Movies postsThursday December 19, 2013
The Saddest Song Ever?
Since “Saving Mr. Banks,” which I obviously didn’t like much, I’ve been thinking a bit about “Mary Poppins,” the 1964 movie that the 2013 movie is all about.
I was born in 1963, a year before its release, but it was still big by the time my memory kicked in during the late 1960s (about the time some people’s memories began to kick out). I remember I was going to the birthday party of a good friend, John Mockenhaupt, and my mother bought the “Mary Poppins” soundtrack album for me to give to him. What did I do? I opened it and listened to it on my own record player. Couldn’t you do that? Couldn't you just put the LP back into the cover and give it to him? Apparently not. Mom wasn’t happy. Neither was I when I had to show up, sheepishly, with a crap secondary gift.
Odd that I needed to listen to it because I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie. I liked Bert and his cohorts enough, true free spirits, but the kids didn't seem like kids but waxworks of kids; they freaked me out a little. The parents? Sure, the absentee father. But the Mrs. was too interested in suffragette politics to care for her kids? I didn’t get that at all. Even Mary Poppins, pretty pretty Julie Andrews, with her prettier voice, was a little scary for me. You sensed her sympathy was only skin deep; that there was steel beneath it. I was a bit spoiled, and used to unconditional love, so all of this felt somewhat unpleasant.
But I did like the songs: “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “I Love to Laugh.” So much so that John Mockenhaupt’s loss was my gain.
“Feed the Birds,” though, made me uncomfortable. And I think it made me uncomfortable because it’s so fucking sad. It’s a beautiful song, probably the most beautiful song the Sherman brothers wrote for “Mary Poppins,” and sung gorgeously by Julie Andrews, but ... I mean, it sounds sad, and it's about a homeless woman (Jane Darwell, 25 years after “Grapes of Wrath”), begging people to buy little bags of bread so birds don't die. And that's a lullaby? I've written before that this is the saddest song ever, or maybe Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in “Meet Me in St. Louis”; but at least “St. Louis” recognizes the song's sadness. Little Margaret O’Brien starts crying a minute 30 in. “Feed the Birds” in “Poppins”? The kids listen with creepy smiles then drift off to sleep. I would’ve had nightmares. I probably did.
Even now, at 50, it breaks my heart.
Seven Questions Jon Stewart Should Have Asked Jennifer Lawrence Last Week on 'The Daily Show'
Jon Stewart got teased by Jennifer Lawrence, and then the usual online sources, for his lack of preparation during his interview with her last week. She was promoting “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” which apparently didn't need much promoting (fourth-best opening weekend ever), but he barely asked any questions about the movie or her character in the movie, Katniss Everdeen, or about any future movies she might be in. (Gary Ross is remaking “East of Eden”????) He just showed a picture of a young Helen Mirren and said, “Doesn't that look like you?” Her response? “You are so weird.”
Maybe he didn't think you could ask interesting questions about “The Hunger Games.” But you can. Here's what he should have asked:
- In the movie, your character, Katniss, and Josh Hutcherson's character, Peeta, are forced to put on a show for the masses. They are forced to “go on tour” to promote “The Hunger Games.” How much does what you're doing now, this promo tour, feel like that? In what ways does it differ?
- Katniss and Peeta are forced to pretend for the audience. They pretend, for example, that they are in love. (Well, Katniss does.) You, Jennifer, are considered very straightforward and down-to-earth, but what ways do you feign for your audience?
- The tour in the movie is labeled a distraction by Haymitch, Woody Harrelson's character, so “people forget what the real problems are.” Is that what this promo tour is? Is that what “The Hunger Games,” the movie, is? Is that what “The Daily Show” is?
- In the movie, which people are the ones targeted for distraction by all the gossip and fashion and celebrity? The people in the Capitol, who don't seem to need distraction? Or the people in the districts, who never seem distracted?
- How is Katniss, such a strong character in the first movie, not a pawn in everyone's game in the second?
- In the movie, Gale says to her, “People are looking to you, Katniss. You've given them an opportunity. They just have to be brave enough to take it.” But doesn't the movie show us that they are brave enough to take it? And that it's your character, Katniss, the supposedly strong one, who is dragging her feet?
- For all the new ground it covers (archery, etc.), isn't “The Hunger Games” ultimately the story of a strong-willed woman who has to choose between two men against a backdrop of tragedy? And in this way, isn't it similar to other big box-office hits such as “Gone with the Wind,” “The Sound of Music” and “Titanic”? So what new ground is it breaking?
On the other hand, maybe he wasn't allowed to ask these questions. Maybe the studio didn't want him to draw the obvious parallels between this tour and the tour in the movie. And they are obvious, Miss Lawrence.
“You need to smile ... You need to be grateful ...”
Patricia and I were talking the other night, and I mentioned the movie “Rush,” which I'd seen and she hadn't, and I suggested she might like it. “So it's good?” she asked, and I said, “Yeah, it's good,” then thought for a moment and added this.
It's what most movies should be. If Hollywood still made movies for adults, as they did in the '30s and '40s, the modern version would be this. It's a good studio movie. It's interesting, exciting, sexy. It's fairly intelligent for a story about racecar drivers. It has a few good scenes. It's not great but most of the parts work. It's a type of movie that should be the base for us. It should be the norm. Instead the norm is what we got: giant robots and superheroes and rock 'em sock 'em and adolescent crap.
Ron Howard's “Rush”: A modern studio picture?
Why Denzel Matters: Before the Show at the Regal Meridian
“2 Guns,” which I reviewed yesterday, has good chemistry between its leads, good dialogue, but that's about it. The most moving part of the movie for me happened before the lights dimmed.
Patricia and I went to see the 4:30 show on Sunday afternoon at the Regal Meridian in downtown Seattle. We were supposed to meet a friend at a restaurant to celebrate her birthday, but the friend wound up with a migraine, canceled, and we wound up doing this instead.
In the lobby I noticed a black woman, 60s I'd guess, sitting by herself on a bench. She stood out for being in her 60s, and for the Sunday church hat she wore, and for the big purse on her lap. The rest of us were dressed in the slob/slut clothes typical for a hot weekend afternoon: stuff too baggy or too tight. She was dressed proper. She looked out of place.
I saw her again after we sat down in the theater. She was still alone. She came in by herself and sat down off to the side, with her back straight, her hat on her head, her purse in her lap.
Is it the hat that killed me? Is it that she was by herself?
The rest of the theater was the usual lowest-denominator crowd, slouched, bored looks on their faces, checking their smartphones before the show began. During the movie, the guy behind us kept laughing and crowing at all the stupid shit. He thrilled in the violence and the revenge and the explosions. Hollywood kept pushing his buttons and he kept making the proper noises.
Then there was this lady off to the side.
I'm sure I have her story wrong—it's not just Hollywood that tends toward the reductive and sentimental—but since she didn't seem the type of person to go to an R-rated shoot-em-up on a Sunday afternoon, I figured she went for one reason. She had her guy. He was in this. So she went. For her, the title might as well have been 1 Gun.
Ben-Hur: the Travis Bickle of His Day
I watched “Ben-Hur” over the weekend. I know, but I'd never seen it beginning to end.
It was kind of fun—the epic sprawl, the overture, the intermission, the pace—but most fascinating was how much I didn't identify with its hero, Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston). In fact, I kept agreeing with everyone but Ben-Hur. That includes Pontius Pilate. You read right: Pontius Pilate.
When Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) first arrives on the galley ship, for example, and demands that the exhausted slaves row faster and faster, then at attack speed, then at ramming speed, what do we make of him? Is he a sadist? Is he testing them? Does he just want to see them sweat and glisten? Is he testing Ben-Hur, whom he notices early and often? Does he just want to see him sweat and glisten? I assumed he was a villain. Then he says this to Ben-Hur, who, at this point in the story, because of an earlier face-to-face encounter with Jesus, is a believer:
The God I pray to will not save me. The God you pray to will not save you.
That pretty much sums up my thoughts on religion, but Ben-Hur argues the point:
Ben-Hur: I can't believe God would let me live these three years to die chained to an oar.
Quintus Arrias: It's a strange, stubborn faith you keep—to belive that existence has a purpose.
Again, I'm with Arrius.
But Ben-Hur winds up saving Arrius (of course), who adopts him as a son, and Ben-Hur triumphs over his enemy, Messala (Stephen Boyd), in the famous chariot race. Except it doesn't end there. Despite all of the good that has come since his encounter with Jesus, Ben-Hur actually loses his faith again when he discovers that in his long absence his mother and sister have become lepers. He refuses even to hear the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, he goes to Pontius Pilate (Frank Thring), who warns him thus:
Perfect freedom has no existence. A grown man knows the world he lives in. And for the present, the world is Rome's.
I nodded. You might not agree with it, you might fight it, but you'd be a fool to ignore it. Ben-Hur is a fool here. Think of it: He actually had a face-to-face encounter with God and he still lacks faith. Makes the rest of us, who get no such face-time, seem evangelical.
Indeed, for the last hour of the movie, before he gets all Christianed up again, Judah Ben-Hur reminds me of a movie protagonist who would come along 17 years later. This is Ben-Hur talking with Esther (Haya Harareet):
I tell you every man in Judea is unclean ... No other life is possible except to wash this land clean.
And here's Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver” in 1976:
Someday a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.
But what's fascinating about “Ben-Hur” to me is the assumption by the filmmakers of the audience's shared Christian background. They assumed we all believed in the same God, and if we didn't, if there were Jews around (and apparently there were), well, it was OK since our God was a Jew. Jews got a pass, but only them. Donuts or bagels—no other options.
Yet we were only seven short years from the year TIME magazine would ask on its cover “Is God Dead?” and John Lennon would call the Beatles bigger than Jesus. What a leap. Our shared assumptions were gone by then; the fragmentation of the culture had begun by then. When today's conservatives complain about how Hollywood doesn't make old-fashioned movies anymore, this is what they're complaining about. They're talking about movies like “Ben-Hur” that assume that the Christian God is the one true God, with a bagel on the side. They want Charlton Heston again and an all-star cast but wind up with Kirk Cameron on a miniscule budget.
“Ben-Hur” was the No. 1 movie of 1959 and remains in the top 15 all-time if you adjust for inflation. But its world, the 1950s world in which it was made, was ending. A rain came.
Face-to-face faith, which he'll lose later in the movie, only to get it back in the final reel.