A Christmas Carol 2009…and a preview of coming attractions

November 28, 2009

When I heard that Robert Zemeckis was bringing A Christmas Carol to the big screen in animated 3-D, all I could think was how interminable I found his earlier adaptation of The Polar Express.  Yikes!  I was also a little dubious about Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge.  Carrey is an incredibly gifted performer, but his talents are often over-the-top in ways that overwhelm certain films.

This time Zemeckis brings a welcome addition to the holiday cinema scene.  Carrey makes a wonderful Scrooge and is helped by a supporting cast that includes Colin Firth, Gary Oldman, and Bob Hoskins among others.

Most versions of A Christmas Carol are pretty interchangeable for me, though I admit a lingering fondness for the 1951 version starring Alastair Sim and the TV special from 1962, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol with Jim Backus voicing Scrooge.

A Christmas Carol 2009 is worthy of mentioning with the others because it sticks rather closely to the original narrative (Zemeckis also adapted the story from Dickens’ original), but the movie also offers some thrilling animated sequences and uses the fine cast and the 3-D effect to good advantage here.

I saw the film at a Greensboro theater, and I’m happy to see how well local cinemas are screening 3-D films now.  When I did see The Polar Express just five years ago, I drove out of town to see it projected in IMAX 3D.  IMAX is an enhancement to be sure, but I appreciate being able to see commercial films released in 3-D locally on what is becoming a regular basis instead of having to travel out of town.

As for A Christmas Carol, the animated ghosts are probably too scary for younger children (the film is rated PG, and I admit that I jumped once or twice), and I would recommend reading or otherwise conveying the story to children who have not encountered it before as a preparation for the frightening sequences and to help young viewers grasp the larger meaning of the story without trying to work it all out at one time.  Normally, I do not endorse “spoilers,” but sometimes it is helpful to know that everything will work out.

One other note, however, about animated 3-D films:  the preview trailer for Alice in Wonderland (coming this spring from Tim Burton) looked magnificent!  Seldom do I see a preview trailer for a mainstream, Hollywood film that has the effect on me that this one did.  I was so thrilled with the look of the film and the power of those particular images in 3-D that I realized a few seconds into the trailer that I was holding my breath and my mouth was hanging open.  Wow!  I hope the narrative delivers, too.  I always like to watch Tim Burton films, but sometimes I end up wanting to like them more than I actually do because the story elements just don’t quite hold up for me as well as the visuals.


Mr. Fox is Fantastic

November 27, 2009

Much to the disappointment of many of my students over the years, I’m not a Wes Anderson fan.  I liked a few scenes in Bottle Rocket.  I liked Rushmore up until the end.  Then I came up against The Royal Tenenbaums.

After I saw it, I read a piece somewhere that stuck with me because I agreed so heartily; unfortunately, I couldn’t locate the exact reference just now.  Essentially, the writer said that going to a Wes Anderson movie was a lot like going to a dinner party where a precocious child is seated at the table and dominating the conversation.  At first, it’s amusing to hear the child, but after awhile, you just want to send him to bed so the adults can talk together without interruption.

That’s sort of how I’ve felt about a the Anderson films, and I realize this may make me seem hopelessly uncool.  He’s clever.  His films have amusing bits.  They just don’t work for me from start to finish.  I get it – I really do – but I’m not moved by these films.  Until now, that is.

I do like Fantastic Mr. Fox.  Anderson and Noah Baumbach co-authored the screenplay (and I was crazy about Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale), which is based on Roald Dahl’s story.  I love the hominess of the analog animation (old-fashioned but still a lot better than the claymation film I made in graduate school!).  The celebrity voices, including George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Willem Dafoe, and Bill Murray, are fun but fortunately do not overshadow the quirkiness and the heart of this feature.

In the final analysis, that’s it.  The heart is what pulls me in.  Mr. and Mrs. Fox are easier to relate to than the human farmers who come after them (with just cause), and the dynamics of their struggling family resonate in these difficult times.  Despite the hardship, however, the film is just a lot of fun.  The script is sharp, the visuals appealing, and sometimes a little fantasy offers a welcome escape.

Fantastic Mr. Fox is rated PG, and it might be a little scary for younger children.


The Saga Continues…

November 25, 2009

When I saw Twilight, I left the theater thinking, “I would have LOVED that movie when I was 13 or 14.”  As I watched New Moon, I kept thinking about how the film presents the essential nature of men as a not so delicate dance of trying to maintain control (of their passions, of their anger, or their demons) and eventually losing it over and over again.

At the same time, the most important thing about our heroine Bella is that she is irresistible enough to enflame the passions of those men.  Oh, and at least in the Twilight universe, she needs to drive them to distraction while appearing drearier than the drippy weather of the Pacific Northwest.  Layers of grey are used liberally to symbolize teenage melodrama (that’s grey with an intentional “e” because it’s cooler than gray with an “a,” right?).

The second installment of The Twilight Saga needed more humor, sharper dialogue, and less repetitiveness.  For all the (sometimes clumsy) CGI effects of young men turning into werewolves and speedy vampires who look a bit like avatars, not a whole lot happens in New Moon.

That might be okay if these characters had interior lives with some complexity, but there is nothing that feels authentic here except the longing of high schoolers to find their eternal soulmates.  Remember what it was like to be that young?

Longing is one thing, and it really isn’t confined to youth, but intense longing without a larger frame of reference won by experience can be problematic in this type of narrative directed at young people as a target audience demographic.  Particularly, I wonder if the film glamorizes and romanticizes teenage angst too much in dangerous ways with its references (literary, literal, and visual) to suicide.

On the other hand, I do understand the appeal of films like this one.  It is a fantasy, after all.  Who wouldn’t like to have a mate who is attractive, powerful, present for every contingency, and deeply and irrevocably in love with you and only you?  Of course, I can’t see why Bella’s so hooked on Edward anyway.  Jacob is much cuter.  Can you call a werewolf cute?  Okay, much hotter, then.  Jacob is much hotter…literally and figuratively.  I told you that I understand the appeal of films like New Moon.


PRECIOUS

November 22, 2009

The best blog posts – I think – are short reflections instead of full-blown essays.  I guess “Wow!” isn’t much of a reflection.

I had high expectations for Precious given the buzz about the film since Sundance last year and escalating this fall leading up to its release.  I was not disappointed.  Let me make three sets of observations about the film itself in a general sense, about the controversy sparked by some who believe the film perpetuates vile stereotypes, and about the truly transformative role this film plays in depicting teacher characters.

THE MOVIE:  Every moment of Precious felt authentic to me.  There is a delicate balance in this film between the brutal reality of the title character’s everyday life and her interior life conveyed by fantasy sequences and interior monologues.  The performances are top-notch, the story is compelling, the visual style veers between gritty and glossy as it shifts between Precious’s exterior and interior lives.  In the end, I think receptive viewers will connect with Precious despite the circumstances of their lives because of her humanity and her courage.

THE CONTROVERSY:  Some commentators have rejected this film on the basis of perceived racial stereotypes.  I want to point out that the safety net that rescues Precious and helps her on the road to self-sufficiency includes a teacher, a social worker, and a nurse who all work in Harlem.  They do not help her and come to care for her because of her race (or theirs).  Yes, Precious’s parents are monstrous, but this is not a condition that is racially determined.  Surely, we now have a range of racial representation in popular culture that allows us to see complicated characters without insisting that all African American (or women or gay or Latino or whatever) characters be “positive” portrayals.  I like to think we have matured beyond such dictates.

THE TEACHER:  For me, an expert in representations of teachers in popular culture (see The Hollywood Curriculum:  Teachers in the Movies and Teacher TV:  Sixty Years of Teachers on Television, the latter co-authored with Laura Linder), I reveled in the unprecedented depiction of a woman teacher who is “allowed” to have a sexual component to her life.  Since the earliest days of teacher movies, the “good teacher” characters have led bifurcated lives with men allowed to date and marry and balance the personal and professional while women have had to choose one or the other.  There is no such double standard in Precious.  What a relief – and just in time to make the third edition The Hollywood Curriculum!


A GOAT

November 19, 2009

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS is supposed to be a comedy.  At least, I think so.  This film never comes together despite the all-star cast.  In fact, the most interesting thing about the movie is the goats.


Still Tuned In?

November 16, 2009

Which new shows are you still watching?  For me, the list is getting shorter (in order by the day of the week):  The Good Wife, Mercy, Modern Family, and Glee.  You know what, though?  I really can’t wait for a returning show; I love Friday Night Lights!!!


Doubleheader – Two For Two

November 14, 2009

I love a double feature on a rainy weekday afternoon (and we certainly had plenty of those earlier in the week), especially when both movies are radically different but each equally satisfying.  Or, each is almost equally satisfying.

Audrey Tautou is convincing as a young Coco Chanel in a biopic of the designer’s life up to the point when she starts making a name for herself in the world of haute couture.  Coco Before Chanel is lush to look at and engaging, though the middle section of the narrative is mildly repetitive.  Still playing in the Triad.

In The Loop succeeds as a very funny (but disconcerting) look at foreign policy and how wars can be facilitated by mid-level bureaucrats, how opportunistic those officials and their flaks can be, and how careers and policy are intertwined.  Sound tedious?  It’s anything but.  This movie closed in the Triad on Thursday, so you might want to look for it in coming months on DVD.