Thursday, November 24, 2022

A PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG BOYCHIK

In theaters for Thanksgiving (a safe and Happy Thanksgiving, by the way!):


The Fabelmans--It begins with little Sammy Fabelman being taken to his first movie in New Jersey in 1952. A cautious, slightly fretful 7-year-old, Sammy (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) is not sure if he's up for the experience; he's heard the people onscreen are gigantic, and the idea worries him. So his adoring parents attempt to reassure him, from opposite sides: his practical-minded, scientific dad Burt (Paul Dano) explains how film works technically, while his whimsical pixie of a mom Mitzi (Michelle Williams) says that movies are beautiful dreams.

The dream in question turns out to be DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth, and the big train wreck scene hits Sammy's psyche like...well, like a speeding train. He tries to re-create it with the Lionel train set he gets for Hannukah, and later he films his re-creations with a home movie camera.

As you probably know, this is Steven Spielberg's autobiographical coming-of-age movie, scripted by Tony Kushner from a synopsis they worked up together, and made by the usual gang: filmed by Janusz Kaminski with a score by John Williams. The episodes that follow depict the family's life as Burt, a computer genius, chases work in the budding industry from New Jersey to Arizona, where Sammy makes war epics, to northern California, where he encounters anti-Semitic bullies.

Mitzi, who gave up a career as a concert pianist to be a wife and mom, shows signs of restlessness and depression, except when she's interacting with Burt's best friend Bennie (Seth Rogen), or when she impulsively buys a monkey, who she names Bennie. All of these strands are filtered through the growth of the relationship between Sam (Gabriel LaBelle as an older kid) and the art and craft of moviemaking.

Even though he's one of the most commercially successful popular artists in the world, I think that Spielberg has, in a sense, been critically underappreciated for decades. After the initial, unprecedented splash he made with Jaws Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark, he went through a slump in the late '80s and early '90s and cranked out some real bummers; cloying, heavy-handed, trying-too-hard stuff like Hook and Always that made him seem like a phony.

I'm not sure that many critics noticed the way he rediscovered and deepened and sharpened his style with the films he's made in recent years, even when their scripts have sometimes been uneven. Works that range with seemingly equal ease from crisp yet almost invisible technique like The Post to Hitchcockian panache like Bridge of Spies to flashy showmanship like West Side Story suggest an artist who has matured, and who might have something interesting to say about his own life.

And so he does, by turning his gaze outward. Sammy is likable enough, but he's not a rich or idiosyncratic protagonist. What's important is his point of view on Burt and Mitzi. Spielberg here dramatizes the anger and terror, the sense of betrayal, that can result when you begin to see your parents--as Sammy does through his footage of them, while editing home movies--not as stock figures in your story but as complex characters in their own.

And Dano and Williams create vivid, warm portraits of imperfect but unconditionally loving people. So does Rogen, and so does Judd Hirsch in a showcase role as a crazy visionary uncle who tells Sammy hard prophetic truths. So do Jeannie Berlin and Robin Bartlett as the Grandmas, and so do the excellent kids who play the younger sisters. So for that matter, does the monkey.

Not everything in The Fabelmans comes off. There's maybe a scene or two more than is needed of Williams sadly playing sad piano, and the stuff with the bullies, who look like they stepped out of Nazi poster art, feels psychologically confused and uneasy. A scene in which Sammy has a fraught confrontation with a bully he's tried to flatter through moviemaking is potentially interesting for what it hints at about the director's willingness to use his art calculatingly, but it thrashes around and fails, somehow, to come into dramatic focus.

On the other hand, the scenes involving Sammy's early romantic encounters are livened up by the hilarious Chloe East as Monica, his both religiously ecstatic and sexually avid girlfriend, who sees Jesus as one more teen heartthrob. While chaste in the typical Spielbergian manner, they offer a peek at the character's, and the director's, bemused reaction to Christianity.

The movie closes with a depiction of Spielberg's familiar anecdote about his first brush with Hollywood greatness. It allows him to end the film with a self-deprecating "meta" joke that also slyly reminds us that what we've just seen, however honestly intended, is nonetheless a carefully curated official story.

Friday, November 4, 2022

OPPY DAYS

Opening in theaters this weekend; on Prime Video November 23...

Robots have been a mainstay in movies for most of the past century, and one of the recurrent themes of such tales is the question of whether they are conscious entities, with personality and agency. Good Night Oppy is the first film I know of on this subject that isn't science fiction.

This documentary chronicles the careers of Opportunity and Spirit, two robotic Mars Rovers launched by NASA in 2003 to explore the Martian surface in search of evidence that there was once water, and thus possibly life, on the Red Planet. The project followed a couple of embarrassing and expensive NASA failures, the Mars Polar Lander and the Mars Climate Orbiter in 1998, both of which were ignominiously lost, in one mortifying case through human error caused by confusion between American measurement and the metric system.

Spirit and Opportunity, by contrast, were overachievers. Brilliantly designed and engineered, both remained operational for many years longer than their projected mission duration of 90 "sols" (Martian days) and added greatly to human understanding of Martian geology and natural history.

But impressive and interesting as their discoveries were, this isn't really what Good Night Oppy is about. The dramatic core of the film is about the degree to which the scientists and engineers who built the robots, and who supervised their activities from the Mission Control at the Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California, anthropomorphized their creations, attributed personalities to them, worried and fretted about them and ultimately mourned them.

Directed by Ryan White and gravely narrated by Angela Bassett, the film alternates convincing simulations of the endearing robots on the Martian surface, created at Industrial Light & Magic, with actual footage of their controllers monitoring and guiding them back at JPL. We watch the beautiful nerds age with them, frowning at their struggles and grinning at their triumphs like soccer moms.

One of the designers notes that the robot he worked on was "just a box of wires" but admits that she took on a human persona for him. Another notes that the supposedly identical rovers had distinct personalities; that Spirit was "troublesome" while Opportunity was "Little Miss Perfect." One of the project leaders says that to compare their relationship to parenting would be to "trivialize parenthood," but there's no doubt that the relationship these people feel toward Spirit and "Oppy" is parental.

There was something highly satisfying about watching a bunch of top-flight scientific minds enter matter-of-factly into thoroughly sentimental projection. After a while it's hard not to wonder if it is projection, or perhaps a sensitivity to the beginnings of a rudimentary sentience; to wonder if, at some level, human beings are not ourselves just boxes of wires that somehow attained self-awareness.

It should be noted that the filmmakers do nothing to discourage this idea; they don't explain, for instance, that the rather Harold-Pinter-ish plainsong sentences from the rovers were human translations of transmitted data, not verbatim statements. Even so, the effect of the film was, for me, not only thought-provoking but deeply emotional.

The soundtrack is also worth mentioning; it draws on the wake-up songs that were played at Mission Control at the beginning of the robot's shifts. Selections range from "Roam" by the B-52s to "S.O.S." by ABBA, and they all seem to take on deeper meanings in context. It would make a pretty good mix-tape album.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

MY LOVE IS BLUE

If you haven't already, this is my official ask: Vote Blue. Vote Blue. Vote Blue. Vote Blue. Vote Blue.

By which I mean, Vote Democratic. In case I wasn't clear enough. Even if you aren't a Democrat. Even if you are a Democrat, but are disgusted by your party. Vote Blue. Even if you're sick of high prices.

I keep hearing that the economy, especially inflation, is the big obstacle that the Democrats are facing in this election. I don't know if that's really the case--I think reactionary ideology and ginned-up social resentments and bigotry and xenophobia and angry self-pity may have more to do with it--but if your wallet is any part of what's keeping you from casting a Democratic vote, then I want you to understand that I get being sick of inflation. I totally get it.

While I have much for which to be grateful, I'm not a rich or even a very well-to-do person. I'm 60 years old; I still work full-time plus a couple of side hustles, and even so money is often very tight for me and my family, even when times are good. My weekday commute to my Day Gig is slightly over 40 miles, round-trip. $5 a gallon for gas is no minor expense for me.

If you're in the same boat, or worse, then first of all, my sympathies, and second of all, here's why I want you to Vote Blue anyway: To begin with, I don't think that Democratic policies are especially to blame for the current inflation. And I certainly see no evidence that the Republicans can or would improve the economy...for people like us, that is.

For themselves and their rich buddies and corporations, sure, things will stay nice and comfortable, at least in the short term. But the last 40-plus years have shown us that fluffing up the pillows of the affluent, which is all that classic Republicans since Reagan have been interested in doing, does little to improve the lives of the poor, working and middle classes. We've been taught that if we decline to play along with making wealthy people's lives easier, somehow we'll be unable to ascend ourselves. We'll miss our chance to sit at the cool kids' table.

Democrats, of course, have little enough to boast of during the same period. For decades, our representatives have continuously shied away from or compromised even the most basic social reforms, and played along with GOP and corporate economic policy, out of fear of offending that same donor class and that part of the base that has been duped into thinking that it's weakness to make the government work for you. But even with a timid, hampered, foot-dragging congress, Biden has managed to make some remarkable progress in the last couple of years. It would be a shame to see his administration's measures hamstrung before we see the full benefit of them. Give Joe a Chance.

But here's the thing: Even if I was convinced that the Republicans could and would fix the economy, I'd still ask you to vote against the current version of that party. The current crop are not the old-school Reagan-style Chamber of Commerce Republicans. Reagan, ruinous as I think he was to our national character, was a paragon compared to 45 and his followers.

The Gipper, I think, would now be seen as a weak-sister "RINO" compared to the current iteration of the GOP, who actually seem to be infatuated with, and serious about attempting, a strongman type authoritarian regime. I want a prosperous economy as much as the next guy. But I don't want it anywhere near as much as I want our democracy to survive in this country. And the Republicans have tried to overthrow our democracy, both violently and by nakedly attempting to rig elections, all the while obsessively and baselessly accusing their opponents of doing the same. And the Christian nationalism, white supremacy, anti-Semitism and other bigotries that have so long seemed to be part of the subtext of the Republican Party have recently become a lot less subtextual.

No consideration of my wallet could extenuate that, even if I thought that Republicans cared about my wallet (they don't) or could help my wallet if they did (they couldn't). Republicans should be denied power, both to protect our form of government and also, well...to punish them. At some point, Republican leaders must learn to reject the toxic, non-conservative form of right-wing neo-fascism that has infected them, strip their party down to the studs, and start to rebuild it into the dull but honorable loyal opposition it ought to be. But until they are denied the power they crave, this won't happen.

I have long believed, and I still want to believe, my rank-and-file political opponents are people of good faith, that they want democracy even if it means that sometimes their side won't prevail. It saddens me enormously, therefore, but it's very evident that some on the Republican side simply don't care if they win fair and square or not; they're tired of people they think aren't worthy of a vote having a say in how this country is run, and they're willing to bully and cheat and promulgate fictions to prevent that. And even those who wouldn't resort to such measures themselves are willing to tolerate it in their more extreme allies, if it means a win.

However badly you want your side to win this election, I want the Democrats to win just as badly. I'll be devastated, and very frightened, if they don't. The Republican slogan since 45 has been to Make America Great Again. I don't think America stopped being great until we elected 45, and when he got his ass beat in the next election we started the process of regaining some of our greatness. Democracy, that wildly imperfect system, famously the worst system except for all the other systems, is the core of what makes America great. Despite the bitter pain that comes with losing, democracy is who we are, at our best.

Thus I want your vote to count even if it's in opposition to mine, and I fear this could be one of the last elections, at least for a while, in which everybody's vote will count. So if you can't bring yourself to Vote Blue, then I'm asking: Don't Vote. Vote by sitting it out. For everybody else, I guess I'll end where I started: Vote Blue. Vote Blue. Vote Blue. Vote Blue. Vote Blue!

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

RETALIATE IS ENOUGH

Now on VOD...

The Retaliators--Two young women in a van get a flat on a lonely forested road. If you're guessing they don't just get to fix it and be on their way, you're right.

Thus begins this horror tale, like a standard ghouls-in-the-woods nightmare, but the real theme, a la Last House on the Left, is Revenge. When the teenage daughter (Katie Kelly) of a young New Jersey pastor (Michael Lombardi) is murdered, he investigates, and eventually finds himself in a position where he must confront his own commitment to the Christian principle that vengeance is not his.

Co-directed by Samuel Gonzalez, Jr., Bridget Smith and Lombardi from a script by Darren Geare and Jeff Allen Geare, this an extremely violent and gory shocker. But speaking as an easily frightened wimp, I must say that somehow I didn't find it very scary. It feels like it's trying too hard to be over-the-top gruesome; I couldn't take it seriously. The splatter is icky but never quite horrific on any deeper level.

The only member of the hardworking cast that I recognized was Brian O'Halloran (Dante from the Clerks movies) in a small role near the beginning, as a jerk who takes a Christmas tree away from a little girl. The hardcore killers and sickos in this movie have so little reality that I had a more visceral response to this guy's minor outrage than to their atrocities.

All that said, it must be admitted that this movie isn't predictable. Maybe because of the multiple hands behind the camera, The Retaliators takes a strange and circuitous route to its Jacobean bloodbaths. Whether it's a trip worth taking is a matter of taste, but at least it isn't a trip we've taken before.

Friday, October 21, 2022

GIVE PEZ A CHANCE

Opening on VOD this weekend and at the Alice Gill-Sheldon Theatre in Sedona on Friday, October 28...


The PEZ Outlaw--The title character of this international thriller is a man named Steve Glew. A Gandalf-bearded former machine-shop rat from Michigan who shares a small horse farm with his soft-spoken wife Kathy, Glew was also a bit of an OCD eccentric who collected oddball cereal boxes. Bored silly with his  job, he got interested in PEZ in the '80s and '90s when he was clued in, at a collector's show, that there were a great many of the candy-pushing dispensers that weren't distributed in the USA.

Beard dyed dark, Glew plays his younger self in flashback re-enactments, as he and his son travel, first, to Slovenia, and come back with duffel bags crammed with contraband PEZ and, owing to a hiccup in PEZ USA's standing with U.S. Customs, are able to import them. Soon he's making regular trips to Europe, from Hungary to PEZ headquarters in Austria, and PEZ peddling is his full-time job.

If the McGuffin being smuggled here was drugs or guns or uranium, the story wouldn't be that different from any globetrotting caper thriller. But it's PEZ, so it's freaking hilarious. Directors Amy Storkel and Brian Storkel cut between Glew and other, uhm, talking heads as they narrate the re-enactments, which are overtly facetious in tone; several scenes are done noir-style, and the plant in Slovenia is presented like Willy Wonka's factory inside. This is funny, but it's possible that a more deadpan, Errol Morris-like approach might have given the film a sharper edge.

Even so, it's wonderful, because of the visual charm of PEZ and the oddity of the collecting fanatics and the implausibility of the story, which is what makes it believable. But above all The PEZ Outlaw is wonderful because Glew seems like a fully, fearlessly self-revealed character onscreen, exasperating and lovable; when the movie takes a poignant turn in its final quarter, the emotion comes naturally.

Sunday, October 16, 2022

HEADS OF HEADS OF STATE

As far back as Your Humble Narrator can remember, I've loved PEZ. What's not to love, after all? It's a delicious candy--you may recall that Vern, in Stand By Me, had no doubt that he could subsist on nothing but cherry flavored PEZ for the rest of his life--and it's a toy. It's a toy that gives you candy.

Invented in Austria in the 1920s and originally marketed to adults as a substitute for tobacco, PEZ--the word is a compression of the German pfefferminz, or peppermint--began to sell dispensers with character heads for children in the 1950s and became an international brand. Of the many PEZ dispensers I had as a kid, I particularly prized the Halloweeny skulls and ogres, so I was delighted when The Wife found these Halloween mini-dispensers...

...to hand out for trick-or-treat this year.

As an adult, the first item I ever bid on and won on eBay was an old-school PEZ Easter Bunny with a curiously grave and sober expression; I've always referred to him as "Frowny Bunny," and he still lives on my desk...

This coming Friday, October 21, a documentary called The PEZ Outlaw, chronicling a particularly strange episode in the history of PEZ collecting, debuts on VOD; it's also slated to play at the Alice Gill-Sheldon Theatre in Sedona starting Friday, October 28.

More on that remarkable film in a later post, but with all this PEZ-iness on my mind, the time has come to discuss my monument.

That's right, my monument.

A few years ago, in the depths of the previous Presidential administration, I hit upon an inspiration one day for a piece of public art. Not little piece, a big piece. An epic piece. A monument, carved into the side of a mountain. I'm not saying it would have needed to be on the scale of South Dakota's Mount Rushmore, but maybe one third the size, or one fifth. Maybe poor North Dakota could find a hillside somewhere, and offer an alternative to tourists.

Then one day, haunting a junkshop, I found something that made me revise my grandiose plans. Why allow a modern-day Gutzon Borglum to vandalize another perfectly lovely natural rockface, after all, and spend millions of public dollars and many years, when I could realize my idea on my own, for a few lousy bucks worth of PEZ?

What I had come across, you see, were a few random PEZ dispensers that I didn't know existed, depicting the Presidents of the United States. They were from a "PEZ Education Series" launched about a decade ago, issued in sets of five POTUS Dispensers at a time, starting with Washington and culminating with Obama (Obama's successor, mercifully, has not been officially PEZzed at this writing). So between that original haul and a bit of eBaying, over a few months I was able to obtain:

Franklin Pierce (served 1853-1857); who opposed the Abolitionist movement, signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, enforced the Fugitive Slave Act, made a failed attempt to annex Cuba; the first and to date the only elected incumbent President not re-nominated by his own party...

James Buchanan (1857-1861); who continued Pierce's bungling and opposition to Abolition (despite claiming he was personally opposed to slavery), leading to the Secession of the southern states and making the Civil War inevitable...

Warren Gamaliel Harding (1921-1923); who filled his administration with crooked cronies that were implicated in multiple scandals, most famously the Teapot Dome oil lease affair which resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall...

...and our own era's George W. Bush (2001-2009); who ignored security warnings about terrorist attacks before 9/11 and lied us into interminable wasteful wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in that tragedy's wake...

My fellow Americans, I give you...

MOUNT RUSHMORE COMPARED TO 45!

Dismal as they were, any of these four men, and any number of other Presidential hacks and bums and paranoids, would have been preferable to President 45. Decidedly preferable. Harding's offenses, most of them possibly unwitting on his part and only revealed after his untimely death in office, seem particularly quaint by 45's standards.

Thus my MRCT45 Monument stands tall--albeit only about 5 inches tall, and only on my desk--in symbolic tribute to all those who, though they may be inept clowns or moral cowards or shady creeps, still have some consideration, some tiny modicum of regard, some vague sense of responsibility, for their country, for the world, or for any human being other than themselves. It's a (dimly) shining memorial to the barest minimum in human decency.

Just so there's no misunderstanding, I should hasten to note that when I say these guys would be preferable, I mean that they would be preferable, as men. I'm not remotely suggesting, of course, that the social conditions and norms of the times in which they served would be preferable to the social conditions and norms of our times.

The toughest of these dispensers to find, by the way, was W. Bush; perhaps because he was part of the same set as Obama, and I wasn't willing to pay the upwards of $100 that this set goes for online. Finally I hunted him up, along with the other two non-Obama members of that set, presumably from a split-up set on eBay (the fifth dispenser in that box is of the Presidential Seal).

While scrounging to complete my grand vision, I did also accumulate a good bench of other Presidential mediocrities and rascals. I'd still like a Nixon, in case anybody wants to know what to get me for Christmas. But I have scored William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Herbert Hoover (a close also-ran for Harding's spot), Bill Clinton and W. Bush's Dad H. W. Bush...

Compared to 45, I need hardly say, they all seem monument-worthy...

Thursday, October 13, 2022

FEST TO THE WEST

There are some pretty intriguing selections on the program at the 4th edition of the Peoria Film Festival...


...slated for this weekend at Harkins Arrowhead; check out my short column, online at Phoenix Magazine, for details.