband in and leaves the front door ajar. Only it’s not her husband, and when her husband does come home, he finds blood everywhere. The neighbors have had to take her to the hospital.

The movie is terribly vague about what happened here. Farhadi used a similar gag effectively in his previous two films (particularly A Separation) to force the audience to reevaluate the narrative he previously lead them to believe, and—at least I thought—bring out the repression of the Iranian regime, where a mistake or a convenience can bring a death sentence.

I understand Mr. Farhadi lectured Americans on their civil rights record, though. Which is interesting. No, wait, it’s that other thing: boringly predictable and hypocritical.

Booooooo!
Here, Farhadi uses his Oscar to demonstrate how to throw gays from rooftops.

Here, the issue at play is that Rana, the wife (played ably by Taraneh Alidoosti, Absolute Rest) who may have been sexually assaulted would have to defend herself against an Islamic-minded court, which would ask why she left the door ajar and why she buzzed someone who wasn’t her husband into the apartment. As in A Separation, in a repressive theocracy, a mistake can become not just a sin, but a mortal sin with corporal consequences.

The problem is, Farhadi’s a little too coy here. When husband Emad (Shahab Hosseini, A Separation, and who plays with Alidoosti on the TV show “Shahrzad”) finds the culprit and seeks to exact revenge, the murkiness of what actually happened becomes all too murky, and the timeline constructed for the crime begins to fall apart (and not in a good dramatic way, but in a way that just seems sloppy). If I have gathered the story correctly—and this may be a spoiler—Rana was not sexually assaulted at all, she was simply startled by a guy who was not entirely a Good Guy. Not fully on the up-and-up, and maybe not above taking a little bit of advantage of an opportunity.

Worth a slap, sure. Maybe even a good slug. Probably not murder. And I’m not saying he is murdered, by the way, but our hero—we’ll say that’s Emad—goes through a journey similar to ours and still has murder in his heart, regardless of whether he goes through with it.

What? I'll stop bringing it up when they stop doing it!
Here our heroes have gathered to watch the latest homosexual being thrown from a building.

He doesn’t, actually. Nobody goes through with much of anything here. The dramatic action is paralyzed with people who have no moral clarity.

The irony, mostly lost on The Boy, is that Emad and Rana are playing in a production of Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, and Emad has literally no insight or empathy into the antagonist in his own life, whose character is not unlike Willy Loman. This parallel is conspicuously drawn by Farhadi, and I would regard it as a slap in the face of actors generally (whether it’s true or not that acting gives one no insight or empathy toward other humans), and kind of an interesting counterpoint to his winning the award.

The Boy just felt it just wasted his time. I would note, even if I cautiously recommended it to a few, that while some actors lack the courage to empathize enough with the characters they play to see their parallels in real life, some writer/directors lack the courage to make a genuine statement. (“Nobody knows” not being a genuine statement.) And there were a lot to be made here: About theocratic repression, about the need for revenge, about forgiveness, and on and on. None are actually made because Emad can’t even decide to be wrong. He can only wait for things to happen.

That’s not good in life, but it’s terrible in drama.

I'm not a fan of THAT play either, come to think of it.
See, Biff, everybody around me is so false that I’m constantly lowering my ideals…

Gone With The Wind (1939)

Oh, fiddle-dee-dee, you never know what modern kids will think of a four-hour movie about a conniving civil-war Jezebel like Scarlett O’Hara, and my kids were a little bit dubious (as they often are with longer films) and The Boy’s Girl dropped out, I think having seen it recently on TV (boo!) or something. But they both loved loved loved it, and couldn’t scarce believe it had taken all of four hours.

White dress. Georgian BBQ.
Literal belle of the literal ball. Or at least BBQ.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I would think of it. I’d seen it once, when a revival theater opened across the street from my high school. For the opening week, they played this film, and it was packed solid, on a weeknight which—for all TCM has done for us it has undone some of this magic—is something you don’t see much these days. There were plenty of folks in the theater, though, including one who recited the lines, loudly, right before the characters on-screen did.

Old people, man. (If it’s not them, it’s young people. And if it’s not them, it’s foreigners. And…)

This movie cooks. You can see why it’s the #1 box office of all time (adjusted for inflation). I’m convinced more than ever, that the horrific misfire that is Serena was meant to hearken to this film, and there is something uniquely appealing about a character who is as awful and determined as Scarlett O’Hara. There’s a kind of magic in Vivien Leigh’s performance which is buoyed by a wonderful supporting cast, most notably Olivia de Haviland, who comes across as so very Christian in spirit, that you feel like there must be some good in Scarlett you can’t really see.

Even if you're not.
Olivia de Haviland knows you’re better than that.

Speaking of “classic movies you couldn’t make today” (all of them), GWTW is doubtless one of the more problematic ones with Hattie McDaniel, the house negress, looking down on her people being associated with the poor white trash of the neighborhood. Meanwhile, Butterfly McQueen utters the immortal line “I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies.”

Political correctness is not merely a nuisance: It’s a destroyer of art.

Clark Gable. What could you say about him except what we say around here about all celebrities (dontlookthemupontheinternetdontlookthemupontheinternetdontlookthemupontheinternetdontlookthemupontheinternet)? He’s the perfect counterpoint to Leigh’s O’Hara: The cad who loves no woman, but somehow loves her, even seeing how awful she is, and how she doesn’t love him because she’s in love with Ashley (the great Leslie Howard) who (while wildly attracted to her because, c’mon!) is smart enough and honorable enough to keep his promises to the Good Girl. And we all know (and suspect Ashley knows) if they ever DID get together, Scarlett would get bored so fast, it’d make everyone’s head spin.

And what does it say about women that they love this whole set up? Yikes, ladies.

And he's in no position to judge anyone.
Clark Gable judges you.

The “print” (a Blu-ray DVD) is pristine, of course, having been recently restored but I would swear they changed Leigh’s eye color. Her actual eye color was green, but it was hand-painted blue on the master because Scarlett’s eyes were notoriously blue and they cared about details like that back then. I feel like they let the natural green come out more here which, if true, seems like a bad idea. If not, well, chalk it up to an aging memory.

I found myself less smitten with Leigh this time than when I was in high school. I really had little memory of the film (part of why I was nervous about committing four hours to it) but I remembered loving it and falling in love with Leigh (just as I would fall in love with Ingrid Bergman the next week, when they showed Casablanca). I still “get it”, in the sense that she was the perfect actress to have men fall over themselves for—no one else in the movie even comes close to her beauty—but I think I’m perhaps less inclined now to believe that she felt anything like a genuine love for Ashley, than something more akin to a woman used to getting whatever she wanted obsessing over something she couldn’t have.

Nevertheless, an outstanding picture. We could all see it again.

Fiddle-dee-indeed.
After a night of sex that can only be called “problematic”.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (1982)

Few movies of the past 35 years have been as influential as Ridley Scott’s 1982 science-fiction classic Blade Runner. Most of the sci-fi of these past few decades have wanted to be either Blade Runner or Road Warrior—moreso, stylistically, than even Star Wars. Producers wanted Star Wars’ box office but not really its cheerful, retro feel (like its almost campy scene transitions, hearkening back to the old Flash Gordon serials). Blade Runner and Road Warrior, on the other hand, were, real, man. They were gritty visions of an inescapable future.

Not quite as bad as what we might call “Zack Snyder disease” is today, but still pretty awful.

That codpiece is super real.
Humongous wants you to embrace the realism.

Blade Runner also had a huge influence on literature, being released two years before Neuromancer, William Gibson’s grim take on the future that sounded the starting gun on a cyber-implant, corporate-ruled-dystopia which, in retrospect, was no more realistic than utopic ’50s jetpack sci-fi, but a lot more dreary. It was also a big influence on video games.

Which is, all-in-all, not bad for the film that finished 27th at the Box Office in 1982, behind Tron, Lee Horsley’s magnum opus The Sword and the Sorceror and, of course, The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas. (It did beat out another iconic film: John Carpenter’s The Thing. So, it’s got that going for it.)

The movie tested so poorly that a desperate Ladd Company hacked it up and added a notoriously bad voiceover (by Harrison Ford) trying to explain the plot. This gave the movie an ersatz ’40s film-noir detective feel, which should have been a good thing, but (probably because they did it without any of the talent on board, except a frustrated Ford) just made hash of the whole experience. As such, there are no less than six subsequent cuts of this film trying to salvage it.

Also, he can't believe you left your bishop open like that.
Rutger Hauer thinks seven versions is excessive.

We saw “The Final Cut”, which is Ridley Scott’s last word on what he was trying to say and do here.

And it sucks.

I kid! I kid! but not as much as I wish I were. The truth is, Blade Runner is one of the most frustrating experiences you can have in a movie theater. Why? Because it is staggeringly beautiful. Even 35 years later, the special effects are the best practical effects have to offer. As I’ve maintained in this past 18 months (where we’ve shifted our moviegoing to half-or-more revivals of classics), what works, long-term, for special effects is not whether they look “realistic”. The word “realistic” really just means “conforms to the current idea of how this impossible thing might look”. Plenty of movies from the last 15 years that were heralded as breakthroughs in CGI look positively goofy now. (All that effort Lucas put into ruining his original trilogy, for example, looks even worse now than it did back in 1997’s “Special Editions”, before we realized ol’ George was gonna bury the originals.)

What matters in a special effect is how it reads. Does it communicate what it’s supposed to communicate? That’s why an old flick, be it Wizard of Oz or Forbidden Planet, still looks great: because it was made to look good, not necessarily real. (If you don’t believe that, try watching Oz next to any of the LOTR trilogy on the big screen.)

Well, in two years, any way.
Los Angeles 2019: It’s like looking out the window.

And there is no doubt that the city of Los Angeles reads. The constant rain, the giant video billboards, the massive super-structures (even though, as is barely pointed out, the earth is depopulating rapidly), all read dystopia—albeit a strangely beautiful dystopia.

And this is true in literally every shot. There isn’t a moment of this film that’s hastily put together. I’ve heard it was a hard shoot; I believe that. This is the sort of exacting piece of art that you’d get out of Kubrick (who would take a year to shoot The Shining).

The plot really isn’t hard to follow, as the “need” for a voice-over might suggest. Harrison Ford is a pseudo-cop whose job it is to destroy androids that can pass for humans. Also, the film takes a (very typical) viewpoint that said androids are essentially human, at least when it comes to the explicatory up-front text, where it explicitly says that destroying the androids isn’t called “execution” but “retirement”.

I kid because I love. He was great.
Brion James horribly miscast as “someone who can pass for human”.

That said, the whole point of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and, in fact, the whole point of everything Philip K. Dick ever wrote, apparently, is to call into question the difference between what is real, and what you perceive to be real, and whether it matters. (I would guess PKD dropped acid at least once.) The movie can’t communicate that subtltey: If the androids are “real”, they’re sociopaths, quickly changing their emotions to suit whatever is advantageous to the situation. (This was something the book could elide over.)

So the movies is left with this ambiguity with regard to—well, look, these aren’t robots or even androids. They’re sorta bionic clones. They’re organic in every way, except somehow in their ill-defined construction process. The movie is all about this big question—to the point where Scott and Ford argue about whether or not Deckard (Harrison Ford’s character) was actually a replicant—surrounding the difference between androids and humans, and it really fails to make it much of a question at all. If the replicants aren’t human (as far as it counts), there’s no moral dilemma whatsoever.  If they are, Deckard is a monster.

But none of this would actually matter except for one thing: The movie deliberately alienates you from everyone. If you can go through this film and find someone to give a damn about, you’re a better movie-watcher than I am.

This film launched Daryl Hannah's Career of Weird.
OK, they seem nice.

The kids noticed this, too. They all agreed it was amazing to look at, but that they were sorta bored. As it dragged on, I couldn’t help but think this was two hours of brilliant set design in search of a movie.

Except for Rutger Hauer and some great character actors like the late Brion James (Cabin Boy, Flesh + Blood), William Sanderson (“Newhart”, “Deadwood”, “True Blood”), James Hong (best known these days as Kung Fu Panda’s dad, playing old Chinese guys 35 years ago), Joe Turkel (Lloyd from The Shining), the performances come off as awful. Even Brion James doesn’t really come off as being very android-y—and while this was probably the point, it doesn’t help the movie much.

Everyone else is at arm’s length distance, at best. You could say (as some did) that Ford had not yet learned how to act, but I would defy you to describe his character, regardless of how well he played it. Then see if you could describe Sean Young, Darryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy or Rutger Hauer in terms of their character. Hauer brings a lot of “humanity” to his character, through little touches he added, but it just feels like the director is so taken with the idea of blurring the line between man and machine, that he pushes man toward the machine.

And that's what you want in a movie: Desktop wallpaper.
Not gonna lie: You could stop this movie at any random frame and come up with a good desktop wallpaper.

Hey, people clapped in the theater, so for some, two hours of visual beauty is apparently enough.

We were glad we saw it. It’s an important film. It’s an influential film. It has many truly great aspects. But it’s a hard film to enjoy in any traditional sense of characters-we-care-about-undergoing-struggles-we-understand. And it’s not something I’d recommend to non-movie-lovers. We didn’t clap.

And now I go into hiding before the legions of Ridlicants come after me.

Toni Erdmann

In the immortal words of one of those foul-mouthed “South Park” kids: What the [bleep] is wrong with German people?

And the hairy one is probably the more normal of the pair.
They’re BOTH German.

Toni Errdmann is an odd, odd film. We did like it, but we were utterly shocked to find it nominated for an Oscar. (Though it was doubtless better than the utterly pedestrian and rather cowardly Persian flick that won.)

The story is this: An old man is trying to connect with his middle-aged daughter, but she’s not really having much of it. We don’t really find out why, particularly, except that dad and mom divorced at some point, and he puts the blame for his current estrangement on that, it seems. She brushes him off, and so he dons a spectacularly awful wig and some bad teeth, and follows her on a business trip to Romania where he pretends to be a character named Toni Erdmann.

Feels like a lot of missed opportunity.
This character is always threatening to be more interesting than he actually is.

What ensues never fully commits to much of anything. We’re not sure why they’re estranged, as I mentioned. We’re not sure how or why, having gotten to this point, he should suddenly become obsessed with reconnecting with her. We’re sort of led to believe he might have the health problems, though the movie thankfully (I guess) steers away from such cheesy premises. The problem, overall, though, may be that it sort of steers a way from all the premises. Why does anyone do anything? the movie seems to ask. But this is a terrible thing for a movie to ask—at least one like this one.

Toni turns out to be disappointed in what his daughter does, too, apparently. She’s a “consultant”, which means she travels to companies around the world to provide them with justifications for downsizing and outsourcing. This is touched on, but not really developed. She seems to be alienated from everyone, including the local communities she works in, but this is also not really developed. She’s alienated from her lover, which is graphically and grossly illustrated against some poor petit fours. (At which point, you’re thinking: “Germans!”) She has a breakdown at one point, which she sort of plays off as a team-building exercise—but this is also left hanging, along with the movie’s various flaccid male members you just know to expect in German flicks.

Those poor pastries.
German movies exist to remind you (in graphic detail) that people have really pathetic sex lives.

Each scene of the movie exists as its own set piece, really. Engaging enough in itself, and often exciting a certain amount of compassion for these strange people. But it never really even tries to explain anything. Some things sort of make sense, like the daughter having an amazing singing voice. And other things, like the father showing up in a Weird Giant costume, end up seeming like fairly organic outgrowths of the story. But other things just exist of themselves, and nothing really pushes the whole thing forward—something which might have been provided by (an admittedly cheesy) health problem. (Like, if the father had six weeks to live but didn’t want to admit it, or something.)

And so, The Boy and I liked it, though we would only cautiously (at best) recommend it to others. A lot of our enjoyment came from the unusualness of the film which, if you don’t see 150 movies a year, may not be a major criterion for you.

Harold and Maude (1971)

My mother and father had very little in common taste-wise. I assume, like all blushing young lovers, they agreed on everything at first, but the years after their divorce revealed how much even the things they had in common, they didn’t really have much in common. They were even both in computers—at a time when that was a rare and lucrative thing—but they were in it for entirely different reasons and with entirely different interests.

Although my mother was 18 months older than my dad, which amused him no end.
Well, I guess they had their age in common at least.

My dad liked rock ‘n’ roll, and both car chase scenes in movies and talky foreign films, and he had two Citroens. You had to have two Citroens because one was always broken, but it was an engineer’s car—it came with a hand crank, e.g., so you could start it when the battery died, and its novel suspension made it possible to, if you had a flat, drive with the tire off the ground. Or something. He was tight as a drum in a lot of ways (though he grew out of that) and had zero interest in getting the Next Bigger House or Fancier Car. He was averse to exercise on near religious principles.

My mom liked Neal Diamond, movies without a lot of talk, or tear jerkers (like Brian’s Song), and had (though eventually grew out of) a lot of aspirational materialistic goals. She is the sort of lady who mourns the passing of the department store, where one was waited on and bought goods with the expectation that they would be well made and well supported by the merchant. She, endearingly, tried to get my dad into playing tennis, which worked right up to the point where she got to be as good as (or better than) he was at it. Her goal was to get him to exercise so he didn’t drop dead at 40 and his goal, noted earlier, was to not exercise.

The Old Man knew cars.
My dad liked to point out that the post-remodel Jaguar/hearse was a different YEAR than the pre-remodel.

This very long introduction—and as I’ve noted elsewhere, this site has become more of a diary and history than a film review blog—brings us to a movie they both loved: Harold and Maude.

Which probably sums up all you need to know about my family.

This “cult classic” features a goth-before-the-first-goth’s-parents-were-born in the form of Bud Cort as Harold, a morose boy of indeterminate age (though probably around 20) who delights in killing himself in front of his mother in order to shock, embarrass and ultimately gain sympathy from her. His mother, played hilariously by Vivian Pickles, just wants to get him all sorted out in life, by any means necessary, presumably to brag or at least not to hide him from her society friends. (This is all sort of implied: This rather low-budget film features a small cast but Pickles conjures up a world of tea parties and country clubs with her every expression.)

One of Harold’s hobbies is going to funerals, and it’s there he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon, at 75, more coquettish than she’d ever been in her previous movie career). Maude is a rebel. She has a ring of keys that allows her to basically steal any car. She can’t really be bothered with authority figures. She’s enamored of life and sensuality and experience, and she seems utterly fearless. In short, despite their common hobby, she’s the exact opposite of Harold.

And the two begin an affair.

Suicide is not at all painless: It's gonna hurt when he falls backward in that chair.
One of Harold’s more “mundane” suicides.

It’s a deeply funny movie, but not disrespectful to the concept. Their romance is played for laughs, but only in how others see it: The two of them are as deadly earnest as if both were teenagers. The question is, will Harold actually learn the lessons of living—will he take them to heart?

The score is by Cat Stevens, who has a cameo, and it’s one of the best uses of a pop soundtrack ever. Stevens wrote “Don’t Be Shy” and “If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out”—the latter standing in for Colin Higgins terrible song-poem in the book. (Those are never good, are they? Maybe some of Roald Dahl’s were okay?)

The Flower noted it was in Technicolor, though by the ’70s, they had turned the saturation levels way down (for “realism”, presumably, in that ugly era). Still, the color holds up well, and despite being as 1971 as all heck, it has aged charmingly and not in that clunky fashion so many things of the ’70s do. She loved it.

And sings Cat Stevens.
In a dark turn, Harold takes up the banjo.

The Boy and His Girl were not as taken with it, though they allowed as how they did like it. His Girl noted that she couldn’t say she “loved” a movie about suicide. (It’s not about suicide, I thought to myself. It’s about life!) The Boy pointed out—fairly!—that much like my beloved Heaven Can Wait (1943), the character of Maude is less impressive in 2017 than it was in 1971, because in 2017 everyone is Maude. (Just like everyone is Heaven’s Henry Van Cleve now.) It’s much less endearing to be a rebel in a world where nobody lives by the rules than it was when everyone was a lot more uptight (and responsible).

I still love it. And I got to see so much more this time, like how Harold’s outfit exactly matches in psychiatrist’s at one point. And how blatantly the movie cheats with its feigned death scenes. (Cuts and mutli-person special effects are used in a way that could not possibly play in real life. But I loved that aspect of it, too.) And whatever became of Cat Stevens, this was a glorious artistic moment for him, young director Hal Ashby, and fledgling writer Colin Higgins. Higgins and Ashby would light up the ’70s (before dying horrible deaths in the ’80s, but don’t let’s think about that).

I don't think it's supposed to extend to wardrobe, though.
In Freudian psychoanalysis, this is known as “transference”.

Goodfellas (1990)

I try to deny it but in the final analysis I am just not a Martin Scorsese kind of guy. Can’t even spell his name properly. (I want to spell it “Scorcese”, even though that would be “scor-chezz-ee”, at least in some dialects—and, look, Italian’s a mess of messy dialects.) I can totally get behind the man’s skill as a filmmaker and why people think of him as a cinematic genius, but the best technique in the world doesn’t make up (for me) movies about terrible people doing terrible thing to themselves and society. I could go full Godwin here and say “Leni Reifenstahl was considered a genius, too”, but that’s over the top and, frankly, I don’t hate his movies. I just never like them very much.

This scene is like if Ricky Gervais were a gangster.
He’s not a clown. He doesn’t amuse me.

This sometimes kills, as with Hugo, which by all rights, I should have loved but was just thoroughly bored by. And I really wanted to see Silence (about Christian missionaries in 17th century Japan when it was outlawed) but I know I wouldn’t like it.

And, to be brutally honest, and keeping in with my belief that movie critics by-and-large have gut reactions to films which they then use their extensive knowledge to justify, I should note that if my true objection to Scorcese was just about the messages he seems to send and the topics he covers—well, then I really should have loved Hugo, shouldn’t I have?

Sometimes, art is just not on your frequency, and you don’t like it and it doesn’t make any sense to go beyond that.

I usually save that for the hallway.
Sorry to fart at the table.

Which brings us to Goodfellas which, along with Raging Bull (and now Silence, allegedly, according to some) are considered the high water marks of Scorsese’s career.

This is the story of a lightly murderous psychopath who lives the good life, for a while, as a mob guy. He marries a nice, psychopathic Jewish girl, and gets himself the occasional psychopathic mistress.

It’s a well-done film, obviously, and people who really like it can point out all the great shots, like a really long tracking shot through a restaurant’s back entrance, kitchen and so on, when Our Hero takes The Heroine into a club, VIP style. It’s a good shot. Must’ve been a bitch to pull off. I really didn’t care much.

I was moderately interested, overall, up until the first time Our Hero (Ray Liotta, in a career-defining performance) gets nicked and goes to jail. The movie goes on for another three hours after that (well, okay, it only feels like three hours) as he gets out of jail and starts drug running against his boss’s wishes because, hey, you know, he’s a goddamned criminal and criminals do that sort of thing. But even for criminals drugs are bad, and his increasing dependence on the wares diminishes his ability to psychopath properly. Before you know it, he’s nicked again. (Well, not before you know it. It takes about an hour.)

I do. But perhaps I dreamed it.
Anyone remember when Debi Mazar hosted a comedy show on Comedy Central?

The movie’s stinger is, essentially, that he gets put into Witness Protection and is forced to live out his life in a quiet suburb: A fate worse than death or jail (except that he chose it over death or jail).

I would’ve given it a miss but I hadn’t seen it on the big screen, and neither had the Boy. So, with The Flower and The (Boy’s) Girl in tow, we sat through this. I probably liked it least, though The Flower and The Girl weren’t huge fans. The Boy was okay with it, but he noted that, like a lot of biographical movies, it was kind of formless and it lost a lot of steam after the first arrest.

Great performances, of course, from Liotta, Joe Pesci, De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Lorraine Bracco, Debbie Mazar and virtually everyone. I noted that the movie virtually dares you to like anyone in the film, and The Flower said that De Niro was charming. I pointed out that he was a heavily murderous psychopath (versus Liotta’s lightly murderous one) and she agreed that he was despicable, but that as an actor, De Niro was more charming.

He's miiiiiles away...murdering somebody.
You can tell his heart’s not really in the hug here.

Fair enough: Liotta’s eyes alone make it look like he’s always on the verge of killing you and, maybe, just maybe, eating you.

Whatevs. I’m not your guy for Scorsese reviews, or shouldn’t be, unless you don’t like him either.