Monday, December 29, 2008

Fixing A Fairy Tale

Penelope is a modern fairy tale, or an improved fairy tale. But that makes it sound like medicine you have to take. Which it isn't at all - you will love the solution to the curse that turns Penelope from a pig-nosed girl into a lovely woman. One of the underlying themes, of the influence a mother has on her daughter's self-regard, is done very well here. You can see that Penelope's little pig snout would never have been such a problem for her if it wasn't such a problem for her mother. This kind of issue if usually done quite meanly and with a sledge-hammer. In this film, it's done with sublety and humor, like in a real family where everyone understands the mother's loving, while mistaken, attitude.

And this is a movie a real family could enjoy. Although it wasn't marketed as a children's film, it has enough wit and style for adults while remaining sweet enough for kids. Christina Ricci, in the title role, is wonderfully innocent and fresh here. Her romantic interest, played by James McAvoy, seems like a seedy loser at first. He's one of those trendy actors, nearly indistinguishable from Tobey Maquire and Elijah Wood. Those are the guys with the beautifully expressive eyes, but it seems to me they always look like they're about to burst into tears. Can those two actors come across as likeably down-on-his-luck as McAvoy?

The production design adds so much to this story. The sets, the costuming, the locations bring a Victorian veneer to what is a modern story. Rather dark at times, it reminds you of Tim Burton. But where Burton's style is menacing and gory, this film's design is whimsical and charming. It is a fairy tale, after all.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Theatre Britain

It seems like only the best British films make it over the Atlantic, God bless it. But there is quite a variety: stuffy, costume dramas; intelligent comedies; and the newest James Bond installment.

While we're on the subject, I can't see the appeal of Daniel Craig, the newest Bond. He does bring the character out of that cheesy smirk left behind by Pierce Brosnan. Of course, Brosnan was fine in the role, but did he ever really come across as dangerous? He just wasn't threatening enough to carry it off, so it becomes camp. I love a good action flick, but this franchise is a little tiresome. Although it's still creative in the many wonderful and marvelous ways the human body can suffer death, after watching a few of these, you can't tell them apart.

British comedy is another animal. Thankfully, we're a little more sophisticated than Benny Hill and Mr. Bean. Although I still love Rowan Atkinson's Black Adder. The latest British guy to make me laugh is Simon Pegg.

Run, Fat Boy, Run is Pegg's new film and it's more mainstream then his usual movies. His previous Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz are hilarious and ridiculously gory. Shaun is a parody of the typical zombie movie, with the main character having a hard time telling the difference between disaffected, urban neighbors and the flesh-eating undead. Hot Fuzz is also a parody, but of PBS Mystery! series. Can you imagine bloody murder by garden shears in Miss Marple's quaint English village? Seeing the polite, reserved characters from those stories pull submachine guns from their picnic baskets is loads of fun.

With Run, Fat Boy, Run, Simon Pegg has gone all the way over to romantic comedy. Pegg plays Dennis, who left his very pregnant fiance at the altar and has never recovered. So in an attempt to get her back, he says he's running the London Marathon. Leaving aside the impossibility of preparing for a 26 mile run in two weeks, this is a sweet, heartwarming movie. If you like that sort of thing. But it's not done as well here as it could be. And overall, this Pegg movie isn't crafted as well as his previous comedies.

The last British comedy I've seen is Death at a Funeral, starring Matthew McFadyen. While very funny in part, the one gross-out scene kind of ruined the whole movie for me. Which is too bad, since it has a great collection of intersecting plots and hilarious characters. And I have started to love Mr. McFadyen, who I last saw as Kiera Knightley's Mr. Darcy. He was the one thing in that Jane Austen re-make that worked. How did he manage to play cold Mr. Darcy and generate so much chemistry? Even little Kiera couldn't manage that. Her Elizabeth Bennett was petulant and immature.

The last thing I must mention is that after watching a few British movies, you get the feeling that there are only 35 actors in the whole UK. You see the same faces over and over. In Death at a Funeral, however, it was refreshing to see lots of new actors onscreen.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Local Anesthetic

Local Hero was recommended for years. A good friend told me several times that it was one of her favorite films. It was critically acclaimed, beautifully photographed, and dead boring. This was the kind of film that gave critics a bad name, before Mamet and Tarentino made moviegoers hate critics for new reasons. Yes, if you love Scottish travelogues, you may like this film. And it promises all kinds of bittersweet character development, but it never delivers.

Made in 1983, just as Hollywood was getting on the environmental soapbox, it portrays a monster oil company attempting to purchase a village on the Scottish coast to build an oil refinery. Unexpectedly, all the residents are delighted. I kind of thought this was going to be a David vs. Goliath contest, between hardy, honest fishermen and a big, bad corporation. Not at all - Burt Lancaster, supposedly the villain as the oil company CEO, is an eccentric engaged in alternative "insult" therapy and interested only in astronomy. He's first shown napping in a board meeting. Peter Riegert, sent to arrange the purchase from the villagers, plays along deftly and sincerely, slowly falling in love with this small, quiet village and its lovely views.

But it doesn't work. I'm no greenie, but even I would hate to see a picturesque fishing village spoiled by petroleum and chemical processing. Even in the early 1980's, surely the Scottish government would have had something to say about an international corporation building a major refinery along 3 miles of its pristine coastline. And then there's the seals. Nearby, there's a bay for endangered seals. Are you trying to tell me there wouldn't have noise from the local treehuggers and biologists about the seals?

I guess I could get happy about the reality of the Scottish fishermen and villagers in this film: they're dreadfully poor, and very happy about the millions they're about to receive. They're going to move elsewhere, and don't seem to care that their beautiful village will soon be a poisonous oil refinery.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Don't Convert

Lots of chat out there about the new converter box you will need to watch TV if you don't have cable. Even though I am a TV/movie junkie, I haven't had cable in about 10 years. Who needs it? Anything I've ever wanted to see was easy to get without spending money to have 300 channels, 275 of them being sports and assorted other garbage.

What with episodes on-line, all kinds of shows being released in DVD sets, and home delivery movies, all your entertainment needs can be met. I fell in love with the original Office, the British one, when I was given the DVD set as a gift. And in recent years, if you have a fast internet connection (like DSL), you can see most things on-line. I was dying to see the new French & Saunders sitcom Clatterford (or Jam & Jerusalem in the UK). Found some episodes on youtube. Found the rest of them at Netflix (my favorite!). You can even get TV and movie podcasts, although the laptop is as small as I want to go.

So who needs a converter box? Who needs cable? Ditch them both!

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Thanksgiving Theme

While there are many holiday movies with Christmas as their theme, and more produced every year, the Thanksgiving theme has only generated one or two films. The family favorite (though not necessarily family-friendly) Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is the first that comes to mind. Steve Martin's torturous journey home from a business meeting with ne'er-do-well John Candy is famously funny. It captures the "everything that can go wrong, will" of traveling as well as the yearning for family and home we all experience once in a while. The late John Candy is the best part of this movie. A seemingly true loser, we all run into guys like this who perpetually and unknowingly create problems for the rest of us smart, successful types. We all identify with Steve Martin's buttoned-up businessman, but you have to wonder: are you the John Candy-esque troublemaker for some family member or co-worker?

Another true loser was the Holly Hunter movie Home for the Holidays. Holly Hunter's character travels home to her dysfunctional family for Thanksgiving, running into all the old craziness of parents and squabbling siblings. But most of these "all families are crazy" movies reveal that there really is love and closeness underneath all the mess. Not this one. All the mean-spirited antics and teasing in this movie leave you disliking the family as much as they dislike each other. And this just adds more fuel to the Hollywood fire that home and family are dreadful traps.

Which leads us to Woody Allen's Thanksgiving-themed film, Hannah and Her Sisters. With all the craziness of your typical New York family, this movie is rife with adultery, infertility, and catered cocktail parties. Actually, this is a funny, charming movie with Allen's trademark touches ridiculing modern art, rock music, and passive-aggressive wives. But as with all of Allen's movies, love isn't true love without illicit sex. Eventually the characters in this movie do come to grasp what the rest of us know: physical passion is all-encompassing for a while, but it won't get you to "happily ever after." In this film, as the family gathers for Thanksgiving, Michael Caine, the narrator, sees how family and home bring much more profound happiness.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Tropic @*&#@!

What's a word for beyond offensive? Whatever it is, Tropic Thunder is it. And along with being shockingly offensive, it is extremely funny and well-crafted. Which sounds crazy, I know. While it's a parody of everything Hollywood, you begin to wonder: is Hollywood really like this? With jokes about every kind of ethnic stereotype, the money-grubbing producer, the merchandising, even special effects experts, we can all laugh at Hollywood itself. But jokes about the mentally challenged, Vietnam vets, and third world adoption are very tricky. But writer-director Ben Stiller, along with his numerous co-stars, pulled it off.

There are so many movies like this, funny but over-the-top disgusting in their humor, exploitation, and language, like Wedding Crashers, 40 Year Old Virgin, and the whole American Pie franchise. But none of those work as well as this one. And none of them have such a perfect cast. When you watch this, you can't imagine anyone else playing these roles. Ben Stiller, who is not one of my faves, really captures the washed-up action star, and Jack Black is the only actor who could've played druggie comedian Portnoy. Brandon T. Jackson and Jay Baruchel are two unknowns in this film, and even they are cast well and, lucky for them, given great lines in this hilarious and insightful script. But the most amazing actor in this film is Robert Downey, Jr. His portrayal of an Oscar winning badboy so into his Method that he changes his skin pigment is unlike anything you've ever seen Downey do. He's usually the cynical smartmouth with the sarcastic expressions. The way he plays a blowhard "serious" actor playing an African-American in this movie is astounding.

Fans of the usual crude comedies might not like this one: it's smart. If you think you can take the language, nudity, and gore, try it.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Then She Lost Me

Then She Found Me, the latest from Helen Hunt, was disappointing. Such a great cast - Colin Firth, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, and Helen - what happened? Well, the movie resembles the book not at all. The novel Then She Found Me is low-key with lots of internal dialog. And it's own story is better than what they came up with: desperate 39 year-old wants a baby, but her marriage collapses as her adoptive mother dies and her birth mother contacts her. In the novel, even the threads work better than this screenplay. The adoptive mother in the novel is a Holocaust survivor, which obviously yields much more interesting character development for her and the daughter she adopts. And, with all due respect to Helen, she looks MUCH older than 39 in this movie. How old is she really? It's actually pretty hard to have sympathy for her, when she backslides into her failed marriage with Matthew Broderick while Colin Firth longs for her from the sidelines. Look, Ferris Bueller was cute, but he's no match for devastating Mr. Darcy.

Elinor Lipman wrote this novel, and of all of her books to turn into a film, this was not the best choice. I love her work, but it is usually too subtle for movies. Except for The Ladies' Man - now that has some really funny scenes and excellent one-liners. That novel could work as a movie.
There's so much chick-lit out there: The Spellman Chronicles by Lisa Lutz, Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination by Bridget Jones' author Helen Fielding, or nearly any of the Helen Wells books by Meg Cabot (so funny with a sexy heroine). Helen Fielding's Olivia Joules is hilarious, with a blockbuster climax as the Oscar ceremony receives a bomb threat. You'd think Hollywood would be all over this cameo-rich opportunity. But maybe they're afraid they'll give someone a bad idea. Seems like Helen Hunt got the bad idea with this one.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

French Bikini vs. American Bikini

Just watched a gorgeous film, Bonjour Tristesse. While it has a flimsy story, the cinematography is worth it. Set in the late 1950's on the French Riviera, the locations, the fashions, and the lovely French teenagers more than make up for the plot, which follows the summer adventure of a French girl and her morally casual father played by David Niven.

This is the French version of Gidget in my opinion. Although, they are two very different movies, both are quite in tune with teen desires and conflict. Strangely, it is the American Gidget who comes across as more mature, although certainly not more sophisticated. The simple plot of Bonjour Tristesse is driven by the temper tantrums of a lovely brat played by Jean Seberg, who is annoyed when her father's new fiance threatens her summer romance. Deborah Kerr, as daddy's new fiance, is quite startling: she plays a French fashion designer with remarkably strict moral guidelines. Who knew? Maybe way back in 1958, such things existed. Deborah Kerr's prudish fashionista was marvelously cast, as are all the roles. You can hardly blame our little teenagers: tiny bikinis, loads of free time, and you're FRENCH! Why wouldn't you make out in the sand?

While Bonjour Tristesse has the stereotypical European decadence, Gidget is the opposite. Little French teenager Cecile flunks her exams and takes her father's philandering in stride. All-American Gidget, however, makes surfing a skill and maintains high standards all day and far into those night-time parties.

And over the summer, wholesome, lovely Gidget works her magic, although she is completely unaware of it. Her natural innocence and girlishness is so attractive to these surfer dudes, they're inspired to do all the things they've forsworn in their beach-bum lifestyle: get jobs, go to law school, and be responsible citizens. Gidget inspires these losers to be MEN. Amazing. And she didn't even try to - it just happened.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Introducing MovieGirl - your full-service entertainment blog. Need movie suggestions? Let's face it, there are soooo many choices out there. So let's sort them out. I'll help!