November 27, 2012

Couldn’t bring myself to watch it.  I did have some modest curiosity but not enough follow through.  These biopics are always a challenge and only more so when they involve iconic figures.  I think it was smart, though, to cast Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor because with projects like this one, there is no bad publicity.


IMAX — Query from a Reader

November 27, 2012

Here’s something from my inbox:

Hi Mary,

I am a long time listener and fan from WFDD. I have a question which I feel certain you have probably considered before. It’s the whole IMAX/IMAX Experience/3D/48FPS thing. Yesterday I saw Skyfall with my sister in Knoxville (super flick) on the IMAX there. Having been to the IMAX here in Winston, I was surprised by the smaller screen and theater size there.  Has there been a shift in marketing of films whereby IMAX is now just a term for real big screens?  Years ago I saw Everest at the IMAX in Charlotte’s planetarium. That was the real deal. Has it become too complex for the tech to be used in features?  I have learned, thanks to your blog, that there is another new thing….48FPS!  Now I’m beginning to think I may not be smart enough to even go to the movies these days!  Perhaps you can tease out my actual question out of all this? Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Best wishes, Ellen

I’m not the most tech-savvy person in the Triad, let alone the larger planet, but I did respond to Ellen.

Hi, Ellen.

Now IMAX has a different meaning that it used to have.  It used to mean “image maximum” and had the gigantic screens with 70mm film that ran sideways to create the big image in the specialty theaters (like the planetarium – I think I saw my first IMAX film on flight at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum).

The IMAX Experience has two digital projectors so viewers see more light on the screen, which makes it a nice image, but it isn’t like it used to be.  I think a totally new name for The IMAX Experience would have helped matters.  This really is confusing!

Good question, and I hope I’ve been helpful!  Appreciate the email.



November 26, 2012

Writer/director Ben Lewin is best-known for his work in television with nothing particular I need to share here, but his film The Sessions is something else altogether.  I love this film.

The story is based on articles written by Mark O’Brien (John Hawkes) about his own sessions with a sex surrogate.  O’Brien, the subject of a Oscar-winning documentary short by Jessica Yu (you can watch Breathing Lessons:  The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien free online, contracted polio as a child and lived the rest of his life without the use of his limbs.

He spent most of his time in an iron lung but was able to come out for short periods of time.  O’Brien was a poet and also wrote articles for hire, including one about his own experiences with a sex therapist.  He was also often unhappy, even bitter, and some people would say that was to be expected.

Not me.

I have also made a documentary about someone confined to an iron lung for most of her life, but her outlook and the circumstances of her daily life were quite the opposite of Mark O’Brien’s.  You can watch the film about my dear friend Martha Mason free online, too (, but the film doesn’t tell you that I still think of Martha daily and miss our long talks about assorted topics as well as the love and wisdom she brought into my life.

So, while some people might see The Sessions as preposterous or simplistic or as Oscar bait (this is the general opinion of my soon-to-be student Marshall Shaffer, I see something different.  After reading his blog post, I can understand how he might have this impression of the film.  But, I left the theater deeply moved by the film.

The Hollywood version of Mark O’Brien is softer, funnier, and more appealing than the man from the documentary, but this makes him appear to the viewer as a man first instead of as a disabled man.  That is a noble effort, and if it takes a funny priest and a sex surrogate who breaks her rules when emotions become involved to achieve it, then so be it.

Love is an eternal mystery.  Not so much maternal love or agape or other types, those I find both essential and somewhat predictable, but romantic love confounds me, frankly.  What makes us fall in love with another person?  What makes that feeling endure even, sometimes, when it is unrequited?  At times, I wish I understood these mysteries and knew what the future would bring, and other times think it’s better to accept that some things are beyond understanding and just hope for the best.

The Sessions presents me with a version of Mark O’Brien who knows love in its frustrating and fulfilling forms.  I don’t think his movie life much resembles his actual life, but I feel the connection between this character and the women he loves, including his sex surrogate (Helen Hunt), and none of their scenes together are the least bit off-putting to me because I see the nudity and sex as essential to developing character and, even more, to establishing a connection between the characters that transcends the physical.

As I said, this film moves me.  I went to see it with a sense of obligation and left with something much more, a sense of possibility and hope, and now Marshall will understand why this is my experience.  Next semester in COM 311:  Film Theory and Criticism, I expect us to have spirited conversations and, perhaps, find at least an occasional piece of common ground.  When we start the semester in January by talking about intertextuality and how the stories of our lives overlap with the stories we encounter (like films), he’ll have a head start on everyone else in class.


November 25, 2012

What do these movies have in common?  Two nicely photographed films with non-traditional narrative structures, both based on novels, and both Cloud Atlas and Life of Pi deal with metaphysical issues not usually handled effectively in film.

Both are worth seeing because they are anything but run of the mill, but both are also at least moderately disappointing because the stories seem to promise so much more than is delivered.

Despite its length and complexity, I find Cloud Atlas the more intriguing of the two films because it has more thematic consistency and addresses the complicated and important issue of cultural hegemony as characters meet repeatedly across time and continue to deal with oppression, enslavement, violence, and – of course – love and enlightenment.  Humans are complex creatures.  It seems that even small steps of progress are intermittent and hard-won.  Somehow, that does feel true, even though it is sad to think about and to see in a sprawling and ambitious movie.

Though I have admired director Ang Lee and even loved some of his earlier films, Life of Pi seems plagued by poor pacing (how long did that journey on the lifeboat really have to last?) and – partly as a result of the pacing – the competing stories Pi tells about his rescue emerge from a fuzzy philosophy (and hodge-podge of theological traditions) that makes the film seem more superficial and reductive than its intentions

Since these two films figure prominently in a dialogue with New York Times critics Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott that is worth reading, I’ll share a link.

Tomorrow I’ll write about the film I’ve seen recently that I really love:  The Sessions.  If you see this recommendation before that post, go ahead and see it.  We can discuss this gem later!

48 FPS

November 19, 2012

This article may be of interest to cinephiles with a particular interest in technology.  The Hobbit will open nationwide December 14 (coincidentally my mother’s birthday, and I’m pretty sure she won’t want to spend it at this movie), and 450 theaters have announced that they will show the film at 48 frames per second, which is a first-ever upgrade from the usual 24 frames per second.,0,2734942.story

Right now the list includes two theaters in Charlotte, one in Asheville, one in Wilmington, and one in Winston-Salem.  That’s right:  one in Winston-Salem.

Event movies like this one often open on around 4,000 screens.




November 18, 2012

Often I find Steven Spielberg’s films too manipulative, melodramatic, and sentimental.  Not so with Lincoln.

Maybe it’s the tempering effect of facts suggested by the source material (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book), or the screenplay by Tony Kushner, or the understated performance by Daniel Day-Lewis (who really does evoke Lincoln and yes, I did say Day-Lewis is understated, not a typo).

I don’t know what factors brought the magic that doesn’t seem forced, but I’m glad for them.  The lighting and composition are lovely.  The production design strikes the right note.  The supporting cast is more than fine.

The result is a film that deals with important issues in a serious, respectful way that elicits admiration if not passion.  And, if the price for passion is manipulation, melodrama, and an excess of sentiment, I’m glad to forego it.

Lincoln is a useful film that feels topical because of its attention to political process and how much of that we continue to scrutinize (well, at least those of us who are news and politics junkies).  I like it and recommend it.


November 11, 2012

Before I saw Flight, I read local Washington Post columnist Courtland Milloy’s piece about the film and how unconvincing it was for him (and presumably other African American viewers) because of star Denzel Washington’s “fake kissing” in his “extramarital love life” with white women (

Spoiler alert:  I’m not sure if Milloy objects most to the fact that the two relationships depicted in the film are presented as part of his depraved lifestyle or that they both figure, ultimately, into his redemption.

Maybe I should extend the spoiler alert.  If you haven’t seen the film, plan to, and don’t want to know too much, come back to this post later.

You see, I like Flight better than any film by Robert Zemeckis in ages, better than most of them, in fact.  And, I like it not only because is it well-crafted but also because the movie is traditional in a way that appeals to me – the story demands a serious  and painful accountability before redemption and resolution.

The plot is conveyed in a limited way by the preview trailers.  Denzel Washington plays a pilot who lands a plane that no one else could have managed with such limited loss of life, but he is under the influence at the time of the mechanical failure that necessitated the crash landing.

Okay, but the depth of his problems is much deeper than suggested in the previews, and part of the strength of the film is how Denzel Washington’s iconography keeps us pulling for him even when we know that we shouldn’t.  Part of the emotional rollercoaster the film puts viewers on is internal as we wage that battle inside our heads between Washington, whom we like, and his character Whip Whitaker, who is not likable.

The resolution of Flight offers a chance for reconciliation between these competing responses that I find very satisfying.