Thanks to the long holiday weekends (and the end of the holiday performance schedules) we actually managed to squeeze in some movies by the end of 2011. One of them was even released in the same year! Shocking, I know. Here’s what we saw …
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Somehow I missed out on a lot of the “Christmas classics”. I hadn’t seen It’s a Wonderful Life until last Christmas, and I still haven’t seen A Christmas Story. I think that we may make watching a Christmas movie a family tradition, though, so maybe we’ll cue that one up for 2012. At any rate, I very much enjoyed Miracle on 34th Street. Featuring credible performances by Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, John Payne, and a young Natalie Wood, this charming little story is about a man who claims to be the real Kris Kringle. He becomes involved in the lives of skeptic Doris Walker (O’Hara) and her daughter, Susan (Wood), and quietly works some Christmas miracles, not only for them and their handsome neighbor, Mr. Gailey (Payne), but also the city of New York. As you may know, this movie is pretty much a 96 minute ad for Macy’s, but it definitely works hard to convey the message that Christmas is about more than consumerism. It takes a little while to warm up, but when it gets going it’s laugh out loud funny, and you’ll feel like applauding at the end. Definitely recommended for holiday (or any day) viewing!
You may recall that I featured the trailer for this charming little picture when it released. At the time, I posited that it looked whimsical and intimate. The film is a semi-autobiographical look at director Mike Mills’ (“Oliver,” played by Ewan McGregor) relationship with his father Hal (Christopher Plummer), who comes out to him after the death of his wife, and dies of cancer a few years later. Oliver looks back over his and his parents’ relationship as he attempts to overcome his own fears of commitment while attempting a relationship with fellow commitment-phobe Anna (Melanie Laurent). Though a little hard to follow at times (the chronology jumps around a lot), Beginners is gorgeous to look at and definitely carries some emotional heft. It is indeed a very intimate piece, more a character study in some ways than a conventional story with discernible plot lines, a beginning and an end. The main message that we take away from the film is actually that the end is the beginning, at least for Oliver and Anna. All of the performances here are stellar; Christopher Plummer is nearly a lock to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at this point, although we thought that Melanie Laurent was a little bit more of a stand-out. Well, Melanie Laurent and Cosmo the Dog. Beginners is a must-see if you’re into small, quirky dramedies and/or cute dogs.
King Kong (1933)
Number 43 on the AFI list, King Kong is noteworthy for helping to originate the monster movie. Unlike Frankenstein two years earlier, though, Kong is actually pretty good. It’s the story of Machiavellian movie director Carl Denham(Robert Armstrong), who hires a ship’s crew and aspiring actress Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) to venture to an unknown island in order to film a movie, the plot of which he keeps secret. Once we arrive on the island, it becomes apparent that Denham’s plan is to capture on film a legendary monster, and to create a story about beauty and the beast. Life reflects art when Kong really does take a shine to Miss Darrow, and the movie takes off when the ship’s crew, led by handsome First Mate John Driscoll (Bruce Cabot) race through an uncharted wilderness to rescue her. They encounter prehistoric beasts and Kong himself, but ultimately Driscoll and Darrow manage to escape. Meanwhile, Denham, still looking for a story, decides to capture the great ape and bring him back to New York as “the eighth wonder of the world.” The ending of the movie is iconic, of course, so we’ll stop there. King Kong is impressive for a number of reasons. First, although audiences today would snicker at the special effects, one has to consider that they were quite impressive for 1933, and overall, the cinematography and camera work is really first rate. Second, although the acting and dialogue is nothing special, the story has a lot going on. Denham’s hubris and disregard for natural order brings destruction; first to the ship’s crew, many of whom lose their lives in Kong’s jungle, then to the city of New York, and ultimately to Kong himself. One wonders if, even at the end of the film, Denham has learned a lesson. And then there’s King Kong, the beast. Throughout the film, he puts himself in danger to protect the object of his affection, but that goes largely unrecognized by the humans he encounters. Obviously, he wreaks a lot of havoc, but that’s really all he knows how to do. In the end, one can’t help but feel sympathetic toward him. Even though Kong is obviously clunky technology and not (as in the 2005 remake) motion-captured Andy Serkis, he’s a poignant character. Overall, an impressive piece of film-making; it’s easy to see why the original spawned a variety of sequels and remakes. I think I’d recommend that you accept no substitutes, though.
Happy 2012 to you! I’m looking forward to award season and trying to squeeze in more movie viewings during the year, and I hope you’ll check back in to judge my progress! As always, thanks for reading.