Saturday, December 31, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Dec. 23-31

 A Christmas Story (1983) ****
Director: Bob Clark
Writers: Jean Shepherd (also novel “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”), Leigh Brown, Bob Clark
Starring: Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Jean Shepherd, Ian Petrella, R.D. Robb, Scott Schwartz, Tedde Moore, Zach Ward, Yano Anaya

Out of all the Christmas movies I’ve watched this year—most of which are ones I watch every year—this one remains the freshest. It so perfectly captures what Christmas is like for every member of the family. It perfectly captures what it’s like to be any member of a family at any time of year. After almost thirty years, I still find details that are new to me. Some of them become obvious just because my own perspective has changed.

It’s also an incredible time capsule for life in the 1940s, and yet somehow everything in it still applies in today’s world. It’s unbelievably timeless in that way, yet incredibly specific to it’s own time setting. I read the other day that the more specific a movie is, the more universal it is. There is no firmer proof of this theory than “A Christmas Story”. It even transcends religious and cultural holiday differences to some degree. The fact that most people would agree with what I’m saying here is even more proof. When the term “classic” was coined, this movie is what they were meaning.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) ***
Director: Nagisa Ôshima
Writers: Nagisa Ôshima, Paul Mayersberg, Laurens van der Post (novel “The Seed and the Sower”)
Starring: Tom Conti, David Bowie, Ryûichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thompson

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence” isn’t really a Christmas movie. It’s a British POW movie told by Japanese filmmakers. Director and co-writer Nagisa Ôshima gives us a unique and interesting take on “The Bridge on the River Kwai” in this movie starring David Bowie. It’s told from the British prisoner’s point of view with Japanese ideals of dramatics and storytelling.

Mr. Lawrence is sort of an outcast among the British POWs because he’s befriended one of his captors, played by Takeshi Kitano. The commander of the POW camp finds himself stuck with a prisoner, played by Bowie, who has a strange power over him. He considers replacing the British commander with Bowie until Bowie’s actions create some insubordination among the prisoners. All the while, Mr. Lawrence tries to play peacekeeper.

The most interesting aspect of this film is to see the Japanese interpretation of western ideals of honor and duty. Ôshima gets the movements right, but the motivation is a little off. Seppuku is asked of the Japanese officers at several points throughout the film. The commander tries to get the British officers to understand this concept of self-sacrifice.

The British have no interest in understanding this practice that they find savage. I don’t think Ôshima ever quite reconciles the two ideologies. His notion of western guilt is a little off, as seen in the Bowie flashbacks. Still it is an interesting and worthwhile movie experience.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) ****
Director: Frank Capra
Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra, Jo Swerling, Philip Van Doren Stern (story)
Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Graham, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Todd Karns, Samuel S. Hinds

Like “A Christmas Story”, it always amazes me how relevant “It’s a Wonderful Life” still is today. Listening to the rhetoric thrown between Mr. Potter and the Bailey’s is like a precursor to the upcoming presidential election campaign. Potter holds the conservative ideals; the Bailey’s the progressive. It’s a wonder that liberals and conservatives alike so universally love this movie considering how it wears its political agenda on its sleeve.

Is this movie so good that it blinds people to what it is saying about the way the world should be? Do the right just strike its leftist notions down to the Christmas spirit? Why doesn’t that translate into an all year ideal for some? Or when watching this movie do people just have to concede that what’s right is right?

No matter what the answers to these questions, the life lead by George Bailey is a life any one of us could only hope to live up to in our own.

Drunk History Christmas (2011) ****
Director: Derek Waters, Jeremy Konner
Starring: Allen McCleod, Ryan Gosling, Eva Mendes, Jim Carrey

I don’t often review short films made specifically for websites, but this gem from Funny or Die just couldn’t be denied. Made by the group calling themselves Drunken History, this year’s Christmas installment is their second “Drunken History Christmas”. It involves a guy named Allen reciting “Twas the Night Before Christmas” while drunk. Considering that he does most of it by memory alone, it’s actually pretty impressive that he remembers what he does in his wasted state.

Watching a drunken guy try to recite a Christmas classic is funny enough, but the crew at Drunk History had the wisdom to hire such gifted actors as Ryan Gosling and Jim Carrey to act out the tale in its drunken telling, and the results are comedy gold. Gosling’s reactions to the drunken gibberish coming out of his mouth at times are priceless. Carrey hams it up as Santa Claus, and Eva Mendes also appears as Gosling’s sleeping wife.

This short had me holding my gut laughing, cackling at the rafters, and just plain short of breath.  Follow this link to view it for yourself. Drunk History Christmas with Ryan Gosling.

Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011) ***
Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
Writer: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Analeigh Tipton, Jonah Bobo, Joey King, Marisa Tomei, Beth Littleford, John Carroll Lynch, Kevin Bacon, Liza Lapira, Josh Groban

“Crazy, Stupid, Love.” is surprisingly charming for an ensemble romantic comedy. Perhaps, that is because it is actually about the people in it rather than about the idea of being in love. In building its comedy and drama on the characters it does a much better job of exploring love than movies like “She’s Just Not That Into You” or “Valentine’s Day”.

It also centers primarily on just two of its characters, although there are a multitude of subplots going on. Steve Carell plays a nice guy, whose wife has just left him. Ryan Gosling plays a ladies man who has the one night stand down to an art form. He can’t help but notice Carell’s loser at a bar they both frequent and offers to help him redefine himself to make his ex-wife jealous. Gosling likens himself to Mr. Miyagi teaching the Karate Kid how to fight.

“Crazy, Stupid, Love.” is a hyperlink movie, but it doesn’t really play like one. It plays more like a character study on the nebbish Carell character. He does successfully transform himself, but at what cost? I was particularly impressed by how the film hid it secrets until they were absolutely necessary to be revealed. The graduation scene was a little hard to believe, however. It doesn’t really matter much, though, because the film so successfully embeds the audience into Carell’s life that you want everything to work out as it does.

Midnight in Paris (2011) ***½
Director/Writer: Woody Allen
Starring: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Kurt Fuller, Mimi Kennedy, Michael Sheen, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Tom Hiddleston, Kathy Bates, Marion Cotillard, Léa Seydoux, Adrien Brody

Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” is one of the most delightful movies of the year. It isn’t one of his major works, but it is a return to form for the longtime filmmaker in many ways. It’s a less serious movie than most of his more recent work, more lighthearted and fantastical. It’s also quite nostalgic, which is its main subject.

It’s a hard movie to talk about without revealing its secrets, but the movie is a love letter to Paris and writers and artists of all kinds, especially famous artistic icons of the 1920s. Magic is one way to describe it in both literal and figurative terms. And it’s funny. I’d almost forgotten how effortlessly Allen could make me laugh at times. He seems to do it here without trying, and that’s what’s been missing in so many of his comedies of late. I love what happened to the private investigator.

Owen Wilson plays an American screenwriter who is determined to write a novel. He has returned to Paris, which he once visited, with his fiancé and her parents for a pre-wedding get away. He’s in love with Paris. Her, not so much. He tires of her friends, who don’t seem to tire of belittling him. He goes on walks by himself at midnight. The nature of these walks is the key to everything that is great about this movie. That is a pleasure I will leave to you, my readers.

Bill Cunningham New York (2011) ***
Director: Richard Press
Starring: Bill Cunningham, Anna Wintour, Iris Apfel, Editta Sherman, Michael Kors, Patrick McDonald, Annie Flanders

Bill Cunningham isn’t a fashion photographer in the sense that most people think of the fashion world. Cunningham has made a living and reputation out of photographing fashion on the streets of New York, photographing the people of New York rather than the models. He’s worked for the New York Times for several decades and has a hand in influencing the biggest names in the fashion world, yet his subjects are just everyday people, like himself.

“Bill Cunningham New York” is the fascinating documentary about the man, today in his 80s and still going strong. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Cunningham’s life is his living arrangement with Carnegie Hall, which during the course of the filming of this documentary made the decision to evict its longtime artistic residences to make more office space for rent. Cunningham still lives like a college student, without any sort of proper furniture. His bed is a mattress sitting on top of book stacks for legs. He uses the public bathroom and has no kitchen. His apartment is filled with files of his old negatives. He’s kept every one he ever took.

This documentary is merely a portrait of an astonishing artist. It isn’t profound, but it is incredibly fascinating. Perhaps its most shocking aspect is that this is really the first I learned about this astonishing man.

Peter Pan (2003) ****
Director: P.J. Hogan
Writers: P.J. Hogan, Michael Goldenberg, J.M. Barrie (stage play and books)
Starring: Rachel Hurd-Wood, Jeremy Sumpter, Jason Isaacs, Ludivine Sagnier, Olivia Williams, Lynn Redgrave, Richard Briers, Harry Newell, Fredie Popplewell

This exquisitely imaginative adaptation of J.M. Barrie’s classic play “Peter Pan” was one of the most overlooked movies of the Aughts. Never has any adaptation so clearly communicated the insights Barrie had to share about growing up and the relationships between mothers and their sons, fathers and their daughters, and what it involves to be a happy family. On top of that, it is a rousing adventure. Hook isn’t so much a villain as he is another lost soul in Neverland trying to figure out his place in the world and among his relationships.

In a bold choice the movie retains the misconceptions Barrie had of the noble savage in the character of Tiger Lily, but it doesn’t dishonor Native Americans and functions to mark the mystery they held for the British at the time of the story’s original conception.

Barrie’s story is unique in its oddities. From Peter’s chasing of his own shadow, to the pirates’ adoration of having a storyteller on board when Wendy joins them as Red-Handed Jill. The film embodies the imaginations and mindsets of children so well, but in the way even an adult audience can relate to. This is the finest version of “Peter Pan” I’ve seen.

Continental Divide (1981) **
Director: Michael Apted
Writer: Lawrence Kasdan
Starring: John Belushi, Blair Brown, Allen Goorwitz, Carlin Glynn, Tony Ganios

Netflix Streaming is quite amazing in the way it will get me to check out movies I never would’ve bothered about simply because they just don’t register on my radar any more. “Continental Divide” is a romantic comedy of sorts starring John Belushi in the brief period after he left Saturday Night Live and before his death when he was seeking out projects that defined him more as an actor than a comedian. Unfortunately, it’s not a very good movie. A fact made all the more shocking considering that the director was Michael Apted and the writer Lawrence Kasdan. Both were still working on making their marks in Hollywood. This is not the movie that did it.

The story follows a Chicago Sun-Times reporter that is knee deep in the city’s political mishandlings. One city alderman is ready to threaten him with violence, so his editor suggests a story away from the big city. Yes, this is a fish out of water romance. Belushi heads to the Rocky Mountains to interview an ornithologist who has a reputation for despising reporters. She turns out to be friendlier than her reputation and more attractive. It’s surprising for a “Fringe” fan to see this early romantic lead for Blair Brown, who plays the mysterious head of Massive Dynamics on the freaky sci-fi show.

Well of course, these polar opposites fall in love despite the fact that their careers keep them separated most of the time. The movie has a lame subplot involving a mountain man that behaves like a savage. It real weakness, however, lies in its leading characters. They’re bores. All they have are their jobs and the movie makes no special attempts to define them beyond their careers, and it doesn’t even go into her career too deeply.

Belushi makes some comedic attempts to funny things up with his fish out of water routine, but even that is fairly routine. It seems this could’ve been at least an interesting romantic comedy due to the divergent life styles these two characters come from, but the movie fails to make either the characters or their life styles all that interesting.

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