31 December 2010

My Annual Top Ten List

My 2010 Top Ten Films

1. Winter's Bone
2. Black Swan
3. The White Ribbon
4. True Grit
5. Vincere
6. The American
7. The Ghost Writer
8. Shutter Island
9. A Prophet
10. The Town
Honorable Mention: The Fighter, Howl, The Social Network and Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale.

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, Winter's Bone. Runners Up: Natalie Portman (Black Swan),  Giovanna Mezzogiorno (Vincere) and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit).
Best Actor: James Franco (Howl) Runners Up: Leonardo DiCaprio (Shutter Island) Jeff Bridges (True Grit) and Colin Firth (King's Speech).
Best Supporting Actress: Mila Kunis (Black Swan)
Best Supporting Actor: Christian Bale (The Fighter)

29 December 2010

Quintuplets, Vengeance, Stuttering, Black Shirts & Murder -- Catching Up With Some of the Films I've Seen Lately

I've recently enjoyed that most treasured of all interludes, time off. Absent travel, the two best ways to occupy such time is with family or films. I've been lucky enough to do both. Details of conversations with nephews, children or others are not likely to interest the general reader, so I'll report instead on some of the films I've seen of late.

Holy Multiple Births! or The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944). These past three years I've listed this film from Preston Sturges as one of my favorite Christmas movies. Indeed I watch it almost every December. While I'm beginning to re-think Miracle as a Holiday flick, I am hardening my position that it is joy to behold. The real miracle, of course, is that Sturges slipped this by the censors who, in days of yore, cared not for pregnancy, pre-marital sex or women going unpunished for naughty behavior. The prudes! This is not Andy Hardy's small town USA. For one thing some of the characters are, well, real characters. No better example than the father of the bride, Constable Kockenlocker (William Demarest). He's a kick, which is appropriate to say because he's constantly trying to kick one of his daughter's in the fanny and in turn landing on his own. The older daughter Trudy is the blinkered, dizzy but lovable blonde who gets, "in a family way" under circumstances that only Sturges could create. Diana Lynn is an underrated delight as the wise cracking and wise beyond her years 14 year-old kid sister. The hapless wonder in the story is the lovelorn Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) who'll go to any lengths for his beloved Trudy. Bumbling, stumbling and fumbling all the way, Norval is just a sweetie pie that anyone would root for. Like the other half dozen or so classics Sturges made in a period of under ten years (with nary a thing before or after to boast of) Miracle is witty, silly, improbable and utterly delightful. So maybe while it's not a true Christmas film, it is a true wonder.

The Coen Brothers Go West or True Grit. I think it's safe to assert that, at least in this writer's humble opinion, the title of best working American director is a tie between Joel and Ethan Coen, who conveniently are brothers and work together. In recent years they've offered No Country for Old Men (2007), A Serious Man (2009) and now True Grit. Three films from radically different genres (and if you can figure out the genres of the former two, more power to ya). True Grit is a clearly a western. It's somewhat of a surprise that the Coens would make such a conventional film. It's no surprise that these fine craftsmen would do such a bang up job. This is not a re-make of the 1969 film of the same name which starred John Wayne. It is instead a more faithful telling of the novel of the same name penned by Charles Portis.  (As per custom, the Coens did their own adapting.) I'm not in a position to compare the two films as I never bothered with the first. Still, its impossible to imagine that John Wayne did more with the role of Rooster Cogburn than did Jeff Bridges. I've seen enough of Wayne to state with confidence that he couldn't have matched Bridges' spitting, muttering, cussing and quite obviously stinky interpretation of the lawman. Bridges was a positive wonder to watch. He was clearly having a rollicking good time in the role and inviting us to enjoy the journey with him. Meanwhile newcomer Hailee Steinfeld, a mere 13 years old during filming, is amazing as Mattie Ross. The phrase, she more than held her own, springs immediately to mind. Matt Damon, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper are also along for the ride and contribute mightily to it. But it is the Coens who should earn the most encomiums. They re-created the proverbial Old West as well if not better than has been done before. If ever a film felt like it existed in the time period and place it depicted, this one did.

How Stuttering Can Be a Royal Pain or The King's Speech. They might as well hand the Best Actor Academy Award to Colin Forth now and dispense with the nominations. I'm not suggesting that he should win or for that matter that he shouldn't, just that he will. He was considered an unofficial runner up to the aforementioned Mr. Bridges last year and he gives a wonderful performance in a prestige film this year. The King's Speech is a classy production all the way. Then again so are those Masterpiece Theater production that PBS shows on Sunday nights. This film had all the emotional heft of one of those stagey-looking productions. One of the problems being the focus on a man's (yes, I know, he was the bloody King of England) speech impediment. For crying out loud this King assumed the throne when his brother abdicated to marry an American divorcée. Then there was the little business of World War II breaking out during his reign. Both these events are treated as sidebars in the story of the stubborn prince-cum-king learning to appreciate and profit from his unconventional tutor (Geoffrey Rush). The King's Speech looked damn nice and flowed along quite well with Firth's performance a real highlight.  But I could have seen the same quality on PBS and saved the $10.

The Two Mrs. Mussolinis or Vincere (2009). Earlier this year this wonderful film from Italy snuck into a few theaters across America and then snuck right back out. Some of us were lucky enough to catch it. Happily it's now available on DVD and can be watched as part of Netflix's Instant program. Do yourself a favor and see it. It is the story of Ida Dasler who was almost certainly a mistress of Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini (before he assumed power) and claimed to be his first wife and mother to his son. Giovanna Mezzogiorno as Dasler gives one of those performances covering many years in the life of a historical figure that leaves one in awe (think Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose (2007)). She is lusty, tempestuous, beautiful and utterly mad. We in turn feel much of what she's going through. The first half of the film follows her with Mussolini as he rises from newspaper editor to Il Duce. It is rich, panoramic and blends historical footage with red hot sex and passions of all variety. Then as Mussolini must protect his legitimate relationship and secure his place in history, Ida is frozen from his life. As this is her story, we see no more of him (except in some more archival scenes) and the story slows considerably. It is now about a woman's hopeless efforts to claim the man she loves for her very own. Does she go mad or is this alleged insanity a means of "getting her out of the way?" In either case the focus has changed and some viewers have evidently felt cheated. But it is honest film making and still makes for compelling viewing. If Mezzogiorno isn't enough to hold your attention you weren't paying attention in the first place.

How to Murder Your Mistress or Match Point (2005). I've been on a Woody Allen kick for over a month that shows no signs of abating. This was my third viewing of Match Point and it is a classic example of a film that gets ever so much better with each viewing. The little details of "what happens" increasingly seem merely to serve the bigger questions the film asks and the manner in which the story is told. The idea of killing an inconvenient mistress was not new to Allen who'd explored it in Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). However, Match Point does not presume to explore moral questions. We are simply watching a cold calculating young man, Chris (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who's principally employed charm and grace to attain all of life's luxuries. If a murder is needed to protect all he's accumulated, so be it. He's results-oriented. Match Point is one of the many Allen films to ask serious questions about its characters and thus of its audience. It also ponders the imponderable role of luck in one's life, another occasional Allen theme. On the surface Match Point is a simple, elegant film about a man's rise and his use of the ultimate crime in the service of his success. But upon repeat viewings we see more subtlety in Chris and how he maneuvers. We also see, in sharper focus, the banality of his wife and her very well-to-do family and infuriating innocence and naiveté of his lover, (Scarlett Johansson). It's impossible to conceive a list of top ten Allen films which omits it.

24 December 2010

A Merry Christmas From Streams of Unconsciousness!

"There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say," returned the nephew.  "Christmas among the rest.  But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.  And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!" - From 'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens.

21 December 2010

Perfection and Sanity are Boring, Black Swan is Not

Tonight the University of Connecticut women's basketball team set a new record for consecutive wins. I find such perfection boring. Americans are supposed to love underdogs but at least in the world of sports, supposedly flawless teams and players are revered. When one commits an error they are said to be "only human." Humans, in all their imperfection are endlessly fascinating and entertaining. Winning every damn time is ho hum.

Sanity, while functional, is also quite tedious. The sober and sensible make for good accountants but not terribly interesting subjects of art. It is when the mind veers of course that the fun begins.

All of this brings me to Black Swan the new film from director Darren Aronofsky. The story centers around a ballet dancer, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) tapped for the lead in a new production of Swan Lake. I am going to go ahead and say that in this film viewers come to expect the unexpected and are never disappointed.

Nina is one of the best kind of film characters, the totally obsessed. Many an outstanding movie has featured a totally obsessed lead who either becomes blind to realities other than their pursuit or begins to twist and turn that pursuit to fit their twisting and turning minds. Of course ballet is one of those uber competitive fields that requires a stubborn single mindedness. Nina has tunnel vision and it is all in the direction of her art at which she hopes to be...perfect.

Many of us seek various forms of perfection. In 12 step programs we are taught to eschew such notions realizing that happiness lies in constant progress. Nina could have used a support group, but then, when we should have found the time?

So is Nina not sane? What a loaded question and anyway its the wrong one to ask. The Black Swan can have audiences asking all sorts of questions and trying to figure out this that and the other. Trust me, its the wrong approach. Better to just go for the ride. If anything comes to you along the way, why that's a bonus.

I thought, and I'll have legions disagree with this, I know, Portman underplayed the role. It was the right choice too. Nina is not a terribly interesting person with the major exception, of course, of her inner life that is the real soul of the story. What exactly is going on in Nina's mind and why is something we can wrestle with, but it could drive us to the same mental state as she's in.

Nina has creepy relationship with her stage mom (Barbara Hershey) with whom she shares an apartment and a love/hate/sister/loathing/coaching relationship. French actor Vincent Cassel plays the director who she classifies as "brilliant." He may well be but he also introduces a heavy dose of sexuality to his relationships with lead dancers. Winona Ryder plays Beth who has outlived her usefulness as either a dancer or lover.

But the story's real wild card is Lily (Mila Kunis). What is she exactly? A rival? A pal? A lover? An alternate? A doppelganger? She's infinitely more interesting than Nina, at least outwardly. At least we think so. As for her inner life...well, we've got enough to sort out Nina.

Black Swan is a confusing movie if you try to make sense of it. It would require dicing and mincing and dissecting something that flows. Maybe you can analyze samples. I didn't always know whether what we were seeing was real or Nina's imagination or a dream or a vision. I eventually decided not to worry about it.

I keep coming back to this point about not over analyzing the film, or for that matter analyzing it all. With 24 hour news and sports channels, Americans have gotten used to having every bit of minutia parsed for their benefit. Many people of us choose to join in the fun. So we end up looking at every single tree and missing the beauty of the forest. So what I'm saying is that Black Swan is beautiful

It's beautiful for all its visceral imagery. The blood, the toe nails, the scratches, the distorted feet and everything else about it that explores the messy parts of the body warping business that is ballet and the mind warping world of the obsessed.

Have I not adequately addressed what it's about? How about this: the insanity of seeking perfection.

20 December 2010

It's A Wonderful Film, Thoughts on a Holiday Classic

It's A Wonderful Life (1946) is a seasonal favorite principally for its sentimental message about the importance of appreciating the life you have. But is great -- I mean truly great -- cinema as repeat viewings reveal. Here are some of my observations from my most recent screening.

We all see movies through are own prisms. I increasingly see IAWL as an anti-capitalist diatribe and for that I love it. Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore) --an overweight Dick Cheney -- seeks to gobble up everything is his path and damn the consequences to the hoi polloi.  He can be likened to a voracious monster devouring obstructions in the relentless drive to be fed. Potter consumes money in all its forms. In Potter's world there is no room for sentiment. He is the ultimate man of business. As George Bailey (James Stewart) says to him: "Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn't think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they're cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you'll ever be." Potter is Wal-Mart....

To save George and counter the machinations of Potter it requires the efforts of Clarence (Henry Travers). As Clarence is an angel what we have here is a case of divine intervention. There exists a powerful belief in angels in many religions and cultures, even among those who do not accept the notion of a sole deity. They serve as a link to another world while providing protection and guidance. Part of the charm of IAWL is that Clarence is no winged cherub. Instead he is a bumbling older chap who totes about a copy of Tom Sawyer. I've never known anyone who has had a moment's hesitation in accepting Clarence as an angel. Our imaginations are perfectly open to this man being a representative of heaven. I can't help but think that somehow this speaks well of us....

My goodness Stewart and Barrymore give boffo performances. Stewart could have played George Bailey as an everyman and audiences would have been perfectly happy. But George is a very well-defined character. He is at once personally ambitious and deeply committed to his community to the point of being self sacrificing. He is, in short, torn. George longs to travel the globe and build. But he is an integral part of a town that he loves as it loves him. Stewart is often remembered for featuring in an extraordinary array of classic films. Less remembered is that he was so much a part of what made these films indelible through his powerful acting. This is evident in IAWL where he captures the incredible dichotomy of George's inner turmoil. It is an emotional and enthralling performance. Seemingly less complicated is the role of Potter, but another actor could have mucked it up by turning him into a cartoon character. This is Barrymore and he manages to make Potter evil incarnate and still frighteningly real. Every syllable, every slight head movement is given weight and adds to the depth of his performance. Potter, as played by Barrymore, is all the more horrible because he is flesh and blood....

You can pick up a lot of early/mid 20th century history from IAWL. The Roaring Twenties, the Depression, the war boom, scrap drives, the Charleston, bank runs, bank closures to name but a few references. There is also a very rich slice of Americana. This is a very American film, as were most of Capra's movies from the mid 1930s on. It is rich in detail of American life and also the big issues. There is a juxtaposition of evil and good, with the good personified by honest working men, more than willing to give the next guy a hand....

IAWL has one of the greater supporting casts you'll ever hope to meet. Ward Bond (who was in more classic Hollywood films then anyone I can name) along with Frank Faylen formed the original Bert and Ernie. H.B. Warner was Mr. Gower and did a lot with a small but key role. Thomas Mitchell was Uncle Billy and confirmed his place -- in my humble opinion -- as the greatest supporting actor of his time. Gloria Grahame, Beulah Bondi, the aforementioned Travers, Sheldon Leonard and the ubiquitous Charles Lane featured....

Yes I've thus far excluded mention of Donna Reed. At the risk of sowing marital discord in my own humble home I'll say that among other things, in IAWL she was a real dish. Reed did not have an a great career in film but prospered mightily on TV. She was, to be honest, a somewhat limited actress. However she was a perfect Mary Bailey. We did not need broad strokes from her. The story called for Mary to be a loving wife who'd wanted George for a husband since childhood. Reed's career started just as the great female roles were becoming a thing of the past. Frankly I doubt she could have handled them. But she was letter perfect for the TV show that bore her name. In other words she was the ideal actress to play the post war American housewife. But I close by returning to the original comment in this paragraph because I can't get it out of my mind -- she was a real dish....

12 December 2010

For the Third Year in Succession I Offer 12 Films for Your 12 Days of Christmas

Tis' the season for Holiday themed films. Here are twelve of my favorites. You'll note that some are not strictly speaking Christmas movies. Indeed the most revered of all, It's A Wonderful Life, begins and ends on Christmas but most of it takes place at other times of the year. That's consistent with many of the movies on my list, if they aren't plain and simple Christmas movies they at least end during the holiday. That's one reason I don't include the delightful Bachelor Mother (1939) starring Ginger Rogers. It begins in the Christmas season but the rest of the movie is after the holiday. It thus doesn't have the holiday feel to it. So although in point of fact there's not a lot of Christmas in The Man Who Came to Dinner, for example, it's a season staple and makes my list as it ends on December 25. Enough preamble, here are movies to make your holiday all the brighter.

It's A Wonderful Life (1946) An obvious choice. I never tire of great films and this is one of the best of all time, Christmas related or otherwise. Jimmy Stewart is at his best as we all know but so is Donna Reed, Thomas Mitchell, Lionel Barrymore and the rest of director Frank Capra's great cast. This is a movie that has stayed with me all my life as a reminder to be forever thankful of what I do have and not to under estimate the role each of us plays in one another's lives. Some people think its sappy and sentimental. Yeah, well its well done sap and sentiment.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) You're not going to get any more Christmasy than this classic. My fave, Barbara Stanwyck, stars as a magazine writer who's boss, an avuncular Sydney Greenstreet, has her host a war hero in the kind of rustic traditional Xmas she extols in her columns. Problem is that Stanwyck's character is a big faker and has to go through all manner of shenanigans to pull the wool over everyone's eyes including the heroic sailor, the handsome and humble Dennis Morgan. You'll not find a warmer, fuzzier, cozier Christmas film. It's funny too.

Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) One of the great film's from Preston Sturges' brief but spectacular run of classics. It's another film that begins and ends at Christmas. The usual Sturges' troupe is on hand led by William Demarest as Constable Kockenlocker (great name). Betty Hutton and Eddie Bracken co-star. It's a typically frenetic and witty Sturges comedy. Slipping this one by the censors was the true miracle of Morgan's Creek.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1942) I've never seen anyone else in the role so I'm really not qualified to say but I can't imagine anyone better suited than Monty Wooley to play Sheridan Whiteside. What ego, what pomposity, what fun. Whiteside is of course the world famous columnist of print and radio whose fall down wet steps make him the unwelcome house guest in a small town home. Along for the fun are Bette Davis as his erstwhile assistant, the delicious Ann Sheridan and Jimmy Durante essentially playing themselves.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) Very little of the holiday season is present in this Ernst Lubitsch classic, but it ends on Christmas Eve. The director's famous "touch" is evident in this story of two store clerks who anonymously fall in love as pen pals. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan star but Frank Morgan as the store owner is a scene stealer. It's one of the better done love stories of all time.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947) Stay the hell away from the newer and far inferior version. This original stars Edmund Gwen as Santa Claus. Is he really Saint Nicholas? So it would seem. He'll at least have you believing he's the best cinematic Santa of all time.

Home Alone (1990) The mark of a really good comedy is that it remains funny with each viewing. This is the best of the many films writer, director, producer John Hughes cranked out in the 80s and 90s. Obviously star Macaulay Caulkin had a lot to do with the film's surprising success. He plays an eight year old left behind when the family jets off to France for Christmas (hey, that's what we're about to do!). Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern, as the two burgulars he terrorizes, help with the mirth-making. There's also a touching element to the story. Not to be forgotten is John Candy's cameo -- polka, polka, polka!

Home Alone 2 (1992) A sequel that's almost as good as the original! Another holiday miracle. Caulkin, his family and Pesci and Stern are back but this time the setting is New York and the cameo is provided by our old friend Bracken. The laughs continue and so too does the holiday message.
The Santa Clause (1994) By all means pass on all the dreadful sequels to this Tim Allen vehicle. Ahh but the original is a delight with an interesting take on the whole Santa, elves and reindeer business. I haven't seen Allen in much I've liked but he comes through here in the story of an ordinary bloke who falls into the role of being the real Saint Nick. Some people think he's loony but he's got a surprise for them.

Scrooge (1951) For my money (albeit there's not a lot of it) Alastair Sim is the best Ebeneezer Scrooge in film history. Its not surprising then that this is the best cinematic version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. It is very dark when it needs to be and brightens up nicely when its supposed to. Along with It's A Wonderful Life, this is the ultimate secular holiday story, with its story of redemption and hope.

A Christmas Carol (1984) This was actually a made for TV movie but I don't see why that should exclude it. George C. Scott is Scrooge and though no Sim he's damn good. While the previously mentioned film makes a strong case for a black and white telling of the story, this film makes a compelling argument for a color version. This is a wonderful film directed by Clive Donner.

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) Something for the kiddies that Mom and Dad can enjoy. The Muppet's appeal to all ages, of course, and so does Michael Caine as Scrooge. From what I remember of the Muppet films from when my children were wee ones this is the best of the lot. It's a musical with tunes that will dance in your head along with visions of sugar plums.

I'd also like to draw your attention to a few other Yule related flicks to help get you into the spirit of the season. They are: Love Finds Andy Hardy (1938)Elf (2003)Holiday Affair (1949)A Christmas Story (1983) and The Bishop's Wife (1947)

Also for your consideration are these shorter Christmas tales: A Charlie Brown Christmas (never ever gets old and its got a great message); How the Grinch Stole Christmas (not the poxy film version, you've got to have Karloff!); Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol (a staple of my childhood); the many Simpson's Christmas episodes available on DVD, the Twilight Zone's Night of the Meek (stars Art Carney); and the brand new A Colbert Christmas The Greatest Gift of All! (irreverent holiday fun).

10 December 2010

Here's to You Mrs. Robinson and Mr. Nichols and Mr. Hoffman and to The Graduate in General

Ben Braddock is every young man who has suddenly stopped along the way to a contented and successful life and asked: "what am I doing? And why?"

There are many individuals blessed with great talent and ambition who sail through school, land a dream job and find the perfect mate. They even sometimes live, "happily ever after." Ho hum. These people often lack vision beyond what they can accomplish towards their careers. They're also generally absent self awareness and so are naturally less aware of others. They disgust me.

Director Mike Nicholas' film, The Graduate (1967) is about a young man (Dustin Hoffman) who has the courage to ask what its all about. Welcome to angst.

Funny thing about stopping to sort out your life, other people don't necessarily appreciate it or even understand what the hell you're doing. The Graduate is a film that captures this quite well.

It shouldn't be altogether surprising that a young man in such a state might fall into a loveless affair with an older woman. Directionless people often end up in strange places. Similarly, meeting a fetching young woman with whom he gets along could cause an over reaction and an irrational, albeit romantic, notion to pursue said female to the ends of the Earth. Or at least to Berkeley. Now consider for a moment that the new found love is the daughter of the older woman. Such a story!

Based on the novel of the same name by Charles Webb with a screenplay by Calder Willingham and Buck Henry, The Graduate's story is not an easy one to tell cinematically. It is rich fodder for the overly melodramatic or cliched romantic comedy. But this is an utterly irresistible film even 43 years after its release when it was downright ground breaking. Nicholas use of a score by Simon and Garfunkel is one of cinema's greatest ever pairings of pop music and film. But what becomes more evident with each viewing is how perfectly paced a film The Graduate is. It positively flies along when the story calls for it and takes its sweet time when that's the order of the day. In that respect it mirrors life. We've all had hours, days weeks and years that fly by leaving only the flimsiest of memories. While conversely experiencing hours, minutes and seconds that go in very slow motion and are never to be forgotten. The Graduate is a film that respects this.

Nicholas was also more clever by half than even the best in his field in creating this classic. Symbolism is everywhere such as Ben behind glass in key moments. The perfectly executed transitional montages were revelatory in 1967 and remain fresh today.

Like the best of European cinema The Graduate is not overly reliant on dialogue. We neither need nor want the "big speech" moments that mar so many movies and give them an unreal quality. Indeed it is the very realness of what The Graduate is communicating in its refreshingly vibrant way that makes it hold up.

There is the final beauty of The Graduate's ending with the wedding kidnapping which steers wildly away from reality until slumping us right back into it as the couple sit in the back of the bus headed who knows where. For this is so often the final verdict of our mad impulses and risks, we're still often left wondering where we're going.

Everything had to fit in order for The Graduate to achieve its lasting success. This included the unforgettable creation of the original MILF, that ultimate middle aged seductress, Mrs. Robinson by Anne Bancroft. That she didn't earn an Oscar for her performance, is further advance that the Academy Awards are a long running joke. Dustin Hoffman became an instant star upon the film's release. IMDb will tell you all you need to know about who was considered for the role, none of them could have held the proverbial candle to what Hoffman did.

What Hoffman did was perfectly capture that sad, lonely individual rebellion of the man who senses that too much isn't enough and in fact isn't anything at all. He stops his life cold to ask the greatest question a person can ponder: why? This does not make him gallant or pretty, or even particularly smart. Observing Ben's behavior as a rude, sullen clumsy and ungrateful git proves that. But it does make him a seminal cinematic figure in a film that has earned its own importance.

The Graduate asks the big questions, and leaves the audience to answer. How about that?

(For more on The Graduate see the wonderful book, Pictures at A Revolution, Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris.)

06 December 2010

500 Days of Cider Passion Memories Actually -- Thoughts on Recent Films I've Watched

Much to the delight of scores of readers I've been largely absent from film blogging of late. As punishment to those of you who've particularly enjoyed the scarcity of my posts, I now present some thoughts on but a few of the movies I've enjoyed (or sat through, as the case may be) recently.

Love Actually (2003). I nestled on the sofa between my two daughters yesterday to watch this light romantic comedy. An hour earlier I had enjoyed some freshly baked sugar cookies. Love Actually is the cinematic equivalent of sugar cookies. It's a hard film to resist what with a cast that includes Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Laura Linney, Liam Neeson and Kiera Knightley to name but a few. It's set in London in the weeks leading up to Christmas. Viewers get to follow a series of romances among members of the upper middle and just plain old upper class. There is nothing the least bit unpredictable or interesting about any of the characters or their fates. Their stories, by the way, are always accompanied by the perfect song or the strains of an orchestra -- just like in real life! (It was eerie to watch Neeson play a man whose wife has just died considering the very fate befell him a few years later). Grant as the the British prime minister is, for the lack of a better word, silly. When he publicly scolds the US president (Billy Bob Thornton) at a joining press conference and to wild applause, the shark has been jumped with a triple summersault. Love, of course, prevails in all the stories, giving a maximum awww effect to audiences. All told this is a Hallmark card without so much as a personal signature. Perfectly worded and ultimately hollow. I preferred the sugar cookies. At least I could dunk them in my tea.

Stardust Memories (1980). One of the best things about this Woody Allen film is that it really annoyed those film critics with outsized egos. Take for example the winner of the  lifetime achievement in pretentious film criticism, Pauline Kael. Critics felt, as did many civilian film goers, that Allen's fans were being singled out for ridicule in this supposedly autobiographical film. Surely skin so thin must be virtually translucent! Film fans should not be considered off limits for satire. Especially from a director who considers himself fair game. Stardust Memories is clearly a rip off of Fellini's 8 1/2 and Allen would no doubt be the first to admit it. It is the story of a writer/actor/director juggling the vagaries of fame and romances while attending a retrospective of his own work. Stardust Memories is by turns hilarious and a rich commentary on the perils of celebrity. Its poor notices stained the film's reputation but it is a delight for Allen fans and the general public, if only they give it a whirl.

Cider House Rules (1999). I recently began teaching an ESL class on learning English through modern films. The first movie we watched was not of my selection. CHR was a much praised film upon its release garnering seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture. It is based on a wonderful novel of the same name by John Irving and did earn a best adapted screenplay win as well as statuette for Michael Caine as Best Supporting Actor. I make the following comments about the movie, which I'd not seen since it's first run, knowing full well that its director Lasse Hallstrom is a native of Sweden. CHR is a very American movie. It's perfectly charming with a touch of comedy, romance and social messages of great importance. In addition to Caine the cast includes Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, Delroy Lindo and Jane Alexander. In many respects it is a "perfect" film because there's nothing much about it to cause complaint. But that's largely because it takes no chances. Set in New England there are abundant opportunities to view the scenery and make it part of the film. The camera, sadly, never lingers. Though over two hours, CHR flies by. It never contemplates it moves from one scene to the next overwhelming us with smart dialogue. John Ford is considered the most American of directors yet his style could be distinctly European, limiting talking whenever possible and utilizing nature at every turn. He'd have done wonders with this story. Hallstrom made a lovely movie that has been pleasing audiences for over a decade. It could have been so much more.

500 Days of Summer (2009). Not often, but sometimes, a new movie comes along that however briefly restores my faith in the modern American film. Such was the case last year when 500 days hit screens. This was the second movie I showed to my class (chock full of current idioms, a language teacher's delight). It's a film that turns the whole notion of romantic comedy on its head. The comedy is there but the cool thing is it all fits with the story. There are no superfluous characters tacked on for easy laughs. There are no cheap and easy sex or flatulence jokes. Also it is refreshing -- and this is no spoiler because we know it from the get go -- that this is not going to be another they-lived-happily-ever-after story. Been there done that to the nth degree. The situations, the feelings, the emotions all feel so real for any of us who have fallen in love and thought, stupidly, that it would last. (Okay sometimes it does but usually there is trial and error required). Joseph Gordon Leavitt as the lead character proves capable of carrying a film. It is through him that we can experience the incredible ride of falling head over heals then landing on our heads. My students loved it despite their limitations with English. It tells a universal story of heartbreak with verve and courage. See here Hollywood, you released this film and proved that you can be real with audiences and let them have fun in the bargain. More please.

The Passion of Anna (1969). As my good friend Monty Python would say: and now for something completely different. I've been bingeing on Bergman lately (Ingmar). Until recently I'd only ever seen five of his films (loved four of them). I've tripled that total in the past six weeks and loved most of what I've seen, liking the rest. The Passion of Anna was the latest and its in the loved category. It's a mark of the great Swede's genius that he could make such seemingly dark films probing the depths of the weightiest issues humankind faces and create entertainment out of it. There is not an ounce of cheap sentiment. There is no snappy dialogue, no trivialities, no hokey music. The films are beautifully shot and stripped down to the bare essence of the story. Revealing deep truths and providing compelling character studies. POA is a study of four characters living on an island. There are their interactions. Their emotional turmoil. This being Bergman there is silence, God's of course. And there are faces which Bergman used to great effect in telling his stories. POA is as mysterious and unknowable as questions about life itself. And just as wonderful.

Is that all? Hardly. But this was meant to be a sample anyway. Despite your repeated requests to the contrary, I'll try not to be such a stranger. New job and all, you understand. I now leave you with these two non film items.

From the spam folder. About once a week I go to the trouble of emptying the spam folder in my email account. On rare occasions I will trouble to actually read some of the aforesaid garbage just for giggles. I got a real doozy yesterday from a Robert Hill, the subject line was promising,  International Monetary Fund Agency. I present the entire message here verbatim: "Mr. Lonato Paul told us that you are dead, is it truth or not?" I was tempted to reply as follows: "Sadly the reports of my demise are quite true. I write to you from the afterlife where we still have email access. Best wishes!" I thought better of this plan. Lo and behold later in the day Mr. Hill fired off the same missive. I don't know who this Lonato Paul is, but his information is the bunk. At this writing I'm still among the living and plan to remain so as long as humanly possible.

Overheard on the subway. This was the beginning of a cell phone conversation: "Bad news from Wachovia in Sacramento. The first and third floor urinals did not pass inspection." One can only imagine the impact this information will have on the stock market, now that it has "leaked."