Movie review: East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden was on my to-see list for several years. I seemed to have escaped ever reading Steinbeck’s classic. A visit to Steinbeck’s museum in Salinas, California prompted me picking up The Grapes of Wrath, but time got away from me and his other books didn’t make it into my orbit.

A visit to Fairmount, Indiana last year with all of the James Dean sites and museum reminded me that I hadn’t actually seen a James Dean movie.

So it was with some delight that I saw East of Eden. Having not read the book, I really walked into the movie fresh, with no idea really of the plot. I also have no idea how true to the book the movie was. How well did the movie do with covering Steinbeck’s story? That will have to wait for another time.

East of Eden is set in Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula—not very far apart geographically but they seem to occupy entirely different worlds. The story is set just prior to the US entry into World War I. Railroads connect the two worlds of the farmland of Salinas with the city of Monterey, with James Dean’s character (Caleb) hitching rides to get from one world to the other.

Railroads were also the defining moment for the fertile farmland in California’s Central Valley. If only there was a way to keep produce fresh during transport from the California farmland to places back east. Caleb’s father tinkers with the idea of putting lettuce on ice for transport by rail. Unfortunately, his attempt ends in failure; he bet heavily on his idea and lost.

East of Eden uses this backdrop to explore ideas of identity, the self-made man, and parent-child relations. Caleb is the bad child compared to his perfect brother Aron. References to Cain-Abel are stark. Caleb doesn’t kill Aron but rather eclipses him. As the story progresses, Aron becomes the sulky one, brooding and beset with troubles. Caleb steals the heart of Aron’s betrothed. In the end, Caleb assumes the long-desired place in his father’s heart.

Caleb is bedeviled by the role he seems to be forced to play. Others see him and thus he sees himself as the bad brother, a disappointment to his father and to everyone else. He assumes this interpretation of himself and becomes obsessed with the idea that his badness was inherited. His mother was long gone from the scene—died after childbirth. Or did she? Somehow Caleb suspects that she is still alive and tracks her down. As he suspected, he takes after his mother—a woman who refused to conform to the roles assigned to women at the time. She is a successful businesswoman. To break free of the constrains on women at the time, she had to leave her family and personal relationships behind.

After interacting with his mother, Caleb seems to accept himself more. He is like her. Genetics are destiny it seems. But he still strives for acceptance and love from his father—a highly unlikely source of either. He devotes himself to helping his father succeed in his endeavor to send fresh produce east. His father partially accepts his hard work and inventive ideas.

After seeing his father’s money and dream disappear when the venture ends in failure, Caleb uses his talent and skills to earn back the money his father lost. He takes advantage of the times, knowing that the US entrance into World War I would result in increased food prices. Borrowing money from his mother, he invests—along with a partner—in produce futures. At a birthday celebration for his father, he presents his father with the money. Sadly, his attempt to receive love and acceptance fails. He and his work are rejected by the high morals of his father who views benefiting from the high prices caused by the war as immoral.

Advised by others to leave the area and the family, Caleb seems destined to strike out on his own. But fate intervenes. On what will apparently be his deathbed after a stroke, his father asks Caleb to stay and care for him. Caleb, the wayward son continually rejected by others, seems like a vulnerable little boy who has finally received what he needed all along: love and acceptance from his father.

As his first major film, James Dean played the role of Caleb well. Critics point out that he played sulky teenagers well but that was all he played; his accolades may be misplaced. Perhaps if Dean lived, we would have discovered that this was the only type of role he could play. Or perhaps we would have discovered that he really was a great actor with a wide repertoire. We will never know.

I enjoyed the acting Dean brought to the role as well as the film in general. The themes explored were engaging and the film shots interesting, sometimes off kilter at an angle. I am looking forward to watching his other films…and reading more Steinbeck.


Movie review: Incredibles 2 (2018)

Often sequels are a bad idea. Incredibles 2 is not one of those bad ideas. The movie is quite engaging and entertaining. I loved the expressions on Baby Jack-Jack’s face, the ways he kept his dad up all hours of the night, and his stay with Aunt Edna—the family’s designer of their superhero suits. I liked Aunt Edna (aka Edna E Mode) too.

At the opening of the movie, our superhero family is in the midst of saving the world: father Mr. Incredible, mother Elastigirl, daughter Violet, son Dash, and baby Jack-Jack. (In all fairness, Jack-Jack wasn’t involved in any world saving. Yet.) They, of course, save the day. But the villain gets away. And the world doesn’t rejoice.

In fact, supers—as superheroes are called—are illegal. Throughout the world. They are banned due to the damage they inflict on the world.

But a billionaire businessman of a telecommunications company approaches them, offering to be their sponsor of sorts. His late father loved superheroes and had phones with direct lines to them. This is before the supers were banned. According to this businessman (Winston Deavor), all supers need is good PR. Then the public would come to their senses and make supers legal again.

How to run this PR campaign? Well, Mr. Incredible is all gung-ho to get started. But no, no. As a man, Mr. Incredible would not do as the face of the campaign. But his wife, Elastigirl, would. An interesting twist of events that parallels the rise of female superheroes in other recent movies, female politicians in the US, and women actors. Yes, 2018 was the year of the woman, even cartoon women.

The PR campaign is rather a commentary on the role of women in movies. Once upon a time, a lead role by a woman, especially in action movies or ones involving heroes that save the day, was unheard of. Strong women were not seen as good box office draws—until actually it turned out that they were. Incredibles 2 clearly pokes fun at this with the PR campaign that focuses on putting Elastigirl front and center.

It really isn’t all that radical for a wife and mother to be working or the sole breadwinner. This is the late 2010s. But I felt that I had fallen down a wormhole back to the 1980s. (In fact, I had. The Incredibles movies are set in the 1960s/1970s.) Mr. Incredible was crushed that he wouldn’t be out there battling villains. He had to take second seat to his wife and relinquish the limelight to her.

He belatedly offered to stay home and take care of the kids: helping them with their new math homework, fixing relationship problems, and watching the baby constantly. He seemed to be a bit insecure and nurse a fragile ego. And, of course, there were jokes about the work to care for kids as not being hard work (until he actually had to do it).

The daughter Violet deals with her own relegation to the stereotypical lesser female role. She and her brother Dash are left to care for the baby. And then Dash leaves her to babysit. (Later she arranges things so he has to look after the baby while she goes off to fight the bad guys.)

All in all, Incredibles 2 was an enjoyable watch. I already miss Elastigirl answering a call from Dash about where his shoes were while she was on her motorcycle chasing bad guys, or Mr. Incredible staying up all night to learn new math so he could help Dash do his homework.

And I miss the artistic Edna Mode with her large glasses, pageboy haircut, and kimono. She is the quintessential creative designer type.

She causally notes that Mr. Incredible’s way of placating Jack-Jack and preventing him from transfiguration by giving him a cookie is not a good solution. “Any solution involving cookies will inevitably result in the demon baby.”

Her solution is a creative one. Whenever Jack-Jack bursts into flames from anger, his superhero suit encases him in a fire retardant. “The fire retardant is blackberry-lavender, darling. Effective, edible, and delicious.”

I am already looking forward to another sequel. I hope it doesn’t take as long as the last one (fourteen years). I need more Edna in my life.

Movie review: The Incredibles (2004)

Action movies. Animation. The two come together in The Incredibles. Either genre has die-hard followers—think of the influx of action movies in the past decade or the movies of Hayao Miyazaki such as Spirited Away. I occasionally enjoy a well-made action or animated movie, but I am not a rabid fan of either. (Well, Spirited Away might be the exception.)

But I LOVE The Incredibles.

I am not sure why it took me so look to watch this 2004 film. Perhaps because of the oversaturation of action, super-hero movies and the fan-base that goes with them. (I do tend to shy away from the latest fads gripping popular culture until years after the hubbub has died away.)

The Incredibles is set in the 1960s—home décor screams the colors and designs of that era and the division of labor by sexes suggests it too. Superheroes abound in the world but after the destruction that accompanies them saving the world, they are banned. Outlawed. The supers are relocated in witness protection programs. They start their lives over as ordinary people, blending in as much as possible.

Sandwiched between saving the world and this ban, Mr. Incredible marries Elastagirl. They fully embrace their non-superhero identities as The Parrs.

The movie fast forwards fifteen years. The ban has long been in effect. Bob (Mr. Incredible) is slowly being crushed under the weight of being a normal Joe, a cog in the corporate wheel. Helen is a stay at-home home with three kids in a house with avocado-colored décor. (Yes, the 1960s.)

Bob occasionally gets together with his former superhero colleague Frozone. The two friends go bowling, which is actually code for listening to police scanners. They try to respond to dire situations without getting caught. Sometimes they are not so lucky.

Bob ends up fired from his job where he approves or rejects insurance claims—he is suppose to reject all but finds ways to help customers get approval. (Probably a background in helping others is NOT good for excelling at rejecting insurance claims.) His firing isn’t the only secret he keeps from his wife Helen.

He is contacted by Mirage, a former superhero, about a new gig—capturing a robot gone rogue. He jumps at the chance to be Mr. Incredible again. All is well until it turns out that the guy behind the request is a former fan that he spurned—a geeky kid now all grown up with technological toys.

Meanwhile, Helen has discovered that Mr. Incredible’s old suit had been repaired. Curious she calls up Edna Mode, the ultra-hip designer of their suits, to have a chat. Helen learns that Edna designed new suits for the entire family. With a tracking device linked to the suits, Helen finds Mr. Incredible, now a captive on a volcanic island owned by the formerly spurned fan. (Could this be a more 1960s action movie plot? James Bond anyone?)

The family unites to battle the foe, which spills over from the island to the mainland. Clearly, they are violating the ban on superheroes. In the end, they vanquish the foe, only to have another one appear. But that foe, it appears, is for another movie.

My favorite part of the movie? Edna Mode. Her character is such a delight. (She does kind of have a cult following it seems.) She has some of the best lines. “I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.” She is adamant on her designs. Capes are out. She calmly lists all the superheroes who died thanks to capes that got caught in something or other. And you do not argue with Edna. When she asks you to stop by in an hour, you stop by in an hour. To do otherwise is unthinkable.

The benefit to watching a popular movie years after it released? The sequel is already out. No fourteen years of waiting for it. More Incredibles and Edna Mode awaits.

Movie review: Pawn Sacrifice (2015)

Genius and madness go hand in hand. Or at least that is the common assumption. Bobby Fischer certainly had his eccentricities. Pawn Sacrifice shows them all as well as the arrogance and the mistreatment of others that accompanied them.

The movie depicts Bobby’s obsession with chess at a young age. His mom takes him to a chess master in the city to either develop his skills or in hopes that his obsession will burn out. In any case, his love of chess doesn’t end but consumes him. He becomes more demanding and bombastic as he gets older, often making impossible demands on those around him.

The movie portrays him as a prima donna. He often acts as a spoiled brat and throws tantrums. Not paid enough, he doesn’t show up for a match. Not quiet enough for him to think during a match, he walks out.

Why was this tolerated? It was the Cold War and Fischer of Russian descent was a pawn in the fight to prove that the West was better. Other races occurred in space and defense. And then there was the battle to dominate chess. Fischer was another person sacrificed in the proxy wars between the US and the USSR.

Fischer’s erratic behavior presumably pointed to a mental illness. But rather than get help, others around him sought to use him for their own “patriotic” ends. Fischer manages somehow to be even-keel enough to outlast the 1972 World Chess Championship without the matchup ending in him walking away or forfeiting.

Pawn Sacrifice is well made but a rather sad look at a chess master who devoted his life to chess, was a pawn in other’s wars, and was bedeviled by paranoia and anti-Semitic beliefs—made even more tragic by his own Jewish heritage. In the closing frames, the movie touches on his adult life after the 1972 championship, leaving me with a profound sense of sadness about Bobby and the futility of the Cold War.

Movie review: Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

Shadow of the Vampire is a creative story about the filming of the famous 1922 silent film Nosferatu. The movie takes quite a bit of liberty with the facts but has an engaging and somewhat spooky storyline.

Nosferatu was F. W. Murnau’s masterpiece, a German film about vampires that took Bram Stoker’s Dracula as its inspiration. (Stoker’s widow would not give Murnau the rights to make a movie based on the book.)

In Shadow of the Vampire, Murnau is an egomaniac, driven to make the perfect film no matter what the cost. And the cost, it turns out, is huge. He keeps his cast and crew in the dark about some scenes, locations, and most importantly, the actor playing Count Orlok (his movie version of Count Dracula). Orlok, he pronounced, will be played by Max Schreck, a certain actor that no one else knew. Schreck would stay in character the entire time, never coming out of character even when no filming was taking place.

People thought Schreck/Count Orlok odd, but no one thought much of it. Not even when cast members had to be replaced because Orlok was attacking them to drink their blood. This is not to say that the cast and crew weren’t weirded out by Orlok—they were. But no one really thought anything was amiss.

And then during one drug-induced bout of honesty, Murnau confides in some crew members about Orlok’s true nature, where he found him, and what he promised him. The crew members who heard the truth were horrified. But not horrified enough to try to prevent the inevitable from happening.

The film follows many of the shots and scenes in the original Nosferatu. Murnau shoots Gustav approaching the castle, Gustav and Orlok looking over and signing the contracts, and Orlok attacking Greta. The original story is spooky enough but the storyline of the new movie adds a new layer on top, more horrifying than scary.

Once the crew is in the know about the truth—that Murnau made a deal with Orlok—they go along. That is almost more horrifying than the deal that Murnau made—if Count Orlok acts in his movie, in the end, Murnau will give the vampire Greta, the female lead. In the end, those in the know become victims of the vampire too. All the while Murnau films—one death after another—until the vampire is killed by the rising sun.

Shadow of the Vampire truly sports an unusual storyline and is populated with outstanding actors. If you are a fan of Nosferatu, the vampire genre, or horror, you will likely enjoy this movie. The horror revolves around how far one man will go for glory and others will go as passive enablers. The movie resonates with history. Just a decade or two after the movie takes place, Germans would be passive enablers of Hitler. Horror indeed.