Picks: Recommended Films
Over the Hedge. Dir. Tim Johnson. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this film. Any film that would feature an SUV smashing into a suburban McMansion has to be worth viewing. As usual, much of the humor seems meant more for adults than children. I enjoyed some of the in-jokes, and I also enjoyed the action that reminded me of some of the classic cartoons from the Warner Brothers era. For instance, one great scene shows the turtle and the raccoon being launched almost into outer space but then floating back—at first safely—until their improvised parachute vaporizes above them. That’s great comic timing. I loved the zaniness of the little squirrel, zipping one way and then the other. The jokes about his mania (and warnings about excessive caffeine consumption) also hit home. Then there is the basic plot of the boring turtle’s leadership being supplanted by the more exciting fast-food-nation values of the pesky raccoon. And then we have to add in the tricky sub-plot that explains why the raccoon is so interested in gathering food from the suburban households. Films like this one teach basic lessons to children (and adults, too), and yet the teaching is not preaching or didactic. I also loved the vocal talent of William Shatner, mostly because he was doing a parody of William Shatner! His opossum was one of the funniest characters in this menagerie. Then there is the outrageously funny moment when one of the little hedgehogs accidentally sits on the television remote in the living room of the McMansion and when the television comes on, we see the promo for the THX sound system. Lucas has to love that moment! There was just enough fast-paced humor to make the film worth viewing. Or the moment when one of the characters calls Stella the skunk and really holds that scream: “Stella!!!!” (Thank you, Tennessee Williaims). Just check out the memorable quotes from this film on the Internet Data Base. It is by no means a classic film, like Shrek or Shrek II, but I found it entertaining.
The Painted Veil. Dir. John Curran ( China, USA). Watching this film reminded me of many a Sunday evening watching Masterpiece Theater on PBS. The film was satisfying, but not fulfilling. Edward Norton may have been miscast as the insular husband who hatches a bizarre plan to get back at his own insecurities as much as to exact revenge upon his unfaithful wife. Norton has an edginess verging on malevolence in his voice, the look of his face, and his gestures. He was well-suited to play the magician in The Illusionist. But here he has little to do other than look grim and unfeeling and emotionally vacant. He did not persuade me that he was a character of the early 20 th century. The real gem of the piece is Naomi Watts, whose luminosity in her close-ups was reminiscent of great screen heroines from the 1930s and 1940s. She became her character and made me sympathize with her emotional and psychological states of mind. The film follows a straightforward parallel edited structure: comparing scenes of the couple’s trek into the interior of China in 1925 with their brief courting and marriage two years earlier in London. The key to these early scenes was the insight that this lovely woman is in all respects trapped as a woman in a male-dominated world. The film was like a feminist tract in a way. She finds out that she is not free; she marries for the wrong reason, she cheats on her husband because she is bored; and she does not understand that her actions have consequences. She always thought she was free—free not to marry, free to go where she wanted to go and be with people she wanted to be with. The first section of the film meanders along, but then comes the confrontation between husband and wife—when he announces that he is taking her with him into an area of China where a cholera epidemic has broken out. The cinematography of the lush karsts and rivers and villages in China was beautiful. The point of the second half of the film is to realize that the husband finds himself—as a man of healing—through his efforts to stop the cholera epidemic. Likewise, his wife finds herself as a woman of strength and dedication and purpose—something she would never have found if she had stayed within her circumscribed world of upper-class England. It was also a treat, by the way, to see Diana Rigg in a minor role as a Mother Superior in a convent orphanage. Also Toby Jones’ performance in a supporting role as an English bureaucrat is worthy of note. You can see where all of this is going: the two will fall in love with each other because each has found himself or herself. That love will be genuine—and you know that kind of love (that kind of movie love, you say) cannot last. Although the film does not go far beyond the conventions of such a story, it is a pleasant diversion. One question: I never understood the reason for the eponymous veil.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Dir. Gore Verbinksi. Disney has figured it out! What the kids want is a movie that is the same as a ride at Disneyland or any other theme park. We don’t want entertainment. We want a thrill ride, a roller coaster, a rhythm that is based upon a quick set-up (level ground and pulling uphill) and then a fast-paced climax (reaching the top and then roaring downward), and then to another set-up . . . well, you get the idea. I cannot think of a film that is as well-constructed as a theme-park ride than this one. Who cares about the overall plot? That’s not the point. What we have here is a series of carefully scripted segments, each of which lives on its own merits, and each of which ends with a wild chaotic ride (fasten your seat belts!) Satisfaction! This film satisfies the movie-goer’s need for simple entertainment. Nothing complicated. Just keep the thrills coming. It all started with the ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, in Disneyland. The last time I was there the ride was closed. I have to believe that the renovated ride will star a pirate that looks exactly like our Jack Sparrow hero of the films.
But then there is a force in this film that is practically inscrutable, and that force is the actor Johnny Depp. I do not think people realize what an acting genius he is. He makes his self-mocking-pirate-act look so easy as he swaggers through his role. But he is focused, concentrated on the revelation of his character, and oh, so right as this character. He is Jack Sparrow, and in almost every frame he appears in the film he is just about worth the price of admission. Keira Knightly, the poor girl, is as thin as a rail and can’t seem to emote unless her lips are in that pouty, slightly-separated, breathless kind of image of teenaged sexuality.
Unfortunately, the film also pays homage to the CGI guys who seem to get exactly what they want—thus driving up the budgets of films mercilessly. Can there be such a thing as too many special effects? Yes! That’s the problem! Oh, but don’t forget that there are ideas in this film. For instance, there is the eternal story of the estranged father-son relationship. Oh, how sad, how touching, how silly, how unbelievable. But you see, it’s all a theme park ride. Did you ever notice that rides are perfectly CONTROLLED. That swordfight on the water wheel? Notice that the water wheel must move on invisible tracks just below the surface, just like the boats on the ride The Pirates of the Caribbean. You have the illusion of randomness all about you—but there is no randomness on a ride. You move on carefully constructed tracks from points A to B to C—and everyone else follows the same path that you did. There is no creativity, no originality, no uniqueness of the human adventure. There is just a ride, and you are stuck on it. And in the case of this film, I wish the ride had ended at about 110 minutes max! Oh, but don’t forget that Jack Sparrow really has a heart. He is a good man at heart! He comes back to fight for truth, justice, and the Disney way!
Prairie Home Companion. Dir. Robert Altman. I confess that am not a regular listener of the radio show The Prairie Home Companion. I have read a few of Garrison Keillor’s books, and I am impressed with his storytelling ability. That skill stands at the heart of his screenplay for this film. If I had to assign credit to this film, I would say primary credit goes to Keillor and secondary credit goes to Altman. One critic complained that the screenplay (which roughly follows the last night’s performance of the radio program—because it is being closed down) was flawed because there was no monologue. That monologue, where Keillor begins with something like, “It was an interesting week in Lake Wobegon,” is—to me—the heart of that radio program. When I turn on the radio on a Saturday night and catch part of the monologue, I generally leave the station on and listen to Keillor’s resonant voice telling stories of the old Lutheran couples dealing with a variety of midlife crises. Sometimes his monologues are golden. I give him all the credit in the world for his writing ability and for his oral delivery of those stories. He is our Midwest Mark Twain. Now what I mean to say is that I did not really miss the monologue in the film because that would have ruined the effect of the film. This film is not really about the real Garrison Keillor and the real Prairie Home Companion. It’s about two versions of the real Garrison Keillor—one the shy and awkward and ineffectual host of a long-running radio program, and the other Keillor’s alter ego, Guy Noir (an ongoing character on the actual program), played with perfect pitch by Kevin Kline. Guy Noir is the smooth-talking and good-looking dark-haired private eye on the real program; here Keillor uses him as his narrator and a character who hangs about on the edges of the action (in the screenplay his work is head of security). Taking the real Garrison Keillor out of the center of the action opens that center for the all-star cast of characters. That’s where the artistry of Keillor and Altman merged. Altman made magic with the screenplay in scenes between Meryl Streep and Lily Tomlin. He used his trademark overlapping dialogue and he added an intriguing visual element with mirrors in several scenes. This was an easy to watch. The story was no big deal. But the scenes flowed easily one from the next, and there was an elegiac sensibility to much of the story. Things end. People die. Things change, and people have to deal with change. Sometimes the bad drives out the good. I wasn’t especially impressed with the tacked-on ending, but by that time I think the point had already been made.
The War Tapes. Dir. Deborah Scranton. An independent director gives a half dozen video cameras to a New Hampshire National Guard troop on their way to their deployment in Iraq in 2004. As one might suspect, their footage is not exceptional. But it is often gut-wrenching, because most of the time the war they document is a cross between boredom and madness. Three soldiers are featured. Two are more typically die-hard soldier types. The last, with a Lebanese ancestry, is the most articulate, the most educated, and the most frustrated by the course of the Iraqi war. What saves this documentary are the scenes of the home life of the women in these three men’s lives (two wives and one mother). That comparison between their stress and anxiety and the trials of the soldiers made the film meaningful to me. One of the three men, Sgt. Pink, has great ability as a writer. His letters home to his wife are articulate and moving. Sgt. Zack Bazzi is the one soldier (of the three) that I could see spending time with. I appreciated his critique of the war and his anger at the Bush Administration. He was my kind of guy. Specialist Moriarty was the most thick-headed of the three, the most gung-ho soldier, the one who most lusted for battle. At the same time, all three of them represented that blood lust that had been drilled into them in training. At one point one of the men complains that he was jealous that when his division entered Fallujah, after the house-to-house fighting by Marines, he had missed the battles that the Marines had experienced. He so envied those men that knew combat firsthand. But despite their gung-ho natures, it did not take the men long to begin to complain about the war in Iraq. Everyone of them could begin to see the errors that led to the stalemate. Some of the best parts of the film were images we have not seen on the nightly news: an equipment graveyard of American military vehicles, an Iraqi man burned to death in a car bombing, an Iraqi woman struck by a military vehicle on a fast-moving convoy (50 mph) and then run over repeatedly until her body was torn into several pieces, and Iraqis killed in the battle at Fallujah (and note that the soldier that filmed the dead bodies and made a commentary on tape got into trouble with his commanding officer). The Mountain Division was in Iraq for more than a year, and before they leave they finally experience combat firsthand. In fact, that scene begins the documentary—and then the director returns to that scene and makes it a climax of the film. When the firing begins, the camera flies in every possible direction. Although you can see little, you can hear everything, and the chaotic images nicely represent the chaos of the combat. One of the men in the division is wounded (his leg cut up badly). That combat began out of nowhere, just as the soldier videotaping was carping about how much action the Marines saw compared to them. It was in the lull of that moment that all hell breaks loose. After the deployment ends the men are sent home to a big celebration, and then suddenly you see a soldier on the sofa at home with his wife on one side and their little boy on his lap, and you realize that these guys are not given sufficient time to decompress from combat. The first thing that strikes home is that at least two of them are suffering big time from post traumatic stress disorder. And just imagine if these guys had been the Marines that had engaged in combat in Fallujah over a period of several weeks. What are their lives like when they come home? The film ends by updating the post-deployment lives of the three men. Those scenes round out this film and make us think about the price of this war on our population. These men were numbed by their experience, and yet two of the three are thinking about rejoining the Guard when their time is up. A good documentary leaves you with many questions unanswered—and that’s the case here.
We Are Marshall. Dir. Joseph McGinty Nichol. Yes, the film was riddled with conventions, hokey plot twists, stereotypical characters, and over-the-top acting—but it worked for me. In this case, Mathew McConaughey’s tendency for chewing the scenery was an appropriate approach to the material. He was well-suited to the role of an outsider who comes to this West Virginia city and resuscitates the football program. I loved the way he talked out of the side of his mouth. He was a big teddy bear of a guy and seemed to fit the role perfectly. There was good supporting work by David Strathairn, who plays the president of the university. That actor has a gift for acting small but emoting large. He pays attention to the details of the acting craft, and he has a gift for projecting vulnerability and yet an inner strength. Then there was the story of the cheerleader, whose boyfriend (the star quarterback) died in the crash. I appreciated the way her plot line developed, and it was one of the most surprising and satisfying resolutions in the film. Let’s face it—a film like this is about resolution. When a plane crash takes almost the entire team and all the coaches, then the grief work has to be immense. I think the film is adept at ticking off each of the major turning points for the new coaches, the townspeople, the students at the university, and even for the heavy in the film, the richest man in town and the most influential athletic booster, played by Ian McShane. This is by no means a great film, but one that was satisfying emotionally in many of the right places.