All posts by Larry Christopher

When You Finish Saving the World: Gen Z vs Boomer

Movie poster: When You Finish Saving the World

When You Finish Saving the World, Jesse Eisenberg’s directorial debut and based on his own novel, stars Julianne Moore and Finn Wolfhard as a mother and son with serious social and communication issues, both with each other and the rest of the world. This is an insightful, sometimes funny, sometimes cringeworthy depiction of a conflict between two generational stereotypes: self-satisfied, affluent liberal Boomers and self-absorbed Gen-Zers who are more comfortable interacting online than in person. To its credit, the film doesn’t really take a side as both generations are lampooned.

Julianne Moore plays Evelyn, the director of a woman’s shelter in Indiana. Her teenage son, Ziggy, spends all his free time live streaming a music program that is broadcast globally to, he can’t stop announcing to everyone, 20,000 fans. Jay O. Sanders takes a back seat as Ziggy’s father, whose low key presence mainly consists of drinking wine, retreating with a book to his bedroom, and avoiding conflict as much as possible.

Ziggy is the kind of part Eisenberg himself would have played 20 or so years ago. In fact, this film vaguely evokes a 90s film in which he appeared, The Squid and the Whale, as both depict highly dysfunctional upper middle class families. Wolfhard is very effective in this role as a character who is often less than sympathetic. He’s both awkward and self-centered, oblivious of how off-putting his behavior often is.

Despite his apparent popularity online, Ziggy is socially awkward with his peers. He becomes infatuated with Lila (Alisha Boe), a politically active classmate who reads poetry at a local radical community center. Ziggy makes some ill-planned attempts to impress her. He turns one of her poems about oppressed people into a song and then brags how much money he made online with it. Ziggy suffers from the delusion that social media posturing is the equivalent of making a real difference in the world.

Evelyn is equally uncomfortable to watch. One of Julianne Moore’s strengths is playing characters who try to put on a brave front while barely hanging on emotionally. We saw this recently in May December, where she plays a woman living in the aftermath of a scandal. Here, she is equally off balance at home with Ziggy and her uncommunicative husband and at work, where she awkwardly tries to balance her role as supervisor with her egalitarian values. In one scene, her efforts to get friendly with a receptionist results in the other woman asking if Evelyn is planning to fire her.

Evelyn becomes obsessed with Kyle (Billy Bryk), a teen who goes to school with Ziggy (though the two are not acquainted) who is staying at the shelter with his mother. At first, she appears to take a maternal interest in Kyle, who seems more grounded and easier to communicate with than her own son. However, it starts to go in a queasier direction when she takes him out to dinner and gets giggly and flirty with him.

We need to look beyond Ziggy and his parents to find characters who are relatively normal and well adjusted. We see their foibles through the eyes of Lila and Kyle. The film’s major weakness is probably that the nearly perfect symmetry between Ziggy and Evelyn’s awkward interactions stretches credibility.

What I liked best about the film were some of the casual and offhanded observations. For example, we see Evelyn and Ziggy squeezing into an ostentatiously tiny Smart car, which is parked in one of the neighborhood’s larger and more ornate homes. This perfectly captures Evelyn’s need to be seen as a socially conscious activist while living a comfortable life in an upscale suburb. Then there’s the everyday hostility between Ziggy and his parents, who casually hurl obscenities at one another. This might be shocking to anyone not familiar with the norms of many liberal middle class families. Ziggy is especially territorial about no one disturbing him while he’s vlogging.

When You Finish Saving the World reveals how difficult communication can be in the modern world. . But overall, Eisenberg and the actors do an admirable job of sending up people whose self-importance and grandiosity can overshadow good intentions.


My Dinner With Andre 40 Years Later


My Dinner With Andre, directed by Louis Malle, is a cult classic from 1981 that is still widely discussed today. It’s been called a prophetic look at a society that is increasingly alienated and dominated by technology. I hadn’t seen it for many years, so I thought it would be a good time to rewatch it and share my thoughts.

Just a Conversation

If you’ve never seen it, My Dinner With Andre is simply about two men, actor and playwright Wallace Shawn and theater director Andre Gregory, playing themselves, having dinner at a restaurant. Yes, it’s all talk. The only thing that prevents it from seeming like a stage play are the scenes before and after the dinner, where we are treated to some vintage scenes of New York City in the early 80s.

There aren’t very many movies, especially popular ones, that are 99% dialogue. Some of Richard Linklater’s films, such as the Sunrise-Sunset trilogy are dialogue-heavy, but in that case there’s a romantic mood as well as a variety of scenes (e.g. European cities). Waking Life is a closer comparison, as it’s full of philosophical inquiries, but that film diverts us with animated special effects. My Dinner With Andre is just two guys sitting in a restaurant for almost 2 hours. Yet, the movie continues to captivate viewers more than 40 years after its premier.

Does My Dinner With Andre Have a Theme?

Fortunately, Wally and Andre aren’t just uttering random, meandering thoughts. Although their conversation veers in many directions, there are some central themes. Andre introduces a fairly radical criticism of modern society, describing how people are almost entirely inauthentic and sleepwalking through life. His point is reminiscent of the mystic George Gurdjieff, who spoke of people being unconscious. I don’t believe Andre mentions Gurdjieff, but he does refer to Zen, which emphasizes living in the moment. Wally, meanwhile, argues for a more conventional and less confrontational attitude.

I suspect the disagreements between Wally and Andre are a bit exaggerated for dramatic effect. Most of the discussions revolve around Andre’s outlook while Wally takes on more of a Devil’s Advocate role as he upholds the virtues of bourgeois comforts over adventure and radical discontent.

One could say Andre’s point of view reveals a certain bourgeois privilege, as he has the freedom to travel the world in his quest for self-actualization. Of course, he understands this fully and expresses the requisite self-loathing that is, ironically, also characteristic of bourgeois intellectuals.

A Prophetic Movie?

It’s popular in some circles to look back at all the dystopian prophets, such as Orwell and Huxley, and discuss who came closer to the truth. My Dinner With Andre is sometimes mentioned as a prophetic work.

Many of the topics do take a grim view of modern civilization and the direction it’s headed. It’s especially disturbing to hear about alienation and self-preoccupation in 1981, about 15 years before internet culture, much less smartphones and social media.

I don’t think Andre is a prophet as much as an astute observer of what was already happening. He says at one point that the 1960s were the  “the last burst of the human being before he was extinguished.” To understand this point of view, it’s helpful to consider the era when these comments were made.

While it’s easy to be nostalgic about the 80s now, it was actually a rather pessimistic time, especially in big cities. The economy was in a recession, it was the middle of the Cold War, and the AIDS epidemic was peaking. This was also the beginning of the decline of New York’s (and America’s) middle class due to soaring housing costs. We get a glimpse of this mood early at the beginning of My Dinner With Andre, as Wally mentions his struggle paying bills and boards a graffiti-ridden subway.

It’s not entirely coincidental that Escape From New York, the post-apocalyptic thriller starring Kurt Russell as the vigilante anti-hero who rescues a US president who is trapped in a New York that has been turned into a prison, also came out in 1981. As different as these two films are, they share some of the dystopian angst that was in the air during that time.

Andre’s Vision of a New Underground

Andre’s vision is not wholly pessimistic. He advocates for a type of underground to keep civilization going during these new dark ages, using the model of communities such as Findhorn in Scotland, which is famous for its innovative agricultural methods and neo-pagan outlook.

This notion is similar to the  concept of temporary autonomous zones, an anarchist ideal that advocates the formation of spontaneous pockets of resistance and culture. Sadly, such idealistic visions have not fared well when people make a serious attempt to implement them.  This was brought to light in 2020, when an actual “autonomous zone”  called CHAZ (Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone) sprung up in Seattle, where the initial euphoria soon degenerated into violence.

Similar problems have  plagued other utopian communities, including many that sprung up in the 1960s. I am digressing, but the point is that the kind of idealism Andre expresses is more easily experienced by financially independent individuals than by groups of people from disparate backgrounds who must contend with everyday survival and  conflicting social forces around them.

Was the Movie Scripted or an Improvised Conversation?

As Wally and Andre talk, it would be easy to believe that the movie is a documentary, capturing a spontaneous conversation. It turns out that this was not the case. As you can read in the review by Roger Ebert, the film was actually carefully scripted and was taped over a period of several months. So the conversation reflects the two men’s actual personalities but we can assume many of the events discussed (especially in Andre’s life) were invented or exaggerated for dramatic effect.

My Dinner With Andre: A Timeless Classic

My Dinner With Andre is a movie worth watching every so often. Surprisingly, it doesn’t seem dated today (aside from the shots of 1981 New York of course). Most of the topics they discuss are timeless. On the one hand, intellectuals have long bemoaned the decline of civilization. On the other hand, the modern world does seem to be getting ever more chaotic, alienated, and fragmented. My Dinner With Andre may not provide any solutions, but it can help to clarify some of the questions.

Watch My Dinner With Andre on Amazon Prime

Radical Wolfe -Tom Wolfe Documentary

I watched Radical Wolfe  right after reading Tom Wolfe’s very first book, The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. Considering I lived through all the decades in which he wrote, I’ve had surprisingly little contact with his work. This documentary is a good introduction into a journalist and writer who was often controversial and who helped people to understand many of the most important cultural movements of the 1960s and beyond.

Radical Wolfe, directed by Richard Dewey, written by Michael Lewis, is 75 minutes, relatively short for a piece covering someone with such a long  career. I actually prefer this condensed approach, though someone could easily have made a 2 or 3 hour documentary on such a character.

Although it shows Wolfe in a mostly favorable light, it doesn’t ignore the fact that he was controversial and often provoked censure, as when he published a piece in New York Magazine in 1970 called Radical Chic ( which obviously inspired the doc’s title), targeting Leonard Bernstein and other liberal intellectuals who defended the Black Panthers. This helped to set the stage for Wolfe as a provocateur who would later offend people with The Bonfire of the Vanities among other works.

Towards the end, someone observes that no one in the future could ever replicate a career like Wolfe’s. The reason for this, sadly, is that someone as outspoken and controversial as Wolfe simply wouldn’t be tolerated today. I suppose this is debatable in the social media age, but it raises some interesting questions. People far more extreme than Wolfe have platforms on Twitter and YouTube for example. However, it’s not likely that anyone very controversial or extreme would be able to attain the mainstream popularity of Wolfe.

Radical Wolfe is a good introduction to a writer who captured some essential scenes and cultures of mid-20th century America. It’s currently streaming on Netflix.

May December -Complex Handling of a Tabloid Topic

May December deals with the kind of tabloid-type topic you’d expect to see in a Lifetime movie or, going further back,  a TV movie of the week. The kind of movie that superficially condemns the scandalous behavior of its characters while titillating the audience.

Now imagine such a topic as handled by a director known for his insightful and complex approach such as Todd Haynes, and you have May December, a made for Netflix production. To be clear, May December does titillate the audience, but in a way that’s intended to make you feel guilty or at least uncomfortable for this.

May December is loosely based on a real incident of a teacher’s affair with a student.

Gracie (Julianne Moore) is a woman whose life has been defined by a scandal. When she was in her thirties, she seduced a 7th grade kid named Joe (Charles Melton), for which she went to prison. However, after she was released, Grace and Joe married and had kids. As the setting is a respectable suburb in Savannah, Grace’s standing in the community is ambiguous at best.

A strange detail to note is that the family, apparently supported by modest local jobs, somehow live in a grand home that could be called a mansion on a scenic lake. Perhaps Grace inherited it or had family money? Characters living above their realistic means is a common trope of movies and television but doesn’t really fit into  this otherwise more sophisticated film.

Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is an actress who is playing Grace in a movie. She arranges a visit, staying in town, so she can get to know the family and learn more about the character.

May December is all about the troubled and ambivalent interactions between characters, especially between Grace and Elizabeth but also between Grace and Joe and between Joe and Elizabeth. There are also the nuanced interactions between Grace and Joe and their just-grown children.

In some ways, Grace still treats Joe like a child, even while insisting he was “in charge” in their earlier relationship. Considering his reticent and basically passive nature, this interpretation seems unlikely. Joe retreats to his hobby of raising monarch butterflies, which no doubt has symbolism as he seems trapped in a situation he fell into while still a child.

Elizabeth (Natalie Portman) is a strange case herself. She seems more fascinated and turned on than shocked by Grace and Joe’s history. In one scene, she visits the back room of the pet shop where the couple used to meet and re-enacts a seduction scene.

As with most Todd Haynes films, May December doesn’t answer many questions definitively. All of the characters are troubled and we can’t necessarily trust any of their motives. Elizabeth may have designs on Joe, but to what end remains unclear. Is she an actor who is obsessively dedicated to her craft or more of a voyeur reveling in other people’s scandals? Or perhaps the film is suggesting that these two are not mutually exclusive.

Grace may have been sexually assaulted by a brother growing up, which may partly explain her own behavior. She denies this ever happened and we are left wondering.

The film is alternately dramatic, tragic, and comedic, not giving us a chance to fall into a predictable mood. Haynes directed one of my favorite films, Safe, which came out in 1995 and also starred Julianne Moore.  Like May December, it deals with some heavy issues -in this case, health and how the world can make some people ill- in a disturbing and ambiguous manner. May December is a similarly complex exploration of issues that tend to get oversimplified.

See my review of Safe

A Murder at the End of the World: New Program by OA Creators

Fans of the The OA (a mystery/sci fi show that ran from 2016-2019) will want to check out A Murder at the End of the World, a miniseries created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij. The two shows are not related, though, so you can watch the new one without having seen The OA.

This review won’t be too thorough as I’m writing this in the middle of the season. I may add to it after I’ve watched all the episodes.

Darby Hart (Emma Corrin) is a young hacker and amateur sleuth who learned from being the daughter of a forensic investigator. The first episode begins as she does a book signing recounting her experiences investigating a murder. She is surprised to be invited to an elite conference in Iceland run by a tech guru named Andy (Clive Owen), where she meets a host of brilliant (and potentially suspicious) characters, including her ex partner (both romantic and in sleuthing) Bill (Harris Dickinson), Andy’s wife Lee (Marling) who is also a hacker, and Lu Mei (Joan Chen), a designer of smart cities.

The action alternates between the present and past, as Darby remembers how she and Bill followed cold case clues to track a serial killer.

The stark landscape of Iceland creates an intense atmosphere as the conference attendees are trapped in Andy’s luxury compound with an unknown killer on the loose. What begins as a luxurious getaway for the world’s tech elite becomes a struggle for survival.So

At this point in the series, Andy is an ambiguous character who may be working for the good of humanity or have a more self-centered motive. There are signs that the site of the conference is more of a survivalist compound than a luxury hotel.  This idea can be found in actual recent headlines such as:

Super-rich Preppers Planning to Save Themselves From the Apocalypse

A Murder at the End of the World isn’t a conventional murder mystery set in an exotic location. The story is also deeply concerned with bigger issues such as the role of technology (AI in particular), economics, and the possibility of imminent environmental catastrophe. A nearly sentient AI that can project a human form on a screen hovers in the background as a kind of super-Alexa/Siri. As in movies such as Ex Machina and Her, we’re made aware of how such advanced AI can pose dangers as well as benefits.

No matter how the program ends (I’m not sure if there will be future seasons), it raises some important questions. I found an insightful Salon Talks interview with Brit Marling, where she expresses a preference for posing questions over giving definitive answers.

A Murder at the End of the World Trailer


Another Version of You: Romcom Explores Parallel Realities

Movies about parallel realities have been popular for a while, at least as far back as Sliding Doors (1998). Another Version of You (2018) is a low key entry into this genre. If you’re fascinated by the possibility that you can shift into alternate versions of yourself, this movie, written and directed by Motke Dapp, is worth checking out despite its shortcomings.

Diggsy (Kristopher Wente)is heartbroken that the woman of his dreams, Suzette (Sara Antonio) has married another man. A mysterious stranger in a bar hands him a key that allows him to shift realities, and off he goes.

Diggsy plunges into dozens of realities and meets different versions of Suzette, including a crazy one and one who is very ill. He also has a fling with another woman named Gwyneth (C.J. Perry) and meets different versions of his sister Daphne (Brittany Belland).

Diggsy visits all kinds of locations, which are never specified. There are scenes in various cities in North America and Europe. Apparently some of the film was shot in Iceland. Not sure why a movie with international locations wouldn’t boast about it.

Many of the scenes are basically montages of Diggsy jumping into other realitie. Some of these seemed like skits on a show such as Saturday Night Live. The ending was open-ended, which I suppose isn’t a bad thing with a movie whose point is that life can be almost anything.

I probably approach this kind of movie too literally, but I tend to fixate on practical details.  For example, how does Diggsy get by? Do his credit cards and bank account follow him from one reality to another? At one point, he even rents an apartment and buys furniture.

I also found the insularity of the concept a little claustrophobic. If you were visiting parallel realities, wouldn’t you be at least a little curious about the world beyond your romantic interest? There’s one reference to a movie having a different cast (in one reality, The Matrix stars Will Smith instead of Keanu Reeves) but nothing else about how the world might be different.

Another Version of You is an extremely lightweight look at a fascinating concept. It won’t provide you with any deep insights into the nature or reality or even human relationships, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion.

Another Version of You is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and possibly elsewhere.

Don’t Read This on a Plane: Meandering European Road Movie

Don’t Read This on a Plane , directed by Stuart McBratney, an independent comedy-drama from 2020, an example of an emerging genre of movie (very popular on Netflix lately) of foreign films geared towards Americans. Although it takes place in Europe and stars French actress Sophie Desmarais, it is 90% in English. This is believable as Jovana is a writer doing a book tour across Europe, where English is the international language. Oddly enough, the segment that takes place in France did not have subtitles, at least not in the version on Amazon I watched.

This is a rather slight but enjoyable movie about an author whose book publisher goes bankrupt right before her book tour begins. Jovana is broke, married to an American (another convenient way to keep everything in English) who is working on a ship and cannot understand her pleas for help due to poor phone reception.

Jovana is forced to rough it by hitchhiking and sleeping on couches. She uses an app called MOAF (mattress on floor) that arranges free or low cost stays in people’s homes. This app may be fictional, but there was an actual site and app called Couchsurfing that really served this function (I’ve actually used it years ago, but the last I heard it is either defunct or hacked by scammers).

Jovana manages her extremely low budget travel as she moves through countries such as Italy, Portugal, Greece, Romania, and The Netherlands. Is all this realistic? Probably the least likely aspect of it all is the free publicity she gets when readers are actually thrown off planes when reading her book.

The title of the movie is also the title of her book. It’s a book of erotic stories recounting Jovana’s sexual encounters with women which may or may not be true. During book readings, audience members ask her if the stories are true and she responds with coy evasions.

The plot is very thin and meandering, which is often the case with road movies. Jovana meets various characters in different cities. She has an ongoing phone-based flirtation with a woman who is organizing her appearance in Romania. She has frustrating attempts to contact her husband.

If you like action and heavily plotted stories, you’ll find Don’t Read This on a Plane boring if not meaningless. I have a high tolerance for this kind of film, so I mostly enjoyed it. Sophie Desmarais is a likable and attractive lead who helps to carry the thin plot. Another upsides of the film is that it is shot on location, as the director describes in an interview with Filmink. Locations can add a great deal to the atmosphere. Low budget indie films are often claustrophobic due to limited settings and are often not even shot in the places where they are supposedly set.

The film also explores, in its lighthearted fashion, the relationship between fiction and reality and whether a writer is obligated to tell the truth (or if it even matters whether they do or not).

Don’t Read This on a Plane is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. You may also be able to find it for free on YouTube and elsewhere.


The Joker as Dark Trickster

Joker (2019), directed by Todd Phillips, is an example of how a movie can be highly flawed and highly derivative in some ways and still be significant. Though the story is uneven and ambiguous and the Joker himself (Joaquin Phoenix) isn’t a very coherently constructed character, the film manages to tap into the nihilistic zeitgeist of contemporary life. The strong reactions it provoked are proof of this.

A more “serious” filmmaker than Phillips, best known for popular comedies such as The Hangover (parts one, two, and three, sigh), might have created a more fully developed joker -perhaps one who was more politically correct and sympathetic or, conversely, one who was a pure villain. Phillips was content to let the character stray all over the map and leave us with a perplexing, ambiguous character and film that may be, after all, appropriate for the Joker.

The Joker’s Heavy-handed “Influences”

I was never a huge fan of Batman (or any comic/superhero franchise) and missed most of the movies. I do have childhood recollections of the original TV series, though, so references such as Gotham City and Bruce Wayne are familiar enough to me. That said, Phillips’ Joker borrows (or outright steals) more from 70s Scorcese films than from the Batman universe.

Set approximately in a gritty 1970s Gotham City, which is essentially New York, many scenes depict a Times Square-like neighborhood that immediately evokes Taxi Driver. The Joker, née Arthur Fleck, does have similarities with Travis Bickle after he transforms from an anonymous misfit loner to a violent vigilante. Yet he’s equally Rupert Pupkin, from The King of Comedy, another entry in the Scorcese-DeNiro partnership, the character who becomes obsessed with and eventually kidnaps a TV host played by Jerry Lewis.

In Joker, Robert DeNiro is the one playing the TV host, Murray Franklin (who evokes a TV radio host named Joe Franklin). Fleck, like Pupkin, has imaginary conversations with the TV host and visualizes himself as a star.

There’s a dubious assumption that if you blatantly refer to other works while winking at the audience, you’re doing a high-minded tribute rather than simply copying. The fact that DeNiro gave his blessing to the project with his participation doesn’t say much, as many of his later roles can be seen as essentially cashing out on his earlier, far greater roles.

Joker, of course, “borrows” from other films as well, especially A Clockwork Orange, which gave us one of the first truly disturbing depictions of modern society collapsing into violent chaos.

The Joker as Trickster

The Joker is part of an archetype that transcends modern cinema, comic books, and Batman. As a playing card, the Joker is wild, a close relation to The Fool in the tarot, also known as the Jester, a character who dates back at least as far as the Middle Ages in Western culture, and quite a bit further in others. Tricksters such as Loki in Northern Europe, Hermes in Greece, and Coyote in North America have always played an important role in mythology and storytelling.

Tricksters are, by nature, morally ambiguous. They can be fun and playful, but also deceptive and self-serving. It’s revealing just how dark so many tricksters have become in our modern myths. Aside from the Joker, the evil clown, a staple of so many horror movies, is probably the best example.

Modern audiences are split on how they respond to these dark tricksters. In an age when faith in traditional institutions such as government, religion, and even science is collapsing, the anarchic spirit of the trickster is appealing. Yet an amoral clown like the Joker can easily lead to random violence and total societal collapse.

Joker Triggers Many Critics

Joker triggered strong responses from many critics, well beyond the usual elitist vitriol often unleashed on popular movies.  For example, the New Yorker published a near-hysterical review that missed the mark in multiple ways, choosing to fixate on racial issues.

Somehow Fleck being assaulted by a multiethnic group of kids while waving a store’s sale sign equates to the infamous Central Park Five case and his being assaulted by a group of wealthy white guys on the subway makes him Bernie Goetz.

I can almost suspect that Phillips put in a few racially charged scenes to provoke such oversimplified reactions from old-school liberals. It’s easy enough to shove the Joker into the neat category of an angry white male, along the lines of Michael Douglas’s character in Falling Down. But Joker is considerably more complex. In a tense urban environment, it’s not shocking that an unstable person such as Fleck would be triggered by racially charged incidents. But the film is clearly dealing with wider issues concerning society, mental illness, anomie, and violence.

Does Joker Celebrate Nihilism?

I don’t believe in anything.” -Arthur Fleck in Joker.

Perhaps the central question about Joker is whether the film is a celebration of Fleck’s nihilism or a cautionary tale. It can be interpreted either way. Fleck is portrayed as a troubled man suffering from mental health issues. The system clearly lets him down when the program that provides him with medication is shut down. This, indeed, is when he starts to unravel. On the other hand, Fleck can just as easily be seen as a sociopath who doesn’t take responsibility for his own actions.

The final scenes, showing mobs of rioters celebrating the Joker as their antihero reminded me of another 70s movie, the cult classic The Warriors, in which street gangs took over the city.

While Joker is by no means a great film, it’s worth seeing and discussing because it portrays a character who is, unfortunately, relatable in a society where alienation and mental illness run rampant (as Taxi Driver was 50 years earlier).

Joker is also a kind of Rorschach test, revealing your attitudes towards complex issues like social unrest, race, anarchy, freedom, and creative expression. Your reactions may very well change over time and even through different scenes of the film. This makes Joker a film that’s always interesting despite its flaws.



11 Top Movies Featuring Trains and Subways

If you’re a fan of trains and the allure of the open tracks, you won’t want to miss out on the cinematic experience of a good train movie. From classic Westerns to pulse-pounding action thrillers, trains have been a staple of the silver screen for over a century. Here are some of the very best movies to take a ride on the rails. Subways are included here as well. These movies are listed in chronological order, going way back to 1903.

1. The Great Train Robbery (1903)

One of the earliest narrative films ever made, The Great Train Robbery was a sensation upon its release and set the standard for train-based action onscreen. Directed by Edwin S. Porter, the film, in a mere 12 minutes, tells the story of a band of bandits who take over a train and make off with its cargo of gold. With innovative editing techniques and thrilling action sequences, it’s easy to see why The Great Train Robbery remains a classic to this day. It was remade in 1978 by Michael Crichton, starring Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland.

2. The General (1926)

Buster Keaton’s silent comedy masterpiece The General is perhaps the definitive train movie. Set during the Civil War, the film follows Keaton’s hapless train engineer as he attempts to rescue his beloved locomotive and thwart a group of Union spies. With stunning stunt work and Keaton’s trademark deadpan humor, The General is one of the greatest films ever made.

3. Strangers on a Train (1951)

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic noir mystery is another example of a movie where a train plays a crucial role. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train is about two men who concoct a farfetched but wickedly brilliant scheme: each will commit a murder on behalf of the other, making it extremely hard to catch either of them. This film has influenced countless other murder mysteries.

4. North by Northwest (1959)

Another entry for the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. North By Northwest is a masterclass in suspense filmmaking, and its climactic chase sequence atop a moving train is one of the most iconic moments in cinema history. Starring Cary Grant as an advertising executive mistaken for a spy, the film takes him on a wild cross-country journey that culminates in a showdown aboard a speeding train.

5. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

This one features the subway as a major character. A gritty crime thriller stars Walter Matthau as a New York City transit cop who must negotiate with a group of hijackers who have taken a subway train and its passengers hostage. With tense action and a sharp script, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a classic of the genre. The film was actually remade twice, once in 1998 and again in 2009. Critics may argue which of the three is best, but if you haven’t seen any of them you should definitely start with the original.

6. Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Based on Agatha Christie’s popular novel, Murder on the Orient Express is a classic mystery movie that takes place aboard the famous Orient Express train. The story revolves around Detective Hercule Poirot as he attempts to solve a gruesome murder on board the train. With an all-star cast featuring the likes of Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, and Lauren Bacall, this whodunit film remains a timeless classic. It was remade in 2017 by Kenneth Branagh.

7. The Warriors (1979)

Not well reviewed when it came out, The Warriors, directed by Walter Hill has become a cult classic and an iconic New York 1970s movie. It’s a violent, surreal journey of a street gang having to fight its way from the Bronx to its home base in Coney Island, mostly via the New York City subway system. It can be viewed as a modern urban version of The Odyssey featuring unique cinematography and intricately choreographed fight scenes.

8. The Fugitive (1993)

The Fugitive, a 1993 movie starring Harrison Ford, is based on the TV series from the 1960s that’s become a cult classic. One of the outstanding scenes in the film is a train crash scene. In the scene, Ford’s character is being transported to prison by train when a collision occurs, allowing him to escape. The crash, filmed using a combination of practical effects and CGI, is one of the most impressive train crash scenes ever filmed.

9. Before Sunrise (1995)

The first in Richard Linklater’s brilliant trilogy, Before Sunrise features two young travelers, played by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke who meet and fall in love on a European train journey. The film is a great example of character and dialog-driven filmmaking as it manages to keep viewers captivated without any action or complex plot devices. The sequels Before Sunset, and Before Midnight are also worth seeing, though not as train-centric. See my full review of Before Sunrise.

10. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

The Hogwarts Express, the train that takes young wizards to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is a major part of the Harry Potter books and movies. In the first film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the Hogwarts Express is introduced in a memorable scene where Harry boards the train and meets Ron Weasley for the first time.

11. Snowpiercer (2013)

In a post-apocalyptic world where the Earth has frozen over, the last remnants of humanity survive aboard a massive, perpetually moving train. Snowpiercer follows a rebellion led by Chris Evans’ character as they make their way through the train’s various classes and compartments, fighting against its strict hierarchy. With stunning visuals and a gripping story, Snowpiercer is a train movie unlike any other.

Trains have been an integral part of movie history. From the earliest films to modern blockbusters, trains have been used to create suspense, excitement, and drama. These iconic movies are just a small sample of the many great train moments in movie history. I may add more train movies in the future, as there are surely many I overlooked here.

Love trains? See Rail Buffs, another of my sites, where there’s a version of this article and lots of other content on railroad history, model trains, subways, metros, and more!


Vengeance: Blue State vs Red State Cultural Clash

Vengeance (2022); Directed by B.J. Novak

Vengeance, the 2022 comedy-mystery drama starring and directed by B.J. Novak, is a surprisingly compelling and thoughtful film. Based on the title and seeing the trailer, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’s another thriller in the desert entry, with the usual Tarantino, Coen Brothers, and other 90s and 2000s influences. While some of these can be entertaining in their own right, Vengeance is something different, more about subcultural conflict than typical movie violence (though it does have some of that too).

Novak is Ben Manalowitz, a smug New York City hipster who we see in the first scene at a rooftop party in most likely Brooklyn, sharing cynical zingers about the pointlessness of relationships and monogamy with his equally vacuous and intoxicated buddies.

Novak’s character, who is actually named Ben, reminds me a little of Ben Stiller, especially in some of the work he’s done for Noah Baumbach, such as Greenberg. He manages to offset some of his arrogance and smugness with self-awareness and at least a latent desire to improve. In Vengeance, this is a gradual process that has him transplanted in an extremely unlikely place for someone like him, rural Texas.

After getting a phone call from a distraught man telling Ben that his “girlfriend” Abilene has just died, Ben at first doesn’t even know who she is. She was, in fact, one of many women he casually slept with/dated. Somehow, Ty Shaw, the dead woman’s brother, convinces Ben to fly to an absurdly remote town of Abilene (the deceased girl was apparently named after the town). That Ben would take the bait to attend the funeral of a virtual stranger is a contrivance you just have to accept.

Ty and his family are about as stereotypical redneck Texans as you could imagine. Ty quickly reveals his plot to avenge his sister’s death. She officially died of an overdose, but the family is seeking a scapegoat, and the most likely suspects are a Mexican cartel. Ben gets the idea of pitching the scenario to a podcast producer, Eloise (Issa Rae). Skeptical at first, she then latches onto the appeal of a “dead white girl” and the premise is set in motion.

Ashton Kutcher plays Quentin Sellers, an enigmatic music producer who Abilens, an aspiring singer, recorded with. He reminds me a little of The Dude in The Big Lebowski with his drawl, cowboy hat, and obscure philosophical musings.

The basic fish out of water theme is magnified to look at the larger societal forces that Ben and his newfound Texas frenemies represent. Ty remarks at one point that Ben looks like many of the characters in Schindler’s List, the closest anyone comes to mentioning his Jewish heritage. Many of the stereotypes Ben has about his hosts turn out to be accurate. They own many guns, they’re obsessed with rodeos, football, and eating out at the local Whataburger.

At the same time, there are some blatant attempts to defy the stereotypes, as Abilene’s sister Paris is something of an intellectual. One of the funnier lines is when Paris accuses Ben of cultural appropriation and he responds by saying that it’s cultural appropriation for someone like her to accuse him of cultural appropriation. This is funny wordplay, but also reveals a deeper truth –that educated, urbanites like Ben tend to believe that they have a monopoly on culture.

The investigation into Abigail’s death leads to encounters with Mexican gang members, incompetent local cops, and an assortment of two-fisted, hard-drinking locals. There’s a twist at the end that is possibly predictable, but still surprising in how it plays out.

So what does Vengeance ultimately have to say about New York hipsters and Texas rednecks? Nothing conclusive, which is a good thing. The movie deals with some complex themes about the divisive state of contemporary America and they aren’t going to be resolved in 100 minutes. However, Vengeance does provide some amusing and thoughtful insights into cultural stereotypes without really taking sides.