Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Year at the Movies 2012: Highlights

This year I went to the movies 91 times to see 83 different films in theaters on Cape Cod as well as in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles. Here are some of the highlights from those big screen experiences.

1. Prometheus

Every year needs a sci-fi event, and Ridley Scott’s Prometheus came the closest. Yes, the film has flaws, but it’s my favorite movie of the year. Why? Because I’ve always been fascinated by the Alien saga, and this film provides a worthy introduction to those creature features, with the strengths of Fassbender’s performance as a free-thinking android; Ridley Scott’s flair for memorable visuals; and the always gripping med-pod scene, in which a machine does an emergency caesarian on Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) in order to extract one of those nasty beasties that love to incubate inside nice warm human bodies.

2. Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell in The Master

The film as a whole may wander back to where it began, but Phoenix’s solidly quirky performance as Freddie Quell grounds the film in the kind of quality filmmaking we expect from Anderson. Within this year's body of films full of characters from novels, musicals, or previous films, the character of Freddie Quell is the best original creation of the year.

3. Kara Hayward as Suzy in Moonrise Kingdom

Wes Anderson delivers a whimsical, thoroughly enchanting entertainment about the innocent young love on the run from disapproving adults and an impending storm. Some moments don’t quite work as well as others, but the performances of Gilman and Hayward as the oddball young lovers are always spot on in the emotions they evoke. Suzy, the free-spirited but tightly oppressed rebel who runs away from home with her young admirer, Sam, is the film’s most touching creation, her delivery toneless but her depth always there. Suzy is my favorite film character of the year.

4. The USS Missouri in Battleship

Admittedly, it’s kind of embarrassing to say that one of my favorite films of the year is produced by Hasbro, maker of the game from which this film gets its title and its main premise, but Battleship turned out to be one of the most entertaining action movies of the year. On DVD, I found myself watching it repeatedly and preferring it, as an action movie, to The Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall. I'd much rather watch Battleship again than revisit The Avengers or The Amazing Spider-Man. Those films have too much flitting CGI going on; Battleship focuses narrowly on a single ship pitted against alien watercraft. The film has rousing action and lots of sci-fi aliens and contraptions for sci-fi geeks, but it also has the great moment when the old World War II battleship steams round Diamond Head to do battle with the big bad alien machine. Boom!

5. The Words: A Story Within a Story Within a Story

Yeah, it’s got Bradley Cooper, but this film was my favorite story of the year; it combines what plays like an autobiographical Hemingway short story set in post-WWII Paris within the story of a struggling present-day writer (Cooper) within the story of a successful novelist (Dennis Quaid) speaking about his latest bestseller and coming on to a young admirer (Olivia Wilde – a plus for any movie). The film portrays the publishing world realistically and has one of the best scenes depicting the act of writing since Yuri penned poetry in his frozen study in Doctor Zhivago.

6. The Multiple Lives of Cloud Atlas.

Read the book. It’s better. But I applaud this imaginative film for its creative ambition, and much of it works with thought-provoking drama. Tom Hanks and the use of a core of performers in hyperbolic makeup are regrettable choices, but the film delivers much to look at and lots of suspense achieved by masterful editing between stories that range in time from the 1850s to a distant post-apocalyptic future.

7. Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln in Lincoln

Day-Lewis does a wonderful job of portraying Lincoln as folksy spinner of yarns, tender-hearted father, and shrewd politician, in a film made uneven and not always dramatic due to its focus on endless House debates and political rivalry. The film is definitely about Lincoln when Day-Lewis is on screen, but the film as a whole should be called The Thirteenth Amendment: A History Lesson.

8. The Cold and Grey: The Grey

Liam Neeson stars in a suspenseful, raw outdoor adventure that plays like an updated Jack London short story: survivors of an airplane crash are tracked and taken down one by one by a pack of wolves. Suitably, the film makes you feel cold, and the terror of the wolves builds throughout the film. In one great image, the vapor rises in the night air from the mouths of many howling wolves. In another memorable image, Neeson, wet and freezing, gets ready for a hand-to-claw finish-fight with the wolf pack leader.

9. Horse Fall in Anna Karenina

In this visually splendid but ultimately flat depiction of Anna’s illicit passion, Joe Wright presents the story as a stage drama – sometimes as a play within a play – and the calamitous horse race in which Vronsky and horse plummet from stage to audience is a dramatically shocking moment.

10. Edgar Rice Burroughs's Star Wars: John Carter

I've always loved the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs - a collection of three of his Barsoom (Mars) novels was one of the first paperbacks I owned - and I'm a sucker for adventure. This movie has battles on land and in the air; four-armed alien desert tribesmen; savage monsters and faithful creatures; a brawny sword-wielding hero and a ravishing sword-wielding maiden. Just like Star Wars! Hey, and if Burroughs wrote his books in the early 1900s, I wonder where Lucas got some of his ideas!

11. The Best On Demand: The Hunter

Though I saw 80 2012 movies in theaters this year, there were some I saw On Demand because there was no hope of their coming to Cape Cod: The Hunter, Bel Ami, Arbitrage, The Bay, The Loneliest Planet, and Deadfall.

Of these films, The Hunter stands out for its unique story: a contract mercenary is hired by a drug corporation to hunt down the last remaining Tasmanian tiger. More than that, it stands out for the most memorable cinematography of the year: raw, moody images of Tasmanian wilderness that looks like the terrain of an alien planet. But it's real! No CGI!

12. The Best of 2011 Late Releases: Coriolanus (2011)

This tremendously gripping and relentlessly bloody adaptation of Shakespeare's tragedy features wonderful performances by Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain, and Vanessa Redgrave, who steals the show whenever she is on screen. Set in a war-torn circa 1990s Balkans state, the film seamlessly stages Shakespeare's lines as CNN news reports; it's amazing how the lines fit! And the drama of Coriolanus's excessive pride and his betrayal of his country is riveting.

13. A Few Trusty Little Movies:

Finally, amidst the onslaught of bloated CGI super-hero movies, amidst a familiar sea of sequels, prequels, and remakes, a number of littler films stood out by delivering original stories and solid entertainment. We can all pay tribute to the modest films that came through for each of us personally amidst the dreck. For me, some of those films were Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, for the touching chemistry between Steve Carell and Keira Knightley; Safety Not Guaranteed for its bizarre story and the affecting relationship that grows between Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a wannabe journalist, and Kenneth (Mark Duplass), a regretful loner building a time machine in order to make up for the past; and Chasing Mavericks for its exhilarating surfing scenes and its tremendous cinematography of massive waves off Half Moon Bay, California.

Note: The above image is the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C., where, over the past eight years, I have seen many movies during my yearly visit to D.C. to take in the sights and see movies with my nephew, Jason Bellamy, a moviegoer whose passion for seeing movies in theaters equals my own incurable obsession for the widescreen cinematic image; a Terrence Malick fan willing to meet me in New York City to see The Tree of Life on opening weekend - twice; an accomplished and perceptive film observer and writer; and a prolific correspondent and fun-loving friend who keeps me seeing the wonder even during the hardest of times.

14. Here is a list of the movies I saw this year in theaters, most of them 2012 releases, some of them 2011 releases, a couple of them 3D re-releases:

The Devil Within, Contraband, Red Tails, The Grey, Man on a Ledge, The Lady in Black, Chronicle, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, A Separation, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Act of Valor, The Secret Life of Arrietty, We Need to Talk About Kevin, John Carter, Silent House, The Hunger Games, Wrath of the Titans, 21 Jump Street, Titanic, The Cabin in the Woods, Lockout, Coriolanus, The Lucky One, The Deep Blue Sea, Chimpanzee, The Raven, The Avengers, Dark Shadows, Battleship, Chernobyl Diaries, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus, Moonrise Kingdom, Brave, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Your Sister’s Sister, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, Safety Not Guaranteed, Katy Perry: Part of Me, The Amazing Spider-Man, To Rome with Love, The Dark Knight Rises, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Total Recall, Hope Springs, The Bourne Legacy, Premium Rush, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Take This Waltz, Lawless, The Possession, Killer Joe, The Words, The Master, End of Watch, Looper, Frankenweenie, Taken 2, Argo, Sinister, The Eye of the Storm, Paranormal Activity 4, Cloud Atlas, Flight, Chasing Mavericks, Skyfall, Pitch Perfect, Lincoln, Breaking Dawn Part 2, Red Dawn, Life of Pi, Anna Karenina, Killing Them Softly, The Sessions, Playing for Keeps, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Jack Reacher, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, This Is 40

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Tarantino Goes South: Django Unchained

When Quentin Tarantino opens his new film, Django Unchained, with a shot of the Alabama Hills badlands emblazoned with the lurid red letting of the main title, immediately reminiscent of the many Westerns filmed in that very location, notably the Randolph Scott Westerns of Budd Boetticher, I felt a thrill of anticipation, wondering where Tarantino might be taking us this time as he blends two late 60s, early 70s genres: the less innocent Westerns influenced by Sam Peckinpah and the outrageously violent, racially charged Blaxploitation flick. Tarantino’s Southern/Western/Blaxploitation film is, appropriately, a revenge tale in which Dr. King (I get it, Quentin) Schultz, a German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) and Django, a liberated slave (Jamie Foxx) work together as bounty hunters and later set out to rescue Django’s enslaved wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), from bondage.

Although slow and sometimes ponderous, the film’s episodic, picaresque first half works fairly well. Schultz frees Django, uses him to track down wanted men, eludes and obliterates a posse of hooded racists in a momentarily spectacular mock up of The Birth of a Nation, and transforms his bitter protégé into a bounty hunter in a snowy scene reminiscent of Little Big Man and Jeremiah Johnson.

Already overwrought in its depiction of violence accented by exploding slabs of flesh and geysers of blood, the film goes South in its second half in more ways than one. In Mississippi, Schultz and Django meet Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), trainer of gladiatorial “Mandingo” fighters (so called in an allusion to the 1975 Southern plantation film Mandingo) and the owner of Broomhilda. At times engaging, as mesmerizing as a swamp snake, Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Candie quickly wears thin in this long, latter part of the film that features one long dialogue after another. If you see a table, characters sit around it and lengthy dialogue ensues, but it is dialogue that is rarely engaging and never builds tension as Tarantino so masterfully did in Inglourious Basterds. For the most part, Waltz drives the film in his role as the articulate German bounty hunter, a clever redemptive twist on his Jew hunter role in Basterds, but it is a long film to carry. Eventually Waltz’s performance weakens under the load, and the endless dialogue sags like a slave-catching bloodhound’s drooping jowls.

This half of the Django Unchained is the lurid slavery half, with grainy footage appropriate to a low-budget 70s film. A runaway slave is torn apart by dogs. We see whippings and brandings. We see slaves shackled with bits and collars. In the film’s most serious moment, we see a naked Broomhilda released from a hot box and carted away in a wheelbarrow. Yes, as Quentin shows us, slavery was horrendous, but any gravity Tarantino achieves is swallowed up by heavy-handed, self-indulgent ridiculousness. And if the film starts to wobble when Schultz and Django meet up with Candie, it falls flat on its face when Tarantino appears on screen in a jarringly bad cameo as an inept slave catcher who gets blown to bits, as though Tarantino realizes subconsciously that he deserves such a fate.

I don’t care how Tarantino alludes to other films, and his own films, how he toys with genres and boldly depicts the horror of slavery and interjects his little jokes. I get the ironic twists (Samuel L. Jackson as a white-haired Uncle Tom). Ultimately, however, it all adds up to one of the worst films of the year, a bloated bag of ineffectual performances and uninteresting writing.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"The play's the thing": Joe Wright's Anna Karenina

Shakespeare certainly liked to draw attention to his own stagecraft. O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/ The brightest heaven of invention.” He saw the theater as an apt little world that paralleled everything going on in the larger world outside. All the world’s a stage/ And all the men and women merely players. The stage was always a useful metaphor. When we are born, we cry that we are come/ To this great stage of fools. Cleverly, he uses a play within a play to dramatize the conflicts in Hamlet. The play’s the thing/ Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

Nifty, but I wonder if Shakespeare’s critics got on his back for drawing too much attention to his own devices. Not likely. Nothing seems to get in the way of Shakespeare’s drama, which is not always true of Joe Wright’s staging of Anna Karenina, in which most of the scenes are enacted upon actual stages.

When Wright’s conceit works, it works well. In my favorite cut, Anna’s son plays with his trains on a huge diorama of a snowy countryside, and as the train (electric trains in the 1870s?) moves along the tracks, it becomes the train that Anna is riding on. Here, the train compartment is an obvious staging with windows painted with ice, but the toy train has established the scene’s realism. This is also a wonderful transition, and a nostalgic allusion to all those old films that employed model trains in place of real ones.

The staging of the grand ball as a scene in a play is initially thrilling, though it goes on for too long. We quickly get the smoldering passion between Anna (Keira Knightley) and Count Alexei Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). They achieve a lot of that just with their eyes, and the ritualistic hand and arm movements quickly lose their effect. Less would have been more in this episode. More dramatically effective is the horse race in which the audience on one stage watches the horse race on another stage. When Vronsky’s horse falls from the track into the audience, It is transformed from a claustrophobic tableau into the film’s most shocking image.

At other times, especially in his manipulation of his extras, Wright lets his staging get in the way. At first, the strictly choreographed office workers stamping documents establish an ominous Kafkaesque bureaucracy, but when this goes on too long, the choreography becomes silly. Silly, too, is the servant who walks a full circle around Oblonsky (Matthew Mcfadyen) each time he hands him what he needs. Meaning can be construed in all of this, but at times I felt I wanted more of Anna and Vronsky, definitely more of Keira Knightley, whose talent for being radiant, desirable, and full of hot passion reminded me of Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago, especially when Knightley wears the ubiquitous fur hat and collar all Russian beauties wear.

I was not always dazzled by Wright’s staging of Anna Karenina, but I enjoyed many moments. The story is slow to start – too much Oblonsky in the beginning – and the ending could have been more dramatic. The staging is interesting, though when Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) takes us out into the sprawling Russian countryside, I found myself wishing the film had employed more exteriors to counterbalance the claustrophobia of the interiors in which characters enact their dramas amidst backstage pulleys and props. To be fair, however, it is easy to see how the cluttered interiors are appropriate to a story about what goes on in the confines of urban Russian society as well as within the confines of Anna's heart.

In the film’s impressive final image, Levin’s rural Russia is framed as a backdrop on a stage in a theater sprouting wheat. I’m not sure what it means, but it’s a nice image. Perhaps it means that Levin’s Russia is the real Russia, and Russian high society is “a great stage of fools.” Similarly, Anna Karenina provides moments of drama and clever imagery, but some of this gets smothered by the confines of the device.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

“THE MORNING OF THE VOTE:” Spielberg’s History Lesson: Lincoln

When it comes to the Civil War, I have always been more interested in what it was like for the individual nameless soldier thrown into the vast hell of combat rather than in the large mythologized characters of Grant and Lee and Lincoln. This will be shocking to many Civil War enthusiasts, but my least favorite Civil War novel is Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels. It does little to depict the gritty horror of the most horrific battle in American history. Instead, it focuses on famous generals who stand around discussing strategy and spouting memorable quotations. My favorite Civil War novel, which focuses more on individual soldiers and memorably presents the Battle of Antietam as a savage slaughter, is Confederates, written by the Australian author Thomas Keneally.

For this reason, one of my favorite moments in Spielberg’s Lincoln involves the nameless “Second White Soldier,” played by Dane (Chronicle) DeHaan, who stands nervously in front of Lincoln, swearing and stuttering as he tries to recite the Gettysburg Address. I suppose the device is a little corny, but I see this character. He is real. As for Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis does a masterful job of portraying the thoughtful, erudite, yarning, folksy side of the great American president, speaking in a tight-jawed, laid-back country voice. However, in a long film that has trouble generating a compelling pace, Lincoln’s yarns wear thin. Day-Lewis injects some life into his character and the film when he pounds the table and willfully rants about getting what he wants: the Thirteenth Amendment, and very poignant are the quiet moments with son Tad (Gulliver McGrath), who is fascinated by images of slaves (a nice way to illustrate the film’s focus), sets up his lead soldiers on War Department maps, and drives his goat-drawn cart around the White House. But Lincoln the man is eventually overshadowed by big events and hobbled by Spielberg's reverent tone.

Spielberg’s topic is a grand one: the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment that ends that “peculiar institution” of “involuntary servitude” that is America’s Holocaust. But as Spielberg gets wrapped up in treating this grand topic with the same high reverence he treats the tragic ordeal of Jews in the Holocaust in Schindler’s List, throwing in the same close-up of a flame that dissolves to an image of Lincoln giving his second inaugural address, Lincoln the man recedes into the background of House bickering, pushed aside too by the film’s painstaking effort to eke climactic moments out of each House member’s momentous vote. Amidst the squabbling, Tommy Lee Jones takes center stage as Thaddeus Stevens, though I found myself preferring the solid presence of David Straithairn as Secretary of State William Seward.

Spielberg’s film is an enjoyable, well-performed, serviceable history lesson, full of chuckle-inducing quips and anecdotes as it focuses narrowly and reverently on one event in Lincoln’s last year alive even though it is based on a work of non-fiction (Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln) that covers multiple dramatic events during the last five or six months of the Civil War. Yes, yes, I know Lincoln is about the Thirteenth Amendment and not about the Civil War, but I feel the film loses power and historical context as Lincoln spins his yarns and congressmen quibble over whether or not all men are created equal, and I found myself hankering for the story to break out of its claustrophobic interiors into something shocking and dramatic that might have broken the slow pacing and provided a panoramic backdrop for this historic debate.

My favorite scene, a masterful image, comes early in the film when we see Lincoln’s spooky, ominous dream. This hints at the great film Lincoln could have been - a haunting look at the last months of the great man's life as he juggled management of political rivalry over the Thirteenth Amendment with orchestration of the final fierce campaigns of an epic war.

Why not parallel the suspense and drama of the House debate with some cuts to the suspense and drama of the war? When Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Bruce McGill) describes his plans for the bombardment of Fort Fisher in which Union ships will fire more than a hundred shells per minute, why not cut to a shot of this fearsome assault made possible by the North’s vastly superior resources? Before Lincoln visits the Petersburg battlefield, why not show Grant’s all-out advance on the Confederates’ fifty-three-mile-long defenses, to show Grant’s assertive total-war battle tactics and how Lee was still able to escape so that he could stubbornly prolong the war? Instead of something expansive, Spielberg takes time for a puzzling, lifeless, overly reverent tableau depicting the surrender at Appomattox. Set to a choral lament, the image seems to pay last-minute homage to Robert E. Lee. The violence is kept off-screen to the very end when Lincoln and his wife, Mary, played splendidly by Sally Field, go off to Ford’s Theater, (an episode that very closely resembles Lincoln's departure for the theater in this summer's Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). When a man runs on stage to shout, “The President’s been shot!” it is on the stage of another theater in which Tad is viewing a swashbuckling play.

For good or ill, Spielberg keeps his narrow focus, the vote is won, and Thaddeus Stevens’s African American housekeeper lies in bed with him and reads the Thirteenth Amendment aloud. (Thankfully, it is short.) In this way, Spielberg teaches us and teaches us and teaches us. Indeed, he doesn’t trust us to know a little bit about the period. When Jared Harris first appears, it is obvious that this stern, bearded, cigar-chomping commander is Ulysses S. Grant, but the subtitle reads, ULYSSES S. GRANT. Conversely, subtitles name the three Confederate peace commissioners, one after the other, even though we don’t need to know their names; we know they are the peace commissioners and that is enough. Later, when the congressmen gather for what is obviously the beginning of the debate, we see the words, THE HOUSE DEBATE BEGINS. When it is obvious that the vote is going to take place in a day or two, we cut to custodians setting things up in the empty House chamber, and John Williams’s momentous music cues us to what we know is going to take place, but still the subtitle tells us it is THE MORNING OF THE VOTE.

Monday, November 12, 2012

High Noon at Skyfall

The rave reviews are out there. Entertainment Weekly gave it an A. They’re calling it the “best Bond.” But I didn’t see it that way.

In the latest James Bond film starring Daniel Craig, Bond is recovering from a near-death experience. He looks older, his cheeks are sunken, and his hand shakes when he aims his gun. That won’t do! Out to thwart him is a villain named Silva, played by Javier Bardem who taps into his own Chigurh from No Country for Old Men as well as Heath Ledger’s the Joker. (Like the Joker, Silva seems to have a limitless army of goons willing to do his bidding and die in droves for him. I always wonder how much these fools are getting paid! Whatever it is, it's not worth it!) The conflict is simple. Silva wants to kill M (Judi Dench) for some past betrayal when Silva was an agent for MI6 – but it seems to be more than that. When, at the end, Silva is just about to shoot M, I almost expected her to say, “No, Silva, I am your mother.”

All sounds good, but the first half of the film is a snooze. We start with yet another chase across the roofs of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Ah, this time it’s with motorcycles, but the Turks need to ban films from shooting in this over-used location. This follows the car chase through the bazaar. Saw that in Taken 2. Then we proceed to the fist-fight on the top of the speeding train. I’m starting to nod off. Hasn’t this been done in a previous Bond film? The Turkish engineer blithely speeds on while Bond rips the roof off a car with a ditch digger. Then, another head scratcher when Bond’s sidekick Eve (Naomie Harris) takes “the shot,” hits Bond, but then doesn’t take another shot at the bad guy! Suck it up, Eve, and do your job!

Later, after Shanghai and a mysterious island, things grow tense when it appears that Silva is going after M in London! But the writers should have thought of any kind of chase other than a chase through a subway. All future films need to be banned from shooting chase scenes in subways. Also, if the sewer roof explodes behind Bond and he says, “Was that for me?” and Silva retorts “No, this is for you,” you and I and James all know that a train’s going to come through the roof and all he has to do is step aside, which he does with no problem. What a waste setting that up, Silva, just to give it away!

The second half (probably less than half) of the film gets better, starting with the chaotic shootout in the hearing chamber, with desk-job agent Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) pulling a gun and joining in. I enjoyed that. Appropriately, what follows plays like High Noon at Skyfall Manor, very much a Western scenario, with a bit of Straw Dogs thrown in for good measure, as Bond, M, and the old game warden (Albert Finney) defend the Alamo. “Welcome to Scotland.”

I liked all the Western stuff, and I liked the stark setting of the stone manor in the middle of the Scottish moor, and the wonderful Roger Deakins-framed images of the pursuit across the moor shot against the bright flames. Loved all that, and I enjoyed the humorous tributes to previous Bond films (the ejector seat), but at nearly two and a half hours, Sam Mendes could have trimmed off most of the first half and gotten us more expeditiously to Showdown at Skyfall. Also, M should have been Silva’s mother.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Chasing a good movie? See Chasing Mavericks

Disgusted that Flight, a serious film about an airliner crash and a pilot (Denzel Washington) struggling with alcoholism, crash-dives when John Goodman struts on screen to "Sympathy for the Devil," trying on a little bit of the Big Lebowski, playing a cheerful provider of booze, cigarettes, and cocaine?

Is Cloud Atlas, at two hours and forty minutes, way too much Tom Hanks for you?

You've seen Argo and one Taken too many?

Then get out there and see Chasing Mavericks, a film about Jay Moriarty, the young man who made surfing history by riding the highest wave off Half Moon Bay, California. If, like me, you had seen the ridiculous preview that makes it look like the latest made-for-Disney Channel teen romance/impossible-athletic-feat movie, you will be surprised to find a more mature drama about mentorship and facing fears, and you can fill your eyes with some stunning cinematography of the gnarly waves off Half Moon Bay. One surprising shot made me exclaim out loud. You can also feast your eyes on the beautiful stretches of Highway 1 between Santa Cruz and Half Moon Bay.

A big plus for me is that I grew up twelve miles from Half Moon Bay and I have gone down those stretches of Highway 1 countless times since childhood, but the story and the gripping climactic scene are well worth viewing no matter where you are from.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Who are your favorite characters in American history?

Upon seeing the cover of this week’s TIME, I felt a burst of emotion, not because I'm a Lincoln enthusiast, though there is much to admire about the much-admired 16th President of the United States. It was more out of a passion for the performances of Daniel Day-Lewis, the actor shown on the cover, and my eager anticipation for Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln.

Once again, Day-Lewis has invested himself in his role in true Day-Lewis immersion style. Apparently, he has reproduced Lincoln’s odd voice like no other performer. It sure sounded that way as I sat through the preview this weekend before a showing of Cloud Atlas; though I closed my eyes to avoid spoiler images, I couldn't help hearing Lincoln's voice, which sounded nothing like Daniel Day-Lewis. Much more than that the film is about Lincoln, I look forward to the film for Day-Lewis’s performance and for the Civil War period depictions, as well as for a sense of wonder and a swelling hope-in-cinema I always feel in anticipation for a Spielberg-directed film (although that butterflies-in-my-stomach hope is often disappointed).

As for Lincoln, one of the most famous figures in the American history I have taught 8th graders for the past twenty-seven years, I have always felt kind of indifferent toward the man. Yeah, he was folksy, funny, bookish, determined, assassinated, and he put an end to the pernicious institution of slavery (which inevitably would have been ended by some president), but he was surrounded by monumental events that always seem to dwarf the man. I never feel Lincoln. Perhaps Spielberg and Day-Lewis will make me feel differently.

That said, I got to thinking about my favorite characters in American history. I have selected five of my favorites and matched each with a performer who has played him or her well, a performer who could play this personage for the first time, or a performer who could play the part better than previous performers in an updated depiction.

I welcome you to join me. Who are your favorite characters in American history? Pick one, three, or five, however many you want. Explain a little why they are favorites. Go a step further and imagine these figures in a bio-pic. Who would you like to see play these characters in films? Or, if you are satisfied with a past portrayal, who played the role well?

My Favorite Characters in American History

1. George Armstrong Custer

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t idolize the man. (If anything, I idolize his Native American enemies.) I see him for what he was – a reckless glory-seeker. But I have to admit I have a read a lot about the guy, and my fascination for him, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, drew me to make two trips to the National Monument in Montana during two consecutive summers. He certainly had a dramatic life: all those daring cavalry charges during the Civil War and, of course, his demise in one of the most dramatic moments in American history. I am fascinated by his audacity and blind courage and the enigma that surrounds him. Why the hell did he divide his meager, exhausted troop into four contingents in his advance upon a vast Indian village that contained two thousand fighting men? And then why the hell did he leave half of his contingent on a ridge while he went ahead with a hundred to look for a way to attack the village? My fascination for this enigmatic American man, as well as a childhood during which I played Custer in countless re-enactments of Custer’s Last Stand in my backyard, makes him my favorite character.

As for the many performers who have portrayed him in films, none of them have captured the real Custer. I’d like to see Ryan Gosling take a stab at it.

2. Clara Barton

She might well be the famous American I admire the most. She’s a man’s woman, helping the wounded under fire at Antietam, identifying the dead at Andersonville, organizing relief measures for the survivors of the Johnstown Flood. Wow! Why hasn’t anyone made a movie about this woman?

As for an actress to play her, Claire Danes has something in her face that bears a resemblance. I’m open to suggestions, but I’m sure Danes could do a good job. Somehow, Clara Barton is the type of role Hilary Swank usually lands, but I just don’t see her in the part.

3. Lucy Parsons

When political affairs in D.C. are at their most absurd, I turn anarchist. Long live anarchy! And my favorite anarchist is Lucy Parsons, wife of Albert Parsons, one of the four anarchists wrongfully tried, convicted, and hanged for their beliefs as a result of the 1886 Haymarket Square Bombing. When Lucy went to the prison to see her husband on the morning of the executions, she was cruelly told to wait in a room. Three hours later, the police came for her and told her the hangings were over. Lucy took up her husband’s crusade as an anarchist labor activist, campaigning for labor reform and women’s rights. She died in a fire in 1942; some sources suggest foul play, so perhaps she had been killed for her beliefs as well. Again, somebody make a movie about this woman! I have a poster of her up in my classroom.

I’d like to see Halle Berry take on Lucy; Berry needs a substantial role.

4. David Crockett

Yeah, I know. What did he do? Died at the Alamo. But his is such an iconic American persona. As the backwoodsman who served a number of periods in the U.S. Congress, he is a fine example of the egalitarian ideal. He was funny, too. When he lost his final campaign, he said, “You may go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” Darn! See what you get for cussin’, Davy! In addition, Disney’s The Adventures of Davy Crockett and John Wayne’s The Alamo impressed themselves upon my childhood imagination so deeply that I can’t leave Davy off the list.

I thought Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal of Crockett in the 2004 The Alamo was spot on and very memorable, but I’d love to see a film that covers Crockett’s whole life, and I’d like to hand the job to Sam Rockwell, who fit right into that backwoodsy atmosphere in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

5. Theodore Roosevelt

Teddy is my favorite American president. (He and Lincoln are the only Republican presidents I admire.) He was a Republican with a social conscience and quite the character. With a little more effort, I might think of a recent actor who could portray him memorably, but I am totally satisfied with the memorable performance of Brian Keith as Teddy in the 1975 film The Wind and the Lion. Keith masters the toothy grin and sometimes plays Roosevelt as caricature, but in a number of touching, quiet moments, Keith captures the man. Out on the shooting range, he confesses to his daughter, “I’m blind in that eye . . . but don’t tell Edith. Maybe it’ll go away.” In another scene, after all the foreign tension is resolved, Teddy just wants to commune with the bear he shot while playing cowboy in Yellowstone. “And now, I’d just like to be alone with my bear.” Bully!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Looper - A Glossary of Terms

Writers of science-fiction novels just love inventing terminology for the trappings of their sci-fi worlds. Some novels pile on the terminology so thick that, thankfully, a glossary of terms is provided. (I find sci-fi novels like that very irritating; more artful are the novels that introduce invented terms sparingly in such a way that the story teaches you the terms as you go along and a glossary is not needed.)

The problem with some sci-fi movies is that they include so many gimmicky terms that you can’t keep them straight. This is not the problem with Rian Johnson’s sci-fi thriller, Looper. Mercifully, Johnson has not piled on the terminology to the point of obfuscation, and the terminology invented is clearly defined by the main character's voiceover. Though the film might lose you in respects to its time-travel conundrums, it doesn’t lose you in a sea of labels.

Still, I would like to supply a glossary just for fun. Mild spoilers ahead.

Glossary of Terms:

looper, noun: a hit man from the year 2042 who is hired by a mobster from 2072 (when time travel has been invented) to assassinate enemies sent back to 2042, bound, hooded, and strapped with a payment of silver bars, to be shot and disposed of without incriminating the future mobster. Clever! In Looper, Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a looper who is good at his job, as you see in a repetitious montage of hits so repetitious as to be entirely tedious.

Joe kneels next to cane field holding a shotgun. Joe looks at his watch. Victim suddenly appears on a tarp waiting to receive him. Joe shoots victim. Victim flies back off tarp. Done. (So why doesn’t he place the tarp behind the spot where the victim is predestined to land?) This sequence is repeated multiple times. (Also, for security reasons, you'd think the loopers would choose a different location for each hit. Change it up a little!)

Gordon-Levitt, who is supposed to look like a younger Bruce Willis by means of prosthetics and CGI, looks like someone who had a very bad experience with a surgical makeover to the point of looking frightening throughout the film. Nevertheless, through the fearsome mask, Gordon-Levitt is able to express Joe’s developing compassion as he learns the meaning of love and family and starts to salve over inner wounds. This aspect of Joe’s moral progress gives the film heart.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Quell and Dodd: Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master opens with the close-up of a World War II soldier peering from under his helmet, an image reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line in which soldiers peer from under their helmets at the horrors of war. At one time, Freddie Quell, played by Joaquin Phoenix, may have been one of those men, but we never find out. Instead, the film cuts to discordant music and a beach where traumatized soldiers seem to be recuperating in a frenetic orgy of wrestling, sculpting lewd sand sculptures, humping lewd sand sculptures, drinking, and masturbating. We never find out what has traumatized Freddie Quell. Perhaps, Randle McMurphy style, he’s feigning his condition in order to be close to sources of alcohol and to get out of work, or perhaps Freddie Quell has always been a solitary, alcoholic, sex-addicted outcast.

This is one of the many enigmas that make Anderson's inspired creation, Freddie Quell, a compelling character, especially when allied with Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, another enigma. Lancaster, Dodd, suggested by L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Dianetics, is a domineering, sometimes brilliant, sometimes childish, volatile, often weird singer of songs, creator of the Cause, a self-help cult that promotes a hypnosis-like therapy called “processing” for connecting with and healing past traumas. As Hoffman portrays Dodd’s passion, it would seem that Dodd really believes in all the hocus pocus he has conjured up and continues to change. But, as Dodd's taciturn son (Jesse Plemons) finally says to Quell in the one of the best moments in the film, “He’s making it up as he goes along.”

The greatest pleasure of this film is watching Anderson’s film craft. He makes something memorable out of the shot of a desperate man running across a field. He brings a 1950s department store to nostalgic life. Compelling too are the performances of Phoenix and Hoffman. While Hoffman sometimes slips into histrionics that reveal Hoffman through the artifice, Phoenix totally transforms himself into Quell. He morphs body, face, and speech. Speaking out of the side of his tightly clamped mouth, his speech is sometimes hard to follow, but the affectation effectively evokes the turmoil inside this troubled soul. Walking as though it is painful, suffering through Dodd’s processing sessions, ripping apart a jail cell, Phoenix always makes you see Quell.

Much like a Dickensian character bordering on caricature, a troll-like Mr. Quilp or a writhing Uriah Heep, Phoenix’s Quell constitutes the film’s compelling core. In the beginning, as a troubled loner; as a photographer in a department store until he beats up a customer; as a cabbage field harvester until one of his caustic alcoholic concoctions poisons a fellow worker, Quell is fascinating to follow, and I found myself preferring the film’s picaresque first chapter to the Dodd chapters that follow. When he hooks up with Dodd, he is again the enigma. Does he become a true convert to the Cause, willing to play the goon, a zealous “brownshirt” roughing up hecklers for the charlatan Dodd? Or is he just an opportunist going along for the ride, enjoying the action until it’s time to move on? With all the tension that seems to be building between Dodd and Quell, or between Dodd and his followers, or between Dodd and his loopy wife, superbly played by Amy Adams, lurking mysteriously in the background, it seems that a dramatic denouement is promised. Alas, it never comes.

Yes, I suppose the film takes Quell to a subtle denouement. In one of the best scenes, he has gone back to Lynn, Massachusetts, to look up the “girl next door,” perhaps the one true love of his life. In this quiet scene in which the girl’s mother tells him she has been married for five years, Quell comes to grips with his flaws and fatalistically embraces his aimless destiny. Quell is back to where he started, alienated and solitary, drinking heavily, trying out Dodd’s processing therapy on a whore. Perhaps Quell has not changed at all. He’s back on the beach. This ending is, perhaps, appropriate, but the viewer is left with a film that employs skillful filmmaking to depict two compelling characters who are never taken toward a compellingly dramatic conclusion.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Random Thoughts on The Words

I enjoyed The Words for the intricacy of the plot. The Words is a story wrapped around a second story that flashes back to a third story which includes a fourth story.

The third storyline is set in a very picturesque post-World War II Paris. Ben Barnes plays a young American who comes back to Paris after the war, falls in love, and tries to become a writer. The idyllic street scenes set the tone for this story of a young man who would like to be the next Hemingway. The romantic setting suggests the magic inherent in the act of writing. The novel that the young man eventually writes is shown in glimpses as he writes it, and as another writer later reads it and word-processes it. This presents the novel with a sense of wonder that makes it believable that it becomes a much-loved bestseller.

Dennis Quaid is quite commanding as Clay Hammond, the author of a book called The Words, which is about an unsuccessful, aspiring writer named Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) who finds the lost manuscript of the young writer in Paris (Ben Barnes as the young man/Jeremy Irons as the old man) and calls it his own.

Once again, Bradley Cooper plays a wayward, aspiring writer, as he does in Limitless. In both films, his character is faced with a choice. In Limitless he writes a successful book by taking a drug that enhances his mental processes. In The Words, he takes a lost manuscript, calls it his own, and becomes a bestselling, award-winning writer. Cooper does quite well depicting Rory's anguish when faced with his moral dilemma.

I love movies that depict the act of writing. We see someone writing with a pen, with a typewriter, with a word-processor. A gripping, passionate scene captures the torment and hard work of writing. (It also deals realistically with rejection and the difficulties of getting published.) I remember those manual typewriter days! Love the shot of the young writer struggling with a typewriter ribbon. I remember banging away at a ribbon until I could no longer ink the paper. The film also depicts the torture of writer's block, and I like how it portrays the enigma of creativity. The same young man who can't seem to join words together effectively suddenly finds inspiration and pours out a heart-felt story. That's how it can work sometimes.

I love the film's simple paradigm: young man, old man, lost manuscript, aspiring writer, moral dilemma, choice, repercussions. But there is a lot going on in this simple pattern. The Words is about passion, the imagination, moral choices, justice, and living with an immoral choice. At the same time, the cinematography employs a minimalism that nicely frames the conflcts: writer with laptop; writer with typewriter; Rory faced with his choice; Rory and old man in Central Park; Clay Hammond with book entitled The Words.

Primarily, The Words is about words and the challenging, painful, elusive art of writing. We see words on a laptop screen. We see them scribbled on scratch paper and on a file folder. We seem them in English and French. We see them printed in a hardback book. We see the young man's clear, Hemingwayesque diction typed on age-yellowed manuscript paper, the pages placed in a folder, the folder kept in an old leather briefcase. You can feel the writing going on.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

“You are my Sunrise / My only Sunrise"

This is fucking great! vs. NOT EVERY GREAT MOVIE HAS TO BE AWESOME.

In a recent post at the Cooler: Sight and Soundless: How Cinephiles are Failing Cinema, Jason Bellamy states simply, A great movie is one that as you're watching it, and after, makes you think, "This is fucking great!" He goes on to exhort, We need to ditch this notion of over-praising movies we "respect," which is almost always code for "I didn't like it as much as I think I'm supposed to, but I'm not about to look like an idiot by saying so," and let our heart and our gut guide us. His statements here come in response to the Sight and Sound critics’ poll that supplanted Citizen Kane as #1 and included Sunrise, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and Rules of the Game in the top 10.

In a rebuttal post in The Front Row, David Brody of The New Yorker contends that NOT EVERY GREAT MOVIE HAS TO BE AWESOME. He goes on to say, One of the dangers for a critic in putting the pleasures at hand on the top of the heap is that of taking familiarity for primacy, of mistaking habit for merit and comfort for virtue—to take the conventions of our own times and milieux for the center of the universe.

I, however, have always believed that a great movie elicits the response, as you watch it and after you watch it, "This is fucking great." And I don't believe Bellamy is contending that the pleasures at hand necessarily provoke this response. I might consider movies like the Nic Cage disaster film Knowing and the sci-fi film Tron Legacy "fucking great," but they are not "fucking great" with a difference. They compel me to watch them repeatedly for certain satisfying elements, but they don't compel me significantly in regards to the ideas and emotions they evoke.


Murnau's 1927 silent classic has been used as an example of a film that critics might choose for a top 10 list because they feel they must in order not to appear ignorant. Oddly, I was compelled by this film BEFORE I saw it when I read about it in a book about the silent era. I loved the title, and I was fascinated by its simple paradigm, its fable-like story that the book summarized with a series of stills. I immediately went to to buy a copy, but I discovered that it was not available in a new DVD. Much later, when it was re-released on DVD, I bought it and watched it twice. Again, love the title! Love the simple story and some of its stunning images. But I can't say I am greatly compelled by its overall effect. I can hum its praises but I can't sing them.

"You compel me."

I disagree with Brody. I have always felt that a GREAT movie HAS TO BE AWESOME! Like Bellamy, I have always let my heart and gut be my guide when it comes to naming great movies. If I had been called upon to contribute to the Sight and Sound Greatest Films list, this would be my guide, and I’m afraid I wouldn’t choose Sunrise for the top 10. In way of providing a euphemism for Bellamy's declaration, "This is fucking great," I feel that a great movie is one that as you're watching it, and after, makes you think, "You compel me." You want to talk about it. You want to write about it. (Bellamy exhorts critics to write about those less-known films they consider great.) You want to sing its praises. "You are my __________, my only __________." Fill in the blanks yourself.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Odd Life of Timothy Green

The Odd Life of Timothy Green features sensitive performances by Jennifer Garner and Joel Edgerton as Cindy and Jim Green, a married couple suffering the loss of childlessness. Rosemarie DeWitt is excellent as Cindy’s sister, a mother of children she drives to be perfect while David Morse gives a solid performance as the father who was not always there for Jim. As Timothy Green, young CJ Adams is nicely understated, allowing his whimsically cute face to establish a wonderful presence. As mutual outcasts, Timothy and a dark-haired hippie girl named Joni, played sincerely by Odeya Rush, establish a kindred-spirit alliance as memorably touching as the relationship between Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. While Geoff Zanelli’s thoughtful musical score suits the film’s fanciful tone, the talented cinematography of John Toll captures the dazzle of autumn woods and the simple beauty of small-town America. In addition, the direction of John Hedges (writer for What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) makes up for any slips into silliness by keeping the pacing tight and carrying the story along to some delightful surprises. All of these strengths support an often powerful story about life and death; parenting, both good and bad; dealing with loss; coping with a child’s handicap; suffering ostracism and alienation; tolerating differences; persevering in the face of hopelessness; and gaining fulfillment in unexpected ways.

Sounds great! So let’s stop there. Oh, yeah, the story. I’ve told you what The Odd Life of Timothy Green is about, but I haven’t told you what it’s about. Okay, well, here goes. It’s about this couple, Jim and Cindy, and they are told they can’t have kids, so Cindy is at home crying, and Jim says they should hold one last hope, so they drink wine and write down their wishes for what their child would be like if they had one, each wish on a separate chit of paper, and they put the pieces of paper in a box, and they bury the box in Cindy’s vegetable garden, and I guess they have sex, but it only shows the bedroom light going out, but, hey, this is a Disney movie, and it rains even though there’s been a drought, and that night they find a ten-year-old boy named Timothy running around their house naked and muddy, and, uh, yeah, right, you guessed it, there’s a big muddy hole in Cindy’s garden as though something has grown right out of the box they buried, so that’s mind-blowing, yeah, but it beats dealing with adoption agencies (which is pointedly satirized by the film’s wraparound scenario in which Jim and Cindy are telling their bizarre tale to a dour adoption agent played by the ever-dour Shohreh Aghdashioo), and Timothy’s a cute, an enchanting little boy, except the one thing is, uh, here goes, he has leaves growing out of his ankles, but, hell, what are leaves growing out of ankles when you’ve finally got a kid and you didn’t have to go through an adoption agency or hire a surrogate mother who doesn’t want to give up the kid at the last minute and takes it to court, so they keep Timothy, and send him to school, a big mistake, because we know what kids are going to do to a boy like Timothy, and later the things Jim and Cindy wrote on the chits of paper all come true in one way or another, and Timothy is regarded as odd by some, but many are touched by him, and, finally, autumn comes and the leaves change color and fall, and Timothy’s leaves change color and fall . . .

Phew! Got that done. And now you expect me to tell you how silly this movie is. Well, I’m not gong to. Want me to tell you that it takes its premise to ridiculous extremes? Can’t do that either because it doesn’t. One of the best films of the year, The Odd Life of Timothy Green assumes the tone of a fable and delivers its many morals with charm and grace. Despite some of its simplistic, Disney Channel scenarios, it covers many serious topics very effectively. We’ve all suffered loss. There’s that something we’ll never get. This movie portrays that feeling sharply. Ever felt like an outcast? Ever yearned for a soul mate to share your alienation? This film captures the pain of that yearning. Ever been the parent of a child who is “different”? The Odd Life of Timothy Green zeroes in on that feeling sharply. This is not just a cute fairytale about a boy who brings joy and provides lessons and leaves people with the strength to go on. Behind Timothy’s cute face is an awareness of the hard things in life. Timothy knows what it means when the leaves fall.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Two Worlds of Total Recall

I had seen Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall when it came out in 1990, but I didn’t recall (ha!) how bad it was until I watched it the other night on Comcast. All right, it has a young Sharon Stone in sports bra and exercise tights demonstrating her flexibility in a fight with Arnold Schwarzenegger when it turns out she's a secret operative and not his wife. But the whole film plays like a bad late-70s, early-80s science fiction film using 1950s-quality special effects without any sort of textured atmosphere. In addition, in keeping with the late-70s, early-80s look of the film, most of the actresses have perms, clearly demonstrating what a bad hairstyle that was.

The basic plot of both the 1990 Total Recall and the 2012 “reimagining” is one involving a lot of chases and shootouts as a man (Arnold Schwarzenegger/ Colin Farrell), who starts as average-Joe Douglas Quaid but may in fact be secret agent Carl Hauser, runs from agents trying to kill him and attempts to stop the power-seeking villain, Cohaagen, from wreaking havoc in some way. (In the original film it’s all about controlling Mars and the mining of a precious metal; in the 2012 version it’s all about invading the Colony of Australia in a world in which uncontaminated living space is scarce.) In the 1990 version, the chases and shootouts become boring early on. In the recent version, many of the chases and shootouts are injected with a lot more imagination and some nice surprises.

On top of that, Total Recall (2012) has the distinct advantage of pitting Kate Beckinsale as the villainess, Lori Quaid, against Jessica Biel as the heroine, Melina. Action movie veterans Beckinsale and Biel provide one of the film’s main attractions when they go up against each other. Beckinsale’s thin face becomes frighteningly fierce, and she seems a lot more flexible and agile than Biel, probably due to all her Underworld experience, but Biel exudes convincing strength and determination. It’s up to you as viewer to decide which of them kicks ass the best. Beckinsale or Biel? Sometimes torn between the two is Quaid/Hauser, played with sensitivity and a compelling driving force by Colin Farrell.

Monday, July 23, 2012

In the Land of Movies

This month, my movie-going daughter, Jane, and I spent two weeks in the L.A. area, the land of movies and many wonderful cinemas, staying with her aunt, uncle, and grandmother in Pacific Palisades.

I was hoping for a showing of Lawrence of Arabia or Ben-Hur at the Egyptian, but no such luck. Gone With the Wind was playing at the Aero, but I’m not a fan.

Anyway, Jane had dibs on first viewing, so we took in Katy Perry: Part of Me at the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. I expected merely to tolerate this life-story/concert pic, but I rather enjoyed it. I had no idea Perry was the daughter of Evangelical Christian parents, both of them ministers. My favorite part comes when Perry’s parents are hanging out in the dressing room before the big performance, and Katy asks her mother which of her songs is her favorite. “’I Kissed a Girl’”? she teases. “Not that one,” her mother says sweetly, refusing to sound shocked. Katy Perry’s stage fashions are beyond bizarre, but she’s a good performer, and I liked the little added drama involving her side trips overseas to spend breaks with her hubbie, Russell Brand, how this wears her down to the point of collapse, and how their breakup threatens the show. Will she go on stage or give up? We know she’ll get out there and belt out “Firework.” As for Russell, he’s a creep. I think his accent's a put on.

I was at least hoping that The Amazing Spider-Man would be playing at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, one of the best movie-viewing venues in the world. But that magnificent screen bordered by those opulent curtains was still showing Tyler Perry’s: Medea’s Witness Protection. Go figure! At least we took time to look at the footprints of the Harry Potter and Twilight casts, along with other famous footprints.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Don’t you want somebody to love/ Don’t you need somebody to love/ Wouldn’t you love somebody to love - Jefferson Airplane

Out there right now are three enjoyable films that explore that persistent human endeavor to find somebody love. All three films offer laughs, fine performances, and moments for poignant self-examination. In each of the three films, quirky circumstances throw together a man and woman in unexpected partnerships that might seem unlikely on the surface. But, as the individuals involved realize, what you feel under the surface is more important. In addition, each film ends with the encouraging suggestion that, no matter your personal troubles, there is someone out there for everyone.

In Your Sister’s Sister, directed by Lynn Shelton, Jack (Mark Duplass) and Iris (Emily Blunt) have been best friends for many years. That’s why Iris sends Jack, who is grieving the loss of his brother, to her family’s island vacation home for a much-needed getaway. When Jack finds that Iris’s sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), is also there for a getaway after breaking up with her female partner, Jack and Hannah complicate things for Iris, who also turns up at the cabin and is secretly in love with Jack.

While presenting sticky situations that provide some clever humor, the film doesn’t draw out the comedy of errors to a silly extent. Characters are quickly forthcoming, as seen in some touching, sensitively performed moments. Evoking a sharp sense of place – a summer island that makes you feel like you’ve been there – and offering some brilliantly genuine acting, especially on the part of Emily Blunt, the film’s strengths are in its lucid moments in which believable characters express their hopes and desires in believable ways.