Monthly Archives: January 2009

movie log: Dear Frankie (2004)

Viewed last night: Dear Frankie; directed by Shona Auerbach, starring Emily Mortimer, Jack McElhone, and Gerard Butler, including support from Mary Riggans and Sharon Small.

I’d had this on my want-to-see list for quite some time. We borrowed it from the Manchester (NH) Library as a candidate for viewing on New Year’s Eve but didn’t get to it that night; I finally did about a week later. I’m definitely glad to have done so.

I can’t talk much about this movie without revealing more plot elements than I’d usually like (I generally figure that things that happen close to the beginning of the film are fair game, as are parts of the story that are used to promote the film). I won’t go too far, but if you’d prefer not to risk it, stop now.

The movie opens with Lizzie (Emily Mortimer), her son Frankie (Jack McElhone), and her mother Nell (Mary Riggans) quickly leaving their home, making a sudden move to a new one. We get the idea that this happens frequently; that the family is accustomed to packing up and moving at a moment’s notice, for reasons as yet unknown. The family moves into their new apartment in Glasgow, and when Frankie goes to pick up some lunch at a shop nearby we learn that he is deaf. However it’s clear from his encounter at the shop and from his entrance into grade school the next day (or soon thereafter) that he’s not diminished by his handicap. And indeed the movie is not about Frankie as a deaf child as much as it is about Frankie and his other figurative voice.

Frankie’s other voice is used in his letters to his father, who he is told is away on a ship at sea. In reality this is a ruse invented by Lizzie to keep him believing in the existence and worth of his father. From time to time she picks up Frankie’s letters at a drop box and writes back to him in the guise of this fictional father.

Eventually it seems that the ruse has to end. Frankie learns from a new school chum that a ship with the same name as his fictional father’s fictional ship is due to arrive in Glasgow. He makes a bet with this other boy that his father will be coming to see him practice football. Lizzie’s hard decision is to hire a stranger to play the role of father for a day and keep the lie going.

Somewhere around the middle of the film I found it more than a little disquieting to think about what the mother was doing to her child. She was giving him a lie to believe in, and making him act out a fantasy that would, it seemed to me, be harder and harder on him the longer it was kept up. And yet as the movie progressed and we find out more about the circumstances that have led to this, and with an almost-satisfying ending the disquiet eased somewhat. Still, a movie doesn’t have to make me happy or make me approve of the protaganist: it just has to be a good story and be well told. This one is. Each turn of events is new and captivating, encountering and revealing serious material while remaining warmly and often deeply personal. There are stand-out performances all around.

Oddly, there were some elements in this movie that had parallels in the previous film that I saw (“Off the Black”, which I blogged about here. These are not ordinary things to be found in movies, either, so the coincidence was pretty striking. I won’t say more; if you happen to see both movies maybe you’ll notice them too.

movie log: Off the Black (2006)

Viewed two nights ago (January 5, 2009): Off the Black, directed by James Ponsoldt, starring Nick Nolte and Trevor Morgan, and including support by Timothy Hutton and Sonia Feigelson.

The movie opens with a close-up of Dave Tibbel (played by Trevor Morgan) pitching in a game of baseball in some unspecified teenage league. After some deliberation, he throws his pitch, which is called a game-ending ball four by umpire Ray Cook (Nick Nolte). From immediate fan and player reactions we learn that this is a controversial call that ends play-off hopes for the losing team. Several of the players, including Dave Tibbel, react by vandalizing Ray’s house that night. Ray catches just Dave in the act, and he makes Dave promise to come back and work on undoing the damage and mischief that was done. Thus begins a relationship between Ray, an aging man with health problems who spends much of his time drinking, and Dave, your typical good-hearted movie teenager with problems of his own.

This is what you would call a quiet movie, about the relationship that builds between these two men. Each has difficult family and personal situations that are tapped into to some degree, but not completely explored. That’s OK: not every piece of background has to be explained in detail; we learn little bits about each character as the characters themselves learn them. In fact that’s one of the idioms of this movie. Things happen or are encountered or mentioned, but often there are no attempts to completely explore them, no speeches of exposition, no flashbacks to fill us in. I think this is a fine way of dealing with the idea of things that simply exist, that are important to the characters, and that flesh out the story without getting us tangled up in them. Sometimes this is a bit confusing, until you realize that we don’t really need to know every detail, much as the characters don’t often know details about each other.

There is an odd development as Ray asks Dave to do him a particularly unusual favor, and the ending of the movie provides a poignant twist and a meaning to the title.

I had not heard of this movie before I stumbled upon it, and I watched it mainly because its description mentioned baseball, Nick Nolte, and Timothy Hutton. Good call, I think; it was one of the types of movie that I particularly enjoy: deliberately (I hate to say “slowly”) paced with attention on characters and interactions.

I should note that Timothy Hutton as Dave’s father and, particulary, Sonia Feigelson as Dave’s sister both do excellent jobs.

movie log: Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)

Seen last night: Charlie Wilson’s War directed by Mike Nichols and starring Tom Hanks, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julia Roberts.

Based on a book by George Crile, this tells the based-on-a-true story of Congressman Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks) and his successful campaign – along with help and inspiration from Texas matron Joanne Herring (Julia Roberts) and CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman) – to fund Afghanis who are resisting the Soviet invasion of the early 1980s. The movie successfully uses a lighthearted touch when addressing its main characters’ flaws (and there are many, especially with Wilson) and a more heavy one with its serious subject matter, making this political story into a very interesting, thought-provoking, yet humorous film. The actors play their parts to a T, and there are many fine supporting roles including one by Amy Adams as Wilson’s chief administrative assistant.

movie log: The Dark Knight (2008)

Viewed last night: The Dark Knight directed by Christopher Nolan, starring Christian Bale and Heath Ledger, and featuring many others including Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Nestor Carbonell, and Eric Roberts.

There’s not a lot for me to say here, because actually there is a lot — if I were to start down that road I might never stop. So I’ll just make a few basic comments. This is a followup to the excellent Batman Begins from 2005. That movie set a pretty high bar for entertainment, and if anything this one exceeds it. In this film Batman, Gotham city’s vigilante antihero of the night, starts to believe that the battle against lawlessness is nearing a point where he is no longer needed, and where the forces of law and order that operate in the open (in daylight, as it were) can take over. DA Harvey Dent appears to be a strong heroic champion who can lead the way. But along comes the Joker, an engine of chaos and disorder, who just might spoil this promising vision.

That capsule summary only touches on what there is to find here. This is not just a two-way battle between Batman and the Joker, between good and evil, order and disorder. There are many agents acting in this story, and they each tug it and move it along towards its end.

An excellent film; I look forward to seeing it again. By the way, everyone mentions Heath Ledger’s excellent performance as the Joker – and I can’t resist either, I agree. But I don’t believe that he carries the film: the film carries itself. Ledger’s performance is an added treat.

movie log: I am Legend (2007)

I am Legend viewed last night. Directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith, with support by Salli Richardson and Alice Braga. Based on a novel by Richard Matheson that has been filmed a number of times before, the most famous probably being 1971’s The Omega Man starring Charleton Heston and which featured a memorable performance by Anthony Zerbe.

Will Smith plays Robert Neville, a doctor who is trying to cure the virus that has turned 95% of the people on Earth into mindless creatures who have feasted on most of those that remained immune. The poor infected souls are sensitive to UV light (that’s an understatement: UV light kills them), so they only come out at night. Neville may not be the only man left on Earth, but he might as well be. He stayed in New York City while most were abandoning it, thinking that this is where he can find a cure. He goes out in the day with his German Shepherd dog Sam to hunt and explore, while at night barricading in a location that he is careful not to let the creatures discover. After some time at this Neville has gone a bit loopy, as can be seen by his attempt to fulfill a promise to his dog and work up the nerve to speak to a mannequin that he has placed in a video rental store.

Neville’s loopiness aside (and thankfully it’s only a minor filmatic touch), there are a few excellent aspects of this movie. They are, unfortunately, countered by some flaws, but we’ll get to those shortly. The scenes of a largely deserted New York City, with plant growth sprouting through the pavement and deer and other wildlife running wild, are extremely well done and are worth the price of admission, as are flashback scenes of the city being abandoned. Smith’s acting is top-notch, to a degree that I hadn’t seen before (no, I haven’t yet seen “Ali”).

Unfortunately there are those flaws. After about the dozenth startle-cut in the first 30 minutes, I was about ready to give up. Every quiet focused moment seemed to be a set-up for an abrupt noisy one; each such sequence, I guess, designed to give an artificial thrill. What I got was annoyance. And then let’s talk about the human zombies, the victims of the virus. Here the movie suffers from a trap that seems to catch way too many filmmakers. When so trapped, creators of a movie are not content to build a story from its basic structure elements, elements that ought to support a film on their own. But no, things need to be bigger, faster, louder. Somehow, somewhere, somebody gets the idea that, e.g., a small-town police story could be so much better if only there were aliens from outer space behind the crime.
For various reasons I think of this as “The Dragnet Syndrome.”

In I am Legend, this trap manifests itself in several ways. The idea of zombified human creatures of the dark is not enough; they have to roar with great synthetic studio power. Their motions defy laws of physics, and they apparently have hardened skulls that can smash through steel, muscles that can tear apart buildings, all the while triggering the best, loudest sounds that Hollywood can offer. To be fair, I don’t know how much of this was in the book, but if it was, why not improve upon it? The movie has some lesser problems of plausibility as well that can trick you into thinking about them if you aren’t careful, but I can generally live with that kind of thing. It’s the impossible excesses thrust in your face that are hard to ignore.

The film also fails to make any attempt to explore what could be interesting reflections and parallels between the humans and the zombies, something that helped make the 1971 version somewhat memorable. And was there something in the book that made sense of the title, “I am Legend?” There was an attempt to explain it here in this film, but I’m afraid I didn’t buy it.

So bottom line: great visuals and great acting spoiled by annoying presentation. Worth seeing, except that you then see how good it could have been.

movie log: Eagle vs Shark (2007)

Next up on the NYEve movie slate (and last, as it turns out; we only got 2 movies in over a 9-hour period) was Eagle vs Shark — a film from New Zealand directed by Taika Cohen and starring Loren Horsley and Jemaine Clement as a very odd couple indeed. (You might recognize Jemaine as being one half of Flight of the Conchords.) This had been on my want-to-see list for a while, and one of the attendees found the DVD at the Manchester Library (don’t forget the library when looking for DVDs!). The film opens with Lily (Loren Horsley) working in a fast-food burger joint and making sure the line at her register is cleared at just about one minute after noon. She has her eye on Jarrod (Jemaine Clement) who, it seems, comes in for a meal at that time every day. Lily learns of a party that Jarrod is hosting where the guests are to come dressed as animals. Crashing the party in a shark costume, she finds that the main event is a video game contest ultimately leading to a duel with the reigning champion Jarrod, who is in an eagle costume. And that’s how it begins.

Lily soon learns that Jarrod has quite a bit of baggage: family issues of death and envy, a father who is crippled emotionally to the point where he’s in a wheelchair, a fantasy of revenge against someone who picked on him in high school, and more.

I hate to overuse the word “quirky” but quirky is what this movie is. It features oddball dialog and relationships and has bits of stop-action and other animation melded into the film (with, as one of our viewers pointed out, actual relevance to the story). And it seems to me that its creators must have been fans of Napoleon Dynamite – not in the story but in some style elements.

All in all an excellent and very enjoyable romantic comedy. The leads play their parts to a T, with Loren Horsley a real winner who is fascinating to watch.

movie log: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

We usually watch 2-3 movies as part of New Year’s Eve festivities here in geezerland. First up last night was Seven Brides for Seven Brothers directed by Stanley Donen, and starring Howard Keel, Russ Tamblyn, Jane Powell, Julie Newmar, and a host of others.

I’m a big fan of movie musicals and a long-time watcher of same, so I guess it’s kind of surprising that I hadn’t seen this before. And it didn’t disappoint; I’m sure I’ll be seeing this again some day.

It’s based on a story “The Sobbin’ Women” by Stephen Vincent Benet. Seven burly brothers live alone on a frontier farm/ranch in the US Pacific Northwest. The film opens with the oldest brother in town to fetch supplies and a wife. Somehow he manages to find one (a wife, Milly, played by Jane Powell), who is captivated by thoughts of an idyllic family life alone with her husband on his ranch. Arriving at the homestead she is rudely exposed to the existence of her new near-barbarian brothers-in-law, and to the fact that she’s expected to cook and clean and do other hard chores.

It’s not long before she’s trying to tame her new family. The brothers, inspired by the story of the Rape of the Sabine Women in a book that Milly brings (which they misstate as the “Sobbin’ Women”), decide to kidnap brides of their own. The plot unfolds with a lot of dancing and singing and fighting and attempted barn-raising.

All in all a very good movie musical, although it might not appeal to people who aren’t interested in older movies (pity on them). One distraction is the use of painted backgrounds, but one doesn’t need to let that get in the way of enjoying the film.