Wednesday, January 26, 2011

With Apologies to the Staff of Vogue Magazine

Documentaries can be amazing...wait, have I lost you already? Well, if you're still reading, I've recently seen three very different docs: The September Issue, No Impact Man, and The Rape of Europa. They look at: fashion, going green, and...Nazis. Because you can't write about documentaries without Nazis coming into picture somewhere.

Fashion has always been fascinating to me. Flipping through Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, and Vogue was riveting, if a little baffling. Wait, ladies wear that stuff? Plastic-looking pants with a chartreuse monkey-fur jacket? Yes, I can read that it's designed by some stylish Italian guy, but...actually, fashion actually has very little to do with clothes. I learned this from The September Issue, a documentary that follows the editorial process of Vogue's September issue, the issue that debuts what's new for the year in fashion. Vogue's September issue is purchased by an extraordinarily high number of women every year, and the advertising is so lucrative that the September issue is nearly the size of a phone book. But the great part of this is seeing Anna Wintour up close. Is she really as dreadful as the rumors say? She's not. She seemed fine to me. She's the editor and she wants it done her way. So there.

I was struck by how dowdy and inelegant the women who work at Vogue are. Anna Wintour is the exception. She is always glamorously put together in a dress. She wears surprisingly pretty floral dresses in nearly every scene she's in. But the other ladies who work at Vogue wear uniforms of shapeless, all-black sacks, or all-white pantsuits, with no variation. And the numerous closeups did them no favors. Look, we all get saggy and wrinkly. But we're normal people. We don't live in the posh, ultra-expensive world of celebrity fashion, the exclusive locales of Manhattan, Paris, and L.A. Aren't there luxurious treatments for the typical wrinkles in that world? And if you have worked at Vogue for the last quarter century, can't you afford them? Sorry! Sorry so snarky! Which brings us to the next doc, No Impact Man.

No Impact Man is a writer in Manhattan who decided that he, his wife, and daughter would live a year on the planet and leave no impact. They slowly phase out the extras of western civilization, like cable TV, grocery sacks, electricity, and toilet paper. So, as you can see, this guy is kind of nuts. Toilet paper? Who knew we Americans had so little to be thankful for? Does this guy really not know how paper companies work? Paper companies plant way more trees than they cut down for paper. They have to - they want to make paper in five years, too. But I'm getting off track. No Impact Man is interesting in that you get to see this marriage close up, where the husband is committed to this idea, and he has to drag his wife kicking and screaming into the plan. He makes her give up TV, coffee, takeout food, ice, and eventually her cosmetics. See? He really is crazy.

What was fascinating in this documentary were the dynamics of this couple, especially when you see the conversations they have about whether or not to have another baby. She considers that since she is supporting him in his no impact project, which he wants to do more than anything, he should support her in her dream to have a baby, which she want to do more than anything, too. Now, she works in some high paying corporate job, and he's at home with their toddler daughter. And he kind of asks her if she's going to cut back on her job to take care of the kids. She doesn't know what that has to do with having another baby. But you could see what he wanted to say: look, honey, I wanted to be a writer, didn't want to start a family. So why don't you take a turn at home if we have another baby? If he ever said that out loud, it wasn't in front of the camera. But how could she quit her job? To buy only locally grown, organic fruits and veggies, overpriced organic bakery bread, and organic household cleaners, you need a high paying corporate job.

I feel so much sympathy for this guy's wife. Actually, I have compassion for him, too. Look, he had an idea, granted it was crazy, but he wanted to do it, and he succeeded. This couple took a lot of absurd hating on their blog. Of all the crazies to hate in New York, why pick on them? They're mostly normal. Well, at least she is. Even though I prefer reusable, cloth grocery bags, this guy makes going green...wait, for it...going crazy! Too much? Well, now we come to the primary reason documentaries were invented: Nazis.

The Rape of Europa is an account of Hitler's plan to steal any good art created in the last 900 years, and destroy anything he didn't like. Of course, being Hitler, this was also a way to stick it to the Jews. Because many of the very best art collections were owned by Jewish families. Of all the documentaries to see, this one is it. Yes, again we see how thoroughly fiendish the Nazis were in their long-sighted planning to meet their goals. And again we see the heartbreak they wrought on the world. But we also get to meet the heroes: American art experts and artists who did whatever they could to restore and protect the treasures of Western art and architecture. The Monument Men, a US Army unit, are the ones who made sure that the world's greatest paintings and sculptures were returned to the families they were stolen from, and saved these treasures for all of us here in the future. If you like docs, watch this one.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Runaways

Wow, sorry so late! But I keep thinking about a movie I saw, The Runaways, the story of Joan Jett and her first band. Usually, the lifestyle of success and stardom is sunny. Usually, success and stardom don't chew young girls up and spit them out. But that's the great thing about this movie: when a young girl, with no real parental supervision, is seduced by success, you don't get a false picture of how, yeah, it was tough. But our young star pulled through, and she's still a success and a star. In this movie, what really happened to Cherie, the lead singer of The Runaways, was that she was nearly destroyed by rock'n roll.

Young Cherie Currie, portrayed by Dakota Fanning, grew up in California, with a mom who left with her second husband to live in Singapore and a dad who is slowly dying of alcoholism. Her twin sister is the closest thing to a parent she has. So what happens in 1975 to girls like that? Hanging around clubs, she meets Joan Jett and Runaways drummer, Sandy West. Jett and West think their all-girl hard-rock band needs a blond lead singer. So they audition Cherie. After a rough start with sleazy music promoter Kim Fowley, they get a recording contract. When their album becomes a hit in Japan, the Runaways travel there for a tour. But rather than success being a joy, for Cherie, it's exhausting, riddled with drug-induced collapses, and jealousy from the other band members because of the attention she's getting as the blond lead singer. How could she have coped with it all? She was 15.

Joan Jett, however, seems not to have parents at all. From what you see in the film, she's squatting in a cheap apartment with lots of other druggie teens. But while they get high and sleep, she's busy playing her guitar, writing songs, and trying to make it. And she does. Her sheer ambition and passion for the music do achieve some success. She had a few hits in the early 1980's. Kristen Stewart, the heroine from the Twilight series, plays Joan Jett. She's got Jett's slouchy posture and smoldering anger down. But I had never realized that Jett was a lesbian. I asked a pal about this and he said,"Yeah, everybody knows that." And in this movie, the experimentation between Cherie and Joan seems kind of sweet. When everyone else is out to use them, they're all they've got. Cherie's sad goodbye to Joan, as Joan Jett & the Blackhearts are taking off, takes place during a radio interview while Cherie is scolded for making a personal call from her workplace, a bakery.

While it was hard to watch what life did to Cherie Currie, at least this movie portrayed the truth about The Runaways, the first all-girl rock'n roll band. The casting was great, the photography captured the 1970's mood, and the end seemed inevitable. The loss of innocence and hope for Cherie is as bittersweet as her goodbye to Joan.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Maiden Heist

The Maiden Heist is not your typical museum heist movie. There's no stud-leading man, no starlet barely managing to cover her attributes, and no villainous security guy trying to shut the whole thing down. The attraction in this film isn't clever computer hacking or out-of-control action scenes, but rather superb acting and a charming, quirky script.

The heroes are the security guards, who are also the thieves. Played by Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, and William H. Macy, these museum guards are normal workaday guys. But each one is passionately, wildly in love - with a work of art. For Walken, it's the Lonely Maiden, a haunting portrait from 19th century France, and for Freeman, it's a Vermeer-like painting entitled Girl with Cats. For Macy, it's an early Greek bronze of a naked warrior, an ideal representation of the male form. When they discover that their artworks have been sold to a Danish museum, they plan to steal the three masterpieces.

While there could be a sense of the ridiculous in the men of a certain age seen here, their loyal dedication to their art doesn't lend itself to ridicule. Walken gives a subtle portrayal of Roger, a very serious museum guard, who fantasizes about how he would sacrifice himself for the girl he loves, the Maiden. His acting here is so unaffected, so normal, it makes me wonder if he's done any other movies like this. Can I get them on Netflix? His wife, played by Marcia Gay Harden, doesn't know his devotion to his job is wrapped up in the Maiden. Harden is wonderfully true to life, and put together to seem much older than she must be. Morgan Freeman plays a rather fussy artist, who ceaselessly copies his Girl with Cats. With his frank admission of fear and his "oh, dears," Freeman comes across as the middle aged bachelor who lives down the hall (with his 15 cats). It's funny and sweet. Macy plays an ex-marine, enthralled by military valor and adventure. His man-crush on the Warrior is more about the masculine virtues than homoeroticism. Macy has some of the best lines, and he plays them well.

The world tends to dismiss men like this, real guys working regular jobs. But what all of us identify with is how passionate love can fill you with purpose, with life. Don't miss the Lonely Maiden and Christopher Walken, whose love of art leads to real love.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Best of 2009

With the Oscars on tonight, everyone's excited about last year's movies. Let's look back at three of the year's films. Two were hits, and one was entirely under the radar: Duplicity, Monsters Vs. Aliens, and Easy Virtue.

Duplicity was one of my favorites this year. Sexy Clive Owen and Julia Roberts have great chemistry, but Paul Giamatti nearly steals the show. Read it here:

Monsters Vs. Aliens, Dreamworks entry for children's animation last summer, is fun. With Dreamworks, you always have a certain amount of Shrek-style humor. Monsters, however, has the charm of real, old fashioned movie monsters. No cute Disney creatures or princesses allowed (what a relief!) in this kid's movie. Rather we have the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the 50 Foot Woman, a Godzilla-radiated caterpillar, and a mad scientist morphed into a cockroach (rather than a fly). As in all kid's movies, these unlikely pals form a team. With a little wacky Area 51 conspiracy thrown in, this film is entertaining for parents as well as their kids. You'll get a kick out of the outer space villain and his alien clones, brought to wicked life by the voice of Dwight Schrute (Rainn Philips) from The Office.

Easy Virtue, based on a Noel Coward play, got very little notice. That's such a shame, because this film has such glitzy, 1920's style. Starring Jessica Biel, Colin Firth, and Kristen Scott Thomas, this comedy is in turns smooth and sparkly. Biel plays a modern American woman, a race car driver, who marries into typically stuffy English gentry. The music, the cinematography, the dialogue are so well done. The casting was off in one respect: Biel's cool, blonde glamour is attractive to Ben Barnes, who plays her husband in the film. These two have no chemistry on screen. Barnes appears to be about 17. Thank heaven for Colin Firth! While this film drags a bit, it makes it's way to a great conclusion.

While there are no Oscar winners on my list, you won't be disappointed. Whether you're looking for a period charmer, a fun date movie, or a film to enjoy with the kids, one of these will be great.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sherlock Holmes in 2010

The new Sherlock Holmes is a multi-faceted film: a traditional Holmesian mystery with blockbuster action and buddy-movie characters. Well cast with Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law as Dr. Watson, director Guy Ritchie created a very ambitious movie. Did he succeed?

In one of his few mainstream films, Ritchie developed a mystery true to Arthur Conan Doyle's style. The story is dark and tricky with a very Victorian London in the background. Holmes is, of course, fiendishly clever, but the villian is rather typically evil. Mark Strong's Lord Blackdeath (or some name similar) with his unrelieved scowling seems predictable. The almost sepia tone of the photography is also tiresome, but it's effect is gorgeous in some scenes. Thankfully, the mystery draws you in. Is Lord Blackdeath supernaturally powerful? Downey's Holmes knows the answer the whole time, and the revelation is suspenseful.

Having only a passing knowledge of Holmes' mysteries, I suspect they rarely had numerous explosions and fistfights. I may be wrong. However, for a movie to succeed now, that kind of excitement is necessary. If Ritchie had made a smart mystery without all the macho action, it would have opened to far less acclaim. And isn't edgy action Ritchie's specialty? Without the chases and well-choreographed fights, this movie would have ended up a Gosford Park-style film. While Gosford Park is excellent, it wasn't a high-octane thriller. The gritty action sequences take Holmes to a new level, and will bring the famous detective to a different generation of movie fans.

The relationship between Holmes and Watson is intriguing. They bicker, Holmes borrows Watson's clothes, and then tries to break up his romance. Are they brothers, sisters, or an old married couple? Holmes' love interest in the film, played by Rachel McAdams, is obviously besotted with him. Why does he evade her embrace? Is he afraid of being hurt by her again? Or is he secretly gay? I don't think so. But the ambiguous relationship adds depth to the film. It's not your typical buddy movie, but fits into that category, too.

So in this version of Sherlock Holmes, there's blockbuster action for brainless fun, a mystery to unravel, and two cute actors to watch. What else does a girl want?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Christmas On Film

Holiday movies are a cultural tradition in America. This is one of the rare film genres the viewer can rely on. Christmas movies are nearly always rather innocent with happy endings. The Hollywood trend of removing Baby Jesus started long ago. Remember Holiday Inn, The Miracle on 34th Street, and White Christmas? But all of these show rediscovered hope and wonder in humanity's goodness. It's A Wonderful Life never mentions Jesus Christ either, but it's theme of sacrifice hearkens to why Christ was born in the first place. More recent holiday films, like Home Alone and A Christmas Story, while light comedies, celebrate the love within families along with the challenges of those bonds. While there are so many favorites for Christmas, new holiday movies come out every year. I've found a few new ones, one classic and another released just last year.

I'll Be Seeing You stars Ginger Rogers and Joseph Cotton. Rogers plays a woman on furlough from prison. On her way to see family for Christmas, she meets a soldier (Cotton). He's recovering from battle in the pacific, with wounds both physical and mental. In black and white, the casting and acting is superb. The sadness and self-awareness in Ginger Roger's performance is matched by Joseph Cotton's unease and vulnerability. As the two fall in love over Christmas vacation, the tension grows. How long can Ginger Rogers keep her secret? What will happen when her soldier finds out? This movie is set during WWII, and the bittersweetness of that time comes through. Having already faced the fragile nature of life, you believe these two deserve some happiness with each other.

Fred Claus is an unusual look at Santa Claus. In most Santa Claus movies, there are all kinds of convoluted devices to explain how Santa works, how he's real. In this film, Santa is from the typical dysfunctional family, with Santa's brother Fred being overshadowed by and eventually resenting his famous, sainted brother. Fred is played by Vince Vaughn, with his usual fast-talking bad boy persona to hide his unhappiness. With a stellar cast featuring Paul Giamatti as Santa, Miranda Richardson as Mrs. Claus (in addition to Kevin Spacey and Kathy Bates), Fred Claus is at it's best with Vaughn's glib wit and lots of slapstick. It's not G, so parents should watch first to decide if it's right for their kids.

One of the little twists in Fred Claus is how it breaks Hollywood's rule about being immortal: one of the prices for everlasting life is that everyone you love dies, while you live on. As Santa is immortal here, so is his family and wife. So merry everlasting Christmas!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sex and the Single Girl

It may be hard to believe, but some girls don't want anonymous sex with lots of guys. While this life may make Candace Bushnell, like Erica Jong of days of yore, deliriously happy, there are girls who find promiscuity rather tricky. Considering the glamour of genital warts and unexpected pregnancy, one can see the pitfalls. I've found three movies that show an alternative to our Sex in the City world of meaningless sex that has no consequences.

The Best of Everything is a luxurious look at late 1950's New York. The three young women in this film are drawn to New York for the same reason Carrie, Samantha, and Miranda are: adventure. The girls from The Best discover that sex without commitment leads them without commitment. While expecting to be cherished by their lovers, all three are disappointed by their men. While some viewers may think insanity is not a typical reaction to being dumped, I think today's sexually disappointed girls suffer from a panoply of problems, mental instability among them. How else do can you explain cutting?

In People Will Talk, superstar Cary Grant finds himself caught up in a young woman's unplanned pregnancy. Grant plays a gynecologist and famed healer in this 1951 film. He remarks about his female patients being pregnant and unhappy, or desiring pregnancy and being unable to achieve it. Then as now, fertility was an issue fraught with joy and heartbreak. Abortion is alluded to when Grant and a young woman discuss "peace of mind." An abortion may bring her peace of mind, but at the cost of his, the doctor's. Deborah Crain plays this unmarried mother. Crain is lovely, but not a great actress. The romance between these two is only part of the story. The most riveting part of the plot centers around accusations about Grant's past and his friend, Mr. Shunderson. This forgotten classic should be rediscovered. Along with thoughtful discussion, it's full of playful wit and plot twists.

In Come September, Rock Hudson visits his Italian sex kitten, played by Gina Lollabrigida, each September. Who would ever expect Gina Lollabrigida, international bombshell, to be jealous of virginal Sandra Dee? That's the sweet surprise of this film, where Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee first met (they eloped two weeks after the film wrapped). Sandra Dee and her girlfriends, traveling abroad for the summer, end up in the care of Rock Hudson. He takes his responsibility as chaperon very seriously; after all, he knows quite well how lecherous men can be. So when Bobby Darin and his pals show up, Hudson spends all his time protecting Sandra Dee's virtue and making sure she knows what boys are after. Gina, who has happily been Hudson's mistress, rediscovers her own value. Why hasn't Hudson protected her virtue? Isn't she worth marrying?

All three of these films resonate with the real experiences girls have, that we are just now admitting, namely that casual sex can be ruinous to a young woman's health, physical and otherwise. What's so crazy is that when these movies were made, everyone already knew that. A woman's natural reticence to unmarried sex protected her from unplanned pregnancy, disease, and, most importantly, from being used by men. What protects girls now?