Archive for the '2009 movies at home' Category

“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946)

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

I watched It’s a Wonderful Life for the first time last night. Good, but almost unrelentingly sad right up till the admittedly satisfying ending . (I was reminded of when the friends of Friends tried to show it to Phoebe as an example of a movie with a happy ending.)

Instead, watch American Madness, a Capra film with some of the same banking and character motifs, or Shop Around the Corner, a better, IMO, Stewart holiday film.

ETA: At Mental Floss, 10 bits of trivia about It’s a Wonderful Life.

“Death at a Funeral” (2007)

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

Death at a Funeral was my husband G. Grod’s pick, and I didn’t much care for it. The tone of black humor was never quite right, and jokes were used again and again, which felt to me like getting repeatedly hit over the head.

The redeeming factor was Alan Tudyk, along with Peter Dinklage the only Americans in the film, who was hilarious stoned.

“Bridget Jones’ Diary” (2001)

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

I didn’t watch Bridget Jones’ Diary because it’s a holiday movie, but it opens and closes at the holidays, so it was a happy coincidence.

This is a silly little film that somehow rises above its own absurdity to reach an almost alarming level of charm and hilarity. Zellweger actually appears human with her extra 25 pounds. Colin Firth brings dignity to a role that could have been thin and ridiculous. And Hugh Grant plays the cad, a role he’s much better suited for than the bumbling nice guy that he usually plays. He captures it nicely when he says he’s a guy with a posh accent and a terrible character.

Not high art by any means, and left me with a lurking uneasiness about why Mark Darcy would fancy Bridget, as she’s such the opposite of Lizzie Bennett. But as an everywoman caricature of normal insecurities, and a fantasy of “getting” Mr. Darcy, it works. Like a charm.

“The Shop Around the Corner” (1940)

Wednesday, December 30th, 2009

My favorite holiday movie is The Shop Around the Corner, later remade as In the Good Old Summertime and You’ve Got Mail. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are bickering store clerks in Budapest. Unknown to them, they’re also pen pals, writing provoking and passionate anonymous letters to one another.

The rest of the store’s staff has a more robust plot than might be expected, which is part of what gives this romantic comedy some heft and impressive momentum.

This movie might be perfect. I love it.

“I Love You, Man” (2009)

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

I Love You, Man is a decent, if uneven, comedy about Peter Klaven (Peter Rudd) and his lack of close male friends. His father and his brother are best friends, his fencing buddies are having a bachelor party for a guy he didn’t even know was getting married, and where is he going to find groomsmen, much less a best man, once he gets engaged?

At a real-estate open house, Klaven meets Sidney Fife (Jason Segal), a straight-talking, easy-going guy. A friendship soon develops as they bond over food and their love of the band Rush. Soon Peter starts fighting with his fiancee, Zoe (Rashida Jones), though, and things don’t go quite as planned.

This is for fans of Rudd and Segal, and fans of improv-type awkward comedy. Some of the scenes and lines are cringe inducing, yet many are hilarious.

Sydney Fife: You get home safe, Pistol.
Peter Klaven: You got it, Joben.
Sydney Fife: I’m sorry, what?
Peter Klaven: Er… nothing.
Sydney Fife: No, what did you say?
Peter Klaven: Nah, I don’t know… You nicknamed me Pistol, and I just called you… “Joben”… It means nothing… I don’t… I’m drunk… I’m gonna call a cab.

There are great supporting parts with Jon Favreau and Jaime Pressley as a constantly bickering couple, JK Simmons as Paul Rudd’s dad (even though he’s only 14 years older than Rudd) and Andy Samberg as Rudd’s gay brother, Robbie. It’s good, not great, but I laughed out loud many times.

“Coraline” (2009)

Wednesday, December 9th, 2009

Why do movies come into the library in clumps? Can’t someone come up with an algorithm so that my movie requests are spread out, instead of avalanching on me three in one week? Coraline, based on Neil Gaiman’s young-adult novel, was the third DVD this week. Like Where the Wild Things Are, it’s based on a children’s book, but is better for older kids and adults. There’s scary stuff and creepy imagery.

Coraline and her inattentive parents move into an apartment complex peopled with strange characters, like a mouse-circus ringmaster and two aging stage performer sisters. Largely ignored by her parents, Coraline discovers a secret passage to a similar house, where she meets her “other mother.” The other mother looks and sounds like her mother, but nicer. She feeds Coraline good food and offers to play with her, things that don’t happen in Coraline’s regular life. Unsurprisingly, things at the “other” house turn out to be too good to be true:

Other Mother: You know, you could stay forever, if you want to. There’s one tiny thing we have to do first…

Coraline is a clever, engaging young heroine of the Miyazaki tradition in this stop-motion animation horror movie. The director, Henry Selick, also helmed The Nightmare Before Christmas. Watching, I was also reminded of The Triplets of Bellville and Pan’s Labyrinth. This is an intriguing, visually interesting twist on the “be careful what you wish for” admonishment.

“Trouble the Water” (2008)

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Last year’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner for best documentary, Trouble the Water, took a while to get to me on DVD, but was worth the wait. Kimberly Rivers Roberts, an aspiring rapper and New Orleans resident, was too poor to evacuate the city for Hurricane Katrina, so instead she turned on her video camera and captured one small group’s survival. Roberts is clearly no professional; her camera shakes and judders, yet what she films is so fascinating that I hardly was bothered by the camera motion. As the storm begins, she and her husband invite friends and neighbors in to weather the storm. As the levees break and the water rises, they realize this is not just another hurricane.

Roberts, who teamed with documentarians Tia Lessin and Carl Deal (who made Fahrenheit 9/11), is one of the few able to leave the city right after, and later returns. Intercut with her own footage are news clips that include Bush and the FEMA director making what would come to be disastrously ill-informed commentary. The doc also pulls the veil back on the myth of New Orleans recovery, and shows how devastated the city still is, especially in the poorer areas. Most damning, though, is that the number of white residents who returned vastly outstripped those of color, many of who remained displaced in what was called the greatest forced migration in US history since the Dust Bowl. This film is sobering and empowering, with glimpses of cautious optimism in the face of staggering opposition.

“Marley and Me” (2008)

Monday, December 7th, 2009

My husband knows me fairly well after fourteen years, and I surprised him this week by bringing home the DVD Marley and Me from the library.

“You?” he asked. “Dogs? That movie?”

I can understand his confusion. I am not a heartwarming-pet-movie kinda gal. In fact, after watching the movie, I have clarified my relationship with all creatures: I value those I can sit down and have an interesting conversation with. Hence my struggles with small children. And that’s the part of the movie–family and small children–I appreciated. One reviewer commented when this came out what a good job it did with the struggles about family, which is why I borrowed it from the library.

Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston are young married reporters when they acquire a puppy on the cheap. When one kid arrives, then another, along with the supposedly impossible-to-discipline dog, their lives are tossed about. There’s crying, screaming, anger and frustration. Aniston, near tears from exhaustion and what it’s done to her formerly sharp mind, notes that no one ever told them having a baby would be so hard. Wilson responds that even if they had, they wouldn’t have believed them. It’s a conversation that could have dived into cliche, yet it’s done simply, and illustrated well, and was one example of why this movie was better than the sap-fest I expected of it.

I’m still not, or never will be, a dog person. But Marley and Me is a decent movie about family, career and life choices, even for non-dog people.

“Adventureland” (2009)

Friday, December 4th, 2009

Adventureland glanced off me like water off a duck’s back. I didn’t get the appeal at all, though it received mostly good reviews when it was in theaters. Jesse Eisenberg plays the Michael Cera role–a smart geek inept with women. His post-college trip to Europe is canceled, and the only job he can get is at a local theme park. The year is 1987, and while some references were spot on (mostly the music) others were not quite right. Kristen Stewart and Ryan Reynolds look as if they were dropped in from a modern movie, Eisenberg is so vague in appearance he could have been, so the other characters often looked as if they were in 80’s drag rather than in character.

The plot feels like that of every teen movie, ever, except that it’s characters are supposedly post-college, which never felt quite right to me. Their emotional and communication skills seemed more suited to high school. And that’s kind of an insult to high schoolers. Eisenberg is a geek who likes the cool girl, Stewart, who has the emotional acting range of a turnip. Her idea of emoting is fiddling with her hair, which IMDB says she does 55 times in the film. Stewart is fooling around with the cool guy, Reynolds, but develops feelings for the geek, and things don’t quite come together. SNL’s Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig have a few good moments in supporting roles–one with a bat, the other with stuffed bananas. The plot is not dissimiliar to that of Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which I liked at the time but seems cut from a similar cloth–trying to go for the charm of a John Hughes 80’s romance, and not being sincere enough to pull it off.

My husband G. Grod was similarly unimpressed with it, but two friends, The Big Brain and his henchman C, said they loved it. BB even said it was one of his favorite movies from last year. He wondered if perhaps when I am older and no longer caring for small children, and my heart has softened from its current stone-like state, if I might view it more favorably. I doubt it. I’d rather re-watch a John Hughes movie.

“The Misfits” (1961)

Friday, November 20th, 2009

In a strange coincidence, my husband G. Grod requested The Misfits from the library, though it was me who’d heard it referenced on a recent Mad Men. It’s a John Huston film, with a screenplay by Arthur Miller, based on a story he wrote while he was in Reno waiting for his divorce to come through so he could marry Marilyn.

Marilyn is Roslyn, a recent divorcee, who falls in with Clark Gable’s aging cowboy lothario, Eli Wallach’s bitter mechanic, Montgomery Clift’s fading rodeo rider and her landlady, Isabelle:

Isabelle Steers: The Leave It state. Ya got money you want to gamble? Leave it here. You got a wife you want to get ride of? Get rid of her here. Extra atom bomb you don’t need? Blow it up here. Nobody’s gonna mind in the slightest


The men are all in love with Roslyn, though she and Gable try their hand at playing house. Tensions build, and reach a breaking point in a breathtaking sequence in the mountains with the men chasing mustangs.

The film never seemed to find its footing for me, though. Ostensibly it’s about a group of outcasts trying to find their way in a changing world. I think it was at least as much about the futility of group friendships and how men can act like vicious idiots to and about women. Miller’s screenplay is verbose, and not suited to Monroe’s twitchy, breathy attempts at acting. Gable seems like he’s playing himself, Wallach is fine, but it’s only Clift who caused me to feel anything for any of the characters other than the horses.

Uneven, but still fascinating, if only for the glimpse of Monroe and Gable in their last film, and how prophetic the film seems in retrospect. As for prophecy, this is one of the bits of trivia listed at IMDB:

On the last day of filming, Clark Gable said, “Christ, I’m glad this picture’s finished. She [Monroe] damn near gave me a heart attack.” On the next day, Gable suffered a severe coronary thrombosis. He died in hospital from a heart attack just ten days later.

“Frost/Nixon” (2008)

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

Frost/Nixon finally came up in my library queue. My husband G. Grod wasn’t interested; he abhors bio-pics. So I squeezed in viewings here and there. It was mostly well done and engaging. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen reprise the roles they created on stage. Langella does a great job playing an historic figure without simple mimicking Nixon, or resorting to caricature, as would have been easy to do. Sheen is ridiculously likable as lightweight television host David Frost, and given a bit of grounding by his director John Birt, played by Matthew McFadyen in a truly awful blond wig. (NB to MM fans: he goes running butt-naked into the ocean in one scene.) Sam Rockwell and Kevin Bacon are strong in supporting roles.

David Frost: I’ve had an idea for an interview: Richard Nixon.
John Birt: You’re a talk show host. I spent yesterday watching you interview the Bee Gees.
David Frost: Weren’t they terrific?

My one problem is how overly dramatized the film became. There was more than enough to have a quiet, moving film. Instead, there’s a pivotal event near the end, invented for dramatic purpose, which spurs Frost into an utterly predictable montage and through to the easily anticipated end. What elevates the film are the performances and the small details of Nixon’s private life.

“The Muppet Movie” (1979)

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

I feel like a heretic writing this, but the original Muppet Movie kinda creeped me out on a recent re-watching with my kids. “Rainbow Connection!” “Movin’ Right Along!” What could go wrong?

For starters, the villain of the film is Charles Durning’s Doc Hopper, who owns a chain of frog-leg restaurants. When he fails to convince Kermit to shill for him, Doc Hopper goes on a cross-country chase, hiring goons with guns and even a frog assassin with a deadly trident. An additional overlong scene with Mel Brooks as an evil Nazi-ish scientist trying to melt Kermit’s brain was similarly disturbing.

Add in the annoying, feminist’s nightmare of Miss Piggy, along with Gonzo’s good-time chicken Camilla, a host of celebrity cameos that weren’t funny, and WAY too many awkward scenes of Muppets walking, and that’s it for me, even with a gargantuan closing scene featuring all the Muppets, ever. (According to IMDB’s trivia, both Tim Burton and John Landis were in that crowd.) This was the first Muppet project to take place in the real world, and it didn’t work. I won’t watch it again, though I’m happy to view the collections of The Muppet Show and read the excellent new comic by Boom Studios with my kids, 6 and 3yo.

“Valentino: The Last Emperor” (2008)

Thursday, November 12th, 2009

Valentino: The Last Emperor is a dishy little documentary about European designer Valentino, the last of the big-name global fashion designers to run his own house. At 75, after 45 years designing, Valentino continued to work daily, even as his company was sold and then taken over, and rumors flew about his retirement. The film shows the events leading up to his last few shows, as well as the amazing 45th anniversary celebration that took place in Rome.

Fashionistas will delight in glimpses of insiders like Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld, as well as celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Hathaway and Uma Thurman. Valentino is a dynamo, but he shares the spotlight with longtime business and personal partner Giancarlo Giametti, as well as with his own stunning creations, brought into being by a hard-working team of numerous seamstresses.

“The Searchers” (1956)

Monday, October 26th, 2009

My husband G. Grod and I have some major gaps in our film viewing, and given G’s love of Westerns, it’s odd we hadn’t seen The Searchers before. Something recently reminded G of this, so we borrowed it from the library, then had one of those “hit myself in the head for not having seen this before” moments.

The Searchers
was a collaboration between John Ford and John Wayne, with the latter as Ethan Edwards, a long-lost brother who returns to his family just prior to their attack by a group of Comanche native Americans. Ford and the family’s foster son Martin track the group over five years, searching for the remaining girl.

Ethan: Our turnin’ back don’t mean nothin’, not in the long run. She’s alive, she’s safe… for a while. They’ll keep her to raise her as one of their own till, until she’s of an age to…

Martin: Don’t you think there’s a chance we still might find her?

Ethan: Injun will chase a thing till he thinks he’s chased it enough. Then he quits. Same way when he runs. Seems like he never learns there’s such a thing as a critter that’ll just keep comin’ on. So we’ll find ‘em in the end, I promise you. We’ll find ‘em. Just as sure as the turnin’ of the earth.

Wayne is surprising, but not quite believable, as the bitter outsider. He’s angry at the kidnappers, but willing to kill the girl after she’s been with the tribe so long. In the final confrontation, he has to confront his own hatred, with moving results.

The film is beautiful to look at, Wayne is totally at home in the duds and the saddle, and best of all, it doesn’t offer answers up to the viewer on a platter. Details of the relationships are shown, not told and some only hinted at, like that between Ethan and the family’s foster son Martin.

Some fun bits of trivia from IMDB:

Natalie Wood was in still in high school, and John Wayne sometimes picked her up there for a ride to the set.

Buddy Holly’s “That’ll be the Day” was inspired by Ethan’s catchphrase.

This was Wayne’s favorite role; he named a son Ethan afterwards.

If you, like us, haven’t seen it, seek it out. This may well be one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.

“Redbelt” (2008)

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Redbelt, a David Mamet film, was one of those blink-and-you-miss-’em films from last year. I wanted to see it in theater, didn’t manage by the time it was gone, then forgot about it for a while. But I’m glad I finally got around to it.

There’s always an escape.

Mike Terry is a mixed-martial-arts teacher and studio owner. An accident followed by a chance celebrity encounter combine in strange ways and have strong repercussions. Ejiofor is fantastic as the idealistic master, Emily Mortimer’s American accent worked fine by me, and she perfectly embodied her fragile character who’s not quite ready to get ground down. Tim Allen is great in his brief screen time as a boozy, overblown action star who tries to mooch onto Terry’ obvious power and charisma. Joe Mantegna plays an oily Hollywood agent, and they all interact in a heady mix of Mamet’s sharp (sometimes too much so) dialogue and story. Nothing much was surprising, but I found the entire thing engaging and enjoyable. An excellent rental.

“In the Shadow of the Moon” (2007)

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

I sought out In the Shadow of the Moon after reading and enjoying T Minus, the comic book historical novel about the space race to the moon. The film is terrific. It combines interviews with the men from the Apollo program alongside historical footage. It’s an amazing story, well told, and a great example of a documentary. Sorry for the brevity of the review, but there’s not much more to add than: See it.

“Children of Men” (2006)

Monday, October 19th, 2009

I saw Children of Men in the theater, but re-watched it with my husband G. Grod. He was dissatisfied with the ending, which he said can be predicted from the beginning. He has a point, but the look of this film is so haunting and distinct, and the performances, especially by Clive Owen and Michael Caine, are so excellent that any weakness in story was simply brushed away for me. It’s a chilling dystopic vision that seems all too possible, and the look, which doesn’t rely on special effects and gadgetry, reinforces this. The deservedly famous tracking shot in the car only makes this film more impressive. I think it’s great, though others like G. Grod don’t. See it yourself to decide.

BBC Imports: “Wallender” and “State of Play”

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

In an unfortunate bit of timing, I had two miniseries come into the library at once. Both were BBC productions. Wallender has three 90 minute movies and stars Kenneth Branagh. I’s based on the mystery novel series by Swedish writer Henning Mankell. State of Play had six hour-long episodes and was the basis for the US film starring Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck that was released this week on DVD. Try as we might, we weren’t able to finish 450 minutes of BBC miniseries in a week that also included Mad Men, Project Runway and Top Chef. But with the long weekend, we managed and the library late fees aren’t too bad.

Branagh’s Wallender is a weary Swedish detective whose wife has left him because he was too involved with work. His daughter tries to get him out of his shell, but he’s confronted by such horror in his work that it’s understandably hard for him to heed advice to rest, stay home, relax and see other people. In “Sidetracked,” Wallender tries to help a scared young woman who then burns herself alive before his eyes. In “Firewall” a young girl commits a grisly murder, seemingly at random, while an apparently healthy man drops dead. And in “One Step Behind” he is so plagued by lack of sleep he doesn’t listen to a colleague who desperately needs his help.

Both “Sidetracked” and “Firewall” were good, if not great. The moody acting and the Swedish scenery are impressive, the mysteries less so. Branagh is utterly engaging as the harrowed and talented detective. “One Step Behind,” though, is a dud. Not only does it have Wallender acting stupid and insensitive because of lack of sleep, it has a horrible cliche of a villain–a jealous, vindictive, murderous transvestite. It’s a nasty sexist portrayal that further brings down this already weak entry in the series. I recommend the other two episodes, though, and will seek this series out if it comes back to PBS. The strengths outweigh the problems.

State of Play also had a serious flaw for me. The first five hours of it were absolutely riveting. David Morrissey shines especially, as the English Parliament member whose affair with an aide is exposed after she dies in an apparent accident. Polly Walker as his estranged wife also does great work. Their reporter friend, Cal McCaffrey, is trying to help them while also unravel the mystery that gets more complex with each episode and unfolds into a brain-twisting mass of government and big-business conspiracy and espionage. The ending of the final hour, though, undoes much of what was good about the episodes that went before. It may be an attempt at a surprise ending. The problem with these, though, is that they tend to negate all that went before. This audience member was left feeling cheated. This was fun to watch, and well done until the last episode. The US movie was not well reviewed, and I can’t imagine how they must have dumbed it down to fit into 2 hours. I recommend this miniseries, but with reservations about the ending.

In light of these, I’m reminded of a few film and literature cliches that need to be retired, including the evil transvestite and the surprise twist ending. I’d add to those the mystical person of color, who teaches an ignorant white person the deeper meaning of life, and the sacrificial mentally retarded character, whose death teaches others tolerance. Enough, already. Quit with the gimmicks, especially those that perpetuate stereotypes about those with already challenging lives.

Throne of Blood (1957)

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

The first time I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, I feel asleep about 50 minutes in. I’d just read and seen a stage production of Shakespeare’s MacBeth at the time, which is the source material. This week I tried again, starting at the beginning. I fell asleep at the same place. To be fair, though, I started watching much too late, so I wasn’t in optimal viewing mode.

I did finally finish it in two more sittings. Toshiro Mifune is the MacBeth character, Washizu. After a great victory in battle, he and his friend Miki discover a spirit in the forest who predicts that Washizu will be king, as will Miki’s sons.

The story proceeds mostly according to the play, but what makes this movie powerful and unique are the stunning visuals and the transposition of the story to feudal Japan. Also fascinating is the Japanese version of Macbeth and his lady. Lady Washizu speaks softly with goading words. She is all the more frightening for her passivity, and the power she wields with it.

Admirable, my Lord. You, who would soon rule the world, allow a ghost to frighten you.

The ending splits from the text. While the trees of the forest do rise, it is not a MacDuff character who undoes Washizu, but his own men, an unthinkable act of rebellion enacted in a flurry of arrows (most of them real!). Well worth it for fans of Shakespeare, film and Kurosawa, but be sure you’ll alert before you begin, so you can fully appreciate the visual treats to come.

“Fargo” (1996)

Sunday, August 16th, 2009

Fargo is regarded by many as the Coen Brothers’ best film, and my husband G. Grod and I hadn’t seen it since it came out, which was before we moved to Minnesota. We re-watched it the other night and liked it more than I remembered.

William H. Macy (who had to lobby HARD for the part) is a dorky guy who tries to fake his wife’s kidnapping so he can get the ransom. He hires Steven Buscemi and a scary-looking guy and of course things go very wrong. Frances McDormand (or Mrs. Joel Coen) is the local police in Brainerd. Seven months pregnant, eating at an Old Country Buffet with her high-school sweetheart husband, Marge is an average person who is a good detective, but baffled at the crimes that develop.

I’m not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Lou.

It’s dark, it’s funny, it’s eminently quotable.

I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper.

It’s a good satire of Minnesotan accents and culture. But it’s also too dark and violent for me, at least some of the time. Good, and one of their best, but even so not one of my favorites (which are Blood Simple, Miller’s Crossing, and The Big Lebowski.) G. Grod’s favorite is Miller’s Crossing, which he showed me when we were dating.

The credits claim a cameo that didn’t occur. The story both was and wasn’t based on real events. And kudos to local actor Sally Wingert who has a small part in the film; I KNEW she looked familiar!