Annie (1982)

Annie

Reviewed: 02/25/20

Combined Rating: 3.25/5

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

***

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

*** 1/2

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

 

1917 (2019)

1917

Reviewed: 2/2/2020

Combined Rating: 3.75/5

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

**** ½

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

***

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

 

The Phantom of the Opera (2004)

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Reviewed: 1/20/20

Combined Rating: 3/5

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

**

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

****

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

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

2001

Reviewed: 12/22/19

Combined Rating: 1.5/5

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

***

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

Turkey

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

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

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Reviewed: 10/25/2019

Combined Rating: 3.75/5

Frank’s Review:

In one of Tim Burton’s most beautiful films, Johnny Depp is out of his Depp as a foppish New York City police scientist out to disprove supernatural explanations for murders blamed on a headless horseman (Christopher Walken)…who romps through the quaint village of Sleepy Hollow at the end of the Eighteenth Century, lopping off more heads than can fit in an inflatable duffle bag.  While peripheral American villages of the post-colonial period are notorious for clinging to their superstitions, Burton’s film stops short of condemning them as backward.   Instead, he wisely makes an argument that although fancy city folk do not always agree or understand, science and logic can coexist with viable supernatural phenomenon elicited by those given over to transcendent forces.   That Icabod Crane has a backstory that justifies his dismissal of spiritualism only makes his discoveries more surprising.   Crane must race to discover if the murders are connected, and if so, for what purpose?  But don’t let his tedious (and at times confusing)  genealogical musings dissuade you…the creepy action and lush, fog shrouded set pieces are more than enough to keep the viewer mesmerized.

Sleepy Hollow is like watching a moving painting.  Spatterings of red are punctuated by the perpetual dreariness of a town constantly on the cusp of dusk.  Death is dealt brutally…almost comically, and met with measured raise of en eyebrow.  Heinous acts are committed so frequently and dizzyingly in such a confined space that it’s truly a wonder there are any townspeople left by mid-film.  And all the while Icabod pieces together clue after clue, whilst dodging the horseman’s razor sharp sword on its seemingly random war path.  But is it indeed random?  And is the bumbling Crane’s survival coincidental?   Our grand scheme eventually emerges, but only after Crane comes to terms with his own false assumptions.   He must fully embrace ALL possibilities of the rational and seemingly irrational, to be most effective in his final task of not only solving the murders, but sending our infamous Hessian back to hell for good.

Burton infuses the film with an intentionally risky dose of self-awareness.  The actors perform as if they were in a live theater workshop, which actually serves to deescalate the otherwise gruesome violence and save the viewer from any lingering horror effects.  It basically feels like a fairy tale for warped adults of 1999, or, if you like, modern day desensitized children.    Either way, the tone works.  He would duplicate it in subsequent films like From Hell and Sweeney Todd, and cement his status as auteur of the weird.  Depp’s mannered Burton-helmed performances would metastasize into the realm of cringe-worthy parody in later years, but that was probably more a result of his living in France for an extended period of time.   We all can get a bit self-indulgent for a spell.  But don’t miss his turn here, where all the pieces come together into what could be considered a big-budget homage to the Hammer horror pics of old, complete with a deliciously campy Walken cameo and other magical, memorable images that get seared into our modern Halloween zeitgeist.

****

Lauren’s Review:

Despite the fact that I’ve read the original story upon which the film was based (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving), I watched the first season of the now off the air TV series “Sleepy Hollow,” and I was present at least once while this film was playing, you’d think I’d know the story. But no, turns out I remembered only one thing: that it involved a headless horseman who liked to ride around upstate New York lopping off heads. While this is a horrific idea, and I don’t generally care for horror, I didn’t find it particularly disturbing because the film seemed so self-aware. I’d have called it bad acting, except that it seemed intentional, as if the actors were purposely not taking themselves or the story too seriously. (I suppose the tongue-in-cheek tag line on the movie poster implies this: “Heads Will Roll.” Ha. Literally.)

The story follows Ichabod Crane (a very mannered, effeminate Johnny Depp), a police constable called from New York City to Sleepy Hollow in the late 1700s to investigate the recent rash of mysterious murders by decaptitation in which the heads all vanish. We’re given a clue about the reason for this at the very beginning, when we see the man who is to become the Headless Horseman (Christopher Walken), himself decapitated and his head separated from his body in burial. At first it seems that he kills indiscriminately, but then he kills one victim while leaving Crane himself unharmed. This leads Crane to two conclusions: first, that the headless horseman exists (which he’d doubted before), and second, that someone is dictating who his victims should be. In his investigations, Crane encounters the elders of the small town (including two future Harry Potter cast members, which made me happy: Michael Gambon, aka Dumbledore, and Richard Griffiths, aka Vernon Dursley. But I digress.) Baltus (Gambon) is the father of love interest Katrina (Christina Ricci), who reminds Crane of his late mother because both practiced witchcraft. Crane manages to bungle nearly every aspect of the investigation, accusing a variety of people falsely before each turns up dead, and eventually even suspecting Katrina because he misunderstands the intentions of her magic. But at last, in one of those tell-all moments at the end in which the villain feels the need to disclose all secrets prior to finishing the deed, we understand the who, the what, and the why… and also, at last, how to stop a killer who’s already dead. (Hint: there’s a reason why he’s collecting his victims’ heads!)

The body count in “Sleepy Hollow” was gratuitous to the point of comedy, and I presume that was intentional, because it rendered it far less grisly than it might have been otherwise. There was only one scene at the very end where I had to look away. Otherwise, it’s a pretty good compromise Halloween film, striking a balance between atmospheric and creepy on the one hand, and campy on the other.

*** 1/2

Meal Pairing: Chunky beef stew with a big loaf of french bread. Don’t think too hard about what that symbolizes.

 

 

Ad Astra (2019)

Ad Astra

Reviewed: 10/5/2019

Combined Rating: 3.75/5

Frank’s Review:

In Hercules Furens, Seneca the Younger wrote: “non est ad astra mollis e terris via (there is no easy way from the earth to the stars).   In “the near future”, despite paying $125 for a blanket and pillow on a commercial flight to the moon, that has changed.  However, I don’t believe the title Ad Astra refers to the logistics of reaching the furthest planets of our solar system, but instead relates the metaphorical distances humans must travel to “reach” loved ones who have left us behind.   Necessary bonds, like the kind between a father and son, get sacrificed to the Gods of progress, career, glory, science, or whatever driven people justify as nobler.  In this case, astronaut Roy McBride’s (Brad Pitt) father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) has abandoned his family to prove intelligent life exists elsewhere in space.  His obsession has jeopardized Earth’s very existence, but Roy’s solution requires more than just blowing up the source of that threat.   He also needs to conquer long buried, personal demons.  First, Roy must try, at least, to repair the estranged relationship with his dad that has led to so many other relational problems in his own life, including the one with his wife Eve (Liv Tyler).   The biggest mystery is whether Clifford is open to the possibility of reconciliation, if he is indeed still alive with his Lima Project somewhere in Neptune’s orbit.

Space operas work best as meditative and allegorical, when they’re designed to do more than awe us with a sense of wonder.  Modern film tech can easily achieve the latter, but it is much harder to create character pieces in space that explore nuanced aspects of the human condition and attempt to answer questions like:  why do we drive people away?  How do we create and justify our priorities, and why do we matter less to each other than the possibility of something/someone yet unknown?   The film answers the final question of whether we’re alone in the universe in a manner that drives home its central theme, forcing us to at least temporarily reassess how we look at our own tendencies.   Ironically, Clifford’s findings have inspired a bit of hope for us all on a human, if not a scientific level, and so the son does ultimately benefit from the choices of the father, to capitalize on the rest of his earthly life.

Ad Astra plays like Apocalypse Now in space, inserting pivotal characters that help bring Roy closer to finding his missing father somewhere in the heart of darkness, further out than any man has ever journeyed.   Also like Coppola’s Vietnam masterpiece, collateral damage is inevitable and justified for larger ends, exposing additional parallels between the seeker and the sought.   Driven men often leave destruction in their wake, but how much depends on how far such men are willing to go.  The familial ties introduced only heighten Roy’s commitment to success, if not risking even greater madness than that faced by Capt. Willard in hunting Col. Kurtz.   But Roy’s controlled emotions aid him in his quest, which is not remotely guaranteed.   Brad Pitt’s subtle conveyances lend perfectly to the film, as much as his laid back coolness lent perfectly to the role of Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.   I’ve never been a huge Pitt fan until now, and 2019 is undeniably his year.

****

Lauren’s Review:

Ad Astra seems like a pretty standard science fiction film at first blush. Random power surges in our solar system threaten life on earth as we know it. The space program traces the surges (in some unclear way that never does make sense to me) to a program from decades earlier called the Lima Project, in which famed astronaut Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) sets course for Neptune. Officially, McBride died on his mission, as they never heard from him again after he passed Jupiter. But the space program has reason to believe that he is still alive somewhere near Neptune, and that he can stop the power surges. They enlist his son, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), also an astronaut, to send a message to him. In order to do this, Roy has to travel to Mars—which, in this futuristic world, has become commercialized for civilian travel.

You’d think, from the synopsis thus far, that the film would be an action-packed Blockbuster. But the story is actually quite slow and character driven. Roy narrates his inner experience for the audience, which slows the pace of the story considerably. We see early in the film that Roy is estranged from his wife (Liv Tyler), and there are some heavy implications that he probably has abandonment issues from the fact that his father left on a one-way ticket to outer space when he was a teenager. At every stage of Roy’s mission, he has to check in with a computer for a psych evaluation to determine if he is stable enough to carry on, and this provides another insight for the viewer into Roy’s psyche. But when Roy’s message to his father becomes emotionally-charged, the powers that be determine that he is no longer psychologically stable, and take him off the mission. Roy battles his way on board anyway, eventually piloting a space ship all the way to Neptune by himself.

As I watched the film, I found myself trying to anticipate what I would do next if I were the writer. There’s one unexpected twist about halfway through the film that I won’t spoil, but because it came so early on, I wondered, is that going to turn out to actually be the case, or are the writers gonna thwart our expectations yet again near the end? But nope; what happens is exactly what we’re led to expect. And I actually think this works for a film like this, because it’s less about the external plot and more about Roy’s emotional journey. He has a satisfying character arc. It’s a good film—entertaining, but not wholly original or unique.

*** 1/2

Meal Pairing: Somehow this seems like a Chinese Takeout kind of film, perhaps because to me, Chinese takeout is synonymous with industrialization, globalization, etcetera. Anyway. Let’s go with Kung Pao chicken with noodles. Don’t forget the fortune cookie.

 

The Abyss (1989)

TheAbyss

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.