movie: Annie (1982)

annieCaught this one on television just by accident, and it served as a good reminder – that nostalgia or sentiment can count for so much, and is entirely relative and individual in its effects.

I recently reviewed Stand by Me, which I found just so-so. I watched it to better appreciate a book (review still forthcoming) about the author’s attachment to that movie, and I found that the movie did less for me, although I could imagine how it might have felt to see it for the first time at twelve, or nine, or so. Well, perhaps for me that movie is Annie. I was born in the same year that this film was, and it’s the first musical I remember seeing, and I recall its impact well. I probably sang these songs 1,000 times, and I’m pretty sure I sang one or two (“Maybe”, “Tomorrow”) in show choir, as well. I knew every line as it was spoken.

And what’s even stranger is that I’d forgotten all about it til it came on television. I often read or do other things while Husband has the television on; but this movie brought my head up, and took me back. I hadn’t thought about it in years! but every word still echoed in my head. They’d been there all along.

This isn’t a movie review at all, is it. I’m just considering what a funny thing memory is – that we can forget we have them, but still store hours of dialog and lyrics in our heads; that associations with time and place and formative events can make us love a movie regardless of its objective worth. (And what is that, in art, anyway?) Annie didn’t get great reviews (only a score of 52% on Rotten Tomatoes), but I’m not even insulted when Roger Ebert writes, “It’s like some kind of dumb toy that doesn’t do anything or go anywhere, but it is fun to watch as it spins mindlessly around and around.” (That is one of the kinder lines in his review, actually.) Because I get that it is just the nostalgia that does it for me. (Although, to answer your wondering, Mr. Ebert, kids did like this movie. At least one did.)

More objectively, I find this movie a little saccharine, a little stiff and unrealistic in its characterizations, and a little flip about the real concerns of its Depression-era setting and treatment of children, etc. These are some of the standard criticisms, and they’re not wrong. But on the other hand, it’s relentlessly uplifting – if you’re up for that sort of thing – and the songs are undeniably catchy. Carol Burnett’s Miss Hannigan is perfectly wonderful, and she’s one of the characters I remember best. Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks gives a fine performance as well. It’s a movie not without its charms, although it is essentially sentiment, spitshine and song. But it made its impression on me. I’ve loved many musicals since, but this was the first.


Rating: 8 tap dances, from a purely subjective perspective.

movie: Walking Tall (1973)

walking tallIn this movie, Buford Pusser returns home, after a stint in the Marines and a career as a wrestler, to McNairy County, Tennessee with his wife and two children. The town has changed since he’s been away. Almost immediately, he gets beaten nearly to death at a bar where he busted the house cheating at craps. The sheriff wants nothing to do with the case, and tells him to drop it. Buford returns to the juke joint to beat the crap out of his attackers in turn; represents himself at trial for assault charges, and wins; and then goes on to run for sheriff, and win.

As the spunky new sheriff, Buford is determined to run the gambling, prostitution and illegal stills out of his home county. Corruption runs so high, however, that he is nearly a one-man crusade. He has a staff of deputies, a few of whom are loyal. But it’s uphill work.

This plot is based on a true story, and here I’ll confess that my interest is not in this movie in its own right. Instead, I am fascinated by the larger debate this movie is a part of: the legend and history of Sheriff Buford Pusser, in its various representations. I first heard of Pusser and Walking Tall in a couple of Drive-by Truckers songs. (Regular readers may recall this is my favorite band.) In “The Buford Stick,” I heard the perspective that Buford Pusser was a crooked sheriff and a bully, messing around with a system that had worked just fine before he came along, thank you. Or, from the lead-in to “The Boys From Alabama”:

We’re gonna take you up to McNairy County, Tennessee
Back in the days when Sheriff Buford Pusser ran things around there
Sheriff Buford Pusser was tryin’ to clean up McNairy County, Tennessee
From all them boot leggers that was bringin’ crime and corruption
And illegal liquor into his little dry county
And for his troubles he got ambushed, and his wife was murdered, and his house got blown up
And they made a movie about it called “Walkin’ Tall”
This is the other side of that story

And that’s what I knew about the movie.

One of the many things I love about the Truckers is that they are unafraid to look at the complexity of the real world, its ugliness, and they don’t turn to the easy out of choosing sides: they are neither consistently pro-establishment nor anti-authority, because it’s not that clear-cut, is it. In the case of Sheriff Buford Pusser, with these two songs, they experiment with the perspective of McNairy County’s criminal element – or, to put it another way, “a hardworking man with a family to feed.” In other songs and other cases drawn from real life, the Truckers continue to question corruption in positions of authority.

The movie shows Pusser in an on-balance-positive light; among other things, he pushes (not always gracefully) for civil rights for the black residents of McNairy County. But even in this portrayal, there are disturbing glimpses: he is not a fan of rights for the (alleged!) criminals he pursues, and I didn’t enjoy the scene when he is arresting a prostitute and slaps her ass. This history, like so many in life, was probably pretty complicated, with good guys and bad guys on both side of the law – or, good and bad within each guy.

I love this stuff: layers, ambiguity, and especially the intersection of art (movies, songs) and deeply serious real life. This is probably a great example of the interdisciplinary nature of life. (Even a teaching opportunity!) Literature and other creative, fictional forms comment on life, which responds to literature.

So I found the viewing experience engrossing, for reasons outside the movie itself. The movie itself is fine, and interesting; it certainly paints a picture of a time and place. And I think even without a backstory that it should provoke some consideration: like, just how “good” are the good guys? A social study, to be sure. I’d recommend this for any number of audiences.


Rating: 8 routine matters.

movie: Dirty Harry (1971)

I watched this movie because of a tiny mention of it in the description of a seminar I was preparing to attend. It was totally unnecessary as prep but what the heck, it was an excuse to see a classic I’d never seen before.

dirty harryWell, heck. I’m sure I’m supposed to admire this one, and I can certainly acknowledge that it must have looked much different in 1971. 1971. Do you realize that was 45 years ago? Golly. How old was Clint Eastwood in 1971? (He was 41 years old in 1971.)

This one is too well-known and much-written-about for me to waste many words on plot summation. “Dirty Harry” is Inspector Harry Callahan of the San Francisco Police Department, and he is investigating a crazed killer who calls himself Scorpio. Harry is a curmudgeonly fellow who is unhappy to be paired with the new, “young” cop Chico (who doesn’t look any younger than Harry to me).

So, in a different era, this movie must have had a very different effect on audiences. Some old films seem to hold up better than others. Here, I just found too much to pick at. How does $200,000 in tens and twenties fit into a little handbag? How did the doctor know to call in about the guy with the knife wound? (Presumably they put out an APB, but off-screen?) And with Harry being such an experienced investigator and all, it didn’t really ring true for me that he got his first lesson in evidence admissibility, legal searches, etc. in that lawyer’s office on this case. Maybe I’ve seen too many police procedurals. Finally, Harry’s classic line about how many bullets are left in the gun and do you feel lucky, punk? really fell short for me considering that other guns seemed to have unlimited bullets in them (as others also caught). Husband joked, “what are these, Walking Dead guns?” Ha.

More broadly, the killer Scorpio’s motivations, or the nature of his psychopathy, are never made clear. Again, maybe I’ve seen too many more modern shows. Harry’s general “dirty” attitude likewise receives no explanation or backstory. It’s just a shoot-em-up, and for pure shock effect, the 45 years that have passed since filming have done this film no favors. Perhaps if I had the nostalgia to attach me…

Sorry, fans.


Rating: 5 bullets.

movie: Stand by Me (1986)

Some months from now, you will see my review of Stephen King’s The Body, by Aaron Burch. One of the Bookmarked series, this slim book combines personal essay with literary appreciation – or in this case, film appreciation. Stand by Me is a movie based on Stephen King’s novella “The Body,” out of Different Seasons (a collection that also included “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption”). For this reason, I put the book down halfway through to see this movie for the first time.

stand by meReleased in 1986, set in flashbacks to 1959, Stand by Me stars River Phoenix, Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman and Jerry O’Connell as four childhood friends. Over a weekend, they hike through the woods to view the dead body of a boy their age, learning along the way about friendship and loss. It is a coming-of-age story.

I think I can see Burch’s attachment to this film, but it had a different effect on me, coming to it in adulthood. The emotional tones are there: sweet friendship, the pain of helpless childhood and loss at any time of life, nostalgia. I get them all, but I can see from here how they work; I didn’t get bowled over as Burch did. It is undeniably a sweet and sad story, though.

I marveled at how loving these boys are: lots of hugging, arms around one another, extended eye contact, explicit words of comfort. Have we gotten more homophobic as a culture since these days? I can’t see little boys loving each other this earnestly and physically today, which is sad. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I am.

I enjoyed the humor, the pathos and the loving friendships. It was worth my time – especially in being able to appreciate Burch’s story. But I’m afraid it doesn’t have the same effect on an adult today that it did on a kid in the 1980’s, and I regret that. I’m also interested in “The Body” now (of course).

A worthwhile snapshot in time, but not one that reads the same now, unsurprisingly.


Rating: 7 cigarettes.

movie: Genius (2016)

I have had a book on my shelf for years called Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, by A. Scott Berg. I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, sadly. But you know I was thrilled to see this movie come out. Genius is based on the book: it’s about Max Perkins of Charles Scribner’s Sons publishing house, who shepherded the careers of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, among many others.

geniusThis movie is about Perkins’s relationship with Thomas Wolfe (although Fitzgerald and Hemingway make brief appearances). I knew almost nothing about Wolfe when I came to the film, and my impressions of Perkins were hazy, based on what I know of Fitzgerald and Hemingway: I understood him to be a decent, humble, kind man, well-suited to handle such stormy personalities and expert at doing so. He is known to be both a very fine editor and a very fine guardian and guide to the difficult men who were his three most famous writers.

These impressions were held up by the film. Perkins (Colin Firth) is quiet and modest and professional. Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) is wild: noisy, passionate, emotive. Talented, but unrestrained in several senses. He sought a father and Perkins sought a son, and their relationship is characterized as such. Together they produced Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River.

Wolfe’s lover and patron Aline Bernstein, played by Nicole Kidman, is an especially tragic character. The couple’s threats and fights add pathos and drama to that already provided by Perkins’s conflicts with his own wife (he is perhaps overly committed to his work) and the fiery, explosive talent Wolfe sprays across his life and Perkins’s offices. The acting is great – to be expected from such a cast.

Following closely on my viewing of Papa, I saw parallels. Literary talents can be oh so dramatic, and their lives can be woeful, tragic and (again) dramatic. I enjoyed both movies very much, but I confess they often hit the same emotional notes. This strikes me as accurate; but I can see where a viewer less invested than I am could perhaps get a little weary. These are the risks of loving characters like Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe.

For fans of these writers, their work and their community, not to be missed. Very fine acting & production and a fine film all around.


Rating: 8 marks.

movie: Papa: Hemingway in Cuba (2015)

YARI-PAOS-01_27x40_031816.inddI’m afraid I’m quite late in writing this review: it has been at least a month since I saw this movie at a local theatre. I was really hoping for a reprise so I could take Husband to see it, and see it a second time for myself, but no luck. I recall my impressions, though, and will share them here.

The story is that of a young Miami reporter who idolizes Hemingway. In the film he is Ed Myers; in real life he was Denne Bart Peticlerc, who wrote the screenplay. Myers, played by Giovanni Ribisi (who I really like), writes Hemingway an adoring letter which he does not mean to send. His girlfriend sends it on, which results in a phone call from Papa himself, and an invitation to visit the Finca VigĂ­a, the Hemingway home in Havana. A friendship develops between Myers, Hemingway and Hemingway’s 4th wife Mary.

This is also the first U.S./Hollywood filming to take place in Cuba since the 1959 revolution, an interesting factoid and one that should cue us to look closely at setting and extras.

Papa: Hemingway in Cuba has been criticized. Some reviewers find it lacking in background introduction to Hemingway’s story (no problem for this viewer, but okay, noted), or poorly acted, or melodramatic. I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, but I’ll allow that my fascination (not to say obsession) with the subject may have helped.

It is hard to watch Hemingway and Mary fight, and watch Hemingway struggle with depression and mental illness. It is melodramatic; but so, I think, was his life. It was actually rather painful to see it portrayed, but I do think it’s a pretty accurate portrayal. There were some hilarious as well as pathos-ridden, and very apt, scenes involving Hemingway’s performances in life–because his life was a performance–and Myers’s obvious discomfort. I was occasionally uncomfortable, too. I think Hemingway had that effect on people.

Adrian Sparks plays Papa, rather uncannily, I’d say.

The backdrop was most interesting, especially when I think about how filming took place. There were a few wide-angle shots of streets filled with gleaming, colorful 1950’s American cars: I imagine it took a little looking to find such mint-condition specimens (shot in 2014 but to match a late-50’s setting), but of course these are the cars still largely piloting Havana today. I wondered about the extras, such as musicians playing in bars. How were they hired? How did they approach this project? What a weird, meta-meditation on the persistent issues with U.S.-Cuban relations today. All of which does belong in any story about Hemingway.

In a nod to the Chicago Sun-Times review linked above, I will recommend this movie to viewers with a certain familiarity with the Hemingway story. And be prepared for sad, disturbing scenes. But the one presupposes the other: Hemingway’s life was indeed filled with scenes like these.


Rating: 7 skinny dips.

movie: Being Flynn (2012)

being flynnI’m super glad I got to watch this movie version of a book I recently admired, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. First of all, let me say that Being Flynn captured the book better than most adaptations do. Not perfect, of course, and not exactly the same, but they never are because books aren’t movies.

This one was an interesting experiment, though, because the book involved so much theatre – meaning scenes that were constructed like scenes from a play or movie. Being Flynn took perhaps less advantage of that feature of the book than might be expected. But then again, what works as theatre-on-the-page doesn’t necessarily translate to Hollywood movie-making. Let’s see if I can explain myself…

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (a title the New York Times finds “too pungent and profane” to print, whew!) is made up of a collage of different forms. One chapter is a list; one chapter is a long, stream-of-consciousness prose poem; another is a stageplay. Some are “straight” prose but with attention paid to setting and framing, and the drama of performance. Certainly, in the life of Jonathan Flynn, performance is a central question: he doesn’t want his audience to perceive him as homeless, as a loser; he is always reminding whoever will listen that he’s a great writer, and it seems he believes it, himself. The formal play of the book does not translate well to the screen, in part because moviegoers aren’t interested in playfulness in print. The differences between the two media are often at the heart of why books don’t adapt well into movies, or why book lovers resent the film’s adaptation.

Here, the movie wisely relinquishes some of the book’s form, and goes instead for story and feeling. Roger Ebert and the Times review linked above agree that the film ends with ambivalence, fails to commit to an outcome; but they seem to find this a negative, where I found it simply faithfulness to the true story that the book and film are both based on. Jonathan Flynn’s life was ambivalence and ambiguity, and that life wasn’t yet over when the film was produced. As Nick Flynn writes at the back of my copy of the book, “My father’s not dead yet, so there’s always still the chance the Nobel committee will call.” If the movie fails to wrap up, I say, that’s life. Til it wraps.

Robert De Niro as Jonathan Flynn worked out really well; I thought De Niro made a remarkably convincing crazy-or-genius homeless man. Paul Dano as Nick Flynn worked, for me, equally well. Ebert finds Dano “distant and mystifying,” but again, this feels true to the character as I came to know him through my reading. I wonder if it’s relevant that Ebert does not seem to have read the book (“by all accounts, the memoir is a powerful piece of work”). Maybe I just have a soft spot for Dano because I liked him so much in Little Miss Sunshine, and he looks so much like my good buddy Jerko.

I really enjoyed that the movie snuck in a scrap of that prose-poem chapter “same again” that I loved so much. I thought the spirit of the story and the noncommital, troubled, on-again-off-again nature of the father-son relationship was well portrayed. The question of whether the son is the father was perhaps a little heavy-handed in this version (as De Niro repeatedly yells “you are me!”), but it is one of the questions at the heart of the book. In short, this was a more faithful movie-based-on-book than I’d hoped for. I enjoyed it, but maybe my recent guided reading of the book helped me along.


Rating: 8 ice creams.
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