Doodad Kind of Town

The 12 Movie Meme
July 31, 2008, 10:04 pm
Filed under: British Comedy, Elia Kazan, Richard Curtis

I’ve been tagged by Rick at Coosa Creek Mambo for the “12 Movies Meme” originated at Lazy Eye Theatre. The idea is to come up with 12 films you would screen if you had your own movie theatre (or the use of someone else’s)

The rules are:

1) Choose 12 Films to be featured. They could be random selections or part of a greater theme. Whatever you want.

2) Explain why you chose the films.

3) Link back to Lazy Eye Theatre so Piper can have hundreds of links and can take those links and spread them all out on the bed and then roll around in them.

4) The people selected then have to turn around and select 5 more people.

Here are my selections – they’re all over the place, but then that’s part of the fun, right? I have six days’ worth of movies, and every day has a theme:

Sunday – “Triumph of the Underdogs” Sports Movies that take place in my home state (Indiana)
Rudy, Hoosiers, Breaking Away

A triple feature, but it’s Sunday, so you have the time.

Besides once I had the theme, I couldn’t bring myself to leave out any one of these. “Rudy” always gets me choked up. “Hoosiers” is dear to my small-town-Indiana, basketball-loving heart. And “Breaking Away” is special to me because it was filmed on and around the Indiana University campus during my sophomore year. If I look real close, I can see myself and a few friends, kind of out of focus and in the background, during the singing of the national anthem just before the big bike race.

Monday – “Television is Evil” night

“A Face in the Crowd,” “Network”

Two great movies about the manipulative, potentially malevolent, power of television. Elia Kazan’s 1957 film “A Face in the Crowd” is a dark and amazingly prescient drama about the rise and fall of a television demagogue. Andy Griffith is “Lonesome Rhodes,” a TV host whose “aw-shucks” folksiness masks his pathological needs for power, control and mass adoration. Strong stuff, great performances. “Network” was similarly ahead of its time in imagining reality television and the decreased significance of network news. And it’s got great, Oscar-winning performances by Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway.

Tuesday – “Overlooked Musicals” night

“Pennies from Heaven,” “It’s Always Fair Weather”

Two good musicals that aren’t often screened or discussed. “Pennies from Heaven” did poorly at the box office and not much better with critics. Despite all the tap-dancing, it was a deeply dark film in which Steve Martin played a less-than-likable character; those who came expecting “The Jerk: the Musical” were left scratching their heads. But I saw it again recently, and it holds up very well. It deserves to be re-evaluated. “It’s Always Fair Weather” was the final Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen collaboration, and the one everyone forgets about. But this tale of three old Army buddies (Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd) who reunite in New York is quite delightful. And it’s got Kelly dancing on roller skates 25 years before he attempted it again in “Xanadu.”

Wednesday – “Communists in Love” night

“Reds,” “Ninotchka”

Who but Warren Beatty could make a three-hour drama about the only American buried in the Kremlin into something, well, sexy? (The Russian Revolution is depicted as a montage of spirited political rallies and equally spirited bedroom interludes between Beatty and Diane Keaton; trust me, it’s way more exciting than his character’s real-life book “Ten Days that Shook the World.” ) But it ends badly, so you’ll need to lighten up afterwards.Which is why I’ve chosen “Ninotchka,” the classic Lubitsch comedy in which Greta Garbo’s dour Comrade succumbs to the decadent charms of Paris, champagne and Melvyn Douglas.

Thursday – “Obscure ’80s British Comedy” night

“Morons from Outer Space,” “The Tall Guy” Just because they’re funny, I haven’t seen them in a long time, and I think they’d be fun to watch with a lot of other people. A friend brought over the video of “Morons” to cheer me up when I was recovering from foot surgery in 1989, and I remember laughing my ass off. “The Tall Guy” was the first film written by Richard Curtis (who went on to bigger and better things like “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and so on.) It’s sweet and goofy, and the highlight is a wickedly funny spoof of the “Les Miserables”-style stage musicals popular in the late 80s: “Elephant Man: The Musical.”

Friday – “Lawrence of Arabia” night

“Lawrence of Arabia”

Because I’ve never seen it on the big screen, which means I’ve never really seen it. And it’s too long to be part of a double feature. It can stand all on its own.

I know that I’m supposed to tag 5 more people, but I’m pretty sure the movie blogosphere is all tagged out on this meme. Thanks for letting me play!

"Wanted" – A Bad Movie that Generates Really Entertaining Reviews
July 28, 2008, 11:50 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

As I’ve previously noted, I consider “Wanted” the worst movie I’ve seen so far this year. But I’ve sure enjoyed reading some of the reviews. Something about the film’s over-the-top visuals and violence just brings out the kick-ass humorist in reviewers. I only the film had been as much fun as Fletch’s review over at Blog Cabins.

And then today, I was skimming through some back issues of the New Yorker, and found this gem from critic Anthony Lane:

“What is it like being Timur Bekmambetov? No artist should be confused too closely with his creations, but anybody who sits through “Wanted,” Bekmambetov’s new movie, will be tempted to wonder if the life style of the characters might not reflect or rub off on that of the director. How, for example, does he make a cup of coffee? My best guess, based on the evidence of the film, is that he tosses a handful of beans toward the ceiling, shoots them individually into a fine powder, leaves it hanging in the air, runs downstairs, breaks open a fire hydrant with his head, carefully directs the jet of water through the window of his apartment, sets fire to the building, then stands patiently with his mug amid the blazing ruins to collect the precious percolated drops. Don’t even think about a cappuccino.”

Damn, I wish I’d written that!

Quick Takes: "The X Files: I Want to Believe"
July 26, 2008, 5:04 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Here’s what I want to believe about the new X-Files movie:

I want to believe I had some good reason to run out and see it on opening day, given that I never watched so much as a minute of the television series on which it is based. Come to think of it, I ran out and saw the first “X-Files” movie on its opening day, too. I chalk this up to the influence of my friend, Mary Anne, who accompanied me to both movies and who is a big “X-Files” fan. It’s good to have her along for clarifications of plot points and characterizations that aren’t readily apparent to non-watchers of the series (like “When did Scully and Mulder become an actual, romantic couple?”)

Maybe it was because I like both Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny very much (but for reasons more to do with their performances in “The House of Mirth” and “Return to Me” respectively) and expected them to generate some good chemistry. And they do.

But the film they’re given is workmanlike at best, and only as mildly engrossing as an extended television episode. (And not an episode I’d voluntarily watch or make a point of Tivo-ing, either. But one that I’d maybe, probably watch if, say, my boyfriend were way into the show and it came on while I was at his house. ) The plot concerns a missing FBI agent, and bringing Scully and Mulder back to work with the agency to find her. Oh, and there’s a psychic priest (played by Billy Connolly) who has visions of the missing agent and her abduction.

I want to believe that Billy Connolly has mad dramatic acting skills; unfortunately, he hasn’t been given enough to sink his teeth into. That his character is not only a priest, but a convicted pedophile as well, suggests all kinds of complication and darkness for his character that simply isn’t credibly fleshed out or explored. His pedophilia, in fact, seems pretty much beside the point and thrown in only so Scully can get pissed off at him and discredit his psychic visions. (It does become a minor plot point late in the game, but one that feels distinctly half-baked.)

Finally, I’d like to believe there is some good reason for you to rush out and see this at your local multiplex, but – alas! – I cannot make that leap of faith. If ever a movie cried out to be experienced as a cheap DVD rental, it’s this one.

Quick Take: "The Dark Knight"
July 24, 2008, 11:57 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This is probably the dead last review of “The Dark Knight” to hit the blogosphere. And, as such, it will undoubtedly contain a few spoilers. But since everyone and their dog – and the all the fleas on their dog – have seen “The Dark Knight” by now, does that matter, really?

Is it good? Yes, it is. Is it great? Naah!

Do I have anything to say that hasn’t been said – at least 20 times and often very eloquently – on every other film blog in cyberspace? Probably not.

But here are some of my random thoughts and impressions:

— Heath Ledger’s last performance lives up to every last word of the hype. His Joker is the heartbeat of the film. Whenever he’s on screen, there’s a palpable sense of danger, but you also can’t wait to see what he’ll do next. He’s riveting. His performance is more than an actorly showcase of mannerisms and tics (although it has those in abundance); he inhabits the character’s unhinged psychopathology with dazzling conviction.

— Ledger’s not the only one acting his heart out, although he may have the showiest role. Aaron Eckhart and Maggie Gyllenhaal give smart, nuanced performances, and Michael Caine brings effortless grace and gravitas to the role of Alfred.(And he has the film’s best line about senseless evil: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”)

— Christian Bale, on the other hand, does nothing for me as Batman. For me, Michael Keaton remains the Batman with the greatest depth and complexity.(And where is he these days, BTW?)

— Christopher Nolan is a man of considerable talent, but an action director he ain’t. Every action sequence in TDK felt like the initial few shots were missing; there’s no establishment of space or character’s relationship to one another before a fight begins.

— I’m going to quote Salon’s critic, Stephanie Zacharek here, because she said it best: “There’s no dramatic arc in “The Dark Knight” — only a series of speed bumps.” It just seems like one damn thing after another, and all pitched at the same urgent, life-or-death pace. It just felt like the material could have been better shaped in places.

— The fact that it was filmed in Chicago proved a bit of a distraction to me. There are no iconic Chicago landmarks on display, but the West Loop streets where a lot of the action was shot are familiar to me, and I kept forgetting it was supposed to be Gotham City. Instead, I kept thinking things like “Hey,they filmed that on Wells Street!”

— It’s too damn long! The denouement goes on and on, and piles one drama on top of another. With a few judicious cuts, the ‘good vs.evil’ and ‘dual nature of man’ themes would have been sharper and more compelling – and wouldn’t have felt like they were being hammered into our skulls with sledgehammers.

— I actually could barely watch the last 30 minutes anyway, because looking at Eckhart’s half-melted face made me queasy. All that exposed muscle and bone – yecch!
Yes, I’m a squeamish,oversensitive wuss.

Quick Take: "Mamma Mia"
July 19, 2008, 1:35 pm
Filed under: Musicals

Despite what you read elsewhere, I’m pretty sure that “Mamma Mia!” was conceived by a group of 12-year-old girls at a slumber party after getting all hopped on brownies and Twizzlers and listening to “Abba Gold” one too many times.

I’m absolutely positive that’s where all the choreography was created.

Who else would have decided that the proper way to stage “Dancing Queen” was with grown women singing the verses into hairbrush ‘microphones,’ and a big finish featuring a line of women skipping and twirling merrily through a village while getting all the lowly working women in sight to doff their aprons and join the skipping/twirling line?

What adult woman among us would picture the entertainment at her bachelorette party to be Mom and her menopausal friends in spandex and platform boots, serenading the crowd with with “Super Trooper?”

And what grown-up would have imagined the treacly ballad “The Winner Takes it All” as an eleventh-hour dramatic monologue by the leading lady to describe the greatest, failed relationship of her life?

Certainly this plot sounds like the invention of 12-year-olds: 20-year-old Sophie lives on a postcard-perfect Greek island where she helps her mother run a bed-and-breakfast. She’s never known her father – according to her mom’s diary, it could be anyone of three men – so for her wedding, she secretly invites all three to the island in the hopes one of them will be revealed as her long-lost dad and give her away. And it’s all set to Abba music!

Now I’m as susceptible as anyone to the guilty pleasure of Abba, but even I was worn out by “Mamma Mia!”‘ and its forced, incessant giddiness. And I was completely embarrassed for the many otherwise fine actors (among them, Meryl Streep as mom Donna, plus Chirstine Baranski and Julie Walters as her gal pals; Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard are the trio of possible daddies.) They’re all game and they throw themselves into their ridiculous roles with gusto. Streep, in particular, shows an irrepressible silly side that she must have been dying to let out after so many years of deeply serious roles (we got a glimpse of it in “Stuck on You.”) Unfortunately, as the film goes along, her idiosyncratic line readings get to be a little annoying; she’s not quite as adorable as she thinks she is.

Streep, however, has the film’s single best sequence – the only quiet moments in “Mamma Mia” – where she sings “Slipping Through my Fingers” as she lovingly helps her daughter dress for the wedding. That one sequence nearly made me cry.

Amanda Seyfried as Sophie probably comes off best in the cast. She’s wide-eyed, unaffected and possessed of a strong, pleasant pop singing voice. Certainly she’s the only one in the cast you don’t come away feeling embarrassed for.

I really wanted to surrender to “Mamma Mia” and its happy, summertime, sing-along feel, but I found I just couldn’t shut off the logical part of my brain. The film commits two of the most grating sins of illogic that I can think of:

1) Magic Movie Math: I’m getting a little tired of movies that refer to events of 20 years ago as if that were the Woodstock/flower child era. Hello, people, it’s 2008 -Woodstock was almost 40 years ago!! Sophie is 20; per the film’s timeline, she was conceived in 1987. So how come the flashbacks of her possible fathers show them with hippie-ish beards, headbands and hair to the middle of their backs? Well, except for Firth, who’s shown as a Johnny-Rotten style headbanger – which would have been cool in the late 70’s – 30 years ago

2)Lines/Jokes from the original play that don’t work with the film’s cast: When Baranski arrives on the island, Streep grabs her virtually non-existent breasts and squeals “When did you get these?” Baranski tells her “My third husband bought them!” Well, hubby must have a very poor man – or else it was a widly successful breast reduction surgery. In a later swimsuit scene, the top of Baranski’s suit is distinctly baggy. (Perhaps 12-year-olds did the costuming as well?) I’m pretty sure this is a line from the original stage production, and if Streep had to deliver that line, it would have made more sense for her to grab some of Baranski’s jewelry before uttering it.

Bottom line? If you really like Abba, but you also like good movies, stay home and rent “Muriel’s Wedding.”

Stuff I Watched this Week
July 16, 2008, 10:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Because I nothing profound to say about any one show or film in particular , but I have a little to say about several different movies and TV shows:

“The People’s Republic of Capitalism”: I’m halfway through Ted Koppel’s Discovery Channel series which chronicles how China’s transition to a capitalist market economy has influenced all facets of its society. This is a subject in which I have increased interest since visiting China myself. The series is filmed in Chongqing (“the largest city in China that Americans have never heard of”), and Koppel pursues his subject from a number of angles. We meet an upwardly mobile family who is proud of their new Ethan Allen sofa (it was assembled in North Carolina, but built on a frame manufactured in China.) We meet a countrywoman who works two jobs to send her daughter to boarding school so that she might escape her mother’s fate (an impoverished marriage to an unemployed alcoholic). We visit a drag nightclub and karaoke lounges which are little more than brothels, but offer young woman the opportunity to make big bucks while working as “hostesses.” We meet a fashion photographer who has recently converted to Christianity, but who professes as much trust in his government as in his God. Koppel isn’t an entirely objective documentarian. You cringe as he repeatedly challenges the photographer to express doubts about the communist government; there’s no way his interview subject can answer honestly (this is still a totalitarian, “Big Brother” kind of government after all.) But it’s never less than fascinating. If they rerun this, be sure to catch it.

“Elvis Mitchell: Under the Influence” (Mondays at 8pm EST, Turner Classic Movies): Mitchell , a film critic for NPR (and formerly, the New York Times) interviews a different actor or director each week. There’s no cookie-cutter celebrity bullshit here; in just under 30 minutes, Mitchell manages to tease out a wealth of insightful, revelatory information from each guest about the films and creative forces that have shaped their careers, and the results are always surprising. The most entertaining revelation so far: Bill Murray confessing his mad, “cow-eyed” attraction to “funny girls” in general and Elaine May in particular. (May created Murray’s character in “Tootsie” while working as an uncredited script doctor. ) ” She is so attractive,” he gushes. “If I’d been around when Elaine May was coming up, I would have chained her to a typewriter and made love to her every four hours just to keep her going.”

Every installment is followed by screenings of one or two films that inspired the guest (Murray’s interview was followed by the Marx Brothers in “A Night at the Opera.”)Still to come are interviews with Laurence Fishburne and Quentin Tarantino. This is one series to Tivo if you can’t tune in.

“Get Smart”: I’m just old enough to remember the original TV series, and I’m happy that Steve Carrell didn’t try to be Don Adams and just played Maxwell Smart his own way. Even so, this was a modestly pleasant diversion at best. I remember laughing several times, but I can’t for the life of me remember what I laughed at. I did think the chemistry between Carrell and Anne Hathaway as Agent 99 was surprisingly lovely; I think I’d actually like to see them do a romantic comedy together.

Back to the Movies – An Uninspired Start: "Hancock" and "Wanted"
July 13, 2008, 7:38 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

So I started getting back to the multiplex this week, and managed to pick a couple of real stinkers to start.

First, “Hancock.”

I can’t, in all fairness, write a review of “Hancock”, since I fell asleep about 15 minutes into the movie, and never fully woke up again till the closing credits. I’m chalking this up to overwhelming jet lag, but the movie itself may also have contributed to my need for sleep. Falling asleep during a movie is sometimes a way for me to escape some element of the film that is particularly disturbing or annoying; in the case of “Hancock,” it was that shaky-cam photography and the excessive use of tight close-ups on the actors. I found it physically uncomfortable to watch. I remember thinking just before nodding off, “Why is this action comedy shot like a John Cassavettes drama?” Later, I remembered that the director, Peter Berg, used this same technique in his earlier film “Friday Night Lights” – it was effective in that film, but in “Hancock,” it just felt bizarre. Oh, I did wake up briefly at the point where the “surprise plot twist” is revealed, but it wasn’t surprising enough for me to keep my eyes open.

Then last night, I joined friends to see the James McAvoy-Angelina Jolie thriller “Wanted.”

Now, this particular group of friends has been going to movies together for many years now (for a long time, we referred to ourselves as “The Movie Club,” although that label has fallen out of favor), and together we’ve weathered a lot of truly bad movies. We all agree that the absolute nadir of our collective filmgoing experience was the truly dreadful 1996 Val Kilmer remake of “The Island of Dr. Moreau.”

That is, until last night.

Halfway through “Wanted,” my friend Susan leaned over and whispered “I’ve got five words – “The Island of Dr. Moreau.”

Actually, I’ve got just three words: What the fuck?

Didn’t James McAvoy have anything better to do? Didn’t Angelina Jolie? Why would these very fine actors – who’ve had a wealth of fantastic films and roles between them – sign up for this near-incomprehensible slopfest of inane plot twists and nauseating gratuitous violence. (Morgan Freeman’s in it, too – but to my mind, he’s the kind of actor who’ll show up for just about anything. ) McAvoy is an office drudge with a dull life and a father who’s gone missing since he was a week old. Jolie and Freeman recruit him for a league of assassins, telling him that his father was one of them, but has been killed. They put him through a grueling training program that consists mainly of him being bludgeoned, shot, stabbed and generally terrorized over and over, apparently in some strange quest to toughen him up – but it plays like pointless sadism, and it’s really hard to watch. And there are some other, equally sadistic touches involving exploding rats and Jolie’s remembrance of being forced to watch her father burning to death.

In the credit-where-credit-is-due department, I will also confess there are some pretty cool visual effects here and there, mostly involving the reverse trajectories of speeding bullets. There’s also an over-the-top chase scene on Chicago’s Wacker Drive that features Jolie hanging out the window of a red Corvette which is pretty exciting to watch. But ultimately, they’re not nearly enough.

I enjoyed an earlier film by director Timur Bekmambetov: “Night Watch,” (second in a trilogy of vampire thrillers that were hugely popular in his native Russia – “Twilight Watch” is yet to come), but am considerably less enthusiastic about his American directing debut. Despite the occasional visual flourishes, it is mostly a mess, and the violence is relentless, humorless and sickening.

At brief moments, “Wanted” seemed remniscent of both “Fight Club” and television’s “Alias,” but with elements of black humor that were serisouly mishandled and off-kilter. Instead of being wickedly and perversely funny, it just felt sick and perverted. It’s the worst movie I’ve seen this year – an “honor” I expect will stick till December 31st.