It is the start of my birthday weekend (I turn 42 on Sunday). My mother just picked up my daughter for a sleepover. I should be out celebrating. Instead, I’m here writing this. Later, I’ll watch TV. Honestly, I’m pretty okay with that. We were going to go see a movie, but we’re still in the post-Christmas / pre-Spring blockbuster lull for movies at theatres. Good stuff is coming soon, but there really isn’t much I want to see and nothing the wife and I could agree on. Luckily, I have access to all sorts of cool stuff on the TV so a night in sans child sounds just about right.
Strike all of that. I wrote the above having every intention of staying in and watching TV. I thought the wife was in the kitchen cooking up a nice shephard's pie. Instead, she was cleaning the kitchen. When she finished, she came to me and suggested we go out for tacos. I never turn down tacos. We found a cool little local joint in the next town over. It was good. Then we went to see Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle. It wasn't great, but it was a fun little bit of silliness. I'll probably write about it next week. Mainly because I've already written about all the other cool things I consumed this week and I don't want to remove any of them.
And here they are.
I have no idea why I wasn’t a Stephen King fan in high school. He writes the stuff I would have loved back then. I did read a lot of Dean Koontz, which seems to me now like Stephen King-lite. I also have no idea why I’ve suddenly become obsessed with the author. I randomly picked up Mr. Mercedes at the library a few months back then I just had to read the rest of the trilogy. It was pretty good but it seems to have whet my appetite for his earlier (and many would argue better) books and movies based upon his books. I’m now reading Pet Sematary and the other night decided to give the old '70s TV-movie of Salem’s Lot a try. I have read that book but it's been a few years so my memories of it are pretty vague.
It definitely has the look and feel of a '70s TV miniseries, which is to say the budget wasn’t much and you can tell. It also has those TV rhythms so you can really see where the commercial breaks came and especially where each of its three episodes ended (with a cliffhanger, of course). It was directed by Tobe Hooper who certainly knows his way around horror and there are a few terrific scares. The best is when a young boy turned vampire shows up outside a second-story window. That’s a scene that’s been done to death but Hooper gives it a new and creepy life. The Nosferatu-looking vampire looks killer as well.
After trying out various other streaming apps, I have returned to Filmstruck. What I love about that service is that it encourages me to watch films I might otherwise miss. Filmstruck is full of foreign and art-house fare that is also slow, difficult, and ponderous. It has the sort of stuff that I want to watch, or think that I should watch, but that I tend to put off for another day that never comes. But paying for Filmstruck gets me to go ahead and watch and I never regret it.
Slow, difficult, and ponderous could be the tagline to to celebrated Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky 1979 film Stalker. The plot is deceptively simple. Aliens or a meteor or God, maybe, created a special place called The Zone in an unnamed country where the rules of physics do not apply. Inside the Zone is The Room, a place they say will grant you your heart's desire. The Zone has been cordoned off by the government and armed guards are there to keep everybody out. But certain people called "Stalkers" can take you in, for a price. The movie is about one such Stalker who takes in the Professor and the Writer (they are never given proper names) into the Zone. That’s pretty much it plotwise.
Stalker is part of a movement known as slow cinema. It's an apt name as very little actually happens. It lasts nearly three hours yet only contains 142 shots. There is very little camera movement as Takovsky likes holding his shots for long periods of time. Yet I was never bored. The images he creates are striking. Sometimes beautiful, sometimes eerie, often both. He doesn’t use a lot of special effects or what you might normally think of as surrealistic methods. There are scenes that by themselves would seem perfectly average but Tarkovsky, through the use of sound, camera angles, and the behavior of his cast infuses each moment with a eerie strangeness that is wholly unsettlig. The dialogue is often philosophical with the characters pondering art, and science, and life. There is a deep religious sentiment running throughout the story that is never overstated.
It is a remarkable film, one unlike I’ve ever seen.
The Wind Rises
The Wind Rises was supposed to be Hayao Miyazaki’s final film. It would have been a beautiful swan song. It is ostensibly a biopic of Jiro Horikoshi, an airplane designer who created the infamous Zero fighter plane used in World War II. However, in the hands of Miyazaki it becomes a meditation on creativity itself. Though Horikoshi designed fighter planes, he was actually against the war. Miyazaki uses this seemingly opposed notion to ponder how responsible a creator is for his creation once it leaves his hands. It's also a nice little love story as Jiro falls for a girl with tuberculosis who is dying.
It's a gorgeously made film. Its story is deceptively simple, and Miyazaki tells it without his usual flair, making it a very personal tale filled with wonder, awe. and beauty.
Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological drama was panned by critics and ignored by moviegoers when it first came out. It has since gained in reputation and recently toppled Citizen Kane’s 50-year reign as the #1 film of all time according to the Sight and Sound poll. I wouldn’t quite go that far but it is a brilliant film, and thanks to Fathom Events and TCM I recently got to see it on the big screen. You can read my full review here.
Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang
The Doctor and his companion Leela land in Victorian England where they play Sherlock Holmes, trying to find why women are disappearing off the streets. They run into Li H'sen Chang who is publicly appearing in a magic show at a local theatre run by Henry Gordon Jago. Privately, Chang is the servant of the Chinese god Weng-Chiang (who is actually just an exiled alien pretending to be the Chinese god whilst trying to repair his time-traveling cabinet). Along the way, the Doctor meets Professor Litefoot. Eventually, Litefoot and Jago act as sort of duo Dr. Watson’s to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes. There are also giant rats living in the sewers.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang has everything you want from Classic Who. Tom Baker is in top form, the companions are great, and the villains are creepy with plans that actually sort-of work. It's a long story and there are parts that don’t quite work, but mostly it's a terrific bit of who.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Mr. Rogers is my hero. I grew up loving his PBS series. His gentle kindness and warm spirit soothed my little toddler soul. As an adult, I admire how genuine he really was. The way he was on television seems to be exactly the way he was in real life. The trailer to a documentary about Mr. Rogers was just released. I’m already crying just watching it. I’m gonna have to bring a whole box of tissues in the theater.