Movies postsTuesday November 07, 2017
Missing the Twin Towers
There's a moment in the new HBO doc “Spielberg” (recommended but slightly disappointing) that made me almost sputter in disbelief. I think, in the tradition of my family, I even yelled at the TV. Fact-check with Patricia when you get the chance.
The moment concerned “Munich,” a film I defended back in 2006, mostly from (of all people) Leon Wieseltier, who accused it of being manipulative, tedious, and—its real crime to Wieseltier—“soaked in the sweat of its idea of evenhandedness.” I.e., It didn't laud the Israelis enough nor demonize the Palestinians enough. It was ambiguous on something Hollywood is not usually ambiguous on: revenge.
That ambiguity is now praised from the talking heads in the doc, including film historian Annette Insdorf, who says the following:
The end of this film is not celebratory—rejoicing in the death of the enemy. It is incredibly quiet. And only on the second viewing did I realize the twin towers were revealed at the end.
That's when I sputtered in disbelief. Because even in defending “Munich,” I quibbled with parts of it. Particularly that part:
As Avner [Eric Bana's character] walked with the New York City skyline behind him, including, eventually, the World Trade towers, the camera should have followed him and faded out; instead it ignored Avner and stopped with the towers in center-frame. Spielberg is always underlining points that would be more powerful without his help.
Insdorf missed what I thought was way too obvious.
And I think it was too obvious because I anticipated it. “Munich” is a movie about the difficulties (logistically and morally) of tracking down terrorists, and it was released four years after 9/11, and so that more recent tragedy is never far from our minds. And in the movie's final scene, as our hero talks to his former Mossad handler (Geoffrey Rush) with Manhattan in the distance, in the late 1970s, you don't have to be Einstein (or Kael) to think, “Spielberg's gotta have the World Trade Center in there.” And he did. And for a second I was happy ... until his camera stopped on it. Until he underlined what I felt should've been subtler.
I look at the shots now and think, “Maybe I overreacted.” But I still can't believe Insdorf underanticipated. Seriously, how do you miss that?
Still Pushing 'The Big Sick'
Last week, my friend Evan reminded me of a conversation we had last spring. I'd seen “The Big Sick” opening night at the Seattle International Film Festival and told him that when it opened wider, in June or July, he had to see it. Had to.
Me: It's the funniest movie of the year.
Evan: [Mentions two recent movies he thought were funny.]
Me: I haven't seen those. This one's funnier.
I'm kind of bummed the movie didn't just kill it at the box office like a Melissa McCarthy comedy: It grossed $41 mil in the U.S. and (thus far) $8 mil abroad,but it deserves a wider audience. I think it'll get it. I think word-of-mouth will drag people to it eventually.
Another fan of the film? My man Joe Posnanski, with whom I apparently disagree on nothing. He recently tweeted this:
Then he wrote this.
Another fan? My man Mark Harris. He recently tweeted this:
Seriously: If laughs, generosity of spirit, a deep feeling for family, and actors working in perfect unison aren't your thing, DO NOT WATCH.— Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC) September 11, 2017
I responded: Exactly. I'm almost tired of trying to get people to see this great film for which they'll thank me forever.
“The Big Sick” is currently streaming on iTunes, OnDemand and Amazon. Check it out. You know that funny movie you saw recently? This one's funnier.
Review of the movie here. I think it's one of our great, underrated movies.
Mike, Cyril, Dave, Moocher: The epithet they're called is the job they can't get.
Podcast: The Generation Gap: Three Generations of Film Critics Tackle Three Generations of Film, Part I
Three movies, all nostalgic.
For the past few months, my nephew Jordan has been after me and my father to do a podcast of three generations of critics talking about film. Yesterday, the day after Christmas, we finally made it happen in the basement of Jordan's parents home in south Minneapolis.
It wasn't bad. The doing, that is. I have no idea about the listening, but you can listen to it here.
After several rounds of negotiations (mostly with my father, the holdout), we finally landed on discussing three movies that each of us liked as children. They are:
- “The Four Feathers” (1939) for my father, born in 1932
- “Star Wars” (1977) for me, born in 1963
- “Fantastic Mr. Fox” (2009) for Jordan, born in 2001.
Yes, it's all a bit arbitrary, but it's interesting culling meaning out of it.
Each movie, for example, is nostalgic in nature. “The Four Feathers” was released on August 3, 1939, exactly a month before Britain declared war on Germany and entered World War II, but it relies upon the Kiplingesque trappings of British empire and honor. It's based on a 1902 novel and set mostly during the 1890s. It celebrates what's gone. So does “Star Wars,” released a few years after Watergate and a few years before the Iran hostage crisis, and during a period when Hollywood movies tended to be downers. But from the opening crawl to the triumphant end—not to mention the clear demarcation between good and evil—it's essentially a movie serial of the '30s and '40s sped up, and with A-production values. “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” too, is based upon a book that was published 40 years before the movie was released. We keep looking back to create the now.
Both “Feathers” and “Star Wars” contain extensive scenes in the desert. One big difference between the two: we root for the empire (British) in “Feathers” and against the Empire (Evil) in “Star Wars.”
“Feathers” seems to be the most adult but it's really about reclaiming individual honor and dignity against a backdrop of war; its story is individualistic in nature. The point of both “Star Wars” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” is that there's something bigger than the individual, whether the hero finds that something within (the Force) or without (the team of wild animals relying on their natures to defeat the bad guys).
Finally, “Four Feathers” indicates why these subsequent movies tended toward fantasy. If you base your story on history, as “Feathers” did, and include period attitudes toward swaths of people that actually exist (“Fuzzie Wuzzies”), it might feel a bit awkward as the moral arc of the universe bends a little bit more in its journey.
Afterbirth of a Nation: 1938
I came across this piece in The New Yorker digital edition. It's from April 30, 1938, the “Talk of the Town” section, and about a rerelease of “The Birth of a Nation.” It's an interesting read:
Interesting for a couple of reasons:
- It's really well-written. Of course, back then, “TOTT” pieces went unsigned. You gotta wonder, though. Anyone we know?
- So “Birth” was already risible in some circles by 1938? I didn't know there was much racial progress in the years 1915 to 1938. It's often portrayed as regressive years: “Birth,” KKK, Scottsboro Boys, beginning of Tuskegee experiments, etc.
- The way he describes an earlier viewing of “Birth,” I'm curious if he first saw it in the South. Is he Southern? Born in 1901?
Anyone know who it might be? E.B. White is about the right age but grew up in New York. Joseph Mitchell grew up in North Carolina but wasn't born until 1908 so the age is off. Unless the writer is referring to an earlier re-release, say in 1922; then we got a potential match.