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.