The Darkest Hour

We were cool on seeing this highly acclaimed film as we tend to be cool on seeing any/all of the highly acclaimed films that Hollywood regurgitates this season. But I did want to see it, and The Boy was cool enough to where I had to threaten to see it without him before he came along. (Also, his girl was busy that day or I probably would have ended up seeing it solo. Everyone else had the flu.) I had not known that it was directed by Joe Wright—and had I known, that probably would’ve just muddied things even further, since Wright’s track record is mixed, in my book. (I loved his Pride and Prejudice while Atonement has the title for top 5 worst movies I’ve seen in a theater. And Anna Karenina was as admirable as it was flawed.)

We are. Truly.
“I think you’ll ALL agree that we are long overdue in giving me an Oscar.”

The movie, of course, is about the same time as covered by Dunkirk, though from the perspective of newly minted Prime Minister Winston Churchill who fears that he is too late to save his little island nation. We can get out of the way that Gary Oldman is tremendous here. Churchill is, in some ways, the least likely of heroes, and I have no concept of whether or not the disaster at Gallipoli is representative of his judgment or not. One thing Wright does here is not try to simplify things.

But Oldman’s Churchill is not the towering historic figure that we see him as, but more like the one I suspect was: He’s old, somewhat enfeebled, reliant on drink, personally uncertain but publicly forceful. He’s a fat, bloviating old man disdained by the establishment for his lying and lack of concern for their approval, and can you imagine the heads that must explode when seeing the parallels with Trump? I suppose heads self-protect by not seeing the connection, but it was almost hilarious to me. Surely Wright could not have meant it.

A lot in the shot but not too much.
This blocking nice, subtle work.

When Churchill takes over, he’s inherited a situation where the entire English army is trapped on Dunkirk and apparently—this is never mentioned in Nolan’s movie—it’s the Germans who are the cause of all the difficulties. Yes, the Germans. I point this out because it’s still bizarre to me that the words “German”, “Nazi” or “kraut” never make an appearance in a movie about Allied troops in WWII about to be wiped out BY THE GERMANS.

It’s a nice little story, really, about a man who just really loves his home country and doesn’t want to see it overrun with Weinerwalds—which, I just learned there were WW’s in America for a while and I never got to eat at one, which is a shame because I really liked the German one I ate at—but is surrounded by Chamberlains. One of those Chamberlains is the Neville Chamberlain, a man synonymous for foolish attempts at reconciling with a psychotic barbarian and uttering the immortal phrase “peace in our time”. This guy really set the cause of peace back a couple of decades.

But it’s not just Chamberlain, it’s almost everyone in Chamberlain’s party of which Churchill is now the head, although Chamberlain still seems to be calling the shots among the various MPs (if that’s the right term). It’s the establishment. It’s His Bleedin’ Majesty His Own Self, for that matter. Winston is fine when he’s blustering about beating the Jerries and Long Live England and all that, and an utter basket case when he’s being wheedled into negotiating with Mussolini to broker a surrender with Hitler.

It’s not entirely unlike the Spider-Man movies where Peter loses his super powers when he doubts himself.

Women used to do that, y'know?
Nice little role for Kristin Scott-Thomas as the supportive, sacrificing wife.

Anyway, we get a nice story arc—I’m using “nice” a lot here, I realize—that’s way easier to understand and far more moving than Dunkirk, even though you’d think Dunkirk would have had the easier job given that its heroes were literally dying. But Wright does a good job showing how the characters are personally impacted by the decisions they make. Even Chamberlain, God bless him, really believes he’s doing the right thing and isn’t beyond admitting a mistake, no matter how painful. (The enormity of his mistake would tend to make it difficult for anyone to confront, I think we can agree.)

It’s a good movie. I’d put it in the top of last year’s, but The Boy, who liked it, was much warier about saying so. He thinks we saw some great movies last year, if only he could remember what they were. I sent him a list but he didn’t look at it. I assured him the only way to remain convinced that we had seen better movies was not to look at the movies we had actually seen. Anyway, it’s good—even very good, with top notch performances and some very nice blocking and camerawork from Wright & Co. I can recommend it fairly unreservedly. (My reservation might be if you don’t like this sort of thing at all, or if you’re hard of hearing, like the old couple in front of us who were very vocal in expressing their inability to understand what the mumbly Churchill was saying at any point. Though they still seemed to like it.)

As always.
And Lily James is cute as a button throughout!

Hard Eight (1996)

We had been turned away from Boogie Nights and didn’t bother to go to There Will Be Blood—which they played in two theaters and filled almost all of both, I’m told—but I figured this early Paul Thomas Anderson would not be so jam-packed.

I thought wrong. We sat in the front row, though at least somewhat toward the middle. This colored The Boy’s opinion of the movie because, as he put it, “There’s a lot of acting in this movie and all I could see was that guy’s nose.” That guy in question being none other than John C. Reilly, who is a loser rescued by Philip Baker Hall when the latter sees him hunched down outside a Nevada café.

See, he did Boogie Nights next.
“He doesn’t want to call it ‘hard eight’. He says it sounds like a porn—saaaay.”

Hall is a tremendously kind, though hard-edged, gambler who takes Reilly under his wing, and who seems to have endless tolerance for the young man’s foibles. Not just the Reilly, but also put-upon, flirtatious-or-possibly-soliciting waitress Gwynneth Paltrow, upon whom Reilly is sweet, and also upon whom Hall visits more of his apparent altruism. In fact, about the only guy he doesn’t seem to care much for is Reilly’s new pal, Samuel L. Jackson, who is crude and highly vocal with his crudeness.

Trouble begins when, through a very simple set of rather overt actions, he hooks up Reilly and Paltrow. This looks like the ultimate good deed except for the two people in question being dumpster files. And just when you think Hall has found his limit, he bails the two out of a very serious situation—one that could land them all in jail. Predictably, Jackson ends up being the monkey-in-the-wrench, and we get to see exactly who Hall is and why he does what he does.

That he likes wide shots in diners.
This shot…again. What’s PTA trying to tell us?

It’s a pretty darn good movie. It is, as The Boy notes, chock full of ACTING! Although the acting is fairly subtle and low-key, which is a good thing considering PTA’s love of close shots. It amuses one (me) to see all these people “looking so young”, except Hall has never really looked young. (Recently, he’s taken to looking really old, but the guy will be 86 this year, if he makes it, so we can cut him some slack.) The lovably homely Reilly seems to aged the least among all of them, including Samuel L. Jackson.

And speaking of Mr. Jackson, he actually acts in this one. The expectations for him to be a foul-mouthed bad-ass weren’t quite set in stone yet, and he shows some real range here, which is nice.

I gather that PTA had a lot of trouble with his producers on this. He wanted the title to be “Sydney” (Hall’s character), and he wanted to go straight to movie from title, rather than do the whole title sequence up front—the norm now, but edgy back in 1996. What’s more, they cut 30-40 minutes out of his film. The Flower, The Boy and I all liked it—she and I more than he—but we didn’t think 40 more minutes would’ve raised our opinions much.

This was why we skipped There Will Be Blood, after all. One-hundred fifty-eight minutes of Daniel Day Lewis limping is a lot, no matter how convincingly Mr. Lewis limps. Next week’s movie is Magnolia, which has a staggering 188 minute runtime but at least consists of more than one person doing more than just limping.

Jackson has no idea.
No sit down diner shot with Jackson. No, sir.

TCM Big Screen Classics: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

“Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges!” is probably one of the great misquotes in movie history, along with “Play it again, Sam” and “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more”, and perhaps all most people know about John Huston’s second great film (after The Maltese Falcon with just a few, forgotten features and a war between them).

"No, I AM your father."
“We’re gonna need a bigger boat!”

The story is this: Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt (StagecoachSwiss Family Robinson) are moping around a Mexican town looking for work, and being taken advantage of by unscrupulous oil speculators when they run across a grizzled old prospector (Walter Huston) talking about the Evil That Men Do, especially when they get a taste of that sweet, sweet gold money. Greed, treachery, complete abandonment of their former persons, really. Holt and especially Bogey aren’t too sure about this. They know they’re the sorts of people who would hang on themselves and know when to quit.

This isn’t quite Gremlin’s three rules, which I often hold up as “the worst script premise imaginable”, but there can hardly be any doubt that the events of the movie are going to put their asserted morality to the test.

Sure enough, when they get together a little cash, they decide to throw it toward prospecting, and enlist the old man to take them into the back hills where the gold is. They quickly regret this choice because gold tends to be where nobody else has gone, in places nobody wants to go. And then they quickly unregret it when they actually find gold. But finding gold leads to more cycles of regret and renewal, as well as a lot of tragedy. It is a truly great adventure film.

The acting is top-notch, obviously. Bogie’s part is complex, but Holt also does a fine job in a simpler (but still not exactly simple role). Walter Huston, whom son John gave only a couple of words in The Maltese Falcon before he keels over serves as the movies anchor point, but more on that later. Great score by Max Steiner.

I lied to The Flower about this. Not knowingly, but she asked me if Bogie was the good guy in this, and I told her yes. She gave me the side-eye when he cracked early on, but he does get over it. At least for a while. Which is what I remembered, I swear. Look, it’s a complex role. I had only seen the movie once before, a good 20 years ago and on TV. And TV is never the answer.

Make any guy a little tense.
No, no, he’s just thinking about Ingrid Bergman and Lauren Bacall.

The kids really dug it, which was nice. The Flower and I more than The Boy, I think, and The Boy more than his girl, who has been a constant source of delight in trying to figure out what she’ll like and what she won’t like. “Hard to get a bead on” is a good sign of someone who’s watching things for real and not going by some preconceived notions.

Obviously you should check it out. Huston’s next film would be Key Largo, which seems like a likely entry in next year’s TCM Big Screen Classics.

A sidenote: John Huston’s speech, and his subsequent behavior toward his unruly companions, is classically (small “C”) christian. He reports on the bad behaviors of men; he prepares for it and tries to avoid it; and he does not judge. In the wake of all the sex scandals lately, one’s initial reaction is to think “I would never!” and to be appalled by the behavior of the various bad actors. But these people wake up with a pile of gold in their midst—often old, awkward, unlovely men who are suddenly surrounded by young, beautiful women who really want to please them—and even if you haven’t been touched by such things and even if you wouldn’t be touched by such things (as Huston’s character clearly isn’t), it serves one to resist temptation to forget that human fallibility is a thing we are all subject to, if only in different ways.

Which is, perhaps the lesson of the film. That, and to take the adventure as it happens and move on.

Very good. Very good indeed.
Walter Huston contemplates what a good son he has.

Inisidious: The Last Key

After the first installation in the series, sequels to Insidious have been generally poorly received, if one is to believe the Tomatometer. The first one was modestly well-received, the second one less so, the third one more than the second, and now this one least of all. The lag on such things is interesting, sort of: The second one has far and away the highest box office, at $80M, while the 1, 3 and 4 hover around $50M, and it looks like 4 will finish ahead of 1 and 3. (I once had a discussion with The Old Man where I pointed out that a record album’s sales were likely to be based on the quality of the previous album. I don’t think he believed me, but I still think people’s eagerness to buy the latest thing is going to be based on how they felt after buying the previous thing. It was probably less true of albums than it is of ticket sales.)

The Boy was somewhat reticent about going to see this given the low RTs (31/52) but then he remembered that they’ve all been pretty low and we’ve liked all of them. So, off we went, expectations modest—and more than well met, frankly.

Not as romantic as it sounds.
🎶Here’s the key to my heart, so don’t lose it, use it!🎶

As a side note, I think it’s kind of neat that a horror movie can capture the #1 spot at the box office (even if it is just January) when the franchise’s leading character is a 70-something woman (Lin Shaye) who has two nerdy sidekicks (played Angus Sampson and series’ writer/creator Leigh Whannell). Add in the lovely Caitlin Gerard and Spencer (?) Locke for damsel-in-distress appeal with a few appearances by stalwart Bruce Davison (as Shay’s estranged brother) and you got your self a $10M dollar movie which makes back its money several times over. Ooh! And Kirk Acevedo as the sympathetic-but-high-strung client.

In this installment, psychic Elise Rainier (Shay) gets a new client who just-so-happens to live in the house she grew up in. (OK, this isn’t a coincidence, and it’s never really suspected as such, and how awful would it have been were we supposed to believe that.) It turns out she ran away from home back in the ’50s because her father beat her mercilessly for having visions. The house is on-site at a prison (or maybe just near—near enough to have the lights flicker when someone is electrocuted) and, needless to say, there’s no shortage of boogens afoot. When Dad (Josh Stewart) locks Elise in the cellar after a reasonably harmless sighting, she discovers major evil afoot in the cellar and ends up letting a Big Bad out.

And then, things take a turn for the worse.

Boo!
And just when everything was going so well…

But not, I daresay, for the predictable, which is nice. Not that there’s any huge shockers here, but the movie throws in a fair amount of material plane peril to go with the ghostly stuff, and a lot of genuine emotional connection to go with the scares. I suspect Leigh Whannel, as a writer, has enough invested in Elise to appreciate being able to do these movies with a certain sensitivity, because it really doesn’t feel like a paint-by-the-numbers story.

If you recall earlier reviews, one thing I particularly like about the series is the astral plane adventures (they call it “The Farther”). It’s sorta goofy, and no less so here than in previous installments, but it’s also kind of fun and interesting: It lets you put a haunted house movie inside your haunted house movie. And they make The Farther a fairly strong parallel to reality so there’s not too much in the way of cartoonish antics.

Anyway, we liked it. Didn’t love it. It felt like director Adam Robitel’s pacing was a little off, like some scenes went on too long. I did feel like he was trying to miss the obvious beats, which is the sort of thing that can make horror movies dully predictable. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, points for trying.

If you’ve liked the series, you won’t be disappointed.

A mixed bag, frankly.
🎶You’ll NEVER walk alone!🎶

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.