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WONDER is sappy and predictable. Take your kids anyway.

When the dog died, I said to myself, “They are gonna run out of trowels if they keep on laying it on this thick.”

It’s not really a spoiler to reveal that the family dog dies halfway through “Wonder.” There can be no true spoilers in “Wonder,” possibly the most predictable movie ever put to film.

But that’s okay. It doesn’t set out to be Chekov. “Wonder”has a simple, specific goal in mind: to remind children (and adults) that kindness matters; that people are not always what they seem; that we all need mercy sometimes; and that strength and goodness ripple outward. And it achieves that goal.

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Movie image: www.wonder.movie

Don’t you realize comedy is a matter of life and death?

In honor of Mel Brooks’ 91st birthday, I’m re-posting this essay (slightly modified) from 2015. Mazel tov, Mel, and thanks for everything.

***

In 2015, one Jeffrey Imm organized an angry protest against the production of Mel Brooks’ The ProducersImm’s complaint was that the show makes fun of Nazis, and therefore doesn’t pay proper respect to the horrors of the Holocaust.  As Walter Hudson points out in PJ Media, “The irony of protesting fascism with a blanket declaration of what can’t be laughed at appears to be lost on Mr. Imm.”

It’s not really worth arguing beyond that. If you’re a soldier, you use a gun to fight evil. If you’re a writer, you use words. If you’re a comedian, you use jokes. Especially if you’re a Jew. That’s how it works.

Spaceballs, Men in Tights, and Dracula are unwatchable. The problem with these movies is that Brooks tried to skewer genres that he didn’t especially care about; whereas his funniest movies (including High Anxiety, Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles) target something he loves and admires. And that’s where Mel Brooks really shines: when he’s in love. And this is a man who is in love with life.

His exuberantly ridiculous jokes catch you up in his love of life, dick jokes and all. The jokes that “make sense” aren’t what make the non sequiturs and the fart jokes forgivable; they’re all part of the same sensibility.

Life is funny. Even when it’s awful (what with racism, and Nazis, and murder, and stuff like that), it’s kind of funny. Especially when it’s awful. Especially when you’re suffering.

In The Producers, Brooks isn’t just “making fun of Hitler.” At the risk of over-analyzing humor, Brooks doesn’t just tease Hitler; he robs him of his power. He subsumes him.

This is obvious in The Producers, as Brooks deftly works the play-within-a-play angle, telling the world: this is how you do it. When you are a comedian, you make people laugh, and that is how you win.  People gotta do what they gotta do (and that’s why Max Bialystock won’t ever learn).

We’re all producers, and the worst mistake we can make is the one  Bialystock and Bloom made: when we don’t realize what kind of show we’re putting on.  In Brooks’ best films, he knows exactly what kind of movie he’s producing, and his glorious openness is what makes them so disarming. It’s what makes us laugh at things we don’t want to laugh at; and laughing at those things is what robs them of their power.

An even better example of how Brooks annihilates the enemy without losing his soul is in the somewhat underrated To Be Or Not to Be, where Brooks and his real-life wife Anne Bancroft play a pair of two-bit entertainers (“world famous in Poland”) who bumble into a plot to rescue a bunch of Jews from occupied Poland.

The movie is not great, but one scene makes up for everything else. The incompetent theater crew is trapped in a darkened auditorium full of Nazis, and the only way to shepherd the crowd of Jews out of town is (work with me here) to dress them up as clowns and parade them out of the theater right under the enemy’s noses. Against all odds, it’s actually working, and the Nazis are deceived — until one poor old babushka, her face pathetically smeared with greasepaint, freezes. It’s too much for her: so many swastikas, so many guns. She can’t make herself do it, she’s weeping and trembling, and the audience realizes something is wrong.

They’re just about to uncover the whole plot, when the quick-thinking leader of the troupe looks the Nazis straight in the eye and shouts merrily, “JUDEN!” He slaps a Star of David on the old woman’s chest, takes out a clown gun, and shoots her in the head. POW.

And that’s what saves her. That’s what saves them all. The crowd roars with laughter and keeps their seats while the whole company flees. Juden 1, Hitler 0.

The same thing happened to me. Again, work with me, here!

Depression and despair have been my companions ever since I can remember. Most of the time, if I keep busy and healthy, I have the upper hand; but one day, several years ago, I did not. The only thing that seemed reasonable one day was to kill myself, and that was all I could think about. The longer it went on, the less escape there seemed to be. I was trapped, and there was too much darkness. I couldn’t pass through it.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t kill myself. I’m still here. There are many reasons for this; but one stands out in my mind, because it’s so stupid. Out of nowhere, I suddenly thought of that scene in Brooks’ 1970 film The Twelve Chairs. I barely remember this movie (we try not to have a lot of Dom DeLuise in our house, out of respect for my husband)  but the plot was some ridiculous, convoluted story of someone trying to do some simple thing, and his situation just gets worse and worse. At one point, everything has come crashing down around the hero’s ears, and there is no hope.

So what does he do? He responds by running around in circles on the beach and screaming, “I DON’T WANNA LIVE. I DON’T WANNA LIVE.” And that’s the line that popped into my head.

So guess what? I laughed. Just a little giggle, but it helped. It was a little shaft of light, and it helped. I still had to pass through the dark room full of the enemy who wanted me dead, but someone who was on my side had slapped a Star of David on my chest, made me a target — and once I was explicitly made into a target, I could survive. It was all a joke. It was a circus, and I knew I would survive.

Suddenly I knew what kind of show I was in. It was a comedy, not a tragedy after all, and I was going to make it out of that dark room.

I don’t know how else to explain it beyond that. Mel Brooks saved my life, fart jokes and all. “I don’t want to live, I don’t want to live!” made me want to live, a little bit. That’s what kind of movies he makes.

MOANA review: Even the chosen one has a choice

Early on in the animated movie Moana (2016), the Polynesian chieftain’s daughter has an adorable pet pig who’s always getting into amusing scrapes. You think, as a seasoned Disney audience, that you’ve identified the heroine’s big-eyed, wordless sidekick.

But then Moana just sails off without her pig, and she accidentally and reluctantly acquires a brainless, completely un-cute chicken for a sidekick instead.

This switcheroo feels like a deliberate nose-thumb to predictable Disney tropes. Moana’s constant companion often provides comic relief, but not as a cutesy break from the story. Instead, she has to break away from her own concerns and preserve him from death countless times, because that’s the kind of person she is. And so we get our first clue that Moana is not your typical Disney princess.

Here she is as a baby:

She wants very much to pick up the beautiful shell that is being pulled back out to sea, but makes herself protect the baby turtle, instead. She’s rewarded not for who is she is, but for what she does.

And so the movie departs from typical Disney fare in a more important but less obvious way than the chicken sidekick. It’s instantly established that she’s a strong, determined, spirited girl who is different from the rest, and she’s going to end up disobeying her father and achieving something remarkable, a la Ariel/Belle/Pocahontas/Mulan/Et Al, setting herself apart from the people who want her to stay home, be good, take no chances, etc.

But! While Moana does disobey her father, she has an excellent, self-sacrificial reason for doing so. In fact, she has the same goals as her father has, and she ends up achieving what he has taught her from babyhood that it’s her duty to achieve.

So this is not yet another story where Ms. Lovely Rebel flips her hair at the patriarchy and is rewarded handsomely for betraying everyone who loves her. Instead, she is a good, loving daughter who follows her calling, rather than following her heart. Melanie Bettinelli goes into this refreshing theme in more detail. Obedience is good, but it’s in service to something greater, and sometimes you have to just go serve something greater more directly.

Which leads me to another appealing theme in Moana: There’s a lot about being chosen and being special and having a mission and fulfilling your destiny; but every single character also very clearly has free will, along with being chosen to act. Everyone makes a choice: Maui makes several choices; even the grandmother says, as she gets her (later significant) stingray tattoo, “I hope I made the right choice.”

Moana decides at one point that she can’t or won’t go on any further, and returns the magical whatsit to the ocean. She quits and tells the ocean to choose someone else. And the ocean accepts it.

She was the chosen one, but she still has a choice herself, and she is free to crap out, which she does. (Spoiler: She later changes her mind, and Does the Thing after all, and it’s awesome.) The ocean helps them and sometimes outright saves them, but they have to do a lot more helping of themselves, by deciding to be who they are meant to be.

It felt, for an animated Polynesian myth, an awful lot like how life really works.

Just as Moana discovers that she can fulfill what her father has taught her while still disobeying his explicit command (like her ancestors, finding new islands while keeping her home in mind), she learns that her mission is somewhat different (and quite a bit harder) than she originally thought. She thought she just had to fulfill the letter of the law, act out the myth, and the rest would fall into place. Turns out she has to get a lot more involved than that. This, too, felt a lot like real life.

And if we’re going to talk about the message that young girls are receiving from their cartoon heroines, I thoroughly endorse this one: Yes, you have a vocation, and yes, you need to follow it. No, that doesn’t mean everything will automatically sail smoothly toward your happy ending. At one point, Maui is horrified to find that Moana doesn’t actually know how to sail. She draws herself up and says, with feeble bravado, “I . . . am self-taught.” Yeah, that’s not good enough. Following your heart will only take you so far. You have to not only know what your goal is, but you have to learn how to get there.

This theme of free will choices leads up very neatly to the astonishing and tremendously satisfying climax of the movie, when Moana confronts the great lava demon and reminds her that she, too, has a choice.

Hot damn! That scene is so good (the above clip is only a little bit of it). Best animation I’ve seen in a long time, and very moving.

Other things I liked:

The plot was coherent, and the several themes worked well together. The only messy, unnecessary part was the coconut pirate scene. Seemed like a blatant bid for toy sales; and my old brain couldn’t understand what it was seeing, with all that hopping around and things exploding. But it didn’t last too long.

The heroine had a very pleasant singing voice. Not too nasal or brazen. This almost never happens, and I was very grateful.

All of the characters were likeable and interesting. This almost never happens, and I was very grateful.

It was weird. I don’t know much about Polynesian mythology, but the story was odd and occasionally harsh enough that I suspect they didn’t mess with the myth too much.

There’s no love story, at all. It’s just not that kind of story. The kid is maybe fourteen years old, and she has a lot going on. No boys need apply at this juncture.

A few minor complaints: The pacing was a little off. Some scenes were rushed and cluttered, and others were a little repetitious; but overall, it moved along well.

The mother was incredibly bland. They might as well have done the traditional Disney Dead Mother thing. She does explain her husband’s motivation for cracking down on Moana, and she helps her pack for the voyage, but anyone could have done that. This is a minor complaint, and is probably me projecting.

Several scenes throughout the movie captured something so exhilarating and joyful, I was amazed. The vision of her ancestors is a thing of beauty:

It is a captivating and rejuvenating movie. See it!

Might be scary for younger kids, depending on how sensitive they are.

A few mini reviews: Michael Kiwanuka, Tom Wolfe, and vampires

 

Here’s how we’re entertaining ourselves these days:

Watching:

What We Do In the Shadows (2014)

Currently streaming on Amazon Prime. A funny, grisly, low-budget mockumentary following modern-day vampires who share a flat in New Zealand. I actually conked out before I could see the last twenty minutes or so, but it kept me giggling throughout, especially the parts where they meet a pack of werewolves (not swearwolves):

Looks like we’ve got another phrase entering the family lexicon. Not for kids or sensitive viewers. Goofy and gross and a little bit sweet. Features a few of the actors from Flight of the Conchords (which I still haven’t seen).

Reading:

Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Reading again after many years and wondering if there’s any way this book could have been written in 2017 without rioting. Wolfe is merciless to everyone, of course, black or white, rich or poor, connected or unconnected, but man is he merciless. Change.org would have had his head on a pike.

Anyway, the writing is better than I remembered – self-indulgent, but he deserves to be indulged. Reading it is like shamefully, hungrily working your way through an entire platter of eclairs all by yourself. I was blown away at how he allowed the facts of the central event to unfold gradually over the course of hundreds of pages, letting cowards and manipulators tell more truth than the (relatively) innocent. Should be required reading for any number of reasons.

Listening to:

Michael Kiwanuka’s latest album, Love and Hate (2017). Here’s one of the best songs, “Cold Little Heart”

His voice just tears me up. He sounds like a faithful man who’s being tried. The whole album is fantastic, and the producers (including Dangermouse) keep you on your toes.

Tell me what’s getting you through the week!

We are all (shudder) Willie Scott

On this day in 1984 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom first spilled its guts to the world. I was ten years old, and the movie stole my heart, as it were — and I can’t decide, to this day, if that’s a good thing or not.

It’s a tremendously ugly movie, and I say this as a more-or-less fan. The first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), was of course fraught with peril and casual cruelty, and it had its gross-out moments. But it’s relevant to the spirit of Raiders that, as the avenging spirits stream out of the ark and melt the bad guys’ faces off, Indy shouts, “Marion, don’t look at it. Shut your eyes, Marion. Don’t look at it, no matter what happens!”

There’s no such warning in Temple of Doom. The audience is caged face-down and lowered with fiendish leisure into a pit of grossness and visual torment, from bugs galore, to chilled monkey brains, eyeball soup, and snake surprise:

to the turbaned thug getting bloodily squashed between the belt and the crushing wheel, to, of course, the terrified victim screaming as his heart is torn from his chest before he’s slowly lowered, alive, spreadeagled, and face down in a cage to meet his death by lava.

Good grief, really dark stuff. The central plot revolves around child slavery (because that’s entertaining) and dwells extensively in a truly hellish underground nightmare world, where children toil and scream under the whips of the brutal guards in an endless midnight of sweat, fumes, and torchlight.

A Mentalfloss article from the movie’s 30th anniversary explains:

In retrospect, [Lucas] and Spielberg attributed the extremely dark themes in Temple of Doom to their respective marriages that had broken up . . .

What they had in mind was so dark, in fact, that Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan turned down their offer to pen the second film. “I just thought it was horrible. It’s so mean,” Kasdan said later. “There’s nothing pleasant about it. I think Temple of Doom represents a chaotic period in both their lives, and the movie is very ugly and mean-spirited.”

The movie is all the more painful because it offers no likeable characters — no breezy Marion, no heartily faithful Sallah, no endearing Dr. Jones Sr., and only the cringeworthy Short Round as a foil, giving Indy no supporting friendships to highlight his more human side. The minimally talented Kate Capshaw as Willie is the squeamish, sequined, shrieking heroine you love to hate, except they forgot to put in the part where you love her.

Which makes the movie all the more more painful when, as a kid, I pondered over and over what I would do if I were in Willie’s pointy-toed shoes. She’s so spectacularly unsympathetic; and yet, good grief, it would be hard to stick your hand into that crevice crawling with oversized, squirming bugs. That scene became a kind of touchstone for my developing conscience, and I constantly interrogated myself, “Could I do the right thing if I had to? Even if it was covered with bugs???

Not gonna lie: When she picks her way through the nameless slime and cobwebs of the tunnel and groans to herself, “Ooooooh, gawd, what is thissss?” — Willie c’est moi, even unto this day, like when I’m trying to figure out what is clogging up the car seat so the buckle won’t buckle. I also feel sorry for her, against my will, when Indy and Short Round are heartlessly playing cards and assume she’s just being hysterical, when she’s actually being haunted and tormented by all the terrors of the jungle. Running back and forth and shrieking like an idiot, and nobody will even turn around? I’ve been there. Boy, do I resent being made to sympathize with this flossy-haired nothing doll.

It was Spielberg who suggested the creation of the PG-13 rating specifically for this movie, because it was too rough and gross for kids, but it’s no adult film, either. It set the standard for a certain type of film which has threatened to overwhelm the movie industry ever since: Appealing to the vanity of young teenagers (I’m old enough to watch some really grown-up stuff! Like evisceration, and boobies!) while satisfying the basest instincts of that same crowd, larding the story with scenes that genuinely adult audiences have no use for.

Nevertheless. This supremely exploitative film that continually punishes its audience and which positively glitters with insults against Indians, the Chinese, women, and even elephants is entirely bought and paid for by one of the most glorious scenes of homecoming ever put to film. Feast your eyes as every last child comes home and is folded in his parents’ loving arms:

It’s not that, as a viewer, I really want to be reeled in with a whip like that. I’d rather be treated with a little more respect throughout, thanks, instead of being jerked around for an hour and half and then getting a giant smooch at the end.

Oh, well. I guess I sympathize with Willie after all. Dammit. I don’t know if Indy redeems himself, but the movie sure does; and at this point, I stop complaining.

Old movie review: ATTACK THE BLOCK is perfect

Here’s my review of Attack the Block, a sci-fi thriller from 2011, from the producers of Shaun of the Dead. The review is from 2013. I apologize for re-running two posts in a row. It’s been a difficult couple of days, and I would appreciate prayers if you’ve got ’em! Thanks. 

Here’s the set-up:  a gang of no-good inner city kids terrorizes the neighborhood, mugging a young woman at knifepoint.  But before they’re through with her, something streaks down from space and crashes into a car.  They don’t quite know what it is, but it’s aggressive, and they kill it.  Full of swagger and machismo, they drag the corpse of whatever-it-is to the most secure place they know:  the apartment of a local drug dealer.  They think all they need to do is figure out the best way to cash in on their luck and success. But things are about to get more complicated.

Here’s the trailer:

As British filmmakers seem more free to do, they cast actors who look like real people.  If this had been an American film, the teenage girls lounging in their bedroom would have all been professionally made up and dressed like models.  But in this movie, some of the girls knew what to do with their hair, and some of them didn’t — just like real girls.  Ditto for the apartment interiors:  none of them looked like stage sets with a few messy areas thrown in stimulate gritty realism.  They just looked like actual crummy apartments.

And ditto for the characters themselves.  There was a refreshing lack of stock characters.  In an American movie, you could have pegged, within five minutes, which characters were going to live and which would die.  You would be able to tell that the privileged, white, pothead poseur with the fabulous head of hair was going to get it, because he deserves it, because he’s driving his daddy’s fancy car and so on.  But — spoiler — all that happens in this movie is he gets hit in the nose with a baseball bat because he’s not paying attention, and it’s kind of funny.

In the course of the film, the ringleader, Moses, undergoes a small but pivotal transformation:  he discovers how to channel his natural toughness and charisma from something desperate into something valuable.  He begins with a stunted moral code — that we’re responsible for ourselves and for the people on our block, and that’s it — and emerges as a true hero . . . or at least as a young man who has the makings of a real man.

Moses and his followers aren’t presented as rough diamonds or noble savages whose morals poignantly and ironically transcend that of the bourgeois upright citizen (although I was afraid that that’s where the movie was headed).  They really are bad kids doing bad things — some of them with no parents to guide them, but some of them just looking for a thrill.  At the same time, their little gang (with its armory of fireworks and cavalry of mopeds) really does have a moral code.  For comparison, we see what true evil does look like, when the drug dealer, High Hat, commands his second to head unarmed into peril. Moses’ friends, on the other hand, are constantly on the phone with each other (with the pathetic detail that they’re constantly fretting about how many minutes or texts they have left), and they never doubt for a minute that they will come to each others’ rescue.

At one point, when it seems like things couldn’t get any worse, Moses admits of the dark suspicion that the aliens invading the block are just another plague inflicted on them by the authorities to keep the black man down — just like drug addiction and AIDS.  Everyone stews with this for a moment.  And then they all laugh, just because it just sounds kind of stupid.  And yet later, when the true heroes of the day are being carted off to jail, someone remarks something like, “Aw, you guys are always arresting the wrong people!”  And yup, it’s true.  There’s no grand, cohesive injustice against the poor and downtrodden; but they do get downtrodden — just like life.  The film deftly avoids Being About Something, which makes it all the more compelling when it is true to life.

Is Attack the Block free from formula?  Not at all.  It’s a pretty standard issue sci-fi action thriller flick.  And yet it does something brilliant:  all of the characters have clearly been raised on standard issue sci fi action thriller flicks and video games.  That is part of the subtext, such as it is, of this movie:  these are kids who have been raised by TV, and don’t even realize that there’s more to life than the thrills and platitudes they’ve seen.   They are clearly imitating what they’ve seen a thousand times on screen.   And yet their behavior completely appropriate, because they really are being chased by horrible, ravenous aliens down dark streets and smoky hallways!  This layer of removal, as the kids imitate fiction, makes it possible for the filmmakers to deliver thrills and chills, without sacrificing any of the realism that makes you care about the characters.

All around, Attack the Block is an entertaining, solid, nicely crafted little movie that gave me something to think about, without getting all thinky about it.

This movie is not meant for kids.  It uses profanity freely (although that becomes something of an inside joke later in the script), it’s intense and scary, it has a few quick scenes of gross-out gore, and it shows lots of people doing drugs.  But if you are an older teen or an adult who can tell the difference between a movie that shows certain behaviors and a movie that condones and promotes certain behaviors, then you might really enjoy Attack the Block.  (There is no sexual content to this film, unless it slipped by me somewhere in the heavy accents.  They do take some getting used to!)

 

Protected: Podcast #14: I wish I had a whip

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Valhalla Rising, cavemen farting, Terry Pratchett giving it a shot, and me running(!)

 

I’m watching . . .

Originalos (and Valhalla Rising)

Let’s say you’ve picked out a swell movie to watch, and everyone’s ready and snuggled up on the couch, except that one kid is still washing the dishes. Still. So what do you do? You watch a few episodes of Originalos. Here’s a representative sample:

Look, I’m not proud of it. In my defense, if you saw Irene laughing that long and hard at a farting caveman, you’d probably let her watch more, too. These 3-minute episodes are streaming on Amazon Prime.

We also watched Valhalla Rising (2009, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed Drive, which we loved) last night, and we’ll have a lot to say about it on this week’s podcast! (To join my super secret, super fun podcast club, see my Patreon page.) Here’s the trailer for Valhalla Rising:

Reading . . . 

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Behind the curve as ever, I’m just now getting into Terry Pratchett, who played with words, and with ideas of futility, heroism, absurdity and hope, throughout 41 novels about Discworld. He died in 2015.

I did read Going Postal a few years ago, and was charmed and moved by the characters and dialogue but very confused by the plot. Guards! Guards! was much easier to follow, and very winsome and entertaining, as well as touching in parts. Looking forward to hanging around with Captain Vimes more, as well as that very, very interesting Patrician.

Guards! Guards! summary: In the human-all-too-human city of Ankh-Morpork, the canny leader of a secret society realizes that he’ll have the citizens in the palm of his hand if only he can find a champion to conquer the terrible dragon. Only there is no dragon, except for small, mostly-harmless pets. So he summons a big one. Things do not go as planned! The focus of the story is on The Watch, the ones you call when things go wrong, but you don’t really expect them to do anything. In fact, you count on them having no intention of doing something. Well, this time, they do something.

As far as I can see, this is a typical Pratchett theme: Everything has gone to hell, and there’s not much anyone can do about it. Still, for whatever reason, the one guy who knows better decides to give it a shot anyway, and make a stand for what he decides to believe is the right thing to do. (Pratchett fans, do I have that right?)

Listening to . . .

The Black Keys

Also not a new find, but I’ve rediscovered the Black Keys as excellent running music. Yarr, my husband and I are doing Couch to 5K. We’re on week three, when you have to run for three minutes at a time. This is only possible if I hide the fact that I’m running from as many of my senses as possible (especially since we’re celebrating spring with hail and slippery freezing rain; and, not wanting to die, we are running inside).

Here are a few Black Keys songs with a good beat for a slow, steady run:

“Gold On the Ceiling”:

“Tighten Up”:

“Fever” is a little brisker:

“Howlin’ For You” (which comes along with a satirical sexploitation revenge fantasy movie trailer that made me laugh so hard, I almost fell off the treadmill) (warning: stupid, but R-rated):

I welcome other suggestions for running music! I’m putting together a list, because I hear there is more running coming up in this fershlugginer program.

***
Now your turn! What are you watching, reading, and listening to?

***

Pratchett graffiti image by David Skinner via Flickr (Creative Commons)