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?

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Older Women Make Great Movies

We've come a long way, baby - all the way to 1974. That's the conclusion I've come to after seeing The Women, the 2008 re-make of the 1939 classic. But this movie, supposedly celebrating women, just drags out the same old tired rant I've been hearing since I was 4 years old: don't invest your life in love, marriage, and family. That sentimental cliche is just a trap devised by the patriarchy. Talk about an old movie!

1939's film The Women was rich with sharp observations, sly dialogue, and fun-to-watch bad girl behavior. With Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell in a sparkling Anita Loos screenplay, this classic is still hysterical. If you love vintage fashion and art nouveau design, you won't be disappointed. So the new version with Meg Ryan, Annette Benning, Eva Mendez, and Debra Messing, seemed to offer wit, dishy insults, and plush Manhattan views. But these Women miss the whole point of the classic Women, with its focus on female relationships, and then add insult to injury by adding a dated feminist slant complete with self-esteem jargon.

The original film's trailer said, "it's all about women." And it was - their real behavior, good and bad. I'm rather tired of the martyred heroine in so many movies. You know the one, the good and dutiful wife dumped by her husband who somehow rises above the mess to be an amazing mother and a career success. At the end of the movie she falls in love with Harry Connick, Jr. There are other stories out there, and the original Women showed the story of relationships women form with each other. Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine showed us the prudent advice women give each other, the self-serving help that they offer, the delusions women have, and how they "get wise" to themselves. While the original movie's storyline does follow a marriage's demise due to infidelity, that's not the focus of the film.

What bothers me most of all about 2008's The Women isn't how it misses the big point of the original, which was a realistic portrayal of women, as daughters, mothers, and friends. It's how dated and untrue this movie's central theme is: that men and marriage limit women, keep women from the only success that matters, success in the workplace. Because according to Candace Bergen being a mother makes a woman "a failure." Devoting yourself to your family and eschewing a career shortchanges you and your children. This attitude along with the self-esteem touched on in the film really sets us back. For all the lip service to "female empowerment" and positive body image, this movies gives us the typical Hollywood ideal of supermodel-thin bodies and fashion. One of the characters, a darling little twelve-year-old says she "hates her body," so she gets the pep talks about valuing her true self. Then we see her grandma go in for a facelift. Meg Ryan, don't you see the irony?

The Women, from 1939, shows us what women really are with style and wit. The latest version re-made with a tired feminist agenda is doomed. It's far more out-of-fashion than the original.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Pessimism in the Movies and How to Stop It

Okay, I made a big, big, BIG mistake. I watched the movie Blindness. It's one of those disaster-style movies, but these days the disasters, like in The Hot Zone or 28 Days Later, are deadly diseases. This disaster's in the title. For no apparent reason, people start going blind, instantly. So all the blind people are quarantined by the terrified public and helpless medical community. Then it turns into a concentration camp-style movie, where we get to see how depraved people really are. Ugh. Dreadful movie.

But what do you do when you get this garbage in your head? How do erase the images? You watch a better movie, something clever, with humor and style. Watch a movie that you make you glad you watch movies. I have a couple of suggestions: The Young Visiters and My Family and Other Animals. Both of these are charming, funny, but with sincere sympathy for the human being. These are movies about beauty and love.

The Young Visiters is a story written by a young English girl. It recounts the adventures of Mr. Salteena as he falls in love and seeks to win the hand of Miss Ethel. With Hugh Laurie, Jim Broadbent, and Bill Nighy, this Victorian fairy tale pokes fun at English social-climbing. Mr. Salteena knows he must "better" himself, put himself "on the right side of the blanket," to impress the pretty and snobby Miss Ethel. Try as he might, he may never succeed. Presented as a children's story, the film keeps all the innocence of its nine-year-old writer, while sweetly demonstrating the shallowness and injustice of that world.

My Family and Other Animals recounts the biography of Gerald Durrell, a zoologist. His English family relocated to Corfu, a Greek isle, for a short time in his childhood. Young Gerald spends all his time exploring the countryside, collecting a wide and varied zoo of creatures of all kinds. His eccentric family of his widowed mother, two brothers, and his sister all pursue their interests as well. One brother writes, another hunts, and his sister collects boys as Gerald does animals. This all occurs in the brief happy days before World War II, when Greece was invaded by Mussolini's fascists, then the Nazi's, then the Marxists. But what an idyll they spent, of sun washed beaches, warm, welcoming neighbors, and enough adventure for a lifetime.

While it may seem as though I am encouraging movie lovers to watch only sweet, pleasant movies and avoid the harsh reality of gritty truth, make no mistake. Films based on horrific historical events can be amazing and thrilling, while also being compassionate to humanity. And when there are already so many real-life examples of man's horror to his fellow man, why would a movie-maker make up a dreadful, new scenario that demonstrates how evil humans can be to each other? It seems to all be part of a world view, be it pessimistic and hateful or confident and sympathetic. I know which side of that comparison I'm on. Which side are you on?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Everything I Know, I Learned From Movie Trailers

This summer's movies stretch as far down the block as the local multiplex. You've got the fun family flicks (Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs); blockbuster action movies (Transformers 2 and GI Joe); and lots of comedy (Easy Virtue and The Invention of Lying). Here's a look at a few of our choices.

Pixar's latest, Up, was one of the first children's movies released this summer. It hasn't lived up to the reputation of its predecessors, but it promises eye-popping graphics and child-friendly humor. Based loosely on the children's book, Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs promises even better graphics and, as seen in the title, an attractive whimsy. The latest in the Harry Potter franchise is released this week. The hype is amazing - almost makes me want to see the movie. But after seeing the first one and most of the second, I couldn't figure it out. Why is this so popular? You can tell me about the Half-Blood Prince.

Transformers 2, continuing last summer's surprise success, has raked in lots of dough. I hope this one is as good as the last one. A simple, yet compelling story, excellent casting, and those Michael Bay-trademark special effects are a must. But little things mean a lot. Small touches, such as patriotism, devoted parents, and smart girls, bring the brainless action movie into the area of great movie, memorable movie. The newest Star Trek, for example, fell short of this. It seems hard to believe that another movie starring a favorite toy is also out this summer. GI Joe looks quite fantastic, according to the trailer, but it doesn't seem quite faithful to the old ideal. This new GI Joe becomes government issue with a super-soldier suit. Does this sound like fun to you?

Easy Virtue, set in the roaring 1920's, is based on an Oscar Wilde play. Jessica Biel plays a glamorous, reckless American who impetuously marries into British nobility. Kristen Scott Thomas and Colin Firth, as her in-laws, show her the error of her ways. Looks like a great cast, but I am a sucker for witty costume dramas. What would life be like if everyone told the truth right to your face? The Invention of Lying will let us in on that world. The Office co-creator Ricky Gervais wrote and starred in this comedy. With Jennifer Garner, Tina Fey, and Rob Lowe in the mix, looks like Gervais is finally getting somewhere. His brand of comedy, while hysterical, is tough for some to see.

Hope this short look at what's coming up helps you sort out your entertainment. Have a great summer going to the movies!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Star Trek Revisited

Recently released as a summer action blockbuster, Star Trek has a lot to live up to. It's famous fictional characters, it's conflicts, and fake aliens created a culture that has entertained several generations of fans. Star Trek was such an iconic show that became it's own genre, generating countless sequels and copies. But remaking it all over again - should we really?

In this new movie, the characters of Spock, Captain Kirk, and Uhura are filled out with very attractive new actors. The casting of Simon Pegg as engineer Scotty was inspired. The venerable Sulu and McCoy were also cast well, but Anton Yelchin's Chekhov was a disappointment. Eric Bana plays the Romulan bad guy, Nero, which is perfect. Something about that guy makes him suitable only for being disliked.

Having only a passing knowledge of the original series, this new version of an old T.V. show worked well for me. For die-hard Trekkies or Trekkers, I suspect it has too many holes. The plot is rather flimsy. But the movie has an great, glitzy look. It seems bright, shiny, and wide-open. Unlike the claustrophobic, overly carpeted stage set from the original show, this movie looks like outer space. The lighting is so unusual, with flashes, reflections, and varying colors of roaming beams of light.

Star Trek is almost good, close to perfect for the brainless summer action movie. But the movie, like it's plot, doesn't leave you with anything really memorable. Blockbuster action, glamorous cast, and good effects - these only get you so far. The story ended with the sequel set-up, so maybe that will take us all the way there, all the way to perfect summer movie land. So far, this Star Trek doesn't take us "where no man has gone before."

Sunday, May 17, 2009

17 Again

Zac Efron was made into a white-hot movie star by Disney in the assorted High School Musical movies. His latest film, 17 Again, was primarily aimed at his 'tween fans, but was surely seeking the approval of older teens and parents. As far as the teen crowd, I doubt it worked too well. But with parents, I imagine this sweet, squeaky-clean depiction of high school and family life scores highly.

17 Again focuses on the long-term effects of teen sex and unplanned pregnancy. Matthew Perry, aged 35 or so, resents his family commitments and has become estranged from his wife and kids. His life was ruined, he thinks, when he married his high school sweetheart because she was pregnant. Zac Efron plays the teenaged Matthew Perry when Perry gets his wish to be 17 Again. I wasn't sure what to expect from cutie-pie Efron. But he can actually act, and this movie was pretty funny. Thanks to Thomas Lennon (from cable comedy show Reno 911), there's a lot of laughs.

The big surprise in this film is the connection made between sex and babies. When he's in health class on condom day, Efron's character gives a speech about love, sex, and having a family. The movie Juno made a splash with it's teen character dealing realistically with pregnancy, but did anyone ever use the word "love?" I can't think of any movie aimed at teens in recent years that mentions love, sex, and babies together in the whole script, let alone one monologue. Efron's speech is so touching that several teen classmates refuse the offered condoms.

Actually, adult Perry's life isn't that bad: mid-level corporate job, nice house, pretty wife, and healthy kids. So another twist in this movie is that teen pregnancy doesn't look that bad from the distance of a decade or so. Watching this movie, one might even conclude that teens getting married when they're in love and pregnant isn't the worst fate in the world. Considering the general acceptance of abortion in these cases, I'm surprised this movie came together like it did. Considering all the outrage aimed at young Bristol Palin, isn't the politically correct choice an abortion?

By taking a traditional look at teens and marriage, 17 Again offers an alternative take on the subject. Thankfully, Zac Efron makes it pretty hip. After all, this movie was #1 for several weeks, wasn't it? Looks like being traditional is back with Zac.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


Duplicity, with Clive Owen and Julia Roberts, is a fun thriller masquerading as a romantic comedy. With such smart dialogue, amazing plot twists, and real chemistry between the leads, this is better than anything starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Throw in corporate intrigue and steal-the-show supporting acting by Paul Giamatti, and you have one of the best date movies in a long while.

Together with a truly unpredictable story line, there is the unforeseeable romantic dilemma: international spies have troubled relationships. One of the nice little surprises in Duplicity is seeing how secret agents manage being a dual career couple. Just like the typical ambitious couple, they have to commute between New York and...Cleveland. Those marital negotiations, along the lines of, "but I thought we would discuss it before you took the job," are mixed right in with the champagne and espionage. All of the trust issues normal couples have are magnified here, since this man and woman are trained in deception and charm. None of it would work, however, if Clive Owen and Julia Roberts fell flat. They don't. Their flirting and playfulness generate real heat, which is strangely rare in many romantic movies.

Another surprise in this film is the peek into corporate intrigue, with ex-CIA agents and hackers filling out the security staff. The business here is the personal care industry, with secret toothpaste recipes and guarded shampoo formulas. Do you know the difference between hand lotion and hand cream? Because they're really very different, according to the CEO played by Paul Giamatti. This apparently cut-throat industry requires not only anti-perspirant conferences and lipstick presentations, but bodyguards, doubles, and moles. Giamatti's glee in this role is obvious, and his portrayal of this confrontational executive is lots of fun to watch.

After dragging your guy to recent date movies, he may refuse to ever go again. Ask him to give you one more chance. Take him to see Duplicity, a romantic comedy that guys can bear to watch.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The New Ferris Bueller

This is the way it works: parents are always such a mess, the kids are raising themselves and there's no one to help when you feel depressed, get pounded by the school bully, become suicidal, sexually active, and need help to quit smoking, too. Considering how dreadful life is as a teen, how fraught with disaster family life is, how miserable school culture is, it's no wonder teens need Prozac, Ritalin, Xanax, Paxil, or even a few beers now and then. Along comes Charlie Bartlett, kicked out of most of New England's prep schools, to the local public high school. Charlie's wealthy family has a psychiatrist on call, so Charlie knows more than most about your general psychological troubles and is willing to prescribe drugs from his own medicine chest, well-supplied by his own doctors.

More than anything Charlie wants to be popular, to fit in, to be accepted. And apparently this is just one scheme in a long line of schemes to be well-liked by his peers. This one only lasts until the first overdose. But it does get Charlie the popularity he's dreamed of. The young and appealing actor, Anton Yelchin, plays Charlie quite well, just a touch short of annoying child star. Whether Yelchin was a child star, I don't know. But he is very talented here, and it's refreshing to see this generation-next Ferris Bueller played by an obvious teenager, not a 22-year-old. Robert Downey, Jr., plays the principal you really feel pity for, especially as Charlie does him the favor of keeping his school in order. For the first time I can remember, this film makes the teenager's worst enemy, the high school principal, one of the most sympathetic characters you'll ever meet.

Now that we've mentioned the famous Mr. Bueller, we might as well go into the parallels here. Although the original had a great deal of style and whimsy, we were all in on the joke. Charlie Bartlett comes across as a more realistic Ferris Bueller, with more realistic problems than just wanting a nicer car to drive. And real life is never so clean as suburban Ferris was: on occasion, real kids have divorced parents with alcoholism. Remember now how sweet Ferris and his family were? I remember the adults hating Ferris Bueller, because let's face it, he was an annoying snot of a kid. And his Day Off made parents look like idiots, teachers like droning bores, and turned principals into sadistic fools. But think of how innocent it was: no booze, no drugs, no sex. Ferris had a happy family life with two happily married parents who adored him. And what did Ferris do when he skipped school? He went to an art museum, a baseball game, and joined a parade.

Charlie Bartlett is in many ways the typical American high school-themed movie. The misfit teenager desperate to find popularity, clueless parents, bullies, jocks, the sexy smart girl as the love interest - how to sort them all out? But this funny movie manages to make it through, manages to make sense of it a little bit.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Life and Loss in the Suburbs

Henry Poole decides to give up. He moves into his old neighborhood and drinks himself unconscious. Even though it seems that Henry has no reason left to try, God is not finished with Henry yet. One of Henry's neighbors, a devout woman named Esperanza, discovers the face of Christ in a water stain on Henry's stucco wall.

At first, this is just exasperating to Henry, played by Luke Wilson. But this is just the crack God needs to squeeze back into Henry's world. First Henry meets the little girl next door, Millie, who suffers from abandonment and has stopped speaking. The parallels drawn between Henry and Millie reveal the crux of Henry's problem. He, too, suffered loss as a child and has never been quite whole since. You feel that the diagnosis that causes him to withdraw is just part of the same story of life letting him down, of God forgetting about him. Henry even has a safe space he created as a child, just like little Millie with the same kind of childish scribblings. But you find out that God hasn't forgotten about Henry, as much as Henry has tried to deny God and His power. Henry was drawn back to this neighborhood for a reason: here he meets people who care more about him than he cares about himself.

While a bit slow-moving and uneven, the subtle sweetness of this movie along with the charming cast save it. I enjoyed the sun-drenched California suburban location. It added to the reality of the characters and the story. Real lives are like this, with stories of loss and healing. The soundtrack is great, too, being rather alternative and folksy. I think there's even a new Bob Dylan recording in this film.

This film wasn't a big release and would never have been a big money-maker. Still, with a little help, it could have found a receptive audience, an audience that knows faith makes a difference and God leads us to healing.

Friday, February 20, 2009

A Feminine War

Why, oh why, do guys go to see obvious chick movies? I read a review of Bride Wars written by a man, and he got it sooo wrong. Bride Wars is the story of two best friends played by Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson. Friends since childhood, they have both long dreamed of the same version of a perfect wedding: at New York's Plaza in June. But this movie isn't really about the weddings these two girls plan. All the wedding details, just like the clothes and shoes in Sex & the City, are just set dressing for a movie about women.

The male reviewer griped and groaned about how this movie makes women look bad by stereotyping them. But the funny thing is, girls do act this way. They freak out when old resentments bubble up and they can't contain them anymore. They know each other's sore spots and try to hit them. They people-please and have a hard time saying no to requests, even if they don't like the person making the request. Look, I'm not saying girls have only bad qualities. I'm a girl, too. But girls act more like girls because they're girls.

This film is really about the way women relate to each other. The contrast between the girls' fiances is telling: neither guy can figure out what the problem is. But one guy is exasperated by it, and the other guy just lets it go. So the second guy is the smart one. I only wish the reviewer I read had been so smart.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

All the President's Sophomores

Just the idea of two giggly teenage girls bringing down the Nixon administration is enough to make you smile. That they also stumbled across the Watergate break-in, ended the war in Vietnam, and negotiated peace accords between the US and the Soviet Union will really make you laugh. But you have to watch the movie Dick with All the President's Men in mind. If you haven't seen the President's Men, the jokes won't be nearly as funny.

All the President's Men tells the story of the two reporters who discovered the conspiracy behind the Watergate break-in. Don't be fooled - it's actually not the story of Richard Nixon and his minions. It's not about the conspiracy and you don't learn the details of the Watergate break-in. It's an homage to those leftist idols, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, whose fame (as they say) "launched a 1000 journalism majors."

With Dick, I don't know what was more fun: seeing boomer icons Woodward and Bernstein lampooned or seeing Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams play 15 year old girls with such silly accuracy. The bright and witty screenplay, the amazing recreation of circa 1972 Washington, D.C., and a loveable Nixon just add to the loony fun. C'mon, when have you ever seen Richard M. Nixon, disgrace of the Republican party (still!), portrayed with sympathy? Make no mistake, Nixon is presented here with all of his paranoia, evil machinations in play, and foul temper, but he's still likeable enough that cute little Arlene (Michelle Williams) develops a mega-crush for him. There's nothing as attractive as power, even when you're Dick Nixon.

One of sweetest aspects of this film is the innocence of these two girls. Even though they're in high school, they are quite wholesome. As the crass title informs, there are several adults-only jokes here. But the goofy portrayals of Woodward (Will Farrell), Bernstein, Nixon, and even Kissinger will make up for it.

This revisionist look at the political climate of the 1970's, the decade that created so many cynics, makes you wish it was all true. You wish Betsy and Arlene really had destroyed the Nixon administration with their Hello Dolly snack bars.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ghost Town

Ricky Gervais is famous for his comedic innovation. After creating the British television show The Office with Stephen Merchant, he brought his seemingly real, slightly uncomfortable sense of humor to American viewers with the same show, starring Steve Carrell. In Ghost Town, Gervais brings his uneasy wit to the movie screen.

Ghost Town is a romantic comedy of a sort. Gervais plays a dentist, Bertram Pincus, who is a classic misanthrope. He spends his time avoiding human interaction and prefers his own company. After a routine hospital procedure, he dies briefly. He goes about his normal life, abrasive and unfriendly, but he is inundated with visitors, visitors from the other side of life. That is, visitors from death, or ghosts.

You wonder, after seeing Gervais in The Office, how much of his work is acting. He's probably really that big of a jerk. His character from television, officer manager David Brent, is unlikeably real and creates such awkwardness the show can be as off-putting as his character. It's a mishmash of reality television and situation comedy, with it's jostling single camera and hard to discern plot. But in Ghost Town, Gervais exudes that same off-putting attitude, although with much more confidence. And at the same time, you are charmed by his unhappiness, his loneliness. That's what you never saw with his David Brent character. Brent is self-centered and self-serving out of sheer neediness, but you never sympathize with him. You can't stand him. The vulnerability and subtlety in Ghost Town is the real surprise and gift of the film.

And Ricky Gervais isn't the only actor bringing you that gift. Tea Leoni, as his neighbor, and Greg Kinnear, as the ghost of her dead husband, also work so well in this film. Tea Leoni, I think, is vastly underrated. I can only think of a few movies she's been in, like Spanglish and, way back there, Family Man. I can't even think of another one. Why? She's so talented at presenting the funny side of her character, and then revealing with sensitivity, the unhappiness that lies beneath. I think you'll wonder why she doesn't get more work in Hollywood.

One last aspect of this little film is its soundtrack. So rarely does the soundtrack seem to complement a movie well. And this film, funny and bittersweet, would be challenging to score. Thankfully, the music here has a quiet, charming tone just like its film.

Ghost Town offers so much more than the usual romantic comedy. If you want a silly, over-the-top, mainstream romantic comedy, this isn't it. But if want a funny, insightful comedy for adults, you may like this one.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Sister Bunny

The House Bunny seems like a simple, funny, sexy movie. The idea was that a Playboy Bunny meets a group of nerdy college girls and they improve each other. The Bunny develops her mind and the college girls develop their femininity. Laughs, a little sap, and some sexy Playboy Bunnies should make for a light-hearted film. But it all goes deeper than that.

My heart was broken during the opening titles. Turns out the Bunny, played by Anna Farris, was abandoned at birth and grew up in an orphanage. She longs for a home and family. And when she becomes a beauty contestant at 17 and catches the attention of the Playboy corporation, she thinks she's found the family she always wanted. And the bunnies do seem like friends or sisters, shopping together, getting manicures, and dancing at parties. Right away, the filmmakers want to show how shallow and empty the Bunny's ambitions are. All she wants is to be Miss November. So far all she's done are pictorials, like Girls with GEDs. The filmmakers want you to get the message that beauty and a socially acceptable appearance are rather empty, and what matters is the content of your soul. But when you make a movie in concert with Hugh Hefner and his corporation, that message doesn't really stand a chance.

Of course the pretty Bunny is not only beautiful and sexy, but she's kind, open-minded, and innocent in a way. Which is quite a feat for a girl who showers with the photographer before her photo shoot. When she's kicked out of the Playboy Mansion for being too old, she lands near a sorority house full of misfit girls who are very smart but very dumb when it comes to social skills and push-up bras. So she gives them lessons in party-planning, cosmetics application, and how to wear revealing clothing. And they teach her how to read. The most important lesson she teaches them, of course, is about friendship, acceptance, and sisterly support. What matters most to Bunny, after all, is finding a home with a loving family. And she insists that that's what she had at Hefner's mansion.

It struck me was that, yes, those girls living at the Playboy Mansion probably do support each other. But not while picking out halter tops at the mall. Centerfolds already know how to look pretty sexy. And that can do wonders for your career, but what about your life? Seems to me that those Playboy Mansion shenanigans could wreck havoc with that. After spending time in the orgy room or hottubbin' in the grotto, what might happen? And this is where friends come in. You need your sister bunny's support when she has to take you to the clinic for another pregnancy scare or to pick up a prescription for another infection.

When you follow this train of thought, you begin to hope The House Bunny was right. You hope life for the Playboy Bunnies is full of real love, love that lasts, the love of good friends. I suspect they need it.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Find the Entertainment

In the recent past, if I missed a show, I had to wait until the summer re-runs. Or if there was some old black and white movie from the 1940's that I wanted to see, I was out of luck. Recently, I could just go to my library. Luckily, the local library makes all the hot dvds available for free. Or lots of shows, like The Office or Lost, issue dvd sets with each new season. Right now, we don't even have to wait that long. We can catch whatever we missed streaming over the internet, via the network website, hulu, or other sites.

I've even watched some shows on youtube. They'll be broken into 10 or 15 minute chunks, but they still work fine. Usually, I only resort to this with something that is really hard to obtain, like BBC sit-coms (Murder Most Horrid) or PBS shorts (Posh Nosh).

Some shows I just love to re-visit, like Arrested Development or The Tick. I can watch those instantly on or Netflix. By the way, I don't understand how The Office can be such a big hit, when Arrested Development barely made it. Arrested Development is almost a hybrid, between the typical family-centered sit-com and the fake documentary-style TV show, like what we see in The Office. And even The Office wasn't the first to do this. Before The Office(British or American), there was People Like Us, also from England. It was part of the late-night British sit-com lineup for PBS here.

If you want, you can even buy lots of these shows. Absolutely Fabulous or Black Adder are both hard to find, unless you purchase the dvd sets.

There you are: lots of suggestions for entertaining time-wasters. Here, I'll get you started. This link takes you to a bit of People Like Us on youtube.