Monday, November 24, 2014


The twilight of the 80s saw a raft of "body swap" movies--what temperature of the times that trend takes exactly is open to your own reading. There was the Two Coreys vehicle Dream a Little Dream, the Kirk Cameron/Dudley Moore dud Like Father Like Son, the similar son/father switcheroo Vice Versa starring everyone's favourites, Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage, and, finally, George Burn's final film, 18 Again! Big, the story of twelve year old pipsqueak Josh Baskin being granted his wish to be "big" by an unplugged carnival game, is the odd log out in this raft. These others slabs of dead wood mostly concern the personality of a rebellious soul being exchanged for the soul of some stuffed shirt and in the end both souls realize the value of one another's lifestyle. Big also stands out because, twenty-five years later, it's still watchable. It's good.

You can only get so far on a tank of nostalgia. No one's calling Big great cinema here, but for what it is, and for where it's situated, it's a rare corker. It stands out and stands up because it takes its absurd premise seriously. All body swap movies have that scene where the passenger sees themselves in the mirror and doesn't recognize the vessel. But beyond that initial forehead slap, the emotional effects of "the swap" become moot. However, Big spends some real time with the fear and loneliness attending Josh's transformation. Yes, there's silly string and inflatable dinosaurs and floor pianos to remind you that Josh is a child in a man's body, but there's also Josh scared for his life in a New York flophouse, terrified of the situation he's found himself in. And there's Mrs. Baskin believing that her son has been kidnapped by Tom Hanks, fearful that Tom Hanks is harming him. Even beyond the situational fear, there's the undercurrent of adult dread, of being ill-equipped--at whatever age, however big--for the real world. When Josh breaks it to Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) that he's really twelve, she parries with: "You think there isn't a frightened kid inside of me, too?"

Of course, Big isn't really and won't be remembered for the current of fear of the adult world that runs through it. Hanks and Robert Loggia performing "Heart and Soul" on the giant floor piano in F.A.O. Schwartz. If we're not willing to call Big classic cinema, I think we can at least agree that that scene is classic. Hanks' floppiness and Loggia's initial debonairness that gives way to childish abandon alone elevates Big from the body swap dross it came up with. Director Penny Marshall, while not an auteur by any stretch of the imagination, but she's adept at making otherwise run-of-the-mill popular movies feel classic. It's that touch of class, I think, mixed with how serious it takes its absurdity, is why we still watch Big and probably wouldn't buy Dream a Little Dream for $2 from a box in a gas station.

And if we want to get really specific about it, I think the source of Big's indefatigable charm can be found with Josh belly down on his flophouse bed, watching TV and tonguing the filling out of Oreos. Hanks performs this bit of business where he's mindlessly flopping his foot behind him, brushing his toes against the wall. Eating the whites out of the Oreos is fish in a barrel when it comes to showing there's a kid in Tom Hank's body, but there's something so special and specific about Hanks' idle foot business that captures childhood and childishness perfectly. When it's at its best, Big doesn't just succeed at reminding you of your own childhood, but of childhood itself.

- Andrew

Monday, November 17, 2014


Future-bound, still aboard the bobbing Arabella, the Hon. John Winthrop Esq. addressed his "great company of Religious people, of which Christian tribes he was the Brave Leader." Their check was in the mail: Winthrop and the Puritans had not yet reached the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had not yet fully added themselves to the American Experiment. Still on the Atlantic, Winthrop described the gas that would fuel this new world: Christian Charity. Famously, Winthrop declared that this new community would be a City on the Hill--a nod to Matthew 5:14 - 16--a forward model for the backwards world they were then quitting. 

"We must delight in each other," he said, "make others conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in that work, as members of the same body."

Winthrop's nautical address has become a canonical contribution to the idea of American Exceptionalism--an ongoing belief that America is inherently different, essentially more blessed than any other nation, that it has managed to unmanacle itself from history. "You are the light of the world," goes the Matthew passage, seeming to give America a pre-game pep-talk in this context. "A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."

At a sober distance--to us who, say, live at the base of the hill--that idea has become mostly risible. But of course there are still plenty of Americans who believe in this warp and woof exceptionalism. And that camp would seem to be divided into those who believe exceptionalism to be a constant state and those who believe that it must be constantly renewed, protected, and fought for. It's been nearly 400 years since Winthrop described his and his people's perfect project and the said lamp on said stand is severely guttering, maintained by so few. Jay Reinke, the subject of Jesse Moss's fantastic new documentary, The Overnighters, is one such person, his hands cupped around that struggling flame.

In the film, desperate, lost, Steinbeckian men flock from all over the country to the oil fields of North Dakota for work, pooling largely in the small town of Williston. Pastor Reinke opens up his church and his parking lot to the migrants, the grand majority of whom are good, respectful men looking for the good, respectful life assured to them by the American Exceptionalism. While the consternated residents of Williston receive these unrequested men with coldness and suspicion, Pastor Reinke receives them with warmth and patience. His church becomes a sort of Shanty Town on the Hill, much to the often hypocritical chagrin of the actual town. As Williston and its residents attempt to hobble Reinke's compassionate efforts through social and legal pressures, the Pastor does his best to soften the situation, going door to door, holding meet and greets; he advises the men--The Overnighters, as they're dubbed--on how to avoid conflict with the townspeople. Talking with one Overnighter, Rainke urges him to simply get a haircut. Even a trim would make him less threatening in the eyes of the put upon community. 

"Didn't Jesus have long hair?" the man asks, in one the more casually poignant exchanges of the doc.

Reinke concedes, adding "Jesus didn't have our neighbours."

The trouble with a passive view of American Exceptionalism is it tacitly implies that there's something wrong with those who aren't thriving. It's a system that can't recognize its own failure. Ostensibly Moss set out to document the dual bankruptcy and success of the American Experiment--or, if not the failure, then the ongoing findings--and through meeting the Overnighters, the Willistonians, and Pastor Reinke, he succeeds at detailing all the rocks, all the hard places. In this way, the doc comes wrapped with a bow: The City on the Hill is crumbled, and this one astoundingly tolerant man is doing his best to salvage what few little corners he can. Of course, being the only one in the heaps of fallout, Reinke can't help but draw the wrong kind of attention to himself.

What could have easily been suited to a ten minute reportage for TV explodes and distorts, however, and Moss is suddenly dealing with not necessarily a different story, but a much more nuanced and complicated one. The thrill that Moss must have felt as his story organically and unsuspectingly opened up is palpable. One can't say too much, as there really is a walloping human twist here, the likes of which are becoming increasingly rare in a genre that's become bloated with essays and agendas and foregone conclusions. But the plastic cover does get popped off compassion and charity, exposing the unsightly snarl of wires that makes it go. The revelation and inspection of these tangled workings transforms The Overnighters from a perfectly fine documentary about a nation struggling to fulfill the promise of its founding to a much deeper look at goodness and compassion, at the failure to live up to expectation, to be honest about the past, to be free from it without ignoring it.

Much of American pride is located more in idea more than deed. The lofty aspirations of the founders are cited more than they are ever tangibly employed, and so much national chaffing seems to come from how a person is and how a person thinks they should be. The Experiment's hypothesis is clung to, the findings largely ignored. On the Arabella, Winthrop implored his boatmates to make others' conditions their own, but what happens when you open yourself to the flaws and struggles of others when you yourself and flawed and struggling? Moss couches us in this conflict with The Overnighters, making for one of the most outward-looking and inward-looking documentaries you're likely to see.

- Andrew 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Guelph Movie Club: Absurdly Quick Growth Spurt Edition

It’s Episode 22 of Guelph Movie Club. Gosh, how quickly you’ve all grown (not terrifying-carnival-fortune-teller-overnight-growth-spurt quick, but you know). We’re watching Big. Big is a personal favourite of mine, so good on you for picking it. It’s Tom Hanks at his pre-serious Tom Hank-i-ness. It’s just good stuff.

On Thursday November 27th at 9:00 p.m., come be a kid again – just for the night. It’s Hanksgiving.

Deep Breath: Next month is Christmas. Depending on your outlook, that’s awesome or terrifying. On the plus side, we’ll be doing our Christ Movie Club. We’ll have more details on the particulars on the 27th.

I try and always use this last paragraph for a plea for awesomeness. In the no particular order, The Bookshelf, Guelph Movie Club, and you are awesome. Spend some money at the Bookshelf – they deserve it because they’re terrific. Come to Movie Club – it’s only as good as the people in the seats, so be one of those people. You. We like you. Come watch a movie with us.

'Til then, see you at the movies!

- Danny

Sunday, November 9, 2014


One of my favourite lines in all of anything comes from Lorrie Moore's story "The Jewish Hunter" from her 1990 collection Like Life. Odette, a forty-year-old poet is set up with Pinky Eliot, a farm lawyer while on a library fellowship in the boonies. Like most Moore characters, Odette is a bit too eccentric for her own good, struggles to be understood by and find happiness with regular people. But Pinky, a regular person with a slightly bizarre interest in WWII, falls for her, views her oddness as affectation instead of who she really is. "Everything's a joke with you," he says one night, after she laughs at an attempt of his to open up, to be serious.

"Nothing's a joke with me," Odette explains. "It just comes out like one."

It's this line--this line that sums up the struggles of the inherently sarcastic, the naturally odd; a club I consider myself a member in good standing with--that kept caroming in my head while watching The Skeleton Twins. Though one of the funniest movies I've seen in a while, it's incredibly serious.

Twins notoriously establish their own language, understood only by each other--idioglossia, if you want to learn a new word today--and Milo and Maggie Dean (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), dubbed by their somewhat macabre father "The Gruesome Twosome," communicate almost entirely in their own idioglossia: sarcasm. Sarcasm is the shared lens through which these odd balls see the world. After ten years without talking to each other--being brought back together by Milo's attempted suicide, the call about which interrupted Maggie's attempted suicide--it's through tongue-in-cheek wryness that Milo and Maggie begin to reacquaint themselves with each other.

In the past ten years, Milo has detrimentally stayed true to himself, and Maggie has detrimentally tried to be a different person. They're miserable and lost, each with a closet full of individual and shared (ahem) skeletons. They root through their own and each other's closets with the sardonic distance of teenagers killing time in a store, making fun of everything on the shelves.

If this sounds grim and annoying, don't sweat it. The back and forth between Hader and Wiig, who shared about a decade together on Saturday Night Live, never gets tiresome. If the load is weighty, the delivery's always swift and light. Their sarcastic bandying, while indefatigably entertaining, manages to convey an always relevant depth and nuance. The sarcasm shared between the two is, all at once, a coping mechanism, a defense mechanism, and also a legitimate way of talking about yourself and the world with someone you trust understands you.

Much like a Moore story, the "story" isn't always the strong point of The Skeleton Twins. Estranged siblings, disillusionment, a family secret: it's Indie Film 101. While it might sound trite on paper, the integrity of Hader and Wiig's performances steer the film away from those tired indie tropes. The stand-outs of a limp decade of SNL, Hader and Wiig excelled at giving depth to what would otherwise be shallow goofs. As zany as they might have gotten in their wigs and costumes and accents, Hader and Wiig always managed to play characters in a show rife with caricatures. In a genre that's becoming a bit stale, The Skeleton Twins is refreshingly fresh. This is thanks to the supporting cast as well. Luke Wilson submits one of his best performances here, as Maggie's hapless husband--described perfectly as a golden retriever--drawing a good deal of pathos from what might a cardboard cut-out.

And, like a Moore story, you get so charmed by the oblong characters that you can forget that that humour is both a cover for and a product of a profound hurt, of a troubled lostness. In The Skeleton Twins nothing's a joke, even if everything's hilarious.

- Andrew

Sunday, November 2, 2014


Thanks to everyone who played dress up this Halloween for our Dress With Wes evening. Here are just a few highlights.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Calling myself a Nick Cave fan would be an insult to all those Nick Cave fans, who have been with the Aussie from The Birthday Party days, with the The Bad Seeds, and Grinderman, who have autographed first editions of And the Ass Saw the Angel and The Death of Bunny Munro. But I just put on The Lyre of Orpheus for the first time and a long time. Mostly gentle and dozy, that album was released as a pair along with the aggressive and dark Abattoir Blues, and this this coupling goes a long way describing the sometimes conflicting variety of Cave's. Nick Cave's kind of a weird old house, but with many ways to get there and countless points of entry. If you're more traditionally minded, you come in through 1996's Murder Ballads, and once in can find something for yourself in previously thought out there Grinderman. Now, 20, 000 Days on Earth, makes for another means of getting in.

Fans of Cave couldn't ask for a better floor plan of that weird old house that he is. 20, 000 Days on Earth consists of conversations, monolgues, therapy sessions, recording sessions, all of which never quite feel completely off the cuff, but never feel completely prepared. In therapy with a nodding Alain de Botton, Cave recounts stories of Nina Simone, or his father enthusiastically reading Lolita to him as a child. Driving through the rain, Cave ruminates at the wheel in a way that may bring Matthew McConnaughey's recent commerical for Lincoln to mind. An ever-greying The Bad Seeds record the new album Push The Sky Away. Cave sifting through his own past--literally going through archives--manages to tell an implied story of how eccentricities refine and mature when a person isn't destroyed by them.

20, 000 Days on Earth amounts to a collage, addressing being an artist and being a performer; the nature of creation, and the nature of being creative. "All of our days are numbered," says Cave in the film. "We cannot afford to be idle. To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all. Because to worth of an idea never becomes apparent until you do it." It's not likely that the uninitiated will run out and buy Cave's whole discography after viewing the film, but, spurned on by the character and sensibility and spirit of the guy, keep in mind that there's something out there for everyone. And while the aesthetic may change, it all comes from the same place, is a product of the same 20, 000 or so days.

- Andrew