The Abyss (1989)


Reviewed: 07/28/19

Combined Rating: 2.5/5

Frank’s Review:

“Man looks in the abyss. There’s nothing staring back at him.  At that moment man finds his character.  And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.” I was thinking of this quote from Wall Street, and how it might apply to James Cameron’s late ‘80’s underwater epic as characters enter a literal (if not figurative) abyss, on a mission to deactivate a sunken nuclear warhead.  Turns out, there may indeed be something staring back, amidst the mysterious depths where no man has ever been.  One can guess what it might be without watching the film, if one is familiar with Cameron’s penchant for the fantastical.  Contrary to Lou Mannheim’s advice to Bud Fox (Wall Street “Bud”) about the dangers of a figurative abyss and how it may destroy the human soul, we find that in the present context, only delving headlong into it can lead man, and indeed mankind, to save itself.

For two hours and twenty minutes we are almost completely submerged in a claustrophobic entanglement of pipes and compartments of the undersea rig, peppered with pool portals that lead into the vastness of the deep blue, and ultimate black of the ocean.  This is a highly volatile and pressurized environment where we can more palpably feel rising human tensions as multiple stories escalate and converge.  Our token government bad guy (Michael Biehn) is sufficiently nuts and hell bent on destruction, necessitating incessant showdowns that continually put our bickering married, yet separated scientists Bud and Lindsay (Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) at mortal risk.  But it also forces them to work together, reminding each of the other’s significant, singular skill, wherewithal, and heart.  A series of contrived melodrama ensues where characters take turns dying, but not really…a testimony to our imagined collective willingness to sacrifice ourselves for the greater good.

While lingering leagues below might feel, much like outerspace, bleak and daunting, Cinematographer Mikael Salomon paints the deep as warm and inviting…almost romantic in its lush neon hues and shadows, perhaps portending the intentions of our new, elusive friends.  We don’t get much time to explore the nature of the aliens, or how/why they came to set up shop in a secluded sea trench, but apparently they’re American patriots first.  Their whole raison d’etre seems to be reuniting our hero with his now reconciled wife, who believes he has perished.  This has to be one of the most egregious dei ex machina ever contrived for achieving the happy endings we came to expect, especially in the 1980’s.  Frankly, the 54th Massachusetts of Glory (another blockbuster of ’89) could have used similar help, but alas, their cause unfolded on the beach, not in the adjacent sea.  Shame.  Plus, that was history…this is pure “science” fiction, which is what James “Titanic” Cameron does best, at least when he’s watching the clock.


Lauren’s Review:

We’ve been talking about watching this one for so long that it was kind of built up in my mind. I was picturing an underwater adventure in the Marianas Trench with all kinds of unearthly sea creatures, both lovely and terrifying—sort of like “Avatar” but underwater (especially since both were directed by James Cameron). And there *were* some unearthly sea creatures, of a variety…  just not exactly the sort I was anticipating. Truthfully, I was a bit confused on the finer points of the plot, and I can’t necessarily say why: maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention, or maybe the film really was rather muddled. Scenes kept cutting between different crafts and different male characters that I couldn’t entirely differentiate, and I wasn’t super clear on anybody’s motives. I *could* look up all the details, as that would make for a nice and tidy review—but that gives a less accurate depiction of my real viewing experience.

So here’s what I actually got: after one submarine sinks, a different group of men (who? Why?) send oil workers Virgil “Bud” (Ed Harris) and his crew down to see if there are any survivors. (There aren’t.) Bud’s soon-to-be ex-wife Lindsay (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) apparently built the submarine they’re on, so she goes along to fix things that might break. Everybody thinks Lindsay is a royal bitch, but it’s clear fairly early on that Bud still has feelings for her. Meanwhile, a portion of Bud’s crew turns out to be Russian, or Russian sympathizers, or something, and they’re after a nuclear warhead that I think was on board the submarine that sank. Bud’s submarine is attached to an oil rig above ground that somehow gets dislodged and falls into the water, then slides down an underwater ravine (hence “the abyss”), tugging them down after it. While swimming around trying to fix things down there, Lindsay encounters a glowing creature (a precursor to the creatures from “Avatar”) that she presumes is extraterrestrial… so the film suddenly becomes a whole new genre. Then Bud sneaks up to fight the Russians for the nuke. The nuke sinks to the bottom of the abyss—I missed how, when, or why—but it still has to be disarmed. Lindsay and Bud trade death scenes and back-from-the-brink scenes, forcing each of them to realize how much they still love each other. And then, in what might be the greatest deux ex machina moment in cinematic history, a giant alien spaceship rises up from the bottom of the ocean, bringing Bud and his entire crew to the surface where they have a tearful, triumphant reunion.

It sounds like a mess, and—yeah, pretty much. This *might* be the reason why the film was so hard for us to locate: it’s neither streamable on Netflix nor on Amazon Prime. I think I see why. Even so, I still found it somewhat entertaining: the acting was great, and at least I liked the dynamic between Bud and Lindsay, even if I couldn’t keep any of the other characters straight. And, you know, the aliens were pretty.


Meal pairing: sushi seems appropriate, as it’s kind of slimy and other-worldly. We recommend shrimp tempura rolls with eel sauce, spicy tuna rolls, and edamame. Make sure you throw in some wine… this is the kind of film that’s better with alcohol.




Music and Lyrics (2007)


Reviewed: 6/1/2019

Combined Rating: 2.25/5

Frank’s Review:

Imagine The Wedding Singer retooled as a Hugh Grant vehicle and you have Music and Lyrics.  The plot is different, but it basically feels like a lesser version of the same movie.  Grant’s “Alex Fletcher” is a pop-culture has-been (a la “the other guy from WHAM”) clinging to scraps of fame by gigging at local state fairs and the like.  Enter the same female lead (Drew Barrymore) ten years on and give her a name way less memorable than “Julia Guglia.”  She waters his plants, ends up writing supposedly brilliant song lyrics for him at a pivotal career moment, and you can guess the rest.   Practically everything about this admittedly cute story is a rehash.  Even the ‘80’s parody feels parodied.  That being said, the opener heyday video of Grant’s ‘80’s band “Pop” is the funniest part of a film that treads water from start to finish.  But even that token laugh feels borrowed.

Although the film technically has no reason to exist and fills no unique space, it’s still passable enough as benign entertainment, if only to watch the ever watchable Grant do that bumbling shtick that only he (and Jeff Goldblum) can do.  The screenplay is rather witty, if Grant is indeed sticking to it.  The rest feels like window dressing left over from the set of almost any cosmopolitan chick flick.  The original songs are uninspired, unlike the far superior efforts made for Sing Street.   If you just focus on Grant’s performance, you might feel the slightest twinge of pity for his character.  He’s just so darn excited to be back on the horse that he confuses novelty for love.  In other words, Barrymore’s “Sophie” isn’t exactly a prize to be fawned over.  She’s kind of a quirky mess.  I think they’re both just bored.  But hey, it’s better to not be lonely, I guess.  She does predictably walk away for concocted reasons at the end of the second act, but Alex summons the creativity to rescue the relationship, not on a plane to Vegas, but at a “Cora” mega-concert at which he’s performing their new co-written song.  Let’s just say Hollywood “liberties” are taken, and a much larger crowd goes wild.

This film should have been made in the actual ‘80’s when the paint on the numbers was fresher.  We should have known at the outset when our secret recommender claimed it was a movie he wouldn’t watch more than “twice.”  Try once.  If you’re tired of re-screening The Wedding Singer but still crave the formula, you might just fancy the dandy and the plant girl making nice.


Lauren’s Review:

I was surprised that I’d never heard of Music and Lyrics before, since it’s a chick flick starring Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, and therefore seemed right up my alley. I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily a huge Drew Barrymore fan—I usually think she seems a little too intentionally cutesy—but I did love her portrayal of Cinderella in Ever After. Hugh Grant stars in a couple of my favorite chick flicks (Notting Hill and Two Week’s Notice). He always plays the same bashful, shallow, self-effacing character, but I like that character, so it works. It also was a bit easier to convince Frank to watch it than it might have been otherwise, since Hugh Grant happens to play a washed-up 80s pop star… so hey, everybody wins! I had high hopes, and thought Music and Lyrics might even have the potential to become a new favorite. Alas, that… didn’t happen. I can see why I’d never heard of it before.

The quick recap: has-been pop star Alex Fletcher (Hugh Grant) gets a shot at a comeback by competing to write a song for the biggest pop star of the day, Cora (Haley Bennett). But Alex only writes melodies, not lyrics. As he works with a potential lyricist, he gets a surprise visit from a neurotic girl he’s never seen before, hired to water his plants. (Of course she’s neurotic, because the female lead in a chick flick is always a little bit neurotic—that’s supposed to be part of her charm. But Drew Barrymore’s Sophie takes this too far, I think. She pricks her finger on a thorn, interrupts Alex and his lyricist with sudden terror of infection if she doesn’t get antibiotics RIGHT NOW, and then abruptly leaves to get some. She never again exhibits hypochondriasis after this opening sequence, making it seem forced—like it’s only there to increase the drama of their ‘meet cute.’) Anyway, when Sophie returns, she hums to herself, interjecting lyrics that Alex likes much better. He begs for her help. She requires a great deal of convincing, having been emotionally wounded by a former lit professor/boyfriend and made to doubt her talent, but ultimately she agrees. I understand that genre films are necessarily somewhat predictable, but this one held absolutely zero surprises from this point on. Slight spoiler alert if you can’t already guess: they fall in love. Cora (whose character is basically a cross between Britney Spears and Taylor Swift) chooses their song, but hyper-sexualizes it, and throws in some weird Buddhist/Indian influences for good measure. Sophie rebels against Cora’s interpretation because it’s not true to her art. She and Alex part ways over this, and she thinks he used her just to get a boost for his career. But then, in the most dramatic and public way possible, Alex surprises her with a public declaration, while also giving her the public recognition she craves. It’s very Singing in the Rain in that way.

I didn’t hate the film; it just did nothing interesting or original at all. Even that doesn’t usually bother me too much, as long as I can still get sucked into the story line. But I didn’t this time, probably because it just felt like the writers were trying too hard to be cutesy. Nearly every character seemed contrived in some way, the scenarios too perfect (or in some cases too perfectly awful)… just didn’t do it for me.


Meal Pairing:  Since “Cora’s” on an Indian kick, we recommend Chicken Tikka Masala and Naan Bread.  And probably some alcohol to address the boredom.


Troy (2004)


Reviewed: 3/15/19

Combined Rating: 4/5

Frank’s Review:

The story of Troy is full of piss and vinegar, and poor decisions.  It is fitting, then, that the film, inspired by Homer’s “The Illiad,” doubles down to make that point.  What struck me most was how avoidable the incessant tragedy would have been had men’s egos not continued to write checks their bodies couldn’t cash…especially without direct intervention from their conspicuously absent Gods.  The likes of King Agamemnon of Mycenae, King Menelaus of Sparta, Achilles, and Odysseus justify continual war as if it’s a cure for boredom…but mostly so we’ll remember their names.  How juvenile.  The consensual secret abduction of Menelaus’s wife, Helen, by Paris of Troy, is only the latest pretext.   And yet, as the fantastical elements and grand scope of the cinematic presentation sweep us up, we roll pleasantly enough through the overt face mugging, the peck glistening, the speech-offs, the curiously overblown death screams, and the awkward philosophizing of the self-obsessed lost, broken up periodically by obligatory early 2000’s-era Arabic ballad-chanting.   BTW…Gladiator called, they want their dirge back.

The film looks so damn good, one can almost forgive the sheer ridiculousness of the dialogue.  These characters spend so much time pontificating their legendary status’ that their own imminent deaths seem to shock them, even when self-predicted…a pesky side note.  Brad Pitt as a stoic Achilles is the worst offender.  I’m tempted to call him the weakest link in the film, had he not some of the worst lines to contend with.   At one point his own mom gives him the most ineffectual “mother to son” pitch in the history of cinema to which Achilles responds by glinting off into the distance as if weighing the value of his inevitable decision to fight.  Cut to his Trireme approaching the beach of Troy, pre-attack, where he offers the suspect line, “Immortality, take it…it’s yours” to his loyal cadre of nameless, doomed soldiers who are probably left wondering in their last seconds how this war is different than all the rest.  It’s hard to root for a guy whose entire aura comes off so self-serving and manipulative.  But what can we really expect from a character who when confronted by a messenger boy with a reasonable observation about not wanting to face such an intimidating foe as Boagrius of Thessaly, shames him with the flippant, “That is why no one will remember your name.”  A true mentor.   Overall, the acting is surprisingly strong, especially from Brian Cox (Agamemnon), who seems to be the only actor who realizes he’s in a pretentiously self-aware toga party.  Eric Bana, as Hector, grounds the proceedings, serving as the lone voice of reason (to no avail), while Peter O’Toole as Trojan King Priam, channelling his Lawrence of Arabian glory days, does his best impersonation of sober.   I only wish there had been more of Sean Bean (Odysseus) who, sporting a dark tan and mullet, makes Boromir look uptight.

I honestly can’t tell if Troy attempts to glorify these infamous warriors, or send them up.  Maybe both.  It’s certainly easier to buy since the saga is mere legend.  Oh wait, they just found the lost city of Troy?  Damn.  But the film succeeds wildly at highlighting the fine line between honor and stupidity, and especially how one man’s obsession, regardless of whether it’s love (Paris), power (Agamemnon), or timelessness (Achilles), can so easily cause the destruction of thousands of regular families who just want to color-coordinate at the holiday office social.

PS…I’m told the 196 minute Director’s cut of the film fleshes out the characters, and spices up the violence and sex, if you’re motivated by such things.  I’m contemplating a viewing, but lacking the motivation of a hard core sword and sandal worshipper.

*** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

Frank and I are on a Greek mythology kick (in preparation for going to Greece in person in May!) We’re also reading The Iliad together, and between the two of us we’ve consumed several other books and documentaries on the subject. “Troy” was my pick, as I knew the story more in soundbites than in actual plot: I knew Achilles got shot in the heel (hence the name of the tendon), but didn’t know how or by whom. I knew there was a Trojan horse involved, but didn’t know whose idea it was, or even whether it was constructed by the Trojans or the Greeks. I’m not sure how much of the 2004 film was embellished and how much was in the actual Iliad, since we’re not even a third of the way through it yet, but I am surprised about how little “screen time” the character of Achilles gets in the Iliad, compared to Brad Pitt’s starring role in “Troy.” (Most of The Iliad is just battle scenes, punctuated by insane amounts of backstory for characters we’ve never heard of and who are now dead, so we never will again. Editing had yet to be invented, evidently.)

“Troy” does manage to edit The Iliad for modern sensibilities, though. The demigod Achilles (a perpetually glistening Pitt), supposedly the best warrior who ever lived, technically fights on the side of Agamemnon (Brian Cox). But he’s motivated only by glory, and resents following orders. He’s therefore a loose cannon, yet his fellow soldiers practically worship him—further incensing Agamemnon. For his part, Agamemnon is a prehistoric Alexander the Great, uniting many kings under his banner, including the wily Odysseus (Sean Bean). All of them converge on the city of Troy, supposedly to recover Menelaus’s (Brendan Gleeson’s) stolen wife Helen (Diane Kruger). But really, Agamemnon just wants an excuse to widen his territory. Troy’s legendary fighter is Hector (Eric Bana), crown prince and older brother to Paris (Orlando Bloom), who stole Helen in the first place. You really root for Troy: they’re the underdog against the unified forces of Greece, their king Priam (Peter O’Toole) is a good guy, and Hector is an honorable man who loves his family and his nation. But he’s no match for the arrogant and unreasonable Achilles, who then won’t even allow him a proper burial. When Priam begs Achilles to release his son’s body, Achilles does grant the Trojans the customary twelve days of mourning. But during this time, it’s Odysseus who suggests the idea of making the Greeks a present of a Trojan horse. (Nevermind where they got the supplies to build an enormous horse, or how they got a bunch of soldiers inside of it, or why the Trojans found the thing on the beach, decided it was a present, and dragged it inside their city walls. Details.) Out creep the Greek soldiers after nightfall, opening the city gates from within, and Troy is sacked while the people slumber. As for Achilles, he finally receives that fateful arrow to the heel while rescuing the Trojan girl he loves, in an act that is both his redemption and his downfall.

While on one hand, the story is so over-the-top as to render it heckle-able, I still really liked it a lot. Something about the epic score and the fame of the story reminded me a little of Lord of the Rings, which is one of my all-time favorites. And while it’s a tragedy, really, and I generally hate tragedies, at least Odysseus lives to journey home to Ithaca in The Odyssey. He’s a peripheral character in “Troy,” but because he’s a main character in his own epic tale, it feels like at least somebody survives. I wouldn’t expect to feel cultured after a major Hollywood blockbuster, but I do know the story a whole lot better now!

**** 1/2

Meal Pairing: Giant turkey drumsticks smothered in BBQ sauce, Greek salad with lettuce, tomato, pepperoncini, and crumbled feta (I’d skip the olives), and a nice chilled Barefoot Riesling, in tribute to the late, great Peter O’Toole.


JFK (1991)


Reviewed: 2/21/19

Combined Rating: 4.75/5

Frank’s Review:

After experiencing the whirlwind that is JFK, you’d swear the Kennedy assassination couldn’t have happened any other way…especially if you’re young and impressionable.  That’s how I felt after my first theatrical experience with the film as a fourteen year old in ’91, before I’d done any  (or was motivated to follow up with any) actual research on the topic.  I bought into the hype, because hey, conspiracy theories are fun and mysterious, especially when wrapped in lush cinematic packaging.  A few years later, after multiple viewings, I began to realize what an impressive masterwork of propaganda the film really is, and now find myself impressed, yet disturbed, at how successful one piece of art could be at steering and even re-directing cultural belief about a singular historical event that occurred not even thirty years before.  Ultimately, its points reverberate because it is such a tight, entertaining, and technically well-made film.

That Kennedy’s murder was a conspiracy among a host of organizations and parties with converging interests had long been embraced by skeptics and fringe theorists.  But seemingly overnight in 1991, it became mainstream thought, and more, was all anybody could talk about…birthing a bevy of made for TV documentaries, forensic analysis, and books that only fueled the fire.  The theory espoused by the film, and pounded home, is that JFK was the target of a right wing coup d’etat perpetrated by the CIA, the mafia, and the military industrial complex (i.e. the original deep state) and aimed at securing war in Vietnam.  Basically, the argument is that because he’d caused the Bay of Pigs invasion to fail and had prepped to deescalate the conflict in Southeast Asia, that he was secretly soft on Communism.  Oliver Stone’s leftward leanings are no secret, but his tale is so expertly weaved and the dialogue so frenetic, one has little time to even contemplate who his characters are, or their motives and actions within the grand scheme.  This may have been an intentional ploy to blow over or mask any glaring holes and contradictions, or perhaps Stone just had too much to say.   It becomes very difficult to ascertain what is documented and what is just plain made up.  Either way, his reverence to the source material (Jim Garrison’s “On the Trial of the Assassins”) is obvious.  Garrison himself remains the only attorney to ever successfully bring about a trial on the assassination.  Even though he failed to convict the defendant, Clay Shaw, for his role in a larger conspiracy, many argue he did successfully prove there at least WAS a conspiracy.   He’s a quirky yet persistent fellow flatly portrayed by Kevin Costner, in a drowning attempt to anchor an all-star cast.

I remain sympathetic to the idea of conspiracy for forensic reasons, but contrary to Stone’s assertion of Oswald being a sheer “patsy,” I believe old Lee Harvey was at least one of the trigger men.   Regardless, any work that spurs public debate is important, if the topic being debated is significant.  I believe this is true regardless of the agenda being pushed, because under a magnifying glass, the truth may still be more likely to emerge.  And few would argue that the Kennedy slaying isn’t one of the most interesting and deeply crucial episodes in the modern American experience.   Garrison valiantly utters after his trial loss, “May justice be done though the heavens fall.”  However, there’s a decent chance we’ll never know what actually happened, or why, and so we’re left only with Billy Joel’s more apropos…”JFK…blown away…what else do I have to say?”

**** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

Frank has been telling me about this one since we were dating — I’m surprised it took us this long to watch it together. It’s a conspiracy/propaganda piece from the political left(which in and of itself is a little strange for Frank)—but he said until he heard the counter-arguments, he was convinced that the film’s version of how and why Kennedy was murdered was correct. Director Oliver Stone does indeed present his version of events as fact, as told through the eyes of Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), District Attorney of Louisiana. Garrison doubts that Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman) could possibly have been the sole assassin and begins to investigate other possible conspirators, despite mounting public ridicule and a nagging wife (Sissy Spacek — she was suuuuper annoying).

Stone did convince me that Oswald at the very least could not have been the sole shooter, if indeed he was one of the shooters at all. The physics doesn’t work, Oswald was reputed to be a terrible shot, and many eyewitnesses also claimed to have seen other shooters. But he didn’t convince me that Kennedy’s murder came about as part of a Right-wing government conspiracy, motivated by his desire to pull out of Vietnam, which would therefore lose billions for the military-industrial complex. Still, it’s suspicious that security was exceptionally lax that day, and that Kennedy’s motorcade slowed to 11 mph where the shooting occurred—as if to make him an easier target. Also, government records relating to the investigation of the Kennedy murder won’t be released until 2029, long after everyone involved would be dead. Clearly *something* fishy was going on.

The film is excessively long, and at times a bit hard to follow if you’re not already familiar with the politics of the day. Frank kept having to pause and explain to me what was going on and why. But if you like conspiracy theories, this will definitely be up your alley. It’s quite the all-star cast, including Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Donald Sutherland, Joe Pesci (whose absurd and emotional monologues just begged to be turned into high school drama audition pieces), Walter Matthau, and the real Jim Garrison himself in a cameo. I also have to admit that it’s cinematically brilliant, with the number of insert shots with interviews narrating over the top of them. But, just be prepared for some disturbing actual footage of Kennedy’s murder, and real autopsy photos. While 1960s footage is too grainy to make out detail, the fact that they’re real makes them far more grotesque than anything fictional could ever be.


Meal pairing: It’s much too long to cook dinner beforehand, so probably order a pizza, and smoke eight packs of cigarettes.  Chase with a stiff Buffalo Trace Bourbon



Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)


Reviewed: 2/6/19

Combined Rating: 3/5

Frank’s Review:

There’s something off about this beloved kids movie.  Beneath a glossy, fantasy laden premise that appeals to every downtrodden dreamer lies a festering vat of creepy, reflective of a disillusioned era.  Willie Wonka, in a marketing ploy, hides rare golden tickets in his candy bars for the chance to win a lifetime supply of edible happiness.  Would winning somehow make the rest of our protagonist Charlie’s squalid existence more bearable?  But under the sugar coating, the elusive mastermind harbors a demented paranoia barely contained within the cutesy veneer portrayed to his clamoring public.  What really goes on behind the secret walls of his chocolate factory?  Is Wonka actually the cosmos’s incarnated check on child greed, or is he just plain off his gourd?  Five lucky kids get to find out on their whirlwind factory tour, and are quickly exposed to the psychedelic weirdness within the walls, and the mind, of Willie Wonka, eccentrically performed by Gene Wilder.

This film falls into a sub-category of ‘70’s flicks that are probably more entertaining whilst in a chemically altered state (see Apocalypse Now, Rocky Horror Picture Show).  I would never advocate drug use, but after multiple sober viewings, I believe one would have to be high to accept that grandpa can jump out of bed after 20+ years as an invalid and perform a musical number over the prospect of free candy.  I know, I know, he’s excited for Charlie finding a golden ticket, but still.  And then there’s the orange midgets Wonka employs to do his bidding.  Ostensibly, they “make the confections,” but if you break a rule during the tour or fail to read the fine print…look out.   Wonka’s story is that he “rescued” them from exploitation in Oompah-Loompah land, but they can’t help it if they also enjoy murdering greedy children in creative ways.  Wonka assures his fans that the children consumed by his factory during the tour have been eventually returned to normal and to their families, but we never actually see this happen.  So, we’re supposed to take his word for it, especially after a “boat ride from hell” sequence that makes Martin Sheen’s ride down the Mekong look pleasant.   This is not a stable person.  The capper is Wonka’s  unexplained retirement proclamation and subsequent bequeathment of his entire company to Charlie…the latter’s true prize!  Nevermind that Charlie is literally a back ally street urchin with a good heart who probably doesn’t know how to run a major corporation.  And this is his reward?  Given, it’s potentially better than unlimited chocolate bars, but only in proficient hands.

Basically, kids will be kids, and yet Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is kind of morally arguing that they should somehow all be better behaved across the board, irrespective of worldly circumstances.  I don’t know, seems kind of harsh.   Good thing we had our angel Charlie, or else the entire plot might have been rehashed, wrapped in deceptively tweaked Wonkalicious packaging and aimed at weeding out another cluster of brats.  And what do you think would come of that?  I don’t like the look of it.


Lauren’s Review:

I love kids’ films (maybe I’m simple, I don’t know—or naive, or something), and I’d never seen this one before, even though I’m almost certain I’ve read the book. But I had no desire to watch the Johnny Depp iteration, since even the previews gave me nightmares. Then again, I can’t honestly say that Gene Wilder’s was what you’d call “normal.” It’s a creepy character, and frankly kind of a weird story, even if there is also some whimsy to it in order to appeal to children.

The story follows Charlie Bucket (Peter Ostrum), a poor but kind and respectful boy whose family all lives under a single roof: both sets of grandparents (all four of whom sleep in a single bed!), himself, and his mother, who apparently supports them all as a washer woman. Meanwhile, Willy Wonka (Wilder), the owner of a world famous chocolate factory, announces that he’s hidden five golden tickets inside some of his chocolate bars. The five people who find those tickets will win a tour of his factory, plus all the chocolate they can eat for life. Suddenly the whole world goes mad with obsession. Starry-eyed Charlie wants desperately to win, but of course the contest favors privileged children who can afford to purchase large quantities of chocolate to improve their chances. Sure enough, four of the five winners are very spoiled indeed—but at the last moment, Charlie finds the money to buy a bar and wins the fifth ticket. He has to attend with a guardian, so he takes his grandfather (who incidentally had been bedridden for the past 15 years but suddenly finds the strength to tap dance in his excitement.) From there, the story becomes a bit of a morality tale. Willy Wonka, apparently sociopathic, exposes the children and their guardians to innumerable dangers in his magical candy factory, which seems a bit like a real-life Candyland. Each of the other four flawed children comes face to face with a temptation tailor-made for them, including chocolate rivers, hens that lay real golden eggs, and magical bubble gum. Sure enough, each child gives in, and each gets his or her own “just desserts,” as it were (and the Oompa Loompas rejoice. They might have been the creepiest part of the whole film). Only Charlie successfully resists temptation, at which point (slight spoiler alert) we learn that Willy Wonka had been intentionally testing them all along. Charlie passes the test, and so Charlie wins a prize he can’t possibly use—but what the heck, we’re already suspending disbelief. Willy Wonka then undergoes a personality transplant in the last several minutes of the film, suddenly turning all warm and cuddly.

It sounds like I didn’t like the film. I did, kind of… it was just odd for a kid’s film. It was whimsical and imaginative, but I’ll probably never watch it again, and I’m certainly glad I never watched it as a child. If I’d seen the same film with Johnny Depp, I can’t even imagine.


Meal Pairing: eat dinner first, and have a banana split with this one: heavy on the hot fudge and sprinkles.


Rocky IV (1985)


Reviewed: 1/6/2019

Combined Rating: 3.5/5

Frank’s Review:

Posterity has awarded credit to Reagan and Gorbachev for ending the cold war.  But I like to think the two leaders might have been inspired by a secret viewing of Rocky IV at their ’86 Reykjavik summit…in which case, one could argue Sylvester Stallone deserves the real credit.  If you don’t feel patriotically pumped up, yet magnanimously moved toward love and reconciliation with all humankind at its exciting conclusion, you’re most likely a cold hearted bastard who deserves to have your face melted off in a nuclear blast.

Rocky IV plays kind of like Rocky’s greatest hits on steroids.  Minimal effort is made to break new ground in the overall saga, and yet it all feels new and urgent, as it embraces the dichotomy between both its nationalistic tendencies and transcendent humaneness, and argues for both.  It doesn’t offer any actual political solutions other than to posit that only a man of Rocky’s gravitas and heart can get nations to bridge their differences given ten seconds, a microphone, a captive audience, and the message, “If I can change, and you can change….everybody can change!”  It’s amazing how Russians are more inclined to root for the guy who just got punched in the face 800 times, over their own boy Ivan Drago (who trained with superior scientific technology and still lost).  Turns out Russians, like us, respect grit, perseverance, and not cheating.  Even the Politburo applauds.

It’s actually amazing how emotionally impacting the film is, considering how many montages it contains, which I quickly realized were merely platforms for yet another awesome Survivor-esque pop jam.  I used to work out to the soundtrack in college, which I’d argue is the only reason I managed more than ten squats in one session.  In scenes that aren’t part of a montage, we’re treated to basic American mores within poignant moments like the one where Rocky tells his young son, “Going one more round when you don’t think you can is what makes all the difference in your life.”  Truth.  We saw early on with Apollo Creed (who can’t even be bothered to train for his “exhibition” fight with Drago) that sheer bravado, even as a part of our core, does not always provide optimal results on its own, but instead should be tempered by the better, or at least more contemplative, angels of our nature.  Alternatively, Rocky’s measured response in avenging Apollo’s almost comical death shows us that even warriors can employ a more comprehensive array of qualities that are more likely to ensure ultimate victory.  Over-analyzing aside, we can absorb an epic barrage of one liners from Drago which are fun employing in every day conversations with a thick Russian accent, like “I must break you,”  and my personal fav, “If he dies, he dies,” which has been such a hit for me over the years, I bought the T-shirt.  For these reasons, Rocky IV has emerged as my favorite Rocky movie of all time…and is probably the default entry, if we’re only gonna watch one.  Don’t get me wrong, Rocky ’76 was great, if not a bit slow, but everything got bigger in the ’80’s, and rightly so.  I’m sure that was Reagan’s idea.


Lauren’s Review:

I was well prepared for this one. Frank has told me for years now that this was his favorite of the Rocky films because it would make me “proud to be an American.” But I couldn’t watch IV until I’d seen Rocky I and understood the story setup (which I can boil down to this: Rocky, underdog, trains to fight heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed, and—***spoiler alert***—it ends in a draw). I haven’t seen the subsequent two Rocky films, but it really wasn’t necessary, as the intro to this film summarized them for me anyway: Rocky (Stallone) is now super famous, and he and Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) are now besties. (Cut to montage of them playing in the waves in slo-mo, wearing very short shorts… the things you could get away with in the 80s without raising eyebrows, I tell you. Such innocence.)

But then, Russian challenger Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) comes to the states, claiming to be a human weapon, scientifically trained to perfection. He challenges Rocky, but Creed, who retired years ago, decides to come out of retirement and fight Drago instead, mostly to prove that “he’s still got it.” He thinks this is just a fight for show, but Drago takes it seriously and kills Creed in the ring. Rocky tells his very distraught wife Adrian (Talia Shire) that he now has to fight Drago, for Creed’s sake… and he’s going to do it on Drago’s home turf, in Russia. (Cut to a comical number of training montages… seriously, about a third of this film is montages.) Drago trains in a clinical fashion, with electrodes and scientists studying his every move, while Rocky does it old-school: climbing mountains, chopping wood, doing sit-ups while hanging from a pull-up bar in a barn. The two contenders are a very thinly veiled metaphor for the United States vs Russia during the Cold War, and Drago is a largely silent caricature of evil brute strength, summed up by his famous line: “I must break you.”

You can guess the rest, if you haven’t yet seen it. Since the story itself is so simple, and the montages were required to pad screen time, the fight at the end is expansive. It looks like Drago is going to win. But then Rocky rebounds. But then Drago pounds him to a pulp. This goes on and on for round after round, until finally (should I even bother to say spoiler alert?) Rocky prevails. But he doesn’t stop there: then he takes the opportunity to preach to the surrounding Russians about democracy and fair play, moving them to tears and a standing ovation. If only convincing others of our beliefs were always so simple! If the definition of “cheesy” is the overt attempt to manipulate the emotions of others, then Rocky IV is certainly cheesy… but it’s fun, nevertheless. I don’t mind emotional manipulation when it’s *that* obvious.


Meal Pairing:  Beef Stroganoff and a Tomato/Onion salad with Russian dressing.  Cap off with a Pineapple Mule with the vodka of your choice.




Dead Again (1991)


Reviewed: 12/16/18

Combined Rating: 4/5

Frank’s Review:

Paying somebody back in another life for murdering you in this one is a delicious concept.   But what if you didn’t know you’d inherit the opportunity, or that fate had already scheduled it for you?   What if you didn’t even know that you’d been reincarnated, except only through fleeting glimpses of a perceived past life in unrelenting nightmares?

In Kenneth Branagh’s clever, neo-noir thriller, identity, more than the inevitability of fate, emerges as the biggest problem.  When Private Investigator Mike Church (Branagh) tries to help a mystery woman (Emma Thompson) remember who she is, he’s soon embroiled in his own metaphysical conundrum that, despite his harried efforts to resolve, works out only in its own good time.  Their falling in love is destined, resumed from another time and place.  But thanks to karma, there is an overwhelming sense that their story can only end one way.  As they replay their prior drama in a modern context, the players, ultimately, cannot effectively steer their course, even with the help of hypnotists who give them the benefit of past life cognizance.  Their confusion and lack of understanding of the inevitability of what is unfolding is what, ironically, drives them towards causing the pieces to come together the way they’re meant to.  This is the achievement, and brilliance, of the film.  The climactic result features two simple, yet effective twists nobody, on first viewing, sees coming.  One can only say that karma cuts deep!

On many occasions, Dead Again threatens to enter into melodrama.  I don’t know if Branagh (also directing) just gets caught up in the urgency the story rightly engenders, or if it’s all an intentional manifestation of his inherently theatrical Shakespearean proclivities.  But it does feel a little silly at times, aided by Patrick Doyle’s over the top score that overemphasizes cues that might have played better subtly.   I did, however, quite enjoy the visual contrast between the lush glitz of 1949 L.A. and its ‘90’s decadent counterpart.  All the jumping around between the past and present is actually helpful in establishing homicidal motives, but especially in fleshing out the backstory between the leads necessary to absorb their timeless connection.  The most interesting aspect, however, involves not the relationship between reincarnated characters, but between them and those still living from Mike and Amanda’s first incarnation forty plus years prior, and how those older characters inadvertently bring about their own just deserts within their original lifetimes.   An original in the vein of Hitchcock is in this way brought full circle, and yet remains worthy of multiple viewings.

*** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

I’ve loved the Emma Thompson/Kenneth Branagh pairing ever since I saw them in “Much Ado About Nothing”—they have such fantastic on-screen chemistry. (Presumably that’s because they were married in real life at the time.) “Dead Again” is very different genre than Shakespeare, and the story is unique and compelling enough that it probably would have been good no matter who played the leading roles. But I think it was so much better because it was them.

The story follows private detective Mike Church (Branagh) and a woman with amnesia who initially can’t speak, except to scream in her nightmares. Mike dubs the woman “Grace” (Thompson). Mike agrees to call in a favor with a reporter, who runs Grace’s picture and story in the newspaper in hopes that her family or loved ones will come and get her. In the meantime, Grace stays with Mike at his home—and of course, he begins to develop feelings for her. A hypnotist sees the picture and approaches Mike, suggesting that hypnosis and eventually past life regression might help Grace remember who she is. In the process, Grace describes her former self, a woman named Margaret, who was murdered. Her husband Roman was convicted for the crime and put to death in the 1940s—and when they look up the case, they discover that Grace and Mike are the spitting image of Margaret and Roman (as they, too, are played by Branagh and Thompson). Mike also submits to past life regression after that, and he too “remembers” the story of Roman and Margaret. Grace becomes afraid of Mike, believing that history will repeat and that he will kill her again, just as Roman (supposedly) killed Margaret. But there are a few extra twists you won’t see coming. One of the twists I think is just weird and unnecessary, but the more important twist is pretty perfect.

The screenplay and acting were both terrific—there’s even a cameo from Robin Williams as an embittered psychotherapist-turned grocer to help guide Mike on his quest for truth. “Dead Again” follows the template of the murder mystery in many ways, but the dynamic between Mike and Grace adds an element of romantic suspense, and the past life angle really sets it apart. It’s a fun movie, but you definitely have to pay attention to this one.

**** 1/2

Meal pairing: chicken curry soup with some cilantro and parsley on top—maybe because we watched this one when it was cold, it seems like the kind of film that requires soup.