Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Brother Cadfael Mysteries: The Holy Thief, The Pilgrim of Hate

CADFAEL It’s probably hard for even the most devout modern American or British Catholic to comprehend the importance that medieval worshipers placed on saints’ relics – let alone for an unregenerate Protestant such as me. But Ellis Peters’ first Brother Cadfael novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones, centered on the acquisition of the bones of St. Winifred for the abbey of Shrewsbury. In The Holy Thief (1998) , the first of two Brother Cadfael episodes I watched recently, St. Winifred’s bones are again at issue. Another abbey has been burned down in the civil war between the forces of Stephen and Matilda, and its abbot has come to Shrewsbury with a novice who has had a vision – a vision that seems to require Shrewsbury to give up its most prized possession to aid in the rebuilding of the other abbey. Shrewsbury doesn’t want to let St. Winifred go, but its abbot is a truly holy man who tries to believe the best of others. But there are some monks who will stop at nothing to keep or gain possession of St. Winifred’s relics. When a death and a kidnapping occur, Cadfael must sort out truth from falsehood.

In The Pilgrim of Hate (also 1998), Cadfael encounters a young man who is on a barefoot pilgrimage to Wales, shepherded by his judgmental brother. Cadfael is himself Welsh, and invites the young pilgrim to the abbey so that he can treat his bleeding feet. The abbey is full of pilgrims come to receive blessings from St. Winifred’s relics, and when the body of an old man is found stuffed in a bag among the pilgrims’ luggage, Cadfael must investigate. He discovers that the young pilgrim’s brother, who is preaching a harsh doctrine of sin and repentance through mortification of the flesh, is not all he seems to be.

Both these stories had in common not only the relics but the concept of doing penance by punishing one’s body. The novice in The Holy Thief, it is suggested in one scene, receives altogether too much flogging from his covetous abbot, and in one of the tales Cadfael’s own apprentice is shown flagellating himself because he has confessed some slight wrongdoing. Cadfael doesn’t seem to think much of such activity, not surprising for a healer. I can’t recall whether the books made so much of this theme, but I’ll be looking for it in other episodes I watch.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Festen (The Celebration) 1998

200px-The_Celebration_DVD_Cover Festen (The Celebration) is a Danish film listed also as “Dogme #1.” (Go here for more information on the Dogme 95 film movement.)

Three adult children, one with a family, return home to the hotel-restaurant their father owns to celebrate his 60th birthday with a crowd of guests. It soon becomes evident that there are stresses in the family – one brother finds there’s no room reserved for him because he misbehaved on a previous occasion; the other brother is asked to speak about his twin sister, who is dead; and when the remaining sister discovers that she’s been given her dead sister’s room, we learn that the dead sister was a suicide. Before the film ends, the family will be cracked and broken, and no one more so than the father, as one son reveals a shocking secret and the other children, at first resistant, come to believe him.

Having married into a Danish-American family made the film’s setting and characters seem quite familiar to me. Some of the songs the guests sing were songs we too have sung at birthdays; the faces and names of the characters looked and sounded like people who might be part of our extended family. This made the shocking and terrible parts of the film even worse for me (my daughter had a similar reaction).

Festen (The Celebration) was made under the strictures of Dogme 95, but I can’t say that I noticed much different from other films or that this made it difficult to see the film. I of course watched with subtitles (annoyingly, they were cut off a bit at the bottom by my television or just by the DVD). I left the sound audible and did not notice any problems with that either. After looking at the “rules” of Dogme, I did realize that the songs that were sung at the party were the only music, but it wasn’t a glaring omission that I noticed during the film. This was a very good film, well-acted and photographed, and though it’s obviously not one for children or young teenagers, I’d recommend it to others.

A History of Britain, Discs 4 and 5

Now I’ve finished watching Simon Schama’s BBC series, A History of Britain. The episodes on Disc 4 cover the years from William and Mary to the Regency, George IV and William IV. (The latter get short shrift.) In the earlier part of the century, the Jacobite rebellion which attempted to install Bonnie Prince Charlie as King in lieu of the Hanoverian George I is shown, with the conclusion that its failure may actually have ended up improving the lot of the Scots. The American and French Revolutions, and how Britain dealt with the former and avoided a replay of the latter figure largely in the history of the later part of the 18th century. Schama discusses William Wordsworth’s journey from radical to Romantic at some length, and of course, also deals with the Napoleonic Wars.

The final disc contains three episodes which take Schama’s history from Victoria through Winston Churchill. As in the preceding episodes, we see Schama’s belief that an excessive emphasis on trade and business compromised British ideals of liberty, particularly during the glory days of Empire. Heartrending photographs of Indians who starved to death as Victoria was being made Empress of India illustrate his point all too well. Oddly, he seems to skim over both the Boer War and World War I with very little discussion.

In some ways I felt that the final episode, The Two Winstons, was the best of all. One of the strengths of Schama’s work is its interdisciplinary focus, and in The Two Winstons he allows himself to emphasize that focus. The first Winston is, of course, Winston Churchill; the second is Winston Smith, the hero of George Orwell’s 1984, and by extension, Orwell (Eric Blair) himself. Comparing Churchill’s life and that of Blair/Orwell gives Schama an opportunity to tell the history of Britain in the first half of the 20th century in a fresh new way. (Churchill’s participation as first a cabinet member and then an officer in the trenches of France is pretty much the only mention of WWI). I also learned something that I don’t think I’d heard before – that when Churchill became Prime Minister in 1940, the members of the Cabinet were very close to trying to negotiate some kind of peace with Hitler – a terrifying thought. As usual with television histories of this type, my appetite for reading a bit more history has been whetted; I own at least the first volume of Schama’s companion history and will probably be dipping into it before long.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A History of Britain (Disc 3)

Ever since childhood days in Connecticut, watching New York channels 11 (I think – it was sponsored by the school system or education department) and 13 (WNET, PBS before there was PBS), I’ve had a nagging fondness for “educational television.” So from time to time I sample some on DVD. I like a varied diet of film, so it’s quite a while since I watched Discs 1 and 2 of Simon Schama’s series. Disc 3 includes The Body of the Queen, the last episode of season 1, plus The British Wars and Revolutions, the first two in season 2.

A History of Britain (2000 and after) is a good, and reasonably entertaining, introduction to British history, mingling Schama’s visits to famous places with reenactments and artifacts from the period to keep the viewer interested. Occasionally the reenactments were so realistic that I had to close my eyes. And then there were the times that my eyes closed on their own. To be fair, that was partly physiological and partly because, having taken an excellent course on Tudor and Stuart history, there was little new information for me in these particular episodes, which span the period from Elizabeth I to William and Mary. I do enjoy seeing the places where things happened. And the music that accompanies the series is lovely and haunting. I’ll be watching the rest of the episodes some time in the not-too-distant future.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)

I’ve read, I think, three of the four Shopaholic books. (Yes, I admit it, I like a trashy novel now and again.) I am often disappointed in movies of books I’ve read, and Confessions of a Shopaholic (based on the book of the same name and its first sequel, Shopaholic Takes Manhattan) was no exception to this rule. First off, the setting was changed from London to Manhattan and the quite British Becky Bloomwood of the book became an American (although Isla Fisher, who played the part, is also British). I could be wrong, but my dim memory of the book also tells me that Becky was a fairly successful financial journalist when the book opened, and that made her credit problems more ironic. There are various other plot points which were changed, not for the better, that I won’t bother going into.

There was some pretty funny stuff in the movie, especially the scenes with the 12-step program for compulsive shoppers. But there were too many things that didn’t ring true, or were not explained. For example, Alicia, the character played by Leslie Bibb (a tall blonde) whom Becky sees as a rival and who acts quite proprietary to Luke (Hugh Dancy) – at some point Luke just says “Oh, we’re not together” with no explanation of why it looked that way. Becky gets out of her financial troubles by holding a big sale where she sells all the stuff she’s bought for enough to pay off her debts. Hello? Credit cards for shopaholics are a bad idea because (a) you aren’t just paying for the item, you’re paying interest and (b) clothing, like cars, begins to depreciate as soon as you take it home. Even if (unlikely) she sold everything for the price she paid for it, she’d still have been in the hole for the interest.

But really, what spoiled the film for me was the clothes themselves! Despite her passion for shopping and her wish to enter fashion journalism, the Becky in the movie not only has bad taste, but doesn’t seem to know what looks good on her. Each outfit is crazier than the next and makes her look short and dumpy. Perhaps that was supposed to make the audience identify with her, but I don’t watch light romantic comedies for socialist realism.

I did enjoy the performances of Joan Cusack and John Goodman as Becky’s parents, and Wendie Malick as the hard-nosed Shoppers Anonymous facilitator. If you like this type of movie and it comes your way without much effort, go ahead and watch it, but it’s no Bridget Jones nor does it do justice to Sophie Kinsella’s “not-so-trashy trashy novels.”

Thoughts on JFK (1991)

JFK poster This film should have been called “Garrison,” since it is really about Jim Garrison, the New Orleans DA whose theories on JFK’s assassination director Oliver Stone shares. Unlike in Stone’s later Presidential films, Nixon (1995) and W. (2008), no actor portrays the President – we see him only in newsreels at the film’s opening and as necessary later on. (Well, I’m not sure about the autopsy scenes – special effects? And there are two "doubles" listed in the cast list, but they don't have any lines.)

I have a lot of memories around JFK’s assassination: the PA announcement during sophomore English class; scurrying around after school, reporting for the student newspaper; the flags at half-staff throughout our small military housing area for the Commander-in-Chief; watching the funeral on television. In my social studies class that year, we kept journals -- “Intellectual Diaries,” Mr. Strauss called them. I remember writing about not knowing much about Lyndon Johnson, wondering whether he was up to the job. (Yes and no, would be my answer now.) But I also remember this: before all the Lee Harvey Oswald/Jack Ruby story was broadcast, most of the people I talked with believed the assassination would turn out to be the work of the John Birch Society, the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, or some other far-right person or group. Yet as far as I recall, we believed the initial reports as well as that of the Warren Commission. I think most people still believed the U.S. government and whatever Cronkite or Huntley-Brinkley told us on the news, at that time.

Several years later, when I was in college, when we no longer trusted the government (or anyone over thirty except maybe Pete Seeger), when LBJ’s great achievements (civil rights, Medicare) were all but forgotten in the firestorm of Vietnam, a lot of people were reading Barbara Garson’s Macbird. My memory is that it was provocative, designed to shock, and implicated Johnson in Kennedy’s assassination. At about that same time, Jim Garrison’s court case against Clay Shaw was in the news. I was aware of it, but there was a lot of other news going on and I don’t think I focused on it much.

All this is to say that I don’t really feel qualified to judge the legitimacy of the claims Oliver Stone makes in this film, based in part on Garrison’s book as well as another by Jim Marrs. I can say that JFK was a compelling film that kept me glued to my seat for 3 1/2 hours (!). I gather that the version shown in theaters was not quite as long as the Special Edition DVD. I can say also that the evidence Kevin Costner, as Jim Garrison, presents is frighteningly believable. I’ll have to think about whether I want to read Garrison’s book or do further research. I know that for some years, many liberals believed that everything would have been fine had Kennedy not died, but more recently I’ve heard that some revisionist scholars looking at the Kennedy presidency weren’t so enthralled with him, and felt he mightn’t have done any better than Johnson. Yet Stone’s film asserts Kennedy had a plan for a quick exit from Vietnam, which encouraged the military-industrial complex (including Johnson associates Brown-Root – the Halliburton of the Vietnam War) to conspire in his assassination. Will we ever know the truth? Not sure. But I do believe this film was worth the time I spent on it and that I’ll be thinking about it for quite a while.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Fortunes of War (1987)

This BBC mini-series stars Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, and in fact is where they met. It’s based on a series of novels by British writer Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy, which are part of the Guardian newspaper’s 1000 Novels Everyone Must Read. [Actually, by my count, more like 1070.)

Fortunes of War The 7-episode series opens with newlyweds Guy and Harriet Pringle (Branagh and Thompson) on a train to Bucharest, Rumania. Guy is an English teacher there – his employer seems to be a British agency similar to the USIA – and Harriet has met and married him during his summer vacation in England. Guy has been chatting in German with a fellow passenger. At a border crossing the other man discovers that his pocket has been picked and he has no identification and no money. As the German-speaker is hustled away, Guy follows and gives him a few pounds – an ineffectual but kindly-meant gesture which is all too typical of his character.

As Guy and Harriet arrive in Bucharest, the Nazis have invaded Poland and Britain has declared war on Germany. Life becomes a strange mixture of the everyday joys and concerns of two young people, and the anxiety of living in a foreign country which is not only poised for invasion by either Germany or the Soviet Union, but also has internal struggles. In fact, soon the Prime Minister is assassinated by the home-grown Fascists, the Iron Guards. Harriet meets a circle of Guy’s friends and acquaintances – Dobson, the head of the British legation; Sophie, the Rumanian girl who may be a rival; Prince Yakimov, an impecunious Russian prince with a British passport who talks like Bertie Wooster; and more.

During the course of the series, Guy and Harriet manage to stay one jump ahead of the Nazis, leaving first for Athens, then Cairo, and Harriet spends some time in Damascus. The series, which was meant to be the BBC’s answer to such ITV hits as Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown, was shot on location (although the then Yugoslavia stood in for Rumania) and cost $12 million to make in 1987. It is visually stunning with great costumes (but realistic – Thompson doesn’t have a new dress each time she appears), careful period detail, and some wonderful atmospheric scenes such as an Egyptian funeral and an Orthodox Easter service. As one expects from British TV, the acting is first rate. Although there are many shocking and harrowing scenes, there is humor as well – especially in Alan Bennett’s turn as 'Professor Lord Pinkrose’ futilely attempting to give his lecture on Byron. I really liked the music, too. And, ever since I read my first Helen MacInnes novel, I’ve been a sucker for tales of “romance in a danger zone.”

I’m looking forward to reading the books now, and seeing how they differ. But if you’re not up to reading a six-volume duo of trilogies, you might just enjoy the 407 minutes of this adaptation.

Plus ça change: State of the Union (1948)

310_BIG_-_STATE_OF_THE_UNION_P Imagine a film made by a Republican director/producer in which the Republican candidate is firmly in favor of universal health care, affordable housing, and world government. Sound implausible? Yet, in 1948, that’s the film Frank Capra made. Based on the 1946 play of the same name by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, State of the Union stars Spencer Tracy as the candidate, Katherine Hepburn as his wife, and Angela Lansbury as the girlfriend (mistress? it’s never quite clear), a newspaper owner who wants Tracy as her puppet President.

Tracy’s character is an airplane manufacturer who wants labor, management, agriculture and everyone else to work together for the good of the country. Lansbury and has-been campaign manager Adolphe Menjou want Tracy to be President for their own selfish reasons. As Tracy is setting off for a speaking tour as an unannounced candidate, they tell him he needs to take his wife along, even though they’ve been somewhat estranged for several months. Hepburn plays her usual sharp-tongued “best friend and severest critic” type of wife – but one who has a vulnerability under the bravado, for she wants to win Tracy back from Lansbury. Van Johnson is the ace political reporter who’s assigned to travel with the prickly pair. His initial cynicism is overcome by Tracy’s straight talk. All is going well – from Hepburn’s viewpoint – until they reach Detroit. Tracy’s speech in Wichita socked it to the big labor leaders but went over well with the public. Now he’s about to give business leaders the same medicine, and his behind-the-scenes handlers want none of it. Tracy resists Menjou’s exhortations to change his speech, but then he’s taken into another room of the hotel and emerges ready to compromise. Of course, it’s Lansbury who (unbeknownst to Hepburn) was in the other room and persuaded him. Once Tracy gives in, we start to see a lot of backroom deals with politicians and other leaders who promise to swing convention delegates for Tracy if he’ll promise them something in return. (This was still the “smoke-filled room” era when the nominee really wasn’t known until the convention.) Hepburn, disillusioned, goes home to their Long Island estate, but agrees to host the campaign kickoff, which is to be broadcast on radio and the new medium, television. The combination party and campaign kickoff brings everything to a head with revelations all over the place.

Other reviewers have compared State of the Union with Capra’s other and better-known political film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and found it darker. I’d say it was actually a bit more optimistic, as Capra and the playwrights made the main character more forceful and more realistic. He is a man with no little ambition and with all the enlarged and sensitive ego of the politician, but tempered by pragmatism and with the clear-eyed Hepburn to take him down a peg when he needs it. The deeper moral of the film – expressed several times – is that it is the common voter’s indifference and inertia that allows the bosses and special interests to manipulate not only candidate selection, but lawmaking as well. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Although this is a drama, there’s plenty of comedy as well, including a turn by Carl “Alfalfa” Switzer as a bumbling bellboy. State of the Union is worth seeing for a refreshing look back at a time when a Republican candidate could talk sense and not be rejected by his own party. And of course, it’s Tracy and Hepburn.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964)

dr lao Tony Randall plays several parts in The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao (1964).  The film is part fairy tale, part romance, part Western. Dr. Lao (Randall) is a “Chinese” medicine man who comes to a small Western town with his circus. We quickly see that he has magical powers when, coming to the newspaper office to place an ad, he is able to repair the balky printing press without laying a hand on it. Dr. Lao also deals out swift but merciful justice to some bullies who are harassing an Indian. Through the various characters in his circus (all played by Randall), he shows people the truth about themselves, enables the townsfolk to stand up to a rapacious land developer, and encourages the romance between the newspaper editor and the widowed librarian. At the end, Dr. Lao disappears into the sunset, leaving the good townspeople better off than he found them.

This would be a good movie for parents and kids to see together. Some things may warrant explanation in light of our modern sensibilities about ethnicity, but the film as a whole has plenty of action and special effects to keep the kids interested, and many ideas that can start some good discussions. Most of the comments and short reviews I’ve seen online were from people who saw the movie as children and have never forgotten it.

Musical Documentary: Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns

Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns (2002) focuses on the career of the hard-to-classify singer-songwriter duo They Might Be Giants. Although I’m not a tremendously knowledgeable fan of theirs, I have enjoyed some of their music and the film was well done. However, I doubt it would be very interesting to someone who is not already an aficionado of the group.

TV Detectives: Cadfael, Foyle, and Fraser

As do many other people, I keep some of my Netflix queue for television series that I missed on broadcast or cable. Recently I’ve finished watching two series, and begun watching another which I’d viewed only sporadically in the past.

Cadfael I’ve read all of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series of medieval mysteries, and enjoyed a few on PBS’s Mystery! Now I’m coming back to watch the ones I missed or have forgotten. I haven’t listed them in order as I usually would, since, although there is a character arc, it isn’t so big a part of the story as to present a problem in watching out of order. The episode I watched the other day was The Potter’s Field (1998), in which a potter who has left his wife to become a monk is suspected of murdering her when her body turns up a year later.

I think the most interesting aspect of the Cadfael stories for me is the theme of change and transition which is present in all of them to some degree. The 12th century in England was a time of change – the Cadfael series takes place during the civil war between the forces of King Stephen and the Empress Matilda for the crown of England.  In addition, the social system was changin as serfdom was becoming less common and free artisans and tradesmen gathered in towns. Returning Crusaders such as Cadfael brought their new ideas and experiences back with them. All these aspects of 12th-century life combine with each episode’s murder mystery for an entertaining and – dare I say it – educational program. I noticed that The Potter’s Field was structured almost like a modern police procedural novel, with a number of suspects, dead ends, and the puzzle solved only when Cadfael finally asks the right question.

Foyle's War I said above that I had finished watching the Foyle’s War (2002) series, but just the other day I heard the welcome news that three more episodes, taking the story up to V-J Day, would be filmed soon. Of course, it will probably be some time before they are available here. It has been a fine series and deserves to reach its logical ending point. Although we sometimes found the plots a bit far-fetched, it was easy to overlook that in light of Anthony Horowitz’s talent for bringing wartime England to life on the screen. The cast, as so often in British television, was excellent, both the recurring characters and the guests. Horowitz showed both the heroic and the venal in the actions of Britons (and others) in World War II.

due south The longest of these series, as it began on American TV, is Due South (1994). Canadian Paul Gross is one of my current Top 10 Favorite Actors – also producers, directors, screenwriters – he even sings! The other actors in the series, many of them also Canadian, do a great job as well. In the last several episodes, the writers and cast seemed to be having even more fun than usual – Camilla Scott as Fraser’s boss “Meg Thatcher” gets to sing gospel in one episode, for example. The two-part finale, “Call of the Wild,” wraps up a number of storylines. The real Ray Vecchio (David Marciano) returns, as does Leslie Nielsen as the flatulent Buck Frobisher. In a bit of an inside joke, Gross’s real-life wife, Martha Burns, makes a cameo appearance as the ghost of Fraser’s mother. I was happy to have had the chance to watch this series of gently humorous Ripping Yarns.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

I’ve been a little slow in catching up with Harry Potter – I only read the final book last year. I watched this film in case I made it to the theater for Half Blood Prince, but I guess I’ll be waiting for the DVD on that one too.

200px-Harry_Potter_and_the_Order_of_the_Phoenix_theatrical_poster One of J.K. Rowling’s strengths with this series has been how the characters and plots mature from book to book. Although it’s now a problem for some kids who come of age to read the first book now that all of them are available, it worked very well for that group of children who matured along with the books. The Harry Potter films reflect this maturing as well. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, not only do Harry, Ron and Hermione continue moving through adolescent angst and the pangs of young love, but they also begin to understand more fully that adults – even Harry’s yearned-for and idealized parents – are flawed and fallible human beings.

Neither the book nor the movie is my favorite of the series, and that may well say more about me than about the works themselves. The whole Dolores Umbridge sequence is just too hard for me to take. For some reason – and I can’t recall ever experiencing anything even close to this – the unfairness and humiliation (to say nothing of the actual torture) that Harry undergoes at Umbridge’s hands are almost impossible for me to watch. Umbridge’s comeuppance at the end of the film doesn’t seem a strong enough recompense for her actions.

So, not my favorite, but we still get the charming bits of wizardry, some great broomriding, and the consistent performances of Radcliffe, Grint and Watson. Recommended for older kids, teens and adults.

Tootsie (1982)

Tootsie_imp For some reason (possibly because I had two small children and didn’t get out much!) I missed Tootsie (1982)when it came out. Oh my, is it ever 80s! When actresses are auditioning for a part as a hospital administrator in a soap opera, they all turn up in mannish suits “softened” with a bow at the neckline, à la The Women’s Dress for Success Book, and oversized glasses. It’s enough to bring a shudder to anyone who lived through that time.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed the movie. Surely everyone knows the plot – unsuccessful actor Dustin Hoffman disguises himself as a woman to get the above-mentioned part.  He falls in love with co-star Jessica Lange; other men get interested in “Dorothy” (Hoffman’s alter ego); and there are several farcical scenes of quick changes to escape detection.

There were excellent performances all around, but especially by Hoffman. One could almost see how his character could fool so many people into believing he was a woman. But of course, there has to be a deeper meaning, or several. The one I found was also very 80s – Hoffman “gets in touch with” his feminine side, and it makes him a better man and opens the possibility of a relationship with Lange.

I also very much enjoyed the behind-the-scenes glimpse at the actor’s world, both in the soap opera scenes and, even more, at the beginning of the film where Hoffman is teaching a class of other aspiring actors. I was glad to have included this in my mini-festival of Hoffman along with The Graduate and Rain Man.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Three Movies with Juries

I've never actually served on a jury, and have only been called for jury duty once. I was working in the County Law Library at the time, and the first time I was empanelled, I had to admit that I knew the prosecutor, as he was my supervisor's husband. The second time, I was challenged, because it was a date-rape case and I was (by the defense's lights) too familiar with the then-recent New Bedford pool table case and various opinion articles about it. So all I really know about juries I know from books, plays and films.

We recently watched three films in which juries played a major part. The first was the 1957 classic, Twelve Angry Men. Onkel Hankie Pants was in a local production of the play (amended to Twelve Angry Men and Women) last year, playing Juror #11, the immigrant watchmaker. The film came out a few years too early for us to have seen it in theaters, and somehow we had never watched it on television, so we were interested to see how it differed from the play.

As most people know, the entire action of the drama takes place inside the jury room on a very hot summer evening in New York. The twelve men on the jury are to decide a murder case: did a young man stab his father to death with a switchblade? A foreman is chosen and he takes a preliminary vote. The "Guilty" votes roll in, until Juror #8, Henry Fonda, is reached. He votes "Not Guilty". If not 12, there are at least several angry men immediately in the room, as they berate Fonda and state their belief in the defendant's obvious guilt. Fonda explains that he merely thinks they owe it to the defendant in a capital case to deliberate and be certain there is no reasonable doubt before convicting. Reluctantly, the others agree. As the jruors talk over the facts of the case, doubts creep in, minds and votes are changed, and the jurors' prejudices and personalities are revealed, particularly in the explosive ending.

In many ways this was the best drama of the three films, and yet the experience of watching it was not that different from watching the play (especially for me, since OHP's production was done "in the round" in a small space where the audience was only a few feet from the actors). The use of film techniques was limited to the abiliity to zoom in on a character's face or hands. (Well, I'm talking about techniques that are obvious to the layperson.) Generally speaking, I don't think this is considered to be a good way to make a movie, but in this case it worked. Do see this one if you haven't already.

Viewed as a film, The Runaway Jury (2003) was actually the best of the three "jury" movies. I think I'd actually chosen it just because I like John Cusack, and then coincidentally we had it at home along with the other two so we had a little "Jury Film Festival."

The plot deals with a wrongful death suit against a firearms company, brought by the widow of a stockbroker slain in a "disgruntled ex-employee" shooting. (OHP had read the book, which had the suit being brought against a tobacco company; by the time the film was made, that idea was a little outdated). The firearms company has hired a jury consultant (Gene Hackman) to help select the jury for this District Court case. It quickly becomes evident that the consultant and his minions are investigating all the potential jurors before the voir dire even takes place. (Not being an attorney, I don't know whether jury lists are public knowledge or whether they were doing this illegally by bribing somebody; it's not made clear.) John Cusack seems quite put out when he's called for jury duty, as it may interfere with some sort of video game championship. But despite his protests, he can't escape and is seated.

Dustin Hoffman, as the plaintiff's attorney, and Hackman soon begin to get calls offering them a verdict of their choice in return for a large sum of money. They also begin to see demonstrations that someone has power within the jury. Hackman brings all his resources, some of which are far from legal, to bear on finding out who it is; Hoffman is tempted, but he deeply believes in the jury system and the strength of his case, and he resists. In a scene in the palatial men's room of the courthouse, Hoffman and Hackman eloquently advocate for their very different views of law and justice.

This film, not surprisingly given its genesis as a John Grisham novel, is more of a mystery than the other two. Even as the viewer starts to figure things out, suspense is maintained until the satisfying conclusion. Highly recommended.

The Verdict (1982) was probably the weakest of the three films, although it's always a pleasure to watch Paul Newman act. (It was also interesting that two of the jurors in Twelve Angry Men, Jack Warden and Ed Binns, played parts in The Verdict: Warden as Newman's friend and Binns as the Bishop.)

The premise of the film is that Newman is an alcoholic, disillusioned, aging failure of an attorney in Boston. His friend and former colleague (Jack Warden) has steered a couple of clients to him who have a clear personal injury suit against a large Catholic hospital. Warden's intent is that Newman settle the case out of court, compensating the victim and resulting in attorney's fees that will allow Newman to retire. (The case centers on a young maternity patient who was given the wrong anesthesia and wound up in a vegetative state; the plaintiffs are her sister and brother-in-law, working class people who want to see the victim cared for so that they can leave for a better job in Arizona in good conscience). Newman visits the victim in the bare-bones care facility where she exists and, at virtually the last minute, decides, and persuades his clients, to take the case to a jury trial. Warden and others warn him that the Diocesan lawyer (James Mason) is not only highly skilled with many resources, but ruthless.

With Warden acting (inexplicably to me) as his unpaid law clerk, Newman searches out witnesses and plans his strategy, being thwarted at every turn by Mason and his minions. There is a bit of a love story with an unpleasant twist as well. Both the love story and the amount of concentrated legal work and legwork Newman does seemed unrealistic to us, considering the amount of drinking Newman's character continues to do. There is an element of mystery as Newman tries to track down the truth behind the anesthesia mistake and the witness who can tell it. The Verdict was an exciting story that held our interest, and both Newman and Mason turned in their usual good performances. Unlike the other two films, we do not see the jury deliberations in The Verdict, but we do observe a lot of the trial. The Verdict isn't as good as the other two films, but it was still an enjoyable way to spend an evening.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ladies in Lavender (2004)

It's been fashionable for some time to lament the dearth of parts for older women in Hollywood. Such does not seem to be the case with more independent films. There are plenty of parts for older women, although Judi Dench gets most of them.

But seriously, folks, if you want to see some fine acting in a charming and subtle story with the bonus of amazing Cornish scenery, watch Ladies in Lavender (2004). The screenplay, by actor/director/producer Charles Dance, is pitch-perfect. Dame Judi and her good friend, Maggie Smith, perform excellently as always, as two elderly spinster sisters whose life is disrupted and enriched when a young man washes up on the shore near their cottage.

I won't recount the plot further, but I do want to mention the important part that the musical score plays in the film. There is actual music-making aplenty, but when music isn't being made on-screen, it is still carefully selected -- for example, scenes of haying are accompanied by a lush arrangement of the harvest hymn "We Plough the Fields and Scatter."

Dance, Dench, and Smith were interviewed for a special feature after the film, from which I learned something interesting. In the original story by William Locke on which the screenplay is based, the sisters were only in their forties; whereas Dench and Smith play ladies in their 60s. (My one small quibble is that this doesn't quite jibe with Maggie Smith's character having lost a fiancé in World War I -- since the film is set in the late 1930s -- unless they were both very late bloomers. Or was I just assuming WWI and it was really the Boer War?) It appears that Dance made this decision both to improve the story (which I think it does) and because he wanted to cast Dench and Smith. It was a good decision, and I highly recommend this film.

The Graduate (1967)

I've been much too silent for the last month, and not because I haven't been watching anything. So I'll be doing some catch-up posting, not necessarily in the order films were seen. If you haven't seen The Graduate (1967), there are spoilers in the following post.

My college years were characterized by a lack of disposable income, so there are several iconic films from that time that I didn't see until much later, or not at all. So when I recently decided to have a little Dustin Hoffman Festival, the first film I needed to see was The Graduate. The film was released just before Christmas of 1967; my memory is that by the following summer, a lot of people had seen and were quoting it, and Mrs. Robinson was still being played on the radio a lot.

As I'm now firmly in the older generation, I viewed this film quite differently than I might have 40+ years ago. What I first noticed was how one-dimensional all the over-30 characters were, even the famed Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft. I don't think it was Bancroft's fault, it was what she was given to work with by the screenwriters and, originally, the novelist Charles Webb. (The novel is said to be autobiographical at least in part.) While I didn't live in Pasadena, I knew a lot of my friends' parents of the age and class of the Braddocks and Robinsons and their neighbors. While they had their flaws and foibles, none were as uniformly awful as the film's characters. Yet, would I have seen these characters as realistic portrayals when I was 19 or 20? Perhaps.

On thing I can't fault is Dustin Hoffman's playing of Benjamin Braddock. (It's rather amazing that Hoffman was already 30 when he did this role.) Braddock is a young man who has, up till now, done everything perfectly -- he probably skipped a grade in school, and has won prizes for academics, athletics, and extra-curricular activities. He speaks politely to his elders and puts on a coat and tie to go anywhere but the backyard pool. For most of the film, he is more like a member of the "Silent Generation" of the 50s than of his own. In short, he's a young man who does what he's told by his elders -- even when the elder is seducing him. Hoffman portrays the naïveté and confusion of the character so perfectly that it's hard to believe this was his first major film role.

One would get very little idea of campus or off-campus life in 1967 from this film. The only mention of student protests comes when Buck Henry (one of the screenwriters, also playing the room clerk in Hoffman's Berkeley rooming house) says, "You're not one of those outside agitators, are you? I hate them!" Ben is worried about his future, but apparently not about the draft, and I've already mentioned his (and Katherine Ross's) clothing and general demeanor. It's all a lot more believable if one takes it as being set in 1963, when Webb's novel came out. And yet, the film became part of the consciousness of a generation, even of those who never saw it.

Partly, of course, that's down to the soundtrack, which makes use of three songs by Simon & Garfunkel. Two of the songs, Sounds of Silence and Scarborough Fair (Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme) were already well known to most young people. My roommate brought the album to our freshman year in college and it could probably have been heard on any dorm floor in any college sometime in the '66-'67 school year. Mrs. Robinson evidently was suggested by the film, though I've always felt the lyrics were evidence that Paul Simon felt Mrs. Robinson belonged in an institution (and I wouldn't disagree).

I had a hard time completely believing in the romance between Ben Braddock and Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross). The ups and downs and ups seemed to come too fast -- although, in true California fashion, visual signifiers of the passage of time are absent from this film. How long did Ben's affair with Mrs. Robinson last, anyway -- days, weeks, months? The other odd thing about the characters of Ben and Elaine is their friendlessness. At an age when most young people are still traveling in packs, regardless of romantic attachments, Ben has no other young people to hang out with; it appears that all the guests at his graduation party are his parents' age. Elaine seems similarly alone. All the other young people we see -- Carl Smith, Elaine's "other" fiancé, his fraternity brothers, and the other residents of Ben's Berkeley rooming house -- are simply fresher-faced versions of the elder Braddocks and Robinsons and just as unsympathetic, leaving Ben and Elaine alone against the world. And that's what makes it so ominous when the final scene, which "should" be happy as Ben and Elaine escape her wedding on a city bus, is once again scored with Sounds of Silence, and the pair stare straight ahead instead of gazing at each other.

In summary, I still have my doubts about the story line and several aspects of the plot. I realize I've hardly even mentioned Anne Bancroft, and that's probably because she played her part as the despicable Mrs. Robinson so well. Her, and Hoffman's, acting, and the direction of Mike Nichols (who, as part of Nichols and May, got his start with 50s neurotics, after all) redeemed a story that, closely examined, doesn't really hold up. I would recommend you see this movie if you haven't, and perhaps if you haven't seen it for 40 years you should take another look.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Proposal (2009)

The Proposal (2009) didn't get stellar reviews, but I enjoyed it, as did both my companions. The plot ideas have surely been used before: marriage of convenience to get a green card (Green Card (1990)), antagonistic couple grow to love each other, hard-charging female boss is mellowed by love, etc. etc. etc. But anyone who looks for a completely new plot in a romantic comedy is delusional anyway. The charm of Ryan Reynolds, Sandra Bullock's individuality, and Betty White's terrific performance as Reynolds's grandmother all combine to lift this a bit above some other romcoms I've seen. And the gorgeous Alaskan scenery is almost a character in its own right. It was an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon with some of my loved ones.

UP (2009)

Yes folks, I actually saw two movies in a movie theater while on a trip to Minneapolis. Sisterfilms makes sure I'm not completely living in the past as far as films go, on the all-too-rare occasions that we're together.

UP (2009) was a charming and heartwarming movie that was also a Ripping Yarn. I normally steer clear of animated films of any kind, but I do occasionally enjoy them when pressed by Sisterfilms. She assured me that I would prefer computer animation to cartoons and I really did enjoy the animation and colors (we did NOT see the 3-D version, which was just as well given the numerous scenes of people dangling from great heights!) It's really an animated feature for adults, with themes of youthful dreams, what life does to them, and fulfilling those dreams in a different way in old age. Older children might enjoy it. Younger kids would, in most cases, be problematic especially during the opening section where there is a montage of dialogue-free scenes that older people would understand instantly, but little kids might need explained -- better to wait for the DVD if you can't get out of the house without the 8 and under set, in my opinion. By the way, anyone who has a dog or knows dogs will laugh a lot. I'd like to watch this film again sometime to see how many more cultural references I can identify -- we spotted a visual quote from The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton and also the iconic picture of dogs playing poker. I suspect there were quite a few more; it's that kind of movie. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Watching Instantly: Neverwhere (1996)

I've been enjoying Netflix's "Watch Instantly" feature. (I'd enjoy it even more if I had a bigger monitor or had the computer hooked up to the television, but that's money I don't want to spend.) Recently they notified me that Neverwhere (1996), which was in my queue, was now available to watch instantly. When I found that each episode was under half an hour, I started watching them daily. It seems very seldom that one finds a half-hour dramatic program these days.
(Something about commercials, I guess, but Neverwhere came from the BBC.)

Co-creator Neil Gaiman knows his mythology, folklore and history, and mixes them expertly in this all-too-short miniseries. Neverwhere, like many of the best fantasies and indeed thrillers of any genre, takes an ordinary person and drops him into the middle of a dangerous situation, where he must quickly learn the rules or be annihilated. In this case, Richard Mayhew (Gary Bakewell) stumbles on an injured young woman on a London street. When she refuses medical help, he takes her to his flat and is thereby drawn into the drama of London Below -- a sort of parallel London where time and space are utterly changed, rival baronies and fiefdoms make life very dangerous, people have special powers, and the names of London places like Earl's Court and Blackfriars are interpreted literally. Richard and The Lady Door (Laura Fraser) must stay alive and avenge the deaths of her family while pursued by the horrifying Mr. Croup and Mr. Vanderbar. Can they trust the Marquis of Carabas, the Angel Islington, the bodyguard Hunter? Only time and experience will tell.

The episodes are visually beautiful, with some scenes and backgrounds reminding me of the collages in Somerset Studio. Special effects are very good also and the performances of all the actors are excellent. I especially liked seeing Trevor Peacock (the "No, no, no, no, no, yes" guy from Vicar of Dibley) as an aged Papageno-like character who plays a small but important part.

The ending leaves a possibility of a sequel, but one has never been made, alas. Still, I would recommend this six-part series to anyone who enjoys Gaiman's brand of fantasy.

Hope Springs (2003)

The only reason to seek out Hope Springs (2003) would be to have a complete Colin Firth film festival. Or, perhaps, if you wanted to induce nightmares with the truly scary Minnie Driver. It's a romantic comedy that's not very funny, except for some little bits by Mary Steenburgen as the transplanted New Yorker innkeeper who's besotted with her homely husband. The romance is not very believable either.

Colin Firth plays a British artist who's been dumped by his fiance -- he's received an invitation to her wedding to another man. He flies to Boston and in the airport corridor sees a poster for a town called Hope, so of course he takes a very long bus trip to get there. (Since Hope appears to be in either Vermont, New Hampshire or western Maine, this is pretty silly; the bus trip wouldn't be that long.) The locals are nosy busybodies and the innkeeper sends nurse Heather Graham to help him heal from his romantic disappointment. They fall in love in a jerky series of vignettes of such activities as dancing with the old people at the nursing home where she works. Then the old fiance, Minnie Driver, appears, having tracked Colin down, and tells him it was all a joke, the invitation was a fake, just to get him to set a date. Oh, I could go on and on, but the plot just gets sillier.

Sometimes a film like this is slightly redeemed by the scenery. The scenes of (let's call it Vermont) were pretty, but the mythical town of Hope must rejoice in the longest peak foliage season anywhere. When Firth arrives in town, beautiful autumn leaves are swirling around; all through the romance, they continue; and at the end of the film, although enough events have taken place to take up several months, the bright autumn leaves are still on the trees. It just doesn't work that way in real life.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Kinky Boots (2005)

Although Kinky Boots was made in 2005, it's a great movie for the current recession. When Charlie Price (Joel Edgerton) inherits the family shoe business in Northampton, England, he soon discovers that his father has gone on producing shoes for which there are no buyers. While he is sadly laying people off (making them redundant, in the British phrase), one young employee, Lauren (Sarah-Jane Potts) urges him to reinvent the product -- instead of making traditional men's shoes, find a niche market and make something new. Charlie returns to London, where he and fiancee Nicola have gone to pursue her career, and encounters Lola/Simon, a drag queen performer (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who once trained as a heavyweight boxer and understandably has trouble finding suitable shoes. Through various ups and downs Charlie, Lola/Simon, Lauren and the factory workers struggle to get a line of sexy shoes ready for the big shoe fair in Milan, while Nicola (Jemima Rooper) wants Charlie to sell the plant to a real estate developer. At the last minute, things start to go pear-shaped, but in the end everyone learns something and there's a fantastic runway scene.

The film is based on a true story and was filmed in a real Northampton shoe factory. Beyond the theme of workers and boss working together to save jobs, there's a further important question asked and answered: What does it mean to be a man? Charlie, Lola/Simon, and factory worker Don (Nick Frost) all find their own surprising answers to that question. This is a feel-good movie with fine performances, especially by Ejiofor. Although I had seen him in Amistad (1997) and Love, Actually ( 2003 ), I didn't recognize him and assumed that, like Lady Chablis in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, he really was a drag queen. He is amazingly believable and I'd go see Lola's show any time!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

It seems to me we've heard a lot of references to this film in the last year or so (which is odd in its way, as Wikipedia says Frank Capra was a Republican). The restrained and pragmatic Barack Obama is no Jefferson Smith, but he does have some of that bashful innocence that characterized the young Jimmy Stewart, and he speaks with equal passion about American ideals. So, I thought it was time for me to sit down and actually watch this movie all the way through.

From the very opening of the film, we see what Smith (played by James Stewart) will be up against. A Senator has died, and his colleagues and those behind them spare barely a second to remember his passing before they're plotting to replace him with another machine stooge. The governor of this Western state is caught between opposing camps. The machine has essentially ordered him to appoint a Mr. Miller, but the citizens' committees -- who represent a lot of voters -- shout down that idea and propose Mr. Hill. Even at home, the Governor (Guy Kibbee) gets no peace -- his large family of boys urges him to choose a third, surprise candidate -- Jefferson Smith. Smith is leader of a boys' club called the Boy Rangers, and is something of a hero already for his bravery in fighting a forest fire. The Governor realizes that this is a way for him to wiggle out of his dilemma, and persuades the machine bosses that they will be able to manipulate Smith to do as they wish, particularly in the matter of a certain dam.

Arriving in Washington, Smith eludes his handlers to go on a sightseeing bus tour of the great monuments of freedom. He is re-inspired by them and shows up at his office hours late, but full of enthusiasm to take his part in government.

At his Senate office, Smith meets Clarissa Saunders (Jean Arthur), the smart, cynical secretary left over from his predecessor's office. She and her friend Diz, a drunken and equally cynical reporter, at first don't know what to make of Smith, but soon begin to be won over.

Smith's one big idea, the one thing he wants to accomplish, is to found a national boys' camp in his home state -- sort of a cross between the Fresh Air Fund and the Boy Scout Camporee. Saunders agrees to help him draft the bill (after giving an explanation of how a bill moves through Congress that should be required viewing for all civics students) and as they work through the night on the bill, we can already see that she's falling for him. But when she hears where he wants to site the camp, she realizes that it's the same place where the machine wants to put a dam -- an unnecessary dam that's really a moneymaking opportunity for the corrupt group. But she doesn't dare to, or can't bear to, tell him about it, and the machine makes sure that he will be out of the chambers when the bill that includes the new dam is read.

When Smith finally learns what his colleague and the machine are planning, and refuses to go along, the other Senator (Paine), played by Claude Rains and pushed by corrupt and powerful newspaper magnate Edward Arnold as "James Taylor," starts a smear campaign against Smith, using forged documents to accuse him of exactly what Paine and Taylor have really been doing -- buying up land around the dam site in order to sell it to the government at an inflated price. We quickly see that there are no lengths to which they will not go to discredit Smith. Smith, desperate and in danger of losing his seat, begins a filibuster to get his story out, during which he reads the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and First Corinthians. But the machine is so powerful that all seems lost and we see James Stewart portray an agonized Smith, foreshadowing his performance in It's a Wonderful Life. Paine (Rains), who has known all along that he's been doing wrong, finally cracks and admits the truth, saving Smith's seat and dashing his own Presidential hopes. (No political parties are mentioned in the film, just that there are two of them. It's evident that Capra wasn't expecting FDR to run for a third term the following year!)

I was struck by a connection between this film and Dashiell Hammett's book, Red Harvest. Personville or "Poisonville," the setting of Red Harvest, is widely assumed to be based on Butte, Montana, and the unnamed Western state from which Mr. Smith goes to Washington sounds a lot like Montana, as Smith lyrically describes it to Saunders. The thugs in Poisonville, although in Hammett's book their violence is deflected toward each other, are in their origins similar to those who work for Taylor and Paine in Mr. Smith. The film is often used as shorthand for the idea that Washington, D.C. is the seat of corruption, but its real message is that corruption at home comes first, and leads to and feeds corruption in Washington. Unlike Red Harvest, though, in which the Continental Op who came to clean up Poisonville finds himself being sucked into the culture of senseless violence, Mr. Smith is meant to leave us feeling hopeful that one man or one woman can make a difference if he or she acts with integrity.

The settings are, of course, contemporary to the film as are the costumes -- the one thing I noticed about costume was the contrast between Smith's rough tweed suit and the dark pinstripes affected by the denizens of the District of Columbia. Dimitri Tiomkin's music, melding well-known patriotic songs with Western-themed folk songs, underscores the essential Americanness of the film.

One wouldn't need cues from costumes and old cars to tell the film was made in 1939. The treatment of women and African-Americans would be the tipoff, especially of Jean Arthur's character, Clarissa Saunders. The constant reiteration of the words "man" and "men" reminds us that the U.S. Senate was an almost exclusive gentleman's club for many years. (In fact, though, there were two women serving in the Senate in 1939 -- Hattie Caraway of Arkansas and Gladys Pyle of South Dakota. Caraway had been appointed several years earlier when her husband died in office, but surprised everyone by running for and winning election on her own when her "place-holding" term was up. South Dakota's law called for an election to fill Senate vacancy and Pyle was elected to fill out the term of a deceased Senator, but did not run again when her term was up. I did not see any evidence of these two ladies in the film.)

As they get to know each other while working on the bill, Jeff Smith hears the story of Saunders' life and career and says something like "You've done really well for a woman." And she doesn't slap him! As for the African-Americans who were and are a large presence in Washington, the largest group of them we see are porters in the train station; there are only a few tokens elsewhere in the film.

Frank Capra is known for two types of movie: the screwball comedy like It Happened One Night, and the inspirational, humanitarian films like Mr. Smith, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and It's a Wonderful Life. (He also made two films I remember fondly from my school days: Hemo the Magnificent and Prelude to War.) It's a sad commentary on what has become of the GOP that I was surprised to learn he was a Republican.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Wrong Box (1966)

If you like comedy movies, you might well enjoy Jeff Cohen's mystery stories detailing the adventures of Elliott Freed, who runs a comedy-only theater in New Jersey. On his website, Jeff highlights a Movie of the Week each Wednesday, always a comedy of some sort. Recently, he mentioned The Wrong Box (1966). Since there were only about 2 months during 1966 when I was able easily to go to the movies (country life, followed by collegiate poverty), I somehow had missed this one, but when I heard that Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were in it I had to see it. I've enjoyed their work ever since my sophomore social studies class went to New York to see Beyond the Fringe, the revue they created with Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller.

Netflix didn't have it! I had to do some online shopping and buy a used VHS tape -- $12.98 including postage, and I have an almost inflexible rule against buying DVDs and videos. But sometimes I break it, and I was reasonably happy to have done so this time. This was not the funniest movie I've ever seen (that honor still goes to another Cook/Moore vehicle, the original Bedazzled (1967)).
But it was plenty funny.

It's based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, which you can read here. But with no disrespect to the immortal RLS, the movie is better. Screenwriters Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, who had just done A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (Gelbart would go on to write the TV series M.A.S.H., among other things), took some of the plot elements, some of the characters, and then gave them a much funnier twist. The story starts with two brothers (played by theatrical dynasts John Mills and Ralph Richardson) who are the last survivors of a schoolboy tontine. Richardson's wicked nephews (played by Cook and Moore) are very solicitous of him since they are itching to get their hands on the lolly. Meanwhile, Mills, his grandson, a hopelessly good and naive medical student (a very young Michael Caine) and their aged butler live in poverty, selling off the furniture to keep body and soul together. Caine is in love with his uncle's ward (Nanette Newman, a very lovely young woman now apparently best known in the UK for advertising dishwashing liquid) -- the brothers live next door to each other, which facilitates the farcical aspects of the comedy. A train wreck, a case of mistaken identity, and deliveries of "the wrong box" all combine for a lot of laughs. One of my favorite scenes was when Mills receives a visit from his long-estranged brother, Richardson, who believes him to be on his deathbed; Mills attempts to kill Richardson and much slapstick ensues. Peter Cook excelled at playing the plausible rogue, and Dudley Moore was a great foil for him; he wasn't a stupid man, but he could play one. Peter Sellers, whom I almost didn't recognize, had a part as a "venal physician" (one of the direct quotes from the original story).

The setting in London, circa 1900, is well-done with lots of details, and the production designers (I imagine) added a campy atmosphere by inserting Peter Max-style silent film titles such as "The Girl He Worships From Afar" and "The Wrong Box" every now and then.

Too much analysis isn't good for comedy, so you should take a look at this one yourself. It should be available in older video rental stores, public libraries, and the used video market; also I'm told that it appears on TCM with some frequency.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

W (2008)

W (2008) is the first Oliver Stone film I've ever seen (really!), so I don't really have any thoughts on him as a director. I know he's also done films on Nixon and JFK and now I'd like to see them as well. As nearly everyone knows, W is a fictionalized biography of George W. Bush, also known as "Bush 43."

Onkel Hankie Pants recently blogged on "profound empathy." I have to admit that for the past 8 years or so I haven't felt much of that for Mr. Bush, but I'm certainly closer to it after seeing this film. How historically true it is I don't know (and maybe few of us will until many years from now), but Stone seems to see Bush as President as someone who is more sinned against than sinning, someone who thinks he's "The Decider," but in reality is being manipulated by Rove and Cheney and who has important things kept from him.

One of the challenges in making a biopic is finding actors who look enough like their real-life counterparts to be believable, but can also act well enough to be the characters. W was very well-cast in that respect. Josh Brolin, whom I last saw in No Country for Old Men, doesn't really look like George W. Bush, but it was possible to see him as Bush given his speech and body language. When Richard Dreyfuss first appeared in the film as Dick Cheney, sidling into a meeting and standing near the door, I actually thought Stone had inveigled the former VP into playing himself. Other performances were also excellent.

I wasn't totally convinced of the efficacy of the dream sequences Stone has larded through the film. Most show Bush in an empty baseball stadium -- at least the stands are empty, but crowd sounds abound -- or in confrontation with his father. I suppose they serve to set this film apart from the sort of thing one might see on the History Channel.

The changeability of Bush as a person is shown through his many names -- he's variously addressed (unless he's being called Mr. President) as Junior, W, George, Bushie, and Geo (like the small car), and those are just the ones I remember.

One of the pivotal scenes is the one in which W announces to his pastor, Earle Hudd, that he has gotten a call from God to run for President. Based on subsequent events, I think a lot of people would say that neither Bush nor his pastor examined sufficiently whether that call was from God or some other source.

I did think this film was well worth watching and will be useful in future for people seeking to understand the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Getting Married in Buffalo Jump (1990)

OK, so I'm having my own ongoing Paul Gross festival ever since I watched him in the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows. (If you haven't seen that, stop reading and go watch it.) I'm waiting impatiently for his latest work, Passchendaele, to come to Netflix. Meanwhile, I've got Due South and most recently, this made-for-Canadian-TV movie, which I found quite charming.

Wendy Crewson plays Sophie, an Alberta ranch girl who's been singing in Toronto. When her father dies, leaving her the ranch, her mother wants her to sell up, take the money, and run back to Toronto to catch a "university man." But Sophie is tired of singing in smoky lounges and not enthralled with the men she's met, so she decides to stay and run the ranch. Paul Gross plays the ranch hand, Alex/Sasha, son of Ukrainian immigrants, whom she hires to help with the work. Alex eventually has a proposition/proposal for Sophie. She needs a ranch hand, he needs a ranch, and by his reckoning, they each (approaching 30) need a spouse. So they should get married. Of course, the relationship encounters a good many obstacles on the way to a happy ending. Wonderful scenery, fine performances by the whole cast, and a real sense of place add to this charming movie, as does the great soundtrack with k.d. lang and others. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

As usual, I'm about 4 years late in seeing the Oscar-winning (3 wins out of 8 nominations) film Brokeback Mountain (2005), which was based on a short story by Annie Proulx. As I prefer, I saw the film first, then read the story, courtesy of my Christmas present from Onkel Hankie Pants a few years back -- the complete New Yorker on DVD. (Interviews with director Ang Lee, screenwriter Larry McMurtry, and actor Randy Quaid all mentioned that they had read the story in The New Yorker.)

By now everyone knows that Brokeback Mountain is the story of two young cowboys-turned-sheepherders who fall into a homosexual love affair during a summer on Brokeback Mountain in Wyoming. It's the early 60s when the affair begins, and the two can't admit they're "queer" even to themselves or each other; they know that discovery could mean real physical danger or even death. Their summer of passion over, they go their separate ways. Heath Ledger's character, Ennis, marries and has two children, and he and his wife live a hand-to-mouth existence in small Wyoming ranching towns. Jake Gyllenhaal (Jack) goes on the rodeo circuit and ends up in Texas, where he marries a rich man's daughter and lives his own life of quiet desperation, with occasional forays to Mexico in search of male prostitutes. After several years, Jack and Ennis get back together for a "fishing trip" and continue to meet once or twice a year. It's all that keeps either of them going. Ennis's wife confirms what she has long suspected about him, divorces and marries the local grocer. It all ends tragically. These guys can't just decide to move to San Francisco or New York, although that would have been a possibility by the end of the film. Their tragedy is almost as much about their social class, their rural upbringing, their lack of education, and their inability to imagine another kind of life, as it is about their sexuality. It's their class and economic issues that place Jack in position to be killed.

Reading the short story, I was struck by the film's faithfulness to it. The screenwriters (McMurtry and his writing partner Diana Ossana) used many lines of dialogue straight out of Proulx's story. The scenery in the mountains (albeit I understand the filming was in Alberta, not Wyoming) is filmed in a way that makes it a visual representation of Proulx's lyrical description of the land. Although Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal were much better-looking than the young men described in Proulx's story, they were otherwise quite believable, and the other characters were also well-acted. The passage of time is shown through costumes, props and sets, and I couldn't fault any of it. I'm glad I finally got around to seeing the film and reading the story.

Tracy and Hepburn: Pat and Mike and Adam's Rib

I watched these two Tracy and Hepburn movies in quick succession. Both were directed by George Cukor and written by the team of Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, but their effects on me were different.

Pat and Mike (1952) is the story of Pat, a college physical education teacher (Katharine Hepburn), engaged to a handsome but domineering college administrator (William Ching -- a familiar face who made guest appearances on numerous 50s and 60s TV shows). She's a great athlete unless her fiance is watching, which should tell her something. It's a little hard to believe in this romance from the start, as Hepburn is such a breezy free spirit and Ching plays such a stuffed shirt.

In a moment of discontent, Pat meets Mike (Spencer Tracy), a not-entirely-honest sports promoter, and agrees to join his stable of athletes, which includes a boxer and a horse. Mike puts Pat on a rigorous training regimen and they travel to golf and tennis tournaments around the country, which she wins handily unless the fiance shows up. (Pat is portrayed as a sort of Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a natural multi-sport athlete; Zaharias, as well as other contemporary sports figures like Don Budge and Gussie "Lace Panties" Moran, make cameo appearances in the film.) Before long, Pat and Mike find themselves falling in love, not least because Mike's idea of the ideal man-woman relationship is, as he states, "5-0-5-0" -- fifty-fifty, on terms of equality. The relationship changes both Pat and Mike for the better. Aldo Ray adds comic relief as a not-too-bright boxer who is also managed by Tracy and is a little jealous of his interest in Hepburn. I'd recommend this one very highly.

Adam's Rib (1949) finds Tracy and Hepburn in a somewhat higher class of society -- he's an assistant DA in Manhattan and she's a lawyer in private practice. They have an apartment with a housekeeper in Manhattan as well as a farm in Connecticut of which much is made -- to the point of showing "home movies" to their dinner guests. All is going well until Judy Holliday shoots at and wounds her errant husband, Tom Ewell. Adam (Tracy) is assigned to prosecute the case, but Amanda (Hepburn) goes in for the defense because she doesn't think a man in a similar case would even be charged, and that women generally don't get a fair shake in the court system. In the course of the preparation and trial, we learn that Ewell's character was in the habit of beating his wife, but not very much is made of this, which is disturbing to modern sensibilities. The film foreshadows contemporary issues such as feminism, battered-woman syndrome, and "identity politics". Back in 1949, though, the trial and the disagreements between the two attorneys almost break up their marriage, until Tracy cleverly shows Hepburn the error of her ways by what I consider a dirty trick.

Adam's Rib is by turns funny, romantic, dramatic and sentimental. I can't say I didn't like it -- it's Tracy and Hepburn, what's not to like? But the issues raised and the way they were resolved left me with an icky feeling. In Pat and Mike, Tracy's character changes -- he sees (without her having to tell him) that he can't be with Hepburn unless he's willing to operate on the level, and he's willing to make that change for her, whatever it costs him. Hepburn in Pat and Mike becomes more herself, not less, through her relationship with Tracy. In Adam's Rib, Spencer Tracy's character just has to be right -- he can't really acknowledge any legitimacy to Hepburn's viewpoint, and is only happy when he gets her to accept that he's been right all along. It seems to me that both characters are diminished thereby, and that diminishes the movie for me.

Two Documentaries

I enjoy documentaries, and more of them seem to get made than are readily available in "a theater near you." (True confession time, though: I currently live within walking distance of two theaters that show documentaries fairly regularly.) Still, there are a lot to catch up on so I frequently browse the Documentaries category on Netflix; here are two recent viewings.

The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack : Aiyana Elliott, the filmmaker, is the daughter of Ramblin' Jack Elliott, the legendary and self-invented folksinger, and one of his several ex-wives. Jack wasn't around much while Aiyana was growing up, and the viewer can see that she harbors some hurt and resentment about that. She also has a strong desire to figure out who her father really is, what makes him tick. So this film is both a biography of Ramblin' Jack Elliott and an exploration of the father-daughter relationship, given a largely absent father.

Elliott Adnopoz was born and raised in Brooklyn, son of a Jewish doctor and his wife. He has one brother, and they frequently visited their grandparents' farm in Connecticut. Interviews with the brother and a surviving aunt elicit such comments as (paraphrasing here): "I don't remember much joy or laughter at home" and "She (Elliott's mother) was mean and nasty. Nobody liked her." (This from her own sister, I believe!) It doesn't surprise us, then, that young Elliott Adnopoz ran away from home at age 16 to join a rodeo, where he became Jack Elliott, nor that he has had trouble with responsibility and forming lasting attachments throughout his life. It does seem to me that the senior Adnopozes may not have been as bad as all that -- they do scour the East Coast for him, offering a reward, when he runs away, and indeed he did come back to finish high school with no apparent punishment; and later when he is performing in England there are mentions of his parents being in the audience. They were probably still trying to understand him.

The story of how Elliott Adnopoz became Ramblin' Jack Elliott is not the story of a fake. Obviously, he really is a fine musician who learned from the best, starting with listening to the Grand Ol' Op'ry late at night as a teenager, to hanging out with the giants of American folk music and learning all he could from them. He has also done a lot of the hard, dirty jobs that many only sing about, from rodeo groom to deckhand to truckdriver and more. It's hard not to like him, and even his ex-wives don't really have anything bad to say about him. The film is a great look back at the Folk Revival of the 1950s and '60s -- it's hard not to sing along throughout. It's a little less successful at Aiyana's apparent attempt to understand her father. Portions of the film show them together in an RV traveling from gig to gig, and Aiyana keeps trying to get her dad to have some kind of deep, meaningful talk -- which never happens, and Jack doesn't seem to have a clue what it is she wants. I think in the end she realizes that he is what he is, was, and will be, and that's all, and perhaps has some peace with that. I'd definitely recommend this film, though.

Another documentary, which I watched "instantly" on my computer, is OT: Our Town. Remember the theme I mentioned a few posts back, of working class people and fulfillment through art? There's a whole subgenre of documentary films with a similar theme -- in which a teacher or volunteer introduces a marginalized group (students, prisoners, mental patients) to great art through having them perform it. I never seem to tire of these stories and I liked OT: Our Town very much. It's also only about 90 minutes long, a plus when watching on the computer.

The film was shot at Dominguez High School in Compton, California. Compton is known as the home of the gangsta-rap group NWA, and Dominguez is a troubled high school which appears to be all black and Hispanic students and whose one bright spot was its winning basketball team. It appears that a disproportionate amount of the school's resources, both financial and intangible, go to the basketball team. (Teams? I didn't see any girls' basketball in the film.) The kids who aren't on the team seem to feel a lack of pride in their school, their neighborhood, and themselves. Into this scene come two teachers who decide that Dominguez will have its first school play in over 20 years, and that the play will be Thornton Wilder's Our Town. At first the kids, though excited about the idea of performing, are dubious about the play. First produced in 1938, set in a small all-white town in New Hampshire in the pre-World War I era, what relevance can it have to their lives in 21st-century Compton? You can tell that the cast members are bright and articulate, and at least some of them come from fairly stable homes, but they also don't think of themselves as successful people, and this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have difficulty learning their lines, showing up for rehearsal, and so on, and often get discouraged. At times the teachers, too, are nearly ready to give up. Up until the last minute they don't even have a stage to practice or perform on. (When one of the filmmakers suggests using the gym, the student response makes clear that that's ground sacred to the basketball coach and his team and not for ordinary mortals.)

The film shows us the cast members at home as well as at school and rehearsals. Some of the casting is almost too good, as with the boy who plays Simon Stimson (the town drunk/organist/choir director who hangs himself in the play), and who himself has attempted suicide and has experienced several suicides among his close friends. Then again, these are still teenagers and the giggles and embarrassment when the actors playing George Gibbs and Emily Webb have to kiss are the same reactions you'll see in high school theatres across America.

For those who may not be familiar with the play, the director has interspersed cuts from the 1977 television production of Our Town, starring Hal Holbrook as the Stage Manager. These scenes are in black and white (consciously archaic at the time), whereas the present-day California high school is rife with color and pattern both on and off "stage." To increase the students' sense of the play's relevance to their own lives, the teachers suggest that the kids incorporate elements of ethnic dress into their costumes. The most stunning of these is the highly decorated Mexican wedding suit -- his father's -- worn by the boy playing George Gibbs. By the time they have their sold-out performance, the cast members have internalized the lessons of Wilder's play and "Our Town" is Compton as well as Grover's Corners.

At the end of such films, there's often a set of words on the screen updating us on what happened to the participants later on. In OT: Our Town, we are told only that another play was produced the following year, and that "there hasn't been a riot at Dominguez High in two years." I'd have liked some more follow-up, but I'd still recommend the film.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Watched at the beach: Babette's Feast (1987)

Normally, when I go to the beach in South Carolina to spend time with my oldest friends, we spend most of our time catching up with each other and our reading. This year, though, enticed by a new DVD player, we did watch one film, Babette's Feast (1987). Like any self-respecting Danish-American-by-marriage, I'd already seen this several years ago, but was willing to watch again.

The film introduces two elderly sisters, daughters of a country pastor who appears to have formed his own denomination or at any rate branch of Lutheranism. Even after his death, his congregation continues to meet, more or less led by the daughters. Although, as it's the 1880s, they aren't considered pastors, they appear to function as such. The group's theology may at first seem Puritanical and pietistic, closer to the Indre Mission or 'holy Danes' than to the Grundtvigian or 'happy Danes' with whom I'm more familiar. However, as I thought about it and discussed it with Onkel Hankie Pants, we agreed that some of what seems Puritanical was simply extreme poverty. The importance of loving and forgiving each other is stressed more than once in scenes involving the congregation, and the singing of hymns is a major feature of their simple home worship.

In the early part of the film we are told that the sisters have a French cook, and then we see flashbacks that explain how this happened. Both sisters had suitors in their youth -- one was courted by a young military officer whose aunt is a member of the congregation; the other, a talented singer, by a French opera star who came to their seaside village to recuperate and ended up giving her voice lessons. The military officer finds the lure of a court position too tempting and departs; the opera singer is rebuffed when his pupil sees that his ambitions for her would mean she'd be choosing worldly success over the life of service her father has modeled. Years later, the opera singer sends them Babette, a refugee from the Franco-Prussian War, and begs that they will take her on as a cook and general factotum, which they do. Babette is alarmed by having to learn how to cook salt codfish and Øllebrød (a soup of stale bread and ale), but her cooking and bargaining skills do make an improvement in the sisters' standard of living.

The climax of the film occurs when the sisters plan an anniversary dinner in honor of their late father's 100th birthday. Babette, who has just won 10,000 francs in the French lottery, asks to be allowed to prepare the meal. She sends back to France for ingredients and wines, and pays for it all herself. Only at the end do we realize that, like the widow who gave her mite (Luke 20:45-47, 21:1-4) or the woman who anointed Jesus' feet (Luke 7:36-50), Babette has given all she had for the love of the people of the community.

There are many more aspects of this film, based on a story by Isak Dinesen, which could be discussed; but since I have several more films to review, I'll leave you with this and a recommendation to watch or re-watch this fine film.

Funny Face (1957)

Funny Face (1957) is one of those movie musicals that recycled a bunch of George and Ira Gershwin songs from various shows, adding a few written for the movie by other songwriters. Fred Astaire plays a Richard Avedon-like fashion photographer and Audrey Hepburn is the shy bookstore clerk and philosophy student whom Astaire "discovers," proposes as the new fashion icon for his magazine employers, and then falls in love with, of course in Paris. Neither the fashion world nor the existential discussions in Left Bank cafes are taken too seriously in this enjoyable movie. Great dancing, of course, and Parisian scenery as well. The most serious plot hole is -- how could anyone fail to recognize Audrey Hepburn's beauty for even a moment, no matter how dowdily she is dressed? An intriguing plus is Kay Thompson's rare on-screen appearance as the magazine editor -- you probably know her better as the author of the Eloise books. Funny Face is a fine light entertainment with good music and a gentle message about looking beyond externals.

Catching Up, Part I: Due South, Season 3, Disc 1 (1997-98)

I really ought not watch any more movies until I catch up on my reviewing, so here goes.

I try to keep a balance in my Netflix queue among classic films, newer films I've missed, and television episodes. The TV shows are the most difficult in some ways because DVD producers vary so much in how many episodes are on a disc. Some companies will put only one or two episodes on a DVD, whereas others will cram in as many as possible. The people who make DVDs of Due South are the latter variety, with 5-7 episodes per disc, so it takes a while to get through one.

Season 3, Disc 1 finds Constable Benton Fraser (Paul Gross) in a very puzzling situation. He returns from a trip to find his partner, Ray Vecchio (David Marciano) gone, and in his place a completely different person who says he's Ray Vecchio. What's worse, everyone in the station, even Ray's sister Francesca, who's now a civilian aide, agrees that the sloppy-dressing, blondish-crewcut cop (played by Callum Keith Rennie) is indeed Ray Vecchio. Like Fraser, I had a hard time warming up to the "new" Ray at first. But after watching several episodes (and having the mystery explained), I'm enjoying the new character and Rennie's performance, though I still miss David Marciano. Otherwise, it's the mixture as before, with gentle fun poked at Fraser's Dudley Do-Right persona and plenty of Ripping Yarn-style stunt work. Gordon Pinsent as the ghost of Fraser's father appears more and more often and I wonder if he was the genesis of the ghost character in Slings and Arrows, Gross's more recent ( and well worth watching) series.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Blow Dry (2001)

Last night I had planned to watch Juno, the movie written by a former reporter for the Minneapolis weekly City Pages. It was my third try at this movie -- I'd already sent back one unplayable disc, had encountered problems with the replacement as well, but thought I'd clean the DVD and give it one more try. No soap! Not even lens cleaner could help the badly scratched disc, so I gave up and used the Watch Instantly feature on Netflix. Coincidentally, I chose another movie with Minneapolis connections, Blow Dry (2001). Although I didn't realize it until I started watching, the juvenile leads in Blow Dry both attended some of the same schools in Minneapolis that my kids did. Josh Hartnett was a couple of years ahead of Cordeliaknits at South High School, and Rachael Leigh Cook was a classmate of hers at Clara Barton Open School (K-8).

I didn't choose the film for these connections, but for the theme and one of the stars -- Alan Rickman, who's definitely on my Top Ten (Male) Actors list. The theme, as I deduced from the synopsis, was one of my favorites -- "depressed/oppressed working class people find fulfillment and self-respect through art." Some other examples of this theme would be The Full Monty, Brassed Off, Greenfingers, and perhaps Billy Elliot. In this case, the art is superfancy, competitive hairdressing.

Briefly, the plot: the British National Hairdressing Championships are to be held in a small Yorkshire city, where this is a really big deal (at least for the Mayor). Ray Robertson (Bill Nighy) is a London stylist who is going for the Triple Crown of hairdressing and will do almost anything to get it. Among the local residents are some old acquaintances and competitors of Ray's: Phil (Alan Rickman), his ex-wife Shelley (Natasha Richardson), and their erstwhile model and now Shelley's partner, Sandy (Rachel Griffiths). They used to be a team, but haven't competed in ten years, since Shelley and Sandy ran away together the night before a big competition. Now, Phil and their son Brian run a simple barbershop, and Shelley and Sandy have a salon, A Cut Above. Brian also moonlights cutting hair at the local funeral parlor. Rachael Leigh Cook comes in as Robertson's daughter Christina, over from the States and reconnecting with her childhood friend Brian.

Shelley and Brian, for reasons of their own, decide to participate in the competition and for much of the film, try to persuade Sandy and Phil to help. Meanwhile, Robertson is trying every underhanded trick he can think of -- but Phil is wise to his ways.

Netflix characterized Blow Dry as a comedy, and there are certainly many comic scenes, primarily involving Cook and Hartnett. But one could also make a case for calling it a drama; don't go in expecting nothing but laughs.

The theme I wasn't expecting to find, based on the brief synopsis provided, was another of my favorites; I might call it "the triumph of the non-traditional family." Through the love of their art, some much-needed honesty, a lot of understanding, and sheer good-heartedness, at the end of the film the characters have formed a family where there wasn't one before. Excellent performances were turned in by all concerned -- I didn't at all connect the character of working-class Shelley with the well-connected, classically-trained Natasha Richardson. And yes, Sisterfilms -- I thought even Josh Hartnett did a good job, and although he mightn't sound Yorkshire to a Yorkshireman, he sounded Yorkshire to me.

I'd recommend this film quite highly. It's rated R, primarily for a couple of brief scenes which might embarrass young teens (or their parents anyway), but there's also a good message about family that could lead to some good parent-child discussions, so parents of middle teens should consider it for a family movie night. The treatment of the lesbian couple is neither prurient nor does it stereotype, and that was another point in Blow Dry's favor.