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The Dadliest Decade

April 15, 2014 | by

Why were the nineties so preoccupied with fatherhood?

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Robin Williams as Peter Banning in Hook, 1991

Some decades are summed up easily, the accretion of cliché and cultural narrative having reached such a point that we hardly need say anything at all. The sixties: hippies, drugs, revolution, rock-and-roll. The eighties: Young Republicans, greed is good, massive perms, Ronald Reagan. This is reductive, obviously, but it’s also helpful cultural shorthand. The nineties, like the seventies, have a less unified narrative: there’s gangster rap, Monica Lewinsky, Columbine, Kurt Cobain, O.J., MTV, white slackers on skateboards, and the LA riots, but they’re all disparate, disconnected. There was no counterculture powerful enough to write the narrative from below, no one mass-cultural or political trend hegemonic enough to make itself the truth. Some enjoy calling this diffusion postmodernism, though most everyone else agrees those people are assholes.

But there was, I contend, a current that ran through the culture of the nineties, a theme that has not to my knowledge been recognized as such. That theme is the heroic dad. Read More »

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Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head

April 3, 2014 | by

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A still from Noah. Animals, ark not pictured.

Early in Darren Aronofsky’s new movie, Noah, the title character, played by Russell Crowe, comes across an antediluvian beastie, a cross between a dog and an armadillo. The beastie snarls because there’s a broken-off assegai tip in its flank, but Noah wins its trust and soothes it before it expires. Since Noah is famous as the Biblical patriarch who saved animals, a moviegoer might be forgiven for looking forward to more such scenes of human-animal interaction. Will there be an explanation about why the dogadillo didn’t make it on to the ark? Will Noah have to talk a lioness out of disemboweling an okapi on board? Will there be trilobites?

Uh, no, it turns out. Pairs of animals do stream onto Aronofsky’s ark under divine instruction, as calmly and trustingly as if Temple Grandin had designed their on-ramp, but once the creatures are in their berths, the Noah family wafts a censer of magical burning herbs, and presto, change-o—all the animals fall asleep. One of the most charismatic elements of the Noah story—in the opinion of most people under the age of six, the most charismatic element—is quietly euthanized. A stowaway descendant of Cain, looking very much like an escapee from Pirates of the Caribbean, does bite the head off of a dormant rodent and gnaw upon it with much sententious commentary, and a few implausible-looking CGI birds are deputized to scout for land, but apart from these brief episodes, the ark might as well be empty. Read More »

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Tearjerkers

February 28, 2014 | by

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Still from Cinema Paradiso, 1989

Looking at this year’s Best Picture nominees, I realized that while I had liked three, nine out of nine had made me tear up—including The Wolf of Wall Street. Fellow movie criers will understand. Especially for those of us who might hesitate to cry in the light of day, there is a singular pleasure to letting tears flow, even—or maybe especially—when what’s happening on screen is really stupid. I come by this honestly. My father refuses to see any movie in which a child dies.

This outpouring of emotion is not limited to the cinema; after watching Audra McDonald and Norm Douglas perform “Bess You Is My Woman Now” in the recent revival of Porgy and Bess, my mom and I were so overcome that we had to skip the second act and go get a drink across the street. And the list of songs I can’t listen to dry-eyed is so long that I’ve had to quarantine them in their own Spotify playlist. But movies are the biggest culprit.

The first movie that made me inconsolable was Dumbo—Baby Mine,” of course, after he’s been taken from his mother—and the second, I believe, was Chipmunk Adventure, after the baby penguin is taken from his mother. My brother and I both sobbed so loudly in Land Before Time (after the baby dinosaur is taken from his mother) that we had to leave the theatre. Thank God we were never exposed to Bambi. (My mother, traumatized to realize that she was “Man,” resolved at age five to spare her own kids the same shock.) Read More »

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Masterpiece Theatre: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning

December 24, 2013 | by

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All this week, we are bringing you some of your favorite posts from 2013. Happy holidays!

My favorite movie of last year—the best movie of last year, I would argue—wasn’t nominated for any Academy Awards. It wasn’t even part of the conversation. That’s because the movie is Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning. You might think I’m just being ironic, that I’m taking pleasure in saying what no one else is saying. The latter may be true but the former is not. This movie is a secret masterpiece.

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning is a movie Werner Herzog, David Lynch, and Shivers-era David Cronenberg might make if they teamed up to shoot a Bourne knockoff in Louisiana on a shoestring budget. This thought experiment works even better if we imagine Gaspar Noé dropping by the editing room later on.

The actual director, John Hyams, has a distinctive voice and style. He and his cinematographer, Yaron Levy, create a nightmare-scape of blighted semisuburbia through which the hero drifts like a damaged samurai, occasionally getting sucked into maelstroms of berserk, finger-hacking, foot-severing violence. The compositions are beautiful. The cheapness of the sets only enhances the lush and lurid atmosphere; everything seems hypnotic and dreamlike. Interiors look like Gregory Crewdson photographs and exteriors look like William Egglestons. This is not your standard VOD action movie. Read More »

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Silver Belles

December 19, 2013 | by

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When you think about it, there are not many Christmas-movie heroines. But then, nobody ever put Barbara Stanwyck in a corner—and with Christmas in Connecticut’s Elizabeth Lane, she gave us a character who was tough, smart, and irrepressibly modern. Christmas in Connecticut is not a great movie. I thought I loved it until a few days ago, when I forced a friend to sit through it with me and realized I only really liked the first twenty minutes before it gets farcical, and not the parts on the boat or the hospital, and that I absolutely loathe the smarmy love interest, played by the fatuous Dennis Morgan, and any scene involving his smirking face. Nevertheless, this is my Christmas movie recommendation.

For those who have not seen it, here is the premise: Elizabeth Lane is a 1945 Martha Stewart type, a domestic goddess who writes a regular column in a popular women’s magazine about her idyllic life with her husband and baby on a Connecticut farm. But Elizabeth is a fraud: in fact she’s a tough-minded career woman living in a tiny Manhattan apartment with the proverbial oven full of shoes and a restaurateur downstairs neighbor (the ubiquitous S. Z. Sakall) who provides her recipes. One day her publisher (Sydney Greenstreet) decides it would be a swell PR move if Elizabeth were to host a war hero at the farm, and invites himself along for Christmas. Needless to say, hijinks, subterfuge, romance, and a series of different borrowed babies ensue. There’s also a stuffy fiancé who’s obviously not long for this world and a tiresome subplot involving the sailor and a nurse.

All that aside, Elizabeth is a nifty character. Barbara Stanwyck was incapable of playing anything but smart and sexy, and even when Elizabeth is at her most clueless—and she's placed in all kinds of humiliating situations—she’s never ditzy; you just get the impression she has better things to do with her time than make flapjacks. While one would rather not invoke Sex and the City, it cannot be denied: the character is a proto-Bradshaw, except the stakes are higher and the cynicism is naked rather than dressed in designer cupcakes.

We tend to think of the crafts revival as a nostalgic response to the chaos of modern life; clearly, we’ve been idealizing the domestic for a long time. Christmas in Connecticut juxtaposes the “ideal” woman with the pragmatic, wartime reality, and in the end the latter is far more attractive. Casting Stanwyck—the ultimate noir femme fatale—in such a role was counterintuitive, but it’s what gives the movie its pizzazz: you don’t really want her to change, let alone end up with either of the dud suitors with whom she is presented. Yes, the uptight architect is clearly not for her and would try to clip her wings. But at least he knows who she is; the awful war hero has fallen in love with the ideal, and you’re not left feeling good about the situation.

But for all its silliness, the film was saying something real (advertently or otherwise) about changing roles, domesticity, and the dynamic of men and women. It’s a story that, in the right hands, could be reanimated for the Etsy generation in a thoughtful and intelligent way. Unfortunately, in 1992, it was remade starring Dyan Cannon, Kris Kristofferson, and Tony Curtis. It was directed by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

 

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Hell on Wheels

December 11, 2013 | by

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During one of the most lucrative Thanksgiving weekends in Hollywood history, moviegoers hooked on the Hunger Games franchise once again embraced the vision of a populace preoccupied by blood sports. Millions more Americans stayed home and skirted family small talk while zoning out in the flat-screen glow of football coverage. Before NFL collisions in HD and murderous YA fiction in IMAX colonized our culture, a short story published in Esquire in 1973 anticipated the blitz on both fronts. William Harrison’s “Roller Ball Murder” forecasted a future where corporations have replaced all governments and world armies, and nationalism is exorcised at ultraviolent roller derbies. The games keep the people in line, so long as they’re tuned into what Harrison presciently dubbed “multivision.”

When I came across Harrison’s obituary in the October 30 edition of the New York Times—he passed away in Arkansas, at age seventy-nine—it was printed just below the obituary for the late Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Allan Stanley. Seeing the two notices printed in such proximity, the name that leapt to mind was Ontario’s own Norman Jewison, a lifelong Leafs fan and the Oscar-winning director of In the Heat of the Night and Fiddler on the Roof. In 1975, Jewison adapted Harrison’s story for the screen and encouraged him to write the screenplay. The result was Rollerball, an underappreciated seventies curio that was revived briefly in the wake of a regrettable remake in 2002. The overlooked original still packs a punch. Read More »

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