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.

 

 

Music and Lyrics (2007)

musicandlyrics._V1_

Reviewed: 6/1/2019

Combined Rating: 2.25/5

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

**

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

**1/2

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

 

Troy (2004)

Troy

Reviewed: 3/15/19

Combined Rating: 4/5

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

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

*** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

**** 1/2

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

 

JFK (1991)

JFK

Reviewed: 2/21/19

Combined Rating: 4.75/5

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

**** 1/2

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

****

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

 

 

Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

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Reviewed: 2/6/19

Combined Rating: 3/5

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

***

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

***

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