Meet Me in St. Louis(Fathom Events 75th)

Numbers ending in zero or five are ripe for look backs. Since we are about to move to 2020, see how many blogs are posting their best films of the last decade. This film goes back a lot further than a decade, this is the 75th [see there is that 5] anniversary of the release of Meet Me in St. Louis, one of the great MGM musicals of all time and maybe the high-point of Judy Garland’s career in musicals. Maybe you love “A Star is Born” or recognize that “The Wizard of Oz” is a classic but there is no denying that Judy was at her luminous best form in this film. When you see the Technicolor images on a theater screen, you will know why she was a star.

It was just a couple of months ago that I heaped praise on Renee Zellweger for her performance in the biopic about Garland “Judy”. As great as she was, the real thing is still so much better and this was a chance to see an old favorite back up on the big screen. A year ago it was Movie of the Month for Christmas on the Lambcast, and the show was hosted by my daughter Amanda who had been the sponsor of the film in the first place. There was a little controversy over whether it really is a Christmas movie, since only the third act featured Christmas as a subject. The following three minutes settles that issue.

As great as Judy Garland and Margaret O’Brien are in the picture, I would like to single out Lew Ayers and Mary Astor who play the parents in the movie. They are the foundation of the family and without the sincere family foundation that they create, the movie might have seemed a little silly. Their most charming scene occurs right after the uproar created when Mr. Smith announces they are moving to New York. Everyone is upset but Mother soothes the nerves with a piano tune that Father sings to and the two of them remind everyone what is most essential in their lives, it is a terrific moment in a film filled with terrific songs and moments, and it is all centered on someone other than Garland for a few minutes. By the way, by the time the scene finishes, you will desperately want a piece of cake.

As we walked out of the theater, Amanda turned to me and said, “Now it’s Christmas Time.”  I 100% agree. I felt uplifted by the experience and nostalgic for the Christmases of my own past. I suspect we may be watching it again before the season is over, but it was a real treat to see it in a theater with dozens of other fans, all glad that there was a 5 at the end of the anniversary this year.

Ford v Ferrari

Let me start by saying, I am not a fan of racing. I have nothing against it but the idea of watching cars travel at high speeds is attractive to me for about five minutes. After the first thrill, it seems like a lot of waiting around. I know I am an exception because NASCAR is incredibly popular and the Indy car circuit has been around for more than a century. The same can be said for formula one racing which enjoys international enthusiasm that I can’t muster. With that out of the way, I can say I am a fan of  racing films. Several years ago, I listed “Rush”  as my second favorite movie of that year. Earlier this year I enjoyed “the Art of Racing in the Rain“. I even liked the Stallone racing film and “Days of Thunder”. So how is it that I ended up liking this film so much?

My appreciation for a film about a subject that I am not well versed in or passionate about comes down to the simple fact that film making is all about controlling the audience perspective. As an illustration, I posted a list a few years ago of my favorite sports films, three of the ten films were hockey movies. I’ve never been to a hockey game, I’ve never watched a whole hockey game on television and the idea of a sport played on ice is appalling to me, I hate the cold. Film makers however, are not worried about the contest, they know the outcome already. They don’t worry about the rules, they can ignore them or alter them to suit their purpose. What screenwriters and directors do care about is the audience, what is it we want out of the experience? That is the thing that makes a movie like this work for us.

In “Ford v Ferrari” we see the races from the best angles. We focus on the key moments and not all the drudge work that gets to those points. Best of all, in a racing film we are in the cockpit and we see the race from the perspective of the driver as well. That creates the drama that keeps us focused on the story of watching someone drive a car. In this film Christian Bale plays driver Ken Miles and his character is one worth following. He is a hothead who also happens to be an excellent driver. His volatile relationship with the car designer and the corporation that is backing the team is emphasized not just in scenes played out in garages and offices, but while he is driving the vehicle they are all counting on. I think he nails the English accent spot on [those of you who don’t get the joke are excused from making a comment on my ignorance]. He has to act opposite a big movie star, a child and a piece of machinery. He makes each of those relationships work in a realistic way.

My friend Doug is a big race fan and he will tell you how there is a better story somewhere else, or how the film is not accurate is some way that matters to race fans. The rest of us don’t have to worry about that because we know what we are seeing is a fictionalized version of the events. Like all story tellers, the three screenwriters and the director, exaggerate to make a joke work or emphasize a dramatic beat with a piece of information that we need just at the right moment. The film does center on racing, but most of Matt Damon’s work is in the garage or board room rather than behind the wheel. The background on the Ford Company attempt to purchase Ferrari may not have happened in the sequential order that the film presents but that presentation makes the rivalry more meaningful and interesting. You could easily be fooled into thinking that Christian Bale also played Henry Ford II, since the portrayal is a mirror image of the Dick Cheny performance he was responsible for last year.

Since the events depicted are based on real historical incidents, you will be aware of the outcome of some of the suspenseful moments, but James Mangold manages to make them suspenseful anyway. Having worked with Christian Bale in “3:10 to Yuma”, Mangold probably felt comfortable in the casting of Bale and Damon in parts that were originally scheduled to go to Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt. While I would have enjoyed seeing those two reunited on screen, I think this pairing works really well. The loyalty but pragmatism of Damon as Carrol Shelby is a good counterpoint to the flashier Ken Miles and it is to Damon’s credit that he lets Bale drive not only the vehicle but the film as well.

No Safe Spaces

This is a documentary from what would traditionally be described as the conservative perspective, but the issues are so broad and important to the culture that liberal politicians and commentators are in agreement on many points. When you have Van Jones and Barack Obama suggesting that the problem these right wingers are pointing out are real, I think we can move past the political lines and move to the cultural front that this movie wants to be focused on.

Like most documentaries about ideas, there are a lot of talking heads involved in the discussion. Talk show host Dennis Prager is a well known conservative with a nationally syndicated radio program. Adam Carolla is a comedian/podcaster with the most downloaded podcast in the world. Their friendship is based on the commonality that the world has lost it’s common sense and we are forgetting our values. They may disagree on a large number of issues but the threat to free speech binds them together and they have made multiple appearances to share their views. So it is no surprise that much of the footage is derived from some of these joint appearances. The other thing that you will find in documentaries of this sort is archival footage of current and recent events. The most galvanizing moments in the film have to do with video and film of speech presentations being disrupted and violence being used to silence views that others do not agree with. There is a long segment on Berkeley as a source of some violent outbursts but it is far from the only example that is illustrated.

The thing the film does effectively is catalog the numerous recent campus based illustrations of suppressed speech and give us some perspective on how this has become a standard form of closing down dissenting views. There are a couple of clever cartoon interludes that inject some humor and a decidedly condescending view of those who want to create “safe” space or control “hate speech”. Some of the talking heads that show up are well known public intellectual figures such as Cornel West and Jordan Peterson. Peterson gets a substantial amount of focus as an individual who has been subjected to much of the shouting by the other side. All of the academics who are presented in the film, regardless of their political leanings, agree that the purpose of the first amendment is to allow a market place of ideas to weed out the bad from the good, rather than presupposing the correctness of one position before a debate has even begun.

As a college instructor for 40 years, I can say from experience in my public speaking and argumentation classes that there has been a shift in the way students engage in conflict. There is a hive mentality on some issues but the bigger point is that dissenters are fearful of being socially chastised for making an argument. The issues of Illegal Immigration and Same Sex Marriage are two areas where speaking one point of view, even if addressed as a rational objectively based claims has almost disappeared. I don’t see a shortage of evidence or value conflict on those points, I do see fear. Colleges are so obsessed with progressive goals that they are ignoring the means of achieving them that are progressive and have become reactionaries themselves. The film uses relatively innocuous issues that turned into major kerfuffles at Evergreen State University to illustrate the point. The experience of the two faculty members who ultimately were driven out and had to sue to get treated fairly is told in a very personal way.

Having a fairly solid position to start with the director of the movie, Justin Folk, allows the story to lose momentum in several places. The main reason is the shifting of subject matter.   Instead of a driving focus on the value issue, we get taken to a number of side issues that while interesting, seem to be interjected without figuring out how they are connected to the main point or the previous piece of information. It’s not clear why Jordan Peterson is wandering around Adam Carolla’s garage and car collection. Shooting Dennis Prager as he drives down the freeway must be some kind of commentary on something, but I can’t tell what. As a consequence the story feels like a series of events are being strung together without a strong direction to them and that they are being randomly critiqued without the unifying theme that the movie desperately wants to have.

For true believers, this film with spark up your anger and frustrate the heck out of you. I remember how one of my coaches, John Gossett a PhD. who wrote his dissertation on prior restraint, used to emphasize that the first amendment says congress will make ” NO law …abridging the freedom of speech.” The danger presented by restriction on free speech that come from non-governmental social media is the issue that needs more development, instead we got a panel discussion between five comedians without any memorable moments. This were  lost opportunities to dig deeper. I admire the desire to tackle this issue and I agree that it is significant and potentially dangerous to the country to ignore it. I just wish the skill of the writer and director had stayed more with the issues they see as important rather than throwing everything into the pot and hoping it made a stew.

Lord of the Rings: One Day Trilogy Event

As a fan of the American Cinematique and the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, I look forward to big movies presented on the big screen on a regular basis. New exclusives like “The Irishman” or old favorites like “Lawrence of Arabia” make sense on the extra large screen at this theater. Yesterday however was pushing it to the extremes a little bit. All three Lord of the Rings films, in the extended editions on 35mm is really big, and frankly intimidating. This is at least a twelve hour commitment so you better not have any other plans this weekend.

It was way back in 2011 that I did posts on the extended editions and their theatrical release. Those screenings were basically extended commercials for the upcoming blu-ray release of the films. Unlike the most recent experience however, the films screened one at a time over the course of three different Tuesday nights. This was all three films in an indulgent day of film going. I was not at all shocked to see that the event was sold out and that it was heavily attended bu cosplaying fans of the series. We had to strategize a bit to work out being able to do this and survive. Fortunately, the programmers planned a thirty minute break between each film so we could run out and get something to eat or simply some fresh air before the next stage of our Middle Earth journey began.

Of the three films, my personal favorite has always been the first chapter “The Fellowship of the Ring“. Peter Jackson’s world building is so well set up in this film that all of the grand moments in the second and third chapters feel more natural as a result. I recognize that the whole trilogy was largely shot at the same time and we are getting three segments of one film with each entry, but you have to start somewhere and the Shire is a great start. Hobbiton and Bag’s End are exactly how I envisioned them when I read the books as a kid. The one thing that took a couple of minutes to get used to was the look of the hobbits. Their depiction is a lot more subtle than my imagination but it only took a short while to adjust. This is also the simplest of narratives since the story focuses on one group for the most part and two sections of the journey. The second and third acts distribute the characters into multiple locations and time lines so they are not as elegantly straightforward as the first chapter.

The Two Towers” seems to be a popular favorite with many on-line fans citing it as the best episode of the three. Like many second acts, the character development in this material is more substantial. There is more background on Aragorn and Merry and Pippin become characters that are more than simply the comic relief. The introduction of Gollum/Smeagol is a technical advancement and an unexpectedly poignant performance from Andy Serkis. I also think that Brad Dourif as Grimma/Wormtongue has the right amount of villainous flourish to make the film sparkle among the often grim characters. Everyone probably has a favorite character in the series, I am particularly fond of Theoden and the portrayal by Bernard Hill starts in this film and gets even better in the follow up.

We had succeeded in seeing the first two films in a 35mm format, but about a half hour into the third film, the management realized that the print they were given by the studio was the original theatrical version rather than the extended edition. After a survey of the audience, they switched to the extended edition that they had available on blu-ray. This presented two issues for the patient but tired audience. The bigger issue was that they started the film over, so that meant we sat thru the first 30 minutes a second time. This resulted in a finish for the day, well after 2 am. The other issue is that the blu ray actually has the film split on two disks, so there will be a delay break in the middle of a battle scene to make this switch. Being the owner of more than a thousand laser discs, this did not bother me at all, but you could tell that many in the audience were disconcerted about the technology.

While it is frequently lampooned for it’s multiple endings, “The Return of the King” needs all of those beats to make the wrap up as satisfying as it is.  Everyone who has a part to play in the film gets some moments on the screen to shine. Boromir comes back for a flashback in the extended edition and it retroactively enriches his character in the first film. The battle scenes are the impressive feat of this chapter of the series and they are spectacular. Just as Andy Serkis was neglected at awards time, it is a shame that Sean Astin was left out of the supporting actor race, his interpretation of Sam Gamgee is definitive in my opinion and it could have been over the top but instead it was just right.

The wisdom of a thirteen plus hour commitment to a film day might be questionable but the emotional satisfaction more than compensates. I hope to catch up on a little sleep later today, but I don’t regret doing this and if you love these films as well, take a chance when you get the opportunity to indulge.

Knives Out

In spite of the hype and overdone praise that this film has received, it is still a pretty basic “Who Done It?” Maybe there is a slight hint of a criticism of the 1% to make it seem socially relevant and topical. There is one scene where there is a direct discussion of current political events, but that feels like it will date the film rather than make it relevant. Writer/Director Rain Johnson would probably have been better off sticking to the traditional focus of a murder mystery, rather than trying to make it woke by including jabs at immigration policies and tax brackets.

The creative part of the film is the overlapping story of who is behind the investigation rather than who killed the victim. As told in a series of flashbacks, we see how the victim died, and it appears that there was a cover-up of an accident rather than a murder. It is only after motives get investigated that it becomes clear a crime really did occur. The intricacies of the plot are manifest in a series of vignettes that reveal what happened, what the suspects say about what happened, and what took place after those events. All of this gives a variety of actors a chance to strut their stuff on screen and create a collection of self centered privileged characters that we can smirk at for their foibles.

Christopher Plummer gets a second chance to play a rich octogenarian with issues surrounding his heirs. He turns in a slight but joyful performance. While he is not in the film long, there are some great moments that he shares with each of the main characters. Harlan Thrombey does not seem to be malicious in the decisions he is making regarding his family, but he is less concerned with his family than he is with his personal desires. Jamie Leigh Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Chris Evans, and Toni Collette all are given reasons to want to see him dead, but is he really murdered? What Johnson has done with his story is to find an alternative approach to the primary motivation. Daniel Craig as celebrated private detective Benoit Blanc is brought in to determine what really happened, but why he is there and who is paying is the mystery.

Ana de Arnas plays the old man’s nurse/companion who becomes a prime suspect but also the victim of persecution. The fact that she comes from an immigrant family and is not part of the rich inner circle is the thing that tries to establish some social credentials. It’s a shorthand plot device that works but in the long run, her families legal status is a distraction to the story rather than a justification for giving this movie any weight.  Michael Shannon and Toni Collette are the quirky spice in the blend. Don Johnson could have been playing the Chris Evans role thirty years ago, so it does feel like the casting decisions were right. Craig’s accent is laid on a little thick but since so much of the film attempts a comic edge I guess it works well enough.

About halfway through, I figured out who the antagonist really is, it’s not hard given the story structure. The real question is what are their motivations for choosing the course of action that was taken. The complex legal conundrum is brought up in the funniest scene where a welcome performance by Frank Oz, addresses the consequences of the dead man’s will. The extended scene is where half of the laughs in the movie can be located, not because there are jokes but because characters act out of their natures. This is a place where Johnson’s ideas stretch us a bit but do entertain us.

The film is a solid mystery puzzle and there are some good laughs to be had, but people suggesting that this is one of the great films of the year are over selling it to you. Go in with reasonable expectations of being entertained and you will be fine.

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary

The producers of this film included a quote from Pulitzer Prize winning Playwright and Screenwriter David Mamet. The comment basically says there are only 4 perfect movies: The Godfather, A Place in the Sun, Dodsworth and Galaxy Quest. On that last one, I am certainly inclined to agree. This throw away movie that was sold as a kids film for the Christmas holidays is so much better than it has any right to be. For the twenty years since it was initially released, “Galaxy Quest” has grown in stature and seems to be beloved by millions who may have missed it on it’s first release.

This documentary traces the development of the movie and the twists and turns it took to become a cultural touchstone. This comes from a fan driven group and that makes perfect sense because “Galaxy Quest” is a love letter to fandom and it may well have cleared the path to widespread acceptance of geek culture in the broader population. “The Big Bang Theory” and the “MCU” would not have nearly the resonance they do if Galaxy Quest had not blazed the trail for them.

Like many documentaries, the movie is loaded with talking heads who recall the events and personalities that are part of the story. Every major surviving cast member is included in the conversations. Sigourney Weaver is effusive in he love for the project and how it allowed her to play a comedic role that she sees as a lot closer to her true persona than the iconic character of Ripley really is. Sam Rockwell was almost unknown when he took the part, after having turned it down several times. He reasoned that it might be a good piece of counter-programming to show his range as “The Green Mile” was coming out around the same time. Tim Allen  probably had his finest role as an actor playing the William Shatner inspired lead character.

The Producer, screenwriter, director, casting director, production designer, editor and composer all have stories to share about the film and many of them are hysterical. The movie is generously supplied with clips from Galaxy Quest itself, along with Star Trek moments and a variety of other material. There is also an elaborate thread about the fans of Galaxy Quest, and the documentary trails a couple of fans who cosplay their way across the universe in salute to this pitch perfect film. We get a chance to see how fans become part of the story and how they were the original inspiration for the film in the first place.

The climax of the film brings the fans and the makers of the movie together at a celebratory screening of the film. It just so happens that I was at that screening along with my wife, daughter and my Southern California blogging colleague Michael, who brought his daughter the the screening as well. I covered the showing two years ago with some more details. Last night when we saw the documentary, we were delighted to note that we make a guest star appearance in the film. Amanda’s Jaws shirt and my Hawaiian style blue shirt are clearly visible in the crowd scenes as the Thermains arrived for the screening of the film. I have been a long time fan of Galaxy Quest, I took the whole family as our Christmas day movie in 1999. One of the things I remember speaking to them all about was that the aspect ration of the film changed three times in the movie. It was nice to hear that confirmed by the director, since the DVD presentation does not always allow you to notice that change.

I’m not one to disagree with David Mamet. I think he is certainly right when he includes this movie on a list of perfect films. In fact I did the same thing six years ago on a post I entitled “Three Perfect Movies“. If you check it out you will see I was with Mamet on this one early on. The documentary was accompanied by a long introduction from the Fandom group that put it together. If it is ever available to people on line or in physical form, I hope they will include the interactions of the writers for the site and the “Honest Trailer” they put together for the film. They were quite entertaining as well.

Doctor Sleep

Thirty-five years ago, someone created a sequel to a Stanley Kubrick film, using material from the original author of the piece. It seemed foolish to try to ride the tailcoats of Kubrick’s Masterpiece “2001: A Space Odyssey“, but “2010: The Year We Make Contact” was not a disaster and it did make a little money. Well, writer/director Mike Flanagan has attempted the same feat. Kubrick’s “The Shining” had a sequel written for it by original author Stephen King, and that story has been adapted to make this sequel almost forty years later.

“Doctor Sleep” is substantially different in tone from “The Shining”. The single location of the first film made it feel like a Gothic haunted house story, although there are many elements of the “shine” that are present. King was famously dissatisfied with the Kubrick approach. While I never read the novel, I suspect his unhappiness stemmed from the minimal relationship of the psychic ability of Danny Torrance to the film story. That may in fact be why King returned to the characters, so that he could elaborate on the mystery of “Shining” and not simply be trapped in the haunted hotel.

This story does start off at the time of the original events, and there are a couple of moments recreated for the prologue, but we quickly move forward thirty years to Danny Torrance as an adult. He is a troubled man who has been haunted by the spirit of the house that he feels has pursued him over the years. Ewan McGregor plays the adult Danny and he wanders aimlessly until another spirit visits him and he commits to a fresh start with new friends and no chemical solutions to his anxiety. As his story is playing out we are introduced to a new group of people who seem to thrive on those that shine. At first it is unclear whether they are spirits or something else. Ultimately, this group of wanderers lead by the magnetic Rebecca Ferguson, turns out to be the antagonists in a deadly hunt of those who can “shine” and those who use the shiners for their own purposes. It’s basically a vampire story with creatures that are human but who have supernatural abilities. It certainly is a horror story, but it is not the slow burn descent into madness that the original focused on.

The strengths of the story ,as told in the film, are first and foremost McGregor, who has to be desperate, sometime despicable and ultimately re-deemed. The character is strongest in the scenes where he is working as an orderly in a hospice, and conversing with those who are soon making the trip to the other side. He develops the sympathy and heroic nature that he will need when the story leads him to direct confrontation. Cliff Curtis, a familiar supporting actor and welcome presence helps steady Danny in the road to empowering his Shining Skills. Inevitably there is a figure that brings the two sides into conflict. I won’t spoil the horror for you but suffice it to say, it involves children, and that is introduced as a theme early on but taken to it’s most horrifying place mid-way through the film.

Modern film techniques allow directors to do things that seem physically impossible. The CGI moments remind us of that impossibility. That is one of the reasons that practical effects are so important, because they tie a sense of reality to the impossible. Two sequences in the film took be out of the story a bit because of the computer work. One involves a young girl rotating a house and levitating, this was preceded by an episode with spoons years earlier. Both of these moments would have worked more in a frightening way if they had more practical elements to them. “Shining” moments are less problematic because we are in a fantasy world at that point so the lack of reality is less egregious.

Just like how 2010 took the metaphysical world of it’s predecessor and moved it into a traditional political conflict, Flanagan  and King take the supernatural horror from the first story and turn it into an action story, and it works. There are moments of horror in this film that are shocking for sure but it will be most noted for the game playing being done by two sides that we get to understand pretty well. It feels like an adaption of a complex universe that has been created in a book, and I think it is largely successful at turning that material into something cinematic.