The Genius wrote a Sonata about a deal he made with the devil to avoid dying on the Battlefieds of Earth

June 25, 2014 progress: 4 movies

Faust (2011)
Faust (2011)

1) Faust (2011)

This is a loose adaptation of the Faust legend by Russian director Alexander Sokurov.

Constantly searching for enlightenment, when Heinrich Faust becomes infatuated with young Gretchen, his friend Mauricius agrees to work his dark magic to help Faust be with Gretchen in exchange for his soul.

There are plenty of better adaptations of the legend, including the 16th century play Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe.

This film can’t decide if Mauricius is the devil, a supernatural being, or just a very talented man.  The spiritual ramifications of the film are cheapened by the indecision.

Sokurov’s most famous film is Russian Ark (2002), a continuous tracking shot through the Winter Palace.

This film is a decent attempt at updating the Faust archetype, but misses the mark and diminishes the most vital elements.

Autumn Sonata (1977)
Autumn Sonata (1977)

2) Autumn Sonata (1977)

A collaboration between Swedish film giants Ingrid Bergman and Ingmar Bergman.

This was the final major theatrical release of Ingrid Bergman’s career, and she went out with a bang.  She plays an aging concert pianist, Charlotte, who is called to visit her estranged daughter, Eva (played by Ingmar Bergman regular Liv Ullmann).  Charlotte was cold and distant during Eva’s formative years, instead focusing on her musical career.  Another daughter, Helena, paralyzed and disabled, comes to live with Eva during this time.

The movie is a tour de force in dysfunctional family relationships.  It has all of the family drama of the recent film August: Osage County (2013), but doesn’t resort to cheap stunts such as incest or suicide.  The characters involved are relatively normal people who made rational, albeit cold-hearted decisions based on their own self-interest.

This film, masterfully, doesn’t try to sensationalize dysfunction, nor does it falsely promise familial reconciliation.  It’s a non-romantic view of families, and in many ways it is the daughter’s insistence on clinging to her romantic notions of family which thwart her from finding fulfillment.

Ullmann is almost always a delight when involved in a Bergman film and this is no different.

Ingmar Bergman’s influence on the twentieth century can hardly be overstated.   He was one of the most celebrated artists in the primary artistic medium of the era.  His career spanned nearly six decades and included some of the most personal and reflective films of all time.  Everyone is familiar with his image of the grim reaper playing chess with his next victim in The Seventh Seal (1957).  His other 1957 masterpiece Wild Strawberries is one of the earliest (and still one of the best) films focusing on an elderly man coming to terms with his life in his twilight years.    His trilogy of films: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963), and The Silence (1963) are a profound meditation on faith in a postmodern world.  Cries and Whispers (1972) is, amongst other things, an unflinching look at the mixed emotions which accompany a loved one’s death following a long illness.

If you’re interested in seeing Ingrid Bergman as something other than Ilsa from Casablanca, I highly recommend this film.

It’s also one of the most accessible of Ingmar Bergman’s films, which are often layered with obscure and dense imagery.

Baby Geniuses (1999)
Baby Geniuses (1999)

3) Baby Geniuses (1999)

This is not a good movie.

A description of the plot is sufficient to cast a dubious pall over the rest of the film.  A scientist, Dr. Kinder (Kathleen Turner), is convinced infants have an innate intellectual ability which is lost when they “cross over” and learn the dumbed down language of their parents.  She kidnaps babies from a local orphanage, conducts experiments on them, then uses the information from her experiments to build an empire of children’s educational toys.

That’s a stripped down version of the plot, but more than I care to remember.  It’s a poor idea, poorly executed.

How did talented people like Kathleen Turner, Christopher Lloyd, Peter MacNiccol, Kim Catrall, and Ruby Dee get involved in something this asinine?   I’m assuming they were blackmailed, or their agents are idiots, or they were all nearing bankruptcy.

The remarkable thing is not that the film got made, but a studio executive watched this and liked it enough to move forward on a sequel.

If you like bad movies, or enjoy wasting time, watch this.

Battlefield (2000)
Battlefield (2000)

4) Battlefield Earth (2000)

Speaking of wastes of time.

This vanity project by John Travolta effectively ended his comeback.  Once a star in the 1970s, his career had fallen apart after a series of misfires in the 1980s, but in 1994 Quentin Tarrantino resurrected his career with Pulp Fiction.  This movies proved Travolta’s earlier poor decisions were no fluke.

Based on the novel by L. Ron Hubbard and widely seen as a a Scientology apology, this is a stupendously bad movie.

Travolta plays Teri, a Psychlo security chief who for political reasons is condemned to remain on Earth indefinitely.  Forrest Whittaker plays his subordinate, Ker.  Together, they devise a plan to mine gold on the planet and sell it.

One problem, Psychlos cannot breathe around gold, so they must use native humans to get it.

Barry Pepper plays a human slave recruited to mine the gold who then leads a rebellion against the Psychlo occupation.

The Scientology elements certainly didn’t help the film’s box office, but the main problem is it’s a ridiculous film which never bothers to make us care about its characters.  It appears it was forced through production because of Travolta’s considerable clout and will.

He gambled audiences would flock to see it and lost.   While he still has name recognition, his career has never recovered from the debacle.

One burning question: what did Travolta have on Forrest Whittaker to convince him to be a part of this film?

It’s as bad as its infamy would suggest.

On Devil’s Island they have bugs in June

June 24, 2014 progress: 2 movies

Papillon (1973)
Papillon (1973)

1) Papillon (1973)

Steve McQueen is Henri Charrière (better known as Papillon).  He was a safecracker who was falsely imprisoned for murder and sentenced to hard labor on Devil’s Island.  There, he meets the scrawny embezzler Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman).  The two form an unlikely friendship and work together to escape.

To the Baby Boomer generation, Steve McQueen is the epitome of cool.  To men in their 60s, he was the idolized hero of their youth.  But his movies seem dated now.  He has charisma, but his ability make you believe in a character is limited.  In the stuff I’ve seen, he basically just plays Steve McQueen in every film.

On the other end of the spectrum, Dustin Hoffman can play just about any character, making audiences believe him   His Louis Dega is the most interesting thing in the film.  Despite his two Academy Awards, Hoffman is an underrated actor, often forgotten when people are asked to name the greatest actors.

Franklin Schaffner directed this film, Planet of the Apes (1968) and Patton (1970).  To go from iconic and somewhat campy science fiction, to huge war epic, to a portrait of a notorious prison escapee in a five-year period is a testament to his versatility as a director.

I liked this movie, but it plays like a lesser version of Shawshank Redemption.  I know it’s based on Papillon’s autobiography, but his story limits the film’s effectiveness.  His exploits are interesting, but it’s difficult to root for an unrepentant criminal, who may not be a murderer, but freely admits to being a crook and a thief.

It’s a good movie, and it may be Steve McQueen’s best work, but it’s a little underwhelming, and not as good as it could have been.

Junebug (2005)
Junebug (2005)

2) Junebug (2005)

A newly married couple travels to the husband’s hometown to see his family and visit a local artist his wife is trying to sign to her art gallery.

It’s a quirky, independent film which would be all but forgotten except for the amazing performance of Amy Adams.

Scott Wilson, now well-known because of his work as Herschel in The Walking Dead TV series plays the timid and quiet father of the family in the film.

The reason to watch this is Adams.  This film made her a star, and it should have.  She’s incredible as Ashley Johnsten.

Ashley is a nervous, and unsophisticated small-town girl.  Her marriage is on tenuous ground and she believes the baby she is about to have will solve her problems.  Adams takes what could have been a caricature and breathes life and vitality into the role.  The end of the film, which I don’t want to spoil, is heartbreaking entirely because Adams makes it so.

Too many films are so preoccupied with what they have to say, they forget to make a good movie.  This is a pro-family and pro-life film, but not in a way that berates opposing views.  It makes an argument, but doesn’t force anyone to agree.  You don’t have to share its worldview to appreciate the film’s artistry.

Senna was Fearless

June 21, 2014 progress: 2 movies

Fearless (1993)
Fearless (1993)

1) Fearless (1993)

Max Klein (Jeff Bridges) survives a plane crash and the experience changes him emotionally and psychologically;  he grows apart from his wife and son and grows closer to a few of the other survivors.  One of those survivors, Carla Rodrigo (Rosie Perez in an Oscar nominated role), lost her son in the crash.  While she struggles to adjust to life without her son, she develops feelings for Max.

The crash provides Max with insight into the human condition, but it’s not much deeper than the platitudes found on Hallmark cards or phony religious tracts.

The movie ends with Max having another near death experience which wakes him back to his normal life.

I like Jeff Bridges, I like John Turturro, and I like director Peter Weir (especially Dead Poets Society and The Truman Show), but this film fell a little flat.

I should clarify: I like older Jeff Bridges.  Post The Big Lebowksi (1998), his career went into overdrive, but his earlier work, despite occasional flashes of brilliance, isn’t as impressive.

Tom Hulce was phenomenal as Mozart in Amaadeus (1984), but his career never really took off.

I liked seeing John de Lancie (who was great as Q in Star Trek: Next Generation) as Max’s business partner and friend who died in the crash.  I’m not sure why he didn’t have a more impressive career.

Isabella Rossellini plays Klein’s wife, but the role is generic and doesn’t give her anything to do but suffer.

A young Benicio Del Toro plays Carla’s husband, but his role is also generic.

The best thing about the movie is John Turturro as Dr. Bill Perlman, the psychiatrist hired by the airline to treat the surviving passengers dealing with PTSD.

I wanted to like this movie, but it’s too hollow.  It wants to be profound but it doesn’t have anything to say.

Senna (2010)

Senna (2010)

2) Senna (2010)

This documentary chronicles the history of Brazilian motor-racer Ayrton Senna from his Formula One debut in 1984 to his death in a car accident at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.

I’m not a huge fan of motor racing, and like most Americans, my knowledge of motor racing ends with NASCAR and the Indy 500.

Formula One is a mystery to me.  I’m familiar with a few names, like Michael Schumacher and  Mario Andretti, but that’s the limit of my knowledge of the sport.

I had not heard of Senna or his chief rival Alain Prost before this movie.  It was interesting to watch their rivalry develop, but not enough for me to watch this a second time.

Due to my lack of knowledge of the sport and the players involved, I wasn’t emotionally invested in the film.  The only thing I will take aware from it is an awareness of who Senna was and the role politics played in the rules of the sport (even rules designed for safety purposes).

The Daytime Panic in the Streets of Mecca

June 20, 2014 progress: 3 movies

Day for Night (1973)
Day for Night (1973)

1) Day for Night (1973)

The film is a love letter to the collaborative process of movie making.  The title is a reference to a cinematographic technique which allows filmmakers to film a night scene during the day.

The backdrop is the production of a French melodrama starring an older screen legend, a younger sex symbol, and a British actress (Jacqueline Bissett).

The atmosphere surrounding the production resembles a summer camp with petty fights, romances, and epiphanies.  Sometimes the people involved in filming Je Vous Présente Paméla hate each other and wish the interminable filming would end, but they realize how special and fleeting their time together is.

In a charming bit of camera winking, the director of the actual film, Francois Truffaut, plays the director of the film within the film.

Truffaut began his career as a film critic before directing the seminal French New Wave film, The 400 Blows (1959).  Since then, his name, like Fellini, and Kurosawa is recognizable even to people with no knowledge of film history.

Despite his success with directing, his most important contribution may be his development of the auteur theory.  Prior to Truffaut, the “credit” for a film was alternately given to the producer, the studio, the writer, or the director.  In Truffaut’s conception, the director was the sole “author” of a film.   After Truffaut, it became possible to talk about similarities in style and substance between films of any director, and this theory is still the dominant way most people think of movies.

This movie challenges his theories and serve as a sort of lab where he can work through the consequences of his ideas.

Rather than the product of a deeply personal vision of the director, the film within this film is a product of an unpredictable collaboration.  The director is forced to work around various personalities and crises, including meddlesome producers and money shortages. However, it is the director who solves the problems, and everyone on set looks to him for guidance and final say.  It may not be the vision the director intended, but it is his vision.

This is a fun, but forgettable movie.  I can’t remember any characters or specific scenes from the film.  It’s an impressionistic film about the process of the chaotic process of making a film: it’s only through luck and determination it gets finished.  Now, when I watch other films, I’m tempted to imagine the scene on the other side of the camera: the director, the actors, and the myriad relationships and struggles which somehow combined to created this series of images.

I think the movie is intentionally forgettable; it doesn’t matter who said what or who did what.  Like the best summer camp experiences, the details will fade to haze, but the impression of the experience will last and grow.

Panic in the Streets (1950)
Panic in the Streets (1950)

2) Panic in the Streets (1950)

When Kochak is killed by the gangster Blackie (Jack Palance), the coroner finds elements of bacteria in his blood and realizes Kochak was carrying “pneumonic plague”.  The film becomes a mad dash to identify his murderers so they can be quarantined to avoid a pandemic.

It’s not a particularly special film, but it’s fun to see a young Jack Palance.  Palance had a fairly substantial career before finding fame later in life.  He was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in Shane (1952) forty years before he won for his work in City Slickers (1991).  He played Fidel Castro in the 1969 film Che! (Omar Sharif played Che Guevara), and he had a small role in Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman.  However, he’s most famous for his impromptu one-handed push-up following his Oscar win in 1992.

Quintessential B movie actor Richard Widmark plays the doctor who discovers the bacteria and warns of the pandemic . For people who watch a lot of movies, his name shows up a lot, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you anything he was in or pick him out of line-up.

Zero Mostel has a small role as a gangster associate of Blackie. Mostel made an indelible impression in The Producers (1968), but his film career was limited because of his testimony before the House Un-American Activites Committee.  Refusing to name names, he was blacklisted and the movie The Front (1974) dramatizes the way he and other creative artists of the era attempted to circumvent their status.

Elia Kazan directed many of the best films in American history: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), On the Waterfront (1954), East of Eden (1955), A Face in the Crowd (1957).  Coming out of the New York theater scene, Kazan’s films always include incredible performances.  He introduced film audiences to Marlon Brando and James Dean.  He directed Andy Griffith in A Face in the Crowd, one of Griffith’s only dramatic roles.  He directed Warren Beatty’s debut in Splendor in the Grass (1961).

Kazan was an actor’s director and allowed his actors to create the role and do things no other director would. This freedom revolutionized film acting and popularized The Method.

But while Mostel and others stood firm against McCarthyism, Kazan gave friendly testimony and exposed many of his friends as communists.  As a result, he was never blacklisted and continued to work into his old age, but his reputation in Hollywood suffered.  When he received an honorary Academy Award in 1999, a significant portion of the audience in attendance refused to applaud.

The movie itself is a little generic. It’s value lies in seeing young Palance, Mostel, and any insight into the later work of Elia Kazan.

Mecca: The Floor that Made Milwaukee Famous (2014)
Mecca: The Floor that Made Milwaukee Famous (2014)

3) Mecca: The Floor that Made Milwaukee Famous (2014)

This film is a part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 Shorts.

In 1978, the owners of the MECCA arena in Milwaukee, Wisconsin paid pop artist Robert Indiana to paint their basketball floor.

Indiana is most well-known for Love.

The arena was home to the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA. Their arena became something of a sensation and a source of local pride. After the Bucks moved in 1988, the arena was renovated and the floor removed.

This short documentary traces the efforts of a local Milwaukee man to locate and preserve the iconic floor.

It’s a charming short film about passion and the attachments we develop with inanimate objects.

That’s not a boy, it’s a man!

June 19, 2014 progress: 1 movie

Oldboy (2013
Oldboy (2013

Oldboy (2013)

Josh Brolin, stoic and impenetrable, is perfect as an outwardly menacing, but inwardly heroic figure.

Elizabeth Olsen (the younger sister of Mary Kate and Ashley) is going to be star.  She radiates charisma and confidence.

Sharlto Copley was great in District 9 (2009), but he hasn’t been in enough for me to gauge his effectiveness as an actor.   I liked him in The A-Team (2010), but Elysium (2013) is pedestrian.  In this film, he’s not menacing enough to be The Stranger.

At this point in his career, Samuel L. Jackson no longer creates new characters, but does impressions of his iconic role in Pulp Fiction: a dangerous self-righteous killer.  When you see his name in the cast, you know he’s going to yell, threaten, and kill someone.

Spike Lee has made some very good films: Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992), 4 Little Girls (1997). 25th Hour(2002).  His best films are personal films about race and identity.  He’s a bit out of his comfort zone with this film.

This is not a bad movie, but it’s inferior to the original.   Park Chan–wook’s 2003 film adaptation of the original Japanese manga was a visually astounding tale of revenge and the unintended consequences of our actions.  This remake hits the same beats as the original, but feels tired and uninspired.

There was a time when a Hollywood director could snatch up the rights to a remake of a hot foreign property and have a sure-fire hit, because American audiences would be oblivious to the original.  It worked for Scorsese with The Departed (2006).  However, with the advent of streaming services and the increased accessibility of foreign films, these films have already found an audience in America.  The Departed was not compared to Infernal Affairs, but this film did have to compete with the original and suffered as a result.  With the increasing globalization of the film industry, hasty remakes of popular foreign films may not be a good business decision.



The Quiet Transamerican

June 18, 2014: 2 movies

Transamerica (2005)
Transamerica (2005)

1) Transamerica (2005)

One week prior to sex reassignment surgery, Bree Osbourne discovers he fathered a child years ago during one of his few sexual encounters with a woman.

Despite Bree’s objections, his therapist refuses to give final approval for the operation until he comes to term with the child, so Bree travels across country to bail his son, Toby, out of jail.

After learning his former lover, Toby’s mom, committed suicide and Toby, abused by his stepfather, makes a living as a male prostitute, Bree, reluctantly agrees to take Toby to LA where he plans on becoming a movie star.

When their car and money are stolen, Bree stops at her estranged parent’s house to ask for help.

There, Toby (unaware Bree is his father) attempts to seduce Bree which forces him to reveal the truth.

Bree, now estranged from Toby and lonelier than ever, returns home to have the surgery.

Weeks later, a blonde Toby arrives at Bree’s doorstep bragging about his acting career (in homosexual pornographic films). The film ends as they begin an awkward, yet seemingly loving relationship.

The movie captures the confusion surrounding transgender issues.  Bree is a sympathetic character who we want her to be happy and content, but she is very selfish, unwilling to sacrifice anything for others; her treatment of Toby is cruel and callous.

But her reluctance to be honest with Toby is a byproduct of fear about how society would view a woman who fathered a son.   She wants so much to identify as a woman, but the biological facts of her existence as a man ruin her plans.

Felicity Huffman is most famous for her work in the television programs Desperate Housewives and Sports Night,  She shows dramatic range here accomplishing quite a task, managing to make Bree both villainous and heroic.  We sympathize with Bree’s struggle to find herself but cringe at her indifference to her family and friends.

Kevin Zeggers rose to prominence as a child in the Air Bud films.  His performance as Toby helped shed the child actor stigma and established him as a serious dramatic actor.

Burt Young is immortalized as Paulie in the Rocky films, but his career outside of that series has been more miss than hit.  He’s solid here in the smaller role of Bree’s father.

Canadian actor Graham Greene was nominated for an Academy Award for his work in Dances with Wolves (1990), but his career has mostly consisted of small, character roles.  He’s strangely effective here as a trucker who befriends Bree and Toby and has an awkward crush on Bree.  Greene has found more success in recent years with his supporting role in the successful Twilight series.

Irish actress Fionnula Flanagan takes what could have been a stock, one-dimensional character in Bree’s estranged mother and breathes life and vibrancy into her.  She sees Toby as a way to make amends for the mistakes she made with Bree.

There’s a lot of uncomfortable material about sexuality here, but we cannot discover how we feel until we face these issues head on.  Pretending problems don’t exist doesn’t solve them.

This film is biased towards a sympathetic view of transgender issues, but only slightly. It never pretends Bree ‘s decision doesn’t have moral consequences.  It never pretends her decision does not deeply affect other people in the world.  It may be her decision, but it’s not just about her.  This is a fair and honest film about a difficult, emotional subject.

The Quiet American (2002)
The Quiet American (2002)

2) The Quiet American (2002)

Adapted from a novel by famed British novelist Graham Greene, this movie bored me.

It’s a love triangle set in 1950s Vietnam.  The political machinations of America’s early involvement in the area serves as a backdrop to the film.

I was looking forward to it because of Michael Caine’s involvement.  From Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) to Sleuth (both the 1972 and 2007 versions), to Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) to his recent work with Christopher Nolan, and the fantastic Children of Men (2006), the majority of his films are very good and he is often the best thing in them with the obvious exception of Jaws: The Revenge (1987).

The problems I had with the film were the subject matter (Vietnam is overdone) and Brendan Fraser as the duplicitous American who befriends Caine’s morally upright journalist.

I like Fraser fine, but he’s much better in big, over the top productions than small films like this one.  The more unbelievable the film, the better he is.  He’d be a perfect addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In many ways, his career is  a poor man’s version of Harrison Ford who’s better in larger than life roles such as Indiana Jones and Han Solo than in dramatic work.  Two of their signature roles, Ford’s Indy and Fraser’s Rick O’Connell are swashbuckling archaeologists.

The comparison between Fraser and Ford is made more appropriate when you consider the director of this film, Phillip Noyce, had a few of his biggest successes directing Harrison Ford in two films based on Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels: Patriot Games and Clear and Present Danger.

The movie wants to be poetic and literary, but it never reaches those heights.  The end is too heavy-handed: American involvement in Vietnam was morally disastrous, and the implicit parallels to American involvement in the Middle East are not subtle.

All of this could have been forgiven however, if it weren’t really boring.

I got a Tiny Scoop of Calvin and Hobbes

June 17, 2014 progress: 3 movies

Scoop (2006)
Scoop (2006)

1) Scoop (2006)

After British journalist Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) dies, he befriends a recently murdered woman on the ferry to the afterlife.  During their conversation, he discovers she was murdered by Peter Lyman, a wealthy London aristocrat.

Strombel deduces Lyman is a notorious serial killer and contacts young journalism student Sondra Pranksy (Scarlet Johansson) from beyond the grave during a magic show by Sid Waterman (Woody Allen).

Waterman becomes a father figure / mentor to Pransky and they work to expose Lyman.

Allen and Johansson have incredible chemistry and their burgeoning familial relationship is delightful.

While not known for her comedy work, Johansson is pitch perfect here, channeling the great light comedians of yesteryear like Jean Arthur, Myrna Loy, and Carole Lombard.

Jackman is not normally cast as the villain, but does an admirable job of striking a balance between being smarmy and smug while maintaining an easygoing charm.  It’s easy to see why Pransky falls in love with the rich, debonair Lyman, but it’s also easy to see why Waterman is suspicious.

Charles Dance, now famous as Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones, has a small role as the editor of a newspaper who initially rejects Pransky’s story.  It’s nice to see him in something else.

I enjoyed this film more than I anticipated; it’s a perfect companion piece to Allen’s underrated classic 1993 film Manhattan Murder Mystery.

It’s not a deep or important film, and it’s certainly not Allen’s best, but it makes me smile.

Dear Mr. Watterson (2013)
Dear Mr. Watterson (2013)

2) Dear Mr. Watterson (2013)

Appearing in American newspapers from 1985 – 1995, Calvin and Hobbeswas one of the last great comic strips.

Following the adventures of six-year-old Calvin and his possibly imaginary stuffed animal Hobbes, the comic explored big picture ideas filtered through the eyes of children: an innocent look at a big and frightening world.

This strip elevated the medium to levels of art it had never reached before, and may not reach again.

Due to the changing nature of the newspaper business, the daily comic strip may soon become a relic of the past, alongside rotary phones, Walkmans, and modems.

The joy of seeing a familiar face in the “funnies” every day, whether it be Charlie Brown, or Dagwood, or Beetle Bailey, or Hagar the Horrible, or Mary Worth, or the off-kilter worldview of Gary Larson in The Far Side is lost to future generations.

This documentary explores the passion of fans of Calvin and Hobbes, legacy, and the enigma of creator Bill Watterson, who refused the fame his strip afforded him and has disappeared from public life since ending the strip.

And now, I’m off to play a rousing game of Calvinball.

Tiny: A Story About Living Small (2013)
Tiny: A Story About Living Small (2013)

3) Tiny: A Story About Living Small (2013)

This documentary details the phenomenon of people who seek to simplify their lives by moving into very small, custom-built homes.

These mini-homes are often in violation of local zoning ordinances and building permits, so the owners will circumvent the rules by putting wheels on their home and calling it a vehicle.

Some of the homes featured are pretty cool, but this feels like a pilot for an HGTV series and not a feature-length film.

A Master class

June 16, 2014 progress: 1 movie

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)
The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011)

Film historian Mark Cousins created this fifteen hour documentary which was divided into separate one hour segments for television broadcasts.

For someone who watches a lot of movies, it was a joy to revisit old friends and discover more films I need to see.

The list of films featured can be found on its Wikipedia page.  Rest assured, I’ll be visiting this page many times as I check them off.

This documentary provides a framework for understanding film history.

I learned a great deal about the interconnectedness of my favorite films: how they complimented and responded to each other.

It’s one thing to conceptualize film history as a long conversation (most basic college courses teach this), it’s more effective to see the conversation taking place, to see references from previous films informing current ones.

At fifteen hours, it’s long, but if you treat it like a season of TV show, it’s easier to get through.

This is a must watch for anyone who loves movies.

Stringer Bell was apparently a very good man

June 15, 2014 progress: 1 movie

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

Released just months before Nelson Mandela’s death, this film serves as a eulogy for the former South African president.

For fans of HBO’s The Wire, Idris Elba will always be Stringer Bell, the ambitious drug dealer.  He’s also great as the eponymous detective Luther in the BBC program.  If you haven’t watched either of these shows, you should.   Recently, Elba has become a tentpole fixture with roles in the big-budget science fiction / fantasy films Thor (2011), Prometheus (2012), Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012), Pacific Rim (2013) and Thor: The Dark World (2013).  He’s fantastic in this film and his delivery of Mandela’s famous “I am Prepared to Die”“ is powerful stuff.

As great as Elba is, Naomie Harris does an even better job portraying Winnie Mandela, managing to make us both sympathize with her struggle and condemn her zealotry.  Harris was Tia Dalma / Calypso in the second and third films in the Pirates of the Caribbean series and Eve Moneypenny in Skyfall (2012), but she shows a lot more potential here than in anything else she’s been in.

Despite the solid performances of two leads, the film doesn’t work as well as it should.  Part of the problem is the medium.  Mandela’s lifestory was so big, it feels rushed in a 150 minute movie.  Part of the problem is the lack of bias.  Based on Mandela’s autobiography, it occasionally wanders into hagiography and is way too interested in making sure we realize how great a man Mandela was, instead of just telling his story.

However, the biggest flaw is that Winnie Mandela, for all her flaws, is the more interesting character.

It’s a a great starting point to understand one of the most important men of the later twentieth century, but it’s too one sided to be definitive.

The One True Special Relationship

June 14, 2014 progress: 2 movies

One True Thing 91998)
One True Thing 91998)

1) One True Thing (1998)

Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellwegger) is a writer for a magazine in New York.  Her father, George (William Hurt), is a semi-famous author and professor who can’t seem to write a second novel.  Her mother, Kate, (Meryl Streep) is a housewife.

When Kate is diagnosed with cancer, Ellen is coerced to stay home and care for her.  During this time, she grows closer to her mother.

The Gulden’s have a son, but he’s barely in the movie.

This would have been better as a play. It’s very claustrophobic and features long patches of dialogue between the three primary characters.

The ending is a sucker punch.  Kate, in immense pain, chooses to end her life with an overdose of morphine.  George and Ellen each think the other gave it to her.  When they realize she did it herself, they wax philosophically about how brave she was; her suicide is elevated to a grandiose act, as if it was the best thing she ever could have done with her life.

Kate Gulden is a misunderstood housewife who sacrificed an opportunity to lead an interesting, useful life, so her husband could lead one.   She takes joy in being a mother and wife, and finds fulfillment in their accomplishments.   It’s a one-dimensional role, beneath Meryl’s talent.

William Hurt is good at playing self-centered assholes. George Gulden knows he’s a dick.  He wants to be a better husband and father, but he wants to sleep with his young students more. His humiliation by a visiting Pulitzer Prize winning poet at Thanksgiving dinner is the highlight of the film.

Renee Zellwegger was cute in Jerry Maguire (1996).  She saved Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) from being horrible.  She was fantastic in Chicago (2002), and her work in Cold Mountain (2003) was excellent.  She’s clearly capable of great things, but despite a valiant effort she can’t rise above the whininess of the character.  Ellen Gulden is no different than millions of others who struggle with stepping out from behind their parent’s shadow.

The film was adapted from a novel by Pulitzer  Prize winning columnist Anna Quindlen whose mother died from ovarian cancer when she was 19.  This makes sense because the film feels like an attempt to work through feelings of guilt and loss.

I’m not  sure what the titular One True Thing is. Family? Dying with dignity? Loving someone, despite their faults?  I’m not convinced the people who made this film know either.

The Special Relationship (2010)
The Special Relationship (2010)

2) The Special Relationship (2010)

This film traces the relationship between Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. When Blair was elected, the press immediately cast him as the British equivalent to Clinton: a young, baby boomer leader of a left-leaning party. This movie does much to highlight the similarities between the two, but makes us aware of the stark differences between them.

In the beginning, Clinton is clearly the better politician. He manhandles Blair and treats him like an underling.  However, by the end of the film, Blair, having learned from Clinton and his time in office, has  become the more skillful of the two and manipulates the scandal plagued President.

The 1992 presidential election was the first time I was old enough to understand. The summer I turned thirteen, I watched the political conventions and was mesmerized. I grew up during the Reagan administration, but Clinton was the first President I was invested in.

Having played Tony Blair in two previous films: The Deal (2003), The Queen (2006),it’s almost to the point where I picture Michael Sheen’s face when I see a story about Blair.  He inhabits Blair in a way few people can when they portray very famous people.

Dennis Quaid captures the spirit of Bill Clinton, but his performance occasionally slides into caricature. Quaid has the charisma and the natural look of a movie star, but the question has been: does he have the talent and self-discipline to be a great actor. There have been moments where the answer was yes: Great Balls of Fire! (1989), Any Given Sunday (1999), Frequency (2000), Traffic (2000), and Far from Heaven (2003). After his ugly divorce from Meg Ryan, Quaid’s career took a downtown and his recent roles have tended towards generic family films or light comedy in The Day After Tomorrow (2004), Yours, Mine, and Ours (2005), G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), and Footloose (2011).

When his divorce from Meg Ryan became contentious, the public turned on him. We knew Meg Ryan from her beloved 1990s romantic comedies.  As “America’s Sweetheart,” the dissolution of their marriage couldn’t be attributed to her, so he took the fall.

Hope Davis does a good impression of Hilary Clinton, but her performance is overshadowed by Helen McCory’s turn as Cherie Blair because of American familiarity with the Clintons.  We know Bill and Hilary (they’ve been in our lives for over twenty years), so any performance of them will be compared to the fountain of knowledge we have accumulated about them. The role comes with significant baggage.

This is a fun movie, demonstrating how personalities can determine the fates of nations.

I love the minor details. Just after Blair is elected, Clinton calls him and offers a display of his legendary ability to remember arcane political facts by reciting the voting history of some small constituency in Britain.

Bill and Hillary’s struggles with the fallout of the Lewinsky scandal is excellent stuff. The private conversation between the Blairs about the scandal mirrors the countless conversations American families were having.

The movie ends with Clinton saying farewell and Blair contemplating his relationship with the next US President.  This movie helps us remember the Bush-Blair alliance was forged from the relationship built by Bill and Tony.