Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A Christmas Tale (Un Conte de Noel)

A dysfunctional family Christmas—in French.

At the heart of the family madness is the death of the oldest child, Joseph, as a boy. (This isn’t a spoiler—they tell you in the first few minutes of the film.) The only possible cure for Joseph, who suffered from a blood disease, was a bone marrow transplant. None of the family—his parents, Junon and Abel, or his younger sister, Elizabeth—were a match. So as a last ditch effort, they conceived another child—Henri—in hopes that he would be able to save Joseph. But Henri isn’t a match, either.

The rest of the movie is how that set of circumstances plays out over the years in this sometimes crazy but usually charming family. It all comes to a head at this particular Christmas gathering.

Catherine Deneuve, as the matriarch, Junon, is not to be missed. But honestly, they were all wonderful. This is one I might well have to see again—not only because I enjoyed it so much, but because there’s so much going on, at any given time, that I’m sure there were things I missed. In fact, I think Arnaud Desplechin, the director, wants to leave you with question marks. Not in the sense that you don’t understand the film, but in the sense that all your neurons are firing.

Desplechin is a fan of Truffaut’s idea that four ideas should be introduced in a film every minute. Not necessarily serious ones. But four, none the less. You definitely feel the largesse at the end of this movie. Yeah, I definitely think I need to see it again.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

DVD: “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”

I’m in mourning that I didn’t see this one in the theater. I meant to, but it’s long—over two hours—and it was always a battle between work to be done and babysitter time and an afternoon at the movies. Work won. But I wish, now, that I’d put whatever deadline I was on aside.

It is just gorgeously shot—not in Missouri, where it’s supposed to take place—but in Alberta, Canada. No matter. Beautiful, moody. Great music. Brad Pitt, whom I would love to disdain for being a Hollywood pretty boy (and let’s face it, he is), is fabulous. He’s Jesse James and we know, per the legend, that he’s temperamental, prone to outbursts, and violent—something that, not surprisingly, terrified those around him, even his “friends.” Pitt managed to make me feel as edgy as if I’d been in the room with him, or Jesse, enduring the discomfort. It’s an impressive performance.

There are a couple of small parts for big actors in this film, too. Mary Louse Parker as Z, Jesse’s wife, barely utters a word. Sam Shepard appears briefly as Frank, Jesse’s older brother. Nice performances, both of them. I love it when big actors take small parts—it’s this kind of detail, or rather fine-tuned addressing of the details, that can really elevate a film. A bit part, poorly performed, is like a mosquito buzzing in your ear.

I’m on the fence about Casey Affleck as Robert Ford. He’s so…creepy. I’m guessing that he’s meant to be—shifty-eyed, creaky voiced, fidgety. That this is part of who Ford was, or was supposed to be—an identity-less wannabe who, one way or another, was going to make his name via Jesse James. But he’s so convincingly creepy that I had a hard time watching him.

In fact, early in the movie, Frank James says something to him along the lines of: “I don’t know what it is, but the more you talk the more you give me the creeps.” (Um…yeah! Well said!) Then he aims a gun at him and prods him on his way. It would be a relief, except he doesn’t go away. He keeps creeping along.

This movie gave me a new fascination for Jesse James—a story we all know about, but I’m guessing few of us know in the details. And seeing the dynamic between him and Ford made me think of it as a paradigm for other assassinations, or attempts. I’m thinking particularly of John Hinckley, Jr., who tried to kill Ronald Reagan in order to get Jodi Foster’s attention, and Mark David Chapman, who seemed to both admire and hate John Lennon. What the incidents have in common--people who were angry at their own invisibility, in love and hate with a celebrity for being so…celebrated…and acts of violence that were supposed to re-sort the equation somehow. Oh, and probably some mental illness mixed in there, too.

It didn’t work in Chapman’s or Hinckley’s cases. And it didn’t work for Robert Ford—who, unlike the others, wasn’t charged as a criminal for what he did. It seems people were angry that Ford had the nerve to take down the legend Jesse James in such a mundane manner. And Ford paid an ironic price for it.

Definitely a good rental—but make sure you set aside the time to watch it all the way through. (We didn’t the first time—and ended up watching it again.) It’s moody, and watching it in pieces breaks the mood.

"Slumdog Millionaire"

Finally saw it. And I have mixed feelings that I’m having trouble sorting out. The beginning brings Robert Redford’s 1994 “Quiz Show,” about the exposure of game-show cheat Charles Vandoren, to mind. But it quickly evolves that the cheat question—Jamal, our main character, is a contestant on India’s version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”—is just a vehicle through which to tell a love story. It’s clever storytelling, it’s well done, it works. And it’s fascinating to get a glimpse of India.

I think what’s giving me mixed feelings is how appalling it is to see extreme poverty, particularly children living in that situation. I had a brief—and uncharacteristic—sense of goodwill toward Angelina Jolie. (I’m not a fan of spoiled celebrities.) If I had money and found myself confronting kids like this, I think I’d end up bringing a few home, too.

The other think that makes me squeamish is how, as a pampered American who kids herself that she is somewhat aware of the world around her—I have no idea how accurate this glimpse is. Is all of India like what they show? Or just the slums? Is this an India past, not present?

I have no idea. The realization makes me uncomfortable. Hence my mixed feelings. I’m having trouble separating my thoughts about the film from my unease.

I’m hoping to get at some issues related to both—the movie and my questions, as an American, about India—by shooting some questions to Mia Inderbitzin, who is in the film. Mia was my next door neighbor growing up. And has it happens she lives in India, and has a part in the film. I’ll be posting our email interview sometime in the near future, I hope. Meanwhile, very open to any thoughts others might have—and questions they might want to pose to Mia—about the film, about the difference between Indian film and U.S. film, or even about the recent tragedy in Mumbai, where Mia lived until recently. (She’s safely in New Delhi now.)

Oh, and if you’re going to see the film, make sure you sit through the credits. Your reward will be an old-style Bollywood dance scene featuring the cast of the film. Lots of fun.

Monday, December 8, 2008


Here’s my one sentence summary: It’s a cheery “Waiting for Godot.” I liked it—a lot. Which is especially gratifying because it was an accidental see.

We started out trying to pick up “Slum dog Millionaire” at the theater next door. But it was sold out (at 3:15 on a Sunday, what the hell?) so we ran for a newspaper (sitter was already installed, so we had to use the time) and found this one playing a short cab ride away.

I’d been vaguely aware of it. When we went to see “Rachel Getting Married” it was playing at the same theater, and the guy behind us in line was seeing it. He said it was supposed to be good. The guy was a serious movie-goer, but you just never know about other people’s taste.

I also read a brief blip in The New Yorker on it, too, but it was a forgettable review. Part of my, “eh, so what?” response to it, after reading this review, was also that the main character was described as, well, happy. I think the NY-er review said something about the unexamined life. What’s interesting about that?

Had I realized the writer and director was Mike Leigh, the same guy who wrote and directed “Vera Drake” and “Secrets and Lies,” however, it would have been in my top five.

I saw “Vera Drake” a couple of years ago and found it a grim but incredibly moving, compassionate and thought-provoking profile of Vera Drake (played by Imelda Staunton), an abortionist in 1950’s England. Ditto “Secrets and Lies,” which stars Brenda Bleythn as Cynthia Purley, a woman ravaged by life, who also has a secret she is forced--very unwillingly, at first--to confront.

Both earlier movies are profiles of deeply interesting women. So is “Happy-Go-Lucky.” But unlike the earlier ones, HGL is, by and large, an easy ride. You really can’t help but like the unbelievably cheerful and giddy Poppy (Sally Hawkins) and her “mates.” In fact, her friendship with Zoe (Alexis Zegerman), made me envious--I wanted to hang out with them. And as the movie unfolds, you find she actually does have a deeper side, she just doesn’t blather on about it. In fact, she almost never says anything serious.

It’s kind of interesting how Leigh manages to convey a serious message in a mostly un-serious way. Based on the two earlier movies, I would never have believed him capable of such a light touch. The movie does skirt around a couple of grim characters and scenes, but it’s not the stomach-twister that Vera and S&L can be. (In a good way, but still.)

I looked up Leigh when we got home and discovered, to my awe, that though he is credited as the writer on his films, he does not actually write the scripts. He comes up with ideas, frameworks—and then he and the actors go through a careful rehearsal in which they improvise the lines. But it’s all done pre-shooting. “You will find hardly any improvising on camera anywhere in my films,” he has said. “It's very structured, but it's all worked out from elaborate improvisations over a long period.”

His biggest lament is that, because he won’t cast big stars and can’t tell producers exactly what his movies are about, it’s hard to get them made.

“My tragedy as a filmmaker now,” he says, “is that there is a very limited ceiling on the amount of money anyone will give me to make a film. Because they don't know what it's going to be about and because I won't use stars and because there isn't a script. And I really passionately want to have the resources to paint on a much bigger canvas.”

I seriously hope he keeps managing to get his movies made. He’s damned interesting.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

"Lake City"

We went to this one on the 26th, for Paul’s birthday. We even managed to pick up a sesame bagel with whitefish salad en route. (Not quite as nirvana-like as I remembered-- my half was loaded with bones.)

At any rate, we went in knowing almost nothing except that it was a “southern thriller” and that Sissy Spacek was in it. Oh, and it was playing at the Quad, which tends to pick small, arty films that don’t get a lot of play elsewhere. All three things sounded interesting—southern (see my Louisiana blog), Spacek (her presence in a movie is generally a sign that it’s going to be good—both because she’s fun to watch, and because she tends to pick movies with depth), and the Quad—I’ve seen great stuff there.

The funny thing is that though the story had problems—problems that became even more apparent the more I thought about them—I didn’t get bent out of shape by them, as I did, say, with “W.” In fact, I enjoyed this movie, and even as I saw the flaws, I forgave them. Paul, who liked it, too, had a similar experience.

We spent a good amount of time wondering why we were so wiling to ignore its problems. The answer—it was shot beautifully (mostly in Richmond, Virginia…I WANT that house) and it was cast exceptionally well, i.e it was all about the characters. They were, as Paul pointed out, people you enjoyed spending time with.

Sissy Spacek, as I said, is always worth watching. She’s one of those old timers (I don’t mean she’s particularly aged, just that she’s been acting a long time) who can do a lot with a little, acting-wise.

Her son, Billy, is played by Troy Garrity (son of Jane Fonda and Tom Haydn, who gave him a different last name—his maternal grandmother’s, I believe, to shield him from attention). I actually thought he did a lot of over-acting, but not to the point that I loathed him as a character. He has a really interesting face.

There’s a small role for Rebecca Romijn, who you’ll barely recognized as a brunette sans make up. I liked her quiet, understated presence in the film.

And there’s an even smaller role for Drea Di Matteo (Adriana from “The Sopranos”). It’s literally about a five minute cameo, but she’s good.

Best of all, though, is Keith Carradine (you might have seen him recently as Detective Lundy in “Dexter”), who plays a gas station attendant with a crush on Sissy Spacek. Really, I could have spent a lot more time with him. When this guy is on screen, either in “Dexter” or in a movie, I can’t stop looking at his face and the way he moves. He’s magnetic. I hope he’s going to start showing up in more films.

At any rate, so there you have it, a character, not plot, driven movie. Not on purpose, mind you, but it works out. I’m not sure I’d advise shelling out full price for a ticket and popcorn on this one. But it’s definitely worth checking out in DVD.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


It's looking doubtful that I'll get to Bill Maher's "Religulous" so I called upon Mike Carolan, my former next door neighbor (go Julliard Drive!) and partner in bee torture (you don't want to know) to give us all the run down. So without further's Mike...

One bit of information discussed in the news last week was the detailed questionnaire Obama and his transition staff were using to screen applicants for positions in his administration. As NPR pointed out, controversial blogs and potentially embarrassing Facebook postings could easily jeopardize one’s ability to survive such scrutiny. This stuck in my mind as I pondered launching my own thoughts about Bill Maher’s “Religulous” into the blogosphere. But then, I’m probably not the political appointee type, and all the choicest appointments I can think of (Ambassador to Ireland, Spain, Hawaii…) are probably going to much smarter and way more generous contributors anyway.

So let me start by saying that I find Bill Maher to be somewhat annoyingly arrogant – and not just because he seems like the type of person that probably knew Hawaii doesn’t need a US Embassy (because it’s such a close ally?...), but because he seems to be the type of guy that would point it out to you in a condescending way. I did however, really enjoy his film.

Bill was raised Catholic until he was thirteen or so – when his family decided that they’d just had enough. (I, on the other hand, nobly stuck it out right up to college.) As it turns out, Maher’s mother is Jewish, though she didn’t bother telling her kids until after they were grown. The movie reminded me that Bill was a pretty capable stand-up comedian in his day. In some ways it was reminiscent of Julia Sweeney’s one woman show “Letting Go of God,” which I also enjoyed. Julia’s show concentrated on all of the super crazy things you can find in the Bible, while Bill’s movie tackles the nutty and bizarre aspects of most of the major religions and one or two of the not so major ones, including one in Amsterdam centered exclusively on smoking pot.

His chutzpah is well on display as he places various representatives of the different faiths on the spot, asking questions most people are too polite to ask, and getting some answers that you wouldn’t expect to hear. It wasn’t all that different from watching “Borat” – you find yourself in situations where you expect a major conflict, and instead you get an uncomfortable laugh, an outright cringe or, in a few cases, a kernel of understanding about the human experience.

As a parent of three, I am somewhat reluctant to raise my children without any kind of religion – at least, that was my feeling for the brief period when we did attend the Unitarian Church. In this era of renewed religious zeal in America, however, I think a lot of us are left feeling like a person’s lack of religion means a deficiency of morals and an absence of faith or spirituality. As Maher points out, this was not the attitude of the early shapers of our country – Thomas Jefferson especially.

Though I’m at an age where I’m getting pretty comfortable with myself - deficiencies and all, as a parent, I still sometimes worry that maybe I’m denying my children something important. A good friend of mine’s wife, who also shares this fear (and lack of religion), has actively engaged their only child in a church as an act of what she calls “inoculation.” Her idea is that by having a solid religious upbringing her son will be less likely to fall prey to some REALLY crazy church when he’s grown (if you haven’t guessed, she’s quite a character, and, unsurprisingly, a preacher’s daughter).

Along this vein, Bill Maher’s movie gives us a creepy look at the much darker side of religion, including some of the “rapture-esque” geopolitical goals in play. These dark apocalyptic scenarios seem eerily less implausible when you consider the mindset of many of the people he interviews in his movie. The upside is that I feel much less guilty about my religious “failings” as a parent – though I admit that the inoculation argument I mentioned seems a little less loopy. His point seems to be that you need to take it all with some salt – if not a grain than a pillar.

This movie left me wondering about a lot of things, though it certainly wasn’t a forum for providing answers. On the other hand, it did provide a few laughs, and I find that answers are a lot more meaningful when I’m allowed to figure them out for myself.

-Mike Carolan

You have to love Hitchcock

I was just thumbing through The A-List: The National Society of Film Critics 100 Essential Films. Among the essays is one on "Vertigo," one of my favorite Hitchcock movies.

"Vertigo" was a box office failure, and nobody involved in the making of it was entirely thrilled with it. Hitchcock apparently thought Jimmy Stewart was too old. Someone else associated with the movie thought Stewart wasn't believable as the kind of guy who'd get obsessed with a girl. And Hitchcock never wanted Kim Novak in the part. He wanted Vera Miles. But she got pregnant, so Novak it was. And, oh yeah, now the movie is considered Hitchcock's crowning achievement.

At any rate, my favorite bit of movie gossip in this essay pertains to the level of detail Hitchcock attended to in making his films: He made Novak practice her movements to the ticking of a metronome. I love it.

I can't wait to re-watch it to see what scene they were working on--I think it's when she's pretending she's Carlotta....but I'm not sure (yet).

Friday, November 21, 2008

What do movies and pie have in common?

"Quentin Tarantino has said the sign of a good film is that it makes you want to go home, eat some pie and talk about it."

I love this quote. That's from an article in The National Post. It reminded me of how much Paul and I talked about "Synechdoche, New York" after we saw it. And all the other movies--"Tell No One" and "Trouble the Water," for instance--that I'm still talking about. And it makes me think of all those times when I actually noticed that, almost as soon as I'd left the theater, the movie I'd just seen was gone from my mind. Poof!

The National Post has something called a Popcorn Panel every week, in which experts, laypeople, etc..."talk" about a new movie. (I really enjoyed the discussion on "Synechdoche.") A quick perusal of their site suggests that they don't generally include spoilers in these discussions, but when they do, they put a big "spoiler alert" sign at the top of the article. Worth checking out--especially if you're just not done talking about a particular film.

For your convenience, I've added a link on the right of this page.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Guest blog: Paul on an oft undiscussed genre--the buddy movie

Paul is my husband, and he has a soft spot for buddy movies of all kinds. He often spots them where the average person doesn't (i.e in one of our two-year-old's favorite animated movies, "Cars"). So here, for your enjoyment, is why he likes them--and his top five.

When we like a movie, it’s not only because of the director’s art, the inventiveness of the script, or the actors’ performances.It also has something to do with what, or whom, we bring with us. And when I see buddy movies, I bring Jim.

We became buddies working as busboys at the Friday night fish fry at the local Moose Lodge in Dearborn, Michigan, when we were in high school. At the time, we dated two girls who were best friends. (Neither of these relationships lasted a fraction as long as mine and Jim’s.) We also liked the same music, the same books, and the same movies, I guess, although a movie was an expensive date back then, so we didn’t go very often. I think I can count the movies I’ve seen with Jim on one hand. Too expensive back then, and now, when we get together, once a year or so, we have too much to talk about to sit in the dark and keep quiet for two hours.

But what really cemented the friendship was the trips. We spent three months in Europe, when we were 21, hitchhiking around, because we couldn’t afford rail passes, and sleeping in construction sites and unlocked offices, because we couldn’t afford youth hostels. We took the train across Canada from Toronto to Vancouver, thumbed down the coast to San Francisco, and drove most of the way home in a gold Lincoln Continental that somebody wanted delivered to Chicago. (We found the job on a bulletin board in Berkeley.)

We hitched countless times between Michigan and Boston (where we went to college) almost always persuading our rides to stop at Niagara Falls, where we would get out of the car, look at the falls, buy coffees, and get back on the road. Jim and I must hold the record for the most 15-minute visits to Niagara Falls. Maybe others have visited more often than we have, but nobody visited more often and more briefly, I’m convinced.

So when I see a buddy movie, I’m looking for a friendship like mine with Jim. Two guys who’ve been through a lot, have laughed, loved, and lost, and somehow keep ending up together. With a nod to Jim, here are my favorite buddy movies:

The Man Who Would Be King. Michael Caine as Peachy Carnehan and Sean Connery as Daniel Dravot, a couple of hustlers who’ve done their time with the British forces in India, and who decide to search for fabled riches in the legendary kingdom of Kafiristan. Directed by John Huston, from the Rudyard Kipling story, the film shows us two men who would die for one another—and who have nearly done so several times—but who are led astray by greed and ambition. Until, of course, they finally find one another again.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Paul Newman (Butch) and Robert Redford (the Kid) are a couple of desperadoes with outsize hearts who manage to rob banks without hurting anyone, and whose friendship is so strong that the company of a lovely young woman—Katharine Ross as Etta Place, the Kid’s girlfriend—doesn’t come close to evolving into any kind of threatening triangle, partly because Butch is so child-like in his cheery outlook, endless prattling, and boundless optimism that the idea of pursuing Etta doesn’t seem to cross his mind. That’s the Kid’s girl, after all. The Kid is as garrulous as a sphinx, but it’s clear enough how he feels about Butch without his having to say it. As different as night and day, Butch and the Kid seem to have a near-perfect friendship.

The Sting. I admit I’m stuck on the same two actors again here—Newman and Redford, but the relationship and the characters are so different that I think it’s fair to count this one as a separate entry. In Butch Cassidy, Newman was the appealing naif, and Redford the somber professional. In The Sting, it’s the other way around—but with a twist. Here Newman is the pro, but an aging, over-the-hill, drunken shadow of what he once was, in his halcyon days as a con man. Redford is the kid with a grudge, whose inexperience and passion draw him into some very dangerous situations. As the movie progresses, Newman recovers his professionalism, and takes a shine to the kid. And Redford develops enormous respect for the master. What begins as a partnership of convenience between thieves ends as a much different, and much warmer, relationship.

Sideways. Here is an unusual pair. Paul Giamatti as the intelligent, depressed, insecure wine enthusiast Miles, and Thomas Haden Church as the bumbling, dim-witted, but generous and big-hearted Jack, who keeps getting into trouble and demands that Miles get him out of it. And, because this is a buddy movie, Miles does, even when he wants to kill him.

Annie Hall. This is my dark horse, probably not anybody else’s idea of a buddy movie. But I like the friendship between Woody Allen (Alvy Singer) and Tony Roberts (Rob). Alvy’s zany neuroticism never seems to have any effect on Rob, whose lines in the script boil down to, in effect, “C’mon Max. Relax.” That’s addressed to Alvy. The two of them have entire conversations in which each addresses the other as Max, an oddity I’ve never been able to figure out. It’s a quirky relationship, but one thing is clear, despite their differences: They like being with each other.

You’ll find a lot of movies that I haven’t mentioned on other buddy-movie lists: Wedding Crashers, Midnight Cowboy, Some Like it Hot, Easy Rider, Dumb and Dumber, The Big Lebowski, and the Hope and Crosby road movies, to name a few. The movies I’ve picked seem to me to epitomize some real human feeling, some connection. Some buddies are a lot alike, and some are completely different. But they are all on a journey together, whether literal or figurative, their stories merge and overlap, and they enjoy being in one another’s company.

Hey, Jim—you wanna go to the movies?

-Paul Raeburn

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Synechdoche, New York...preliminary thoughts

Well, "Dear Zachary" wasn't at the right time--i.e. when the sitter was arriving--so we saw "Synechdoche, New York," the new movie written and directed by Charlie Kaufman ("Adaptation" and "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind"). If you thought it was hard figuring out what was going on in "Eternal Sunshine," your head will implode watching this one. Paul and I argued all the way home about what it was "about." That said, I liked it a lot....and I'm still processing it, so I'll post more later. But my first thoughts were of Borges ("Labyrinth") and Shakespeare ("All the World's a Stage" and the "Out out brief candle..." speech from Macbeth). It's all the choices we could have made--or opted not to make--in life, being re-evaluated, often with deflating conclusions (shoulda, coulda, woulda). That sounds depressing--and Philip Seymour Hoffman is pretty grim in this one--but there was something kind of beautiful about the idea, too. Maybe the apparent universality of the way we all trudge through is beautiful. I don't know. As I said, more later. But definitely worth seeing--just expect to a) wonder what the hell is going on and b) still be wondering when you leave the thater. In a good way.

*Here's a link to some interesting non-spoiling discussion about this film.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Crossing my fingers....

...that I can bag "Dear Zachary" this week. It sounds like a tough's a documentary done by one man for his friend's son...The friend was murdered before the boy was born. There's A LOT more to it than that....there are some extraordinary circumstances surrounding the father's death...but as always, I'm leery of revealing too much, lest I spoil the viewing experience for others.

For the record: I sympathize with reviewers who feel they need to reveal certain plot elements in order to talk intelligently about a film. It's hard to write abstractly about this stuff. But it's just egregious how MUCH revealing goes on.

Paul, who is sitting across from me, just "arghed" a minute ago, because he was innocently reading a piece about actors and how they prepare for roles when the writer revealed the crucial plot element in a play about to hit Broadway.

I just don't get it. Sure, you can still enjoy a movie or play if you know what happens, but it does strip away one level of the experience--before you've even bought your ticket.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

“Gods and Monsters”

We’re in a babysitting transitional phase, so it’s been hard to get out to movies lately. Hoping to fix that soon. Meanwhile, I’ve been relegated to thinking about movies—new, or newish, not classics—that have stuck with me. One that comes to mind is “Gods and Monsters,” based on a book called Father of Frankenstein (since re-titled to match the film) by fellow William and Mary alumni Christopher Bram (Go Tribe!).

It’s a movie about the last days of James Whale, who directed “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Invisible Man,” among other films. There are so many things I love about it. The cast, for one. Ian Mckellen, in his first film role, as Whale. Brendan Fraser, sadly, in one of his few really serious roles. It’s a shame that we only get to see him, otherwise, in “The Mummy” and “George of the Jungle.” (Actually, even I skipped those.) And Lynne Redgrave, who is all but unrecognizable as Whale’s housekeeper.

I also love Bram’s take on what attracted Whale to Frankenstein and inspired his depiction of the monster. Bram’s theory—I don’t know grounded it is, since I haven’t read much on Whale—is very akin to the notion of what inspired Mary Shelley to write the book in the first place.

Supposedly the idea of the monster, and bringing someone back from the dead, came to her in a dream shortly after the death of her first child. If you’ve ever experienced the death of someone you cared deeply about, you’ll recognize the can’t-we-just-un-do-this-somehow? fantasy. (And if you want to explore it more, you might rent “Truly, Madly, Deeply,” too.) Whale, a veteran of World War I, was also a haunted soul, and in his later days—the days depicted in this movie—it became harder and harder to shut the ghosts out.

This is a beautifully crafted film, and well worth watching. In fact, I think I need to re-watch it now. And I’m crossing my fingers that Fraser gets tired of “The Mummy” series (lucrative though it is) and gives us more performances like this one. Happy renting!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Great movie lines

“Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”

That line was uttered by Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in “All about Eve” (1950). And it just popped into my does that occasionally.

Which got me thinking, what other movie lines are so spectacular and enduring that they’ll pop into your head in a random moment?

Here are a few more that come to me:

-“Here’s looking at you, kid.” (Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” This one’s for you, Paul.)

-“Go ahead, make my day.” (Clint Eastwood in “Sudden Impact”)

-“Stay close to the candles, the staircase can be treacherous.” (Cloris Leachman in “Young Frankenstein.”….it’s all in the delivery. )

-“I’ll alert the media.” (John Guilgud, “Arthur.”)

-“The dude abides.” (Jeff Bridges, “The Big Lebowski.”)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Why I love bad movies

I may be the only person who has seen Jaws I through IV. I’m not sure how many of the Halloweens I’ve seen, but…a lot. I’ve seen plenty of bad movies in my time. Part of it is a volume thing. When you see as many movies as I do, you’re going to see some bad ones. But even then, I could walk out, right?

I’ve only walked out of one movie in my life—“Mommie Dearest.” It was terrible ("No more wire hangers!").But the real reason I left was because I’d told my parents (I was in high school) that I was somewhere else, and that movie was freaking LONG. I had to leave in order to get home in time. (I have no recollection why I chose to lie to go to this movie. In retrospect it seems odd.)

But the thing is, even when a movie is terrible, I rarely hate it. Sometimes they’re good bad, i.e so ridiculous that they’re fun. Paul and I have no end of fun with “Tremors,” for instance. We figure Kevin Bacon needed to do some renovations on his mansion, or something. That’s the only explanation for that one. And Michael Caine (nee Maurice Mickelwhite...can you believe it?) is so preposterous romancing the widow in Jaws IV that I can’t look away. Call it train wreck bad.

And then there’s bad like W., which I just saw last week. I find that variety of bad—which is to say, not entertainingly bad—interesting, because it points out where the misses were, and raises the question, what would you have needed to do to tell this story well? And that’s where you can have some fun.

Paul and I must have talked about what worked and what didn’t re: W. for two hours after we saw it. The movie was forgettable, but the challenge of how you tell a story like that—that was interesting, and something we really enjoyed thinking about.

Maybe it’s just that I’m a writer, i.e. interested in the idea of how to tell stories well, that this aspect of badness interests me. (I have friends who have left bad movies livid about their lost time and the price of their ticket.) But I like it. For one, it means I rarely feel like I’ve wasted the price of a ticket.

What about you, any favorite so-bad-they're good movies? Any movies that left you mourning the price of your ticket?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

AAA perk for movie lovers

If you’re a member of the AAA they offer a great perk—discounted movie tickets at Regal Entertainment Group/UA theaters, Clearview Cinemas, AMC theaters and National Amusements theaters. Paul discovered this awhile back, and since we have a Clearview Theater next door, ordered a batch...He orders them online via for $6 each, then we get them in the mail. Once a movie has been out for a week, you go present the ticket—it looks like a cross between a coupon and Monopoly money—at the ticket window, along with $1. That’s it. Total cost: $7. Given that a movie ticket in NYC now runs from $11 to $12, it’s a big savings. Try it. It’s cool.


Four little words: Wait for the DVD. Better yet, skip it. I didn’t have huge expectations for this movie, even though it was directed by Oliver Stone. I had modest ones. I hoped that it would dip below the surface and offer a more nuanced and complex version of a guy who seems, to all outer appearances, to be a buffoon. Nope. All we saw was buffoon. Buffoon swilling beer. Buffoon eating and talking with his mouth open. Buffoon looking over his glasses. This is a one trick movie. The one and only story line—W. is the way he is in response to the expectations of his elite family, which had high expectations for its children. He first bucked the family line, then embraced it to try to gain his father’s approval. There, I’ve saved you twelve bucks. There’s really not much more to it than that. Josh Brolin’s performance is good, he really embodies Bush’s physical characteristics. Richard Dreyfuss, as Cheney, is also good. The rest of the performances don’t even border on caricatures…they are caricatures. Thandie Newton’s take on Condi Rice, for instance, consists of a limp wristed stance, a weird half grimace, and a robotic sounding voice. (I’m not kidding. She’s horrible.) I’m not a huge fan of Bush, but even I think there’s got to be more to him than a daddy-complex and horrific tendency to eat with his mouth open.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Coming soon: W.!

I had two Indies--Ballast and L'Aimee--on my list for yesterday, which I put off until today so I could get my work done. So I was INCREDIBLY chagrined to discover, today, that both movies had moved on. And because they are Indies, they're not showing elsewhere. Damn! So it looks like today's fare will be W. To be truthful, I'm not burning to see it. But I'm curious. There's the sibling loss theme--Bush lost an older sister--that has always interested me. And there's a father-son theme I've wondered about--isn't it telling that Bush Sr. has been so notably silent on his son's presidency? I guess it's appropriate, but you have to wonder if it also suggests disapproval. From what I hear, this movie delves into how much W.'s relationship with his father influenced his presidency. Funny that it came out so close to the election, when people could probably care less. I'll have to look up how it's done at the box office. Meanwhile, I'm off to buy a HUGE diet coke and check this film out. More later!

Spoiler alert!

One of my pet peeves with movie reviews is that they tend to tell you everything, robbing you of the pleasure of watching stories unfold. I was particularly annoyed to see that in this Friday's Times there's a one graph movie summary of "I have loved you so long" (see post below) that manages to reveal plot elements that the director intentionally doled out, bit by bit, to allow viewers to actually participate in the movie. There's a question of judgement that comes up in the movie--how we judge, why we judge, whether we're entitled to judge, how fast we judge, etc etc. Acquiring the information in bits, in this case, is critical to the movie experience. Thumbs down on the Times!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Movies I'm gonna see soon....

Out now and on my short list:

“Dear Zachary”
“Synecdoche, New York”


“A Secret”

Coming soon to a theater near me…

I’m very excited about “A Christmas Tale.” I’ve seen the preview twice, and both times it passed the, “yeah, I’d see it,” test. And I just broke my no-reviews rule by reading a review in the Times’ holiday movies section. It’s got a very interesting director who apparently makes a lot of references to other movies in his films…including a nod to the opening scene of Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” which, according to the reviewer “…opens with one of the most famous Christmas gatherings in movies.” (Guess I’ve got to see “Fanny and Alexander” now.) At any rate, while it borrows an often predictable and tired theme--dysfunctional family together again for the holidays—it sounds like a fresh take. There’s a sibling theme (isn’t there always, with me?), death (ditto) and, in an apparently NEW theme for moi, it’s French. I’m in. Opens November 14th.

“Nothing Like the Holidays.” Another family holiday movie that sounds like it’s got some heft to it. Plus it stars Freddy Rodriguez, as a veteran of the Iraqi war. You might remember him from the HBO series “Six Feet Under.” (He played Rico, the only non-family mortician in the business.) Also starring Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo and Debra Messing. Sounds promising. Opens December 12th.

“The Day the Earth Stood Still.” This isn’t a definite for me. I’m not a huge Keanu Reeves fan. But I liked the original and it might be fun to see what they do with it. Also featuring Jennifer Connelly of “A Beautiful Mind.”
Opens December 12th.

“Che.” Starring Benicio Del Toro. Steven Soderbergh. Enough said. Opens December 12th.

“Doubt.” Based on the play by John Patrick Shanley (who also wrote “Moonstruck”) about a stand-off between a nun and a priest and some alleged inappropriate behavior by the priest. Starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman, who I will, as I’ve said earlier, see in anything. Looks like a good one. Opens December 12th.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The American Film Institute's top ten movies of all time...

Here they order. I've seen all but "Schindler's List"...and I have to confess I don't think I've seen "Singin' in the Rain" all the way through. But I think I might watch the whole list all over again.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Ten people I'd see in any movie

And by that I mean, merely knowing they are in a movie is enough to make me shell out the $11 price of admission (that's the New York price, my friends) and see it without knowing anything else about it...

These actors connote either good taste—and by that I mean they consistently pick interesting films (no I-need-to-finance-another-mansion movies)—or a consistently great/interesting performance. I’m sure there are more I could add to this list, but these are the ones that come right to mind…And they are not, lest you are wondering, in any particular order.

1) William H. Macy….Once I saw him in “Fargo,” I was sold for life.
2) Philip Seymour Hoffman=an interesting movie. He has great taste and always delivers. Case closed.
3) David Straithairn...such a talented character actor. Have admired him for a long time, and loved “Good night and good luck.”
4) Kristin Scott Thomas…Have liked her before, but her last two performances in “Tell no one” and “I have loved you so long” blew me away. Now I’ll follow her anywhere.
5) Frances McDormand…Love her. Great taste, fearless. Doesn’t always hit the mark…I didn’t love her in “Burn after reading,” for example. But always an interesting performance.
6) Emma Thompson…She is always great, but the performance that consistently blows me away is the necklace/Joni Mitchell scene in the comedy “Love Actually” (I’m deliberately being vague in case you haven’t seen it)
7) John Cusack…won me over completely with “High Fidelity.” And I think he’s got great taste in movies…have yet to see a mis-step.
8) Paul Giamatti…The movie is guaranteed to be interesting if he’s in it…not only because he always delivers, but because he’s got great taste.
9) Laura Linney…Has a reputation—for me, anyway—of playing complicated characters. I loved her in “The Savages” and “You can count on me.”
10) Sean Penn…Great taste, all out performances.

“I have loved you so long” (French title: “Il ya longtemps que je t’aime”)

Score another one for Kristin Scott Thomas, who I saw recently in “Tell no one.” This is an actress who has recently jumped to my I’ll-see-anything-this-actor-is-in list. (I’m still working on this list, but will post it soon.).

I’m torn here, because I hate giving away plot, and I don’t like to give away too many details. This movie builds so nicely, and leads you through the story so well, explaining at it’s own pace, that I’m afraid revealing any details would ruin that gradual unfolding for you….So I’m going to talk in infuriating generalities and hope you see it for yourself.

Kristen Scott Thomas plays Juliette, a woman with a past. What that past is is the business of the movie. It’s a quiet, character-driven, movie that requires participation from the audience, i.e. one revelation does not telegraph the entire plot, leaving you merely waiting for it to play out (and a tad bored). The revelations are doled out one at a time, simply and without fanfare, allowing you to slowly assimilate the story…and make your own judgments about where you stand on the main character.

It’s a story about siblings, fine lines, judgment and what makes some people stick it out…and by stick it out I mean stay alive…And it will leave you with the question “what would I have done?” Fair warning, you might shed a tear or two near the end.

And Paul and I agreed that it may rival “Casablanca” for the best final line of a movie, ever. The performances are vivid, real and believable. Really, go see it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Rachel Getting Married

Lordy. I tend to not read reviews before I see movies. For one, I like to form my own impressions. For another, reviews have so many spoilers in them I often feel I’ve seen the movie before I go. Between that and the previews, which tend to give away the entire movie and the best moments of the film, it’s hard to see a movie fresh. That’s a long wind up for why I hadn’t read any reviews of “Rachel Getting Married” before I saw it. Well…it may be the one time I wish I’d read a review.

Anne Hathaway is good (though I did often catch myself seeing her as Anne Hathaway trying not to seem like such a princess for once). The character of her sister, Rachel, is amazing, as is that of the best man. Bill Irwin, as the dad, is great. And so is Debra Winger, as the mother. It’s very real, very authentic. There are some wonderful moments in the film.

But in the end, I turned to Paul and said, “It’s the new ‘Ordinary People.’” That’s not a total dig…at least not from the perspective of the average viewer. My problem with this movie, as a viewer, comes purely from the baggage I bring to the theater. Sibling loss—the theme at the center of OP and RGM—has particular and painful resonance for me. The tragedy at the center of this movie is so unbearable, and the way that they keep pushing it in your face is kind of, what’s the word, unyielding?, at times, that I almost couldn’t watch it.

I actually know of a family that had a similar thing happen…so it’s not like it was out of the realm of the possible. It’s just that for me, this movie was too real. No movie-escapism here for me. I left feeling like I’d been run over by a truck, and then backed over for good measure.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Trouble the Water" and "Tell No One"

For my first post, I’d hoped to be able to say I brought a bagel with whitefish salad to the movie…Alas, I did not. Ran out of time. Oh well….next time. Meanwhile, I saw two movies last week absolutely worthy of watching:

“Trouble the Water.”

A documentary about the impact of Katrina on residents of the 9th ward, as told through the story of Kim Rivers Roberts and her husband, Scott. The story behind this movie is that Kim and her husband were, like many of the residents of her neighborhood, planning on hunkering down and weathering the storm. Like many natives of New Orleans, they’d done it before. And like many, they didn’t have the funds to go elsewhere. So they stayed.

Kim had acquired a video camera the week before, and decided she was going to document the storm. Her footage is pretty amazing—before images of her neighbors as they rather nonchalantly holed up, the worsening storm, their decision to flee to the attack, footage, out a window, and the staggering image of flood waters that look like ocean waves washing down the street……

At some in the chaos after the storm, the makers of the documentary bumped into Kim and Scott as they were in the process of trying to find a place to “be” outside their neighborhood…They realized the footage Kim had and decided to incorporate the footage into their own film and follow Kim and her husband as they went back to see what was left of their neighborhood when the water receded and, after that, get one with their lives…

It’s an extraordinary story…it’s about what happens to people without money in this country, it’s about the power of place and the impact of displacement, it’s about people who want a better life, it’s about, at the risk of sounding corny, people helping people….In the midst of a situation where these people were worse than ignored by our country, they held out their hands to one another –the frail, the old, the young, the strong.

In Kim’s footage, we see one young man as he wades into the storm water, again and again, with a smile on his face, to rescue people and bring them to higher ground. We see relatives who open their houses and turn over their land to complete strangers in the middle of the night.

We see Kim as she makes sure that each and every person in her posse of people—she and her husband eventually “borrowed” a truck and hauled as many people as they could carry out of the city—finds a place.

It’s really an incredible movie…and an incredible story. And my favorite part is where Kim and Scott eventually end up settled. (Don’t want to spoil it so I won’t tell you.) Watch it—these people deserve to have their stories witnessed.

“Tell No One” (French title: “Ne le dis a personne”)

I heard about this one on NPR in the context of a story about distribution issues for films…this one was an indie that was a hit in Europe and still had a tough time finding its way to U.S. theaters. I couldn’t find it, assumed I’d missed it, and then accidentally stumbled upon a listing for it last week as I was looking for “Trouble the Water.” It’s French Hitchcock…very “North by Northwest” in the sense of an innocent man who, to his bewilderment, gets sucked into a crime story he doesn’t understand. The set up is so beautiful, the characters so believable…you never know where it’s going, every loose end is tied up without being too pat, the ending is satisfying without being cloying…it’s just so well done. Highly recommended.