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Andy Hardy Meets Debutante (1940)
What were the most memorable parts of the film?
1. The title, which could probably benefit from a "the."
2. The goofy scene where the judge gives a small child to a strange man, who will keep the boy for the day and have fun with him. OK...
3. The fact that when the Hardys visit New York City, there's a story about it in the local newspaper. And it's the lead story on the front page. (Man, that must be a small town, if people going away constitutes news.) I hope nobody broke into their house while they were away.
4. The final image of the film, which seems to hint at Mickey Rooney's future marital life. (He was married a lot.)
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
BOLDLY GOING backwards, not forwards.
It was understandable that the first film of the new "Trek" franchise would evoke, to some degree, the originals. That film was a transitional film, a bridge from old to new. And having accomplished that, I was hoping that "Star Trek Into Darkness" would carve out its own ideas, stake its own claim and justify itself as a fresh take on the "Trek" conventions (no, not those conventions).
Instead, if anything, this film is even more reliant on past story ideas than the first film was. And in the final analysis, "Star Trek: Into Darkness" can best be characterized as a remake of the classic 1982 film "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan." And why do that? For over thirty years, that film has been available to anyone who wanted it. "Star Trek 2" is the best Trek film ever. It has a wonderful blend of action, character and original science fiction ideas. It also has enormous heart and interesting themes about aging, death and the costs of maturity. This film evokes the basic outline but none of what made that film great.
In interviews, the filmmakers refused to say the identity of the character played (very well) by Benedict Cumberbach, but said it was a famous Trek villain. It's a short list: Harry Mudd (who gets a shout out here), Q and Khan. At first, I thought it might be Q. Cumberbach more closely evokes John DeLancie than Ricardo Montalban. And that would be a neat surprise, since everyone in the audience would be assuming Khan. (And the fact that Q is not part of the Kirk "Trek" universe would be a neat surprise too.) It couldn't be Khan, I thought to myself. That was just be too obvious. Surely, the filmmakers have something far more interesting up their sleeve.
Alas, just as smoke is indicative of fire, the revelation that the villain is Khan falls entirely flat. It's about a surprising as the revelation in "Indy 4" of who Mutt's father was.
Cumberbatch is fun in his way, but I wished the writers had given him more to do, other than arch his eyebrows and speak the usual bad guy rantings in his melodious British voice. Montalban's Khan was a Shakespearian figure. He was angry, funny, sexy, soulful and, in the end, totally crazy and sadly tragic. (Nicholas Meyer, the film's director and co-writer was a Shakespearian scholar.) Cumberbatch is a cool actor but his villain is too one note, in the end, to register much.
As the film goes on, the references to "Star Trek II" pile on and on, until it becomes clear that this film is pretty much a straight up remake. There are some vague attempts to inject some fresh variations. (It's Kirk, not Spock who risks his life, etc.) But disappointment sets in as time goes on and the film fails to evoke any fresh ideas. The pile up of references and shout outs made me feel like I was watching a "Simpsons" Halloween episode parody. Spock's pained "Khaaaan!!" lament was the jump the shark moment, and it drew huge laughs at the screening I attended.
I enjoyed the film's action sequences, but I'm hoping that future "Trek" films will dial down the homage to the originals, and dial up the new and original ideas. The time has come to stop recycling and start creating. For a franchise that boldly boasts of "new frontiers," this chapter is sadly derivative.
Món petit (2012)
Moving and insightful
"Little World" is all about Albert, and audiences will naturally take to him. His friendly, easygoing confidence and likability make him good company. It's not surprising that people are drawn to him, and invite him to stay in their home for free as their guest. (Some invite him to stay forever, but the road beacons him.) Albert longs for four things in life: Happiness, freedom, love and good luck. He has all of these in abundance, and when he gets his "happiness tattoo" at the end of the film, it makes for a satisfying coda.
Albert is like a real-life Elwood P. Dowd, forever optimistic in the face of life's adversities. At one point, we watch this disabled boy merrily crawling, one by one, up the many (!) steps of the Great Wall of China. His joy at reaching the top is sweetly moving without being mawkish.
Even when lying in a hospital bed, having narrowly avoided death, his unrelenting optimism and joie de vivre are undiminished. (One can't help but wonder if Albert's persistent good cheer might actually represent some sort of mild autism or mental illness.)
Like Dowd, Albert seems to enjoy an almost otherworldly insulation from disaster. His plan to travel around the world on no money seems like a disaster waiting to happen, but things move along with apparent expediency. Albert and Anna bring no money on their journey. They get along by hitchhiking, and by the generosity of others. These negotiations are generally not depicted on camera. The impression one gets is that people are drawn to Albert and take pleasure in helping him. (Albert does use deceit to gain passage on a ship, but this appears to be a rare and forgivable exception.) Albert is so likable and friendly that it's unlikely audiences will see his behavior in a negative light.
Albert and Anna's journey, as depicted in the documentary is almost absurdly easy. Their approach is adventurous and spontaneous but also thoroughly inefficient. One suspects that their trip likely had moments of downtime, boredom, delays and obstacles, none of which are generally depicted in the film. Albert's loving relationship with his girlfriend Anna helps anchor the film, although one wishes we knew more about what motivates her. (We're also curious about Albert's decision to continue travelling alone during her illness. Didn't he want to be by her side?)
The film poses compelling questions about who is truly "handicapped" and what makes for a meaningful existence. Albert's life is very unusual, but he ably defends his choices, explaining that this is the life he wants. For him, staying home or working in an office would be death.
The conclusion of the film, where Albert and Anna arrive in New Zealand is very moving. It's here, at the "beginning of the world" that the film explores the cosmic, philosophical questions posed by Albert's journey. It's a fitting and satisfying end, and the fact that the final exchanges take place in English will only add to American audience's enjoyment of these moments.
Hollywood films have their clichés, but so do Sundance indies as well. We've all sat through underwritten sensitive stories about loners where so much of what is going on is "left unsaid." It's a fine line between poetically subtle and just plain underwritten, and this film falls in the latter category. Who is Terri? Why is he the way he is? Who are any of these people? And none of the relationships here are at all interesting. Nor is there any attempt to provide any kind of psychological insight. Several times characters are confronted about their behavior (Terri in gym class, the girl regarding a sexual encounter, the principal in his office), only to shrug and fail to offer any insight. There's no "there" here. It's an empty bag, a "Sundance favorite" that has nothing to offer. This is something anyone could have written over a weekend. It's been 6 decades since Holden Caufield, and yet people still try to do the sensitive teen thing. Rent Rushmore instead.
The Big Gay Musical (2009)
Weak, well intentioned effort
Although ultimately well intentioned, the film depicts a rather depressing image of what it means to be gay. If the film is to be believed, being gay means a life filled with religious-based bigotry, disease, a de-humanizing dating scene, low self-esteem, rejection from family and obsession with the body.
As a gay man living in a big city and working in the theatre, I can tell you that there's more to gay life than that. There are gay people in happy long-term monogamous relationships. Most gay people I know are involved with community activism and have rich, rewarding lives.
I belong to a gay Christian church, and I know that God loves everyone and that anti-gay bigotry is not consistent with Christ's ministry.
As a film, "The Big Gay Musical" is passable entertainment. The acting, writing, directing and music are average.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Godot with toys
Anyone wondering what Schindler's List might have looked like if performed by toys need look no further than "Toy Story 3." An ugly, dark, joyless movie, "Toy Story 3" will frighten children and send adults into therapy.
The first "Toy Story" was a delight, capped off with a fun and exciting chase sequence, in which Buzz and Woody attempted to catch up to the moving van that held all of their friends. Sure, if they hadn't made it, it would have been sad. But the chase and the movie as a whole was a lot of fun, capped off by some fun Randy Newman songs.
"Toy Story 2" was an even better movie, because it added an interesting ingredient to the soup: An acknowledgment of death. The sequence where Jessie laments how her life lost its meaning when her owner grew up is truly heart breaking. And the final spoken lines of dialogue, referencing Buzz's catch phrase "To infinity and beyond," but placing the phrase in the context of death itself was a masterstroke. Adding these dark elements in select moments elevated the movie into something special.
"Toy Story 3" makes the mistake of taking those select moments and turning them into the WHOLE MOVIE. The stink of death, loss and alienation is as prevalent here as a Beckett play. The story of Lotso's grim rejection by his owner and his subsequent change to a dark, Nazi-like dictator poisons the fun. (What, no up tempo Randy Newman song about that?) And the depiction of Ken as a gay stereotype was offensive, and future generations will squirm at those moments, like they do today over the racist depiction of Asians in "Breakfast at Tiffanies." (The Pixar films would never take a black or Jewish toy and make them act in a stereotypical fashion, but I guess gays are fair game.) As with most sequels, character growth is mostly zero. The characters have done all their growing in the earlier segments, and so they spend the movie mostly running around, learning nothing, never growing. Woody comes off as absurdly delusional in his belief that the best thing for him and the others is to sit in a plastic bag in an attic for decades until such time as maybe Andy wants his children to play with them.
But life at the daycare center is another form of hell. The film strives to depict the toy's plight as a parody of a prison film, but ends up evoking the holocaust and Nazi concentration camps. The tyranny, torture (yes, torture) and betrayals the toys face in the day care center are dark and awful, but still pale in comparison to the act three climax. Here, we have the pleasure of watching our heroes in a trash compactor, facing an almost certain death in an oven, to be burned alive. Again, one can't help but think of the holocaust and how the victims there were burned in ovens.
But it all ends happily. The characters are saved and live happily ever after.
Or do they? For a film that shows such craft in its writing and such subtlety in its characterizations, the final fifteen minutes of the film are mind boggling inconsistent with what has come before. It begins with the claw, that rescues its characters, God-like, from their peril. Up until now, God-like interventions had been non-existent. These characters always had the ingenuity to get themselves out of jams, but suddenly not here.
In the scenes that follow, Andy suddenly loves his toys. And life at the daycare is a toy utopia. (Remember that the only change is that Lotso is gone. I guess he took all the evil with him when he left.) The final image of the film is the sky, with a series of similar looking clouds. Seem familiar? It's the same clouds as the wallpaper in Andy's room. The characters have found themselves, post-fire, in a happy but manufactured world. Conclusion: They died in the fire and this is heaven. I'm happy for them, because sitting through this movie, I felt like I was in hell.
Bart Got a Room (2008)
Much ado about nothing
When the people behind "Bart Got A Room" call it a film about a guy looking for a date for the prom, they mean just that. There's no emotional subtext whatsoever to this search. Why is it so important to him, and why should we care? Danny is such a blank slate, and the writing doesn't offer many insights into who he is as a person. Compare Danny in your mind with more interesting movie teenagers, like Max from "Rushmore" or Harold from "Harold and Maude," and you'll see what I mean. And the actor playing Danny does little to illuminate that he has any kind of inner life at all.
Danny's parents are equally bland and uninteresting. The only truly insightful moment occurs when one of Danny's friends discussing going to the zoo with his mother. (The mother, a divorced woman, hates going to the zoo but is desperately trying to please her new boyfriend.) What is the film even about? Is it about the close friendship between Danny and Camille? But even after the hot girl turns him down, he decides to keep shopping around, rather than turn to Camille, which she herself acknowledges. The film doesn't provide any real scenes to establish the bond they share. (Sorry. Showing old photos of them as children and having narration isn't enough.) I thought the film might be about a boy choosing not to cross over the threshold from childhood to adulthood. Children like to have fun, play with their friends and bond with their parents. Young adults want to carve our their own identities, be independent, distance themselves from their parents and explore their sexuality. So which side does Danny ultimately fall down on youth or maturity? The film (SPOILERS!) explains at the end that he chose to spend his prom night not with his peers but with his parents and his platonic friend. It further explains that the hotel room, that presumed symbol of sexual maturity, was used instead to play Boggle, a children's game, with his parents and platonic childhood friend.
But then, that youth vs. maturity interpretation doesn't really work either. So many different directions the film could have gone in, and yet, in the end, the filmmakers never really chose a path.
As someone with a deep affection for "Freaks and Geeks," I was looking forward to seeing this show on DVD. Although perhaps unfair to compare the two, I do feel that comparing and contrasting (in true college essay question style) highlights the shortcomings of "Undeclared."
CHARACTER SPECIFICITY. The freaks and geeks of "Freaks and Geeks" had sharply defined personalities. By contrast, these people are very general types. The main character is a standard issue nerd. Seth Rogen seems to wander into scenes without a character to play.
CHARACTER SYMPATHY. The kids on F&G formed little family units, and bonded and took care of each other. The "Undeclared" kids are basically all strangers to each other, and are as likely to compete or argue as to connect.
EMOTIONAL PULL. F&G took place during high school, and the emotional vulnerability of the characters and their growing pains gave the show a warm emotional poignancy. Think of the episode where one boy discovered that his father was cheating on his mother, and how this, in turn, caused Sam to worry about his own family's stability. The college kids in "Undeclared" are a selfish, immature bunch interested in sex and beer, and they're far more difficult to connect with as a viewer.
COMPLEX STORIES. Because it was a half hour longer, F&G had far richer stories and ideas. But even accounting for this, "Undeclared" still comes off pretty anemic in the story department. A typical "Undeclared" episode takes a small idea and does very little with it.
HUMOR. F&G was hilarious. The episode where Sam wore the disco suit to school is a classic. Nothing in "Undeclared" can rival that level of humor.
Some thoughts on Phantom Menace.
1. The main thing missing from all the prequels was a sense of emotional connections between the characters. Take Obi Wan. He spends the three prequels performing his various duties as a jedi. What are his hopes? Dreams? Fears? Loves? He has no emotional agenda and no real emotional connection to the other characters. It's true of all the prequel characters, who seem to exist in their own solitary worlds, disconnected from others.
Remember the original Star Wars? Remember Luke and Han, bickering like brothers but helping each other when in need? Remember Luke's father/son like connection to Obi Wan, and the sense of loss he felt when Obi Wan died? Remember the droids, arguing but never less than loyal to each other? That was how Lucas wrote then. Today, I always imagine George sitting in some big mansion, like Charles Foster Kane, rich and very much alone. His movies are emotionally cold and the characters are all estranged from each other.
2. I'll never understand why Lucas chose trade routes and tariffs as central aspects of his adventure movie plot. Was he sitting in his office one day, arranging for a shipment of Star Wars toys to China, and was upset about tariffs and thought "Here's an underutilized idea for an adventure movie." Or maybe he didn't realize that business trade negotiations, although perhaps relateable to him, weren't relateable to a large segment of his audience.
3. Making the force a chemical in your blood rather than a mystical ephemeral power robs the force of a lot of its mystery and fascination. It makes the force mundane. Another thought: Since the prequels take place "before" the originals, how come nobody in the Star Wars/Empire/Jedi films seems aware of this blood thing? 4. It's interesting to have Luke be Vader's son and Leia's brother, but having C3PO be Vader's pet robot as a child seems a little too coincidental.
5. Annikan is a dull kid and his force powers are never really demonstrated. Remember in the first Spider-Man, when Peter Parker was trying out his new powers? He was fascinated and curious and horrified all at once. Annikan should have had a scene like that.
6. Why didn't they bring Annikan's mother along with them? He's a boy and presumably will need a nanny, right? Why can't she be that? It might have been interesting to kill her off. That would give Annakin an early trauma, one that would inform his later dark side conversion. It would also form an interesting corollary with the first Star Wars film, where the death of Luke's aunt and uncle caused him to leave his farm life for a world of adventure.
7. Science fiction writer David Brin wrote a piece for Salon magazine years ago that articulated a lot of basic flaws of "Phantom Menace." Be sure to check it out for an intelligent, thoughtful analysis (some of which I've reiterated here.)
One Soldier (1999)
This film is now available on DVD. It's included in one of Steven Wright's recent stand up comedy DVD's. Anyone looking to see it or own it can find it there.
Check it out. I love the contrast of the staid, serious style with Steven Wright's hilarious modern-style surreality. It reminded me of Woody Allen's great comedy "Love and Death."
It was laugh out loud funny. And the black and white photography was beautiful.
Favorite moment: When Wright shared with Becky all that he had learned about life.