Three + Reviews and a –

On long flights last summer, I watched several movies, or tried. Only two were memorable: Life and Linoleum. They were oddly similar although completely different in style, casting, and plot. So what was the same answered below.

Two more I watched recently. One I had looked forward to, Asteroid City (2023), because of Wes Anderson. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), and Isle of Dogs (2019) are favorites. A friend loves The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004). Per Wikipedia, “(Asteroid City) is Anderson’s homage to popular memory and mythology about extraterrestrials and UFOs witnessed in the Southwestern desert in close proximity to atomic test sites during the postwar period of the American 20th century.” Another UFO/extraterrestrial film but quirky? I didn’t like anything about it. The alien—meh—cute maybe. The film disappointed me.

One I liked with the same tiresome description is Jules (2023). These three movies have fascinating commonalities but couldn’t be more different.

By now, you may be wondering whether you have any interest in continuing with these reviews. Good question. I find current entertainment offerings limited. (Yes, I watch Bosch: Legacy, Jack Reacher, and Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan every season (on VidAngel). I have certain opinions on all the Star Trek iterations. Star Wars not so much. I’ve seen the Firefly season more than once, and its movie, Serenity (2005). So, no reason to trust me.) Read on if you need something to watch one night. Critical assessment contains a trust element; I wholeheartedly welcome your recommendations, the sooner the better.

First, plot summaries. Living introduces us to a British bureaucrat played by Bill Nighy. Humorless and uninspired, he cares for no one except his son and daughter-in-law. When a group of women comes in requesting official designation of wasted space as a playground, he sends them on the expected loops, rather unlike Bob Parr in The Incredibles. A terminal illness changes the direction of his life, and we see him decide to do some good and to develop some sweet relationships (after a brief flirtation with the dark, wild side).

Linoleum defies description. Wikipedia says it’s “a science fiction comedy-drama” about a struggling science show host (Jim Gaffigan) whose wife has filed divorce proceedings. A rocket falls into his backyard, and he decides to go into space as various surreal events take place. Some and none of this is accurate, and I don’t begrudge Wikipedia for a simple reason: We can’t tell you anything about it, really, without ruining the experience. The young person with whom we saw The Sixth Sense said as we entered the theater, “You know, the psychologist is dead.” Perspective plus trust.

Jules involves a spaceship and alien as it (truly genderless) repairs the craft. Milton (Ben Kingsley) is developing dementia but functions well enough with help from his loving daughter, though he is stridently independent. He attends the local city council, always with the same messages, always with the same passive responses. Two women his age do the same, though their personalities and ideas are quite different. Sandy (Harriet Sansom Harris) advocates a different engagement program every time, while Joyce (Jane Curtin) pursues an edgy, slightly off-kilter commentary. When a flying saucer crashes into Milton’s azaleas, he pursues the normal course—calling the police and adding the event to his city council list. That no one believes him because of his age and history isn’t surprising.  The government’s hunt for the UFO as a “weather balloon” morphs into a “satellite” and finally a “spy satellite” at which time “the government” starts arriving at houses and would take him seriously indeed if, suddenly competent, they could find him before the end of the movie. Jules is an elderly version of ET: Extraterrestrial (1982) but has a tender twist at the end.

What do the three films have in common besides my liking them? And single-word titles? They are all about older people, all of whom are dealing with loneliness. All are about redemption. All let me cry, a little. That “let” is significantly not “made.” (Not that I don’t read glurges and cry solidly, but I’m not a fan.) All include actors in brilliant performances.

Living made the biggest splash, receiving all sorts of nominations and awards. Bill Nighy was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actor, and Kazuo Ishiguro for Best Adapted Screenplay (which you can read in its entirety here). A remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), it has a density of characters and transparency of plot. No gimmicks, no manipulations. We watch supporting characters as they see our protagonist change. They do, too, without self-awareness. Living is uplifting without being sentimental, thoughtful without being precious. It is also the most commercial, so production values are high. Of the three to rewatch, it ranks #2.

Jules has a director who’s best known as a producer. Marc Turtletaub “only wants to make films he is passionate about and that have redemption, something more than entertainment. He wants to touch and change people and use his money, through film, to do good.”  Noble. One of the producers of Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Turtletaub is no stranger to the odd. Called a tragicomedy, the best description of LMS would be “quirky, weird family road trip ends weirdly but redemptively.” Jules has elements of that just-off group of personalities that probably don’t exist in nature, at least in that concentration. Of the three films, however, Jules is the weakest. Parodies of loneliness, regret, longing, the outbursts, even the language check boxes rather than expand understanding or empathy. Of course Sandy is going to say, “What the f…?!” when she sees Jules for the first time (her name for the being, played by Jade Quon a 4’11” stuntwoman). Of course Joyce is going to burst into a torch song to assure her captive audience she was once special in Pittsburg. Of course Jules (Joyce thinks it’s a Gary, by the way) needs seven dead cats to repower his craft. Enjoyable, worth watching—Rafer Guzman of Newday says, “What sounds like the same old story is actually one of the year’s most pleasant surprises.” Yet, the story of our little visitor becomes less important than the interior lives of the seniors. It is not, I believe, science fiction.

Linoleum’s title refers to the retro flooring that unites the different eras of the story, according to Jim Gaffigan. Maybe. The material linoleum itself has an interesting, complex history beginning with a scientific accident and ending with its current use for art prints; in its heyday patterns were assuredly not boring, per this 1926 catalog. Other factors seem more relevant to the story. Linoleum is organic where vinyl is toxic. Color and pattern go completely throughout the linoleum but only on the surface of the vinyl, under a coating. A long diversion, seemingly, but Gaffigan made a statement that sounds plausible but not necessarily true. Much of the film is exactly that way. In this trailer, we see the first of many anomalies. According to this review, we probably miss most of them. That sounds manipulative, which we use negatively though that’s another discussion. If you don’t feel tricked by the complications, then you may find the ending breathtaking, a conclusion that’s more than the sum of its parts. It is easily my favorite of the three.

Reviewers use the tag “a search for meaning.” It appeared regularly for these three. Another time, I’ll explore why I don’t think art forms using words can do that effectively. Later…