American History A thru X... Featuring the Quest for Love


Miniseries, 1977

Roots: The Next Generations
Miniseries, 1979

The TV miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley's Roots has loomed large in the background of my psyche ever since I saw it as a child in 1977.  I subconsciously expect everyone to have seen it and integrated it into their view of American history, and it sometimes shocks me when I realize that I'm talking to someone who doesn't understand the less-than-idyllic perspective of this country that Roots makes clear.

Roots and Roots: The Next Generations (henceforth to be referred to collectively as "Roots" unless otherwise specified) tells the story of one branch of author Alex Haley's American family, from "the African" Kunta Kinte, brought to America as a slave before the Revolutionary War, on up to Haley's publication of Roots: The Saga of an American Family in 1976.  Haley has always called the book a work of "faction," being based on what facts he could glean from oral family history and surviving records, with gaps filled in by the general truth of African-American history and out-and-out fictive storytelling to make the whole pastiche tell a story.

The Saga of an American Family

The long, long journey begins with Kunta Kinte, a young African tribesman in the area now known as Gambia.  One day in the 1760s, he was out looking for a tree to carve into a drum when he was captured by white slavers and packed like merchandise into a ship's hold for delivery to the American Colonies, enduring the horrors that we now understand such a journey to have entailed.  Kunta, we are shown, resists more than most and ultimately suffers the consequences for his untamed spirit.  He's whipped severely and eventually has half of one foot cut off to keep him from running away again.

In addition to a general desire for freedom, part of Kunta's motivation for running away is to see another slave from the ship that he has fallen in love with, but he eventually "jumps the broom" with Belle, a born and bred American slave.  They have a daughter whom he names "Kizzy," a word from his tribe meaning to "stay put."

But Kizzy doesn't stay put.  She grew up alongside her owner's daughter, who thought it would be funny to teach her to read and write.  When Kizzy gets older, she forges some travelling papers for a fellow slave she had fallen in love with.  This leads her owner to sell her to a much less "gentlemanly" farmer, who has a particular fondness for the sexual company of young slave girls.

Kizzy has a son by him named George.  He grows to become an expert cock-fighter, gaining the title Chicken George.  Unlike his mother and grandfather, George is not a born runner.  His prowess with the roosters grants him something of an elevated status, though less than that of a "house" slave.  It's only later his life, when he grows in his perspective of his owner's abuses and betrayals that he sets his sights more and more on freedom.  George marries Matilda and they have a son, Tom.  When their owner falls on hard times, he hires out Chicken George to a wealthier man who can still afford high stakes cock-fighting, promising George his freedom when he returns in three years (a promise he has betrayed before).

Three years turns into significantly more, but as promised, George is granted his freedom when he returns.  Unfortunately, free blacks are not allowed to live in the county where Matilda and Tom are owned, so George is absent from their lives for years at a time.  They are finally reunited when the Civil War frees them all.  This, roughly, constitutes the arc of the original Roots miniseries.

In The Next Generations, Tom takes the stage, leading the family out of slavery and the abuses of sharecropping. Tom is able to carry over a marketable skill from slavery and earns what is for a freed slave, a respectable income as a blacksmith.  This puts him in a leadership position in the negro community, which in turn sees him courted by white politicians.  When the Klan becomes active, he starts notching a code into the horseshoes of suspected white men, thus revealing their identities.  Turning them in backfires on him, and race relations in town go from antipathy to antagonism.

This places him on the front line of political betrayal as politicians lobby for their support as voters, while competing to be the biggest racist available for the white vote.  When the whites conclude that it would just be easier to deny blacks the vote, it's Tom who bears the humiliation of literacy testing and insulting denial of his rights with measured dignity.

Tom's daughter Cynthia courts and eventually married Will Palmer.  Will has had the good sense to see an opportunity for stable work and proved himself to the owner of the lumber yard.  He keeps the business running despite the aging, unreliable, alcoholic owner and eventually the community leaders (including the bank that holds the mortgage) ask him to take over operation of this essential community function.  The Palmer family grows into the middle class, which naturally begets resentment from ignorant white farmers.

Will is able to send his daughter Bertha to college where she falls in love with Simon Haley, the son of a poor sharecropper.  Simon's father decides he can't afford any more useless schooling for his son, but Simon is committed -- not just to elevating himself, but the race.  He spends a summer working as a Pullman coach porter.  He experiences the betrayals of corporate America and witnesses the traps set for the working negro -- both the external; such as company spies trying to shake loose potential union agitators, and the internal; such as gambling addiction.  He dedicates himself to sticking it out, and in a chance encounter demonstrates dignified customer service and thoughtful humanity to a patron who turns out to be the publisher of the Saturday Evening Post.  When he shows the faith to return to school without being sure where he's going to get the rest of his tuition, he finds that the publisher has already paid it, provided that Simon had the will to take a chance on himself.

No sooner than Simon has completed his bachelor's degree (literally no sooner, in fact, on the very day), he joins the army to serve in World War I, with ideas of elevating the image and position of American negroes through service.  The negro soldiers are given the worst jobs and treated as cannon fodder, but he survives.  He returns to an America where news photos of black soldiers with guns have paranoid racists terrified beyond reason, and Simon and his friends are caught up in the Knoxville race riots of 1919.

After that, Simon and Bertha are finally able to get on with their life together.  Simon earns a Master's Degree in agriculture and goes to work helping farmers to get the most from their land without sucking it dry.  As you might expect, poor white farmers react adversely to an educated black man suggesting what they should or should not grow on their land -- or in most cases, the landowner's land.  When a landowner tries to swindle a black sharecropper, Simon is literally caught in the crossfire.  Simon and Bertha have three sons, including Alex Haley.

Alex is resistant to his father's plans for him, dropping out of college at 17 and ending up in the Coast Guard, at Simon's insistence that military service would do him good (seemingly forgetting the Hell that it was for him).  While serving in perpetual kitchen duty in the Guard, World War II breaks out.  At a church-sponsored dance for servicemen, Alex meets Nan, whom he courts chastely over the course of several dances, and eventually marries, apparently on the crest of teenage hormones.

During the war, Alex develops a talent -- and a cottage industry -- for writing love letters on the behalf of his shipmates to their girls.  This begins to pull writing into focus as his passion.  After the war, he's so committed to writing that he ignores his wife and children, and they eventually leave him.  He continues to struggle to get work and scrapes by writing for magazines.  Magazine assignments include interviews with the George Lincoln Rockwell; head of the American Nazi party, and Malcolm X.  The latter turns into a full book length autobiography, which was Haley's first high-profile work.

Following this, he begins to take more and more of an interest in the family's oral history of "The Old African" Kunta Kinte and the generations that flowed from him.  Again, he becomes obsessed with his work, neglecting his relationship with his then girlfriend.  He follows the threads of history through what few records remain, and finally talks a publisher into funding a trip to Gambia to complete his research.  In Gambia, he is introduced to a griot (storyteller) from the Mandinka tribe, who tells him the story of the tribe, including the capture of Kunta Kinte.  The circle is complete.

Now, there's obviously a lot more to the story than this, and I did a deliberately incomplete job of summarizing it, but I felt it was necessary to provide some framework for the considerations to follow.  I left out a lot of the horrible treatment perpetrated against Haley and his ancestors, and I also left out most of the occurrences of white conscience, but they are there in the series.

The Goods

As a production, Roots is showing its age, much in the way that Kunta Kinte showed his age by turning from a young LeVar Burton to a middle-aged John Amos in the space of six years.  It didn't have the highest production values to begin with, being a television production of the 1970s.  Many scenes look like the product of the Universal back lot.

The performances, in particular, have not aged with the greatest of grace.  Many of the actors are suited to the tastes of another age and there are some over-the-top, stagey, or just -- ahem -- not-so-good moments in the acting.  It plays as melodrama more than drama in places.  Then again, there are still plenty of powerful and touching moments.  These things will matter more to some than others.  We're living in an age where naturalism is a given expectation for many, and yet Halle Barry and Renee Zellweger have both won Oscars, so there's that.

For film buffs, it's fun to watch just for the stars bursting from the seams.  From Ed Asner and LeVar Burton to James Earl Jones and Marlon Brando with most of the black actors of the 70s, Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland in between.

One of the weaker links in the series is the music.  There are many times when it seems really inappropriate in tone.  This is owed largely to a lot of aw-shucksy good-ol'-times-in-Dixie banjo in awkward places.  The variations on the primary Roots theme, however, maintain a sense of consistency as one family thread weaves through time.

That being said, the narrative remains powerful, creating an engaging emotional link between the viewer and the characters that threads throughout the history of the United States.  Where something like (the perfectly good) 12 Years a Slave presents us with an isolated story of one black man who was made a slave, Roots gives us a greater context for this experience.  We see it from different angles, in different times, with a broader inclusion of the families it involved.  And then we see that history evolve as America evolved, and the lineage of one family connected, generation by generation into a time and America that we more closely recognize as our own.  It takes it out of isolation and makes it ours.  It disallows us from treating our history as something separate from our world today.  This is still one of the most important things to have ever run on broadcast television and it's a shame that it isn't run more often.  It ought to be part of the curriculum in American schools, public or otherwise.

Fact, Fiction, "Faction," Factions and Truth

As I mentioned earlier, Haley calls Roots a work of "faction," which is to say that it a blending of fact and fiction.  It's a given that he wasn't present for two hundred year old conversations, but as it turns out, some of the presumed facts were not necessarily so.  Shortly after the miniseries aired on television, Haley was sued for plagiarism by another author, and settled with him, admitting that certain parts of Kunta Kinte's story had been inspired by a book called The African by Harold Courlander.  Furthermore, not all of the details about Kunta square up with historical records.  On top of this, it is alleged that the Mandinka griot Haley met may not have been a griot at all, but told the story he believed Haley wanted to hear.

Because of these inconsistencies, you will find some people on the internet declaring the entire work a lie and a scam.  Racist organizations and individuals use these elements to discount the entire narrative because, frankly, it makes them and their racist pappy and grandpappies look bad.  Poor them.

Roots may not be entirely factual, but it is TRUE, and in a way, that's better for all of us.

In the late 60s and early 70s, as black cultural awareness was exploding, the concept of digging into one's familial roots was fostered, but not originated by Alex Haley's Roots.  It's fairly normal human behavior for one to want their family to have a significant heritage, a qualitative pedigree.  Look at the Mormon obsession with genealogy or the importance many Southerners and Midwesterners place on "blood kin."  Whole swaths of the Bible are dedicated to who allegedly begat whom.  All over the world, we have people who are unable to let go of centuries-old ethic divides that fall somewhere in the range of irrelevant-to-outright-destructive.

Everyone wants to feel good about the place they come from, because for much of the world, this is what tells them who they are.  It's normal.  It might not be the healthiest thing for us, moving into a much smaller, much more fluid world, but that's normal human behavior.  No sane person ever said that humans were sane people.

For African Americans, the pursuit of this knowledge and the desire to make peace with who and where they came from is much, much more reasonable than most.  They had that stolen from them.  They had the fact of their birth treated as a kind of sin, to be punished in the harshest possible way by the most extreme of possible hypocrites.

Not only do we look to our heritages for identity, but also for validation.  We have a latent impression left over from everything from tribal to monarchical culture that our ancestors make us special.  I am by no means letting the United States off the hook with this behavior.  The sense of entitlement exercised by the wealthy is just as stupid and sick as any inbred prince (see: Romney, Mitt; Bush, George W. ad nauseum).  Speaking from my own experience; while I never had much interest in my own family's lineage (outside of Cherokee connections), there were exactly 2 points of interest for me pertaining to my family tree.  One; that on my mother's side, we are alleged to have descended from Peter, the "Little Dutch Boy" who stuck his finger in the dike to hold back the flood.  Two; that on my father's side, my Oklahoman grandmother's research showed that we were descended from Godwin, Earl of Wessex.  The reason that I, as a young person, took an interest in these two particular points in my lineage was that they seemed special, which meant that I could be special; that I was heir to bravery and nobility.  (It's perhaps befitting the disappointments of adulthood to now discover that The Little Dutch Boy isn't even a Dutch story and it seems that Godwin managed to back both sides of the Battle of Hastings still come out a loser.)

I'm hardly alone in this behavior.  And again, it makes a lot of sense that African Americans, who for so long had been treated as less-than-human might want, like any of us, to have that general desire to belong as much as any human, and that personal desire to be special -- especially a writer like Alex Haley who had a hard time just feeling accepted by his own father, who had achieved so much in other fields.

Normal.  Understandable.

So when Haley began filling in the gaps of his family history, it's both normal and understandable that he would fill it in with things like the bravery of Kunta Kinte in resisting the slavers, and the dignity with which he endeavored to keep the language of his people alive in his bloodline.  We don't know the facts of his case, but we DO know for a fact that someone resisted, and paid the price, and that someone struggled to keep a sense of identity alive, not necessarily in Haley's lineage, but in the totality of the African American experience throughout 400 years of slavery.

That it's not necessarily true of Haley makes it essentially true for all who share in the legacy of black slavery.  The collective narrative is enriched.  While it may matter to Alex Haley to connect his family to various important moments in Black American History, what matters to everyone else is that the history of black people in America is part of ALL Americans' history.

This is also, by the way, why "Black History Month" robs us all.  What we are really talking about is American History, with a focus on the contributions of Black Americans.  There was once a time when it made sense to make it more proprietary and pride based, but it's time that it was folded into ALL our histories the same way that we should ALL be folded into an equitable society.

When we couch things in the context of "sides," we rob ourselves and others of the truth, and in so doing, we are further robbed of the opportunity to grow from it.

And Now a Word About THAT Word...

The word is "nigger," and now I'm done using it.*

Roots, however, uses it a lot.

That is not a valid reason to avoid Roots or to hide children away from it, because when Roots uses it, it uses it in context.

Context is the single biggest thing missing in our national sort-of-discussion-but-really-just-reactionary-agenda-pushing about "The N Word."  When I used it, just about, I used it in the context of discussing the word.  That is something that a thoughtful person in a free society is allowed to do.  I didn't use it in the context of a person or even a race, but in the context of the word itself.

Roots -- or rather the characters IN Roots -- use it in its traditional historical context, and in our modern context, we see it with a new perspective and meaning.  When it's used by one character against another in Roots, it is intended as the deepest of debasements.  It's use is intended to rob human beings of their humanity, to indicate that their purpose is limited and subject to the whims of others.

When, however, we hear that use in our time, it has a meaning that goes beyond the intention.  When it's used now, it means that the speaker wants to mean the old meaning, which really tells us about the user.  So the stigma that has been placed on using the word is not a law, is not a threat, but is the burden of the implications of its use.  No one is (or should be) telling others that they cannot legally use the word.  However, using the word as a debasement tells all of the rest of us that YOU, sir or madam, are a racist piece of shit.  THAT is the meaning of the word in a modern context.  Being racist is not okay.  We know this now, and those who resist knowing that have made the CHOICE to be WRONG.  Not wrong like a bad answer, but wrong as a state of being.  Where the words say "You can't say that," the meaning is "You can't say that... if you want to be seen as a decent human being."

For those who are feeling like arguing with me about the application of context right now, consider the following two scenarios:
  • A Tea Party Congressperson uses the word in an email.
  • Ice Cube uses the word in song.
Yeah, not exactly the same thing, are they?  I'm not exactly comfortable with either use, but I accept that context colors the meaning and the level of offense.  Once we accept this, then we can move on to some finer distinctions.

So, when Roots uses it -- and it used it a shocking amount for something I watched on network television as a child (to my current perspective) -- it uses it in context.  The white characters use it as a debasement.  The show does not.  The black characters use it as victims of said debasement.  When Quentin Tarantino uses it in his screenplays, he also uses it in context.  In Django Unchained, he used it in exactly the same context as Roots, and in exactly the same context as 12 Years a Slave.  Accusing Tarantino of being racist for writing the words into a racist character's mouth is like accusing Steven Spielberg of the Holocaust for writing it into Schindler's List.  So yeah, we're done bitching about Quentin.

I'm not going to get into the hair-splitting finer points of how the word is used within the African American community today.  Contextually, I've seen about 3 or 4 different uses & meanings for it, but that ain't my particular cross to bear.  Instead, I'll simply offer this story...

One day, when I was working as a paraeducator for disabled and/or behaviorally challenged students, I got hoodwinked into serving as a school bus monitor on one of the short busses.  These were kids whose histories of behavior made it untenable for them to remain in an ordinary neighborhood school.  Because I had been sandbagged with bus duty and they did not know me, they decided to stir shit with me just because they didn't know how not to.  The ringleader of the group was a chunky black boy, probably around 12 years old.  Having worked with plenty of these kids by that point, I took a position of eye-rolling semi-amusement, and I volleyed his impotent and illogical insults back at him by turning his words around and giving them back.  When he saw that he wasn't getting the kind of reaction he wanted, he made a comment about "what kind of nigger" he was (*okay, done using it NOW).  Now me, I don't use the word unless I'm discussing it in context because I hate what it says about both the subject of its use and the user themselves.

As soon as I stopped responding, he crowed with victory, knowing that if I had used it, it would mean my job, and if I hadn't, it meant he won the volley.  In either case, this was a kid who had learned to take even smallest cheating victory, because there was very little victory of any other kind in his life.

How tragic, I thought, that he would accept a word that debased him and his people as a shortcut to petty victory.  How much sadder then, to think that this was certainly not a tactic that he had invented himself, but picked up from the polarized behavior of an American culture that prizes reactionary legalism over the truth gathered from widening our perspectives.

And that's all that I have to say about how it's used in the black community.

Now, the way that it's used by whites is a godforsaken disgrace.

I will sum this up in a brief discussion of not-a-doctor Laura Schlessinger, who DID use the word, repeatedly and on the air, with a black caller.  The "point" she was trying to make by hijacking a discussion about the caller's interracial marital problems was why she wasn't allowed to use it when many black people were still able to.  This is hardly a unique complain amongst conservative culture trolls, and it's as wrong-headed as pretty much everything else about them, but more pointedly so.

First of all, the question itself is false.  No one is saying that she CAN'T use it.  Constitutionally, she can and there is no law on the books anywhere in the nation that says she can't.  What not-a-doctor Laura is REALLY saying is "Why can't I use it without bearing the responsibility of how its use defines me?"  She wants to be racist without being seen as "a racist."  This vehement resistance to the meaning of words is pretty hilarious (you know, the pathetic kind of hilarity) when you consider these are the same people who claim the world will end if the word "marriage" is redefined.

Sidebar: My definition of "marriage" has changed several times, just as
a matter of living my life and learning more about myself and others.
Are you sure you really mean to be saying what you're saying about
yourself when you fret about about what it means in the lives of
people who are not you, because it's pretty brave of you, admitting
that you're that craven, weak & stupid.

Could go on.  Won't.  The incident led to the end of her awful career of being shitty to people and telling them how to ruin their lives by accepting her version of morality, as it should have.  She can say it all she wants in the privacy of her own personal hell.

Anyway, that was the roundabout way of saying, yes, Roots has THAT WORD in it, and yes, THAT WORD is offensive, but Roots uses it in its appropriate context.

It should be offensive.  

A large part of American history is.

The question is what we choose to learn from it, and we're not learning if we're not talking about it.

It's Not What It Looks Like...

Best Man Down - 2012
Written & Directed by Ted Koland

Best Man Down is not what it appears to be, and that's both its blessing and its curse.

It was evidently promoted (a misleading term in its own right) as a comedy, which it absolutely is not.  You would further believe it to be a comedy from the presence of Justin Long (Waiting..., Dodgeball, Zack & Miri Make a Porno) and Tyler Labine (Reaper, Tucker & Dale vs. Evil), but you would believe incorrectly.

While the film benefits from this misdirection in setting up certain expectations from Labine's character, Lumpy, and then allowing the characters and the viewers to learn from this mistake, not all viewers like to be challenged, and tend to blame filmmakers rather than accept that they may have been wrong.  For example, the correspondent reviewer on prefers to blame the film for all the things it's not rather than updating their expectations once the film demonstrates that it's something else -- which is a damned shame, because that was one of Ebert's greatest gifts as a reviewer.

Lumpy (Labine) is the best man at Scott and Kristin's wedding (Long and Jess Weixler, respectively), despite the fact that Scott and Lumpy have drifted out of each other's lives as adulthood has gotten more adult.  Naturally the one getting married is eyeball deep in discussions of responsibility and the burden of expectations.  The opening sets Lumpy up as your basic "big fat party guy."  He gets way too drunk and embarrasses himself not so much as the couple; specifically the overly-anxious bride who accepts/invents a large part of those burdensome expectations. 

Up until now, you could continue to be forgiven for thinking this was going to be a comedy.  Then Lumpy dies, in fairly dark fashion.  If it had been a comedy, there would be a dozen different ways to play this scene, but writer and first-time director Ted Koland chooses none of them and I believe that's purposeful.  It should be uncomfortable when the best man dies at the wedding, and it should leave an emotional taint on the memory.

Scott feels responsible for taking care of Lumpy's arrangements, and it's only much later that we learn that Lumpy had any family at all.  While the question could be raised as to why the family didn't take care of things, there would appear to be clues to explain Scott's willingness to take it on himself.  It was Scott that cut Lumpy off at the bar and sent him off to bed, and he feels guilty about that; rational or not.  This is compounded by the sense of guilt for growing apart and "succeeding" in the adult sense while Lumpy seemed to backslide, despite the fact that he borrowed money from Lumpy, which creates an even deeper sense of guilt.

So Scott and Kristin postpone their honeymoon to take care of the funeral, and to track down one of the few names in Lumpy's cell phone.  In doing so, they discover that Lumpy was not exactly who they thought he was, although they're not always sure they want to find out what there is to know.  Again, the appearance of things can be misleading, and one's own expectations can color their vision in ways that says more about the expectations than the individual.

The perverse burden of expectations is examined further through the characters of Scott & Kristin's relatives.  They're surrounded with self-centered demands and myopic notions of right and wrong, and while they accept and endure these expectations, they make themselves crazy and expect the worst of others.  Scott is so on-edge that he got himself fired from his grown-up job, unbeknownst to Kristin who has a nice little anti-anxiety med dependency going just to cope. 

They initially expect that the name "Ramsey" in Lumpy's phone refers to a classmate from law school... then learn that he had quit school the previous year.  Then they think it might be a girlfriend... and discover that it's a 15 year old girl from a small town.  This does not reassure them.

Meanwhile, throughout the film, we've been getting glimpses of Ramsey (Addison Timlin) and her life.  Her mom is a flake, because of/resulting in her relationship with her dirtbag meth-head boyfriend.  The boyfriend, having so little "self" upon which to base his impression of himself, attempts to mimic his idea of what a "Man" should be by dominating the women in his life, and dragging the clearly-2-to-3-times-his-IQ Ramsey down to his loser level by bullying her into shoplifting cold medicine for meth.  The film sidesteps darker implications, or leaves it up to the audience to fill in.  Those familiar with the realities of rural and small-town America may tend to color-in these pages with darker crayons than others.

We're also treated to a flashback that explains how Lumpy and Ramsey happened to meet, but this too leaves us uncertain about the nature of their relationship.  Like the characters, and much of the rest of the film, I think it depends on what expectations the individual viewer brings to the proceedings that determines how they will interpret this before the "big reveal" at the funeral.  It's not necessarily the most effectively managed mystery, but it makes for a good story as Scott and Kristin find their expectations challenged, and their eyes opened.

Going into the movie, I had few expectations, and most of those were wrong.  Once it began to reveal itself, I found elements that I strongly related to, and those played a large part for me in my ability to understand and connect to characters and events.  As a result, I ended up being deeply affected by the story, the narrative of discovery, and the characters of Lumpy and Ramsey in particular.  Your mileage may vary, but I think it will get you there, if you let it.  I was also able to allow the film to show me what it was, rather than remaining stuck in any preconceived notion of my own, and that, after all, was the complete and absolute point of Best Man Down.

We're Gonna Need A Bigger Bottle

Grabbers - 2012
Written by Kevin Lehane
Directed by Jon Wright

Anyone who tells you that they aren't making them like they used to simply isn't looking hard enough.  Now I'll grant you, at the Hollywood blockbuster level, they're definitely making them differently, but in Ireland, evidently, they're making them like the Spielberg/Zemekis/Dante/Donner class of the 1980s -- with one big difference; no obnoxious kids!

When a meteor crashes into the ocean near Erin Island, off the coast of mainland Ireland, the local citizens begin disappearing almost immediately.  A pod of dead pilot whales washes up on the shore.  This just happens to coincide with the arrival of Garda Lisa Nolan, a career-oriented officer from the big city (Dublin) who chose to spend her vacation time picking up a different kind of policing experience while one of the village's two resident officers takes holiday.  The other officer, Garda CiarĂ¡n O'Shea is a self-pitying and self-loathing marginally-funtional alcoholic, and he treats her with open disdain.  Meet-cute achieved.

The rest of the cast is filled out with the tart and colorful locals in this one-pub town.  With the help of a daffy old fisherman, a gawky biologist and the pub owner, they figure out that they are threatened by blood-sucking multipods that need little more than water to live.  They eventually discover that alcohol is toxic to the creatures, and with a rain storm on the way (a lot sooner than help from the mainland), naturally the only thing to do is to keep the whole town safe with a grand lock-down piss-up!

Like the characteristic films of the 80s, Grabbers keeps it light even in the serious moments.  Each scene is infused with a tone of fun on one level or another.  Most characters know each other well, so they're able to have a playful jab at each other, and the visiting officer's lack of familiarity offers them the opportunity to take some advantage with what she doesn't know.  The music particularly enhances the spirit of classic Spielberg.  It's like John Williams mashed up with your standard Irish sounds and themes -- an urgent, brassy orchestra, with a few extra flutes and such.  It really keeps things moving.  When I first read about the movie, I thought it sounded a little bit like Shaun of the Dead with aliens.  Now, having seen it, I find myself recalling the likes of Jaws and Gremlins even more.

The Road Worriers

Time for a quickish little round-up of films from 2013 that (for the sake of thematic cohesion) included road trips, to lesser or greater extents.

Nebraska - 2013
Written by Bob Nelson
Directed by Alexander Payne

Road Trip: Billings, Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska (and back)

Nebraska is a film that knows how to play the spaces between the notes.  Bruce Dern plays a man who has never wanted much from life.  This changes when he misinterprets a letter from a magazine publishers' sweepstakes, he becomes determined to get to Nebraska to collect his winnings, despite the fact that he's no longer allowed to drive.  His son, who feels like he knows nothing about his father, is tasked with accompanying him on the journey and keeping him safe -- mostly from himself.  As it turns out, his son (SNL's Will "MacGruber" Forte) only knows slightly less about his laconic father than his father knows about himself.  Nebraska brought David Lynch's The Straight Story to mind for me, but it definitely has its ow story to tell.  I think it will mean a lot more to you if you have had a taciturn Midwesterner in your life.  Its pacing recalls both the sparse conversational patterns of Middle America's Scandinavian sons, as well as the slowly shifting landscape of its highways.

Inside Llewyn Davis - 2013
Written & Directed by Joel & Ethan Coen

Road Trip: Greenwich Village, NYC to Chicago, IL (and back)

I would ordinarily go out of my way not to spoil the end of most movies, but I'm going to tell you something very important about Inside Llewyn Davis.

He does not commit suicide or otherwise get killed in the end.

I mention this because I found myself unwilling to fully invest in Llewyn and his story due to what seemed to be foreshadowing from the very first scene.  Also, the Coens have embraced "down" endings increasingly over the years which has led me to form less empathetic relationships with their characters.  It was only after the film ended and Llewyn didn't hang himself that I began to empathize and realize that... Llewyn is kind of me.

Llewyn is a frustrated folk singer struggling to make a creative place for himself at the dawn of the folk music scene on the early 60s.  His former singing partner DID commit suicide, and he literally cannot give his solo album away.  During the week covered in the film, his mean existence goes from hardscrabble to desperate -- so much so that he can't even give up effectively.  A surface viewing of Llewyn indicates that he's an asshole.  He's certainly called one often enough.  But a deeper look suggests that these are the panicked and often defensive flailings of a man treading water, and losing strength.

The Way, Way Back - 2013
Written & Directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

Road Trip: from childhood to young adulthood; also to Cape Cod (and back)

The Way, Way Back is sort of a mix-tape dedicated to the 1980s, and not just because of its throwback soundtrack of radio cheese.  It particularly reminded me of Meatballs, but told from the perspective of the gawky kid that Bill Murray would take under his wing.  In this case, Sam Rockwell plays the early 80s Bill Murray type character and Liam James is Duncan, the 14 year old loner.  Duncan is forced to ride in the "way, way back" of a vintage 1970s station wagon (those of you who know will have already guessed that), to and from summer vacation with his mom, and her boyfriend and his daughter.

I almost didn't watch this film, because it opens with such an uncomfortable scene between Duncan and his mom's boyfriend, Trent (Steve Carell).  Trent is controlling and demeaning toward Duncan, interpreting his role as "new dad" (despite the lack of any such invitation) in a way that we can be pretty sure that he experienced himself.  While constantly pressured from all quarters to cheer up and become sociable, Duncan is never really offered the opportunity to do so.  His mom is primarily interested in keeping Trent happy (a fear reaction to the callous dumping from Duncan's father), Trent is a domineering prick who's more interested in turning Duncan into him than finding out who Duncan might already be, and Trent's daughter is just enough older (and thoroughly self-involved) to only notice Duncan's existence when it annoys her.  The adults get caught up in their friends and Trent's daughter in hers, and Duncan sits, trapped, on a fishing boat in a life vest with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

Until, that is, he finds a flowery pink girl's bicycle in the garage at the beach house and starts venturing into town on his own.  It's there that he meets Owen (Rockwell) and his colorful coterie of cohorts at the Water Wizz water park.  It's there, through their acceptance and encouragement that he finally comes alive and learns that he doesn't have to hate himself to become something more than scared.  It's fortunate that Duncan takes center stage and while the conflict with Trent remains present, Trent himself gets nudged into a supporting role.  Upon reflection, the film does cheat a little bit by giving Duncan a shortcut to victory over the seeming inevitability of life with Trent's emotional abuse, but Trent's self-centered nature does make it seem like a natural progression.

Writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash would have grown up in the 80s, and The Way, Way Back plays like a love letter to the summer vacation movies of the era -- in the good way (Easy A, yes. Take Me Home Tonight, hell no).  I loved the crap out of this movie, and it will definitely be added to my list of the year's best films.

Philomena - 2013
Written by Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope
Directed by Steven Frears

Road Trip: London to Ireland; Ireland to the United States (and back)

If you've gotten tired of seething with rage at the abuses of Catholic priests, friend, have I got a film for you.  Philomena will have you seething with rage at the abuses of Catholic nuns before it's done.

The film puts a face on the stories of the babies effectively stolen from their mothers and sold to Americans, and the girls from whom they were stolen while essentially indentured to the convents.  That face is Judy Dench's, in the role of Philomena, who finally opens up to her daughter 50 years later about the son who was taken from her.  The daughter gets in contact with Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a former reporter and disgraced ex-Director of Communications for the Labour Party.  The film is adapted from his book.

They set out on a journey, both physical and emotional, to locate Philomena's son.  The sisters at the convent are, shall we say, unhelpful at best.  Through Sixsmith's research, he's finally able to find a lead that takes them to the United States on their quest for Philomena's son, and answers.  There is much that is predictable in the story, which is somewhat natural given the similarity of mother/child separation stories, but there were a few surprises as well.  That's really irrelevant, however, as the meat of the story comes from what Martin and Philomena go through and learn along the way.  Martin's a bit of a snooty Oxford twat, which isn't a terrible stretch for Coogan, but he's much better rounded as a human being here than many of his more broadly approached performances in the past.  Given the the most recent role most people will have seen Dench play is M in the Bond films, it's almost startling to see her in a meeker, but still disarming role here.

Through all that Philomena goes through, she struggles to find a safe and sane approach to faith despite the patterns of control and abuse that the nuns used to make her so meek and ashamed.  As the film is told from Sixsmith's perspective, but it primarily driven by Philomena's story, I would have liked to spend a little more time with her internal conflicts, but that's really just a hunger for a third scoop of ice cream when you've had two scoops with your pie already.

There's a certain, hm... pornographic predictability to most mother/child separation tales, and a niche audience for that consistency.  Philomena is the one for the rest of us.