Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there, I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace. Where never lark, or even eagle flew — And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod The high untrespassed sanctity of space, - Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
High Flight by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
Such a lovely, lovely movie, immersive and thrilling and sad. I’m sure I’ve said this before, but when movies delve deeply into “hero survives on only their guts and bravery”, I pretty much turn to fanboy jelly. And yes: the plot and somewhat heavy handed backstory and motivations, and the too-manipulative-by-half late-story near-switcheroo bit don’t quite live up to the breathtaking visuals and bravura filmmaking (like Children of Men does), but…
…it’s hard to care when it’s done this well. This extraordinarily well! This transportingly well! I sat there the whole time with my jaw hanging open and later found myself thinking back to the poem above, which was so completely and developmentally tied to my own sense of history and loss in its use during the Challenger accident in 1986 and - even more impactfully - in Bloom County.
I digress, but - Gravity: yes. Oh yes. Yes, please. Wonderful. Not quite perfect, but neither are a lot of things.
The Mayor is probably my favorite character in this. He’s such a simple combination of clever design, funny lines and likely-above-the-target-audience’s heads satire all wrapped up in one simple package. Pixar-like visual storytelling two years before Toy Story.
My 2013 Movies - Beetlejuice/Young Frankenstein Double Feature (1988/1974, on DVD, home collection)
First off, allow me to acknowledge that I’ve fallen criminally behind in posting these mini-reviews of movies I’ve seen this year. I got to the point where I started writing a list because I knew I’d forget what I’d seen, and I’m appalled to now admit that I’m about 11 films behind - a statistic that I will Tumbl my fingers off to rectify, hopefully in the next few weeks.
Does it matter? I’m not sure anyone’s noticed or cares but me, but it’s a bummer when you set yourself a goal and life-type things get in the way.
But the good news is, my boys got to watch Beetlejuice for the first time this year, and that was a fun bit of mayhem to share with them. They were absolutely entertained by it, and if my youngest had been inclined, he probably could have pulled off a nifty Halloween costume this year. He’s got the perfect hair for it, but my mom had already made him a bat costume so there was no turning back.
Like a number of folks, I’ve lost some favor with Tim Burton’s movies in the last few years; his nearly complete abandonment of practical special effects and non-Johnny Depp storytelling has left me a bit cold. So it’s fun to revisit Beetlejuice every so often and remember how this kind of thing used to be done. It’s such a terrific, macabre story that runs like a demented old fashioned toy: you wind it up and set it down on the floor and watch it run, all crazy-like, until suddenly it stops.
It’s curious, too, how much it shares in common with Young Frankenstein in its themes of accepting mortality, trying to control supernatural forces and the consequences of failing. And, naturally, how damn funny it can be when “the strange and unusual” collide with mere mortals.
Grievously, each year I think I’ll be able to let the boys watch Young Frankenstein, and each year I realize “noooope….”. That realization starts right around “Great knockers!” and becomes a certainty at “enormous schwanzstucker”.
So my wife and I watched it together late at night, as is our annual pre-Halloween tradition, and it never disappoints. I almost always forget about the Gene Hackman bit, and it’s like finding this delightful little fun-size chocolate bar at the bottom of a big bag of treats each time.
"You must have been the tallest one in your class."
My 2013 Movies: Return of the Jedi (1983, on DVD, home collection)
This was my seven-year-old’s first time seeing the movie. We had previously watched SW and TESB, in the order in which God intended them. And also because I don’t own II and III.
At this point in the movie he leaned over and whispered:
MY SEVEN-YEAR-OLD: Daddy, who is that with Yoda and Obi-Wan?
ME: That’s Anakin Skywalker as a young man.
MY SEVEN-YEAR-OLD: …?
ME: Darth Vader. He was Anakin as a young man. Then he became Vader.
MY SEVEN-YEAR-OLD: I know. But…?
ME: Now that Darth Vader turned good before he died, he gets to be the good, non-evil version of himself as a ghost.
MY SEVEN-YEAR-OLD: But he didn’t look like that when Luke took his helmet off. He was older. I thought he was Luke’s father.
ME: He is. But this is him when he was younger.
MY SEVEN-YEAR-OLD: …
I certainly don’t have to rehash all of the Lucas-prequel-revisionist foolishness here, but it really does call into question what order these movies are “supposed” to be viewed in. I’m terrifically old, so it’s hard for me to watch them in story-chronological order - because then they become Vader’s story only, with Luke and Han and Leia simply appearing as supporting characters. Luke’s character arc is stripped of any meaning and Han is just this guy, you know?
So I guess I can understand showing Young Anakin as a force ghost if one were to watch these in order, because it would pay off emotionally to see him happy and darkness-free in the Jedi afterlife (even though Christensen seems to have acted this moment as more “creepy and leering” than “benevolent fatherly ghost”, if indeed he even knew or was aware of what he was supposed to be emoting in this moment when Lucas hatched plans to Frankenstein it together. I kind of imagine Lucas just telling him, “Okay, stand there for a moment. I don’t know how I’ll use this, but it’ll probably come in handy. Give me one that’s angry. And one that’s proud. Or something. Okay, now silly, like make a face. Aaaaannnd we’ve got it!”).
Anyway, so my boys and I all watched Jedi this weekend, and had a fun enough time with it. It strikes me now that this really has a terrific, epic opening and a wonderful finish…and pretty much just lurches around through the whole middle. It’s kind of hilarious how marginalized Yoda is here, how little, narratively speaking, he’s given to do. In Empire Yoda’s given mythic status, a big build-up and reveal, and then his character comes across as fully realized - a whimsical, cute, ancient-but-spry mentor. His efforts impact Luke, they spin him off onto his journey.
But then all Jedi serves to do is give Yoda the boot. We don’t really know and aren’t told how much time has passed, but suddenly he’s got one green toe in the grave. Luke shows up and Yoda basically says “Welp, my death upon me it is,” and then within two minutes he’s kicked it. It’s a silly, abrupt send-off with virtually no impact on the story. A minute later Obi-Wan-Ghost does the heavy lifting of Anakin’s backstory for Luke, and although Luke thinks he has more training, Yoda told him that he doesn’t (despite previously stressing - rather strenuously - that he did).
Oh well. Water, bridge, etc. It’s a fun movie. We all enjoyed it.
But I wonder now - now that I and all of my present and forever progeny have seen it - whether there will ever be a reason to watch it again.
My 2013 Movies: Monsters, Inc. (2001, on DVD, home collection) and Monsters University (2013, at the theatre)
I’ve said this more than several times on this site: I’m a Pixar snob. Full-blooded. Saw the first Toy Story at an event at the Egyptian in Hollywood and attended an after-party where there were life-sized characters, real army guys hobbling around on their stands, a room-sized working Etch-O-Sketch, the whole bit.
So I can’t pretend to be neutral on these things. I just can’t. Pixar has, I believe, achieved the extraordinary, the sublime, the incredible(s) in filmmaking history. It’s landmark stuff, and Pixar films will forever be theatre-viewing essential as long as multiplexes exist. I actually started to get nervous and upset in the past week when I thought MU might be leaving my local theatre soon and I might be missing it. I felt like I was becoming physically ill from worry.
Yeah. I’m that guy. And will forever be.
So you shouldn’t expect to read here a very critical or deep analysis of character, theme, development or arc. I don’t have anything terribly meaningful to say. My family re-watched Inc. recently so that we’d feel properly refreshed before seeing Uni, and the 2001 version (holy wowie. 2001? That gives one pause.) was still fun and exciting. I’d kind of forgotten that it relies less on story and character like some of the studio’s other offerings, and instead a bit too much on slapstick-type humor, bug-eyes and comical fainting and all. It’s not my favorite Pixar by any means, but it makes for an enjoyable revisit.
So if anything, University improves in that area a bit, giving the characters a few more interesting things to do, some growth that, while predictable, feels earned and well-told. At the culmination (SPOILERS) of the Scare Games in the movie, I actually felt miserably let down for a moment, thinking that the movie might end there. For some reason I had no concept of how long the movie had been at that point and was convinced - from the way the scene was staged with music and climactic-y things happening - that it was ending that way, and I wasn’t at all happy.
I doubted. For a moment. Damn you, Cars! *shakes old man fist*
All of which made what followed very gratifying, and very terrific. I thought the scenes taking place in the human world were spectacular - so richly shot, with the backgrounds and lighting and overall feel rendered so differently - so purposefully differently - than the rest of the movie. Gorgeous and stunning.
So I was happy. My Pixar-Joy Containment Unit has been filled up once more.
My 2013 Movies: Man of Steel (2013, at the theatre)
My blogging pal Ray had an amusing observation about that screenshot above from MOS: who, exactly, is young Clark pretending to be there? Kids throughout history have done this, but it’s because they’re imitating Superman. In a world where Superman isn’t Superman yet, who does Superman aspire to be? How does he learn this iconography?
It’s a funny question, and even before Ray asked it, I posed it to my boys after we’d seen the movie on Father’s Day. And although they are adept at explaining away a great many plot holes with tactics both clever and contrived, this one stumped them. And I think it’s because the inherent question Why is this shot in the movie? is one that rather defies a clear answer, and suggests a greater truth about Man Of Steel:
It’s gorgeous. It’s loud. It’s even fun. But it truly doesn’t make a lick of sense.
I’m glad I saw it on the big screen and in fact, I’m glad it got made at all. Superman is a character who will keep coming back to the multiplex every reboot or so, and he should. That such great care and expense and talent have all been utilized for the character in this go-around is, well, fine. It’s acceptable and decent. We should accept that these properties will simply cycle around through time, and some of them will be great and others won’t. We live in cinematic times in which, if we’re simply patient, we’ll eventually get the movies that we want.
And this is good and bad news, of course. Why, in my lifetime alone I’ve witnessed three entirely excellent iterations of cinematic Batman - and all three couldn’t possibly be more different from each other! Some might call that overkill - and they wouldn’t be wrong - but there’s also something kind of amazing about it.
I enjoyed more or less all of the acting in MOS; the production values were terrific and the score was great. I appreciated the fact that Snyder didn’t fall back on his old speed-ramping, every-shot-in-slo-mo tricks that have defined him and many hacks hacking in his wake. His filmmaking is not always my favorite, but I find him much more watchable than, say, Michael Bay, and Synder certainly has a better way with actors and - infinitely - editing than Bay does.
But you see what’s happening here? I’m accepting this because it’s not as terrible as other crap. MOS wasn’t great, I didn’t love it - I’m just happy that it wasn’t a complete waste. That’s not really what I look for when I’m going to the movies. I’ve become too complacent about crap, and although I’m not crazy about it, I’d rather be content than miserable.
Because it is fun, but when it comes to the story, that’s where MOS really and truly falls apart. The plot kind of lurches from one scene to the next, never quite losing you but never giving you a reason to believe, either. As I said, there are just so many plot points and resolutions that invite dissection - and not the good kind, where you explore a story’s constructs and rules (The Matrix) or you’re engaged by the hero’s obstacles and triumphs (Die Hard). Rather, MOS invites you to question logic, physics, societal implications and heroic responsibilities - but the movie gives no adequate or even sensible answers to these things. Instead, it fights you - challenging you with its rousing battles and actorly moments, but wearing its narrative flimsiness like…
Well, like a tablecloth a child would use for a cape. Cute, but fake.
You’ll find nothing extraordinary here; you’ll find no surprises or conflicts that are more than skin-deep. You’ll find serviceable, occasionally community-theatre-like performances*, a thoughtful yet superficial biopic treatment that neither discourages discourse nor provokes it.
But what you will find is a rather perfect movie to bring two** of your sons to so that they can learn something rather simple and meaningful about the world, and the sport they love.
* 2013 Best Performance by Outrageously Furry Eyebrows: Harrison Ford.
** if you’ve been paying attention, you may remember that I have three sons. My oldest 1) was performing in a choral concert when the rest of us went to the movies and - more importantly - 2) could not possibly be dragged to a movie about baseball.
My 2013 Movies - Iron Man (2008, on a Blu-ray loaner from a friend)
I’m pretty sure I only saw this once when it was in the multiplexes, and then once more with one of my sons when it came out on DVD. Then a friend loaned me his Blu-ray recently and I decided to watch it again with one of my other sons who hadn’t seen it originally.
(of course, I’d also mention the thousand or so bits and pieces of it that I’ve rewatched, usually while loading the dishwasher or clipping fingernails, in its ubiquitous rotation on FX)
Are you discerning the lazy, tossed-off way I’m approaching this? I do like Iron Man - in fact, it’s hard to find much that’s actively wrong about it - but it’s definitely not among my favorites. I think that by 2008 I’d simply slipped into a superhero movie malaise where yet another origin story and yet another set of quippy action scenes and yet another string of CGI-heavy flying-slinging-punching-world-domination antics had felt like they’d run their respective courses.
And worse for IM, 2008 was post-Batman Begins, which did find a new sheen to apply to those well-worn tropes. So there was even a bigger challenge to face.
Still, IM does a fairly decent job for what it is, and I will say that whoever thought to hand such an auspicious set of franchise keys over to the guy who’d only directed Elf and Zathura has to be some kind of a Hollywood savant. Favreau does a pretty fantastic job of keeping things moving along well, and watching this again I’m reminded at just how tight a story it is; how briskly it moves along and hits beats that, while not unique, are uniquely - and entertainingly - rendered.
As far as Robert Downey Jr. in the role? I think Tumblr has that covered already. But casting Jeff Bridges as the big bad in this kind of movie was a masterstroke. The fact alone that he shaved off all that glorious, epic hair is enough to earn my admiration. He’s just so damn good, always so watchable and exciting, and one of the things that so frustrates me about the superhero movie genre is the way in which 95% of the badguys are killed off in the end, which denies us future stories with such strong and well-played villains. IM2 certainly didn’t improve in this department, and it remains to be seen if 3 will succeed there, either.
Ultimately, this remains a good bit of rewatchable fun, and seeing it in quality HD is definitely a plus. I still don’t feel motivated to own it, however, and even after two years I’m not sure that the stink of IM2 has quite faded from memory enough to make 3 a must-see in the theatre.