film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Shop On Main Street (1965)

This film ended up somewhere very, very different from where I thought it was going to go, and left me a little punch-drunk.

Set in 1942, this is a story about the impact of the Third Reich’s “Aryanization” program on occupied Slovakia. Henpecked “Tóno” Brtko (Jozef Kroner) is a carpenter, but is no fan of the local fascist government and has had some unemployment issues. His wife Evelina (Hana Slivková) keeps nagging him to get a job on the crew building a fancy monument downtown, but that would force him to work for his brother in law Markuš (František Zvarík), who’s an officer for the government on top of being a generally smarmy jerk. But Evelina convinces her sister, Markuš’ wife, to pull some strings – and Markuš awards Tóno a job as the manager of the local sewing supply store. The current owner is a Jew, Markuš tells Tóno, and the Aryanization program has been confiscating all Jewish-owned businesses and transferring them to Slovaks.

But when Tóno heads to the shop to take over, he has a little trouble with the current owner – an elderly widow, Rozália Lautmannová (Ida Kamińska). Mrs. Lautmannová is very hard-of-hearing, and also a little fuzzy on reality – she knows nothing of the Aryanization programs, hasn’t heard a thing about the Third Reich, and keeps thinking that Tóno is a customer. Fortunately Imrich, a friend of Tóno’s, comes by while he is trying to explain things to Mrs. Lautmannová and steps in to help. Imrich Kuchár (Martin Hollý Sr.) quietly clues Tóno in that the shop is actually more a fantasy; the whole thing is being secretly funded by donations from the Jewish community to keep Mrs. Lautmannová comfortable in her old age. They stock it with just enough to serve the community’s needs and give her a modest pension, but the business isn’t profitable in the slightest. However, the town’s Jewish leaders have noticed Tóno might be sympathetic to their plight, and are offering to quietly pay him a weekly “salary” as well if he helps them keep up appearances. It seems like the best possible option, so Tóno agrees.

Most of the film deals with this arrangement, and the growing friendship between Tóno and Mrs. Lautmannová. She still doesn’t quite get what he’s doing there; she thinks he’s come to be her assistant, but he’s so inept that she demotes him to “repairman,” asking him to occasionally fix squeaky doors or errant shelves. Tóno also starts repairing all her own furniture as well, and in gratitude she gives him one of her deceased husband’s suits. They gossip over customers; they talk about the neighbor kids. She feeds him lunch every day. Evelina keeps nagging him to “find out where Mrs. Lautmannová is hiding her gold, because she’s a Jew and must have some”, so he quickly learns to hide the truth from her, spending more time just hanging out with Mrs. Lautmannová instead. But all the while, the noose is slowly tightening around the town’s Jews – until the day Tóno goes to collect his secret weekly salary and is told that the authorities are preparing to gather up all the Jews in town on the following morning and “send them off somewhere in boxcars”. Even worse – Imrich is arrested for being a Jewish sympathizer, with Markuš making a public show of him and warning that any other such sympathizers will meet a dire fate. Tóno rushes back to the store to warn Mrs. Lautmannová and urge her to escape or hide or something – but an uncomprehending Mrs. Lautmannová thinks he’s having a fight with his wife and makes up the guest bedroom for him. Tóno reluctantly agrees – the roundup will be taking place in the town square, just across the street from her shop, and he figures he can keep an eye on her that way and figure out what to do when the time comes.

And….that’s when the film turns. I won’t say that much about it; but the half hour “roundup sequence”, in which Tóno panics over “what to do about Mrs. Lautmannová”, was a complete sea change from how the rest of the film was going, and was in turns heartbreaking, harrowing, shocking, and frustrating. I was anticipating some kind of “escape plan” getting cooked up at the last minute – something hare-brained and loopy involving a makeshift costume, or something heroic and adventurous; but you do not get that at all. Instead you get something far more chaotic as Tóno changes his mind – and, sadly, his loyalty – back and forth again and again, for a harrowing half hour.

It’s easy for people today to speculate about “what I would have done to fight Nazis” – usually claiming that why, of course they would have hidden people in their closet or helped them flee town or suchlike. So all those people who just turned away and let it happen – they must have been Bad People! …But until such a thing is literally happening outside your window, you can’t know what you’d really do – and what you’d really do, or at least consider doing, might be morally questionable. This film ultimately felt like a reminder that this ambiguity is very human – and tragic.

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Best Picture 2023 Extra Credit – Part 1

I was going to wait until I had seen a second film so I could do two films in one post, but you know what, I can’t wait. Because I love every last thing about this film.

I love the film itself – the completely bonkers imagery, the off-the-wall humor, the completely original ideas – and how the zaniness then gives way to a serious, poignant, and profound message about human connection. I love how the cast and crew all seem to have taken the film’s message of kindness and community to heart. I especially love how it’s given nearly everyone involved a shot at critical recognition – in some cases, recognition that has long been overdue.

Trying to explain this film makes you sound slightly insane, or at least highly caffeinated. Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, a bored and frustrated Chinese woman running a laundromat in the US with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Things aren’t going well – her disapproving father (James Hong) is visiting, Joy recently came out as a lesbian and Evelyn’s still not used to that, and they’re being audited by the IRS. But then, while the IRS agent is in the middle of grilling them over their expenses (Jamie Lee Curtis plays the agent, who has the delightful name “Deirdre Beaubeirdre”), Waymond suddenly pulls her into a closet (or seems to) and gives her some shocking news – he’s actually a version of Waymond from a parallel universe temporarily taking this Waymond over to ask her help. There are a number of such parallel universes, he says, and in one of them, an alternate version of Joy has created a sort of black hole that threatens to destroy the entire multiverse. And he has determined that this universe’s version of Evelyn is best qualified to stop her, by tapping into the skills and abilities of each of the other Evelyns scattered throughout the myriad parallel universes – even the ones where she’s a rock.

That’s all just in the first ten minutes. And the two hours following are completely bonkers – Waymond fights off a team of security guards using a fanny pack as a lariat, Evelyn learns that the “black hole” the alternate Joy made started out as a literal “everything bagel”, there’s a martial-arts fight involving butt plugs, Randy Newman has a cameo as a talking raccoon, there’s a universe where humans developed to have hot dogs for fingers. It’s thoroughly ridiculous, and directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert expertly walk the tricky tightrope between explaining things just enough for you to follow along, but not too much that you get bogged down in detail; the details they throw into each scene are exactly spot-on. (There is a very brief flashback sequence showing how the “hot dog finger” universe developed; I already loved the fact that it was a clear 2001 Space Odyssey homage, but what really won me over was the music: some guys playing “Thus Sprach Zarathrusta” on kazoos.)

And then The Daniels (as they call themselves) go on to add something even more to the film – an enormous, warm heart. Alternate-universe Joy reveals she’s just about as unhappy as her own Joy, and her “everything bagel” may be rooted in a self-hating nihilism. If everything is possible in every universe, then nothing matters, right? But then alternate-universe Waymond offers a counter-argument – even if it were true that nothing matters on a grand scale, finding joy and spreading kindness would still work on a smaller scale. So why not be kind? It was that message that prompted me to recommend this to my mother, who usually isn’t one for sci-fi, martial arts, or super-complex narratives; I hedged my bets by giving her a very brief explanation of modal realism as well. I was expecting to watch this with my parents while visiting over Thanksgiving – so I could pause to explain things when necessary – only to find that my explanation had fascinated Mom so much that she gave it a go, and loved it just as much, and for all the same reasons.

One of the biggest reasons this works – and one of the best choices The Daniels made – was in the casting, especially for Waymond. Prior to this, Ke Huy Quan was best known as a child actor in the 1980s, playing “Short Round” in the Temple Of Doom Indiana Jones film and “Data” in The Goonies. But he aged out of being a child actor at a time when roles for Asian actors were very thin on the ground, and ultimately he got sick of the lack of options and quit acting for nearly 30 years. In 2018, the success of Crazy Rich Asians gave him hope that Hollywood had changed a bit, and decided to give his childhood dream another go – and only two weeks after he got an agent, The Daniels invited him to audition for Waymond. Dan Kwan later said that he was the first and only person they read for the part – realizing instantly that “he is Waymond. He’s a sweetheart who is just full of joy, who just wants to play, who just wants to welcome you into that energy.” Some of the sweetest viral videos you can find these days are clips of Quan gushing over his change of fortune – in interviews on the late-night talk show circuit, in “roundtable chats” with other notable actors, and most recently, in the flood of acceptance speeches he’s been making. And while he has occasionally been candid about how he was disappointed at having to put things on pause, he has been far and away more grateful that he is finally being acknowledged again, and celebrating former colleagues as well (this photo of his reunion with Harrison Ford at a fan convention is one of the sweetest things you will ever see).

Everyone in the film world seems to be rallying behind Quan; but even better is, that’s not the only case of the Everything Everywhere cast celebrating one of its own. Several people have shared this photo of Jamie Lee Curtis whooping in delight when Michelle Yeoh won a Golden Globe for Best Actress. And reportedly, the cast and crew all got on a group video chat to watch yesterday’s Oscar nominations; Quan later said that each time someone in their squad was nominated, everyone jumped and cheered. Which must have been a lot of cheering, since this film leads the pack with eleven nominations. Every main actor received a nomination, and for every actor, it is a career-first nomination. It’s also up for best picture, best director, costume design, editing, original song, original score and original screenplay. And honestly, I hope I’m living in the universe where they sweep everything.

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Best Picture 2023 Extra Credit: Syllabus

And it is Oscar Season. And – that means it’s time for my Extra-Credit viewing of the Best Picture Nominees.

I am slightly less enthusiastic about it this year, since there are two films on this list which I was not even remotely interested in seeing otherwise; and one of them I may actively hate (it’s a sequel, I hated the original).

So those films are:

  • All Quiet on the Western Front  
  • Avatar: The Way of Water
  • The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Elvis
  • Everything Everywhere All at Once 
  • The Fabelmans 
  • Tár
  • Top Gun: Maverick 
  • Triangle of Sadness
  • Women Talking

One of these I’ve already seen and I love. A handful of the others I’ve been planning to see anyway.

But Avatar….

(sigh)

Y’all, I hated Avatar when I saw it. HATED IT. Yeah sure okay the visuals were fantastic, but it was the stupidest damn story and that made me want to spit tacks. And several of the reviews for Way of Water I’ve seen….say that it’s basically the same damn story.

I may skip it on general principle.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

David Lean once again excells with his cinematography and music choices for this adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel; and once again, I’m a bit lukewarm about the story itself.

The “Doctor Zhivago” of the title is Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), born in the Ural Mountains but orphaned as a child and taken in by a Moscow family. He grows up to be a doctor, writing poetry in his spare time, and marries his adoptive sister Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). Elsewhere in Moscow, a young woman named Lara (Julie Christie) catches the eye of her mother’s lover, Victor Komarosky (Rod Steiger), who date-rapes her one night after a ball. Her mother attempts suicide when she finds out, and Komarosky calls on his own doctor to discreetly handle the situation. Coincidentally, Zhivago is his assistant, and Lara catches his eye there as well. But Lara really catches his attention when she later turns up at a Christmas party and shoots Komarosky. Komarosky refuses to press charges, Zhivago patches him up, and someone finds Lara’s boyfriend Pasha (Tom Courtenay) and urges him to marry Lara and get her out of town.

But this isn’t just a soap-y plot – this is all happening just before the First World War, at a time when Bolshevik sentiment is also causing trouble within Russia itself. And soon both the War and the Bolshevik Revolution throw even bigger wrenches into our characters’ lives. Pasha enlists and goes missing in action; Zhivago is drafted into service as a field doctor. Lara volunteers as a nurse to try to find Pasha, and is assigned to work with Zhivago; and while sparks fly for them then, they behave themselves, each returning to their separate homes after the war. Only Zhivago’s palatial home has been taken over by the Soviet government and turned into a block of apartments, and the Soviets have been throwing shade at Zhivago’s poems. He soon sneaks out with his family to his father-in-law’s country home in the Urals – just outside the town where Lara coincidentally now lives. This time the pair finally become lovers – except just when Zhivago realizes he needs to decide between Tonya and Lara, he’s kidnapped by a band of Communist soldiers and press-ganged into their ranks for another two years. When he finally escapes and starts heading home, he has an interesting choice – which “home”? Tonya, or Lara?

When the film came out, several critics grumbled that the film markedly diminished the importance of the Russian Revolution and the resulting political fallout. I’m inclined to agree – Zhivago seems to be able to escape Moscow awfully easily, and we get little to no clarification of who the two warring parties are in the Bolshevik Revolution; we just know that there’s the “Red Soviets” and the “White Russians”, but other than that all we know is that they’re making Zhivago sad and complicating things with him and Lara. I was also frustrated by a character played by Alec Guinness; he claims in the film that he is Zhivago’s half-brother Yevgraf, and helps get them out of Moscow at one point, but…mostly he seems to be a convenient plot device and that’s it. I learned nothing about how he was Zhivago’s half-brother, which bothered me greatly for some reason. Pasternak’s book includes more of Zhivago’s thinking about the political foment, but the overwhelming focus of the film is on the Tragic Doomed Romance between Zhivago and Lara, and giving everything else short shrift got me lost a few times.

Fortunately there’s pretty stuff to look at – the grey of a mine shaft punctuated by a Soviet Red Star, Zhivago’s in-law’s abandoned mansion frozen over into a fairytale ice palace, a rare happy moment where Zhivago contentedly looks out at the country field surrounding the house where he and Tonya live to see it covered in newly-blooming daffodills. There’s also the occasional moment of unexpected comedy – early in the film, Yevgraf is talking to a young woman he suspects may be Yuri Zhivago’s daughter with Lara, who went missing as a child. But when he asks her what her mother’s name was, she says “Mummy”, and when he asks what she looked like, she says only, “She….was big?”

I think it really depends what you’re looking for when you go into this. If you’re looking for a complex analysis of a character struggling to find a place for himself and his family between a pair of warring political ideologies, you may not find that here; but if you’re looking for a swoony romantic epic, you’ve definitely got that.

Director's Cut, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Okay, it’s The Beatles. Playing themselves. What’s not to love?

Made at the height of “Beatlemania”, this comedy is a fictional take on “what being a Beatle is like”, following John/Paul/George/Ringo as they dodge screaming fans and then rehearse for and perform on a British TV program before being whisked away to their next performance. Norman Rossington plays “Norm”, standing in for Brian Epstein as the Beatles’ manager, and John Junkin is “Shake”, their hapless road manager. Rounding out the main cast is comedian Wilfrid Brambell as “John McCartney”, Paul’s cantankerous (and fictional) grandfather.

The film tries to get some ongoing plot threads up and running. Grandpa McCartney is a bit of a troublemaker, and Paul is insistent that everyone take a turn “minding” him – but he’s always able to make his escape. The Beatles’ anarchic sensibility and haphazard sense of timing causes the TV show’s director (Vincent Spinetti) frequent headaches. And every so often Norm tries lecturing John about keeping the rest of the band under control; something that baffled me, since everyone in the band seemed to be acting up and it felt like a weirdly forced note. But otherwise the film is just an excuse to let The Beatles jump between singing some of their biggest hits and indulging in surrealist or satiric comedy sketches – Paul flirting with girls on a train, John enacting naval battles in a bathtub, George getting cornered by an ad executive, Ringo sneaking out to play hooky and bonding with some schoolkids on a similar adventure.

And fortunately, the creative team behind the film realized this was likely the best approach. Director Richard Lester was hand-picked by the band themselves; John in particular was a huge fan of Lester’s film Running Jumping Standing Still, a surrealist short he’d made with Peter Sellers. They similarly were fans of screenwriter Alun Owen – Owen’s 1959 play No Trains To Lime Street was set in Liverpool, and they felt he captured their hometown right. But Owen won them over even more by spending a few days just hanging around with them and shooting the breeze; some of the things they told him during their talks actually made it into the script, like when Grandpa McCartney complains that his trip with grandson Paul thus far has just been “a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room” – something Paul said the band’s typical tours felt like. Owen also used quips and jokes from actual Beatles press conferences for a similar scene in the film.

The admiration became mutual. Owen was a little more sympathetic, writing something that depicted the band as near prisoners to the machine of fame they’d been thrust into, while Lester came to appreciate their confidence and irreverence; they were unafraid of toppling some of Britain’s older institutions. “[Everything was] still based on privilege,” he recalled later; “privilege by schooling, privilege by birth, privilege by accent, privilege by speech. The Beatles were the first people to attack this… they said if you want something, do it. […] Forget all this talk about talent or ability or money or speech. Just do it.” Lester was also quick to come to the Beatles’ defense when a United Artists executive asked that The Beatles’ dialogue be dubbed in more “proper” English accents before the film was released stateside, sharing McCartney’s angry retort with them – “if we can understand a fucking cowboy talking Texan, they can understand us talking Liverpool!”

So basically this felt like a mind-meld of Monty Python with a Beatles concert. And that’s a poignant note for this Beatles fan…For yes, I am one. Like many in my generation, I first learned of them as a child, starting with their later works; my father owned most of their albums, and for reasons I’m unable to ascertain, he always selected Abbey Road as the dinner music when we enjoyed special family meals. (I’m probably the only person alive to associate the song Come Together with steak and potatoes.) One of the few albums he didn’t have was Let It Be, but that was okay – our neighbors across the street had it, and they had a better stereo anyway. The Yellow Submarine movie turned up as a TV movie when I was about eleven and caused a mild craze for me and my friends.

But I also shared a birthday with George Harrison, and so throughout my childhood my birthdays often began with hearing the local radio station play Here Comes the Sun in his honor. My church also used his song My Sweet Lord as a hymn once or twice (albeit with some lyrical editing). I followed his solo career as well, and read up more on George the man as I got older, learning more about his friendship and rivalry with the others. When I learned about his fondness for Monty Python, I started to see him as a kindred spirit.

Then I read a bit about why he was a Monty Python fan. Sometime during the band’s tense final days, George went home one night brooding about how it looked like The Beatles were soon going to dissolve. He turned on some television to distract himself…and found himself watching the very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He later said it felt like The Beatles’ old spirit of fun and silliness and irreverence had somehow been transferred to the Pythons, and he was tremendously comforted; that spirit was still in the world somewhere. George watched Monty Python constantly, later saying that it “kept him sane” during the Beatles’ breakup, and later befriended many of the Python members. Since the Python members had themselves been inspired by Lester’s work, this isn’t too surprising; but George took so much comfort from that, he felt compelled to return the favor. (But that’s a story best left for when we get to the Python’s own films.)

But this film is a glimpse at that spirit of fun back when it was living with The Beatles. And again – what’s not to love?

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Before The Revolution (1964)

Somehow I feel like this was a perfect film for that weird week that comes between Christmas and New Year’s. It’s a liminal sort of week where there’s no plan and things just sort of meander; a meme I’ve seen discusses how for most of December you’re feeling “festive”, and then in January you’re feeling you indulged a bit much; but for that one week, you’re “confused, full of cheese, and unsure of the day of the week”. There were a lot of good elements to this film, but somehow they didn’t gel, leaving me confused and unsure what I felt.

Fabrizio (Francesco Barilli) is a young man in Parma, Italy in the 1960s; he’s from a mundane middle-class family, but has been spending a lot of time with Cesare (Morando Morandini), a teacher who’s turned him on to the Communist Party. And Fabrizio’s twenty-something zeal gloms onto that to the point that he’s considering renouncing his parents and his entire way of life up to that point – or, at least, that’s what he tells his best friend Agostino (Allen Midgette) one afternoon. Agostino seems to be troubled himself, but Fabrizio is too caught up in his Grand Life Plan to notice….so he’s taken by surprise when Agostino later drowns himself.

The shock knocks Fabrizio for a loop – which his mother sees as the perfect excuse to Get Fabrizio Some Help. She invites her sister Gina (Adriana Asti) for a visit; Gina is a good deal younger, closer to Fabrizio’s age, and Fabrizio’s parents think that she might be able to get through to him and sort him out. But Gina’s having a hard enough time keeping her own self sorted out. And so, instead of Gina giving Fabrizio some familial advice, the pair start hooking up. It does get Fabrizio’s mind off politics….however, that’s only because now he’s obsessed with Gina. He makes a half-hearted effort to turn her on to politics, introducing her to Cesare and encouraging her to join in their philosophical talk….and he gets jealous when Gina introduces him to an old boyfriend of hers, an older man she calls “Puck” (Cecrope Barilli). Fabrizio causes a scene at their meeting – but it’s unclear whether he’s scornful of Puck’s bourgeoise lifestyle or just jealous over Gina – and ultimately he’s left confused, full of conflicting ideas, and unsure what he believes any more.

So, I could tell that this film was trying to say a lot. And some of those things were indeed thought-provoking; good portions of the film suggest that Fabrizio’s idealism is misplaced and naive, but it’s not clear whether director Bernardo Bertolucci thinks this is a sad happenstance or just the natural way of things. (Although, there’s a late sequence at a Communist Party rally where two girls who are supposed to be handing out leaflets are more caught up in discussing Marilyn Monroe’s recent death, which suggests Bertolucci thinks the latter.) Gina’s situation is also left really frustratingly vague; there’s one scene in which she calls her therapist long-distance, and their emergency one-sided conversation suggests that Gina’s struggling with some fairly intense mental struggles. But – this is the only scene that alludes to that, and we never learn more other than she sometimes feels anxiety and can’t sleep. We never learn why. ….There’s also an uneasy moment right at the end when Gina fawns over Fabrizio’s younger brother in a bit of a creepy way (not that Gina and Fabrizio hooking up was all that fantastic, but at least both were adults).

So ultimately I wasn’t sure what to make of this. It was too good for me to write it off, but too unfocused for me to really sign on; and I simply couldn’t come to grips with it.