The Ten Commandments (1956)

Reviewed: 4/20/21

Combined Rating: 4.25/5

Lauren’s Review:

I have vague warm memories of walking in on various scenes of this movie growing up, while my dad had it playing on network TV. Frank warned me that it was excessively long, but I guess I can’t blame the filmmakers for that—it covers thirty-two chapters of the book of Exodus, and biblical writers pretty much stick to the bare bones of the action. In order to make an evocative film for a modern audience, it also needed characterization, relationships, and interpersonal drama—so on top of what’s in the scriptures, a lot more is added in besides. The female lead, for instance, Nefretiri (Anne Baxter) isn’t even a character in the biblical account, though she plays a pivotal role in the film. But what’s a drama without romance?

The story is familiar, but apparently based on a novel dramatization of the book of Exodus. It spends probably half the film on Moses’ life growing up as a prince in Egypt (which only takes up one chapter of Exodus), emphasizing the rivalry between him and his adopted brother Rameses (Yul Brynner, who was superbly cast for that role. What a voice!) This is where Nefretiri comes in, as Moses’ love interest who nevertheless ends up wed to Rameses when Moses is exposed as a Hebrew and banished. One major contrast between Charlton Heston’s Moses and the biblical Moses is that Heston comes off more or less like John Wayne of the Old Testament. He’s always self-assured, heroic, faithful, and courageous, like a 1950s leading man should be. By contrast, Moses repeatedly begged God to send someone else when God finally called him to return to Egypt and deliver the people, provoking God to anger. He was so timid that God had to send Aaron as Moses’ mouthpiece until the plagues really got underway and Moses suddenly found his voice. I suspect this had something to do with his browbeating wife (Zipporah in the Bible, Sephora – Yvonne De Carlo—in the film). Zipporah had a razor tongue, and either Moses sent her away before he went back to Egypt, or she left him—they definitely didn’t have the loving marriage which evokes Nefretiri’s jealousy in the film. The Moses of the Bible also spent forty years in the wilderness before he saw the burning bush; Heston returns perhaps eight years later, judging by the approximate ages of his son and Rameses’ son by the time he returns (but then, it would be difficult to re-cast the role as an eighty year old for the second half of the film. And the romantic confrontations with Nefritiri upon Moses’ return clearly wouldn’t have worked!) Though the plagues of Egypt are pivotal to the actual Exodus account, they’re mostly skipped in the film, as they do get rather redundant after awhile. Emphasis is rightly placed on crossing the Red Sea instead, and the destruction of Pharaoh’s pursuing army—though in this version, Pharaoh lives to return to Egypt and tell Nefritiri that Moses prevailed. But for dramatic effect, I think this was the right choice.

Considering how much film sensibilities have changed over the decades, I was surprised that this one held up as well as I thought it did. I didn’t exactly get sucked into the story, which is usually a prerequisite for me to really enjoy a film, but I was engaged enough, particularly because I knew the story well. You might think this makes it less interesting, but in a way, retellings hold my interest sometimes better than an original, because I can both anticipate where it’s headed, and also delight in how my expectations are uniquely fulfilled (or subverted). Interesting that the film is called “The Ten Commandments,” though, since that event feels almost like an afterthought at the end. But I guess the title “Exodus” was already taken. 

****1/2

Frank’s Review:

As a spiritual guy myself, I hesitate to heckle such a bonified epic as Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, but one thing I believe is that God has a sense of humor, and while He created the world in seven days, it may also have taken him that long to sit through the movie.  We got through it in two consecutive nights, which is a major feat for Lauren, given that we’re working with about one hour of screen time per commandment.  Actually, it’s not that bad at 3 hrs 40 minutes (IF you go with the theatrical version…make it an even 4 for the director’s cut) but given that the “extra-biblical” recounting of the major events of Moses’ life play more like soap opera than stoic history, we could have done with less fabricated stuffing, and more scriptural meat and potatoes.  But, if you’re a fan of oily chest hair, fake beards glistening in glorious technicolor and lots of slaves pulling ridiculously heavy objects over long distances, this is your sand saga!  Moses spends the first half of the film loyally serving Pharaoh, questioning his own purpose, and killing time in the desert, but once Moses leaves the infamous burning bush with his own fire lit, sporting a “post God-encounter white fro,” the show really takes off.  Then it’s all plagues and snakes and finger pointing fun! 

And what can one say about the committed performance of Charleton Heston?  To his credit, this may be one of his only films in which he doesn’t flagrantly overact, bestowing a vital gravitas on Moses’s struggles with the fantastic weight of what God is calling him to do.   His decision to almost underplay Moses gives him a relatable, everyman feel, and grounds the outlandish proceedings unfolding all around him.  Heston is able to convey a humility that belies his rough exterior, and damn does he get dirty.  So much so that Amazon felt the need to warn viewers upfront of the movie’s violence, adult themes, and… “brownface,” provoking my biggest laugh of all.  Self-appointed virtue signalers seemingly found a way to slap a religious film merely for not denigrating the source material, shining their accusing light on stuff nobody ever questioned, but surely would have been offended by if pointed out.  Thanks to our enlightened cultural guardians for that service!  BTW…if you enjoyed all the brownface in Ten Commandments, you’ll absolutely love Heston as a Mexican cop in Touch of Evil.  At least DeMille didn’t touch Vincent Price, who as the nefarious “Baka,” remains white as ever. 

Although the titular ten commandments don’t make their cameo until late in the film, their impending transport across the parted red sea at the head of leagues of Jews fleeing Pharaoh’s pursuing troops is one of cinema’s greatest spectacles!  For 1956, the Oscar winning rear projection and blue screen effects still hold up, and are truly miraculous to behold.  There is little more satisfying than seeing an entire army of Egyptian slavemasters crushed by water, and their proud leader having to retreat and explain to his prima donna wife how they got away.  Despite the film’s historical liberties, there are still many lessons that convey: God’s faithfulness, his faithful’s inevitable persecution, how quickly we ignore and/or forget God’s blessings, and the power in trusting God, even though we all don’t get signs as blatant as Moses did.  But, the real reason to watch this film is for the pure spectacle of it all, which was crafted with sincere, painstaking detail and a most genuine reverence to the great I AM.   

****  

Meal Pairing: roasted lamb chops with bitter herbs, roasted potatoes and flat bread.

Coming 2 America (2021)

Reviewed: 03/26/2021

Combined Rating: 2.5/5

Lauren’s Review:

I’m told I would have appreciated this film far more, had I seen its prequel—but I was also told that the prequel was “hilarious yet vulgar,” so I’m glad I skipped it. This one was sweet family entertainment, which I understand is because Eddie Murphy has refused, in the last 20 years or so, to make any films that he doesn’t want his kids to watch. Good for him. The story has a bit of a “Princess Bride” feel to me, in the sense that it’s intentionally stereotypical, in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way.

King Akeem (Murphy) of the fictional nation of Zamunda unfortunately has no sons to succeed him—only three daughters. His patriarchal society insists that a son succeed him to the throne, so even though his eldest daughter Meeka (KiKi Layne) seems like a perfect queen (and she’s incidentally also trained in martial arts—of course she is), Akeem is in negotiations with the leader of Nexdoria (haha) to wed his daughter to General Izzi’s (Wesley Snipes) son. But then Akeem learns that before he met his queen, Lisa (Shari Headley), an uncouth American woman (Leslie Jones) got him drunk and seduced him, producing an illegitimate son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler). Cue the fish-out-of-water sequence: after a very brief trip back to America to meet his son, Akeem brings him and Mary back to Zamunda, where his family is forced to deal with with its newest members. Lavelle, very much a boy from the Bronx, tries to learn to be a king, and General Izzi introduces his beautiful and submissive daughter to marry Lavelle—but unfortunately, Lavelle falls for his royal groomer, Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha) instead. This of course sets up a scandal of impropriety—a future king cannot marry a royal groomer! But, you can see a mile away where this is going: we have a boy who’s pretending to be something he’s not, a setup for star-crossed true love, and a perfect heir who just happens to belong to the wrong gender. All the pieces are there.

I don’t know that I’d say the film is hilarious, as it was supposed to be, so much as “cute.” It’s a feel-good happily-ever-after story with an all-star cast (also including Arsenio Hall, James Earl Jones, Morgan Freeman, and performances by 90s R&B bands). I don’t know that I’d watch it again, but I enjoyed it the first time.

***

Frank’s Review:

While I consider Coming to America (1988) ‘80’s comedy royalty for its edgy yet universal appeal, its sequel must be henceforth coronated a Prince of futility…a vapid retread lazily designed to recapture lightning in a bottle without the benefit of a coinciding culture sympathetic to the attitude that made the first film work. The soul (and the “Soul Glo”) of the original film has been flushed away with the risk, and what is substituted in its place feels stale and encumbered, even though it is ostensibly the same well-aged actors going through the motions in the same stunningly duplicated settings. Inevitably sits twenty-first century me waiting for the funny in a vacuum where it cannot likely exist. I found myself at times arbitrarily “trying” to laugh, out of sheer reverence for the first movie…a sad and curious spectacle that speaks more to my desire to “belong” than merely react. God, I miss the ‘80’s.

The edginess of the original film emerged from a reverence for political incorrectness…a lost phrase that, when employed by good-natured and endearing characters, had a way of bringing us together by humorously accentuating our differences. What a strange phenomenon that inspired mid-western white kids to don “Randy Watson/Sexual Chocolate” T-shirts without a hint of mockery. He was just that cool….and damn, that boy can sing! Well, ok, maybe a tiny hint. Sadly, those shirts must now be confined to the drawer of sentiment. This updated and repackaged product, alternatively, epitomizes the failure that occurs from trying to please a moment, rather than actual fans. For a white dude telling an original story about black folks in 1988, Director John Landis either took calculated risks, or just didn’t care. I could argue both. But he understood that he was operating within a decade that responded to humor driven by organic, culturally specific urges, not imposed ones, for better or worse. Grace was given by all, accordingly.

The problem with Coming 2 America ’20 is that the filmmakers cared too much…about playing it safe. Why even take comedic risks when modern “woke” audiences so compliantly lack forgiveness? Many of the bits are so tailored to please only that subset. One guaranteed stamp is the insertion a token white yuppie who, of course, is cringe-inducingly racist. Forget the story…it’s just your typical “geez dad, times have changed” lesson, inevitably set up to remind us how passe the decade of the original film really was. Too many of the jokes are lazy shout-outs to pop-culture, and what few politically incorrect jokes there are, are set up to convict the delivering party for their indiscretion. Instead of laughing with them, we’re meant to not like them, or feel sorry for them. So, why do we even care about the next-gen Zamundans at all, then? Even the once great Eddie Murphy seems constrained by societal change, a victim of “progress.” It’s hard to tell if subdued, plastic-smiled Murphy came back for the love of the character, or the cash dangled by Amazon. And as for conflict, hell, Darryl from the original was much more pompously menacing than General Izzi, who is easily bested by a teenaged girl. After 33 years and the flagrant exclusion of those of us who love the original, the one nod we get is the admission that American cinema “is stuffed with superhero movies, remakes, and sequels that no one asked for.” This was the only line I genuinely laughed at because It rang true. It was, perhaps, a white flag to the lamentably constraining influences of the day.

**

Meal Pairing: A Big Mick with cheese in a seedless bun, an Egg McStuffin, and a large oreo McFlurby. If there is no McDowell’s nearby, sub in corresponding items from McDonalds.

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Reviewed: 2/7/21

Combined Rating: 2.75/5

Lauren’s Review:

I was primed to love this film, as it was the first musical I ever performed in as a freshman in high school (I was a chorus girl.) I didn’t know until then that I loved musicals—and while this one is brimful of 50s cheese, I can’t help but love it, even if only for nostalgia. But I was actually surprised at how much I enjoyed the show for its own sake (with the exception of nearly every scene in which Miss Adelaide, played by Vivian Blaine, appears. She was too much, even for me.) My high school recollection of the plot was that it revolved around gambling, with one chaotic dance scene that took place in Havana. This was true, but the story wasn’t exactly about gambling—that was more just its context. The story is really your typical opposites-attract love story, between high rolling sinner Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) and straight-laced Mission girl Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons). Simmons’s Brown was believable and well done, but Brando really stole the show. That guy could have had chemistry with a post. 

The story begins when local gambler Nathan Detroit (Frank Sinatra) needs a location for his floating crap game, which changes locations nightly so as to avoid the police. He finds one, but he has to pay $1000 to rent the space, and he doesn’t have the money. Sky happens to be in town—called “Sky” because that’s how high he bets. Nathan sees his opportunity, but has to come up with a $1000 bet he can convince Sky to make, which Sky is guaranteed to lose. Sky claims offhand that he can win any “doll” he wants, and Nathan demands to know if he’ll bet on it. Sky agrees, and Nathan of course names the prudish Sarah Brown. The rest of the film involves Sky’s initial attempts to woo her through deception… but of course in the process, they really fall for each other. Meanwhile there’s the side plot of Nathan and his longtime fiancee Adelaide, whom he refuses to actually marry. Adelaide works as a performer at the Hot Box, which is probably the equivalent of a strip joint in the 50s. She’s your quintessential bimbo, complete with a grating voice and cringe-inducing numbers.

My biggest problem with the film was really the rushed ending, which didn’t correspond at all to the stage version. If they’d just cut out a bunch of Adelaide’s irrelevant numbers, they could have included the scenes resolving the conflict between Sky and Sarah, and also between Nathan and Adelaide. As it was, the film cuts from climax to a sudden double wedding, with no falling action connecting the two. My other objection is the very secondary role of Frank Sinatra. While I think Brando’s casting as Sky was brilliant, he got all the best songs, which was just a shame. Brando can carry a tune well enough, but when Sinatra is in the film, Sinatra should be singing the songs. All the songs.

*** 1/2

Frank’s Review:

I know what you’re thinking…why am I reviewing a musical? Don’t I have a street reputation to protect? Well, call it sad, call it funny, but it’s better than even money that this guy’s only doing it for some doll. That’s the nature of our tit for tat schtick. At least my other half dropped a Sinatra/Brando bomb on me, which is always ostensibly welcomed, even if the two leads should have switched parts for maximum impact. Still, the only way I’m getting through a 2 ½ hour musical is if Sinatra (Nathan Detroit) sings at least 25% of it…which is about what we get here. But, it’s Marlon Brando (Sky Masterson) who gets the pivotal, story-advancing songs, to the extent that there is something justifiably advanceable. To be fair to a young, and game, Brando, what he lacks in vocal prowess he makes up for in sheer charisma However, he is ALSO topped in THAT category by Ol’ Blue Eyes. It was, then, a strange decision to relegate Frankie to necessary filler status, when he should have dramatically driven it. My guess is that Brando was the hotter property at the time of production and was considered a hipper and more romantic temptation for 1955 audiences. Had crooning lusciously not been Frank’s forte, giving him the supporting role would have made perfect sense. Instead, what we’re left with is an overlong, novelty role-swap experiment that flagrantly misappropriates talent.

The story features a soiree of man-boys extolling their commitment problems and the women who inevitably crave their attention(s) anyway. These gambling gangsters are constantly in each other’s debt and like to randomly sing about it. They endearingly cheat and weasel their way out of unnecessary relationships but are always craving rejuvenation in new “action.” The emerging plot hinges on whether Nathan Detroit can win a $1000 bet with Sky Masterson that Sky can’t get an uptight church girl (Jean Simmons) to go to Cuba for a date, which Sky all too easily does. After a couple of adult beverages at a seedy bar in Havana, uptight church girl learns she enjoys street fights and spontaneous danger AKA the very life of the immature gangster who just conned her. Aren’t these two a surprisingly perfect pair after all, especially when Masterson, out of guilt, never collects on the bet he technically won? I can’t tell if the movie is arguing church girls are too uptight and naïve, or that one can win in life by being a good talker with natural charisma, regardless of the object. More likely yet is that they’re not arguing anything, but it’s safe to say that by the end of the film, Masterson has probably not converted to Christianity.

Either way, too many interruptions in the story’s progress caused me not to care. The filmmakers kept handing random numbers to Miss Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), Detroit’s constantly beguiled mistress, as a seeming consolation prize for her patience while enduring failed attempts to marry Sinatra’s galavanting, apathetic ass. This is literally all she seems to want in life. By the time we get round to the climactic, double wedding payoff that plays more like an afterthought, you know these are inadvisable pairings that will shortly fizzle in their off-screen near-futures. But oh, for those staged magical moments! Ironically, Blaine was the only actor in the film who also played the role on Broadway, but she gives by far the most cloying performance. Her constant whining makes each cut back to her episodic plight more annoying than the last. The tendency to sacrifice plot advancement for featured numbers in many of these types of films exactly explains why so many are misses that often require an epic ordeal to trudge through. One needs to advance the plot by so many points per segment or risk losing those who came for more than sheer love of watching people sing their emotions, when speaking is, apparently, too inefficient to convey them. What I can’t wrap my mind around is why producers of most musicals believed what folks cared most about was the music itself, unless, of course, they were merely trying to sell soundtracks on vinyl.

**

Meal Pairing: New York style pastrami on rye, some baked pretzels smothered in spicy mustard, and an Italian ice, followed up with a slice of Grimaldi’s cheesecake (if you live in a town with a Grimaldis. If not, move to one asap.).

Coraline (2009)

Reviewed: 10/31/2020

Combined Rating: 2/5

Lauren’s Review:

This was my pick, but because Halloween is Frank’s favorite holiday, the entire month is pretty much devoted to Halloween-themed films. That was my restriction. I chose this one when I saw that a) it was animated (therefore it wasn’t likely to be terribly scary, right?), and b) it was about crossing over into an alternate dimension, which seemed different. Not your usual type of Halloween story. I should have thought better of it when I realized that it was based on a book by Neil Gaiman—he’s brilliant, but I don’t read his work anymore because he’s very dark. There are some scenes from his books that are now permanently etched in my imagination; I can’t un-read them, though I wish I could. But “Coraline” was a kid’s film; how creepy could it be? Be forewarned: very. In my opinion, not a kid’s film at all. It was barely even a “me” film. 

Coraline’s family moves into an old leaky house in the middle of nowhere. She’s an only child and her parents are busy with work, and just want her to leave them alone. She’s dissatisfied with her life, and runs into a quirky, awkward neighbor boy whose mannerisms remind me intensely of Eddie Redmayne in nearly every one of his performances. The boy’s grandmother told him that Coraline’s house is cursed. Then she discovers a doll that looks exactly like her, except it has buttons for eyes. (Mimicry, dolls, and eye manipulation put creepy factor around 3/10 at this point.) At night she finds a portal into an alternate universe in which her parents are everything she could ever hope for—except that there, they too have buttons for eyes. (Creepy factor now: 6/10). When Coraline goes back to her real world and finds all the same as ever, she longs for her alternate parents. They spring it on her that she can stay… but only if she,  too, swaps out her eyes for buttons. (Creepy factor now: 8/10). Soon her “other” mom sheds her mom-like exterior, and reveals her nefarious history: we find out that she’s done this to many other kids over the years. Spoiler alert: fake mom kidnaps Coraline’s real parents, and she has to strike a bargain to find the other kids’ lost eyes as well as her parents’ magical prison to free them. If she loses, fake mom will condemn her forever to her alternate reality. (Creepy factor now: 9+/10. Entering nightmare territory.)

Meanwhile, as the core storyline unwinds, a number of seemingly unrelated and relatively unimportant caricatures enter the story. One of them is an extremely buxom elderly woman who appears in an excessively skimpy string bikini, at which point I thought, yep, seems like a Gaiman novel—though why they decided to include that in a kid’s film, I have no idea. Then there were theatrical performances in which the entire audience consisted of rats… the whole thing just felt a little like the screenplay writers were on something. Yet the ratings for the film were fantastic. I cannot account for this, except to say that if the audience hoped to be disturbed, they were not disappointed. 

*

Frank’s Review:

Although I’ve largely moved on from animated films, every now and then my interest will be piqued by a new technique, or original story-line, that transcends the typically banal genre. Not only would Coraline be based on a Neil Gaiman novella, but it would feature painstaking stop-motion animation techniques (which I love), blended with computer aided design and 3D models to tell the story of a young girl who travels back and forth between her boring reality and a parallel, fantastical and sinister world that uncannily imitates it, designed to ensnare her. The final result was a gorgeous canvass of modern artistry that still felt old-school and reminiscent of a bygone era of craft animation.

Coraline, to its credit, is definitely not for kids…so much so that my wife and her mother were both rather freaked out by it. I just found it intriguingly weird. Many of the demented scenarios were visualized from the pages of Gaiman’s story by a director (Henry Selick) who undoubtedly worked closely with the author to translate his original vision. It was Gaiman who initially approached Selick to commit his story to the screen, after having seen what Selick did with A Nightmare Before Christmas, which has since become both a Halloween and Christmas classic. How many movies can claim that?

The message of the film has the potential to resonate well with more mature, yet self-centered children who may not always value or appreciate their well-intentioned, yet aloof, parents. Children have a tendency to take their parents for granted, not fully realizing what less desirable alternatives may exist. Through her experience, Coraline, with the help of her new friends, comes to realize her good fortune, culminating in her new found motivation to rescue her real parents from the evil “Beldam,” when the parallel universes uncomfortably collide. Coraline, despite its engrossing visuals, would have futilly wasted the talents of 450 animators if not for the enthralling climax and ultimate morality it successfully conveys. As such, the film will resonate in a way so many other modern cartoon-films do not…stuffing quasi-adult themes into intentionally misleading packaging that will catch viewers, and more importantly, children growing up too fast, by surprise.

***

Meal pairing: Beef stew with carrots, celery, and Yukon gold potatoes, and a mug of Oktoberfest 

Legend (1985)

Reviewed: 10/10/2020

Combined Rating: 2.25/5

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

**

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

** ½ 

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

Footloose (1984)

Footloose

Reviewed: 8/15/20

Combined Rating: 2.25/5

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

*

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

*** 1/2

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

The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

ManintheIronMask

Reviewed: 07/28/2020

Combined Rating: 3/5

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

****

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

**

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

 

Flash Gordon (1980)

81tXtRer8TL._AC_SL1500_

Reviewed: 6/15/2020

Combined Rating: 3.75/5

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

****

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

*** 1/2

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

 

 

Primer (2004)

Primer

Reviewed: 5/2/2020

Combined Rating: 1.75/5

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

* 1/2

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

**

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

 

The Departed (2006)

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

Combined Rating: 4.5/5

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

**** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

**** 1/2

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