Weekly Wilson - Blog of Author Connie C. Wilson

Welcome to WeeklyWilson.com, where author/film critic Connie (Corcoran) Wilson avoids totally losing her marbles in semi-retirement by writing about film (see the Chicago Film Festival reviews and SXSW), politics and books—-her own books and those of other people. You'll also find her diverging frequently to share humorous (or not-so-humorous) anecdotes and concerns. Try it! You'll like it!

Category: Movies Page 2 of 27

55th Chicago International Film Festival Begins October 16th

The 55th Chicago International Film Festival starts Wednesday, October 16th, opening with Edward Norton directing and starring in the film adaptation of “Motherless Brooklyn” (with Bruce Willis co-starring). The book, by Jonathan Lethem, won the New York Book Circle Award some years back and it has been a long time coming to the screen. “Motherless Brooklyn” will open the 55th year for America’s longest-running film competition, which runs from October 16th through October 27th.

THE WHISTLERS
It hasn’t opened to the public yet, but critics have already had the opportunity to see the new film from Corneliu Porumboiu, “The Whistlers,” which will be the Czech Republic’s entry for the Academy Awards. The involved noir tale follows the adventures of a corrupt, middle-aged policeman named Cristi (Vlad Ivanov) who travels from Bucharest to the Canary islands to study the ancient Aboriginal whistling language, which allows criminals to communicate clandestinely. Director Porumboiu, in interviews from Cannes, says he became interested in this authentic language after seeing a piece on television describing it. There’s a femme fatale named Gilad (homage to Rita Hayworth intentional), quick clips of “The Searchers” (which is one reason the original title, “La Gomera,” was changed to “The Whistlers”) and a gorgeous opportunity to see lighted garden display in Singapore, which runs 12 minutes and shows two times a night. It’s a complicated caper plot. When asked about the finale Hong Kong Gardens light show and how he knew about it, Porumboiu said, “YouTube.” (Romanian English with subtitles, 97 minutes).

8 – A SOUTH AFRICAN HORROR STORY
This film from director Harold Holscher has a wonderfully moody, menacing, supernatural plot and the South African cinematography is gorgeous. It revolves around a black man named Lazarus (aptly named) and his interaction with a South African family returning to their family farm after many years. A little girl named Mary will be the focus of the film and the spine-tingling, creepy, well-acted central performance by Tahamano Sebe as Lazarus holds the film together. The female performances, especially the ingenue, Mary, are not as impressive, but there are visceral scares and a heartbreaking plot. (98 minutes)


FORMAN vs FORMAN
This documentary traces the life and achievements of Milos Forman, who won Oscars for directing both “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1975 and “Amadeus” in 1984. There are a multitude of film clips of young Milos, his parents, Prague where he grew up, and some personal shots from his widow. Forman died on April 13, 2018, and this documentary about his life, directed by Helena Trestikova and Jakub Hejna is a treasure trove of archival footage that traces Forman’s life and career. Both of Forman’s parents are taken away to concentration camps when he was young, leaving him feeling like an outsider in the world. (His mother died in Auschwitz and his father in Buchenwald.) It’s well worth a look. (78 minutes)

JUST 6.5
Saving the best of those I’ve seen so far for last, from Iran comes this riveting story of detective Samad (Peyman Maadi, of “A Separation”), whose mission is to bring down powerful drug kingpin Nasser Khakzad. The first 8 minutes of this film is as riveting and intense as the opening of “Shallow Grave.” There is a foot chase through winding alleyways that forces the runner over a fence and (inadvertently) into a deep hole where he is buried alive. The film was a hit in its native land and it’s easy to see why. It’s a high-octane look at the drug trade and the criminal justice system in Iran. (Farsi with subtitles, 135 minutes)

“El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie” Is Great for “Breaking Bad” Fans

Robert Forster, who passed away on Oct. 11, 2019. Photo taken on Oct. 15, 2018 at the Chicago International Film Festival by Connie Wilson at 9 p.m. at the showing of “What They Had.” (Who knew Robert had only 361 days left on the planet?)

We watched “El Camino: The Breaking Bad Movie” last night and liked it very much

.There are numerous flashbacks that provide some “Walt” for those who have to have Walt with their Jessie.

Since the original series had been off the air for 6 years, I confess to being hazy on some of the finer TV plot points. For example, I did remember that Jessie was kept in a cage and tortured and forced to make crystal meth, but the contraption used to give him mobility was totally forgotten by me, until it re-emerges in this film.

The “shoot-out at the O.K. Corral” part is quite good. (See it to find out what I mean).

Jessie’s desperate attempt to get money to finance his “disappearing” act was well done, with a run-in with “police” that is very creative. This part involves Robert Forster, who helped Walt hide out in the TV series.

Yesterday Robert Forster, 78, known as “the Disappearer” in the original TV series and the long-ago star of “Medium Cool” back in the sixties (one of the few—-perhaps only—-examples of cinema verite in the U.S.) unexpectedly died of brain cancer. I met Forster in October of 2018 as he made the film festival rounds on behalf of “What They Had,” a very good film with Michael Shannon, Vera Farmigia and Blythe Danner co-starring about an elderly couple coping with the wife’s encroaching Alzheimer’s disease.

Forster was perfect in the part of her devoted elderly husband, but when I saw him standing in the aisle as I walked to my seat (he was leaning against the wall at the time, in preparation for the post showing Q&A) I had to go over and introduce myself and tell him how much I admired his work in “Medium Cool” and many other projects. He was genuinely warm and friendly, and we chatted briefly for a few moments before I took my seat. Then, he talked about his career, both in an interview in the Chicago “Tribune” but also onstage, and, once again, cemented my admiration.

This is Forster’s final film role. I was struck, when he first came onscreen, by how much he had aged in just one year, as it was October of 2018 when I met him in person. It is one year later, I am about to leave for the October film festival again, but Robert looked like 5 years had passed. I assumed it was make-up. And then I heard that he had died, of brain cancer.

I found the arc that Jessie traverses in this film believable and well-acted and another reason it rang a particularly intense bell with me, besides the information in the paragraph above, is that we just returned from a tour of Alaska and Alaska has an important role in the plot.

I definitely recommend the film for fans of “Breaking Bad.”

“Joker” May Bring Joaquin an Oscar

JOKER

Joaquin Phoenix has turned in another riveting, intense performance in “Joker,” this time as Arthur Fleck, a mentally ill young man who lives with his invalid mother and works as a clown. In the opening scene, he is twirling a sign on the rat-infested, garbage-strewn streets of Gotham (1970s New York City) when 5 young men steal his “Everything must go!” sign and beat him up in an alley.

If you think this is grim, just wait.

Joaquin has pretty much made a career out of playing character parts that Bruce Dern of 30 years ago, Crispin Glover of 20 years ago, or Michael Shannon of today might play. He is intense and strange, excelling, as one critic put it, in films that depict “exquisite isolation.” In this film, for which he lost 15 pounds, he looks emaciated, like Christian Bale in “The Mechanic.” He claims it helped him with his weirdly artistic dance moves to be lighter on his feet. Arthur (Phoenix) laughs inappropriately and compulsively and may suffer from pseudobulbar affect disorder (or any of a series of ailments often related to traumatic brain injury and/or schizophrenia). It is off-putting and uncomfortable; he even carries a small card explaining his condition to strangers, much like the deaf have used.

The tour-de-force part of Arthur Fleck is eerily reminiscent of Travis Bickle in 1976’s “Taxi Driver.” This part also builds on Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker in “The Dark Knight Rises” and gives us a back story for Joker that is different from the ones in other “Batman” films. Oscar history could repeat itself with a gold statuette for Joaquin, but the film, itself, does not seem Oscar-worthy, to me.

Joaquin has been acting since the early eighties. Many of his best performances have utilized his personal projection of a sense of strange intensity. I remember seeing him on David Letterman’s show on February 11th, 2009, when he claimed he was giving up acting for good to become a rapper. He acted weird, strange and was monosyllabic. Letterman played off that, as he used to do when Crispin Glover came on the show and acted like a World Class Weirdo. (Remember the kicking sequence with Glover on the show?)

At the time, Joaquin was making the movie “I’m Still Here” with his then brother-in-law (Casey Affleck). As it turned out, they thought it would be a good promotional stunt to have Joaquin claim he was quitting acting to become a rapper. Later, on September 22, 2010, Joaquin returned to Letterman’s “Tonight” show to admit that he was actually not finished with acting. Each time, Phoenix came across as supremely weird, strange, and intense. He’s supposed to be engaged to frequent co-star Mara Rooney now, so perhaps both of those television appearances were just good examples of his acting ability.

Whatever. He fooled most of us, and, therefore, his persona with the public and the press has been close to that of Arthur Fleck. The part of “Joker” was perfect for him.  Director/Writer Todd Phillips (the “Hangover” movies) said that he never wanted to develop a Plan B for any other casting, because he always intended to cast Phoenix in the part.

When New York Times writer David Itzkoff pointed out while interviewing Phoenix that he seemed to be the “go to” character actor for such over-the-top intense performances  and that Phoenix could continue acting characters like this for a very long time, the actor responded, “Oh, really?” in a sarcastic voice as dry as sandpaper. “Well, good. Thank you so much. That’s great. I was worried.”

Then, said Itzkoff, “he grinned and let out a laugh to let me know he was kidding. (Or was he?”)

THE GOOD

The Acting

Joaquin Phoenix is a good bet for an Oscar nomination and, potentially, for a win, although it’s still early for making those predictions.

The film is powerful, but about as grim a film as you can find. Still, there were many great supporting turns from the rest of the cast including Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under,” “American Horror Story”) as his mother, Robert DeNiro as  talk show host Murray Franklin and Zazee Beetz as his next-door neighbor Sophie Dumond. The use of DeNiro as the late night talk show host modeled on Johnny Carson elicited echoes of Jerry Lewis’ 1982 film “King of Comedy,” where DeNiro played Rupert Pupkin.

Cinematography & Editing:

Director/Writer Todd Phillips (who co-wrote the screenplay with Scott Silver) has used an interesting mix of “Is this really happening?” cinema, woven together to leave it up to the audience to determine whether what Arthur Fleck is experiencing is wishful thinking or really happening. Audiences today are fairly savvy. We are used to having to figure out some of the connecting tissue of a film on our own, and Phillips handles that beautifully, along with the assistance of cinematographer Lawrence Sher, who seems to love to dwell on Phoenix in close-up. Phillips does a good job of incorporating the seamy, rat-infested city of Gotham as almost a character in itself, and the many nods to Scorsese’s classic films show that, “Hangover” or no “Hangover,” Phillips recognizes a modern-day cinematic icon’s quality work when he sees it. All nice touches.

THE BAD:

Music:

I was not a fan of the cello-heavy score by the 31 people listed as being in charge of the music for the film. It was overpoweringly dark, screaming, “Feel sorry for Arthur” at every plot turn.

Plot:

That last remark brings me to the fact that we are primed to feel sorry for/excuse Arthur for his misdeeds. There isn’t a single murder that takes place (and there are plenty, most of them bloody) that some rationale or excuse as to why Arthur would have committed the bloodthirsty crime can’t be ginned up to defend or excuse this poor mentally-ill man (who seems completely amoral by film’s end, if not before).

When Arthur first turns homicidal on a subway train,  he has acted in self defense. The plot channels Bernard Goetz, who shot and wounded four African-American youths on a Manhattan subway train in 1984. Only this time “the enemy” is Wall Street and it is three young white Wall Street brokers, insensitive louts all, who abuse and mistreat poor Arthur before he snaps. That brings about the violence. The viewer does feel that the audience is supposed to sympathize with the poor beaten-down loser that Joaquin is portraying so well. We’re rooting for “the little guy” standing up for himself, even if you feel that a sane person would have taken his chances with the NYPD, since the subway shootings seem justified.

After that, while excuses/rationales/reasons are still given for every single murder, feeling sorry for poor Arthur goes downhill fast.

The entire idea of the poor versus the rich is elevated to new heights when portions of Arthur’s comedy act showing him laughing hysterically and uncontrollably are broadcast on Murray Franklin’s show. Arthur becomes a lightning rod for the general sense of malaise and unrest abroad in the land. “Is it just me, or is it getting crazier out there?” asks Arthur, at one point.

It’s not just you, Arthur. It IS getting crazier out there, and most of us know why.

It is interesting to have a homicidal, mentally-ill killer elevated, by film’s end, almost to the point of “leader of the pack,” but maybe not such a great idea. We can always bring back Steve Bannon, who wants to tear down everything in order to create “the Fourth Turning” (as he himself articulated in the Erroll Morris “American Dharma” documentary).

Permissive nods towards out-of-control violence of any kind should be quickly squelched, whenever and wherever they crop up. Arthur’s sad plight illustrates many of the issues this country is facing. Indeed, problems that the entire world is facing: the ‘haves vs have nots” battle, etc. But letting anarchy rule doesn’t seem like the best solution, regardless of our emotional empathy for Arthur Fleck and embattled little people the world over.

Fun Facts About Madonna

(https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0099422/?ref_=nv_sr_1?ref_=nv_sr_1)

Renee Zellweger Lights Up Screen in “Judy” Bio-Pic

“I don’t know how these stories get started, but I do not approve nor sanction the upcoming film about Judy Garland in any way. Any reports to the contrary are 100% fiction.” So said the largely MIA Liza Minelli about the bio-pic “Judy”, which focuses on her mother, Judy Garland. The performance should earn Renee Zellwegger an Oscar nomination for Best Actress.

Zellwegger’s singing is good, too, complete with the awkward, nervous, arm-flailing delivery that those of us old enough to remember the real Garland associate with her.

“Judy” focuses on Judy Garland’s final shows in London at the Talk of the Town nightclub in 1969. She appeared for a five-week run that paid her $2,500 pounds weekly ($3,085 in dollars).

At that point in time Judy was considered unreliable and her life-long addiction to uppers and downers, dating from her childhood studio days, was contributing to her quickly failing health. She would be dead three months after these appearances, on June 22, 1969, at the age of 47.

THE GOOD

Acting: Renee Zellweger’s performance inhabiting the neurotic Judy Garland is the best thing about this bio-pic. It was nice seeing Finn Wittrock (“Write When You Get Work,” “American Horror Story”) finally get a chance at a “big” film, playing her last husband Mickey Deans, although the chemistry he and Zellweger generate was muted, at best; the film is very chaste in terms of depicting Judy Garland’s long history as a sexual being. The studio forced Garland to abort Tyrone Powers’ child in 1943 and, earlier, to end an “unapproved” pregnancy in 1941. We get no sense of Judy’s first 3 husbands. Vincent Minnelli (father of Liza) is omitted. Only Sid Luft and the 12-years-younger Mickey Deans are depicted, even though Deans was married to her for less than 3 months. Others deserving praise for their performances would include Darci Shaw as the young Judy Garland, and Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder, who is assigned to ride herd on the unreliable songstress during her London run.

Music: The quintessential Garland classics tell the story through familiar lyrics.”I’ll go my way by myself, I’m by myself, alone. I’ll have to deny myself love and laughter and friends…No one knows better than I myself know.”  Or, later: “For once in my life I won’t let sorrow hurt me” or “As long as I know I have love in my life I can make it.” Zellweger has not sung since “Chicago” in 2002; she is terrific.

Costuming & Make-Up: Jany Temime does a fantastic job of dressing Renee  as Judy. I did wonder how an actress who is supposed to be so broke found the money for such elaborate outfits and furs. The make-up and hair folks deserve plaudits for transforming Zellweger into a passable Garland. There were about 13 credited make-up folks and it took them 2 hours. It wouldn’t surprise me if they, too,  snagged Oscar nominations on February 9, 2020.

THE BAD

Unnecessary Backstory: The opening “set up” of Judy speaking with L.B. Mayer on the set of “The Wizard of Oz” is used to establish the pattern that most of us already knew. The studio forced the 4’ 11 ½” Garland to diet and plied her with pills to keep her performing in good voice. Then it was barbiturates to help her to sleep. In her adult years, Judy became an insomniac, an alcoholic, and  died of a barbiturate overdose that was deemed accidental, despite a couple of earlier documented suicide attempts.

Doting mother? The film insists that Judy was a devoted mother and depicts her traveling in a cab late at night with her two children by Sid Luft, Lorna and Joseph. They are turned away from their hotel for non-payment of the bill and end up going to Sid Luft’s house. The children appear to be of elementary school age—certainly not more than junior high school age—yet the setting for the film is 1968-1969.  At that time, the two Luft children would have been about 13 and 16.  Liza Minnelli, age 22 or 23 then, is shown only in a brief party scene where Judy “meets cute” with Mickey Dean (he actually met her while delivering illicit drugs.)

With the ages of her offspring much older than what is portrayed, the heart-rending conversation from an old-style red British phone booth where Judy more-or-less “gives up” her children becomes less touching. Judy stayed in London for three more months after her run at the Talk of the Town ended, ultimately dying at a rented house on Cadogan Lane, Belgravia, London, found by her fifth husband of only 3 months, Mickey Deans, in the bathroom on June 22, 1969. There is also a suggestion that ex-husband Sid Luft lost much of Judy’s money at the race track. Other sources say that subsequent managers after Luft mismanaged and embezzled her earnings. (One of them was Freddy Fields, husband of Polly Bergen).

This Rupert Goold adaptation of the stage play “End of the Rainbow” scripted by Tom Edge and Peter Quilter has been called “bland” by some critics and “melodramatic” by others. The scene with Judy befriending a gay couple was praised by some and castigated by others as implausible. The film really is most alive and engrossing whenever “Judy” sings. It soars in those scenes.One thing is certain: Renee Zellweger does a fantastic job of inhabiting and interpreting the trials and tribulations of a troubled icon.

 

“Ad Astra” Features Brad Pitt in Space

“Ad Astra” translates to “To the Stars” and in this James Gray-directed film, which opened Friday, September 20th, Brad Pitt travels to the far reaches of outer space in search of his astronaut father long thought to be dead. (Tommy Lee Jones).”

The setting is “The near future.  A time of both hope and conflict.” Earth has apparently established several bases on neighboring celestial bodies, including a base on the moon and an underground base on Mars that is one of the few such human outposts not harmed by recurring uncontrolled releases of anti-matter. The authorities think the electrical impulses originate from the long-ago Lima Project, which  H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones) headed up, journeying as far as Neptune and Saturn, the farthest point man has penetrated in space.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is assigned to find his father and the fear is definitely unspoken but potential that he will be part of a mission to eliminate the now-famous space hero. Brad is told, by Donald Sutherland as Colonel Pruitt, an old friend of the senior McBride, that suspicion for the electrical battering that the solar system is taking, which threatens Earth and the very survival of mankind, is perhaps something that H. Clifford McBride has caused. So, they reach out to his now 45-year-old son—also an astronaut—hoping that this tie to the man who may be intentionally hiding out—-will help find him.

I was reminded of Colonel Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now,” with Pitt playing the Martin Sheen part as the man sent to find Marlon Brando’s mad man/god. There is a religious undercurrent running throughout the film, including these words, spoken upon the burial in space of a deceased colleague: “May you meet your Redeemer face-to-face and enjoy the vision of God forever.” H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), a believer in alien life forms, says, “I know for certain I am doing God’s work.” He was so convinced that his expedition would find intelligent life in the universe that he took drastic steps to prevent a mutiny from the others in his party. Ironically, the son performs an act nearly as violent in order to find his father.

Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) ponders the meaning of existence at several points. “We go to work. We do our jobs.  We’re here and then we’re gone,” says the alienated Pitt. He is a cool customer who, more than once recites in voice-over the information that “I am focused on the essential to the exclusion of all else.” Compartmentalized is another way he describes his ability to deal with emotions. He seems to recognize, early on, (especially after the fantastic opening sequence where he survives a harrowing space accident where a robotic arm crashes and takes the orbiting space station down with it), that “ I should feel something. I survived.”  By film’s end, the very basic lesson that we must live and love those close to us and that his father “could only see what was not there, and missed what was right in front of him” has been conveyed.

I couldn’t help but remember Jennifer Aniston’s remark at the time of her divorce from Pitt that he was “lacking an emotional sensitivity chip.” I did find Pitt’s acting spot-on, especially in the scene where he abandons the script that has been prepared for him and speaks from the heart via a secure laser transmission designed to reach his father, wherever he may be hiding in the Universe. The younger McBride acknowledges early on that “I don’t know if I hope to find him or finally be free of him,” but admits that, “I must accept the fact I never really knew him.”

Another echo from an iconic flick is that of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Not only is the path through the solar system that Brad’s character takes the same as that of the ship in Stanley Kubrick’s film, but James Gray finds a way to work in apes—something that seemed out of the realm of possibility.

THE GOOD

Cinematography & Visual Effects:

Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is fantastic. The sets and visual effects in “Ad Astra” are completely believable. It’s a bit off-putting to see the base on the Moon crassly commercialized, right down to a Subway restaurant and a Virgin Atlantic store, but the set design and the harrowing action sequences set in space are completely believable and well done.

Acting:

Nicely-done, Brad Pitt! It’s great to see him back in leading man form and aging gracefully. This is the second film for Pitt this year that showed he is more than a pretty face, with his pairing with Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nod and this solo turn equally good. It’s nice to see a return to form for Pitt, who has too often had his acting ability obscured by his good looks and the ubiquitous press coverage of Brangelina.

Screenplay & Directing:

The screenplay was written by James Gray and Ethan Gross and directed by James Gray (“The Lost City of Z,” “The Immigrants”).  Brad Pitt and James Gray had planned to work together on two previous occasions, but circumstances intervened. Gray, in an NPR interview, acknowledged the “mash-up” of “Apocalypse Now” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” and expressed his admiration for character-driven films of the seventies, and is also quoted as having said, “This all sounds very pretentious, but I feel like love is a very important subject.”

THE BAD

Acting:

While Brad Pitt is fine in his leading man role, there is a waste of the talent of other cast members. Most notably, Liv Tyler has almost no part at all as the love interest who complains that even when he is there, Pitt is MIA. It as sheer coincidence that I watched a television special entitled “The Last Hours of Phil Hartman” that detailed how Hartman’s wife, possibly influenced by drugs and drink, but growing increasingly frustrated by his workaholic tendencies and his emotional distance from her, shot and killed him and then herself. While there is no homicidal wife in this space opera, the emotional underpinnings of the film are universal.

Donald Sutherland is another fine talent who is wasted in a very small part as Colonel Pruitt, an old friend of Tommy Lee Jones. He isn’t in the film for long. It seems as though the sequence in which Sutherland appears  could be eliminated entirely without any harm to the narrative structure. Ruth Negga (“Loving”) also has a brief appearance as Helen Lantos, the Commander of the Mars space base, who assists Brad Pitt as he attempts to board the ship that will journey to Jupiter seeking his father, who Brad last saw at age sixteen.

While there are many exciting sequences, sometimes it feels as though they are being strung together like beads on a necklace. It is an exciting film, but there are slow portions in between the stringing of those action beads. And the film feels long, because it is—a distressingly common trend, it seems.

I’m wondering how the space aficionados will deal with facts in the film that are dropped into the mix, like the fact that it is going to take Pitt 79 days, 4 hours and 8 minutes to get from Mars to Neptune. I don’t pretend to know enough to begin to poke holes in scientific inaccuracies.

 

“Snoopy, Come Home!” Re-Released in Theaters on Sept. 29th

Snoopy, Come Home (1972) is re-releasing in theaters on Sept. 29th, Oct. 3 and Oct. 5th.

The1972 film “Snoopy, Come Home” is the rare exception to the other films involving Charlie Brown and the “Peanuts” gang in that (1) Charlie Brown’s name does not appear in the title, and, (2) When originally released, it earned back only $245, 073 of its one million-dollar budget.

The failure to do well at the box office can be attributed to the fact that Cinema Center Films was being shut down. They did not do the necessary marketing. “Snoopy, Come Home” would be Cinema Center’s last release and would also introduce Woodstock and Franklin to fans.

Snoopy visits Lila in the hospital.

The plot—also featured in the comic strip—involves Snoopy’s visit to his first owner, a little girl named Lila, who is hospitalized for three weeks and is very lonely. In a scene that would make no sense to today’s youth (“Why didn’t she just send an e-mail?”) Lila writes a letter and mails it to Snoopy, asking him to come visit her. Charlie Brown also uses an old-fashioned manual can opener to open Snoopy’s food—definitely an antique.

Clara decides she’d like to keep both Snoopy and Woodstock as pets.

Snoopy takes Woodstock, the bird, along as his companion in a trip through the woods, and the two have adventures, including being captured by a little girl along the route who ties Snoopy up and puts Woodstock in a bird cage. Clara (not named, but identified in the credits) wants to keep the two as pets, and she is quite persistent in chasing the pair as they try to escape.

Meanwhile, back at Charlie Brown’s house, Lucy says to Charlie, “You’ve got a used dog, Charlie Brown,” as they figure out  the mystery of Lila of the letter. Charlie articulates his life philosophy to Lucy, saying, “I have a philosophy that no matter how bad things get, they will always turn out good in the end.”

Lucy gives Charlie her usual blunt appraisal, saying, “That’s not a philosophy, Charlie Brown. That’s stupidity.”

The songs this time around are by Richard and Robert Sherman, and the singing is considerably better than on  “A Boy Named Charlie Brown.” The vocal credits are also different, going to Chad Webber as Charlie, Robin Kohn as Lucy, Stephen Shea as Linus, David Carey as Schroeder, and Johanna Baer as Lila. Bill Melendez directs again, and the explanation for the musical upgrade is that he wanted the film to be more Disney-like.

Is the film on the right wave-length for today’s youth? In the days of WWF and violence, it would seem so.

6% of the film has boxing or struggling over Linus’ blanket between Snoopy and Linus.

There is an extended sequence involving a battle for Linus’ blanket between Linus and Snoopy. Following hat, Snoopy and Lucy box (Snoopy wears the boxing glove on his nose). These scenes of active jousting take up at least 5 minutes of an 83 minute film ( 6%.) Maybe one explanation for these scenes would be it’s what kids do, or we can take Peppermint Patty’s words from the film and use them to explain, when she tells Charlie, “I’m an action type of person. When nothing is moving, I feel low. That’s why I always keep moving.”

Kids might notice that, when Snoopy and Woodstock leave home to go visit Lila, Snoopy carries a small valise that resembles a briefcase. Yet, from this briefcase Snoopy is able to take: a helmet; a football; a cooking pot; a frying pan; a complete dinner service; a large, rolled-up sleeping bag; an old-fashioned alarm clock; and a strange musical instrument that I couldn’t identify (mouth harp?), which somewhat resembled a harmonica, except that it looked like a key. That and the antique can opener were both artifacts that Seth Meyer might hold up on his show and ask a young person to try to identify. I’m an old person, and I couldn’t tell you what the “instrument” was that Snoopy plays when he and Woodstock are camping in the woods.

Snoopy, Lucy, Charlie Brown and Linus return on August 18th.

The good advice that was abundant in the previous Charlie Brown film is here, also.  Example:  “No one likes a moody person. If you go around in a mood feeling sorry for yourself, you do it alone—and I mean alone!” Or there is this profound bit of shared wisdom from Linus when he says, “Happiness lies in our destiny, like a cloudless sky before the storms of tomorrow destroy the dreams of yesterday and last week.” That pronouncement causes the retort: “I think that blanket is doing something to you.”

There’s a recurring theme of prejudice against canines. When Snoopy tries to go to the beach, he is kicked out because of a No Dogs Allowed sign. This discrimination continues throughout the entire film, up to and including Snoopy being banned from a library, a hospital, and an apartment building.

The songs are better in this Peanuts film, including “Fundamental Friend Dependability” and the song with the lyric, “I still remember a summer gone by. Why was it over so fast? Why can’t our summertimes last?” The explanation is that Melendez wanted the film’s musical score to be more like a Disney film.

Charlie Brown, as usual, is the lovable loser. He says, at one point, “I had 14 pen-pals once, but I did all the writing.” (Isn’t that always the way?) After Snoopy disappears without any explanation, Charlie moans, “I never know what’s going on.”

That feeling that we are the ones who “never know what’s going on” will keep Charlie Brown and the gang relatable for decades, even though so many visual constants of 1972 now appear dated. The beautifully colored woods that Snoopy and Woodstock hike through will be gorgeous on the large screen when the film begins showing at theaters on September 29th, October 3rd and October 5th as a re-issue.

The emotional messages conveyed by “Snoopy, Come Home” will remain true forever.

“A Boy Named Charlie Brown” Returns on August 18th at the Movies

Lucy, Charlie Brown, and Linus examine cloud formations as “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” opens.

Way back in 1969, half a century ago, when my son was a year old, we watched “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” directed by Bill Melendez and showcasing the lovable loser Charlie Brown from the “Peanuts” comic strip that Charles Schulz created. It’s 50 years later and, on October 18th, 2019, the film is being re-released on the big screen once again in honor of its 50th anniversary.

The songs in the film were both Oscar and Grammy nominated back in 1971, with music and lyrics by Rod McKuen like, “People, after all, start out as being small, And we’re all a boy named Charlie Brown.”

As the film opens, Charlie Brown, Lucy Van Pelt and Linus are all staring at the clouds and describing what they see. Linus thinks he sees an outline of the British Honduras Islands in the Caribbean and a profile of Thomas Eakens, famous painter and sculptor. When asked what he sees, Charlie admits that he was going to say a duckie and a horsie. Now Charlie is rethinking that response.

My son was one year old when this film came out, but most of it is as fresh and timely today as it was then. Perhaps the only exception to that remark is one of the final scenes that shows boys shooting marbles in a circle. Boys today would have no idea what that scene was all about. I remember playing marbles, and I’m sure Charles Schulz, who wrote the source material probably played marbles with shooters and Aggies, but today, it would be some video game.

Mostly, we are allowed to empathize with Charlie Brown, who goes through a depression when he cannot fly a kite (Snoopy can, immediately after Charlie has exclaimed, “Anyone who can fly this kite is a genius!”) or, seemingly, succeed at anything. “I just can’t seem to do anything right,” Charlie says, noting that his baseball team has just lost its 99th straight game.

Snoopy, Lucy, Charlie Brown and Linus return on August 18th.

But the times, they are a’changin’, and Charlie wins the local spelling bee and goes on to a larger competition, where he almost takes home all the marbles. As a former English teacher at the elementary school level, I applaud the spelling rules the film packs into the script. I guarantee you that 90% of today’s students probably won’t have heard most of them before and could benefit from taking notes!

Here is Lucy Van Pelt, pulling the football away just as Charlie attempts to kick it and causing Charlie to moan, “Why, oh why, do I let her do this to me!”

When Charlie embarks on a Lucy-directed attempt to follow up his school spelling bee championship by winning big at other spelling bees, he leaves town on a bus, taking with him Linus’ blanket, which Linus gave him as a good luck token. Unfortunately, the absence of the blanket leaves Linus in a funk.

Linus and Snoopy go to the big city to try to retrieve the precious blankie. My son had such a blankie and, when he was hospitalized with double pneumonia at the age of 2, his grandmother took his dirty blanket home to wash it, leaving son Scott with a substitute blankie. This substitute blanket did not set well with son Scott (“Accept no substitute!”) who went through his own meltdown while in an oxygen tent, pining for his wonderful blanket and rejoicing when it was finally returned to him. (He used to find “the good part” on the edge, which was a tiny segment of the lace that had worn off the entire perimeter of the blanket, and rub it against his cheek as he drifted off to sleep.)

Finally, Linus gets his blanket back (as did Scott) and all is well. Linus can finally stop saying, “Woe is me!” Linus plays Beethoven. (Lucy, seeing a bust of Beethoven on his piano, asks, “Who is this? George Washington?”) and Snoopy ice skates like a champion.

The movie holds up remarkably well after fifty years (with the exception of that marbles-shooting scene) and the colorful sequences with animated pulsing color will be even better viewed on a giant screen once again. Enjoy it at your local theater beginning August 18th.

“Yesterday” Offers 17 Beatles Songs & Ed Sheeran

The second “sleeper” film of the summer, after “Late Night,” is “Yesterday,” an upbeat story of love and the Beatles.

Helmed by Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “Shallow Grave,” “Trainspotting”) from a script by Richard Curtis (“Notting Hill,” “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Love Actually”) “Yesterday” has an improbable plot that presents as fact the idea that everyone in the world has forgotten about the Beatles, except for Jack Malik (Himesh Patel of the BBC’s “Eastenders”).

Don’t get hung up on why the knowledge of the Beatles and their song catalogue has disappeared. It’s not just their music, as Oasis (the band) has disappeared, as well, along with Coca Cola, Harry Potter and cigarettes. It all seems to have happened during a 12-second world-wide blackout, during which our hero is on his bicycle and gets hit by a bus that cannot see him because its headlights have gone dark.

Starring alongside new-comer Himesh Patel as Jack is Lily James as Ellie, his first manager and long-time admirer. Lily is recognizable from “Baby Driver” and her appearance in “Mama Mia.” She has just the right combination of fresh-faced admiration and loyalty to make her the perfect grade school teacher (which she is) and, eventually—although he is slow to recognize this fact—the girl of Jack’s dreams.

Along the way we are treated to a small appearance by Ed Sheeran as himself, a part he got after Chris Martin of “Cold Play” turned it down. Sheeran hears Jack sing a Beatles song on television and pops around to his Suffolk home to give him a shot at stardom (Sheeran really is from Suffolk). The scene with Jack’s father in the kitchen is pure Curtis and very realistic, as are Jack’s parents’ reactions throughout his climb from unknown to world-famous singer of Beatles songs.

As the press kit for the film put it, “Ultimately, this film is a great example of the power of song…To reconnect with the power of music is a fantastic treat.” One of the amusing points made by the film is the difficulty of remembering all the lyrics to a favorite song. In this film, that song is “Eleanor Rigby.” It proves to be one of the most difficult to re-construct from memory, after all Beatles tunes have disappeared from the globe.

Jack has been struggling to make his name as a singer/songwriter for years, but his own composition, “Summer Song,” just isn’t up to Beatles standards. As the villainess of the piece (Kate McKinnon of “Saturday Night Live”) put it, “I hated it, but I wasn’t interested enough in it to listen to it again to figure out why.”

Now that Jack has pinned down his failure to thrive to his songs, but not his singing, armed with the Biggest Hits of the Sixties and beyond, he completely blows the competition out of the water. There is even an impromptu song-writing competition with Sheeran where Jack’s contribution of “The Long and Winding Road” is judged the winner. He seems to compose it in 10 or 15 minutes. (An interesting side note: the song that Sheeran wanted to contribute at that point was initially received with great enthusiasm—until his record company stepped in and said they needed it for his next album, at which point Sheeran composed another original work that runs at film’s end.)

Another role in the film is that of Jack’s roadie, Nick (Harry Michell). As the plot put it, “Nick is famously a world-class moron.” In real life, Michell was initially considered for the lead role of Jack because of his musical ability. When he auditioned he was ill and barely able to sing, but he was good enough that the part of Nick—comic relief—was his.

In part, the film is a hymn to the power of marketing. The scene where Jack is meeting in a board room with the marketing team that will decide how to present “his” songs to the world featured a dynamite monologue from the actor playing the lead marketer, who is, in reality, a well-known comedian. LaMorne Morris, the marketing guru, knocked it out of the park in shooting down such esoteric titles as “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in favor of “One Man Only.” The room used was loaned to Boyle for one day’s shoot because of his affiliation with WME and Cooper Wave Louise in L.A. and the W Hotel also makes an appearance. The rooftop scene of Jack performing at the Pier Hotel (a real Suffolk hotel) conjures up images of the real Beatles performing “Get Back” and “Don’t Let Me Down” on the roof of Apple Records.

Patel does all his own singing and glowing references to his audition, when he sang “Back in the U.S.S.R.” were made, with the comment that “Danny’s approach is all about the performance; that’s what we were there to catch.” In other words, no lip-syncing.

One small criticism. The film is a bit over-long. As it goes on past 2 hours we meet John Lennon. I wondered if removing the John Lennon meet might have brought the film in at 120 minutes or less, because that would have improved it, and the meeting with the doppelganger for John is not really that central to the plot until they give him this line: “Tell the girl that you love that you love her and tell the truth to everyone whenever you can.”

In other words, not a good movie choice for Donald J. Trump.

The Dead Don’t Die: Observations from the Theater

An Irish illustrator, John Rooney, sent me his work on “The Films of Bill Murray.” Since I just took myself to see “The Dead Don’t Die” in Chicago at the AMC Theater, I told him I’d run his artwork with a few observations about the film. It’s not really a “review,” but simply some observations after my viewing of same.

The Dead Don’t Die film was exactly what I had anticipated: an oddball display of Bill Murray at his hipster best, playing a small town Sheriff with a deputy, played by Adam Driver of “Star Wars” and “BlackKlansman.” Zombie fare has been hot for a while now and this is a bit like “The Walking Dead” in that the principal characters (Murray, Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton) are told to “aim for the head.” Carol Kane also has a brief bit as a corpse who “changes” while in police custody.

Steve Buscemi plays a racist who is not mourned when he bites the dust (or, more accurately, when the zombies bite him). He is featured at a local diner drinking coffee while wearing a hat that resembles the Trump red hat with the words “Make America White Again.” Seated next to him is Danny Glover, who, at almost 73 years of age, seems to be taking just any old role these days. I saw him in a movie about the Ebola virus at the Chicago International Film Festival of 2017. It was pretty bad. Here, he only has a few lines, but the one that Buscemi speaks to him about the coffee is something along the lines of, “That’s too black for me,” which he immediately doubles back on, saying, “I was talking about the coffee.”

At one point, when Murray and Driver are trapped in their car in a cemetery and Adam Driver keeps saying, “This will not end well,” Murray freaks out and tells him to stop saying that. Murray then demands to know WHY Driver keeps repeating the line, and Driver says, “I read the script.” Murray has a momentary outburst of outrage over the fact that Writer/Director Jim Jarmusch (renowned for his “quirky” films) didn’t share the entire script with him. It’s that kind of “inside joke” film.

Tilda Swinton plays a very strange mortician. Her finale in the film is the kind that cannot be predicted, because it is fairly illogical. But, then, this is a Jim Jarmusch film. It really plays like a  long commercial for the song of the same name, which is pretty good, but an entire film about the song? Really?

The horrible ending to the film, for me, was when I was charged $39 to park for 2 hours in the AMC parking lot under the theater. I was supposed to have had my ticket validated, at which point my charge would have been a mere $17. I spent 4 days trying to reach Tiara, who oversees 6 different parking lots, they told me. I did finally reach her, only to be told that she could not put the $22 differential back on my charge card. (Sigh)

 

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