J. & C.'s Movie Reviews

Our Notes on Movies Made Public

Archive for the ‘Great’ Category

Matchstick Men

Posted by J on July 16, 2011

Matchstick Men is a movie that a lot of regular moviewatchers would despise, with good reason.  It stars Nicolas Cage, who, if you don’t like him, you’ll think he’s overacting here.  And then the movie (spoiler alert) is an elaborate con on the main character and all viewers.  Trick endings are tough because they usually require something that, in hindsight, would be practically impossible. The trick ending that this movie offers us is practically impossible, and some people won’t like that.

But oh well.  I accept this movie’s problems because I enjoyed its human considerations.  Cage’s character is well-drawn, complex and rewarding.  He’s an obsessive-compulsive, an agoraphobic, a professional con artist, but also a man hurting because he doesn’t know if his ex-wife bore his child over a decade ago.  As other critics have noted, this movie is three movies in one: a con game, a man-dealing-with-neurosis story, and a father-meets-long-lost-child story.  Cage’s character perfectly converges these three plots.

(FINISH and revise)

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The Wages of Fear

Posted by J on February 12, 2011

Apparently, there’s an audience for watching tough guys do dangerous jobs.  There’s no other explanation for the popularity of the cable TV shows about deep sea fishermen, ice road truckers, demolition experts, barbarian beef eaters, and skydiving snake handlers.  At least a few people like to dream that a tiny part of the world isn’t touched by feminine influence.  Would you be surprised to know that a 1953 French movie would fit right in on the TV schedule after Iceroad TruckersThe Wages of Fear works as a modern guy movie.

What’s fascinating is the way it’s presented nowadays.  Look at the cover from the Criterion Collection’s DVD.  It depicts a couple of tired and defeated men, looking like they’ve been watching a bunch of boring Criterion films in a row.  Reader, do not pay heed to this cover.  Look at the original movie poster above.  That’s the movie you will see.  These tired-looking men have a fantastic reason to look tired.  They’re driving a truck filled with nitroglycerin for 300 miles down a terrible road.  They could blow up at any second!  At the point in the movie where they look tired, they’ve just hauled the truck out of a pool of oil, and the guy on the left got his leg smashed.

The movie starts in South America — Brazil, Venezuela, Suriname, we don’t know — in a forsaken place where there are a few ex-pats.  Some Americans, Germans, Brits, Italians, and French hang around a tiny bar in a tiny town that exists to serve the oil industry.  The American company, SOC, operates oil wells near the town.  But the ex-pats can’t get a job, so they just bum around at the bar all day.

Jo, an old French guy, arrives in town and meets Mario, a young French guy.  Mario takes to Jo, who shows his toughness in a near-bar fight.  Mario would like to hang around Jo and leave his French girlfriend, who seems to be the local prostitute.  But how can he ditch that girlfriend?  And where will he get a job?

Well, an oil well explodes.  SOC needs to put out the fire, and it needs explosives to do it. Bill O’Brien, head of SOC’s operations, wants the job done now, without regard to safety.  He orders that regular old trucks haul containers of nitroglycerin to the oil wells.  These trucks don’t have shock absorbers, so one bad bump and BOOM!  Who will drive these trucks?  O’Brien reasons that the local ex-pats will do it.  They don’t have a union and they’ll each jump at the chance to earn $2000 for a day’s work. (This explains the Criterion’s cover, which has an implicit political message about colonialism, exploitation, capitalist greed, and whatever else is supposedly wrong with the world.)

Four drivers are selected, all of whom we’ve learned a little about in the movie’s first hour, including Jo and Mario.  Two trucks will go, two men per truck. Why two trucks? In case one of them blows up.

So the trucks begin a long journey down a perilous road.  We know this is a total guy movie because, as Mario’s truck leaves town, his girlfriend jumps onto it.  Mario pushes her off, she falls onto the road, and she watches the men leave.  The scene closes on her as if to say “no women are allowed passed this point!”  Hauling nitroglycerin, it turns out, is only a job for the toughest of guys. (The ending, which has baffled all kinds of people, absolutely reinforces this point about “no women allowed.”)

The mission seems suicidal.  What happens if the trucks hit a washboard road?  How do they handle hairpin turns up steep hills?  How do they get around boulders that have fallen into the road?  The movie’s tense moments hold up well against any modern action movie you can name.    In fact, reader, the last hour-and-a-half of The Wages of Fear is one of the best stretches in cinema’s short history.  It makes the iceroad truckers look like they are making cupcakes.

Posted in Action, Great | Leave a Comment »

The Straight Story

Posted by J on February 10, 2011

There are a lot of road movies, many of which are about individual catharsis. Few, if any, are better than The Straight Story, a celebration of the upper Midwest.  If you’ve experienced them, you’ve probably enjoyed leisurely drives on two-lane highways through the endless cornfields of the Midwest.  This movie offers you such a drive, only you’ll be going at a much slower pace.  Think three miles an hour, on a lawnmower.

Why a lawnmower?  Well, Alvin Straight doesn’t have many options.  He’s diabetic, so he can’t see well, and his hips don’t work so he has to use two canes.  Somewhat stubborn, he insists on going by himself.  And there’s no bus to his brother’s house.  You can’t expect any kind of transportation from Laurens, Iowa to western Wisconsin, unless you provide it yourself.

Straight hasn’t talked to his brother in ten years, when he learns that his brother has suffered a stroke.  73 years old, given a bill of poor health by his doctor, it is now or never for Alvin.  He desires reconciliation with his estranged brother.  With no wife and and one adult child at his home, Alvin could leave, if there were any way to do so.  How can he get to his brother?  That clunky old Rehms lawnmower might be the way to go.

So Alvin stocks up on hotdogs, builds a trailer to tow behind his lawnmower, and heads out.  He’s got 400 miles to traverse.  As it will turn out, this journey is not simply about reconciling with his brother, but dealing with loneliness and old age.

Based on a true story, The Straight Story is not straightforward in its description of Straight’s history.  During his six-week journey, he meets several strangers — a pregnant runaway, a group of bicyclers, a Catholic priest.  At each stop, in each conversation, we learn something new about Straight.  He had 14 children, but only seven lived past childbirth.  He has been a widow for 15 years.  And he is a WWII vet who lives with the pain of a terrible accident.  The more we learn about Straight, the better the movie gets.

Does Straight reach his brother?  He is threatened by the fast pace of vehicles that pass him by.  He also doesn’t have brakes on his trailer, a major problem because his lawnmower is certainly not designed to pull that trailer.   It’s hard to imagine the transmission on his ’66 John Deere lasting for 400 miles — his old Rehms broke down a few miles into the journey.  What would happen if the John Deere breaks down? Not only do we find out, but the movie makes you feel as if you are traveling at Straight’s pace, watching everything else move too quickly. Straight’s pace, it seems, is the right pace for such a journey.

At one point, Straight tells us that he and his brother had, at their last meeting, the harshest of exchanges, fueled by alcohol.  But they used to camp out every summer night on their Minnesota farm, as children, talking to each other.  A brother knows you best, Straight reasons, because he knows your whole life.  Straight’s journey and his attempt to reconcile with family is deeply affecting.  It is a puzzle why more movies like this — G-rated, but not saccharine — don’t exist. The Straight Story is the opposite of Facing the Giants and it makes the hyper-emotional nonsense of such Christian fare look foolish. We should not forget it.

Posted in Great, Modern Drama | Leave a Comment »

The Night of the Hunter

Posted by J on January 31, 2011

It’s possible that The Night of the Hunter is the best film ever made.  That’s such a contentious claim, we know.  But as a midwestern Americans, we understand it very well, and thematically and aesthetically it fits the current accepted criteria for “great movie.”  So let’s just agree to call it one of the best yet made.

There is a lot of America in the movie, past and present.  A psychopath who disguises himself as a preacher, Harry Powell, who seems to believe that he is doing the Lord’s work, attacks and robs widows.  He does this by seducing them first with his God talk.  Thrown in jail for stealing a car, Powell learns of $10,000 in stolen cash from Ben Harper, a fellow prisoner who, the day after he tells Powell about the money, is executed for murder.  Harper has a wife and two children.  This is a great opportunity for Powell. Once released from jail, he heads to the Harper homestead.

The problem is that no one knows where the money is, except for Harper’s two children, John and Pearl.  The battle is on between Powell and the children.  Powell first seduces the townsfolk with a religious story about the battle between “Love” and “Hate.” words he has written on the knuckles of his left and right hands.  He then seduces Mrs. Harper and marries her.  For the kids, this is a big problem.  Their new stepdad is a psychopath.  For Mrs. Harper, now Mrs. Powell, it is a wild descent into being brainwashed by a misogynist.  She sides with Powell, and against her children, while believing that sex is an unclean abomination.

What we have described so far is a plotline that we tend to avoid.  We don’t enjoy being around psychopaths in reality, and we don’t like watching them on screen, especially those who try to torment children.  If this movie had been made anytime between the 1970s and today, it would’ve been a disaster. It most likely would’ve been a horror film strictly about a creep who chases children.  But this movie veers, in its third act, upwards to another level.  By doing so, it becomes a kind of Midwestern fairy tale — the old kind of fairy tale, like the stories of Brothers Grimm, where the bad guys are really maniacs who murder for pleasure.

The movie depicts the faults and virtues of the Midwest.  Granted, the faults of the Midwest and South have been the feature of many a film.    There have been so many idiotic or psychopathic rednecks in the last forty years of movies that we get really defensive about the depiction of our native region.  And Harry Powell may be the ultimate Midwestern psychopath. He talks to God and deceives all of the townsfolk, who believe him to be an honorable man of God.  But Powell’s character is balanced by another’s — whose we won’t say — who enters the third act and introduces hope into the story.  The movie does not treat Christianity as if it is a religion of hucksters and brainwashed fools.  It is quite honest about the possibilities of proclaimed Christians.  Powell, who sings “Leaning on Jesus,” is a devil in disguise, the townsfolk are naive fools who eventually form a lawless mob, but others are genuine Christians in word and practice.

The idea of Huck Finn is also attacked in this movie. John Harper, probably 8 years old, is a kind of Huck Finn, a would-be orphan who floats down the river.  But John is forced into playing Huck Finn by foolish and sinister adults.  And in the end, he is the anti-Huck Finn who needs reforming from a charitable Aunt Polly.  John’s fatherlessness is a major problem, and his substitute father (Powell) is an even bigger one.  The idea that he will be taught — via the story of the baby Moses — is that Christian doctrine provides the ultimate Father.

We like movies that have a touch of the mythical.  The Night of the Hunter has that.  It is a morality tale that taps into primal feelings and makes you root hard for the children and against Powell.  And it mythologically elevates Middle America.  Since this is one of a handful of movies that do that for our beloved, native land, for us, it is special.

Posted in Great, Horror | Leave a Comment »

Local Hero

Posted by J on January 18, 2011

Most movies are purely entertaining, a distraction from worldly cares.  Only a very few, maybe three or four, have ever provoked us to think for hours about them.  Local Hero is one of those few.  Mind you, it is not necessarily an entertaining movie.  You will have to stick with it.  You will also have to appreciate subtleties and try to make connections between characters and ideas.  It demands a little bit of work.

If we tell you the plot, you will think that you will know everything that happens.  A Texas oil company, Knox Gas and Oil, wants to buy the village of Ferness in Scotland, a tiny coastal town.  Knox wants to build a refinery there and drill offshore.  So Knox, headed by Felix Happer, sends an executive to Ferness to negotiate a deal.  This executive is Mac, a bachelor selected for this mission because he appears to be Scottish — surname: MacIntrye — but who is actually Hungarian.

In every other movie ever made with this plot, the village of Ferness will be so quaint and charming, so socially and environmentally precious, that none of the locals will want to give up their traditional homes.  A cliched movie would pit mega-corporations against quaint small towns.  Not so Local Hero.  The catch is that the villagers of Ferness actually want to sell their town.  They all dream about the piles of money coming their way.  They want to play the stock market.  They want to buy property in an urban area.  They want to ditch the place where their ancestors once lived.

Mac, on the other hand, begins to like Ferness.  It’s quite different from the bustle of Houston.  While the villagers stall negotiations in an attempt to get a sweeter deal, Mac walks the beaches and talks to the locals.  And he seems to prefer the quiet openness of the place.  Accompanying Mac is local representative Danny Oldsen.  Danny grows fond of Ferness too, but for different reasons.  He gets a crush on a mysterious local girl who is an adept swimmer.  Both Mac and Danny experience Ferness almost in an otherworldly way. It is that charming smalltown that compares favorably to their big city lives.  They are even transported to Ferness in an uncanny way, when a thick fog forces them to sleep on the road just before they arrive in town.

Mac has another mission.  Happer has asked Mac to watch the skies, to look for any strange or interesting cosmological activity.  Happer is a bit of an astronomy nut.  He’s unable to look at the stars in Houston — the bright lights of the city are too overwhelming — so he has an artificial dome of stars built into his CEO office.  In Ferness, Mac does see interesting stellar activity, seemingly for the first time.  This adds to Mac’s fondness for Ferness and prompts Happer to want to leave Houston and see Ferness for himself.

Does Mac make a deal for Knox to buy Ferness? In movies like this, there are only two ways.  Either the corporation wins and the oil refinery is built, bulldozing hundreds of years of local custom in a single deal, or the local town wins and tradition is saved.  Local Hero offers a third way.  While everyone wants to get the deal done, though Mac is tentative about it, one lone holdout who owns beachfront property doesn’t want to sell.  Actually, he doesn’t need to sell, as he is perfectly content.  This holdout upsets everyone, but it turns out that he has familial connections with Happer.  Happer and the holdout work out an unexpected deal.

I’m tempted here to discuss and analyze the solution that the movie offers, but I’d prefer that you see the movie and think about it for yourself.  It is worth pointing out that, in the movie, just about every character has unfulfilled dreams.  Mac wants the charm of Ferness, the citizens of Ferness want Mac’s lifestyle, Danny wants a girl, Happer wants to see the sky — and all of these experience different endings to their problems.  There are also subthemes that augment themes.  For example, there’s the threat of hostility in the sky when a NATO jet flies overhead and bombs a nearby beach, practicing for live war against Russia.  This is precisely that opposite of what Happer and Mac are looking for in the sky, but it’s challenged by the friendly visit of a Soviet fisherman who stops by Ferness to mingle with the locals.

And then there’s the final image. What does it mean?  What is it telling us about cities, after we’ve spent most of the movie in a quaint small town and looking at a natural skyline?  What is Mac thinking in that final shot?  Local Hero has one of the most provoking final scenes I’ve seen in movies, but again, it’s a quiet scene. It’s not a twist ending.  But it’s one that may inspire much thought.

I have not seen this movie twice, but I’m sure it’s one of the few that gets better on subsequent viewings.

Entertainment: 6

Intelligence: 10

Morality: 10

Posted in Comedy, Great | Leave a Comment »

The King’s Speech

Posted by J on January 17, 2011

The King’s Speech is about as good as movies can get.  It’s a traditional narrative, but it’s also visually interesting.  It’s about quiet human problems, the conflict in it is minimal, there are no flashy scenes, and yet it’s deeply affecting.

One can hardly imagine how this movie got made.  The initial meeting to pitch the movie could not have gone well. “We’re going to do a movie about a member of the British royalty who stutters.”  “So what’s the conflict?” “Um, well, the stuttering is the conflict.  He needs to learn to speak well.”  And yet the fact that this movie is so darned good is proof that just about anything can be made into a story.

The problem is really that simple. The Duke of York, Elizabeth II’s father, needs speech therapy.  He cannot speak in public, and he rarely speaks well in private.  But the British monarchy, during the days of radio, is becoming increasing public.  As the Duke knows, he must be a kind of actor, able to deliver a rousing speech that will promote the right feelings.  The need to be an actor is pressing, in fact, since the Duke’s Brother will be (and eventually is) a problem king.  As we know, Edward VIII abdicated his throne to marry an American divorcee.  This abdication gave the Duke of York, thereafter King George VI, the crown.

The problem is complicated by the failure of numerous speech therapists to improve the Duke’s speech.  Persistent, the Duke’s wife rings up Lionel Logue, a native Australian who has advertised his services in the cheap Sunday papers.  Logue is respectful of the royal family, but he asks for “complete equality” in his studio.  Such equality is part of the therapy.

The relationship between Logue and the Duke lasts for years.  Lesser movies would’ve treated it with cliches.  You might expect the Duke to learn his lesson, that commoners like Logue are people too, that the Duke should learn to be democratic, that the Duke’s snobby elitism is a high sin.  But there’s nearly none of this here.  The two men become good friends and respect the other’s social status and abilities.  There is no monarchy bashing here; in fact, just the opposite, in recognition that all societies need good, honorable elites as figureheads.  Logue, meanwhile, gets his own praise.  His therapy works pretty well.  Yet he is not credentialed; while the Duke calls him “Doctor,” he is no doctor.  This is an issue later on in the film, but by that point we see that Logue is successful because of intelligence and practical experience.  The movie strongly argues against credentials as means to determine what works and who is good.

This is probably one of the best movies about friendship you will ever see.  It may be also one of the best about kingship and royalty.  The excellence of The King’s Speech is demonstrated by a scene that seems like a throwaway.  Early on, Logue goes to audition for the part of Richard III in Shakespeare’s play.  He begins to recite the famous “winter of discontent” speech, but is quickly stopped after a minute.  The director tells him that he is not kingly, and that his Australian accent is in the way.  Logue cannot be a competent actor, nor can he act the part of the king.  But he can teach a king how to act and how to speak.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 9

Morality: 10

Posted in Great, Period Drama | 1 Comment »

True Grit (2010)

Posted by J on December 24, 2010

This is a Western where the women are tough and the men are tougher.  True Grit honors the time and place of post-Civil War Arkansas.    It takes on the spirit of the 1969 original and, assuming you prefer a degree of realism, trumps it.

The story is probably familiar.  A 14-year old woman, Mattie Cole, hires a U.S. Marshall to track down her father’s killer.  This Marshall is Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a man that other people say have “true grit.”  Mattie has to talk Cogburn into taking on the job, which is to bring the killer back to court, to be tried and executed under Arkansas law.  Cogburn agrees, but leaves Mattie behind as he heads into Choctaw country.  Bold, but also concerned about Rooster running off with her money, Mattie follows him.  The two are accompanied by LaBoeuf, a Texas Ranger, who doesn’t always get along with either Rooster or Mattie.

There is some gunplay here, of course, and an inevitable showdown.  But the most important feature for all the characters in the movie is their ability to talk.  Because the Coens wrote the movie in a high, mid-nineteenth century dialect, it’ll take a trained ear and a decent vocabulary to watch this movie.  I’ve seen elsewhere that other people have dubbed the movie’s dialogue as “Western Shakespeare,” which is an insult to Shakespeare and to the Coens.  Instead, of all the characters seem to be highly educated Mark Twain characters.  It is even a bit much; read Twain and you’ll see that different degrees of education and experience call for different ways of talking.  It’s a little frustrating that everyone in True Grit talks like the The King but not really anyone talks like Huck Finn. Yet this emphasis on talking is smart.  Tall tales were a primary feature of the Southwest and West, thanks to the locals’ ability to tell a good yarn.  Cogburn seems like not just a character from a tall tale, but someone who could make up one.

The characters talk well and use wit to improve their situations.  The movie’s opens with Mattie bargaining with a horse trader.  The next scene features Rooster testifying in court.  These are long scenes–slow ones to the modern moviegoer–but they establish the necessity in this world of speaking well and bargaining well.  This becomes useful when, late in the movie, Mattie tries to bargain with Ned Pepper.  The nice thing about the movie is that no one is out to harmfully deceive, ala the King and the Duke.  LaBoeuf is a bit of a braggart, but seems to believe what he’s saying about the honor of Texas Rangers.  There’s not a dishonorable character here, including the villains.

Unexpectedly, Mattie is the star.  In a movie with Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon, her character outshines them all.  You will wonder why there can’t be more young women like her today.  You will in fact long for the increased frequency of this type of woman.

Entertainment: 10

Intelligence: 8

Morality: 9

Posted in Great, Western | 1 Comment »

Battlestar Galactica (for those who haven’t seen the show)

Posted by J on April 13, 2010

Here are a few tidbits from reviews of Battlestar Galactica seasons.  I don’t want to give anything away.  If you watch the show, you must start at the beginning.  This is a serial TV show.

——————————————————————————————————————–

Galactica is decent sci-fi, sometimes, which isn’t much of a complement.    In some distant time, humans live on twelve planets, none of which are Earth.  These humans are attacked by machines known as Cylons.  Humans  invented Cylons, long ago, and somehow the Cylons gained enough intelligence and gumption to attack humans.  A war broke out, both sides made peace, and then the Cylons disappeared.

Then the Cylons return, nuke all twelve human planets, and destroy 99.9% of humanity.  Only about 40,000 humans remain, scattered amongst several spaceships, hoping to find the lost colony of Earth.

The show’s best element is the mystery it’s premised on.  A few Cylon models are not just robots,but human-like robots.  These human Cylons are also monotheistic, talking about God’s love, God’s justice, God’s forgiveness.  We don’t know exactly what they mean, but they are contrasted with the colonial humans, who are polytheistic, believing in and praying to the “Lords of Kobol.”  Since the Cylons look like humans, they can infiltrate the human remnant.  This premise gives the show an instant and lasting mystery, as no one knows exactly who is human and who is Cylon.  Presumably any human character could be a Cylon.  Since the Cylons are hostile, practicing spycraft and subterfuge, engaging in suicide missions and terrorist attacks, the Battlestar Galacticans have a big problem.

We would rather watch all four seasons of Galactica than 98% of the movies we’ve ever seen.  The serial TV series is a great idea, allowing plotlines and character arcs to expand seemingly indefinitely.  If one individual episode is poorly done, the next might be great.  In Galactica‘s case, most of seasons 1 and 4 are great.  Season 2 is so-so. Season 3 is mostly terrible, but the payoffs in Season 4 are well worth wading through Season 3.  The only problem we had with Season 4 was near the end, when, during several episodes, the focus was on a pointless love triangle, rather than on developing the many recent, story-changing revelations.

The series’ end is intriguing . . .

The show overall is a fun show to watch.  A handful of episodes are legitimately great.  Three characters are great — Adama, Baltar and Roslin.  Baltar’s character arc may be the best that TV has ever had.   The moral lessons are mixed, but personally I enjoyed Baltar so much and enjoyed watching Adama assert his powerful yet humble and cool alpha-male dominance over everyone else that I can forgive Galactica its artistic and moral failings.  Thanks for the good show.

Posted in Great, TV Series | Leave a Comment »

Gone With the Wind

Posted by J on December 9, 2009

If Gone With the Wind serves any purpose, it should illustrate how quickly values can change.  They wouldn’t touch this movie today.  Rhett would have to be a Yankee spy trying to free slaves, and Scarlett would have to have several speeches on the evils of slavery.  It’s a wonder this movie is re-released every few years, this time (in 2009) on Blu-Ray.

This is supposed to be a American Southern epic which focuses on a Southern belle, who lives it up as a coquette during the antebellum years, changes for the worse during the Civil War, and then rebuilds her life after the war is over.  Of course, for her and everyone else, there is nothing like the good old days before the war, when the South flourished.  We are even told during the opening credits that the movie is about the last “Knights and Cavaliers” who roamed the earth, only to vanish forever during the Civil War.

The narrative focus is on Scarlett, which is useful because it means we the audience can follow her wherever she goes.  Since she’s not a man, she’s relatively free to roam because she doesn’t have to go off to battle.  Thus we have a behind-the-scenes Civil War movie.  The war only appears when it has to, when General Sherman’s army marches through Atlanta, which is where Scarlett happens to be.

Scarlett is a complicated flirt, desperate in the early moments of the movie to marry her beloved Ashley Wilkes.  Her problem is that Ashley is pledged to another woman, and then he goes off to war for five years.  Scarlett hangs on to Ashley as a sort of idol, marrying Ashley’s brother, hanging around Ashley’s wife, in part to remain close to Ashley.  In the opening half of the movie, she’s a combination of pluck, vivacity, selfishness, quasi-friendship, and connivance.

Then there’s Rhett Butler.  Like Scarlett he is fairly selfish — getting rich of a for-profit war business while living a luxurious life during the war years.  He’s also happy-go-lucky, and possibly in love with Scarlett.

The Civil War changes both characters in important ways.  Scarlett is taken to what for her is a low point.  She loses her husband and she misses Ashley, she endures the horrors of an army destroying the region she inhabits, her father “turns idiot,” and her Southern plantation, Tara, is reduced to almost nothing.  By intermission we see Scarlett desperate, but determined to rebuild the plantation and work as a farm laborer.  Rhett, on the other hand, gives up his independence and risks his vast wealth to become a Captain in the Confederate Army.

The post-war years feature the love story of Rhett and Scarlett, and since this is an American love story, you have a pretty good idea of what will happen to man and woman in the end (i.e., they can’t stay together).  For Scarlett, the most important earthly possession in the end is her land, Tara, the plantation that was the place of her birth.  When she realizes this, it’s yet another opportunity for nostalgia.

Thankfully, this movie is not quite a soap opera on an emotional level, though it has has many moments where the music swells and the actors overact in love scenes.  The reason to see this movie — whether you hate the portrayals of the old South or of blacks or not — is the Blu-ray restoration.  This is easily one of the best-looking movies we’ve ever seen, due to whatever they’ve done to get it on a Blu-ray disc.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 4

Morality: 9

Posted in Great, Period Drama, War | Leave a Comment »

The Mosquito Coast

Posted by J on September 5, 2009

“The United States is going to hell in a handbasket,” so we’ve heard many say, including the main character of this mosquito_coast_ver2movie, The Mosquito Coast.  The movie provides a reasonable moral warning to those who think they want to pack up to leave this country for a better land, either because the country’s going socialistic, going capitalistic, getting immoral, or any which way you think is bad.  As well, The Mosquito Coast is a commentary on the classic American ethos: self-made, independent, and always on the go.

Here the main character, Allie Fox, is a genius inventor who grumpily complains to his oldest son that America is going down the toilet.  “We eat when we’re not hungry, drink when we’re not thirsty. We buy what we don’t need and throw away everything that’s useful,” Allie complains while in a grocery chain store.  He is not a Marxist, however, but a quasi-traditionalist who believes partly in classic American values and completely in his own self-determination.  Fox’s complaints include consumer culture, the possibility of nuclear war, and increasing dependence on government.  He has an absolute trust in progress, and he demands that others adopt his pluck and inventiveness: “It’s an absolute sin to accept the decadence of obsolescence. Why do things get worse and worse? They don’t have to. They could get better and better.”

Fed up with the United States, Fox decides to pick up his family of six and move to the Mosquito Coast, manifesting his American spirit.  Even though he is sick of the U.S., Fox is thoroughly American.  He wants to enter a natural paradise and create civilization, a civilization on his own terms.   He wants the wilderness and the machine at the same time, with himself in control and as few people around as possible.

So Fox and family move to the jungle in the Caribbean and end up buying a small village in the middle of nowhere.  Along the way Fox runs into a charismatic missionary, Reverend Spellgood.  As something of an atheist, Fox demonstrates that he is the intellectual better of the two, and thereafter the two become rivals, competing for the hearts and minds of the locals.  Spellgood doesn’t much like what Fox is up to, and Fox thinks Spellgood is a charlatan.  In a sense, the movie seems to say, both are two of the same spirit: crafty leaders, one scientific and one religious, both quintessentially American.

Needless to say, Fox’s social and scientific experiments are utter failures, in stark contrast to his views on human progress.  Fox directly compares himself to Dr. Frankenstein, an apt comparison which plays out symbolically in the fate of Fox’s pet project, an enormous ice machine that uses nothing but fire and ammonia to make ice.

The story is told through the eyes of Fox’s son, Charlie Fox, a teenager who is unsure how to view his independently-minded father.  Fox’s entire family suffers from his obsessions and self-centeredness, especially in the latter stages of the movie when Fox takes them all — starving and weary — on a raft up a river, ala Heart of Darkness.  There are a number of discussion items for fathers and husbands in a study group to get out of this movie, particularly on the subject of overbearing or tyrannical family leaders.

To be sure, there are a number of flaws in the movie.  For example, the local Caribbeans are treated cinematically almost as noble savages.  Innocent and good-hearted, they are the pawns of Fox and Goodspeed.  The tribal drumbeats even serve to tempt young Charlie, who eschews the call to go native. The movie — in typical late 20th century fashion — compares the ambitious Americans with the happy-go-lucky Third Worlders.  In most respects it seems the Third Worlders are better, though the movie clearly serves to praise and critique the Fox family, while allowing the natives to only be background participants in the drama.

In spite of these and other flaws, The Mosquito Coast is intriguing enough to watch carefully.  It’s worthwhile to resurrect it in a time when your conservative or far-left friends are grumbling loudly about socialism and fascism and our national downward spiral.

Entertainment: 8

Intelligence: 7

Morality: 7 (on par with Pixar and other animated films, in terms of the lack of sex and bad language)

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