For many, childhood is a war: a battle of wills with adults, a rage against growing up, a fight against awakening into the violent world of adulthood. It’s not surprising then that many of the greatest films about childhood and coming of age take place against the backdrop of actual wars. Three of the top five films in my list of the 41 greatest films about childhood involve war and how children and adults learn to deal with it in different ways. Many of the films on this list (including the film at number one) are no doubt sentimental favorites (arguments could easily be made there are grander artistic achievements further down the list). It should come as no surprise that these sentimental favorites were first seen in childhood and that many of the films come from directors delving deep into the wellspring of nostalgia and semi-autobiography; those indelible moments from our shared childhoods crystalized onto the silver screen.
I was about the same age as the protagonist, Billy Rohan, when I first saw John Boorman’s Hope and Glory. I loved every bit of it, and even at that young age I knew there was something unique about its point of view. It painted war as how I imagined I (as a child at the time) would’ve reacted to it: a blast of excitement in an otherwise mundane suburban life previously populated by games and make-believe. Here my soldiers and toys had come to life, dirigibles suspended in air over my streets, German bombers flying overhead, danger and adventure lying in the rubble of my neighbors demolished homes. The juxtaposition of adult horrors and children’s games (a juxtaposition dealt with far more seriously and catastrophically in films like Forbidden Games and Come and See) resulted in a picture of scrappy, working-glass survivors striving for a sense of normalcy and return to innocence in a world gone stark raving mad. Continue reading →
Big budget studio movies like Mad Max: Fury Road don’t come along very often. I can only think of two others that rose to the same echelon and were made in my lifetime: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Inception. Like those films, Mad Max: Fury Road begins in the midst of action, slows down to let the viewer get acclimated to the world that has been created, and then once it reaches a certain point propels its audience full throttle ahead through amazing set piece after amazing set piece and explodes in a dynamite denouement. All three of these films are masterpieces of pacing and editing.
All of the hyperbole swirling around Mad Max: Fury Road is not hyperbole. Those who have heralded it as the best action movie ever made are saying that because it is. The reviewer who said it will melt your face off was almost right…for the record, it will rip your face off, not melt it. Even if you’ve seen the original Mad Max films, you’ve still never seen anything like this. And if you haven’t seen the previous films, it doesn’t matter one lick.
In a post-apocalyptic hellscape where water and gasoline are the holy grails and people pray to a god called V8 (one is to assume named after the engine and not the drink) while spraying their mouths with chrome before dare-devil-ing to spectacular martyr deaths in defense of their tyrannical warlord Immorten Joe (Hugh Keayes-Byrne), a woman haunted by the distant memories of a “green-land” named Imperator Furiosa (an indomitable Charlize Theron) teams up with a man left for dead and haunted by the ghost of his dead child he failed to save and protect (a perfectly cast Tom Hardy, madly stoic) to transport by oil tanker-turned-war caravan the prized breeders/wives of Immorten Joe to a new-found freedom. Continue reading →
The heroine of Thomas Vinterberg’s intoxicating adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s literary classic, Far from the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdene (an effervescent and headstrong Carey Mulligan) reminded me of one of those cocksure entrepreneurs on Shark Tank who comes in, lights the sharks on fire, instantly gets an amazing offer from one of them, but then hesitates to close the deal because they want to hear all of the offers from the other sharks.
The filmmakers want you to think modernly about Bathsheba, a woman ensconced in patriarchal 19th-century British countryside social mores but waaaaay ahead of her time in thoughts and actions, because otherwise this would be another run-of-the-mill period romance where a woman is swept off her feet. Bathsheba is a truly independent woman (she’s inherited a farm from her uncle, runs it herself, and proudly has no need for a husband) and Mulligan plays her with equal parts girlish coyness and womanly confidence, all sly smiles and looks with a twinkle of her nose, her loose impetuous strands of hair filtering the drunken sunlight splashed across the gorgeous Dorset hills. It’s no wonder every man wants her, and she could command any many she wants. Continue reading →
It’s a strange, disturbing thing to read a contemporary Toni Morrison novel – a woman who has been at home for decades exorcising the demons of our collective American past. Yet even in the present day, her characters are hung up on ghosts. God Help the Child is a story, like all Morrisonian tales, woven in different voices, all tied to the cycle of abuse that starts in childhood and seems to never end. There’s Sweetness, a mother who finds it impossible to love her too-dark child, Lula Ann. There’s Bride, the reborn adult version of Lula-Ann, wielding her beauty like a scythe across the scorched western landscape. There’s Booker, a man who refuses to let go of his dead brother who was brutally murdered when they were just boys.
At times, the abuse is overwhelming. No one in this Morrison novel is left untouched. It almost verges on melodramatic parody as each dark secret is revealed. In some ways the novel comes across as a bourgeois version of Precious, where instead of an inner city girl, we have a fashionista – both surrounded by horrors that know no bounds. Oprah and Lee Daniels must be drooling over this.
But Morrison refuses to let the reader get away that easily. The novel can not be dismissed as artsy, exploitative trash. The book is as insular, intimate and twisted as her A Mercy was expansive, remote and mangled (in oh so many beautiful ways). Her handling of the surreal adds an otherworldly gravity to an otherwise modern tract. Continue reading →
Is Ex Machina yet another in a long line of Promethean caution tales? Or is it a misogynistic nightmare about the evil extremes of genius? Or wait…is it in actuality a crypto-feminist manifesto? Or…is it like Dave Eggers The Circle or Spike Jonze’s Her a satire of a somewhat scary, occasionally lovely “watch out or we’ll be doomed in a split second if we aren’t careful” future just around the corner? With its slick production values and blank slate aesthetic, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is all of these things and none of them.
When a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) working for a Google-gone-mad-like company gets chosen to spend a week at the founder’s (the ever chameleon-like and always engaging Oscar Isaac) hideaway estate to work on a secret project, and it turns out to be the testing of new AI (the weirdly alluring and borderline creepy Alicia Vikander), it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this is all going. Continue reading →
Was it really that smart of Noah Baumbach to open his latest “comedy” by making us read a scene of dialogue from a play? Even if it is an Isben play…and even if it is pertinent to the film’s major theme…which is essentially beware of the young? Hidden beyond this stroke of semi-alienating pretension is an almost accessible, quasi-mainstream comedy, Baumbach’s most enjoyable (though far from best) yet.
Well, at least it immediately lets you know you’re in Baumbach territory. Our main characters are a documentarian/professor (Ben Stiller) and his producer wife (Naomi Watts). Only in movies, especially movies made by people like Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach (just like in any Franzen-esque pseudo-literary novel where everyone is a writer) is everyone involved in movies or the arts. This once seemingly hip middle-aged couple have lost their mojo, and they try to get it back by befriending a couple who came to one of his classes, an aspiring documentarian (Adam Driver) and his pretty, young artisanal ice-cream making wife (Amanda Seyfried). I balked at what the film was trying to make me believe…that Adam Driver (one of the most unlikable actors gracing the horizon of stardom) was supposed to be this generous, non-ironic, admirable seeker of truth and drinker of life. Ah, but alas…(spoiler alert!) things are not all what the seem…or in Driver’s case, turn out to be exactly what I suspected…this hipster douche acting like a hipster sage was in actuality…a hipster douche!
As is always the case, Baumbach peppers the film with sharp observational (sometimes judgmental) comedy and sound-bites amidst his odes-to-Woody conversational set pieces. Continue reading →
…softball with Mattingly and Canseco…Ken Griffey’s grotesquely swollen jaw…Steve Sax’s run -in with the law…we’re talking Homer…Ozzie and The Straw.
In honor of Opening Day 2015 I thought I would take a trip down memory lane. As much as my yearly fantasy baseball league helps me stay in tune with the crop of current stars (Kershaw and Kluber – I bow down to yee…but you will never replace in my mind Greg Maddux or John Smoltz)…they’ll never compare to the memories of watching the stars of my youth…like those who appeared on the greatest episode of The Simpsons ever where Mr. Burns attempted to build an unbeatable softball team. Ahh, I miss those halcyon days of steroids and other recreational drug use (cough cough Doc Gooden and The Straw)…of battery throwing (I still hate you JD Drew!) and Bash Brothers.
With a looming getaway to Chicago and tickets to this year’s July 4th game at Wrigley Field secured, I’ll be able to chalk another park off my bucket list. Here’s a run down of my fields of dreams where I have spectated over the years (complete with slightly exaggerated “memories” and vignettes to accompany them)… Continue reading →
I picture the caption for the screenshot above to be something along the lines of, “Jenny, baby, look, we’re in one of the worst films ever made!”
I couldn’t help, while watching the travesty that is Serena, of the infinite monkey theorem (and believe me, thinking about the infinite monkey theorem is a better way to spend two hours than watching Serena), which states that if you sit 100 monkeys at 100 typewriters for an infinite amount of time, eventually their random keystrokes while churn out the works of Shakespeare…or any given text, really. Any given text. Like Christopher Kyle’s feces covered script for Serena. Had monkeys actually written the script for Serena, at least we could’ve said, “Hey, 100 monkeys at typewriters wrote that? That’s not too bad considering it was monkeys…but let’s not try this again…like, ever.”
But it’s not just the script for Serena that is so bad. It’s everything. Every damn thing is awful. Continue reading →
A. J. Edwards, a student and artistic son of Terrence Malick, opens his debut film with cold, haunting shots of the Lincoln Memorial. A crackling Malickian voice-over of a backwoods fella talkin’ bout being Lincoln’s cousin and having lived with him for a spell when he was just a boy in Indiana begins to shape the story as the image moves to a rambling creak. Water is transporting us back in time, back into a dream, and we’re suddenly there watching young Abe make his way in the world. The film ends just a brief 90 minutes later with a chilling bookend…a nicely appointed cabin in Illinois (a clear step-up from the backwoods cabins of his father) where that same warbling cousin waxes about the moment Lincoln’s beloved stepmother (Diane Kruger) learns of his passing. It’s the grand beautiful stuff of myth.
Watching The Better Angels and comparing it to the work of Malick is akin to comparing painters from the same family. One can’t help but think of the generations of Wyeths or Renoirs. Edwards does something Malick never did – he films in black and white – but the movements and framing and pacing and focus are eerily the same. A low shot panning up to an open gate…or door…or window. The actors and actresses moving about as if in interpretative dance. Beautiful music. Ethereal cinematography of nature. There’s one shot of Lincoln’s mother (Brit Marling) on her death-bed where Edwards actually photographs her last breath…you see it hang in the air after her exhale, and its captured in a perfect light. Dust and smoke and light…the black and white photography does wonders for all that Edwards and Malick love to capture.
Or maybe it was looking back on a post I wrote in this blog’s infancy (pre-spin, when it was just davethenovelist) where I listed what I proclaimed to be the Greatest Novels of All Time (which of course meant the best novels I had read up to that point in my life) and realizing how much I had read in the seven years since then and thinking about what that list would look like today. How many new entries? What would still make the cut, and would the passage of time have colored my opinion on significance, fondness and ordering?
Or maybe it was watching “The English Patient” episode of Seinfeld for the umpteenth time on TV tonight that got me thinking…damn, The English Patient…Ondaatje…that has to be one of the greatest novels ever, right? (Spoiler alert: IT IS!)
At any rate…I’m keeping this one simple and asking you to share your own lists.