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Movies my dad would have loved

My dear ol’ dad, John Peter Howell, used to tell me about an unwritten rule in the Royal Air Force, where he served as an aircraft mechanic during the Second World War.

“The pilots always insisted that the mechanics go up with them on the first flight after a repair,” he’d say with a grin.

“They wanted to make sure we did a really good job!”

I always wondered if dad was pulling my leg — he loved to tell jokes — but there was no doubting his devotion to a job well done. Born on a farm in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, he enlisted for Second World War duty at age 15 and was no stranger to tough times or hard effort.

This was also evident in his appreciation of movies, another of his passions. He loved thrillers, mysteries, war dramas and crime stories where complicated and challenging assignments were accomplished.

If the films included fast and beautiful machines, all the better. One of his favourite expressions was “Happy landing on a chocolate bar,” invariably uttered upon arrival at a destination or completion of a task. It’s from the Shirley Temple tune “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” from the 1934 movie “Bright Eyes.” (The song actually refers to an aircraft, not a water vessel.)

I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot lately, as the second anniversary of his death approaches. His passing at the age of 92 wasn’t a tragedy, although it was a shock: he went to the hospital for routine surgery, successfully completed. He died in his sleep that night.

In recent weeks, film after film has opened that I’ve thought of as “dad movies,” ones I wish I could have seen with him and talked about with him afterwards.

He loved “Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour,” the last two films he saw before his 2018 passing. He’d gotten frail in his remaining months but accompanied by my sister Ann Marie and with generous assistance from publicists for Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures, he saw both in theatres.

So I’m sure he’d be all in for “1917,” the new Sam Mendes thriller, set on a French battlefield during the First World War. Two regular soldiers played by George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are ordered by their commander to cross many kilometres of booby-trapped terrain to warn 1,600 of their military brethren of an impending German sneak attack. Dad would have absolutely adored that movie, which is one of my favourites of 2019.

He’d also have gone in big for “Ford v Ferrari,” as I did. It’s James Mangold’s fact-based drama, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, about the U.S.-Italy rivalry at the 1966 Le Mans auto race. Dad loved everything to do with cars, often spending many hours in the garage in tinkering away on the Howell family’s big green Rambler station wagon.

Another big film for him, as it was for me, would surely have been “Apollo 11,” Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary account of the historic 1969 first moon landing. Dad was as fascinated by the U.S. space program as I. One of my most cherished possessions is a framed image of two photos of the Apollo 11 moonwalk, taken from the TV broadcast of that momentous event: one by my dad with his 35mm camera and the other by me with my Polaroid Swinger.

I’ve no doubt that dad would also have also adored Rian Johnson’s celebrity-studded “Knives Out,” an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery that was a big hit at TIFF last September. It stars Daniel Craig as a southern detective with a devilish sense of humour and a Holmesian nose for clues.

I liked the picture, although I found it to be a tad over-populated and over-plotted. This wouldn’t have bothered dad, who was a big fan of Peter Sellers’ bumbling Inspector Clouseau in “The Pink Panther” series of the 1960 and 1970s.

I wish I could debate “Knives Out” with him, and also my favourite movie of 2019, Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt and Margot Robbie.

Dad would likely have balked at going to see it, because he hated Tarantino’s previous film, “The Hateful Eight,” the last movie I saw in a theatre with him. Both films are about three hours long, which dad thought was way too long for any movie, but the backdrop of the Manson Family slayings in “Once Upon a Time ...” would have fascinated him. He was always interested in current events and history.

I hope “1917,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “Apollo 11,” “Knives Out” and “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” are all playing at St. Peter’s Multiplex up in heaven for my dad to see.

And I recommend you take your dad (or mom) to see them. Happy New Year, and happy landing on a chocolate bar!

(This column was originally published Dec. 31, 2019, in the Toronto Star.)

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