Thursday, November 17, 2016
You’ve probably noticed that most of the movies we review on this page are successful, or at least well-known. So you might be surprised that one of our all-time favorite movies is one you’ve probably never heard of. The Man From Earth (2007) was made for only $200,000 and it’s brilliance lies on the fact that it’s a gripping sci-fi tale consisting of seven people sitting in a room, just talking.
A group of college professors in varying fields hold a goodbye party for their friend, John Oldman, where John decides to reveal to his intellectual pals that he is thousands of years old, having been born a Cro Magnon.
What starts out as a friendly hypothetical conversation heats up as his friends realize he might just be telling the truth (or, at least, believes he is). Talk about a conversation starter for a biologist, a devout Christian, an anthropologist, and historian and an archaeologist, all experts in their fields who can’t quite prove that he’s wrong! It is a perfect way to include almost any topic in the film. If he really is so old, then surely he can tell you almost anything you want to know.
This kind of thinking drives the arc of the conversation, as his friends go from playfully questioning him to calling a psychologist to save him, eventually pulling a gun on him to see if he really is immortal like he says. It doesn’t quite sound like the film could keep you interested for an hour and a half, and yet it does. It perfectly demonstrates the dark side of human nature, but also convinces you there is hope within the bonds of friendship.
Many films today consists of the mindless action sequences with no heart (like Doctor Strange, which I saw with my brother last week). The “action” in Man From Earth consists mostly of discussion of everything from religion to cellular regeneration. At its heart, however, it’s a movie about a man redeeming himself after several thousands years spent hiding, only to find that the world is not ready to accept him. It’s a lesson that’s hard to swallow but truly important, and not something you will not forget.
The fact that few have heard of this movie, it’s director, it’s screenwriter, and it’s stars is quite sad, but to be expected. Every year, action (especially superhero) movies, are the big cash machines. And intellectual, over-dramatic, made-on-a-grand-scale yet heartless beyond the surface films are the big favorites come award season (see The Big Short, Shakespeare In Love and many more.) This film was a drama, and the biggest awards don’t go to such small films, even one as brilliant and intriguing as this one. There are so many great films out there that no one knows about, and The Man From Earth just might be the best I’ve ever seen.
The family has actually watched this movie twice. Each time, I remembered the thoughtful, quiet perfection that makes it so great. This movie has found it onto my list of favorites of all time, along with the likes of The Shawshank Redemption, and has proved that just a few people talking in a room has twice the intrigue of a ten-million-dollar blockbuster.
Dad Responds: The official name of this film is Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth, highlighting its pedigree as the work of the writer behind some of the most memorable classic Star Trek episodes (including the Spock-with-beard classic Mirror Mirror and Requiem for Methuselah, the third-season episode that inspired Man from Earth).
It’s been a huge pleasure that both boys enjoy this film enough to write about it (Ben on this blog, Eli on one of his college essays). The movie is a genuine triumph of writing, full of chills and emotion, which tackles substantial issues (the origin of ideas, what it means to be human, etc.) through the medium of sci-fi - the very thing that made Star Trek such a breakthrough series.
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
The 1994 historic drama Quiz Show provided a peek into the early world of television and television game shows which gave contestants the chance to win thousands of dollars by showing off their smarts, demonstrating that anything was possible for “average American Joes” who knew their stuff.
The problem was that a number of winners in these programs didn’t need to know their stuff since many of those early TV quiz shows were fixed, feeding answers to contestants television viewers liked, while asking those the public had bored with to throw the match to the next up-and-coming personality.
Such was the fate of Herb Stemple (played by John Turtorro), a working class schlemiel whose braininess won him thousands before his winning streak on the game show 21 came to an end at the hands of the erudite Columbia professor Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes).
The film dramatizes actual events, including the exposure of the quiz show scandals which involved sponsors, producers and contestants getting hauled in to testify before Congress. The pivot point of the story is congressional investigator Dick Goodwin, played by Rob Morrow (mostly known for his television work on Northern Exposure and Numb3rs) who befriends Van Doren, even as he investigates him at the behest of Stemple (who has let his loss fester into loathing of the WASPy academic who defeated him).
The people behind the film might have thought they were creating a political allegory to help us understand how the media manipulate the public, even as they feed us the images and stories we most desire (such as rags-to-riches tales which let us stare as tens of thousands of dollars exchange hands). By the end of the film, however, it was not a political message that resonated but a human one.
Scenes featuring Goodwin and Van Doren, for example, are charged with tension as the young Jewish lawyer gets drawn into (and becomes infatuated with) his target’s family – Charles being the son of the famous scholar, poet and fellow Columbia professor Mark Van Doren (played brilliantly by Paul Scofield). But these scenes feature just a fraction of the sparks generated when the younger Van Doren must confess his success, and later his dishonesty, to his father.
Generally, it is the older actors who dominate the screen – even in bit parts. Paul Scofield is definitely the best thing in the picture. But veteran character actor Allan Rich (playing Robert Kintnet – the head of the network during the quiz show scandals) was only slightly less brilliant than Scofield or legendary director Martin Scorsese in one of his few acting roles (as the cynical head of Geritol, sponsor of the crooked game show).
Not all is perfect with the younger cast members, however. In fact, it was hard to concentrate on Murrow’s performance, give how much of his energy he was putting into affecting a Brookline (MA) accent. Even Fiennes, who usually inhabits his roles un-self-consciously, seems to struggle with the ticks and language required to portray a scion of America’s intellectual aristocracy.
There is also a problem with the film’s central premise that the corruption of television quiz shows says something big and important (other than the fact that they are as fake as professional wrestling). Which is why the movie’s best moments are small and intimate, requiring us to ask ourselves how we would respond if a big check was offered to us if we would simply make a distinction between entertainment and lies.
Ben replies: Another one where I agree with you. Quiz Show is an oddity that shows that a film can be very flawed, while still being great for what it does right. This movie centers around three performances, two of which range from forgettable to not just not as good as they could have been, and I could name several other problems. However, so much of this film is unforgettable as an entertaining look into the world of entertainment. The acting from the supporting cast and a quick-witted screenplay alone make the film worth watching. It’s also one of the most clean movies that we’ve reviewed, with a PG rating (so nothing to watch out for but a slow second act and a couple of so-so performances).