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Hi! We’re Mark and Nitish, and we (like most of you we hope) are practicing social distancing to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. We recognize that this is a super stressful time for a lot of people, and that many of you are being harmed by the virus in one way or another. So, we thought we’d do something that would hopefully lighten the mood. We are going to be watching and reviewing movies available on streaming platforms. Our column will be published (roughly) every Wednesday. We hope that you can watch along, send us your thoughts and recommend movies that you like or want us to watch. Best of luck to all of you in these trying times!
“Secret of NIMH” (Released in 1982; watched by us on April 20, 2020)
A dark adventure animated movie by Don Bluth. We watched it on YouTube (it is officially free)!
I have mentioned before, dear reader, that I once wanted to be an animator. When I was 15, I decided to get serious about it, and one of the first things I did was buy a book by Don Bluth. Sure, that seriousness only lasted two weeks (shocking plot twist — drawing is hard) but my intrigue in animation has not since faded, and neither has my fascination with this animation director.
So when I saw that Bluth’s first film, “Secret of NIMH” was legally released on YouTube for free, I was overcome with excitement. I watched this film when I was young, believing it to be a masterpiece, and now I figured this was my chance to see if this assumption held up. Bear with me, reader, this will be a very different kind of review — the movie is most intriguing when you consider the context around it.
“Secret of NIMH” — based loosely on the novel, “Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH” — follows a mouse named Mrs. Brisby (her name was changed to avoid a potential trademarking dispute with Frisbee discs). She is a timid widow caring for her four children — one of her sons, however, is ill and unable to leave the home. Worst yet, the farmer is plowing things up, meaning she would have to move her family to a safer place and risk her son’s death. Desperate for another way, she ventures out to meet with the mysterious rats of NIMH … super-powered, hyper-intelligent rats who’ve escaped the research organization and are now on the verge of forming their own society. There, she discovers old buried secrets about her late husband, and uncovers her own heroic spirit.
Depending on who you ask, some will either consider Don Bluth one of the most skilled animators of all time, or one of the medium’s greatest disappointments … Some consider him animation’s unsung hero, others a moustache-twirling villain. These differences in opinion are to be expected. He has such an unusual role in animation history. Bluth was a former Disney animator who worked on films like “Robin Hood” and “The Rescuers” in that bleak period after Walt’s death. Feeling as though the studio had lost its touch, he left to form his own, competing studio. He also took nine other animators with him. Worst yet, he insisted on releasing many of his movies on the same opening night as Disney’s films, forcing them to compete. This once great studio was left presumably in a state similar to the shocked Pikachu meme for all throughout the 80s, as Bluth was at the top of his game, releasing films like “An American Tail,” “Land Before Time,” and yes, “Secret of NIMH” … that is until Disney released one little movie you might’ve heard of. It’s called “The Little Mermaid.”
Oh boy, I should actually talk about the film proper, shouldn’t I? Pretty much all this goes on to say that 1982 was a fickle time in animation, and there were many competing visions of what animation could be after Walt’s death — “Secret of NIMH” could very well have redefined the medium.
It is definitely not your typical Disney movie. The environment, specifically the rose bush where the rats of NIMH reside, is dark and twisted. Many of our character designs, even of some of our heroes, appear grotesque, and act at least a bit murderey. Death is drizzled in this movie like salad dressing. When our heroes get cut, they bleed. However, this is still very much a kid’s film, and the movie never leaves behind its comic reliefs (even if, regarding the f***-boy crow, we might wish they did), but the departure from medium norms is clear. If things continued on in this direction, the art of animation would be a far darker place than it is now.
And, I mean, we already have 2019’s “Cats,” so that’s saying a lot.
But in “Secret of NIMH” there is a direction to its darkness, and that is worth appreciating. Nearly everything in this journey revolves around Mrs. Brisby, seen initially as a timid widow of a once legendary warrior, proving herself to be just as heroic as her late spouse. All these gothic sights, these deformities, and these dangerous personalities in the film emphasize how frightening and strange the outside world is to her — the world itself is designed so that we walk in her shoes. This creates a level of intimacy with the protagonist that I feel even long after seeing this movie, and it truly makes a lot of the tension and adventure feel tangible. Don Bluth has once stated that he believes children can handle anything in a movie as long as there is a happy ending … I’m not sure if I believe that, but it certainly has its narrative advantages. By being able to push his protagonist so hard, we are able to feel all the happier when she makes it through the other end. This is something I now realize I’ve tried to mimic with my own works. This is an excellent hero’s journey.
Sure, this is not as perfect of a movie as I remembered it being. There are some unnecessary characters that drag out the plot, the pacing is a tiny bit off (and we could have spent more time in the rosebush), there are plot lines that feel disconnected from one another, and there are some plot points that as a kid I assumed were mystical and mysterious, but now strike me as a bit deus-ex-machina-esque. Though, there is a lot of good to be found in “Secret of NIMH” — a lot of unique good you will not find in any other animated movie. And I believe it is a must-watch movie, if only because of the insight it gives into an alternate-timeline version of animation, in which the Disney renaissance had never existed.
This was, of course, not the timeline we have now. After the Disney renaissance happened, Bluth’s films began to flop hard, one after another (the only arguable exception being “Anastasia” — popular in its own ways, but it is basically a copy of Disney’s stuff instead of being its own thing). His studio eventually closed down around the year 2000. Despite these shortcomings, however, he is still known as one of the best animation directors to reach the silver screen, and I, for one, believe he deserves this recognition. For awhile, animation was a different, scarier place. I think I like that.
I would like to mention one more, fairly unrelated thing. Stephen Spielberg, due to creative differences with Don Bluth, made his own animation studio under Universal Studios, where they were a hairline away from adapting the now infamous musical “Cats.” The animation studio closed, however, before anything was made of it. Fortunately for us, the studio already bought the rights to the musical, and in large part led to the decision to make the modern day fever-dream we have now. So, yes, in a very indirect way, we have the Bluth-meister to thank for 2019’s “Cats.” There was no feasible place to include this tidbit in the review, but I thought it was worth mentioning!
Mark has a lot of thoughts on the “Secret of Nimh.” I, uh, don’t. It’s a charming enough children’s movie with nice animation about the secret lives of a bunch of animals. It has a dastardly evil rat, a handsome swashbuckling rat, and a wise old rat. It has a great owl. It has a moral lesson. It has the heroic Mrs. Brisby, a mouse, pushing through a bunch of trials and tribulations to save her son. It’s pretty standard children’s animated movie fare, honestly. It’s good! It’s charming! I’d recommend it if you’re feeling nostalgic or want a happy sort of pick-me-up movie, but I didn’t get a whole lot out of it. So that’s all I got.
I feel like Ferris Bueller chiding the audience after the end-credits scene (a gag that will never work again thanks to the evil machinations of Marvel) but seriously, that’s all I got.
Addendum: Mark (actually not as dashing as you might expect) criticizes my referring to this movie as a “happy sort of pick-me-up movie,” arguing in our Slack chat (join The Daily if you want to be part of our cool inside jokes) that this is a movie where “[Mrs. Brisby] goes to a sophisticated colony of hyper-intelligent rats debating the means of being truly self-sufficient from the humans who’ve granted them these abilities.” But I would contend that this is an animated movie where a mouse saves her family from a lawnmower with the magical power of “courage of the heart.”
Mark’s addendum to the previous addendum: Mark (the ever-so-dashing and brilliant no matter what the haters say) maintains that the lawnmower is merely the inciting incident (and probably a metaphor or something) and the true intrigue lies in the subtext of the journey. There are many interesting discussions to be had about the rat colony. One could ponder the nature of the unknown, and whether or not we are witnessing magic or science. Is there a difference? There is also the point on whether or not the rats, being hyper-intelligent, are now given any added responsibility regarding those around them. These are all here, just not explicitly stated. Though he admits the “courage of the heart” thing is pretty accurate.
Nitish’s addendum to Mark’s addendum to the previous addendum: Nitish (as dashing as you hoped Mark would be, although maybe not now considering that he hasn’t had a haircut since December) concedes that there are interesting things to discuss about the rat colony, but the presence of depth in a certain area doesn’t mean that the tale as a whole isn’t a happy pick-me-up. I think that it’s a bit of a false equivalence, sort of like saying that “The Office” is an allegory for the way that opinions on geopolitics are formed by elite cues because of that one episode where Oscar and Michael argued about China. There’s smart writing in “Secret of Nimh,” and a well-developed world, but the writers don’t seem particularly concerned with making these questions important in the movie, and are certainly happy to leave them in the background.
Mark’s Big Bang addendum to end all addendums: Mark (who looks real good with long hair and is currently single) argues mostly that the movie is not primarily a happy pick-me-up movie and is criticizing the lack of other descriptors. Mark might also argue how keeping these themes in the background does wonders to make the experience transformative with age, giving children and adults alike something different to sink their teeth into, though he has forgotten what we were talking about and chooses to stop invading Nitish’s article now.
Nitish’s Addendum that creeps back in the dark of night and gets the last laugh: Nitish (who needs to shave) disagrees and thinks that the movie is primarily a happy pick-me-up movie. He agrees that there is stuff of value to discuss with respect to the rat colony, but the themes that Mark picks up on aren’t explicated enough in the movie. Nitish has grown weary of talking about this movie, and is going to stop adding addendums. Surely, Nitish thinks, the novelty of this gag has worn off, and even referring to it in a self-aware way may not be enough to convince the reader of this discussion’s merit.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” (Released in 2011, watched by us on April 24, 2020)
A spy thriller film by Tomas Alfredson. We watched it on Netflix!
This is the only movie so far that I’ve had to watch twice. So, dear editors, that is my excuse for being behind schedule.
Though, I should be clear, lest I disappoint anyone. This was not because I was so interested in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” that I felt a great need to repeat the experience right away. The truth is, I had no idea what was happening the first time around, and I had to see the film again in order to make sense of everything. There are so many things to keep track off … tinkers, tailors, soldiers and spies!
Oh, and also Cold War espionage.
Based on the book by John Le Carré, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” follows George Smiley, as he is brought out of retirement in order to investigate the identity of a Soviet double agent. This target has somehow managed to infiltrate the peak of power in the British secret service, and is responsible for the botched operation that cost Smiley his job in the first place. He also might have slept with Smiley’s wife? Uncool, dude.
While the novel is a product of its time, capturing the pressure and paranoia that has defined the 1970s, the movie has preserved it for the modern day in the form of a thrilling mystery film. Though, the viewer is tasked with keeping track of a lot of the details. Some story beats are told in non-linear ways … code-names are littered throughout the narrative … and you just kind of have to understand how these organizations and their ranks work on your own. The Wikipedia summary was my friend. Complexity is inevitable when adapting a book — especially one, I imagine, as dense as this one. But despite being warned by Nitish (the man, the legend) I was still unprepared.
I did need to see the movie twice, and that is my most immediate criticism (and I know I’m not exactly being subtle with my complaining). I generally believe nobody should have to repeat a story in order to understand it — narratives should thrive in the present moment, no matter how many moving parts there might be. However, the fact that I did watch this movie again points to its undeniable strengths. Even amid my confusion, I could tell this was a phenomenal movie.
The presentation is wonderful — but difficult for me to describe. The best I feel I can do (in a reasonably succinct manner) is to praise the worldbuilding. “Tinker, Tailor…” creates an image of a world that is simultaneously fictionalized — capturing the intrigue and exciting pieces of espionage drama that we all like to imagine is going on behind the scenes — and realistic — making everything feel believable, and giving each act just that extra oomph.
It is taking resistance on my part, however, not to turn the rest of this write-up into a list of cool shots and audio cues. Two scenes in particular stand out to me: In the first, our heroes surprise a man riding an elevator, but his back is turned to the door while the camera is facing it; in the second, Smiley has a talk with a suspect as the car they rode drives away, and a freakin’ plane later flies and lands right behind them. Tomas Alfredson has done phenomenal work here with his directing, instilling this classic spy story simultaneously with masterful precision and raw coolness.
This wonderful filmmaking, combined with some excellent dialogue (I imagine taken out of the book itself) and some all-star, charismatic acting makes a second viewing worth it in my opinion. While I stand by there are things that could have been done to make the information more digestible the first time around — maybe, something as simple as text overlays in the introduction of our key players, signaling the viewer to who to keep track of would suffice — I will say that I enjoyed both experiences. And I think that counts for a lot.
“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is a spy thriller based off of the novel of the same name by John Le Carré. The book is one of my favorite pieces of fiction, with remarkably well drawn characters, a bleak tone, and set in the Cold War. This movie is very good. It’s acted phenomenally well with a cast that’s almost laughably stacked. It’s directed well. I share Mark’s concern that the movie can be a bit confusing to viewers who aren’t intensely familiar with the plot of the movie, but I did not experience that watching the movie — I know the book too well to be disoriented by an adaptation of it. I really like this movie, and would definitely recommend it to anyone else. But I’ve built my reputation in this here column as a cynical old curmudgeon, a pessimist, a man who would watch a child sprinting through a field of sunflowers on a beautiful day with a kite in one hand and with flowers flowing through the outstretched fingers of the other hand like grain through a sieve and a golden retriever puppy snapping at his heels and then say that he prefers days that are overcast (I do actually). I’ve grown to become quite fond of the horror in my friends’ voices when they realize that I dislike the movies that they, members of the uneducated masses (I’m talking to you Matthew), enjoy. I must preserve my reputation for wanton cruelty towards art. So it’s time to nitpick.
“Tinker” gets the tone wrong. Ok, well that’s not entirely fair. Alfredson directs a compelling movie, with languid shots that allow his illogically impressive cast to put together an extraordinary ensemble performance. This allows for some haunting moments. Gary Oldman’s George Smiley delivers an exemplary monologue at an empty chair that holds the specter of Karla, the KGB’s top spy. The movie focuses on a mole hunt, and we see the emotional effects that trying to uncover the secret agent has on friends. We see Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr desperately try to convince Smiley that he is telling the truth. In a shot that Mark (the man, the legend) loved, we see David Dencik’s Toby Esterhase break down under the stress of questioning. Alfredson’s “Tinker” is able to capture a key aspect of LeCarre’s: the loneliness. All of the characters are forced to constantly doubt their friends and themselves, and it’s brutal to watch. Alfredson actually makes some clever changes to the source material. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Peter Guillam has to break up with a boyfriend before some of the sneaking around starts. In the book, the boyfriend is actually a girlfriend named Camilla. I like the movie’s version better: Guillam’s sexuality in Cold War-era London is another secret that has to be protected, and it adds to the sense of isolation that the spies feel. So there’s a lot, and I mean a lot, to like about the tone of “Tinker.”
With that in mind, I think “Tinker” gets the tone slightly wrong. In my eyes, there’s too little violence. This may seem like a stupid critique, but hear me out. Alfredson’s “Tinker” makes violence seem like a blip in the otherwise gentlemanly conduct of the Cold War. But to so many who lived it, the Cold War was anything but cold. There was lots of violence, with large-scale wars and systematized cruelty by organizations like the KGB. The effete Smiley is but one side of a coin; the other is a brutal, banal, barely contained violence. Insofar as the film “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is a movie about the Cold War, I think it has a historiographical duty to remind us that the human cost of the struggle wasn’t limited to a few members of a secret society, but far more widespread.
“The Americans,” the best TV show in recent memory (fight me), manages to tread this balance extremely well. An early episode of “The Americans” features deep cover agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings after the 1981 attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan. They were forced to break from their standard routine of checking dead-drops and running agents to plan assassinations on top members of the U.S. military in case the FBI thought that the assassination was linked to the Soviets. Both of them are horrified, forced to maintain the illusion of calm to their children, all the while knowing that a misstep, an overreaction would swiftly lead to the deaths of millions. While a lot of “The Americans” focuses on the domestic lives of deep-cover Soviet agents, violence is still ever-present, if behind-the-scenes. I’ve read criticisms that “The Americans” gets the violence factually wrong, that no deep-cover Soviet agent was actually waiting outside the SecDef’s house with a sniper rifle after Reagan was shot. But “The Americans” uses this inaccuracy to hint at the broader presence of violence around the world. In that sense, it’s a lot truer than Alfredson’s “Tinker.”
LeCarre’s original novel actually does much better in this regard. One of the best moments from the book is when Smiley confronts a tortured Jim Prideaux (played by an excellent, perpetually underrated Mark Strong in the movie) about all of his Czechoslovakian friends that were killed after he was captured. The novel is better suited than the film to this kind of context-building, as LeCarre is constantly able to work in references to the sprawling secret war, but I still think the movie could have done a little better job at this. Personally, I would have started the movie not with Jim Prideaux’s mission but with the aftermath: several Czechoslovakian families getting rolled up by the KGB and their partners. This would add some much-needed context to Prideaux’s decision at the end of the movie. But it would also show the ugly truth that George Smiley’s quiet disposition conceals.
And on Smiley: He, in my opinion, is one of literature’s great characters. If you read “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” which is in my eyes is one of Smiley’s most important appearances in LeCarre’s canon, he is given barely a few lines, but his presence is felt as the result of a few decisions that he makes that are shockingly brutal. Smiley is a walking series of contradictions, both a feeble man who meekly watches his wife have a string of affairs and a man who is cold and decisive who treats human love and life as an expendable resource. I think a lot of the draw of LeCarre novels is the gradual peeling back the curtain on Smiley. Gary Oldman’s performance is wonderful, and there are hints of the iron beneath Smiley’s poorly tailored suits when he confronts Esterhase and Tarr. But I think the movie would have benefited from just a few more pieces of Smiley’s character. The scene I mentioned earlier where he confronts Prideaux would have been better if it hewed closer to the original script. And there’s a wonderful moment in the book where Smiley disappears in a crowd that also should have been included. But the novel “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has so many fans with exacting standards that I cannot really begrudge Oldman or Alfredson for giving a performance that is very, very close.
So yeah! I think that “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” is a wonderful movie, and I would definitely recommend that you watch it. But the book is better.
“Goodnight Mommy” (Released in 2014; watched by us on April 29, 2020)
An Austrian horror film by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. We watched it on YouTube (it is officially free)!
Thank you, dear readers, for proving me wrong yet again throughout this marathon. I have been incorrect a lot lately … must be cabin fever or something.
Two weeks back in my review of “The Witch” — or “The VVitch,” if you wanna be that guy — I expressed my relative disinterest in the horror genre. I wrote that horror movies fail to scare me (personally) because I have a hard time involving myself in a narrative enough to feel actually at risk. The solution, then, is to give me characters I can be scared for, but that piece of the narrative is often neglected in these works. I happen to be proud of that review. Too bad it’s about to become obsolete. One of our readers had suggested another horror movie, titled “Goodnight Mommy,” and yes … this one scared me.
It is also a very good movie in general.
This Austrian horror film follows twins Elias and Lukas as their “mother” comes back home. She has recently undergone cosmetic surgery, and her head is wrapped in bandages. Strangely, her behavior has also changed, and not for the better; their once loving mother is now resorting to constant scolding, physical abuse, and even flat-out ignoring one of the kids. So, the twins make a shocking conclusion — this is, in fact, not their mother at all.
I was surprised, first and foremost, by the character work. Before, I had assumed that good character writing and horror were incompatible — it takes a lot of time to create engaging characters, and every minute the filmmakers spend on that, they are not trying to scare the audience. Yet, unlike in “The VVitch,” the characters feel fleshed out and believable, and their decisions do not feel as though they are made simply to make the movie creepier. These choices seem like organic parts of who these characters are and how they would react in such circumstances. Also unlike “The VVitch,” this movie has a far less annoying name. That last point is not very relevant, but I wanted to say it anyway.
These general horror pitfalls are avoided, I believe, by two main storytelling choices. First, the story is told through the perspective of young, twin boys, allowing for seemingly natural behaviors to feel off and alienating (the best of both worlds). Second, I feel as though the directors are aiming to tell a story first and scare the audience second, as opposed to the other way around.
It is difficult to talk about the first point without spoiling some things I really should not be spoiling, but I will say that there are essentially two parts to the movie; the beginning is in the perspective of a child, and the middle is when things start to get blurred. This movie is unsettling from start to finish, but the source of the discomfort begins to shift, and this is ingeniously done by changing how we interpret behaviors. These perspective shifts also allow the movie to play with different kinds of horror. For instance, there is some body horror in the beginning of the movie that does not normally make sense in the context of the bigger story, but works because it’s the kid’s imagination running wild. This allows “Goodnight Mommy” to keep things fresh, but constantly twisted — like a pretzel, fresh from the oven.
I’m … not so proud of that analogy, but I’m going to keep it anyways.
Most importantly, in my opinion, “Goodnight Mommy” is also just a well done story. All character relationships and needed context is expressed quickly and often wordlessly. There is a fascinating push and pull in the power dynamic to keep me on the edge of my seat. And the twist is unpredictable (well, for a horror novice like me) but makes sense instantly. Even if there was nothing to truly scare me, I would still find myself praising this movie because the story itself has had me hooked. However, “Goodnight Mommy” still aims to scare, and it creates scenarios to do so with a quite disturbing amount of ease. The directors drip-feed just enough context to the audience throughout the story, providing just the right ratio of doubt and grim realization to make its scenes so much scarier.
I think this is masterful horror. Then again, the reader should not take my opinions too seriously; I am far from an expert. The best I can do in an attempt to scare people is to bring my guitar to a party and threaten to play “Wonderwall.” However, I do believe “Goodnight Mommy” proves something crucial — telling a full, engaging narrative and scaring the audience can be mutually related. If you do the former, the latter is sure to become much easier. This is what I have been looking for in the horror genre, and “Goodnight Mommy” delivers.
A reader suggested this movie to us. I hate this reader. This movie was very unsettling, and quite scary — I was extremely impressed.
“Goodnight Mommy” is an Austrian horror film that follows a mother returning to her home following facial reconstruction surgery. Only something’s not quite right. She’s a little off, and the directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala seem to take a perverse pride in making sure that the enterprise of watching the movie is always precarious. Bees are set on fire with magnifying glasses, mothers seem to forget their own names, beetles are everywhere. It’s never overplayed, so we never freak out. Instead, Franz and Fiala gradually ratchet up the unease by putting us in ever more tense situations.
“Goodnight Mommy” is similar to “The Witch” in that the horror doesn’t come from some vague external threat but from the characters. The mother’s actions become gradually more disconcerting and then they appear to turn to outright abuse. The sons’ reactions start to become steadily more extreme. The horrific thing about “Goodnight Mommy” is the ways that the characters relate to each other, and the scary thing is what we fear that they will do to one another. Its intimacy makes it far more horrific than the relatively impersonal jump scare.
And then Franz and Fiala do something very cool: without changing the actual plot, as in the events that take place, they dramatically shift the narrative. It’s hard to describe what happens without being too specific with respect to spoilers, but even though everything that takes place on screen feels like an extension of what occurs before it, the viewers’ relationships to the characters dramatically shift. This makes the horror feel really psychological. My problem with a lot of the horror that I have watched is that it feels sort of impersonal, in the sense that, yeah I suppose I’m scared of being chased down by a serial killer and then murdered, but it feels sort of cheap just to leave it at that. If all a horror movie is doing is showing us a serial killer, then it’s not much scarier than the fact that serial killers exist, aside from maybe peperring in a few jump scares. Good horror forces us to empathize with the characters, giving our phobias an anchor on screen. “Goodnight Mommy” not only does this, but it starts to shift our anchor.
There’s a twist, and it’s spectacular. I hate talking about movies like this because so much of the pleasure of watching the movie is watching it change and unfold. I feel like every piece of information I give is taking some away from you. But it’s super, super good.
This movie is an incredible feat of moviemaking, and it’s excellent horror. All of the decisions feel organic, but we still can’t help but watch in fear as the characters start to take more and more terrifying actions. “Goodnight Mommy” is one of the best horror movies that I’ve ever watched, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Contact Mark York at mdyorkjr ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nitish Vaidyanathan at nitishv ‘at’ stanford.edu.