January 29, 2010

If you are not yet on the Men Of A Certain Age bandwagon – climb on up. This show just keeps getting better and better. Now that Glee is gone for the season, the only new shows I’m still relishing are The Good Wife, Modern Family, and Mercy. And, of course, Men Of A Certain Age.

The premise is simple – three college friends remain close and share changes in their lives as they hit the mid-century mark. They talk about wives, girlfriends, kids, parents, the usual stuff, except that it isn’t usual at all.

Ray Romano (Joe), Andre Braugher (Owen), and Scott Bakula (Terry) are perfectly cast in well-written roles. Joe owns a party store and has separated from his wife. Owen works for his dad selling cars and lives with his wife and three children. Terry is an unemployed actor working as a temp and dating ferociously but questioning his lifestyle.

Because the storylines are so nuanced but compelling, this is much better than the capsule I’ve provided. Take a look online and get caught up…airs Mondays at 10:00 p.m. on TNT.



January 24, 2010

I was curious to see what Peter Jackson would do with The Lovely Bones.  While I’m ambivalent about The Lord of Rings, I always rather liked Jackson’s 1994 film Heavenly Creatures and thought that if anyone had a chance to take Alice Sebold’s finely crafted novel and turn it into a film that is as effective on its own terms, Jackson might be that someone.

I have read both of Sebold’s novels and the memoir of her own rape as a first year college student, and hers is a dark vision.  The Lovely Bones details the rape and murder of a 14-year-old who then watches her family struggle and her murderer elude detection before she moves on to heaven.

Film is not a medium that handles the metaphysical very well, especially when the tone is dramatic.  How can a filmmaker show something as literal that is hard to even put into words?  The movie is a disappointment.  The opening half hour and ending half hour work better than the (seemingly) endless middle hour.

The other thing that bothers me about this film is the PG-13 rating.  There were many children in the audience at my screening, several audibly upset.  This is most definitely not a film for children.  There are better ways to convince them not to crawl into holes in the ground with creepy neighbors.


January 24, 2010

Julian Fellowes wrote the script for Gosford Park – which I love as a film and not just because Robert Altman provides such a telling, outsider’s perspective on social class in England – but I’ve yet to see another of his films that works so well as a narrative.

The Young Victoria is a good example of a film that is pleasant to look at (like so many English period pieces) and filled with predictably good performances (I like Emily Blunt as Victoria and Rupert Friend as Albert), but there’s nothing special about the story as told.  The elements are there:  history, romance, intrigue, wealth, power, etc.

The film will appeal to a certain audience of people who have a predilection for costume drama, but I kept waiting for the story to ignite or at least to come together in a way that suggested something larger than the sum of its historical plot points.  Waiting and waiting…


January 22, 2010

Of the three films playing at a/perture cinema this weekend in Winston-Salem, I’ve seen two of them and recommend both!

Ethan and Joel Coen’s latest film, A Serious Man, is a 1960s retelling of the Job story.  The film is fascinating (as the Coens are wont to be) but not wholly satisfying.  The cultural context and cinematic detail throughout are rich, and the terrible things befalling our protagonist are also clever and, at times, slyly amusing, but it is that character who needs a bit – just a bit – more of a response to these events to draw the viewer more fully into the film.  Michael Stuhlbarg plays physics professor Larry Gopnik as an appealing but ineffectual man.  That’s okay so far as it goes, but I want more.  Probably I’m just looking for larger meaning where none is intended – and I do not expect the filmmakers to answer all of the great questions about human existence and theology – but it would be nice to have some clues about Larry’s interior life.  All of that aside, the film is still worth seeing.  Go and judge for yourself.

The Chilean film The Maid is less predictable (I mean, we pretty much know what’s going to happen to Job), less glossy, and much more intimate.  The video look of The Maid is not what we’ve come to expect from HD images, but the story is so subtle and surprising and the performances are so fine that the limitation imposed by the way the images have been photographed is overcome.  You could argue, I suppose, that the home video quality that infuses the film is “realistic,” and I did think this while watching, but as I look around my den where I sit writing this on a dreary day, there is more color saturation here than in the entire film.  But, I quibble.  Ten minutes into the film, I moved beyond the aesthetics because I was so intrigued by the characters and completely uncertain what would happen next from moment to moment.  This is a wonderful character study of the primary maid (there are three others introduced) and the mistress who understands her better, I think, than the audience can up until the very end of the film.


January 14, 2010

I have recently produced an updated, 30-minute version of the documentary Martha in Lattimore that is available online (free of charge) for anyone who wishes to view it or download a copy.  Here’s the link in case you want to take a look:

The Documentary Film Program at Wake Forest University is making the film available to libraries, museums, and individual viewers as a way to share Martha Mason’s story with as wide an audience as possible. Martha Mason lived in an iron lung for over 60 years. Despite this, she was able to write a book, send email, surf the Internet, and maintain strong connection with the entire community of Lattimore, North Carolina as well as friends from distant places.

I hope you enjoy the film and that you share the link!


January 14, 2010

Some years it is harder for me than others to choose my favorite ten movies– I’m not even arguing that these are the “best” movies of 2009 because there are so many different ways to think about films and what they mean.  These are movies that particularly moved me in one way or another.  Except for the first two, they are not rank-ordered.

My two favorite movies of 2009 are Kathryn Bigelow’s intense and revealing look at what war can do to a man, The Hurt Locker, and Jane Campion’s intense and revealing look at what love can do to a woman, Bright Star (see previous post).  Okay those are reductive descriptions, but did you notice that for the first time ever my top two movies of the year are directed by women!    This is exciting, and the two films are so different yet both so very fine.  See these two films.

I was also deeply moved by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s film Sugar, which is about a Dominican baseball star who tries to adapt to life in the United States when he is signed by a Major League Baseball team.

In the classic Hollywood storytelling mode I have to choose Invictus.  Clint Eastwood knows how to tell a story with mainstream appeal, and this one also carries an important message (see previous post).

In the compelling and independent category, I choose Precious:  Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.  This is a long title but a must-see movie (see previous post).

I also include An Education as one of the better and more complicated coming of age stories I’ve seen recently (see previous post).

My favorite science fiction movie of the year is also dark but interesting, Moon.  I thought about District 9, actually, but ultimately had to go with Moon.

My favorite animated film of the year is The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  Finally, a Wes Anderson movie that doesn’t annoy me at least a little (see previous post).  I have to note that I loved the opening sequence of Up! and adore Ed Asner, but the movie didn’t keep my interest throughout while Mr. Fox did.

My favorite documentary seen in local in local cinemas is the funny and poignant Anvil:  The Story of Anvil! I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish.

My favorite big-budget blockbuster is Avatar.  Normally, I claim that form and content are inextricably linked, but this time I have to argue that the dialogue is so-so, the plot is pedestrian, but the visuals are spectacular, and the 3D effect really complements the themes of the film and enhances the experience (see previous post).

So, that’s ten.  Where’s Up In the Air?   I liked it but didn’t love it – for my money Thank You For Smoking is Jason Reitman’s better film (see previous post).  I kept trying to find a place for Stephen Frears’ film Cherie on my list because I loved it, but it kept getting nosed out.  I have to tell you that I do reserve the right to add either A Single Man or Crazy Heart when I see them – I’ve been waiting impatiently for both of those films to open in the Triad.


January 9, 2010

I’m working on a new edition (the third) of The Hollywood Curriculum:  Teachers in the Movies.  No work is exhaustive even if extensive, and I missed two films in previous editions that complicate what I have termed The Hollywood Model of the “good” teacher in film.

There have been significant revisionist teacher characters I’ve written about in the past (in my scholarly work), most particularly those in the fine films Election (1999) and Half Nelson (2006).  These are two unqualified recommendations if you have not seen them.  Election remains my favorite Alexander Payne film, even though I liked Sideways quite a bit and thought About Schmidt had its moments.  Half Nelson is directed by Ryan Fleck and written by Fleck and Anna Boden, the same team responsible for one of my favorite films of the year, Sugar.  See Sugar – no need to wait for my top ten list because this will definitely make the cut.

Today I watched two of the earlier teacher movies that for one reason or another I missed along the way.  While neither is quite as good as the two mentioned above, both are original and compelling in their presentations of troubled teachers.  In Waterland (1992), Jeremy Irons turns in a strong performance as a history teacher who starts telling students stories from his own life as a way of coping with his wife’s deteriorating mental health and his own guilt over past events.

Even more disturbing is  Blue Car (2002).  Writer-director Karen Moncrieff has worked mostly in television (as has Stephen Gyllenhaal, who directed Waterland), but there is a subtle touch to this story of a predatory teacher (played by the superb David Strathairn) who encourages a student’s talent for writing at the same time he exploits her vulnerability.

I don’t want to end up writing an ad for any particular DVD rental service, but doing this type of research is so much easier now that I can get immediate access to some films on my computer and have unlimited access to others within a day or so.  That reminds me!  If you have not seen Mike Leigh’s film Happy-Go-Lucky (about a teacher, of course), take a look.  I missed it last year when it played in the Triad for about a week, but it’s available for instant viewing by the not mentioned service able.

Yes, I know.  This is tough work, but someone has to do it.