movie: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train is based on the novel of the same title by Paula Hawkins. I have not read the book, and knew nothing of it when I was invited with a group of friends to go see it in the theatre. For a total unknown like that, I found it quite enjoyable. One of my dates who had read the book reported some changes in adaptation, and it sounds like the book was better; but what else is knew. I think the real issue is that books don’t become movies and still resemble their book-selves. This is natural. Perhaps we should stop expecting bookishness from film.

girl-on-the-trainRachel is divorced, and having some trouble moving on. She takes the train to work everyday past her former home, where her ex-husband lives with new wife and baby. She obsesses. Then she shifts her obsession, just slightly, to the couple who live a few doors down from her ex. She watches them; she imagines them the perfect couple. She sees something; and things spin out of control.

Suspense and surprise are a big part of this movie’s thrill, so I’ll leave it at that. There is a major plot turn I’m afraid to even hint at, but it’s a good one. Another big part of this movie’s thrill are blood and violence: not a great quantity of it, but what there is is fairly graphic, so be warned (or teased). As some critics have noted, there is not enormous character development (this was the main departure from the book, according to my memory of my movie date’s report). But the acting is more than fair, in my opinion, and I would call this story – at least the movie version of it – plot-driven rather than character-driven, so it still worked out okay for me. I enjoyed the mystery, the twists and surprises, and the bloody denouement. This was an entertaining thriller. Not mind-blowing, but worth the price of entry. I’m even interested in the book now – even though I know its secrets – and that may be the nicest part of all.

Rating: 7 wine bottles opened.

movie: The Finest Hours (2016)

Our very first television event in the new home. Hops (the littler dog) was so grateful to see a couch again!

finest-hoursI think I can sum this one up briefly. Good: astounding story (based on a true one), fine acting, very fine action & cinematography; exciting, suspenseful, moving. Bad: weak romance, lack of character nuance, laughably unrealistic action & technical details.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s rescue of much of the crew of the SS Pendleton tanker in 1952 – a true event – is an impressive story, and that was captured here. The broadest details of the rescue are hard to believe, but they are a part of recorded history. This action/drama is both an appropriate recognition of this event, and a little bit of a sullying, because it made such a mess of it in smaller ways.

The romance between hero Bernie Webber (who piloted the rescue craft) and Miriam is a little flat, and both characters are caricatures. The evolution Miriam experiences in the course of the movie is predictable and therefore less moving than it might have been, if the characters had been more complex and realized. I’m not sure the romance was necessary to make the movie work, although Miriam is of course a character in real life and so perhaps did deserve to be there… in which case I wish they’d either done more with her (let us see a multifaceted human), or done less (show that the man had a girlfriend who worried when he did his dangerous job; we can all extrapolate from that).

The technical details of the action scenes were flawed. In a huge storm, the rescue boat repeatedly goes under big waves – waves ten times its height – with two crew members sort of hanging on its deck. They remain there; one even keeps his hat. C’mon, guys. Could that little boat really submarine like that?? Lights on and everything, like it was meant for underwater use. I don’t know the answer to this question. But it looks implausible to this laywoman; and if indeed this was a true capability of a little teeny boat in the 1950’s, I wish they’d explicated that fact, because wow. The precise dropping of crew members from big tanker into teeny boat in high seas was wildly implausible as well. It’s very cold, but rarely does anyone’s breath show foggy, and repeated dousings do no harm to our rescue crew. Oh, and when their compass was swept overboard, I admit I laughed out loud at the notion that the Coast Guard wouldn’t have known to strap its compass down somehow (not to mention the 36 eventual passengers on this small vessel, seamen all, none of whom carries a compass in his pocket). Add to this goofs like the pipe wrench being used backwards… that’s the sort of small-scale mistake that wouldn’t have shown up or bothered this viewer much, if it weren’t for the bigger things. How about Bernie’s magical ability to steer straight towards the tanker, and then again straight back toward the docks of home, with no visibility or compass? Movies are about some suspension of disbelief. But the movie has to earn that, or confess itself a fantasy, and this one fell a little short.

Again: great story, great scenery, action and acting. Poor technical execution of a true history that probably deserved better. For entertainment, I do recommend it as an exciting ride. But if you’re as persnickety as I am, you may have some problems.

Rating: 6 or 7 knit hats on the boat, depending on your personal preferences.

Globe On Screen presents The Merchant of Venice (2016)

I went to see Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice recently, as part of the Globe On Screen series (similar to NT Live, a live recording of a stage play in London).


I don’t think it’s terribly arguable that this is Shakespeare’s most anti-Semitic play: it centers around Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who agrees to make a loan with “a pound of flesh” as the collateral. He then insists on taking his pound of flesh, even when the principal is offered back to him by the borrower’s friends. A court case ensues in which he is defeated and forced to surrender his wealth and convert to Christianity. This, it is implied, is a just ending. The other side of the plot involves a courtship that ends in (classic Shakespeare) a double wedding and a happily-ever-after for two playful couples. Oh, and a third couple: Shylock’s daughter elopes & converts herself to marry a Christian. Oh happy day.

It is a very fine play, with perfectly pitched wit and humor as well as a few memorable dramatic scenes, perhaps most famously Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. And it was beautifully performed, of course, by the Globe’s professional team. And yet… it’s hard to watch the nastiness that is inherent to the play itself. (There is some casual racism, in addition to the anti-Semitism, when the heiress expresses dismay at a suitor’s dark skin, and hopes for no more “of his complexion.”) As is so often the case with Shakespeare–himself a shadowy historical character, if you’ll excuse the pun–we wonder now what exactly he meant: arguments have been made that this play actually intends to draw attention to anti-Semitism so as to work against it. I think of The Taming of the Shrew, a play I read as sneakily feminist rather than the opposite. But The Merchant of Venice feels pretty hateful to me.

As my parents and I recognized, this production highlighted the religious conflict, especially through the physical performance of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, who speaks volumes with her facial expressions; and especially-especially in the final scene. Shakespeare’s text finishes with the lovers’ lighthearted, celebratory lines. But this stage production followed those lines with a painful scene in which Shylock is baptized while his daughter wails and mourns. It made me physically uncomfortable. Finishing on this note, rather than kissy-kissy, drives home the play’s more sober points.

So was Shakespeare merely using the material he knew, speaking in the slurs of his time? Was he a Jew-hater with an ax to grind? Or was he slyly hoping to point out the hypocrisies of anti-Semitism? Shylock is indeed an abused underdog: he lists the crimes committed against him, says he wishes only for fair treatment, points out that charging interest on loans is how he makes a living, and isn’t it his right? In these points he is sympathetic (in the sense that the reader/viewer naturally sympathizes with him). When Antonio defaults on the loan, his insistence on the pound of flesh is increasingly vindictive and unreasonable, especially when the principal loaned is offered to him again, then doubled. I remain unclear on how exactly the default occurs: were they just late getting the money back to him? Anyway. Shylock is less and less a likeable character as he rages on, demanding blood–although he does have a point about what the legal system owes him, and likewise, that he is only handing out the kind of treatment he’s received in the past.

If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge.

Still. Nobody likes him when he waves his knife around.

But then, upon legal defeat, the forced conversion really rankles with me. I was left unsettled by the whole business. The romance is nice, and the comic disguise-and-other-capers business between the lovers is as great as Shakespeare always is when it comes to that stuff. But I can’t sit right with the treatment of the Shylock character. How are we supposed to work with this kind of material today?

I don’t have the answer to that. I give this performance a good rating: it is a good play, well-produced. But it didn’t leave me sighing with pleasure.

Rating: 8 uncomfortable moments.

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.
%d bloggers like this: