Let’s go to the movies

Or not.

When was the last time you actually saw a movie in a theater? I’d need a very good excuse to get me to go to the nearest 13-Plex, and it’s been a long time since I had one. I finally broke down and went to see “The Martian” a couple of years ago, not because I was dying to see Matt Damon stranded on Mars, but because I wanted to finally see whether I thought 3D was a worthwhile innovation. It isn’t.

If I wanted to go back to the same place today, my choices would be: “Transformers: The Last Knight” (3D), “Cars 3” (3D), “Wonder Woman” (3D), “The Mummy” (3D), “Captain Underpants”, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”, “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”, etc. You get the idea.

These are not movies, so much as they are theme-park promos, product placement vehicles, and transparent attempts to separate teens and pre-teens from their allowances. They are either “sequels” to previous successful efforts, screen versions of comic books, or full-length cartoons.


It all started in June of 1975, when “Jaws” was released. Prior to that, motion pictures were generally understood to be art which may or may not have commercial value. After “Jaws”, movies were understood to be commercial products which may or may not have some artistic merit.

In the years since “Jaws”, the “artistic” part has disappeared. You cannot get a picture made today without a strong business case, “bankable” stars, and an extensive plan for foreign distribution rights and subsequent DVD or Pay-TV revenue. All that matters is how much money can be made for the investors. The hell with “art”.

“Jaws” cost $12 million to make and recouped that and more in two weeks. In two months, it passed the record-holding $86 million made by “The Godfather”, and became the first ever to gross $100 million. It was the biggest money-maker ever seen. By 2013, it had grossed $470 million, of which $260 million was in North America. And now, the huge profits made by “Jaws” are just a basic expectation for studios and investors. By 2013, 127 films had surpassed its revenue totals.

You can’t get a “small” picture made any more and, if you go ahead and make one yourself, there’s no place to get it shown. Real estate prices in cities where there may still be a market for “film” are too high for independent theater operators.

The rise of “home theater” and ubiquitous content availability via the internet have further hastened the final demise of the movie theater.

But, as Joni Mitchell once said, “something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”  There’s plenty to watch on my screen at home. Whatever I want whenever I want it, actually. It’s nice. Convenient. Comfortable.

With a little effort, I can even find real movies to watch.



Sidney Poitier: tempus fugit

Sidney Poitier turned 90 years old a couple of months ago, and is now the oldest living recipient of the Academy Award for “Best Actor”.

His family was from the Bahamas, where they were farmers, and his dad also was a cab driver in Nassau. They would regularly go to Miami to sell produce, and Sidney was born there two months prematurely, making him a U.S. citizen. You could call him an “anchor baby”, I suppose, except that the family returned to the Bahamas a couple of months after the birth, when Sidney was healthy enough to go.


The family did send him back to Miami when he was 15 to live with his brother, as he had become something of a troublemaker, and he moved to New York at 18, first sleeping in a bus terminal toilet, and taking work as a dishwasher, where a waiter taught him to read the newspaper.

He joined the American Negro Theater, but was received poorly by audiences as he had no singing ability, something that they expected of all performers. He got his chance in movies in 1950, at age 23, in “No Way Out”, and then had increasingly important roles until he became the first actor of African descent to be nominated for a competitive Oscar in 1958, for his work on “The Defiant Ones”.

He won the Oscar for “Best Actor” in 1963, for “Lilies of the Field”, a movie I liked mostly because of his magnetic screen presence. I can still see him consuming that soft-boiled egg the nuns gave him for breakfast, expecting him to perform heavy physical labor all day on that fuel alone. One gulp, no chewing, and a challenging glare that wordlessly shouted, “That’s it? You must be joking.”


Fifty years ago, in 1967, Poitier appeared in three big films with a race-relations theme, something he had obviously become the go-to guy for. He was in “To Sir With Love”, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”, and “In the Heat of the Night” in that year. If I asked you who played the lead in any of these three, you’d say Sidney Poitier, right? I certainly would.




You saw it Gillespie. What are you going to do about it?

“Sir” and “Dinner” are predictable, and, in my opinion, forgettable, though in 1967 they passed as groundbreaking and important “social statements”. Kind of embarrassing and cringe-inducing, looking back from today’s perspective.

I just saw “In the Heat of the Night” again the other day, though, and it stands up quite well.  It evokes the time and place vividly and convincingly, has sharp dialog and a complex plot. It’s diminished mainly by the sequels and T.V. adaptations that attempted to capitalize on its success.

Rod Steiger put his indelible stamp on the whole “southern sheriff” character/caricature (who could forget that rapid-fire gum-chewing?). But it’s Sidney’s movie, all the way.


Both “Heat” and “Dinner” were nominated for the “Best Picture” Oscar in 1968 (movies released in 1967), and “Heat” won the award.

In addition to Best Picture nominations, both “Heat” and “Dinner” also had a Best Actor nomination, but in neither case was Sidney Poitier the guy nominated. Spencer Tracy was nominated for “Dinner”, and Steiger was nominated and won the award for “Heat”.

Weird.  And, it must be said, probably racist. By this point, Poitier was starting to get a little criticism for playing an “over-idealized” version of the Black Man, and one with de-emphasized or non-existent sexuality,  but that’s not much of a reason to exclude him from even being nominated when neither of these pictures is anything at all without him, and not his fault in the first place.

And to add insult to injury, he didn’t even get a nod for “Supporting Actor” that year. Cecil Kellaway was nominated for “Dinner” (seriously?), and Poitier got no recognition at all for “Heat”.

For the “Academy”, the lesson here is Sic Transit Gloria Mundi: your worldly honors are fleeting. No one really needs you to validate their work, and the silly pronouncements at your annual orgy of self-congratulation speak more negatively about yourselves than positively about those you flatter.

And for Sidney Poitier,  Tempus Fugit. It was a long time ago – hard to believe fifty years have passed in the blink of an eye.




Wild Mountain Thyme

I saw an OK flick the other day, “Their Finest”. It’s about making a patriotic movie to rally British morale after the evacuation of their trapped army from Dunkirk in 1940. I liked it well enough – it was ostensibly about something I find interesting, but it morphed into more of a love story and a story of the growth and emergence of a talented woman film-writer. It had the advantage of a strong and sympathetic female at its center, which is something we’ve talked about here at GOML in the past.

Their Finest Hour and A Half Directed by Lone Sherfig

The movie’s principal weakness is that it doesn’t know when to quit. It goes on past the moment it should end, and actually breezes right through two or three points that would have been a perfectly appropriate ending, until it feels like it’s testing the patience of the audience a little bit.

But it does have several emotional moments that are really well done. One, for me, comes when the cast members of the movie within the movie are gathered having drinks after the project is just about done, and are led in the singing of the Scottish folk song, “Wild Mountain Thyme” (actually written by Francis McPeake, who was from Northern Ireland).

It’s a really beautiful song, and everybody who has any interest in traditional music has covered it at some point. Mark KnopfIer did a nice instrumental version, and I really like the authenticity and feeling of the Clancy Brothers’ version:

The Corries, a Scottish duet from the early sixties, did a very heartfelt and emotional version, which I also like very much.

In this version, when the chorus begins with, “And we’ll all go together…”, listeners join in, as they do also in the movie version and in many others as well. It’s a powerful and sad effect – it feels like an anthem to solidarity in some common cause or shared feeling. It almost makes you want to cry, but the thing is, you don’t even know what the hell you’re crying about!

And here’s my question for you today: What is this song actually about? Are we “all going together” to war? To a cult meeting where we’ll drink some thyme Kool-Aid and die? To courting? If it’s just a love song asking the lassie for her hand, “Will ye go, lassie, go?”, why so sad and serious?

Or are we just all going to pick some thyme and then come right back? Is it about summer being all too brief after waiting so long for it? It’s written like something promising is beginning, but it’s played like something tragic is ending.

Maybe it’s simply that element of morbidity in all things Scottish that often comes through – cold, wet, darkness, death, and melancholy – no matter the subject?

So tell us, dear readers, what does Wild Mountain Thyme say to you?

Remembering Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert died four years ago this week, after waging a long and harrowing battle with cancer. He was 70. He made an excellent film documenting his struggle called Life Itself, in which his courage, determination, and good humor are on ample display, despite being disfigured by surgery, and having to make innumerable concessions to the disease. He continued to work at that which he loved, writing about movies, under very difficult circumstances, until the end.


He wrote and talked about movies for over 45 years, mostly for the Chicago Sun Times, and was the first movie critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. His early television series on P.B.S. with crosstown rival Gene Siskel, “Sneak Previews”, became the highest rated shown ever on that network, and the “thumbs up or down” verdict they offered became a standard which has endured through the decades. This week, Netflix introduced it to their site.

The thing I liked most about Ebert’s writing was that he had not a molecule of the “critic’s disease” that seems to require most people to say something gratuitously negative about some part of the work, so as to show how smart they are. Or, perhaps, include obscure references that only a film historian would know or care about and which contribute little to the task at hand.

He wrote beautifully and his love of movies came through clearly. He was unpretentious in his tastes, and wrote from the point of view of the consumer of film, i.e. someone who had paid their money in the hopes of being entertained and engaged, and who was favorably disposed to the product by default.

Beyond that, his writing was extremely perceptive, and sometimes even prophetic. He helped you understand things you may not have noticed or were unable to articulate, and he whetted your appetite for seeing or re-seeing the movie he was writing about.

When Mike Leigh made his first movie in 1972, “Bleak Moments”, Ebert saw it and wrote,

I’ve never heard of Mike Leigh or his actors before. I don’t know where they came from, or what pools of human experience they were able to draw from. And I suspect that the sheer intensity of “Bleak Moments” may prevent it from getting a wide audience. Indeed, this particular story could never have been told in such a way as to appeal to everybody.

It is the task of film festivals to find films like this and give them a showing, so that they can survive and prevail. The 1972 Chicago festival has been filled with movies worth seeing and remembering. But if it had given us only “Bleak Moments,” it would have sufficiently exercised its mission.

What’s interesting to me about this is that Leigh did not make another movie for 17 years (he created screenplays only after improvising scenes with his cast, so he never had one to sell), but Ebert’s comments were correct, and correctly generous to an unknown talent. He makes you want to go find this movie and watch it, and to read more about Mike Leigh’s movies, an exercise that will certainly reward your effort.

If you want a break from current events or are bored with your regular reading diet, I recommend visiting this site, and choosing a movie you like, or perhaps one you never heard of, and reading what Ebert had to say about it.  You’ll learn something and enjoy the time spent – what more could you ask from a critic?

The original is still the the greatest

The other night, I was flipping channels and came across the original King Kong (1933). I remembered what “richard” said about it in our discussion of movies we watch over and over:

“King Kong (1933) is one that draws me in every time. Great noir-ish NYC scenes in the beginning, and the entire movie is so atmospheric. It goes without saying that the animation and special effects were great for that period. Some slightly corny stuff near the end but nothing’s perfect.”


So I watched it and it did draw me in and I did really enjoy it. King Kong has been re-made a couple of times: the 1976 version with Jeff Bridges, and the 2005 version with Jack Black. I’ve seen parts of both the re-makes but I can’t really say whether they were “good” or not, because the re-makes didn’t hold my attention well enough to stay with them. I’ll just go out on a limb and say the original is still the greatest.

I guess it makes sense to re-make Kong or some other classics to try to take advantage of improvements in technology, e.g. to re-make a black-and-white movie in color, or use new special-effects tools like CGI. It makes sense particularly for the “horror” genre where you can now create more realistic and scary monsters.

But “updating” with better tech cannot a great movie make. You still need a great story with a great script and great performances.

I can also see why you’d want to re-make a movie that wasn’t very well made the first time around, but might have some box-office appeal if executed a little better. I know how you all like a movie quiz, so here’s an easy mini-quiz – these flicks were entertaining and watchable as re-makes, but pretty much stunk the first time around. Here ya go:

In my judgement, good movies generally don’t cry out to be re-made.  The re-make is a solution looking for a problem, and that problem typically turns out to be, “How can I improve my cash flow by ripping off someone else’s success?”

Today’s challenge is for you to think of a pair of movies where the original  was good or great, and the remake was even better.  It’s not easy to do. I’ll start you off with a handful of candidates that almost make it but not quite. I like both versions, but the original is still the greatest, IMHO.

1.  Mutiny on the Bounty – 1935 vs. 1962

mutiny 1935

Mutiny 1962

Charles Laughton and Trevor Howard are both convincingly despicable as Bligh. The difference for me is Marlon Brando’s foppish Christian vs. Clark Gable’s “man’s man”. Brando just seems a little off to me, though still magnetic.

The original is still the greatest.

2. The Heiress (1949) vs. Washington Square (1997)

heiress 1949


I mentioned both of these in this post and I don’t want to repeat myself too much. I think Montgomery Clift is a bit miscast as Morris Townsend, the fortune hunter, in the 1949 version, but I’m not completely convinced  by Ben Chaplin in 1997 either, so that’s a wash.

Olivia de Havilland and Ralph Richardson are perfect as Catherine Sloper and her father, particularly  de Havilland. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Albert Finney are great as well, particularly Finney.  The original performances are a little stronger in my view. For me, the original screenplay is a tad sharper as well, though, again, both are very good.

The original is still the greatest.

3. Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931 vs. 1941)

hyde 1931

hyde 1941

Fredric March in the title role in 1931 is amazing. Spencer Tracy is very good in 1941 as well, but nothing like March. Tracy’s performance in 1941 redeems the flick and makes it eligible for inclusion in today’s challenge, but the 1931 version really is just a better movie. I find the stunt work in particular to be amazing, and the make-up is better as well.

It’s not completely clear to me why this movie had to be re-made only ten years after the original, but I’m too lazy to research it – maybe one of the GOML readers can tell us.

The original is still the greatest.

4. Cape Fear (1962 vs. 1991)

Cape Fear 1962

Cape Fear 1991

Robert De Niro is excellent in 1991 as Max Cady, the psycho revenge-seeker, but so was Robert Mitchum in the original. I give the edge to Gregory Peck’s lawyer over Nick Nolte’s, but again, both are good. We’re pretty close to a draw here, I think, so I’ll just fall back to “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and say the original is still the greatest.

5. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 vs. 1999)

thomas crown 1968

thomas crown 1999

I’m a big Rene Russo fan, and she’s good in 1999. I’m not a big Pierce Brosnan fan, and here he’s playing the usual Pierce Brosnan type. Can he be anyone else? Where’s the “acting”? Steve McQueen, on the other hand, is playing completely against type in 1968 and is completely believable. And the young Faye Dunaway? Wow. All the Boston locations also put the 1968 version way ahead in my  estimation, though I realize that’s just my parochialism talking.

The original is still the greatest.

Three gynocentric flicks

The French journalist, critic, and novelist,  Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, famously observed, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”, or “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

Antisemitism is on the march again. In Europe, it’s the same old story – right-wing nationalism is resurgent. But there are a few new elements in the mix, including the condition of rising Muslim populations and their catch-all grievance of Palestinian victimhood. They are abetted by the  “intellectual” left, which has increasingly lost the ability to distinguish between vilifying Israeli policy (OK, if you want to split hairs, “Zionist” policy), and vilifying Jews.

In this country, though, something new seems to be happening. The rash of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers (60 so far this year), and the recent vandalizing of Jewish cemeteries in St. Louis and Philadelphia has us all on edge. There can be no doubt that Trump’s embrace of Steve Bannon, Breitbart, and the alt-right is a major contributing factor. It’s pretty clear Bannon doesn’t like Jews.

Is this what it felt like in 1933? Just a couple of news stories, but nothing to get panicky over? We don’t want to over-react, but we don’t want this to go unremarked either. What to do?

But you’re tired of hearing me rant about Trump, right? I get it it. Man, he really sucks the oxygen out of normal daily life and social discourse, doesn’t he?  It’s exhausting.

I know – let’s go to the movies!

You know how everyone is always complaining about how there are no good roles for women, and how no movies pass the Bechdel-Wallace test any more?  Well, here are three fairly recent movies I can recommend, each with a strong female character at its center.

And the best part is they’re all about surviving the Nazis! Let’s go watch a couple of these and then we can reflect on Alphonse Karr’s aphorism. D’accord?

Ida (2014)

Phoenix (2014)

Sarah’s Key (2011)

If you haven’t seen these, I won’t spoil them for you (except maybe a little). In each case a young Jewish girl or woman survives the war against all odds. But, to me, the unifying theme of the three is the death not just of the Jews of Europe, but the death of Jewishness itself. Though the women survive, at least for a time, their Jewishness does not.

There is no doubt in my mind that the Europe of today very closely resembles the Europe of Hitler’s dreams. It’s hard to understand the enormity of the crime that was committed: one out of every three Jews alive in the world in 1941 was murdered by 1945. And in some swaths of The Pale, every single last Jew was killed.

Of course, the persecution and killing of the Jews is the thing that shocks and engages us, but it is the death of Jewishness itself that may be the larger crime, and therein lies the ultimate victory of the Germans. Yes, I said Germans. Despite all the retroactive claims of heroism and “resistance” that you hear about from today’s oh-so-liberal Teutons, in the 1930’s trying to separate the “good Germans” from the Nazis was a pointless exercise. It was a distinction without a difference – some people actively participated and others “only” watched.

It’s true that there may be a stray “Jew” here or there that has persevered in Europe, but not one Hitler would ever recognize.  That stray doesn’t dress “like a Jew”, isn’t part of a synagogue’s congregation, doesn’t speak Yiddish (an entire language and literature extinguished!), doesn’t read the “Jewish press”. All those trappings of Jewish life and culture have disappeared. “The Jews” are not a political force, not a cultural force, or really any kind of force, except in the paranoid fantasies of the right, which have survived the decades completely intact, also against all odds.

In the east, in Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Moldova and elsewhere, young people are completely unaware of the history of the Jews or even that  Jews ever lived there, much less comprised 50% of the population in many places.  The small town or “shtetl” of Shalom Aleichem, once the center of Jewish life, is no more. And, more significantly, there is no trace it ever was there to begin with. There are no Jewish schools or libraries, no Jewish businesses, no buildings with Jewish iconography, no birth, death or marriage records.

And almost every Jewish cemetery is gone as well. Like today’s antisemites, the Nazis and their collaborators loved to harass the living Jews, and could not let the Jewish dead rest in peace, either. But unlike today’s antisemites, they didn’t stop at merely turning over the headstones and scrawling their messages of hate. They carted off the stones and used them to pave roads, latrines and basement floors, a practice finally halted in Ukraine in 2013. All traces of Jewish life, and death, were obliterated.

As I read the news of the day, I wonder when will it be time to sound the alarm, and when will it be too late? And, this time around, will the righteous be able to stop it?

Alphonse Karr also said, “Every man has three characters – that which he has, that which he thinks he has, and that which he exhibits.”

You asked for it, you got it

Since the movie quiz we had the other day didn’t pose as much of a challenge as I thought it might, we’ll have to take it up a notch. No clues today – you’re all too smart to need them – but I will say that all today’s movies met with critical approval: the lowest score for any of them on Rotten Tomatoes was 85%, and the highest got 100%!

To get you warmed up, we’ll start with a couple of box-office boffos you might have seen at your local ten-plex , then a classic or two and some smaller but still well-known flicks to build your confidence, then on to the art-houses where you’ll start to doubt yourselves, and finally a deeper dive offshore and to some indies that will destroy your self-esteem and kill your desire for more movie-related posts.

Full credit for just the movie name. If you get 14 out of 20,right, we’ll nominate you for King /Queen/Other at Trump University’s Homecoming Dance.

Answers here. Ready? Go.