Lent movie review #1: USHPIZIN

We launched this year’s Friday Night Mandatory Lent Film Party last week with the Israeli movie Ushpizin (2004).

Before I say anything else, I recommend this movie if you are cold. This is one of the sunniest films I have ever seen. There’s nothing flashy about the way the movie is filmed, but you absolutely feel like you’re in the blazing hot streets of old Jerusalem. You could warm your hands by the natural light emanating from the screen. 

It’s also very emotionally warming, and I was of two minds about that.

The basic plot: A married couple, Malli and Moshe, who fairly recently converted or reverted to their strict Orthodox Jewish faith, have no child and no money, which brings them great grief. They can’t pay the rent, and they also have no means to celebrate Sukkoth, the holiday commemorating the Jews’ exodus in the desert. You’re supposed to erect a booth outside your home and eat and sleep in it, and supply it with “four species,” including a citron, some sort of highly cultivated ceremonial citrus fruit.

I didn’t really understand why Moshe and his wife Malli doesn’t have any money (he works at the temple but hasn’t been there enough lately, so they don’t pay him?), and I was a little confused about who it was who was miraculously inspired to help him; but the upshot is that the couple’s prayers are answered immediately and spectacularly.

But there’s a hitch! Along with the bounty come some guests, one of whom knows Moshe from before his conversion. This puts a strain on everyone, and how they respond to the strain just about wrecks everything. 

One thing I loved is the intimate, friendly way the couple prayed to God. The motions and rituals of their faith felt very foreign, but listen to how Moshe, almost out of hope, talks to God as he sits on a park bench:

Malli has a similarly cozy and intimate prayer life, at one point calling God “a sweet guy,” if I remember correctly. 

But the way God responds to their prayer is the thing that left me feeling a trace bit uneasy about the movie. It was difficult to know how hard to try to analyze what was happening here, because I’m so ignorant about the culture depicted. I want to say what I think it meant that the guests cut the costly citron that was supposed to bring a blessing for a baby boy, but I’m not sure I understood enough of what it meant on the literal level to analyze it on a metaphorical level.  

In any case, it’s definitely a story about trusting God in the simplest way possible, and maybe not trying to over-analyze or comprehend all the twists and turns of providence, but accepting the whole will of God as-is, including the miraculous and the mundane. The couple explicitly references Sarah and Abraham, the faith-filled but childless couple, and also more obliquely Job, the suffering but bewildered servant who accepts that he can’t comprehend God’s ways. And they’re also Moshe and Malli, who have been married five years and buy their clothes second hand. 

This is a couple who love each other so dearly and love God so affectionately and trustingly, it’s lovely to see — and excruciating when those relationships are under stress. In their particular story, they want some things very desperately, and when they pray hard enough, God gives it to them. I have not noticed that this is how it works in real life! But this is a fairy tale or maybe a folk tale.

It’s also very much a beginning. The couple is fairly young in their faith and their life together. Maybe God is showering bounty on them to give them a good start, and it seems very likely that this couple will be up to the challenges the rest of their life together will surely bring, when prayers don’t get answered so directly.

There is also some gentle exploration of what it means to belong to a community, and whether or not it can be righteous to violate the norms. Moshe and Malli are willing to be a little transgressive because they think it’s the best way to serve God, but they also very much draw their strength from the mandates of the community, which is portrayed with utter respect even as its flaws are revealed. Interesting stuff. 

It’s also a very funny movie, with a kind of childlike goofiness that many people don’t realize is very typical of Jewish culture. The couple are married in real life (Moshe, played by Shuli Rand, wrote the screenplay, but neither had acted before), and the connection between them is authentic and familiar. Lots of wonderful, very human relationships in the movie, between friends, between people who don’t trust each other, between elders and the people they advise, between people who feel more or less comfortable in this tiny, intense community.      

We watched the movie on Amazon prime but it’s currently streaming on several different platforms for a few dollars [where to watch]. If nothing else, it will cure you of the idea that orthodox Jews, with all their elaborate rituals and whatnot, use ceremony or spiritual formulas to replace a relationship with God. It’s so tender, intimate, in turn agonizing and joyful — and, as I said, sunny.

Suitable for all ages, although it does have subtitles. Lots of smoking, so if you’re a quitter, watch out. 

Up next: Probably Song of Bernadette, which several people have noted supplies more than you’d expect from the Golden Age of Catholic Hollywood. 

Movie Night with the Fishers: The podcast returns!

Believe it or not, not our podcast is back!

After a horribly long hiatus, Damien and I have started recording weekly podcasts again. We still begin by pouring a drink, and it’s still politics-free, but we’ve tightened it right up, and now the entire podcast is about movies. Although we have very disparate tastes, we’re willing to watch just about anything together, as long as it’s not boring. And if it is boring, we want to talk about why. 

The episodes we’ve recorded so far are double headers, in which we discuss two movies that are linked in some way. Episode one covers Moonstruck and The Quiet Man, hoo-de-hoo-hoo! Just in time for Valentine’s Day.

The full episode is available to anyone who pledges $1 a month or more through Patreon. I sent the link to patrons earlier today. If you’re a patron and didn’t get the link, please let me know! If you’re not a patron, well, my goodness. It’s so easy and so cheap. 

Why is the podcast just for patrons? 
I wrote out and deleted a long explanation about how awesome I am and how awesome you are for helping me be this awesome, but nobody needs that. Basically, a dollar a month (or more! or more!) goes a long way to helping our family stay afloat and helping me stay independent so I can write what I want, for better or worse. And yes, you are awesome, and have been for a long time. 

 

 

 

What we’re watching, reading, and listening to this week: In which Woody Allen and Insane Clown Posse have redeeming qualities

How’s everybody doing? Okay? Remember the thing about …something something real talk, ladies, you are enough, etc. Don’t be cry. Me encourage you. Okay, here’s what we’ve been watching, reading, and listening to lately. I guess this should be Christmas or Advent stuff, but, it’s not. I put up a bunch of lights, we do candle things, and we’re going to confession, and I’m enough, dammit. 

If there’s a theme to these books, movies, and music, it’s “hey, there’s something to you, after all.” 

WATCHING

Hannah and Her Sisters (Where to watch. We rented it on Amazon Prime for $3.99)

We boycotted Woody Allen movies for a while – not because we thought it would be immoral to watch them, but because, ew. If you’re still in that place, I get it. But after a while I got a hankering to see if the good movies were as good as I remembered (and those are the ones he made before he became an open degenerate, anyway). 

Broadway Danny Rose was hilarious and sweet, and I liked it a lot, but Hannah and Her Sisters is terrific. It kept reminding me of a Tolstoy novel, where he just plunges you right in the midst of the lives of these fully-developed personalities in such a way that you understanding their pasts and their likely futures, and how they relate to each other.

I saw this many years ago and thought it was well crafted, but now, having gotten over two decades of marriage under my belt, I think it is a truly great movie about love. You want there to be good guys and bad guys, and there are, but there’s also regret, and recovery from passing madnesses, and redemption. Fantastic dialogue and acting, absolutely captivating setting and soundtrack, and a happy ending. Don’t get me wrong, it has people behaving very badly, indeed, but it shifts very deftly from wretched nihilism to a sort of tender, hopeful agnosticism that makes human life beautiful. Really kind of a masterpiece. 

Wait, I take it back. That architect is a bad guy.

We’ve also been watching Malcolm In the Middle (where to watch) with the kids ages 11 and up, and it’s still a very funny show, but I guess I didn’t notice the first time around how hard they leaned into the whole “everyone’s laughing, but if this were real, it would actually be abuse” thing, especially as the series went on (we are currently on season 5, which is a very funny season. We just watched the one where Reese joins the army and Hal is under house arrest). I think the target audience is people my age, among whom it is actually very common to have discussions about our childhoods that seemed normal at the time, but in retrospect were actually. . . . yeesh.

READING

Read aloud: The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander. The second in The Chronicles of Prydain.

I’m reading this aloud to kids ages 9 and 5, and they are enthralled. This one is more exciting and cohesive than the first. Lots of tests of character. I pause often to ask the kids, “Wow, what would you do in this situation?” and I am never gratified by their answers, but at least I can tell they’re paying attention. 

I won’t mind taking a break from Lloyd Alexander for our next read-aloud, though.He is a good, vivid storyteller, but he can be a bit clunky to read aloud. We started on Prydain when we lost our copy of Wind in the Willows just after Toad’s friend’s stage an intervention about the motorcar. It will be a nice change of pace to get back to Kenneth Grahame’s prose, which is so lushly, lovingly written. 

Benny also got a copy of Time Cat, also by Lloyd Alexander, for her birthday, but she hasn’t started it yet.  A talking, time-traveling cat who goes on adventures with a kid. Seems promising. 

I’m also reading Dragonwings by Lawrence Yep to myself (it’s a children’s book suitable for kids about grade 5 and up). Yep has a good, plain style and doesn’t flinch away from the awful realities of life for Chinese immigrants in California at the turn of the century, so it may not be great for especially sensitive readers. The protagonist is an eight-year-old boy who leaves his mother in China to live with his father, a former master kite-maker who now works in a laundry. It does a nice job of showing how myth makes its way into a family’s understanding of the world, a theme that fascinates me. 

I’ve also been picking up Notes From Underground by Doestoevsky and reading passages at random before bed, which may not be great for my mental health, but I don’t think it’s doing any harm to the book. 

And I ordered a paper copy of Cat Hodge’s Unstable Felicity, which is currently on sale for $8.99, because I will scroll through Facebook and Twitter for three hours straight, but I simply cannot read a book on a screen. Can’t do it. And I do want to read this book. (An audio version is also now available.)

LISTENING TO

Uh, Miracles by Insane Clown Posse

Damien made a reference to “fucking magnets, how do they work?” and I didn’t know what he was talking about, so he showed me this:

Okay, so this is objectively terrible work by some powerfully rotten entertainers, but I kind of love it. My mother would have loved it. Three cheers for the divine spark in every human, that makes even no-talent creeps in stupid face paint want to make a video encouraging people to think about how cool it is that there are mountains and rivers, and that children look like their parents, and there are stars and pelicans and shit. This is not good art, but it is real art, and even Juggalos need real art. Me gusta.

If you’re looking for something you can actually enjoy, you could do worse than the Hannah and Her Sisters soundtrack

How about you? Watching, reading, or listening to anything that’s good – maybe better than you expected? 

 

 

 

The perfect quarantine movie: DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME

Here I am in quarantine like a dummy. I have some symptoms that aren’t going away with reasonable treatment, so I’m getting tested for COVID tonight, and I’ll have the results in 48 hours. This is boring for me, but really hard on Damien, who has already been doing all of the driving because my dumb car is in the shop, and now he has to do everything else, too, and sleep on the couch. I sure hope I get a negative. I sure do. 

This note just slid under the door:

*sigh*

Here in NH, school is closed for Columbus Day and Indigenous People’s Day, which is how you do it if you know you’re not going to change anybody’s mind and you don’t want no trouble. My friend posted this link where you can enter your zip code and it will tell you which native tribes or nations originally lived there. Normally on this day I’d be starting the suppli around now, but I think in the future we may make a stab at cooking some sort of Abenaki-based meal on this day and have our Italian Feast on some other day. Damien and I both spent time in Rome and both love food and cooking, so we have to have a big Italian meal at some point. We’ll see. My current thinking, subject to change because I am human, is that the “Columbus was just 1490’s-style Hitler” stuff is dumb, and I see how it made sense to choose Columbus to celebrate in the 1860’s, when the word on the street was that Italians are barely human, much less real Americans; but that message isn’t urgent in 2020, whereas “don’t you go killing people” is, so it doesn’t make much sense to have a Columbus Day right now. It’s okay to change. And if you’re going to have a day to remind the world that people are real and important, then you really can’t make an argument against Indigenous Peoples Day. But, suppli. 

Anyway, gosh, all I meant to say was: Hey, we watched a really great movie last night, and you should watch it, too. 

DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME (2010)

[Where to watch]

I cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a movie so thoroughly. Damien and I were both streaming it in different rooms, and we kept texting each other things like “meteor hammer!” and “magic deer!” and “spooky pandemonium!” and “WHAT!!!!” 

The story is a bit convoluted and I didn’t completely follow it, but that didn’t detract from the experience. A bunch of people are mysteriously burning up from the inside out, right before the new empress’ coronation, so she brings a celebrated detective out of exile to find out who’s doing it and how. You’re kept guessing the whole time about who’s on whose side, and why, and also, WHAT!!!!

Every single scene is completely gorgeous. The trailer makes it look a little depthless, but the actual movie draws you right in. There is tons of CGI, but it’s done in a style that makes you think fondly of those labor-of-love video games from the late 90’s, or of some completely bonkers amusement park ride where they went all in. 

I was trying to figure out what sets this movie apart from superhero movies that show you incredible worlds and heart-pounding action and insane special effects, and it’s just kinda dull and repellant after a while. Part of the difference is that, in Detective Dee, they also went all in with the stunts and costumes and sets and props, so you felt like you were being given something, rather than tricked into believing something. There’s something very generous about the way it was put together. Also, part of the plot involves sorting out what’s actually supernatural and what is trickery, so maybe that explicit awareness that there’s an important difference between real and fake factored into how the spectacle was presented. 

Anyway, it was witty, silly, exciting as heck, constantly surprising, scary, occasionally moving, and overall an immensely satisfying movie, with gripping characters. The empress is SO INTERESTING, and I’m now mulling over some of the themes of the story, because it wasn’t just all action and spectacle (although you could just sit back and enjoy the action and spectacle, and that’s plenty). One character is unwillingly plucked from a sort of underworld and keeps insisting that HE’S FINE, and doesn’t need to get involved. Another one keeps insisting “I HAVEN’T FAILED” even when… well, you’ll see. And the empress and Dee and the courtesan/assassin/shapeshifter Shangguan Wan’er have several conversations about what is and isn’t allowable or forgivable, when you have higher aims in mind and are trying to set the world right again. A lot of the movie is about the struggle between your personal desires and the greater good. Gosh, I loved Detective Dee. You love to see a hero who isn’t invincible or impenetrable, but who completely understands who he is and what he wants to accomplish in the world. 

As for the suitable audience: It does have subtitles (and a few of the translations are a little goofy, which adds to the charm). It’s violent, and some of the special effects are scary, so maybe ages 9 and up for that, depending on how sensitive they are; and there is a short “they almost had sex” scene, and then a discussion of that scene later. No naughty bits, and it turns out to be important to the plot. Overall less graphic and sleazy than Indiana Jones. There is also a character named “Donkey Wang,” and I was not entirely sure what they meant by that, but it was funny. 

If you are desperate to think about something other than current events, this movie will fix you right up. It truly felt like a gift. The story, or at least the characters, are apparently based loosely on actual history from the Tang dynasty, which just makes it better. AND, there are two others! Detective Dee and the Four Heavenly Kings(2018), and Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon(2013). I see a new fandom rising in our house. 

Shotgun Stories (2007) is downright Shakespearean

About ten minutes into Jeff Nichols’ 2007 movie Shotgun Stories, I asked my husband, “Am I crazy, or is this, like, Shakespeare?”

Check it out: In rural Arkansas in the heat of summer, a woman knocks on the door of a shabby house. Her son opens, and she announces, “Your father’s dead.” The three brothers inside respond to this news in various ways, according to their natures. They next turn up at the funeral held by the dead man’s newer wife and his four newer sons, who enjoyed comfort and security after their father gave up alcohol, took up religion, turned his life around — and abandoned his first family entirely. The oldest son interrupts the eulogy to tell the world “You think he was a good man. But he wasn’t,” and he spits on the coffin. The upgraded family doesn’t take kindly to affront, and they take their revenge — and the bitter feud inevitably unfolds from there.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OdVw3_FclyY&feature=emb_title
 

“He made like we were never born,” says the oldest son; and then he spends the rest of the film showing the world that, now that the father is dead, the first son is here, and he will not retreat. It is as if he cannot. Later, when his estranged wife finds out that there was a fight at the funeral, she asks him, “You think that was wise?” and he answers, “Doesn’t matter.” All the men in the movie are caught up in a violent drama that rolls out inexorably, as if it’s beyond anyone’s control. It is very hard to fault them for any of the choices they make, even when they will clearly lead to suffering, because they are behaving as one must in their world. It is as if the death of their father abruptly demands a higher, more elemental way of responding to the world — acting, rather than just enduring. (At the same time, at least some of the sons want the next generation to have something different.)

The three sinned-against sons are drawn in a few deft strokes that make fully-realized characters: One ambitious but prideful, one passive but single-minded, and one meek but intensely loyal. They are, you gradually realize, named “Son,” “Boy,” and “Kid,” (even the family dog has a more human name), while the upgraded family of sons are named after the father and after apostles. There is even a “fool,” a meth cooker named “Shampoo,” who cruises in and out of scenes delivering news, badgering, and instigating more drama. We never even see the father, dead or alive, but we know him well, through the memories of the seven sons he left behind.

There may possibly be an Old Testament/New Testament story being played out between the two families, working through themes of fathers who abandon us and yet somehow ordain our every move. I need to watch it again, because I know I missed a lot the first time around. Here’s a trailer that gives a pretty fair overview, although it doesn’t include the other two brothers, which is a shame:

 

What’s extraordinary about Shotgun Stories, and what also blew me away in Mud, also directed by Jeff Nichols, is the sense of place. Rarely, rarely have I seen such a true and real and immediate world through the lens of a movie camera. When the three brothers slump dejectedly in the street of their cracked, tired old town, I feel like I’ve lived there all my life and I’m sick to death of it. When Son reaches down to clear out the drainage pipe in the fish farm where he works, I feel the mindless weariness of it my sore elbow and my damp shirt cuff. I see exactly which parts of the tract home were fixed up by Son’s fed-up but not heartless wife, and which parts have fallen under the fate-haunted influence of the three brothers. The movie is clearly filmed on a shoestring, but it doesn’t look cheap, just true. 

What I haven’t mentioned is how funny the movie is, in unexpected spurts. The third son, Boy (Douglas Ligon), a gentle, pudgy, part-time basketball coach who lives in a van down by the river, tries at one point to hook up a full size air conditioner to his van; and ever since his attempt, his radio will occasionally start blaring cheesy power ballads, and there’s nothing he can do about it. He endures this several times, at the worst possible moments, and it is only after the fourth time that he thinks to turn the volume down. But it is Boy who eventually becomes the center of the action after Son can’t protect his brothers anymore.

The casting is, as in Mud, impeccable, and the acting is flawless. Michael Shannon as Son is tremendous, infuriating and heartbreaking at once, his face conveying three layers of emotion for every word he tightly utters. Like the dead father, the shotgun of the title barely makes it on screen. Instead, you see scars of the past, and are waiting throughout the entire movie to see whether or not it will go off again, and what will come of it all. You will not be able to take your eyes away.

Shannon is also great in Boardwalk Empire (a flawed but fascinating show) and Knives Out. If you read his IMDB page, you’ll be amazed at how many and what varied things he’s been in.  

Rated PG 13. Some violence and fleeting foul language; very intense in mood; suitable for teenagers. Highly recommended!

Where to watch Shotgun Stories

14 family movies we streamed and liked this summer

With museums and movie theaters and amusements parks out, we decided to lean into watching movies — a continuation of our mandatory Friday Lent movie party, but this time, anything is fair game. Damien and I pick something the kids at least might enjoy and appreciate, but that they probably wouldn’t pick on their own. Every few weeks, we let the kids pick what we watch. The idea is to expand their palates a bit and also to have some regular time together, which definitely doesn’t happen on its own.

Our definition of “family movies” may differ from yours! We have a lot of teens and older, so we tend to err on the side of movies that are a bit too old for the minority. We watched a few of these without the youngest kids. In this post, “little guys” refers to kids ages 8 and 5.

We streamed all of these movies, and paid a few dollars for most of them. The information about where to stream movies changes so often, so I just linked to their pages on ReelGood.com and it will show you where you can currently stream them.

I’m gonna cheat and include summaries stolen from various sources:

The Music Man 

Where to watch

When Harold Hill (Robert Preston), a traveling con man, arrives in River City, he convinces the locals to start a band by purchasing the uniforms and instruments from him. His intention is to flee as soon as he receives the money. Librarian Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones) suspects Harold is a fraud, but holds her tongue since her moody brother, Winthrop (Ronny Howard), is excited about the band. As Harold begins to develop feelings for Marian, he faces a difficult decision about skipping town. (Wikipedia)

What a weird movie! Dancing great, music great, really funny stuff. It’s one of those movies you can just enjoy for the syncopation and the choreography and the spectacle, or you can think a bit about who these people are and how they got to be there. I’ve seen it before, but the line “I always think there’s a band, kid” made me cry this time. This was also the first time I thought, “Wait, is Winthrop actually Marion’s secret son?” He could be a change of life baby, but he could also be a secret grandson. Marion tells her mother that the problem isn’t that her standards are too high; it’s that she falls in love too easily, and what she really wants is for someone to stay. There is an awful lot of unacknowledged frenetic sexual energy in this town, as you can see by how easy it is to get everybody dancing like lunatics, but there’s also a heavy layer of refusal to acknowledge it, which amps up the tension.

Anyway, solid, entertaining movie. Some of the kids liked it; some acted like they hated it more than I think they actually did. 

All ages.

North By Northwest

where to watch

North by Northwest is a tale of mistaken identity, with an innocent man pursued across the United States by agents of a mysterious organization trying to prevent him from blocking their plan to smuggle out microfilm which contains government secrets. (Wikipedia)

This is one of Damien’s favorites.   I’ve definitely come to appreciate Cary Grant more over the years. I used to find him so slick and repellant, but he’s much more of a comic actor than I ever realized. This character a man whose life was in trouble long before he accidentally got caught up in foreign intrigue. 

All ages, but younger kids will struggle to follow the plot. 

Young Frankenstein

where to watch

Respected medical lecturer Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) learns that he has inherited his infamous grandfather’s estate in Transylvania. Arriving at the castle, Dr. Frankenstein soon begins to recreate his grandfather’s experiments with the help of servants Igor (Marty Feldman), Inga (Teri Garr) and the fearsome Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman). After he creates his own monster (Peter Boyle), new complications ensue with the arrival of the doctor’s fiancée, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn).(Wikipedia)

The most perfect movie ever made. About 40% of the things we say to each other in this house are quotes from Young Frankenstein. If you have seen this movie and didn’t think much of it, I don’t know what to say to you. If you’re one of those, “Oh, I love Mel Brooks! Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men In Tights are the best things I’ve ever seen!” people, you can just leave. The best Mel Brooks movies are the ones where he’s satirizing genres he knows intimately and loves ardently; the worst ones are the ones where he’s clearly just cashing in on a popular trend. 

All ages, although it’s bit risqué for the younger kids, but I think most of the naughty stuff went over their heads. Younger kids may find it scary.  

Galaxy Quest

where to watch

A parody of and homage to science-fiction films and series, especially Star Trek and its fandom, the film stars Tim AllenSigourney WeaverAlan RickmanTony ShalhoubSam Rockwell and Daryl Mitchell. It depicts the cast of a fictional defunct cult television series, Galaxy Quest, who are visited by actual aliens who think the series is an accurate documentary, and become involved in a very real intergalactic conflict. (Wikipedia)

The kids chose this one. I’ve seen it a few too many times, but it’s entertaining and solid and ultimately very sweet. Great casting, and nice to see a movie where nerdy kids aren’t dunked on. Same plot as The Three Amigos, which I also wouldn’t mind re-watching. 

All ages. There are some scary scenes of chasing and torture. 

Key Largo

where to watch


This classic film noir by John Huston stars Humphrey Bogart as World War II vet Frank McCloud. Visiting Key Largo to pay his respects to the family of his late war buddy, McCloud attempts to comfort his comrade’s widow, Nora (Lauren Bacall), and father, James Temple (Lionel Barrymore), who operate a hotel. But McCloud realizes that mobsters, led by the infamous Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), are staying in the hotel. When the criminals take over the establishment, conflict is inevitable. (Synopsis by Google)

This movie makes you feel like you’re going cuh-razy. Such fantastic tension and atmosphere and sense of place. Apparently Clare Trevor’s wretchedness and nervousness when she’s forced to sing for her drink were only partially her acting, because she wasn’t given the chance to practice beforehand, and they just filmed a raw take, which was mean but effective. It’s a noir film that shows gangsters as gross and pettily cruel rather than glamorous. It’s so unfair that Frank McCloud has to fight at home after he’s done fighting in the war, but evil be like that. Very satisfying ending.  

All ages, but younger kids may be a bit bored. There is a lot of action, but much of the tension comes from characters having to face interior choices. The kids were, for some reason, fascinated at Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall essentially wearing matching outfits. 

Knives Out

where to watch

The circumstances surrounding the death of crime novelist Harlan Thrombey are mysterious, but there’s one thing that renowned Detective Benoit Blanc knows for sure — everyone in the wildly dysfunctional Thrombey family is a suspect. Now, Blanc must sift through a web of lies and red herrings to uncover the truth. (Google synopsis)
 

The best new movie I’ve seen in years. I had no idea what was going to happen, right down to the last drop, and it worked out so much better than I could have hoped. So funny and weird and exciting. Immensely satisfying and original. Everybody liked it. Totally earned all the accolades it got. It was very tense and fairly violent, so the little guys didn’t watch it, but its moral compass was right on.

This is a movie to own and re-watch. 

Night of the Hunter

where to watch

The Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is a religious fanatic and serial killer who targets women who use their sexuality to attract men. Serving time in prison for car theft, he meets condemned murderer Ben Harper (Peter Graves), who confesses to hiding $10,000 in stolen loot. Released from jail, Powell is obsessed with finding the money, and he tracks down Harper’s widow, Willa (Shelley Winters), and her two children, John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce). (Google synopsis)

Watch it just for the sheer beauty. If your kids are resistant to watching black and white movies, this might be a good intro. Unforgettable. We had some good conversations about the sort of surreal stylized aesthetic and how some of the characters delivered their lines. It occurs to me that one of the main themes is responsibility: What do you take on and what do you shuffle off on other people? Maybe the real villain is Ben Harper, hmmmm? The preacher, who thinks of himself as some kind of willing vessel of God’s will, is not entirely wrong about being just an agent. There are lots of villains of different degrees in this story. 

All ages, but haunting and may be upsetting for youngest kids. It shows a drowned woman and includes an execution, and the whole movie centers on kids in terrible peril. Those child actors were SO GOOD.

District 9

where to watch

Thirty years ago, aliens arrive on Earth — not to conquer or give aid, but to find refuge from their dying planet. Separated from humans in a South African area called District 9, the aliens are managed by Multi-National United, which is unconcerned with the aliens’ welfare but will do anything to master their advanced technology. When a company field agent (Sharlto Copley) contracts a mysterious virus that begins to alter his DNA, there is only one place he can hide: District 9. (Google synopsis. This isn’t a very good synopsis, fyi.)

Just for the high school kids. Quite violent and disgusting and upsetting, but also one of the most thoughtful science fiction movies I’ve seen. It really worked through how modern people might behave under the circumstances; and they did a wonderful job showing emotion on entirely alien faces, and showed a persuasive change of heart via ordeal. Also very funny. But, I must stress, disgusting. 

Shazam

where to watch

We all have a superhero inside of us — it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In 14-year-old Billy Batson’s case, all he needs to do is shout out one word to transform into the adult superhero Shazam. Still a kid at heart, Shazam revels in the new version of himself by doing what any other teen would do — have fun while testing out his newfound powers. But he’ll need to master them quickly before the evil Dr. Thaddeus Sivana can get his hands on Shazam’s magical abilities. (Google synopsis)

This movie was a little messy, but we all really liked it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie focused on the foster care system before. As such, it was a bit precious, but it is also a kid superhero movie, so I think they earned some wiggle room to portray people in a somewhat cartoonish way, though the lens of an immature person (and in this, they achieved what I think Jojo Rabbit tried and failed to do, and it definitely nailed the way two teenage boys would explore the sudden acquisition of superpowers. The opening scene is pretty violent and shocking, but the rest is scary and tense but not inappropriate for younger kids. We all agreed that, while the seven deadly sins were neat, most of them were just portrayed as generically creepy, when they could have been vividly individual. We loved the scenes where the two boys are testing out the limits of the superpowers, and we liked the very realistic crisis of conscience Billy faces. The kids picked up on how his memory of his mother differs subtly from her own memory, and we talked about people doing their best when their best just isn’t very good. Not a perfect movie, but thought-provoking and entertaining. Definitely worth a re-watch.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure

where to watch

Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are high school buddies starting a band. However, they are about to fail their history class, which means Ted would be sent to military school. They receive help from Rufus (George Carlin), a traveler from a future where their band is the foundation for a perfect society. With the use of Rufus’ time machine, Bill and Ted travel to various points in history, returning with important figures to help them complete their final history presentation. (Google synopsis)

Although I was 14 when this movie came out, I have somehow never seen it. Unexpectedly sweet and funny stuff, and I know it’s not just the nostalgia factor that made me laugh out loud. Some mildly naughty humor, and of course the heroes are not exactly role models, but they kinda are. Really cute.

Yojimbo

where to watch

A nameless ronin, or samurai with no master (Toshirô Mifune), enters a small village in feudal Japan where two rival businessmen are struggling for control of the local gambling trade. Taking the name Sanjuro Kuwabatake, the ronin convinces both silk merchant Tazaemon (Kamatari Fujiwara) and sake merchant Tokuemon (Takashi Shimura) to hire him as a personal bodyguard, then artfully sets in motion a full-scale gang war between the two ambitious and unscrupulous men. (Google synopsis)

This is another one of those movies that makes you feel like you’re going crazy when you watch it, in a good way. You feel like you have grit in your clothes and you feel like a murderous wind is blowing on your sunburned cheeks. Also, I could stare at Toshirô Mifune all day and I don’t care who knows it. Anyone who wants to make a “complicated hero for complicated times” movie should watch this first. Just watch the way he’s always scratching himself, and his posture. 
I kind of wish I could re-score it, though. The music is so dated, it became intrusive after a while. 

All ages. Some of the kids found it just too foreign – not just because it had subtitles, but that is one heckin different culture. I think most of the kids found it at least interesting.

Cast Away

where to watch

Obsessively punctual FedEx executive Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is en route to an assignment in Malaysia when his plane crashes over the Pacific Ocean during a storm. The sole survivor of the flight, Chuck washes ashore on a deserted island. When his efforts to sail away and contact help fail, Chuck learns how to survive on the island, where he remains for years, accompanied by only his handmade volleyball friend, Wilson. Will Chuck ever return to civilization and reunite with his loved ones? (Google synopsis)

This is another movie that had more on its mind than I remember from last time I watched it. Rare to see a movie where there aren’t any bad guys, just reasonably decent people who could be better, and decent people in bad situations. The island is his ordeal, but his main struggle is, of course, actually with himself . . . or, you know, with life itself; and the same is true of his wife. Really interesting stuff.

We watched this with kids age 9 and up, and they found some scenes terrifying, but not unmanageable. Some left the room during the tooth scene, but everyone liked the movie overall.

True Grit

where to watch

After an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) murders her father, feisty 14-year-old farm girl Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a boozy, trigger-happy lawman, to help her find Chaney and avenge her father. The bickering duo are not alone in their quest, for a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) is also tracking Chaney for reasons of his own. Together the unlikely trio ventures into hostile territory to dispense some Old West justice. (Google synopsis)

Well, this movie is just heartbreakingly good. Maybe the Cohen brothers’ best. So many appealing and appalling characters, such gorgeous camera work, such impeccable pacing. GOR-GE-OUS.Thrilling and funny and unforgettable. Fairly violent, so probably for middle schoolers and up.

Hamilton

where to watch

It was . . . good. We let all the kids watch it, despite the cussing and the plot that includes adultery and whatnot. I thought it was good, really. Well, probably I should write up a separate review just for Hamilton. 

Okay, that’s it! I know I’m missing some, so maybe I can do a part 2 by the end of the summer. I feel better about the c r a p the kids often watch when I know they’re also watching things I think are worthwhile. 

How about you? Seen anything remarkable lately? 

 

 

 

‘Never Rarely Sometimes Always’: A searing but flawed film about abortion

I suppose America asked me to review “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” because I am pro-life but critical of the mainstream pro-life movement. I especially reject pro-lifers who demonize women and make excuses for men, and who refuse to understand why abortion feels like the only choice for some women. Things are slowly changing, but much of pro-life culture is still propaganda. I abhor propaganda, even when I agree with the message it delivers. If I’m watching a movie, I want a work of art, not a wheelbarrow for dumping a message at my feet.

“Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” written and directed by Eliza Hittman, is no wheelbarrow. It is a deft, delicate and sometimes searingly painful and realistic portrayal of two teenage cousins, Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) and Skylar (Talia Ryder), who travel from their rural Pennsylvania town to New York City, where Autumn can get an abortion without parental consent. For a longish film, it is short on plot and dialogue, relying heavily and successfully on glances, murmurs and laconic comments. The script and acting are superb, flawless. This film never tells, only shows, and it does it so well.

Maybe too well. Read the rest of my review for America Magazine.

Lent movie review Vol. 5: LILIES OF THE FIELD

I knew next to nothing about Lilies of the Field (1963), and had never seen Sidney Poitier act. I was unexpectedly delighted on both counts. You more or less know the whole plot from the first moments, but how it plays out is a pleasure to see. It’s a sort of “stone soup” story, but it’s populated with real people, all more or less decent, but each with their individual character kinks to work out. 

The plot: A cheerful, unattached fellow (Poitier) is driving through the Arizona desert and stops at a tiny, austere convent to fill up his radiator. The overbearing mother superior (Lilia Skala) persuades him to do a little work, and he quickly becomes unable to extricate himself from her grand plan to build a chapel despite having no money or materials. The five German nuns and the rest of ragged congregation need some place better than the back of a truck to celebrate Mass, and Mother Maria thinks Homer Smith, a black baptist, was sent by God to make it happen.

Mother Maria has a rock solid faith in God, but her life of struggle (only fleetingly alluded to) has made her hard as a rock, as well, and she doesn’t bend even when she should. When Homer, slowly resigning himself to see the project through, kindly turns up with cartons of groceries to feed the near-starving sisters, she goes through some kind of brief emotional difficulty and then shouts at him to wash his hands and face. As he leaves the room, she thanks God for the food. 

“How about thanking me, too, eh?” asks Homer. She answers, “No. I thank Him. You, you couldn’t help yourself.”

Which is apparently true! And we’ve all met women like this, who somehow make people do things, good things, almost entirely against their will. I so appreciated seeing on screen that people who get things done are not always people you enjoy hanging around with. But she, too, gets a small but powerful moment of comeuppance before the end, and it comes about so slyly and so naturally, it made us laugh out loud. 

Homer himself clearly has some things to work out with God, mixed up with his ambitions and his pride. In the end, he writes his name where only God can see it, and you can see that some interior need has been satisfied.

The trailer makes the movie look slapstick-y and even minstrel-y, which is misleading. It is a comedy, but in context, Poitier is a very subtle actor, and you can see his character deliberately sliding in and out of different personas depending on what’s called for. And there is a lot of complexity to manage, for a guy who tries to keep things simple and above-board. He’s a black baptist trying to hold his own with a German mother superior, a condescending white boss, and a crew of Mexican laborers. It’s a comedy, as I say, but I was surprised at how many real notes it struck along the way as it showed the interactions between people who don’t share a race, a religion, a social class, or even a language. In this way, it fully earned the hijinks and broadly joyful tone.

One funny point: In the last movie we watched, Babette’s Feast, the Catholic world is presented as being incarnational and alarmingly, joyfully fleshly.  In this one, the “Baptist breakfast” is lavish and satisfying, but a “Catholic breakfast” is a single egg. It just goes to show, I guess. 

I also loved the character of the faithful but disenchanted traveling priest in his sloppy RV, standing before the altar in his vestments and sunglasses. Very real.

My tiny quibbles: they should have picked someone else to dub Poitier’s singing. The voice (Jester Hairston, who wrote the song) doesn’t really match his speaking voice. But Poitier (who apparently was totally tone deaf) does a pretty good job of making it look like it’s coming out of his mouth. A counterpoint is that the sisters singing (which was apparently also overdubbed, but in this case to make them sound worse, not better) sound like normal women singing, not like an etherial choir, which I appreciated. 

I also giggled to myself as the Mexican lapsed Catholic diner cook speaks (Stanley Adams). Most of the time, his Mexican accent won the day, but his undeniable Brooklyn accent got the upper hand a few times. 

At one point, Poitier, in a sort of cultural exchange, teaches the sisters the song “Amen” and they instantly begin singing back to him in harmony, which injects a tiny false note; but the scene is still completely charming and effective. They use the device of Smith singing out the entire life of Jesus to the backdrop of the sisters repeating, “Amen, amen” to great effect throughout the movie (and now I’m hearing my kids singing it to themselves, which is great!).

All in all, highly recommended for the whole family, and genuinely funny. I plan to seek out more Poitier movies, too. 

Next up: Probably we’ll do a double header, and have the little guys watch The Miracle Maker and then send them to bed so the older kids and adults can watch something rougher. I’d like to watch Silence or Calvary, but we shall see.

Lent movie review Vol. 4: BABETTE’S FEAST

Last week’s Lent film party pick was a change of pace from . . . pretty much everything else we ever watch, especially the kids. It’s the 1987 Danish film Babette’s Feast.

Heres the trailer:

Here’s a synopsis, which I lifted from Google:

Beautiful but pious sisters Martine (Birgitte Federspiel) and Philippa (Bodil Kjer) grow to spinsterhood under the wrathful eye of their strict pastor father on the forbidding and desolate coast of Jutland, until one day, Philippa’s former suitor sends a Parisian refugee named Babette (Stéphane Audran) to serve as the family cook. Babette’s lavish celebratory banquet tempts the family’s dwindling congregation, who abjure such fleshly pleasures as fine foods and wines. 

One would-be suitor would have made one sister a diva; the other would have abandoned his own wealth and status and lived a simple life. Both end up wondering if their chosen path was right. But the sisters’ pious lives are also lacking, it turns out. Simply abjuring their tiny, puritan congregation to love one another isn’t working, and even in their old age, the people are full of spite, wrath, jealousy, and regret. But they think the real danger is exterior, in the wine, rich sauces, and strange meats offered to them by Babette in the feast she insists on cooking to celebrate their father’s anniversary. Despite their misgivings, they accept it out of an unwillingness to hurt Babette, who, she points out, has never asked anything of them in all the years she’s lived among them.

The food and especially the wine opens their hearts in spite of them, and there’s a wonderfully sweet scene where the white-haired flock, newly reconciled, join hands and dance and sing around the well under the light of the stars. Notably, the song they sing is the same song they have always sung, longing for Jerusalem. 

Many reviewers have compared Babette’s transformative and sacrificial feast to a Eucharistic meal, with Babette as a sort of servant-God who gives everything she has, trading her wealth and near-divine culinary genius for voluntary exile among sinners, and saving them from their error and woe. But it’s a mistake to see the story as a condemnation of asceticism and praise of Catholic sensuous excess, and it’s definitely a mistake to see it as some kind of allegory or lesson. It is a very Catholic story, but it’s a story about the bewilderment of free will, and the forthright, uncomplicated graciousness of love.

“We get back even what we have rejected,” says the aging general. He is the only one who has tasted these fine foods and wines before and recognizes what they are, but even though Babette remembers that she used to make people happy for a short time when she fed them back in Paris, it’s hard to imagine her brilliance would have had the transcendent, transformative effect on the Parisian elite as it did on the stolid, fearful Danes. Even the fearsome patriarch, who imposed the congregation’s austerity and selfishly kept his daughters from blossoming, is clearly not simply a villain, but actually walked across the water to bring the word of God to his people, at least as he saw it. Everyone in the movie has rejected something, even Babette — some for good reasons, some for bad reasons, some for only a faint ghost of a reason. Everyone has erred; and God is good to everyone, according to their need.

The general stands up and makes a speech with the final glass of wine:

“Man in his weakness and short-sightedness believes he must make choices in this life. He trembles at the risks he takes. We do know fear. But no, our choice is of no importance. There comes a time when your eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude. Mercy imposes no conditions. And lo! Everything we have chosen has been granted to us and everything we have rejected has also been granted. Yes, we get back even what we have rejected. For mercy and truth have met together and righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.”

It stands out as an oddly specific and articulate monologue in a story that’s told mostly through long shots of people walking, working with their hands, singing, spooning out soup. It’s hard to resist pouncing on this passage and analyzing it to pieces; but really all he’s saying is that goodness is real, and we’ll receive it when we’re ready. (I love the fact that many of the people at the feast don’t even know the wine is wine, but it works its magic anyway.) That’s the best way to watch the movie: Just sit and receive it. 

The whole family watched it, and the only one who didn’t enjoy it to some degree was the five-year-old, who couldn’t read the subtitles. It’s quiet and slow, but not dull. It’s absolutely gorgeous to look at, strange, gentle, and very funny, too, and the individual characters are drawn so deftly. So many wonderful faces. Just a joy to receive. 

We streamed this movie through Amazon for $3.99. Other movie reviews in this series:
I Confess
The Robe
The Trouble With Angels
Next up: probably The Keys of the Kingdom or Lilies of the Field

 

Lent Movie Review Vol. 3: THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS

See previous installations of our Friday Night Lent Film Party series: I CONFESS and THE ROBE

Everyone disliked The Robe pretty thoroughly and we wanted something very different, so we went with The Trouble With Angels (1966). No one in our family had seen this one before. We streamed it through Amazon for $3.99. Warning, this post will contain a spoiler.

 

The plot: Mary, a born leader and troublemaker (Hayley Mills), and Rachel, a willing follower (June Harding), are high school girls deposited at St. Francis Academy for Girls, where they immediately begin to hatch “scathingly brilliant ideas” for how to subvert the peace and stability of the school. The imperturbable Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell) is their particular nemesis whose patience is put to the test more and more.

The story is an episodic series of pranks and escapades, but it is gradually revealed that the various teaching nuns aren’t just all quirky in their own ways, but many of them have poignant, sometimes tragic pasts that led them to the convent. This is not lost on Mary, even as she continues to torment them and flout their rules. Eventually, Mary and Rachel’s mischief goes too far; but when their guardians are called in for an expulsion interview, Mother Superior discovers that Mary, too, has her reasons for being the way she is, and she has mercy on her (and sees promise in her). At the end, when the girls are graduating, Mother Superior announces that two girls will be joining the convent as novices, and one of them is Mary. Rachel is furious and feels betrayed, but Mary is at peace with her decision, and it’s clear that she can be who she is but may still have a true vocation. 

So, this is a very 1966 movie. It’s very mannered, and some stretches are tedious, and the some of the sight gags are painfully dated. There are some uncomfortable moments where the camera lingers on young girls’ thighs and bottoms for laughs. The accents are a mess, and it’s unclear exactly where the school is. There’s not a scrap of subtlety in sight.

At the same time, the movie doesn’t steal any bases. All the elements are there for the story of Mary’s gradual maturation, and Mother Superior’s growing affection, to make sense and feel real (and it is, in fact, based on a memoir, Life with Mother Superior by Jane Trahey). Haley Mills is a much better actor than I realized, and there were a few truly moving moments, as well as several funny ones. I liked that it showed true friendship between the nuns, as well. I would have liked it better if they cut about twenty minutes out, but I did like it.

Overall, recommended. The animated opening and closing credits are a lot of fun, too.

Next up: I don’t know! I’ll probably push for Babette’s Feast.  The kids somehow manage to read subtitles when they’re watching their Dragonballs, so they can’t beg off on those grounds.

Some of us also re-watched Hail, Caesar, which I appreciated even more after having seen The Robe. I love Hail Caesar so much. The Cohen brothers are upfront about not knowing what to do about God (“Divine presence to be shot,” it says on the screen of the religious epic they’re filming, to mark the place where they’ll add in God later), but it’s less nihilistic and less yearning, overall, and very sweet and very funny. Everyone is just doing their best, according to their very varied abilities. Recommended all to pieces, probably for ages 10 and up.