Doodad Kind of Town

Having the Last Word….
January 31, 2009, 10:29 pm
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Be careful what you wish for.

Back in November or so, as I was running constantly between business trips, choir rehearsals, church committee meetings and the local multiplex, I ardently wished for an opportunity to step back, slow down and take stock of which activities in my life really meant the most to me.

I was envisioning a quiet weekend retreat or at least a couple of hours on a massage table or a yoga mat. What I got was slipped disk in my lower back while shovelling snow, followed by a prolonged, painfully slow healing period that’s continuing, even as I write this.

While it’s not quite the sort of break I was praying for, I have certainly used the last few weeks for extensive personal reflection. To that end, I’ve curtailed nearly every one of my usual activities since January 7. I have made it to work most days, but after 8 or more hours of sitting at a computer, my back is crying out for relief. So I don’t sit at the computer when I get home. And, because I don’t have the kind of job that allows me to blog – or even do much ‘net surfing – during work hours, this means that both my own blog and my comments on the blogs of friends have gone by the wayside for most of January.

But as my back has gradually begun to improve, I’ve gotten in a few weekend trips to the multiplex, and – at last! – I can start weighing in the end-of-year, award-nominee films, albeit much later than everyone else in the blogosphere.

So, over the next few days, I’ll be posting my “last word” on several of the major Oscar nominees. Let me begin by getting in the last word on “Doubt.”

(WARNING: There will be spoilers. I’m assuming if you’re reading, you’ve already seen “Doubt” – if not, you might want to skip this next part.)

I should have been the perfect audience for this film. A practicing Catholic for most of my life, I left the church in 2003, decamping for a liberal mainline Protestant denomination. Among the reasons for my exit were a disillusionment with the patriarchal nature of the church’s power structure and the deplorable way in which the Church handled child molestation scandals at all levels – both topics integral to the plot of “Doubt.” At 49, I’m old enough (if just barely) to recall the effects of the “winds of change” that blew in with the reforms of Vatican II, also an integral theme in this film (as evidenced by its pervasive, heavy-handed imagery involving open windows and strong winter gales that nearly blow the nuns over.) And I’m still carrying a few emotional scars from run-ins with steely, scary nuns like the Sister Aloysius character played by Meryl Streep.

Why then did “Doubt” not just leave me cold but bore me to tears? During the climactic confrontation scene between Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s possibly pedophiliac priest, I zoned out completely and started mentally planning my shopping list for a post-multiplex trip to the supermarket. The liveliest thought I had in the entire hour-and-forty-five-minute running time? “This play got a Pulitzer Prize? Must have been a bad year for theatre!”

Hoffman’s parish priest may or may not have molested a young African-American student in the parish school; Streep’s mean old bespectacled nun decides he’s guilty and seeks, within in the limits of her powers, to have him ousted. Amy Adams’ sweet, twittery Sister James gets caught in the middle of their battle.

What really happened? Writer-director John Patrick Shanley (adapting his own stage play) never tells us for sure. He leaves it to us to fill in the blanks. Trouble is, the plot has more blanks than filling. Normally I’m a fan of the kind of screenplay that trusts me to figure a few things out for myself, but there’s “tantalizingly ambiguous” and then there’s “half-baked.” Shanley’s screenplay falls decisively into the undercooked category. It’s apparently been assembled according to the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” method of plot development. (“Sister Aloysius was once married?!” Whop! “Sister Aloysius once committed a mortal sin?!” Whop! “Father Flynn got cozy with a bishop?!” Whop!!) Those are tantalizing tidbits, but not a one is them is woven cohesively into the story. Streep thunders and Hoffman counters her with a calculated mixture of self-righteousness and woundedness, but there isn’t a lot of real substance in their verbal pyrotechnics.

Which brings me to the actors. They’re good, of course – after all, they’re Streep, Hoffman and Adams. But award-worthy? No way, no how. Adams is a perfectly cast Sister James, but the role is no stretch for her; she’s essentially the wide-eyed character from “Enchanted,” just in a nun’s habit instead of a princess dress. Hoffman is fine, but hardly incendiary. And Streep? Am I the only one who is getting weary of her? She’s like that annoying straight-A student who wins all the academic awards every year in school, and yeah, she deserves them – but wouldn’t it be nice to see someone else get a nod every once in awhile. (I personally would have loved to see Cherry Jones, who originated the role to great acclaim on Broadway, get a crack at the film.) This is yet another of her “Hey, look at me, I’m Meryl Streep! Now watch me act up a storm!” roles. And if she get an Oscar for this one, I’m going to pitch a fit you’ll be able to hear all the way out in L.A. on the stage of the Kodak Theatre.

The one and only performance in “Doubt” that is powerful enough to grab you by the throat and make you hang on every word is given by Viola Davis as the mother of the boy who may have been molested. She invests her few minutes of screen time with so much dignity and honest conviction that she almost makes up for the overcooked histrionics of the rest of the cast.

At LONG Last – the Resolution Meme!
January 17, 2009, 3:48 pm
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I think it’s been almost two weeks since Fox tagged me for the New Year’s Resolution Meme. By this time, most people have already made and broken their resolutions, but I’m going to honor the invitation and give this a go. Better late than never, right?

As regular readers know, my year got off to a somewhat shaky start. I had all kinds of grand plans for a movieplex viewing marathon with my friends, catching all the late-year, prestige releases. I was going to review them all, then come up with a dazzling ten best list.

Here’s what happened instead: On January 7, I went to a “Gentle” Yoga class, and within the first ten minutes, my back was is so much pain, I couldn’t bend – or even walk – till I’d spent considerable time with an ice pack on my back. The next several days were a blur of pain pills, muscle relaxers, heating pads and ice packs. I watched movies at home during that time (whenever I was awake) – some good ones, too. I would highly recommend “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” and “The Last Metro.” But I didn’t write about them, because, for several days, I couldn’t find a comfortable place or position to sit at the computer for any length of time.

I don’t want to overstate my injuries, because they hardly amount to permanent disability. But it’s been very humbling to me – an extremely independent and compulsively active person – to have to ask friends and neighbors to bring me groceries, shovel snow, or clean my cat box (because I couldn’t reach down to do it myself). But I’ve learned a little bit about accepting help from other people. And since the only resolution I initially made was to take good care of myself this year, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to do that!

But here I am on January 16, having seen hardly any of the films that are scooping up awards, and feeling like a bit of an outsider and an impostor in the film blogosphere. I’ve decided I need some new perspective, which is why I made:

Resolution One: I will not pressure myself to see the “Big” new releases, when there are always good films available to see, anywhere at any time. Even when I’m stuck at home and zonked out on pain meds, I’ve got On Demand, Turner Classic Movies, The Independent Film Channel, and a decent DVD collection. Who needs the multiplex? I think it was Jonathan Lapper who noted, not long ago, that he’ll never see all the films that are out there to see, so he’s not going to pressure himself to keep up with all the new releases. I had to come to the same decision.

Some other things I’m going to do:

Resolution Two: I will re-launch the recurring feature I started last year, but didn’t keep up with: “Hidden Treasures and Guilty Pleasures” which highlights some of my favorite films, mostly recent ones, that don’t get much airplay or attention.

Resolution Three: I will finish reading “Vile Bodies” so that I can finish my long-delayed post on the film “Bright Young Things” which is adapted from that Evelyn Waugh novel. I don’t know that any readers are holding their breath for that, but it’s something I’ve wanted to write for a long time.

Resolution Four: I will watch a lot of Lars Von Trier films between now and May when I host The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club. I don’t love Von Trier – in fact, his films confound me and sometimes anger me – but I do like “Dancer in the Dark,” which I chose for TOERIFC, and I’d like to better understand why.

Resolution Five: I’m going to find a narrower focus for this blog – “Movie blog” is too wide-reaching, I need to become a specialist (or an enthusiast,at least) on some genre or era or group or directors or actors or something, just to give myself a break. Otherwise, I keep feeling that pressure to see everything out there.

And now I tag – no one!!! If anyone out there hasn’t made their resolutions yet, they’re not going start now,right. So on with 2009!

You Say it’s Your Birthday? It’s My Birthday Too, yeah!
January 5, 2009, 11:12 pm
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I’m blowing out birthday candles today, along with Bob and Diane. (The good news is, I’m much younger than they are!)

Coincidentally, this is also a birthday, of sorts, for this blog.

It was one year ago today I joined the Large Association of Movie Blogs (LAMB). That association has opened a lively world of discussion, debate, commiseration and shared laughs with many talented writers in the blogosphere. They can be found on my blogroll at the right.

The LAMB has grown by leaps and bounds in the past year. When I joined, I was number 24 on the roll. Today, the LAMB is 225 bloggers strong and still growing. There are a lot of cinephiles out there, and they have something to say!

As we roll in to 2009, I’m looking forward to continued lively debate at The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club. Each month, one member will choose a film for the entire club to watch. On a preordained date, that member will post about that film on their blog, and the members will “gather” there to debate and discuss. The festivities start one week from today (January 12), when the ever-erudite and entertaining Marilyn of Ferdy on Films will host the discussion on “The True Meaning of Pictures: Shelby Lee Adams’ Appalachia.” Be sure to join us!

Reflections on 2008
January 1, 2009, 7:37 am
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It’s really, really, really early on New Year’s Day, and the houseful of friends who were here to celebrate the New Year with me have now dispersed. Thanks to too much coffee too late at night, I’m still wide awake. And I’m thinking over some of my 2008 film experiences.

It’s too soon for me to do a “Ten Best” list, since I still have several end-of-year prestige films to see. But here are some remembrances of the year just ended:

My Strangest Film Experience of the Year: Seeing “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” in a small multiplex auditorium – right next to a huge auditorium where the Hannah Montana concert film was playing. Someday, I hope to experience this sensitive, moving human drama unaccompanied by the piercing squeals of nine-year-old Miley Cyrus fans.

Favorite Classics Discovered this Year: “Sunrise,” “Day of Wrath,” “Blow Up,” and “The Shop Around the Corner” top the list of films I finally got around to seeing in 2008.

Favorite Actor Discovered this Year: Mathieu Almaric. Why didn’t I notice this guy before? I saw Almaric in no less than 5 films this year, and he wowed me every time. Prior to 2008, I believe I’d only seen his cameo in “Marie Antoinette.”

Most Memorable Film Character of the Year: Poppy Cross, the heroine of Mike Leigh’s “Happy go Lucky,” played by Sally Hawkins. I saw this film almost a month ago, and I still think about Poppy, her unflagging optimism, and her determination to connect with people and make the best of every situation. She’s almost become a role model to me, which is interesting given that I had mixed feelings about her upon first seeing the film. Did I mention that I’m talking about a fictional character here? I can’t remember the last time – or any time- that a character has seemed so real and influential to me.

Biggest Disappointment: “Sex and the City: The Movie.” Loved the series, hated the movie. In 30-minute installments, the tales of Carrie Bradshaw and her gal pals were clever, edgy and frequently touching. But 150 uninterrupted minutes of their self-involvement and designer clothes only confirmed what the series’ more vociferous critics already believed: that “Sex and the City” was shallow, vacuous, and more about product placement than well-crafted stories and characters. They should have just let this series die. More bad news: a sequel is apparently in the works.

Most Overrated: “The Visitor.” Kind of sweet and kind of sensitive, but hardly worthy of the critical love-fest with which it was greeted. I love Richard Jenkins, but he’s so much more memorable in his supporting roles than in this leading one. He’s so restrained here, I wasn’t sure he had a pulse.

Most Underrated Film of the Year: “Swing Vote.” Well-acted and very entertaining. As summer films went, I liked this a lot more than “The Dark Knight.”

My Favorite Filmgoing Convenience: On Demand: IFC in Theaters. Thanks to this service, I was able to watch films like “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” “A Girl Cut in Two,” “In Search of a Midnight Kiss,” and others from the comfort of my own living room, at the same time they were playing in downtown arthouse theatres.

I Don’t Get It: Arnaud Delspechin’s “A Christmas Tale” is at or near the top of just about every critic’s Top 10 list. I found it aimless, confusing and ultimately pointless.

The “Island of Dr. Moreau” award for Worst Movie of the Year (so named because the 1996 remake of “Dr. Moreau” is generally acknowledged by my group of moviegoing friends to be the worst film we’ve ever seen): “The Women.” There is no excuse for every making this film,and no excuse for involving so many talented women in such a needless waste of celluloid. Runners-up: “Wanted” and “Cassandra’s Dream.”