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Archive for February, 2009

The Secret Life of Bees – 2008

 

This is one of the few times in my life that I responded more strongly to a movie than the book it was adapted from. That’s not to say that I didn’t like Sue Monk Kidd’s original novel because I did. It introduced memorable characters in delicate prose that was a delight to read. When I watched the movie, though, I felt even more enriched. Some of the nags I had while reading were quieted by the screenplay. Perhaps this is because Gina Prince-Bythewood, the screenwriter and director, worked directly with Kidd while writing her adaptation. The movie feels true to Kidd’s intentions but also in a few instances improved upon the original material.

The movie tells the story of Lily Owens played by Dakota Fanning. One of her earliest memories is of her mother packing her belongings and getting into a fight with Lily’s father. There was a gun and an accident that leave Lily motherless. She has never gotten over the loss and neither has T. Ray, her father, played by Paul Bettany. T. Ray is not the kindest, gentlest father and after an incident involving Rosaleen (who works for T. Ray but is the closest thing to a mother or sister that Lily has had) and a racist who put her in the hospital, Lily decides to rescue Rosaleen and take off on a quest to find out more about her mother. This leads to one of my favorite scenes from the book when Rosaleen figures out Lily’s quest. Rosaleen is a little bitter because she was worried that she was putting Lily in danger, when Lily’s journey has almost nothing to do with Rosaleen. Jennifer Hudson, playing Rosaleen, gives the part dignity as she points out that Lily might be white, but that fact doesn’t give her the right to mess around with Rosaleen’s life. Rosaleen is a friend, not a slave and demands an equal share in the decision making.

Lily’s only clue to finding out more about her mother is a honey label with an image of a black Mary. Ultimately, it leads her to the Boatwright sisters: August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo). Lily and Rosaleen are stunned and enchanted by the Boatwrights. They come from poorer backgrounds and have never seen independent, African American women like these. August is the businesswoman, running a successful honey business and June is not only a teacher (and thus, highly educated) but also artistic. These sisters take Lily and Rosaleen under their wings, albeit reluctantly on the part of June.

I enjoyed this movie because the characters felt very real to me. The performances are all excellent, and the script wisely makes the characters human beings and not saints or villains. Paul Bettany gives a depth to T. Ray that elevates the role from the standard abusive father. Lily’s friendship and potential romance with Zach Taylor who works for August is delicately handled, and we see both how beautiful and innocent the relationship is and the consequences it brings. My favorite scene is the film though is one between Lily and August when they are discussing Deborah, Lily’s mother. One of the qualms I had about the premise of the book and movie is the sensitive matter of having Lily, a white girl, mothered by these strong black women. It smacked a bit of the Old South and “mammies.” Why was a white protagonist needed for such a story? Couldn’t the story of the Boatwrights be told on its own merits? This is why I absolutely love the scene when we find out that August had been Deborah’s nanny. Queen Latifah’s performance here is honest and powerful as she tries to explain how complicated her relationship with Deborah was. For me, it’s the emotional backbone of the film and without it the whole thing crumbles.

I walked into The Secret Life of Bees expecting to be entertained…and I was. I was also moved much more than I expected to be. Even if you’ve never read Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, you should enjoy this heartwarming, deceptively simple tale.

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Bringing Up Baby –1938

–When a man is wrestling a leopard in the middle of a pond, he’s in no position to run.

 

It’s no secret that my favorite actor of all time is Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn would easily make the top ten. They made four films together starting with the offbeat Sylvia Scarlett and ending with the crowd-pleasing The Philadelphia Story. In between they made two comedies: the overlooked Holiday and the sublime Bringing Up Baby. I’m never sure how to answer the question, “What’s your favorite movie?” Bringing Up Baby comes as close as any.

Cary Grant plays against type. His David Huxley is an absentminded, bespectacled professor of paleontology. He has three concerns in his life: finishing the brontosaurus skeleton he has been assembling, convincing a generous museum patron to donate a million dollars to his museum, and marrying Miss Swallow. Miss Swallow comes last. Indeed, she insists on it. She quickly makes it clear to David that their marriage will be a loveless match in name only that is a convenience for the good of his work. It is obvious this doesn’t appeal to David, but he is not given much opportunity to protest.

While attempting to play a game of golf with Mr. Peabody who represents the lady giving away the million dollars, David encounters Susan Vance (Hepburn). Susan possesses a blithe self-confidence that sees her through nearly any situation despite her occasionally scattered logic. Before the film is over, she will nearly drive poor David out of his mind. If there was ever a man caught between wanting to kiss a woman or kill her, this is the fellow.

 It has been said that the dominant emotion driving Cary Grant’s performance is rage. David was leading a perfectly well-ordered life before he met Susan, but she turns his world upside down and inside out…but then, isn’t that what love does? That thin line between love and hate, desire and disdain, lust and lunacy has never been made so clear. Love is inconvenient, maddening and chaotic. It changes us whether we want it to or not. We laugh at David’s absurd predicaments but recognize an inherent truth behind their ridiculousness.

This is one of the funniest movies ever made. Anyone who can watch the whole “oh, you’ve torn your coat” sequence and not laugh is not someone I can relate to. Other incandescent comic gems are when David and Susan attempt to call a leopard off a roof by singing “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love, Baby,” David fighting to keep the leopard from eating a truck load of birds, Susan stealing David’s clothes so he can’t leave, David following a little dog around trying to find his lost brontosaurus bone and the side-splitting sequence at the local jail that winds up most of the plot.

By the end of the movie, David has realized that he needs a little lunacy in his life. He secretly resented the idea of a staid life with Alice Swallow and now he is guaranteed a lifetime of upset, excitement and passion. After all, life with Susan may be many things, but it could never be boring.

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Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day (1993)

–There is no way this winter is ever going to end as long as that groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don’t see any way out of it. He’s got to be stopped. And I have to stop him.

 

Well, Punxatawney Phil saw his shadow yesterday. Imagine that. Considering snow was pouring from the sky here in Kentucky when I heard the news and many of my students still don’t have power after the snow/ice storms last week, I can’t say that I’m very surprised. My mother informs me that there are actually four prognosticating groundhogs these days and they had mixed opinions. The two in the north saw their shadows and the two in the south didn’t. Hmm, since we’re somewhere in the middle maybe that means we only have three more weeks of winter instead of six. That would be nice.

Back in 1993, Bill Murray’s Phil Connors had an even worse winter experience. He is forced to relive Groundhog Day over and over again. At the beginning of the movie, Phil is a diamond in the rough – very rough, in fact you might as well call him coal. His attitude toward his career as a television weatherman is both condescending and superior as if he feels the job is beneath him but heaven help anyone who disparages his predictions. As many of Murray’s best roles are, Phil is caustic, flippant and occasionally cruel. He finds Punxatawney rustic in the worst sense and carries an air of weary “let’s get this over with” for his entire first 24 hours in the small town.

The movie shows us that Phil’s snide attitude is a cover for a very lonely man who uses humor as a weapon to push people away before they get too close. He’s actually very unhappy but it takes reliving the same day over and over to make him realize it and more importantly do something about it. Of course, the funniest parts occur as he’s mentally adjusting to his predicament. His reactions start off with disbelief then turn to glee as he recognizes the power he has: he can do anything without any permanent consequences. Eventually, even this grows old and he strikes out against himself and poor Punxatawney Phil as well. For me, one of the funniest scenes is the one where the two Phils go for a ride together.

Phil holds up a mirror to the audience. How many opportunities do we pass up each day that could improve our lives or the lives of others? Phil is a lonely, bitter man, but by learning to act outside of his accustomed selfish paradigm he becomes the most popular man in town. This is epitomized by his relationships with Rita (Andie McDowell) and Larry (Chris Elliott). In fact, his relationship with Larry becomes a barometer to how far his character has evolved. In the beginning, he is very rude and dismissive of Larry. As the movie progresses, we see Phil eventually start to see Larry as a human being and ask him about his life. This is even more significant than the progression of his romance with Rita since after all she is the love interest.

Groundhog Day marks an interesting benchmark in Bill Murray’s career. His previous comedies like Caddyshack, Stripes, and Ghostbusters are definitely of the slapstick mode. Groundhog Day certainly contains some slapstick humor, but also looks forward to the next phase of Murray’s career when he started doing more subtle work in Rushmore, Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers. This early ‘90s romantic comedy almost straddles the best of both worlds.

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