I never thought I’d say this three months ago, but when I look back at what I saw this year,  I realize there are more good movies now than ever before — certainly more than ten years ago.  Of course there are more bad ones too and it’s a worrisome sign that so much of the box office goes to comic book adaptations that seem to tell the same story over and over.

The big news this year is the rise of Netflix and Amazon Prime, which is increasingly blurring the lines between cinema and television.  This creates a bit of a quandary when it comes to ranking: what to include?  For this year at least, I am including any movie that was released on a big screen even if I saw it at home on a streaming service.  Mostly, though, I do try to get out to see movies as they were meant to be seen — outside the house — and I feel that the effort for the good ones (“The Irishman” this year, “Roma” last year) is worth it.

Another ongoing trend is the many movies that are supposedly based on real events.  I saw nine of them this year (and that doesn’t include the documentaries) and in every single case I came home and fired up Google to see what was true and what wasn’t. Come on Hollywood.  Make up your own stories, instead of stealing someone else’s life and changing it around to make it more interesting.

1. One Upon a Time in Hollywood

I was so bowled over by this fairy tale about late Sixties Hollywood that I saw it twice.  It’s visually arresting, better at capturing what it was like to be alive in 1969 than anything made since 1969.  I usually stay away from Tarantino movies because of the violence, but for once the mayhem was cathartic and justified.

2. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

When I went into the theater I never expected to come out ranking the last of the Skywalker movies this high.  And yes, the the first half of the film was kid of dull and it has plot problems so extreme that I cannot now recount 95 percent of what happened, but I do remember that I was emotionally drained at the end.  We were so wiped out we stayed through every last credit, until the blank screen came up.  I do recognize, that this movie undoes much of what was established in “The Last Jedi,”  and to that I say: good.

3. The Irishman

Slow and long but absorbing when seen on the big screen.  I imagine viewers might be easily distracted while watching on Netflix, which is why the traditional movie experience is better than one in the living room.  Another remarkable recreation of the Sixties, almost of par with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”  It’s also very male.  I don’t have a problem with that, but some do.

4. Parasite

“Parasite” is the most original, genre-bending movie of the last five years, and not just because it’s Korean, a culture about which most of Western viewers know little. Going to see this is an experience that you won’t want to have “spoiled,” so I hope it’s not going to far to say that the first half is an amusing domestic comedy and the second half is a thriller, kind of.  And what, or who, is the parasite, you may ask?  The answer is: every character in this movie.

5. The Farewell

This movie is based on a story from “This American Life,” which I listened to when it aired.  In a way this is a good antidote to “Crazy Rich Asians.”  Both concern themselves with what members of extended Chinese families, some of whom have emigrated and some of whom stayed behind, owe each other.  But one is a fantasy and one is reality-based.  The family dynamics at work here seem true to life regardless of your ethnicity, though.

6. Where’d You Go Bernadette?

Bernadette is depressed, by what we don’t know until the end, although being a strikingly original person doesn’t help.  Fortunately she’s married to a Google big shot, who’s sensitive and supportive as well as rich. Cate Blanchette is great, as usual, as a famous architect who’s dropped out of her career and needs to recover her passion.  A surprisingly thrilling ending.

7. The Two Popes

You wouldn’t think a movie that boils down to a long conversation between two celibate septuagenarians would be so fascinating, but there you have it. Popes Benedict and Francis debate theology, guilt, humanity, and leadership in some of the most beautiful Roman locations I’ve ever seen.  Alas, most of it is made up but it’s still really thought-provoking. (Although I have to be honest, when I saw this in the movie theatre, there was only one other person that my wife and I and she left half-way through.)

8. Richard Jewell

This is Clint Eastwood’s taut, well-told story about the attempted framing by the FBI of the security guard who discovered and warned authorities to the bomb that would eventually explode at the 1996 Olympics, thereby saving numerous lives.  It’s funny that out of all the true-life stories depicted in the movies this year, many of which depart significantly from the facts, this is the one that the media are claiming foul over because they don’t like the way the portrayal of the reporter who first smeared Richard Jewell.

9. Little Women

Great adaptation by Greta Gerwig of the Louisa May Alcott novel.  I’d be more than happy if Saoirse Ronan won best actress Oscar this year.  My only hesitation with this film is that the timeframe flips back and forth so much that it’s hard to tell what period we’re in. I pity any husband or boyfriend dragged to this who hasn’t read the book and can’t figure out what the heck is going on.

10. Knives Out

A fun whodunnit that would make Agatha Christie proud.   This is something that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would LOVE if they actually had a sense of humor.  The One Percent are HORRIBLE.

11. Ad Astra

Brad Pitt is an astronaut with daddy issues — a space cowboy who bends or outright breaks the rules in order to save earth.  Good action sequences.

12. Ford v Ferrari

Now that Daniel-Day Lewis has retired Christian Bale is the most actorly Hollywood movie star, really inhabiting each new role.  Here he’s a wild man auto racer hire by semi-wild man Matt Damon to win the LeMans car race for Henry Ford II.  The car races are fine but the moral dilemma posed by the need to compromise within bureaucratic institutions is the most interesting part of the movie.

13. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Someone else has daddy issues — the Esquire reporter hired to interview Mr. Rogers.  Tom Hanks is perfect as the man in the red cardigan sweater.  The movie tried to pull at the heart strings but doesn’t succeed as completely as the Mr. Rogers documentary that came out last year, but still, this is very sweet and worth seeing.

14. The Downton Abbey Movie

Not really a movie — more two episodes of the TV series smooshed together and inflated for the big screen.  As usual, the plots are preposterous, although not as lame as the story in the TV show about Mr. Bates being a murder suspect.  The production values are taken up a notch, though, with all that Hollywood funding, so it’s visually luscious.  Just go and turn your brain off.

15. Rocketman

This is a more ambitious and thoughtful bio-pic than “Bohemian Rhapsody” but not as much fun.  (They’re both about closeted British rock superstars who burn the candle at both ends.)  Maybe it’s just that Elton John songs don’t translate as well to the Big Screen at Queen’s?

16. Booksmart

This was supposed to be the girl’s version of “Superbad,” but it lacks the courage of its tasteless and hilarious precursor.  The premise is that two nose-to-the-grindstone high school seniors try to have a blast on their last night of high school.  It’s funny but not a riot and the plot elements are a little absurd.

17. Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

A great documentary about Linda Ronstadt.  I was never a big fan, although I don’t know why not, now having seen how remarkable her career was and finally appreciating her voice.

18. Late Night

Mindy Kaling, who also wrote this somewhat acerbic depiction of late night television, plays the first female staff writer for a talk show starring a burned out Emma Thompson, who shows little solidarity with her own gender.  Very witty and knowing about TV writers’ rooms, but it never quite takes off.  And like “Booksmart” (see above) it’s burdened with a convoluted and pretty implausible plot.

19. Yesterday

Perhaps my expectations for this were too high but this was a bit of a letdown.  It’s perfectly enjoyable — what movie about Beatles songs wouldn’t be? — but even within the internal logic of the film, it doesn’t quite add up.  “Yesterday” posits an alternative universe in which there are no Beatles, aside from one man who remembers them from his original world.  And yet in the new world everything is the same, which doesn’t make sense because the Beatles literally changed modern culture.  Definitely worth seeing but keep your expectations in check.

20. Toy Story 4

After the highly emotional and tear-jerking conclusion of Toy Story 3, no one needed another sequel.  This is fine as a standalone movie but somehow the antic thrills and near escapes don’t have the same emotional resonance as they once did.

21. My Name is Dolemite

Saw it on Netflix instead of the theater and maybe I would have been more captivated if I had seen it on the big screen.  It’s a remarkable story about a dreamer and self-believer who somehow makes a hit comedy record and then a series of cheesy movies that appeal to Black audiences.  A classic American story, in fact.  It’s nice to see Eddie Murphy back too.,

22. El Camino

A sequel to “Breaking Bad” that picks up five minutes after the end of the TV series.  Although released as a movie, this is a lot like “Downton Abbey” in that it’s really a two-hour TV episode masquerading as a feature film.  It’s very well-done but if you are not extremely well-versed in the “Breaking Bad” universe or don’t have a photographic memory of a show that ended six years ago, it can be tough to pick up the nuances.

23. Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love

A documentary about Leonard Cohen and the beautiful woman who was his “muse” and girlfriend when he transformed from a impecunious novelist living on a romantic Greek island to a world famous rock star.  He moved on, she didn’t really.  Leonard comes across as the classic self-absorbed jerk artist that everyone forgives because he’s so darned sexy and talented.  This movie did make me want to move to a Greek island, though.

24. Hustlers

My expectations were a bit too high for this and I ended up being bored.  I was amazed at what great shape Jennifer Lopez is in and I appreciated that the film doesn’t try to make gender or class heroes of these women, who first drug, then steal from guys they pick up at a strip club.  Still, it’s hard to sympathize with anyone in the movie, which implies that everyone is always hustling everyone else.

25. Shazam

Cute. I always enjoy a boy-trapped-in-a-man’s-body movie.  But I forgot almost everything about it an hour after I left the theater.  The only comic book movie I saw this year.

26. Amazing Grace

This is ranked last but it’s not a bad movie.  Back in 1972, Sydney Pollock filmed Aretha Franklin performing at a Baptist church in Los Angeles, but for various technical and legal reasons it wasn’t released until after she died.  Aretha’s great, of course, but I did feel like I was watching somebody’s home movie.

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Princess Margaret and a corn pone LBJ 

“The Crown” is almost a perfect Netflix show.  It’s beautiful to watch, eminently streamable, smart enough not to insult your intelligence, but not so smart that you can’t figure out what’s going on.

It’s sometimes compared to “Downtown Abbey,” and while they do both come out of the same genre of aristo-porn and purport to dramatize a transitional era in British history, they are quite different shows.  “The Crown” is a serious show that takes its viewers seriously and “Downton Abbey” thinks its audiences are too stupid to figure anything out on their own, spelling out every theme and plot point at least three times.

As much as I like “The Crown,” though, I am uneasy by how the show depicts America and Americans.  This is the one area where “Downton Abbey” (and I can’t believe I’m making this concession) has a more nuanced view of the New World.  In “Downton,” Cora Crawley’s mother and uncle, played by Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti, are vulgar, but they are also full of energy, forward-looking and optimistic.  The show is also frank about the possibility of upward mobility in the States.

Considering the huge audience that “The Crown” has in America, it’s surprising then that the show seems to go out of its way to take shots at our country.

The most egregious example is in the eighth episode of season 2 (“Dear Mr. President”), when President Kennedy is depicted as being physically and emotionally abusive to Jackie as well as an overall jerk.  The moral of the episode is that old admonition not to be jealous of other people because you don’t know what their lives are really like.  The show posits that Queen Elizabeth is so envious of the hugely popular American First Lady that she goes on a world tour to show off her own monarchical charisma, only to find out that Jackie is downright miserable and hopped up on pills because her husband is a miserable cheating dog.  I’m sure JFK was a serial cheater but abusive?  Only in an anti-American fever dream.

“The Crown” gets a little closer to the truth with JFK’s successor President Johnson, who this season is depicted as a coarse, corn pone, vain Foghorn Leghorn type with a grudge against Great Britain because of Vietnam.  All true, but it’s highly improbable that Princess Margaret was able to change his mind about financially bailing out the British by reciting a few dirty limericks.  It’s even less likely that LBJ would publicly trash JFK at a state dinner regardless of how he felt about him privately.  But it suits British vanity to think that a princess with no diplomatic training can twist an American president around her finger with a few compliments and lewd jokes.

The incident that made me really bristle, though, occurs in episode seven of season three (“Moondust”), when Prince Philip is smitten the heroic Apollo 11 astronauts who landed on the moon and wants to meet privately with them to learn what insights they gained from standing foot on a celestial body.  He’s dismayed to learn that they think like engineers, not poets, and are not prepared to dole out any profundities. He later complains to the Queen that they were “banal.”  Neil Armstrong banal?  Buzz Aldrin acting like a hayseed tourist in Buckingham Palace?  I think not.  I seriously doubt that the astronauts, products of a seriously religious society, were unaware of the spiritual aspects of their journey.  After all it was Frank Borman and the other crew members of Apollo 8 who delivered one of the most profound messages ever seen on TV when on Christmas Day, 1968, they read the opening verses of Genesis as they orbited the moon.

To be fair, not every American on “The Crown” is a yokel.  Prince Charles approvingly quotes Saul Bellow, and the Queen is so taken with the preaching of Billy Graham that she invites him over for a chat.  But on the whole, Americans act very déclassé and not quite worthy to wipe their feet on the palace rug.

“The Crown” is not the first British cultural product to look down its nose at America.  Particularly egregious is “Love Actually,” which regrettably raises its preposterous head every Christmas.  This movie, which purports to depict the various permutations of love, features an outlandish U.S. president played by a reptilian Billy Bob Thornton, who makes a pass at Prime Minister Hugh Grant’s assistant and is a hegemonic bully to boot.  To make matters worse, one “Love Actually” character, who’s essentially a British incel, goes to a college town in Wisconsin, where the American women are silly, beautiful and loose.

It is perhaps natural that the British, who once ruled over a quarter of the globe, would resent their diminishment as a world power and the ascension of the United States as a superpower.  And the show can’t help but project a Rule Britannia vibe in the early seasons even though UK has disposed of most of its colonies by the time Elizabeth ascended to the throne.  Not until the very end of Season Three, when a coal miners strike periodically shuts off the nation’s electricity, does it become apparent that the British economy is on the rocks.  The very sumptuousness of the production — the gorgeous palaces, estates, and dinners — make it seem like the Queen still governs over an empire instead of a small bankrupt island.

What’s strangely missing from “The Crown” is an understanding that even as England lost its economic and political power, it started really punching above its weight culturally, especially in the area of popular music, design, film, and fashion.  The British Invasion influenced generations of Americans and yet you never hear the Queen gratefully utter the words “John, Paul, Ringo George.”

The real problem with these potshots at America is that when an American sees how wrongly depicted our presidents and astronauts are, he begins to wonder about the accuracy of the British characters too.  Did Lord Mountbatten really act like a slightly more benign Tywyn Lannister?  And was Princess Margaret really an alcoholicly sexed up Bellatrix Lestrange?  I completely buy Olivia Coleman’s uncanny portrayal of the Queen but I wonder if she was really so cold to her oldest son.

Not that any of this would keep me away from the next three seasons.  Like most other viewers, I watch with one eye on the screen and one on Wikipedia to see if that seemingly astonishing plot twist really did occur.  Did Prince Charles’ sister sleep with his second wife’s first husband?  Apparently so.  Who needs to make things up when the truth is so weird.  That should go for “The Crown” depicts America too.

 

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America loves its anniversaries, even literary America.  And yet there has been no discussion about the upcoming 70th anniversary of what is arguably the most important lost weekend in post-War American literature. 

I’m speaking of the “The Catcher in the Rye,” the novel by J.D. Salinger that has enthralled generations of disaffected young men since the 1950s and inspired at least two assassination attempts (on Ronald Reagan and John Lennon).

The story depicts 72 hours in the life of 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, who’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown after being expelled from his boarding school. Not wanting to face the music with his parents, Holden spends a long weekend wandering around New York City while musing on the “phoniness” of society.  

Although Salinger’s theme of teen alienation is nearly universal, the novel is unusually particular and specific about its time and setting.  In this respect it is similar to the peripatetic adventures of another lost soul: Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” Like Bloom’s Dublin, Holden’s Manhattan is a very real place and his journey is easy to retrace even seventy years later.  And just as the action in Ulysses can be identified as a specific date (June 16, 1904, otherwise known as “Bloomsday,”) so too can Holden’s weekend be traced to a precise moment in time: December 17-19, 1949.

All it takes to establish that date is a quick Google search. According to the novel, Holden and his erstwhile girlfriend Sally Hayes go to see a Broadway show featuring “the Lunts,” (i.e., the actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne).  This must have been the now-forgotten “I Know My Love,” which ran on Broadway from November 2, 1949 to June 3, 1950. This narrows Holden’s weekend to December, 1949. A quick look at the calendar for that year shows that Friday, December 17 is almost certainly the night Holden leaves his prep school, Pencey, given that the previous Friday (the 9th) would have been too soon for the semester to be over.

“A Catcher In the Rye” is hardly the universal touchstone today that it was for knowing teenagers in the decades following its publication, but it still sells a quarter-million copies a year and every time I read it, my heart bleeds again for Holden and the sensitive boy that I, too, once was.  

The first time I opened those pages I was in the eighth grade and younger than Holden. Now I’m older even than Holden’s father, for God’s sakes, so my perspective has changed considerably.  I see now, for example, that no book, TV show, or movie did more to convince me that New York City was the most thrilling and exciting place in the world.  But I also realize that as a young teen I didn’t fully appreciate the sadness behind Holden’s weekend of night clubs, highballs, cab rides and cultural touchstones.  Instead, the novel made me yearn for the sophistication of a metropolis that was at the height of its power just a handful of years after World War II. And not only was Salinger’s New York glamorous, it was safe; Holden walks the empty streets and roams Central Park in the middle of the night without worrying about getting robbed, stabbed, or worse.

To a 21st Century consumer, what’s most striking about the New York of 1949 was how affordable it was.  Consider what Holden does with the birthday money from his grandmother. He stays at a midtown hotel, visits and buys drinks at three different nightclubs, buys two tickets to a Broadway show, sees the Rockettes perform at Radio City Music Hall, skates at Rockefeller Center, pays for a prostitute (granted, it’s only a “throw,” but still), makes a nostalgic return to the Museum of Natural History, and takes five or six cabs.  Today a weekend like that at Christmas would cost well over a thousand bucks.   

But if the New York City of “Catcher in the Rye” is a distant memory, its portrait of teen angst is more relevant than ever.   A common theme of 21st Century pop psychology is the loneliness of our youth in a social media-dominated world. And yet, even before Instagram and TikTok, Holden was deeply alone, an outsider longingly peering in at a society where everyone else seemed to be enjoying himself, no matter how superficially.  Out for drinks with his former dorm adviser, he admits “I’m lonesome as hell.” He invites his various cab drivers out for drinks, tries to get some little kids to socialize over hot chocolate, donates money to two nuns he meets at a coffee shop, and pays for the drinks of the three female tourists from Seattle. None of this addresses his alienation.

“Bloomsday” is celebrated each June 16, with marathon readings, pub crawls and other festivities.  We could do the same with Holden’s Weekend. For one thing, “Catcher” is a lot more accessible than “Ulysses” and would lend itself better to public readings.  And many of the locations mentioned in the novel are still standing, which would make for authentic Holden walks. But most important, now, more than ever, we need someone like Holden to take down the “phonies” and advance a discussion on how to make deeper human connections.

Downton King and queen

The thing to know about the new “Downton Abbey” movie is that if you liked the TV show you’ll like the movie twice as much because it’s twice as long as a regular episode.  Because make no mistake, this is a TV show that just happens to be projected on the screen.  Film purists would gag if they ever saw something like this referred to as “cinema.”

Not that it isn’t fun to see the thing in a movie theater full of fans.  The Dowager Countess’ quips go over so well with an audience predisposed to love them that the laughter persists so long you can’t hear the follow-up dialogue.  Overall, it’s a delightful experience.  It’s like drinking a fine white zinfandel on a warm summer afternoon.  On ice.  And with a couple of squirts of seltzer water.  It just takes the edge off reality without diving too deep.

The first clue that this is not what cinema snobs would call a real movie comes at the very beginning.  Instead of opening credits, we have a ten-minute “previously on” catch up reel, in which the actors playing Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, appearing as their thespian selves (Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan) provide a brief recap of the six seasons of the show, complete with clips. Can you imagine Mark Hamill and Carrie Fischer doing that at the beginning of “The Return of the Jedi”?  Inconceivable!  This intro is clearly aimed at spouses and others being dragged to the movie, who need to be introduced to the twenty main characters; “Downton” auteur Julian Fellowes don’t want to strain the mental capacity of any viewer who might not immediately grasp who Tom Branson or Isabelle Crawley are.

All credit to Lord Fellowes for recognizing that the series evolved into a high-end, but silly soap opera over the years. This opening recap makes many wry nods to some of the most preposterous plot twists over the years, making it clear we’re all in on the joke.  But nothing in this recap is as funny as the moment when a glimpse of reckless driver and one-time heir Matthew Crawley first appears on screen and there’s an audible sigh of appreciation from the ladies in the audience.

As for the movie itself, the plot revolves around the upcoming visit of the King and Queen, who are taking a tour of the north country and want to use Downton as an AirBnB for one night.  This would be King George V and Queen Mary (the grandparents of the current monarch).  Now, if you’ve ever seen any movies or TV shows about British royalty, you’ll know that these two (especially her) are usually portrayed as formidable, scary, and humorless, but in the “Downtown” film they are basically good sorts who happen to be stuck in a tough but necessary job.

To the extent there’s a theme in the movie, it’s that the rich and titled have a rough life too so we should get off their backs.  Poor Lady Edith, now a marchioness, has to serve on a lot of committees that bore her, and Lady Mary is stressed about keeping the roof repaired.  But that’s nothing next to burden of the king’s daughter, Princess Mary, who is stuck in a loveless marriage that she cannot escape because of the call of duty.  But in case anyone is too dim to understand the benefits of a landed aristocracy,  it’s a servant (!!), Lady Mary’s maid, the sainted Anna, who explains it to her:  Downton is the glue that holds the county together by providing jobs, continuity and a way of life that might otherwise disappear without the Crawleys.  So Mary agrees to suck it up and continue to live her privileged existence.  (Phew, that was close.)

Like many Downton episodes, the movie seesaws between the immensely consequential (i.e., will an assassination attempt be thwarted?) and utterly inconsequential, such as who will cook for and serve Their Majesties, which is barely one level above the Denker-Spratt feud.  And both are treated with the same amount of gravitas.

Part of the problem is that “Downton Abbey” is positioned as an Upstairs/Downstairs-type drama, where the lives of both the staff and the toffs are given equal weight.  But Lord Fellowes’ heart is not really with the downstairs staff.  Their lives could not seem less interesting or important.  Many downstairs characters, like Mr. Bates and Mrs. Baxter, have nothing to do except serve as wallpaper. And the actual plots: Andy the footman is jealous because his fiancee is ogling a handsome boiler repair man; someone is pilfering nick nacks; Barrow gets his nose out of joint because Carson comes back to manage the Royal Visit; the royal staff is overbearing.  Wow, whose fertile imagination dreamed up all these fascinating stories?

Another sign that the deck is stacked in favor of the aristocracy is the character of the anti-Monarchists.  One’s an assassin, another is a thieving servant, and then there’s the nitwit Daisy, whose class consciousness is so jumbled that says she will cook for the aristocrats but declares she won’t cook for their servants.  Way to show solidarity!  In fact, the bitterest battles are between the Downton and Royal servants, who squabble among themselves over who gets the honor of changing the royal bed linen. (And as the New York Times noted in its review, the Downton servants are so committed to their betters that they fight bitterly to deny themselves a well-earned day off when the royal staff arrive.

And returning  to the King and Queen for a moment, they have a remarkable common touch that is completely a-historical.  He worries about his son, the Prince of Wales (as well he should, given that said prince will eventually marry Mrs. Simpson and abdicate).  She worries about her daughter in her loveless marriage.  They show remarkable sensitivity to the needs of Edith and her husband. They seem to know all the personal gossip about the peers of the realm. And at the ball, the King even walks up to Tom Branson to thank him for his services to the crown, which seems highly irregular.  I’m pretty sure that when His Majesty wants to talk to a commoner at a public event he gets a flunky to fetch him and doesn’t just go striding over to chat him up.

Anyway, there’s a lot more of this nonsense during the two-hour run time.  If you like nostalgia, the British nobility, soap operas, and beautiful clothes, this movie is for you.  And to make an industry-wide observation, what’s interesting about this situation is that turning a TV show into a movie is the antithesis of the Netflixication of entertainment, in which everything except blockbusters is aimed at home entertainment.  This is a film event to get fans off their couches to congregate in front of a big screen like they’ve been doing for over a hundred years.  Whether this will start a trend is unclear.  There’s a subtle hint, though, that this might be the beginning of a “Downton” series.  I assume all that will depend on the box office.  So if you want to see more “Downton” movies, be sure to turn out.

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Stray Thoughts:

To be fair, there is one personally significant story thread involving a servant — Thomas’ first experience at a gay hang-out — but even that has an air of unbelievability.  On the very night the King and Queen visit, Thomas takes off with a member of the King’s staff (who has remarkable gaydar — he recognizes Thomas as a kindred spirit with one glance).  Thomas is surprised to learn that there is not only a gay bar in Downton (or was it York?  Not clear) but an underground gay nightclub too. Not that anyone ever uses the words “gay,” “homosexual,” or “queer.” Thomas’ euphemism is “men like me.”  I think we’re supposed to assume that Thomas and the staffer have sex but it’s only gently implied with the decorum of 1940’s Hollywood censor.  As is the case in many “Downton” plots, Lord Fellowes wants to have his cake and eat it too:  he introduces a contemporary theme to get the credit for being woke but hides it under layers of gauze to avoid offending the older, sensitive members of the audience who didn’t sign up for, you know, actual man-on-man action beyond one chaste kiss, which seems to be the sole reason for the film’s PG rating.

I have a feeling that Julian Fellowes believes that if they showed what life was really like back then, modern audiences would be repelled.  For example, I find it very hard to believe that the dinner with the King and Queen would be as informal as presented here.  There are only three footmen serving the dinner and everyone looks pretty relaxed and convivial.  Compare that to a regular family dinner from the original “Brideshead Revisited,” which was made only 40 years after the period in question and is much more likely to be historically accurate (see video below, starting at 0:50). For half as many guests the “brideshead” family has twice as many footmen and the whole atmosphere is stiff and formal.  No sane person would want to live like that today, yet that’s how the upper classes conducted themselves less than a century ago.

I know we’re supposed to be sympathetic to Tom Branson, but boy, is he a guy who keeps failing upward.  He’s a crypto-socialist who enjoys the fruits of his in-law’s largesse, despite having no apparent occupation (and whatever happened to his auto partnership with Henry Talbot?)  He abandoned his wife in Ireland when the Irish police were after him; he allowed himself to get seduced by an avaricious maid, creating a blackmail scheme that Mrs. Hughes had to extract him from.  And yet somehow he manages to sniff out an heiress before anyone else does and it looks like he’ll soon have his own unearned fortune to complain about if the final scenes are any indication.

Why is Matthew Goode even in this movie?  His Henry Talbot shows up for the very last scenes, having raced back from the USA to attend the King’s visit.  I can only assume that Goode was filming another movie and could only be spared for a day’s worth of shooting.

There was one nice subtle touch about the relationship between the peers and the monarchy: Lord Grantham is unimpressed by the news that the King is coming for a visit.  “Oh him?” his shrug implies.  The villagers are losing they minds but Robert Crawley probably remembers when George V was just one of Queen Victoria’s prat grandsons.

“Downtown” usually likes to spoon feed the plotlines but I was completely confused about Lady Maud Bagshaw, who is apparently both the Queen’s BFF and the Dowager Countess’s cousin.  I think I figured it out in the end but it was only after piecing together several elliptical and muffled lines of dialogue.

Speaking of Lady Bagshaw, she is played by Imelda Staunton, who is the wife of the actor who plays Mr. Carson — the aforementioned Jim Carter (see below).  She’s also better known as Delores Umbridge in the “Harry Potter” movies.

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Julian Fellowes, who likes to sprinkle some historical references into his stories, is a little stingy with the broader historical context.  Except for the presence of cars, you get the impression that the movie could be set anytime between 1870 and 1930.   But there is one line to date it: the King asks the Dowager Countess about the region’s reaction to the recent general strike.    This happened in 1926, when the coal miners went on strike and much of the rest of the country also refused to work in sympathy with them.  The Dowager Countess’s response is classic — all she knows is that her maid was “curt” for few days — demonstrating once again how out of it she is.

— Completely preposterous?  The idea that Tom Branson could stumble across the King’s daughter, the Princess Mary, on a bench and not recognize her.  Then, as now, and even without social media, the Royal Family were the biggest celebrities in the realm.

And don’t forget — Machiavelli is frequently underrated!

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Yesterday,” the fantasy movie that imagines a world in which only one person remembers the Beatles music, goes into wide release today and I can’t wait.  No matter how lame the film itself turns out to be, any movie with a lot of Beatles songs can’t be half-bad.  The Beatles themselves only made four or five movies (depending on how you count “Yellow Submarine”) and two of them — “Help” and “Magical Mystery Tour” are just not good.  Still the boys from Liverpool have inspired a whole sub-genre of films, of which the following ten are my favorites:

1.  A Hard Day’s Night

The first and still the best.  I saw it when it first came out in 1964 thought it was a romp but as I’ve rewatched it over the years I’ve come to believe it’s the best rock and roll movie ever made; which is remarkable because this was just supposed to be a cheap exploitation movie.  The Beatles themselves are witty and exuberant, still enjoying their monstrous fame.  But you begin to see how closed-in and claustrophobic their lives have become, crammed onto trains, cars, dressing rooms, and narrow halls.  Then suddenly, when they’ve had enough, they burst out, race down a fire escape, and run wild to “Can’t Buy Me Love.”  An exhilarating scene.

2,  Concert for George

It’s a mystery that George, the third-ranking Beatle, should have been the one with the best post-Beatle career and turned out by far to have been the “deepest” one of the whole group.  He explored the harder questions of life with eyes wide open and had a remarkable capacity for friendship.  When he died too early at age 58, his friends (and what a group of friends: Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Tom Petty, Billy Preston, Ravi Shankar, and Monty Python) celebrated his life with a concert that still moves me every time I watch it, especially any number in which his look-alike son Dhani participates.

3.  Across the Universe

This is a movie that shouldn’t work, but somehow does solely through the power of the Beatles music.  The film purports to depict the culture’s transformation of the Sixties, including the flower power movement, the Vietnam War, urban riots, elite campus privilege, Weathermen-style violence.  The main characters all take their names from Beatles songs — Jude, Prudence, Jo-Jo, Max, Sadie and Lucy — and the full Beatles catalog gets a good work-out.  It’s all a little mind-blowing.

4. How the Beatles Changed the World

The world broke in two in 1964 — there were people who came to maturity before the Beatles and those who came after them, and their sensibilities could not have been more different.  This is a fairly recent documentary about how the Beatles influenced youth culture and created the way we look, talk, dress, think, and act today.

5.  George Harrison: Living in the Material World

A Martin Scorcese documentary that is a good companion piece to “The Concert for George.”   Given George’s wide range of artistic and spiritual interests it’s not surprising that he inspires the most thoughtful commentary.

6.  Backbeat

The teenage Beatles transformed themselves into an electrifying rock and roll band when they went off to play the seedy clubs in Hamburg.  This is that story, framed through the lens of a love triage among John Lennon, the fifth Beatle Stu Sutcliffe, and Stu’s German girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr. No classic Beatles songs, just the rock and roll covers they performed during this time.

7.  Yellow Submarine

A trippy cartoon feature once experienced most fully by stoned teens is now marketed as a multi-generational family movie.  This is best seen in the theaters or on a big-screen TV because the animation is dazzling.

8.  Nowhere Boy

A dramatization of John Lennon’s teen years, particularly his fraught relationship with the mother who abandoned him and the aunt who raised him.  The sub-plot is the creation of the Beatles themselves, including the famous meeting with Paul and the recruiting of George.

9.  John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky

When John and Yoko sat down to record the “Imagine” album they brought along a camera crew to document their every move.  This narcissistic strategy resulted in a surprisingly compelling window into early Seventies life.  There they are, smoking constantly, lying around their pig-sty bedroom, or eating greasy food at the communal breakfast table.  But it’s undeniably fascinating to watch the songs on this album evolve over the course of the recording session.

10.  Let It Be

This documentary about the making of the “Let It Be” album is a little hard to follow given the lack of a narrator.  It’s also painful to watch how far apart these four former mates have grown.  They barely speak to each other except when they can’t avoid it.  And the constant presence of Yoko in the recording study casts a giant pall over the whole enterprise. But the movie is redeemed by the great ending, when they play together live for one last time on the roof of their recording studio in the middle of London.

 

 

Little League

In Small Town USA, Little League opening day is always a major celebration with parades, ceremonies and speeches.  When my son was growing up a highlight was always the benediction by the minister of my church — Rev. Ron Evans.  I recently had the chance to ask Ron for a copy of the prayer and because it’s one of the loveliest things I’ve read about baseball, and even though Little League season is over, I thought I would share it now.

The Little League Prayer:

Almighty God, who made the earth in the shape of a ball so any and all might take joy in the playing of games, with great joy do we give thee praise and cheers for all this and for the reason we gather on this sacred space today.

We ask Thy blessing on this sweet season of Spring and Summer sport.

Grateful are we for this grand celebration day, and all the days of games ahead on these fair fields and everywhere.

Thankful are we not only for these splendid facilities and special fields of dreams made into realities by the All Star efforts of so many to make this season possible for us; and we thank thee too for all who have worked to make our play not merely possible, but such a joy:

  •  Committees, Town Officers, Sponsors, Keepers of the grounds,
  • Parents and Grandparents, Coaches, Refreshment Stand helpers,
  • Loyal spectators and supporters, and, ye Lord, all Clear-Visioned Umpires too!

We ask Thy blessing on all of these, that what we do for fun may aid the wholesome growth of all, and that it contribute only in the highest aims of sport, that will make only good sports of us all too.

So, may every game this season be well played; every pitch a strike; every swing a solid hit; every catch and tag an out.

Just as every player here is always an All-Star in Thy loving and sleepless sight.

And after this, and every inning, round at bat, and rounding of the bases, O God, see each of us safely home to our friends and families now, and eventually in thee.

So to this let us all gratefully add, AMEN and PLAY BALL…

 

The Reverend Doctor Ronald T. Evans, Senior Minister
First Congregational Church of Darien, UCC

End of thre line

It’s been more than a week since the end of Game of Thrones, Part I, and I’m still a little adrift at the departure of characters I’d come to think of as family.   It’s a testament to George R.R. Martin and HBO, who created such a vivid world that a hole opened in our lives when it was all done.

Game of Thrones has been such a rich all-encompassing experience that I couldn’t say everything that was on my mind in my weekly recaps, which were written in a frenzy the morning after each viewing.  And even with a week’s perspective, I’m not going to attempt the definitive, thumb-sucking, what-did-it-all-mean piece, many of which are available by more talented critics than I at your favorite cultural websites.

I have a more limited ambition with this final wrap-up: to make a few extraneous observations that I never managed to squeeze into my recaps:

The End of the Monoculture?

There’s been quite a bit of commentary that Sunday, May 20 might have been the last time that our nation came together to watch and comment in real time on a television show (more on that in the next point).  In other words, R.I.P. to the video monoculture that began when Lucy Ricardo gave birth to Little Ricky on the old “I Love Lucy Show,”  which was the first time television demonstrated its ability to command the attention of the entire population through a mere entertainment program.  I can’t say it will never happen again, but I do thank HBO for holding the line against binging, which has done so much to fracture any hope of cultural unity.  No Netflix show will every be able to accomplish what Game of Thrones has done because the week-to-week roll-out of a series builds a national conversation by giving podcasters, recappers, Reditters, and regular viewers a chance to spend seven days thinking about, analyzing, and arguing over what they’ve just seen.   If this is the end of that 65-year run of television-driven water cooler camaraderie, I’ll miss it.

“The Big Bang Theory” Fans Just Got Screwed

Having just made a point about a monoculture moment, I’m going to contradict myself, though, and note that the idea that “Game of Thrones” generated a national conversation that classic series like “Dallas,” “Cheers,” or “Seinfeld” did is a conceit of the elite media.  Over the past week I have been in many meetings or eaten many meals with people who have never watched a single episode.  In fact, Game of Thrones didn’t even dominate the television set this very week!  The series finale of “The Big Bang Theory” and GoT both drew about 19 million viewers.  By the time all the streaming and DVR viewing is recorded, GoT might pull ahead, but “Big Bang Theory” fans are entitled to ask, “What about us is the national discourse?  Don’t we count?”

The relative invisibility of the “Big Bang Theory” in the national discourse is a good example of why our culture is so at war with itself.  Based on absolutely no data at all, I would wager that the audience for GoT voted overwhelmingly for Clinton while “Big Band Theory” fans voted for Trump.    The blindness or even outright hostility of East Coast media companies, (i.e, the late nigh talk shows and the major opinion journals like The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, etc.) to the tastes of Middle America has never been more apparent than in the disproportionate attention given to a show that, at best, is viewed by ten percent of the population.  No wonder the press keeps getting surprised whenever there’s an election.

Also Screwed?  Book Readers.

Thank God I never read any of these books because I’d be the kind of fan who is constantly complaining about the inconsistency between the written work and the TV show.  But if the plot deviations are bad enough, what’s even worse for a book reader is that deep knowledge of GoT lore did not help in figuring out what was going on.  This was particularly true of the prophecies.  In the end, was there actually a prince who was promised?  What about the Valanqar prophecy predicting Cersei’s demise? And what about all the effort that book readers put into explaining the Golden Company for the rest of us?  Useless. In the end, the showrunners didn’t try to reconcile the prophesies or reward the story’s most loyal fans because they were too busy throwing unearned plot twists at the screen.

There’s Something Rotten About the Bran Betting

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Why anyone would ever bet on the outcome of a television show is beyond me.  Before the season started I remember looking at the odds for who would become ruler of Westerous and seeing that Bran was the favorite.  Of course my attitude to that was “Huh, that’s crazy,” and yet as the season progressed, even as the idea of Bran becoming King became even MORE preposterous, the odds rose.  Obviously the outcome leaked somewhere, and why not?  There must have been hundreds of people who knew the outcome and all the NDAs in the world couldn’t have prevented some cheating among the gamblers.

The Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings Precedent

I think we can all agree that the ending of the series landed with a thud and the overwhelming excuse given by the show’s apologists has been, well, it’s really hard to bring a TV show to a satisfying end.  Need we remind you that the very tagline for HBO is “It’s not television.  Its HBO” or that plenty of TV shows had satisfying endings.

And while it might not be fair to compare Game of Thrones to Breaking Bad, I think it is fair to compare it to Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, two other fantasy masterpieces based on beloved books.  To say, “Hold on, HP and LOTR were adapted into movies while GOT became a TV show,” is not valid ; if anything it’s damning that the showrunners had so much more time to tell the story and still ran out of time.  The obvious difference is that they were adapting a book series that wasn’t completed, while the producers of the Happy Potter and LOTR movies had the authors’ complete story to work from. Part of the problem is undoubtedly a lack of storytelling skills.  Part is also a lack of nerve on their part — by rights, Brienne and Jaime should have died at the battle of Winterfell but the showrunners either didn’t want to disappoint their fans by killing them or wanted to provide fan service by giving them an unneeded romance, which chewed up precious time.  And also, frankly, I think the showrunners just misjudged what the fans wanted — no one really asked for “the most epic battle of all time” if that meant giving up a coherent ending.

Sansa’s the Big Winner of Game of Thrones

To be honest, I turned a little anti-Sansa this season, but I have to admit she played the game better than anyone.  Way back in season one she was a callow star-struck teeny bopper who wanted nothing more than to be a great lady.  And now she’s more than that — she’s actually Queen of the North.  Credit to her for surviving rape, manipulation and emotional torture at the hands of the four most malign people in Westeros (Cersei, Joffrey, Ramsay Bolton and Littlefinger) and coming out on top.

Nevertheless, I still hold her partially responsible for driving Dany insane.  First she gave her the cold shoulder at Winterfell even though Dany, her armies and her dragons were only there to defend Winterfell against the army of the dead.  This increased Dany’s feeling of being unloved, but that was nothing compared to breaking her promise to Jon not to tell anyone about his parentage.  That led directly to Varys committing treason, which was just about the final straw making her insane.  So yes, Sansa was right to be skeptical about Dany, but it’s not really fair to say, “see I told you I was right,” when she was the one who pushed her over the edge.

Meanwhile her monomaniacal insistence on independence for the North is a dagger to the heart of Bran’s kingdom.  Instead of being a stabilizing force, the North has set a precedent for succession and a future of rebellion.  What’s to keep Dorne or the Iron Islands from insisting on their own independence?  Thanks a lot Sansa.

Closed Captioning is Your Friend

By the end of the season my wife and I were watching the show on HBO Go, so we could use the closed captioning. The accents weren’t the easiest to follow and the sound editing was frequently muddied (which is kind of crazy for a show of this quality).  I was worried this would make me seem old (to myself at least) but in the end, I was like, screw it – it’s more important to understand what’s happening.

Small Council Absurdity

small council

The most ridiculous scene in the whole Game of Thrones series was the Big Council meeting at which Bran was elected King.  Almost every line of dialogue could be torn apart for its absurdity within the logic of the show.

Given that it would take way too much time to dissect the Big Council meeting let’s take a look at the Small Council meeting as an example of how fan service warped the showrunners’ judgement at the end.  Regrettably, this is the final time that any characters interact with each other and it leaves a sour taste to go out on (fortunately it’s followed by a six minute wordless montage of the Stark children — Jon, Arya and Sansa — walking into their new futures, which is a lot more satisfying.)

The first clue that this is fan service is the composition of the Council itself.  By rights, given their experience, none of them besides Davos should even be there, but the showrunners apparently feel they must give us one more attempt at semi-humorous banter among our favorite characters — and make no mistake, everyone at the table has a devoted fan base.  Otherwise how to explain Bronn as Master of Coin?  If this guy can even do simple arithmetic I’d be surprised, and now he’s going to negotiating with the Iron Bank over Cersei’s debt?  The absurdity is further magnified by the fact that Bronn, as Lord of Highgarden, was not even at the Big Council meeting. No, his appearance was withheld as a final gift to the viewers at the last minute.

Almost as confounding was Sam’s appointment as Grand Maester.  When he left Winterfell he wasn’t even close to being a Maester but suddenly he has vaulted over all the other Maesters to be Numero Uno?  And unless they’ve changed the rules, Maesters are celibate, so where does that leave Gilly and the kids?

Brienne is probably qualified to be Lord Commander of the King’s Guard but isn’t she pledged to protect Sansa?  And then, of course, why does Bran make a point of noting the absence of the Master of Whisperers when he has the power to see everything that is going on in the realm?

Where’s the Human Progress?

I am not interested in watching the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel, which is purportedly set five thousand years before the events of this series.  For one thing, I am too emotionally wrought up by the fates of these particular characters to get interested in a whole new set of characters with the same surnames and preoccupations.

But my real objection to the new series is that there was apparently no progress in the lives of Westerosi between the time of the new series and the one that just concluded.  Are these people humans or what, because a major characteristic of the human spirit is to move forward.  How can this world be stuck in the 13th Century for five millennia?  Maybe it’s because there are no Protestants so no Protestant work eithic.   In any event, I actually find it depressing that in the GoT universe no one except Qyburn ever invents anything and that life is one long cycle of people making the same mistakes for generations after generations after generations.  I’ll eat my words if people tell me it’s good, but I will still find George R.R. Martin’s conception of the human race confounding.