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The Man from Earth (reviewed by Ben)

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Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Walk (Reviewed by Dad)

In 1974, French aerialist Philippe Petit walked across the Manhattan skyline on a tightrope (actually a steel cable) strung between the soon-to-be completed Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.  His caper to run a wire between the towers and his epic crossings (eight times!) were the subject of the 2008 documentary Man on a Wire.

The Walk, a more recent fictionalized version of the same story, is director Robert Zemeckis’ attempt to recreate the event as well as send a valentine to New York in general and the World Trade Center in particular.

I say fictionalized, but The Walk is more of a fairy tale whose mirthful nature is exemplified by the main character (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) narrating his story from atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty.  As flashbacks show us Petit’s upbringing in France, his discovery and falling in love with wire-walking, his mentorship by uber-grump Papa Rudy (played by Ben Kingsley), and his teaming up with friends to cross the towers of Notre Dame and then the Trade Center, Zemeckis’ Paris and New York bore the same relationship to reality as Hill Valley of Back to the Future did to actual 1950s small towns.

But just as this make-believe moved from wearing out its welcome to getting downright annoying, the film generated some genuine magic in its recreation of the walk itself.  But even here, I couldn’t help noticing how much the steady and careful crossings in The Walk contrasted with footage of the actual event shown in Man on a Wire where Petit taunted the cops waiting for him on both ends of his wire by dancing back and forth before crossing the distance between the towers yet again.

I suspect that this lack of fidelity was the result of limitations in CGI technology (or F/X budgets).  In fact, at certain angles the traversing Petit resembled nothing so much as a video game character that was still in the process of rendering.

All this fakery would have been less of a problem if the non-fiction story upon which the film was based was not so well known or well documented elsewhere.  The filmmaker’s attempt to romanticize buildings that met such a tragic fate in 2001 presented further problems, although not ones for which Zemeckis should be held liable.

For Hollywood, like the rest of the nation, has never really come to grips with the magnitude and meaning of 9/11, which is why we retreat to the story of Petit or films like World Trade Center (which turns the horrific events of 9/11 into a formula story built around the epic heroism of firefighters) to help us avoid confronting the reality of an attack that left thousands dead and the world permanently changed.

Ben’s response: I think that the movie was just edgy. That is to say different and weird for the sake of being different and weird. I’ll admit that the scene on the wire was pretty cool, and one of the only reasons I don’t totally regret watching the movie. It was just stupidly written and childish, and that’s not to mention the long and so melodramatic scene where they set up the wire. I haven’t seen the documentary, but I think that would’ve made this overly dramatic film much more difficult to like.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Bernie (Reviewed by Ben)

If you’ve ever had an odd craving to see what happens when Witness For The Prosecution  meets Napoleon Dynamite (crammed into the format of a mockumentary) - or just want to see something really weird - the Richard Linklater-directed oddity Bernie is definitely for you.

This film has the quirky, very very dry humor that many loved about the redheaded loser of Napoleon woven into a plot that reminded me of the Billy Wilder’s famous courtroom drama (though at first you’ll be convinced you’re watching A Mighty Wind).

The movie begins with an odd, dark and funny collection of people talking about how perfect undertaker Bernie (Jack Black) is. It eventually talks about his unlikely “friendship” with an older, unpopular woman in the town (Shirley MacLaine) as the kindness that people associate with Bernie ends up being his downfall.

The woman, named Marjorie Nugent, ends up using this angel of a funeral director as her servant. As he becomes her property, the locals being interviewed start talking about how he changes before we see this “good man” finally snap and kills Marjorie. Realizing what he’s done, he hides her in a freezer and tries to convince the town that she’s still alive. When they finally find her on ice, it looks bad for him. When they find out she left her whole estate and fortune to him, despite her large family, it looks worse. You’ll notice the Witness similarities again when Bernie’s tried in court where everyone loves Bernie, but no one believes him.

Within the Might Wind style documentary format, it was dull, and kind of creepy how people think about murder as more of an entertainment. But surprisingly, there were some very complex good-guy/bad-guy ideas that are bound to surprise you as Jack Black jokes about death while selling someone a coffin, dances the big number in“The Music Man,” or carefully brushes up a dead body.

Similar to Adam Sandler, people either love Jack Black or think his branch of humor is an insult, and that he lacks real talent that other comedic actors like Steve Carell or Billy Crystal posses. But this movie lacks in toilet humor and stupidity found in Kung Fu Panda and the cringeworthy Gulliver’s Travels, allowing Black to be funny in a way that demonstrates real acting skill. He keeps himself reserved, which makes the movie even funnier, as does his brilliant singing and dancing ability.

What does it say that my grandmother recommended this movie? Probably that this family loves weird concoctions of film. And Bernie has proved that that can pay off.

Dad Replies - I’m with you that the film gave Jack Black (who I can’t stand when he does his loud and obnoxious routine) the chance to blend a subdued performance with screamingly funny song-and-dance routines.  In fact, I would have paid to see the entire production of Music Man that you caught a glimpse of in Bernie.  

Apparently all those personal recollections that punctuate the film came from actual locals who were around when the real life crime the movie was based on occurred.  This helped blur fiction and reality in some interesting ways, although I thought those interviews could have been integrated a bit more sparingly.

So while Bernie is a big of a hodgepodge - part comedy, part courtroom drama, part real and part faux documentary - it was fun to enjoy with the family a film in which everyone involved took a chance. So thumbs up (and thanks for recommending it Mom).

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

City Slickers (Reviewed by Dad)

Years ago, I took a course on how to write formula movies for Hollywood where City Slickers was used as an example of a formula pic you could set your watch to, which makes the movie a true testament to how great screenwriting transcends mechanics.

For those who missed it when it came out in 1991, City Slickers is a cowboy buddy comedy starring Billy Crystal as Mitch Robbins, a New York radio-ad timeslot salesman with a loving wife, two teenage kids, and the mother of all mid-life crises.

The crisis manifests itself during Crystal’s hilarious meltdown before his young son’s class during a “Bring Your Dad to School Day” that leaves everyone in the room (kids and teacher alike) gaping and depressed.  With his wife threatening to kick him out unless his “gets his smile back,” Robbins hits the trail with two boyhood friends for a working-ranch cowboy vacation that he hopes will put his life back on track.

Those two friends are Phil (played by Daniel Stern) an affable loser stuck in one of filmdom’s most loveless marriages, and Ed (the late Bruno Kirby), a sporting goods salesman who takes time away from his underwear-model main squeeze to exorcise the chip on his shoulder by going on dangerous vacations with his two buddies Phil and Mitch.

The film actually begins with the three buddies joining the Running of the Bulls in Spain where, of course, Mitch is the one who ends up with his bottom gored.  And it’s Ed who comes up with the idea of a two-week working holiday wrangling  on a Western cattle ranch.

The boys get to the ranch in time to meet their companions for the adventure: father and son black dentists (get over it, scolds the son), doppelgangers for ice-cream kings Ben and Jerry, and the (as usual) underutilized Helen Slater.

Slater gives Mitch and friends the chance to act heroically when the film’s nemeses, a pair of no-good cowpokes, gives her a hard time.  But the day is actually saved by the dark and dangerous Curly played by the incomparable Jack Palance.

This being a formula picture, the challenges Mitch and his friends face begin light and end overwhelmingly heavy, eventually leading to a situation requiring Mitch to summon up that inner cowboy he never knew was in him.

Unlike other stars who have successfully mixed comedy and drama, notably Tom Hanks and Robin Williams, Billy Crystal doesn’t let his performances get tripped up by the secret desire to make audiences love him.  His Mitch is a pain in the butt – childish, broody, whiny – albeit a pain in the butt with a remarkable gift for wisecracking.  And it’s his willingness to play to these imperfections that generates genuine drama from formulaic scenarios.

The film also treasures quiet moments, notably short scenes featuring the three friends conversing while in the saddle, scenes which transcend broader comic and action sequences and secretly reveal the true theme of the picture: what it means to be a grown up.

The kids seem to have liked it when we shared City Slickers at a Vermont B&B.  Or so I think.  Ben?

Ben Replies: I enjoyed City Slickers, it was fun to watch, although no one expects a comedy to be groundbreaking, and Slickers was not.

As someone who’s not super familiar with older comedies, this cowboy laugh-out-loud reminded me a bit of Anchorman, Zoolander or Ted: hilarious in a fun kind of way, full of people being stupid, and brimming with bright but not very real characters. Every scene is fun and the cast is great. But with every cliche (and an overly long saving-a-calf scene), I’m reminded that, having heard City Slickers  was an Oscar winner, I was secretly hoping that it would be more than just enjoyable.  Although I enjoyed the film a lot, groundbreaking it was not.