Monthly Archives: March 2011

Review: Easter Parade (1948)

Funny story: When I added Easter Parade to my Netflix queue, I was thinking that I wanted to watch it again, and that I wanted my husband to see it. I had a favorite scene, and I have been trying to expand my musical repertoire to include more Fred Astaire. And then, when we started watching it over the weekend, I found myself thinking, “Huh. I don’t remember this scene.” And then, “Don’t remember this one, either.” And about halfway through, I came to the realization that I had not, in fact, seen very much of this movie at all. Mostly one or two scenes and then perhaps the last third of the movie only. Mind-boggling. I still have no idea why I had previously only seen bits and pieces, nor why I thought I’d seen the whole movie. Despite my confusion, we both enjoyed the movie (for the first time) quite a bit.

The story is that of Don Hewes, a song-and-dance man, who is dumped by his long-time partner and girlfriend, Nadine (Ann Miller), who has gotten a starring spot at the Ziegfeld Follies. In a fit of pique (and a little tipsiness), Don declares that he can take any dancer and turn her into something better than Nadine. Enter Hannah Brown (Judy Garland), a mediocre dancer working at a hole-in-the-wall little nightclub. Next thing she knows, she’s been commandeered by Hewes, who tries to turn her into a carbon copy of his former leading lady. Meanwhile, Nadine is chasing after mutual friend Johnny (Peter Lawford), who in turn bumps into Hannah and falls for her. Hannah, however, is in love with Don, who is solely focused on their success as a showbiz team. Success is achieved when Don realizes he has to let Hannah be herself; as a result, he falls in love with her. Nadine, who is jealous of Hannah across the board, attempts to sabotage everyone, but of course, this being a musical, the audience gets a happy ending.

Having just written a review for Taxi Driver, I find I have little to say besides “It’s a musical! It’s pretty, and the songs are great, and the dancing is excellent!” The plot’s a little thin, admittedly, but this is an utterly charming movie, and the musical numbers really can’t be beat. How could they, when the talent involved is Astaire, Miller, and Garland? It’s also surprisingly funny, with some excellent banter between Don and Hannah, and a fun cameo by Jules Munshin as a waiter in a snooty restaurant. Peter Lawford is kind of a confusing addition to the mix, but is completely adorable, so you won’t mind. It’s hard to talk about the acting or the plot in a musical, so you just have to depend on the performers being good at what they do, and here you’ve got the best. Easter Parade would, in my opinion, be worth it for any of the stars alone, but is a must-watch when they’re all combined. And hey, Easter’s coming up, right? Highly recommended.

Review: Taxi Driver (1976)

Sometimes with movies on the AFI list (see this post for more info), we’re not very excited about watching one. We just don’t anticipate it being our cup of tea. Such a one is Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. It’s been sitting on our coffee table for probably a month. But, last night, we bit the bullet (ha) and watched it. I’ve discovered something interesting about this movie in the past month … it seems to be one of those films that everyone has heard of, everyone knows about, but few have seen. And I’ve got to be honest here: I kind of wish I was still in that category.

Taxi Driver is the story of a Vietnam veteran named Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) who, plagued by insomnia, takes a job as a taxi driver in NYC. On his drives through the city, he takes in all of the seediness and filth, and wishes that someone would clean it all up. He also sees Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a beautiful young woman who is working on the campaign of presidential hopeful Charles Palantine. He screws up enough courage to talk to her, but after a disastrous second date (he takes her to a porn film), she blows him off. He then becomes obsessed with a young prostitute named Iris (Jodi Foster); when he finds out she is merely twelve years old, he aims to rescue her from her sordid life, and so takes the task of “cleaning up the city” into his own hands. The entire film follows his descent into madness and questionable return to normalcy.

First of all, have you ever noticed how movies made in the 70s just look so very seventies-ish? Stylistically, I suppose the movie is quite interesting and impressive: it truly captures the look and feel of the less desirable areas of a big city. The cinematography and the soundtrack both work very well here. It’s a gritty movie with an edge of melancholy, and you definitely get drawn into that. Then there’s De Niro. He gives an excellent performance, walking a fine line between being unsettling yet compelling. The supporting cast, including Harvey Keitel, Albert Brooks, and Peter Boyle, are all good as well, but the film is 99% De Niro, and he carries it well.

We didn’t think Taxi Driver would be our cup of tea, and we were mostly right. I often lose patience with movies that seem to be working too hard to give the impression of being “deep”, and we’re not huge on violence, although there was less than expected. Mostly, I would say that the movie’s main strength is in De Niro’s performance, in that he really draws his audience into his feelings of isolation and otherness. It took me a while to come up with what I thought the movie was trying to say, and I am not entirely sure I’ve got it, but I think that the major theme, besides isolation, is the contradiction of who we are versus who we wish we were. Travis looks at the world around him and sees scum and killers, and thinks that the world would be a better place without them, but he never acknowledges that he holds those characteristics within himself as well.

So, okay, it gave us some things to think about. And where I thought the movie should have ended, I would have been content. I wouldn’t have necessarily liked it, but I would have gotten something out of it. But then, there are about 20 more minutes of movie, which make no. sense. at all. I don’t want to give anything away, but suffice it to say that there are various schools of thought on whether or not the ending of the movie is “real” or whether it takes place in Travis’ mind. I have read things out there on the internet that seem to “verify” its reality, but I am still not convinced. Those last few scenes take such a departure from the gritty reality of the rest of the piece that I don’t see how they can follow the same framework. But I guess maybe I’m not on the same wavelength as Mr. Scorsese, huh?

I would be hard-pressed to recommend this movie. I think if it’s something you’re interested in seeing, you’ve probably already seen it. I get that it’s early Scorsese, and he’s a big deal, but I think that some of his later movies are probably better in terms of style and content, if not acting: De Niro would be the reason to see Taxi Driver, if you’re looking for a notable performance.

Musical Moment

For some weird reason, this was stuck in my head this morning. Perhaps I just needed a little pick me up. What’s funny is that I remember it from having sung a choral arrangement in college, and thought it was an actual spiritual. When I looked it up, I realized that it’s actually by Gershwin, and is from the musical Funny Face, which I saw a few years ago. It’s kind of a weird musical starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, but this is the best scene. In it, Astaire and Kay Thompson are members of the fashion industry, posing as beatnik entertainers in order to win back their star model (Hepburn) who is being influenced away by a sleazy anarchist.

Anyway, winter’s hanging on (snow today? really??) has me kind of blue, and maybe you too … so Clap Yo’ Hands!

The musical: Funny Face (1957)
The song: Clap Yo’ Hands

Review: Coraline (2009)

Here’s my one-line review of Coraline: The book was better.

Ok, no, I wouldn’t really do that to you. And let me be clear: I am not a Neil Gaiman fanatic. I have read several of his books, and I think they’re sometimes pretty good, and sometimes not that great at all. Coraline, though, is one of the good ones, and after I read the book, I was pretty interested to see the film version. It’s got a good story, a great character, excellent voice acting, and the director of one of my most favorite movies. So yeah, good stuff.

Coraline Jones (Dakota Fanning) has just moved (in the movie, from Michigan to Oregon?) into a new apartment with her present-but-absent parents, Mel (Teri Hatcher) and Charlie (John Hodgman). She finds a mysterious door in the living room, and a new “friend,” Wybie (Robert Bailey, Jr.) provides some exposition with the presentation of a doll he found in his grandmother’s attic that looks exactly like Coraline, and the injunction that his grandmother (who owns the apartments) doesn’t usually rent to families with children, because “it’s dangerous”. Soon enough, Coraline discovers that the strange door leads to another apartment like hers only better, complete with a perfect “Other Mother” and father, and the same strange neighbors (voiced by Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, and Ian McShane). Before long, Coraline realizes that she is caught in an evil trap, and she must outsmart the evil Other Mother, with the help of a strange Cat (Keith David) in order to save herself and her parents.

Let me tell you: this movie is creepy!! The stop-motion animation is fantastic, and the vision of the director certainly seems to match up to Gaiman’s. An excellent score by Bruno Coulais helps add to the ambiance. While I found some of the changes from the book (the addition of Wybie as a human friend for Coraline?) rather unnecessary, they didn’t detract from the overall story. It’s actually a really interesting story in a lot of ways … it has parallels to the usual child-as-hero tropes, but some marked differences. For instance, Coraline is not an orphan in the way child heroes often are. Her parents are both present and accounted for, although they are too wrapped up in their work to notice their unhappy child. That’s what makes the Other Mother’s trap so effective: all that Coraline really wants is for her parents to take a more active role in her life. What she has to learn is that while they’re not perfect, they’re her parents, and she wouldn’t really trade them. The character of Coraline is pretty usual: curious, spunky, quick on her feet, but I appreciate the more modern aspects of her personality … she’s very much an individual, but she’s really a normal kid who would prefer pizza to whatever weird vegetable her folks are serving up.

The voice cast is first rate. Dakota Fanning is one of the best young actors working, and she is ably supported by the adults present, although Teri Hatcher would perhaps not have been my first choice to star as the villain. French & Saunders and McShane were maybe a little under-used, but their characters are secondary, so that was really as it should be. It’s all about the visual, though, and that’s where Coraline shines. No detail has been overlooked, from the adorable “jumping mice” to the fabulous garden of the Other world. I’m glad they chose to bring the book to life in animation, because I don’t believe anything live-action with CGI effects would truly be able to capture the beautiful but frightening trap created by the Other Mother.

Coraline was really fun to watch, and I’d certainly recommend it; if not for children of all ages, at least for older ones. It’s definitely rather creepy, so younger children might be frightened. It’s rated PG for a reason. All in all, though, Gaiman’s excellent heroine is represented well on-screen, and her story is engaging and poignant … but the book was still better.

Book review: Judi Dench bio

I’ve just finished another biography, this time of the incomparable Judi Dench. Click here for my review!

Four awesome actors you might not have known were Irish

Happy St. Patrick’s Day! Yes, I am wearing green, and yes, I do have an Irish background. This morning, I was thinking about how to commemorate the day here, and I started thinking about Irish actors. There are many that we know are Irish: Colin Farrell, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson … but then there are those that you might not be aware were actually born in Eire. And so, today, I’m going to highlight a few of my favorites.

Peter O’Toole, b. 1932, Connemara

Peter O’Toole is perhaps one of the finest living actors. He was well-known on the stage before he began acting in films, and today he’s still going strong. He’s most well-known, perhaps, for playing the title role in Lawrence of Arabia. You might also have enjoyed him in Stardust, Troy, Becket, or the acting tour de force that is The Lion in Winter. I don’t know about you, but I need to see more of his work.

Richard Harris, b. 1930, Limerick

Another of the greats, Richard Harris did it all. He and O’Toole were perhaps more notorious for their lifestyles than famous for their acting work, but they were both still tremendous actors. Harris was much beloved as Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator, as (the original) Dumbledore in Harry Potter, and was fabulous in many westerns like Unforgiven and The Guns of Navarone. My personal favorite, though, has got to be Camelot. He is fabulous as the philosophical, bewildered Arthur.

Kenneth Branagh, b. 1960, Belfast

A common theme so far seems to be an impressive body of stage work, and even though he’s a bit younger, Kenneth Branagh has proved himself a match for O’Toole and Harris. He is today considered to be perhaps the finest interpreter of Shakespeare’s works on film, having acted (and quite often directed) in excellent adaptations of Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, and Othello. He’s done plenty of other great work, though, and is probably most recognizable to the younger generations as Professor Lockhart in the Harry Potter series.

Ciaran Hinds, b. 1953, Belfast

Ciaran Hinds is a little bit less well-known than the previous three, but is no less an actor, in my opinion. He’s a bit of a character actor, having been in a number of successful films including Road to Perdition, There Will Be Blood, Tomb Raider II, and Calendar Girls, but you’re most likely to remember him in the incredible Munich. My personal favorite, though? Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. Keep an eye out for him in the upcoming The Debt and in the final Harry Potter film (I’m excited about that one!).

I chose those four to highlight because I had already written about them, and could provide some links to reviews of their work, but I would be very remiss in not mentioning a fifth actor, who is almost universally agreed to be one of the best actors of his generation, and currently working. Daniel Day-Lewis, though born in England, lives in Ireland and holds dual citizenship. I’m not sure I really need to tell you about his work, but I will just mention that in high school, my girlfriends and I went to see The Last of the Mohicans in the theater about five times, and it wasn’t because we were such big James Fenimore Cooper fans. I also really enjoyed Nine, despite its lack of critical and commercial success. I haven’t seen many of his big acting triumphs, but I was also quite impressed with him in The Gangs of New York (if not the film as a whole).

So, there you go. A selection of awesome Irish actors, perhaps not particularly known for being Irish. Who’s your favorite Irish actor?

Weekend viewings and capsule reviews

Somehow, this weekend we managed to watch not one, but two! movies. I know, aren’t you totally impressed? I enjoyed both of them quite a bit, and would recommend either, depending on your tastes.

Spellbound (2002)
I was really, really skeptical about this one (it was on the husband’s queue), but was happily proven wrong. This documentary about 8 children from across the country who compete in the 1999 National Spelling Bee was eye-opening, thought-provoking, and occasionally heart-warming. It was interesting to hear their stories and compare their experiences, both in terms of how they trained for the competition, and their differing perspectives on what the event meant to them and their families. Several of the contestants have immigrant parents, and their ideas about America and the opportunities available here were pretty surprising. You’ll find that it’s painful to watch as they fall, one by one. I amused myself throughout by conjecturing about where they were now (check the bonus features for the answers), but was really engrossed in their stories. It was also fun to try to spell the words they were dealing with. We did pretty well, but man! There are some crazy words out there. You gotta watch out for vowels. They’ll get you every time.

Definitely, Maybe (2008)
I hereby declare Ryan Reynolds the stronger actor (as compared to his ex, Ms. Johansson). I don’t think our expectations were terribly high for this rom-com, but with a cast that includes Abigail Breslin, Isla Fisher, and Rachel Weisz, maybe they should have been. Fine, you can throw in Elizabeth Banks, too. I personally don’t like her much. Anyway. Mr. Reynolds plays Will, who is in the midst of a divorce when his daughter Maya (Breslin) asks about his past relationship with her mother. He makes it a game, telling her about his relationships with three different women, and asking her to guess which is the woman he eventually married. The story is believable, the writing is excellent, and the cast is very satisfactory. I thought that the twists and turns of the story were realistic in an appreciated way … the ending is not the happy one that we (and Maya) expect, but it’s a good one anyway. Reynolds is so awfully good at the wry, sarcastic delivery, and has some really great moments, particularly with Breslin, who I always think is charming. His trio of lady-loves all handle the quick and snappy dialogue just as well. Best of all, perhaps, the always superlative Kevin Kline nearly steals the show in a small role. If you like rom-coms or any of the actors appearing in this movie, I highly recommend it.

What’d you watch this weekend?

Review: How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

In further proof that I am a slacker when it comes to seeing movies in the theater, I just this past weekend saw How to Train Your Dragon, despite being mildly-to-really interested in it when I first caught wind of it. That was early on because I regularly check Gerard Butler’s IMDb page. What? Anyway, How to Train Your Dragon was a surprise hit, and for good reason. It’s charmingly animated, has a strong (albeit predictable) story, a good voice cast, and is fun (and funny) without being insipid, which is sometimes quite the feat for an animated film.

Our hero, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), has troubles. He’s an extremely non-Viking-ish Viking. His village is overrun by dragons. The girl of his dreams, Astrid (America Ferrera) doesn’t know he’s alive, and finally, his dad, Stoick (Gerard Butler), is not only the chieftan of the village, but is pretty much the most Viking-like Viking to ever … well, you get the idea. In Hiccup’s mind, the answer to solving all of these problems is to somehow bag a dragon. Since he’s a 90 lb. weakling, he has invented a very large weapon (sort of a cross between a crossbow, a catapult, and bolos) in order to bring down one of the winged pests. In this, he actually succeeds, and suddenly finds a Night Fury, the most dangerous and mysterious of all dragons, on his hands. Problem is, he can’t bring himself to kill the creature, and instead befriends it. Meanwhile, he’s been put into Dragon Training with the other teens of his village, including Astrid. While they’re all learning how to kill dragons, Hiccup’s learning more important lessons about their behavior, and he’s realizing that maybe they’re not the pests they’re made out to be. Ultimately, he, along with Astrid and Toothless (the dragon), discovers that the dragons are actually victims themselves. This is of course impossible to explain to his father, who goes off to face a menace he doesn’t understand. In the end, it is the teens (and some new dragon friends) who save the day.

You’ve got all the standard coming-of-age/fish out of water plot points here. Hero wants to be like everyone else, but he isn’t. He’s misunderstood. He gains confidence in learning to accept his true nature, and in the end, everyone else learns to accept him as well. It’s pretty straightforward, but really, the best stories are usually a tried-and-true formula that are simply given a unique spin. This one is no exception. The Viking village and all the unique dragons are a really fun and unusual touch. The fact that the dragons (well, mainly Toothless) don’t speak is a refreshing change. There is also a welcome lack of the sly witticism and precociousness so often present in today’s animated features.

Toothless is actually one of the most charming animated “characters” I think I’ve ever seen. Often playful and childlike, I actually thought he was a baby for much of the film. The animators obviously modelled a large part of his actions and mannerisms on those of a cat, and I found it really impressive, the extent to which that showed and worked. Maybe it was just because I’m a cat person. The rest of the characters were also quite artistic, and the voice-acting was excellent. Particularly enjoyable were Gerard Butler in a serious turn as Stoick, and Craig Ferguson as the one adult who understands and believes in Hiccup.

One of the things I liked most about the movie would be sort of spoilery, so I’m trying to decide how to discuss it. Let’s just say that there is a moment of “realism” to the film, something that would not ordinarily happen in a kid’s movie, especially not a cartoon. I found that moment to be really wonderful, both in terms of symbolism and connection within the story itself, and in its message to viewers. Since I’m a parent now (yikes!) I will be glad to show my daughter this movie later on, and to discuss the difference and its importance.

Which means, yes, that I look forward to seeing this movie again, and would absolutely recommend it to anyone looking for something fun to watch. I have no doubt that it would have been really awesome to see on the big screen, or in 3D, although the flying scenes might have proven a bit too much for me in that forum. And hey! There’s talk of a sequel. Let’s hope they can retain the freshness and enjoyment of the first. Make sure you see it before the second one comes out!

In defense of: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

This morning on NPR, mention was made of Romeo & Juliet. And I started muttering the prologue to myself, frankly a little surprised that I knew as much of it as I did, and then suddenly I had a moment of adoration for Mark Williams, and his role in Shakespeare in Love. And that got me to thinking … lots of people hate that movie. And honestly, I kind of wonder what they’re smoking. And so, I thought I’d try to work out what it was that makes this movie so great, and why people might dislike it so. Wish me luck.

I have to admit that when it came out, I myself was not very stoked by the idea of Shakespeare in Love. But, I got dragged to see it, I think by the boy-I-was-(not)-dating at the time, and I found it to be very enjoyable. It was funny, romantic, visually appealing, well-acted, and an overall entertaining piece of work. As the years have gone by, I’ve rewatched it, and fallen a little bit more in love. I even gleefully purchased it a couple of years ago, and I don’t really buy a lot of movies.

But what do I love about it? Well, first off, there’s the cast. I mean, good lord. Mark Williams, Tom Wilkinson, Geoffrey Rush (!!), Simon Callow, Imelda Staunton … and that’s just the bigger names among the supporting cast. Excellent cameos by Ben Affleck, Rupert Everett, and Judi Dench (hers earning her a Best Supporting Oscar). And then the leads … Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, and newly-minted Oscar winner Colin Firth. And here, I think, we come to issue number one for haters of Shakespeare in Love. A whole lot of people don’t like Gwyneth Paltrow in the first place. In the second place, she is notable in her American-ness beside this glittering cast of Brits. Thirdly, she attracted a great deal of ire from many film-goers when she won Best Actress at the Oscars for this role. I dismiss the first two arguments out of hand. While I will often avoid films because they have actors in them I don’t like, I will also acknowledge when those actors manage to do a good job. (Will Ferrell in Stranger than Fiction? Decent job.) Additionally, her British accent wasn’t at all bad, and neither was her acting. Was the role of Lady Viola a major stretch, or a difficult role? No, but that doesn’t mean that we should just ignore a job well done. Now, having said that, do I think she ought to have won the Oscar? No. I don’t. Like most people, I think that Cate Blanchett (as Queen Elizabeth) was robbed. However, I’m not a voting member of the Academy. I could also say that sometimes, an outstanding acting job in an otherwise mediocre film is harder to really recognize than a solid acting job in a more enjoyable (and successful) one. I’m not offering excuses … all I’m saying is that one’s dislike for an actor or one’s disappointment regarding awards being handed out is no reason to just throw a good movie out the window. Anyway. Moving on.

What else did I like about Shakespeare in Love? Well, the literary qualities. The Shakespeare (mainly Romeo & Juliet) used in the movie is really all quite well done. I would totally want to see an actual production of R&J with all those people in it. I will admit that it’s not the most difficult of his plays to perform or understand, but that’s beside the point. It’s all very well-handled. Additionally, there are some fun little literary jokes thrown in. You know the kid who eventually outs Gwyneth as a woman? He’s a joke. He spends his time feeding mice to cats and grumbling that if he wrote plays, they would contain more blood, and at one point, he is asked his name. “John Webster,” he replies. Well, John Webster was, in fact, a playwright, several years younger than Shakespeare, who did lean more towards violent, disturbing, and supernatural themes. See? Funny! Makes me giggle every time. The excellent writing and literary cleverness really shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, given that the screenplay was written in part by Tom Stoppard. How can you diss something written by Tom Stoppard? It just ain’t right.

Ultimately, I think the reason people are cranky about Shakespeare in Love comes back to the Oscars in 1999. The biggest film that year besides SiL was Saving Private Ryan. Obviously, also a very, very good film, just completely different. I have no doubt that a great many people would argue that Saving Private Ryan ought to have won Best Picture. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with them, either. I will, however, point out that they (like me) were obviously not voting members of the Academy. Oh, well. It’s one of the flaws of the whole system, comparing apples to oranges and then declaring one the victor. Just because one wins the big prize, though, doesn’t mean that the other one is no good, or vice versa. And I feel like that’s what a lot of people have decided about Shakespeare in Love. Ok, maybe it’s not “better” than Saving Private Ryan in terms of its vision or cinematography or direction or subject matter (that’s the big one, I think). But what it is is a well-made film with snappy dialogue, both humorous and poignant moments, a pretty good plot, some romance, some fine acting, beautiful costumes, and a lot of charm.

I guess it boils down to what you want to get out of a movie-viewing experience. Do you want to be emotionally manipulated or intellectually stimulated or merely entertained? Frankly, I find it hard to believe that any one person only wants one of those all the time. Sometimes, you want to be enlightened. Sometimes, you just want to laugh. And in the case of the Academy Awards, as I have previously suggested, all they really mean is that more people within a certain body felt the same way at a certain point in time. Now, I could be wrong. Maybe lots of people just hated Shakespeare in Love long before the Oscars. Obviously, not everyone agrees that Colin Firth is a good actor, or that Shakespeare is about beautiful language, or that a particular joke is funny. But that’s why we have different movies, and why I have a movie blog: so I can tell you about the ones that I like. And Shakespeare in Love is high on that list, and I will defend it to anyone, anytime. So there.

Are you a Shakespeare in Love hater? Here’s your chance! Tell me why!