Legend (1985)

Reviewed: 10/10/2020

Combined Rating: 2.25/5

Lauren’s Review:

Frank has been telling me about this one for years now, so much so that I thought I’d already seen it when he proposed we watch it this time. I was already well acquainted with its best and worst qualities—the worst of which can be deduced by its generic name. Imagine a plot you’ve seen a hundred thousand times in various different iterations, but stripped of everything that made each of those iterations memorable or unique, and you’ve pretty much got “Legend.” I don’t mind formulas, as long as there are enough of those unique twists, and as long as the characters are memorable. But those elements were so lacking in this story, and it was so high in melodrama that the film felt almost (but not quite) tongue-in-cheek. 

Here’s how it goes. There’s an enchanted forest, where live an innocent young couple: the princess Lili (Mia Sara), and her puckish suitor Jack (Tom Cruise, in possibly the worst casting I have ever seen. Everyone else in the film talks with a slight old English accent, aware of the kind of piece they’re in. Tom Cruise meanwhile just plays himself… except, frolicking in an enchanted forest.) Jack takes Lili to see the unicorns, in whose horns is stored all the goodness in the world. The evil demons, headed by the Lord of Darkness (Tim Curry—who, by contrast, is superbly cast), of course want to saw off the horns of the unicorn so that evil can descend on the world. But, as per the medieval myth, none but a pure virgin can attract a unicorn. So the demons use Lili as a lure, shoot one of them, and saw off its horn. Darkness and winter descend. The Lord of Darkness meanwhile decides he’d like Lili to be his queen and abducts her. Jack must pursue and rescue her, recover the horn, and restore order to the world. Bet you can’t guess how it ends.

But, to be fair, while the story was incredibly generic and predictable, the score was jarring, and the protagonist was really quite terrible in his role, the film had one major redeeming quality: it was absolutely gorgeous to look at. It reminded me of the best possible set of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”—and due to the level of melodrama, I think it probably would translate very well to the stage. Regardless, story or no story, I’d have watched the film in its entirety, just for the scenery.

**

Frank’s Review:

While I will never forgive Legend for infamously burning down the 007 stage at Pinewood Studios (undoubtedly preventing A View to a Kill from being a better movie), time has softened my stance on the Ridley Scott fantasy yarn that basically argues that “bad things happen when you selfishly harass wildlife.”  However, if glitteral forest nymphs Tom Cruise and Mia Sara had not gone unicorn gawking, they wouldn’t have led creature effects wizard Rob Bottin’s nasty trolls to track their secret location and hack off a horn containing the essence of light that the devil’s servant, “Darkness,” needs to unleash permanent midnight on the Earth.  Apparently, evil is easier to perpetrate at night, and it’s just easier on the eyes.  You also need campfires at night, which sometimes cause explosions that destroy entire soundstages.  More evil.  Before damning “Darkness” entirely, I must admit it is only in “Darkness’s” totally obvious and easily penetrable lair that we are privy to the cramped musings of the demon himself, imparted with predictably delicious gravity by the film’s salvager, if not savior, Tim Curry.  I found myself sympathizing with “Darkness’s” desire to not be alone more than I did with the plight of the “innocents,” because in the end, we can’t all look like, or be as selfless as, Tom Cruise.  And to “Darkness’s” credit, he never actually sought to abduct the only attractive girl in the forest, she just happened to be there when the other remaining unicorn was kidnapped for an unnecessarily delayed ceremony…setting poor “Darkness” up for another bout of awkward, unrequited love and the immature acts of evil it inspires.  Had the demon not been so distracted by Ferris Bueller’s future girlfriend (or in his admittedly engrossing evil laughing fits) I’m sure he would have achieved his grandeur goals, but instead, his complex gave Tom time to infiltrate and rescue our naïve heroine.   

Without Curry’s performance, achieved despite enduring hours of makeup prosthetics that I’m guessing made it damn near impossible for him to hold his head up, the supplementary antics of nymph Cruise and his cadre of well-intentioned, yet hapless gnomes and sprites wouldn’t have been enough to sustain my entertainment.  Curry’s “Darkness” provides the only release in this otherwise stuffy high-pressure system, visually stunning as it may be.  If Ridley and screenwriter William Hjortsberg had further developed their tagline themes “No Good without Evil. No Love without Hate. No Innocence without Lust,” we might have finished with more to contemplate about the visual symbolism the film offers on the nature of things.  But as it stands, we have only “Darkness” to flesh it out, and ultimately, relate to.  Without the benefit of his pontifications, it’s all just too dreamily nebulous to grasp. It certainly seems the intent was that we merely lose ourselves in all the pretty colors. 

I know Lauren disagrees, but I actually found the theatrical version’s eerie synth score, composed by Tangerine Dream, to fit quite nicely with the feel of a weird fantasy world conjured through the lens of 1980’s sensibilities.  The director’s cut, alternately, features Jerry Goldsmith’s original score, and is deemed better, and more universal, by most fans.  However, I always prefer scores that accentuate musical trends from the period films were produced in, as a time capsule of the era.  For me, Tangerine Dream helps the film feel more unique, and more identifiably rooted within a cult niche.  But for all its lush aural and visual imagery, Legend will likely remain one of those films I can’t quite justify, recall, or internalize, despite my appreciation for the artistry applied to it all.  I can’t help but contemplate essential layers of storytelling that were sacrificed for emphasis on a glossy sheen, and how focusing instead on those layers may have caused the film’s themes (if intended) to better linger in the mind.

** ½ 

Meal Pairing:  Broccoli and Cheddar soup, with Tobasco sauce and Sourdough bread, prefaced by a shrimp cocktail ring with some spicy cocktail sauce.  

Footloose (1984)

Footloose

Reviewed: 8/15/20

Combined Rating: 2.25/5

Lauren’s Review:

Sometimes what seems like a perfect pick on paper turns out all wrong. This movie was like that for me. I love dance films, upbeat soundtracks, and small town innocent romantic dramas, as a general rule. This one is a classic, and was a Blockbuster in its day—so in theory it should have been among the best films of its genre. What it lacked, though, was the “glue” that for me makes or breaks any story, whether it checks all the boxes or no: likable characters. I have to identify with and care about the people in the story in order for it to matter to me. If I don’t, it’s a chore to watch, which was true of this film more than most. The female protagonist, Ariel Moore (Lori Singer) was the least likable character I can recall in recent memory. Nobody else in the story really made up for that much either, with the possible semi-exception of Ariel’s father, Reverand Shaw Moore (John Lithgow).

The story opens as Ren (Kevin Bacon), a good kid for the most part who apparently purges his emotions with dancing, moves to a small and very religious town in Oklahoma where dancing is forbidden. The fire-and-brimstone preacher Rev. Moore is the picture of religious legalism, producing exactly what legalism always does produce: rebellion in the teenagers of the city, and particularly in his daughter Ariel. I understand that films from decades past erred far more on the side of caricature than they tend to do now, but Rev. Moore’s extremism kind of set my teeth on edge right at the outset—as of course he was meant to. But as a Christian myself, I don’t relish seeing followers of my faith painted with such a crude and unflattering brush. Because of this, I think you’re supposed to sympathize with Ariel’s rebellion, but the way it manifests is in carelessness not just with her own life, but with those of her friends as well, all so she can have an adrenaline rush. This becomes even more abhorrent when we hear the story of why her father is so against dancing: Ariel’s brother went dancing one night, got drunk, and then died in a car wreck. Yet even though her parents have already lost one child, she still plays fast and loose with her own life as well as those of others. I might have forgiven her character even for this, if she had had any sort of character arc at all, in which she recognized and repented of her incredible selfishness. But no one in the story ever even hints that her behavior is wrong. Instead, the only character portrayed as “bad” is the Rev. Moore. Ren is unsympathetic mostly because he is drawn to Ariel for her rebellious nature, rather than in spite of it (since this is really all we know about Ariel). He ultimately persuades Rev. Moore to change his mind about dancing by taking some scriptures way out of context. Even though the Bible never condemns dancing, nobody who knows scripture, as the Reverend is supposed to, would have been convinced by Ren’s argument. Particularly no one who had a strong emotional reason for his objections that had nothing to do with the Bible at all. (Like what they intended to do at their prom was “worship the Lord” in dance. Give me a break.)

The actual story itself, outside of all this, is merely predictable. There’s really only one cool dance sequence for Ren alone that nevertheless feels absurd in context (he’s so angry, he’s just gotta dance!) It would have been less jarring had there been major dance sequences up until that point. As it was, it made me crack up, which was definitely not the reaction the scene was intended to provoke. Ren changes the Reverand’s mind, the kids have their prom night complete with a ridiculous amount of glitter added in post, and the peasants rejoice. There were a few snippets of good dance moves in that last scene, and I did hate Ariel a little less once she was no longer jumping in front of trains by the second half of the film. That’s about the best I can say for Footloose.

*

Frank’s Review:

I had forgotten that Footloose wasn’t actually a movie about dancing.  I mean, sure, there’s dancing in it, but that’s not where its soul lies.  Although it can be cringe-inducingly awkward at times when high drama abruptly induces emotional dance purging, the main themes of the movie: legalism, clinging unproductively to the past, and trusting our maturing kids in order to inspire their trust, are well developed and kept fully in view.  The obligatory dance montages function more to accentuate the characters’ frustrations by providing an outlet for their rebellious, impulsive energy, and to push the killer ‘80’s pop soundtrack that marketed it so well.  The result is a feel good flick that borrows elements from musicals and the teen age angst genre.  It works because it doesn’t get lost amidst its various dissonant pieces, and ultimately leads to both personal and community redemption.

The plot seems to totally hinge on whether Reverend Shaw Moore (John Lithgow) will reverse the town policy of “NO DANCING” that was put in place to keep local teens from engaging in other sinful behavior that dancing apparently leads to.  Initially, the edict just seems mean, but later we find out the Rev has additional, understandable motives for wanting to protect not only his family, but everyone under his care and authority as the town’s singular arbiter of morality.  Where a modern woke iteration might not resist the temptation to go full blown anti-Christian, this ‘84 film is actually more sensitive and nuanced toward the character, portraying Moore as a sympathetic, yet stubborn man led by his righteous desire to protect…a trait that is inherent within most caring parents.  Luckily, he has a good woman behind him who’s a bit hipper to the scene.  She offers pivotal perspective to soften his approach in what feels like a symbolic final break of 1980’s culture from the more rigid, yet similar, public values of 1950’s society that had held over for three decades in much of small town America.  Thankfully, by the time the more rigid townsfolk resort to burning books, Shaw has already turned the corner in his own personal journey.  New kid on the block Ren (Kevin Bacon, who else?) plays instigator to bring about change by galvanizing the youth with his independent spirit, electric, irresistible pelvic gyrations, and Flashdance-esque infused choreography.  Not even the Reverend’s slutty, suicidal prone daughter or the local farm boy dolt can resist his impulses…because as everybody knows, dancing gets the chicks.  Too bad nobody ever seems to wonder where the backing tracks are coming from.

The effectiveness of the movie, however, is tied up with Lithgow’s atypically un-theatrical performance.  I always like to say, when Lithgow is good he’s very, very good, but when he’s bad, he’s better.  But in Footloose, he’s not a bad guy.  He’s just misguided and conflicted about cause and effect, and keen to keep a lid on what we know as the pervasive snowball effect of sin.  But as he comes around, it feels organic…like a natural arc for someone who is actually listening to, and weighing, the concerns of beloved others, with perhaps a genuine dose of prayer for reconciliation.  It also seems to surprise him to hear what the Bible itself has to say about dancing, turned against him in one of the film’s most effective moments.  It was Lithgow’s very unmannered, thoughtful performance that at once illustrated both his character’s journey and heart of the picture, and it seems the actor knew that instinctively.  A great actor knows when to pull back, and when to let fly.  And the magnetic presence of the Baconator imparted his magic Bacon dust to the rest of the cast and crew, clinching a fun and hip picture that continues to live on in the zeitgeist.  Or maybe it’s just that every American pop radio station has had the Kenny Loggins theme on a ten minute loop since Reagan’s 2nd term.

*** 1/2

Meal Pairing: Smoked BBQ Ribs, corn on the cob with lots of salt, lots of butter, and Tecate in a chilled bottle.

The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

ManintheIronMask

Reviewed: 07/28/2020

Combined Rating: 3/5

Lauren’s Review:

I’m generally a big fan of Alexandre Dumas, so I’m surprised that I’d neither read the book nor ever seen the film before. This is exactly the kind of slightly over-the-top period action/adventure flick I love, and something about it feels quintessentially 90s (not that the 90s are necessarily a fantastic era for film in general, but this kind of film found its sweet spot in the 90s, I think: not as cheesy as its 80s counterparts, but it still doesn’t take itself too seriously like more modern iterations.) The now-middle aged Three Musketeers are true heroes, fighting for such classic values as honor, freedom, and loyalty—complete with a melodramatic score to back them up. Goodness is rewarded, while evil gets its just deserts. I wish they still made films like this one.

The story is set in 1662 France. D’Artagnan (Gabriel Byrne), now the captain of the Musketeers, serves the young and frivolous King Louis XIV (Leonardo DiCaprio). The other Three Musketeers are still old friends, but living separate lives. But Louis takes a fancy to Athos’s son’s fiancee (Judith Godreche), and plots to send the son to the front lines, where he is killed. Athos (John Malkovich) and his remaining friends Porthos (Gerard Depardieu) and Aramis (Jeremy Irons) band together against the king and thus, against their old companion D’Artagnan as well. To overthrow the king, they free a prisoner who has spent most of his life wearing an iron mask. When the mask is removed, we see that he is Philippe, Louis’s twin brother. He was sent away at birth by his father to secure the throne for his remaining son, and by the time the queen learned that he still lived, Louis was already king and had his brother sent away to the prison, with the mask to hide his identity. You can guess what follows: the Musketeers train sweet Philippe, the complete character foil of his brother, to act like an arrogant king. An identity swap ensues, followed by confrontations, fights, and last-minute surprise reveals at the final showdown. Nobody sang “All for One and All for Love,” as in the original “Three Musketeers,” but the climax certainly had the same feel.

Perhaps the trope of the identical royal twins separated at birth hasn’t been original since Mark Twain’s “The Prince and the Pauper,” and maybe not even then—but the story of the Man in the Iron Mask has one extra claim to set it apart: some aspect of the story is true. The real man in the iron mask sadly died in the Bastille after 30 years as a prisoner, though, and his identity was never definitively known. This article (https://www.livescience.com/54669-man-in-the-iron-mask-identified.html) claims the mystery has been solved at last, though: the real prisoner was not a royal twin, but a valet by the name of Eustache Dauger, who simply informed on the wrong guy at the wrong time. Terribly tragic, and a lot less fun than the Dumas rendition.

****

Frank’s Review:

Dozens of film and TV iterations of this enduring mystery have been produced over the decades, but leave it to me to begin my journey into the material with the one that I imagine feels most like a daytime soap.  I expected a soot-faced John Black from Days of our Lives to emerge from the dark corner of a cell at any moment to exclaim…”Kristin, all that matters is that you believe in my innocence!!!”  Even the presence of serious actors such as John Malkovich, Jeremy Irons, and Gabriel Byrne could not quelch the creeping sense that the production was merely a cash-grabbing afterthought to 1993’s Three Musketeers, which featured, basically, the cast of Young Guns.  At least 3 Musketeers had a cheesy Sting-helmed power ballad and was good tongue-in-cheek fun.  The only “fun” we get from the Iron Mask gambit is a sequence setting up the exposure of Gerard Depardieu’s bare ass, which I’m sorry to say, was not enough.  That doesn’t even qualify as a consolation prize for the ladies.  The vast majority of the film lingered in the awkward space between too serious, and not serious enough.  The main point I took away was that wearing a mask long term can’t be good for you…even if you’re French.

Leonardo Di Caprio was terribly miscast as the “man” in question, and thanks to the costume/hair department, can be easily mistaken for a twelve year old girl.  I can’t imagine anyone in the court of this Louis XIV would have taken him seriously, let alone fear him. While it was easy to dismiss the would-be gravitas of the king, I did sympathize with D’Artagnan’s torn loyalty between his perceived duty to his country (if not his king) and helping his musketeer compatriots in their “treasonous” efforts to seek justice.   This aspect of the story was the best handled, and the most emotionally impacting (mostly due to Byrne’s performance), but sadly, the revelation of the masked prisoner, which pushed the central narrative of the story, felt like a predictable gimmick once revealed…and only served to “double” our displeasure from then on.  I am intrigued, however, to see how the drama plays out in the original source material.

I had not read the story from Dumas’s novel The Vicomte of Bragelonne: Ten Years Later (1847) which established the literary lore of the Man in the Iron Mask.  We do know this man was a real historical figure, kept imprisoned by the same jailer in multiple locations in France for over 34 years, and who died in obscurity 1703. It follows that his isolation was likely politically motivated.  But what was the big secret?  Dumas presents one theory in his work as to who the man was, and why he was kept hidden and covered by a mask of black velvet, which was eventually embellished to iron by dramatists.  In recent decades, many other authors have posited alternative theories, and much like with Jack the Ripper, we’re likely to never know the true story.  And I’m ok with that.  What I’m not ok with is sacrificing a good mystery to the altar of teenage fandom.

**

Meal pairing: Fennel-crusted chicken with fresh tarragon, and baked lemon scallions and potatoes.

 

Flash Gordon (1980)

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Reviewed: 6/15/2020

Combined Rating: 3.75/5

Lauren’s Review:

It’s funny all the preconceived notions I had of this film. I knew Flash Gordon was a comic book hero, but based on the name, I thought he was a superhero imbued with superhuman speed. I was pretty surprised when Frank suggested we watch it, since I assumed that it would be essentially a Marvel movie (which I know he hates). Definitely could not have been more wrong! First of all, Flash has no superpowers at all; he’s just an all American good boy who looks like a Ken doll come to life, and wears a t-shirt bearing his own name (???). Second, while the plot is just as over-the-top as is a Marvel film, “Flash” is very self-aware about it, almost in the style of “The Princess Bride.” You get the impression that the cast is having a hard time keeping a straight face, as opposed to the Marvel franchise, which (“Thor” excepted) seems to take itself quite seriously. Third, I guess I can’t fault them too much for the special effects (it was made in the early 80s, after all), but unlike the CGI of today, they’re so bad, they’re charming. And finally, the soundtrack was written and performed by “Queen,” which is just the coolest. Their lyrics were even better, underscoring the film’s intentional absurdity: “Flash: Savior of every one of us! Flash: king of the impossible!” Cracked me up the whole way through.

The plot checked all the boxes for your classic rollicking adventure tale, too. Football star Flash (Sam Jones—who incidentally was an athlete before he became an actor) finds himself in  a plane gone haywire when alien Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) decides to conquer earth. Dale (Melody Anderson) gets swept up into adventure with him when, thanks to crazy scientist Hans (Topol—love that the lead of “Fiddler on the Roof” is the crazy scientist!), all three of them hurtle into Ming’s world. There, Ming’s daughter, Princess Aura (Ornella Muti) takes a liking to Flash. This is fortunate for him, because Ming has him killed in short order—Aura just brings him back to life, much to the dismay of her lover, Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton, who was probably the only actor in the film who took his role seriously). Meanwhile, Ming takes a liking to Dale, and forces her to marry him, while Dale still believes Flash is dead. Flash rallies Ming’s subjects, converts Prince Barin to his cause, and races to overthrow the emperor and stop the royal wedding—all while Queen sings in the background, “Flash: Savior of the Universe!”

It’s a fun film, though not one you’ll ever get lost in, as you’re quite aware that you’re watching a film from start to finish. But it’s funny in its silliness, and feels like it would translate very well to the stage—particularly the kind of community theater in which the audience cheers for the good guys, and boos and throws popcorn at the bad guys. Good triumphs, evil gets its just desserts, and true love wins. It would make a good pick-me-up after a bad day.

****

Frank’s Review:

What better way to kick off the most outlandish American decade than with a football player in tights battling a space lunatic inside a glitter-filled pleasure dome?  I’m of course talking about the 1980’s…which decade did you think I meant? Throw in a few respectable, high brow actors for credibility (Timothy Dalton, Topol, Max Von Sydow), colorful,  retro Batmanesque special effects, and a killer Queen soundtrack, and you’ve got the makings of an instant bubble-gum cult classic…arguably the perfect movie for opening up a summer, even one as ostensibly dark as 2020.

Some movies just make you grin.  There’s a lot of sentimentality in the cheesy, self-aware dialogue that functions both as a throwback to a simpler time, and an intentional slap on bloated, grandiose productions that competed for post-Star Wars dollars.  “Flash, I Love you…but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth!!!”  Flash Gordon is proof you don’t need big money to make a splash, when you’ve got memorable and likeable characters and a whole lot of fun.  I admit, when I was a kid, I was creeped out by the scene where Prince Barin (Dalton) and Flash (Sam Jones) play one-up with the slimy creature in the stump, and exhilarated by their fight to the death on the oscillating, hovering platform with random protruding spikes.  Those were, actually, really well filmed scenes that far outdid the trash compactor bit in Star Wars on the intensity meter.  I was surprised to find they held up, even now, amidst such spared expense!  Director Mike Hodges, while lesser known than your George Lucas,  unrelentingly moved us along from one creative set piece to another, inundating us with melodramatic escapes from certain death, changing allegiances, and humorously avoidable setbacks, as Flash, through pragmatic American grit, wears down and bears down on our evil villain, Ming the Merciless (Von Sydow) for a proverbial final showdown that will likely end in a call to janitorial services to wipe up yet another pile of goo.  Even Ming’s cloaked goons (which resemble, yet predated the Emperor’s Imperial guard in Return of the Jedi) made your average storm trooper look wildly competent.  But then again, we’re never meant to fear for anybody’s life.  It’s not that kind of movie.  It’s just a movie about a living Ken Doll who gets all the girls and saves the universe, instinctively.  Arguably, there was no better time to simultaneously send up, and emulate, American hubris and optimism.

I never saw the Flash serials from the 1930’s, but I can’t imagine they were a better fit for the material than our flashy cinematic treatment.  And I don’t believe any effort to revive Flash in the modern day would employ as much playfulness, or writers who would resist politically motivating Ming’s world destruction in favor of sheer boredom.   But if you think about it, the guy who is merely killing time is even less predictable.  Brilliant!  Even in the end, our heroes’ cadre is seemingly stuck on Planet Mongo with no way to get back to Earth, but they don’t seem to mind.  If they’d predicted the big bowl of awesome that was about to spill out on America in the 1980’s they’d surely have rushed the return trip.

*** 1/2

Meal pairing: Eat dinner first. This is a dessert movie, and should be viewed while eating a giant hot fudge sundae.

 

 

Primer (2004)

Primer

Reviewed: 5/2/2020

Combined Rating: 1.75/5

Lauren’s Review:

This MIGHT be the most boring and incomprehensible film I’ve ever seen. And it’s my own fault—I picked it, because an audiobook on the physics of science fiction recommended it as the best time travel film ever made. Supposedly it encompasses every possible time travel paradox and deals with their consequences more realistically than any other film. But alas, my strong impression was that the creators intentionally never showed key plot points and left out all semblance of explanation just to be pretentious. Don’t get it? Well, you just must not be smart enough. (Which motivates people to watch it over and over to try to piece together what they missed, so that they don’t have to admit they don’t know what’s going on.) I strongly suspect this was the reason it won Sundance 2004. The judges could say, “It’s brilliant!” (and by extension, they’re brilliant). As my eyes glazed over, I suggested to Frank several times that we give up and watch something else, but he’s a completist—so not only did we finish it, we then watched a 23-min YouTube video afterwards to explain what we’d just seen. The YouTube video was MUCH more entertaining. Here’s what  IT said:

Abe and Aaron inadvertently discover time travel on a small scale. They two build boxes that are basically big enough for one person each, and they have to turn on the box at the time they intend to jump back to in time. Later when they crawl into the boxes, it will take them only as far as the time when they turned the box on—so, micro-time travel. They can’t go way backwards, and they can’t jump forwards at all. The other twist is that they have to remain in the box for the entire duration of the backwards time travel: so if they travel back six hours in time, they’re in the box for essentially negative six hours. Also important: there’s a failsafe second box for each of them that they can use to travel back before they ever time-travel in the first place, to tell the first iteration of themselves not to do it if things go horribly wrong. Only if they succeed, there will now be two copies of themselves running around at the same time, sharing the same identity. One of them will therefore have to go create a brand new life for himself. But this will only occur if they use the failsafe, ideally; otherwise, when timelines converge, there will still be only one of each of them. The entire film takes place over the course of five days. The first four days, they use the box to play the stock market, but Aaron decides to use the failsafe without telling Abe, so that he can deal with Abe’s girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend who shows up at a party with a gun. Aaron goes back over and over to try to get this situation right—there are six versions of Aaron by the end of the film (though you’d never know it since of course it’s the same actor and there’s little to differentiate one scene from another), and I think five of Abe. The two of them have a falling out over one Abe-interation’s determination to stay behind and try to ensure that neither of them ever time-travel in the first place, while one Aaron-iteration travels to a foreign country and uses the knowledge to build another, more massive time travel machine, clearly not learning his lesson.

The fact is, though, that I got about 3% of this from my actual viewing of the film. The cryptic script wasn’t helped by mumbling actors, and scenes deliberately filmed where there was ambient noise obscuring what they said (like before an enormous fountain). Perhaps the concept itself was brilliant—and once I understood it, I’d agree, very clever. But definitely not worth the amount of effort it would have required for me to deduce all that on my own, if that were even possible.

* 1/2

Frank’s Review:

I respect what first time indy-filmmaker Shane Carruth was trying to do, but it just didn’t convey.  According to the rave reviews of the indy-elites at Sundance, Primer might be the most brilliant film about time travel ever made, but I wouldn’t know because the incessant mumbling of characters and insider techno-babble jargon rendered it all but unintelligible.  Director/actor/editor/composer Carruth, who plays “Aaron,” claims the arcane banter was intentional, forgetting that the merit of intent can be judged solely on the degree to which an audience can be impacted by the point one is trying to make.  And in this regard, Carruth ‘s project can only be considered a potential-laden failure.  Even most apologists for the science in the film admittedly like the idea itself better than the product, but there is a fine line between thought-provoking and cryptic.  Ultimately, I can’t even fathom how multiple viewings, short of borderline unhealthy obsessive compulsion featuring a basement full of wall charts, would ever lead to internalization of the multiple timelines created, or which iteration of the character’s “double” we’re tracking within.  It’s all so important that it becomes unimportant, and therefore uninteresting. 

If there is ANY redeeming quality to the film, it is the emerging sense that the scientific and personal bond between friends Aaron and Abe is breaking down due to the physical and emotional strain of time travel and joint, overarching desire to repeat their recent inconsequential pasts to “get it right.”  There is no character exposition whatsoever…only two boring suburban yuppies in ties , who, while talking over each other, accidentally discover a time loop in their garage experiment while attempting to mitigate the effects of gravity.  Once grasped, they don’t even appear to have grand humanitarian or altruistic designs for what they’ve discovered.  Abe immediately jumps back six hours to make money on the stock market, and Aaron, not to be left out, soon follows.  Obviously, it all spirals out of control both for the characters, and the viewer.  But we can digest, in a very generalized sort of way, that time travel = bad, especially if you’re a greedy, bored suburbanite.  I stopped shy of caring about their eventual falling out, mainly because it doesn’t even appear that they really care.  But I think filmmaker was hoping we would. 

God Bless Shane Carruth for turning a mere $7K into a would-be contemplative feature-length film that is still being discussed, a major feat in and of itself.  Personally, I found a 23 minute YouTube video by “London Girl” explaining the film far more entertaining than the film itself, and an essential companion piece for anyone who still feels compelled to brave it.  Without it, there are just too many plot points eliminated to satisfy anyone who wants to understand.  Although Primer has managed to achieve cult status over time, like so many other weird, self-indulgent concoctions, Carruth does seem to at least cherish the craft of filmmaking, if not the art of storytelling.  But he inconveniently neglects that because time travel doesn’t actually exist (at least so far), it should at least be fun to watch. 

**

Meal Pairing: Keep it simple for this one in case you decide to give up halfway through the 1hr 17min running time.  Do a taco salad with crushed tortilla chips, Ortega Taco Sauce, diced tomatoes, lettuce, cheese, and a 9 oz can of Hunt’s Tomato sauce in the meat, along with the Ortega taco seasoning.  And don’t worry about crunching your taco during the dialogue…you won’t miss anything pivotal.

 

The Departed (2006)

510gCMld+uL._AC_Reviewed: 4/3/20

Combined Rating: 4.5/5

Frank’s Review:

Director Martin Scorsese has been dabbling in urban gangland films for almost a half-century now.  His manic obsession with tweaking and improving upon the same picture is like a rehab veteran who keeps falling off the wagon chasing one last fix.  Just when Marty gets out of the genre…something pulls him back in.  The prospect of a mafia magnum opus that will stand the test of time is clearly his life’s goal, and the filmmaking process itself serves his cathartic quest to fulfill it.  However, when one is mired in tropes, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.  Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Casino, and Gangs of New York manifested as bloated train-wrecks of pretentious self-indulgence, drowning in unfulfilled potential.  And because most addicts are inextricably linked to their drug of choice, he has not so much been rewarded as enabled.  Yet, thirty-two years after his first hit, something finally clicked.

Whether by experience or sheer luck, The Departed may be his sobrietal moment…the elusive culmination of storytelling, characterization, and intensity we’ve been waiting for.  In fact, it is looking increasingly likely, as the great director winds down his career with the vastly overrated The Irishman (2019), that The Departed will ultimately represent the most engaging schlock opera of his career.  Unlike the rest, it pushes a big picture agenda that challenges viewers to care about underworld infiltration and compromise of our revered institutions.  Instead of a meandering biopic, The Departed feels uniquely focused on the race between two undercover operatives planted on both sides of the law to expose each other, as they spiral toward their inevitable mutual reckoning.   The film asks the question: what is the price of doing what is required, whether cop OR criminal? There is something more interesting at stake here than what men will do merely to preserve their power.   Roles constantly shift and compound among cops and criminals who seek to infiltrate each other’s organizations, even as self-interests conflict with professional motives.  Loyalty is a theme that is intimately explored both on a personal and corporate level, especially with regard to how shocking twists and revelations strain it under duress.  In this taught cat-and-mouse tale, the cat and the mouse are chasing each other and the victor is the one who will demonstrate the greatest amount of mental nimbleness, or so they believe.  But in the end, are the two sides really that different?

Jack Nicholson as the Irish Mafia big-wig of Boston is at his “charismatically unhinged” best.  Young punks like Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt (look ma, I’m Irish!) Damon brought their A-game to compete, and their frenetic interplay compliments Big Jack’s cool gravitas.  It’s all peppered with a rather hilarious smorgasbord of creative Irish insults that cuts the tension nicely, if you don’t mind F-bombs being used more frequently than conjunctions.  Speaking of competition…when our chief rivals (DiCaprio (cop posing as criminal) and Damon (criminal posing as cop) end up simultaneously dating the same needy woman, the coincidence is not wasted by the story.   The psychological impact is palpably felt by the viewer, when increasing desperation on the part of both threatens to expose true identities before they can capitalize.  Who will break first?   You know it’s all going to end badly, but you still hope justly.   Self-extraction becomes impossible as the quicksand deepens, but we’re haunted by the suspicion that even more are not who they appear to be.  It feels good to watch Scorsese summon the courage to break the mold, transcending typical tit-for-tat revenge porn so prevalently used as filler in his back-catalog.   It’s the most inspired and gripping entertainment he’s created since Cape Fear (1990), which ironically featured DeNiro in a non-gangster role.

**** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

This one was Frank’s pick, but I knew it had to be good, since it has Matt Damon in it and he owns it anyway. (All things Matt Damon are of the devil, in Frank’s opinion.) Quite the all-star cast, though, and mob movies are fascinating to me mostly due to the whole concept of secrecy and subterfuge. Boy, was I in for that with this one.

The film opens with a flashback in which mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) meets a young boy named Colin Sullivan and takes him under his wing. Fast-forward to years later, when Sullivan (Damon) and Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) are both in the police academy. While Sullivan seems to be the golden boy, nobody knows that he is actually an informant for Costello. Costigan, on the other hand, grew up in and around crime, so the department decides he would be the perfect inside informant for them in Costello’s gang. The two don’t know each other, nor are they even aware of the other’s existence until Costello escapes a sting due to Sullivan’s information. Costigan reports to the department that there must be a mole.  Meanwhile, both Costigan and Sullivan begin a relationship with the same woman, police psychiatrist Dr Madolyn Madden (Vera Farmiga). This later becomes important, as she is the only person Costigan can trust when he realizes that his own life is in jeopardy.

I won’t spoil all the surprise twists and turns—but just when you think you’ve figured out what’s going on, another double-cross turns the story on its head. It’s gripping from start to finish, but definitely NOT a happily-ever-after. I was ok with that in a story like this, because at no point did I ever really expect one. Also, the f-word appears more often in the script than the word ‘the.’ I get that some of that is just realism—mobsters aren’t likely to choose ‘gosh darn it’ as an epithet. Still, I think they could have cut out about 3/4s of the f-bombs and been fine.

**** 1/2

Meal pairing: Everybody’s Irish in this film, so grab some corned beef, cabbage, stewed potatoes, and a pint of Guinness (or Harp)

 

Annie (1982)

Annie

Reviewed: 02/25/20

Combined Rating: 3.25/5

Lauren’s Review:

Anytime Frank actually suggests we watch a musical, no matter what it is, who am I to argue? (This one was technically my pick, though he mentioned we should watch it sometime several months ago.) I’d never seen it before, and all I knew about it was that it involved a redheaded orphan, and featured the song “Tomorrow.” But I can always bet that musicals prior to the era of “Rent” will be melodramatic, cheerful, and cheesy. Annie was no exception.

The story follows orphaned Annie (Aileen Quinn) and her fellow orphan girls, presided over by a lascivious and cruel Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett). The billionaire “Daddy” Warbucks (Albert Finney) wants an orphan to come and stay with him for a week as a publicity stunt, and his assistant-turned-love-interest Grace (Ann Reinking) goes to the orphanage to ask Miss Hannigan for someone suitable. Annie overhears this and endears herself to Grace so that she is chosen, even though Miss Hannigan hates her. When Annie shows up at Mr. Warbucks’s mansion and finally meets him, he tells her that he had expected a boy instead (a la Anne of Green Gables), but she convinces him to keep her for the week. Of course, that’s all it takes for Annie to win over Mr. Warbucks. He offers to adopt her (in a WEEK), but Annie reveals that she’s still holding out hope that her real parents will come back to claim her. In an act of  unselfless love, Mr. Warbucks launches a nationwide search with a reward for Annie’s parents. Of course this induces all sorts of unscrupulous rabble to seek the reward money: particularly Miss Hannigan, and her brother and sister-in-law (Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters). Shenanigans ensue. The orphan girls pull together to help Annie in her hour of need (which is also quite touching considering Annie’s good fortune benefits them not at all!) And of course, there’s a triumphant happily-ever-after, complete with fireworks and a touching duet between Annie and her new “daddy.”

You definitely have to suspend your disbelief, but of course that’s to be expected for a musical from the early 80s. Also, I didn’t realize how many “Annie” references have become engrained in our culture. For instance, I thought they chose the character name “Daddy Warbucks” as a deliberately on-the-nose reference to a wealthy benefactor, but discovered that Annie was where that term came from in the first place! The term “Little Orphan Annie” has been a thing for what seems like forever, but apparently that’s the title of the comic strip upon which Annie is based. I feel just the tiniest bit more cultured now.

***

Frank’s Review:

What can be cuter than a spunky ten year old orphan with a massive orange fro and her posse of neglected survivors?  Who can resist innocent shenanigans perpetrated against their hapless, alcoholic caretaker, Ms. Hannigan, especially as portrayed by the hysterical Carol Burnett?  And when little orphan Annie rebuffs adoption into wealth and merely longs for a “normal life,” who can fault even President Roosevelt (Edward “The Head Vampire” Hermann) from joining in the chorus of an infectious song that reflects both the hope of finding Annie’s lost parents, and the prospect of employing millions of depressed Americans through socialist programs?  The….sun will come out, tomorrow!  Even Daddy Warbucks’s cold, Republican heart is moved, and in record time.

While the most unbelievable part of this fairy tale to modern audiences might be the genuine friendship between Warbucks and FDR (scandalously featuring a Democrat attending a party at a Republican’s house), I was more baffled by the hair-brained scheme employed by Ms. Hannigan and her seedy brother Rooster (Tim Curry) and his fiancé (Bernadette Peters) to claim a $50K reward by posing as Annie’s parents.  I mean, I guess it is the great depression and all, but the big conflict in the film is about as half-assed as they come.  And why would Warbucks, a smart, careful guy, not think to have police investigate people he clearly suspects before handing Annie over to them?   Warbucks launched the search for Annie’s parents by yelling for J. Edgar and the Chief of Police, but apparently, in the hubbub his lackeys dropped the ball on making those phone calls.  If the key to positively ID-ing her real parents rests on finding the other half of Annie’s bequeathed locket, it should have been easy for Warbucks to discover what we come to find out…that Annie’s folks died in a fire…but the police should know that since they hand-delivered personal effects, including Annie, and the other half of the locket, to Ms. Hannigan at the orphanage.  Revisiting the effects should have resulted in an easy case closed.  But then we wouldn’t have a very un-musical climax where Annie, escaping her captors and pursued on foot by now unhinged Rooster, almost falls 200 feet to her death.  Contrivances aside, I was just grateful for more Tim Curry screen time.  I don’t know if there’s anything creepier than Curry with a greasy, 1930’s era pornstache.

Normally I’d say “a musical is a musical is a musical.”  But this musical benefits from the experience of director John Huston, who, despite being out of his genre, lends as much gravitas as possible to such a local story.  He paces the film nicely, alternating between well-sung and choreographed (if not overblown) numbers, and dramatic action, peppered with witty dialogue and eccentric performances, especially from our cadre of ne’er-do-wells.  Despite some plot holes, the conflict is sufficient for self-professed lighthearted fare, and our little protagonist is just so likeable, especially when paired with a surprisingly nimble Albert Finney (Warbucks), with whom she has memorable chemistry.  The entire cast looks like they’re having real fun, much as I had when my mom took me to the theater to see it in 1982.  Unfortunately, young Aileen Quinn in the title role suffered the proverbial curse of the child star, pigeonholed, yet, with this role, etched into cultural eternity as one of few who can claim the mantle of a genuine “poster child.” Between that and a long career of diverse, yet forgettable roles, I’d take the etching.

*** 1/2

Meal pairing: popcorn fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, and a helping of mixed veggies on the side.

 

1917 (2019)

1917

Reviewed: 2/2/2020

Combined Rating: 3.75/5

Frank’s Review:

The First World War ended the Victorian Era and changed everything, including humanity’s view of itself.  As the world got smaller and more entangled, and mankind began to realize the mass carnage it was capable of, cultural and political shifts emerged that still define us.  And yet, somehow, the connections between our first truly global conflict and any lessons learned remain merely fragments buried in the trenches of our collective mind.  Although only a century removed, Americans are hard pressed to recount little if anything about what actually happened on the battlefields, and what real men endured just to get through it.  Until now.

Part of the tragic appeal of 1917, I think, is that its mysterious context has suppressed our ability to predict what might come next.  This important film allows viewers to actually go into the literal trenches with two common soldiers and penetrate the haze in a way we have historically avoided, so we might find the daylight necessary to advance.  Many films on the Great War have recreated epic scale, but few if none have made it so local and intimate.  There are a handful of insightful WWI films (Paths of Glory (1957), Gallipoli (1981)), but Hollywood has largely not helped. Because 1917 transpires in real time, and the camera partners with our duo as a silent third party, we can feel what they feel as each new challenge presents.  We realize that untold dangers really are threatened with each new abandoned barn or poppy-strewn field.  We sense their vulnerability and reliance on each other for strength and clarity.  We feel the stress of their time constraints as they strive to accomplish their vital mission: to save 1,600 by warning an isolated regiment of impending German attack.  We sympathize with their attempts to fight their own existential dilemma by consciously focusing on the lives of others, even when their best human instincts are often not rewarded or returned.  Despite this, the horrors and death they encounter over two hours of one day must not cause them to stumble emotionally.  Who could have done this?

The continuous shot technique employed by cinematographer Roger Deakins that defines this film is vital to its ability to achieve its emotional goals, and it largely succeeds despite us not knowing anything about our boys.  But that’s kind of the point…they are as nameless and faceless to us as they are to their commanding officers, who parade them as cattle to the slaughter to accomplish temporary, arbitrary, and often futile tactical or strategic goals. We come to understand that if one is to carry on, one must not even entertain making sense of it.  Even commanders have resigned any attachment and accepted a “last man standing” approach, in denial of basic human needs and realities.  There really is no such thing as a happy ending amidst such psychological and actual warfare.  The only reward is “live to fight another day.”  And in Sam Mendes’s effective tribute to his grandfather, who was a dutiful soldier like our Lance Corporal Blake and Lance Corporal Schofield, we quickly grasp that to sympathize with their plight, less than one day in the life is more than enough.

**** ½

Lauren’s Review:

We had originally planned to see 1917 on Christmas night, but it wasn’t out in all theaters yet so we had to make other plans. Thank God! This is definitely NOT a Christmas Day movie. I sort of thought it would be by the previews, which led me to believe it would be a redemptive war film like Dunkirk, war is always horrifying of course, but the main theme of Dunkirk was the spontaneous unified efforts of strangers and even civilians all coming together for a common cause. I thought 1917 might be heartwarming in the same way. The previews set up the story of two young British soldiers who received an impossible command on a tight deadline. I thought, if they don’t succeed, there’s no film, right? So this has to be a story about overcoming impossible odds. I like those kinds of stories. Word of warning, though: the preview misleads. If you’re after heartwarming, this is not the film for you.

The story is fictional, and follows soldiers Will Schofield (George MacKay) and Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman). Their General (Colin Firth) orders them to cross no man’s land to the German trenches, which they hear are abandoned, to deliver an order to a colonel of another battalion (Benedict Cumberbatch, who only gets a cameo at the very end). The order tells the colonel not to move forward with a scheduled attack, which the general knows will end in disaster. Schofield and Blake are chosen because Blake’s brother is among the said battalion, so he will have extra motivation to succeed. Blake randomly chooses Schofield to come with him before he knows what the orders will be. Of course there have to be obstacles and setbacks along the way, but the filmmakers spare nothing in depicting the gruesome gore of war and death. No spoilers, but I will say things don’t turn out as planned—we don’t get the reunion between the brothers we’re set up for at the beginning. Does the mission succeed? Sort of, but it’s bittersweet and certainly not an unequivocal victory. I guess I should have guessed that when I learned that it wasn’t a true story, as I think it’s the general consensus among cynics (which most people are these days) that happily-ever-afters aren’t believable unless it’s historical fact.

From a technical standpoint at least, I suppose I have to say the film was very well done. The sets are great and the acting is great, but those aspects don’t impress me if I don’t enjoy the story. There’s pretty much no reprieve from the suspense from start to finish, aside from one maybe five minute interlude. I walked out of the theater feeling exhausted and depressed. I’m sure that’s the way it felt to actually fight in the war, too, but I’ve never understood the concept that art should mimic life. I watch films to be entertained, not to gain a greater understanding of someone who lived through horror. My empathy does not benefit those who experienced it; all it does is open my eyes to yet more evils in the world. With which information I do… what exactly? In the case of 1917 what I did was go home and read fairy tale retellings, so I wouldn’t have to go to bed with those as the last images in my head.

***

Meal Pairing:  big slab of prime rib with Au-jus sauce and horseradish, brown sugar beans and roasted potatoes with garlic, salt, and pepper.  And probably a light German beer to take the edge off.

 

The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

PhantomoftheOpera

Reviewed: 1/20/20

Combined Rating: 3/5

Frank’s Review:

This fifteenth (or so) film version of the classic 1909 French novel by Gaston Leroux is also the first film version based on the 1986 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.  Turns out, they can’t let a good story rest, even if it has morphed into a vehicle for memorable music.  I went into this version thinking, “hey, at least it’s a Joel Schumacher film,” having loved both The Lost Boys and Falling Down.  But no traces of the Schumacher magic were to be found here.  Instead, we got Batman Returns Joel without the fun.  Not that The Phantom is supposed to be “fun,” per se, but if not fun, at least menacing.  It wasn’t that either.   It was, however, creepy.

I initially thought this was a “I was young and needed the money” role for Gerard Butler (the Phantom), until I found out he was actually thirty-five, making his obsession over eighteen year old Emmy Rossum’s “Christine” feel pathetic.  There are better ways to achieve sympathy for your misunderstood monster then having him perving over barely legal ingenues.  I’ll just assume her golden voice is to blame.  Not that Christine’s beau the Viscount Raoul de Chagny (Patrick Wilson) was a more enticing option.  He comes across rather foppish with a horrendous coiffure to boot.  What is a girl to do?  I certainly get the confusion here, when forced to choose between these two.   During the cemetery duel, I found myself wishing they’d simulaneously run each other through and end this  bloated production.  I’m sure the set designer, at the least, would have been grateful.

Speaking of vocal stylings, I find Butler a strange choice to play the Phantom, given he is barely on pitch and obviously straining through much of his performance.  He’s supposed to carry the damn thing, is he not?  He’s fine during the speaking parts, but there is, sadly, little of that.  He did fare better than poor Russell Crowe in Les Miserables, who ironically is the one fronting a band in real life.   But far too often in modern Hollywood casting rooms, star power and/or sex appeal trumps suitability.  At least give us a gross out climactic reveal!  When the mask comes off,  we find our Phantom has sustained no more than what resembes a schoolyard beating…hardly cause to lock one’s self away in a dank dungeon to sulk for decades.  He should know chicks don’t go all in for pity parties.  I do feel better about my own perseverance completing the film and proving to my wife that it can be done.  But next time I’ll just stick to the Robert Englund gore-fest (1989), which I’m told more closely resembles the novel.

**

Lauren’s Review:

Guess whose pick this one was. 🙂 I’d been asking to re-watch this version of Phantom ever since I recently read the original Gaston Leroux novel (which was amazing, by the way!) Frank finally gave in when I told him it was this or “The Phantom Menace” (never thought he’d prefer a musical over a Star Wars film, but there you have it.) I did recall being less than totally impressed with the singing when I’d watched it the first time, but this is the only film version of Phantom that’s essentially the same as the musical. So, this is the one I wanted to see. This adaptation really is quite true to the stage version, but I guess it would be since it was actually produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Having re-listened to the original Broadway recording shortly after finishing the novel, I noted that the instrumentation was identical and it seemed to me that the actors tried to copy even the vocal inflections of the original stars.

And, yeah, okay—it’s super melodramatic. But no more so than most entertainment that came out in the 80s—over-the-top was kind of the style then. This is also the kind of story that lends itself to melodrama. Orphaned Christine Daae (Emmy Rossum) is a chorus girl in the Paris opera in the late 19th century, and when the story opens, she’s already the object of the Phantom’s (Gerard Butler)’s affections, though she does not yet know he’s the Opera Ghost. She believes he’s the Angel of Music, sent to her by her deceased father. He gives her voice lessons, and plagues Carlotta (Minnie Driver), the opera’s diva, to give Christine the opportunity to show off her newly acquired skills. Unfortunately for the Phantom, on her debut, she also catches the eye of Raul, the Viscount de Chagny (Patrick Wilson): new owner of the Opera and incidentally also her childhood sweetheart. The Phantom, mad with jealousy, whisks Christine to his underground lair beneath the opera, which includes a lake and gondola, thousands of candles (who bothers to light them all, I wonder), and a full size replica of Christine in wedding attire. She finally realizes—mostly—that he’s no angel after all, and tries to explain this to Raul, but he does not believe her until he has to face off with the Phantom himself. When it’s clear that a) he exists, and b) his obsession with Christine knows no bounds, they concoct a plot to trap him, using her as bait. It doesn’t go so well. But there’s a twist at the end that renders the Phantom, if not relatable, then at least a sympathetic monster. This was especially true in the novel version (where we find out that the Phantom’s name is Eric, and get his back story. You really feel sorry for him in that version.)

Despite the melodrama, though—man, I love the music. And yeah, Emmy Rossum and Gerard Butler were no Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford, but I still thought they did a good job with some very difficult songs. While I get that some of the dramatic moments don’t transition from speaking to singing super well if you’re focused on it, I don’t really have a problem suspending my disbelief in that area. I know going in that if it’s a musical, dramatic moments will be sung, and everyone will know all the words and all the steps. That’s part of what I love so very much. 🙂

****

Meal pairing: Pork chops with balsamic glaze, with green beans sautéed in butter with onions. (It’s an opera after all!)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001

Reviewed: 12/22/19

Combined Rating: 1.5/5

Frank’s Review:

The film gods have spoken:  If one wants to be taken seriously as a cinephile, one must at least watch Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I think that is etched on a stone tablet somewhere in the Hollywood hills.  I’m proud to say after my third viewing attempt, I have finally achieved total completion, after my first two attempts resulted in premature termination brought on by acute boredom.  There is only so much primeval bone-chucking I can handle.  But this time, on re-entry, I had a plan.  I would invite a science fiction scholar to accompany my viewing and provide real-time expert commentary explaining the film’s significance.  Anyone can appreciate its groundbreaking technical and visual achievements, even while lucid.  But what the hell does it all mean?  My expert (let’s call him…”Jim”, because that’s his actual name) was determined to help me understand.

Unfortunately, as minutes turned into long stretches with no dialogue, our original plan was marginalized by spontaneous conversations about the merits of Matt Damon’s existence, among other things.  Heady stuff, but this got us no closer to discovering the infamous shipboard robot “HAL’s” motivations for subverting the crucial Jupiter mission, or what the true mission really even was…critical plot points essential for maintaining viewer interest.  I never quite accepted that Kubrick was more interested in creating a meditation for his own self-amusement than fulfilling basic audience requirements.  This is one mark of an “elitist,” although the film gods prefer the term “auteur.”  It must be my problem, after all.

But basically, as my questions compounded, I was directed to Arthur C. Clarke’s book of the same name, which serves as the movie’s inspiration and template, despite being published after the film’s release.  Apparently in the book, all is explained.  Jim eventually summarized the happenings well, as involving ancient aliens, embedded monoliths, distant signals, evolutionary experiments on humans, and post-op re-implantation on Earth for the purposes of maintaining consistent “progress” of our species (as if we couldn’t have gotten there on our own…another “elitist” insinuation).  The majority of screen time is dedicated to snarky HAL pestering polite astronaut Dave, until Dave finally shuts him down.  But by then, it’s too late, and the final act unfolds like the end of a project that unexpectedly ran out of money.  Except, it was intentional.  If there’s any consolation, I’m told it may be found in the sequel 2010 (1984) featuring Roy Scheider. I’m guessing it entails Scheider at some point uttering “We’re gonna need a bigger bolt.”  I actually look forward to watching it, because one of my biggest flaws as a human being is my completest nature, bringing me full circle to why, along with earning my cinephile street cred, I had to force 2001 down to begin with.  Moral of the story: don’t feel you need to view something JUST because the film Gods demand it.  Turns out, most of them were on Stanley Kubrick’s payroll.

***

Lauren’s Review:

I’m told that according to some critics, this is the best movie ever made. I’m not terribly surprised, given my general impression of the taste of most critics in both film and literature—largely they seem to favor stories that the general public will abhor for one reason or another, either because it’s dull as dishwater, too obtuse to understand, or dreadfully depressing. I suspect this gives them the chance to look down their noses at the common man for not “getting it.” Whatever. I never claimed to be cultured.

That said, I’ve intended to watch “2001 Space Odyssey” ever since my last YA fiction series involving a superintelligent robot. This was apparently the original version of such a tale, before the idea of such a being acquiring self-interest and becoming dangerous to humans had become cliche. I was expecting an actual story along these lines, involving characters I could identify with and root for, and a slow progression of their understanding that HAL (which apparently is one letter off from IBM, on purpose—thanks for that tidbit, Jim!), was not actually on their side. What I got instead was a 2 hr 44 min film, with no dialogue whatsoever for the first 25 minutes, and precious little thereafter. During the first 25 minutes, men in monkey suits attack each other before an enormous monolithic rock reminiscent of Stonehenge. Somehow the stone imparts to them knowledge for tools that allow them to take the next evolutionary leap—and then suddenly it’s 2001, and we’re aboard a space ship. An identical monolith is on the moon. Astronauts investigate. Skip ahead again. At last we meet Hal. A disagreement between Hal and the astronauts leads them to power him down, and that’s the end of that interlude. Then there’s another of the same monoliths on Jupiter. One of the astronauts ends up in a bedroom that transforms him into himself at various different life stages, and then back to an enormous pulsating fetus. The end.

No, really. That was it. I guess we’re left to draw our own conclusions, although it really struck me as the film equivalent of one of those pieces of modern art where the artist combines ordinary household items, sticks them under glass, and names them something pretentious and completely unrelated—like, say, a bunch of grapes sitting on top of a roll of toilet paper, entitled ‘Infinity’ or whatever. (In the right gallery, I’m sure that display would go for several grand.) I’m told that the novel version of the film by Arthur C. Clarke makes perfect sense. Why he chose not to translate that to the screen when he co-wrote the screenplay, though, I haven’t a clue.

Turkey

Meal pairing: freeze-dried chicken and rice with Tang—to keep it authentic.