Thursday, January 9, 2020

My Year at the Movies 2019

above: Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)

I saw 102 movies on the big screen in 2019. That's a quite a dip from my all-time high of 126 movies in 2018. Not that it's about numbers, of course. (Though to be honest keeping count of my moviegoing is as close as I get to playing sports.) 

I began the year with a bang, seeing BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE (1938) in Paris. For a Gary Cooper fan, to see one of my favorites among his comedies on the big screen in Paris was a joyful experience. The last film I saw this year was Terence Malick's beautiful A HIDDEN LIFE (2019), a profound work of Christian humanism, and his best film in years.

My favorite new films this year, aside from A HIDDEN LIFE, were (in no particular order) the hilarious and horrifying PARASITE, the empathetic divorce drama MARRIAGE STORY, the loving documentary tribute THE EYES OF ORSON WELLES, the loving biopic tribute JUDY, the irresistible HUSTLERS, and the darkly elegiac THE IRISHMAN. My favorite blockbuster was ENDGAME, which did the big bloated blockbuster thing about as well as it can be done. My favorite overlooked movie of the year was MARY MAGDALENE,  a feminist retelling of the gospel story featuring compelling performances from Rooney Mara and Joaquin Phoenix (whose turn as Jesus was far more nuanced than his work as Joker). 

As is always the case, I've seen a lot more old movies than new ones this year. (The benefits of living in Chicago, a town that loves its repertory movie programming.) Highlights included a retrospective of all four of Bogart/Bacall vehicles, an all-night program of four Dolly Parton movies (9 to 5, THE BEST LITTLE WHOREHOUSE IN TEXAS, RHINESTONE, and STRAIGHT TALK), Chabrol's shocking LES BONNES FEMMES, and three Judy Garland films (EASTER PARADE, THE CLOCK, and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS). I also got to see a lot of noir, including IN A LONELY PLACE, SUDDEN FEAR, PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, PUSHOVER, THE RED HOUSE, REPEAT PERFORMANCE, and both versions of THE KILLERS.

All in all, it was a hell of a year at the movies. Hope to match it this year...and maybe get those numbers up.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

DRY COUNTY on Audiobook


I'm super excited to announce that DRY COUNTY is now available on audiobook. Because the book is told through alternating narrators, there are five different actors (Cassandra Campbell, Charles Constant, Pete Cross, Joel Froomkin, Devon Sorvari) reading. You can get it on Audible or wherever you get your talkin' books.

Friday, November 22, 2019

STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME (1986)


I fear that we will never look upon the likes of STAR TREK IV: THE VOYAGE HOME again. Remember that this fourth entry in the venerable franchise was a radical departure from what came before it. Where STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE was a bloated attempt to turn Trek into a Kubrickian LSD trip, and WRATH OF KHAN was a submarine picture, and SEARCH FOR SPOCK was a heist movie crossed with a religious epic, THE VOYAGE HOME is, of all things, a gentle comedy.

Curiously, of all the Start Trek feature films, it is the one that most closely resembles the original series. People remember it as "the one with the whales" because the plot centers around a return to the past (ie. the then present, 1986) to retrieve a couple of humpback whales in the hopes that the extinct leviathans can communicate with a probe that is destroying the earth. The time travel plot (and its twin sibling, the "let's go to a planet that resembles an era in Earth's past" plot) was a mainstay of the original series. But so was the comedy episode. Something like "A Piece of the Action," in which Kirk, Spock and McCoy beam down to a planet that has patterned itself after the gangsterism of 1920s Chicago, combines both the time travel plot and the comedy approach. STAR TREK IV, in some ways, owes more to those kinds of episodes than it does to TREKs 1, 2, and 3. 

(This is where I should point out that THE VOYAGE HOME does complete the Genesis Trilogy, that trilogy within the series that begins with the introduction of the Genesis device and the death of Spock in WRATH, follows Spock's resurrection on the Genesis planet in SEARCH, and culminates with the return to Earth in VOYAGE.)

Because THE VOYAGE HOME was the most successful film in the franchise until the 2009 reboot, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that the initial decision to make the film a comedy was a potentially disastrous decision. Parts 2 and 3 had blacked-hatted villains, disgusting desert slugs oozing out of people's ears, battles in space,  exploding planets. Part 4 features word play and fish-out-of-water (no pun intended) slapstick. It all could have gone so wrong.

(Another aside: it almost all did go wrong. An early idea for the movie featured Eddie Murphy as a whale expert who gets involved with the crew. This version of the story was given very real consideration, and Murphy was briefly attached to the project, before the idea was abandoned and the character was changed to a love interest for Kirk. One can respect Eddie Murphy was as a comedy legend while still suspecting that stunt casting him in a Star Trek movie in 1986 would have been bad for everyone involved.)

Instead, what the filmmakers gave us was a perfect kind of Star Trek episode, one that relies on sharply drawn personalities and witty dialogue for its effects. Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley were always a great comedy team, but here the rest of the cast get to flex their comedy muscles as well. 

It's all kind of perfect. Yes, THE WRATH OF KHAN is a pop sci-fi masterpiece and the best of the Trek films. It's the one that will have the longest life. Just recently a theater here in Chicago played KHAN as part of their "Nerdy November" late night movie series. When I saw that (which is what prompted this little blog post), I thought. "That's wrong. If you want to be nerdy, show THE VOYAGE HOME." In a way, it's the most Trek of the Trek movies.

Which brings me back around to my original point. We'll probably never see another Trek movie like this again. It's too big of a risk today. VOYAGE cost 21 million dollars to make. The last reboot film, STAR TREK BEYOND, cost a whopping 186 million. The new films use humor, but the idea of giving an entire installment in the series over to characters, conversation, and laughter (with the requite sci-fi bookends, of course) would never fly today. Today Trek has to, in theory at least, compete with Star Wars installments and Marvel movies. It has to be big. VOYAGE, by contrast, had scope when it needed it, but was mostly content to be intimate.

Even more radical, VOYAGE doesn't have an enemy. Think about that for a moment. There's no violence, just suspense and comedy. One of my bones of contention with the direction that Star Trek has taken since the original cast retired is its slavish devotion to the revenge plot. This is an unfortunate legacy of KHAN. The main driver of the last four (!) Trek films--starting with the series nadir NEMESIS in 2002 and extending through all three of the reboot films--has been the revenge plot. Someone returns from the past to get revenge. One wants to tell the filmmakers, for god's sake stop trying to remake KHAN. Is is beyond tiresome at this point. It's malpractice. One can only hope that Noah Hawley will watch STAR TREK IV again. I don't expect the next Trek film to be a comedy about whales, nor would I want it to be. I'm not asking for another rehash. What I am suggesting is that Star Trek has durable characters and a tradition of being open to risky ideas. Trying boldly going in that direction?   
  

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Moses, Iron Man, and Jesus Walk Into A Cinema



Reading about the recent dust up between Martin Scorsese and Marvel fans, I couldn't help but think of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. It's a film that Scorsese admires and that he showcased in his documentary A PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICAN FILM (1995). It's a finely crafted big budget spectacular. It's also a pretty bad film. What I mean is, no one watches THE TEN COMMANDMENTS today and thinks of it in anything other than genre terms. It's not a serious statement of religious conviction, it's not psychologically rich, and it's not a great work of cinema. Instead, it's the biggest of the biblical epics, the popular movie genre that dominated big screens in the 1950s. And biblical epics were, basically, proto-superhero movies. They have most of the qualities that we associate with superhero movies: square-jawed heroes with fantastic abilities, impressive special effects, romantic subplots, broad action and drama, and characters that fall pretty easily into the categories of good and bad. (About the only thing from the standard superhero tool kit that THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is missing is comedy, because DeMille didn't have a sense of humor.) I suspect Scorsese is probably making allowances for Moses that he won't make for Iron Man because he formed an attachment to the biblical epics as a kid. As a child, he looked past their goofiness and their shallowness because all he saw was their size and spectacle. The symbolism of the Bible writ large on the big screen fired his imagination, and that initial awe and wonder has stayed with him. The same is undoubtedly true of people who love comic book movies. Where they would watch THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and might only see stodgy cheese, they look past many of those same qualities in their beloved comic book movies because they bonded with those stories and characters as children. 

Something else that has inspired these reflections is that I watched Scorsese's THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST the other day. It's a fascinating film, and part of its fascination is that despite all of its controversy, in its heart it's kind of another cheesy biblical epic. It's dealing with deadly serious theological issues, but, I don't know, every time Harvey Keitel opens his mouth to debate Jewish law, I laugh. When the snake tempts Jesus in the desert with "Look at my breasts. Ooh Jesuuus," I laugh. And pretty much every time Peter Gabriel's very '80s score kicks in, I laugh.
Something that THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and a movie like AVENGERS: ENDGAME have in common is that they both essentially exist to do fan service. (THE TEN COMMANDMENTS was the only movie my fundamentalist grandfather liked, probably because it was designed to give him exactly the version of Moses he expected to see. Most comic book fans love ENDGAME for the same reason.) In this crucial respect, though, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST is different. Scorsese made a film that appealed to a very narrow sliver of the moviegoing public. He made a biblical epic that would antagonize the kind of people who usually like biblical epics, without necessarily attracting many people who don't like biblical epics. Along with Kevin Smith's DOGMA, it belongs in a tiny subgenre we might call Subversive-Catholic fanfic cinema. These are works of supremely idiosyncratic theological obsession.

I don't know if the superhero movie could really lend itself to this kind of treatment. Something like UNBREAKABLE is certainly a rethinking of the superhero movie, but it's not working from well known pre-existing characters. And, no, JOKER doesn't count, either. JOKER is a massive testament to fan service. It gives fans of the character exactly what they want to see (to the tune of about 745 million dollars and counting). Perhaps one day when Iron Man and Joker and all the rest of their superhero/villain brethren slip into the public domain alongside Jesus and Moses, we'll see if something truly challenging could be done with them. That should be interesting.   

For now, we're stuck with the world as it it, a world dominated by superhero movies. In a way, I'm okay with that. I like many of these movies, and I suppose that whether they wear capes or togas, superheroes have pretty much always dominated movie screens. Having said that, it's also true that most great cinema addresses itself to the rest of us mere mortals, living our little lives down here below without the benefit of either infinity stones or parting seas.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Interview

Above: Some handsome son of a bitch.

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Scott Alderberg over at Criminal Element. We discuss DRY COUNTY, which leads us into questions of religion, politics, and the origins of evil. In other words, fun stuff. Check it out here.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Criminal Clergy: Depictions of Religion in 1950s Film Noir


The 1950s were the great heyday of movies about preachers gone bad. Today, I'm over at Criminal Element trying to answer why that is. Check out my piece "Criminal Clergy: Depictions of Religion in 1950s Film Noir" here.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

DRY COUNTY Book Launch on October 1st


My novel DRY COUNTY will hit bookstores on October 1st. That night there will be a book launch at City Lit Books from 6:30-8:30. If you're in Chicago or surrounding environs, I hope you'll come by.