Tuesday, December 31, 2013

It's a wonderful New Year's movie

There are numerous “old Hollywood” movies where, from a modern standpoint, you wonder, how come they don’t make ‘em like that anymore? They’re wholesome but not in a namby-pamby antiseptic way. They exude the best human ideals, are optimistic, show the power of persistence and good humour to overcome obstacles, and make the viewer feel uplifted and trusting in his fellow man. Movies like It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington come to mind. But the one I saw recently was Made for Each Other. And wouldn’t you know it, like those two other films, this one stars America’s most optimistic in character actor, Jimmy Stewart. In the 1939 film by John Cromwell Carole Lombard plays opposite as Stewart’s wife Jane. Stewart is John, a young lawyer trying to make partner in a New York law firm. As so often happens in these heartwarming comedies our hero meets adversity at every turn. He has a domineering live-in mother (Lucile Watson) who disapproves of his quick marriage to Jane, whom he met on a business trip to Boston. Their honeymoon to Europe is sidelined when an important court case is rescheduled. Hoping that winning the case will grant him partnership a smarmy colleague is chosen instead. John, a shy guy, is pushed by Jane to seek a raise. He’s up all night plotting his strategy. With determination the next day he marches into his boss’s office only to be pre-empted when Judge Doolittle (Charles Coburn) tells him the Depression has taken its toll and the firm must cut salaries.  “We’ll always be together no matter what happens,” John says to Jane as the bills pile up.  Then the couple’s newborn gets sick and can only be saved by a rare serum available on the other side of the country. A harrowing plane ride from Utah through winter storms finally delivers the medicine. And all turns out well. The film takes place around New Year’s Eve. A nightclub party welcomes in 1939, an ominous year if ever there was one, though the filmmakers may not have known that. “Happy New Year, darling!” And a most appropriate movie to welcome in 2014.

The more wired our world becomes the more we can't escape the electronic eye, whether it be the NSA or your friendly retail website. But I've never felt so closely watched as on Netflix. After subscribing a couple of months ago I got an email one day gently telling me that they noticed that I'd been watching movies on my computer screen. They politely reminded me that I can watch movies on television as well (duh!) and provide ways to connect an HDMI cable depending on the type of flat screen I own. (Problem is, no connection functions well with my TV, as the Netflix feed always times out.) Netflix of course also quickly informs the subscriber of their movie-watching tastes and suggests similar film titles. But this was a bit much.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Melancholy portrait of down and out folkie

So Inside Llewyn Davis, which I’d been dying to see all fall, is good – very good in fact – but didn’t quite peak out at the range I might have been expecting. The movie chronicles one artist in New York’s early 1960s folk scene just before the arrival of its most famous denizen, Bob Dylan. In reality this is a pretty straight forward character portrait of an individual who happens to be a folk singer. Supposedly loosely based on musicians like Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Dave Van Ronk whose memoir 'The Mayor of MacDougal Street' was used for some scene setting, Inside Llewyn Davis pretty much captures the feel of the period but more the day to day travails of a struggling artist, who has no money and is forced to sleep on friends’ and acquaintances’ couches. Oscar Isaac as Lleywn Davis is superb with utterly no signs of self-consciousness for the up-close depiction of a musician off and on the stage, and he’s a great singer! Isaac sings live in the film as does one of his musician friends, Jim Berkey played by Justin Timberlake. There is little to fault in this picture. The fact it was made by the Coens, who have never made a bad film and are among the most interesting filmmakers for their topic and plot selections, pretty much seals the deal before you even walk into the theatre.  If there’s anything that’s a Coens’ trademark it’s irony. But there wasn’t much here unless it’s in John Goodman’s character Roland Turner, as a gross full-of-himself burnt out jazz artist who incessantly dumps on the folk genre – and Davis - during an interminable car ride to Chicago. It’s been said the movie has no plot but it has one, just one that’s not deeply gouged out. The period’s bleak winter New York scenes are good, though the film is typically confined to indoor shots or tight street scenes and I always suspect the same vintage cars are used over and over; some of these old beaters’ doors squeaked a little too much. This could be a movie about innumerable artists of any period who have significant talent but for one reason or another – lack of contacts, bad personalities, no lucky breakthroughs – can’t get enough traction. In the end we’re sad for Davis whose career is bookended by another walk-on talent at the Gaslight CafĂ©. You know the guy, he has frizzy hair and plays a harmonica.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

America copies Asia

Hmmm. A story where teenagers are forced to fight each other to the death until only one remains. A wildly popular movie. Yeah, it’s called  The Hunger Games franchise. Only it’s a rip off. Or at least that’s how it seems to me. Because over the past year I saw an entirely different movie, called Battle Royale (2000) (picture left) and directed by Japan’s legendary and now deceased director Kinji Fukasaku, based on a novel by Koushun Takami. It’s has exactly the same theme as THG. I haven’t seen any of two The Hunger Games movies, based on the Suzanne Collins novels, and who says she created the theme from several sources including Greek mythology. Nor do I want to see them. But a few critics have compared the first movie unfavourably to the Fukasaku film. And I’m not surprised. And while The Hunger Games (2012 directed by Gary Ross, THG Catching Fire, now playing, by Francis Lawrence) might scare Millennial audiences I’d be really surprised if they have the terrifying impact of an Asian real life thriller, which combined innocence, banality, pop culture and terror in a way that really sent shivers down my back.....Then we come to Spike Lee’s latest movie Old Boy. Where have I seen that title before? Sure enough, another Asian film, this time from South Korea’s Park Chan-wook in 2003, in turn based on a Japanese manga comic. I’ve seen this movie. While I can imagine Lee putting an interesting spin on the subject matter – about a bad guy who escapes a long detainment into a continuing world of violence and revenge - I still can’t imagine it being as fiercely violent and soul-searching as the earlier movie.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Movie appropriately nuanced

There’s a lot to like in Philomena, UK director Stephen Frears new movie based on a book by Martin Sixsmith. Judi Dench as Philomena is near perfect as a very Catholic elderly Irish woman who goes on a search for her long lost son. Steve Coogan (The Trip, 2010, A Cock and Bull Story (2005) and myriad other film and TV credits including Curb Your Enthusiasm, and who co-wrote and produced this movie) plays journalist Sixsmith in a not too bad portrayal of a skeptical snobbish journalist trying to get back on his feet after being sacked as a top government spokesthingy. The story’s core is about how, in the 1950s, pregnant teenager girls would be sent to “the nunnery” and their children would be sold to willing parents, often Americans. The girls, of course, had no say in the matter. Philomena wants to find her son Anthony, taken away at age three. Sixsmith does a little investigative work and finds that Anthony grew up in America to become a lawyer and eventual top advisor in the 1980s to President Ronald Reagan. Anthony, whose name was changed to Michael A. Hess, was also gay. The story takes Philomena and Sixsmith to America where most of their search takes place. To say this movie is charming misses the point. To say this movie is an overly serious condemnation of the Roman Catholic Church isn’t right either. What’s best about the movie is that it’s nuanced, a bit surprising for contemporary directors telling a story like this. Yes, we see the horror of how girls were treated in an Irish convent many years ago. But for me the real story was about professional arrogance – on the Sixsmith character’s part – and how a supposed simple woman like Philomena has more wisdom than an educated elitist. It’s also about forgiveness and not holding grudges despite righteous indignation. For good character portraits and for those lessons alone the movie is worth going to see.