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I’d Like to Share Something Really Special…

I am spending Thanksgiving week at home in Texas by myself, except for the dog. The rest of my family is having a Thanksgiving meal together in Iowa (hopefully, if the weather doesn’t have other plans) or on a road trip to Central Florida, a trip I was supposed to also attend. I simply cannot travel to either place. My arthritis is too bad to sit for long car rides, and in the Trump economy, school teachers can’t afford air travel. So, I had to practice being selfless once again. They needed to do these things, and I had to talk them into doing these things without me. My misfortunes can’t be allowed to ruin my family’s grace and peace, not when I can still give gifts of myself by allowing them to go and do without worrying about me.

I can’t actually say that I learned to be selfless and encouraging from Fred Rogers. He was really only one of many such teachers, a list headed by my maternal grandfather. But in a way, he is responsible for giving me the tools I use to make things like that happen.

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Yesterday I went to the movie “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” at the Music City Mall in Lewisville. I can drive those few miles. And I freely admit to crying through a good portion of the movie. It is not really a sad movie. It is not actually a biopic. It is based on a real article in Esquire magazine by journalist Tom Junod. It is a partially fictionalized story about how the innate goodness of a man like Fred Rogers has a profound impact on the journalist, and all of the rest of us as well, through that act of caring and loving and gentle being-just-the-way-you-are. There is no doubt about it, when Tom Hanks, channeling Fred Rogers in the restaurant scene, asks for one minute of silence to think of all those people who have had a hand in making you who you are, he looks directly into the audience, he looks directly at me individually, and the entire theater is dead silent as everyone is doing exactly what the movie character is asking you to do. It was a singular moment in cinema that I have never experienced before. It touched my soul.

I left that movie theater feeling amazingly fulfilled. Was it because it was an excellent movie? It definitely was excellent. Was it because of the wonderful way Tom Hanks brought Fred Rogers back to life even though he looks nothing like him? He definitely made that happen. Or was it because the movie invoked a true angel, a once-living hand of God now gone from this world? Because Fred Rogers was that for so many kids for more than 800 episodes.

I must confess, when I was a teenager, I didn’t think much of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood“, though I saw some of those first black-and-white episodes, back when King Friday and Daniel Striped-Tiger were new. If I had to watch kids’ shows on PBS, which I often did because of younger siblings and cousins, I much preferred the color and the Muppets in “Sesame Street”.

But when I had been a teacher for a few years, and had to search hard for ways to communicate and teach for use with South Texas middle-schoolers, I began to see the true genius of Fred Rogers. He never talked down to kids. He never lost patience, even when things went wrong. He was always trying to keep it simple, even when the point he was making was as metaphorical as talking about keeping a “garden in your mind”. He was understandable. He was welcoming and relentlessly nice. And it wasn’t a TV character. It was really him.

I can’t really say this was a movie that changed my life. But maybe it did. I cried silently during a large portion of it, not because of the sad parts in the movie, but because I recognized so much of myself in the journalist waking up to the need to be as real and honest and able to connect to other people as Fred Rogers always did.

So, my conclusion to this essay that may be a movie review, or possibly an homage to Fred Rogers, is really quite simple. Thank you, Mr. Rogers. I really like you, just the way you are.

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Only One Star?

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There are certain books that simply have to exist in order for me to be me.  I couldn’t be the person I am without The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) by Thomas Mann, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle.  These are all books that have an allegorical element, a trans-formative effect, that shapes how you think and how you live after reading them. Some of these books have not been made into a movie.  Some probably still can’t be.  Others have not been made into an effective movie.  But, then, Disney in 2018 makes a movie version of A Wrinkle in Time that makes me relive the primary experience of the book all over again.

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I was disappointed to see the critics being harsh about the movie.  I had high hopes before going to see it.  Yet, you couldn’t miss the one star rating on the box office rating system of the ticket and show time site I was using.  But my daughter and I went to see it yesterday anyway.  It was far above my highest expectations.

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You see, the novel itself is magical.  The essential characters of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which have to be witch-like, super-real incarnations of inter-dimensional beings.  It is the view of them with open-minded childlike eyes that makes the complex relationships of this story to reality apparent to anyone who thinks clearly like a child.  It is the reason why this book is a young adult novel, written primarily for children, even though the concept of a tesseract is wholly mind-bending in a Stephen Hawking sort of way.  It is the wonder with which the director of this movie lensed the dimension-tessering time witches that makes this movie the best version.  Not like that failed attempt in 2003.  That was almost there, but not quite by half.

MV5BMjEyNjc0NDgzOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjYwMjcyMQ@@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_ Strangely enough, the things that the critics seem to hate about this version of the movie are precisely the things that I think make it miraculous.

Critics don’t like some of the special effects and the color schemes of some scenes.  Many things about the final battle with evil are seen by them as inexplicably bizarre.  They don’t like the over-use of extreme close-ups on the faces of characters.  And they think the performances of some of the child actors are too wooden and unreal to carry off the story.

I wholeheartedly disagree.

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This is a story that takes place in the heads of the people involved, including the viewer of the movie.  The extreme close-ups pull you into the personal feelings and struggles of the main characters.  Particularly Storm Reid as Meg.  The story is about her struggle as an adolescent to be at peace with her own flaws and self-image while at the same time being responsible for finding and saving her father, as he has completely lost his way on his quest to “shake hands with the universe”.  Meg undergoes a challenge to her self image as she is cruelly bullied by another girl in school.  She has to come to terms with loving her super-genius little brother Charles Wallace.  And she has to weather the changes that occur when she encounters a potential first love in Calvin.  It is a coming of age story that really smart kids can relate to directly from their own personal experience.

This one-star movie with only a 40% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes is a far better movie than the critics would have you believe.  It is doing quite well at the box office.  Kids seem to love it.  And in my wacky opinion, it is the best movie version of the book to date.  I love this movie.

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Black Panther

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I have been a comic book lover for practically all of my life.  In childhood in the 1960’s I became a Black Panther fan in the barbershop in Rowan, Iowa.  While waiting for the inevitable butch haircut which I didn’t actually want, I picked up the issue of the Avengers comic book that featured the original encounter with the Vision.  And at that point, the Panther was already a member of the Avengers, battling against the threat of Ultron.  He had previously entered the Marvel Comics world in an issue of the Fantastic Four which I had never read, and I hadn’t ever encountered the character in my comic book reading before that barbershop reading session.  I spent an hour waiting for farmer haircuts reading and rereading that comic book.

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I was thrilled to have Marvel make a movie about one of my all-time favorite Avengers.  I would’ve loved the movie even if Wesley Snipes had succeeded in making it in the 1990’s.  I was predestined, as the uncritical critic, to love this movie no matter what.

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But then they made a movie that was so far beyond my expectations that I couldn’t help but fall in love with the hero all over again.  It was simply the best movie Marvel has made so far in the Super Hero genre.  I know I said this about other movies they have made, but they keep doing better and better.  It was the best example of character development and powerful story-telling that they have done so far.

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The villain Killmonger is the most finely developed villain Marvel has created to date.  The portrayal was sensitive, sympathetic, and totally gut-twisting while you grudgingly had to condemn the villain because he was obviously threatening to destroy everything that was good as a reaction to the wrong that was done to him.

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Of course, you expect a total love-gush of a movie review from an uncritical movie critic like me.  I don’t review movies I didn’t love.  But there are definitely people out there who don’t like this movie (in spite of a 100% fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes).  Some point out that the government of Wakanda has no banks or colleges or research centers (other than the king’s sister’s own) to support the science they are supposedly using.  The science is portrayed as being just as miraculous and magical as that in Dr. Strange.  Some rather wrong-headed people have criticized the movie for being racially charged and political.  But how is an overwhelmingly black cast and production racially charged if both heroes and villains in the story are the same race?  Surely Bilbo Baggins and Gollum don’t turn the tide against this movie.  Not only are they in the minority, but they are balanced.  One good, one evil.  So I am willing to summarily dismiss any objections others have to this wonderful movie.  I don’t even need to think about that.

I saw the Black Panther movie this weekend.  I loved it.  I knew I would since the moment they first announced they would make it.  Now I can’t wait for the next one.

 

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The Last Jedi – An Uncritical Review

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There is controversy about this movie.  Fanboys were disappointed that they were so far wrong about what is really important in this movie.  Fan theories were all way off base.  And that was a good thing.  The movie was the best Star Wars movie they have ever made.

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I took my family to see this movie at a Thursday matinee a week ago on a regular screen so I could actually afford it, and we watched good battle evil once again.  And all the usual things were set up to be a replay of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  But this smashed all expectations.  The evil side very nearly won.  And the good side lost almost everything.  So, in many ways, this whole movie reflected reality in America.  Except, of course, for the fact that Emperor Snoke is actually quite smart and crafty.

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But the thing that makes this such a flaw-filled perfect Star Wars movie is how the story builds on everything that came before to make a coherent and very wise theme.  Threads of ideas that exist in all of the previous movies (except the Christmas specials) are drawn together and woven into a whole thematic cloth.  The Jedi tried to bring balance to the Force, and they failed because they thought balance was the same as the Light Side winning out over Dark.  Anakin Skywalker brought balance to the force by bringing back the Dark Side, and then Luke came along to bring the Light Side into balance.  Of course, the rise and fall of Light and Dark will occur over and over again.

This movie isn’t just another hero’s journey where Rey finds a master and learns what it will take to defeat evil.  Master Skywalker does not actually take her on as a student.  He is dealing with his own demons and refuses.  So the hero must learn the lessons on her own.  But she falls into the pattern naturally that Luke recognizes.  And Luke’s hero journey has not yet concluded either.  Luke recognizes his own past in Rey.  Master Yoda reappears and still teaches him something he needed to know.  “Failure is the greatest teacher.”

Rey shows signs in this movie of becoming the hero that win it all in the end.  But this is Luke Skywalker’s moment.  He learns from his personal failure with Ben Solo.  He steps into his old role as the light that guides the rebellion.  He creates a final duel with Kylo that calls upon him to use greater powers of the Force than we have ever before seen from a Jedi of the Light Side.  And he doesn’t win the battle.  He only delays Kylo and the First Order long enough to save Rey and the Resistance.  It will be up to others to fight on in the next movie.  But Luke has finally proved that the Jedi don’t always fail when the next power surge rolls through the Dark Side.  Metaphorical victories count too.  Surviving is a victory in itself.  No movie has ever been so relevant to my own life and struggles.  I have to fail so I can learn too how to win.

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So, yes.  I am a completely uncritical critic.  I only report on the things I love about movies.  I never quibble over how it should have been done differently, or how it disappointed me.  I actually loved the prequels, and Jar Jar Binks was one of my favorite characters.  But I loved this Star Wars movie more than any of the ones I have seen so far.  And the next one may surpass it.  Miracles do happen.  But this movie was the perfect thing at the perfect time in my life to accomplish everything I want a movie to do for me.  I loved it.  I wouldn’t change a  thing, even if I had the power in the Force to do it.

 

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Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? (a review by the Uncritical Critic)

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I love musicals.  What can I say?  I am a surrealist as an artist, and so I am dedicated to combining the disjointed and bizarre to make something that makes you laugh, or makes you cry, or makes you go, “Huh?  I wonder why?”  So when, in the middle of a sometimes serious but mostly comic story of escaped convicts on the lam in the Great Depression Era South, people suddenly burst into song… I love it!

And this movie is filled with creative stuff and biting social satire about religion, politics, crime and punishment, love and sex, desire and disappointment, and, most of all, the need to escape from it all if only for a moment to share a good, old-fashioned song.

The main character is Ulysses Everett McGill (played by George Clooney), so naturally the sirens overpower him and turn one of his crew into a frog.  This is because this story is based on the Odyssey by Homer.  Only the Trojan War is replaced by a chain gang singing spirituals as they break rocks, the cyclops is a Bible salesman and Ku Klux Klan member with a patch over one eye, and when Ulysses returns to Ithica, he defeats his wife’s suitors with a song.  How can you not love a story as creative as that?

The whole movie is shot in color-corrected sepia tones to give it an old-photograph, old-timey feel.  John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson are masterful in the role of McGill’s two idiot hayseed friends.

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Again, I remind you, as a completely uncritical critic, I have no intention of trying to tell you what is wrong with this movie.  I loved it.  I will watch it again.  I am writing this review only because I feel moved to tell you how much I loved it and why.  So if you don’t approve of that, well, don’t shoot me.   Put me on a chain gang and give me a chance to sing.

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Penny Dreadful (Thoughts from the Uncritical Critic)

 

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I confess to binge-watching the show Penny Dreadful, all three seasons on Netflix.   Good God!  What was I thinking?  It is everything that I cringe about in movies.  Blood and gore.  Gratuitous sex and debauchery.  I almost gave up and stopped watching when the Creature came bursting through the chest of Dr. Frankenstein’s latest creation.  And yet for a monster to be introduced to the series in such a way, and then to become the one character that strives hardest for redemption… I was hooked.

Sin and redemption is the major theme of the whole series.  And each character strives so painfully for redemption that you cannot help but love them… even though they are monsters.

You see, I, like all other people, am aware that one day, sooner than I would like, I will die and live no more.  And life, though filled with heartache and suffering and regret, is a priceless treasure to be guarded for as long as I can hold onto it.  There is poetry in that condition.  The greatest beauty that can be beheld is soon to pass away into ugliness.  The candle flame lights the darkness briefly and then is gone.

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The story is built from Victorian era literature and includes Mary Shelly’s Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a couple of werewolves, numerous witches, demons, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll, and a character named Lord Malcom Murray who is obviously based on the African explorer Allan Quartermain from King Solomon’s Mines by H.Rider Haggard.

The characters all do a lot of suffering and striving.  Friendships are formed and made blood-and-family deep by shared adventures and brushes with pure evil and death.  The main character, Vanessa Ives, is variously possessed by a demon, courted by Lucifer, hunted by witches, and then seduced by Dracula.  She uses her deep faith in God, which wavers continually, to defeat every enemy but the last.  She is also aided by a cowboy werewolf and sharp-shooter who is her destined lover, protector, and killer.  It all swiftly becomes ridiculous-sounding when you try to summarize the convoluted Gothic-style plot.  But as it slowly unfolds and reveals new terrors with every episode, it mesmerizes.  The sets, the cinematography, the costumes, and the horrifyingly sweet-sad orchestral background music puts a spell on you that, when you awaken from it, you realize you want more than is available.  Three seasons was simply not enough.

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As I believe I indicated previously, the character that almost made me give up on the series, Frankenstein’s Creature, became the most compelling character of all to me.  He began as such a violent, repellent, selfish thing… and in the end became the most self-sacrificing and tragic character in the entire drama.  He took the name of the English poet John Clare for himself, and became a tragically beautiful person.

Do I recommend that you watch this thing?  This poetic and sometimes deeply disturbing depiction of what it means to be human and be alive?  I cannot.  It was a moving personal experience for me, one that made me weep for beauty and horror at almost every episode.  No one can find that sort of thing through a mere recommendation.  It is entirely between you and your God.

 

 

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Tim Burton Movies

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Last night the Princess and I went to see Alice, Through the Looking Glass, the latest Tim Burton movie.  Of course we loved it.  Burton is one of the most interesting story-tellers of our time.  Did you know he is two years younger than me?  And also, like me, he began as a cartoonist and is totally dedicated to the idea that every artist is a surrealist and must exaggerate, elucidate, equivocate, and numerous other things that start with the letter “e” and end with the suffix “ate” simply because that’s how surrealism starts.  You notice a little bit of weirdness in real life and blow it all out of proportion with lies and coloring of meaning and relentless “what-iffing?”  If you don’t see surrealism in those last two sentences of purple paisley prose… then maybe you can see it visually in Burton’s many masterpieces.

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Tim Burton began his legacy as an apprentice Disney animator specializing in stop-motion animation.  But he was just another creative nobody like me until the launch of his small-budget monster hit, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.

Of course, any time you can pull in huge profits for little investments, you will have Hollywood executives ramming the heads of their unpaid interns like battering rams against your door so they can get in and throw money at you.

Hence, Batman.

 

Batman was the first time I actually took notice of Tim.  And not just as a director of a film… eventually two films.  He was gifted at assembling a cast.  And this would work to his advantage as several singular talents attached themselves to him and worked in his movie projects repeatedly.

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And his repeated collaboration with Danny Elfman and his music was easily as great a master-stroke of genius as John Williams with Spielberg and Lucas.

He has repeatedly used his movies to describe and rewrite his own life story as a misunderstood genius flubbing horribly in the quest to fit in with a world full of “regular people”.

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Poster for the film ‘Edward Scissorhands’ (directed by Tim Burton), 1990. (Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

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His sense of humor, of course, is distinctly and colorfully bizarre.

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DSTF-0046r JOHNNY DEPP as Barnabas Collins in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ “DARK SHADOWS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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Burton is, just like me, a child of the 70’s.  He references things like the old gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows, that were a part of his impressionable youth just as they were mine.  He picks stories about things he truly cares about, and that is also just like me.

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So, in a rather bizarre coincidence that is entirely appropriate to surrealists, I love any Tim Burton movie simply because it is a Tim Burton movie.  He is probably me in an alternate dimension.  And as such, I already know I will love his next movie, whatever the heck it is.

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The Story Continues…

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I find myself caught up in the story once again.  Netflix put a new monster-movie series out there with eight episodes starring a Dungeons & Dragons-playing group of middle school kids, a psychically powerful girl-experiment named Eleven, an assortment of dysfunctional adults, star-crossed teen romantics to use as potential monster food, and a creepy mouth-headed monster from the “upside down” to eat them all.  How could I not binge-watch such a thing?

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This binge-watching addiction comes at a time when I have other things on my mind.  My aging parents are in poor health and have a critical doctor’s visit coming up this week.  Bank of America has decided to experiment on me to see what happens if they sue me for the total amount of my debt, plus court costs, plus additional fees for betraying them by going to Wells Fargo, plus additional additional fees just because they don’t like me and think I’m ugly.  I am awaiting a call from a potential lawyer-advocate to help me even as I am writing this.  I am also planning how to live without money until the total is payed off in garnished pension, seized property and bank accounts, and whatever other way they can squeeze more money out of me.  Some monsters are all mouth.   This of course comes after I completed a program of debt resolution and paid off all my other creditors.  When I called Bank of America, they didn’t seem to know what happened to the debt, so they did not participate in that.   Were they plotting evil, or just that stupid?  Such questions go into the making of a monster.  Perhaps a monster movie television series on Netflix was precisely what I needed.

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The only episode I haven’t watched yet is the last installment.  Potentially the monster gets its comeuppance.  That’s what the lawyer, a consumer rights attorney, promised me in his letter.  It also is what the kids in Stranger Things are promising as they prepare to enter the monster’s lair.

Why do I need to see the ending of the story so badly?  Because when we reach the end of our life course, the happy ending, in real life, does not overcome death and endings.  We live our time on Earth, reach the end, and then we are no more.  Only the story continues.  New lives and new adventures begin, only to proceed relentlessly to their ending.  Even when the human race’s story comes to end and there is no more life on Earth, the story continues.  You have to be caught up in that.  There is no other choice.  The things you dread stalk you and eventually catch you, and the happy ending is bound up in how you handle it along the way.

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The BFG (a review by the Uncritical Critic)

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I was predisposed to like this movie from the outset.  After all…  Spielbergh… Roald Dahl… a musical score by John Williams… almost Robin Williams as the BFG!  But I don’t like this movie after all.  I LOVE it!!!

I am easily stunned by gorgeous settings, CGI magic, and artistically done visuals.  I am easily captivated by cute and gifted young actresses like the one who plays Sophie, Ruby Barnhill.  And I am especially won over by the smiling face of the BFG himself.  He reminds me so clearly of my Great Grandpa Raymond (who was no less a magical being in my life than the BFG is in Sophie’s).

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The fact that the BFG’s job in Giant Land is the capturing, bottling, mixing, and gifting of dreams is the most winning feature of all.  And he uses it in the epic plan to overcome the bestial, cannibalistic, (and possibly Trump supporters) other, bigger giants.  He is a metaphor for the story-teller himself… enduring hardships and harrowing adventures to capture, package, and deliver the stories that are so important to life and people’s ultimate happiness.  It is true for Roald Dahl, the darkly silly genius who wrote the story.  It is also true for Steven Spielberg, the craft-master and movie-maker who put it on film.  It is true also for the magician of movie music, John Williams.  I hope, someday, it will also be true for me.

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So many things about this movie are the epitome of the best movie-theater experiences.  I do not understand how it could’ve done so poorly in the box office.  I believe it will become one of those beloved and much-watched DVDs like Spielberg’s previous fairy-tale masterpiece, Hook, did.  I pray that it won’t simply become an overlooked asterisk in the history of cinema.  It is too good of a movie experience for that.

 

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Captain America : Civil War (A Muck Review)

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Muck Man took his family to see the new Captain America movie last night.  I told you they would, since they are a superhero family just learning how to be a superhero family with odor-based super powers.  They all loved it, as was to be expected.  But it was a great movie experience because it was full of unforeseen surprises.

mucklad59 The first big surprise came from Muck Lad.  Muck Man chose the Friday showing at Valley View Mall because Muck Lad had to work both Saturday and Sunday and couldn’t attend otherwise.  His job at the Asian Market making and serving boba tea is the most important factor in his life right now.  He needs the money to buy a gaming computer.  You know how important that is to a teenager in this day and age.  But when the time came to go to the movie, as much as he really wanted to see it, his headache was too much to allow him to go.  He needed to stay in the Muck Cave with Muck Dog and play RPG computer games instead.

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The second big surprise came after Muck Momma drove Muck Man and Muck Girl… er, Muck Woman… to the mall and the movie actually began.  Muck Man is such a big comic book fan that he read every Civil War comic book he could lay his smelly hands on back when it was a big multi-comic event thingy in the Marvel Universe.  There must’ve been at least a hundred titles to track down, and either purchase to read multiple times, or find in the library to read when Mucky was supposed to be doing other more school-teachery things.  And as the movie unfolded, besides the fact that there was a big disagreement between Iron Man and Captain America that made everybody choose up sides, nothing was the same at all!  The story was good, and made sense in the context of the other Marvel Movies, but the details were all different and the story was completely new.  Not only new, but better!  Muck Man was fully prepared to face one of the two major characters dying at the end of the movie, because that’s how the comic books turned out.  But in point of fact, the movie found a much better way.  Muck Man tells me I can’t explain that point further because spoilers are simply not allowed in a world where heroes are real.

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Muck Girl… er, Muck Woman… was surprised at how much she liked the character of Spider Man played by young Tom Holland.  The character was played as a teenager.  A rather handsome, wisecracking teenager with some killer superhero moves.  And a new Spider Man movie was promised at the end.  Muck Girl… er, Muck Woman… was enthralled in ways only a Muck teenage girl… er, woman… can be.

And the movie was seriously funny.  That was, perhaps, the best surprise of all (even if it is an oxymoron).  There were more light-hearted moments than tragic ones, more laughs than tears.  It taught Muck Man and his Muck Family a very important lesson about how to be a superhero.  Being all dark and violent and Batman-y is fine for DC superhero movies, but it is also the reason we don’t love them as much.

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And the delayed-for-another-time surprise was the trailer we got to see for Dr. Strange on the big screen.  Muck Girl… er, Muck Woman… is not-so-secretly in love with Benedict Cumberbatch too.  The Muck Family’s plans for movies in November are now set.

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