Saturday, January 31, 2009

Day 31: Leslie Anne Downs and Tommy Lee Jones Get Busy in 'The Betsy"

Film 26: “The Betsy” (1978)

Written by Walter Bernstein and William Bast, based on a novel by Harold Robbins
Directed by Daniel Petrie

Every once in a while, a movie will show up in my mailbox that doesn’t seem like it should be there. It has my name on the red Netflix envelope, and when I check my queue online, it shows the questionable film listed. But how did it get there? How tired did I have to be, for instance, to once order a 1930s German musical? Often, I have just sent these back without watching them – an obscure, depressing-sounding French film maybe, or a 3rd-tier rom com that’s averaged 1 star out of 5 after 300 online reviews.

But not now. Now I am disciplined. Now I am checking movies off the list. Now I am watching a very, very young – and surprisingly ripped – Tommy Lee Jones get quite graphically busy with the gorgeous Lesley-Anne Downes to a fairly hysterical ‘70s love theme…

So here’s the plot. Angelo Perino (Tommy Lee Jones), studly race car driver and engineer, is recruited by an ailing but indomitable auto mogul, Loren Hardeman (Sir Laurence Olivier – yes, THE Laurence Olivier), to build an affordable, hyper-fuel-efficient and high-performance sedan for the modern age. No lie. Olivier even has a great line about the industry changing its ways voluntarily before being forced to. Despite being in the midst of 1970s fuel shortages, nobody in the industry, not even his powerful Detroit grandson Loren III (Robert Duvall – playing a powerful jerk, his stock-in-trade), will listen…until Perino comes along. Together, he and the senior Hardeman form a super-secret dream team to develop the car. Why secret? Hey, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean…you know the rest. And yes, people are really out to get them – with guns, explosions and industrial espionage. So far – fast cars and things blowing up, which is all the boys might need.

Of course, I’ve got Olivier, which frankly is enough. But the biggest treat personally was watching Lesley-Anne Downs (here playing Lady Bobby Ayres, Jones’s love interest), star of my all-time sentimental fave “Hanover Street” (1980), in which she loves and loses and loves Harrison Ford at his romantic best; after all, he is wearing a WWII pilot’s uniform. There are a few rare films that have managed to capture intelligent, shining female beauty, like time in a bottle – Michelle Pfeiffer in “Ladyhawke,” Katherine Hepburn in “The Philadelphia Story” and, for me, Downs in “Hanover Street.” I of course was all a-twitter to see her here, and see her I did.

The 1970s let-it-all-hang-out attitude is in full swing here. What’s refreshing is the director’s willingness to strip Jones as well. But it doesn’t stop the extraneous bedroom scene between Ayres and Perino from being silly. Attractive and professional as they are, neither actor seems fully onboard with the nudity, so that the intensity of their characters’ attraction with their clothes on seems to lessen with each moment that the actors’ bodies are on display for ticket sales. Just in case you weren’t uncomfortable enough, the full-string orchestra swoops in, bursting with soaring violins that promise the deepest of loves, even though the characters have already admitted to hooking up for a weekend special. The tune was so full that I kept expecting Jack Jones to show up with a mike in a corner, crooning “The Love Boat” theme song.

Regardless, this relationship in the rest of the film is handled maturely with some deft writing; I wasn’t shocked to find the legendary Walter Bernstein (responsible for “Fail Safe” and “The Molly Maguires” and blacklisted during the 1950s) sharing a screen credit when I sought out the source of the nuanced, adult interplay between Perino and Ayres – who are both young enough to play post office with dexterity, but old enough to have tossed idealized fantasy aside.

Jones carries some moments – especially the non-verbal ones – extremely well, though he’s far from the polished performer we’re used to seeing now. And Downs outside the boudoir? Far from disappointing, she sparkles. Witty and wizened, she exudes the confidence of a modern woman who is, in all likelihood, much too smart to take any man seriously.

Also done well – a completely nude swimming scene for Jones’s other love interest, the titular Betsy (Kathleen Beller), Hardeman’s smart, insightful great-granddaughter. Perhaps the intention here was also shock value, but Jones and Beller transform that intention with a pair of simple, gentle smiles. The younger woman, though a bit unsure of herself in dialogue, is completely comfortable with her physical beauty, and when ‘discovered’ by Jones, grins – a smile far more reminiscent of a toddler playing peek-a-boo than the beckoning of a seductive siren. He doesn’t make a play for her; she doesn’t pose for him. It’s almost as if Western cinema for one brief moment grew up. Not for long, obviously. (You remember the violins, right?)

I’m not giving much press to the 1930s storyline – Hardeman Senior’s backstory – which takes up roughly 20% of the movie. It gains momentum later in the film, but it really weighs down the beginning, I felt. It belongs mostly to the “unhappy gay son” phase of Hollywood’s coming out, before people with GLBT lives were allowed to thrive on celluloid, so for today’s audiences, it feels quite predictable – even with the juicy incest sideline. (Also a nice addition for fans of Katherine Ross – count me in – from “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid,” who plays Hardeman’s intense daughter-in-law.)

Overall, I really enjoyed this picture – maybe not always for the same reasons the filmmakers intended – but I think that’s a good thing. It’s a little dated, yes; a little overdone, yes; but fun and – with the exception of a few notable moments – a movie for and about grown-ups. And those are rare indeed.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Day 30: Happy Friday Funny and an Intergalactic Trek through "Star Wars: The Clone Wars"

Happy Friday! I hope it finds you all well and ready to indulge in a little late-night, only slightly naughty humor.

One of Darren and I's more recent habits is DVRing "The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson" (it's on at 12:35 a.m. here, after Letterman), then watching it over breakfast. It's how we still pretend we're night-owl hipsters. Anyway, we started shooting cereal milk through our noses this week when Ferguson, instead of doing his usual 2 min. teaser stand-up, decided to get a bit creative. I'll warn you now. S&M yodelers and puppets are involved.

Monday: (I thought of Gene all day.)
Wednesday: (for all you '70s easy listening and shark fans)
Thursday: (Completely clean and probably the funniest of them all. Sigh - I dream of Julie. And Amy, you're welcome.)

Can't wait for tonight's! This is what funny is all about, at least to a slightly skewed mind like mine.

But in the meantime, I'm off to get new tires and leaving you in care of...

Film 25: “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (2008)

Written by Henry Gilroy, Steven Melching and Scott Murphy based on characters by George Lucas
Directed by Dave Filoni

After the disaster – in my opinion – that was Episodes One-Three of the once-royal Star Wars universe, I had blissfully low expectations of this animated story – as in Center of the Earth’s Core low. Its PG rating and new look, however, intrigued me, and I found that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stay away. So, Tuesday, after a long day of plumbing failure and grown-up, homeowner woes, Darren and I sat down with a couple of drinks and popped this flick into the machine. And I have to admit, we felt a lot better afterward.

“The Empire Strikes Back” it is not. Nor does the film seem to make any pretension to that status. In fact, it just serves as the launching pad for the current Cartoon Network series, and in spite of the rockin’ animation and obviously huge budget, this really feels more like TV than An Epic Movie to me. Considering my disappointment in the more recent franchise efforts at Being Big, though, I think this is a good thing.

The story is thin – almost small – at least in Star Wars terms. Anakin Skywalker, now a full Jedi, and Obi-Wan Kenobi must rescue Jabba the Hut’s child, who has been kidnapped by a rival clan on Tatooine. Jabba’s still a fairly bad dude, but the Jedi feel forced to befriend him to ensure safe passage of their troops through his space. Just to keep things interesting, Yoda dispatches a new Padawan, Ahsoka, for Anakin’s tutelage. That’s it. That would seem to indicate a lot of room for banter and battles, right?

Right. That’s about 85% of this movie’s content. I’m still not sure how they got away with a PG rating on this, since I counted less than 10 minutes of celluloid without guns shooting. If it had been a live action film, it would definitely have received an R rating. But since it’s mostly robots that are being killed, and since even the people who die are cartoons, I suppose the censors couldn’t be bothered. No language worries, but if you’re concerned about your child becoming inured to constant battle violence, this probably isn’t the movie for you. (If your kids are regular Nick or CN watchers, this shouldn’t bother them.) There are new, cool robots, weapons and ships galore – all a lot of fun – but for me, a bit overdone. The first battle scene – though quite cool – lasted 30 minutes. It was almost a case of, “We get it. Lots of clones dying. Lots of droids kaput. Let’s get on with it.”

That leaves the banter. The Lucas world has never been overly witty, but the groaners have long been part of the fun. That feeling of ‘he probably would have really said something that lame’ stays true here, and still, these writers manage to raise the bar on Episodes 1-3’s dialogue by about 300-fold. I loved the idea of Anakin becoming a teacher, especially to someone just as anti-authoritarian as he was. I felt like Ahsoka had big shoes to fill, and she did – especially for someone probably 14 years old and suddenly in battle all day and all night.

The commentary – which, typically, I couldn’t get more than 15 minutes into before becoming so bored I had to switch it off – does reveal that the writers consciously wanted to show the Jedi’s discomfort with suddenly being war leaders, instead of peacekeepers. Thematically, it was what I found myself thinking about most: ‘When did these ultra-zen, passive resistance guys become Achilles and Hercules?’ Pondering that, and seeing Anakin in action, both revealed a great deal more of his inner struggle than anything I saw in the prequels. After all, he’s come of age in an era of violence. Not only does he believe you should fight against evil, he’s spent his entire life doing exactly that – physically. It made me wish that this strand of reasoning had been explored more in the earlier movies, with less time spent on his inexplicable attraction to despotism. I know Lucas made small moves in this direction, and it makes me hanker all the more for What Might Have Been, had he hired real writers to flesh it out sooner. And a director that can get great performances from actors, as Filoni does here. Sigh.

Anyway, I’m now quite attracted to seeing the TV series on Cartoon Network, some of which I’ve already caught but didn’t quite understand, because I hadn’t seen this yet.

I do have the nagging thought that this is fairly problematic material disguised in easily marketable packaging. But I well know (thank you, Jacob) that 6-year old kids will love it without thinking that hard about it. So I suppose it just works on one level for them – good vs. evil – and another for me.

Or maybe I just need to grab a light saber and kick some Trade Federation butt…in the name of peace of course….

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Day 29: "Veronica Guerin" - Irish Hero, Real Warrior

Once again, it's time for me to post over at Back Seat Producers. I hope you'll click below to keep reading me there...this movie is worth it!

Film 24: “Veronica Guerin” (2003)

Written by Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue
Directed by Joel Schumacher

Bravery is shaping up as the theme of the week. And this woman tops them all, hands down. Joel Schumacher (“Lost Boys” and “Batman & Robin”) directs and Jerry Bruckheimer (“Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Pearl Harbor”) produces this serious, personal story of a journalist who refuses to let the mobsters of 1996 Dublin beat her into submission…wait. What?

I know. Crazy but true. These two classic Hollywood hams helmed...[Click the link to finish reading at]

Day 28: "Make 'Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America" - Laugh a Little, Learn a Lot

Just in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve been away for a little while. This has little to do with my viewing habits, and a lot to do with Darren and I’s plumbing woes. It’s surprisingly difficult to concentrate on a review while your husband is in the next room hacking away at pipes and listing every curse word he’s ever known. Today I am blessed with peace, so here goes…

Films 22 & 23: “Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America” (2009), PBS

Written and Directed by Michael Kantor (documentary about American 20th Century comedy)

I’m counting this as two films, though it’s really a PBS mini-series, chunked out into 1-hour bits. I’m reviewing four of them today, which I figure is the same as two 2-hr movies. These are being broadcast repeatedly this month and next on your local stations, but they’re also available on DVD, which is why I’m including them here. (It’s good to be King.)

In brief:

“Would Ya Hit a Guy with Glasses?: Nerds, Jerks and Oddballs”
The focus here of course is the comedy of the outsider, either desperately trying to fit in, or contented to laugh at the insanity around him. The usual suspects Harold Lloyd and Steve Martin show up, but there’s little new to say about them (even though a lot of time is spent on them). The real revelations for me were the backstories of some male comedians, and the mere existence of some 1950s comediennes – the stylish Jean Carroll and the bawdy, much-censored Belle Barth and Rusty Warren. (I must find their material – apparently still around on LPs.) Considerable time is also devoted here to the evolutions of the personas we know now as Woody Allen, Andy Kaufman, Bob Hope and Jonathan Winters – the most surprising for me being Woody Allen’s old TV tapes – before glasses, dancing and singing, with hair. The most impressive though was Phyllis Diller – a big shock to me – as I learned of her touring with her five kids while her deadbeat husband stayed home and cashed the checks. It gave me pause to realize that what I find dated now was shocking then – a woman onstage talking about crazy in-laws and sexless marriages – threatening every power quota in place. Of course, she had to make herself unattractive for people to listen…

“Honey, I’m Home! Breadwinners and Homemakers”
In short, the sitcom. And specifically, the family sitcom. Before “Friends” replaced the family unit, “I Love Lucy” and “All in the Family” rode the rocky waves of changing American interiors. What was really happening behind those closed doors? Even now, as many of my compatriots feast on the insanity of real-life losers via Reality TV, I prefer the sitcom, as it continues to dramatize and make sense of what we’re going through as a culture. That’s where the real value of this episode lay for me – showing the evolution of our reality through our fantasy TV lives. An unexpected bonus: seeing Roseanne Barr speak with intelligence and without defensive bluster.

“Slip on a Banana Peel: The Knockabouts”
Falling down is funny. Maybe studying it isn’t quite so much. Strange, but I found this to be the least entertaining of the series so far, even though it featured some of my favorite comedians: Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers. I don’t think slapstick’s appeal is hard to figure out, and so the only real interest here was in discovering some unknown backstories – how Lucille Ball learned pantomime from Jonathan Winters and studied comedy like a science, how Harpo Marx went silent in response to criticism of his voice, and why Buster Keaton never smiled.

“When I’m Bad, I’m Better: The Groundbreakers”
This is the one to watch. Until now, the series has the feel of a documentary without a center, well-intentioned and well-researched, but without much to say. Here’s what it’s all about. George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, the Smothers Brothers, Richard Pryor, Mort Stahl – all conscientious crusaders against hypocrisy and determined to be heard in ‘free’ America. I especially appreciated the serious treatment of two ground-breaking women – Mae West and Moms Mabley. We’ve probably all heard of the first, but many have likely dismissed her as lightly suggestive or old-fashioned. Most white Americans have probably never heard of Mabley – a woman who worked the black ‘chitlin circuit’ from the 1930s through the 1960s. What few of us who have laughed at their insights have probably realized is how often we were denied them. Both women – and all the comics featured here – paid fines, were imprisoned, lost work, were threatened by the government and had material cut almost every routine – not because the material was just lewd or suggestive, but because it implied criticism – of government, of hypocrisy, of the status quo. Whoopi Goldberg tells a story about being censored for trying to even repeat some of Mabley’s material – twenty years later. By the end of this one, you’ll feel not just enlightened but enriched. There are still warriors for freedom inside America; why else would the authorities care so much about silencing the laughter?

There are two more hours of this series, which I’ll review next week after they air this weekend on my local station. In the meantime, I’m checking out the online companion at - and enjoying it even more than the series. This seems to be where a great deal of the best stories and insights are, going beyond what we already know and into the rarer territory – e.g. interviews with Carol Burnett, Kaye Ballard and Reynaldo Rey on dangerous moments in comedy, etc.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Day 23: "In America" (2002) - Perfect Rainy Day Movie

Film 21: “In America” (2002)

Written by Jim Sheridan, Naomi Sheridan & Kirsten Sheridan
Directed by Jim Sheridan

It’s raining today in San Diego – a fairly steady, gray rain – not a storm. The wind is cool. I can hear small splashes out my window at the stop sign everytime someone goes by. In short, it’s the perfect time to cuddle up with a great movie and some hot chocolate – and this is the movie for the job.

It’s a smaller story – one of a modern Irish family immigrating to Manhattan. Few stories, even fewer films, manage to show us a family honestly, from all points of view, without prejudice or maudlin background music. This one does. There’s plenty of praise to go around – a screenplay actually written by the family whose story is being told, writer/director Jim Sheridan’s steady, intimate direction, and a cast, though featuring some new faces, that must rank among the profession’s elite.

But as a writer, I’m drawn to story, and I was enthralled by this one. I suspect that’s because even when father Johnny (Paddy Considine) loses his ability to experience either real joy or pain, his daughters Christy and Ariel (Sarah and Emma Bolger) still play silly games with him, never losing faith that he’ll be better someday. And when Christy, perhaps all of 11 years old, gets frazzled and tells her father she’s exhausted from carrying the family around on her back, he listens. He doesn’t know what to do, but he does listen. He tries. Mom Sarah (Samantha Morton) loses faith in just about everything and everyone at various points on their journey, but she never walks away. Nobody here is taking the easy way out. They bruise each other, yes, but they buoy one another, too.

Their isolation in New York helps this along of course. They don’t have anywhere else to go, literally saving each penny that comes their way. But how many films have we seen that not just show, but glory in the small cruelties we inflict on our loved ones? How few there are that show how truly difficult it is to stick together, even when you really want to. This is one of those films – full of people I’d want to know, played by a cast at the top of the game, including the always brilliant Djimon Hounsou, who won several awards for his portrayal here of a short-tempered artist neighbor – and two of those players are younger than 12.

And as a little icing on the cake, little nuggets of cross-cultural wonder: Christy, experiencing her first stateside Halloween, explains to her parents (who can’t understand what she and Ariel plan to do in their required costumes) that Americans don’t ask for help, they demand it: “Trick or Treat!”

This is definitely the latter.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Day 22: “Greenfingers” and “Ghost in the Shell” – Frolicking Naked through the Literal and Virtual Gardens

Film 19: “Greenfingers” (2000) (UK)
Written and Directed by Joel Hershman

A young, angry Colin Briggs (Clive Owen) finds solace in the greener paths – as a gardener in an open prison. Georgina Woodhouse, a snooty power-maven in the upper class gardening circles (Helen Mirren) mentors his talent and takes his case to the powers-that-be – until he gets too close to her well-protected home. The excellent David Kelly (the Irish rogue from “Waking Ned”) supports Owen’s shut-down, lonely Briggs. A little frolicking in the garden – after all, what are gardens best for? – adds to the charm and comic touch of this little-known film (on our side of the pond anyway). If you’ve ever liked a British comedy, you’ll enjoy this one – as long as you’re okay with brief bum shots of buff men. (It’s not a chick flick, but why not see the shower scenes as a bonus?)

And if you’re a man in the mood for gratuitous nudity, keep reading…

Film 20: “Ghost in the Shell” (1995) (Japan)
Written by Kazunori Ito based on the manga by Masamune Shirow
Directed by Mamoru Oshii

So I’ll admit I hadn’t ever made myself actually watch “Ghost in the Shell” until now. If you live outside the sci-fi/fantasy worlds, you’ll be wondering why this is a big deal. If you travel inside them, as I often do, you’ll be shaking your head at my audacity. Especially if you’re a male cybergeek of a certain age – this film essentially put manga on the world map. I hear it referenced with awe at both sci-fi and movie conventions – a sort of breathless wonder at the purity of the manga form (Japanese comics).

I personally am not a manga girl (I won’t be reviewing the sequels), but it doesn’t take one to see the appeal of “Ghost” – nipples.

Robot nipples, skin-toned nipples, buffed-out, straining nipples; wet ones, arched ones, thrashing ones, falling-to-certain-death ones, even electrified ones…you get the picture. Who couldn’t?

Yes, there’s some pretty cool animation throughout. Tonally, it’s “Blade Runner” animated; the rain never stops falling. And subject-wise, there are some deeper questions being discussed – what makes us human? Is it merely self-awareness? In a futuristic world peopled by humans modified extensively by technology and Cyborgs, this becomes a hot political topic – one worth killing for, covering up (with never-ending expositional speeches) and engaging in gratuitously violent chase scenes. There’s some cool technology – especially the ‘cloaking’ type devices that most of the villains and heroes employ. Funny how only the male ones get to keep their clothes on to use it.

But the beautiful Japanese folk music isn't enough to cover clunky dialogue or add any real meaning to the random wind-swept profile shots. There's way too much backstory being told instead of seen, and the deep introspection of the often-naked female lead evaporates alongside a male scientist’s 14-year old joke, "I wonder if he [the male voice inside a naked, prone female Cyborg body] has a girlfriend?" Just in case you needed guidance to any porn-lite fantasies you weren't already having. At least this first installment features the faces of fully-grown women, versus the follow-ups, which obviously devolve into the normal 12-year old schoolgirl fantasy (somehow retaining the chest of a 22-year old pinup).

All I have to say to those holding out this film as evidence of a deeper sensibility in the sci-fi world is: get over yourselves. You dig the naked chicks.

Nathan Fillion and "Fanboys" News

Hi kids! Later today, I'll be posting reviews for "Greenfingers" (2000) (UK) and "Ghost in the Shell" (1995) (Japan), so stay tuned.

But first, a little news, courtesy of Amy:

Reelz says the movie "Fanboys" will finally be released on Feb 6. A quick look at the site seems to prove that the studios in the end have gotten their way and eliminated the core storyline - that of four pals attempting to sneak a peek at "Star Wars: Episode 1" before one of them dies of terminal cancer - and replaced it with a simple "we are the greatest fanboys ever" joy ride. For those of you not lucky enough to have seen chunks of this movie at previous conventions, this means you'll be seeing the Judd Apatow Wannabe version that the studios felt would be more profitable, instead of the hysterical, endearing original. Kevin Spacey's production company, which bankrolled the shooting, has been fighting for two, maybe three years, to get the original film distributed without studio interference, but it looks like they've lost.

On the good news side, Captain Mal is in another new show on ABC: Yay, Nate!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Day 20: Films 17 and 18 – On Circus Camels and Jealous Lovers

Okay, two movies behind, and it’s only January. I’m starting to feel like Alice’s rabbit a bit here – late, late for a very important date – and wouldn’t Van Johnson be mad?

Well, he might be, but I hope his spirit takes this classic review in the spirit I’ve intended to convey – one of respect for a kind man and professional actor, just one mired in the conventions of his day.

As for my viewing schedule difficulties, the answer that many of you have been seeking is finally here: yes, this is getting hard. I’m getting heavily reacquainted with the 10:30 p.m. – midnight crowd. But as my favorite many-tentacled movie beasties love to cry out, “Never Give Up! Never Surrender!”

Film 17: “The End of the Affair” (1955)

Adapted by Lenore Coffee (“Young at Heart,” “Evelyn Prentice”) from a novel by Graham Greene
Directed by Edward Dmytryk (“The Caine Mutiny,” “Raintree County”)

Who knew 1999’s excellent, gritty, down in the sheets, jealous and angry “End of the Affair” with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore was a remake? Not I, said the fly. But as so often in Hollywood, it was, and in the original film of the same name (adapted by screenwriting great Lenore Coffee from Graham Greene’s novel), Deborah Kerr and Van Johnson prove that 1955 knew a little bit about desire, too.

What’s fantastic about this movie: Deborah Kerr – always a great actress in Lady’s clothing – gets a chance to play someone unsympathetic – the cheating wife – and she’s heartbreaking. Even with the studio ending.

BUT what’s fascinating about this movie: Van Johnson (Gene Kelly’s All-American pal in “Brigadoon”) – the boyish, red-haired, perky male equivalent of Debbie Reynolds – goes dark. He spends the whole movie looking as if he’s just come off a black-and-white bender, age and sun spots replacing his normally smooth, pancaked, tan perfection. Yes, he scowled in other films, but it was the same scowl from film to film. (One he’d practiced in the mirror, I’d bet.) Here, Johnson blatantly, desperately, amateurishly goes for something deeper, something like raw emotion, something like – dare I say it? – Method acting? It was 1955 after all, and the studio system was shredding even as the stars kept arriving for work. The big B was busy flattening his male competition, shouting and groaning his way through “On the Waterfront” and “Streetcar Named Desire.” Hard-working, make-no-trouble, everyday soldiers like Johnson had to be shaking. Where was his place in this Brave New World?

Now, anybody already ensconced in a profession whose entire skill set shifts overnight is going to be unprepared for the job requirements. Think record album manufacturers when faced with the cassette tape, or land-war generals in 1915 France dealing with the Tommy gun. Johnson clearly feels he’s not quite there, bowing to Kerr in all of their scenes for guidance, allowing his nervousness as an actor to nag at every corner of his performance. And yet, he goes for it. He finds a way through the tape reels and hails of bullets to give us the most underwrought, honestly played role of his career. He’s no Brando, no Kerr, but he does show us – just this once – a little of his soul on film. I think it shows up best in his arguments with Kerr, the lover who resists leaving her husband. He bullies her, cajoles her, bribes her – whatever he thinks might work – and halfway through these delicious arguments, he forgets to pose, to look pretty and even, ever so briefly, to Be Real. He just is – vulnerable and confused and beautiful.

The horrible disaster of this film for me is its legacy – that Johnson never again went for it like he does here. He survived the studio breakdown instead by adopting a healthy dose of self-mockery – so entertaining in “Divorce American Style” – or a mask of staged anger – in all his later war films – that comprise the lions’ share of his subsequent performances. But for the Van Johnson that might have been, I grieve that there is no further evidence than “The End of the Affair.”

Film 18: “The Big Animal” (‘Duze Zwierze’, Poland) (2000)

Written by Krzysztof Kieslowski, based on a story by Kazimierz Orlos
Directed by Jerzy Stuhr

So now I’ve taken all my time on the first review, I’m going to have to give this one short shrift.

That’s probably okay, since the premise is easy to understand. A traveling circus in rural, Communist-era Poland leaves behind a camel, which local childless couple Zygmunt (Jerzy Stuhr, a favorite actor in Poland) and Marysia (Anna Dymna) Sawicki adopt. Funny, right? Not to their neighbors, who want to make money off it, or to the authorities who want it “to be useful.” The Sawickis’ tale of clinging to something beautiful and original in the midst of pressure to conform held me spellbound. This is no grainy, out-of-the-back-of-a-lorry film either. The photography is crisp and lean, and on many occasions, inspired. How many cameramen have managed to make a camel leering out of his stable at a mob behind his ‘parents’ seem human? Can’t think of a single one. Simple and short – at just an hour and 12 minutes – this darkly comedic darling will remind you of Charlie Chaplin’s simple beauty. Very few words required.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Emma Thompson's Big News

Sorry to be behind on the posting, all! I had a full weekend of company - yay, Beth! - and am going to have to try to post tonight after work and a late writers' meeting. The busy life of The Player (as in "I work hard to play...").

In the meantime, be comforted with this: Emma Thompson gave Tavis Smiley, a local L.A. interviewer, a little scoop while she was in town for the Golden Globes. She's working on a new script adaptation of "My Fair Lady" for Universal. She says it's "very theatrical" and has been researching George Bernard Shaw's writings, esp his letters, extensively, trying to write in a lot of his real-life attitude toward women. She says he was quite like Prof. Higgins in his own life. Since she's still writing it, it prob won't see the light of production lights for another two years.

While you're waiting, go see "Last Chance Harvey." I can't wait - going this week - and am SO looking forward to what she calls a "subtle, funny adult romance" - i.e. a movie with a brain. And based on the electricity she and Dustin Hoffman produced in their scenes in "Stranger Than Fiction," it should be brilliant! (If you can't get out to theaters, rent 'STF' - amazing!)

Friday, January 16, 2009

Day 16: "Hijacking Agatha" - A Little Polish Love (and a bit with the dog)

Film 16: "Hijacking Agatha" (1993)

Written and Directed by Marek Piwowski

Yay! At last, some help!

My darling friend Nancy Fisk stopped by today to watch one of my queue – an obscure little 1993 Polish film, “Hijacking Agatha.” Not many would be this brave, and even braver, Nancy agreed to say a little bit about it! Without further ado, heeeerrree’s Nancy!!!

On “Hijacking Agatha:”
“This is supposed to be a Polish Romeo and Juliet, which it lives up to most of the time. The parallels aren’t exact but they’re there. Tybalt the angry cousin, is the son of a Congressman, Juliet is Agatha, the innocent but horny teenage girl, Romeo is a gypsy named Gypsy, and Friar Laurence is a cop who makes good the escape from the angry parents. What I appreciated about this movie is that Agatha is stunning and Gypsy is someone I would run away with on a moment’s notice. I would run away with Gypsy’s father, who is a dead ringer for Peter Graves, and a charmer with the women himself. You can see where Gypsy gets his charm from.

Where the movie falls down is continuity. We don’t really know why they are in an apartment with newspapers in the window. Or why a camera crew comes there and then leaves for a recording studio. There’s a dog, who appears and disappears as is convenient. And why Agatha doesn’t figure out that her house is bugged and she shouldn’t call home after the first time is beyond us.”

Agreed, agreed! Quite an entertaining way to see into the immediate post-Communist era of Polish culture, and campy enough to sustain interest through the frequent non-sequiters. This includes the bizarro, half-done subtitles, like “That basted!” and “We will see her for her with her.” Probably not a normal Friday night flick, but I know most of you aren’t expecting normal…

Day 15: “As You Like It” – And You Might, You Might Not

Film 15: “As You Like It” (2006)

Adapted By Kenneth Branagh from William Shakespeare’s play
Directed by Kenneth Branagh

So pretty, so colorful, so full of professional performances – why doesn’t it move me more?

First, you ought to know how hard it is for me to say anything negative about Kenneth Branagh – the Northern Irish actor of the Golden Tongue. I took the hour long bus ride four weeks running at college, just to watch Branagh’s freshman effort “Henry V” again and again and sigh. Nobody in this generation can speak it like the Branagh, baby.

Still supremely in control of his instrument whenever he’s onstage, Branagh hits and misses onscreen. 1993’s “Much Ado About Nothing” – one of the funniest straight-forward adaptations ever. 2000’s “Love’s Labours Lost” – 1930’s musical-style – lost on mainstream audiences and certainly studio heads – featured great goofy moments interspersed with bizarrely out-of-tune crescendos.

Here, he sets the gender-bending comedy in feudal Japan – with only a smattering of Japanese actors, all in minor roles. I’ll admit it took me an hour of film to understand that the Irish, English, American and African faces that people the cast are all supposed to be Japanese, versus visitors in the exotic landscape. I imagine the idea was to set the play in a land where ‘banishment’ might be easier to understand, but since the characters still find themselves in a lush, green forest, it’s hard to see any big impact of this move.

But I think what’s harder to access is the languorous pacing, half of it filled with dramatic, woeful music and crying actors. Hard to get onboard with the comedy idea when all the performers seem so melancholic. Branagh does love Shakespeare’s dialogue and has always taken great efforts to make sure we do too. Here he does us that courtesy with long takes, giving us time to process the thick language and double meanings. Unfortunately, it completely ruins any comic timing the film as a whole might have. There are lovely small moments throughout, but the wide, open spaces between them interrupt the overall effort.

If you’re a big fan of this play (admittedly, I’m not), or of Branagh, or supremely gifted actors like Kevin Kline, Bryce Dallas Howard, Alfred Molina, Janet McTeer and Adrian Lester, you should definitely try this out. Make your own judgment. I feel like this is the kind of movie that will produce as many different opinions as it has viewers.

Day 14: "Get Smart" - Don Adams Would Be Proud

Written by Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember, based on characters by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry

Directed by Peter Segal

Okay, this one is simple. Steve Carrell plays a foreign intelligence savant, Anne Hathaway - a bitter plastic surgery victim, The Rock - a cheesy, uber-tan rock star agent, Alan Arkin - a befuddled but loyal Chief, David Koechner ('Champ' from "Anchorman) and Terry Crews - the wanna-be cool agents, James Caan - a doofus Texan president, and Masi Oka ('Hiro' from "Heroes") and Nate Torrence as Geek Central brains. Throw in "The Tick" Patrick Warburton and Bill Murray cameos, and you'll laugh until next week.

Giggle away...

The "Watchmen" - AT LAST!!!

Finally! Warner Brothers undoubtedly had to give up some big cash for this settlement. The Fox lawyers must be laughing all the way to the bank...and at last, we'll get to see it!

The news story:

For the preview:

Too cool!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Coraline Author Live Online Tomorrow at 10 a.m.

Hey all Neil Gaiman fans!

Heads up that he's going to be on the air live tomorrow at 10 a.m. Pacific time/1 p.m. East Coast for a chat on the new film "Coraline"! You can even call in if you're brave.

Follow to listen:

(For those of you not in the know, "Coraline" is Gaiman's creepiest book - supposedly for kids - but in a very Tim Burton way...who is, of course, directing the animated "Nightmare Before Christmas" fans celebrate as well!)

Thanks to Julie for the link!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Day 13: “The Italian Job” (2003) – Fun in Mini-Coopers, Venetian Canals and the L.A. Metro

Film 13: “The Italian Job” (2003)

Written by Donna and Wayne Powers, inspired by a 1969 script by Troy Kennedy-Martin
Directed by F. Gary Gray

And now I know why Jason Statham got the lead in “The Bank Job.” In fact, now I know why “The Bank Job” finally found funding after seeking it for years. The success of this film, kids.

Seth Green plays the computer geek (and he kills it of course), but his best scene by far is imitating Handsome Rob (Statham)’s chat-up of a typical blond California girl. Hysterical, and one of many takes that they let Green just go, do his thing. And honestly, that’s all you need to know to want to rent this movie. But wait, there’s more.

Mark Wahlberg is fine here. Nothing too interesting about his character, I thought. Unlike his much-underappreciated and secretive, layered Joshua in "The Truth About Charlie," his Charlie Croker here is the ‘serious one’ who holds everyone together, but how fun is that? Edward Norton ramps it up a bit for Croker’s nemesis Steve – revealing a loser-with-the-ladies side that’s pretty fun in an otherwise callous, heartless villain. (Remind me not to mess with Norton’s toys.)

Mos Def entertains as Left Ear – so named because his penchant for explosives means he can only hear out of one ear. He’s another performer who excels when in a group, given something fun to bounce off. And the cast here does so nicely, obviously comfortable with each other. (They all give a great deal of credit for this to their director Gary Gray in the interviews, whose career has mostly been in videos. Quite the breakout success!)

And of course, there’s The Girl. Here it’s Serious Actress Charlize Theron, who plays Stella. Given to frowns when thinking about dead thief dad John (Donald Sutherland), she spends the rest of her time cracking safes for cops. Her version of Getting Back at Daddy. Kind of a cool job really. But Stella’s hidden – and much more interesting – talent is driving on sidewalks in her Mini-Cooper, which ends up providing us with one of the best chase scenes in recent cinema – through the Metro tunnels of L.A. (actually recreated in detail in a warehouse – no sound stage was big enough). (Bonus for soCal audiences: they actually take the streets that lead to their destination, unlike most films, where local audiences realize that even though the movie says we’re driving along the coast, we’re really inland 30 miles in Pasadena.) Theron’s face lights up with something I can only term ‘glee’ in these scenes, as she sends water and pedestrians flying. And if the Extras are to be believed, it could well be the actress smiling, not the character. How often does an Oscar-winner get to have fun after all? Onscreen, I mean.

Lots of fun – left me wanting to check out the original inspiration: 1969’s “The Italian Job” which goes from Turin, Italy, to London, instead of the Venice-L.A. trek here. This is how to do a remake. As the screenwriters explain in the extras, they didn’t want to redo the same film, just pay homage to it. So they riffed on the original versus rewriting it. Well done.

p.s. Unlike “The Bank Job,” “The Italian Job” managed a PG-13 rating, which strips it of some edge. But you can watch it with the junior high and up crowd, sans the boobies-everywhere paranoia of “BJ.”

SDSU Study Finds Less Than 30% of Film Reviews Written by Women

I thought this was particularly interesting in light of my recent Godfather rant...

Excerpted from The Hollywood Reporter article "Thumbs Down" by Randee Dawn - 12/5/08

"A whopping 70% of reviewers of theatrical film releases were men, and each male critic wrote on average 14 reviews -- compared to only nine for the female reviewers. Of the papers that published original reviews, 47% had none written by female critics, staff writers or freelancers. Only 12% had none written by male contributors. "This study really gave us another piece of the puzzle when it comes to talking about the nearly seamless dialogue that occurs among men about movies," notes Dr. Martha M. Lauzen, executive director of the Center. "Women reviewers do tend to write about women directors, or about films featuring female protagonists. Since they comprise only 30% of the reviewers, that means films featuring women are less likely to be reviewed -- putting those films at a disadvantage" in the marketplace."

- Thanks to James for the link:

Also in that issue, the 100 Most Powerful Women in Hollywood. #1 - no contest of course. But if you'd like to see who else is playing with the boys, here's the link:

Most surprising to me: All top 10 are Presidents, Chairmen or CEOs of studios - including traditional male-stalwarts MTV and Disney. Does this mean we might be seeing more princesses and rock stars with body fat? (I'm not holding my breath....) Angelina Jolie and Tina Fey are the only two actresses on the list besides Oprah, showing the true meaning of Hollywood: money, honey. And for my pal Cassidy (13 years old), Miley Cyrus just squeaked in at #100. Go, Hannah! (so long as I don't have to watch the show...)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Days 9 through 12: The Bank Job, Jersey Girl, Venus, and Green Wing - or More Movie than I Know What to Do With

I thought I’d take a minute to answer the most popular question I’ve been asked so far on my movie-watching quest after ‘Why?’, which is ‘How?’ Easy: any way I can. Thursday night, the last night I posted, I was exhausted after a long day of work, and cranking out my ‘Godfather’ opus in an overcrowded Panera café. I came home, sick of it all, determined to do nothing but watch my DVR’d TV shows, which I did, until 11-ish. This is what I call the Magic Hour. The old, ingrained habits of my wasted youth crave their moment of glory just before bedtime. Little movie-crazy gremlins sit on my shoulders. ‘Will she switch to Turner Classic Movies, just to glance? Maybe TBS? Can we make her?’ And they did. So, when my weekend later turned into time-on-the-road instead of time-in-front-of-TV, I had backup! Between that, and the awesome “Watch Instantly” feature of Netflix (available 24/7 to feed my debauchery), I’m managing.

I also managed to make it to L.A. this weekend for a free roundtable of directors – all nominees for the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. But that’s a story that will have to wait until later in the week…

Film 9: “The Bank Job” (2008) – Pretty Pretty Jason Statham and Professionally Pouty Saffron Burrows Pick Lloyds of London’s Pockets

Written by Dick Clement and Ian La Franais
Directed by Roger Donaldson

Excellent Friday night movie. Good caper flicks are hard to make, and this one cuts the mustard. A few critics have even put it on their Best of 2008 lists. I was too pooped to care about that, though, after a long week. I just wanted a good, let-my-brain-rest fun flick. “The Bank Job” is exactly that.

Not as edgy as Guy Ritchie’s gangster flicks like “Snatch,” but not as hard to understand the accents either. (Bonus: Your kids probably won’t even understand the swearing, since half of it refers to ‘bullocks,’ hardly a common junior high phrase.) Statham does a fine job; he seems to be heir-apparent to the Bruce Willis mix of dark comedian and just-happened-to-be-there action hero. And with her hollow cheeks and gangly frame, Burrows manages to emanate a bit of fragility in her performance as Martine Love, an ex-model who smells easy money in the titular Bank Job. The love story – because of course the writers couldn’t resist one – rests loosely on longing looks and references to unfulfilled youthful lust. “It was always you, Terry” is as deep as it gets – hardly enough to spoil the momentum of small-time hoods in way over their heads.

BTW, the film’s premise is deliciously racy, earning it an R-rating, based on compromising photographs of a princess inflagrante with several other people – at the same time – so if you do watch it with the teenagers, be warned. The nitty-gritty for those considering the 13+ crowd:

Film 10: “Jersey Girl” (2004) – Because in the End, I Have to Watch Anything by the Great Senor Smith

Written and Directed by Kevin Smith (“Chasing Amy,” “Clerks,” “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back”)

SO not Kevin Smith’s usual movie – a wanna-be weepy about a widower who has to decide whether to stay in small-town Jersey for his daughter’s sake or go for the Big Job in Manhattan. But then again…it kind of IS Smith’s usual territory.

Ben Affleck and George Carlin are here per usual, as are Matt Damon and Jason Lee, in a killer cameo as soulless PR execs. Themes of friendship and romance, check. And porn. Of course. So why does this movie get such a bad rap? One word: uneven.

Affleck seems to be juggling a few different characters here, even though he’s only cast in one. Driven career guy, sensitive husband and hopeless romantic, stony-faced cynic and enlightened 21st century dad. The journey between these faces seems to be missing, and even though it’s popular to do so, I don’t think most of the blame can be laid at Affleck’s feet. It’s as if large chunks of the film are missing – in fact, most of Act Two just seems to have evaporated. After the tragic loss of his wife (Jennifer Lopez) and job, Affleck retreats to the “country” – here played by New Jersey – with a daughter he wants to resent. He decides not to – in one scene. Then when he wants to go back to the Big Life, he decides to ignore her and turn his back on the last seven years – in one scene. Both are the ‘hearts’ of the movie, but neither seems to make any sense, based on what we’ve seen about the guy.

As for the love story with grad student Maya (Liv Tyler), which has great promise, who can tell where it went? Three scenes do not a subplot make. Especially when only one of them (the best, funniest scene of the movie) features the characters beginning a relationship (in a shower). They’re already ‘discussing’ it in the other two – and we have to ask, “What ‘it?’”

Anyway, this is isn’t awful. It’s not good either. It’s just not done. Or perhaps it was undone somewhere along the line by a scissor-happy editor – encouraged by nervous studio reps, who knew the J-Lo/Affleck combo would kill their box office. Instead, they killed the movie.

Film 11: “Venus” (2006) – Peter O’Toole’s Most Nominated Performance (or ‘Goofy Old Guy Wakes Up Young Girl’)

Written by Hanif Kureishi
Directed by Roger Michell

Poor old Peter O’Toole. One glance at his IMDB page of award nominations, and I understood the look he had after losing at the 2007 Oscars ( Ten Golden Globe noms, seven Oscar nods. But since 1970, he’s had trouble getting arrested at those events. Never won an Oscar. I guess the man could feel entitled at this point. Somebody needs to get on the ball and dish out a Lifetime Achievement Award before the poor guy expires of anticipation. He was nominated for almost a dozen biggies for his performance in “Venus” and won none. Well, Petey, I think you’re grand. And I’m pretty sure anyone who sees this film will think so, too.

Not a complicated movie, just great performances – really only three major parts – all excellent. Leslie Phillips plays Ian, the tottering curmudgeon retiree, best pal of fellow actor Maurice (O’Toole), who still gets bit parts, mostly as corpses. Ian decides to invite his niece from the country to stay with him in the big city, and she does – Jodie Whittaker as Jessie. Her monosyllabic grunts and grungy personal hygiene horrify Ian, and at first they did me too. But Maurice sees her beauty, as only a horny old player can, and gradually, so do we. Simple but engrossing.

Film 12: “Green Wing” (2004) British TV series, 18 episodes, DVD set

Created by Victoria Pile

You might call this cheating. After all, it’s not on my Netflix list, since you can’t yet buy this series state-side (though you can catch it sometimes on BBC America). But Liese, my pal in Nottingham, visited me over the holidays and left me this little pile of gold. I can only play it on my computer, since it’s Region 2 – Europe – and not U.S. And I can only do that so long as I don’t switch back to American regions (total of 4 switches allowed in Windows Media Player). Trust me. This is worth it.

“Green Wing” is like “Scrubs” on speed. The famous British reserve has its opposite side – blindingly-paced sarcasm, sex and toilet jokes. In the first episode, the brainy and fetching Dr. Caroline Todd (Tamsin Grieg, also fantastic in the series” Love Soup” and “Black Books”) arrives for her first day of work at the hospital in need of a shower. The self-appointed stud of the ranks Guy Secretan (Stephen Mangan) lures her to his flat…and a stopped-up toilet fouls up his plan. How Pile and her writers manage to pull this off while delivering dialogue more intelligent than three American network shows put together is the magic of British entertainment. Add in a Human Resources Manager who speaks in dolphin, a total lack of medical jargon (and very little reference to patients ever), and actress Sarah Alexander, the famous ‘Susan’ from “Coupling,” and I think it’s a sure win with American audiences.

So, until BBC America reruns this series, or it becomes available on Region 1 DVDs…here’s a link to some fantastic clips on Channel 4’s site ( They do have the entire series available for free online on their OnDemand site – but it only works if you live in the U.K. or Ireland. Stinkers.

I do hope you’re sated for now…but I’ll be back tomorrow anyway.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Days 7 and 8: "The Godfather" and "The Godfather: Part II" - Where's the Soul, Mon Frere?

warning: rant ahead...two days' worth at least...

Films 7 and 8: "The Godfather" (1972) and "The Godfather: Part II" (1974)

I’m a girl who believes in “Never Say Never” – the saying, not the Bond movie. (Not that Sean Connery was terrible or anything, but let’s face it – sssssllllllooooowwww film.)

I believe in giving most everything a chance.

I tried understanding football after sitting through weekend after weekend next to my husband. Now I’m more extreme than many men in their NFL devotion, including a strict no-phone-calls-or-visitors policy on Game Day.

I sought clarity on the “younger women make me feel sexy so I’m giving my old wife the boot” POV, worried that I might be wrongly condemning the majority of La Jolla or Beverly Hills as soulless macho narcissists. This led to enjoying several pieces that tackled the subject – Steve Martin’s “Shopgirl,” for instance, and last year’s cancelled dramedy “Big Shots,” a rich man’s “Sex in the City” – and lo, I found I could identify – even if I didn’t always agree – with some of these resolute ‘old wife’-traders.

Shoot, I even checked out Clive Owen and Michael Davis as they out-Woo’d John Woo in the recent “Shoot ‘Em Up” – a non-stop, hysterical attempt to leave no shot (of film) without a shot (from a gun). I howled in fact at Paul Giamatti’s overdone bad guy with a one-track mind: kill, kill, grimace. (Okay, two tracks.)

But I will never, ever, ‘til the day I die understand what people – especially men, it seems – see in “The Godfather.” Yes, go ahead and scream. Yell. Call me a feminist, chick-flick-loving heretic. Doesn’t hurt. And it’s not going to convince me to love this insipid movie or its never-ending sequels.

It’s taken me thirty-seven years, but I’ve finally gotten around to watching – or making as good a stab as I can muster – these power-heavy polemics. I even watched “Godfather Part II” just to see if Diane Keaton's mealy-moused wife 'Kay' would ever wake up. (She does, apologizes for it and then disappears.) And for the benefit of my movie-watching sisters, I can safely say, “Skip it.” Unless you harbor a burning desire to see men posture for power; suppress, bully or ignore the women in their lives; and struggle with the ever-present dilemma of who to kill when – you can probably sleep peacefully without these movies.

No offense to Pacino, Coppola, De Niro and the rest, but they just don’t do it for me. Men dealt a bum rap. Poor, humiliated, desperate to escape the brutality of their childhoods. Hmmm…what to do? Something new? Groundbreaking? Anything that would earn my respect as a filmgoer, if not as a woman? Well…

Brando, as old Don Vito Corleone, tells his underlings, including son Michael (Pacino) to shoot people. Michael resists, but then his brother and wife are shot, so he shoots people, too. In the next film, as a silent child of five, Vito Corleone suffers through his father’s murder by the local Old World mafia, then his brother’s, and finally, right in front of him, his mother’s. He doesn’t say a word, just runs. He’s smuggled onto a boat for New York. He’s quarantined on Ellis Island, and finally, alone in his room overlooking the Statue of Liberty, he breaks into a perfect, transcendent hymn, worthy of the Sistine Chapel. In the next scene, instead of seeing him struggle to accept his new world, we view his miraculous replacement by a grown-up, talking Vito (De Niro), happily married but poor. Guess what he decides to do for a living? Bang bang. Wow me.

“But these are universally revered films!” you cry. Universal for men, maybe. When was the last time you noticed a woman weeping with you as Michael Corleone sacrifices his humanity for “family?” (i.e. organized crime) Pauline Kael loves them, you say. Whatever. One female critic who claims to love male-only domain genre films does not a ‘universal’ trend make. What’s your wife got to say about it?

Probably nothing, since she can’t even make it through any of these yawners. I’m not saying all women are faking it who claim to appreciate these flicks, but I draw the line at “objectively great.”

“You're oversimplifying!” you’ll likely hear. Especially if you’re in a Serious Crowd. And you can count on some females in the group to be towing the Officially Accepted View. “These are classic texts on the American experience!” they’ll cry. And you will balk and wonder what to say next.

Here’s my two cents. Hope it helps you out of the jam.

Michael Corleone’s central problem in “The Godfather:” what kind of man will he be? What can I say? Not my problem. “Oh, but it’s about family,” my pal James told me recently. “Everyone has family.”

Sure, I’ve got family. Will any of those family members ever pressure me to be the head of the mafia? Nope. Okay. Neither will James’s. But I bet he's closer.

Will my friends and family even judge me alone by the job I have? Any Western woman who can answer “yes” without reservation has some evolved parents – the kind that don’t want grandkids. But say they do. Say they don’t care at all whether I’ve found love, whether I’ve got someone “to take care of me” like a small puppy. Some say they love us anyway, even if we’ve failed at most mothers’ version of ‘being of a complete woman.’ Will they then turn their critical eye on me and ask me to forsake my own moral code in order to save the family honor? Sorry. I don’t think so.

Men are asked to turn a blind eye to morality sometimes – often even – on behalf of their worldly success, yes. Women sacrifice – and are often expected to sacrifice – that very worldly success to keep the ‘family’ fed, bathed and populated. Michael Corleone loses his soul in order to save his family’s honor and standing. His wife Kay (Diane Keaton) loses hers when she aborts their son in order to save him from following in his father’s footsteps. Michael strikes her, disallows her from seeing her children and excommunicates her from his life. (Okay, I’m skipping ahead to “Godfather II;” she’s too silent even to count in the first film.) Michael loses her, yes, but he was already a shell – no longer fully human. He will continue to be successful in the world. She has lost everything. There is no redemption for a woman without moral superiority.

But her plight is not what “The Godfather” is about. Nope, it’s simply: “What will Michael do with his life? Will he sacrifice power and stature (represented by his family) and break away for freedom (represented at first by Kay)?” A worthy question, but a man’s question. In the end, he believes vengeance for his brother’s death and the death of his first wife justifies his return to the family fold. The fight, even though he didn’t start it, must go on. And to complete his fall from the light, he drags down Kay with him. (And all my sister and I can think is, ‘Run, girl, run!’)

I do not say that women aren’t required to choose between right and wrong, between morality and success. (See Lady Macbeth.) What I do believe is that very few of us have been offered the inherited reins of corruption as a birthright. Millions of women have felt the impact of family violence – across their cheeks – from the same kind of men who in “The Godfather” espouse to “put family first.” But how many men have been willing – much less eager – to give their daughters that power? How many women have been shamed into killing – or abusing – others on behalf of the family pride? Maybe the one out of a thousand who honestly lists “The Godfather” as a favorite film.

Society asks women to die for our families, not kill. (Female soldiers returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan are finding that clinics often don’t even recognize their duty as having PTSD potential, since according to Congress, they weren’t officially in combat.) We died in childbirth in droves in a pre-hospital world. Post-hospital, we continued to die, years before our time – worked to the bone in 1930s America on remote farms with ten children and no electricity – and continue to die in our 50s in 21st century cities, as we often work two jobs, both underpaid, to put food in front of our ‘fatherless’ children. Most horrifically, we die because our ‘protective’ husbands and boyfriends would rather see us dead than with someone else (still the leading cause of female homicides).

But I would argue that we die most often in the movies so that our cinematic husbands can suffer nobly - without complications. When was the last time you saw a Clint Eastwood or Mel Gibson wife still alive by the 20-minute mark?

Which pill is harder to swallow? Life without morality or never-ending martyrdom? I don’t know many movies which take both sides of the real story head-on. There are thousands of films which explore a woman’s sacrifices, her moral quandaries when it comes to family. “Sophie’s Choice” is memorable because a mother must choose which child will die – but it’s a man who does the killing.

So that the men’s heads will stop reeling, I will say here that the “Godfather” movies have value. Any movie that moves you, that addresses dilemmas you face, that changes your world or resonates in your consciousness long after you’ve seen it – anything that does that has enormous value – to you.

But it’s time women cinephiles were honest with their male counterparts. Instead of nodding blithely when these films inevitably come up in conversation as The Greatest of All Time, I hope some of you will find the courage to say, “Really? Bored me senseless. But ‘Room with a View?!’ Now there’s a movie!”

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Day 6: “Siam Sunset”: A Little Bloody, Lotta Funny Trip to the Outback

Film 6: “Siam Sunset” (1999)
Written by Max Dann and Andrew Knight
Directed by John Polson

Problem: Englishman (yeah, yeah…so I’ve got a thing with the U.K. this week) Perry can’t get over his wife’s freak accident-caused death – a refrigerator falling out of the sky (turns out it fell off a plane) – and broods at work. He creates paint colors and becomes obsessed with one color he can’t get right: Siam Sunset. His boss wants him to take a break, his family wants him to start living again, but Perry (Linus Roache) just stirs and stirs…

Solution: …Until he wins a 10-day break to Australia. Enter adventure. Unfortunately for those around Perry, disaster seems to follow him…as it has since his wife’s death. Cars break down, earthquakes rumble and homicidal maniacs track down their ex-girlfriends…all on one simple bus tour through the bleak, waterless Outback.

Result: Helluva lot different than the recent “Australia” – and that’s what’s so funny. ‘Dirty’ in Baz Luhrmann’s world equals sexy, rugged, abs-that-can-cut-through-cans (and on Hugh Jackman, it’s not a stretch). But ‘dirty’ in “Siam” means flies that won’t leave you alone, teeth that time forgot and overwhelming relief that as a viewer, I can’t smell the screen. There’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor about the ‘beautiful scenery’ and entertaining ribbing of the English by the Australian writers. Never fear, Perry represents the island well – by being eccentric enough himself to not notice or mind half of the insanity that surrounds him. The rough Sheila that catches his eye, Grace (Danielle Cormack), fits in perfectly – not mannered or illiterate, but somewhere nice – and vaguely criminal – in between. The supporting cast is goofy and fun to watch.

I don’t imagine it would leave anyone in tears – either from crying or laughing – but “Siam Sunset” manages to be original and enjoyable without going overboard in any direction.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Day 5: “Morons from Outer Space”: And Now For Something Completely Different…

Film 5: “Morons from Outer Space” (1985)
Written by Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones (“Alas, Smith and Jones,” Brit TV)
Directed by Mike Hodges (“Croupier” and 1971’s “Get Carter”)

Problem: Well, you see, there’s these people in a spaceship – not very bright people – a bit intelligence-challenged – in fact, morons. Four of them. One (Mel Smith) goes outside to play Spaceball in his spacewalk suit instead of fixing the broken navigational system…and BOOM! His mates (Joanne Pearce, Jimmy Nail and Paul Bown) lean on the gas, and leave him flat.

Solution: Hitch a ride of course. So it doesn’t work out very well, and you end up dumped on the nearest rotating rock? And you realize that while you’re viewed as a lunatic, your moronic mates have become rock stars on Earth…okay, solutions seem slim on the ground.

Result: What do ya think I think? Totally awesome! As in TOTALLY. Completely saturated in 1980s culture – London punks, Cold War paranoia and the best spoof of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ I’ve ever seen – this movie will probably be loved most by those of us who lived through the era. Mel Smith, best known to most Yanks as the Albino in “Princess Bride,” has made quite a tidy living with co-writer Griff Rhys-Jones in surreal comedy, continuing the fine Monty Python tradition. Plenty of it is here in embryonic form, with a very filming-in-the-garage feel, reminiscent of “Real Genius” and “Top Secret!” A lovely treat for anyone who’s ever chuckled at “Spaceballs,” loved “E.T.” or truly enjoyed “Star Trek.” (Me? So guilty...on all counts.)

Day 4: “Bright Young Things” – Bubbly Paparazzi Set in 1930s London…but Would Paris Fit In?

Film 4: “Bright Young Things” (2003)
Written and Directed by Stephen Fry
(adapted from Evelyn Waugh’s novel ‘Vile Things’ – great title!)

Problem: Poor – literally and figuratively – Adam Fenwick-Symes (Stephen Campbell Moore) hasn’t got enough ‘dosh’ to marry his darling society love Nina (Emily Mortimer). This is a real stinker, since she actually loves him back. His novel, already pre-sold, has been confiscated by Customs for being ‘dirty,’ and he hasn’t enough money to pay his hotel bill, much less finance the 1930s version of a jobless Carrie Bradshaw.

Solution: Gamble some easy winnings on a 30-1 horse to win. But leave a drunken major (Jim Broadbent) you’ve never met before to do it for you. As you do. Obviously, the money-man stumbles out of the parlor, stinking of sherry, not to be seen again until much later. How will you fill the gap? Shall you spy for a gossip mongering publisher (Dan Aykroyd)? Borrow money from future Daddy-kins-in-law (Peter O’Toole), clearly off his noodle? Or hope that your true love isn’t swayed by the bright shiny “pots” of money offered her by an old childhood sweetheart (David Tennant – respected Shakespearean actor, yes, but mostly awesome for being ‘Dr. Who’)?

Result: I’ll admit now that I’ll watch anything associated with Stephen Fry (‘Jeeves’, ‘Wilde’), and since he both wrote and directed this one, I couldn’t resist. I’ll also admit that I’d seen part of this on cable in fits and starts previously, but this was my first uninterrupted sitting. Bravo! Starting out, I felt at ease in the silly, light world of a British costume comedy – flapper parties, gin martinis and “dashing” dialogue. But the film steadily took me somewhere darker, as the luster of the inter-war period wears thin. Hitler’s shadow looms just ahead, and the constant cocaine sniffing and frenzied drive to ‘party or die trying’ morph from a goofy ragtime pulse to a droning white noise. To help create this, Fry relies on the party-sequence, swirling camera effect quite a lot, but he doesn’t need to. The point is made with greatest effect by his supporting characters’ downfalls – in pitch-perfect performances by James McAvoy (the young Mr. Dreamboat from last year’s “Atonement”), Fenella Woolgar (a woman whose face makes you understand where the ‘horsey’ description of the aristocracy originates – and yet she’s strikingly beautiful here), and Michael Sheen (currently starring as ‘Frost’ in “Frost/Nixon”). A bit of a downer, but still, I appreciated the frothiness dissipating after a while. It kept me watching, laughing, and most of all, thinking.

I wonder…would a film about the Lindsay Lohan set would do the same?

Day 3: “Catch and Release” – Maudlin Romance Tempered by Big Belly Laughs and Something Real to Say

Film 3: “Catch and Release” (2006)

Problem: True love dies. That is, one of the lovers dies. Still a pretty big problem, you’ll agree. It is indeed for Gray (Jennifer Garner), the unfortunate widow.

Solution: How else to break out of a despair stupor? Sleep with the handsome friend left behind, Fritz (Timothy Olyphant), at the funeral. Okay, so this could lead to some more problems…which of course fill up the rest of the film.

Result: Fairly touching, though I found Garner herself more affecting in “Juno.” Some great laughs, including a massage tête-à-tête between Juliette Lewis and Kevin Smith that you must see. I think the big problem with this genre – the Dead, Perfect Mate Genre – is that you seldom get to see Mr. Wonderful in action, so that as an audience member, you’re much less shocked when his imperfections arise than the characters are. In the end, this is a solid film about friendship getting us through the worst times of our lives. The circle of friends surrounding Gray and her husband must readjust, and most of the time, it seems as if it won’t. After all, what really bonds us together? Love? Habit? Our insane fright of the outside world? Writer Susannah Grant poses a lot of possibilities – enough to make you think about your own little world a moment – and isn’t that the point of story? Solidly above average.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Day 2: "Jumper" - Sci Fi Quickie

Film 2: “Jumper”

Problem: A geeky boy finds freedom from derision and loneliness in his newfound power: jumping telepathically from spot to spot. Over the next few years, he (Hayden Christensen) finds a little money, globe-trots with beautiful strangers, and then POW! Big bad Samuel L. Jackson shows up and tries to off him. Seems he’s got a big theological problem with folks that have god-like powers. Sort of a bummer, huh?

Solution: Fight back of course, while courting your childhood true love (Rachel Bilson).

Result: Okay, so you’ve heard it. But I have to say it was better than I thought, shorter than I’d expected, and the big bonus: seeing Hayden Christensen’s face move! I’d seen it happen before he became Anakin Skywalker – or his stone-faced stand-in – when he starred opposite Kevin Kline in the excellent “Life as a House” (2001). Good news – it still works, and his co-jumper Jamie Bell adds a little liveliness. I do wish Diane Lane, who shows up for only the briefest of moments, had stuck around longer. But it’s a quick, action-y type…no frills, but not bad.

Day 1: "A Foreign Affair"/"Two Brothers and a Bride" - or A Slightly Bizarre and Goofy Foray into Foreign Love

Film 1: “A Foreign Affair”/“Two Brothers & A Bride”

Problem: Two country farm boys (David Arquette and Tim Blake Nelson – brilliant in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) lose their mother to old age. No more French toast? Oh no!

Solution: Go to Russia on a love tour and find a good wife!

Result: Surprisingly straight-forward treatment of a ludicrous plot, which makes the realization that this happens all the time that much more sobering. Some real life wife-hunters and wanna-be brides cameo throughout the St. Petersburg scenes, and they’re just as desperate you’d think – which saddens an otherwise enjoyable comedy. Definitely indie material, but incredibly clean. After all, the boys are really after a housekeeper. So, no cursing or sex, but will your kids get it? Probably not if they’re under 14/15. Kudos to Emily Mortimer, who shows up in St. Pete, on a nicely nuanced performance.

365 Days, 365 Movies, or My New Year's Resolution

New Year…New Year’s Resolutions, right?

A load of bullocks? Sure they are.

So – why? Why don’t we stick with them?

Lack of motivation? Lack of follow-through? Lack of accountability?

Maybe it’s because these new rules for our life, The Resolutions, are just no damn fun. Lose weight. Save money. Self-actualize. BO-RING!

Well, I’m breaking with tradition. I asked myself: what are some things I like to do? Why not do those things more instead of suffering in the name of Better Personhood? The list was long – far too long to discuss here – but a few things were obviously bad choices. Snacking on a half dozen cake doughnuts, downing a couple bottles of Willamette Valley pinot noir, sleeping in ‘til 10 – unfortunately, all probably incompatible on a daily basis with other, ongoing goals: avoiding diabetes, alcoholism and bedsores.

In the end, it came down to a fine balancing act between self-indulgence and self-preservation…bringing me squarely to my Netflix queue.

Over the past two years, it has grown to gargantuan proportions. I love movies. I’m writing them after all, have spent my entire life geeking out on old ones, and I compulsively add new ones – and new old ones – to my queue. The same goes for TV – actual plotted TV, that is. And so I suppose I shouldn’t be shocked that I have well over 300 awaiting my perusal. Three hundred and twenty-two to be exact. Today anyway. Tomorrow there will likely be more.

What’s a girl to do? Watch them! 365 days, 365 movies – with a little TV for color here and there. You, dear readers, are my accountability. One day, one blog review. Mini-review anyway. One year, one empty queue! Of course, I don’t quite have 365 in the queue…so I’m welcoming suggestions! And feedback every once in a while would be hunky-dory. A little reassurance that someone, somewhere, acknowledges my insanity.

Sweet! Let’s watch us some movies!!!