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.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Once upon a Time in the Midlands

Once upon a Time in the Midlands brings together Robert Carlyle and Shirley Henderson from the Hamish MacBeth TV series in a quirky modern love story set in England (although Carlyle and Henderson maintain their Scots personas). When Jimmy (Carlyle) sees his ex-wife Shirley (Henderson) being proposed to on a national agony-TV show, he begins to feel that perhaps he has made one too many mistakes in his life. Leaving Glasgow and his criminal associates with a wad of ill-gotten gains, he heads for the Midlands to try to win her back and re-establish a relationship with his daughter. Complicating matters, Shirley's best friend Carol is Jimmy's sister. Dek (Rhys Ifans), the new boyfriend, is a solidly lower-middle-class type who owns his own auto-repair shop (The Clutch Hutch), and isn't sure he can compete with the charming though irresponsible Jimmy. All's well that ends well in this slightly odd romantic comedy.

My favorite character in this movie was Charlie, Carol's partner, played by Ricky Tomlinson. He's a very British guy who's in love with all things American, from his left-hand-drive American car to his huge collection of country and western music. In midlife, he has become a country singer himself, and Tomlinson wrote and performs a couple of songs in the film, quite creditably. He adds an extra dimension to the movie.

Catching Up: The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines

A spell of gainful employment and a week at the beach have prevented me from blogging my viewing for a while, so I have about a month's worth of film to catch up on. I've watched some serious films, some classic comedies, and some ripping yarns, so here goes.

The Librarian: Return to King Solomon's Mines is the second in a series of made-for-TV movies starring Noah Wyle of ER fame. They are similar in many ways to the Nicolas Cage National Treasure movies -- ripping yarns all. The premise of the Librarian movies is that on the top floor of the New York Public Library there is a special, nearly inaccessible room with all the legendary treasures of history and myth -- Excalibur, for example. Noah Wyle's character, supposedly a nerdy, mild-mannered librarian with more graduate degrees than anyone should have, is actually the latest in a series of guardians of these treasures, and ends up going on adventures to save the treasures, and the world, from various villains. This type of movie doesn't bear too close examination. One must just suspend disbelief, enjoy the exciting adventures, cheer the hero, hiss the villain, and marvel at the great stunt work and special effects. They're a great way to relax and I'll be watching the third in the series one of these days soon.