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!