Musical Moment: Happy Birthday, Debbie Reynolds!

You know what’s coming, don’t you? I don’t need to bother with much introduction. Perfect for a Monday morning, too. Happy birthday, Ms. Reynolds!

The movie: Singin’ in the Rain (duh)
The song: Good Mornin’

Arbitrarily ranking the stars of He’s Just Not That Into You

I have to admit that He’s Just Not That Into You was not as bad as movie as I expected, especially not for a movie based on a self-help book. It’s not even quite as comedic as you might assume, either. The movie depicts several loosely-connected romantic relationships, good and bad, beginning and ending. It’s narrated by Gigi (Ginnifer Goodwin), who is unsuccessfully navigating the dating scene and trying to understand why we all say things we don’t really mean. I don’t have a lot more to say about the movie, though; I thought it would be more fun to rank the stars of the movie based upon my own arbitrary methods. All in good fun, folks, all in good fun. Let’s do it!

affleck1. Ben Affleck
C’mon, the guy just directed Best Picture and pretty much dominated awards season. Somehow he’s on the ascendant. Gotta put him first. Additionally, his character, Neil, is possibly the best one in the movie, even if he is involved with Jennifer Aniston.

2. Jennifer Connellyconnelly
I love Jennifer Connelly. I want to be her when I grow up. She’s the movie’s other Oscar winner, and she gives the best performance. Her character’s sympathetic but somewhat unlikeable. I sort of wished that she and Aniston had traded places, but my husband pointed out that Aniston probably couldn’t have played the more complex role as well.

barrymore3. Drew Barrymore
Drew Barrymore pretty much plays Drew Barrymore here, but I’m still a fan, as you may recall from this recent post. I enjoyed her character’s arc: she was trying to figure out how to meet people in the “digital” age, what with Myspace (dated), PDAs, email, and all.

4. Ginnifer Goodwingoodwin
I think this might be the first thing I’ve seen Goodwin in, and she was pretty charming. Her character, Gigi, was naive without being annoying, and even managed a few decent dramatic moments. She’s also my current celebrity doppelganger, so she gets some love.

long5. Justin Long
This is my first time seeing Justin Long as well (aside from the Mac vs. PC commercials), and I was actually pretty surprised. He also has one of the better characters in the movie, starting out as a bit of a player, but ultimately revealing himself as a good guy. I don’t think he was doing a whole lot of difficult acting, but that’s ok. He was fun to watch. In random trivia, he is the only main member of the cast whose name contains no double letters. Interesting!

5. Scarlett Johansson83rd Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Oh, Scar Jo. We all know she’s not that great an actress, but I do have to give her points for kicking some butt in The Avengers. She fits her role in He’s Just Not That Into You pretty well, too, although somehow I’m not sure I totally buy her as a yoga instructor.

connolly6. Kevin Connolly
I really no opinion on this guy. He reminds me of Sean Astin, a little bit, and he seems to largely be second-string in rom-coms (he was also in The Ugly Truth). His voice is kind of annoying, and his character was a little lame.

7. Jennifer Aniston85th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Zzzzz. Sorry, but Aniston always just bores me to tears. She’s just so bland, although I do admit she’s generally good as the straight man (see: Friends). Her character is also kind of run-of-the-mill. I sort of wondered why Ben Affleck liked her so much.

cooper8. Bradley Cooper-
Yuck. This is the first thing I’ve seen Mr. Cooper in, and he’s got the worst character, basically. This does, of course, mean that he did a good job, since I disliked him so much, but I just don’t get all the love. I find him extremely unattractive. He looks like an emu or a rodent, alternately. Maybe Silver Linings Playbook will change my mind?

Review: The Night of the Iguana (1964)

iguana
The Night of the Iguana, adapted from the Tennessee Williams play by director John Huston and Anthony Veiller, is simultaneously lighter and more opaque than other Williams adaptations like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or A Streetcar Named Desire. The action follows a disgraced clergyman, Rev. Shannon (Richard Burton), who has been reduced to curating bus tours in Mexico. His past starts to catch up with him when the hostile leader of a tour group (Grayson Hall) discovers his dalliance with Charlotte (Sue Lyon), an underage girl under her charge. In an attempt to stall his ruin, Shannon waylays the group at a rundown hotel near Puerto Vallarta which is run by Maxine (Ava Gardner), an earthy American woman who harbors feelings for the erstwhile man of God. The arrival at the hotel of itinerant painter Hannah (Deborah Kerr) and her aged poet grandfather (Cyril Delevanti) adds to the chaos of the scene, even while Hannah attempts to smooth everything over. The meat of the film is an emotional night of breakdowns and soul-searching conversation, climaxing in the completion of the poet’s last poem. Ultimately, The Night of the Iguana has something of a happier ending than one would generally expect from a Williams piece, although not without some ambiguity.

It sort of sounds like a wacky rom-com, doesn’t it? There are certainly moments where the drama almost seems to be played for laughs. At first glance, Burton’s “defrocked” priest is an over-the-top caricature: often drunk, wide-eyed and indignant, feigning innocence when caught red-handed. Even in despair, he seems to be playing a part rather than truly suffering. It is in his quiet moments that Burton peels back the layers to reveal Shannon’s pain. Though boorish on the outside, he’s really a deeply faithful man who loves God and all his creations, but who sees humanity’s hypocrisy as the ultimate disappointment. He is a keen observer of human nature, able to cut others to the core when he lashes out. It is up to Maxine and Hannah to restore his faith in humanity, and they both make the attempt in highly individual ways that would seem to represent the struggle between emotion and reason. Maxine is a hedonist, but she has a good heart and seems to genuinely care for Shannon. Meanwhile Hannah is more aloof, but it is her cool rationality and quiet faith that brings Shannon back to himself. Both Gardner and Kerr fill these roles memorably; it was fascinating to watch two actresses, a little bit beyond their prime, use their age and experience to truly provide their characters with the right sensibilities. Gardner in particular is riveting as a woman who knows she is no longer young, but still relies on her sexual appeal and presents a facade of independence while fearing the loneliness of growing older. Kerr is perfectly cast as her polar opposite: Hannah is not without feeling, but she has made her peace with being a “spinster,” and fills her life with travel and experience instead of companionship.

The Night of the Iguana is something of a departure from the typical “play-turned-film.” There is a fair amount of movement and action in the first half of the movie, during which the tour group is traveling through Mexico. Even when the location settles on Maxine’s inn, something about the direction and the performances of the three leads manages to seem more dynamic than many theatrical adaptations. Although shot in black and white, Huston still manages to capture the lush vegetation and beauty of his location, and indeed is credited with putting Puerto Vallarta on the map as a tourist destination. The scenery adds to the heat and passion of the production; it’s easy to imagine the sultry night bringing out ugly truths and revelations. In the final estimation, the film belongs to its three leading performers, however. Burton does seem to be chewing the scenery at times, but I think that this behavior is a part of his character: Shannon enjoys the dramatics and is even called out for it by Hannah at one point. Kerr and Gardner are a match for Burton, and all three are greatly entertaining to watch. As with most Williams, there’s a lot going on here, and it feels as though multiple viewings might be needed in order to truly understand the depths that the film is trying to reach, but for good direction, cinematography, and excellent performances, you really can’t go wrong here.

Banana Oil is on Facebook!

I’ve been on Facebook for a while, actually, but I realized that I had not publicized that here at any point. So hey! Follow me on Facebook!

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years
The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Normally, war and post-war films are seriously depressing. Think The Deerhunter. Oy. But we were pleasantly surprised by The Best Years of Our Lives, which is #37 on the AFI list. Winner of 7 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for William Wyler, the film follows three soldiers as they return home after World War II. Portrayed by Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell, the three men struggle to re-assimilate themselves into normal society and their personal lives. All three give impressive performances, with March and Russell both winning Oscars. Russell in particular is affecting as a young man who has lost both arms below the elbow. He really did lose both arms, and so was selected for the film to provide a realistic perspective on veterans with disabilities. As a whole, the film is amazingly perceptive (and still relevant) in its views on the amount (or lack) of concern shown to returning veterans. Hollywood has long had a “liberal” slant, and The Best Years of Our Lives definitely showcases that. Despite a “happy” ending, the film still manages to be affecting and sincere, and is even a little bit controversial in addressing concepts like divorce and extra-marital affairs. Co-starring Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright, The Best Years of Our Lives is totally worth a watch, even if you’re normally afraid of post-war films like we are.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Oh, Wes Anderson. So quirky and charming. I think I tend to enjoy his films despite myself, and it’s possible that Moonrise Kingdom might be my favorite so far. This is due almost entirely to a crack cast that includes Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton (SWINTON). These are all seasoned professionals, and you can count on them to be perfect. Still, the movie is not about the adults, but rather about a pair of young misfits, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) who find love and understanding with each other. Both of these young actors played their parts perfectly (keep an eye out for Hayward. I’m predicting big things from her), and their romance was so refreshing when compared to most rom-coms these days, which seem to focus mainly on sex and neuroses. For Sam and Suzy, their feelings are based upon finding someone who sees and accepts them as they really are. They’re actually the sane ones in the equation when compared with their adult counterparts. Great love story, great performances, the usual fantastic look and feel of an Anderson film…I might venture so far as to call this one a “must-see.”

Money is the Root of all Evil; or, Why I’m Fed Up with Comic Book Movies

A while ago now, back when it happened, I had a reader ask me my opinion of Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilms, particularly with regard to the future of the Star Wars franchise. My reader (Hi, Dr. O! We miss you!) is apparently a fan of Star Wars and is enthusiastic about seeing more of Lucas’ universe, and he pinpointed Disney’s successes with Pixar and Marvel as reasons to believe we can expect great things from the revived franchise. I can’t deny any of that. I am also a Star Wars fan (well, the original three movies, anyway), and I get excited about anything new that sounds like it might be good. BUT. I’ve thought about it all quite a lot, and my initial reaction remains the same: all of this still seems like nothing more than a shameless money grab.

Yeah, yeah, we’ve all heard these complaints a thousand times. “Why can’t Hollywood make anything new?” “Why do we have to have a thousand sequels every year?” “Why do they have to keep remaking classics?”

In my opinion, those are all really good questions. And the answer to all of them is: money. Studios prefer to stick with the tried-and-true moneymakers instead of gambling on a new, fresh idea that might not fly. If the first movie made a profit, then why shouldn’t the second, third, and fourth? And if everyone loved “The Nutty Professor” the first time around, surely they’ll love it this time, right? Robin Williams! Everyone loves Robin Williams. It doesn’t matter one whit that the first Star Wars movie came out long before most Twilight fans were born. Everyone’s heard of it, so everyone will talk about it, and hopefully, everyone will go see a new one. Heck, I probably will. You want new movies made? Don’t go see the same four or five rehashed and rolled out anew every August. But of course we all do, and we probably buy the DVDs when they come out, too. There are numerous manifestations of the commercialization of movies, and they’ve been around as long as the films themselves, of course. Who didn’t have a movie tie-in Happy Meal toy as a kid? There are a few “new” practices, however, that are really starting to annoy me, and I’d like to discuss those as part of what I think is wrong with movies today, as exemplified (in part) by the resurrection of the Star Wars franchise.

First of all, there’s this distressing trend toward stretching out a series (often “literary” adaptations) in order to fully realize the source material. Sadly, I think this may have started with the Harry Potter franchise. In that case, I do think the decision to turn the final book into two movies was a good one, although it could be argued that the first installment suffered from not enough action, while the second had the opposite problem. But then came the Twilight movies, who followed the same formula, drawing their series out to the very last, painful (so I hear) drop. And then, my friends, we have The Hobbit.

Now, thanks to my parents I was pretty much a Tolkien fan from day one, but I’m going to be honest with you. Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring trilogy was really, really boring. It was beautiful and faithful and all that, but it was dull. So when it was announced that he was going to do The Hobbit, I just shrugged. To me, it already sounded like LOTR 2: The Search for More Money, but then it got better. In case you were not aware, The Hobbit is only one book, and not a particularly lengthy one at that. But, the powers-that-be had decided that it would transition to film as not one, not two, but THREE movies. Apparently the use of source material and snippets of information from other works about Middle Earth would be added in to flesh out the story. Seriously? I’m not suggesting that this was all Peter Jackson’s idea (and frankly I hope it wasn’t), but this is clearly a grab for the movie-going public’s hard-earned dollars. Don’t you think there have got to be screenwriters out there who can shrink a book down into a passable movie? Let me just point out that Gone with the Wind is only one measly film, and that book has over a thousand pages. I’ve read it multiple times, and the film does a pretty good job of hitting all the important points. I’m pretty sure we could dispense of The Hobbit in under three hours.

Aside from dragging movies out, I’m pretty fed up with the concept of sequels in general. Sure, sometimes they’re good movies. Sometimes they’re even better than the original. But let’s face it: at some point, if they keep going past two, they all drag the original idea down into the mud and then step on it. But wait! That’s not a problem anymore, because now we can just REBOOT a series and start all over again! Admittedly, when Christopher Nolan revived Batman, he did something notably different with it, and that’s fine, I guess. But come on. Rebooting the Spiderman series after only what, four or five years? That’s blatant commercialism. And yet they’re already at work on the second installment of Spiderman 2.0. Where will it end?

Unfortunately, the comic book genre provides ample opportunity for sequels and reboots and replacements. I’m on record as being a big fan of Robert Downey, Jr. and Iron Man. I liked Thor and Captain America, and I absolutely loved The Avengers. But honestly, it breaks my heart that they’re cranking out more of all of those. There’s simply only so far up you can go before you inevitably go down, and I don’t want to see that. The problem is that they have to keep trying to top themselves by bringing in more heroes, more bad guys, more action. In nearly every instance, this leads to movies of lesser quality. The Avengers was so great. How are they going to top that? Why do they even need to bother? Sometimes it’s ok to just walk away, knowing you did a good job, isn’t it? Or maybe it’s easy for me to say that, since I’m not raking in mountains of cash with each new trailer.

The combination of all these factors, and the mechanisms that the movie-makers use to keep these machines running brings me to my final point. This is something that I only recently realized was making me really, really angry. X-Men 2: Days of Future Past. As I’m sure we are all aware, the original X-Men trilogy started out fine, but was a bloated mess by the third movie. So, in the tradition of such things, a reboot happened. X-Men: First Class was a surprise hit. I really enjoyed it. Naturally, a sequel would follow. The story is apparently based on a popular one from the comics, involving parallel universes and/or time travel, or something appropriately comic-book-y. From a Hollywood perspective, though, those types of things enable the moviemakers to work their own magic and bring back nearly everyone from the original franchise. Now, let’s talk about this. They rebooted the series, bringing in new blood (more on that new blood in a second) because the series had gone downhill, right? So why bring back the old crowd? I know everyone loves Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, but do I need to remind you all of the quality of his stand-alone spin-off? It was dreadful, although that isn’t stopping them from producing a sequel, either.

But back to Days of Future Past. I get that there’s time travel and so we’ll encounter some of the characters from First Class in their older incarnations. However. I recently read a story about how some of the stars of First Class were angry about the amount of screen time (and probably consequently money) they can expect to receive in this second movie. And I ask you: how is that appropriate? It’s only my opinion, of course, but shall I tell you what made First Class so very good? Four words. James, McAvoy, Michael, and Fassbender. Their characterizations of the young Xavier and Magneto were beautifully fleshed-out and flawlessly acted. Their changing relationship formed the heart of the movie. And now we’re going to toss that aside so Ellen Page can revisit Shadowcat? Hollywood, please explain this to me, because I do not understand. Never mind all the usual hallmarks of a sequel: more heroes, more villains, more more more. I think (I know you’ll correct me if I’m wrong) that fans would be happier with a sequel that maybe stripped things down and followed the progression of those two characters and their efforts. Since Magneto wasn’t actually the main villain of First Class, wouldn’t it be natural for him to be so in Days of Future Past? It’s not as though Fassbender couldn’t handle it.

It’s all just a way to grab as much of the potential audience as possible with little to no concern for things like story, plot, performance, or cohesion. The need to outdo everything that’s come before results in more movies of lesser quality instead of films that everyone involved can be proud of. I know that sounds like I’m trying to elevate the comic book movie to high art, but I think we’ve had plenty of recent examples to show us that the so-called “popcorn movie” can be about a great performance, or a serious and thought-provoking story line, without sacrificing the explosions and fight scenes. Similarly, I’m not trying to suggest that people like Fassbender, Downey, Joss Whedon, and Peter Jackson are not capable of creating something meaningful even in the face of rampant commercialism. I do think I’m safe in saying, however, that the honeymoon doesn’t last forever.

To return to the question of new Star Wars films, hey. I hope I’m wrong. The Star Wars universe spans a large amount of territory beyond the films, and so clearly there is great potential for new and creative movie-making. Using the names and themes already familiar to movie-goers isn’t a crime, certainly. The recent speculation about whether the original stars (Hamill, Fisher, Ford) will reprise their roles feels an awful lot like a gimmick, but ultimately, I suppose if audiences enjoy whatever the studio comes up with, it’ll be a win-win for everyone involved. At least until Episode X, anyway.

Capsule reviews

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The Tourist (2010)

I finally got around to seeing The Tourist recently. I scoffed at the concept early on, but decided it looked like it could be entertaining, and that I liked Angelina Jolie and Paul Bettany enough to give it a try. Let me tell you: that was a mistake. This movie is astonishingly dull. Despite boasting a good cast and having a somewhat promising premise, there’s just nothing going on here. Johnny Depp stars as Frank, a milquetoast math teacher, dragged by international woman of mystery Elise (Jolie) into a world of intrigue. Bettany and Timothy Dalton are British agents seeking to bring down Elise and her elusive lover, whom they believe to be Frank. You’d expect a comedy of errors, some great action sequences, and an explosive ending, possibly with a twist of some kind. Instead you get Depp mumbling, Jolie struggling with an accent that has somehow deteriorated since Tomb Raider, and Bettany and Dalton looking appropriately embarrassed to be involved in the whole thing. There are very few laughs, and only a few, weak action sequences. Ok, ok, so there is a twist; by the time you reach it, though, you’ll find you never really cared. I’m really not sure the last time I’ve been so very bored by a movie. I really do think it had promise, but The Tourist somehow falls flat.

Despicable Me (2010)

Initially, I had very little interest in Despicable Me. Animated features aren’t really my bag, and neither is Steve Carell. However, word of mouth was really great, so it got an add to the Netflix queue. In contrast to The Tourist, this addition was not a mistake. Carell stars as Gru, an “aging” villain who is determined to bring off one last heist that will assure his place in history. When he adopts three adorable orphans, Margo, Edith, and Agnes, as part of a plan to steal a shrink ray from a rival villain, Vector (voiced by Jason Segel), he finds his priorities altered. This movie is laugh-out-loud funny. It does a great job of balancing simple humor with more sophisticated jokes for the parents, and doesn’t overdo its ultimately warm and fuzzy message. While it may suffer from comparisons to The Incredibles (Syndrome is a much better villain than Vector, for one thing), it is different enough to stand strong on its own. Naturally, we can expect a sequel sometime this year, so if you haven’t seen the original, I’d suggest doing that. Whether or not I will tune in for more of Gru, the girls, and their little yellow minions (alternately hilarious and annoying) remains to be seen, but that has more to do with my dislike of sequels than my enjoyment with this first installment.