First Knight (1995)

Reviewed: 08/13/22

Combined Rating: 4.5/5

Lauren’s Review:

I’ve always loved stories about King Arthur and Camelot, which seem to dwell right in that shadowy place between history and mythology. There’s something so romantic about the old Celtic world, and of course the ideal of chivalrous knights and brotherly love. Despite this, I generally cringe at the way the love triangle between Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot plays out. It’s supposed to be a tragedy, I suppose, but for something so idyllic to end in betrayal, war, and heartbreak is like a recapitulation of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. I’d prefer to think of the characters almost like a photograph, frozen in a single moment in time where the betrayal has not yet occurred, and thus, while Lancelot and Guinevere must love one another, everything is still precariously perfect. But I never thought that version of the story actually existed, until I saw this film. 

In this rendition, Lancelot (Richard Gere) is a disillusioned young man who lost everything and everyone dear to him as a child, and now roams the Anglian countryside from village to village earning his money as a traveling swordsman. As Guinevere (Julia Ormond—who was so well cast!) travels by carriage, she is accosted by Prince Malagant (Ben Cross)’s ruffians, and Lancelot saves her from them. They’re immediately drawn to one another, though she denies it, having already promised to marry King Arthur (Sean Connery—and really, could anyone else have played that role)? The plot from there is quite simple: Connery presides over peaceful Camelot, while Malagant, his rogue former knight, is determined to destroy it for destruction’s own sake. Because Arthur truly loves Guinevere, she seems to be Malagant’s ticket, but each time he attacks her, Lancelot shows up to save her as a true romantic hero. Arthur, innocent as a child, suspects nothing. Guinevere, meanwhile, valiantly resists Lancelot’s charms, but he’s selfishly determined to win her over—and this is the only reason why he ultimately decides to join the Knights of the Round Table in the first place. Lancelot finally has a change of heart and decides to leave the kingdom for its own good, and ironically, this is what finally wins over the good queen’s heart… and then everything begins to unravel.

I really can’t find fault with any element of this film. The acting and casting were both superb, and the filming and score both felt epic and fairytale-esque. Unlike every other version of the Arthurian legends I’ve ever read or seen, this one even manages to have a pseudo-happy ending for the romantic pair, or at least a happy ending is implied. I’m sorry for Arthur still, but even though he’s Sean Connery, he was way too old for Julia Ormond to begin with. (She never should have agreed to marry him in the first place, she was just being unnecessarily stubborn.)

*****

Frank’s Review:

What do you get when director Jerry Zucker (the zany, scattered mind behind Airplane, Top Secret, and The Naked Gun) goes all in on Arthurian lore?  The answer is: not what you’d expect!  First Knight is an epic fantasy film that is surprisingly earnest and dialed in, probing the trade of freedom for community as an exercise in maturity.   In fact, it’s hard to believe First Knight is the work of the same man, but then again, I guess Zucker did direct Ghost (1990) five years prior, where he first revealed his secret penchant for schmaltzy romance.  While First Knight still has contained moments of schmaltz (minus the wet pottery), Zucker paces and stages the action scenes so well around the evolution of the crux relationships, you almost forget this is basically a love triangle flick. Manly men (like myself) can be easily conned into buying that they’re watching a movie about medieval conflict, honor, and sacrifice for a greater cause that just happens to include some tragic passion.  

When unhinged knight of the round table Prince Malagant (Ben Cross) goes rogue, he takes a surly contingent, sets up shop in a nearby, conveniently dingy castle ruin, and starts burning villages protected by Camelot, before threatening Camelot itself.  Malagant pursues power, disguised in excuses about how Arthur is a wuss and men really want “leadership,” not democracy.  He argues that Arthur’s shared power structure is somehow tyrannical (a “come again?” argument ahead of its time).  Because locking peasants in flaming barns gets tiresome, Malagant tries kidnapping Guinevere to force Arthur to capitulate to his vision, but lounging Lancelot keeps intervening.  Longing for peace and quiet, Sean Connery’s weathered King Arthur is so altruistic and trusting of Lancelot’s perceived motives, he fails to predict what being rescued multiple times by a long-haired loner can do to a girl in the primal urges department…or maybe he’s just too old to remember.  In setting Arthur up as a straight arrow, and the film’s real victim, the movie ultimately makes us feel it when he climactically and heroically commits to his resolving choices.  It is great to live by a code, but it is the level of commitment we demonstrate in brief, pivotal moments that defines us.   And for Lancelot, the extent to which he matures depends on his level of commitment to accepted ethical/communal standards.

Zucker balances the grand and the intimate scale masterfully, while finding ways of keeping Lancelot close by to continually rescue Guinevere, as he struggles internally between living a life of isolated freedom and risking more for a sense of belonging.   Richard Gere as hunk-for-hire Lancelot, who inadvertently spoils the King’s long-deserved marriage to Guinevere, seems at first to come off as a bit cold and dickish, until we realize that a tragedy of his childhood provoked his chosen untethered lifestyle.  Since Gere himself tends to come across as distant and uncommitted, I guess we will call it good casting.  Julia Ormand as Guinevere exudes innocence, surprising even herself when her own discipline fails at an inopportune moment.  Jerry Goldsmith’s lushly romantic theme must have been too much for her to bear.  Damn you, Jerry!  And Malagant himself is a worthy villain whose greed and lust for power is evident in his burrowing, man-lined eyes.  To solidify his evil street cred, he should have hired Michael Wincott to torture his captives, since Wincott gloriously features in many other ‘90’s medieval castle flicks.  You’d know him if you heard him!   Think greasy and gravelly.   Even still, First Knight creates a fanciful yet humanized mythology that illustrates how the core ideas of Camelot, in the person of King Arthur, proved both its strength and eventual weakness. But even in decline, it’s still a place I’d want to live!   

**** 

Meal Pairing: The story isn’t set in the Renaissance, but it feels like it is, because it’s about knights and chivalry and all that… so a turkey leg (gnawed from the bone), Yukon Gold potatoes roasted with butter and garlic, with stewed apples and a pint of local ale.

Top Gun: Maverick (2022)

Reviewed: 6/15/22

Combined Rating: 4.5/5

Lauren’s Review:

I was never a fan of the first “Top Gun”—honestly I thought it was solid 80s cheese through and through, with very little to redeem it. So I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing the hyped-up sequel, until I heard that audiences and critics alike raved about how wonderful it was. Still, I figured a lot of that was just nostalgia from mega-fans, to whom I couldn’t relate. I also heard that the film was considered patriotic, though (in a culture where patriotism is considered politically incorrect), so I didn’t mind supporting it for that reason. There are precious few films worth seeing in the movie theaters these days. Perhaps because of my low expectations, I was very pleasantly surprised. 

Thirty years after the events of the first “Top Gun” film, Pete Mitchell (Tom Cruise) is now presumably in his fifties (like Cruise in real life, though he looks like he’s in his early 40s), and never advanced in his career at all. Like his call sign, he’s still a “Maverick,” which makes for great heroes, but doesn’t lend itself to orderly advancement in military ranks. His character struck me as the quintessential “Peter Pan”: no wife, no kids, no real responsibility, and still living for adventure and thrills. Necessary for the premise of the film, and consistent with his character, but less cool than it might have seemed in his 20s. He’s just pulled a stunt that should have gotten him grounded permanently when the film opens. Instead, Ice Man (Val Kilmer), now Mitchell’s friend, pulls him back to Top Gun in order to train the best graduates they’ve ever had for what seems an impossible mission. Their objective is to destroy the uranium plant of an unnamed international enemy (there’s a bit of political correctness: in these days of globalism, you can’t point the finger at any enemy nations, though this certainly sounds like one I can think of). The plant is situated in extremely precarious natural terrain, guarded by superior fire power and fighter jets. It’s a suicide mission, and Mitchell has very little time in which to train them. One thing leads to another, and to no one’s surprise, Mitchell ends up piloting the lead fighter jet on the mission himself. His wingman is none other than Lt Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of his best friend and wingman “Goose” who died in the first film. Bradshaw and Mitchell have a tense history, and they have time to work out their differences even in the midst of the climactic action sequence. 

Meanwhile, once back in his old stomping grounds, Mitchell encounters an old girlfriend, Penny (Jennifer Connelly). She’s fortunately not the girl from the first film (that romance was a bit creepy, actually). Apparently they nevertheless have a history, and Mitchell has broken her heart multiple times in the past, consistent with the whole Peter Pan syndrome thing. She too is in her 50s now, and looks stunning. It’s a bit odd to see them nevertheless acting like teenagers, but in context, it surprisingly worked. Maybe it’s because Hollywood airbrushing is the digital fountain of youth. In any case, “Maverick” hit all the right notes. The characterization was believable, the characters likable, and the action over-the-top—but in such a way that it made me want to cheer, rather than roll my eyes. It’s everything a summer blockbuster should be.

****

Frank’s Review:

After 36 years, somebody (probably Tom Cruise) thought it was time to re-introduce the world to cocky American fighter pilots and their high-stakes shenanigans. That someone, turns out, is smarter than me. Initially writing off the Top Gun sequel as merely lazy fan service updated to fit modern sensibilities, I had no intention of seeing it, even with a free movie ticket. And now, as the movie is breaking $400 million domestic, I sit here happy to report that my curiosity, and unapologetic loyalty to ‘80’s franchises, got the better of me. Producers, including Cruise, must have predicted my sentiments, but knowing that timing is everything, doubled down and, like an F/A-18 shooting for a carrier deck, stuck the precision landing. They no doubt sensed the latent desire for pro-America nostalgia that has been conspicuously hushed for a couple of decades in the wake of the industry’s widespread, lingering apology tour for our very existence. But that age may, thanks to our aging Maverick, be nearing an end.

I have never really enjoyed planes or movies about planes. And while I appreciate the cheese factor of the original that gave Top Gun the bulk of its immortality, I could never take seriously a bunch of wise-asses one-upping each other in the sky, interspersed with them playing grab ass on the beach. What makes the original hilarious is that I believe Tony Scott wanted us to take it seriously. You probably know the joke about the associated drinking game. But games aside, Top Gun: Maverick is not really about planes, or any of that. Instead, it is more about how Maverick reconciles confidence and regret in a search for personal redemption. His past choices and goals have come back to haunt him and he must confront and repair relationships he has conveniently deferred. His new career opportunities give him the chance to step up on multiple fronts, but will Maverick’s new choices bring the same results? For these themes, Maverick, even in its playful and romantic moments, feels more serious. Underpinning it all is a familiar machismo employing that uniquely American credo of “don’t think, just do,” which has historically served us well when it hasn’t precipitated our downfall.

The only reason Top Gun: Maverick is not “great” is because it is still very derivative and predictable, as many scenes are stolen from the first film and updated/re-vamped. But even still, Cruise and team crafted an engaging and exciting pic that featured amazing real-life stunts. Whatever it is, it is certainly not lazily made. Mr. Cruise was actually very good in it. Unlike so many actors revisiting a character years later, Tom wasn’t focused on trying to “recreate the magic” of his original character and I didn’t sense any self-awareness of his iconic role present in his performance choices. Instead, he expressed a realistic combination of brashness, sentimentality, and regret that remained true to the story’s parameters. I totally bought Cruise as a mid-50’s badass who ran circles around the cocky recruits who came to respect him. Although they went out of their way to NOT name the “foreign enemy” whose nuclear tech they were attempting to destroy, it didn’t really matter because the story, to its credit, intentionally remained character focused. Additionally, the Val Kilmer scene(s), although brief, were quite touching, and to the extent that Kilmer had to fight for inclusion…I’m glad he did. A cable news commentator recently said that this belated follow-up’s finest contribution to culture is that it “gave Americans an excuse to feel good about ourselves again.” It definitely made me pine for the Reagan era, but then again, I never left.

****

Meal Pairing: Pub Grub: bacon cheeseburger with the works, cheese fries and a 16 oz. stein of Sam Adams Lager. Sub out a giant choco-whammy shake if you’re a non-drinker. Cuz…’merica!

Spiderman: No Way Home (2021)

Reviewed: 5/14/22

Combined Rating: .75/5

Lauren’s Review:

I’ll own it: this one was my pick, much to my later chagrin. I loved Spider-Man cartoons growing up, and I really loved the first two from the early 2000s starring Tobey Maguire too—I just think that Spider-Man films have to be taken for what they are, as a silly romp. I’ve always appreciated that Spider-Man doesn’t take himself too seriously, unlike Batman or Superman (but probably similar to most of the rest of the more recent Marvel franchise superhero films). He’s sarcastic and witty, his villains absurd, and the storylines over-the-top, but easy to follow and utterly predictable. That’s what I was expecting from this one, though I did cringe a little in advance when I realized it was 2 1/2 hours long. No film needs to be that long, but it’s happening more and more these days. (Why, when the American attention span is simultaneously growing shorter and shorter? How does that work?)

Unfortunately, this Spider-Man started out stupid and went downhill from there. I hadn’t watched the earlier Tom Holland franchise films, so perhaps I went in at a disadvantage—but I’m assuming at the end of an earlier film, the whole world learned that Spider-Man was Peter Parker. Because of this, his girlfriend Mary Jane (Zendaya) and best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) can’t get into their preferred college (MIT) due to their association with Peter—nor does he, of course. So Peter seeks out Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to perform a spell on the WHOLE WORLD to make them forget his identity. (Because they didn’t get into MIT. Just want to reiterate that that was the motivation.) Unfortunately when you get Doctor Strange involved, you’re introducing the multiverse, so things can go even more catastrophically wrong than they might if dealing with just the individual universe in which these particular characters live. (Side note here: the multiverse interpretation of quantum physics seems utterly absurd to me, but more than that, it makes for terribly convoluted fiction. I can’t even imagine how that could be done well.) The spell goes wrong of course. Rather than just erase the memories of Peter’s identity from the world in which he lives, Doctor Strange instead summons everyone in every world who has ever known Peter’s identity—so kind of the exact opposite of the spell’s intention. I suppose from Marvel’s standpoint, this gimmick gave them an excuse to bring back every character from every Spider-Man film they’ve ever done, whether or not they’ve died—because in *some* universe, we can assume they didn’t die. Both of the other actors who played Spider-Man showed up too (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield), and we were treated to a recapitulation of some of the major battles with various supervillains who had been previously defeated. 

There was yet another twist in the plot on top of this, though: Holland’s Spider-Man’s conscience pricked him to have mercy on said supervillains, despite their lack of repentance, giving them another chance to be good. This is lovely in theory, but he had absolutely no reason to think they wanted such a chance, or that they weren’t going to use it to wreak just as much death and destruction as ever. While some of the villains took the chance  even though there was nothing in their characters that led us to believe it was likely, others did not, and did exactly what we expect supervillains to do. So, the message was convoluted. Should we show mercy, and make ourselves vulnerable to criminals who have already stabbed us in the back before—literally? Do we risk all on a gamble upon the inherent goodness of humankind, with absolutely zero reason to expect it? Many do, in fact, believe that man is inherently good, despite past indiscretions that would lead us to believe otherwise. Popular morality is all mercy and no justice, with absolute confidence that mercy will bring out the best in our fellow man. Alas, even the screenwriters knew that was not likely to work, in the end.

*

Frank’s Review:

How in the multiverse has this movie reached a congealed consensus of critical acclaim?  My only explanation is that we’re, in fact, exiled in some shadow space where digitized puppets clap when prodded by a bored overlord having fun with Peter Venkman’s zapping device.  A few of us have short-circuited and are yelling, but the audio has been cut.  Meanwhile, in an alternate dimension, moviegoers are still demanding more for their time and money.  How do I get back there?  Amidst unprecedented demand for the recycled shitstorm, I fear there may be no way home. 

Spiderman: No Way Home seems to tease our plight by insinuating each actor that played Spiderman actually exists in their own isolated yet concurrent universe.  This Tom Holland iteration imports multiple vanquished villains from prior “alternate universe” Spiderman movies by way of a botched spell meant to make the world forget Spiderman’s true identity in this one.  Um, ok.  So, even Dr. Strange has trouble controlling the consequential outcomes of selfish teenage whims.  It seems this plot device is meant only to teach Spidey a lesson, but that lesson ended up totally lost on me.  As our good guy crew tries to make it right, garbled messaging suggests that either:  1. mercy without justice is futile, since villains will always be villains, or 2: justice without mercy is harsh, since villains are capable of change, even if poorly motivated or explained.  Should Spiderman kill the villains outright, or empathize and counsel them?  In arguing both, they argue neither.  Or maybe one argument won out in the end, but I lost it in the impending CGI tornado formerly called “the climax.”   Ultimately, the whole premise was undertaken as a gimmick to bring all three Spiderman actors into the same universe to fight, then “save” the bad guys, together, and attempt to create awkward “touching” moments amongst themselves.  In the end, basically, Spiderman got his mom killed and erased his girlfriend’s memory, but was able to briefly bond with his Spider brethren and get some perspective.  Hope it was worth it. 

I am blessed to have grown up with Spiderman as a half hour cartoon on Saturday morning…a short, self-contained burst of fun while I ate my Count Chocula.  The 2 1/2 hour movie I just weathered was full of sound and fury (minus the fury), signifying nothing.  That’s exactly what I felt when it finally ended.  It wasn’t even a visceral reaction, but more like a hazy disorientation…a la “did something just happen?”  It is possible that I may have understood the “context” of this film (and by extension, invested more in its story) by first watching the prior films, but I doubt it.  Because it’s possible I did watch those films.  But you shouldn’t have to.  Or maybe Marvel’s goal is to require multiple “contextual” viewings to suck us further down the spider hole of no return.  One thing is certain: the presence of Willem Dafoe alone is not enough to salvage a film, despite the effort and talent he always brings to the table.  When the table is already stacked with sugar packets, there’s no room left for the meat and potatoes.   

½

Meal pairing: Buffalo wings, celery and carrots, with ranch, and a beer. Seems like a pub kind of film, even though I can’t imagine any pub putting up with patrons sitting there for 2.5 hours to watch it.  

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Reviewed: 3/15/22

Combined Rating: 2.75/5

Lauren’s Review:

This is the sort of film about which I can find very little to say, probably because it felt like much ado about nothing (the concept, that is, not the Shakespearean play). The characters were larger-than-life, which actually drove much of the tongue-in-cheek action, but the motivation for all of it felt thin at best. There were also about six false endings—I kept thinking the film was over, only to discover nope, they’ve introduced yet another conflict that now needs to be resolved. I didn’t realize the film was based on a TV series, so perhaps that’s the reason it felt so episodic.

Former thief and now CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill, whom incidentally I think was miscast, as he’s way too good looking to be an undercover anything) goes to East Berlin in 1963 to rescue Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander) from possible abduction and torture by a KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer). This was probably the flimsiest part of the whole plot, though it’s also its linchpin: Gaby’s father is a scientist who used to be a Nazi sympathizer, but her uncle actually was a former Nazi torturer. Somehow—I was unclear how—Gaby was the key to allowing Nazi sympathizers to build their own nuclear weapon. The early scene certainly made it look like Illya was the bad guy, but the next thing we know, Illya and Solo are on the same side, trying to protect Gaby from said sympathizers. This sets up the antics for most of the rest of the film. Illya and Gaby pretend to be engaged (why do they need fake identities if it’s not just to flee? But, this sets up the romantic tension, so it’s in the script to check that narrative box, if nothing else.) Cavill, meanwhile, auditions for the role of James Bond in every scene as he performs daring heists (often gone wrong for comedic effect) and beds multiple women the moment he meets them. There’s torture (while cracking jokes), double-crossings, escaped nuclear warheads, and surprise twists. 

The word that I think sums up the film is really “caper”: it has exactly that sort of feel, with its choppy editing to achieve an almost comic book feel. It’s a fun and lighthearted film, if you’re not too hung up on the exact motivations for the action. Sort of like a cartoon for adults. 

***

Frank’s Review:

Cold war “thriller” The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is basically Henry Cavill’s James Bond audition tape. As a vehicle for Cavill to perform “spy shenanigans,” it works well enough, although if it were an actual Bond film, it would rank among the very worst. This is because the plot is paper thin and obviously unimportant to director Guy Ritchie, who appears more interested in casual, hip dialogue among spies and creating well lit, 60’s era European sets for them to exchange it in. We get it…these are some cool cats. We know it, and they know it, and they know that we know it. What might have resulted if Ritchie had put as much effort into story as the swingin’ style we’ll never know, but at least the actors look good going through the modly motions of…something.

Despite rapid editing and multiple split-scene sequences, the first hour drags as we’re introduced to the major players and the set-up, built around the tired idea of locating and extracting a nuclear scientist who was abducted by Nazis and forced to build a simpler version of an atomic bomb they could understand, then replicate at will. It’s kind of Top Secret, without the laughs. The scientist’s daughter, Gaby (Alicia Vikander), is placed with CIA Agent Napoleon Solo (Brit, Cavill w/consistent American accent) and KGB Agent Ilya Kuryakin (American, Armie Hammer, w/spotty Russian accent) who must all work together to find her daddy before he finishes the bomb. While our spies don’t don any “cow-wearing-boots” disguises, “East” and “West” meld surprsingly well, given Solo and Kuryakin both make it clear they “only work alone.” Hence, Solo’s “Solo.” Unless, of course, there are opportunities for one-upsmanship. Even though her father’s life is at stake, there is no reason to rush things, or for that matter, for Gaby to personally accompany them…other than that she has ulterior motives and is not who she appears to be. But this is obviously lost on our “spies,” and only spelled out to us in the last twenty minutes of the film, when it’s all but moot. Hugh Grant shows up briefly for the big reveal, as if her random spy skills and secret meetings hadn’t already given it away. It was, however, amusing sensing how clever this movie thinks it is. My only LOL moment in this slog was a bit featuring a Nazi torturer who is all too happy to give up the goods when the tables have turned, but, ironically, doesn’t get to because our spies waste too much time talking amongst themselves. Story of this movie, in a nutshell.

Ramping up the action towards the end, the film does mildly improve the engagement factor, even if a stale dune buggy chase seem borrowed from a Bond B-roll, and the wrap up feels entirely too easy. But had our characters tried harder, we may have been deprived the pleasure of some witty repartee and flirtations culminating in too many “almost” moments. “Almost” nicely sums it up, actually, leaving this viewer as chilly as one might expect given the coldness of this war. No wonder our key Russian had anger management issues.

** 1/2

Meal Pairing: Meal Pairing: Beef Stroganoff with onions on a bed of rice, a nice Borscht soup (recipes available online), and a Smirnoff Ice.

French Kiss (1995)

Reviewed: 2/4/2022

Combined Rating: 3.75/5

Lauren’s Review:

I’m surprised I’d never heard of this one before, since chick flicks (when done well) are one of my favorite genres, and I think the 90s is my favorite film decade. (I actually put it on my list after one of my patients was describing her abdominal cramping symptoms to me by quoting Meg Ryan in the scene in which she experiences lactose intolerance.) Meg Ryan always plays the same adorably neurotic character in every film, though the humor in her films also is usually on the crude side. Both are true of this one, as well. 

The story opens with Kate (Ryan) hyperventilating on what turns out to be a simulation of a plane. She’s just gotten engaged to Charlie (Timothy Hutton), who wants her to come with him to Paris—but her neurosis just won’t allow it. Charlie then learns that Kate has a “nest egg” large enough to buy a dream home, and he starts to get cold feet. He goes to Paris without her, meets the girl of his dreams, and dumps Kate on the phone. With proper motivation now, Kate manages to get on a real plane, where she finds herself sitting next to a provocative and slightly infuriating Frenchman named Luc (Kevin Kline). Luc turns out to be a thief, and uses the unsuspecting Kate’s carry-on luggage to smuggle a plant, concealing a very expensive necklace, into the country—fully intending to sneak it back on the other side of customs. But of course, one thing after another goes wrong. The two of them end up on extended adventures together throughout the French countryside as Kate attempts to reunite with Charlie (despite his new fiancée), and Luc has his own ulterior motives for helping her. 

The romance is a slow burn, and indeed, I wondered a number of times how the story could possibly end. (Who wants a happily ever after with a thief? And also, who wants to be the rebound for a woman who didn’t manage to reunite with the guy she really wanted?) The writers managed to work out both problems so that the ending was still satisfying, though. I could have done without some of the crude jokes and the sex scenes, but even in the 90s I guess that was par for the course. 

*** 1/2

Frank’s Review:

It’s hard to believe the same guy who wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Empire Strikes Back directed this quirky 1995 romantic comedy that stands out for its lead performances, witty script, and culture-clash-turned-attraction theme. French Kiss certainly benefited from Lawrence Kasdan’s skilled touch in every department. It hits all its beats effortlessly without bringing attention to them, while subtely revealing characters more nuanced than they initially may appear. In the film, “Kate” (Meg Ryan) painfully learns that it is worthwhile letting go of encumbering patterns of thought and behavior that have caused her to play it safe. The exchange of safety for spontaneity is sometime necessary to find the true nature of investments we desire to feel secure in. But it’s also about how we might adapt when life swings unexpected wrecking balls, and how our responses may lead to experiences, and lives, we could never have imagined. Indeed, the trajectory of French Kiss does feel whimsically unpredictable, yet organic.

It’s time to ask what the heck happened to Kevin Kline? I guess he still acts but mostly in smaller slice of life movies or voiceover work. He’s certainly at the height of his powers in the mid-90’s, as he proves here by being more believable as a Frenchman than even Gerard Depardieu. His “Luc Tessiyier” is a good natured, breezily charismatic thief with stereotypically hilarious affectations who really just wants to own and cultivate a vineyard next to the one he lost in a drunken hand of poker to his brother. As he follows Meg Ryan’s character around Paris to retrieve a stolen necklace he stashed in her purse on a plane, the sale of which he intends to use to purchase the vineyard, he seems to be the only Parisian who isn’t annoyed by “Kate’s” grief induced, ugly American-would-be-Canadian shenanigans. She’s as hapless and neurotic as one could be, post break-up, but she slowly chills out and comes into her own as she realizes the reason for her desparate attempt to get her cheating fiance back is moot. It’s at that point that she becomes viably attractive, in the way people are attractive when they’re not clinging to something else.

Needless to say, perspective is key when opportunities come back around, in order to avoid making the same mistakes. After successfully employing Luc’s advice to entice her fiance back, Kate finds she may not want what she thought she wanted. It is only at that point, as Luc had previously predicted, she can let go and move forward. The world, or at least France, is her oyster, but even Luc is surprised at the way his advice to Kate comes to fruition. If you like movies with wine and cigarettes and witty repartee and love and stuff, French Kiss, despite its gross-out title, will check all your boxes. It even made me, who, like Kate, hates to fly, want to get back on another plane to Europe.

****

Meal pairing: Raclette: a dish of melted cheese with mashed potatoes, cold meat, onions and pickles, served on a giant hot board.  Pair with glasses of a good French Pinot Noir.

Dune (2021)

Reviewed 11/14/2021

Combined Rating: 3.25/5

Lauren’s Review:

I didn’t realize until after I saw the film that Dune is not just one novel, but an insane series of 21 novels, with release dates spanning 55 years! (At first I assumed that must have meant author Frank Herbert must have basically lived his life in the Dune universe, rather than on this one, before I realized that other authors have kept the franchise alive on his behalf.) I’m rarely a fan of sci fi, so I’ve never read any of them. I find that particularly old school sci fi tends to suffer from too much minutiae and too little characterization, and could see shades of those ailments in this film adaptation. The Dune world felt so comprehensive, that the viewer truly felt immersed—yet it was hard to devote equal time to the characters, relationships, and plot. 

In the year 10191, the powerful Duke Leto Atreides (Oscar Isaac) and his family are sent by the emperor from their home planet of Caladan to rule the desolate desert planet of Arrakis. Arrakis is treacherous, so hot and arid that travelers across it require special suits to filter and recirculate their bodily fluids in order to survive. It’s also populated by enormous sandworms which travel below the sand, and are attracted by regular rhythms—like footsteps. Walk normally across the Arrakis desert, and you’ll quickly become lunch. Despite all this, Arrakis is the most important planet in their galaxy, as the desert is the source of “spice,” an addictive drug and also a power source for interstellar travel. Meanwhile, the duke’s concubine Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson) is a sister of the Bene Gesserit, a group of women possessing powers of mind control. She passes her training on to her son Paul (Timothee Chalamet), who has visions that may or may not be of the future, and learns that he may or may not be the subject of a prophecy. Eventually Leto, Jessica, and Paul all find themselves in the middle of political turmoil on Arrakis, learning that the emperor apparently viewed them as rivals and sent them to their deaths. 

Like Lord of the Rings, I thought Dune felt very episodic, rather than following the usual story arc of rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. There were way too many of these arcs within a single film. Falling action triggers an expectation of resolution, so when yet another climax followed on the heels of the last, I was less emotionally involved. Eventually I just started to get restless and impatient for the film to be over. Considering the scope of what Dune tried to encompass, though, the character development was still pretty decent, and it was certainly visually stunning. I’d probably see the next film in this series, though I don’t think I’ll sign up for 21 novels. 

*** 1/2

Frank’s Review:

Although David Lynch’s much maligned 1984 movie version of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi yarn bastardized the entire message of the series, at least it was weirdly entertaining, or I should say, entertainingly weird and sported lots of ‘80’s neon flourishes, Sting in a diaper, and a rad score from Toto.  Alternatively, what we get from a mega-hyped remake in 2021 is a sluggishly paced, visually stunning yet washed out mood piece that left me as cold as a sand dune on blustery Lake Michigan.  Emo teenager Paul Atreides (Timothy Chalamet), heir to the throne of House Atreides, spends the majority of his time brooding over whether he is in fact the “chosen one” who will lead his and other people’s people against the oppressive, evil empire, when really all he wants to be is a kid.  He keeps having visions of the future that are contradicted by reality, but does this mean he isn’t “the one,” or merely that he subconsciously lacks self-confidence?  When, early on, Paul asks his mentor, warrior Duncan Idaho, what they all mean, Duncan candidly offers, “Dreams make good stories, but everything important happens when we’re awake.”  In other words, it’s what we do, not what we think, or dream, that ultimately matters, but is Paul listening?   

If director Denis Villeneuve’s ultimate intent is to emphasize the dangers of misplaced idol worship, it sure took this entire film (the first of two) for Paul to realize he can’t trust his own dreams.  While a necessary breakthrough, symbolizing transition to manhood and the choices that entails, it hardly salvages the dour ambivalence that vexes this universe in the meantime, made palpably felt.  Paul’s confusion over how he can be the “chosen one” if his “visions” don’t materialize the way he sees them may lend credence to his doubting image of himself, but it certainly shouldn’t inspire confidence in the secret society of creepy nuns that genetically groomed him for a monumental task, or anybody else.  Despite Chalamet’s subtle and effective conveyance of inner turmoil, Paul’s delayed awakening couldn’t stave off the frustration I felt watching the nasties of House Harkonnen set up and slaughter most of Paul’s elite inner circle in the interim, or my boredom with the realistic and organic nature of the delayed awakening itself.  Sometimes we just need Sting in a diaper.   

Dune ’21 is being praised by hardcore fans of the novels who wanted a return to the story’s original essence, and the symbolism employed on its behalf.  It’s also undeniably a well-made film that, to its credit, seeks to go deeper into the heads of its protagonists.  But when filmmakers go too far down the rabbit hole, even with thoughtful intentions, they can risk sacrificing movement for mood, diluting the “spice” that makes us want to come along for the ride.  Sometimes character studies work, but not often in the context of floating slobs, giant worms, glowing eyes, and boxes of “pain,”…not to mention the spice highs that can themselves generate confusing visions among the masses, whether “chosen” or not.  Fellowship of the Ring understood that fantasy films need not get too bogged down in the mud, even if your protagonist has unusually large feet, which is why the most memorable of the genre tend to feel more whimsical and unbridled.  Let’s hope the concluding segment of this story removes the stifling blanket of melodrama and allows Paul to revel in his self-revelations, come what may, to a satisfactorily fantastic conclusion.  Ride the worm! 

***

Meal pairing: With all that talk of “spice,” it needs to be Indian food, I think. Garam masala over basmati rice, with plenty of naan bread.

No Time to Die (2021)

Reviewed: 10/22/21

Combined Rating: 3.25/5

Lauren’s Review:

*** Warning: MASSIVE SPOILERS ALERT***

It’s possible this might be the most built-up film I’ve ever watched. Frank has been vacillating on whether or not to watch it for political reasons for well over a year now, since the release date has been repeatedly delayed. Once it was finally released, I heard what all the critics said about it, as well as the entire plot summary, as related by said critics. The James Bond brand doesn’t evoke a strong opinion in me one way or the other, and therefore deviations from it likewise fail to trigger an emotional response. That said, I do get the potential controversy for mega-fans, especially as it pertains to the pervasive “woke” ideology. Bond has been around for generations, and he’s based on a stereotypically chauvinistic male character from a series of novels. Moviegoers who don’t like that character need not see the film—but that’s who Bond is. If they want a different character, they’re welcome to create a different character, and make a series of films about him (or her, or it). Just don’t call him/her/it James Bond (or 007, for that matter). 

We finally saw the film on the word of multiple critics that while the 007 designation was given to a black female when Bond retires, she gives the number back to Bond later in the film. Other deviations from the typical Bond theme abound in this film, which (in my opinion, in the particular way it was done) was a good thing. I don’t have a problem with the Bond films I’ve seen, but they do all blend together in my mind. I’ve never particularly cared about Bond as a character, nor about any of the beautiful caricatures he’s bedded, nor about the villains he’s wasted. None of them have ever seemed like real people to me, nor were they meant to. The Daniel Craig franchise of films seems to be a departure from that, to the extent that he takes the role of Bond more seriously than other actors have in the past. Even so, they all still more or less otherwise followed the outline. In this one, though, when the film opens, Bond is still with the previous “Bond girl,” Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux). He thinks she betrays him and he leaves her, and then he retires (another departure from the standard story). Of course this means the 007 designation goes to another agent, Nomi (Lashana Lynch). When the Specter organization’s schemes pull Bond out of retirement about five years later, Bond learns that she did not betray him after all. When he encounters her again, he’s not suave and unaffected—he really loves her, which makes both of them much more real and sympathetic. Then we learn that Madeleine has a child of five, and Bond knows at once that she’s his, even though Madeleine tries to deny it. 

The main plot involves the Specter organization’s manipulation of a bioweapon developed by MI6 which targets specific DNA, so that it kills only the intended target, or targets. It makes a pretty good thriller, all things considered. The main villain, Safin (Rami Malek) doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but I think that’s because this story is really more about Bond’s character arc than anything else. His wife and daughter give him a reason to abandon his flippant and philandering ways. So of course, he has to die at the end—yet another substantial departure from the Bond franchise as a whole. 007 has been presumed dead before, only to make a miraculous reappearance with some outlandish explanation later in the film. But there’s no recovery from this one: it’s the last of Craig’s series of films, so the same actor cannot recreate for us in the next one how he survived certain death. Bond will still be reincarnated as another actor, of course—but at least this version of him found something worth dying for. 

*** 1/2

Frank’s Review:

Whatever happens to James Bond in No Time to Die does not happen to the physical man, but to his nature, or, if you will, the idea of James Bond. One can glean that much from traditional assurances made at the close of concluding credits which contradict the film’s climactic end sequence. The symbolism employed is sly yet intentional, and anybody who knows Bond knows what I mean. One thing Bond fans know is that Bond always returns…thankfully…regardless of who plays him. But never has a Bond film put such an exclamation point at the end of a particular actor’s string of films, as if to say “we’ll miss you” but, “good riddance” at the same time. As the biggest Bond fan in the universe, this left me with a tingler growing on my spine, as I intuitively began to fear what this means for the character we’ve come to love and cheer over the last 60 years.

Bond, without his devil-may-care attitude and out of touch “in-touchiness” is not really Bond. Daniel Craig is considered a good Bond chiefly because he is most like the Bond in the Ian Fleming novels, a blunt instrument who uses reflexive instinct and carnal cruelty. Nobody is arguing he is not flawed, but to encumber and emasculate Bond the way No Time to Die does with relish, and strip him of his essential nature, is to do more than update the character for the times the way swapping a polyester suit for a linen one would. This film forces him to evolve in a way Bond shouldn’t have to if he is to remain effective at his job, which is kind of the point. The whole idea of Bond IS (or was) that he is effective only to the degree that his original nature is preserved. A tamed, by-the-book agent could be any old 00, but not 007. It’s not “just a number.” No number of stunt sequences or showy set pieces interspersed for fan service distracted me from the notion that Cary Fukunaga would have rather make a different kind of movie, entirely. Even Daniel Craig himself approvingly remarked that the film is about “family” and “relationships.” What??? Whomever is in the tank, future directors and producers at EON would be wise to remember that straying too far from a successful formula will inevitably cost fan loyalty to the series that far trumps that which even Bond has to martinis, or special branch. Loyalty matters most, whether it’s rendered in service of saving what’s left of the free world, or in paying to watch him do it.

I offer, not to spoil the interminable fun, that this 25th Bond film should have ended with a return to form, not sentimental concessions of love and other entangling “bondage.” After all, we already covered this terrain briefly in 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which was, at the time, a novel departure with a lesson learned. Bond further doubles down not only by making the same mistake here, but by surrendering to self-pity after learning he is infected with a nanobot virus designed to permanently break up his love-fest. His response is counterproductive and violates his thinly buried nature. If he only had more than 007 seconds left to think about it, he may have done a Halle Berry-esque swan dive off Villain Island and cut his losses. Chalk it up to memories, along with new bullet wounds, that make secret agents wiser and stronger. We could have been treated to Bond sitting poolside at the Fontainbleau in baby-blue, terrycloth bun-huggers, lamenting his newfound softness, mid-massage, and reflecting on why it is that he can’t have it both ways. Craig’s arc took him too far from the guy who “didn’t look like he gave a damn,” and I found myself missing that guy, and what Danny Boyle’s version might have been. Ultimately, Bond’s conclusion, like ours, must be that he, regardless of “the times,” is singularly built for his job. A big part of the enjoyment we can mutually share with Bond is that, despite and because of his flaws, nobody does “it” better. If somebody else does, why bring Bond back at all?

***

Meal Pairing: Stone crabs (fresh not frozen) with melted butter and thick toast, asparagus, two pints of pink Champagne, two double vodka Martinis (from Goldfinger). You’ll need the extra alcohol to get through the middle third of the flick.

Free Guy (2021)

Reviewed: 9/21/21

Combined Rating: 3/5

Lauren’s Review:

When I told Frank I wanted to see this one, I didn’t think he’d actually take me. The preview looked like everything he hates about the modern movie industry: a fluffy vapid CGI-fest (and I was pretty sure he’d say something about how “proverbial” it was, as well). But I thought it looked cute and like my random kind of humor, if admittedly about an inch deep. I don’t expect (nor do I really want) movies that make me ponder the deeper meaning of life, anyway—I get enough of that elsewhere. Surprisingly, “Free Guy” actually provided fodder for a decent amount of discussion afterwards, though it was in many ways exactly what we both expected. 


Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is a caricature of optimism: he wakes up every morning and goes through the same monotonous routine day after day, yet he’s absurdly chipper about every boring detail and even every catastrophe. He’s a bank teller, and every day, the bank gets robbed. He cheerfully hides on the floor and gabs with his best friend Buddy, one of the security guards, who is equally unconcerned. (The contrast here between a normal response and Guy’s response had me laughing so hard I was crying.) He explains that in his world, the “sunglass people” are the heroes—except he defines heroes as people who get to do whatever cool stuff they want and get away with it. They’re the ones who walk around with machine guns, steal what they want (including women), get into car chases, etc, while the rest of them just deal with the rampant chaos around them. But then one day he sees a girl (Jodie Comer)—in sunglasses, no less—and everything changes. One of the unspoken rules of their world is that “sunglasses” people don’t talk to “non-sunglasses” people, so when he tries to talk to her, he strikes out. Undaunted, he breaks free of the routine he’s always known, confronts the daily bank robber and steals his sunglasses, thus discovering a new layer of “supernatural” possibility within his reality. Meanwhile, the audience learns that Guy is actually a non-character player in the video game Free City. He’s an AI, and the moment he met Molotov girl (Comer), he altered his own programming and became a character. In the real world, a drama plays out between the creators of the game (Millie – Comer again, and Keys, Joe Keery) and the eccentric entrepreneur who stole it from them (Taika Waititi). As Guy innocently pursues Molotov girl, he finds himself caught in the middle of what, to him, feels like a supernatural battle between good and evil for the fate of his world. 


While the film was indeed hilarious, I also couldn’t help seeing a profound spiritual allegory. (Most of this was unintended by the film’s creators, I’m sure, though Guy did compare the video game’s creator to God once.) How many of us have felt like our lives are nothing but dull routine, and all we can do is make the best of it? Don’t we all love stories that suggest we can break free from the monotony, if we only have the courage to do so? The idea that a pair of sunglasses could give the characters insight into another layer of reality made me think of 2 Kings 6, when the prophet Elisha prays that his servant’s eyes would be opened, and suddenly the servant saw the chariots of fire surrounding them and protecting them from what seemed before an overwhelming army. There’s a lot going on in our world that most of us cannot perceive, as well. I did catch a few “woke” comments in the script (Hollywood can hardly help themselves), but they were throwaway lines in my opinion, and did not materially alter the plot. Because of this, I felt they could be easily overlooked, though of course I could have done without them entirely. I’ll knock off a star for that, but I overall really enjoyed the film. 


****

Frank’s Review:

Free Guy is ostensibly a “fun” summer movie that overwhelms viewers with visuals and frenetic energy while telling them, “life doesn’t have to be something that just happens to you.” Even though “Guy” (Ryan Reynolds) is just a nameless, background video game character and not even a real human being, the message of “live free to forge your own destiny,” on its face, is universally charming enough to cheer. God knows that we should more unflinchingly embrace risk, which can facilitate self-betterment. But as the movie progressed, I began to sense the employment of sleight of hand tactics coding us, much as do video game creators, into a preferred system of belief, seeming to imply the freedom we strive for is, ironically, only possible within controlled cultural confines. Like immature youths who often preach from a lack of experience, the filmmakers sadly seem unable to resist compromising their own liberating message in order to placate their “woke” Hollywood masters. And so we’re left with mixed messaging that, frankly, does not transcend anything but a typical CGI workload.

What I found most ironic was that the real kids who developed “Guy” the A.I. as an extension of their own desire for love and acceptance spent the entire film trying to regain control of their creation, as a guarantor of their independence . Never mind the fact that in the end, while corporations rise and fall, their success still depends on millions of lazy youths buying and playing their product…wasting away their precious years in fake worlds behind avatars that hide who they really are and promote their idealized selves, much as social media does for us. We’re supposed to feel relieved when they avenge the evil magnate who stole and hid their groundbreaking code, just so they can employ a new game with less violence? If the argument is that society would be less violent without violent videos games, they’re certainly not claiming the solution is for kids to play fewer video games…just less violent ones. But, not distracting kids is off the table, even as we’re hypocritically reminded by players just how much gun violence exists.

As we follow “Guy’s” journey towards “freedom” and self-realization, we’re reminded that he is inherently non-offensive, which guarantees his ultimate success. As “Guy” helps “Millie,” search for her code within the “Free City” network, she laments that “the only non-toxic guy I meet is a robot.” She seemingly fails to realize “Guy’s” creator “Keys” (Joe Keery…“Steve” from “Stranger Things”) is also a sweetheart and is just too shy to express his feelings for “Millie” in the real world. I admit that few are as snarkily charming as Ryan Reynolds, but before she does instantaneously wake up to her feelings for…hell, I have to just call him “Steve,” we’re cringe-inducingly reminded that just because our story features a guy and a girl (soo 2015) being “free” also applies to gender roles, just in case you didn’t think of that. Ultimately, Free Guy contradicts itself and gets in its own way too much without even realizing it. My guess is that the creators of this film spent too many of their formidable years in their mom’s basement, compromising their later ability to separate “choice” from “acceptance.” The result is a silly, surfacy movie that does more in representing the paradox of it’s time than what being a free “guy” or “girl” actually entails. Considering how much talent and creativity went into designing the amazing effects, that is a real shame.

**

Meal pairing: This is a burger and fries kind of a film, really. But since I (Lauren) disapprove of fast food on general principle, I’m going to go with grass fed beef on lettuce (hold the bun) with Yukon gold salt and vinegar baked potatoes.  ***Latebreaking Alert*** I (Frank) must assert bun privilege. You can’t watch “Free Guy” and eat a burger with no bun. C’mon, man! And don’t forget the cheese!

The Karate Kid (1984)

Reviewed: 7/19/21

Combined Rating: 4/5

Lauren’s Review:

My brother quoted this one growing up, but somehow I managed to live my entire life up until this point without seeing it. Frank told me that it was exactly the kind of feel-good underdog hero film that I’d love, so it’s been at the top of my list for some time. Perhaps that meant the build-up outweighed the film’s actual merits, but I did temper it with the expectation that an early 80s film was likely to have more than its fair share of cheese. I wasn’t disappointed. All the standard archetypes were there, but I don’t know that I could call it “proverbial,” as this was one of the very first films of its kind. It probably was the standard. 

Fifteen year old Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and his mother move across the country to California, where Daniel quickly falls for pretty blonde Ali (Elisabeth Shue) who has a jealous ex-boyfriend Johnny (William Zabka). Johnny just happens to be a karate expert, and Daniel gets the crap beaten out of him repeatedly anytime he crosses paths with Johnny or his gang. In one of these instances, the elderly Okinawan maintenance man at his apartment named Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) steps in to save him, single-handedly vanquishing all of Daniel’s foes. Daniel begs Mr. Miyagi to teach him karate. At first, Mr, Miyagi attempts to reason with the boys’ karate instructor (Martin Kove), but only succeeds in obtaining a temporary truce until Daniel can fight Johnny properly in a karate tournament, unfortunately only two months away. Mr. Miyagi begins Daniel’s training after this, but in such a way that it looks like he’s just using Daniel for manual labor. Of course there’s a purpose, though Mr. Miyagi doesn’t explain himself until Daniel explodes in anger after he’s seemingly wasted one of his precious training months. Only then does he realize he’s actually learned a great deal. Over the time of their training, the two grow close, and despite some misunderstandings, so do Daniel and Ali. Of course the competition presents unanticipated challenges, mostly due to Daniel’s nefarious and underhanded opponents… but it can’t be too easy for him. In a good story, things always have to appear impossible so that the triumph is that much sweeter. 

I find it refreshing that older films like this one don’t take themselves too seriously, and that there’s a clear delineation between good and evil. Perhaps this tends to mean the characters err on the side of caricature, but there’s a certain wholesome innocence about that. There may be more intrigue in the hero of dubious moral character from time to time, or the complex villain whose back story renders him sympathetic. But I also think these kinds of characters have so permeated the culture because there is such confusion about what constitutes right and wrong, or if there even is such a thing. Films like “Karate Kid” are a throwback to simpler time. 

****

Frank’s Review:

The Karate Kid is basically Rocky for teenagers, profiling that persevering underdog spirit Americans in the ’80’s were still claiming as a “defining characteristic.” They feel in many ways like the same movie, and not only because they had the same director (John G. Avildsen). Kid, however, substitutes the gritty, post-industrial grays of Philly for the sun-kissed, post-industrial decay of sprawling LA., to which “Daniel-sahn” moves with his single, yet upbeat mom, adding an extra layer of “fish out of water” hardship for our skinny Italian boy. Rocky, largely, stuck to his own hood and could defend himself, but Daniel (Ralph Macchio), pitifully, cannot, despite a budding interest in Karate. It certainly appears he has an almost insurmountable road of challenges ahead, but he’s tough. Despite moments of self-doubt, he pushes forward to better his lot, and fortune responds.

Daniel is a talker, and he’s got wit and charm. Armed with these traits, he manages to entice the interest of super-cute Ali (Elizabeth Shue, who was pretty much my first fantasy girlfriend), pissing off her ex-boyfriend Johnny and his cadre of pre-Lost Boys biker gang goons, all of whom seem to have anger management problems. We find out Johnny’s juvenile tendencies are being encouraged by local dojo master Kreese (Martin Kove), a man-boy still basking in his post-Vietnam era machismo. Thankfully, a wise and humble maintenance man named Mr. Myagi (Pat Morita) has already taken Daniel under his wing and set him on a course for growth and honor, amidst a sea of high school distractions, if Daniel is only able to retain his focus.

As it usually did in the 80’s, the climax unfolds, post training montage, at the “All-Valley” tournament du jour” where Daniel must prove his worth. Much suspension of disbelief is required to accept that Daniel is fight-ready, but to dwell on that minor detail is missing the point, I guess. Never mind that Myagi could have literally gotten Daniel killed by inserting him prematurely in the ring with these animals. But still, we know somehow Daniel will triumph and emerge atop a crowd, freeze-framed in a final shot with his trophy. Despite the inevitable, the climax is actually the weakest part of the film, as many technical details are eschewed for emotional impact. For example: there is a pivotal moment when Johnny is denied points for kicking Daniel in the head, but when Daniel returns the favor, he is awarded his final point to win the whole damn thing. It must have been that the yocal refs were mesmerized by the aesthetically zen-like crane maneuver, but no matter. The point is that like Rocky, Daniel-sahn keeps coming back, fulfilling one of the Italian Stallion’s greatest quotes: “Going one more round when you don’t think you can…that’s what makes all the difference in your life.” And with that, the Karate Kid get his respect, and the girl, even if the war is not yet over. Seminal viewing for anybody with an awkward teenage son, especially if their mom drives a slime green station wagon to pick them up from school. At least ours had faux-wood paneling.

****

Meal Pairing: Large Pepperoni Pizza from Upper Crust, chocolate milk shakes and some candy from the “claw cage.” Add a big bowl of pineapple chunks for an appetizer.

Ondine (2010)

Reviewed 7/7/21

Combined Rating: 4.25/5

Lauren’s Review:

First, there’s no point in watching this film at all if you’re not willing to turn on subtitles. I’ve been to Ireland and didn’t have trouble understanding most people I encountered while I was there, but this was different: the brogue is so thick it might as well be a different language. Either Colin Farrell is one heck of a linguist, or he’s actually native to the wilds of Ireland. Once I could read what they were saying, though, I actually thought the brogue added to the romantic ambiance of the film. The music, the scenery, and the language all feel other-worldly, which I’m sure was intentional given the mythological plot line. 

Syracuse (Colin Farrell) is out fishing when he catches a beautiful young woman in his net, who appears to be dead. He manages to revive her, and she tells him that her name is Ondine (Alicja Bachleda), which means “drawn from the water.” She insists that Syracuse keep her hidden, not wanting to encounter any other people. Syracuse has some difficulty keeping her a secret from his alcoholic ex-wife and his ailing daughter Annie, who needs a kidney transplant. Annie meets Ondine and the two bond. When Annie hears the story about Ondine, she tells Syracuse that she must be a selkie, or half-seal, half-woman. Annie delves deep into the lore of the selkies, explaining how they come ashore and fall in love with human men, can grant wishes, and can stay up to seven years on land if they bury their seal skins on land. But their selkie husbands will come looking for them in the end, at which point they will have to return to the water. Ondine then goes fishing with Syracuse, singing in an unknown language, and he finds that he’s abnormally lucky in his catch. He begins to wonder if she really is a selkie. Eventually a man whom Annie takes to be Ondine’s selkie husband begins to stalk her, leading to a drunk driving accident with Syracuse’s ex-wife and her boyfriend. This triggers a series of events leading to a confrontation with Ondine, in which Syracuse demands to know the truth of who and what she really is. 

Since the entire movie sets us up to see everything in light of Ondine’s selkie identity, it’s pretty clear that that cannot be the true explanation—there has to be a twist. But I will say that the real explanation fits the evidence, the ending is satisfying, and the film still manages to feel magical, like a modern-day fairy tale. But perhaps anything set in rural Ireland is bound to seem so.

**** 1/2

Frank’s Review:

As a long-time closeted fan of mermaid movies, I have to admit that I knew nothing of the mythology surrounding the mermaid’s less glamorous cousin, the “selkie.”  In Celtic lore, “selkie” folk are beings that change from seal to human after shedding their skin.  And sometimes, as in director Neil Jordan’s Irish fairy tale “Ondine,” they get randomly netted by brooding fishermen and begin dating them.  But is “Ondine” really a sea creature, and is this film *really* a fairy tale?  The way these questions are handled is what makes the film so intriguing and sustaining as the mystery of who “Ondine” is slowly unravels.   

There does seem to be an awful lot of good luck that accompanies “Ondine’s” (Alicja Bachleda) presence in the lives of ex-alcoholic trawler Syracuse (Colin Farrell), and some of it feels almost supernatural.  On one occasion, an episode of extreme misfortune for one ends up saving the life of another.  Because of how Syracuse interprets the event vis-a-vis “Ondine,” we can extrapolate the impact of perception on outcomes, as our minds, similarly, might come to accept what initially seems coincidental as fateful.  This phenomenon can be a quite powerful agent for self-reflection and change when alternative explanations are scarce.  But Syracuse comes to doubt why he should be the recipient of such good fortune, and ultimately begins to fear it as something that can’t last, which is rather Irish.  It’s almost as if his skepticism is what strips the film of its enchanted aura, and forces it back into the realm of reality, much as our own lack of hope and faith often stamps out the possibility of what we deem “unlikely” occurring, just because it usually doesn’t.   

Demystified and decidedly grounded in its abrupt change of tone, the last act of the movie exposes a real world plight that routinely and lamentably invades even communities as seemingly idyllic as Castletown Berehaven.  Because Ondine is at the conflict’s center and caught up between two worlds, she must make key decisions that cannot be undone.  She will require a traditional rescuing by Syracuse, our hesitant hero, who proves up to the task, and helps bring about the happy ending he would be the last person to admit was possible.  But not in the way he thought.  Has the fairy tale actually come full circle to win out in the end?  How could it not, really, in such a magical (and filmable) place as Ireland?

****

Meal Pairing: A seafood medley stew including mussels, shrimp, white fish, celery, and lots of spices, and a pint of Guinness