The Movies of May


It's May! Frequently the month I cram the most movies in, largely because I more deeply integrate the well-watching of movies into my curricula. Especially AP Lit which, after the test, becomes AP Writing about Film (not a College Board-approved course).

Not everything here is quote-unquote academic, however. Though if you want to see what my students read in connection to the Lit film, look for the numbers beside the date.


our dvd
Please Vote for Me (2007)

I have, in fact, seen this movie once since I first mentioned it a year ago, though I forgot to include it here. This short (but qualifyng) documentary is so woven into the fabric of my life, it hardly seems worth mentioning.

But you haven't seen it, have you?

Well, you should.

And I think kids are getting more savvy. Even on a first viewing, there's at least one who recognizes where the filmmakers might be manipulating us. The most recent made the comparison to reality tv.

Guess that stuff's educational.

library dvd
Bullet Train (2022)

Just as much fun as I expected when I wanted to go see it for my birthday last summer (alas). I mean—you can't expect it to make absolute sense if you're thinking of it as "realism," and a couple times it really does push your willingness to suspend belief—but man, it's worth it. What a nutty delight.

Link+ bluray

Mystery Men (1999)

Mystery Men is such a good example of how much excellence can utterly fail. You have a great cast doing great work. You have a solid aesthetic. You have excellent source material. You have buckets of soon-to-be-classic lines and bits. You have a plot that's (arguably) the right balance of comic-book big and comic-book stupid. And yet 1999 was not the right time. Certainly fighting against The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project—two zeitgeist-smashing films that generated repeat viewings—didn't help. And the pieces, while all excellent, don't hold together quite as strongly as they might have.

But me, I still like it. And so, tonight, did sons 2 and 3. Even though the bluray has a TERRRRRIBLE sound mix. Awful! Dialogue is often drowned out (turn on those subtitles), weird noises appeared in some scenes that didn't seem diegetic, and the flaws weren't even consistent from cut to cut. I know for-home-theater remixes have been getting a lot of flak, but this was the worst I've heard.

Kind of fun to imagine a world where this and Godzilla turned Hank Azaria into an action star though, isn't it?

The movie is definitely of its time. It's largely referencing Tim Burton's Batman and its progeny (with some fun '66 villainry for fun). Absolutely it is time to think about returning to this work.

And this time.

Flaming Carrot, baby.

(Incidentally, I feel I should mention that this is the first movie I ever remember seeing with a biracial couple and it's just normal. It's not played for comedy or wokeness points or to make some political point—they're just married. I mean, if course you could argue it's any of those things and I won't pretend it's meaningless, but what it means is just more data about a tired marriage that we only see briefly. And it's beautiful. And I don't think I'd ever seen that before.)

Hawaiian Punch (2013)

This came up in an online conversation about whether there was any Mormon mumblecore. I would say this definitely qualifies. But not in a good way. Unlike The Puffy Chair, which I liked fine, this is full of a bunch of metafictionality functioning as crappy wallpaper ala The Zone. It's not as egregious as The Zone in that sense, but it does spend a lot of time showing the same things (an empty room, a soundless party, oldish twenty-somethings jumping off cliffs). It comes close to some interesting points but really let's just call this someone's experiment. It's okay to pass on it. It'll be forgotten either way.

I think I may have forgotten it alreeady.

link+ dvd
The Lady Eve (1941)

So happy to revisit Preston Sturges! Large S loves Sullivan and I figured we ought to get another one in while the fire was still hot. And this was recommended by a friend as the most immeidately accessible which matched my (less broad) experience as well.

I forgot how honestly sexy it is, but it was fine. Henry Fonda's sexual terror is the realest thing ever put to film.

It's a shame he didn't get deeper into comedies. He's excellent at being awkward and falling horribly. Coulda been a career.

library dvd
A Journey to the Beginning of Time (1955)

A young kid finds a trilobite fossil and his older friends, in order to explain it to him, take their boat through a cave in order to travel through time. After all, so many of Jules Verne's other notions had come true, why not this one?.

As they move downstream, they pass fro geologic age to geologic age. The first animal they see is a mammoth and the last is another trilobite at the shores of the great ocean, across which is creation.

Karel Zeman delights in jumping from technique to technique; from shot to shot, animals may be puppets or animatronics, miniatures or paper cutouts, actual wild footage or, maybe once, even a guy in a suit.

The movie makes no effort to be "realistic" but, as another filmmaker says in an extra feature, it is belieavable.

I could tell early on that this movie would have no jump scares, and I was right. It sometimes sets up for one, but it never carries through. Which I appreciate. Because it is a child's fantasy. And why would that require moments of sudden terror when they are creating it themselves?

I forget how I heard about Karel Zeman, but it was last year sometime and I found myself desparate to see Invention for Destruction and the only option appeared to be dropping sixty bucks on the Criterion three-movie set. Whch I didn't want to do. So I asked my library to. And they did. By then, I no longer remembered which film I'd primarily wanted to see, but a journey-to-the-center-of-the-earth-type film seemed like a safe bet. Having seen clips from all three in that interview I mentioned, this certainly is the safest. It's like a midcentury child's picture book about dinosaurs come to life. It reminds me of the books I owned in the 80s, and no just because all the dinosaurs dragged their tails along the ground, but something about the colors and compositions seems pre-Jurassic Park in the sense that it could never have been made afterwards. The visual vocabulary was changed and the general knowledge of dinosaurs had evolved.

Anyway. One last note:

I'd love to know if the stegosaur/allosaur battle intentionally referenced Fantasia because it sure seemed like it to me.

library dvd
A Journey to the Beginning of Time (1960)

Five years later, a English dub hit US shores thorugh the combined efforts of some educational groups. I had expected it to just be the same thing with new voices, but it starts eand ends quite differently. Instead of some country kids decided to travel back in time via boat, some boroughs kids cross a bridge into Manhattan and a magic wooden Indian at the museum puts a spell on them. And the ending, before they return to the museum with their waterlogged diary, their journey takes them alllll the way back, past bubbling volcanoes and into Genesis. That surprised me.

Other subtle differences stood out as well. For instance, when the Czech kids see the cave paintings, they realize the caveman they've been tracking is human too and they cease to fear him. The American kids think the paintings are cool, but remind each other about the axe and to stay on their guard.

All the new footage shoots the kids from behind but it's pretty well done and I don't think the 6yrold noticed. She enjoyed the movie and, partway through, got out a large piece of paper. Over the course of the movie, she and I then drew our own ancient animals. Our final piece features her woolly mammoth and my uintatherium. It's pretty nice. You'd be impressed. It's both day and night at once. So I guess we undid Genesis as well.

A Brief Record of My Father's Time at Sea (2021)

A woman finds her father's diary from his trip from China to Jamaica in the 1940s, where she would eventually be born. The documentary covers her family still in China, her family's time in Jamaica and Canada, her own time in all three places, and interviews older friends and relations who can still tell what it was like.

A great little snapshot showing how much things can change in eighty years on both sides of an ocean.

our dvd
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)

Honestly, I don't know how a movie could be any better than this movie. It has never failed to fill me with joy.

our dvd
Casablanca (1942) 1, 2

I don't know why I worry. The class votes for it. We start watching it. They don't laugh at the funny parts, they don't gasp at the surprising parts. Then I have to stop it with a halfhour to go and they cry out in literal pain because all they want is to finish it.

Terrific way to start the writing-about-film unit.

our dvd
The Maltese Falcon (1941) 1, 2

This one I haven't taught before and it had a harder time recovering after a twenty-three-hour interruption. Probably because the plot is even more complicated? It is a tough thing to follow. Especiially if you're used to spoonfed entertainment. Still. I would consider offering it again. I might just not schedule it first. Should I be worried this class gets Vertigo next?

library dvd
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (2019)

While not as excellent as his first feature, this is a worthy entry to the Shaun universe. The jokes are funny, the characters charming. The songs were mistakes but the references (Arrival, E.T., 2001, X-Files, Alien, etc etc) were fun. And sometimes oldschool. They fit some Chaplin in there. Which is good, because essentially Shaun is a silent-film star making silent films.

Anyway. While this movie did make me wish there was a market for 50-minutes films (probably the right length for this story), I still enjoyed it and still intend to catch the next Aardman film in theaters. (In the meantime, there's this. Incidentally, the director of that short is apparently directing an upcoming Aardman feature about her grandmother's time in WWII Poland, which deserves a ?!?!!?.)

Prime Video
It's a Wonderful Life (1946) 1, 2

I forget how, but in both AP Lit classes this semester It's a Wonderful Life came up and, among almost seventy students, only three had ever seen it. I was startled. I mean, I get it that we don't have to watch what's on tv anymore, but three is a very small number! So I made it an option in the writing-about-film unit to end the year and it was selected and now here I am, sitting in the back of the room weeping.

When the lights came back on, mine were not the only red eyes and the discussion was solid. Because of a special schedule, we didn't have enough time to read all the readings and the class chose this one about "the Mary problem" to read, which almost made me cry again. It's a terrific article, if you haven't read it. Ends, up knowing the rules of a genre (in this case screwball) offers the tools to understand Mary's "sad" spinsterhood in a new light. It'll make the movie even better for you.


our dvd
Vertigo (1958) 1, 2

This is a risky movie to show students. The slow start that made it less popular upon its release gets in the way of high-school students liking it as well. The creepy elements are designed to push this generation's buttons. And the ending can outrage. It did this time, but when they asked to see the European edit, they agreed the American finale was superior.

But even if they questioned it's place as one of the absolute createst films of all time, they had a lot to say and our discussion bore fruit. Shame it was a wacky schedule and we had less time than usual.

Soul Food Junkie (2012)

This documentary only just breaks an hour and so it reached a point where everytime it took a new turn I was amazed it still had time to cover it. Not because it was dragging or because I was anxious for it to be over but because I felt that it had already done so much and so thoroughly, how could it have time for more? It was like . . . a clown car of information (in a good way!).

Among the things covered are kinds of soul food, the history of the term, the history of the ingredients, the history of the people and the history of the filmmaker's family, a competition, the Civil Rights Movement, geography, health aspects, education aspects, food deserts, the intersection of eating and culture and family, evolving trends, and that's not even everything.

My only regret was that I couldn't leave the moment the film ended and go get something to eat.

Bambi (1942) 1, 2

I mean—I love Bambi. I don't always have the same experience (which is part of what makes it a great film) but I always have an experience.

This time, I could not stop thinking about the sound design. There is practically no foley in the movie. With few exceptions, the environment is created through orchestra and choral choices.

I started paying attention to this as the raindrops started falling. But not only are they musical, they're woodwinds! Not something percussive but woodwinds! In fact, the entire storm sequence is free of drums (though cymbals come in for the lightning and we get some chimes) and it just works. Perhaps because the musical choices are as impressionistic as Tyrus Wong's art.

Anyway, it's a masterpiece.

our dvd
Singin' in the Rain (1952) 1, 2

We had to pause for 24 hours mid-"Broadway Melody" and even stopping there outraged the class, most of whom have never seen any musical before. And they loved the movie.

I regret one of the readings which was too academic for people on a fun high, but the writings I've received so far were filled with joy.

Dang it. What could be better. This is a good movie.

Prime Video
You May Now Kill the Bride (2016)

I have a pile of issues with the script, but towards the end it almost got to De Palma. If it weren't made-for-tv and some of the constraints were off, it could have been more successful. My biggest issue is that the beginning seems like a classic cheat for building suspense. But it isn't. It's something else. And I didn't figure that out until we got to the credits. Yes, the credits.

It did have one really terrific match cut, though, which I'm always in favor of. More match cuts please!

I liked this song, too.

link+ dvd
Pom Poko (1994) 1, 2

So I've seen this four times now and while I appreciate what it's got going for it, I think I've decided . . . I don't really like it.

library dvd
Cabaret (1972) 1, 2

This is a first-time viewing for me and it was both just what I expected and not at all. I guess I thought it would be more like Chicago, as they seemed to share an aesthetic and probably some themes and musical stylings and so forth. And I guess that's all true, but Chicago more of a true musical. I don't actually remember Chicago that well—Lady Steed and I saw it in theaters back in 2002. I didn't like it much. I liked the "Mr. Cellophane" number (it introduced me to John C. Reilly) and the women were pretty (I don't remember thinking this but I probably did), but the story was slight and stupid, as I recall. Didn't stop it from winning Best Picture, of course.

Anyway, I found Cabaret a much more interesting picture. The story wasn't slight so much as subtle. This is a movie that lays out plenty of dots but doesn't do much connecting. And it plays in echos such that I suspect I can't really know what certain things met until I see the first varietal after the final. (In other words, a second viewing.)

I certainly see what Liza Minnelli was a movie star. She has plenty of charisma. Although this brand of charisma doesn't equal attraction. She's about equal measures attractive and repelent.

Anyway, Weimar Berlin is long gone.

library dvd
Cooley High (1975) 1, 2

I get why it's historically important, but it didn't really work for me. Moments did, but not stretches. Kids being kids, etc etc. Plus, I get no nostalgic kick outta kids doing things they ought not be doing. So I'm not really the audience.

That said, I suspect this film will mellow in my memory to something quite wonderful. The faces and the relationships will rattle around, shaking all the lesser things to the bottom of the jar so that when I glance in I will only see the things they liked.

I finished my first viewing only three hours ago and already I can feel it happening.

library dvd
Clueless (1995) 1, 2

Honestly, I basically stand by everything I said last time.

Previous films watched












The tyranny of getting stuff in the right order


First, I screwed up and left off a book. So I'm putting it in where it should have gone, then getting back on track and ending with, wait for it, another motion picture masterpiece (!).


051) On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder, finished May 8

As with last year, I read this book in class with my AP Lang students. And it was still a solid way to bring discussion and some interesting writing. But noticeably less so. And while there are undoubtedly several reasons for this, one is certain: even just twelve months later, the Trump era is already falling into the past. This book was released in 2017 and Snyder's conceit is that we are all midshock. But that's not true for my students. 2016 was almost half their life ago. Think about your political awareness in fifth or sixth grade. Whatever was happening then, by the time you became an upperclassman, is just what the past was like. They can't be shocked about Trump any more than I can about Iran-Contra. And so while they get why it matters, Snyder's rhetorical stance is already fading.

Which is fine. It's another thing I can teach about. But it's also a little depressing. These kids' normal-to-be-changed was, not so long ago, a normal we must prevent. And only mostly succeeded at doing so. And the battle's not over. The battle is now normal life as we know it.

As we expect our adulthood to always be.

most of the semester

057) Superman Smashes the Klan by Gene Luen Yang and Guruhiru, finished May 13

Man, when Gene Luen Yang is at the top of his game, he is unstoppable. This is among the best Superman stories I have ever read. It's based on a story from the radio show that is often credited with quashing the Klan's post-WWII resurgence. I'd love to hear that sometime. I should go looking for it.

I only heard about that storyline recently. I also checked out a nonfiction book but it wasn't as focused as I wanted and, um let's just say it's for a younger audience. That's true of this book as well but it transcends that audience designation.

The story has all the elements you'd expect from someone trying to tell a story that's good for you, but this isn't checklist writing. This is an excellent writer who means what he says and is using the correct tools (eg, Superman) for the task.

His afterword is likewise excellent. Also moving. And a bit more personal.

There's a lot of history that I didn't learn in school. Reading books like this can save the next generation from similar ignorance. And they will read it because it's a freaking awesome Superman story.

Somebody make this into a movie, geez.

an evening

058) Four in Hand by Alicia Mountain, finished May 17

My latest free grab from LibraryThing is this collection of four sonnet crowns (heroic crowns, technically). I hadn't heard of the form before learning of this book and I didn't anticipate liking the form. And maybe in other hands I would not, but I loved Alicia Mountain's, They are excellent.

(it looks better on the watercolor-paper cover than in jpg)

Well, three of them are excellent. In one, the sonnets get but one word per line and, while it's a good poem, it seems like a waste of the form. But that's me.

The others are great, even the fourth which is composed entirely out of lines lifted from emails she received from Merrill Lynch. The first is a paean to lesbian longing, the third about family. But all four have overlapping interests.

Plus, I just loved the form. I'm intrigued by it and want to visit that playground.

And Alicia's voice is terrific. I just started reading Matthew Zapruder's Why Poetry and his early emphasis on taking poets' words literally I a) loved and b) found applicable to Mountain's simultaneously plain and ranging style.

two days

059) The Glob by John O'Reilly and Walt Kelly, finished May 20

The world is full of marvelous things! For instance, this bit of nonsense based on stories O'Reilly told his kids about evolution. Essentially, one immortal creature goes from crawling out of the ocean to founding the first town, becoming more human along the way as he picks up a pet dog and invents words and music and a joke and so on.

It's okay. But Kelly's illustrations elevate it to something consistently charming and fun and worthy of attention. It's a good pairing.

It's also short enough to know when it's done. Which is too say, each eon and the book as a whole finishes before you have a chance to grow tired of it. (Technically, it's too short to make the list, but it's too fun to leave off.)

perhaps a week

060) Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities by John Warner, finished May 24

So I love this book. And I have loved it since about the time I started reading it. And you should know: I don't buy books on pedagogy. And I don't read them when they are given to me. I almost always disagree with them foundationally. But not this time. As I read this book, I often sat down to send out a flurry of tweets in solidarity with John Warner. I may well have sold more copies of Why They Can't Write than Byuck.

To repeat: my philosophy of teaching writing is aligned with Warner's. But me, I haven't made the time to think so thoroughly about pedagogy. (Writing twice-weekly here, for instance, would help get one's thoughts in order.)

My entire AP Lang course was built on suggestions Warner made, but, more importantly, having his clear language in my corner when discussions arise as to how one best teaches English class has emboldened me to speak up. I always knew I was right, but now I have a teammate.

Among Warner's many excellent suggestions, we can find ones on audience and prompts and rewriting and grading and other in-the-classroom whatsits, as well as observations on larger issues such as the payment of teachers of writing in our universities.

I savored this book as I read it, keeping it one my teacher desk, rather than carrying it with me and rushing through. It is filled with underlinings and marginalia and postits, and it will continue to influence my teachering as long as I stick with the profession.

I could say more or give examples, but I don't want to distract too much from my enthusiastic endorsement. Let my emotional alliance to this short and friendly book persuade other teachers to give it a read. It has a lovely cover and will look nice on your shelf or desk or in your hand.

We all know American students are terrible writers. And we also know that the traditional fixes are worthless. So let's stop digging in and just let the kids write. Let's give them assignments that are too interesting not to excel at and let's watch them persuade themselves to grow.

I mean: let's.

likely over four years

061) Less by Andrew Sean Greer, finished May 25

First, it was the excellent cover that caught my eye. Then it was a Pulitzer. Then Lady Steed read it and was distinctly underwhelmed. And then four years passed. And now I have read it. And I'm a bit underwhelmed myself. Which is disappointing as I so badly wished to like it. And because it would seem to be exactly the sort of book I would like. I feel that way even more strongly now that I've read it.

One of the things I was intrigued by was hearing that the last word of the book was an amazing revelation, a real tearjerker, an emotional faucet. Hearing that, I knew exactly what that last word must be. And hearing this, I expect you now do as well. And I didn't mind knowing where it was headed.

In fact, the third third of the book was when I most liked it. Until the end, the unveiling of the narrative twist. Although I wouldn't go so far as to calling it cheating, it's dang close. I can make excuses for all the ways it's sneaky but I don't believe those excuses. And they project that final-word ending a bit too much. And the phrasing of the final ten words turns that final word (and thus the novel) into something of a shaggy dog.

I liked a lot about this book. And I would love to own Arthur Less's suit. But too much hangs on a narrative gimmick. And the book would have been strong enough without that gimmick.

One thing distinctly unsurprising to learn upon finishing the novel is that my suspicion it was essentially autobiographical was correct. You give me this kind of picaresque and a protagonist who is a novelist writing a novel similar to the novel I'm reading, and I just have to assume. None of this is a crime, of course, but but it is something like one of those penalties in some race that goes on and on and on.

If the world were smaller, Less would make me read more Greer. But the world is large and I have many other books waiting to be read.

Still. So many things I liked. And we should all rejoice when a comic novel wins a Pulitzer.

a small number of weeks

062) Children of the Woods by Ciano/Hixson/Stevens/Otsmane-Elhaou, finished May 27

A use of the occult to be about everything from teen trauma to addiction to the handing down of abuse to cutting to you name it. Lots of interesting moments but it didn't really add up to anything for me.

at the library

  063) The Making of Another Major Motion Picture Masterpiece by Tom Hanks, finished May 29

I heard of this book through a terrific interview with the author. His first book got great press and blurbs but I'm always slow to pick up collections and besides, why does Tom Hanks need my attention?

(Bad news on the novel, incidentally: it's really good.)

But this interview was too intriguing not to put it on hold at the library, where it showed up much quicker than anticipated, so I dug right in.

The conceit of the book is that a fellow whose book was made into a movie by the great Bill Johnson is invited to the set of Bill's next movie with the idea that he will write a book about the making of that movie. And this is the result.

But it starts decades earlier in a small town in Northern California with a family whose connection to the major motion picture masterpiece is not at all clear, then coincidental, then central.

Then we meet character after character, each excellently drawn. It takes a long, long time to get to the making of the movie, but who cares? We like the people we're with. But then, once the movie is getting made, we feel the stresses of everyone working on set.

(The trick, incidentally, to making it in the pictures business is two-fold: solve more problems than you make and be on time. This is good advice for any field of endeavor, really.)

There are a handful of choices Hanks makes that feel a bit amateur but then there are brilliant little touches like writing OO7 instead of 007 which are smart and just right. And the whole 400+ pages live. I kept wanting to pause my reading to hit IMDb up for more information on various characters. And so I had to keep reminding myself that none of them were real.

That's the kind of novel this is.

Incidentally, there's a QR code to the script Hanks wrote in order to write this novel. So I read that as well.

thursday, friday, saturday, monday



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