Tag: film

The Big Country

big-country

William Wyler’s 1958 film The Big Country is many things you’d expect from an epic western of its era. Nearly three hours long. A plot about families feuding over land and pride in the Wild West. Two vastly different men with vastly different styles vying for the same woman.

But what took me by surprise was just how resolutely the film subverts many of the expected tropes of its genre.

This is epitomized in one scene between the two leads. Gregory Peck, handsome as ever, plays the genteel New Englander McKay who arrives in the “big country” of the western plains to marry the local honcho’s daughter Patricia. Charlton Heston, laconic and smoldering as ever, plays the tough-guy ranch foreman Leech, whose own ambitions for Patricia put him at immediate odds with McKay.

But McKay isn’t interested in fighting, for her honor or his. He repeatedly refuses to be goaded into a fight, whether by a posse of ruffians from the rival family or by Leech, who brands McKay a liar in front of Patricia to try to shame him into fisticuffs.

It doesn’t work. Says McKay:

You aren’t going to prove anything with me, Leech. Get this through your head. I’m not playing this game on your terms, not with horses or guns or fists.

He’s only half-right. After Leech successfully spooks Patricia away from McKay due to his seeming unmanliness—”I’ve never been so humiliated” Patricia tells him—McKay decides to settle things with fists, but not as we’ve come to expect from westerns.

He wakes up Leech in the middle of the night, saying he’ll be leaving in the morning but had in mind a farewell. He says this so evenly and without anger that it’s a wonder Leech even got the meaning. The two of them amble out into the twilight and duke it out.

We get our “epic” fight, but it’s in the dark, without horses or guns, without spectators, without any music whatsoever, let alone anything heroic. Just two men silently slugging each other because they feel they have to, and they don’t even look cool while they do it. They’re like drunks brawling in an alley. Wyler pulls the camera way back, the high and wide framing exposing them as insignificant specks against the infinite plains.

They finally wear each other out. McKay:

Now tell me, Leech, what did we prove?

This is merely a subplot in a larger story of rival clans in a lawless land and the consequences of revenge. But it’s a powerful illustration of a new path being forged within the lives of these characters and, metatextually, within the genre of American westerns at large.

There are many more Wyler films I’ve yet to see, but The Big Country—along with The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver, and Roman Holiday—make him an all-timer in my book.

Booksmart

Booksmart, the directorial debut of the actress Olivia Wilde, was charming as hell.

Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star as Molly and Amy, two friends and straight-A students on the eve of high school graduation who realize their academic drive kept them from enjoying the more party-heavy pursuits of their peers. They seek to remedy this in one night, pursuing their crushes along the way.

Hijinks, as they say, ensue.

If you’ve heard of this movie, you’ve probably heard it compared to 2007’s Superbad, starring Michael Cera and Jonah Hill (Feldstein’s real-life older brother). The two movies do share a setting, concept, and R-rated comedic sensibility. But there’s more to Booksmart than hijinks.

Wilde’s script, in conjunction with the natural chemistry between Feldstein and Dever, brings the film to depths of character, understanding, and humor that’s rare in debut features and in movies about teens. When we meet them, Molly and Amy share a goofy and loving rapport. But as their one wild night progresses with mounting setbacks, detours, and stresses, cracks appear in their relationship. This culminates in a fierce and painfully public confrontation, which is stunningly captured by Wilde’s enveloping camerawork and adept use of the soundtrack.

Still, it is a comedy, and an often absurd one as a fish-out-of-water story with razor-sharp leads. Similarities to Superbad aside, I find it more akin to 2017’s Lady Bird in its depiction of the experience of young women striving against strictures—imposed by themselves or others—and arriving at a hard-won honesty. Not always with grace, but definitely with admirable wherewithal and wit.

I couldn’t help but reflect on my own high school experience while watching this film. Though I wasn’t bound for the Ivy League like the girls of Booksmart, I never attended or got invited to the kinds of parties I so often see on screen. (Thus I don’t know if they’re even accurate. Are unsupervised, red Solo cup ragers at nice houses actually a thing?) As an introverted and mostly well-behaved Christian boy, I considered sex, drugs, and drinking taboo, which is how I usually found myself hanging out with my church youth group friends on Friday nights.

It was a lot more fun than it sounds. We goofed off, played games, pranked each other. Though my horizons broadened in college and beyond, I’m grateful for that experience throughout high school. It kept me out of trouble and showed me you don’t need mind-altering substances to have a good time.

Booksmart shows this too. Though focused on their maniacal pursuit of what they imagine will be a fulfilling rite of passage, the film takes care to show Molly and Amy before the plot ensues loving their cloistered friendship. The subsequent developments they experience together only strengthen their existing bond, which will be helpful as they transition into adulthood.

High school friendships don’t often make that transition, but the film is hopeful about this one. And I’m hopeful whatever comes next for Wilde as a filmmaker and Feldstein and Dever as performers will match what they’ve done with Booksmart.

Benediction for the Groundhog

I’ve mentioned the podcast This Movie Changed Me before. In its new season, Naomi Alderman talks about how the transformation of Phil Connors in Groundhog Day inspired her to look at the world differently. Once in a while she’ll experience what she calls a “benediction”:

I will suddenly become aware of the incredible beauty and richness of everything around me. So I would look at a brick wall and suddenly be completely struck by the difference and the there-ness, the this-ness, of every single brick in that wall and how much has gone into just even creating that single wall, and then, look — someone’s put windows in there. And look at the plants — there’s a little bee that just buzzed past me. And when you look at the world that way, when you look at the world with Phil Connors’s eyes, when you go right through the sense of ennui, through the despair, right through to the other side, and all you can see is how amazing it is to just be allowed to be alive right now.

The whole episode is worth a listen.

A list of movies

A friend tagged me in one of those Facebook chain-letter things, which I usually ignore but this one was about movies so why not. (Posting here to avoid giving Facebook free content to exploit.)

Movie I hate: Slumdog Millionaire

Movie I love: October Sky

Movie I think is overrated: The Shape of Water

Movie I think is underrated: Return to Me

Movie I could watch on repeat: Hell or High Water

Movie that made me fall in love with movies: Back to the Future

Movie that changed my life: High Fidelity

Guilty pleasure*: National Treasure

Movie I should have seen by now but haven’t: The Shining (but really, most acclaimed horror films)

* I don’t believe in this term, but whatever.

On endeavoring through Top 100 film lists

100-films-lists.png

The primary function of my logbook is to document in a Google spreadsheet what I read and watch. But that’s not all it tracks. Among sheets dedicated to typewriters I own and words I like is one that charts my progress through several Top 100 film lists (see above).

I’ve been slowly endeavoring through the AFI 100 since high school. I then added Image’s Arts & Faith Top 100, the Time 100, and recently the BFI Critics 100 just cuz. There’s a fair amount of overlap between them, but enough differences for all of them to be useful sources of viewing suggestions.

Here’s where I’m at now on each list:

AFI: 92

Image: 50

Time: 59

BFI: 52

There’s a completist satisfaction in checking off titles and inching closer to 100. Though as close as I am to finishing the AFI list, there are a few remaining titles I’m in no rush to subject myself to, like Intolerance, A Clockwork Orange, and Sophie’s Choice. As with any movie I watch, mood has to align with opportunity and availability. Having lists like these ready to go ensures I always have good options for when the moment is right.

These lists are also great fodder for exploring cinema beyond whatever Netflix or other streaming services decide to make available at any given moment. Besides Kanopy, these services tend to have a recency bias. Everyone, but especially Kids These Days, should be exposed to older and lesser known movies. See Ty Burr’s book The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together for more ideas, or peruse your local library.

Favorite films of 1999

In case you haven’t heard, 1999 was a great year for movies. I don’t remember seeing any of them in the theater at the time (I was 12), but I fondly remember watching and rewatching many on VHS and DVD later on.

I really tried to rank them. But the exercise of ranking felt even more futile and arbitrary than usual when I considered all the candidates and how I loved them nearly equally for different reasons. And so:

Top 10 films of 1999 I love nearly equally for different reasons, in alphabetical order

Dick

This gets funnier the more you know about Watergate. Choice scene: Haldeman’s house

Fight Club

Filmmaking as muscular as Brad Pitt’s abs. Choice scene: “The first rule of Fight Club.”

The Matrix

As a tween I babysat for a family that owned only a few DVDs, the only interesting one being The Matrix. Since the kids were always in bed by the time I arrived, basically I was paid to watch The Matrix. Choice scene: “I’ve been looking for you, Neo.”

October Sky

Jake Gyllenhaal has been great for a long time. Ditto Chris Cooper, who had quite the one-two punch with this and American Beauty. Choice scene: “He isn’t my hero.”

Office Space

In the Mount Rushmore of quotable comedies. Choice scene: “Sounds like somebody’s got a case of the Mondays!”

The Sixth Sense

Ah, the halcyon days of M. Night Shyamalan fever. Choice scene: “She wanted me to tell you she saw you dance.”

The Straight Story

What could have been a sentimental schlockfest is actually a graceful meditation on redemption and the cosmic importance of the quotidian. Choice scene: “That’s a darn good grabber, Alvin.”

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Could be titled Call Me By Your Name, which would work on several levels. Might be Matt Damon’s best performance. Choice scene: “Is there something you’d like to say, Freddie?”

Three Kings

This really owns the intersection of the “buddy comedy heist war movie” Venn diagram. Choice scene: “The blinding power of American sunshine”

Toy Story 2

In the Mount Rushmore of best movie sequels. Choice scene: Tour Guide Barbie

 

Bonus lists

Top 10 films of 1999 that aren’t “great” but are nostalgic favorites due to innumerable rewatches, in alphabetical order

  • Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
  • Blue Streak
  • Dogma
  • Mickey Blue Eyes
  • The Mummy
  • Never Been Kissed
  • She’s All That
  • South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut
  • Tarzan
  • 10 Things I Hate About You

Top 6 highly regarded films of 1999 I don’t have strong feelings about, in alphabetical order

  • American Beauty
  • Election
  • The Green Mile
  • The Insider
  • Magnolia
  • Man on the Moon

Going to the movies is a gift

As the due date of my first child approaches, I’ve tried to account for and appreciate things I can do now, pre-parenthood, that won’t be quite so easy soon. Quiet nights reading, hassle-free dining, uninterrupted sleep, and keeping a tidy home come to mind. But chief among these activities is moviegoing, one of my most cherished traditions.

Here’s my typical moviegoing routine:

  • I pick a morning showtime, usually the very first, to avoid crowds and get the cheapest price. (Having a job with occasional weekdays off helps.)
  • I drive our Nissan Leaf since the public parking garage near the theater has free charging stations for electric cars.
  • I use a theater gift card, which I always request for birthdays and holidays and which those cheap early showtimes help stretch into more movies. (Gift cards: like MoviePass minus the chaos.)
  • I take advantage of the theater’s free parking validation on my way out.

(Who says there’s no such thing as a free movie?)

My wife and I saw The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part on Friday. As I expected, it wasn’t quite as good as the first one (one of my favorites of 2014), but still had the same manic, joyful verve and heavy meta references. It’s also probably the last movie I’ll see in theaters before the baby arrives. My moviegoing days aren’t over, of course. But it does feel like the end of an era.

I can certainly sympathize with the people driving away from the theater due to high prices or bad behavior. I remember the guy who took a phone call during Children of Men. I remember the old woman’s smartphone playing opera in her purse (unbeknownst to her) throughout the previews and the beginning of 12 Years A Slave. And I remember the lady behind me expressing her every dumb thought and question during Gravity.

For me those incidents are few and far between. I just love going to the movies, and I hope my child will too. Because far more often, I emerge from the theater refreshed or challenged or bewildered or overjoyed, or sometimes dismayed or disappointed. Regardless, my aforementioned moviegoing routine isn’t special to me only because of its combination of thriftiness and good fortune. It’s special because it tells my mind and heart to prepare for something extraordinary.

The late, lamented Sam Shepard called the movie theater “a dark room where a bunch of strangers sit down and watch huge images of other strangers who somehow seem more familiar than the people they know in real life.”

A funny thing happens in the dark with those strangers on and off the screen: life feels a little less strange.

Refer Madness: Librarian as Point Guard

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.

On Tuesday I hosted a discussion at the library on the films of 2018. It was an informal time to swap favorites (or least favorites) from the year, and discuss the Oscar nominations that had just been announced. Opinions abounded, of course.

I brought a laptop and projector so we could watch trailers of the movies being discussed. This turned out to be helpful, as I was surprised by how few of the movies the attendees had seen. Of the eight Best Picture nominees, one man had only seen Black Panther.

This gave me the unique opportunity of curating their exposure to the year in film. We watched trailers for high-profile nominees like The Favourite, Vice, Roma, and BlacKkKlansman, but also lesser-known indies like Leave No Trace, The Death of Stalin, Cold War, and First Reformed. I was this close to just going through the rest of my top 10, but I restrained myself (and ran out of time).

Librarians are in this position often. Introducing readers to their next book or viewers to their next movie is part of the job, but also a privilege and a pleasure I take seriously. Maybe a title I recommend will become their all-time favorite, or become inextricably linked with a future memory, or be forgotten as soon as it’s over. Regardless, we’re point guards. We’re there to make the assist, to keep feeding the shooting guard and forwards and hope they score more often than not.

After the program, I walked past the reference desk and saw the gentleman who had only seen Black Panther. He was asking to be placed on hold for Leave No Trace and The Death of Stalin, and I couldn’t help but smile.

Perfect Bid

Remember Terry Kniess, the guy who made the perfect bid on the Showcase Showdown of The Price is Right? Someone made a documentary about the guy behind that bid, and it’s surprisingly thrilling.

Ted Slauson is a math whiz and The Price is Right superfan who’s attended dozens of tapings of the show and even wrote his own computer program to help him memorize the show’s thousands of different products and games. Using archival footage and Ted’s deadpan talking head interviews, the documentary pieces together how Ted’s savant-level mastery and willingness to feed other contestants exact prices led to some amazing television.

Though amateurish in its choppy editing and overuse of background music, the doc is an effective love letter to one of the most popular game shows ever and a compelling investigation into its unlikely cult hero.

Why I love Kanopy, Hum, and System Information

Want to give some love to three services I’ve enjoyed lately:

Kanopy

Kanopy is a free streaming service available through your public library. (If it isn’t, ask them to get it!) Abundant with titles from A24, The Criterion Collection, and other high-quality providers, it’s rife with a delightful array of foreign films, indies, and documentaries to fill the FilmStruck-shaped hole in the hearts of cinephiles. My watchlist expanded pretty quickly once I signed up, much of it classics and Criterion titles I’ve been meaning to watch and want to get to before my wife gives birth. In the last few weeks I’ve watched Three Days of the Condor, The Seventh Seal, 48 Hrs., Ugetsu, Battleship Potemkin, and The Wages of Fear, with more on the horizon. Get thee to Kanopy!

Hum

hum-songs

I’ve been using Hum for a lot longer than Kanopy, but only recently realized how much I love it. It’s the perfect songwriting app. Super easy to quickly record song ideas, gather lyrics, and add helpful metadata. Beautifully made and a joy to use, though I really ought to use it more. Since I recently released the songs that comprised my 20s, I’m excited to see what will become of the song ideas currently residing in Hum.

System Information on Mac

I rediscovered this function while trying to clean out some disk space on my wife’s MacBook Pro and make it run faster. Previously I used Disk Doctor for this job; it’s a fine app that costs $2.99, but System Information is built-in and provides a more granular view of your files. It also makes deleting them super easy and satisfying. It’s a bit hidden, but well worth the hunt. If you’re a file hoarder or haven’t optimized your Mac in a while, you’ll be shocked by how much cruft builds up. Also by how large iOS backups are! (Seriously, my wife’s storage space more than doubled after I deleted those.)