This Peanut Butter Falcon Flies

peanutThis was truly delightful, I’ve got such a smile on my face just thinking back on it. The Peanut Butter Falcon is a lovely character-based drama that exudes so much warmth and human connection, its utterly enchanting. It reminded me of 1970s American dramas that really effected me when I was growing up, films like Thunderbolt & Lightfoot, which… well, that film itself might seem an odd comparison, but films back then had such a sense of… character, that almost sneaks up on you. I’m not at all referencing any specifics in plot but more how mundane, ordinary characters on the run are shown on a journey both physical and internal, traveling through the world and meeting all sorts of memorable characters and forming deep connections. So many films nowadays get lost in the extraordinary, exalting the spectacular, and forget the truth and depth of just old-fashioned character drama. You don’t need action or spectacle, just put two interesting characters together, put them on a journey and see what happens. Watch how they react to the world around them and how the world reacts to them.

Newcomer Zack Gottsagen absolutely blew me away in the central role of Zak, a young man with Down’s syndrome who seems destined for a horrible ‘existence’ lost in institutional care until his dream of a future in the world outside is set into reality by his fellow care-home ‘inmate’ Carl (a typically brilliant, effortless Bruce Dern) who abets Zak’s bid for freedom. Once outside, Zak encounters Tyler (a shockingly good, frankly, Shia LaBeouf), somebody else who is also on the run, Tyler having wronged the wrong white-trash fishermen thugs. Tyler, consumed by self-loathing over the death of his brother, takes Zak under his wing, and through his experiences with Zak finds some kind of emotional redemption: Tyler saves Zak, Zak saves Tyler- its beautiful, really.

Over a few days as they share an adventure traveling across a deeply evocative river-basin delta of rusty old boats and abandoned economic ruin, they drink whisky, catch fish, find God, and slowly become like brothers. As well as the thugs, they are also pursued by Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) a nursing home employee who feels responsible for Zak and is trying to get him back to the nursing home before the authorities get involved. Tyler and Zak eventually convince her to join them on their little odyssey and… well, that’s about as far as I’ll go regards the plot. This film isn’t really about the plot, I mean, its all fairly predictable- its really about the relationships, the bonds between them. You don’t care about how ridiculous it all really is. Its a magical little movie.

Watching so many movies, and so many of them being bad, it can leave one really jaded, but its so great that films like this just redeem ones faith in the artform, redeem ones love for films in  general. This ones wonderful, this one’s a keeper (well, I actually watched this on Netflix, but you what I mean- if this were a disc, it’d be in prime position on the shelf and returned to often). I really, really enjoyed it, this one was great. 

 

Family Plot (1976)

family1This is from the Shelf of Shame, right? Yep, this is one of those titles that I’ve had sitting un-watched on the shelf for years- in this case, its included in a Hitchcock Blu-ray boxset that I bought back in Sept 2013, which is, gasp, almost seven years ago, now. Family Plot was Hitchcock’s final film and is generally regarded as one of his lesser films so I never had much incentive to watch it (there’s still two other films in that box I haven’t seen yet, so as Darth once said “The shame is strong with this box!” (or something like that). 

So why now? Well, funnily enough it was watching A Severed Head the night before that got me thinking about Family Plot. Now, this is something about going into films utterly blind, in particular. With A Severed Head I expected a horror film or a murder mystery and got neither, and for some reason I also thought Family Plot was a murder mystery, maybe something like Knives Out, and as its from the same era as A Severed Head I just thought it might be timely or fitting… Films of a certain period, whether it be 1960s, 1970s or 1980s etc, they all seem to share a certain commonality in fashions and casting, even if they are wildly different in subject. I think you can get into a certain mood or frame of mind- witness in my case how I’ll have a spell watching Film Noir or Hammer films, sometimes. 

So whats it about? Well,  Family Plot is a comedy thriller, a far cry from the suspenseful nail-biting thriller’s of Hitchcock’s heyday, which is possibly why it has been so ill-regarded. In a way this is really an indication of him being a victim of his own success, as what could really measure up to North By Northwest or Rear Window or Psycho or Vertigo (my personal favourite of his films)? What likely really damns Family Plot is how much it looks like a TV movie, really. There’s no sense of scale or real ambition; its a relatively simple story albeit with the usual Hitchcock twists, but I think this possibly works in the films favour, as it enables some of the characters to actually shine. Blanche (Barbara Harris, who is lovely in this) is a phoney psychic who cons gullible old people out of money, assisted by her cab-driver boyfriend Frank (Bruce Dern, brilliant as always). They hit paydirt with a $10,000 reward (well, this was 1976, remember) if they can track down a rich old woman’s illegitimate nephew who was hidden away to avoid family shame four decades ago. This nephew stands to inherit the Rainbird  family estate worth millions, and while Blanche tells the old woman she will use spirit-world contacts to help her track the nephew down, in reality it will be her boyfriend cab-driver posing as a lawyer doing the decidedly amateur detective work between his cab-driving shifts.

Hey, that sounds pretty fun. Yes it does, doesn’t it, especially when its Bruce Dern doing the sleuthing, that guy is so great in everything. It actually gets better, because the nephew they are after has changed his name to Arthur Adamson (William Devane in fine form) who is a reputable city jeweller by day and a devious kidnapper by night, or something like that. With his girlfriend Fran (Karen Black) he kidnaps wealthy people who he ransoms for diamonds. Adamson actually killed his foster-parents decades ago in a house fire (thus having to change his identity) so when he gets wind of Frank asking questions about him and tracking him down, he thinks its someone chasing down that old murder and decides that Frank and Blanche need to be done away with, especially as he has one last big kidnap in progress involving a Bishop (no, really).

Hmm, not bad. I know, right? Its really quite fun, and while it sits uncomfortably close to ‘TV-movie of the week’ territory in execution its really saved by the great cast. The supporting cast is pretty cool too, lots of familiar faces from TV cop shows of the period (which okay, only exacerbates the TV-movie feel of it, really, but you know, its certainly something of a nostalgic factor to it all). The film is quite witty too, and features a great sequence of Frank and Blanche’s car hurtling down a winding mountain road with no brakes and a stuck accelerator (the car having been tampered by one of Adamson’s goons). Going back to that ‘going into films blind’ I mentioned before, I think I’ll actually enjoy this one much more on second viewing, when I’m in the proper mindset of what to expect. Its a far better film than the frankly interminable Torn Curtain, another film from this Hitchcock box that I caught up with a while ago. 

Silent Running (1972)

silentrI first saw this film back during, oh, Christmas 1978 I think. The BBC was doing a season of sci-fi films over the holiday period, no doubt timely following the runaway success of Star Wars (which we in the UK, outside London at least, didn’t get to see until early that year).  The funny thing is, that movie season of pre-Star Wars sci-fi films would prove more interesting than many of the films that would actually follow Lucas’ space-opera in a wild sci-fi goldrush that has pretty much continued to this day. Other films during that movie season included Dark Star, a few 1950s classics, and Slaughterhouse Five. I remember the latter being somewhat odd, but would love to see it again, only it never seems to get an airing anywhere. But anyway, Silent Running…

Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running is a firm old favourite for many sci-fi fans, particularly those of my generation anyway, and there’s a few reasons for this. First and foremost is because of Douglas Trumbull himself, a guy who’s really something of a genre hero akin to the late Ray Harryhausen. I’m sure Trumbull would be embarrassed at a comment like that, but Trumbull was one of the effects supervisors on 2001: A Space Odyssey, and would later work on the visual effects of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: TMP, and set up the effects work on the seminal Blade Runner before working on the ill-fated production Brainstorm. Silent Running was Trumbull’s directorial debut.

Silent Running is a low budget/high concept movie. You don’t see so much of those any more. Usually its high budget/low concept these days.  In our era of throw-away, bubblegum blockbusters, such movies as Silent Running are a rarity. Highly ambitious in spite of its limited budget, Silent Running shares kinship with other such films of its time as THX:1138 and, more recently, Moon. Films with ideas and perhaps a cautionary message, something to linger in the viewers mind afterwards. Its not by chance that it also dates  from the early 1970s, that last great hurrah of the serious American Film. I believe the story has it that a Studio head, inspired by the success of low-budget/indie hit Easy Rider, gave a number of young promising film-makers a million dollars each to just go and make a movie. Trumbull went away and made Silent Running. It never made any money, so such noble and ambitious gestures as letting film-makers go and make movies was put away as a silly idea, and the Studios got on with other ways of making money and movies.

Sometime in the near (?) future, Freeman Lowell (Bruce Dern) is one of four astronauts on board the Valley Forge, a state-of-the-art spaceship which is part of a convoy carrying giant domes containing Earth’s last forests. In a prescient nod to the crew of the Nostromo, his fellow astronauts are bored employees, simply doing what is their job, numb to the importance of their mission. Lowell, however, loves the forests in the domes and sees his task as a noble enterprise, confident that one day they will be able to return the forests to the blighted Earth.

However, the stark truths of budget cuts and political expediency back home results in the mission being cancelled. The astronauts are instructed to jettison and destroy the domes and return to Earth. Lowell snaps and before the last dome on the Valley Forge can be destroyed, he kills his fellow astronauts and breaks away from the rest of the convoy, faking an onboard malfunction.

The remainder of the film is pretty much a character piece, in which Lowell spends his time with his only remaining company, three drones (who prefigure the design of R2 D2) who he renames Huey, Louie and Dewey. Trumbull cleverly adds nuances of character to these drones in how they behave and react to Lowell, and even eliciting some sympathy when one is destroyed and another damaged. Lowell instructs the drones on caring for the forest, and even programs them to play poker. Despondent and clearly feeling guilt at having killed his human crew-mates, Lowell becomes increasingly lethargic and detached, until  he discovers the forest is dying, and has to solve the crisis with the help of the drones.  Inevitably his crime catches up with him when the convoy tracks him down and he has only one course of action left to him in order to save the last remaining forest.

Naive has much of the film may seem today, its ecological theme nonetheless is as relevant now as it was back then, indeed, perhaps even more so. Its production design is clever and impressive, the miniature effects work fine if inevitably somewhat dated (although Trumbull did do one thing Kubrick failed to do in 2001, in bringing Saturn to the screen). When you really think about it the film kind of breaks down- there is no mention of artificial gravity or how the forests are expected to survive cosmic radiation or solar flares, or why the convoy is in deep space rather than Earth or Moon orbit, or the sheer costs of the enterprise. Maybe that is simply because of when the film was made, how innocent we were back then and more sophisticated now. Dern is simply magnificent in his role, but the other human actors come across as stilted, or even wooden, failing to convince. The drones, meanwhile, are simply wonderful and clearly a major inspiration for George Lucas and his team.  But the film is charming nonetheless.

Maybe its the music. I have no idea how well the music score translates away from the film, but Peter Schickele’s folksy score, complete with songs featuring Joan Baez, is incredibly evocative within the movie. Its a score which fits its movie like a glove. Very much of it’s post-sixties/hippy/folk-music era, on the one hand its horribly dated but on the other its just perfect, like another character in the film. I remember seeing a vinyl copy of the soundtrack in town once, many years ago, in a sale, and nearly bought it. Over the years since I have often regretted being too careful with my money, and always frustrated that it has never been released on CD.

On Blu-ray the film looks better than it ever has, but that’s not to say its without its problems. Most of it likely stems from the source, but much of the front projection work really suffers in HD, with wild grain buzzing around in places. Otherwise much of the normal live-action stuff, those shots  minus any of the processing work, look fine. A little soft in places but on the whole detail is otherwise excellent. I guess the film would look better after a full restoration but lets face it, that’s simply never going to happen with such a minor, ‘cult’ film as this.  Its certainly much better than any previous DVD release.

Extras are fine, mostly dating back to the earlier DVD releases, but it does include a great 48-page booklet with rare photographs and artwork, and some text interviews to accompany those on the disc. The Making of Silent Running, a 1972 on-set documentary nearly an hour long, is included, and is a sobering reminder of just how old this film is, and how impressive it is in retrospect.  In all its an excellent package, and even features an isolated music and effects to keep those of us curious about the score happy.