The combination of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Setsuko Hara’s passing has got me thinking about death a little more than usual. I should elaborate on that thought a little.
How many obituaries have I written for 2015? Way too many. I should have written one for Roddy Piper. At that point, I had covered Christopher Lee and Dusty Rhodes pretty close to back-to-back. I just couldn’t hack another one. I didn’t want to write up Wes Craven, but I wound up doing so anyway. I really hope I can get through the rest of 2015 without writing yet another.
There’s a remarkable selfishness to this entire thought process. I’m largely making all of this about me, and my perspective of the world. Still, I tally up the obituaries I wrote for the year, and I cannot help but feel that sense of loss for all of them all over again. These were people whose work inspired me. Their contributions to my formative years and beyond is substantial. I have written more obituaries (the most recent one was for the great writer and Editor Michelle Greenblatt) this year than I did last year. I suspect that I will write more in 2016 than I did in 2015.
I will not write one for Setsuko Hara. Mostly, I just don’t feel qualified enough to write about her immensely important collaborations with Yasujirō Ozu, or the way her performances reached a level of naked humanity and sincerity that were almost haunting. Better critics and fans will write her eulogies.
All of this creates a weird connection to Planes, Trains and Automobiles. We covered it for Drunk Monkeys Film Club this month. As I wrote a brief piece for it, I inevitably thought about John Candy, whose death still hits me in those haggard feels from time to time. In doing so, I realized that John Candy was the first celebrity death that affected me. I was around 9 when he died. I had been a fan for most of my conscious life. When my mom told me the news, I cried. Stupid kid stuff, in terms of projecting an opinion of him from the characters he played on the screen, but nonetheless, I was pretty depressed about it. From time to time, those memories wage a quiet, unhappy war. Whenever I have to write an obituary as an adult, I inevitably remember when I found out that John Candy was dead.
I’m getting older. That means my heroes and favorite artists are getting older, too. Unfortunately, since most of them are three, four decades beyond my current years, they’re doing more than just aging. They’re dying off. Every year, the number seems to be greater. Every year, I have to look back on people I have never met, yet whose work moved me on some level. As we near the end of 2015, I can’t help but think about these things.
In the end, I can’t be too depressed about it. Even on a good day, life is sitting next to a Christian fundamentalist on a runaway train. The Christian is a soaked-in-a-gasoline talking collection of box cutters. The train is drunk, frantically lost, and mean-spirited to the nines. With that thought in mind, it’s crucial to find people, movies, books, paintings, poems, and streets that are capable of effortlessly rescuing your soul at any given moment. I run across those things all the time. You can find the best examples of the things that have moved me in the obituaries I’ve written for Drunk Monkeys and elsewhere. If you want, you can also find those examples in past editions of Captain Canada’s Movie Rodeo.
In terms of understanding that more and more of my long-time favorites are going to die, I have two options: I can be extremely depressed about it, or I can take advantage of every opportunity to celebrate what their work meant to me.
As 2016 rolls into view, I’m going to choose the second option as often as I possibly can.
The End of the Tour (2015): B+
To be honest, I wasn’t sure what I was going to get out of a film about the late author David Foster Wallace. I’m a philistine, so I haven’t read any of his books. The film’s plot intrigued me, in which Wallace (Jason Segal) goes on a road trip with a Rolling Stone journalist (Jesse Eisenberg). I was also hearing a great deal about Segal’s performance, which was being hailed by a good number of people as a next-plateau kind of thing.
Guess what? It is a next-plateau kind of thing. Segal has been steady for years. I can’t actually think of a bad performance in his filmography (an unremarkable one, maybe). Playing a writer like David Foster Wallace is a heady challenge. Segal answers the call, tackling a complex human being with a performance that avoids caricature or awards posturing. Eisenberg plays off him just fine, but really, it’s a role that anyone could have filled just fine. As the two connect, and go on a road trip, with Eisenberg’s reporter trying to find the compromise between adulation and journalism, the movie takes off. It relies heavily on a combination of dialogue and Segal’s performance. Both elements deliver, making for a film that is engaging on the strength of not much more than conversation. It is very good conversation indeed.
The Merry Gentleman (2008): B-
Michael Keaton is still riding on the success of Birdman. That’s good. The Merry Gentleman is a nice case in point to that thought. The film came and went with little fanfare, owing to Keaton still being somewhere along the fringes of mainstream recognition. It’s a shame the movie hasn’t been rediscovered, and given just a little more attention.
While far from spectacular, The Merry Gentleman is a solid character study. Keaton’s directorial debut sticks to a consistent pace, while making room for both his character, as well as that of Kelly Macdonald’s. Keaton takes full advantage of Ron Lazzeretti’s intricate, subtle screenplay. These are not remarkable people. They are simply variations of the survivor trope. Keaton unsurprisingly finds something quiet and sad in his portrayal of a dying hitman. Macdonald is unsurprisingly believable and affecting as a young woman who has left her abusive husband, and is struggling to find peace in a solitary life. These characters interact in an awkward, oddly endearing way, although the movie is a somber drama from start to finish. There are other characters, and everyone plays their parts just fine. Essentially, The Merry Gentleman is as good a directorial debut as anyone could hope for. There is no question that Macdonald will continue to be reliable, brilliant at times, and largely underappreciated. Keaton’s performance is good, offering echoes of the actor who was still a couple of years away from returning to public attention. The most significant thing to take away from this worthwhile film is Keaton’s clear talent for directing. Hopefully, he’ll do another one. Another good script could give him easy access to a secondary career.
The V.I.P.s (1963): D+
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had two marriages. Surrounding that were legendary fights. Along the way, they made several movies together. So far, personally, the only one I’ve enjoyed has been Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The others have been dreary, lumbering exercises in pretention. Sitting through them is an achievement unto itself. The V.I.Ps is one of many examples of that mindset. An all-star cast staggers through a series of confusing, boring plot threads, all set at London Heathrow Airport during a bad fog. Wives try to leave husbands. Huge sums of money are thrown around. It’s kind of a mess, but not the fun kind.
A variety of crises emerge. Characters occasionally interact with one another. Burton and Taylor headline the whole thing, giving overwrought, tedious performances that have not aged well through the decades. There are some lively moments from other cast members, such as Orson Welles and a young Maggie Smith, but those aren’t going to be enough for you. The moments between Taylor and Burton feature a level of high dramatics that I would like to imagine were dated before the movie even finished shooting. There is no question that these two had on-screen chemistry. You’re just not going to find it here. The V.I.Ps doesn’t even work as a piece of time capsule intrigue.
The Intern (2015): B-
Despite some of the people involved, I was looking forward to The Intern. I’m not the biggest Nancy Meyers fan. Furthermore, the plot for The Intern sounds like something that The Today Show would devote an entire week to explaining and gushing over. You know what? It doesn’t matter. Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway are so unreasonably charming and appealing in their roles, you pretty much forgive anything about the story that might annoy you.
In fact, Meyers writes one of her better scripts. She adds to that script with her usual confident, middle-of-the-road direction. The result is something that works better than it has any right to. You can put a lot of why it works so well, why it is going to win you over in spite of yourself, on the cast. Everyone is a natural fit for their roles. Anne Hathaway makes sense as the stressed-out CEO of an ecommerce fashion company. Robert De Niro makes sense as a retired phone company executive, bored to the point of insanity by the dulled inadequacies of retirement, taking an internship with the ecommerce company. The Intern smartly avoids a crass “Look at old people trying to survive in our modern age!” story. Instead, it trusts the leads to carry things along. They do. Hathaway is winning in her performance, as she tends to be. However, the true, pleasing surprise of The Intern is Robert De Niro’s performance. It feels like it has been a while since he carried a movie. It feels as though it has been even longer since he was effortlessly likable. De Niro is exceptional in casually reminding us why he remains one of the greats, we forget that the movie is ultimately pretty standard stuff. There are no surprises to be found here. There is nothing particularly exceptional. The Intern is slick, familiar fun. It avoids pretensions, and it never takes itself too seriously. It just clicks along at an affable pace.
The Peanuts Movie (2015): B-
One of the best things about The Peanuts Movie is that it trusts the source material. The old adage that explains that if something isn’t broken, then you don’t need to fix it, is definitely in play here. The Peanuts Movie avoids modern touches. It even avoids the temptation to update the characters or humor. While perhaps not quite as cruel as Charles M. Schulz’s original comic strip, The Peanuts Movie more or less just blows up the formula for this universe for a bigger-movie feel. It doesn’t always click (some of Snoopy’s Red Baron fantasies get to be a little much), but it wins out more often than not.
Everything works so well because the main formula for a Peanuts story has endured for over sixty years for a reason. It can be a success with children and adults alike. Over the course of Charlie Brown’s attempts to win over the little red-haired girl, The Peanuts Movie wanders along at a casual, friendly pace. There isn’t really much of a story here. It is really more of a tour of this world and its characters. On those terms, The Peanuts is sweet, simple, and pretty close to perfect. It should be pretty engaging for kids. For adults, it will bring back happy memories of classics like A Charlie Brown Christmas and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.