Here Today

Billy Crystal writes, directs, produces and stars in Here Today. The character seems based on him, an aging comedy writer, who has lived through fame and success, and now is enjoying a more settled and obscure time in his twilight years. Which is not say he’s idle, he’s vital and enthusiastic and still chipping in in the writers’ room of a SNL-style show. In fact, it is his undimming lust for life that is what makes it so hard for him to accept his diagnosis of dementia.

There’s been a lot of dementia films lately, The Father, Supernova and now this. Don’t know why.

Anyway, Crystal’s character, Charlie Burns, has a quirky meet-cute with Tiffany Haddish’s Emma, a manic pixie dream nurse. She is this larger-than-life character, singing in a swing band on the streets of New York, dressing in retro vintage fashion, and wolfing down any food she finds. As a young woman at the beginning of her story, Charlie is enthralled with how alive she is. Emma, on the other hand, is endeared by Charlie’s kindness, and enjoys hearing Charlie’s stories about a New York from another time. As she sits in his livingroom, beautiful violin music drifts through the window, and Charlie explains Itzhak Perlman lives opposite and practices in the evenings. She has no idea who that is, but encourages his to get up and dance. That’s their complementary dynamic.

In the Q&A afterwards, Crystal said he wanted Here Today to refute the proposition put forward in When Harry Met Sally, that men and women cannot be friends, sex will always get in the way. Here Today is about falling in friendship.

Mmmmmmmm.

This is an incredibly sweet and warm movie (straying into saccharine at times, especially towards the end) but it dances over a lot of problematic notions baked into the premise. Ultimately, Emma cancels going on tour with her band to look after Charlie as his live-in caregiver in the prognosed last year of his life. Which is a happy ending for the rich, white man who now employs(?) her. But Emma’s happy ending is to, uh, bask in his company? Like, this black woman’s happy ending is to provide round-the-clock medical and emotional care for this white dude. It kinda papers over a lot of unquestioned notions.

Plus, Emma isn’t shown as having much life beyond Charlie’s time with her. It’s established her family are all in another state, and she has an ex-boyfriend, but you never really see her living her life outwith Charlie, so it kinda lessens any impact of what she’s sacrificing to stay and look after him. Because as far as the film’s concerned, what else is she gonna do? When she can be helping heal this dude’s relationship with his family, and make him feel better?

So yeah, there’s a lot one-sidedness to the story, and it’s not, like, super funny, but it does kinda glow with a good-natured humour and a pleasantness that’s sort of classic to Billy Crystal films that I just miss, and enjoy seeing. A nice movie.

Prince of Muck

When I was a little girl, one of my favourite things to do was go for a walk with my grandpa, and listen to all the stuff he told me. That’s what watching Prince of Muck feels like. Like going on a walk with Lawrence McEwan, listening to him tell you about his island, about his farm, about his life, about his family.

Isle of Muck is one of the smallest Scottish islands, and it was purchased by a relative of McEwan’s at the end of the 19th century. In 1922, his father became laird of the island, and decided to live there, start a farm there, and help the community to prosper. Lawrence was born to that life, and loved it, and never wanted to be anywhere else. He grew up running barefoot up the hills, camping out among the windswept rocks, and reading poetry while watching the tide go in and out. Now in his 80s, he has passed the farm on to his son, and hopes his grandchildren will also want to continue on this way of life.

This film is a love letter from a man to his home. He has dedicated 8 decades of hard work to it, and as he takes stock of a life well-lived, hopes only to see its preciousness protected and endure. With striking cinematography, as you see the howling gales whip the heather, and the freezing spray break against the harbour walls, and the sky become a changeable masterpiece of colour and mood, you kinda start to fall in love with it too.

Lawrence lives like a man from a bygone time. He bathes in cold water every morning, drives a tractor from the 60s, milks his cows by hand, and ties up the animals in a barn at the back of the house every night. Each day he still goes out with his cows across the fields, leaning on his stick, the dogs running at his feet. A theme throughout the movie is that Lawrence is having a hard time letting go of a life he loves so dearly, whether that means doing less manual work, or letting his son make more of the decisions about the farm, or simply accepting the limitations of his body in old age.

“A good life and a quick death,” says Lawrence, is what every man desires, and what a farmer should give his animals. He calls all his cows by name, and scratches their backs affectionately, but a farm is not a place where the realities of life and death can hide. Mortality feels like a constant presence in every scene, a keen awareness of times passing, of inevitable change, and the fear of what it might bring, but the need to make peace with it as part of nature, and surrender to it, rather than struggle.

If you like this…

Pig

Pig, or Taken for bacon, is about the theft of truffle pig, and its reclusive owner’s journey to save it.

Nicolas Cage is such a liability for a movie. I watched the trailer, and was like, is this for real? Like, is this meant to be funny? Cage growls about wanting his pig back in a manner reminiscent of “Put the bunny back”. At one point in the cinema, this trailer played and folk were openly laughing. Trouble is when you’ve played a parody of yourself for 15 years, it’s hard to pivot back when you wanna be taken seriously. I remember him having to explicitly state he wasn’t just pulling another manic caricature when Mandy came out, and similarly with Color Out of Space. Attaching a former, or arguably still, A-list name to your film is a good way to get financing and attention, but Cage is really a double-edged sword.

All of which is to say, Pig is not a comedy. There are a few moments of congenial levity, but no. It is instead a mournful journey back into the world of the main character’s old life, and in many ways confirming why he left. It has a melancholy tone, and despite one or two scenes of rough-and-tumble, largely is compromised of going places and sitting down at a table and having a conversation with someone. The main character is taciturn, so these scenes aren’t even necessarily that heavy on dialogue. In tone, it’s closer to something like Blue Ruin.

The annoying thing about Nicolas Cage is, he can actually act. He’s actually great in this. He conveys a sense of loss and self-sufficiency throughout his performance, but can bring a wealth of emotion out from behind his barricades, turning this closed-off character inside out and open, in a way that rings with real vulnerability. It’s understated and it’s nuanced.

Which makes you wonder, so you can do this, you just choose not to? Whatever.

Also coming in hot with a strong performance is Alex Wolff, of Hereditary fame. He contrasts Cage’s silence and internal conflict with a chatty and flashy over-compensation. Yet, he equally manages to convey the fundamental human longing for fulfilment.

Together, their road trip takes them through questions of what we are looking for, and how we try to find it, successfully or unsuccessfully, in a variety of places. The main character is a man whose life burnt down, and who, in the ashes, took real stock of what he needed and what he didn’t need, what he wanted and what he didn’t want, and what mattered and what didn’t matter. His clarity contrasts with the markers of wealth, fame, and fashion of the Portland restaurant scene. The constant to-and-fro of seeking validation and a reflection of a satisfying self-image in the eyes of others.

But even in a life so pared down, loss is loss and grief is grief. And what we do in times of such challenges, is still a journey of discovery.