Archive for the '2008 movies@home' Category

“The Shop Around the Corner” (1940)

Wednesday, December 31st, 2008

Thanks to Minneapolis’ Oak Street Cinema, which used to show it each holiday, The Shop Around the Corner became a favorite holiday movie for me. It’s a sharp romantic comedy starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who claimed it was the best movie he ever made. It’s infused with hallmarks of his style, such as sophistication, style, and sexy (but not sexual) humor–these were part of what became known as “the Lubitsch touch.”

Stewart and Sullavan are bickering co-workers at a small shop in Budapest. Each is in love with the idea of love, and so is blind to it when it actually appears. Stewart is cute and charming, and the movie builds to a conclusion I couldn’t help but smile at. This movie lifts the spirits. See it if you haven’t, yet.

Later remade as You’ve Got Mail, which I’ve deliberately left unseen. Why remake something so fabulous?

“The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007)

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

Yet another well-reviewed film from last year that I hadn’t gotten around to, Julian Schabel’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly is a sad, gorgeous film. A high living French magazine editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby, suffers a sudden stroke, which leaves him almost totally paralyzed, or with “locked-in syndrome”. He makes small but significant progress, both physically and emotionally, and transcribes a book through blinking his eye. The acting is less the thing than the inventive ways Schnabel uses to convey Bauby’s singular, skewed perspective. Chosen by film critic Michael Phillips as one of the best of 2007, this is a lovely, bittersweet film.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

At the top of NYT movie critic A.O. Scott’s best list of 2007, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, is a grim little film about illegal abortion in 80’s Romania. It’s a spare, devastating story of two college roommates and all the unpleasant details they must navigate when the event is set in motion. The acting is understated and moving. The film maintains a constant undercurrent of dread and fear about what happens next. And the story is told simply, with one camera only, highlighting the wrenching story and situations of the characters. Powerful stuff.

“Walk Hard” (2007)

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

I wanted to laugh at Walk Hard. I did a few times, and I enjoyed seeing my boyfriend Paul Rudd as John Lennon. Maybe I saw it on a bad day, but I didn’t find it that funny, or funny enough to endure the stupid parts. Certainly, there was no moment when I laughed so hard we had to pause the movie, as with In Bruges. Not my cuppa, I guess.

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (2003)

Monday, December 29th, 2008

Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World is a film adaptation of many threads from Patrick O’Brian’s popular Aubrey/Maturin series, which my husband G. Grod is about halfway through reading. I’ve seen the film before, and was again impressed. Weir is a skilled director, the cast, led by Russell Crowe and Paul Betanny, is strong, the story compelling, and the photography of life at sea both beautiful and stirring. I haven’t yet read the O’Brian books, though I intend to. I am glad to have seen the movie on its own, so that the books might improve upon it, rather than detract from it, as happens too often if I read the book first.

Movie trivia: Russell Crowe learned to play violin for the film. About 27 miles of rope were used for the ship scenes.The rope was made special for the film, since rope of the time laid left, not right, as modern rope does.

There are a few book-based movies coming out, Revolutionary Road and The Road, and one I just saw, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Once I’d have rushed to read the book first. Now I’m going to try to read the book after. I’ll let you know if the results are promising.

“Across the Universe” (2007)

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008

I didn’t manage to see Across the Universe in the theater, though I wanted to. It would have been quite something on the big screen. But I enjoyed the 2-disc DVD a lot, in spite of the very mixed reviews when it came out.

Across the Universe is a musical about young lovers in NYC during the Vietnam era with songs of the Beatles as references and dialogue for the movie. The director, Julie Taymor, has a background in puppetry and theater; she created the stage version of The Lion King. I watched and was wowed by her films Titus and Frida, which convinced me along with The Lion King that I’d see anything she did. It might not be great, but even if it were a mess, it would be a spectacular, brilliant, mesmerizing one.

I found Across the Universe kind of messy in parts. Taymor’s vision was sometimes too out there and the movie slowed in the middle. But the talent of the mostly unknown cast, along with the sheer spectacle of the movie combined with oh-so-familiar music that was produced in ways that brought new aspects to it–all of these made me love Across the Universe. I was strongly reminded of the films of Baz Luhrmann. I watched each of the making-of extras, and they gave me an increased appreciation for this flawed but wonderful film. As the choreographer noted, it’s a film that’s surreal yet playful, as well as powerful and poignant.

Other reviews: New York Times
Roger Ebert
Entertainment Weekly
Village Voice
Chicago Tribune

Edited to add: I’m hugely excited about Taymor’s current project, especially because of her creative casting of the lead role.

Risky Business 25th anniversary DVD

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008

Can it really be 25 years since I saw Risky Business in the theater? My friend J drove; she had a car. Also, she pretended to be my older sister, since I was only 15 and not technically allowed to see the movie. Tom Cruise was my first adolescent movie-star crush–he had me from the opening chords of “Old Time Rock n Roll.”

Watching it again, 25 years later, I felt the movie aged surprisingly well. It was definitely of its time, the go-go early eighties. But its theme of financial success at the cost of one’s soul is timeless. It’s a teen movie:

So, your folks are going out of town…

but it goes beyond the typical. The director and producers were trying to do more than a teen-sex movie, and I think they succeeded. Cruise looks impossibly young as the scared, sheltered, suburban teen Joel. Rebecca de Mornay projects a mix of tough vulnerability, kindness and calculation as a hooker with no heart of gold. They’re at the center of what I see now as a very dark, ironic morality tale.

The extras on the 25th anniversary disc are worth watching. They include screen tests of de Mornay and Cruise, whose chemistry and charisma were apparent early on. There’s commentary from other directors, like Amy Heckerling and Cameron Crowe, as well as interviews from the makers and actors from the film. Joe Pantoliano, who played Guido the Killer Pimp, notes that this is the film that “made” him. Also included is the director’s preferred ending, which is much darker than the one the studio insisted on. As such, it better fits the film, I think.

Helvetica (2007)

Friday, December 5th, 2008

Laid low with a serious head cold, I probably was not in the best state to watch Helvetica, a documentary about the influential typeface that traces its history and current status. It has a dry humor and quiet presentation that I might otherwise have appreciated, as it interviews a variety of type experts and artists, some of the them pro-Helvetica, some anti-, and some taking an interesting postmodern rapprochement to the modernist typeface. Unfortunately, I found it a little slow, and so low key about its intentions that it left me bemused. With a clearer head, I might have liked it more. Even so, it’s made me more aware, both of my feelings for Helvetica (OK for signs, but not for text–I don’t like the square punctuation) and of its omnipresence (Guess what typeface you’re reading, now?) I’m all the more appreciative of alternatives.

“In Bruges” (2007)

Friday, December 5th, 2008

An inky dark dramedy, In Bruges‘ hitmen, Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, are sent to the title city (in Belgium) to cool their heels after a hit went wrong. Farrell is both hilarious and touching as the simple-minded newbie, while Gleeson brings depth and sadness to a character that could have easily been a caricature. Ralph Fiennes is so over the top he almost is a caricature, though his feelings on loyalty and consequences lend an intriguing edge. This is a very violent, funny, sad film that doesn’t always pull off a balance–not for when you’re feeling fragile. But for whip-smart dialogue, some great acting, and some moments so funny we had to stop the DVD because we were laughing so hard, In Bruges is worth watching.

“Can’t Hardly Wait” 10th Year Reunion

Sunday, November 30th, 2008

I was 30 when Can’t Hardly Wait came out, so beyond the high school and college final-party demographic. But when EW reviewed this new DVD and said it had 9 Buffy alums, I decided to give it a try. It’s a solid B movie. Some funny stuff in a movie filled with party cliches. The leads are mopey and schmoopy, but the supporting characters are fun, especially Seth Green trying hard to be “urban”.

I only caught 4 Buffy alums, though: Green, Eric Balfour, Clea Duvall and Amber Benson, plus three Six Feet Under future stars: Lauren Ambrose, Freddy Rodriguez and Balfour, again. And Jason Segal, looking like he actually belongs at a high school party.

Out on the web, though, I dug up the full list of the Buffy alums, and the comment thread at this MySpace page includes other movies and shows for Buffy fans:

Amber Benson
Seth Green
Paige Moss
Clea DuVall
Eric Balfour
John Patrick White
Nicole Bilderback
Channon Roe
Christopher Wiehl

“Elizabeth” (1998)

Monday, November 24th, 2008

As part of what’s turning into my Shakespeare/Elizabethan course of study this year, I rented Elizabeth. Like Shakespeare in Love, I saw it in the theater the year it came out. I think I enjoyed it better then, before I learned a little about film. The performances are strong, particularly Blanchett’s and Geoffrey Rush’s, and the costumes are spectacular. I’d forgotten Daniel Craig in the cast. Yet too often I felt as if I were watching a music video rather than an historical movie–the visuals were too splashy. Additionally, the story was hardly subtle. Like Shakespeare’s history plays, the heroes and villains are not complex. Instead they’re so starkly defined they’re almost caricatures. Elizabeth was pretty to look at, so-so on historical accuracy, and mostly entertaining. Worth watching, though not what I’d call a great film.

Compared to Shakespeare in Love, I thought Elizabeth had a worse performance from Joseph Fiennes, but a better one from Blanchett than from Gwyneth Paltrow, who took home the Best Actress Oscar that year.

“Into the Wild” (2007)

Friday, November 21st, 2008

Sean Penn’s Into the Wild finally came into the library for me. It’s a road movie about a college graduate who forgoes the materialistic world of his unhappy family and sets off for Alaska. Though it jumps around in time, the story is easy to follow. Emile Hirsch is frighteningly convincing as Chris McCandless, who tumbles from bright idealism into gaunt, frightened loneliness. And the supporting cast is quite strong, which helps carry the 138 minute movie through to its end. Beautiful, though perhaps overlong, it mostly resists preaching, and simply shows the internal and external journeys of McCandless.

Two thoughts:

One, I find Hirsch looks distractingly like several other actors: Brian Austin Green and Thomas Dekker from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, and Zac Efron of the High School Musicals.

Two, Sean Penn’s films tend to revolve around dead or doomed children. It’s a strange theme to own.

Shakespeare in Love (1998)

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

As part of what appears to be my ongoing “unit” of Shakespeare, I re-watched Shakespeare in Love for the first time since seeing it in the theater ten years ago.

The Best Picture winner holds up well. Fiennes and Paltrow are pretty and charming in the leads; Paltrow won the Oscar for Best Actress that year. (I thought it should have gone to Cate Blanchett for Elizabeth.) Rupert Everett gets far too little screen time as Christopher Marlowe, while Ben Affleck gets too much as player Ned Alleyne. Tom Wilkinson, Geoffry Rush, and Imelda Staunton excel in supporting roles, while Colin Firth is a good sport, playing the foppish bad guy, an ironic contrast to his turn as Mr. Darcy, I think. Judi Dench as Elizabeth steals every scene she’s in and won the supporting actress Oscar for about eleven minutes of screen time. (I thought that Oscar should have gone to Lynn Redgrave from Gods and Monsters.)

By turns comic, tragic and romantic, SiL is a fitting homage to the work of Shakespeare. True to its roots, it is an entertainment. It combines history with the plays Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night to good effect. Tom Stoppard polished the screenplay; his is a funny, informed post-modern influence, as in this oft-repeated exchange:

“It will all turn out well.”


“I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

SiL is fun and touching, but not to be taken as fact–it’s a pleasing fiction, based on the work of others, like Shakespeare’s own works.

“The Savages” (2008)

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

Now that the fall television season is in full swing, I’m definitely seeing fewer movies. As the crapitude of the shows grows, though, the better big screen things look on our small screen. I’ve dropped several shows that I used to watch: Dirty Sexy Money, Terminator, America’s Test Kitchen, At the Movies. And I’m on the fence about Life and Bones; my crush on Damian Lewis is giving Life probably too much credit, though Alan Sepinwall thinks it merits attention, too. In the midst of so much mediocre tv, then, Tamara Jenkins’ The Savages was a welcome respite.

Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are middle aged intellectuals who are suddenly forced to assume care of their aged estranged and increasingly demented father. The film handles dark subjects and complex characters with a light touch. It’s not so much bittersweet as refreshingly semi-sweet. One critic described it as a coming of middle-age story, a description I find apt. Linney and Hoffman were, as per their usual, terrific. A funny, thoughtful, thought-provoking little film.

“Persuasion” (1995) and “Persuasion” by Jane Austen

Thursday, October 23rd, 2008

I’ve been reading and watching a lot of tragedies of late (not including the economy and political climate here in the US) so I took a break from the sturm und drang for Jane Austen’s Persuasion. And what a delightful and welcome break it was.

I watched the 1995 adaptation first. When PBS aired the 2007 adaptation earlier this year, many online Janeites expressed their preference for this earlier version, which was televised in the UK, but released in theaters elsewhere in the world. While I liked the PBS adaptation, I agree that it suffers by comparison to this earlier version.

The 1995 version was a bit longer, often an asset in adapting a work of fiction. Additionally, the actors who played the leads of Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth, Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds, were the more realistic for looking like real people, perhaps because the film was shot entirely in natural light. The film actors looked old enough for the theme of reclaiming a lost love of youth. The leads in the PBS film were pretty and younger looking; they’d been glammed up–Sally Hawkins in no way looked past her bloom, as Anne is in the book. She was at least as pretty as Rupert Penry-Jones, as Wentworth. Finally, the 1995 film does not needlessly augment the tension at the end, as the PBS version did with its over-the-top scene of Anne running through the streets of Bath, one that was deservedly skewered on YouTube, here. Instead the film wisely let the quiet dignity of its actors, along with one of the most beautiful passages of Austen, convey the emotion:

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in

F. W.

I must go, uncertain of my fate; but I shall return hither, or follow your party, as soon as possible. A word, a look, will be enough to decide whether I enter your father’s house this evening or never.”

Such a letter was not to be soon recovered from.

Indeed, and it’s passages like this that made re-reading Persuasion a joy. The slim, sometimes grim tale is filled with jewel-bright and razor-sharp prose as it carries the reader to the happy, unsurprising ending for Anne and Captain Wentworth. I often stopped to re-read and marvel at sentences and passages along the way. I didn’t love Persuasion the first time I read it. Reading all the Austen complete novels, though, and reading about Austen, have given me an increased appreciation that made this reading a suitable antidote for the previous tragedies I’d partaken of.

Casino Royale (2006)

Monday, October 6th, 2008

In anticipation of November’s cumbersomely titled Quantum of Solace, my husband G. Grod and I revisited the James Bond reboot, Casino Royale. Like the Bourne movies and The Dark Knight, Casino is both well done and entertaining, with a dark, complex, brooding main character. At over two hours, it’s too long; the poker scenes go on. And on. But it’s that rare action movie that has brains to back up its brawn.

The opening credits for Casino Royale and AMC’s Mad Men are strikingly similar, with their heroes in silhouette. They were not done by the same people. Casino Royale’s was done by Daniel Kleinman, for UK-based Framestore CFC. Mad Men’s opening sequence was designed by Mark Gardner and Steve Fuller of design firm, Imaginary Forces.

Sunshine (2007)

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2008

Reviews were mixed last year when Danny Boyle’s (28 Days Later, Trainspotting) sci-fi pic Sunshine came out. A recent positive review in Entertainment Weekly spurred me to rent it.

The film starts strong. Fifty years in the future, a crew of eight scientists are traveling through space to the sun. They hope to reignite the dying star and save the Earth. Their ship, the Icarus II, is the second attempt, after the Icarus I went missing. The characters are well differentiated, and the shots of the ship are beautiful and interesting to look at. As the film unfolds, though, it fell more and more in step with sci-fi films of the past, specifically 2001, Alien, and Solaris. The movie makes deliberate nods to these, and other, films–it doesn’t hide its roots, and deserves to be regarded as an homage to them. I didn’t feel it creatively went much beyond any of those films, though. There were some cool bits, a nice, creepy surprise, good acting, and good visuals. By the end, though, it felt muddled, and more derivative than I think it was trying to be.

Trivia: the gold spacesuits had funnel-shaped helmets designed after Kenny of South Park’s hood.

“Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead” (2007)

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Before the Devil Knows You're DeadI hesitated about seeing Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead. Phillip Seymour Hoffman got an Oscar nod for his part in the film, but I feared it would be too grim to appreciate. Grim it was, in the ancient tradition of messed-up family tragedies. But it was also well directed and put together, and so exceedingly well acted, that any qualms I had were overridden. I can’t say the qualms were put to rest, though, because it is a decidedly provocative and agitating movie.

Hoffman and Ethan Hawke play brothers who are in financial and family trouble. They attempt a crime they think will be victimless; by the end every single character is affected. And in true tragic form, many of them are dead. Lumet, director of classics like Dog Day Afternoon, makes a patchwork tale feel seamless. To an actor, the performances were outstanding, especially Hawke and Marisa Tomei. It’s a solid, well-done, classic tragedy.

Hamlet (1996)

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

It took us four nights to watch the nearly four hours of Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It was time well spent. There was much to savor, though a few things did annoy. As scholar E.M.W. Tillyard noted of the famous play, “No one is likely to accept another man’s reading of Hamlet.” Nor woman’s, neither, I would add.

Branagh chose to film the first “uncut” Hamlet, a combination of the Second Quarto and First Folio texts. This honors the play’s sweeping themes and action, but gives Hamlet a great deal of speechifying–he does go on. And on. But Branagh is a fine figure of Hamlet, only a bit older at the time than his character’s thirty years, with well-defined muscles, light blond hair befitting Hamlet’s Danish ancestry, and arresting blue eyes. The cast is a combination of seasoned Shakespearean actors, such as Brian Blessed and Derek Jacobi, with minor parts filled with Hollywood notables who fared much less well in the execution of their lines. They were far outshone by Charlton Heston as the fierce Player King, who summons the image of Sir John Gielgud as Priam and Dame Judi Dench as Hecuba, both of whose silent roles were far more powerful than those of Jack Lemmon, Billy Crystal, and Robin Williams.

I was troubled at first by Branagh’s inclusion of flashback until I realized he was deliberately exploiting the medium of film. Just as a stage play shows more than does the text, so a film can show even more of what has been inferred from the text. For instance, Hamlet and Ophelia are shown in bed together in flashback. Critical opinion differs whether the couple had prior relations, or a chaste wooing. Some took offense at Branagh’s choice to make his interpretation so literal. My husband noted that he found it perfectly understandable: cast Kate Winslet as Ophelia and of course Branagh is going to write her in bed naked with his character.

Similarly, the growing threat of young Fortinbras is shown in great detail, much more apparent than it is in the text. Yet this provides a frame for the story, and places it squarely within both an historical context as well as emphasizing the themes of action versus deliberation, and status quo versus change.

Branagh’s Hamlet is an attractive prince, horrified by the crime of his uncle, repulsed by his mother’s possible complicity, and uncertain of the ghost’s authority in urging him to revenge. This Hamlet veers between sorrow, anger, madness and introspection. It is a flattering portrayal of a complex character, an unsurprising choice given Branagh’s long affection for the character, which he owns to in the introduction to the film.

The film is literally spectacular, shot in 65 mm and at full length, though it was difficult to get made. Coming off the critical failure of Frankenstein, Branagh compromised with Castle Rock by including bankable Hollywood stars and releasing the full-length film in select theaters, and a 2.5 hour abridgment more widely. Interestingly, I recall the full-length film was more popular at the time, and was the one chosen for the dvd. (Thanks to reader VT for recalling this to my attention; I’d forgotten.)

Added later
: I found the soundtrack obtrusive and irritating. Every time Hamlet would make a speech, the music would swell, obscuring the beautiful words that have stood the test of centuries. During his speech to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I thought for a moment I was going to see the selection from Hair.

My husband G. Grod strenuously objected to the staging of the end of IV, iv.

Eastern Promises (2007)

Monday, September 8th, 2008

I wavered on seeing Eastern Promises in theaters. The good reviews, for the film in general and Viggo Mortensen’s performance in particular, made me want to see it. The allusions to its extreme violence deterred me. I compromised, and finally watched on dvd. This is a good film, well-directed and well acted, not only by Mortensen. The story has to be read as a sort of fable, since its particulars are so familiar: a talented poor outsider (Mortenson) works his way up the power structure when a seemingly paternal but actually cruel leader (Armin Mueller-Stahl) is increasingly disappointed in his own son (Vincent Cassel), while a beautiful blond woman (Naomi Watts) toils for justice. Moses, Jesus, and the intervening two millennia have supplied similar setups; I was reminded much of Braveheart. Much of the film’s tension rested on creating horror at the fate of a 14yo girl, and fear for the fate of a baby. These devices felt tired to me as well. The violence is extreme. I spent several scenes looking at the ceiling or through interlaced fingers. But the full-frontal scene of Mortensen, in case you were curious, was more astonishing to me for what he did while nude than for the nudity itself. It truly was a case of the nudity serving the scene and the story. Overall, the particulars–Naomi Watts as a concerned bystander, Mortensen as a taciturn mystery man, and the intrigue and complexity of the Russian mob scen–combine to transcend the simplistic features of the story.