Rhinoceros (1974)

Imagine, if you will, Night of the Living Dead but with rhinoceroses. That would be a pretty good summary of Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros, if you added in that the play is meant, at some level, to be a comedy. It was a movie I had always wanted to see, despite not knowing of its existence until a week ago. (I did know of the play, though.)

Jokes on them, I guess.
I stole this from a site called “Not Coming To A Theater Near You.”

The premise is simple enough: A dispirited young accountant (Gene Wilder), bored to tears with life and drinking himself to death, is witness to a rhinoceros rampaging down the street of his small American town. (In the play, I believe it was a French town but even that may have just been a localization from Ionesco’s original Romanian concept.) He does not find much interest in the incident, and in his neglect is upbraided by his dear friend, a rather uptight conservative fellow (Zero Mostel) with a love of culture and contempt for the manners of the everyday people around him.

When he goes to work the next day, his co-workers and boss are all discussing the issue, with one left-wing fellow talking about how the papers always lie, and raving of conspiracies and treason, and the others—while accepting the incident—treating it as a rather banal event. The hallmark of the story is how banal everything is to people, and the ordinary phrasing and clichés they use to discuss even the most extraordinary events.

Nixon wouldn't resign for another 7 months.
Nixon…approves?…of rhinoceritis?

Things get knocked in to twelfth gear when the wife of a missing co-worker comes in breathless from having been chased down the street by a rhino. She came to deliver a key from her husband, who had gone out of town for the weekend and knew her boss would need it. “So conscientious!” sighs the boss, even as she relates that there’s a rhino in the lobby of the building. Later on, she recognizes a rhino attacking outside the window as her husband.

“How do you know it’s him?”
“Those are his glasses! Don’t you recognize him?”
“Yes…and no…”

Heh.
“Yes…and no…”

The first act is really quite a masterpiece of physical comedy and absurdity. The second is almost tragically absurd, as Wilder tries to help Mostel, who has been stricken with rhinoceritis. In the final act, Wilder and his office crush (a remarkably cute Karen Black) form a pact of love, though we already suspect that Black is doomed. While Wilder is struggling with the question of how to fight The Herd, Black insists that you have to let other people do what they want with their lives (even as they smash up the city and trample people). In the span of a few minutes they go from honeymooners to old married couple, and before you know it: rhinoceros! Wilder is left as the last man on earth, though even he seems as though he would give it up if only he could.

The Boy said, “The reason this works is because whatever it’s a metaphor for, it’s also about a guy dealing with the everyday problem of rhinoceroses!” And he’s right. I take it as a metaphor for communism—Ionesco himself talked of left and right-wing, but his right wing were things like Nazis—and the perils of group think and mob mentality (hello, Global Warming! Social Justice Wariors! Public School Systems!), but the story stays very concrete in the actual problem of herds of rhinoceroses. This enhances the absurdity on the one hand while grounding it, however weirdly, in the set up reality. It follows its own rules, we would say.

It's short, let me tell you.
The arc of a love affair…

It’s very ’70s. The music was a bit hit-and-miss, I thought. The Flower said “That was something different!” and I double-checked to see whether it was good or bad. Good, but not at all what she was expecting. The Boy and His Girl gave it a thumbs up. I liked it, too, quite a bit. It’s not for everyone: There is a great deal of shouting, though it is about as good as shout-comedy can be, done by people who did it the best, and what’s being shouted is pretty damn funny to boot. Also, you have to be able to accept the premise, but in a lot of ways, it’s a lot easier premise to accept than the actual history that inspired it.

It is remarkably applicable today, which is probably why it keeps popping up in various forms and re-enactments. (Though it was a popular play and won Mostel a Tony, too.) Allegedly, Zombie Strippers is based on this movie. The movie was not well received at the time, for all the reasons that we like it today, I suspect: From what is essentially an artsy play, director Tom O’Horgan makes a rather accessible comedy that isn’t bogged down by the sorts of politics that would get this movie a warm reception (and would be banal at best today, and incomprehensible at worst).

Fair point.
The poster in the back reads “Do not ever compromise yourself—that’s all you have.”

Coco

It was, to say the least, challenging to get The Flower to see the latest “Pixar” movie (scare quotes explained in a bit). Cars 2 was really quite a blow for a little girl (at the time) who idolized Pixar and their perfect record of moviemaking. When Cars 3 came out, she just ignored it, and she was prepared to do the same with Coco. We did finally drag her to it, though, with her little sister in tow and she found it…acceptable: “It was pretty good.” (Do not read that with too much emphasis on the “good”. Or the “pretty” for that matter.)

Tough crowd.
It’ll have to do, kid.

I would probably place it in my top 5 (and certainly my top 10) for 2017, keeping in mind that most of the movies we saw last year were not actually from 2017 and I don’t think we missed much, frankly.

Coco at least has the most heart-wrenching scene of 2017, during which the Barbarienne—who places this as possibly her favorite movie, naturally—was literally racked with sobs. There was a lot of sniffling in the house, and even I had a picturesque single tear roll down my cheek. So, all five of us (The Boy and His Girl were there) gave this a thumbs up, with varying degrees of “up”ness.

She feels things. She feels BIG.
Reasonable interpretation of the Barbarienne “racked with sobs”.

The story is that a young Mexican boy is descended from a family of shoemakers. His great great grandmother was deserted by her no-good musician husband, and started making shoes to keep herself and her young daughter alive. So, while the family is successful, they are also the only non-musical family in Mexico (per the story). The problem of course is that our hero, Miguel, does not love the zapatos and does love the music. He also loves his great grandmother, the somewhat addled old woman who doesn’t much remember people but pines for the father that abandoned her.

Mayhem ensues when Miguel, on his way to compete in the town talent show, hides his guitar under the family shrine. The family shrine has pictures of all the deceased members of the family, with a candle lit for Dia De Los Muertos, the only holiday the Mexicans have, apparently. He knocks his great-great grandmother’s picture off the top and discovers that the decapitated man (the missing great-great grandfather whose head has been ripped off to erase him from memory) is holding a distinctive guitar exactly like that wielded by the greatest musician of all time: Ernesto de la Cruz.

Excited by this information, he confronts his families with his dreams and in a fit of pique, his grandmother destroys his guitar.

The distraught Miguel runs into town and realizes he can still compete if he gets a replacement guitar. And his (presumed) great-great grandfather’s guitar is in the big crypt at the center of the festivities. Since de la Cruz’ motto was “seize the moment”, Miguel has only mild trepidation about stealing his guitar (miraculously still strung and in tune) for his own purposes.

Stealing from the dead on Dia De Los Muertos, unfortunately, earns you a one way trip to the land of the dead. And if Miguel wants back, he’s going to have to get a blessing from his decidedly music-hostile and dead family. Along the way he picks up a down-in-the-mouth skeleton pal who is rapidly fading due to the last person on earth forgetting him, and discovers the town mutt (he calls “Dante”) easily crosses into the world of the dead.

Lotta blurry light.
Land of the Dead, Pixar Style.

This movie is jam-packed, yet both The Boy and The Flower decided there was something not very Pixar-ish about it. It was more a Disney film, they thought. Indeed, since John Lasseter’s migration to head of Disney Animation, the two studios have become more and more alike. The Good Dinosaur, for example, felt very, very Disney. Zootopia felt very Pixar. The Boy was coming up with ideas as to why, which I was shooting down—like, he proposed Pixar villains were different from Disney villains, but I pointed out Hopper (A Bug’s Life), Syndrome (The Incredibles) and Lotso (Toy Story 3)—though without disagreeing with him.

He finally did nail it: This is a princess movie. Miguel is, basically, the ’90s-era Disney princess looking to find himself and reconcile that (if possible) with family. Much like Zootopia is more Pixar-like, because it’s about the individual’s relationship with their group, and is less about “finding one’s self and forcing others to see how awesome they are” than “trying to figure out how to reconcile self and group”.

There is something, too, about Pixar being, now, a 20-year-old established company: It lacks the energy it had 10 years ago. This is all very polished. It had a weird, weird segment up front talking about how many people go into making a movie like this which, if nothing else, constituted a minor spoiler about the land of the dead. Technical, the film is meticulous, as one expects from Pixar. But aesthetically? A (Mexican) friend of mine said The Book of Life—a three year old movie!—looked better than this, and she is not wrong. Life is a mediocre story with a balls-out unapologetically beautiful presentation by “Reel FX Creative Studios”. Who? You know, the guys who may eventually do The Book of Life 2.

It's better.
Land of the Dead, Reel FX style.

The vaunted city of the dead, discussed at the front of the film, is ridiculously detailed, no doubt, and pretty, but also wrapped in some kind of miasma. The town looks like one of the rundown places outside of Tijuana, though without the obeisance to the laws of physics, but it also seems to be shrouded with dust and smog like those places often seem to be—so you don’t really get to see it. You don’t get a sense of wonder that you get, for example, when Marlon finds himself in the open ocean and that’s just a plain blue field! (Not really, of course: There are lighting patterns and motes, but it’s very minimal and very effective.)

Here you have all the detail in the world and the talent to populate it, and…not so much. The Boy also noticed that the peripheral characters seemed less strong, when even the most minor characters in classic Pixar tend to stand out (like the walking binoculars in Toy Story).

Now look, this is good, as I said, and it’ll rip your heart out in classic Pixar fashion, but it’s definitely not the same. And when, like The Boy and The Flower, you’ve grown up with Pixar, these are things you notice.

It's good, though, I tell ya.
The cast of mostly forgettable dead characters.