SHUTTER ISLAND

February 28, 2010

After two weekends raking in at the box office, I finally got around to seeing Shutter Island.  I figure that if it can take a protracted amount of time to get the finished film into the theaters (usually a bad sign), it can take me a little while to get out to see it.

The pedigree is impeccable.  Martin Scorsese directs a cast of fine (and some iconic) actors – Leonardo DiCaprio, Ben Kingsley, Max von Sydow, and Mark Ruffalo.  The film is based on a novel by Dennis Lehane (author of two other novels that have been adapted into better films, Mystic River, which is a winner all around, and Gone Baby Gone, another movie that promises more than it delivers in terms of story).

Shutter Island looks great, but the film’s about 30 minutes too long.  Another letdown is that the movie seems a little gimmicky when the big reveal rolls around.  Shutter Island is less than the sum of these parts but not by a big margin.

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THE DEEP END

February 27, 2010

A couple of days ago, one of my students said “When are you going to update your blog?”  (You know who you are, Derrica.)  I thought about how busy I’ve been with midterms, but that’s not really an excuse because she’s had midterms, too, and still manages to check the blog!

I have been meaning to write a few lines about the new ABC legal show The Deep End.  I’ve watched it from the beginning and think it’s a good fit for the ABC Thursday line-up because the tone matches Grey’s Anatomy and The Practice, two series I don’t watch regularly but have seen.

The Deep End is set in LA and feels a little like a cross between LA Law and House.  I know that sounds weird.  It has the location and legal context of the former and the focus on first years under the tutelage of mentors like the latter.

I think The Deep End is fluffy but mildly entertaining.  The stakes (and the production values) are lower than another new legal drama, The Good Wife.  The characters are “types” rather than individuals.

The legal storylines are greatly simplified, and do lawyers really spend this much time out on the street investigating and interviewing?  It’s hard to believe that this firm runs on three senior partners, a company fixer, and a bunch of brand new lawyers.  Where are the rest of the paper pushers and support staff?  How do these attorneys fresh out of law school end up in court on serious cases minutes after their arrival at the firm?  How do they always succeed?

I like my drama with at least a little edge.  The Good Wife, Mercy, and of course the recently concluded Men of a Certain Age are new shows that deliver for me this season.  This preference for complexity (and the suggestion of realism at least on some level) is not a new predilection for me.  I always preferred ER to Chicago Hope, which premiered at the same time, and to shows like Grey’s Anatomy that came later.

Okay.  I’ve updated the blog.  Now, for all of my students who’ve been waiting for me to push aside the work and see Shutter Island (you know who you are – and especially you, Laura), I’m going to try to get there tomorrow!


LA DANSE

February 14, 2010

If you missed it today, you still have three chances to see Frederick Wiseman’s latest documentary La Danse:  The Paris Opera Ballet in the Triad this week.  Fitting Wiseman’s signature style, known generally as an observational mode, the story unfolds in its edited form with minimal intrusion and manipulation.

For two hours and forty minutes, viewers get a sense of time and space in the Opera House with many more minutes devoted to rehearsal than performance just as it would be in life.

The filmmaker’s perspective is evident in the choices made (a lone worker repairing a crack in the aging ceiling, a meeting with a young dancer who is thrilled that the company’s artistic director has noticed her work and that she has lost weight, empty hallways in the cavernous building, another meeting where art and commerce nearly collide, and the painstaking and largely solitary work in the costume shop), but mostly there is the beauty of the dance.

The style of the film makes it seem that it should be enormously accessible to viewers, but the truth is that not everyone likes documentary or dance or films with long running times.

Fortunately, I have a thing for docs and ballet and am thrilled that a/perture cinema has brought La Danse to the Triad (and pleased that there was a healthy crowd attending the noon screening today because I’d love to see a steady stream of documentary offerings).

Three showtimes remain this week – Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 8 p.m.  Get there early to snag the best seats, which are at the rear of these screening rooms.


A SINGLE MAN

February 13, 2010

Sometimes when you can barely wait to see a movie, the expectation is just too much.  Not that A Single Man should be avoided.  On the contrary, it’s definitely worth seeing.  Colin Firth gives a wonderful performance as, George Falconer, a gay man closeted at work (he’s a university professor) in Southern California in the early sixties.

The film is based on a novel with the same title by Christopher Isherwood, and the story is basically one in which a man who has lost his life partner in a tragic accident eight months before goes through the day he plans as his last.  He goes to work.  He takes care of business at the bank.  He visits with his best friend.  And, there are other encounters that I would be remiss to reveal.  This story of the day when George plans to end his life is intercut with flashbacks of his life with Jim before a fatal car crash.

My friend Renata Jackson claims that there is not enough of the time with Jim to balance out the many scenes depicting George’s profound grief.  I’m not so sure that is the only thing that bothers ma a little about the film.  That may be a problem, but there are other possible explanations, too.

I wonder if, perhaps, the aesthetic fashion designer Tom Ford creates (in a first-time film that he also financed) is just a bit much at times.  I wonder if the intriguing – but at times self-consciously artificial – look of the film creates a distance that the viewer cannot overcome.

Of course, I’m not against a formalistic aesthetic in principle.  I love the Douglas Sirk films (and Todd Haynes’ Far From Heaven that comments on them) among others.  It seems there are two possible explanations for my mild dissatisfaction with the film.  The first explanation arises from a lack of unity here that is not found in more polished films.  I’m talking about unity in the sense that a film like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange or Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring or, to use a more recent example, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream each provide an artificial, formalistic aesthetic within a cinematic context that coheres perfectly.

The other explanation is that I expected something completely different from a filmmaker who comes to this art from another, and I was hoping for something extraordinary.  When painter Julian Schnabel made The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, for example, I was astonished with the beauty and magic and vision of this film, a work that had a strong narrative but also delivered a look that was completely different as a whole from anything I had seen before.

That said, I liked A Single Man – only movies I care about can make me think about them this much over time.


CRAZY HEART

February 7, 2010

It’s a wonderful feeling when a movie you’ve been waiting for (anxiously) finally arrives into town and meets expectations.  And that is the story for me with Crazy Heart.  I knew it would be the type of intimate drama I admire, but I didn’t know if I would be deeply touched by this one.

Crazy Heart reminds me more than a little of one of my favorite films, Tender Mercies.  (Horton Foote is my favorite screenwriter…if I am forced to name a favorite.)  In that film, Robert Duvall plays Mac Sledge, a washed-up country singer who has to kick the bottle to find a new life before trying to make some amends in the one he drank away.  It is a tender tale.

The storyline for Crazy Heart, and the appearance of Duvall in a supporting role, evoke Tender Mercies, and this film, too, has its share of poignant moments.

This movie belongs to Jeff Bridges, who plays Bad Blake, an alcoholic country singer who has become his own worst enemy, and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who plays Jean Craddock, a single mother and journalist who falls in love with Bad.  Both Bridges and Gyllenhaal are nominated for Oscars.

I love this movie beyond the performances and the music (Ryan Bingham and T-Bone Burnett earned an Oscar nomination for the song “The Weary Kind”).  I guess this film moves me deeply because of the way it addresses two main ideas in the story.

As you get older, you realize that there aren’t as many chances at the important things as you thought there would be.   When you are young, it seems that opportunity (for love or for professional success or whatever is most important to you) is right around the corner if you don’t have it.  And, I suppose “it” does come around more often in youth than later on either because there are more options open to us when we are young or because we are more open at that time to the options we see.

But, it’s Crazy Heart is not just about chances – chances squandered and chances taken – it is also about redemption.

It is never too late for redemption, but as important as that is, being redeemed gives you the moment rather than another chance.  You could say that being redeemed gives you a chance at another chance if it does come along.  While redemption is good for its own sake, you still have to hope another chance comes along and be prepared for it when (if) it does.

What a lovely, sad movie about squandered time and missed chances and making mistakes…and about redemption.  I am neither of these main characters, but I identify with the humanity of both of them.


FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS SEASON FOUR

February 6, 2010

Wow!  There is one episode to go on DirecTV to complete the fourth season Friday Night Lights (with the NBC run of the series scheduled to begin April 30, 2010), and the show has never been better.  That’s saying a lot, too, because I’m a huge fan of this series.

Lots of changes have come to Dillon, Texas on the tube this season with the introduction of the East-West rivalry.  Tami Taylor is principal at West Dillon where the Panthers reign supreme, and Coach Eric Taylor is starting a new team on the east side of town where the days of glory for the Lions have been long-gone.

But there’s so much more to this series than football – especially in season four.  The culture wars have erupted in Dillon over abortion rights in one of the most compelling and straightforward of these storylines on TV since “Maude’s Dilemma” aired as a two-part episode in 1972.

And, there’s a renewed emphasis on race and social class on the show this season.  While these factors have always been explored more explicitly on Friday Night Lights than in most broadcast television series (and most series on premium channels for that matter), this season takes new turns that keep the series fresh and examine important social issues through a lens not often seen in television drama:  rural America smack dab in the middle of the two coasts.

Most broadcast television series, in an attempt to attract a wide, mainstream audience, minimize the effects of race and social class in American culture.  Friday Night Lights is much more realistic, nuanced, and sophisticated in its examination of race and social class as well as gender and sexual orientation.

Over the last four seasons, the series has gone down a number of paths seldom taken on network television and included several intriguing storylines about church life from a mega-church to small chapels, a tragic storyline about a character who goes from being the star quarterback to living life with a major disability, one about an over-involved parent of means who pushes his child relentlessly, one about a gay student who seems remarkably well adjusted for a teenager regardless of sexual orientation, and several about teenagers whose lives and choices might be so much better with at least a modicum of parental involvement and support.

Oh, and did I mention that the Taylor’s marriage is one of the healthiest I’ve seen on TV?  It’s wonderful to watch people who still like each other – and have that spark – after years as a couple, but it also feels authentic because they have everyday annoyances and larger issues to overcome.  They overcome them together because they prioritize their marriage and talk with one another.  I am pulling for them as individuals and as a couple.

Of course, the series delivers all of this cultural insight without sacrificing entertainment value.  It’s a tremendous achievement…and so much fun to watch.