It has been a wild few days around these parts. We’ve had major storms all week - big thunderstorms, lots of flooding, and tornados from every directions. The Brewster’s and our property remained perfectly safe but it got a little harrowing for a few nights. Some people binge watch Netflix series; we binge watch the weatherman. When the weather was calm, I did get in some really cool stuff so lets talk about it.
Consider me a Jared Harris fan. I liked him as Lance Pryce on Mad Men. I thought he made a great Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, but it was his lead performance in The Terror that solidified my undying love. That limited series was brilliant and he was fantastic in it. Now comes Chernobyl, an HBO limited series about the Russian nuclear disaster from 1986. I was ten years old when the accident happened. I have vague memories of seeing news footage of it, but I never knew the details. My understanding is that this series sticks quite close to the facts and they are terrifying.
A series of tests caused a power surge which resulted in multiple explosions, including one at the reactor core. The resultant fire sent enormous amounts of radioactive fallout into the air. It was the largest nuclear reactor disaster to date. The series details the explosion and subsequent reactions from government officials, scientists, and regular workers. Over and over again, we see various officials try to downplay the seriousness of the accident in order to save face, their jobs, and their lives. Over and over again, we see the scientists stand up for what they know to be true, knowing it may cost them everything. Over and over again, we see regular workers put their lives on the line to help save others.
The filmmaking is phenomenal. They put you right into the horrifying mix. They do not flinch from the horrors of radioactive poisoning or the monumental decisions that had to be made to stop it. The whole cast, including Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson, and Jessie Buckley, are terrific but it is Jared Harris who steals the show. He plays the scientist who essentially saves the day. He’s the one who first realizes what has happened and forces the inept officials into actions.
It is a show full of terror and grief. Harris is forceful, pushing everyone to work harder, but he also understands the weight of his actions. He is literally sending people to their death without knowing if what they do will even be effective. It is a tremendous performance. It is a fantastic show.
What a delightfully strange movie. John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O'Connor’s first novel is an odd mesh of tones, but contains exuberant performances from Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, and Ned Beatty. Dourif plays Hazel Motes, a young man who returns from an unspecified war with an unspecified injury. He comes home to find it deserted and moves himself to a nearby city in the Deep South. There he becomes a curb-side preacher for his own Church of Truth without Christ. But he is continually disturbed by an assortment off hangers-on, con-men, and a strange girl who is immediately smitten with him.
Huston often goes for farce, and the goofball banjo score plays it that way, but it's tinged with satire and periodic spouts of deep drama. This is a film that includes a man in a gorilla suit shaking hands with young children and another man flagellating himself with barbed wire.
Dourif is fantastic. He is a man conflicted, whose experiences in war have left him without faith, yet his atheistic fanaticism leaves him striving for something. When Ned Beatty’s charlatan preacher tries to partner up with him, Motes immediately pushes him away for he truly wants to get his anti-religious message across without taking hand-outs. In the end, he seems destined for a fate he’s trying so hard to avoid.
Huston was an atheist and O’Connor was a devout Catholic so having one adapt the other brings out a weird mix of tones and themes. Apparently, Huston needed convincing to bring it to the conclusion the story ultimately comes to and didn’t quite understand at first the story wasn’t actually anti-religion. Wherever you sit on the religion question, this is a fascinating film that is well worth seeing.
Kubo and the Two Strings
Laika is one of the only major movie studios still making stop-motion animation. While the rest of the animated world has gone over to computers, it is pretty neat to see some filmmakers doing it old school. Their films are often stunningly beautiful to look at but unfortunately most of them lack in the story department. The biggest exception to this is Kubo and the Two Strings. It blends Japanese folk tales with a modern quest story to create something imaginative and fun.
Kubo is a 12-year-old boy living in feudal Japan with his sick mother. He uses his shamisen (guitar-like three-stringed instrument) to magically move origami creatures and tell stories in the town square for food money. One night, he is attacked and awakes to find himself far from home where his wooden snow monkey has come to life. She sends him on a quest to find three magical items that will help him defeat his mother’s evil sisters. Along the way, they befriend a samurai beetle. On paper, this all sounds really weird, and I guess it is but it's also pretty delightful. The animation is truly remarkable and the story really does work. It helps that the voice cast includes Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes, and Rooney Mara.
Teen Titans Go! To the Movies
I’ve been hearing about how great the Teen Titans Go! television series is. My daughter sometimes watches it while at her grandmother's, but as we don’t have the Cartoon Network and it doesn’t seem to stream anywhere so I’ve never seen it. It is a series that takes the classic Teen Titans comic-book lineup - Robin, Starfire, Cyborg, Raven, and Beast Boy - pits them against various villains and has a lot of fun playing around with the genre while making lots of references to comic-book culture.
The film does the same but in a much bigger way. Being as meta as it can be, the basic plot consists of Robin noticing that all the other superheroes have movies about themselves and he desperately wants one himself. It is crammed full of jokes, references, and meta humor, kind of like Deadpool but with less graphic violence and potty humor. I’m definitely gonna check out the TV show now.
I had such a crush on Winona Ryder when this came out in 1988. This may have been the beginning of my goth-girl attraction. Random trivia: I was a fan of the goth style in high school. My wife had a brief goth period in high school. I had long hair in high school and my wife had a thing for guys with long hair in high school. We didn’t meet until after our college years when my hair was short and her dark lipstick days were way behind. Not sure if that makes us perfect for each other or just late.
But Winona in Beetlejuice was the best. The movie holds up too. It is Tim Burton at his Burtonesque best. Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis play a pretty bland, but kind married couple who live in this country house. They die and their ghosts return to the house but cannot leave its premises. A hip, artistic family movie in (with Winona as their death-obsessed, goth daughter). The dead couple want the new family with their pretentiousness and remodeling plans to move out of the house as fast as possible. But they don’t know the rules to ghosting yet so they conjure up Michael Keaton as the titular ghost with the most to make with the scaring and let them get back to their regular lives.
Silliness ensues. The special effects are practical, sometimes stop-motion, always obviously from the mind of Tim Burton. The cast is great with Keaton doing his old crazy-man schtick which works perfectly for this film. It is lovely and charming and filled with two wonderful musical scenes played out to Harry Belafonte songs. Man, it makes me miss the old Tim Burton.
Happy birthday Bob Dylan!
Bob Dylan turned 78 on Friday. I cannot even begin to explain what his music has meant to me. I can still remember sitting in my room when I was about 14 years old. I had just gotten a new turn table for Christmas. I borrowed my Mom’s copy of his Greatest Hits and let it roll. I had heard most of those songs before on the radio but somehow listening to them one after another completely blew me away. It was so powerful. Those words! That music! Over the years, I’ve discovered more than just those hits. The note for note perfection of Blood on the Tracks. Singing “Girl From the North Country” with Johnny Cash. The raw darkness of Time out of Mind. Then there are the live albums and the bootlegs. The above embedded video is from a concert in 2000. It was a great year to see Bob in concert. This was in between Time out of Mind and "Love and Theft", two of his best albums which came after a long slump. Live he seems re-energized. He was playing old folk covers, jamming on an acoustic guitar, and his band is better than ever. On and one, nearly everyday, I hear something new from him. I discover a lyric I’d not listened to before or hear a performance that knocks me out just like he did all those years ago. God bless Bob Dylan. Here’s to another 78 miraculous, amazing, beautiful years.