Free Guy (2021)

Reviewed: 9/21/21

Combined Rating: 3/5

Lauren’s Review:

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


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


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


****

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

**

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

The Karate Kid (1984)

Reviewed: 7/19/21

Combined Rating: 4/5

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

****

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

****

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

Ondine (2010)

Reviewed 7/7/21

Combined Rating: 4.25/5

Lauren’s Review:

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

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

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

**** 1/2

Frank’s Review:

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

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

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

****

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

Amadeus (1984)

Reviewed: 6/4/2021

Combined Rating: 4.5/5

Lauren’s Review:

It’s a tall order for a nearly three hour movie to hold my interest, but Amadeus managed it. While Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) is the title character, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) is really the star; he’s far more psychologically interesting than his nemesis, at least until the very end. Mozart, by contrast, seems almost one-dimensional. He’s the genius child who revels in his vast superiority over others with a sort of innocent spite—aware of the admiration he inspires, yet unaware that he simultaneously provokes hatred. He’s far too self-centered to understand this even if it were explained to him. But the viewer feels it all through Salieri’s eyes. Many decades after Mozart has died, his star nevertheless continues to rise; meanwhile, though Salieri lives on, no one remembers him. 

The story is told in frame: an elderly Salieri relates the history of his relationship to Mozart to a priest, alluding to his potential role in Mozart’s demise. Mozart is a child through and through: an irresponsible womanizing spendthrift with an “obscene laugh,” rendering him all the more obnoxious. But he’s brilliant. He draws the attention of Emperor Joseph II (Jeffrey Jones) even as a child. Though Salieri is considerably older than Mozart with a much larger body of work, it’s clear that there can be no competition between them. They’re in different leagues. As a younger man, Salieri had begged that God to make him a great composer, and he wrestles with his faith, feeling that God let him down by giving him the ability to recognize great talent but not to share in it. Eventually he abandons God altogether, and decides instead that in his hurt pride, he will devote himself to Mozart’s destruction. Since Mozart has a wife and child to provide for, but money flows through his fingers like water, it’s not hard for Salieri to find the weakness to use against him. We’re set up at the beginning of the film to expect that Salieri literally murdered his rival, though it’s not so straightforward as that. The means aren’t really the point; what matters is the outcome, and Salieri’s response to it afterwards. 

If I had to sum up the theme in a single word, it would be envy—rendered so much more sensual by the focus upon the two main characters’ music. We watched the Director’s Cut, and  though some of the long operatic sequences were probably unnecessarily indulgent, I actually thought they made the story richer. 

*****

Frank’s Review:

The title of this 1984 best picture winning biopic is misleading.  Despite a subsequent shout-out from Falco, the film is not really about genius composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (a whimsically eccentric whimsically eccentric Tom Hulce), nor is it really a biopic.  Instead, it paints an impactful portrait of a local artistic rivalry that comes to a head and (because it’s a European period piece) must end in tragedy.  But even more so, it is about how Mozart’s effortless and objectively superior composing spiritually torments his chief rival, Antonio Salieri (a brilliantly brooding F. Murray Abraham), who is court composer to Austrian Emperor Joseph II.  Narrated by old Salieri in obscurity, this is a 3-hour character study of young Salieri’s struggle between ego and perspective, and how a short-sighted triumph of the former ensured the exact opposite of what he hoped to achieve for his own legacy, and to the detriment of his personal sanity.  They might have justifiably called this film “Salieri,” but nobody knows who the hell Salieri is, so that would have been bad for business.  This is the exact ironic point the title makes.  

Mozart’s role in the story at hand, other than to regale us with a litany of his greatest hits, is to unwittingly rattle Salieri’s pride.  But while Salieri interprets “Wolfy’s” rise as a mysterious form of Godly torture, Mozart is single-mindedly focused on writing music to pay his own debts, without much thought to the competition.  He can’t help it if what he is cranking out is more memorable than Salieri’s best efforts.  Yes, Amadeus is arrogant and aloof, but he harbors no intentional ill will towards Salieri, which serves to enrage Salieri all-the-more because it emphasizes his own pettiness.  Stark is the contrast between Salieri’s destructive introspection and Mozart’s complete lack thereof.  Mozart’s own demons are palpable and pervasive, exposing the weakness by which he can be manipulated and ultimately destroyed, but it is Salieri’s ego that draws our ire, because it is devoid of the juvenile innocence that keeps Mozart out of his own head.  Both characters come off as sad and pathetic, but it is Salieri who is cursed with a long life alone with his thoughts, to reflect on what he has done, and occasionally purge it on dumbfounded priests. 

The most moving moments of the film arrive in interludes depicting Salieri, as a lover of good art first, secretly attending Mozart’s concerts, even as he works to end Mozart’s career.  Just the look on Salieri’s face as he peers, or maybe leers at the production from behind red satin curtains imparts both admiration for, and hatred of, the man’s abilities to create unique works that do not follow the rigid artistic rules of the day.  Emperor Joseph (played by Jeffrey Jones) is won over by Mozart’s passion and is inspired to employ a flexibility that principal Ed Rooney would scoff at.  But when professional sabotage relegates much of Mozart’s music to “popular venues,” of the peasant class, it is just this turn of events that cause his catalog to take hold and survive down the centuries.  As we witness Mozart’s shrouded body being tossed into a pauper’s grave, we marvel, alongside the jealous Salieri, at the achievements he managed to mount in only 35 years of life, and are reminded not to take it personally when someone more talented than us infiltrates our sphere.  Because there will always be somebody more talented. 

****

Meal Pairing: Vienna Sausages, roasted potato wedges with butter and chives, and an apfelstrudel (Apple Strudel), with a nice French pinot noir

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 is, of course, 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.