This reminiscence about Pauline Kael appeared on November 7, 2011 on a now-defuct blogging platform and I am saving it here on WordPress.  It still holds up, though.

Pauline Kael

When I was in college, and in the years after that too, my friends and I would never go to a movie without asking, “What’s the Biblical interpretation?” This was our little joke of asking what Pauline Kael thought of it.

As the then-film critic of The New Yorker, Kael was the most powerful voice in film criticism, maybe the most important critic of all time, and we followed her religiously. To us she was the Bible and if she told us to go to a movie we certainly did.

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when movies mattered a lot. No person with cultural pretentions could afford not to have an opinion on the latest offerings from Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese. We would go to 40-50 movies a year, and some might be terrible, some might be great, but regardless, they made us feel more alive and more in tune with our inner selves.

This period of youthful cinematic exuberance has been vividly brought to mind by the recent revival of Pauline Kael, through the publication of her biography “Pauline Kael: A Life at the Movies” by Brian Kellow, and the Library of America’s decision to issue a volume of her film writings, “The Age of Movies: Selected Writings of Pauline Kael.” All of a sudden, after years of barely hearing her name, here she is again, all over the place – in every newspaper, magazine or NPR program, with critics and reviewers using the biography as a jumping off point to testify about what she meant to them.

And she meant a lot to a lot of people. She attracted fervent admirers, who became known as “Paulettes.” These acolytes were almost all men and aspiring critics themselves who orbited and basked in her reflected glow. James Wolcott, David Denby, and others in this gang doted on her every word and loudly amplified her opinions.

She was one of those writers who made you feel smart just by reading her. I didn’t always understand what she was trying to say and I didn’t always like some of the movies she championed, but I always felt she was making me more thoughtful and intellectually curious. She could be exasperating, abstruse, hectoring and sometimes clearly off her rocker, but always passionate, intense and intelligent. And I was entranced by her. I didn’t know at the time there were Paulettes, but if I had been, I would have signed up.

Kael was lucky that she reached the height of her critical powers when she did. If she had been a major critic in the 1950’s, she would have gone crazy trying to analyze mainstream movies. But by the time she joined The New Yorker, movies had become a cutting edge art form and the American cinema had begun to produce a flood of innovative and challenging films.

In 1967 she published one of the most important essays in film history – a 6,000 word consideration of the movie Bonnie and Clyde. This was her first major piece for The New Yorker and it essentially saved the movie, which had opened to dismal reviews from more staid critics. The essay caused such a sensation that Warner Bros. reissued the movie and this time around it became a major hit.

The essay created a new way of looking at movies – a more visceral, personal and intellectual way. And it became the intellectual foundation for an American “New Wave” of cinema. It’s important to remember that when “Bonnie and Clyde” came out, American film was still dominated by family musicals like “The Sound of Music,” Hollywood spectacles like “Ben Hur,” old fashioned westerns, silly comedies, and high-minded (but boring) dramas like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The counterculture that had begun to change the country was not yet apparent on the big screen.

Kael saw that “Bonnie and Clyde” was the beginning of new American film sensibility. It was violent, cynical and amoral. As it happens just two months ago I strong-armed my son into watching it with me, and I can report that it’s still a disturbing but invigorating movie. The protagonists are both pitiless killers and existential heroes at a time when society itself was pitiless towards the common man (the action, of course, takes place during the depth of the Depression.) The film-making itself is vaguely experimental with clear references to the French New Wave that had hit European cinema a decade earlier.

Kael not only championed a new type of movie, she was a new type of critic. At a time when most critics spoke with a “voice of God” authority, her reviews were relentlessly personal, peppered with opinions in the second person voice (i.e., “you feel that …”) and the third personal plural (“we respond to this by…”). They are also filled with sweeping statements, idiosyncratic opinions and long undiagramable sentences that would make Henry James proud. Consider the first paragraph of her essay on “Bonnie and Clyde”:

  “Bonnie and Clyde” is the most excitingly American American movie since “The Manchurian Candidate.” The audience is alive to it. Our experience as we watch it has some connection with the way we reacted to movies in childhood: with how we came to love them and to feel they were ours—not an art that we learned over the years to appreciate but simply and immediately ours. When an American movie is contemporary in feeling, like this one, it makes a different kind of contact with an American audience from the kind that is made by European films, however contemporary. Yet any movie that is contemporary in feeling is likely to go further than other movies—go too far for some tastes—and “Bonnie and Clyde” divides audiences, as “The Manchurian Candidate” did, and it is being jumped on almost as hard. Though we may dismiss the attacks with “What good movie doesn’t give some offense?,” the fact that it is generally only good movies that provoke attacks by many people suggests that the innocuousness of most of our movies is accepted with such complacence that when an American movie reaches people, when it makes them react, some of them think there must be something the matter with it—perhaps a law should be passed against it.

Even now, I don’t understand exactly what’s she saying, but I can feel it, like you feel modern art or experimental jazz. I don’t really know what an “excitingly American American movie” is but I do have sense of what she’s trying to convey.

After “Bonnie and Clyde” came other great movies and other great reviews. She couldn’t stand ponderous message films or pretension of any kind (think “Dances with Wolves”, “Gandhi” or the kind of movies that were always up for Oscars.) What she did love were genre films that were true to themselves, movies that others might have considered trashy. Hardcore westerns, crime thrillers and sharp comedies.

She was dismissive of the “auteur theory” propounded by Andrew Sarris, which argued that the director was the author of a film and that the greatest auteurs were the ones who had the most distinctive visual and thematic styles (Hitchcock, Hawks, Ford, etc.) She argued that a great director was someone who made great movies, even if his films didn’t look alike and were not outwardly the product of the same filmmaker.

Yet if she rejected the auteur theory, she loved her auteurs. She played favorites like no other critic. She seemed to love everything from Brian DePalma, Robert Altman, and Sam Peckinpah – even work that was obviously garbage. But for some reason, she didn’t like Stanley Kubrick – not even “2001,” which she thought was ponderous. And she couldn’t stand Clint Eastwood, claiming that “Dirty Harry” was fascist.

But for all her faults, Pauline Kael truly loved the movies. “Loved” almost in the way you love another human being. The critic David Thomson described sitting next to her once at a screening (see and finding her own performance more compelling than what was on the screen. It was a film by Brian De Palma and she was twitching around, making noises and responding almost physically to the celluloid. As Thomson describes it, “the noises she was making — the tiny hedgehog squeaks and raptures — were part of a nearly writhing rapport with the film up there on the screen. She was in love with it. She was, nearly, making love to it.” No wonder she had such sexually suggestive titles for her books: “I Lost it at the Movies,” “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “Reeling,” “When the Lights Go Down,” etc.

The Kellow biography makes it clear why she was in love with the movies – because her personal life stunk and film was an escape. With the publication of this biography it is probable that Pauline Kael will become a case study for motivational speakers. She had a daughter by a cad who refused to support her or the daughter. The daughter needed an operation that she couldn’t afford, so she married another man long enough to get the operation paid for. (Sounds a little bit like “Mildred Pierce.”)

Meanwhile success came hard and it took a long time. She estimated that she wrote a million words, unpaid, for revival theatre newsletters, radio stations and other small publications before she ever earned a dime for her work. She slowly gained a reputation as intelligent critic and then finally got the New Yorker job at age 48. Years and years of writing movie reviews, just for the love of it and then she was the most powerful critic in the country – that’s an inspirational story.

She retired from the New Yorker in 1991, just in the nick of time. The period of cinematic excellence that she presided over had begun to fade as early as the late seventies, with the first blockbusters from Stephen Spielberg and George Lukas (e.g., “Jaws” and “Star Wars.”) Movies started to matter less, as the audience grew younger and studios could make more money on “franchises,” remakes, and gross-out comedies.

The hunger for intelligent movies still exists – indeed, just last weekend I went to see “Margin Call” at a packed theatre in Norwalk CT – but the big money is elsewhere. If Kael were alive today (she died in 2001) it’s hard to imagine her finding a contemporary film worthy of a 6,000 word essay.

Movies are no longer our culture’s dominant art form — that would be television, in an era of “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” TV is not as highly regarded as it should be because it doesn’t have an advocate as passionate and intelligent as Pauline Kael. She would probably reject the premise that TV could ever rival film as an art form, because movie-going involves a dark theatre, a huge screen, and a communal experience. Or maybe not. But what I miss is having the chance to hear her make the argument either way.



Bye bye 2017.  It wasn’t a great year for cinema — although it did produce one great movie (“Dunkirk”) and six or seven highly original ones.

It’s no surprise that most of the movies I saw movies fall into two categories — blockbusters or arty independent films.  That’s basically where the creative action is these days.  Everyone in Hollywood is either aiming to gross $500 million or win an Oscar, with not a lot in between.  This makings rankings a little silly.  How are you supposed to decide whether “Lady Bird” is better than “Wonder Woman”?  They both have female directors and female protagonists trying to separate from their mothers.  The only difference is $450 million in ticket sales.

What’s a little surprising is how many of these movies — almost half — are based on true stories, including two that climax with Churchill’s “We will fight them on the beaches” speech.  I guess all the original storytellers have moved to Netflix.

I’m a little sad that I only saw 25 movies this year — it’s not like I’m giving up on the big screen, but week after week would go by with nothing interesting to watch — and some of the really arty stuff came and went so fast I missed it completely and had to catch up in the winter of 2018.  With that in mind, here’s my list.

1. Dunkirk

The most politically incorrect movie of the year.  The entire cast is composed of straight white men, for God’s sake!  The rescue of the surrounded British army from the beaches of Dunkirk by a flotilla of small pleasure craft is one of the great stories of World War II and Christopher Nolan has turned it into one of the most spectacular art films of all time, with minimal dialogue and a conflation of three different time sequences.  It’s epic, it’s thrilling and it’s going nowhere at the Oscars.

2. Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical account of her high school years in Sacramento is both very specific to its time and class, and universal to everyone who’s ever gone to high school and wanted something more.  The main character (played by the actress with the unpronounceable Irish name who starred in “Brooklyn”) struggles to be special and transcend her extremely middle-class background through various misadventures of senior year.  Everything seems to be on the line — and it is, for a girl who wants to get away from her hometown.

3. The Florida Project

This is the “Moonlight” of 2018 — an unsparing and unapologetic look at poverty and its consequences. A down-at-the-heels motel in the shadow of Disney World is the the last stop for poor families trying to keep their heads above water.  The kids run wild and what initially seems like a charming story of plucky sick-year-olds slowly spirals into a nightmare.  When the movie is over you can only sit and gape at the credits.

4 . Phantom Thread

Mesmerizing and seductive account of a fashion designer who demands total control but meets his match in a Danish (?) waitress. Paul Thomas Anderson layers on music, color, fabric and cinematography to make this the most sensual movie of the year.

5. Get Out

Is this a direct attack on the Trump era’s approach to race or a remarkably well-made horror movie in the style of “Rosemary’s Baby”?  I’ll leave the politics to others but it is definitely a fun thriller in which the villains are white liberals.  Jordan Peale deservedly made a ton of money on this tale of a black dude who hooks up with someone out of a “Girls” episode (literally, it’s Allison Williams who plays Marnie) and ends up in trouble when he goes home to meet her parents.  The rising level of creepiness and dawning awareness of what’s happening is masterful. (Fun fact — Jordan Peale is himself married to a white woman — the comedian Chelsea Peretti.  I bet Thanksgiving with the in-laws was fun after this movie came out.)

6. Wonder Women

A terrific superhero movie — maybe the best of all time — because it’s intelligent, wry and to scale (at least until the final 15-minute battle with Ares, the evil god of war).  Gal Godot is the perfect Wonder Woman — as sexy as they come and playing the role straight.  The political commentary on the fact that the movie had a woman director almost ruined my fondness for the film (see more of my commentary here), but not entirely.

7. The Last Jedi

The most beautiful and best-acted Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi suffers from mid-trilogy syndrome.  It’s obviously a bridge to get from the intro film to the finale, with a lot of extraneous filler and a huge body count.  A lot of the plot doesn’t make sense, but the characters are well-drawn and appealing.  Can’t wait for the next one!

8. Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 2

A really fun space movie with enough emotional beats to keep you caring.  Who would have guessed that the schlumpy loser boyfriend on “Parks and Recreation” would become a major movie star?

9. The Post

Meryl Streep plays Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks is Ben Bradlee.  Very good impersonations.  Kind of an old fashioned biopic about Big Ideas.  Well-made and thoughtful like most Spielberg films. I have to agree with everyone else, though, that it was weird to make a movie about the Pentagon Papers and focus on The Washington Post rather than the NYT.  I can’t help but feel that this was the case because Spielberg wanted to kill two birds with one stone: defend the press AND have a female protagonist. (Also, of all the movies based on real stories this year, I think this one department most egregiously from the facts.)

10. The Big Sick

The real life (-ish) story of how the Pakistani-American comedian Kumail Nanjiani met his future wife and stood by her while she was in a coma.  It’s funny, sweet and touching.  Probably the best coma movie since Sandra Bullock’s “While You Were Sleeping.”

11. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

The character played by Frances MacDormand is maddened with fury and grief that the killer of her raped and murdered daughter has not been found and seeks to publicly shame the local sheriff.  It’s not as depressing as it sounds!  Emotionally-compelling and well-crafted until about 2/3rds of the way through when it completely goes off the rails.  Not sure what Peter Dinklage is doing in this movie.

12. All The Money In The World

An incredibly tense dramatization of the kidnapping of 16-year-old Paul Getty in 1973.  I’d have been having a heart attack if I didn’t know how it turned out in real life.  This is the movie in which completed scenes by Kevin Spacey were reshot with Christopher Plummer after those unfortunate revelations of sexual misconduct were exposed last fall.  Plummer was great, so — good job!

13. A Ghost Story

Did anyone besides me actually see this?  Casey Affleck dies and comes back to haunt the house he lived in with his girlfriend Rooney Mara.  He’s wearing a sheet, which sounds silly but absolutely isn’t.  There’s hardly any dialogue because ghosts don’t talk.  Still, very profound.

14. Frantz

Another obscurity and my one foreign film this year.  A mysterious Frenchman shows up at the grave of a German World War I soldier with whom he has a special connection and the dead man’s family and fiancee want to know what’s going on.  Many lies are told to soften the horror of the war and in the end, life does go on, sort of.

15. Hidden Figures

This movie should have been on last year’s list but was not available for screening when I published last year.  Very mainstream entertainment about the genius black women who helped launch the space program through their jobs as human computers.  Not particularly complex but the good gals win and it’s very satisfying.

16. Baby Driver

This is a lot of fun if you like car chases and pop music.  The title character is a superhuman get-away car driver with daddy issues.  Kevin Spacey plays the local crime lord but because the movie came out before those unfortunate revelations his scenes were NOT reshot by Christopher Plummer.

17. Patriots Day

A good recap of the police investigation into the Boston Marathon bombing.  Mark Wahlberg is the “everyman” stand-in who is miraculously at the site of every major break in the case.  Kudos to the cops who caught these terrorists.  It’s amazing to see how they were able to capture these guys so fast.  Talk about gripping.

18. American Made

Tom Cruise was born to play this role — the good old boy hot shot pilot who gets recruited by the CIA to smuggle arms to the Contras during the eighties.  Based on true events, which I confirmed on wikipedia.  Cruise is one of those guys who can’t be bound by everyday conventions and is addicted to danger.  BTW, Cruise plays someone who’s about 35 and he looks it.

19. The Shape of Water

I’m not being contrary.  I honestly don’t get what people see in this movie.  To me it was dull and cliched — is there anything more predictable than an allegory about the repressiveness of the early 1960s?  I appreciate the originality but I was completely unmoved by the core love story.

20. The Disaster Artist

I was totally unaware that “The Room” even existed or that it was considered to be the worst movie of all time until this James Franco dramatization.  If you are unfamiliar with the story, watch a few YouTube clips of the original movie because you will never believe that such a weird thing ever happened.

21. Darkest Hour

This is a decent counterpoint to “Dunkirk,” depicting as it does the political machinations in the British government while their army was being driven by the Nazis to the Dunkirk beaches.  Gary Oldham is very good as Churchill, but the movie feels claustrophobic with all those cabinet meetings.   And the invented scenes (like Churchill in the subway) really strain credibility.

22. The Lost City of Z

The last of the “based on a true story” movies I saw this year, this one is about an explorer searching for riches in the Amazon during the early 20th Century.  The movie has some things to say about colonialism, dream-seeking, racism, ambition and obsession, but everything proceeds with a stateliness that borders on boring.

23. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Cute but inconsequential retelling (again!!!!) of the Spider-Man origin story.  Tom Holland is winning as the teenage Spidey but I strained to care.

24. Thor Ragnarok

I am not a fan of the Marvel universe, having grown up as a DC Comics kid, but I’d heard this was funny.  And it was funny and jokey in the same way that “Guardians of the Galaxy” is.  But I could not have cared less about the fate of Thor or any of his dysfunctional family.  I was so bored I actually walked out half-war through.

25. The Batman Lego Movie

I loved the original “Lego Movie” but making a super-depressed depressed Batman into a superhero Lego protagonist throws away almost all of the joy from the first movie.  Like “Thor Ragnorok,” this isn’t exactly a bad movie — I just don’t care for the snarky superhero genre where nothing seems to be at stake.


“Casablanca,” that quintessentially Hollywood concoction of romance, intrigue, cynicism, idealism, quips and patriotism, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year.  Frankly this comes as a surprise because when I originally saw it during college it ALREADY seemed 75 years old.  I just did the math and when I first saw “Casablanca” in 1973, it was barely 30 years after the premiere – the chronological equivalent of someone watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” today.

But if “Ferris Bueller” still seems fresh, contemporary, and in tune with today’s zeitgeist, “Casablanca” in the 1970s clearly belonged to a distant era.  In its values, “Casablanca” comes from a time of seriousness-of-purpose, old-fashioned heroism, and sacrifice.  In the 1970s, we lived in a post-Sixties world of selfishness and me-first-ism.  Not much has changed, which makes the movie as other-worldly and refreshing today as it was 40 years ago.

I’ve rewatched “Casablanca” more than any other movie (and what does it mean when the five movies I’ve watched over and over – “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind,” “My Girl Friday,” and “Casablanca” – were all made within ten years of each other in the Golden Age of Hollywood?)  It particularly appealed to me as a college student coming of age in an un-heroic time.  There’s something about sacrificing yourself for a greater goal that appeals to young men, especially if you can be as tough and steely as Humphrey Bogart.  Indeed, Woody Allen made an entire movie (“Play It Again Sam”) about how he could be more like Bogart.

But just as “The Catcher in the Rye” says something different to you when you’re 55 than it does when you are 15, so too does “Casablanca” resonate differently now that I’m a much older adult.

The first thing I noticed on a recent reviewing was that it’s just about the most watchable and sly propaganda movie ever made.  It premiered on November 26, 1942, less than a year after American entry into World War II.  Of course we know now how the war turned out but in the dark days of 1942, it was not so obvious.  Hitler was at the peak of his powers, France was still occupied by the Germans, and there was no guarantee that the Allies would be able to liberate Europe. Told through the prism of a love triangle, “Casablanca” rallies America to the cause of anti-Fascism, offers hope that decency will prevail over evil, and even excuses the isolationism that initially kept America out of the war.

Here’s the basic plot:  It’s December 1941, just days before Pearl Harbor, and we’re in the Moroccan city of Casablanca, which is choking with refugees fleeing the Nazis.  America is still neutral and so is our protagonist, Rick Blaine (played by Humphrey Bogart), who runs a popular nightclub called “Rick’s Cafe Americain.”  Once an idealist, fighting with the anti-Fascists in Ethiopia and Spain, Rick is now an embittered shell of his former self, telling anyone who inquires “I stick my neck out for no man.” He is clearly a stand-in for the United States, which had idealistically embraced World War I as the “war to end all wars,” only to see Europe become even more dysfunctional than before.  Like Rick, the disillusioned America had become inward-looking and isolationist.

We soon learn the cause of his bitterness.  In the early days of the war he’d been in love with Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), who’d left him the day the day the Germans marched into Paris to occupy the city.  It turns out she’s secretly married to a famous Czech Resistance leader, Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid), whom she thought was dead but who turned up alive just before she went to meet Rick at the Paris train station (although Rick doesn’t know any of this).

Rick and Ilsa

Rick and Ilsa during happier times in Paris

As refugees on the run from the Nazis, the Lazlos turn up at Rick’s café, asking for help so Victor can continue the fight for freedom, and he initially refuses because he thinks Ilsa had played him for a patsy in Paris.  But Rick regains his idealism and willingness to help when 1) Ilsa confesses that she still loves him, and 2) Victor offers to help Rick and Ilsa escape because he loves her enough to let her get free, even if it’s with another man.

In the end all the cynicism falls away when Rick realizes there are still others with pure hearts and that he hadn’t been duped by love after all.  And of course the Nazis are brutes too, so there’s that.  In the climactic scene, he sends the Lazlos on the plane to Lisbon and he and his friend Captain Renault (Claude Rains) escape to a Free French garrison somewhere in the desert.  Just like the United States itself, Rick has shrugged off his temporary neutrality and regained his purpose in the world.

The above summary doesn’t begin to do justice to the convoluted plot or to the moment in history that “Casablanca” represents.  In 1942, half of France was directly occupied by the Germans, while the other half and its North African territories were governed by the unoccupied puppet government led by Marshall Petain in Vichy France.  In other words, although the Germans are pulling the strings in the background, the city of Casablanca is still nominally under French control, which supposedly explains why Victor Lazlo, one of the Gestapo’s most wanted targets, somehow manages to walk around unmolested.

There’s also a convoluted subplot about two “letters of transit” signed by General de Gaulle himself that are sort of like a “get out of jail free” card for whomever is carrying them (of course it’s ridiculous to think to think that letters signed by Charles de Gaulle, the enemy of the Vichy government, would entitle the bearers to anything but a trip to a concentration camp.) This is a great bit of Hollywood hokum and the pivot around which the whole movie turns – who will get to use them and go free?  The more you watch the movie the more you groan at this creaking plot device.

One thing you never groan at, though, is the snappy dialogue. When the American Film Institute produced a list of the 100 greatest lines in movie history, Casablanca let the list with seven, including many that have entered the lexicon of everyday life.  Watching the movie for the first time is like reading the bible or Shakespeare: “Oh that’s where that saying comes from!” Some of the best-known quotes include:

  • “This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
  • “Round up the usual suspects.”
  • “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
  • “I’m shocked, shocked that gambling is going on in here.”
  • “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”
  • “We’ll always have Paris.”
  • “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’”

Here they are in context in 38 seconds:

But it’s not just one-liners that make the writing a delight.  Except for the very serious Nazis and the even-more-serious Lazlo, all the characters are witty or mordant.  They’re living on the edge, which generates a live-for-today mentality.  Rick’s wit is bitter – when asked for his nationality, he says “I’m a drunkard.”  Captain Renault, the chief of police, is a deeply amoral hedonist, caring only about surviving and exploiting pretty refugees. When the Lazlos come looking for Ugarte (Peter Lorre), the original owner of the two letters of transit, they discover he died in jail, which prompts Captain Renault to quip, “I am making out the report now. We haven’t quite decided yet whether he committed suicide or died trying to escape.”

That the script ever came off at all is a miracle in its own right.   Julius and Philip Epstein (the uncles of Red Sox and Cubs general manager Theo Epstein!!!!) started writing the movie in early 1942, only to drop the project to work for Propaganda Czar Frank Capra.  Howard Koch, another writer, was brought on to finish it, unsuccessfully, so the Epsteins returned to write the final scenes even as the movie was being filmed.  In other words, when production started, no one knew the ending. Even by Hollywood’s factory-town approach to movie-making this was slapdash.  But Warner Bros. was in a hurry to get the movie into theaters as soon to keep up with current events.  As it was, even though the movie was set to open in spring 1943, it actually premiered in November 1942 to coincide with the Allied invasion of North Africa and the capture of Casablanca. It went into general release on January 23, 1943, to take advantage of the Casablanca Conference, a high-level meeting in the city between Roosevelt and Churchill.

As great as the writing is, the movie’s great emotional climaxes are musical.  The scene in which Lazlo leads the patrons and employees in singing “The Marseilles” is one of the most inspiring moments in cinematic history.  Whenever I feel the need for a little pick-me-up, I play this clip:

The other famous musical scene is when Ilsa comes into Rick Café for the first time, sees the piano player Sam and asks him to play “As Time Goes By,” the song he played for her and Rick in Paris.    (It’s in this scene where the line “Play it Sam” gets mangled in the public’s imagination as “Play it again, Sam,” which is the name of the Woody Allen movie.)  The scene is pure 40’s romanticism at its best.  By the way, you can make an interesting comparison to the passivity that the Ingrid Bergman character displays in both scenes: in one she’s in awe of her heroic husband, but in the other she’s musing about her lost love.

Somewhat surprisingly, “Casablanca” went on to win a Best Picture Oscar in 1942, “surprising” because even then it was considered high-end schlock.  (I mean, those letters of transit?  Really??!!)  And it more or less faded away as cinema moved first into Technicolor, then into the feel-good Fifties, and finally the counterculture Sixties.  In the Sixties World War II seemed very far away and no longer talked about it, even though many of our fathers had actually served in the war.

The resurgence of “Casablanca” was closely tied to a reappreciation of Bogart himself.  After “Casablanca” Bogart became a major movie star, winning the Oscar for “The African Queen” and marrying the very young and very sultry Lauren Bacall.  But all that smoking and drinking did him in and he died of lung cancer in 1957, a relic of old Hollywood.

But he was rediscovered by French intellectuals in the late 50s and in “Breathless,” one of the most influential New Wave films of the era, the protagonist, wanting to be cool, sees a Bogart still and tries to imitate him.

Once French intellectuals adopted Bogart, college students followed suit, with the first beachhead at Harvard.  Legend has it that when the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge played “Casablanca” during exam week, the Harvard students would stand and sing during “The Marseilles” scene, a proto-“Rocky Horror Picture Show” experience.

Understanding Bogart is key to understanding the appeal of “Casablanca.”   I ended up doing my senior thesis on Bogart, when I graduated from college in the mid-seventies and I still thank my adviser Eleanor Ilgen for letting me focus on a non-traditional topic.  I did make one fundamental error, though.  My topic was Humphrey Bogart as a cultural icon in the 1940s, but what I should have done is studied him as a cultural figure in the 1970s.  The more interesting question would have been what was it about him that appealed to us in the Seventies?

My girlfriend at the time assured me that she thought Bogart was sexy, but I always found that hard to believe.  He didn’t achieve real stardom until he was in his Forties and wasn’t conventionally handsome.  He had that lisp, was overly sarcastic and looked like he’d led a pretty tough life. But he did have that sense of “cool” that attracted the French.  Cool is the ability to do socially-approved activities effortlessly and with diffidence and Bogart was full of diffidence.

Bogart exuded a new form of masculinity too.  Before the existential neuroticism of James Dean and Marlon Brando, there was the world-weary, disillusioned Bogart.  Primarily a creation of urban America, Bogart was full of repressed violence and rage at a society that had seemingly lost its honor.  In “Casablanca” he’s more than happy to shoot anyone who will stand in his way, even as he doesn’t particularly care if he gets shot himself.  When Ilsa pulls a gun and tries to force Rick to give up the letters of transit (there they are again!) he says, “Go ahead and shoot.  You’ll be doing me a favor.”

In the end, Rick/Bogart does the heroic thing, sacrificing his happiness so Lazlo’s underground activities can continue.  Poor Victor Lazlo.  All he did was lead the Resistance to the most serious threat to liberal democracy the world has ever seen and he’s portrayed as a bit of a stiff – no where near as interesting as the more flawed, struggling Rick.

If you’ve never seen “Casablanca,” by all means do so. And if you haven’t see it in the last ten years, go watch it again.  It’s a classic for a reason.  It’s not my favorite movie from that era and I no longer consider Bogart a role model, but there’s still something seductive about the imagined world that it conjures: exotic but accessible; heroic but witty; sexy but glamorous.  We should all live in Hollywood movies.

Some random thoughts:

Not a good movie for feminism.  Ilsa Lund is passivity itself and has no agency of her own during the whole movie.  At one point she even tells Rick that he’ll have to do the thinking for all of them.  On the other hand, she is amazingly beautiful.

I’d like to see a movie made of the Victor Lazlo story — in other words, the same story from his perspective, not Rick’s.  I’m sure he’d be a lot more sympathetic and Rick would seem like a jerk.

— The cast included only three Americans — Bogart, Dooley Wilson who played Sam the piano player, and Joy Page, who played a Bulgarian refugee.  All the rest were Europeans who were themselves on the run from the Nazis, which lent an air of authenticity to the movie.  The story goes that during the singing of the “Marseilles” these exiles were so moved that there were barely acting when you see them crying.

In my thesis I made what I still think is a pretty good point, which is that it was inevitable that Rick would leave Ilsa at the airport because the theme of men alone dominates in American literature.  Rick’s closest relationships are with Sam, the black piano player, and the scoundrel Captain Renault.  There are few male protagonists in American fiction who end up happily-ever-after with a woman and when Rick and Renault take off for the desert to join the Free French it’s just like Huck Finn lighting out for the territory to avoid being “sivilized” by his Aunt Polly.  The ability to do that kind of analysis is what you get for your liberal arts education.

No one expected “Casablanca” to become one of the most beloved films of all time but this was not a movie that went unregarded in its own time.  Here’s the opening paragraph from the New York Times’ review in 1942: “Against the electric background of a sleek cafe in a North African port, through which swirls a backwash of connivers, crooks and fleeing European refugees, the Warner Brothers are telling a rich, suave, exciting and moving tale in their new film, “Casablanca,” which came to the Hollywood yesterday. They are telling it in the high tradition of their hard-boiled romantic-adventure style. And to make it all the more tempting they have given it a top-notch thriller cast of Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veldt and even Claude Rains, and have capped it magnificently with Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and a Negro “find” named Dooley Wilson.”

Ever had a Champagne Cocktail?  Me neither, but they are guzzling them at Rick’s.  Here’s the recipe: “Place a sugar cube* in a chilled champagne flute, lash it with 2 or 3 dashes of bitters (Angostura or Peychaud’s), fill the glass with brut champagne or other, cheaper, bubbly (peasant!), and squeeze a lemon twist on top.”

— Words to live by:  “it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

In the most recent “Wonder Woman” movie, the main character is never called “Wonder Woman.”  She’s “Diana.”   I hope that’s not a spoiler and if you’re worried about major plot points being spoiled, don’t read on.

  • Feminist critics almost ruined this movie.  Why does everything need to be analyzed through the lens of identity politics?  Feminist critics were falling all over themselves about how affirming it was to finally have a female super hero movie.  Some wrote about being emotional when they brought their daughters to a movie where could finally see themselves empowered, etc etc.  This same kind of P.C. nonsense went on with the all-female remake of “Ghostbusters,” which turned out to be pretty mediocre despite the politically correct good reviews.  To be honest, I don’t understand what these women are talking about.  There was a Wonder Woman TV show in the 1970’s that taught an earlier generation of women that they too could have super powers.  And didn’t we previously go through the excitement about female action heroes with Lara Croft?  How many “firsts” do we need to have on the same topic? And yes, the director is a woman but the writers are men and Warner Bros. itself is run by men. In any event, there is nothing particularly feminist about the “Wonder Woman” story except that the main character happens to be a self-assertive female.  So is Sarah Palin.


  • Wow Gal Gadot is beautiful.  (Am I being sexist to comment on the physical attractions of said feminist protagonist?)  She’s a former Miss Israel and she has an ever-so-slightly exotic look that makes her stand out from run-of-the-mill movie stars.  Hilariously, the Commentariat is so desperate to claim Wonder Woman as a feminist icon that they’re arguing that “Wonder Woman” does not invite the “male gaze.” One writer went so far as to claim that she is depicted as a real woman because her thighs “jiggled.”  I kid you not.  Read it here.  I didn’t notice if her thighs jiggled but I did notice that every bit of hair below her eyebrows has been removed.  She also completely transformed her body with an extensive exercise regime and crazy diet that no average woman could maintain.  If they were trying to avoid my male gaze they failed.
  • As a kid, I always thought the Amazons lived in the Brazilian rain forest; now I find out they live on some Mediterranean island paradise where the women spend all their time training in the arts of war — but the arts of war as they existed in 400 B.C.  For some reason, technology has not advanced on Themyscira over the last 2500 years so the ladies are still training with bows and arrows, javelins, swords and shields.  This leaves them at a bit of a disadvantage when World War I Germans show up with guns.  Eventually all the Germans are massacred, but not before killing a few Amazons, who are apparently not as indestructible as they seem. (Historical note: by 1918 the German Navy was completely decimated so would not have been in position to send a destroyer to search for an escaped spy.  Also by the way, Steve Trevor must be piloting the world’s slowest airplane if it can’t outrun a destroyer.)
  • Just how old is Diana?  When we first see her, she’s a little girl, supposedly created by Zeus before he died — for argument’s sake, let’s say that was in 400 B.C.  We then see her grow up and trained by her aunt.  Maybe she was ten years old at the beginning of the movie and then she was about 30 when Steve Trevor shows up?  But somehow during those 20 years the timeline changes from 400 BC to 1918 AD.  Apparently she stops aging at the moment of peak beauty because she looks the same in the movie’s prologue, set in 2017.  So is she really 30 or 2300 years old?  There’s no indication that time is moving in a different dimension.  In fact, when the Germans arrive she has only that very day learned how to use her full powers — by crossing her wrists — so we don’t get the idea that she’s been training for centuries (and how boring would that be — even for a warrior princess?)


  • Has there ever been more perfect casting than Robin Wright (aka Claire Underwood) in the role of Diana’s hard-ass, militaristic aunt (see photo below)? I’d like to see her use dress up like General Antiope on “House of Cards” and punch out a few weaselly Congressmen.

wonderwoman Robin Wright

  • If I were doing PR for the Germans I would scream bloody murder about this movie. They don’t call them Huns, but they might as well.  No one today could get away with depicting an entire race of people (except for perhaps the Germans) as this malevolent.  This is even more over-the-top than the propaganda of World War I.  I fully expected them to twirl their mustaches as they went about killing innocent people and poisoning whole villages.
  • By the way, the movie’s runner-up villain, General Ludendorff, was a real general (see photo below and read more about him here). By the end of the real war, he was essentially running the German war effort.  He was kind of a bad guy but not the monster seen in the movie (for example, he never killed a room full of generals who were negotiating the Armistice.)  He died of liver cancer in 1937, not from a sword to the gut in 1918.Erich_Ludendorff-LoC_featured
  • There are no sex scenes in the movie but plenty of funny innuendo.  When Diana comes upon a naked Steve Trevor taking a bath she asks if he is average for a man and he hilariously replies, as would most men, that he is “above average.”  When she then asks “what is THAT?”  he’s nonplussed until he realizes she’s referring to his watch.  When he tells her he uses it to tell time and organize his day she says, “You let that little thing tell you what to do?” Hah.  Later when they’re in a boat headed to London she asks if they will sleep together, which leads to an amusing discussion in which he prudishly says that only married people should sleep together and then fumbles when she asks if he’s never slept with anyone.  And all the time this was going on, the nerd inside me kept wondering who was going to steer the boat if they’re both sleeping.

Steve trevor naked

  • Poor doomed Steve Trevor.  It’s not really a spoiler that he dies — the only question was when and how.  After all, the movie begins in in the year 2017, with Diana looking at a photo of him from 1918.  He’s mortal so would not be alive today unless she gave him some god-like DNA, which would defeat the whole point of her falling in love with a mortal.  Speaking of which, Wonder Woman lives in Paris and works for Batman?
  • I don’t know if the filmmakers were deliberately trying to introduce Christian themes into the movie but they seemed pretty obvious:  a) Zeus/God creates man, gives him free will and he proceeds to sin; b) Diana, created through a form of immaculate conception, is given to mankind to defeat evil; c) she is tempted by the evil one, who shows her a vision of paradise in which the two of them will reign together; d) there is an explicit discussion of undeserved grace, in which the sinful humans are given an opportunity to redeem themselves; e) love is offered as the only power to defeat evil; f) There’s a measure of forgiveness (when Diana is encouraged to kill the evil chemist she does not); g) at the end of the battle Diana descends with her arms spread wide in an obvious crucifixion pose (see photo below).  There’s too much violence in this movie for it to be a Christian movie, and Jesus obviously never used a sword to kill anyone, but you have to wonder what the writers were up to.  (Here’s a longer discussion of the movie’s call-backs to the New Testament.)wonder women jesus
  • Having said all this, I think this might be the greatest superhero movie ever made.  It avoids the worst aspects of the genre, which is consequence-free violence.  In too many movies the good and bad guys fight it out in the middle of a city and destroy half of it, killing an untold number of by-standers.  In “Wonder Woman,” the consequences of violence are evident and not fun — the injuries and loss are real.  Plus the story does grapple with the complications of good and evil, including our own complicity as flawed beings.  I also appreciate setting the film in World War I, which is the most consequential event in the last 500 years and the moment at which modern civilization came unhinged in a spasm of completely unnecessary war and violence.  Millions of people killed for nothing after a century of European peace; and then after the war was over the seeds were sown for another even more destructive conflagration.  So there’s a feeling of weightiness and real consequence to the setting.  And finally, the story makes sense, which is not always the case with superhero movies.  (And did I mention that Gal Gadot is gorgeous?)
  • Here are my reservations about the movie: the climactic battle scene between Diana and Ares, with explosions and a lot of tossed-about machinery, is too long and too conventional, and it undercuts the care that has been taken to make her seem approachable and semi-human.  Also, what’s the real take-away with Ares, the God of War?  Zeus put him in the Phantom Zone or some other place, from which escaped to start World War I; and then once he dies the war ends.  OK, but what about all the wars before and after World War I.  I think we did just fine in the war department without him.

Bottom line: great movie, great heroine, doesn’t stretch reality too far, a few funky plot points.


Remember those halcyon days when you could turn on a football game or awards show and not worry that you were going to be assaulted by someone’s inane political opinion?  Those were the days, way back in the early 2010’s.

We now live in a world where even a feel-good Budweiser ad can’t be shown during the Super Bowl without splitting the country in two over its purported political message.

As for the awards shows, they have become increasingly mouthy.  Even back in the Age of Obama, when award winners adored the president, they still found something to gripe about.  But now that Donald Trump is in the White House, Hollywood is melting down and the awards shows have become a major platform of dissent.

Meryl Streep, the industry’s grande dame, opened the floodgates with her anti-Trump tirade at the Golden Globes.   Then the SAG awards unleashed nearly a dozen speeches condemning the Administration.  The subsequent Director’s Guild Awards took it easy on the president – only five direct attacks.  As recently as last Saturday night, Streep doubled down at a fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign and called Trump’s supporters “brown shirts,” a commonly used term for followers of Hitler. And then at the Grammys on Sunday, Busta Rhymes blasted “President Agent Orange.”

And into this environment comes the Academy Awards, the biggest stage of them all.  The Oscars show is usually the most-viewed non-football broadcast of the year.  It’s one of those special live events that keeps some people holding off on cord-cutting just a little while longer.

But while there is no official anti-Hollywood Oscar boycott in the works (not yet at least), there does seem to be considerable word-of-mouth chatter among Trump voters that this is the year to skip it.  I’m surprised by the number of people who have told me they won’t watch because of the politics.

This could be more than an idle threat.  In 2008, the left-leaning Jon Stewart delivered the least watched Oscar broadcast in history, drawing just 31.7 million viewers.  By 2015, the number of viewers had climbed back to 37.3 million but last year, in the middle of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, viewership fell back to 34.4 million.

Even if ABC and the Academy would like to see politics kept out of the ceremony, and they probably do, there’s no way for them to accomplish that.  For starters, there’s the case of the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose film “The Salesman” is nominated for best foreign language film.  As a foreign national from one of the seven countries from which the Trump Administration suspended travel, Farhadi would have been prevented from coming to the U.S. if the travel pause hadn’t been suspended. He still might not attend in protest (and of course if the pause is reinstated by February 26, he will be officially shut out again).    Given that he is someone directly affected by a government policy, Farhardi becomes a potent symbol for Hollywood “resistance.”

Farhardi won the Oscar in 2012 for the excellent “A Separation” and would have been a favorite again this year, even without the martyred status.  Now, if there’s anything more certain than “La La Land” getting the best picture it’s an Oscar for “The Salesman” and a righteous speech by whomever is designated to accept on his behalf.

But if Farhardi has a legitimate reason to make a political statement, what’s the excuse from the fine folks who brought us “La La Land”?  If Ryan Gosling wins Best Actor is he going to mention that he’s an immigrant (albeit from Canada)?

“La La Land” is a lovely movie, but it’s a self-reverential paean to the movie-making industry itself and the fact that it is poised to win a slew of awards demonstrates what’s so aggravating about the political posturing at the Oscars.  After all, this is a movie about a white guy who wants to save Jazz from bastardizers like the African American bandleader played by John Legend.  Its hands aren’t exactly clean on the political correctness front.

The entertainment business is as brutally capitalistic as any industry in America, with a price tag applied to everything and executives who are as richly rewarded as you can get.  Male actors are routinely paid more than females.  By constantly portraying Muslims as terrorists Hollywood has done more to shape negative perceptions of Islam than any other institution in the country.  It doesn’t take much courage to stand up before a group of film colleagues and criticize Donald Trump.  It would take a lot more courage to criticize the industry itself.

Until now, conservative viewers have responded to the Oscars’ political speeches with bemused eye-rolling but in today’s hyper-politicized environment they might now be so forgiving.  We’ll know whether they voted with their eyeballs on February 27, when the ratings come out.

The older I get the more out-of-step I feel with the film industry.  In a year of kiddie animation and cinematic super heroes, I saw only two of the year’s top twenty grossing movies and most of the movies I did see were at independent art houses.  It was never my intention to be at odds with popular taste but it does seem that the movie business is primarily focused on audiences who are not old enough to vote. Consequently, there were months and months when there was nothing worth going to see, followed by a crazy rush to catch everything good in December.

Of course there were a few decent mainstream “adult” movies that were aimed at a general audience but most of them fell immediately out of circulation.  Maybe adults have gotten so out of the habit of going to the movies that they no longer bother.  In any event, 2016 was a pretty disappointing year.  Here’s what I saw, ranked from best to worst.

l. Moonlight

A beautiful and mesmerizing story of a poor, sensitive, black, gay kid named Chiron growing up in the Miami projects.    This feels like something you’ve never seen before, not only because of the unsparing depiction of life among the desperately poor but because of cinematography choices that seem almost documentary-style, with a lingering camera and a lack of narrative dialogue. The story is told in three stages of Chiron’s life, depicted by three actors ranging in age from youth to teen to adult.  After two years of #OscarSoWhite, this once had a good chance to win the Academy Award and it still deserves to.

2. Manchester By The Sea

This is as bleak, unsparing, and visually arresting as “Moonlight,” but without any attempt to pretty-up a tragedy with a hint of a happy ending.  Every time you think this movie’s going to give us a conventional feel-good twist it pulls back.  To that end, it feels more like real life than anything I’ve seen in a long time.  You feel like this is exactly what would happen when an already grieving uncle returns to his hometown after his brother’s death and is unexpectedly informed that he’s to be his nephew’s guardian.  Life will go on, but it will be a struggle.

3.  La La Land

Yet another startlingly original movie — a musical set in contemporary LA.  Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are barely adequate singers and dancers but you don’t really care because the cinematography is so luscious.  But don’t expect a feel-good experience.  In the end this is an exploration of art, ambition and love. You can succeed at two of those things but not all three.

4. Rogue One

Boy I was surprised that this was as good as it was — a very worthy addition to the Star Wars canon. It’s about the most perfect prequel ever, ending exactly at the moment when the original Star Wars movie (now called “A New Hope”) begins.  The story is a little confusing but not impossible to follow, for once.   The absence of Jedi mumbo jumbo is a relief too — it’s just straight action.

5. Everybody Wants Some

Finally, an intelligent feel-good movie.  Richard Linklater’s homage to his college baseball career, seen through the prism of a freshman jock’s first weekend on campus.  He checks into the baseball team house, meets his crazy teammates, has escapades and meets a nice girl.  Very funny, textured and warm. If only my freshman year had been like this.

6. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

I seem to be one of the few people who loved this movie.  Ostensibly a comedy starring Tina Fey and Billy Bob Thorton about a neophyte journalist embedded in Afghanistan, it’s also an eye-opening account of what our troops are experiencing over there.

7. Arrival

In a year of depressing movies, this one ranks way up there.  Amy Adams is a sad linguist who is called on to translate messages from aliens who have materialized at various locations around the world.  A quasi-intellectual film featuring hard thinking on linguistics and time traveling.

8. Hell or High Water

Jeff Bridges has come a long way since “The Last Picture Show” but he’s still wandering the wilds of small town Texas.  He’s after a couple of bank robbers who are trying to accumulate enough cash to pay off their predatory mortgage.  Again with the bleak world view!  Funny bantering, though, and some serious disquisitions on how to live your life when fate and society seem stacked against you.

9. The Edge of Seventeen

Seventeen-year-old Nadine has been (wait for it) depressed since her father died four years ago.  Wallowing in her own grief, she loses it when her best friend starts dating her brother.  Woody Harrelson is her cynical history teacher whose complete indifference actually increases his attractiveness as a life-adviser.

10. Captain Fantastic

A family of survivalists goes on a road trip to attend their mother’s funeral, with the usual conflicts between the all-modern and all-natural lifestyles.  Their brilliant but didactic father (Viggo Mortensen) is an intellectual bully who has tried to create a new Eden in the woods but is just this side of crazy.

11. Hail Caesar

The Coen Brothers make a pretty funny but not very weighty spoof of Hollywood in the 1950s.  The plot revolved around a studio fixer named Eddie Mannix (a real person btw) who’s trying to decide whether to take a legitimate job outside the business.  Basically everyone in the movie is a moron, which is funny as far as it goes.

12. The Nice Guys

Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are incompetent detectives in 1970’s LA.  The movie is hilarious until it turns into a convoluted story of conspiracy involving smog and catalytic converters (I’m not kidding).    If you took the first half of The Big Lebowski and combined it with the second half of Chinatown you’d have this movie.

13. Weiner

A behind the scenes and very candid look at Anthony Weiner’s mayoral campaign.  It’s only fitting that this narcissist would trip up the 2016 campaign.  Why kind of man would expose his wife to the prying eyes of a documentary when he knows he’s been sexting with women under the nom-de-plume Carlos Danger?  This is your classic train wreck from which you cannot avert your eyes.

14. Love and Friendship

Who knew there were Jane Austen novels yet to be mined by movie-makers?  Love and Friendship is based on the unpublished novel “Lady Susan,” written when Austen was still a teenager.  Hilarious and deeply cynical about the way the sexes manipulate each other, the movie is populated with dupes, rogues, brazen adulteresses, wide-eyed innocents and even a few honest gentlemen.  Fun.

15. Sully

Sully’s plane goes up, hits some geese and miraculously goes down on the Hudson River with no loss of life.  You may have heard the story.  Clint Eastwood does an admirable job of expanding the narrative of this five-minute flight into a two-hour movie, screwing around a little bit with the truth of the post-crash investigation.  Oh well, it’s only a movie.  Tom Hanks is the only actor who could have played Sully.

16. Eight Days a Week

A documentary about the touring history of the Beatles.  This is well-covered ground but as amazing as ever.

17. Fantastic Beasts

Perfectly serviceable Harry Potter prequel that I might have liked better if I could understand more than half the dialogue.  The film-making is imaginative but I had trouble caring a lot about the main characters.

18. Sausage Party

An atheist allegory in which processed food items worship humans as gods, not knowing that their ultimate resting place is in someone’s digestive track.  This bleak message is supposed to be made more palatable by the extreme coarseness of the animated food characters.  And it is funny to see food sex.  This is not a movie to which you would bring your confirmation class.

19. Absolutely Fabulous (The Movie)

Loved the TV show in the 90s.  Very hilarious.  And the movie is fun too for a while, but it’s hard to maintain that antic quality over a full-length feature.

20. Cafe Society

Late stage Woody Allen. This is a lot like La La Land without the songs, dances, handsome lead actor and brilliant cinematography.  An ambitious young man and an ambitious young woman fall in love in 1940s Hollywood and face the usual complications.  The movie is well-enough made but you feel that Woody Allen has explored all these themes already. (By the way, I saw 24 movies last year and four of them were set in Hollywood.)

21. Ghostbusters

The most ridiculous controversy of the year was the eruption over whether redoing Ghostbusters with a female cast defamed the spirit of the original movie.  So then the female movie critics got on their high horse and said it was better than it really was, and the sexist pigs said it was worse than it was, when in reality it was just kind of meh.  Let’s face it, the original wasn’t that great to begin with. This was not an all-female remake of Citizen Kane.

22. Magnificent Seven

Another unnecessary remake.  It was fine.  Your average western.  Can’t remember much about it now.

23. The BFG

Steven Spielberg and Raul Dahl make a very strange pairing, although they’re both obsessed with childhood.  A little orphan girl gets abducted by a lonely giant and gives meaning and purpose to said giant’s life.  Technically beautiful and even charming, but a little languorous.

24. Office Christmas Party

This had a dynamite cast (Jason Bateman, Jennifer Anniston, T.J. Miller, Kate McKinnon, etc.) and a crazy antic quality, but it never lifted off to the realm of pure comedic genius.  Nice try, though.

watching netflix.jpg

As Labor Day approaches, most of us past the age of consent are realizing we’ve been denied one of the season’s sweetest pleasures: that great summer film that everyone’s talking about.  It was left to television to produce 2016’s only terrific summer movie, “Stranger Things,”an homage to the great films of the ‘80s. Unfortunately it wasn’t shown in an actual cinema, but only on Netflix.

Film was the great mass communication medium during the first half of the 20th century, with the average American attending two to three movies per week.  The introduction of television in the 1950s dealt Hollywood a body blow, stripping away its monopoly on visual entertainment and significantly cutting into movie attendance.

But early TV didn’t kill the movies.  If anything, by drawing away viewers interested only in mindless entertainment, TV did cinema the favor of making it a more serious and ambitious medium.  For Baby Boomers, going to movies in the ‘70s and ‘80s was akin to attending the opera or the museum a century earlier, and going to a summer movie with your friends was a rite of passage.

Well, that was then.  By the time 2016 rolled around, the major movie studios had almost abandoned any hope of attracting adult audiences.  To the extent there are still serious movies, they are generally produced by independent film companies and shown in art houses to discerning but small audiences, or released at Christmas so they can be eligible for the Academy Awards.

For the last dozen years or so, Hollywood’s business model has been to create blockbusters that generate hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.  To get a blockbuster, you need to attract repeat viewing, which has generally meant developing movies for teens or kids who are eager to get out of the house (it’s no coincidence that the groups most likely to go to the movies also watch the least amount of TV).

There was a time when blockbusters meant exciting original content (“Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” etc.) Today the industry is fixated on franchises, remakes or sequels.  So it’s no surprise that the top 10 movies of the year to date are literal or figurative cartoons (i.e., animation or action movies based on comic books.)  What’s a little bit of a surprise, however, is that box office receipts are down from last year.  Maybe even kids and teens have had their fill of sub-par films.

Is television to blame for this sorry state of affairs?  Has it finally finished off what it started in the 1950s?

In some respects, TV didn’t kill cinema. The film industry itself committed suicide.  No one forced Hollywood to stop making movies that appeal to adults.

And yet you can’t help feeling that much of the talent and energy that would have gone into making general-appeal movies 20 years ago is now focused on TV.  The best blockbuster of the year is not “Captain America.”  It’s “Game of Thrones.”  And the best horror experience is “The Walking Dead.”  And the best documentary is ESPN’s “O.J.: Made in America.”

Hollywood’s fate may have been doomed by the artistic and commercial success of “The Sopranos,” which demonstrated there was a mature audience hungry for adult storytelling.  Soon thereafter, Alan Ball, who had won a screenwriting Academy Award for “American Beauty,” took his talents to HBO to produce “Six Feet Under.”  A decade later, David Fincher, the Oscar-nominated director for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and “The Social Network,” created and produced “House of Cards” for Netflix.  We’ve reached a point where Martin Scorsese, the world’s greatest living director, is now doing occasional TV work, directing the series premieres for both “Boardwalk Empire” and “Vinyl.”

But what’s really drained Hollywood has been the renaissance of the TV mini-series and the anthology series.   Hugely popular in the 1970s and 80s, with such shows as “Roots,” “The Thorn Birds” and “The Winds of War,” these self-contained, multi-episode TV shows have returned with a vengeance.  Mini-series were once a rare and special TV event, but have now become a regular part of the TV diet.

It’s the mini-series that is really drawing star power to television.  Major movies stars like Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn agreed to do TV work on “True Detective.”  And Billy Bob Thornton and Kirsten Dunst appeared in “Fargo.”

Storytellers have always craved time to tell their stories.  Exactly 100 years ago, D.W. Griffith brought forth the three-and-a-half-hour blockbuster “Intolerance,” and in 1924 Erich von Stroheim infamously produced the eight-hour-long silent movie “Greed.”  Since then, some of Hollywood’s greatest films (“Gone With The Wind,” the earlier, 1959 version of “Ben-Hur,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “The Godfather”s, part 1 and 2, and “The Lord of the Rings”) have all clocked in at three hours or more.   Hollywood rarely has the nerve to do that any longer, but HBO and Netflix, with hours to content to fill, are happy to give their storytellers as much time as they need.

Maybe the slate of fall movies will surprise me and the year will redeem itself. but it will be hard for any film to beat the experience and joy of watching “Stranger Things” this summer.

Good luck, Hollywood.  I like to get out of the house, too, so I’m rooting for you.