December 28, 2010

Soon I’ll write about Black Swan and True Grit (liked them both), but before writing about current releases, I’m motivated to revisit my recent, snowbound holiday viewing.

Heavy reliance on Turner Classic Movies led to some predictable highs and some shocking lows.  First, let’s spend a few sentences on the highs.

Most people seem to put It’s A Wonderful Life high on the list of Christmas favorites (see post below), but there is another Capra classic with a holiday setting:  Meet John Doe.  I had forgotten how dark this film is.  I watched Mr. Deeds Goes To Town last week, too.  Both have Depression themes, cynicism about the rich and powerful, and Gary Cooper.  Watching Meet John Doe on the afternoon of Christmas Eve added a bit to the poignancy of the film.

Later that day, I came home from a Christmas Eve party and decided to do a bit of DVR maintenance before going to sleep.  I’m not keen on musicals as a genre (yes, there are a few I love, but that’s a topic for another post), but I felt an obligation to finally watch Meet Me In St. Louis all the way through.  It’s terribly episodic in a way that doesn’t work for me and – sorry to those of you who love it – not engaging.  Even watching the Christmas finale at Christmas didn’t help me connect with this film.

Christmas Day, after a family breakfast and subsequent trip to see True Grit at the cinema, I hunkered down with The Lion In Winter, an unusual Christmas film but always intriguing and driven by powerful performances.

I also watched two Christmas movies I’ve never heard of before, and I have a suspicion why I’ve never heard of them:  they’re weak.

Remember The Night stars Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck and was filmed in 1940, four years before they co-starred in the classic film noir Double Indemnity (see it if you haven’t!).  She’s a shoplifter, he’s a prosecuting attorney, and they fall in love.  It’s really much weirder than I have described, especially the final scene that is so strange I couldn’t buy for a nanosecond.  My jaw dropped when I realized that jailhouse scene was the end of the movie.

Even worse is Susan Slept Here from 1954.  An Oscar statue is one of the characters (really, it has dialogue) in this mess of a movie in which a 35-year-old screenwriter (Dick Powell) falls in love with a 17-year-old juvenile delinquent (Debbie Reynolds) after he marries her (but doesn’t consummate the relationship at first — in case you were wondering).  Did I mention there is a musical number presented in a dream sequence?  I kept watching from a sense of morbid curiosity, but you don’t have to follow suit.

Next year I’m back to some of my perennial favorites like Christmas In Connecticut and The Bishop’s Wife.  Sometimes it pays to play it safe.



Reprise (almost) — IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE

December 24, 2010

Here’s a lightly edited version of my seasonal post from last year.

Even though I watch this movie most years (I’m sure I’ve seen it at least 30 times), it’s not too late to bring a fresh sensibility to It’s A Wonderful Life.  I may not know precisely how many times I’ve watched it, but I do know with certainty the one sequence in the movie that gets me every time.

When Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey character realizes what the world would have been like without him and begins to run home, I always take the involuntary deep breath.  The waterworks are soon to come.  My body relaxes, and the tears well up.  It might be while George Bailey is still on the run or when the collected money begins to tumble out of the basket or when the people he’s helped over the years start walking through the door with more money, but at some point during this sequence, the hot tears will start to roll down my cheeks and my heart seems to swelling just like the Grinch, you know, in the animated classic.  I feel so good…

Before I get all gooey on you, there is a qualification I want to make.  I think my emotional response to the film at this critical juncture is intensified by my appreciation of the politics of the picture.  Have you ever noticed that the film is a “Liberty Films” production and the company logo is an image of the Liberty Bell?

Director Frank Capra’s best known films are tales with populist themes that champion the cause of the little man against institutions and corporations and corrupt government officials.  It’s A Wonderful Life is part of this tradition.  When Capra is thinking about liberty, who’s he thinking about?  Certainly not mean old Mr. Potter, the greedy face of business interests, a man who wants to take over the town.  Capra casts the iconic figure of Jimmy Stewart, a real-life war hero and conflicted everyman.

It is a flawless performance.  We see George Bailey’s broad range of emotions cross Stewart’s face with a startling clarity.  George Bailey may be conflicted, but his essential nature is steadfast and true.  He wants to travel. He wants to go to college.  He craves adventure.  But he is needed in his hometown Bedford Falls.

In the end, George Bailey answers the call—whether the call is from God or his neighbors matters less than that Bailey hears it and answers it.  He puts others before self and changes the world around him.  When George Bailey reaches the end of his rope because of Potter’s malicious attempt to destroy the Bailey Family Savings and Loan that has helped working class folks in town for generations, our everyman hero despairs and thinks for a short time that the world would have been better off without him.  That’s when an unlikely angel arrives on the scene to show George Bailey what his town would be like if no one had been there to answer the call and combat the greed and selfishness represented by Mr. Potter.

George Bailey has touched a lot of lives…and has saved more than a few.  Still, he wonders about the value of his life before learning that it is wonderful.  And why is that?  Is it wonderful because he made a lot of money?  No.  Is it wonderful because he traveled the world?  No.  It’s because he did the right thing in the ways that he could and made a profound difference in the lives of others over time.  He valued family and friends and liberty for all above the external trappings of success, especially the accumulation of personal wealth.

His is a wonderful life because George Bailey listened for the call and responded to the needs of his world.  It’s A Wonderful Life is regarded as a Christmas story, but its message is important every day of the year.



December 22, 2010

I didn’t plan to take time off from the blog.  It just happened that way…probably one part end of the semester fatigue, one part uninspiring movies at the multiplex over the last week or so, and one part reading print texts instead of moving images.

There has been one trip to the movies to see The Tourist.  Eh…it’s doubtful that I would have ventured out to see it if the director weren’t the creative force behind one of my favorite films in recent years, Lives of Others.  The best I can say about The Tourist is that parts of it are stylish and pleasantly composed and photographed.  In this regard, it reminds me a little of Hitchcock’s film To Catch A Thief, another film that is fun to look at with a few engaging sequences but not much narrative to hold it together.

Better things are coming, or, at least, they are anticipated!  I have upcoming movie dates with my son to see Black Swan (I’ve been waiting for him to work me into his schedule because I turned him on to two superb films by Darren Aronofsky, Requiem For A Dream and The Wrestler, that are now among his favorites), with my mother to see True Grit (Mama loves Westerns), and with my friend Kline to see The King’s Speech (he always makes an appointment to see WWII-themed films with me).  I’ll keep you posted after I see these films.  I might also write a little about some of the movies I’ve been watching at home.

So, what else have I been doing?  Quite a bit of reading and knitting.  The list of books I want to read before the next semester starts includes Jane Smiley’s Private Lives (but I’m rereading one of my Smiley favs Moo right now), Lionel Shriver’s So Much For That (just finished her book A Perfectly Good Family but recommend We Need To Talk About Kevin and The Post-Birthday World more highly), Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag (I’ve read several of her books often love bits and pieces while remaining ambivalent about them as whole works), and Emma Donoghue’s Room (which I’ve meant to read ever since I read the review months ago in the New York Times Sunday Book Review).

Last week, I also read the latest Patricia Cornwell book featuring Kay Scarpetta; Port Mortuary is not as thrilling as some of the early novels but better than some of the recent ones.  See, I don’t just read “serious” books.

Just like I don’t only see “serious” films.  Variety is good.



December 10, 2010

Don’t miss Marwencol Monday night at a/perture.  This engrossing documentary is part of the cineclub series, so it’s in town for only one night, December 13 at 8 p.m.

Director Jeff Malmberg’s documentary is about the fantasy world created by Mark Hogancamp after he suffers a terrible beating by five men outside of a bar, a beating that leaves him with permanent brain damage.

Rather than go into the story more now, take a look at this published interview with Malmberg:

Malmberg treats Hogancamp with great dignity but still manages to bring viewers inside the world he creates, Marwencol, while revealing Hogancamp’s humanity and his artistry in a surprisingly accessible way. I really liked this film a lot.





December 7, 2010

If you’ve seen the preview trailer, you’re thinking Love And Other Drugs is a raucous romantic comedy just in time for the holidays.  Well, it is, and it isn’t.  Although it’s marketed as a romantic comedy, this film is really more of a dramady.

Love and Other Drugs features Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway.  He’s a pharmaceutical rep and she’s an artist. I do think one of the selling points of the film is that Gyllenhaal and Hathaway have really good chemistry on-screen.

The characters have a strong and nearly immediate attraction to one another, but falling in love takes longer, and there are certain complications that make this an unusual romantic comedy.  Although many reviews have revealed it, I’m not keen on spoilers and will not reveal the major complication, even though it is established early in the film.

I liked this film but didn’t love it.  My major problems with the story are too much schmaltz in the second half and not enough backstory on Hathaway’s character.  I’m not looking for overkill here, but enough context to fill in her history as much as Gyllenhal’s would add some needed texture to the script.

Maybe my dissatisfaction is partly a matter of my own expectations.  Love and Other Drugs is directed by Edward Zwick and co-written by Zwick, Charles Randolph, and Zwick’s long-time writing and producing partner Marshall Herskovitz.

Zick and Herskovitz are responsible for the terrific television series thirtysomething and My So-Called Life.  I love both of those series.

Zwick has also directed big dramas like Glory, Legends of the Fall, and Blood Diamond, though I think he’s yet to surpass thirtysomething and My So-Called Life.  Point being, this is a really, really talented and experienced team, and Love and Other Drugs ends up being a little too smaltzy in the second half and not quite complex enough in terms of the characters.

I hoped for something terrific that would make me weep and give me new insights into human experience…a film I would turn over and over in my head and want to see more than once.

Hmmmmm…writing that makes me want to see The Secret In Their Eyes or Bright Star again…



December 7, 2010

Tangled is Disney’s 50th animated feature, but while it is pleasant enough, the film is not especially memorable.

This is a retelling of the Rapunzel story.  You remember:   “Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your golden hair.”  Using a title that distances the film from the fairy tale is a break with Disney’s past, and the box office for the film certainly has not suffered for the change.

Tangled is above average for all animated films, but it’s not top-drawer Disney.  Naturally, there are some beautiful moments (especially with floating lanterns over the water), but I just didn’t feel the magic of some of the earlier films.

This may sound like a strange thing to say about an animated film, but the characters in Tangled seem one-dimensional.  The best animated films engage your emotions to the point that the viewer willingly suspends disbelief and loses himself or herself in the picture.

Think back to a really great Disney film like, say, The Lion King.  Those characters aren’t even animated people, they’re animals, but remember how well-defined the characters are?

And, that film works on so many levels.  I bet you can even hum a few bars from some of the songs if you think for a moment.  There are lots of Disney films with some of this appeal, but for me Tangled is not one of them.





December 7, 2010

I posted on Restrepo back in the summer after seeing a screener copy of the documentary.  Now it’s playing in Greensboro, so I’ll repeat the high points.

I think this is an important film.  The title comes from the name of a medic in the platoon who is killed shortly after their tour begins, and Restrepo the film conveys the simultaneous tedium and tension of life at war and also demonstrates the complete cultural disconnect between US soldiers and the Afghans living in the area.

I must say I thought it was a little thin on character development.  The two filmmakers, Tim Heatherington and Sebastian Junger spent a total of ten months sometimes separately and other times together with the troops then conducted interviews with them after they completed the tour.  The interviews do help add context, so that was a good choice.  The whole enterprise, as presented by the filmmakers, seems futile.  History suggests the same.