Welcome to Smugglivus 2011! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2011, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2012.
Recent Work: The Horror novel Ashes, reviewed HERE by Thea.
Please give a warm welcome to Ilsa, folks!
Moo Goo, and a Movie
by Ilsa J. Bick
You guys remember the final scene in A Christmas Story (Bob Clark; 1983) when all those dogs get into the house and eat up the Christmas turkey so Mr. Parker takes the family to a Chinese restaurant instead? And then the waiters sing “Deck the Halls?”
Okay, as hysterical as this is, here’s what’s wrong with that scene: there are no JEWS! I mean, it’s Christmas! This is a Chinese restaurant! So, nu?
Now, before you get all huffy and call me racist or something, remember: I’m a good Jewish girl. Having Chinese and then going to a movie are all, you know, part of the tradition.
I suspect that the reason there are no Jews in that scene from A Christmas Story is because Jean Shepherd grew up in Indiana, not New York. I didn’t grow up in New York either, but my husband’s from New Jersey, which certainly counts, and the old saw about what Jews do on Christmas while the rest of you are digging into Christmas goose and turkey and tearing open presents is pretty accurate. These days, a ton of synagogues do dinner and a movie (but hold that moo shu pork, please); I know people who host movie parties and do take-out. According to Hanna Raskin, the custom probably got its start because most Jews entered the U.S. by way of New York and those who stayed first settled in the Lower East Side which snuggled up against Chinatown. So, it was, as she observes, all about “location, location, location.”
Until I learned to embrace this custom, I dreaded Christmas. No presents, no tree, no carols. When I was young, my friends couldn’t come over to play. When I got older, my friends still couldn’t come over and everything—except movie theaters and Chinese restaurants—was closed. So, for me, Christmas was . . . gloomy. But nowadays I’ve learned to appreciate my inner Yid. I kick back. A kid or two might show up. The husband gets Chinese take-out on Christmas Eve—enough to last us through Christmas Day—and we settle down for some marathon movie-watching. While the list changes from year to year—and I remember one Christmas where we completely binged on vegetarian wontons and three seasons of Lost—here are the ten movies, in no particular order, that the Bicks will be screening this year.
1. Source Code (Duncan Jones; 2011)
In a year where so many movies were so disappointing, this inventive sf flick was a completely unexpected and very pleasant surprise. USAF helicopter pilot Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens to find himself seated across from a young woman he doesn’t know on a train he doesn’t recall boarding and bound for downtown Chicago. Eight disorienting minutes later, the train blows up. Yet instead of dying with everyone else, Stevens is catapulted back into a strange capsule where he discovers that whoever bombed the train is intent upon setting off a dirty bomb in the heart of the city. His mission is to discover the bomber’s identity, and to do that, Stevens must enter the source code, a kind of quantum leap back to an “afterglow,” the same final eight minutes of life as experienced by Sean Fentress, a victim of the first bomb. Unraveling just why this is a job for which Stevens seems uniquely qualified—and the implications of this discovery—drives this movie just as much as finding the bomber. While there’s some quasi-scientific ishkabibble, this isn’t so over-the-top as to be totally unbelievable. It’s impossible to say more about this movie without giving away the underlying twist, too. Suffice to say that this part-Quantum Leap, part-Groundhog Day thriller also manages a sweetness that will have you reaching for those Kleenex.
2. Hoosiers (David Anspaugh; 1986)
The very first time I saw this movie was in a discount, second-run theater in San Antonio, way back in 1987. I was beginning my time at Lackland AFB; the cats and I had moved to Texas ahead of the husband, who was driving cross-country. The down-time was terribly lonely. I had no furniture yet, knew no one, was exploring a strange city in which I’d once lived but so long before as to seem another county. While I was wandering around, feeling kinda mopey and wilting from the heat (this was August, as I recall), I decided, hell, might as well see a flick. I chose Hoosiers for no other reason than because Gene Hackman, one of my favorite actors, was the star.
Maybe it was the air-conditioning, but I’ll bet that the reason I loved this film is because it managed to be a genuinely well-done, feel-good sports movie without a whole bunch of moralizing. Very loosely based on a real high school basketball team, the 1954 Milan Indians, this David-and-Goliath story follows down-and-out, ex-collegiate coach Norman Dale (Gene Hackman) and the Hickory Huskers, a small-town Indiana team he comes to coach in what is his last chance at redemption for past mistakes. While the end is never really in doubt, the game sequences are nail-biters; the music’s fantastic; and the cast, which also boasts Dennis Hopper and Barbara Hershey, are pitch-perfect. Watch for Hillard Gates, the real-life announcer who also called the original 1954 championship game.
And don’t take my word for how good this film is. Listen to A.O. Scott, and then go watch for yourselves.
3. Babe (Chris Noonan; 1995)
Let’s be clear about one thing. Most animal movies are made with the express purpose of getting me to cry, and this utterly charming movie about a shy, kind little pig, who discovers his mojo while avoiding the oven, is no exception to that rule. From the sheepdogs, Fly and Rex, who adopt the motherless babe and rule the farm, to an absolutely hysterical anorectic duck named Ferdinand, the animals are voiced perfectly. The humans, led by James Cromwell as the stoic and gruff Farmer Hoggett who recognizes the lion in a piglet’s soul, are wonderful as well. Being Jewish and largely vegetarian, I don’t eat bacon to begin with but if I did, this movie would put me off for life.
4. Pretty Woman (Gary Marshall; 1990)
I’m probably the only person in America not enthralled by Julia Roberts, but I do adore this movie (and, yes, Richard Gere). The film is just so completely girl, especially all that shopping and, oh, those clothes! Would that we really wore hats the way Roberts can, and that first lacy black cocktail dress is to die for. I love that red evening gown and even the polka dot number, although as my agent, the incomparable Jennifer Laughran, once observed, the shoulder pads on that orange jacket make Roberts look like an overgrown kumquat. Oh, yeah, the plot about the hooker saved by the prince (and whom she saves right back) is pretty good, too—but have I mentioned the clothes?
5. War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg; 2005)
Enough sweetness and light, already. One of Spielberg’s “things” is failed or marginal dads, and this is nowhere more in evidence than in his take on the H.G. Wells classic, War of the Worlds. Say what you will about Tom Cruise, too, but I happen to like him as an actor, and he is fantastic here. So, pair fabulous cinematography and special effects with a stellar cast and the best John Williams score to come around for years, and I guarantee you won’t take a deep breath the entire film.
6. The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella; 1999)
In a career of Oscar-worthy performances, this early film with Matt Damon, about a sociopathic, bisexual underachiever who murders a privileged, shallow and relatively soulless playboy and then assumes his identity, boasts one of his finest. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, the movie is a fabulous meditation not only on homosexuality and repressed desire but class difference as well.
7. Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood; 2008)
I’ve never been much of a Clint Eastwood fan when it comes to his acting. Other than Unforgiven, my feeling has pretty much been seen one Clint flick, seen ‘em all. This film, which Eastwood also directed, marks the end of his acting career as well. Eastwood plays a very good grump, but if this was only a film about a disgruntled widower who’d give Scrooge a run for his money before revealing that mushy sentimentality we knew he had all along, then this wouldn’t be worth watching. But pair that with social and class xenophobia, and you have the makings of a fine film about racism, aging, the decline of white America, and the ravages of guilt and grief upon the body and soul.
8. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino; 1979)
This powerful film which follows a group of Pennsylvania steelworkers to the hellish war in Vietnam and back again is a very different meditation on war than something like, say, Platoon or Apocalypse, Now. Those films focused almost exclusively on the battlefield abroad while this movie examines the after-effects of war not only upon those left behind but the soldiers who return. In this way, it’s thematically a little closer to the much, much tamer The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). While some criticized this film on its release for some of its more unbelievable coincidences—the three friends (played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, and John Savage) are in separate units but captured and then tortured together by the VC—this is an immensely emotional, hard-hitting film that I’ll bet resonates with returning veterans today. Think about it: when you’ve seen people reduced to hamburger, how much can you really have in common with civilian pals whose biggest concerns are beer and girls? Look for a young Meryl Streep in her first film, too.
9. The Illusionist (Neil Burger; 2006)
Well, after all that grimness, I think it’s time for a little romance, don’t you? I can’t say enough good things about this terrific period film, set in turn-of-the-century Vienna. The story is a very straightforward, love-conquers-all romance. Two lovers, separated by time and class, must fight against social divides, jealousy, and prejudice in order to be together. The actors are great, but what makes this film work so well is the central conceit: that the only real magic in this world is true love. All the rest—status, privilege, and, most especially, power—is the illusion.
10. Star Trek (J.J. Abrams; 2009)
Does anyone really need an introduction to this film? As an inveterate Trekker, I was the first to be skeptical that anyone could fill William Shatner’s shoes. What can I say? The plot’s kind of silly and a waste of Eric Bana’s talents, but that’s not the point of the film, really. Having truly enjoyed this reboot of the franchise—although I wasn’t wild about the Spock-Uhura pairing—I have to ask: we can throw people’s molecules around the universe, but we can’t get poor Christopher Pike out of that stupid chair? Since he didn’t ask me, I don’t know if Abrams plans to bring back Bruce Greenwood—a.k.a. the hear-throb for those of us old enough to almost be Chris Pine’s mother—but I hope he does. While the re-imagined crew does this Enterprise proud, Pike deserves another outing, in command of his own ship.
There: I said it. Greenwood rocks.