Friday, July 30, 2021

Walking, Not Running, to Cinematic Gold: The Olympics at the Movies

I’m a great armchair Olympics fan. Much as I love movies, I’m mesmerized by spectacles, like sporting events, in which the outcome is entirely uncertain. In which the better competitor – at least on paper -- doesn’t always win. But watching the 2020/2021 Olympiad is not always pleasant. There’s been joy, certainly, but often the mood has been sober, even somber. It’s daunting to learn that Simon Biles is human after all, and even more daunting to discover that the boo-birds are now calling her names because, at a time of personal crisis, she’s not willing to put her body at risk for the sake of a medallion on a ribbon.

 Of course there’ve been movies about the Olympics, largely more focused on the joy of victory than the agony of defeat. After all, we expect our Olympics movies to be uplifting. One that certainly filled the bill was the 1982 top Oscar winner, Chariots of Fire. Some consider it soppy now, but I look back on this film with great pleasure. It’s a canny mix of history lesson and heart-tugging emotion, highlighting the fate of two very different runners on the British team that traveled to Paris in 1924 to compete in Olympic track and field. Ian Charleson plays Eric Liddell, a Scottish missionary to China who runs for the glory of God. Ben Cross portrays Harold Abrahams, a Jewish student at Cambridge who fights class snobbery and polite anti-Semitism as he exercises his passion for running. Each of the men succeeds, in his own way, with Abrahams, despite his less-than-lofty pedigree, going on to become the grand old man of British athletics.  Hokey? Maybe, but it really happened, and it’s fascinating to see the early days of a famous sports competition. And that much-parodied opening, with the runners – in training – striding down a Scottish beach to the majestic Vangelis score never fails to inspire me.

 The Tokyo Olympics of 1964 itself led to several films. One was a masterful documentary, Tokyo Olympiad, by Kon Ichikawa. Far more than a record of what happened at the Olympics that marked Japan’s post-war rise, it is a celebration of athletes and athletics, as well as a joyous view of the people of Tokyo interacting with a world event. The other film that captures (sort of) the Tokyo I remember from my college days is a breezy 1966 romantic comedy that updates a 1943 feature called The More the Merrier. The original had lampooned the post-World War II housing shortage in Washington DC. Walk, Don’t Run takes that plot thread and applies it to Tokyo, just prior to the Olympics: pretty Samantha Eggar announces she’ll be willing to share her apartment during the games, but she’s shocked when her applicant turns out to be Cary Grant, in his last film role, as a suave British tycoon who’s arrived too early for his luxurious hotel suite. And she’s even more flummoxed when Grant invites in a needy young American architect (Jim Hutton) who also happens to be a U.S. team member. Naturally, sparks fly, though Grant (who at sixty-plus had decided he was too old for romantic roles) plays Cupid, not Romeo.

 The film makes much (rather dated) comedy out of national stereotypes: obsequious Japanese, stuffy British, brash Americans, Russians bent on either drinking or spying. And despite the glimpses we catch of authentic Olympic venues, the film’s handling of the actual games is not exactly convincing. But the scene of Grant, in his skivvies, race-walking through crowded Tokyo streets to stave off a romantic kerfuffle is one worth savoring.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

“El Camino”: Too Much of a (Breaking) Bad Thing?

I recently spent months on my couch, catching up with Breaking Bad. This series (2008-2013) certainly deserves its accolades. Its characters are convincingly complicated; its storyline is riveting; its cinematography is endlessly inventive (the high desert of New Mexico has never looked so ominous, nor so beautiful). I’m a particular fan of those opening sequences that drop you into each week’s story from a skewed perspective (maybe a baffling flash-forward, possibly a wacky Spanish-language narco corrido in praise of that elusive drug lord, Señor Heisenberg).

 Perhaps the theme running through the entire series is how people react to change. When a mild-mannered chemistry teacher named Walter White is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer, his life slips into a different gear. Desperate for money to support his growing family, he discovers a lucrative new career as a maker of primo methamphetamine. His crossover onto the shady side of the law brings out personality traits that have previously remained hidden: like a lust for ever-increasing power. And his evolution soon transforms his family: his very pregnant wife, his straight-arrow brother-in-law, his loyal son who won’t let cerebral palsy get him down. Before long, a good swath of Albuquerque is somehow caught up in his rise and eventual fall.

 One character, a reckless young drug dealer who shows “Mr. White” the ropes of meth-peddling in season one, was supposed to be snuffed out early on. But Jesse Pinkman’s working relationship with his former high school teacher proved so potent that Jesse was turned into a series star. Impetuous and self-destructive, but also tender-hearted and smart, Jesse was shaped by the writers into the able-bodied son Walter never had. As Walt becomes more and more of a monster, Jesse haltingly moves in the other direction, trying to make up for the harm he’s caused. That’s why, in the series’ final moments, he’s the one character who (with a little help from his friend) escapes from a bloodbath, lighting out for the Territory with tears in his eyes.

 For all the havoc he causes, Jesse (played with deep conviction by Aaron Paul) is a character who’s easy to love., because he’s so quick to acknowledge his failings. That’s why I was eager to follow up on Jesse’s post-Walt story by way of 2019’s feature film, El Camino, produced by the Breaking Bad team as a sort of a sequel to the series.  

 El Camino, named for the automotive classic in which Jesse makes his escape from the house of death, starts with its protagonist in flight. But, perhaps to capitalize on viewers’ fond recollections of the series, it also flashes back to happier days of Jesse absorbing life-lessons from Walt, from fixer Mike Ehrmantraut, and even from the drug-addled Jane, his one-time girlfriend before her fatal overdose. What’s more, it wallows in Jesse’s suffering before that final shootout, giving us plenty of footage of Todd, a young, red-headed meth gangster who could alternately be called Jesse’s evil twin and Opie gone to seed. (He has just bumped off his cleaning woman, whom he repeatedly describes as “a very nice lady.”) This is all in the past, but the present-day story piles on the complications involved in Jesse drumming up the cash he needs to blow this popsicle stand and start a new life somewhere else. His goal is to find and reclaim the bad guys’ ill-gotten gains, which involves much deceit, many close calls, and (of course) loads of blood. Whereas the TV episodes all seemed cannily plotted, this full-length movie is both confusing and, ultimately, dull. Poor Jesse! Poor me!   


Friday, July 23, 2021

The Never-Ending (Toy) Story

 I generally avoid movies whose titles end with a number, like Jaws 2 or The Fast and the Furious 5. As I have good reason to know (having worked on Corman franchises like Bloodfist and Slumber Party Massacre), each movie that follows the original is a bit less clever, a bit more predictable. But the good folks at Pixar were not about to let their Toy Story sequels disappoint their loyal fan base. Remarkably, 2010’s Toy Story 3, which I just rewatched, may be the best of the lot. Sure, it still contains familiar characters like valiant Sheriff Woody, spacey Buzz Lightyear, the Potato Head pair, and a fearful Tyrannosaurus Rex, all of them loyal to “their” kid, Andy. But the thing is—Andy is now almost eighteen, and on his way to college. The toys haven’t changed over time, but Andy has. And time becomes film’s big (if hidden) subject.

 This makes it quite a different story from the previous two Toy Story films. The original dealt with such child-appropriate topics as jealousy and friendship. In that 1995 film, the arrival of Buzz—who becomes Andy’s new favorite—rocks Woody to the core. But when the chips are down, Woody and Buzz learn to work together and forge a solid friendship, as underscored by Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” Their relationship continues in Toy Story 2 (1999), in which Buzz needs to come to the rescue of Woody, who’s been kidnapped (toynapped?) by a dastardly collector with plans to send him to Japan.

 But by 2010, the original film’s target audience was on the brink of adulthood, and largely leaving all things Disney behind. In a way, Toy Story 3 is directed at their parents, who have deeply mixed emotions about seeing their offspring fly away from the nest. Yes, Andy’s mom is eager to see him clear out his childhood toys before he goes off to college, but she is still feeling the loss of the little boy she once knew and loved. What happens to the toys that may be headed for the attic—or scrapped—is what this story is about.

 Since the Pixar team understands that young viewers prefer excitement to philosophy, there’s plenty of derring-do here, like some heroic flights from a garbage truck and from a childcare center that seems a paradise but is ruled over by a menacing pink stuffed bear who smells like strawberries (the late Ned Beatty, full of Southern charm and menace). A sequence at the city dump has an Inferno quality, but – of course – ends in a breathless escape. And I defy parents not to be moved when Andy decides what best to do with well-loved toys he’s outgrown.

 Pixar is good, too, at finding ways to tickle adult funny-bones. At the childcare center where the discarded toys briefly find a home, a vapid Barbie (in Jane Fonda-style leotard and leggings) finds the Ken of her dreams, then later tricks him into modeling his elaborate Sixties wardrobe (tie-dye! an astronaut suit!) when he needs to be distracted from the big escape attempt. And I suspect we Boomers remember many of the vintage toys in the film, like the Slinky-dog, the GI Joe action figures, and that talking telephone. The film has more serious matters on its mind, too, like our throwaway culture that decrees that anything out of date should simply be tossed, and that most of our once-cherished possessions ultimately belong in a landfill.

 All in all, it’s a beautiful film with a perfect ending. But then they made Toy Story 4.