film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

To Kill A Mockingbird (1962)

When producer Alan Pakula first proposed a film adaptation of Harper Lee’s masterpiece, studio executives asked him what story he was going to tell with it. “Have you read the book?” he asked them. They said yes. “Well, then you know the story,” he said. You likely know the story as well; it’s been assigned reading in United States classrooms for years.

Pakula was wise – when you are working with source material this good, the best approach is a minimal one. So this is a very faithful adaptation of Lee’s work – with the adult Jean “Scout” Finch recalling her Alabama childhood, back when she was six and then seven; when she (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Philip Alford) got into mischief alongside Dill (John Megna), the nephew of one of their neighbors. Most often the three would dare each other into spying on the creepy neighbor Boo Radley (Robert Duvall), a recluse about whom the kids had spun many a tall tale.

Meanwhile, Scout’s widowed father Atticus (Gregory Peck), the town lawyer, was caught up in a case defending Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), a black man accused of raping and beating poor (and white) Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox), even though the majority of the evidence points to Mayella’s father Bob (James Anderson) doing the beating part. Robinson is found guilty nevertheless, but Bob Ewell still feels slandered by Atticus’ case, and vows revenge – leading to a scary confrontation bringing both stories together.

The biggest difference between the book and the film is that some of the richness of the kids’ lore is missing. But with good reason – Lee simply wrote so much about their shared superstitions, conversations and thoughts that including it all would have made for an impossibly long film. Fortunately what is here is still rich enough, and the kids playing Scout, Jem and Dill are all perfect. Badham is particularly memorable as Scout, a spunky kid who’s just as likely to beat up a classmate for insulting her Pa as she is to snuggle with Atticus on the porch swing for a talk when she’s confused about what Bob Ewell was saying in court. She’s a tomboy, but she’s also fond of her daddy.

And with Atticus as her daddy it’s easy to see why. While at times he’s depicted a bit too rosily, Atticus is patient, fair-minded, nurturing, wise and even-tempered. This was Gregory Peck’s favorite role – reportedly he instantly said “yes” when offered the part – and the role for which he is best known, even today. Pakula, as well as several friends of Peck’s, have speculated that this is because Peck was playing himself; or, at least, an idealized version of himself.

I’m very familiar with both the book and the film, having seen and read them both before. And this time around some of the detail in the Tom Robinson subplot struck me afresh; there’s a moment when Atticus learns that Robinson was “shot while trying to escape” a police escort. I didn’t even remember that scene from earlier viewings, but this time, after years of seeing real-life instances of police brutalizing black men and women – Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Michael Brown, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others – I found myself distrusting the man who’d brought Atticus the news. Harper Lee may not have meant for me to suspect Robinson’s “accidental” shooting was staged, and some years ago I might not have.

But that’s part of the power of the film. It’s ultimately about Scout and Jem growing out of innocence and learning some of the harsher truths of the world; that their Pa wasn’t all-powerful, that sometimes people are unfairly treated, that some people are dangerous. But they also learn that sometimes the creepy neighbor is just shy or that sometimes doing the right thing when no one supports you is its own reward. And that sometimes there are no easy answers, and that growing up is a work in progress – both for a girl and for a country.

There’s a running gag about aspiring writers setting out to write “the Great American Novel”, but arguably I would say that Harper Lee already did, and this is the film made of it.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies, Now I Get It

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

There was a lot going on here, and ultimately I was fascinated by this film.

During the Korean War, Major Bennet Marco (Frank Sinatra) is in a platoon captured during a skirmish with Chinese forces; but three days later, he and his comrades return to their home base, with Marco stating that they were saved by squad leader Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), save for two men. Shaw deserves the Medal of Honor, Marco insists – for he is “the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.” The others in the squad say the same – and, oddly, they use those exact words. But Shaw is thus honored and the men all discharged from combat.

Marco is assigned to a position with Army Intelligence. But he seems to have been affected by his capture – for instance, he keeps having weird dreams about his platoon all sitting in on the stage in some kind of amphitheater, being discussed by a group of observers; at some point, he dreams Shaw is ordered to kill their two missing platoon members as everyone coldly watches. The spectators at this event are an odd bunch as well – sometimes he dreams they’re a ladies’ gardening club, but other times he dreams they’re a bunch of Russian and Chinese diplomats. Marco chalks it all up to shell shock – until he gets a letter from another fellow platoon member, claiming he’s having the very same dream. The coincidence is enough to prompt Army Intelligence to interview them both, showing both men photos of known Chinese and Russian spies. When both men recognize a couple as figures from their dream, the Army realizes they’re both actually flashing back to a brainwashing scheme – one which has set up Shaw as an assassin.

Marco agrees to cooperate with the continuing investigation. He first visits Shaw, who has since left the Army and become a reporter – against the wishes of his mother Eleanor (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather John Iselin (James Gregory). Iselin is best known for McCarthy-like anti-Communist stunts, but Eleanor is the real power figure in the couple, and the more liberal-minded Shaw wants nothing to do with either. But Eleanor seems to know an awful lot about exactly how Shaw was programmed and how to trigger his conditioning, and Marco races to discover how to deprogram his comrade and what Eleanor’s ultimate plan is, before it’s set in motion.

One of the things that struck me about this film is just how weird it got in places. Marco’s dream sequence starts out looking like that garden club, with Marco and Shaw and their comrades sitting impassively on a stage surrounded by women speaking intently about breeding hydrangeas. But after a couple minutes, suddenly we see the women have turned into a group of men, discussing mental conditioning. And then when Shaw is ordered to kill his first comrade – we cut back to the women’s club applauding politely. But then it’s the women talking about mental conditioning. And then the men about hydrangeas. And the whole time Marco and his comrades are sitting there looking bored, even when Shaw is choking one of them to death. It’s a lot to take in – but not so much that it would turn off anyone, and is instead exactly enough to provoke curiosity about just what the hey is going on.

Other similarly weird moments crop up throughout – particularly when Shaw has been “triggered”, including one moment when he’s set off accidentally and heads to Central Park for a swim.

Eleanor’s ultimate motivation is an intriguing mystery as well. For most of the film she comes across as a sort of 60s version of Lady MacBeth, pushing both Shaw and Iselin into attaining the political notoriety she wants but can’t have as a woman. And yet there’s a moment that lead me to suspect her motives were even more complicated still – it’s best I not divulge – but even though the matter isn’t quite cleared up by the film’s end, I was still intrigued they even just raised the question.

The biggest surprise for me, though, was Frank Sinatra himself. His work in The Man With The Golden Arm already caught my eye – but his performance here completely overcame my last lingering pre-judgement of the man. In my defense – I’d grown up at a time when Sinatra, like Bob Hope or Dean Martin, was kind of seen as a has-been – a dude who’d been popular when my parents were kids but now was out in Las Vegas doing retreads of his older work for other older folks reminiscing about their glory days. But the thing with “has-beens” is that they once were something, and finally seeing what he had been was illuminating.

My one complaint with the film was that the two romantic subplots get short shrift; Janet Leigh has an all-too-small role as “Rose Cheyney”, a woman Marco falls in love with after a brief and baffling conversation on a train, and Leslie Parrish is “Jocelyn Jordan”, a free-spirited socialite Shaw marries against his mother’s wishes. Jocelyn is little more than a plot device, and Rose is even less of a presence. But these are small complaints compared to the rest of the film.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)

Movies or plays based on “history” have long fascinated me – particularly the liberties that they sometimes take, and why they take them. One of my favorite books, Past Imperfect, is an anthology of essays by historians, each of which chose a different “historical movie” to review – and in all cases, these reviews compare “here’s what actually happened, and here’s what the movie says happened.” Some essays go even further and discuss “and here’s what was happening when they were making the movie, and here’s how that influenced things.” All historical films adapt the story somewhat, even if only for the sake of dramaturgy; a straightforward depiction of things “as they actually happened” would be either dull or confusing, since things rarely happen at a drama-worthy pace and often there are false starts and red herrings as the story unfolds. ut sometimes looking at how a filmmaker tells such a story – what bits they emphasize and what they sweep under the rug – can also be telling.

Lawrence Of Arabia is more of an adaptation of an adaptation, basing itself on the real T. E. Lawrence’s memoir of his time in Arabia. To sum up very quickly: the real T. E. Lawrence was a British officer during the First World War who was stationed in Egypt, and who was tasked with supporting (or, rather, encouraging) an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire, a move which would in turn impact control of the Middle East and the Levant. Lawrence was one of several British intelligence officers and diplomats assigned to this task, but his approach was particularly impactful, as he was able to unite two of the major tribal factions into a single force. He also coordinated a number of Bedouin tribes’ fighters into a guerilla army, making regular attacks on Ottoman railways and the smaller towns surrounding major cities. At one point he was captured during a scouting expedition in the Syrian city of Daraa, and was tortured by the Ottoman officer there – he was definitely whipped, and was possibly sexually humiliated. At another point, he and his party came upon a retreating Ottoman platoon, and he gave the order to “take no prisoners” as punishment for the Ottoman massacre of a nearby Bedouin settlement. Following the war he encouraged the British government to grant the Arab nations independence after the Ottoman Empire fell, but the U.K. and France already had their own plans for the post-war empire, and his efforts came to naught. He returned to England and lived a bit aimlessly for the next 15 years – writing his memoirs, joining in a stage show about the Arab Revolt, and even trying to re-join the military under a pseudonym. He was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1935.

That’s the “real” story. Lawrence’s own account, and the story the film wants to tell, goes something like this:

Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) had long been fascinated with Arabia and had finagled his way into a post with the Arab Bureau during the war; but ended up stuck in a dim office for a good while. He felt he had a unique understanding of the Bedouin culture and wanted to put it to use. So when offered the chance to meet Prince Faisal (Alec Guinness), leader of the Syrian revolt against the Ottomans, he jumped at the chance – and ignored the orders to stay impartial, offering Prince Faisal some military strategic advice instead. Faisal is impressed, as is Sherif Ali (Omar Sharif), one of the Bedouin tribal leaders serving Prince Faisal; after a particularly impressive victory, Ali gifts Lawrence with a set of Bedouin robes to wear in lieu of his British military uniform.

Ali is Lawrence’s “sidekick” for much of his ongoing campaign – keeping peace amongst the various tribes, tending his wounds after Lawrence is beaten by the Ottomans, trying to stop his massacre of the retreating Ottoman army. He is skeptical when Lawrence assures him the British will surely give the Arabs their independence, but is among the last to leave when Lawrence’s attempts to set up an Arab-run government fall apart. Lawrence goes to appeal to Prince Faisal, to urge him to demand independence – only to find that Faisal already knew about British and French plans to divvy up the empire, and had resigned himself to it.

It’s actually not that far off the facts. The film leans heavily into Lawrence’s love of Arabia and the Middle East, implying he was a bit of an outcast in England who’d found a family among the Bedouin. It draws a little bit of a veil over Lawrence’s torture, but implies that this fuels some anti-Ottoman sentiment in him which leads to the bloody Ottoman troop massacre. It does play a little fast-and-loose with some of the non-Western characters – in particular, it implies the Bedouin leader Auda abu Tayi (here played by Anthon Quinn) was more of a mercenary than the team player he actually was.

The film really shies away from commenting on rumors about Lawrence’s sexuality – just before the film’s release, a play about Lawrence addressed rumors that he was gay. And while film Lawrence does have a couple of close friendships among his Bedouin comrades, the film plays really coy about whether these are lovers or comrades-in-arms.

Ultimately, though, the film seems to suggest that Lawrence may have ultimately been unknowable. Things start off a bit like Citizen Kane does – we first see the motorcycle accident which caused his death, then we eavesdrop on various mourners’ chatter following his state funeral. A reporter is on the scene trying to find someone who knew Lawrence well – but cannot. Everyone has an opinion on the man, but no one can say that they really knew him. One particular admirer of Lawrence’s says that he “had the honor of shaking his hand once in Damascus” – but when we see the actual incident towards the end of the movie, we learn that the officer in question had actually insulted Lawrence when he was in Arab dress just moments before.

Visually, the land itself might be the real star of the film. Director David Lean filmed in the then-new “Super Panavision” technology, sort of a grandfather to IMAX. Super Panavision called for bigger screens, and quick cuts on big screens were making audiences nervous – so Lean opted for longer, panoramic takes which were perfectly suited for sweeping desert vistas. Honestly, if you put anyone against a backdrop that beautiful – and added in Maurice Jarre’s Oscar-winning score – they would end up looking as larger-than-life as Lawrence became after this film.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Alright, we’re done with Oscars talk, seriously. I really appreciated Daniel Radcliffe’s comment in an interview right after the Oscars; he was asked his opinion on the Will Smith scandal and he said that he’d become so “dramatically bored” reading everyone else’s thoughts that he didn’t want to weigh in at all. It is ironic, though, that this next film examines the ethics involved with resolving disputes with violence.

Actually, the glib review I gave Roommate Russ was that it was “like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington‘s Western grandpa.” James Stewart is “Ransom Stoddard”, the Senator for an unnamed Western state. At the start of the film he has made a return visit to his home town of “Shinbone” with his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) to attend the funeral of their mutual friend, rancher Tom Doniphon (John Wayne). Their visit attracts the attention of the local newspaper, and the editor corners Stoddard to ask how the esteemed Senator knows a low-stakes rancher like Doniphon.

Stoddard’s tale takes up most of the rest of the film, told as a flashback to when Stoddard was an idealistic newcomer to Shinbone, eager to start a law practice and assist during the territory’s transition to statehood. He’s held up almost immediately by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), the thug who’s been terrorizing Shinbone for the past handful of years at the behest of the local bigwig cattle ranchers. The one person Valance respects is Doniphon – mainly because he’s the one person in town who’s a better shot than he is. The penniless Stoddard takes a job as busboy in the local inn, washing dishes alongside Hallie – who was then Doniphon’s girl.

Stoddard insists on opening his law practice as soon as he’s more settled, even though Doniphon warns him things work a bit differently out west. But Stoddard stubbornly insists that violence isn’t the way to solve disputes. He also insists on opening a school once he learns that Hallie – along with several townspeople – can’t read and are generally uneducated. Doniphon isn’t impressed by the way Hallie seems to be taking a shine to Stoddard – and Valance is unimpressed by Stoddard’s civilizing crusade, ultimately challenging Stoddard to a showdown on Main Street one evening. Hallie and Doniphon both urge Stoddard to leave (although, likely for different reasons) but Stoddard takes him up on it. And to everyone’s surprise – Valance is shot.

Stoddard becomes the hero of the day, with the town going so far as to nominate him as Shinbone’s delegate in Washington. But he’s uneasy with how the town is celebrating him more for his one violent act than for his legal work. However, Doniphon pays him a secret visit to tell him his showdown with Valance didn’t quite happen the way he’d remembered it did…

I liked this a little better than I thought I would. Both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart seem to be playing caricatures of themselves at first – Stewart as the idealistic do-gooder, and Wayne as the sharpshooting macho cowpoke. Doniphon’s habit of calling Stoddard “Pilgrim” even made its way into countless “John Wayne impressions” for years after – I recognized it as a trope impressionists used back when I was a kid. And director John Ford had to forgo his usual epic location shoots and filmed the whole thing on a backlot. Wayne and Stewart were also starting to get a little long in the tooth for their parts, and in fact many believed Ford had filmed in black and white to hide their ages.

But both men still end up doing decently enough, as does Vera Miles; she gives Hallie a good deal of spunk and sass, and a forthrightness that convinced me that Hallie was genuinely starting to warm to Stoddard as opposed to it being a script convention. And let’s face it, both John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart looked old even as younger men, didn’t they?

Administratia, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

2022 Oscars: Postscript

So. Hmm.

The online world is blowing up talking about one Incident in particular from last night’s ceremony (you know the one I mean). Everyone seems to be taking sides one way or the other and debating it; however, I think everyone involved did poorly, and more regret how all of the other moments from last night’s Oscars are getting overshadowed – and some of those moments are wonderful.

So instead of getting caught up in gossip, here are three other Oscar moments that make for much better conversation instead.

Lady Gaga and Liza Minelli teamed up to present the award for Best Picture – and honestly, something about that pairing just works. Especially since Minelli seemed to have a little trouble reading her lines off the teleprompter at one point – and Lady Gaga graciously and gently stepped in to help. “I got you,” she said quietly to Minelli. “I know!” Minelli gushed. It was a lovely class act – one queen adjusting another’s crown.

Men are starting to branch out away from the plain tux! We saw plenty of classic black tuxedoes – but we also saw Daniel Kaluuya in a green tux, Kodi Smit-McPhee in powder blue, Simi Liu in bright red, Sebastian Yatra in pink – and Timothée  Chalamet in a bare chest and women’s wear. (No, seriously – the jacket and pants are from Louis Vuitton’s women’s line.) I usually think talk about fashion on the red carpets is inane as all hell – but this feels like more of a sign that men are starting to loosen up and play a bit.

Best of all: an interaction in which everyone involved did things right.

When Youn Yuh-Jung won for Best Supporting Actress last year, she stole the show with a witty acceptance speech. One of her jokes was about how so many people in Hollywood kept mispronouncing her name. So last night, when she came out to present Best Supporting Actor, she began with a joke about how now the shoe was on the other foot – since now she was going to run the risk of mispronouncing the actors’ names.

But it was clearly a front. Because when she opened the envelope, she paused before reading the name – and instead, signed it. For the winner was Troy Kotsur, who won for his role in Coda. So instead of mispronouncing his name – Youn had taken the time to learn how to pronounce it in his own language, as well as in English. She also learned how to sign “Congratulations” to him when he approached the podium, and had the presence of mind to offer to hold his statue for him as he delivered his speech – since he speaks ASL and would therefore need his hands free. And instead of stepping back and away from him, she stayed close by, so Kotsur’s statue would stay in his peripheral vision.

And Kotsur’s speech was wonderful in and of itself as well. He started with a few jokes, mainly one about how he’d been tempted to teach President Biden some ASL curse words while the Coda cast was touring the white house (however, he joked, Marlee Matlin wouldn’t let him). Then he turned more serious – thanking the host of Deaf Theaters in the US for helping him work on his craft, thanking Marlee Matlin for advocating other deaf actors be cast in Coda, thanking director and screenwriter Sian Heder for flawlessly bridging the gap between the ASL and the spoken-word worlds, and finally thanking his family – including his father, who was “the best signer in my family” until he was paralyzed in a car accident. It was a wonderful speech, and you can hear his interpreter choking up about midway through. And – before his speech, and after, you can see everyone else in the audience was applauding Kotsur in ASL – hands up and waving.

….Let’s all talk about any of those things instead.

Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

2022 Oscar Liveblog

It is very much early – I am at a local bar st their Oscar party, attempting to type this on an app on my phone. I didn’t want to risk not being able to get a seat at a table – and it looks like that was wise.

We are now watching the inane pre-show commentary here, which I wish would have been canceled in lieu of the awards the Academy is giving out before the live broadcast. Boo.

There IS a photo booth with a “red carpet”, and I Googled how to say “Old Navy” in French for if anyone asks what I’m wearing.

6:47 p.m. – the crowd here is interesting. We’re still in the actors-on-red-carpet shebang, and when Zendaya and Timothee Chalamet each appeared there was a huge cheer. I think we have a bit of a Dune fangroup here.

7:40 pm: so the hosts for the night had their own Red Carpet interviews a moment ago, dragging people out of the crowd to ask the inane “who are you wearing” question. My favorite thus far is a young guy who said “the shirt is one of my Dad’s…”

8:00 pm. – yeah, kicking things off with Beyonce is probably the way to go.

8:09 pm – I quite like the hosts…

8:17 pm – okay, upon listening to Amy Schumer Maaaaaaaybe not….

8:22 pm – yay Ariana DeBose best Supporting Actress!

8:34 pm – first non-live award – Dune for sound. And they handled it okay, I guess….

8:47 pm – no surprise Dune got Best Visual Effects. Check out the video I link to in my review. (And love that bit of shade Rachel Zeigler threw for not originally being invited.)

8:50 pm – just for the record – we could probably have given out a couple more live awards in the time we are spending on this bloody James Bond montage…..

9:00 pm – DOS ORUGUITAS!!!! There were a couple of totally unnecessary dancers but I don’t care….

9:02 pm – and surprising no one, Encanto just took Best Animated Film.

9:17 pm – I love Yuh-Jung Youn. That is all.

9:23 pm – the sight of everyone in the audience ASL applauding for Troy Katsur’s Best Supporting Actor win nearly made me cry.

9:34 pm – so since Drive My Car has Best International Film, I am taking that as the consolation prize and it is out of the running for Best Picture.

9:37 pm – the speed at which this full bar of Brooklynites went totally silent when the Academy held a moment of silence for Ukraine was impressive.

9:49 pm – followed by the speed at which EVERY SINGLE PERSON in this bar started singing along with “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”.

9:59 pm – I pretty much had no opinion on Best Original Screenplay this year. But it sounds like the bar definitely wanted it to be The Worst Person In The World.

10:27 pm – something really weird happened to the live feed during that Chris Rock/Will Smith schtick…but Yay for Summer Of Soul Best Documentary!

10:43 pm- the music they have for the In Memoriam sequence is downright bizarre.

10:51pm – so maybe that Will Smith and Chris Rock shtick….wasn’t shtick?

10:54 pm – what. WHAT. Dos Oruguitas didn’t win Best Song. …I am VERY UPSET.

10:59 pm – so someone in the crowd here hollered “Go Steven!” for Steven Spielberg for directing when they read the nominees. I tempted fate with a holler “Go Jane” for Jane Campion. And…she won. I will take credit.

11:08 pm – the crew from Pulp Fiction seem to have had the most fun with their presenting gig. And the crowd is VERY excited Will Smith took the statuette.

11:13 pm – Will Smith’s speech is taking a very, very interesting turn. I guess that moment with Chris Rock was NOT scripted. DANG.

11:21 pm – Amy Schumer: “So I was getting changed, did I miss anything?” I think we needed that.

11:29 pm – A win for Jessica Chastain Best Actress. It sounds like she is also kinda nodding at Will’s thing.

11:31 pm – somehow Lady Gaga and Liza Minelli is a pairing that makes perfect sense.

11:33 pm – Coda takes Best Picture! Everyone is ASL applauding again – I am sincerely surprised.

12:10 am – Just wanted to add this postscript, a comment from Roommate Russ after I got home: “Boy, the one year I decide to skip watching The Oscars….”

…And that’s that! If you have been reading this far thank you!

Best Pictures of 2022, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 5

In case you were wondering: yes, there is a reason why these last two films are last. These are the films that I was least interested in seeing – and when it comes to King Richard, I’m not even interested enough to try to see it before the Oscars tonight.

I’m sure it’s a fine film, and the life of Serena and Venus Williams and their father is no doubt impressive, but everything about this just screamed “Oskar Flatpack Movie” and I just couldn’t do it. I have listened to Beyonce’s song for the film – another nominee for Best Original Song – but even there, it still sounded like a Boilerplate Beyonce Inspirational Tune. If Will Smith wins for Best Actor I’ll watch it then, but otherwise….eh.

Don’t Look Up

….Not that I was any more impressed by the film I did see. Again – these aren’t bad, just….really, really predictable and boilerplate. In this ultra-black comedy, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio play a pair of astronomers who discover a mammoth asteroid headed on a dead-on collision course with earth, and calculate that the resulting impact will cause global devastation. They immediately alert the head of the Planet Protection Office at NASA (Rob Morgan), who recognizes the danger and brings them to see the president (Meryl Streep); NASA has a plan in place for coping with such events, and they just need the president to authorize everything. But the president is more concerned about a social media scandal and wants to wait until that blows over.

Lawrence and DiCaprio both go to greater and greater lengths to call everyone’s attention to the problem, but are stymied at every turn. Their gig on a fluffy morning news show turns disastrous when Lawrence scolds the hosts for downplaying their news. The president finally agrees to act, but only to restore her image – and is then talked out of it by a tech company magnate (Mark Rylance) who wants to salvage the comet for its rare metals. DiCaprio gets so caught up in his sudden fame that he becomes a mouthpiece for the tech company, while Lawrence starts slumming with a group of nihilist skateboard punks. Even when the asteroid is visible in the night sky, the nation divides itself into two rival camps – those who support the president’s plan to harvest the asteroid and those who want it blown up – who each spend the night before the asteroid is due to hit having their own rallies.

In other words…it’s a metaphor for how completely the planet is botching the climate crisis, placing the blame squarely on capitalism, ignorance and human folly.

The film has gotten a lot of mixed reviews for being heavy-handed with its message, and I can absolutely agree. This is preaching to the converted and still goes over the top; Meryl Streep’s president and her chief of staff son (Jonah Hill) aren’t so much characters as they are caricatures. Mark Rylance’s tech magnate is even more of a caricature, almost to the point of being a straw man – every fifth thing he says is some kind of Silicon Valley buzzword. Ariana Grande has a cameo as a vapid pop star who goes on to write a torch song for the effort to protect earth.

There are some fun bits, and some sincerely poignant moments. Timothée Chalamet turns up as Yule, one of the skater punks, who becomes Jennifer Lawrence’s sort-of-apocalypse-boyfriend; his character is given similarly short shrift, but he’s still sincere and likeable. Rob Morgan brings some much-needed seriousness to his role. And the film does address how much corporate influence is at play in matters of global and environmental significance. And at the end of the film, while everyone else is finally realizing the danger they’re in and panicking, those scenes of panic are interspersed with shots of the main cast gathered at DiCaprio’s family’s house, where they are all calmly and stoically having one last meal in fellowship, complete with Yule leading them all in a heartfelt prayer.

This is the third film I’ve seen from director Adam McKay; he uses the same off-kilter funhouse lens he used in The Big Short and Vice. But here it somehow doesn’t quite work as well.

…And that’s that. Check back later today to see if I can pull off a liveblog of the Oscar ceremony THIS year….

Administratia, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Oscar Extra Credit – The Oscar Night Liveblog

Just a heads-up!

I have not always had the BEST luck liveblogging the Oscars in years past. Either the ceremony was no great shakes, or the computer I was on was managing to erase each of my entries as I added them. I was even trying to liveblog on the night of the famous Moonlight/Lala Land mixup, but my laptop battery ran out ten minutes before that happened and I missed it all.

But I’m foolhardy enough to try again. I am going to a livescreening at a Brooklyn bar, and this time I will charge up the laptop fully (and bring a spare extension cord just in case). So we will see.

Honestly, this year I’m only really invested in one category – one of the nominees for Best Original Song is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lovely song “Dos Oruguitas” from the film Encanto. It’s used as a bit of a musical metaphor in the film, providing the score for a heartbreaking scene in which the matriarch of a Columbian family tells her granddaughter how she lost her husband in a war. “Dos Oruguitas” literally translates to “Two Little Caterpillars”, and the lyrics are about a pair of caterpillars so in love that they don’t want to let each other go – but they need to let each other go to go on and become butterflies.

I’ve been listening to this many times over the past couple weeks and I love it; the other songs it’s up against are some kind of run-of-the-mill also-rans, in my opinion, so things look good. This would also give Lin-Manuel Miranda “EGOT” status – EGOT being the name for those who’ve managed to win all four major US entertainment awards (Emmy for television, Grammy for music/recording, Oscar for film and Tony for theater). Even better, he’s also won a Pulitzer, an “Annie” award for Animated films, and a MacArthur Genius fellowship; giving him a much more rarified “MacPEGOAT” status.

If he does not win on Sunday, I shall kick things.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Lolita (1962)

At the time of its release, a lot of the advertising for this film played up the titillation by asking a question: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” As many viewers through they years have found out: they did it by editing out a loooooooooooooooooot of oogy parts.

To recap quick: the original novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is presented as a confessional tale, written by a professor, “Humbert Humbert”, who is in prison for murder. But his was a crime of passion – passion for a twelve-year-old girl, Lolita. Humbert was secretly a pedophile and Lolita had been the daughter of a landlady; Humbert married her to stay close to Lolita, but his wife found out the truth one day and killed herself – prompting Humbert to sweep Lolita up on a whirlwind cross-country tour for a year or so, moving from place to place and skipping town just before anyone figured out that Humbert and Lolita were maybe a little too intimate to be father and daughter. Then one evening Lolita disappears, leaving Humbert heartbroken for three years – until she writes out of the blue, saying that she’s now married and pregnant (and about 16) and she and her husband need money. Humbert rushes to see her and learn the truth of how she disappeared, and her confession is what drives him to kill.

The film follows the basic plot, but makes some fairly important tweaks to make things more palatable. The biggest change is in Lolita’s age – here, she is fourteen instead of twelve, and played with some knowing sass by newcomer Sue Lyon. She’s still immature, but still not quite as immature; she’s the one who seems to instigate things with Humbert (James Mason), suggesting to him with a sly smirk that maybe the two of them could play a “game” she’d learned from a boy at her summer camp. Blessedly, another change is that we don’t see any sexual scenes between Humbert and Lolita – director Stanley Kubrik lets the audience’s imaginations and familiarity with the book carry the day, leaving the film to show nothing more than some slightly-too-fervent kisses or cuddles, with the camera cutting away when there’s a chance things could go further. The most intimate thing we see Humbert do to Lolita is paint her toenails.

Kubrik also seems to have made up for the lack of sex by adding in comedy. Shelley Winters is in the largely thankless role of Lolita’s mother Charlotte; she’s supposed to be bawdy and abrasive, the kind of overly-sexualized adult that Humbert usually shuns, but Winters manages to make her come across as funny instead of just crude as she puts poor Humbert through some painfully awkward seductions. Paradoxically this also makes Charlotte more sympathetic in the scene where she finds out what Humbert really feels about her.

The biggest surprise for me in the film, and also one of the biggest changes, concerned the role of the character Clare Quilty. In the novel, Quilty only turns up at the end – he’s the man Humbert kills – but Kubrik promotes him to a main supporting role, played by Peter Sellers. Kubrik also starts the movie with Quilty’s murder, and only then skips back in time to show Humbert and Lolita’s story. But Quilty is there too, as a smarmy playwright whom Charlotte has also (unsuccessfully) tried to seduce. He keeps turning up throughout Humbert and Lolita’s travels – puzzlingly disguising himself as everything from a police detective to a school psychologist to a poll taker – and knowing his ultimate fate, I kept trying to figure out how Quilty fit into the overall story. This also distracted me, fortunately (or maybe unfortunately), from Humbert’s obsession with Lolita, as well as giving Peter Sellers a chance to shine quite brightly.

Still, at the end of the day – this is a story about a middle-aged man who is sexually obsessed with an underage girl, and letting Peter Sellers flex in the service of that tale is pretty much akin to lipstick on a pig. Fortunately our society has made some big changes since the days this film was made – I should note that when you do a search for Lolita in Google right now, the very first thing you see is a toll-free number for an organization working to combat sexual abuse of minors.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Dog Star Man (1962)

So. Um.

So when I wrote my digression on experimental film, this was one of the reasons why. I’d actually tried to watch a bit of it prior, on an evening after work, but the imagery and technique was so opaque that I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it and tried again later. It’s not something you can give a casual glance at all.

I could tell that I was supposed to be getting some kind of plot or message from this film. The whole thing is completely silent, and consists of a chaotic jumble of frequently-recurring shots – a man and a dog climbing a mountain in the snow, the moon over a woody landscape, lights from cars on a city street at night, astronomical footage of solar flares. Every so often we see a nude woman’s torso or a baby. Towards the end the man reaches a tree and gets to work chopping it down.

The problem is that filmmaker Stan Brakhage intentionally altered the physical film with scratches or holes, superimposes one image on another, or uses color washes or slow motion or weird super-high-focus closeups – so most of the time I could have spent puzzling a story out of the images I saw was spent squinting at the screen trying to see what the images even were. Was it dog’s fur I was looking at, or the man’s beard? Or the woman’s vulva? Or moss? Or just scratches in the film again, or – wait, now we’ve shifted to the city street, is this – and it’s gone, and we’re looking at the baby again. Or – are we? Is that a baby or the moon?

I wanted to understand this film. I really did. I saw enough of it to get tantalized with the idea that it might be a poetic metaphor of sorts – that maybe the man was struggling up the mountain in search of firewood, and the repeated shots of the woman and baby were his thoughts about his family and the repeated city streets were maybe a life of comfort he’d abandoned for this starker one. Or maybe this was a post-apocalyptic tale. The problem was that I felt I was missing parts of the story, simply because I couldn’t see them – and I was left frustrated and confused.

This apparently was Brakhage’s style, though. Or at least it became his style. I did something a bit unusual and looked up an earlier film of his, one not on the list – Window Water Baby Moving, a short experimental film about the home birth of his daughter Myrrena. That film is short, and has similarly disjointed images – but those images are on the whole much clearer: his wife Jane’s pregnant belly in the birthing pool, her face as she cries out in pain, his hands entwined comfortingly in hers, Myrrena’s head crowning. And poignantly, at the end, there are several shots of Brakhage laughing into the camera, dazed and wonderstruck. There’s a bit of scratching on the film in some places, but you can still see what the hell it is you’re looking at.

By contrast – sometime after that film, and after Dog Star Man, Brakhage made another film, Thigh Line Lyre Triangular, about the birth of his third child. He felt that Window Water Baby Moving somehow didn’t capture his emotional response accurately enough, and considered Thigh Line Lyre Triangular to be closer to the mark. But from the reviews I’ve read, Brakhage piles on even more of the kind of scratching and film altering that caused me so much frustration with Dog Star Man – to the point that you can’t see anything at all except for abstract patterns.

Somehow it feels like Brakhage wanted to have things both ways – that he didn’t want me to see the very thing he was showing me. Ultimately I was left frustrated and dissatisfied, and wondering why he’d bothered.