I’m grateful every day to have a job that observes the largely superfluous privilege of Labor Day. I spent most of the weekend recovering from “con crud” and saving up energy and money for future chores and exploits. It was nice to have the time and excuse to make headway into my infinite viewing pile — with my wife’s blessing, no less. I’ll make a point of mowing the lawn some other week, just for her.
The weekend’s results, in no particular order:
* The Station Agent (Netflix): Before Game of Thrones, and slightly before his winning scene in Elf, Peter Dinklage starred in this 2003 indie, a low-key character piece about a railroad enthusiast who retreats to small-town New Jersey after his best friend dies and his model-train hobby shop is sold off. His attempts at hermitage are thwarted daily as life pushes other people into his path — a happy-go-lucky food-truck runner (Bobby Cannavale), a separated wife and grieving mother (Patricia Clarkson), a teen librarian with a secret (frequent Oscar nominee Michelle Williams), an unassuming young black girl, the backwater citizens who mock his stature, and Mad Men‘s John Slattery in a bit part as a disgruntled husband. Dinklage barely talks, letting his doleful gaze speak or deflect for him, but he slowly emerges from inner captivity as the tracks are laid for new connections to new friends, each overlooking the others’ outward differences and recognizing their inner wounds.
* Mean Girls (Netflix): I’ve never had the nerve or any good reason to buy any other Lindsay Lohan movies over the counter, but the magic of Netflix lets me stream movies at home without anyone’s knowledge unless I confess in public. Compared to spiritual forebears like Heathers and Clueless, Mean Girls trumps them with a sharp script from costar Tina Fey, a cast of other SNL vets (Poehler! Meadows! Gasteyer!) and future big names (Amanda Seyfried! Lizzy Caplan! Rachel McAdams from The Notebook! Diego Klattenhoff from The Blacklist!), and…why am I telling you this? I’m sure you saw this years ago. You probably quote it three times a week. If you’ve held out longer than I did, and if you’ve ever wanted to track down the origins of present-day internetspeak, your anthropological trail leads straight through here. And true to its word, ten years later “fetch” still hasn’t happened.
* Blackfish (Netflix): The acclaimed documentary that ruins any warm mental image you might hold of Sea World as a charming bucket-list attraction. I knew there would be interviews about “trained” killer whales gone wild in general and a rap-sheet history of one whale in particular, but I didn’t expect original, traumatic footage of trainer damage that in a few cases stops mere seconds short of depicting their precise moment of death. I thought it curious that a few injured yet living parties weren’t interviewed for this, but the filmmakers lined up plenty of alarming testimony from other former trainers who abandoned their dream job when they peered too closely into the backstage darkness.
* 12 Angry Men (Criterion Blu-ray): Director Sidney Lumet’s 1957 debut became a Best Picture Oscar nominee and definitive jury-room classic, despite poor box office returns. Reginald Rose’s screenplay was an extended version of an earlier work of his, a 1954 episode of the drama anthology Westinghouse Studio One. I’d already seen the movie previously, but I finally made time to watch the episode as one of several extras on the Criterion Collection edition. The episode’s cast included Robert Cummings, Franchot Tone, Joseph Sweeney (the only actor to appear in both versions), and Norman Fell two decades before Three’s Company. As directed by Franklin Schaffner (Patton, Planet of the Apes), the camera is less claustrophobic and intense, with fewer closeups and more distant group shots, but the intensity of the dialogue carries on unabated. The original TV version also eschews inspirational closure in favor of a more ambiguous ending, with the holdout juror’s decision and the defendant’s fate left ultimately unanswered. Lumet’s version is better in every possible way, but the original is worth a look to movie history fans.
* Bernie (Netflix): From a distance, it looks like another frivolous Jack Black vehicle. Up close, it’s an overlooked gem from Richard Linklater (whose critically revered Boyhood is still in theaters) based on the bizarre true story of an upright, beloved, faithfully Christian funeral director who befriended a possessive harridan of a widow (Shirley MacLaine, tightly drawn and wound-up), but found her so emotionally destructive that he murdered her in a moment of unthinking outrage. Then he successfully covered up the deed for a full nine months, spending that time and her money taking care of the townspeople who loved him but hated her. The town’s showboating D.A. (Matthew McConaughey, warming up for his subsequent personal renaissance) went all-out in his one-man crusade to put Bernie behind bars despite the outraged protests of his constituents, all of whom were certain that Bernie was innocent somehow, despite his full confession and the four bullet wounds in her garage-freezer-stored corpse. It’s a quaint true-crime recount; a cautionary tale about how sin can turn the life of even the holiest man topsy-turvy in a heartbeat; a character-study comedy whose laughs are justly earned without being vicious; a 1080p mirror of my own lovable down-home relatives; and, like Be Kind Rewind, an underrated Jack Black outing that deserved a wider audience. Easily my favorite of the weekend.
* Falling Skies two-hour season finale (TNT): Our Heroes acted so unbelievably pigheaded throughout Season 4 that I almost quit at least three times. When TNT announced next summer will be the final season, I decided to tough it out to the bitter end for the sake of easy completism. I was later impressed and drawn back in when Maggie was turned into a much cooler super-hero than Ben. The last four episodes also, surprisingly, addressed all my major complaints: Tom Mason was called out for wanting to hog all the action to himself; Lexi learned that maybe someone who’s only a few months old shouldn’t be permitted to make drastic life choices or murder others; Anne realized that giving Lexi ten or fifteen second chances was about nine or fourteen too many; Ben copped to his ill-timed schoolboy crush on Maggie; the lingering remnants of the Hitler Youth educational arc were burned to the ground; and the final hour delivered a lot more space-battle action and a bit less budget-constraint bottle-episode chatter. If Season 5 could do us the favor of coming up with just one truly magnetic, menacing villain with a personality, that would be a plus. And more Super-Maggie, please.
* Duck Soup (Netflix): I’ve never watched a Marx Brothers movie before, but I’ve had older online friends who cherished their Groucho quotes. Unfortunately, knowing those quotes in advance robbed me of some laughs, and what was left…wasn’t really my thing, even setting aside one dated joke about “darkies”. The brothers’ Dadaist escapades, flummoxing and pranking their way through crowds of defenseless rubes in barely connected scenes, felt like a trio of Borat impersonators at work. There were plenty of film-history reasons to watch, for what that’s worth — the “mirror scene” is more entertaining as a live-action two-man stunt than as a common animated gag, and now I have a vague idea of what the nondescript Zeppo looks like.
* Batman (discount Blu-ray): Sure, I’ve seen Adam West and Burt Ward before, but not in HD! Now I can make out Frank Gorshin’s pores, Burgess Meredith’s furry gloves, Cesar Romero’s buried mustache, and, most rewarding of all, the wide backgrounds that were chopped off in the old pan-‘n’-scan TV edits. Much as my wife and I would love to plunge into the complete-series boxed set coming in November, that initial triple-digit price tag means our classic Batman TV collection begins and ends here for now.
* Two episodes of Frasier (Netflix): Mostly harmless.