76. Being There

Even though it’s obvious, only two people in Being There know that Chance the gardener is stupid. One is an African-American woman who cooked his meals. Watching Chance spout meaningless drivel on TV to praise and applause, she says “It’s for sure a white man’s world in America. I raised that boy since he was the size of a pissant, and I’ll say right now he never learned to read and write. No sir. Had no brains at all. He’s stuck with rice pudding between the ears. Short changed by the Lord and dumb as a jackass. Look at him now. Yes sir, all you gotta be is white in America to get whatever you want. Gobbledygook.”

The other person who knows how stupid Chance is is a doctor, who watches Chance bring comfort to a dying man and so lets him continue hanging around speaking nonsense but lifting spirits.

Everyone else thinks he’s brilliant. The U.S. president is so bothered by the enigma of Chance’s brilliance that he goes impotent. Journalists, lawyers, the CIA and the FBI are all baffled. Chance has captivated America, yet he has no past and barely exists in the present.

Peter Sellers plays Chance as simplistic, quiet and calm. He only wants TV. He’s middle-aged but can’t feed himself, yet he has a suit. Accidentally struck by the car of a rich woman, he so charms her that she brings him home and, ultimately, falls for him. Shirley MacLaine’s Eve masturbates on a bear rug because she doesn’t understand that when Chance says “I like to watch,” he means TV. He knows nothing.

The final two images are power at the highest echelon in Washington DC, followed by power beyond physics. The last shot of this movie is surreal, befitting the ridiculousness of any modern president’s billionaire buddies.

Idiotic masses are governed by fools, and the people who see it are helpless. That’s my own cynical interpretation; my smartest cinephile friend says Chance represents commonsense and simplicity in an over-complicated world. Gobbledygook, J.R. Young! Politicians and their billionaire friends are weird, stupid assholes.



75. Jurassic World

The raptors in Jurassic World are trained like dogs, and a woman wearing high heels outruns a T-Rex. For analysis, here’s rock-star mathematician Ian Malcolm: “The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here, uh, staggers me.” Me too.

Jurassic World is very stupid, and that’s a shame because it ought to be smart.

That Malcolm quote comes from the original Jurassic Park, directed by Steven Spielberg and released when special effects were practical and digital action scenes weren’t ubiquitous. Spielberg’s classic should have been way more violent, arguably, but it undeniably had brains and heart. Spielberg revered his dinosaurs as beautiful and dangerous wild animals, and he respected the science. Malcolm says that chaos theory predicts certain failure when humans confront something as powerful and unpredictable as cloned dinosaurs. They can’t possibly be controlled. They escape their pens, breed, hunt, kill, and expand their territory. Jurassic Park’s quick collapse in that film proves him right.*

Jurassic World would have us believe the park worked. They host 20,000 visitors per day, and dinosaurs play as nice as whales imprisoned at Sea World. The action starts when a new dinosaur, made of different genes mixed together, springs itself and goes berserk. The mistake is not cloning dinosaurs, it’s getting too ambitious with the cloning and making a species nature never intended. This misstep is karmically compounded by attempts to sell naming rights to the new dinosaur. They’re thinking of calling it “Verizon Wireless Presents Indominus Rex.”

Jurassic World, therefore, has utterly missed the point of its beloved source material. This park could not exist, and there’s no way the hero could ride his motorcycle through the jungle while trained raptors sprint alongside him in formation. The stakes are nil when the dinosaurs are less dangerous. It’s fake as hell. You couldn’t survive being in the open air with raptors in the original film, and you needed a Jeep to outrun the T-Rex. In Jurassic World, you don’t even need sensible shoes.

*The only sequel should have been the world’s gutsiest hunters going in and clearing them out, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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A version of this first ran on Santafeannow.com.

74. Jurassic Park

No one gets gutted in Jurassic Park, so it’s easy to miss the harsh existential lesson of a powerful man-versus-nature story.

The sense of wonder and respect for these animals is expressed perfectly by Lord Steven Spielberg, but what about respect for science? The real theme of Michael Crichton’s novel gets muddled in translation. Jurassic Park is a movie for everyone, so the story tamps its violence and thus its impact.

Theological conflict remains, but watered down. Rock-star mathematician Ian Malcolm, dressed all in black, debates responsibility with wide-eyed optimistic rich guy John Hammond, creator of the park, dressed in all white.

“I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here,” Malcolm tells Hammond. “It didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. … Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think about whether they should.”

Malcolm knows chaos theory, which says systems like nature are inherently unpredictable. In a theme park filled with cloned dinosaurs, control is an illusion because math says natural forces (like, say, prehistoric animals) are too wild. Make all the dinosaurs female and they will still breed. Erect electric fences around powerful creatures and those fences will fail.

Malcolm and Hammond both survive the events of the film, but, again, this is family entertainment. Their fates in the book are packed with meaning. Malcolm dies slowly with a smile on his face, muttering that “everything looks different … on the other side.” Hammond perishes alone and helpless on a broken ankle, poisoned by small precompsognathus (compy) dinosaurs who eat his neck while he watches.

Multiple main-character disembowelings occur in the novel. It’s almost too bad that Spielberg didn’t make an R-rated gore-fest, because the book is truer for its brutality. The Crocodile Hunter cuddled up to wild animals on television until one stabbed through his chest. The Grizzly Man filmed himself befriending bears in Alaska and was torn apart screaming.

Brutal, but that’s what we get without humility before nature: killed horribly.


A version of this first ran on nmcompass.com.

73. When Harry Met Sally…

Erin and I dated in our 20s, when I was a fool and she was sorta mean. We broke up, moved far apart, yada yada yada…. We got hitched in our 30s. As I write this, she and our daughter are in a different country for another month, because our happy life is atypical. I miss them.

When Harry Met Sally is the truth. The romance is completely believable. Thirteen years pass between their meeting (and not getting along), and falling in love and marrying. No contrivance; no duplicity. Harry and Sally become such strong friends that they consciously avoid intimacy. They resist sleeping together because they enjoy each other’s company, and sex brings weird feelings. They discuss this.

Billy Crystal flexes his stand-up muscles, confidently spouting comedic rants on subjects like Sheldon: “Humpin’ and pumpin’ is not Sheldon’s strong suit. It’s the name. Do it to me, Sheldon. You’re an animal, Sheldon. Ride me, big Sheldon. It doesn’t work.”

When Harry Met Sally has fast, writerly wit like Network and everything by Aaron Sorkin. Characters walk and talk, mostly about relationships, love, and sex. At a tight hour-and-a-half, it’s a talky with pace, Crystal throwing fastballs at a worthy opponent in Meg Ryan. Sally is equally confident and brighter than Harry, without his man-anger or arrogance. She can talk fast, and hit him when he needs it: “Harry, you might not believe this, but I never considered not sleeping with you a sacrifice.”

Considering the ending, When Harry Met Sally also feels like a testament to the importance of basing a relationship with friendship. Get to truly know each other first and the ride lasts longer, maybe forever. When Sally meets Harry she’s repulsed, then they slowly build a friendship, then yada yada yada…

The movie does not defy its genre by eschewing contrivance and duplicity. It’s just better than everything else. A charismatic comedian and a great actress, in their primes, work like athletes on an all-time script by Nora Ephron.

If Erin were here we could watch it together, laughing, feeling at home. I miss her freckles.


72. My Best Friend’s Wedding

Julianne helpfully states her intention and obstacle: “I’ve got exactly four days to break up a wedding, steal the bride’s fella, and I haven’t one clue how to do it.” Should she be honest with the groom, her best friend Michael, about her feelings? Pssh. Julianne reaches into her tool box, and pulls out duplicity.

Romantic comedies lean on predictability. They sell a formula; play the hits. My Best Friend’s Wedding, however, throws curve balls. Its protagonist goes too far; she’s too duplicitous. “I’m the bad guy,” Julianne says, and she’s right. When her wedding-destroying machinations begin in earnest, she wears black clothes and flames burst in the background like she’s a devil. She’s gruff, scowly, mean; she smokes, drinks, lies, schemes, manipulates, and forges emails.

But she’s played by Julia Roberts, queen of the genre, so we expect events will break her way. Roberts has a glorious laugh, seeming to lose herself in that outsized toothy cackle, like it can’t be acting. She’s dark, and wild. Compared with Michael’s platinum-blond bride-to-be, Kimmy, Julianne is the dirty truth of life. By traditional rules of rom coms, she should win.

She doesn’t win. Instead, she goes inside herself and emerges changed. Julianne has an arc.

My Best Friend’s Wedding still plays the hits. There is a goofy chase scene at the end. There is a gay best friend, probably the greatest gay best friend in movie history. Rupert Everett, as George, arrives and gets roped into lying and cannonballs the festivities, embracing his wild-card status. If Julianne’s plan is to lie, George decides, then she must squirm. George spins insane fictions about their history, and gets the bride’s whole family literally singing together. He tries to be Julianne’s conscience, continually advising honesty, but she’s too far gone.

Even when gifted a perfect moment, on a boat with the sun shining and Michael practically begging her to for once just speak truth, she decides instead to go on scheming.  I didn’t think it was possible to subvert the rules in romantic comedies, but Julianne’s dark magic backfires before the (still obligatory) happy ending.

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71. Sweet Home Alabama

Lightning glass beats diamonds.

The inciting incident in Sweet Home Alabama is a proposal in Tiffany’s, New York City’s finest jeweler (apparently). Melanie’s rich and famous boyfriend asks her to marry him. The Tiffany’s employees unveil a dazzling array of rings, and Melanie is told to take her pick.

The fiance is played by Patrick Dempsey, so handsome his character’s nickname on the popular sexy-doctors show Grey’s Anatomy is “McDreamy.” His handsomeness, however, is a liability. He can rent out Tiffany’s and afford any ring Melanie wants, but where’s the electricity? His ostentatiously romantic gesture is aseptic.

Melanie is a superstar fashion designer, but her roots are in Alabama and so is her husband Jake. Melanie, see, married her childhood sweetheart, then fled to the big city without attaining a divorce. Sweet Home Alabama is about Melanie’s return to secure said divorce.

But she doesn’t want it, in her Alabama soul. Jake is dirty-handsome, blond and blue-eyed but scruffy, living simply in a small house, watching college football by himself. They argue while happy banjos play on the soundtrack. As they yell, a glint in their eyes says they like it. Conflict is sexy. Dirty is sexy.

The rom-com essentials are all here, especially duplicity. Melanie lies and lies. And characters are caricatures, especially McDreamy’s mother, the evil Democratic mayor of New York City. Sweet Home Alabama paints city life as vacuous while southerners are friendly, honest Americans with reclining La-Z-Boys and babies. The divide is drawn starker when the evil mayor tells Melanie’s mother “Go back to your double-wide and fry something.”

McDreamy takes his dumping even more sweetly than Bill Pullman in Sleepless in Seattle. His nasty mom asks him “You’re just gonna let her humiliate you with some bullshit about an old husband?” His response is a smile and “Yeah.” He can give her any diamond, but Jake has something better: lightning glass, which forms when lightning strikes a beach. He shapes it into practical dishware and beautiful sculptures. Diamonds may sparkle, but lightning glass has soul. By hallowed unwritten rules of rom coms, it wins.

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70. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days

Sayeth my wonderful wife, of Kate Hudson: “It’s heartbreaking that she had the best curly hair but for this movie she straightened it.”

The rom-combat stakes in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days are thus: Hudson plays a magazine writer assigned to meet a man, date him, and get him to dump her within 10 days, for her next article. Matthew McConaughey plays an ad executive who bets, for a jewelry-company gig, that he can make any woman love him within 10 days. They meet; they duel. Duplicity and contrivance are base, essential romantic-comedy ingredients.

“There’s no curls in this movie except for his,” my wife said. McConaughey’s dashing ‘do is quite curly in the back.

I indicated a random background partygoer. “What about her?”

“That’s not curly. That’s curled.”

Rerunning this conversation feels sexist, but How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days milks sexism for fun. A woman’s purse is “her secret source of power,” he says. “There are many dark and dangerous things in there that we, the male species, should know nothing about.” When he invades the purse, inevitably, what does McConaughey find? He moans with pleasure: “Knicks tickets…” his eyes roll back, “for tonight’s game.”

Later, Hudson wears a yellow diamond valued (in real life) at more than $5 million.

Familiar beats are being played, like greatest hits for the fans. That these two are liars means nothing because they’re gorgeous, seeming to glow, and because almost every scene is for laughs. Characters clown around, make goofy faces, trip over and fall, spout stereotypes, sing. A Gin Blossoms ditty for white high schoolers plays on the soundtrack over a cab being chased.

Might there be a dark turn? Might anything merely unexpected occur? He-e-e-llll no. Play the hits, and know your audience.

Something is off with Kate Hudson’s Andie when her hair is straight, like my wife hated. Twice, however, she has the curls that so dominated the screen in Almost Famous. She wears her best hair after consummation, when she realizes she actually loves the guy, and at the end, when everything works out. Curls mean happiness.

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69. Sleepless in Seattle

“You don’t want to be in love,” Becky tells Annie as they watch An Affair to Remember, “you want to be in love in a movie.”

Annie’s doting fiance Walter is successful, handsome, and kind. He does everything right, including gracefully acquiescing when she finally dumps him. It’s tempting to sympathize, but don’t. Annie wants to be in love in a movie and she is exactly that. She says “Destiny is something we’ve invented because we can’t stand the fact that everything that happens is accidental.” Within the universe of Sleepless in Seattle, that is wrong. The film begins on Christmas, with an adorable boy’s wish that his father, Sam, find a new wife; it ends at the top of the Empire State Building, principals hand-in-hand. I said here that Total Recall is as movie as movies get, but Sleepless in Seattle might actually be more movie than Total Recall. It is predetermined by filmmakers following the template of a movie (An Affair to Remember stars Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr) they keep actively referencing.

Tom Hanks plays Sam and Meg Ryan plays Annie, and these two were famously fabulous together in the 1990s. Their chemistry imbues the film with romantic power. There is magic, too, when Sam’s dead wife appears and asks for half his beer. And, finally, there are literal contrivances, romantic-comedy machinations keeping Hanks and Ryan apart until Valentine’s Day. Annie doesn’t even know that Sam sees her at the airport and is hit by the thunderbolt. She’ll keep searching for him without knowing that with one glance he fell harder for her than she fell when she heard his voice on the radio.

It’s so romantic, and too perfect. “Perfect” is not a word that should be modified, but this case is so unique. Characters are players in a game whose rules defy reality. Don’t pity Walter, or Victoria, who laughs like a hyena and must be dumped by Sam before the end. Pity every player, because when those elevator doors close and the credits come up, they cease to exist. Except in our warmed hearts.


68. Hereditary

Internet writers have widely opined that a review of Hereditary must spoil, must reveal its twist.

Welp, allow me a shot to stay frosty:

Hereditary happens mostly in and around an evil house. Locked doors. Consequential attic. Terrible vibrations. Outside, a tree house glows red at night, from heating lamps.

Throughout the evil house are perfect miniatures. Actual rooms with random satanic words on the walls (“zazas”) are creepy enough, but Annie is a professional artist who crafts tiny recreations of rooms, with little painted people interacting. The camera occasionally holds on these miniatures, light hitting just so. There’s a reason Hollywood has produced so many killer-doll movies: That shit plays. It’s scary.

Concordantly, Hereditary’s sets look like a life-size doll house, in which the main doll, Annie, is an artist creating meticulous model-sized replicas. Can a doll make tiny dolls? That would be high-level modern art, and the first shot in the film (so not a spoiler) implies the whole story might be dolls. Like The Twilight Zone. And if they’re dolls, and you’re the director – digging into ghosts and the occult, with an imagination sufficiently elephantine – you can render some absolutely crazy, fucked-up scenarios. Horror is the genre for playing with dolls because it cannot be too horrible; The Human Centipede has sequels.

This is not The Human Centipede. Heavy tragedy befalls a real-seeming family, damaged at its core. As reality caves in around them, emotions like grief and guilt are expressed with vividness that makes Hereditary read like literature. Annie’s sad husband and kids communicate horribly, exacerbating friction from ancestral baggage and, maybe, mental illnesses. The love is clearly there, but it’s trampled by hate. It cannot help that they live in such a scary house.

After these deeply complicated characters (possibly verisimilar dolls) are stripped to their psychological bones, the horror supernovas. Family melodrama mutates into a pure nightmare. If I told you what happens, you wouldn’t believe me.

So Hereditary made me genuinely care, and then unleashed hell. I walked out of this movie exhausted, feeling terrible. I want to watch it again and again.


67. Total Recall

Total Recall goes beyond foreshadowing. “You get the girl, kill the bad guys, and save the entire planet,” a memory salesman tells Doug Quaid, a working everyman of the future, who dreams of travelling to Mars but can only afford to trick himself with memory implants. Quaid buys the “secret agent” braincation; complications arise; and halfway through the ensuing adventure a doctor predicts specifically what happens next, all the last act’s twists and turns. Every prediction comes true.

At the end, Quaid asks “What if this is a dream?” The film’s final shot is its over-the-top happy ending fading to white.

Conversely, it’s an Arnold Schwarzenegger flick. His distinct musculature and confidence attract trouble in all his other movies, and none of them are meant to be dreams. And anyway if Total Recall is just taking a piss, does it matter whether Quaid “is” or “isn’t” dreaming? Art made solely to entertain need never explain.

I might want it tied tight, though, because there is legit noir in Total Recall. Mistaken identity, like North By Northwest. Nice-guy Quaid doesn’t know why he’s being chased by goons. He learns his friends are impostors and his wife is an evil spy. Quaid lams, follows clues, shoots it out, and solves his own mystery.

It could be classy if another actor played Quaid, like super-serious tech noirs Blade Runner or Dark City. Instead it’s a fanboy party, and Arnold attends as the fullest-blown, hardest-R version of himself. Quips and violent feats of iron-man strength abound; as he hoists an enormous drill and drills through a treacherous enemy, splattering blood, Quaid screams “SCREW YOU!!!” Spines snap. Eyes pop. Shootouts, explosions, stabbings, double amputations and all other manner of kills produce a body count in the 70s.

Also gratuitous: a prostitute on Mars has three boobs.

We accept those three boobs because the universe is necessarily strange when Arnold Schwarzenegger, a human hyperbole with an Austrian accent, is an everyman. His movie-star power is so awesome, he need only ask.

Total Recall is not real, or a dream; it’s a movie as movie as they come.

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