An Old Hollywood Take On the Gulf Oil Disaster

Thunder Bay is a city in northern Ontario, Canada. It is also a 1953 movie with Jimmy Stewart although as it turns out, the movie not about the city. When I decided to watch Thunder Bay this week, I judged the DVD by the (nondescript) cover and thought I would be watching Jimmy as a fur trapper/scout facing off against Indians/Hudson’s Bay Company baddies in the distant past. It was actually about Jimmy and his partner, Dan Duryea finding financing and building the FIRST offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. I overcame my initial disappointment and tried to enjoy the movie for what it was but as it unfolded, I became aware of a raft of fascinating similarities to a situation currently unfolding in the same area, the BP oil rig explosion and subsequent environmental disaster as millions of gallons of oil pour into the Gulf unchecked. In the movie, Stewart has to convince a shrimp-fishing town that the building of the rig will benefit the town in ways their small-town eyes can’t envision. The first way he sets out to accomplish this is by dynamiting their fishing waters and then telling them the dynamite doesn’t hurt the shrimp. Predictably, the townspeople turn on him in their small-minded ways and invariably turn to violence to correct the situation. The oil men and financiers are shown as forethinking men who just want progress because, after all, as Stewart’s character states, we all need oil and without this precious liquid, civilization as we know it would cease. This line is stated with all the conviction of a reading of the Declaration Of Independence. (SPOILER) Of course, the movie ends with the glorious discovery of oil and the breakthrough that shrimp seem to (conveniently) gather around the rig, thereby providing a solution for all parties involved and ending the movie on a positive note. This may seem disingenuous at first, but the reality is that this movie was made over 50 years ago and as such, is guilty of nothing more than naiveté. This was a time when fossil fuels were seen as the future and the environmental impact wasn’t even considered. This was truly was seen as progress and while until 2010, it appeared the oil companies and those who lived and worked in the Gulf lived in an uneasy peace, that peace was simply waiting to be broken, like the proverbial needle breaking the camel’s back. This movie, while not a great film in and of itself, becomes a sober yet intriguing counterpoint to horrific disaster we have been recently witness to.

Movie Comfort Food

I love the Oscars. Yes, there are problems with the nomination and voting process and yes, there is too much focus on the glamour and glitz and yes, it is often a shallow popularity contest but it’s the closest thing movie lovers have to a Super Bowl or World Series. And most importantly, it’s the one time that some truly great movies get noticed. If it wasn’t for the Oscars, most of the world would think that Avatar is the best Hollywood has to offer (oh wait, they do). Movies like The Hurt Locker, The Cove and The Last Station get a kick (albeit small) in the box office ass. However, even I can’t watch ‘serious’ film all the time and now that the Oscars are over, I find myself turning my attention to less ‘important’ movies.

There are a wealth of movies that I haven’t seen, both good and bad, and many of those I actually do WANT to see. Many are the times that I bring home 3 or 4 of those titles and late at night, I settle in to watch one but I find myself glancing over to my personal collection, movies that I have seen several to countless times. Before I realize what I’m doing, I’m standing in front of my DVD racks, scanning while the forgotten new title drones on behind me. Invariably, I will choose one and slap that in the player instead, a movie I know by heart. A warm fuzzy feeling comes over me, like I’ve just wrapped myself in my favourite old ratty sweater on a cold winter’s night as the credits unfold. I call these ‘movie comfort food’ and for me, most often these choices are classics, often war movies or westerns, and of those, many are John Wayne movies.

There’s an undeniable pleasure in watching The Duke act as if he’s not acting (he did famously quip that acting is simply reacting) and in fact, I have this theory that Marion Morrison, the person, was essentially the same one I see on the screen, so much so that when I’m asked what person. living or dead, I would most like to spend an evening with socially, John Wayne’s name is invariably invoked (as is Alfred Hitchcock, which is another blog). My Dinner With the Duke.

Movie comfort food doesn’t have to be great or even good in quality and for most people I’ve talked to, it’s not. It just has to fill that need, the need to settle in and be washed over by a warm wave of nostalgia. What is your movie comfort food?

A Serious Man – Not In On the Joke

I love the Coen brothers. From Blood Simple through to No Country For Old Men, I have found their movies range from good to brilliant, but with A Serious Man, I felt like I was watching someone tell an
‘in-joke’, the kind of joke that every one else (the critics) are laughing at and you feel you should be too…but you just don’t get it.

The story of a 60′s Job, Larry Gopnick, who has everything go wrong at once then finds his life going downhill from there, A Serious Man has many of the hallmarks of a Coen brothers, quirky characters, darkly
comic bits and a skewed view of the foibles of life. But I kept asking myself throughout, what is all this pointing to? Like Larry, I felt that I was witnessing a great cosmic joke perpetrated by the creator
(God/Coens) but I wasn’t being let in on it. What’s the meaning of it all? It seems only the Coen’s can answer that.

I read some reviews after, both positive and negative, hoping to shine some light on my confusion, but the positive seemed to be members of the club and the negative were confused, like me. There was no middle ground.

I work in a video store and have spoken to many people about this movie, some regular ‘Joes’, some dyed-in-the-wool Coen brothers fans, and not a single one liked or ‘got’ it either. I guess we didn’t drink the Koolaid.

Oscar Predictions 2010

It is minutes BEFORE the Oscar nominees are announced so I will offer my pre-Oscar predictions for winners of the main six categories:

Best Picture – The Hurt Locker
Best Director – Kathryn Bigelow
Best Actor – Jeff Bridges
Best Actress – Sandra Bullock (I weep at this)
Best Supporting Actor – Christoph Waltz
Best Supporting Actress – Mo’Nique

And of course the obvious for Best Animated Film…Up.

Check back in just over a month to see how I did!

My (Obligatory) Top 10 Movies Of 2009

(Note: I am neither a paid critic, invited to advance screenings, nor do I receive advance DVD screeners to review therefore I don’t have the breadth of viewing ‘those’ guys have. Hence my apologies to the makers of Precious, A Serious Man, Up In the Air, An Education and any other potentially terrific movie from 2009 that I didn’t get a chance to see yet.)

60 years ago last year (now) was the greatest year in movie history. We had released (in the same year!), Gone With the Wind, Wizard Of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The Women, Ninotchka, Gunga Din…and the list goes on. Was 2009 even close? No. It wasn’t a bad year but when you have to pad your top ten with movies that were merely very good, it’s not a great year. So here’s my list, such as it is, starting with a tie for first (I’m sorry! I just couldn’t decide!):

1) Inglourious Basterds – Quentin Tarantino’s long-awaited Naziploitation epic is everything we have come to expect from this self-proclaimed film junkie, long, tense scenes of dialogue, over-the-top violence, bigger-than-life characters and something to offend almost everyone. This might top Pulp Fiction as my favourite Tarantino movie and if Christoph Waltz as a Nazi colonel doesn’t get an Oscar nomination, I’ll stop watching movies, period.

1) Up – Pixar’s output is uniformly excellent, in fact the last 4 movies, (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and Up), have just gotten better and after seeing each for the first time, I have declared that they can’t possibly top it…and they do. In fact, the first ten minutes of Up is, without a doubt, the BEST ten minutes I’ve seen in a movie in years, so much so that the rest of this hilarious, touching and gorgeous contemplation on aging and life tends to let me down a bit, even though it is still astonishing.

The Hurt Locker – Director Kathryn Bigelow is a bit of an outsider in Hollywood. She started out as a James Cameron protege and (thankfully) moved away to make some under-rated minor classics (Near Dark, Strange Days) but in The Hurt Locker, she has made her masterpiece. Shot in a virtual cinéma vérité style, this look inside an American bomb-defusion squad in Iraq has the most tense scenes of the year.

District 9 – Working with a budget that was probably the same as the caterer’s on Transformers 2, South African helmer Neill Blomkamp has crafted a movie that is at once a thoughtful treatise on the horrors of apartheid and a crackerjack sci-fi action extravaganza, not an easy thing to do, to be sure.

(500) Days of Summer – Zooey Deschanel absolutely shines in the best romantic comedy of the year as the titular Summer, the girl who Joseph Gordon-Levitt woos and wins…or does he? I love a movie that approaches romance with all the foibles and difficulties that REAL romance actually has. This is a masterpiece of misperception.

Star Trek – When word came that Lost and Alias creator J.J. Abrams was rejiggering Star Trek and (gasp!) making a prequel about when the original crew meets, Trekkers were all in a tizzy (since I’m not one, I wasn’t). I am happy to report that he has made the best Star Trek movie yet, a movie that is Trek enough for the fans yet very accessible for the non-fan (I can’t tell you the number of people who have told me that they loved it even though they knew nothing about Star Trek).

Sugar – It’s a good year when a baseball movie gets released but it’s a great year when a good baseball movie shows its face. Sugar is that movie. From the writing and directing team of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, who plumbed the depths of drug addiction in Half Nelson, comes this behind-the-scenes look at life for Dominican Republic ball players trying to make it to ‘The Show”, the Majors. It’s alternately heartbreaking and heartwarming and demonstrates the many hardships that these ‘strangers in a strange land’ have to endure. If you like baseball, you’ll love this one.

Away We Go – Sam Mendes once again proves his directorial abilities in disparate genres with this charming indie comedy starring John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph as a thirty-something couple, newly pregnant, who wander the country, touching base with friends and family, to find the perfect place to raise a family. Along the way they find out much about each other and themselves, in very funny ways. It’s the supporting cast that shines here, especially Jim Gaffigan as a tired-of-life husband and Maggie Gyllanhaal as a new age mother. Mendes’ next challenge: he’s been tapped to direct the next Bond opus…wow!

Nine – Okay, so the critics panned this. I don’t care! How could I not love a big bold musical about two of my favourite subjects, Italy and filmmaking, based on a Fellini film to boot? Sure, it doesn’t hold a candle to 8 1/2 and sure, the songs are somewhat forgettable and sure, some of the roles are somewhat miscast but this worked for me. I had fun and left the theatre in a great mood. Besides, Daniel Day-Lewis and Marion Cotillard’s performances are worth the price of admission alone. This one is my guilty pleasure.

The Informant! – Steven Soderbergh is either a community of several different artists or the most talented single man on earth. He makes the afore-mentioned Sam Mendes seem genre-bound. This year alone saw the release of the small Girlfriend Experience, the epic (4 1/2 hour!) Che and The Informant!, a comedy so wacky, it could only be based on a true story. That story is about a corn production executive (Matt Damon) who squeals on his company’s price-fixing but begins to lose control of the situation, creating all sorts of difficult but hilarious situations for the FBI. Damon handles this one perfectly and the story is so incredible, I checked the internet when I got home to verify it. Yep, it’s true!

“The next person who says Merry Christmas to me, I’ll kill ‘em.”: Alternate Christmas Movies

I love Christmas movies.  Every winter, as the season approaches, I feel a battle begin to rage within me, two sides fighting over when it is too early to start watching Christmas movies (the same battle is fought over Christmas music but that’s another post).  Some years November wins, others I survive until December.  There is also a battle over which movies to view each year.  I don’t want to tire of them but there a few, some mentioned on this list, that I find it infinitely difficult to avoid every year, they give me so much joy.  I know, many of you are saying, “Man, Dave, you need to get a life.”, to which I reply, “Any life lived is a life, even if it’s not what you would do with yours.”  But I digress.  I don’t want to talk about what many call ‘the classics’ (although there are many here I would not call that), Christmas Vacation, Miracle On 34th Street, Home Alone, It’s a Wonderful Life (which I do love watching…often), you get the idea. Although there are many ‘alternative’ Christmas movie lists in this crazy internet tube, I have laid out one ground rule for my list:  the piece being watched has to have the December/January holidays as its theme or take place during this period for more than half of its running time.  That way, unlike Warner Brothers, who released a Christmas collection a few years ago with Boys Town included even though only the first few minutes take place at Christmas, mine are TRULY holiday movies.  Of course this will in effect remove some of my favourites from the list, Holiday Inn and Christmas In July, to name two (okay, Christmas In July takes place in JULY but anytime I can give props to a Preston Sturges movie, I will).  Well, let’s see what this fool watches (almost) every year.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – “Really?  A Bond movie?”, you may ask.  Well, as a Bond fanatic, and more the books than the movies (Roger Moore almost singlehandedly destroyed the series), On Her Majesty’s Service is my favourite book and was my favourite Bond movie until the new Casino Royale.  The book shows Bond at his most vulnerable, in love, and at his most angry, when that love is threatened, and the movie manages to stick closely to the book.  James Bond becomes Sir Hilary Bray, genealogist,  and spends his Christmas holidays at a ski resort/clinic in beautiful Switzerland trying to finally bring down the elusive Blofeld, played smarmily by Telly Savalas.  Even though, I’m not fond of John Glen’s erratic fight scene editing and George Lazenby, in his only Bond appearance, isn’t Sean Connery (but he’s miles better than the stiff Moore), this one has lots of holiday cheer, skiing, figure skating and Diana Rigg.

The Thin Man – Now I’m really stretching, you may say, but the fact is that the first Thin Man movie takes place almost entirely over Christmas eve and Christmas day and has much holiday cheer, in the form of copious amounts of alcohol consumed by William Powell and Myrna Loy as the mystery-solving Nick and Nora Charles, a rich couple who have some unseemly connections (his, actually).  As in the novel by Dashiell Hammett, the mystery is simply a cover for a romantic screwball comedy, with Powell and Loy throwing around wisecracks like a drunk spilling their drink.  In many ways, it’s the anti-Christmas movie because there’s not a lot of goodwill to men, just murders to solve and this is never more clear than when Nora says, after a few too many Merry Christmases are bandied about, “The next person who says Merry Christmas to me, I’ll kill ‘em.”  By the way, there were 5 sequels, all with the Thin Man moniker, even though the titular Thin Man was a victim in the first movie only.

3 Godfathers – This might be the least known movie on the list.  A John Ford/John Wayne western, 3 Godfathers is a Christmas parable about three outlaws on the run through the desert.  They come upon a pregnant woman who, with the help of the three men, gives birth before dying and her last wish is that the men take care of the baby so they head to the town of New Jerusalem where they find her family but also reparation for their crimes.  This is a terrific movie with strong Nativity themes running throughout and takes place entirely during the Christmas week.  If you haven’t seen this lesser-known gem, search it out.

Remember the Night – Okay, I managed to squeeze a Preston Sturges movie on to the list.  Sturges wrote the screenplay but Mitchell Leisen directed (even though Sturges was very blunt about his less-than-exemplary opinion of Leisen’s skills).  Barbara Stanwyck plays a thief in New York, court-ordered to spend Christmas week with lawyer Fred Macmurray, whose plans to visit his family now have some excess baggage.  The requisite crazy Sturges dialogue and oddball characters keep the laughs coming but the standout is the heart-tugging scene when Stanwyck makes a stop at her childhood home, to find she’s neither welcome nor wanted.

Elf – Every year the studios try to catch lightning in a bottle by releasing a couple of Christmas movies, hoping they catch the public’s fickle attentions.  Usually we get a Deck the Halls or Surviving Christmas (if you haven’t heard of these, be happy) but every once in a while we get an Elf.  Although this one has been catching some speed the last couple of years, Elf is still a bit of an outsider and the most enjoyable Christmas movie in years.  Will Ferrell is a human adopted as a baby by Santa and raised as an elf but realizes he’s not like the other elves so he travels to New York to find his father, curmudgeon book publisher James Caan.  This one successfully mixes some edge with some sweet scenes (especially with sort-of romantic interest, Zooey Deschanel, who shines here) to create very big laughs.  My only complaint is that the movie is almost derailed by a silly (even within the context of this movie) finale in Central Park. 

Die Hard – This is my favourite Christmas movie.  It is actually my favourite movie, period, so by virtue of that, it has to be my favourite Christmas movie.  You may think that this movie is about New York cop John McClane fighting terrorists in a Los Angeles highrise, an action-packed thrill ride filled with violence and inappropriate language and you would be right, but it is also chock-a-block with Christmas music, decorations, holiday cheer, faith in your fellow-man, a negative predilection towards greed and consumerism and family togetherness.  Think about it.

Honourable Mention: Saturday Night Live, December 8, 1990 – I know.  This is an episode of a television comedy sketch show and so, it really doesn’t belong on this list…that’s why it’s an honourable mention.  Saturday Night Live has had a spotty success rate and I’m not patient enough to slog through the crap to find that golden kernel of comedy, however the night this aired, I was otherwise engaged and I heard Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians were the musical guests and I was very into them at the time so I taped it.  Thank you to myself for that prescience.  This was one of the only SNL episodes that worked (for me) from start to finish.  Tom Hanks hosted and once again, brought back my favourite SNL character, Mr. Short Term Memory in a skit that after dozens of viewings still makes me roll on the floor (“Hey!  You’re Tony Randall!”).  ‘The Five Timers Club’, ‘Carl Sagan’s Global Warming Christmas Special’, ‘Sabra Shopping Network”, all absolutely hilarious.  And, oh yeah, Edie Brickell was good, too.

To all my friends, family and readers, may the joy of the season be made manifest in your lives.

A Pacifist’s Love Of War Movies

I call myself a pacifist.  I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a time when killing swaths of your fellow humans could be justified.  I can’t think of a war that 1) couldn’t have been avoided if the right people were in charge, 2) didn’t go terribly wrong in terms of casualties, civilian and military and 3) bring out the worst in human behaviour.  But I have a dark, dirty secret (that isn’t so secret to those who know me well)…I LOVE war movies.  I don’t just mean the anti-war classics like All Quiet On the Western Front and Paths Of Glory.  I mean good old-fashioned jingoistic flag-wavers with John Wayne and Van Johnson.  I mean modern classics like Saving Private Ryan and Platoon.  I know this seems like a disparity and I suppose it is, in a way.  But in war movies, I often see men (and women) rising to humanitarian heights, overcoming physical limitations and demonstrating partisanship and cooperation, bringing out the man’s best in the worst of circumstances.  This week is Remembrance Day here in Canada and in Britain and Veteran’s Day in the United States and at this time, I always feel led to watch a few of my favourites as well finding one or two I may have overlooked.  As I grow older however, I become more aware of my mortality and more appreciative of the sacrifices made  by others who chose to go into harm’s way for the ideal of freedom and this year in particular, I have been thinking of people I have known who were connected to war in some way and of course, the movies their situation brings to mind.

Although my dad was a couple of months shy of active service in World War 2 (he joined up on his 18th birthday but all he saw was basic training outside Toronto and weekend furloughs in Toronto), I have several uncles who saw a great deal of action.  My uncle Mike was shot down behind German lines early in the war and sat through the war in a POW camp.  As a child, when he and my aunt Kaye would come over for a swim and he would take off his shirt, I would marvel at the foot long scar rippling across his left shoulder from stray bullets during his capture.  The Canadian military was ultimately very generous, providing him with a pension and a cushy job chauffeuring military types around Southern Ontario until his retirement but that would be a small price for the indignities he must have suffered and horrific sights he must have been privy to in those years in the German camp, as in the quintessential POW movie, The Great Escape.  Although this rollicking and exciting adventure strays sometimes from the source material, the book by Paul Brickhill that outlines his own experiences as a prisoner at the infamous Stalag Luft II, the truly amazing thing is that the most unbelievable parts in the film are those that actually happened with Steve McQueen’s unpredictable behaviour and demands accounting for the bulk of the changes from the book.  Another great movie (and book) from this same event is the British classic, The Wooden Horse, the true-life story of how an escape tunnel was dug essentially using only a wooden gymnastic horse and the ingenuity of dozens of prisoners.

My uncle Harry was one of the 76,000 Canadian troops that participated in the invasion of Sicily and ultimately Italy and spent many long months working his way north to free Italy from the fascist grip of Mussolini.  On a recent trip to Italy, we were in Salerno, where the disembarkation of the Allied invasion of Italy took place and and as I walked on the boardwalk next to the Mediterranean, I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of young men who lost their lives where I was walking.  The invasion of Sicily brings to mind the Oscar-winning film about the man who led the great invasion, Patton.  General George Patton was an imposing, brash, egotistical man but a brilliant tactician and the ideal fodder for a movie biography.  Francis Coppola and former military man Edmund North wrote a terrific script that perfectly captured the enigma that was Patton.  George C. Scott would not give a better performance, even if he felt it necessary to turn down the Oscar that came with it and the movie would famously become Richard Nixon’s favourite.

Many years ago, I watched what was essentially another rip-off of The Dirty Dozen, The Devil’s Brigade.  An entertaining romp, this one held a place of importance  and pride to me though because it concerned a ragtag U.S. commando unit drummed into shape by Canadian Special Forces officers, led by Cliff Robertson.  For once, the Canadians were the real heroes.  It was many years later that my dad informed that not only was the Devil’s Brigade a real World War 2 unit, but the best man at my parent’s wedding, George Stocking, was a former member of the Devil’s Brigade.  I promptly rushed home and watched it again and got a copy for my dad, who had never seen the movie.

My favourite war sub-genre is the submarine movie.  The idea that a small group of men from every background works together for the greater good (and their own safety) inside a giant tube, constantly facing stress and danger is a formula that never gets old for me.  Purists will list Das Boot and Run Silent Run Deep as the classics of the genre but my favourite is a propaganda piece that may lack in realism, but more than makes up for it in heart, Destination Tokyo.  Released at the start of the Second World War to give audiences a glimpse into the heretofore unknown world of the silent service, it stars Cary Grant as the skipper of a sub that has the unenviable task of sneaking into Tokyo Bay on an espionage mission, providing us with humour, pathos, excitement, and sheer bravado in spades.  Yeah, it’s old-fashioned but it’s old-fashioned fun.

Many may feel, even with the advent of ultra-realistic movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, that war movies diminish the great sacrifices the men and women who have served have made but I know that during virtually every war movie I watch, I have at least a moment of reflection when I’m thankful uncles Mike and Harry and all the other uncles, fathers, brothers, sisters, wives and aunts were willing to make the decision to serve their country so that pacifists like myself can enjoy the freedom they fought for.