Quartet (2012)

Sports stars careers wind down in their 30s, Elton John and Bono can no longer hit the high notes of their early hits, even in academia, most great innovations come by age 40. What to make of the second half of our lives if it is just the same, but less successfully, and with the attendant aches and hassles of a declining body and mind?

This is all on the minds of the residents of Beecham House, a retirement home for standout musicians. While Wilf (Billy Connolly) keeps things lively with the old, unfiltered rogue act, the film sneaks in some real emotion as Reginald (Tom Courtenay) and Jean (Maggie Smith) are forced to face up their strained romantic past while Jean in particular is haunted by her faded talents.

Taking these strong emotional points and putting them in the hands of some of the very best is a pretty firm guarantee of quality and it doesn’t disappoint. This sort of film may be finding footing due to the baby boomers, with their numbers and money, hitting retirement, but it holds plenty of lessons for those of us still in our younger years.


9 to 5 (1980)

So there’s no good reason I hadn’t watched this before now, but given that, I figured what a better time to watch this film than on Labor Day. The film quickly establishes its central trio of women put upon by the patriarchal work environment: Violet (Lily Tomlin) who has put in years of hard work but keeps getting passed over for promotion in favor of men; Judy (Jane Fonda) who is just getting into the workforce after being a housewife for years, upon her husband leaving her for his secretary; and Doralee (Dolly Parton), a secretary who their boss Frank Hart (Dabney Coleman) is hot to trot for. Aside from these three, we get a glimpse of others who are hurt by the system. One lady is fired for discussing pay, which would generally be a violation of labor law, no matter how much companies discourage doing it, though proving it in court (and affording the lawsuit) would be another thing. Others have work-life balance concerns relating to family. Anyway, it cuts right to the meat of the issue about how businesses were (and mostly still are) hostile to workers, especially women.

The film is a witty satire from the start, but when the three bond over their frustrations, the film takes a turn for the outright zany. When this takes the shape of their respective genre-styled revenge fantasies, it is rather fun. When events lead to real-life hijinks, it strains ones patience a little. This is my feminist empowerment film, I don’t necessarily want a Mr. Magoo act. Still, this serves an essential plot point, which I’ll discuss in the paragraph below WITH SPOILERS.

So the trio ends up kidnapping him to avoid him turning them over to the police and right at the end we find out that during the weeks that they hold him in captivity, Violet and Doralee have conspired to revolutionize the office in Hart’s name, instituting all manner of liberal policies like flexible scheduling or part-time hours and child care to make things easier for the mostly female workforce. That this productive work is hidden so as to get a surprise at the end, while showing all the borderline incompetent criminal actions kind of diminishes the film’s power. It might be slightly more in keeping with the comedic nature/tone of the film, and I’m probably asserting my desires for the film in lieu of what it was going for, but I just would have loved to watch them make the changes we later find out pay off.

So yeah, a few reservations, though none about Lily Tomlin, who is an absolute treasure. As much as I feel there is a film here that I would have loved a lot more, accepting what they are going for, I really appreciated it.


Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

The weird thing is that this film’s most hyped stunt is both right at the start of the movie, and doesn’t deliver much beyond what you get in the trailer. Compare this to Ghost Protocol’s Dubai Tower scene which was certainly shown in the trailer but had so much else going to build it out. Thus we can say that as impressive a feat as hanging onto the side of a plane is, this film does not match the prior film’s middle sequence (or the first film’s climactic train sequence). And while making comparisons, the major heist sequence doesn’t live up to its counterpart from the first film. And yet, in many ways Rogue Nation feels the most successful since that first film.

The concept of the shadowy international organization isn’t new (I mean, the trailer for SPECTRE played in front of this), but they do hint at an interesting framing here, which basically notes that the intelligence operations of recognized powers are legitimated in many acts that would look malicious if not engaged by groups we ultimately trust. And yet, should we trust them, is the status quo they defend actually in our interest. If this offering is more interesting than the plot of any of the others, it isn’t actually capitalized on as any hint that the Syndicate might be using dubious tactics to some greater good is mostly abandoned so that we don’t question the film’s heroes TOO much.

Accepting that the film did go on a bit long and probably could have lost a twist and a set-piece along the way to tighten things up, what Rogue Nation does right is captured in the Morocco sequence at its center, complete with the heist plotting/execution, stunning car/motorcycle chases, Simon Pegg leading the way with greatly scripted/timed comedic relief and generally feeling comfort with our central foursome of characters. While I appreciate Rebecca Ferguson playing a woman who is equal to the men in combat and to some degree in playing the game, it isn’t exactly a rounded character and this film doesn’t even consider passing the Bechdel Test. Oh, and the editing gets a bit chaotic at times with the action. Warts and all though, this is still a better than average blockbuster.


To Sir, With Love (1967)

Everyone loves a bit of coincidence spotting. I’d put in this hold request earlier this week and then on Thursday it gets mentioned in Pop Culture Happy Hour’s discussion of music in movies as an example of movie theme songs. Sharing the same title, it makes sense that the song To Sir, With Love is from this movie, but having heard that song many times before, I hadn’t really conceived of it as such. It’s a pretty great song that stands on its own, and good it is great because you hear at least parts of it no less than four times during the film, only one with thematic relevance/potency.

At this point, the teacher trying to handle a troubled class is a well worn genre, with my favorite being The Class. There was one scene in To Sir, With Love that recalls one of the more substantial moments of The Class, where Mr. Thackeray (Sidney Poitier) loses his temper and uses certain terms in relation to his female students. In The Class, this leads to a professional crisis, facing external rebuke, but here it is only a personal crisis, with internal critique as the only punishment. I guess it truly is a different era. This being so tolerated sat at odds with me a bit more than other dates aspects like the overwhelming heteronormativity of his wide-ranging class discussions. The assumption of heterosexuality, along with more rigid gender typing is something that I forgave as accurate of its time.

If the genre has become well worn, Poitier never feels trite. He has the gravitas to make you believe his effectiveness. The moments with various members of the class where he manages to work over their initial resistance to make them see deeper messages about adulthood and responsibility are generally excellent and applicable not just to those coming of age. I expect, as some of the students point out, plenty of adults have a lot to learn from him as well. Perhaps most valuable though is what he learns from them, the need to see past their behaviors to their own very adult challenges and inner conflicts. Just a very rich film.


Amy (2015)

In many ways the existence of this film is a tragedy. Obviously the portrait it paints of mental illness and substance abuse getting the better of an otherwise upbeat and talented young woman is tragic, but that this film could be made, entirely out of existing footage is a tragedy of its own. While certain home video and clips from appearances at awards shows and on talk shows are generally innocent enough, a certain amount of what we see comes from tabloid or other media sources content to exploit her for both good or bad, whatever would get ratings. Even before watching this film, I might be inclined to paraphrase the classic joke “what do you call 100 tabloid photographers at the bottom of the sea? A good start,” but in a few places here they capture the chaos and claustrophobia of the tabloid culture. Combined with other things like a reality TV show her dad gets involved with display the media behaving in a way that would border on criminal negligence. Surely there are individual freedoms that stand against a free press and free speech.

And yet the bulk of our interaction with any of these figures is through this media and few of us can really plead innocent of demanding more from our stars (though I don’t know if I’d be willing, out of respect or maybe just anxiety, to go up to a famous person randomly to ask for a photo or something), or maybe having a laugh at the latest erratic behavior from a fallen star. The most popular blog post I’ve ever done was a post taking the media to task for body shaming famous people for getting old, but the reason it got the hits was because it had a tag/picture of Amy Winehouse and the thought that it might be more tolerable to highlight her appearance as an anti-drug message, certainly than pointing to a 40 year old actress for having cellulite. In the context of watching this film, even that relatively minor statement feels wildly inappropriate.

The film’s success is it kind of condemns society for the way it exploits people, but does safely manage to avoid feeling like it is trying to capitalize on her life. Aside from this aspect, the film does do a good job building context from Amy’s life to show how she converted things into song. As much as I respect her voice, I only really like two, maybe three of her songs, so to some degree the film felt drawn out in part because of an excess of songs, though it rarely repeats a song. Still, Asif Kapadia has now firmly established himself as a master of the archival documentary, though I’d probably still give Senna the edge. I just kind of hope he can find a project that doesn’t revolve around tragedy.


Pompeii (2014)

I’m not sure how Jon Snow got to the fighting pits of Meereen, but this was one damn good episode of Game of Thrones. The film’s opening scene shows Milo (Kit Harrington) watch as his family and really his whole society is slaughtered at the command of General Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland), and a classic revenge story is born. As fate would have it, Milo, known as a gladiator as The Celt is shipped off to fight in Pompeii just as Corvus, now a Roman Senator, is headed there to exert power and generally scheme. While on the path to Pompeii, Cassia (Emily Browning), the daughter of the most influential man of Pompeii is taken with Milo’s gentleness with a struggling horse and a classic star-crossed lovers story.

I’ve already mentioned two classic stories, and no, this isn’t an original story and unlike Game of Thrones it doesn’t have those moments of shock or of violence that will leave you buzzing…it is a decidedly PG-13 venture. Yet classic stories are classic for a reason. We want to cheer for Milo and fellow gladiator Atticus (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) show gladiatorial honor and fight against the powerful and deceptive Romans with all their petty political games. We want to see a consensual, loving relationship bloom in the face of attempts to force matches of political convenience.

If Game of Thrones has succeeded in part because it so often cuts against the conventional storytelling that rewards virtue and honor above all else, Pompeii offers the perfect response in the looming presence of Mt. Vesuvius. Reality may not care about virtue, but mother nature doesn’t care about any human concerns. Game of Thrones contrives intrigue asking how and when and why various people will die, mother nature knows that ultimately everyone will. And in that knowledge, how one lives or how one faces death becomes paramount, and that makes for a rewarding exploration. While solidly enough acted, Pompeii may lack the polish of Game of Thrones, but it also lacks the nasty aftertaste.


Foxfire (2012)

Admittedly it has been a long time since I watched the 90s adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates novel from that same decade, but while there are a few shared elements, this new version, which apparently runs closer to the novel, surprised me a bit in where it went. First off, though this is from French director Laurent Cantet and seems to have been largely produced by the French, it is in English, set in rural New York in the 1950s. Going back to a period setting allows it to capture some themes that the modernized 90s version cut out.

Both films largely start with the same galvanizing event, the decision to shame an abusive teacher. This brings them together as an activist/vigilante feminist group seeking out those men that harm women. At this point it lives a bit in the shadow of Lisbeth Salander, though as things develop it gets a bit SCUM Manifesto. Even as the film gets your sympathy for the girls, led by Legs (Raven Adamson), pushing back against the forces that subjugate women: men, capitalism, religion, the rigidly structured utopic community is subject to human weakness and we see the Foxfire gang spin out of control. Of course, if one wants to make Soviet comparisons, keep in mind that these are teenager girls who remain on the margin of society, not a ruling body that became a global superpower.

Overall, it just feels a lot more biting politically than the 90s version’s more Lifetime movies level narrative. In this case, bringing in a French director, from a country that often enough elects Socialists, might give him the boldness not to cut out those aspects that still remain taboo in American culture. Perhaps curiously, this is perhaps the chaster film, at least it doesn’t contrive an excuse for “teenage” girls to get topless. Ultimately the film is carried by Adamson, in the role played by Angelina Jolie in the earlier adaptation. She conveys the force of personality and political fire to make you believe how far people come to follow in that path.



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