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."