Gather Yourselves Together” (written about 1950, published in 1994) is a 373-page novel with no plot, and whether that’s a feature or a bug depends on the reader’s taste. But it’s certainly a fascinating entry in Philip K. Dick’s catalog from a historical perspective. Most PKD scholars believe it’s the first novel he wrote, and it definitely feels that way. It’s all about middle-aged Verne, mid-20s Barbara and slightly younger Carl dancing around each other at a shuttered American metal works operation in China in 1950. They are guarding the property in the week before the now-in-power Communists arrive to take possession.
Dan Simmons’ “The Terror” (2007) mixes horror and history, fiction and fear. If you’ve seen the 2018 TV miniseries, a lot of the book will be familiar, but it does offer additional details and some things that don’t translate to film. A good chunk of the novel’s 955 pages evoke an oppressive sense of misery and hopelessness, but in such a masterful way that I admired Simmons’ skill even as my mood became darker from reading the book.
The job of lighthouse keeper, from the long-ago days when the lights needed to be manned, has a pure and simple grandeur. The keeper had his list of daily duties — mundane, monotonous and lonely, yet essential for the survival of ships at sea. “The Lighthouse” (2019) – now on Amazon Prime — taps into some of the job’s reality, but it’s mostly a grim mood piece chronicling Robert Pattinson’s Ephraim being driven crazy by Willem Dafoe’s farting Thomas in the 1890s at an offshore New England lighthouse.
The first episode of the eight-part “The Bronx is Burning” (2007, ESPN) opens with a dugout clash between Yankees manager Billy Martin (John Turturro) and superstar Reggie Jackson (Daniel Sunjata) and closes with a locker-room shouting match between Martin and owner George Steinbrenner (Oliver Platt). But as we learn over the course of this deep dive into the 1977 Yankees, what played out as a ridiculous circus to casual observers was really the clash of three strong-willed men in pursuit of the common goal of a world championship.
Humpty Dumpty in Oakland” (written in 1960, published in 1986) – the last-written of Philip K. Dick’s nine non-science fiction novels – is perhaps his most consistently darkly comedic novel. But it’s not a book that had me laughing as much as some others. The author tones down the absurdism — instead favoring long stretches describing traffic and construction in the growing, crowded Bay Area – and we’re left with two people who are troubled in traditional and relatable (if slightly extreme) ways.
The Rocketeer” (1991) launched the 1990s boom of nostalgic proto-superhero films set in the time before “Superman’s” 1938 invention, and it set the bar high enough that it wouldn’t be matched by “The Shadow,” “The Phantom” or “The Mask of Zorro.” Director Joe Johnston’s film has everything, in a good way: Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly in star-making turns, rocket-pack flying effects that hold up today, unscrupulous feds and other baddies angling for the pack, classy dinner dates, chases through kitchens with pans flying, tommy-gun shootouts … tied together by James Horner’s score that evokes the idea of brighter days ahead.
The two most remarkable things about “Jojo Rabbit” (2019) are 1, that it’s a mainstream comedy about a kid who loves Hitler, and 2, that there’s nothing odd about this premise once you get into the flow of the movie. Writer, director and Hitler actor Taika Waititi locks into the unusual yet correct tone for this story of a Hitler Youth, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), who looks to his imaginary friend the Fuhrer for guidance and falls in love with a Jewish girl hiding in his walls.
Aside from its wonderful locations and car designs that capture the 1960s, director James Mangold’s “Ford v Ferrari” (2019) is a sober re-creation of a niche slice of history. He trusts that 24-hour racing at Le Mans and Daytona will be exciting enough to capture and hold the layperson’s attention. He pushes it with the 2-hour, 32-minute run time, but ultimately he’s right. While non-racing-fan moviegoers aren’t likely to tune in to TV coverage of the next 24-race, this sport plays tremendously well in movie form.
The Irishman” (2019, Netflix) pairs nicely as the back half of a double feature with 1992’s “Hoffa.” That film, which was likewise Oscar-nominated, focuses on Jimmy Hoffa’s creation and popularization of a workers’ union, whereas director Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” digs into the darker corners of the mobsters who circled around Hoffa. Both films are from the point of view of one of Hoffa’s trusted seconds: Danny DeVito’s Bobby Ciaro in “Hoffa” and Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran, the titular Irishman.
The Man Whose Teeth Were All Exactly Alike” (written in 1960, published in 1984) is about a lot of different things, and the theme doesn’t coalesce until the final pages. Despite being hard to pin down at first, this Bay Area-set novel is a page-turner about people who behave one way toward their spouse, think another way, present themselves to the community in a third way, and ultimately show their true colors in a fourth way.