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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

(500) Days of Summer

In the last few years I have gotten bored by romantic comedies. The ones currently being made often seem assembled by cookie cutter with little thrill or meaning left in them. There was more snappy banter in one episode of The Gilmore Girls than in half a dozen of Hollywood’s most recent rom com’s. Interest in witty lines got revived with Juno, and now Marc Webb has created a movie that is romantic and funny and honest. It’s about time.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Tom Hansen, a young man who writes greeting cards for a living. We are warned up-front that this is not a love story. By that, the creators want you to understand that this is not a typical boy meets girl, boy wins girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back scenario. From the beginning, we learn that Tom believes in true love and soul mates and the girl he falls in love with, Summer (Zooey Deschanel) does not. We see Summer break up with Tom within the first five minutes, and the rest of the film is about the 500 days that Summer dominates Tom’s life even when they’re not together.

It’s a fact that most romances don’t last; unfortunately, that includes many marriages as well. The question is do we take Summer’s position that there is no such thing as true love, or do we side with Tom and keep looking for “the one?” I think many people can relate to both sides of this story. As the song goes, “Everybody plays the fool sometime.” Life usually balances itself. You get your heart broken; you (often unintentionally) break someone else’s heart. The great pleasure of this movie is that it recognizes this fact and presents it in a manner that is refreshing and lively. This movie has some poignant moments, but it is not depressing.

Part of this can be attributed to the performances and chemistry of the two leads who bring substance to their roles. The script is based on a similar experience in real life, but it’s ultimately more uplifting than navel-gazing. Another contributor to the success of the film is the fantasy elements that are occasionally thrown in, like Tom and Summer reenacting various foreign films.

Essentially, though, what I liked so much about this film is the fact that Summer truly likes Tom. She keeps warning him not to fall in love with her, and she cares about what happens to him after they break up. At first, he is confused by this, seeing in her behavior mixed messages, but it hits at a core truth: sometimes we really wish we could love someone the way that they love us, but if we don’t…you can’t force it. It doesn’t mean that Summer is heartless; in fact, in my favorite scene we find out that Tom’s love and friendship actually had a profound effect on her in a positive way. I think many years down the road when he has perspective, that thought might bring a small glow to his heart. It did to mine.

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Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarentino has learned a lot about the art of suspense and he applies it all to his latest film, Inglourious Basterds. The opening sequence in particular was a masterpiece of stretching out a moment until our nerves nearly snap. I believe this is one of Tarentino’s best works rivaling Pulp Fiction, and like the director’s earlier film I believe I will have to view it several times before I have a firm opinion about it.

As is usual for a Tarentino picture the acting is strong as is the dialogue. Christoph Waltz nearly steals the picture as Col. Hans Lansda, a.k.a. The Jew Hunter. His performance is seamless and riveting. His character is utterly despicable and yet you can’t take your eyes off of him or completely smother a feeling of admiration for the flawless logic of his brain. Watching him is like watching a chess master in action…a chess master with a personality like a spider or a cat.

Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, the leader of a special force of American soldiers undercover in Germany, the Inglourious Basterds of the title. Pitt loves character parts and this gives him quite the role to sink his chops into. I alternated between cringing at Aldo because of his “hillbillyish” nature (As a native of the Appalachian Mountains, and someone who lived for two years in the mountains of Tennessee, I can assure you that we do not go around scalping people!) and laughing at him. Despite the negative qualities, it’s hard not to like Aldo. I gave up on cringing over him when I realized that this film makes no attempt to portray reality. This is not a World War II film; it’s a film about films made about World War II. It is sheer revenge fantasy and thus the audience has to suspend quite a bit of disbelief.

The rest of the cast is also uniformly excellent, particularly Eli Roth, Diane Kruger and Melanie Laurent. I particularly enjoyed two scenes: the restaurant where Laurent’s Shoshanna meets with Nazis and Col. Lansda, and the bar scene with the people playing very tension filled games. The latter is a masterpiece sequence as the same game is played twice. The first time it is light hearted fun, but the second time the players have changed and so have the stakes. Before it winds down to its deadly outcome, the audience will need oxygen from holding its breath.

The only problem I have with Inglourious Basterds is the ending. I’ve heard the ending praised, and it certainly winds up all of the plot points with panache. I’m just not sure how I feel about it. I was enjoying the picture, but the ending felt a bit over the top for me. It was like Tarantino had been restraining himself throughout the earlier bits, and then in the last few minutes completely slipped the leash. One day, I’ll rewatch the movie and decide if I think that was a good thing or merely disappointing.

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Public Enemies

Roger Ebert commented on his review of Public Enemies that Johnny Depp seemed to have started from scratch in creating his performance as John Dillinger; his characterization of the famous gangster was refreshingly divorced from the Hollywood gangsters of all previous movies. I’d have to agree with this assessment, which makes a lot of sense. Depp has always liked making original acting choices. In interviews, though, he also hints at a deeper connection. I think this was a personal film for him, in some ways. Dillinger’s home was less than a hundred miles from where Depp was born in Owensboro, Kentucky. Depp went to the Dillinger museum and tried on his trousers and commented that the two of them were of similar size. In a different interview, he mentioned that during the Depression his grandfather was a moonshiner. All of these details help Depp create a Dillinger who feels much more human than many of the gangsters I’m accustomed to seeing on screen. He’s flesh and blood, charming and dangerous.

Marion Cotillard is an actress I’m keeping an eye on. I enjoyed her in Big Fish and plan to watch La Vie en Rose in the near future. She has several interesting projects in the works. She works well here with Depp. I liked how she struck a fine balance between toughness and vulnerability. While her chemistry with Depp is not incendiary, it still emitted a warm glow that was more in keeping with the highly Romantic view of their relationship that the movie portrays.

Christian Bale has the hardest role playing FBI Agent Melvin Purvis. Situated between two splashier characters, Dillinger and J. Edgar Hoover, he fades into the background a little. If one pays attention, however, it’s easier to see the subtle work that Bale does. Purvis is an idealist, a believer in the idea of a federal law enforcement agency run with modern scientific methods. The tactics that it took the FBI to get Dillinger and his cronies sickens Purvis. It’s no surprise to learn that he leaves the Bureau shortly after the events of the film.

Billy Crudup has a blast playing J. Edgar Hoover. He’s been widely praised for his portrayal, but something in the performance struck me as off somehow. I’m not sure why because Crudup was very good at getting across some of Hoover’s complexities: his ambitions, ambivalence and authority. I think it has something to do with the accent which just hit my ear as false. I loved Crudup’s work in films like Big Fish, Almost Famous and Stage Beauty, but, at least at initial viewing, I didn’t care for his Hoover.

Director, Michael Mann has always had an affinity for crime stories. Much of his best work (barring The Last of the Mohicans) has been in this genre and Public Enemies is similar in ways to Heat. The story is about the cop and the criminal and attempts to make both sides three dimensional realistic figures. Public Enemies does not hold up as well as Heat, though, in that respect. I recently rewatched Heat and was struck by how fleshed out all of the characters were. I didn’t feel that in Public Enemies. In fact, aside from Dillinger, Purvis, Hoover and Billie Frechette, I often had trouble trying to remember who the characters were. Pretty Boy Floyd could have been Baby Face Nelson. The supporting characters were practically interchangeable except for the notable exception of Stephen Lang’s Charles Winstead, the former Texas lawman.

Overall, though, Public Enemies is a good film. The leads were all solid, even if I had trouble with Hoover. Depp is appropriately magnetic. He has played other criminals in the past, but I think this was his most believable interpretation. His Dillinger comes across as sane, ambitious, charismatic and mythic. I think the real John Dillinger would have approved.

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1939 – Part 1

1939 is affectionately referred to by movie lovers as “The Golden Year.” Reverence and wonder fill the voices of film historians whenever they speak of this one year in the early 20th Century. All of Hollywood’s newest technologies of sound and color coalesced into a benchmark of the studio system. So many wonderful films filled the theatres that year that many are often overlooked. This review deals with the most important films, but will be followed up by a second that recommends some quality movies that are lesser known.

Of course, the two biggest films of that year – the two biggest films of any year – were The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. They are the giants, their impact so large that even today the majority of the population recognizes both their names and their importance. In this, their 70th anniversary, Warner Home Video is releasing them on Blu-ray. The Wizard of Oz is out already with Gone With the Wind arriving in time for the holidays. The Wizard of Oz lives up to all expectations in high definition: glorious, brilliant and vibrant. The film looks brand new from the sheen of the plastic leaves in Munchkin land to the freckles on Judy Garland’s face to the sparkly sequins on those famous ruby slippers. Gone With the Wind looks to be another superlative transfer which I intend to enjoy along with friends in triple celebration: holidays, end of the semester and 70 years of magic.

The reputations of The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind are so gigantic, though, that many younger movie lovers are losing sight of some of the other highlights of The Magic Year. They are, in essence, Shakespeare during the Renaissance. Renaissance and Jacobean times possessed some of the richest dramas and most talented playwrights in English literature and yet they are practically unknown next to the Bard. Likewise, there were other exceptionally well-made films in 1939, many still well-known.

The most famous is arguably Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, one of Frank Capra’s best and most resonating works. James Stewart gives a heartfelt performance as Mr. Smith, a man who finds himself an unexpected politician in Washington. The corrupt around him intend to use him for their own designs, and when he learns of their schemes he begins to despair. His efforts to fight back and stand up for integrity in government should not be missed. Stewart is only one of many fine actors, including Jean Arthur, Claude Rains and Edward Arnold.

Stewart also had another fantastic film that year: Destry Rides Again. This is one of the first western comedies and it may very well be the best. There would be no Maverick or Blazing Saddles without this film. Stewart plays Tom Destry, the son of a famous sheriff. He’s invited to come to a small town to clean up the outlaws. Everyone gets a bit tense until they find out that Destry doesn’t even like to pack a gun. This leads to all of the macho types thinking he’s a push-over. He’s not. He’s quick-witted and stubborn. This movie is one of the jewels in Marlene Dietrich’s crown as she sings “The Boys in the Back Room” and finds herself embroiled in what has been called the greatest catfight of all times. This movie is both fun and funny and should not be missed.

Another western, serious this time, is Stagecoach which was the film that made John Wayne a star. It teamed him with John Ford, his favorite director. Stagecoach possessed many of the trappings people associate with the genre: gunfights, Indian attacks, and outlaws. At its heart, though, Stagecoach is about its ensemble cast. It delves into the souls of its characters which means that it stands up well today. Wayne is electrifying as the Ringo Kid, but the rest of the cast, including Claire Trevor, Donald Meek and Andy Devine, is also uniformly brilliant.

Bette Davis had two important entries in the Golden Year: Jezebel* and Dark Victory. Jezebel was Warner’s way of consoling her for not being cast as Scarlett O’Hara. Her Southern belle is even more selfish and manipulative than Scarlett, if that could be imagined. Henry Fonda plays the man she’s engaged to, but his admiration is stretched to the limit. Davis won her second Academy award for Jezebel. Dark Victory gives Davis a three-hankie weeper – the epitome of a “woman’s picture.” In it, she stars as a rich young woman who has everything one could desire from life, except good health. George Brent and Humphrey Bogart co-star beside Davis as she gives Greta Garbo in Camille a run for her money.

Speaking of Greta Garbo, in 1939 she starred in Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka. The picture was marketed as “Garbo Laughs!” Ninotchka was an effervescent romantic comedy made by a master at his peak. Co-starring Melvyn Douglas, the film delights with a match of opposites: a strict no-nonsense Soviet-era Russian comrade with a hedonistic playboy living in that city that seems practically synonymous with sensuality, Paris. Garbo relaxes into the role seeming more natural and beguiling than ever. It would later be remade into a musical starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, Silk Stockings.

If you prefer action and adventure, two Cary Grant films fill the bill: Gunga Din and Only Angels Have Wings. The first, directed by George Stevens, is based upon the famous Rudyard Kipling poem. Although the movie is decidedly not politically correct by our current standards, its title character ultimately shows more strength and heroism than the white officers commanding him. Cary Grant famously asked Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to trade roles with him. The result allows Grant to ditch the romantic lead and play to his virtuoso comic timing. By turns hilarious and exciting, Gunga Din was the Indiana Jones movie of its day. (In fact, Indiana Jones owes a large debt to this film – an acknowledgement made to those in the know by making the villains of the second Jones film, Temple of Doom, the same as in Gunga Din, the Thuggee.

Only Angels Have Wings has Grant as the owner of an air-service hauling the mail over the perilous Andes Mountains. It was directed by Howard Hawks and co-stars Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. As typical for Hawks, this movie exemplifies male bonding and the kind of woman who understands how to be one of the boys. Hawks really creates a tense, dangerous atmosphere as the audience waits for the pilots to come back safely. Many do not.

I’ll be continuing my look at the greatest year in film history next week, so please join me then. I’ll be briefly looking at some other well-known films, before recommending some not so well-known.

 

* Edited to add that of course, Jezebel came out in 1938, not 1939, an error I didn’t catch until writing this week’s entry.

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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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