Bill: So, we’re agreed this Summer Movie Season was something of a dud.
Arch: I’ll say. Other than Wonder Woman and The Big Sick it’s hard to think of anything that was really good.
Bill: So, what are we looking forward to this Fall?
Arch: The movie I most want to see is the Mark Felt movie, with Liam Neeson playing the guy who was Carl Bernstein’s Deep Throat in the Watergate era.
Bill: The full name right now is Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House.
Arch: That was a good idea to add the subtitle to that movie. Otherwise you might think “Felt” was a verb, and that would change everything.
Bill: Liam Neeson plays him, and I’m just looking forward to seeing Liam Neeson act again.
Bill: I mean, everyone is entitled to a great payday, and I’m really happy that as one of the foremost screen actors of our time he got to cash in on all those action movies. But when he gets into a real dramatic role there’s nobody like him.
Arch: I couldn’t agree more. Another movie I’m looking forward to is The Post, which is about The Washington Post and the battle to publish the Pentagon Papers. It’s got Meryl Streep as the owner, Kay Graham, and Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, the editor in chief. Steven Spielberg is directing, but one of the main reasons I want to see it is because a friend of mine owns a 1962 Studebaker Hawk, and a location scout in DC saw it and paid him $200 a day to park it in front of Katherine Graham’s house. So I know a celebrity car in The Post.
Bill: It doesn’t seem to me anyone should be allowed to play Ben Bradlee any more now that Jason Robards Jr. has died.
Arch: No, around the Post they used to say that whenever the paper got into trouble Bradlee would hide in his office and they’d send Jason Robards down for a press conference.
Bill: Meryl Streep should be okay as Kay Graham, but when I think of Graham I always think of Nancy Marchand, who played the owner of the newspaper on Lou Grant back in the late ‘70s. Her character was based on Graham, and she was perfect.
Arch: I also want to see Woody Harrelson in the title role of LBJ.
Bill: You know, I actually saw that movie a year ago up at the Toronto International Film Festival. He was very good.
Arch: Why did they wait so long to release it? Usually that means it’s bad.
Bill: I think they didn’t want to come in on the heels of Bryan Cranston’s LBJ movie on HBO.
Arch: Ah, that makes sense. I like Harrelson, but I never lose sight of the fact that I’m watching Woody Harrelson. Even in the Planet of the Apes movie last summer, I felt like I was watching Woody Harrelson all the time. But it’s the whole LBJ thing that intrigues me. I am a native Texan, and one of my first jobs was working for the radio station that was owned by the Johnson family. LBJ came back to town in 1969 after he left office, and I would see him at the station. I mean, I’m just a kid, and here comes the President, and he was bigger than life. For me it was an awe-inspiring, lower-your-eyes and don’t-make-eye-contact-whatever-you-do experience.
Arch: I’ll tell you what I am not interested in seeing, and that’s The Battle of The Sexes, with Emma Stone and Steve Carell as Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in their 1970s tennis match in the Astrodome.
Bill: Really? Why not? I’m looking forward to it.
Arch: I think it’s just a stunt, like the original Battle of the Sexes. And you know, I’m getting a little bit weary of these re-creations of events that happened. Likewise, I am not looking forward to American Made with Tom Cruise as a CIA pilot working as a drug runner. I’ve seen that movie before a dozen times. I do want to see Blade Runner 2049, because I like Ryan Gosling and love that Harrison Ford is in it, and I really like that they make one of the replicants look like Sean Young when she was young, in the original.
Bill: So, we’re reaching back in time to one of your old, old movie flames?
Arch: Let’s just say Sean Young is my fantasy replicant.
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Arch: Shall we talk about what we liked this summer?
Bill: If we can remember all the way back to June.
Arch: Of the superhero movies, I really liked Wonder Woman, and especially Gal Gadot. I thought it was her first movie, and it turns out she’s been making movies for years. But I thought she was charismatic and, well, she’s hot!
Bill: You have mentioned this before.
Arch: I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Even Lynda Carter likes her as Wonder Woman.
Bill: Seriously, Lynda Carter would be the ultimate bad sport if she were at this point to say, “I should be the person in that Wonder Woman costume!”
Arch: Or Adam West insisting, “I’m Batman!” at age 80. So that’s my favorite superhero movie of the summer, and of the small movies I like The Big Sick.
Bill: I completely agree.
Arch: It had a contemporary vibe, with its story of a Pakistani whose parents insist on an arranged marriage but he loves a white girl.
Bill: I’ve been thinking about The Big Sick, and I’m impressed by how its subject matter is really gnarly and knotty…
Arch: Yes, it’s fraught.
Bill: …and yet it’s a gentle, sweet comedy that doesn’t gloss over any of the issues involved, but it’s about good-natured people trying to talk them out.
Arch: Yeah. It’s about real life. I mean the last Presidential campaign was based on fear of the other, yet here’s the same story told for laughs, with a really human lesson attached, and succeeding. I also loved seeing Ray Romano and Holly Hunter back in the movies. They were a big plus to that film.
Bill: I think the movie that would like to be the movie that everyone remembers from this summer, that sort of feels like it deserves to be the memorable movie of the summer, is Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama.
Arch: Yeah, but I was somewhat disappointed in Dunkirk. I found it hard to follow, with the three different storylines unfolding over varying periods of time. I know Nolan told the story creatively, and I salute him for his vision, but I was a little less than thrilled. Having said that, let me also say that his revenge will come when he wins the Oscar.
Bill: Well, I thought it was fantastic. It may be the only movie this summer to which I gave five stars. Oddly enough, I loved it for the very same reasons you didn’t. I loved that three-pronged story covering different time periods, yet they’re hurtling toward the same point at the end of the film.
Arch: You know, I think what really set this summer apart is that I don’t remember a movie that just broke through, that everybody was talking about. I think Dunkirk was probably the closest we got.
Bill: You think so? I feel like Wonder Woman came the closest, with all the talk about the rise of a female superhero and its female director Patty Jenkins.
Arch: But speaking of people my age…my age…I didn’t hear anyone talk about Wonder Woman and I’m sure they had no interest in it.
Bill: There was a surprising number of very good independent films this summer. Maybe that’s how this year will be remembered, as the year when smaller films weren’t just a grownup alternative to the big kid films, but they were actual players at the box office.
Arch: I loved Wind River, of course. And I liked Baby Driver, because it was a crime drama set to rock and roll music, and it was just exhilarating. And I liked this little movie Patti Cake$, about an overweight girl trying to become a rap star, trying to feed her soul by singing. It reminded me of Saturday Night Fever.
Bill: I get that. One of my favorite little movies of the summer was Maudie, with Sally Hawkins as this simple, back-woods Canadian painter and Ethan Hawke as her husband.
Arch: I haven’t seen it, but I hear it’s sweet.
Bill: That may be the best word to describe it. They are as simple a couple as you can imagine — and I mean simple not in a condescending way, but they are people who have simple needs, an uncomplicated outlook, a pure love for each other. It’s just two hours with these two immensely appealing people who barely even speak, and who quietly go about making room for each other in their lives. I think it’s sweet in some of the same ways The Big Sick is. There’s no guile to be found in any of these characters. Maybe that’s something audiences are looking for in an increasingly cynical world.
Arch: That could be. I know I’m ready for that. I hear that this summer is widely considered a failure by Hollywood standards. It’s the lowest business in 25 years. And I think it’s because the product is bad. There are too may sequels, too many fake movies. I mean, so far this whole year the three movies that stick out for me are The Big Sick and Get Out and Wind River, all of them very small films. I just feel like this was the summer of lowered expectations. There were an awful lot of movies that were just like an awful lot of movies we’ve already seen.
Bill: I’ve got one more movie I liked this summer. You and I sat together through A Ghost Story, and we both came out of it saying, “Well, that wasn’t very good.” But I’ve got to tell you, as the weeks have gone by I’ve sort of come around on that movie. I keep thinking about it.
Arch: Have you changed your mind on it?
Bill: I’ve changed my mind on A Ghost Story. Probably because I’ve chosen to forget about the parts I hated so much, like that 10-minute scene when Rooney Mara sits on the floor and eats a whole pie.
Arch: Well, come over to the house sometime and I’ll sit down in front of you and eat an entire apple pie. Maybe that’ll remind you.
Bill: That would do it.
Bill: I really liked Ingrid Goes West, especially the ending.
Arch: I liked it except for the ending!
Arch: I guess we can’t give away the ending here, but Ingrid Goes West is the story of a truly disturbed young woman who basically begins stalking an Internet celebrity and insinuates herself into the woman’s life. She knows everything about the woman because part of her online shtick is to lay all the details of her life out there on Instagram. It’s all a very wry satire on people who model their lives on what’s happening on the Internet, and what’s cool and how many online friends they have, and things like “Hashtag AvocadoToast.” But it takes a turn toward the end that I really did not like. I felt like she was being rewarded for extremely bad behavior.
Bill: And I felt just the opposite. I felt like although she felt like she got everything she wanted at the end, she was in fact dooming herself to that shallow, superficial existence. She was just going to go on living her life online, never having any real connections to people.
Arch: Well, that’s a very kind interpretation of the end. As much as I liked the rest of the movie, the ending sort of ruined it for me. I’m mixed on the film at best.
Bill: I think we agree the acting is wonderful. It wasn’t until the movie was over that I realized that Aubrey Plaza, who plays Ingrid, is the woman who played April on Parks and Recreation. She’s very funny.
Arch: I think she’s adorable. And I really like this guy O’Shea Jackson, Jr., who plays Ingrid’s reluctant boyfriend.
Bill: I think he was the best thing about the movie. He’s a very appealing actor.
Arch: Well, he’s the son of Ice Cube.
Bill: Wow – of course! Now that you say that he looks just like him.
Arch: He played his father in Straight Outta Compton.
Bill: He’s fantastic. You like him immediately, the minute he opens the door.
Arch: And I liked Elizabeth Olsen, who plays the Internet star who has this perfect home and spends all day posting about where she’s eating and what new piece of furniture she just bought.
Bill: I think they call those people “Influencers.”
Arch: Yeah. She’s an influencer. Remember when we were influencers?
Bill: They didn’t call us that. Experts, I think.
Arch: Influencer sounds kinda soft, don’t you think?
Bill: I know. They don’t call influencer witnesses in court. They call expert witnesses.
Arch: Yes, exactly.
Bill: I think we have to get used to movies where people spend a lot of their time pecking at their smart phones. It seems to drive a lot of storylines.
Arch: Well, everybody seems to be living their lives on their phones.
Bill: I always see it as gimmicky, I see it as a cheap way to advance the plot. And few directors have figured out how to effectively film it; do you shoot over the actor’s shoulder, so you just show a big hand on the screen?
Arch: It’s in just about every movie now. We’d better get used to it.
Bill: Every time I get miffed about it, I have to remind myself of people like, say, my grandmother, who in the 1930s suddenly saw all these people in the movies talking on the phone. In those movies people were on the phone all the time, yakking away at a mile a minute — remember The Front Page? And she probably thought, “These kids with their technology! Why don’t they just talk face-to-face??”
Arch: And they had the spinning newspaper headlines, and kids standing on the corner yelling “Extra! Extra!” Ten years ago it was people typing on desktop computers. Now it’s people staring at their phones.
Bill: At least with the computer screen scenes they could use that trick where the camera is looking out through the screen, with the type reversed, and you could see the actors’ faces. Filming someone texting on a smart phone is problematic, I think. You know what movie did it well? Did you see Personal Shopper?
Bill: Kristen Stewart is a ghost hunter, and she’s sitting on a train having a text conversation with some mysterious person, and she types in the words, “Are you alive?” And the director just shows that blinking icon that means someone is writing back, and you want to jump out of your seat when the text message comes back.
Arch: Right! He did handle that well. The thing about Ingrid Goes West is it’s a young person’s movie. It’s nice that it’s a small movie that doesn’t have big aspirations. But I really, really did not like the ending.
Bill: Well, if the audience takes away what you did, particularly a young audience, that Ingrid has been rewarded for everything she did, then you’re right, that’s a bad lesson.
Arch: Yeah, so please, kids, don’t try this at home!
Arch: I loved Menashe.
Bill: It’s unanimous. So did I.
Arch: I thought it’s just as sweet as it could be. It’s a tender story about an Orthodox Jewish father in Brooklyn whose wife has died, and because of tradition his young son can’t live with him until he finds another spouse. But he’s not ready to remarry, so he has to decide between tradition and having his son with him.
Bill: And the whole movie is in Yiddish, with English subtitles, but I think even people who hate subtitles will follow the story easily.
Arch: I think a lot of people who say they can’t stand subtitles are just being contrary. It would be a shame for people to miss this movie because of that, though, because it’s a window on a world few of us will ever see or understand.
Bill: And it’s a world that exists right here, carved out of our mass culture.
Arch: The relationship between the father and the son reminded me a lot of that classic film The Bicycle Thief.
Bill: I hadn’t thought of that! You’re right! And not only content-wise, but that kind of you-are-there style of filmmaking, almost a documentary look to it. We feel like we’re following the man around with a hidden camera, seeing some of the most secret moments of his life.
Arch: You know, a lot of movies now are combining entertainment and documentary. And I think it’s a good form. I like it.
Bill: I guess horror movies have used that technique a lot in recent years; The Blair Witch Project was one. And a recent non-horror one was Tangerine. As I watched Menashe, I finally just let my mind tell me I was watching a documentary. It seemed that real.
Arch: Well, there’s a lot real about it. In this case, the director, Joshua Weinstein, first spent quite a bit of time engaging the Yiddish community in Brooklyn, gaining their trust, and then shooting it guerrilla style.
Bill: He doesn’t even speak Yiddish — he had a translator on the set.
Arch: Also, I understand the actor who plays Menashe — his real name is Menashe Lustig — has worked as a grocery store bagger, just like the character he plays.
Bill: I’m looking it up here on the Internet and it looks like the film is actually based on Lustig’s real-life story. He’s a widower, and because of Hasidic tradition he can’t live with his son until he remarries.
Arch: Wow. The Internet is a wonderful thing.
Bill: It makes geniuses of us all.
Arch: Omniscient geniuses.
Bill: All I know is, I was not looking forward to seeing Menashe; it all seemed too foreign to me. But I ended up totally enraptured by it, and it just goes to show the universality of film; the way it can absolutely infuse you into someone else’s life.
Arch: No, I didn’t know anything about Hasidic culture, either. Except for my hat lady. I go to this hat lady in Silver Spring who’s Hasidic. You can’t see her between noon Friday and sundown Saturday.
Bill: So any hat emergencies will just have to wait.
Arch: Now let’s talk about Wind River. Taylor Sheridan, who also wrote the screenplay for Hell or High Water, did this, and I think he has invented a new form: The Modern Western.
Bill: Who’d have thought westerns would still be relevant?
Arch: In the old westerns, the villains rustled cattle, or held up stagecoaches. In the modern western the villains live in poverty, overdosing on drugs and alcohol and they commit unspeakably violent acts that come out of rage and poverty.
Bill: So they’re overlaying some contemporary social issues on a traditional western structure. It’s amazing how versatile that genre is, because filmmakers have been doing that for decades. High Noon was sort of about pacifism; The Searchers was about racism. The western just seems to be a genre that can speak to just about everything.
Arch: It’s true. In this case Jeremy Renner is a tracker for the Fish and Wildlife Department. He goes onto the reservations, and when predators such as wolves are killing their livestock, he hunts down the predators and eliminates them. On one of his trips he discovers the body of a dead teenage girl, and, along with an FBI agent, he starts tracking the human predator who killed the girl.
Bill: It’s good to see Graham Greene in the film. He’s a guy you’re always glad to see.
Arch: He was in Dances With Wolves and The Green Mile. Here he’s the tribal police chief. And you’re right, he always makes a movie even better.
Bill: Wind River has these long periods of investigation and dialogue, and you wonder if anything’s going to happen — and then all of a sudden a lot happens.
Arch: It explodes in these episodes of violence that is, frankly, sometimes hard to watch. But I find it to be one of those extremely satisfying movies. I wouldn’t say it’s as good as Hell or High Water but it gets more of the shades of gray of our society. I think it’s a helluva movie.
Bill: Hey, next week let’s talk about our favorite movies of the summer.
Arch: Good idea. Get your thinking cap on.
Bill: Which reminds me you need to give me the address of your hat lady. I have a Stetson that needs to be cleaned.
Arch: Good. We’ll double her business. I think we’re the only two guys left in D.C.
Arch: How about The Only Living Boy in New York? You’ve got this young man who’s desperately trying to break free of his domineering father, and he ends up having an affair with his father’s mistress.
Bill: I liked it a lot. It reminded me…
Arch: Not of anyone you know??
Bil: No! It reminded me of other movies — there are certainly elements of The Graduate in there and a lot of Woody Allen-like touches. It’s such a New York movie.
Arch: That’s true.
Bill: The father, who lives on the Upper East Side, berates his son for moving to the East Village, “As far away from us as you could get!” As if the notion of moving all the way across the Hudson would have been unthinkable.
Arch: I like Kate Beckinsale, who plays the mistress. She has managed to bridge that gap between playing the tough girl fighter and the sophisticated woman. You know, she’s in those Underworld movies where she’s some kind of vampire fighter.
Bill: I don’t think I’ve seen one of them.
Arch: I’ve managed to avoid most of them. But she does it all; the classics — she played Emma in the Jane Austen movie, I remember loving her in Cold Comfort Farm, and in the Underworld series she’s what they call a ‘Vampire Death Dealer.’
Bill: Ah. Not a job description I’ve seen on LinkedIn.
Arch: But in The Only Living Boy she really is Mrs. Robinson from The Graduate. And I understand, someone told me this, that she is actually dating the kid from the movie.
Arch: Have you heard this?
Bill: I pay no attention to celebrity gossip, and this is why.
Arch: It’s a May-December Mrs. Robinson thing. How old is Kate Beckinsale? Let me look that up right here.
Arch: Maybe they’re just saying that to get us interested in the movie. While I’m looking up their respective ages, I should add that I think she’s great in this movie, and the kid, Callum Turner…
Bill: Who I think looks a lot like a young Richard Gere.
Arch: I can see that.
Bill: And Jeff Bridges is always a delight to watch, and even just listen to. The movie begins with him doing a voice-over, and you know immediately who that is; that rolling, rumbling voice. I also like that it’s a movie about writing.
Bill: They use words that you don’t usually hear in the movies. Words that I can’t think of right now.
Arch: They set up this plot that had me wondering how on Earth are they going to reconcile this? How are they going to solve this? I thought it was a good script. A smart script.
Bill: One guy I always think is underappreciated is Pierce Brosnan, who plays the kid’s dad.
Arch: Oh yeah! He gets better as he gets older. I kind of liked him here as an old lion, huffing and puffing, angry at his son but also kind of angry at himself. And the film does have that Woody Allen feel, largely because the cast is so good.
Bill: We even see Wallace Shawn, the guy from The Princess Bride, who was also in a bunch of Woody Allen movies. He turns up at the dinner table, yakking away just like he does in Woody Allen films. He’s been around forever.
Arch: Let’s see…Wallace Shawn is 74.
Bill: So he’s not that old. And from my perspective 74 is getting younger and younger.
Arch: Yes, 74 is the new 35. Speaking of relative ages, the kid in the film, Callum Turner, was in War and Peace and Green Room. He’s from London, and evidently he and Kate are an item. She is 44 and he ain’t 44, I can tell you that. I’ve been looking his age up. Wait, here it is. He’s 27.
Bill: So it’s not a May-December romance. More like May-August. And Pierce Brosnan is, what, 63, 64? So he and Kate are 20 years apart. Almost the same age gap.
Arch: So, Kate and Pierce would be an August-October romance?
Bill: Yeah, I’d say August and sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving.
Arch: This week let’s recommend movies that one of us hasn’t seen yet.
Bill: You mean you go to movies without me?
Arch: I go with Mrs. Campbell occasionally.
Arch: I saw a movie this week called Brigsby Bear. I kinda liked it.
Bill: I saw the trailer for it and I said to myself, “I’ve got to see this!”
Arch: I guess these days I find that I’ve seen so many movies that I compare them to other movies. Brigsby Bear has a touch of Being There, and I liked that. A kid is brought up in captivity by a couple who kidnapped him, one of whom is Mark Hamill from Star Wars. And they keep the boy entertained by making up their own TV series, with a main character named Brigsby Bear. Then one day he’s freed as a grown man, and his real parents pick him up and take him back into the real world, but he remains obsessed with that series.
Bill: Brigsby Bear is sort of a big walking talking Teddy Ruxpin thing, right?
Arch: Exactly. And they make the show for him on videotape, and it has a very 1980s vibe.
Bill: This is the movie starring that guy from Saturday Night Live, right?
Arch: Yes, Kyle Mooney, and actually that’s the one thing I don’t really like about Brigsby Bear. I find him a little bit unlikeable, and for this movie to work you really, really need to feel drawn to the main character.
Bill: Again, I haven’t seen it, but from the look of the trailer it really reminds me of the films of Michael Gondry, the French guy who made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind — and especially Be Kind Rewind, with Jack Black, which was also about people making their own shows on videotape, kind of living in their own fantasy world. His films have a whimsical, hand-made look to them, and this movie looks a lot like that.
Arch: It’s a little movie with several big names, like Claire Danes and Greg Kinnear. I barely recognized Mark Hamill, poor guy. It has a nice indie feel to it; kind of an extended Saturday Night Live sketch. On balance I liked it. I call it a Saturday afternoon movie.
Bill: Okay, now me. You haven’t seen Lady MacBeth yet, have you?
Arch: No. Is it worth it?
Bill: It depends on what you’re in the mood for. It’s one of those films that starts in one place, and you think you know where it’s going, and then it turns incredibly dark…
Bill: …and I mean as dark as a movie will turn. I really mean that. The movie starts out as a costume drama, set in Victorian England. At first it’s what you’d expect: The lead character is played by Florence Pugh, who’s quite something. She’s a young girl, she’s married off to a wealthy landowner, and he’s dismissive of her, and he’s got some sexual repression that keeps them apart.
Arch: The usual stuff.
Bill: Right! And, no surprise, she starts having an affair with one of the estate’s groundskeepers. So you’re expecting this thing to unfold as an empowerment tale, of a strong-willed woman who doesn’t let the constraints of society keep her down.
Arch: Yep. But it doesn’t stop there?
Bill: No, Arch, it does not stop there. The first death occurs while she’s sitting there eating breakfast, and the person who dies is an awful, awful person, so you just kind of go, “Huh.” We’re still rooting for her, so we become complicit with her. And then she does something else somewhat more objectionable, and we say, “Well, wait a minute…” but still we’re on her side. By the time the movie ends the most despicable acts imaginable are occurring, and we’re utterly repulsed by them — but then again, even after we’ve abandoned the character in disgust and let her go on without us, we realize “Gee, I went an awful long way with that woman.”
Bill: It’s an actual exercise in being seduced by evil, and you come out of the theater thinking, “Well, this is how good people find themselves becoming part of something truly awful without even knowing it.” I can’t think of a lot of movies where the director leads you along like that, then snaps your head around and says, “How could you?”
Arch: I feel like this is the influence of cable TV. Cable has gotten so shocking that I think the movies are following. It used to be the other way around. TV followed the movies. But now the movies are doing everything they can to try and jolt us out of our seats.
Bill: Yeah, but we’ve seen a lot, Arch.
Arch: True. We’re not easily jolted.
Arch: I felt Detroit was brutal, and a little too much. It’s set during the 1967 Detroit riots, and it’s basically a war movie set in the United States.
Bill: Well, Kathryn Bigelow directed it, and she’s the go-to director these days if you want to show the grim realities of war.
Arch: This time it’s about what they think happened when Detroit police killed three black men at the Algiers Motel. And man, she puts you through the wringer. This ups the ante of the tension Bigelow put into The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.
Bill: She brings the war home in this one. And it’s obviously not your typical summer movie. Detroit is no day at the beach. Maybe they could use that as a tagline. “In a world…”
Arch: Unfortunately, it’s a world that still exists. This all happened 50 years ago…
Bill: Well, 50 years ago this month, as a matter of fact.
Arch: Yes! And the issue of police brutality hasn’t gone away in all that time. It all plays out in this hotel room; several people are shot to death, several people are terribly wounded. Bigelow mixes the stories of the victims with the stories of the policemen, so we learn how they all got to this point.
Bill: It’s a similar structure to what we saw in Dunkirk.
Arch: Right, only it’s Dunkirk in the inner city. There are a few white girls there, and when the police see the white girls with black men it enrages them. It’s brutal in the extreme and exhausting to watch.
Bill: Well, it’s about two and a half hours long. There’s that delicate balance a filmmaker must strike: How do you make a movie that challenges your audience, shows them things that are going to make them really, really uncomfortable, but not chase them out of the theater?
Arch: Right! At the screening I attended people were crying and several left. A good movie will always leave you with a message, but you also go to a movie to be entertained. I’m not sure this qualifies as entertainment.
Bill: It reminds me of a film from a few years back, The City Of Life And Death by the Chinese director Lu Chuan. It was about the Japanese occupation of Nanjing, and virtually no one could sit through it; the depiction of brutality was just too disturbing. It’s a fair question: What is the point of making a movie that is going to chase people away from the movie?
Arch: I know it’s going to be a critical success. Kathryn Bigelow kicks as much ass as Charlize Theron does in Atomic Blonde.
Bill: Speaking of which…
Arch: Talk about too much! Atomic Blonde left me exhausted.
Bill: I think that’s the whole point — the filmmakers want to overwhelm your senses, and that’s why they don’t worry too much about the script making sense.
Arch: I mean, the movie begins with a guy running through the streets of Berlin, then he gets hit by a car and goes flying, then the driver runs over him, then he backs over him, and he rams him up against another car, practically splitting him in two, then he gets out of the car, says some mean things to him and then shoots him in the head. And that’s just in the first two minutes!
Bill: It reminded me of one of those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books, where you make random choices just to see where the plot will take you. It was all pretty chaotic; just a little bit of narrative linking a series of crazy fight scenes.
Arch: It exhausted me, but not in the meaningful way Detroit did.
Bill: Right — even though this really was a movie designed to do nothing but entertain you, it seemed to take more than it gave back.
Arch: I do want to mention the sounds everybody makes while they’re fighting in this movie. They’re very audible!
Bill: It sounds like center court at Wimbledon. Or a World Wrestling Federation match.
Arch: Yes! Like Venus Williams going up against Hulk Hogan!
Bill: I did like the way the people fighting in this movie fight to the point of exhaustion. They end up just lying on the floor, slapping at each other.
Arch: Well, I was certainly exhausted. I didn’t walk out of that theater feeling replenished. It was too much, too long. They, of course, had that agenda to show that a woman can be tougher than a man, and they certainly showed that. And Charlize Theron is very charismatic. But when I left the theater I wanted my time back.
Bill: That’s a good point, Arch. A lot of people look at film critics and say, “Hey, what are you complaining about. You didn’t have to pay money for that ticket.” But we do spend a lot of time in those dark rooms, and time is something you never get back.
Arch: Yes. And in this case I didn’t feel like I’d spent my time well. Maybe that’s a result of being an old wise guy. Time is becoming more precious by the minute.
Bill: I absolutely loved Dunkirk.
Arch: I liked it, with some reservations. I mean, I do think it’s a thrilling war epic, and it approaches the realism of Saving Private Ryan. And it’s an interesting approach to storytelling, with one story on the sea, one story in the air, and another story on the ground.
Arch: I would have liked a lot more context. I mean, I knew from looking it up online that Dunkirk was about some 400,000 British and French troops stranded on a French beach, surrounded by German forces.
Bill: Right, and as the soldiers are standing on the beach waiting to be evacuated — and no one’s coming to help them because the big battleships can’t get close enough to shore — the German planes keep coming to bomb and machine gun everybody.
Arch: But the movie gives very little of that context. Why do the German troops fail to overrun the beach? What is Hitler thinking? What’s Churchill’s strategy? Did you hear those people sitting behind us in the theater? This one guy asked the other, “Is this World War II?”
Bill: Well, the movie does start out with the Germans dropping leaflets that are helpfully illustrated with a map that shows how our guys are surrounded.
Arch: Of course, if they did give me all the information I’m asking for I might have ended up complaining that they gave me too much! What did you think?
Bill: I saw the same lack of context you saw, but I consider that a strength of the movie. Christopher Nolan, who wrote and directed it, scrupulously avoids any kind of context here. We don’t know virtually anyone’s names. Of the three main characters we don’t know where that young soldier is from; we don’t know anything about the boat captain played by Mark Rylance, other than he owns a boat; we don’t even see the pilot’s face until he’s on the ground at the very end. It seems to me that although Nolan is telling us a story based on a historical event, he almost wants to avoid context, just so we’ll focus on the raw elements, on the random, surreal, insanity of war.
Arch: Well, I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. Also, there was sort of a countdown aspect, kind of like the third act of all those hokey movies where the digital clock is counting backwards to zero, and if you don’t do something by the time you get to zero the thing is gonna blow up. I’m not sure I liked that, either.
Bill: If anybody else made this movie, it would have ended up with that inevitable crawl of text before the credits, you know, “400,000 Allied Soldiers were stranded on the beach at Dunkirk. 300,000 were evacuated thanks to the brave civilians who sailed their tiny ships across the English Channel...” and on and on. Nolan is a singular filmmaker; everything he does he does on purpose, so I just always give him the benefit of the doubt.
Arch: Well, when you put it that way, those crawls at the end of historical movies do tend to be a word salad of clichés. Maybe I was disappointed because I was expecting something like Saving Private Ryan, and you can’t replicate Saving Private Ryan.
Bill: It’s not as brutal as Saving Private Ryan. I was surprised afterward to see it’s only rated PG-13. There’s a lot of death, but there’s not that much actual violence. I gave it five stars. I think it’s going to be remembered as one of the best war movies ever made.
Arch: Well, it’s certainly better than any of the war movies made in the 20 years after World War II — the ones with William Bendix and Frederic March sitting around a fire telling each other about their lives back in Texas and California, or Jack Webb barking orders at people. It’s a World War II movie told in the modern manner.
Bill: It’s funny you’d say that, because at the end, as the three storylines are racing to a conclusion, and he’s cutting back and forth among them all with this increasing frenzy, I thought about, of all things, D. W. Griffith’s finale for Intolerance, back in 1916. I wonder if I were to ask Nolan about that he would say it influenced him.
Arch: Don’t get me wrong; I think there’s a lot to admire in Dunkirk. I just didn’t like it quite as much as you did.
Bill: Dunkirk is opening opposite Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. Have you seen that one? Arch: No, thank God. Did you?
Arch: Well, I don’t think we’re going to be alone on that. I took my wife to see The Big Sick, which I had seen already.
Bill: Did she like it as much as you did? Arch: She loved it, of course. And I loved it even more. I was struck by the gentle nature of the movie, of how easily it just rolls out there with this gentle humor, and the wonderful way things wrap up. Have you taken your wife to see it yet?
Bill: No, I took her to Spider-Man.
Bill: I guess I have something to learn about showing a woman a good time.
Arch: I think this young fellow, Tom Holland, is my favorite Spider-Man. There have been two others; there was Andrew Garfield, who I think put kind of a damper on it. And there was Toby McGuire, who I found terribly irritating.
Bill: To me, Toby McGuire always looks like someone has just taken his puppy away.
Arch: The thing about Tom Holland is he’s very likable.
Bill: Also, I always found it hard to believe the other two guys were teenagers. It was like Henry Winkler still playing Fonzie when he was in his 30s. Just a little creepy.
Bill: I know all three were in their 20s when they started playing Spider-Man, but Holland seems at least within shouting distance of adolescence.
Arch: And he’s got that geeky, anxious-to-please, full-of-energy, 15-year-old mentality. I found it totally believable.
Bill: The unique charm of the Spider-Man series is that he’s a kid who really wants to be a kid, and he’s thrust into this grownup world. The other Spider-Men never really looked comfortable in the kid part of that role.
Arch: What I particularly like in the new Spider-Man: Homecoming is the high school scenes, because they reminded me of Back to the Future. And what also works is the villain, Michael Keaton.
Bill: He’s a great villain because you understand him from the start. No need for one of those long backstories.
Arch: Exactly. And I think it’s very sly to put him in the alien junk reclamation business! He’s the guy that cleans up after all those battles in the third acts of the other movies where aliens have decimated major blocks of major cities.
Bill: You’re right! It’s funny because there always was that question in the back of my mind watching these movies: Who cleans all this up? I know if my mother were alive watching these movies, that would be the first question she’d ask.
Arch: And this time we get to meet that guy!
Bill: I had a similar question watching the Star Wars movies; I’d like to see the general contractor who built the Death Star. Did that contract go to the lowest bidder?
Arch: And then the other thing is, in the third act of Spider-Man: Homecoming, they give us a good reason for Spider-Man and the villain to hate each other. We can’t reveal it here, but it’s one of the greatest reasons ever in a super hero movie.
Bill: You saw Spider-Man before I did, Arch, and you told me, “Wait until you see the twist! It’ll bowl you over!” So I sat there through the movie, challenging myself to spot the twist before it came. And I gotta tell you, I did not see that twist coming.
Arch: I think what sets this apart from other super hero movies is the script is so good.
Bill: Right down to how the twist is revealed. There’s no build-up, there’s no suspenseful music. It just unfolds, kind of beautifully.
Arch: Then there’s the whole way they handle Keaton’s presence in the movie. There’s a sly reference to his movie Birdman as he flies around in this Leonardo da Vinci-style bird machine.
Bill: It’s meta in a couple of ways — there’s that and there’s also the fact that he played Batman in the movies that redefined the superhero genre back in the 1980s. He used to be the hero, now he’s the villain, and the villain looks an awful lot like Birdman.
Arch: By the way, how do you define “meta?”
Bill: You know, I’ve spent years avoiding that word, because I never quite understood it, and now I just did and I’ve probably misused it. I apologize!
Arch: No, you might be right…
Bill: You’re just trying to make me feel better, Arch. It’s just we’ve got this guy playing a villain in a bird suit, and there are real-world elements outside of the context of the film that it speaks to.
Arch: So meta refers to something bigger.
Bill: Yeah. So maybe I did use it correctly.
Arch: Maybe. But it always makes me think of Metamucil.
A Ghost Story
Bill: I should mention for the record that we are having dinner together after sitting through Casey Affleck’s new movie A Ghost Story.
Arch: Is that what it was? I’m not sure what we just watched! What was that?
Bill: I don’t know about you, but I was really looking forward to that movie. And now I don’t know what to think.
Arch: Am I remembering this correctly? Was there, like, a 15-minute scene of Rooney Mara just sitting on the floor eating a pie?
Bill: It seemed like 15 minutes. It was all a single take, and yeah, she just ate a pie.
Arch: At least she just ate the filling. I was afraid she was going to dig into the crust, too.
Bill: They’re saving that for the sequel.
Arch: Wow. That movie confused me. I know it was about Casey Affleck dying in a car crash, and then he comes back as a ghost, like a Halloween ghost, wearing a sheet.
Bill: With eye holes.
Arch: Yeah, but no eyes! And then he just stands around for an hour and a half. I was looking forward to this movie, too.
Bill: It’s not like I was totally disappointed; it was just so different from what I thought it would be. I didn’t expect a scary movie. I knew it wasn’t going to be Ghost. But I didn’t know the director (David Lowery) was going to have, like, three shots in the first 20 minutes.
Arch: It gave me a headache. You’d be looking at the same frame for a while, and there’d be nothing going on, and I feel like my vision blacked out a couple of times.
Bill: I felt like, “If you’re going to hold that frame for so long, show me something interesting.”
Arch: Well, it does create a mood.
Bill: Right, that whole idea of waiting for eternity. But you want a representation of eternity. You don’t want to experience eternity.
Arch: Yep. It felt like an eternity.
Arch: I want to tell you how much I loved Baby Driver. It’s a 1930s Warner Brothers Depression crime drama set to music. Except they couldn’t get Jimmy Cagney, so they got this kid named Ansel Elgort.
Bill: Ansel Elgort is a great movie name. Only it sounds more like a character than an actor.
Arch: I feel like they picked the music first, and then they shot the movie to the music. It’s so much fun to watch.
Bill: I didn’t like it quite as much as you did. I loved the energy and I especially enjoyed Kevin Spacey and Jon Hamm as gangsters, but I felt like I’d seen just about every element of that film in other movies. Yeah, the music is fun, but it’s not much different in that sense from the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.
Arch: But the music in Baby Driver is more outrageous. And it’s broad: There’s a lot of contemporary music that I, of course, don’t know what it is, but for an old guy like me they go back to doo-wop; they throw in some Dave Brubeck — I think it’s his “Unsquare Dance” from the Take Five album. It’s exhilarating to listen to. And then when he meets his new girlfriend, who’s played by Lily James, she starts singing the doo-wop song, Carla Thomas’, “B-A-B-Y.” When they did that to bring the love interests together I just thought, “This is perfect!”
Bill: That Lily James is everywhere these days. We just talked about her in The Exception.
Arch: Yeah. The Nazi movie.
Bill: I think my hopes were unreasonably high for Baby Driver. Edgar Wright made Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz — he’s super-creative. But there was so much in Baby Driver from other movies, from Peckinpah’s Getaway to Drive with Ryan Gosling. I think I was hoping for something unlike anything I’d ever seen before, rather than a very capable entry into a genre that I think has kind of run its course. So to speak.
Arch: That’s funny — I was sure you’d love it. I loved it because it made me feel young to watch it. I don’t think it’s derivative. I think they’ve improved on the others.
Bill: I suppose every movie is derivative in some ways, unless you’re the Lumiere Brothers.
Arch: There you go.
The Little Hours
Arch: Have you seen The Little Hours?
Bill: No, should I?
Arch: No, you should not. I went to see it because Alison Brie from Community is in it, and so is her husband, Dave Franco. Also John C. Reilly. They’re in a convent in the Middle Ages, and after the handyman is run off here comes Franco, this young virile guy, and to keep the nuns from bothering him he convinces them he’s deaf and dumb. But the nuns figure it out and then they all have sex with him.
Bill: That’s it?
Arch: Well, they do run into a witches’ coven and they all get naked and dance around. They shot it in Italy, and it looks like they shot it in a week and then took a long vacation. It’s terrible.
Get Out and The Big Sick Revisited
Arch: I know we’ve already discussed The Big Sick, which I loved, but here’s what I’ve been thinking: The two best movies of the year, Get Out and The Big Sick, are both about racial anxiety and cultural anxiety. I think it says something about where we are as a society, and I think it’s great — because they’re both such entertaining movies.
Bill: They don’t preach at you.
Arch: Exactly. They let you draw your own conclusions and they’re both immense fun. I really think they’re the year’s two best pictures.
Bill: A Ghost Story has not supplanted either one of those on your list?
Arch: Seriously. What was that?
Beatriz At Dinner
Arch: I’ve got two movies that I’ve got crushes on this week.
Bill: Okay, let’s just make this week’s column a mash note to your movie crushes, and then I’ll tell you about one of mine.
Arch: The first one is Beatriz At Dinner. Have you seen it?
Bill: Not yet.
Arch: Salma Hayek is a New Age healer — she does crystals, massage, all that — and she’s called to a Newport Beach estate for a session by a woman who’s in the top one percent of the top one percent. The healer’s car breaks down, so the woman invites her to stay for an intimate dinner party she’s throwing for her husband’s business partner. You expect it to be the old bit where the poor person tells off the uber-rich, speaking truth to power, but there’s a lot more to it. And it has an ending that is surreal and a little bit confounding.
Bill: I see it’s written by Mike White, who’s one of my favorite film writers. He wrote School of Rock, and The Good Girl, and a movie I guarantee you’ve never seen but which I love, Nacho Libre with Jack Black as a Mexican wrestler.
Arch: Well, Beatriz at Dinner is really a deep dive into the polarization of our culture. John Lithgow plays one of the guys at the dinner, and he’s brilliant as always, and Salma Hayek just floats through it all. I think it’s extraordinary, and it’s only 83 minutes, and it just flies by.
Bill: Isn’t the new Transformers movie two and a half hours?
Arch: Well, you don’t always get what you pay for. Or else you get too much of it.
The Big Sick
Arch: This is my other big crush. It’s a romantic comedy that stars Kumail Nanjiani, who’s a Pakistani comedian, and he co-wrote the script. It’s based on his own story, about him living in Chicago doing his act, and he meets a cute girl played by Zoe Kazan. But he can’t bring her home to the suburbs to meet his parents, because they’ve been trying to set him up with a string of Muslim women. They break up, but the girl gets very sick and her parents, played by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano, come to visit, and he begins to bond with them.
Bill: It’s good to see Ray Romano. He started out as a standup comic, but he really morphed into an excellent actor.
Arch: Yes! I think it’s the best romantic comedy of the year.
Bill: Two crushes in one week!
Arch: I love the line he delivers to his parents: “Why did you bring me to America if you didn’t want me to have an American life?” The whole things feels like a James L. Brooks comedy — in fact, Brooks directed Broadcast News, and Holly Hunter seems to be channeling her old Broadcast News character, only 30 years later.
Bill: It was directed by Mike Showalter, who did Hello, My Name is Doris with Sally Field. So he’s a guy who knows how to make charming, quiet films about endearing characters.
Bill: Okay, here’s my movie: The Journey.
Bill: I know it doesn’t sound like a riveting set-up: You get Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, the heads of Northern Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics, played by Timothy Spall and Colm Meaney, respectively.
Arch: I love Colm Meaney. Any time you need a big Irish guy, he’s the guy to play it.
Bill: It’s 2007, a peace treaty has been negotiated, but these two guys have to sign off on it, and they hate each other. They’ve always hated each other. So virtually the whole movie is these two in the back seat of a car on the way to the airport, arguing out the whole Northern Ireland conflict, accusing each other of terrorism, and finally finding a middle ground they can live with.
Arch: Those are two great character actors; I imagine they’re really good together.
Bill: The way these two dance around each other, probing for weak spots, looking for advantages; it’s just mesmerizing. It reads like a play but the film provides a claustrophobic intimacy you’d never get on stage. And the take-away, of course, is if these two guys could come together — and they became dear friends afterward — then there’ s got to be hope of us here in the U.S.
Arch: Sure. We’re not like Northern Ireland, where they were killing each other.
Arch: Well, not yet, anyway.
Bill: Have you seen The Exception yet?
Arch: Yes, I did!
Bill: Isn’t Christopher Plummer terrific in it?
Arch: As the Kaiser Wilhelm! That movie actually made me look up the Kaiser on the Internet. Such an interesting guy.
Bill: The film has kind of a World War II romantic potboiler plot: The Kaiser is living in exile in Holland, a beautiful resistance fighter is working in his household, waiting for a chance to assassinate him, and she falls in love with the Nazi officer who’s been assigned to root her out.
Arch: It all seemed a little far-fetched.
Bill: But Plummer saves it.
Arch: I loved him in this film and in a film from a couple of years ago, Remember, which also had something of a Nazi theme. I was also happy to see Lily James, who played Lady Rose on Downton Abbey — and by the way, she’s involved in some R-rated heat in this one which is kind of shocking and interesting.
Bill: Happily, none of it involves Christopher Plummer.
Transformers: The Last Knight
Bill: Is there any chance, Arch, that this actually is the last knight?
Arch: We can only hope so. It’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.
Arch: It’s just confusing from start to finish. The plot has something about going back to King Arthur’s time and looking for a magic stick.
Bill: So many sticks in the world. How do you find the magic one?
Arch: Mark Wahlberg finds himself in London, and Sir Anthony Hopkins takes him on a DaVinci Code-like search for clues. It just doesn’t make any sense. I’m sorry.
Bill: The thing fans of these movies like best is the fight scenes, and they’re what I hate the most about them. Michael Bay directs all of them, and you never know who’s fighting who, or where you are.
Arch: It gives me a headache.
Bill: A good action director always lets you know precisely where you are, even what’s going on behind you. This is just like film snippets spliced together randomly.
Arch: And at first the main robot, Optimus Prime, is on our side, but then he’s against us. It’s never really explained.
Bill: I should mention, Arch, that I have a grandson whose middle name is Optimus.
Arch: You’re kidding!
Bill: No, I’m not. And his last name is Himes. Optimus Himes.
Arch: So he must love these movies.
Bill: He’s really a Deadpool fan.
Arch: Well, he’s got good taste.
Arch: I’m mixed on this movie. It’s beautifully filmed, and the performances are really good, but the whole thing seems to have a wet blanket thrown over it. Colin Farrell is a Union soldier who’s wounded in the Civil War, and a young girl from a girls’ finishing school finds him and takes him back to the school to heal.
Bill: I’m a real fan of the 1971 Clint Eastwood version. The end was shocking.
Arch: Yeah! In the 70s they’d make movies that would have you walking out of the theater just traumatized. I don’t think I’ve seen the original, but I’ve got to say in this version I saw the end twist coming all the way. I didn’t get any sense of surprise from it. From the beginning I didn’t buy any of it.
Bill: Maybe that’s because the girls’ school trope has been done to death. The movies have just prepared us to consider those places sinister and twisted.
Arch: As I said, the performances are very nice, especially Kirsten Dunst. Bill: It’s certainly a pretty cast. I once had an editor who when we were discussing the cover would always say, “I only want to look at pretty people.” It was a position that was at once revolting and also totally understandable.
The War For the Planet of The Apes
Bill: I believe the war between humans and genetically altered apes is now officially America’s longest-running conflict, is it not?
Arch: There was the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, then the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and now the War For the Planet of the Apes. There’s this one character, called The Colonel, who’s some kind of right-wing proto-Nazi leader, and it turns out he’s played by Woody Harrelson.
Bill: Type cast again!
Arch: They film it using motion capture technology, and I found it rather distracting. Throughout that part of the movie I just kept thinking, “Oh, my God, that’s Woody Harrelson!”
Bill: Lots of action, though.
Arch: Helicopters come, humans kill humans, humans kill apes, apes kill humans, stuff blows up and there’s fire, and at the end there’s an avalanche.
Bill: It sounds like a ride at Universal Studios.
Arch: It really does! It was better than I expected, but on the other hand I didn’t expect much. I found it interesting that there are a lot of subtitles, because not all the apes speak English.
Bill: Will that qualify War For the Planet of the Apes for a Foreign Language Oscar?
Bill: I feel like there have been diminishing returns for most of Pixar’s sequels. I don’t remember asking for another Cars movie, do you?
Arch: No. The first one was great and the second one kind of stunk. In the third one, the animation is stunning, and the voice work is great. But they’re really just cashing in.
Bill: Little kids love the Cars movies, I think. But the best Pixar movies find ways to appeal to all age groups. That second one was probably the worst Pixar movie ever. They even built it around the least appealing character in the series, that stupid pickup truck.
Arch: Paul Newman was in the first one, and here they use old audio to bring back the character he played. He was a 1951 Hudson, so they called him Hud — which is a great joke about Newman’s 1964 classic Hud. That was one of my teenage boy favorites. I’m also a fan of Margo Martindale — from The Americans — and she does the voice of a 1950 Nash. My mother drove one. That car looked like an upside-down bathtub. But Pixar makes this Nash actually look like Margo Martindale.
Bill: Margo’s publicist will be glad to hear you say this.
Arch: It has that same little smile as hers.
Bill: The best Pixar movies usually have some sort of universal lesson. This one seems to have exactly the same one as the first: The wisdom of a good mentor can change your life.
Arch: Yeah, I think the lesson of Cars 3 is this: If you’re at the Mall and you want to park your kid somewhere for two hours, buy ‘em a ticket to Cars 3.
Bill: I’m having that engraved on a plaque.
Arch: I will say there’s a triumphant moment at the end of Cars 3 that’s initiated by a female character. When you think about Wonder Woman and all the movies that are coming out directed by women, this really is shaping up to be the summer of strong women in the movies.
My Sister Rachel
Bill: Speaking of strong women, I saw My Sister Rachel and really liked it.
Arch: I loved it. It’s a remake of a 1950s movie, isn’t it, with Richard Burton?
Bill: Yeah, and Olivia de Havilland. It’s based on a Daphne Du Maurier novel.
Arch: I loved it because it echoes that classic way of filmmaking. It’s a very old-fashioned film.
Bill: Roger Michell directed, and he makes a lot of movies for Wise Guys like us — he did Le Week-End, and Hyde Park on the Hudson. This one has all the fixin’s for a potboiler romance, and he handles it really well. You’ve got a mysterious woman, an impressionable young guy, big candlelit mansions, and that rugged British coastline.
Arch: I’m a big fan of Rachel Weisz, who plays the cousin Rachel.
Bill: Rachel plays Rachel! That must have made giving directions easy.
Arch: The young fellow is very good, too — Sam Claflin.
Bill: The whole point of the film is to have you guessing throughout whether or not Rachel is intent on killing her young cousin and making off with his estate. But I feel like the deck is stacked from the start, so that mystery doesn’t linger as much as it should.
Arch: It reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, where you’re wondering whether or not Cary Grant is trying to poison Joan Fontaine. And there’s a little echo of Rebecca, which is one of my all-time favorite classics. I do agree with you they could have put a little more doubt into it, but I found it a pleasure to watch. Especially Rachel Weisz.
Bill: Even though I was positive she was manipulating him throughout the film, I found myself being manipulated by her, as well. And I really didn’t care, even though I was pretty sure she was as bad as they come.
Arch: Are you that easily manipulated?
Bill: By women, definitely. I’d be like, “Yeah, just put that poison there on my bed stand.”
Bill: I see The Leftovers had its finale this week. I’ve heard a lot of people rave about it, but I never saw it.
Arch: I just happened to see the finale this week — I’d never seen the show. You know what it’s about, right? The whole world wakes up one morning to find that 2 percent of the population has vanished.
Bill: Did we get to choose what 2 percent disappeared? ‘Cause I have some suggestions.
Arch: It’s actually very compelling. And it stars this actress named Carrie Coon who I’ve become very high on. She’s also on this season of Fargo. I would recommend to anyone that they download all three seasons of Fargo. This year she’s the sheriff, and her stepfather is murdered. I just think she is somebody to watch. I’m looking for The Leftovers to binge watch
Bill: So she’s on the Arch chart rising with a bullet.
Arch: Yep. She’s my big crush for the summer. Her and Gal Godot in Wonder Woman.
Bill: This really is the summer of strong women. This week alone you’ve got those two actresses plus that female hero in Cars 3.
Arch: And don’t forget Margo Martindale as a ’50 Nash.
Bill: Actually, I’d like to but the image is burned into my brain.
The Mummy (2017); The Mummy (1932); The Black Cat (1934)
Arch: Are you looking forward to The Mummy with Tom Cruise?
Bill: I’ve been watching the trailers, and you know, I really liked Brendan Fraser’s version back in the late ‘90s. So I guess Tom Cruise will have to do, although I’m not really clear on why they needed to reboot that series so soon.
Arch: The other day on Turner Classics I watched the original Mummy from 1932 with Boris Karloff. And it was so creepy. It really is about Karloff, as the Mummy, coming back and looking for the girl he loves. There’s something dark and scary about the original Mummy that I don’t think they can ever replicate. There’s a creepiness, a sexiness, and a sense of overwhelming obsession. If you really love the movies take a look at Karloff’s.
Bill: You wanna talk 1930s creepiness? What you have to see—and maybe you’ve seen it already—is Karloff and Bela Lugosi in The Black Cat from 1934.
Arch: Oh! I love that movie! Oh, my God! Has anything ever been sicker?
Bill: It’s not a spoiler to reveal that someone gets skinned alive in that movie.
Arch: (laughing hysterically) Oh, God! And the necrophilia! Both those guys are in love with the same woman who died, and they’ve kept her corpse.
Bill: That movie is one hour and five minutes long. It’s as if someone at the studio put his foot down and said, “This movie has to stop right now!”
Arch: They said it was based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe, but I think Edgar Allan Poe would have been horrified!
A Quiet Passion
Arch: I stumbled on a little film at my neighborhood theater the other day, A Quiet Passion.
Bill: Yes! With Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson. I saw it a few months ago. What did you think?
Arch: It’s a marvelous performance in a pretty quirky movie.
Bill: Quirky is a good word for it.
Arch: I had no idea Emily Dickinson was such a pain in the neck!
Bill: True—you don’t come out of that movie saying, “I wish I knew Emily Dickinson.”
Arch: Ha! No, you’ll come out saying, “Man, I’m glad I didn’t know her!”
Bill: I liked the way they use her poetry throughout the movie, sort of attaching certain poems to episodes in her life. But overall the way the characters spoke wasn’t very realistic.
Arch: It sounded like a stage play.
Bill: Like they’re characters in a Jane Austen novel. They always have these incredibly witty, instantaneous repostes at the tips of their tongues. Especially Emily’s saucy best friend (played by Jodhi May). People don’t really talk like that, do they? I did like her father. Was that Peter Fonda?
Arch: No, that was one of the Carradine brothers. Keith Carradine.
Bill: The father was a tough guy, but I think Emily needed someone to give her a kick every now and then, and he was just the guy to do it.
Arch: Cynthia Nixon is sort of like the guy we talked about last week, Bryan Cranston. She was a big success on TV, on Sex in the City, but she’s followed her own path since then, and has really made some interesting choices, like the mother in James White and on that series The Big C.
Bill: So, we both liked A Quiet Passion, with some reservations. Nixon’s performance saves it.
Arch: My neighborhood theater, The Avalon in Chevy Chase, Maryland, has a clientele of largely wealthy middle-age people. The people who run the theater told me that about 10 percent of the people who showed up to see A Quiet Passion walked out after the first 15 minutes. And the 90 percent who stayed applauded at the end.
Bill: I was almost in that 10 percent. I wasn’t sure I wanted to stay with it. But I knew the writer/director was Terence Davies, who made The House of Mirth and Distant Voices, so I suspected he would reward me for sticking around. Maybe he didn’t, but Cynthia Nixon sure did.
Arch: The film was an interesting experience, which I think we as a couple of Wise Guys like.
Bill: I felt like I knew Emily Dickinson more, but I didn’t end up liking her.
Bill: Can we talk about how much we hated Baywatch?
Arch: Do we have to? It's a lazy, sloppy film and not especially funny.
Bill: I feel like they didn't know what kind of film they wanted to make: Is it a straight satire or an homage to the old show? If I were David Hasselhoff, I would have been embarrassed to do that cameo--and I'm talking about a guy who decimated "Hooked On A Feeling" in a music video.
Arch: I imagine that by now word of mouth has killed the audience.
Bill: If they're not dead already, they'll want to drown themselves after sitting through this .
Arch: What I really want to tell you about Wonder Woman
Bill: And I want to tell you about Wakefield. You go first.
Arch: I’m very excited about Wonder Woman because of Gal Gadot! She is so beautiful and strong that you can’t take your eyes off her.
Bill: You’ve always been a big fan of beautiful women in the movies. We’ve had this discussion before.
Arch: Yeah, but Gal Gadot is thrilling to watch. Completely charismatic. It’s the first completely fresh superhero movie since I don’t know when.
Bill: This is what I’m hearing. Also, the whole idea of a super hero movie set during World War I is special.
Arch: I’m not a fan of the super hero genre, because the structure is always the same: You get the origin, then you get the fish-out-of-water element, and then you have the villain, the fight of good versus evil, and it appears evil is gonna win, and then at the last moment good triumphs.
Bill: But the plot of Wonder Woman is different?
Arch: No, that is the plot of Wonder Woman, also.
Bill: I see…
Arch: But the origins story here is really interesting. She comes from this secret island of Amazonian women…
Bill: Again with the women!
Arch: …Ha! Zeus placed her there as a child and she’s the goddess of peace, so she’ll have to do battle with Aries, who’s her brother and he’s the god of war. Then this pilot played by Chris Pine crash lands on the island and he takes her back to London in 1918.
Bill: So, besides being a superhero movie, maybe this will get some kids interested in both Greek mythology and early 20th Century European history. Arch: I guess so. Also there’s the feminist element. It was directed by Patty Jenkins.
Bill: So, how does Gal Gadot measure up to our generation’s Wonder Woman, Linda Carter?
Arch: You know, all of us—especially here in Washington, where she lives—have kind of wanted to stick with the Linda Carter image of Wonder Woman, sort of out of respect for her. I think Gal Gadot is so good that even Linda Carter will sign off on her.
Bill: Great. So I want to tell you about Wakefield, a movie I absolutely love. It stars Bryan Cranston, which is reason enough to love it, ‘cause he’s never bad in anything.
Arch: He’s doing all kinds of interesting stuff after Breaking Bad. He’s picking and choosing, and he hasn’t gone into a super hero series…
Bill: Well, he was in Godzilla. Remember? He was the guy who kept saying, “Hey, I think that 500-foot-tall egg could have something dangerous inside!” But did anyone listen to him? No!
Arch: Okay, I’ll forgive him for Godzilla.
Bill: Wakefield is based on an E.L. Doctorow short story originally published in The New Yorker. He’s a lawyer who comes home from work one night, finds he’s locked out of the house, and decides to wait for his wife and kids to come home in the upstairs room of a carriage house behind his house. Only he never comes down—he decides to hide up there permanently, watching his family through the garage window. He watches life go on without him; it’s that old death fantasy: “What will they do when I’m gone?” It’s a rather implausible story, but Cranston makes it work.
Arch: It sounds a little bit like Sullivan’s Travels (1941) where Joel McCrea is a movie director who decides to live like a hobo, to get to understand the ordinary man.
Bill: Yeah, you’re right. It’s kinda like that. I think Bryan Cranston is a great inspiration for middle-age guys. He spent the first half of his career kicking around, playing small parts, having a successful-but-not-stellar career. And then, all of a sudden, there he is. He’s the guy everybody wants.
Arch: I love seeing him show up as the dentist on old episodes of Seinfeld.
Bill: Another thing about Wakefield; it’s one of that growing number of movies that open in theaters and also on Video on Demand the same day. There was a time when a movie went direct to Video on Demand you assumed it was a turkey. But now it’s a way to reach a wider audience with really good smaller movies that would have trouble finding wide theatrical release.
Arch: I’m glad you mentioned that. I’m still looking for Paint it Black, that movie you recommended to me a few weeks ago, on Video on Demand, but I can’t find it.
Bill: Well, if you find Wakefield, watch that one first. It’s a much better movie.
Arch: Got it.
Arch: What do you like this year so far?
Bill: I think we’re in agreement that the best movie so far this year is Get Out, right?
Arch: Absolutely. Get Out does so much stuff. It puts (writer/director) Jordan Peale into the category of A-listers. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Bill: And it’s made movie stars out of Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams.
Arch: Allison Williams especially. I’ve always thought she was interesting on Girls and in Peter Pan, but this is a whole different side of her. And because she’s Brian Williams’ daughter…
Bill: Wait…she’s Brian Williams’ daughter?
Arch: Well, yes.
Bill: Why didn’t I know that? Man, I need to get a subscription to People magazine.
Arch: I’ve always sort of suspected that she was getting a little show biz push because of him. But I think she’s one of the emerging A-listers.
Bill: She reminds me of a young Jennifer Connelly.
Arch: The thing about Get Out, it never makes a misstep. You get tension, and then a big release through laughter. The tension gets higher, and then at the end you get one of the biggest ironic laughs of the whole story.
Bill: It’s a little like Hitchcock that way. Did you read about the original ending of Get Out? It’s included in the Blu-ray release, and all I can say is if they had chosen the other one it would have ruined the whole movie.
Arch: I’ve got Norman, with Richard Gere, on my list of the year’s best so far, and also Their Finest. Do we agree on that?
Bill: Yes on Norman, but I haven’t seen Their Finest. I hear it’s really good.
Arch: It’s set in England during the Blitz, and England wants America to come into the war. So a British propaganda unit makes a film about the Dunkirk evacuation to show in the U.S. and get America on their side. It’s interesting that one of this summer’s blockbusters is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk. Their Finest will dovetail with that very nicely.
Bill: I see Their Finest is directed by one of our best woman directors, Lone Scherfig. She did An Education. It’s great to see so many women directors working on major films now, not just lurking in the indies.
Arch: It’s also good that it just feels normal.
Paint It Black
Bill: Have you seen the first movie directed by Amber Tamblyn, Paint it Black?
Arch: No, I haven’t.
Bill: Oh, man, it just opened. Really creepy—Janet McTeer plays a world-renowned concert pianist whose son commits suicide, and she becomes obsessed with punishing his girlfriend. She’s played by Alia Shawkat, who played Maebe on Arrested Development. The two hate each other, but they also share the common bond of the dead son and boyfriend. It’s got this pervasive creepiness, but it’s also a film about grief, and how people approach it from different angles.
Arch: I must see it. I’ve always liked Amber Tamblyn ever since she was on Joan of Arcadia.
Bill: You know how it is with first-time directors, they become obsessed with playing with the camera—putting it in the refrigerator behind the milk, stuff like that. Tamblyn gets bogged down with that a little bit, but she gets a ferocious performance out of McTeer.
Arch: So you see Their Finest and I’ll see Paint it Black.
Bill: Yeah, but I have a feeling my chances of enjoying Their Finest are higher than you feeling the same way about Paint it Black. It’s really dark. You might go either way on it. I know I kept changing my mind while I was watching it.
Arch: I’m putting it on my list.
Bill: Well, now I feel responsible.
Arch: That’s our job, you know.
Bill: Yeah, but now it’s personal.
Paris Can Wait
Bill: Let’s talk about the romantic comedy Paris Can Wait. It stars Diane Lane, whose husband is played by Alec Baldwin, and he’s too busy to drive with her from Nice to Paris, so he sends her in the company of a charming French guy.
Arch: It’s Diane Lane and this French guy rolling through the South of France in a sports car eating great food. It’s not a movie. It’s Gourmet magazine! Have you seen it?
Bill: I saw it in Toronto last September.
Arch: I’m mixed on it. There’s a lot to like, but it’s by no means great. What was the reaction in Toronto?
Bill: Well, the cast and the director were there, so of course the audience jumped to its feet like it was Cries and Whispers.
Arch: I think it’s a lovely combination of food, art and romance. I also think it’s a fantasy for men middle aged and older who think they are still charming to women who look like Diane Lane. Arnaud Viard plays the French guy…
Bill: In fact he really is a French guy!
Arch: Yes, and he’s just the type of French guy who makes guys like me feel like we’ve still got it.
Bill: Yeah — but we’re not French.
Arch: Alec Baldwin is her grumpy husband, and I think he’s running the risk of playing the same character all the time. That or Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live.
Bill: Baldwin made this movie last year, well before the Donald Trump thing even began. It’s almost like we’re looking back at a different phase of Alec Baldwin’s career.
Arch: It’ll be interesting to see what he does beyond this.
Bill: I don’t think I’d want to be Alec Baldwin, but it must be nice to be in Alec Baldwin’s position right now, where everybody wants you. Of course now he seems to fancy himself a political pundit.
Arch: It’s like when Charles Grodin quit acting to become a political commentator on MSNBC. That didn’t work out. So what did you think of Paris Can Wait?
Bill: I’m positive on it because it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than the cinematic soufflé it is. In fact, I think we’ve already analyzed Paris Can Wait more than the people who made Paris Can Wait did.
Arch: This is one of my favorite movies of the year. Thank you for pointing me to it.
Bill: I actually think you ended up liking it even more than I did. We agree, though, that Richard Gere is fantastic in this film.
Arch: Anybody who has lived in New York knows this character; a guy who just keeps making the rounds, making connections, and then trying to find a way to use those connections to make business deals. It’s like when someone calls Such-and-Such and says, “Come to my dinner party — So and So will be there.” And then they call So-and-So and say, “Come to my dinner party — Such-and-Such will be there!”
Bill: I have used that very strategy. Not proud to say it.
Arch: The last third of Norman I thought was just brilliant film making — a couple of montages that really move the story along.
Bill: The director uses a lot of split screen, and that distracts me.
Arch: It doesn’t bother me.
Bill: Your powers of concentration clearly exceed mine.
Arch: Well, I was just blown away by Gere, playing this schlub who’s in over his head and drowning.
Bill: Richard Gere is playing so many interesting characters these days — it’s clear he’s just cherry picking roles that look like fun, regardless of whether or not the movie is going to make a lot of money. Like his other new movie, The Dinner. He plays a governor who’s running for the Senate; this incredibly together guy, so different from Norman.
Arch: Yeah, I put The Dinner in the category of “Didn’t See It, Don’t Want to See It.” Four people sitting around a dinner table? I’m out. No thanks! After all the movies I’ve seen, I’m entitled.
Bill: How many movies do you think you’ve seen? Have you ever tried to calculate?
Arch: Well, the first movie I reviewed for TV was American Graffiti in 1973. But since 1980 I’ve done about 200 movies a year, so I guess close to 7,000.
Bill: Wow. My first professional movie review was Rollercoaster in 1977—George Segal chasing an amusement park terrorist played by Timothy Bottoms.
Arch: I don’t remember that one.
Bill: No? It was in Sensurround. Every time the rollercoaster went down a hill your seat shook. But I’ve seen nowhere near that many movies. When I did Movies For Grownups I could embrace the Arch Campbell “Didn’t See It, Don’t Want to See It” philosophy, and just see one or two movies a week.
Arch: I think a lot of movie reviewers are sort of dour, grumpy people because they make so many bad movies, and we see so many bad movies. So I say weed them out before they even get a chance to grow!
This week: Arch and Bill chat about The Lovers (right), starring Debra Winger and Tracy Letts as a long-married couple who, having found other lovers and on the verge of divorce, suddenly find themselves in a red-hot affair with each other.
ARCH: I really liked The Lovers. It’s especially good to see Debra Winger performing as a mature actress.
BILL: I agree. Especially about Debra Winger. It seems like she’s been gone so long. I know she’s been busy on TV and in small roles, but I think it’s been decades since she had a starring movie role.
ARCH: There are some scenes, especially toward the end, that are really quite moving, especially for anybody who’s a real grownup.
BILL: For me the most moving scene is one near the middle of the film, when Letts’ character is shopping at a supermarket meat counter, and Winger’s lover walks up and tells him she’s going to leave him. Letts has this moment of great screen acting, as all these emotions—shock, sorrow, regret, guilt, and maybe a hint of relief—sweep across his face in a few seconds.
ARCH: There are some scenes that don’t seem to ring true, especially after the couple’s son arrives. There’s that one where he gets kind of overwrought and does one of those moves where he sweeps everything off the coffee table with a big crash.
BILL: Right. He hadn’t been around for the first three-quarters of the film, and then all of a sudden he’s throwing stuff. Chill out, man.
ARCH: Nobody does that, except in the movies. I broke a couple of plates once in anger, and my wife just stood there and laughed at me.
BILL: I once threw a fake Hummel figure against a fireplace. Same response.
ARCH: I think The Lovers is a great example of a foreign-feeling film made in America. And it’s good to see Debra Winger again.
BILL: What’s your hottest Debra Winger movie moment?
ARCH: Oh, without a doubt, with Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman. When they first get together in the sack—oh my gosh. I remember watching that in a screening, and everybody just held their breath. Of course, there’s also that scene in Urban Cowboy when she rides a mechanical bull. I realize I sound like a teenage boy now.
BILL: Well, giving equal time, what’s your hottest Tracy Letts movie moment?
BILL: Yeah, I know.
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
ARCH: I loved this. What I really like is they make fun of the form—they take pokes at Star Wars and all the films that super fans take so seriously. Plus, the mix of music from the 80s is just delightful.
BILL: I’m looking at the playlist from the movie now. “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO…”Brandy” by Looking Glass…”Southern Nights” by Glenn Campbell.
ARCH: Without giving too much away, there’s a scene where one of the characters gets ready for battle to the tune of “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay and the Americans. It gives you goose bumps! Most of those superhero films are aimed at teenagers, but there’s an adult aspect to Guardians of the Galaxy that just makes it delightful.
ARCH: What are you watching on TV now? I am just entranced by The Americans (F/X, 10 p.m. ET Tuesdays) with Keri Russell as an embedded Soviet Spy in the 1980s in Washington, DC. The things they do on behalf of Russia…and of course that kind of resonates now, doesn’t it?
BILL: I don’t watch as much TV as I should—imagine what my mother would say about that—but the one thing I’ve been watching for about three years now is The Blacklist with James Spader (NBC, 10 p.m. ET Thursdays). There are scenes in that show when he’s just riding along in a car, and you could watch that face for the whole hour. In some ways he’s too good for the show.
ARCH: So many great actors and actresses are finding themselves on television and on events that are streaming. I never cease to be amazed at how good television is.
BILL: Arch, I think we’ve got too much stuff for one column. We’ll have to save some of it for later; bank it for when we can’t think of anything to talk about.
ARCH: Exactly! How do you think I lasted so long on TV?